The ESV Study Bible well summarises this psalm: “This short hymn of praise celebrates the way in which the great and majestic God who rules over all takes notice of the lowly. Such a God is indeed worthy to be praised by all mankind.” I would add that He is worthy to be so praised continually.
Psalm 113 is the first of the six “hallel psalms,” which the Jews sang at different feasts—especially Passover, Weeks, and Tabernacles—as well as at other times (including Dedication or Hanukah). These psalms are also called the Egyptian Hallel, a title arising from the clear reference to the Exodus in Psalm 114.
In conjunction with the celebration of the Passover, it was customary for the Jews to sing the first two psalms at the commencement of that Feast and to sing the final four psalms after this. It is most probable that this is the hymn referred to in Mark 14:26 and Matthew 26:30. This is helpful to keep in mind as we consider this Psalm’s contents. As we study it, think of what Jesus what would have thinking as He sang it with His disciples, just prior to His arrest and subsequent crucifixion.
This psalm is short, but powerful in encouragement. It presents God as majestic and yet near; as transcendent yet at the same time immanent. “It is a call to praise Jehovah, Who, though enthroned in majesty in heaven, condescends to care for the weak and lowly on the earth.”1 Kidner therefore titles this psalm, “Nothing too Great for Him, No-one too Small.”2
Many readers are no doubt familiar with Christian musician Steven Curtis Chapman, who tragically lost his toddler daughter some years ago, killed by a car in the driveway of their home. Out of that heartache, he produced an album titled Beauty Will Rise. It is one of the most painful, open, honest and biblical albums I have heard. It is filled with hurt coupled with hope; pain with promise; confusion with confidence. It manifests both fear and faith. It is truly a Christian album.
One of the songs—Our God is in Control—opens with the lyric, “This is not how it should be, this is not how it could be, but this is how it is; and our God is in control.” Chapman, his wife and family are well grounded in the doctrine of God’s transcendent sovereignty. As is clear from his life (and music) he and they are also well grounded in the doctrinal truth that God cares. God who is transcendent is equally immanent. He is above and yet near. He is beyond us, yet at the same time He is right with us.
When you consider that Jesus most probably sang this hymn on the night on which He shared the Passover with His disciples it is all the more meaningful. As Jesus sang it, He no doubt was thankful that the Father was in control and thankful that He would see Him through. Jesus no doubt would have been encouraged by the promise that one day a barren Israel would become fertile and fruitful (and faithful) Israel. And that all nations one day would join in praising the triune God.
As Jesus was about to face the most severe trial ever faced by anyone, He did so praising God and knowing that in the end, all would be well. The transcendent Father, who would indeed do something to His Son that He will never do His sons and daughters, would also be immanent in His care.
We need such hope, such confidence. And when we have it, then we will unapologetically and unceasingly praise God, continually (Philippians 4:4). This is the theme of Psalm 113. Let’s learn it, live it and “lip” it!
Praise God for His Character, Comprehensively
The psalm opens in vv. 1–3 by exhorting us to praise God for His character, comprehensively: “Praise the LORD! Praise, O servants of the LORD, praise the name of the LORD! Blessed be the name of the LORD from this time forth and forevermore! From the rising of the sun to its going down the LORD’s name is to be praised” (Psalm 113:1–3). This teaches, quite clearly, God’s transcendence.
Who We Are to Praise
If there is any doubt as to who we are to praise, the psalmist tells us five times in these opening verses to praise “the LORD.” The Hebrew named used here is Yahweh, which is often translated in the NIV as “Sovereign Lord.” It is the name by which God revealed Himself to Moses in Exodus 3:14. It speaks of God’s self-existence, self-sufficiency and sovereignty. In the light of these characteristics, there is therefore every reason to trust Him as the covenant-keeping God.
Why We Are to Praise
The psalmist tells us to praise “the name of the LORD.” Proverbs 18:10 tells us that “the name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.” The name’s Lord is therefore something to be praised.
We might ask, what’s in a name. Biblically, there is a whole lot in a name! Names in Scripture—particularly names of God—often point to character. When we learn God’s names we learn about His character and how He therefore acts on behalf of His people. When we read of Yahweh Jireh (Genesis 22:12–14), we understand that God sees the needs of His people and provides for them. When we read of El Shaddai (God Almighty), we are reminded that He is the all-powerful God who helps, nourishes, supplies and satisfies. When we read of Yahweh Rophe (Exodus 15:25–26) we are encouraged that God heals. Yahweh Nissi (Exodus 17:8–16) is our banner, under which we gather in our spiritual warfare with the assurance that He will give us victory. Jehovah Rohi (Psalm 23) assures us of God as our shepherd, who cares for us and feeds us. Jehovah Tsidkenu (Jeremiah 23:5–8) is our righteousness.
VanGemeren concludes, “The ‘name’ of the Lord was to be proclaimed so that each generation might remember what he had done and how he had revealed himself.”3
Who is to Praise
The psalmist also tells us who is to praise the Lord: “servants of the LORD.” Those who are in relationship with Him are to praise Him. And His people are to praise Him because He is “a heritage to Israel His servant, for His mercy endures forever” (Psalm 136:22). As God Himself said to Israel, “But you, Israel, are My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the descendants of Abraham My friend. You whom I have taken from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest regions, and said to you, ‘You are My servant, I have chosen you and have not cast you away’” (Isaiah 41:8–9).
“All who call upon the name of the Lord are addressed in this summons.”4 His “servants” are to praise Him because “those praise best who serve best.”5 Those who serve God learn more about God and have increasingly more to say about Him.
