Thursday, July 7, 2016

A Study of Psalm 107:23-32

I.       Introduction
Psalms of thanksgiving contain expressions of gratitude for what God has done to his people. They usually begin with a brief reason behind the offering of thanksgiving followed by specific details of experiences of hardship. The conclusion usually consists of further affirmation of God's kindness.[1] After analyzing Psalm 107 from literary and historical perspectives, this paper focuses on verses 23-32 particularly by answering two questions and ends with practical theology for today's use.

II.    Literary-Historical Analysis
Psalm 107 is a community thanksgiving psalm[2] on account of God's covenant faithfulness and loving kindness (chesed). It begins with a call to praise Him for his work of redeeming his people from troubles and gathering them from the four corners of the earth (verses 1-3). The next section describes four cases of exile experiences God delivers his people from (verses 4-32) and concludes with a description of his sovereign providence along with the call for the readers to ponder upon it (verses 33-43).
As we look at the theme of kingship that demonstrates some parallel to the history of Israel throughout the Psalms, Psalm 107 is strategically placed as the first psalm in Book V. Psalm 2 (Book I) speaks of the coronation of a God-ordained king whose righteous reign is described in David's prayer in Psalm 72 (Book II). Historically, his prayer was answered during the reign of Solomon. Psalm 89 at the end of Book III shows that the kingship was in trouble as the nation experienced humiliation and defeat by the enemy. By the end of Book IV, the people were already in exile as evident from their cry at the end of Psalm 106 (verse 47a) calling God to save and gather them from among the nations. Psalm 107 is a grateful response to God's answer to this call with a declarative praise for specific circumstances of God redeeming his people from troubles. Psalms 110, 132 and 144,[3] also in Book V, contain the promise of future restoration of the kingship pointing to the appointment, initial triumph, rule and eschatological victory of an all-powerful Priest-King who is none other than God himself (Ps 145:1).
Weiser believes that the description of the first exile experience in Psalm 107 of some wandering in the desert, nearly fainting as they long to find a city to dwell in (verses 4-9)[4] is a summary representation of the other three cases: sitting as captives in prison (verses 10-16), being ill to the point of near death (verses 17-22), and being hammered by a great storm in high seas (verses 23-32). Others such as Henry,[5] Boyce[6] and Spurgeon[7] seem to agree that there are four distinct scenarios and the first one does not represent the other three.
One may argue in support of Weiser that sitting in prison, being severely ill and in danger of perishing at sea are examples of an exile experience described in verses 4-9. However, as we look at the history of Israel, the people could relate to the first three of the four cases distinctly so the first case in verses 4-9 does not serve as a summary but refers to a specific exile circumstance. The journey to Babylon was a reversal of Exodus wherein the people returned to instead of being liberated from captivity. Their literal walking in the desert and living in a foreign land longing for home fit the first case well. The audience of Psalm 107 could also relate to the second case from one of their own kings Manasseh, bound with chains of bronze and jailed in Babylon because of his disobedience (2 Chron 33:10-13). The case of Hezekiah's sickness to the point of near death (Isa 38:1-6) matches the third case though it is not clear whether there was a specific sin that caused it.[8]

