Since Psalm 116 appears in the Holy Thursday Lectionary, I thought it appropriate to offer a post on it today. With an Alleluia refrain or this one based on verse 9:
I will walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living.
Three stanzas are offered:
How gracious is the Lord, and just;
our God has compassion.
The Lord protects the simple hearts;
I was helpless so he saved me.
I trusted, even when I said:
“I am sorely afflicted,”
and when I said in my alarm:
“No one can be trusted.”
O precious in the eyes of the Lord
is the death of his faithful.
Your servant, Lord, your servant am I;
you have loosed my bonds.
It’s not total congruity with the Holy Week psalm. In fact, only the third stanza above is used tonight–the others focus on the “cup of salvation” and on the sacrifice of the psalmist–appropriate material for the institution of the Eucharist.
The Collegeville Bible Commentary notes the customary division between sections A and B (breaking between vss. 9-10). The Jesuit Richard Clifford describes the B section generously as a “loosely knit thanksgiving.” I find the whole psalm to be a bit scattered. In fact, the Vulgate numbering system considers it two separate psalms.
The strain of lament is strong here. We’ve seen that before in other psalms.
I do love the third stanza, verses 15-16, that we are precious to God, and that our death touches him in some way. I don’t think the psalmist was likely speaking of a Christian resurrection as much as possibly engaging in a little exaggeration. The positive conclusion of the lament of the first verses of this psalm is that as God’s servants, God does free us from the chains of death. Nothing wrong with attributing a Christian perspective, especially if it makes the narrative here a bit more coherent.
A good friend asked me to write a setting of this psalm months before she died. She wanted it played at her funeral. I moved away before she went into hospice and was never called back for the funeral, alas. It was a struggle to write the music. My friend had a very debilitating disease which affected her movement and speech. It took me months to be able to understand her in conversation. It was one of the most difficult experiences in ministry, knowing I was with an intelligent and vibrant person–but communicating was such a challenge to me.
The song has yet to be used in liturgy–I don’t even think my wife has heard it. But use this psalm–in another musical setting–if you are convinced that the deceased are indeed free from the bonds of suffering and death. My friend now is. And you loved one, hopefully also.