Friday, November 26, 2010

Psalm 100: Happy Thanksgiving!

A very Happy (albeit slightly belated) Thanksgiving to all the Americans out there! (I’m an American who is currently writing from Canada, so we already had the Canadian Thanksgiving. It was nice.)

So I thought I’d take a look at Psalm 100.

Psalm 100 is often called the “Thanksgiving” psalm, and with good reason. Below is the Psalm in its entirety:

A melody for thanksgiving:

Cheer for YHWH, all the earth.

Serve YHWH in gladness,

Come in before him in joy.

Know that YHWH is God,

And he has made us.

We [belong] to him [as] his people

And [as] sheep whom he shepherds.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving,

His courts with a song of praise.

Give praise to him—bless his name.

For God is good—his graciousness [lasts] forever.

And his faithfulness [lasts] to generation to generation.

(Note: The consonants YHWH correspond exactly to the four Hebrew consonants in God’s divine name, יהוה—the consonants, read from right to left, are yod hey vav hey. The best guess scholars have as to how this name may have originally been pronounced is “Yahweh,” but no one knows for sure if that pronunciation is correct. The name יהוה probably comes from the root היה, which means “to be” or “to exist,” as in “I am that I am” in Exodus 3:14.)

The psalm is labeled with an introductory title of sorts: מִזְמוֹר לְתוֹדָה (mizmor l’todah), which can mean “a melody with respect to thanksgiving” or “a melody for thanksgiving.” The prepositional prefix לְ (l’) attached as the beginning of תוֹדָה (todah, which means “thanksgiving”) can be translated with either “with respect to” or “for.”

So which option is most likely here? Is it a “melody with respect to thanksgiving” or a “melody for thanksgiving”? If it’s a “melody for thanksgiving,” then the לְ preposition is likely what Hebrew scholar Ronald J. Williams calls a “לְ of purpose.” That is, the melody would be for the purpose of thanksgiving to YHWH. See Ronald J. Williams, Williams’ Hebrew Syntax (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2010), 110. (Although Williams says these typically accompany “an infinitive construct”—and this isn’t in an infinitive construct—the context here would nevertheless allow for this meaning to be the one intended.)

If, however, the correct translation of מִזְמוֹר לְתוֹדָה is “melody with respect to thanksgiving” (or a “melody about thanksgiving”), then the לְ is what Williams calls a “לְ of specification” (ibid., 108)—that is, the לְ specifies the kind of melody. It would be a melody about giving thanks to God.

It’s ambiguous, but I like to think that it’s a לְ of purpose. The psalms were all songs set to music at one point, so they all had different intentions. It’s possible that it’s both a preposition indicating purpose and specification. (After all, the word תוֹדָה, pronounced todah, meaning “thanksgiving,” appears not only in the introductory line but also in the body of the psalm itself—“enter his gates with תוֹדָה” in verse 4.) In any event, the author of this brief psalm wanted to highlight that this psalm had to do with thanksgiving and praise to YHWH.

The content of the psalm probably served to remind Israel (and now reminds us) that serving our God, YHWH, is a joyful task. Not only has he made Israel, but he takes them as his own people.

This is similar to what God has done to those of us who believe in Jesus, the one whom he has sent. He has gained us for himself “with His own blood” in the person of Jesus, as Paul tells the elders in Ephesus (Acts 20:28). That’s our biggest reason to be thankful. In his everlasting faithfulness, God came down to earth to dwell among us and to be crucified on our behalf so that he might bear the punishment for our sins.

Truly, God’s חֶסֶד (khesed, “graciousness,” “kindness,” “goodness,” “favor”) does indeed last forever, as the psalmist says. And one powerful way he embodied his characteristic חֶסֶד was by coming down and dwelling among us to sacrifice himself on our behalf, rising again so that death will have no final victory and that we too may have life.

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