III. Two Problems with Verses 23-32
Verses 23-32 talk about some sea traders who are also skilled mariners[9] witnessing not only the wonders of God's creation, but also his mighty power raising a powerful storm that causes surging waves as they carry on their job. As a result they are tossed around mercilessly[10] by the waves and at the point of despair after having applied all known techniques to remain in control of the ship in the midst of the storm and failed.[11] In the state of terror,[12] they cry out to Yahweh to rescue them from perishing at sea. Yahweh answers their plea not only by calming the storm, but also by bringing them to a harbor[13] where they find a resting place for their ship and themselves. The Psalmist then calls them to give thanks to Yahweh and share what He has done to his people as a testimony of his chesed.
The problem arises when one tries to find an exile circumstance that fits Israel's experience in this fourth case. Though Solomon owned a fleet of ships (1 Ki 10:22), Spurgeon remarks that navigation was so little practiced among the Jews in the OT.[14] The closest Jewish experience in the OT to the fourth case was what happened to Jonah on his way to Tarshish. However, he was a prophet, not a mariner, and the mariners were not Jews since he had to explain to them what nationality he was (Jonah 1:9). Indeed the OT seems to indicate that the sea trade was dominated by Tarshish and Tyre and therefore the first question is why the ordeal at sea is included in the accounts of Yahweh's deliverance, a circumstance where Jews were least familiar with. The second question has to do with the use of the word "wisdom" in verse 27 with a negative undertone (see note 11 for the Hebrew exegesis of וְכָל־חָכְמָתָם תִּתְבַּלָּע), why this is the case. The OT in general has a high view of wisdom whether it refers to technical skills such construction in Exodus (e.g., Ex 31:3) or ability to navigate life in the midst of difficulties which is the main theme of Proverbs and some Psalms. While one may argue that Ecclesiastes also has a negative view of wisdom, it is important to note that its author was indecisive. Verse 27, on the contrary, clearly says that the mariners' wisdom has failed.
The answer to the first question is that God's chesed to deliver those in distress is extended to believing Gentiles. In other words, the mariners in Psalm 107 represent the Gentiles included with the Jews as among the redeemed of the Lord. This extension of chesed to non-Jews is not an exclusively post-exilic phenomena, but has existed since the days of Abraham during which God considered those who were not Abraham's offspring in his household to be included in the covenant through circumcision (Gen 17:12). Then there were other believing Gentiles who were recipients of God's chesed such as Rahab, Naaman and Ruth. Therefore if God's chesed was extended to Gentiles before the exile, it is not unreasonable that it still applies after the exile because of his unchanging character (Mal 3:6) only if they would only confess their helplessness in their distresses and pray for Yahweh's mercy to rescue them. As the mariners Jonah traveled with cried out to Yahweh the covenant God of Israel, not their own god (Jonah 1:14, "…they called out to Yahweh), so the mariners in Ps 107:23-32 did the same to Yahweh. In both cases, Yahweh answered their prayer by saving them from danger.
            The answer to the second question why wisdom is used negatively in verse 27 is because the Psalmist intends to show the limitation of human wisdom and what happens when it is possessed and used without the right foundation as in the mariners' case. The verse addresses a prideful godless wisdom that leads to a sense of self-sufficiency. Proverbs teach that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 9:10). The fear of the Lord being the basis of wisdom also applies to technical skills. It is easy for those who possess rare and respected skills such as navigation skills to grow conceited thinking that these are all they need in life. They are prone to believe that they are fully in charge and have all their life under control.  In causing the ordeal, God demonstrates "his unique cosmic ability to control the storms at sea" while simultaneously "causing the sailors to lose their wisdom, thus subordinating human ingenuity to the necessity of praying for divine salvation."[15] The bigger picture of what God does here is the fact about "the ultimate superiority of God's control over human initiative and expertise."[16] Wisdom is still useful, but there is a need to acknowledge that it is the Giver of wisdom who is in supreme control and determines whether or not and how wisdom is to be used to magnify his name. The conceited ones who refuse to acknowledge this truth will be thoroughly humbled like the mariners sooner or later.
            In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul picks up this theme of godless wisdom that scoffs at the gospel. It is godless in the sense that it refuses to believe in the provision that the true God has given in Jesus Christ to rescue humanity from sin and eternal damnation like the mariners who were in danger of perishing at sea. Like the mariners, the Gentiles spoken of in 1 Cor 1 and 3 stick to their wisdom[17] and according to God, this wisdom is actually folly and it is futile (1 Cor 3:19-20) in its effort to save those who believe in it like the mariners' attempt to overcome the raging storm with their wisdom. Only after they become fools, as God makes them reeling and staggering like drunkards will they actually become wise (1 Cor 3:18) by calling on him to rescue them.  Similarly, to use the language of 1 Cor 1 and 3, not until God catches these "wise" Gentiles in their craftiness, destroys their wisdom and thwarts their discernment (1 Cor 3:19, 1:19) namely when they realize their total inability to save themselves will they become truly wise by believing in the promise contained in the "foolishness" of God's way of salvation through the cross of Christ.
            The miracle of Jesus calming the storm (Mat 8:23-27, Mark 4:35-41) in connection to Psalm 107:23-32 affirms that He is Lord over nature, just as Yahweh is. The corollary of this parallel is that Jesus must be God. There is a marked difference in the disciples' response when their boat was hammered by a great storm. This difference in response is the distinguishing mark between believers and unbelievers. There is no account in both gospels of their attempt to use their wisdom to regain control of the boat unlike what the mariners do, but they went straight crying out to Jesus for deliverance. It is interesting to note that when Paul was on a ship heading to Phoenix, also battered by a storm so bad that all hope of being saved was abandoned (Acts 27:13-25), there is not a single account of anyone including Paul crying out to God. Perhaps for some reason, the passengers were comforted by the words of Paul who received a revelation from God that they will be saved (verses 22-23). The revelation, however, did not come right away once the storm started to hammer the ship, but after many days and after they "had been without food for a long time" (verses 20-21). The fact that Paul did not cry out to God immediately may be attributed to a greater maturity of his faith, knowing that he was going to be with the Lord even if he perished in the storm.

IV. Applications
The ordeal at sea first depicts life as a voyage as well as the fundamental sin of pride manifested in vain confidence, arrogant optimism of fallen man putting his trust either in himself or other things other than God aptly represented by the following remark.[18]

There we are in our youth, and off we go quite confident that nothing can ever go wrong; there will never be another cloud; nothing can hide that gorgeous, bright sunshine because it is so powerful. Nothing can go wrong, and nothing will go wrong. We relish new discoveries. There are things our forefathers knew nothing at all about, and in view of all that, well, it does not matter very much what happens, we can surely handle it.

But reality sooner or later shows that life is not a smooth sailing as the Psalm speaks of frail men and women facing and battling the storms of life. They are so severe that they lead to a sense that we are at the mercy of life and a power greater than us inside and outside. There are two ways the storm in Psalm 107:23-32 finds applications today.[19] Internally, it represents enslaving sins such as anger, lust and envy in the lives of unbelievers from which they cannot escape in their own strength. It also represents external circumstances such as temptation, illness, financial loss, loss of employment and relational conflict that believers and unbelievers struggle with. God ordains both internal and external storms to teach a picture of complete hopelessness of life in a fallen world and utter futility of human wisdom to find a way out of them.[20]

As men and women go on in life and experience these things, they begin to be conscious of a loss of control. They talked a lot at one time about their willpower and that they could do anything they wanted to do, but they find that their willpower is not as powerful as they thought it was. They are losing their grip; they are losing control. At first, their lack of control is light and superficial, but the situation gets worse, and they began to stagger. Then everything becomes uncertain, and they are reeling about. They do not know where they are; they have lost their sense of direction. They have completely lost control.

            An acknowledgement of the fact that one is ultimately not in control, but God is, a consciousness that will power is not as powerful as one thinks it was, as Lloyd-Jones puts it, is the first and necessary step toward deliverance. Such a heart attitude is best expressed in prayer as the mariners did in desperation,

Prayer is good in a storm. We may pray staggering and reeling and pray when we are at our wit's end. God will hear us amid the thunder and answer us out of the storm. He brought their distresses upon the mariners and therefore they did well to turn to him for the removal of them; nor did they look in vain.[21]

Even heathen mariners, in a storm, cried every man to his god (referring to the account in Jonah), but those that have the Lord for their God have a present and powerful help in that and every other time of need, so that when they are at their wits' end they are not at their faith's end.[22]

It is a wonder that God is willing to answer and help though He is not obligated to rescue the world that hates and rebels against him. The hostile world is more than undeserving of God's mercy; it is ill-deserving and hell-deserving. Lloyd-Jones points out that Psalm 107, especially the ordeal at sea is a dramatic presentation of the gospel. A particular object of prayer is Jesus Christ especially when unbelievers are brought to a realization that they cannot do anything to save themselves from their sin, and given the faith to trust in the gospel promise that Christ is their only hope (1 Tim 1:15, Mat 11:28).[23] But the prayer of desperation amidst a storm is applicable to Christians as well to teach them two lessons. First, Christian life is not trouble-free. It is not a matter of if there will be storms, but when. Second, God will deliver them sooner or later as they cry out to him for help and in the midst of a most severe storm, they will have joy and peace within despite raging waves without (Phil 4:6-7). Ultimately, the purpose of the storms of life and the prayers in desperation is to exalt God in Christ, his sufficiency for every occasion, his chesed to comfort, provide for and preserve his people to the end until He brings them to the heavenly Canaan, the eternal harbor of rest. In Him and through Him alone is true everlasting peace by which one is reconciled with God regardless of what happens in the world.[24]

So when in the midst of life you feel you are about to sink, but then you meet Christ, you feel at once that here is somebody who knows, here is somebody who understands. Here is someone who has faced the storm at its most desperate, with all the billows of hell howling at him, but He went through them all and came to the haven successfully. He has stepped on board. He is in control. He understands. He masters life. He knows what He is doing.

V.    Conclusion
From historical point of view, the mariners' account of facing a severe storm at sea included in Psalm 107 is likely intended by the author to teach an extension of God's chesed to the Gentiles in redeeming them from troubles and gathering them to Himself among his people. It also teaches the futility of godless wisdom and God not only as the cosmic Creator, but also the cosmic Ruler.  For God's people and unbelievers alike today, it encourages a humble acknowledgement of their utter dependence on Him and that they should look to Him alone for help in every circumstance, especially when facing the storms of life, and give Him joyous praise for his deliverance.[25]

Cry out unto him in the midst of the ocean, in your agony and despair, and He will deliver you out of your distresses. Blessed be the name of God, the God of glory who so loved us that in spite of our sin and folly and shame, He sent his only Son to pilot us through the voyage and to bring us to the eternal haven!

[1] Richard P. Belcher, Jr., The Messiah and The Psalms (Fern: Mentor, 2012), 100.

[2] Thanksgiving Psalms consist of community and individual Psalms. Other examples of the former include Psalms 65, 67, 75 and 124. Examples of the latter are Psalms 18, 30, 32, 34, 92, 116, 118 and 138 (Belcher, The Messiah and The Psalms, 100).

[3] Belcher, The Messiah and The Psalms, 143-156.

[4] Artur Weiser, The Psalms, A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 686.

[5] Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 3 (McLean: MacDonald, 1985), 650.

[6] James M. Boice, Psalms, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 864-865.

[7] Charles H. Spurgeon, The Treasure of David, vol.2 (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1988), 398-400.

[8] If Hezekiah's sickness was indeed a chastisement from Yahweh because of his earlier sin which fits the pattern in the third case of Psalm 107, it might have been because of his decision to pay heavy tribute to Assyria out of a lack of trust in Yahweh (2 Ki 18:13-16).

[9]  מְלָאכָה may refer to work, but specifically "merchant, formally, worker, i.e., one who buys, sells, and barters goods," in James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament, electronic ed.) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997). Hence in the ESV עֹשֵׂי מְלָאכָה is translated as "doing business." יוֹרְדֵי הַיָּם literally means "going-downers of the sea." The plural infinitive construct יוֹרְדֵי is derived from the word יָרַד, to descend.

[10] One may ask whether it is the waves or the mariners who are "lifted to the heavens and brought down to the depth." It can actually go either way since the mariners יוֹרְדֵי הַיָּם and גַּלִּים (surging waves, Swanson, DBLH) are both masculine nouns. But since the phrase  יַעֲלוּ שָׁמַיִם יֵרְדוּ תְהוֹמֹות is a part of the same line where נַפְשָׁם בְּרָעָה תִתְמוֹגָג is (their soul melts in misery), it is more likely that it is the mariners who ascend and descend as a result of the surging waves, not the waves themselves.

[11] וְכָל־חָכְמָתָם תִּתְבַּלָּע, and all their wisdom is thoroughly confused. בָּלַע is in Hitpael form which indicates repeated actions, that the mariners' efforts fail over and over again despite many attempts to apply various skills to overcome the storm they are facing. To use Henry's words, the mariners were in the state of "not knowing what to do more for their preservation; all their wisdom is swallowed up, and they are ready to give up themselves for gone" (Henry, Commentary, 652).

[12] נַפְשָׁם בְּרָעָה תִתְמוֹגָג. The ESV translates רָעָה as evil which may not be appropriate in this context, The NASB in this case is not only more literal, but also conveys the idea better that "their soul melted away in their misery."

[13] מְחוֹז חֶפְצָם, a port of their desire, referring to a resting place after going through a severe ordeal.

[14] Spurgeon, Treasure of David, 404. "Navigation was so little practiced among the Israelites that mariners were invested with a high mystery, and their craft was looked upon as one of singular daring and peril. Tales of the sea thrilled all hearts with awe, and he who had been to Ophir or to Tarshish and had returned alive was looked upon as a man of renown, an ancient mariner to be listened to with reverent attention. Voyages were looked on as descending to an abyss, "going down to the sea in ships"; whereas now our bolder and more accustomed sailors talk of the "high seas." That do business in great waters. If they had not had business to do, they would never have ventured on the ocean, for we never read in the Scriptures of any man taking his pleasure on the sea: so averse was the Israelites' mind to seafaring, that we do not hear of even Solomon himself keeping a pleasure boat. The Mediterranean was "the great sea" to David and his countrymen, and they viewed those who had business upon it with no small degree of admiration."

[15] Tova Forti, "Of Ships and Seas, and Fish and Beasts: Viewing the Concept of Universal Providence in the Book of Jonah through the Prism of Psalms," JSOT 35.3 (2011):369.

[16] Forti, "Of Ships and Seas," 370.

[17] I argue that the Gentiles here refer to unbelieving Greeks and Jews. The unbelieving Jews who demand sign (1 Cor 1:22) are not true Jews (Rom 2:29) and therefore are considered unbelieving Gentiles.

[18] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, True Happiness: Psalms 1 and 107 (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001), 150-151. Lloyd-Jones uses Titanic and science as examples of things men put confidence on.

[19] Lloyd-Jones, True Happiness, 150, 152-153. Also, Boice, Psalms, 865, 868-869. Boyce interprets the ordeal at see as a picture of peril and uses the Pilgrims' experience when crossing the Atlantic to America as an example. However, he also points out that all four exile experiences illustrate our spiritual condition apart from Christ. In agreement with Lloyd-Jones, Boyce gives similar examples of external storms: financial problem, personality conflict, battle within family.

[20] Lloyd-Jones, True Happiness, 156.

[21] Spurgeon, Treasury of David, 405.

[22] Henry, Commentary, 652. Here Henry agrees that the mariners Jonah went with were Gentiles.

[23] Lloyd-Jones, True Happiness, 149.

[24] Lloyd-Jones, True Happiness, 159.

[25] Lloyd-Jones, True Happiness, 162.

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