When We Are to Praise
We are told also when we are to praise: “from this time forth and forevermore.” We are to praise continually. Why? Because there are endless reasons to praise God. “The emphasis on the continuity of praise is a corollary of the emphasis on the continuity of God’s loyalty to his people.”6 And because He is immutable and eternal, we can praise Him today as surely as His old covenant people were to praise Him.
Jesus and disciples sang this song as the dark clouds of evil were storming in. This highlights an important principle: Even when things are dark, God’s servants have every reason to praise Him—continually. Circumstances change but God’s character remains constant. For this reason, as we remember His name, we will continue to praise.
Praise God for His Condescension, Contemplatively
Second, in vv. 4–6, we see that we should praise God for His condescension, contemplatively. We are to think about it as we praise the Lord. “The LORD is high above all nations, His glory above the heavens. Who is like the LORD our God, who dwells on high, who humbles Himself to behold the things that are in the heavens and in the earth?”
The psalmist begins by speaking of God’s otherness, His majestic sovereignty over all. We might call this His transcendence. As he considers God’s location, he asks the rhetorical question, “Who is like the LORD our God?” (see also Exodus 15:11; Deuteronomy 3:24; Micah 7:18). The obvious answer is, no one and nothing. But the question is not for the purpose of entering into a debate; rather, it is a statement of amazement and adoration: “Wow! Who can compare?”
We learn about God by analogy, but analogy always falls short. We see this truth set forth in Isaiah 40:10–18. There, Isaiah compares God to a shepherd (vv. 10–11). But after speaking about the greatness of God (vv. 12–17), he concludes, “To whom then will you like God? Or what likeness will you compare to Him?” (v. 18). And since God is incomparable, what fools we are to serve other gods!
Here is the psalmist’s point: When you consider the transcendence of God, His immanence stands out starkly. Though He is high above, “He is anything but aloof.”7 God is seated on high. He is the supreme ruler, and yet He stoops to pay attention to what is happening here. “He is exalted and yet he cares…. The Lord is exalted; therefore he is able to deliver.”6
We should pause at this point to make a few observations.
Being persuaded of God’s exalted position of sovereign rule is necessary if we will be comforted. Knowing that this sovereign God cares for us and pays attention to us gives us comfort.
Note that He does not look down in contempt but rather in compassion. It is a kind and caring condescension. It is an amazing act of humility, of grace and mercy. When the world was at its darkest, God was paying attention. His focus was on Gethsemane and then in Caiaphas’ courtroom and then on Calvary. And He is paying attention to your plot of ground as well—not crying with you but, far more, working on your behalf. The truth is, We do not need a God who “cries” with us; we need God who cares for us and who controls all things for His glory and our good.
In sum, we can say that majesty never implies His remoteness from those who look to Him; it implies instead His exhaustive attention to detail, and His inexhaustible ability to care for His faithful.
Praise God for His Care, Confidently
Third, in vv. 7–9, we see that we must praise God for His care, confidently: “He raises the poor out of the dust, and lifts the needy out of the ash heap, that He may seat him with princes—with the princes of His people. He grants the barren woman a home, like a joyful mother of children. Praise the LORD!” Hannah expressed similar sentiments in 1 Samuel 2:8.
God’s knowledge from afar is not merely a remote awareness, but it results in God’s active concern. “He has first taken His seat so high that no one can match Him, yet He has regard for the lowliest of the low in that He ‘looks down so far.’”9
Two examples are given, which should go a long way towards building our confidence from God’s transcendence and immanence. In both cases, we are encouraged that, indeed, there is no one like our God who, though so exalted, yet cares for the lowest of the low. In fact, it may be the author’s intention to highlight that it is precisely because God is so exalted that He is able to deliver the needy. We might summarise this stanza: “From the pit to the pinnacle.”
His Providence for the Poor
Verses 7–8 describes God’s providence for the poor. As the ESV Study Bible says, “The imagery of vv. 7–8 describes a position of extreme degradation and misery (‘dust’ and ash heap) being transformed to one of dignity and privilege (sit with princes).”
Verse 7 uses terminology that portrays someone who is on the rubbish heap of society. One cannot sink much lower than this. Life is at its lowest ebb. One feels that there is no purpose. The sense of being an outcast is palpable. To be rejected by men—or, worse, completely overlooked by society—can leave one hopeless in the present with no prospect for anything better in the future.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a novel written by Katherine Boo, which is set in a modern-day slum of Mumbai. The book tells the story of a group of workers who built the Mumbai airport and ultimately settled on a piece of marshy land, owned by the airport, but unfit for any other use. It becomes a slum, inhabited by a mix of people from various backgrounds. While Mumbai is a sprawling city, this particular slum, right next to the massive airport, is the complete antithesis.
The inhabitants of the slum live in constant fear and uncertainty. They must contend with hunger and poverty, dirt and disease, ethnic strife and violence, corruption and fatigue, and inclement weather. While Mumbai itself is a wealthy city, the inhabitants of the slum are outcasts, who live in constant fear that their homes will be bulldozed because, technically, they are illegal inhabitants on land that is not theirs. The characters is the story are poor and sickly, outcasts of society.
That is the image that comes to my mind when I read these verses. But the promise of the psalm is that the Lord is gracious to those. He raises the individual and even promotes him to a position of honour and prominence.
Think of Moses, who went from rejected to redeemer. Think of Joseph, who went from a convicted criminal in an Egyptian dungeon to the prime minister of the most powerful nation in the world. Think of David, the shepherd boy who became king. Think of Daniel, a young exile who rose to prominence in Babylon. Think of Joseph, a poor carpenter who became the stepfather of Messiah. Think of Matthew, a despised tax collector who became an apostle. Think of those dead in trespasses and sins being raised to sit with Christ Jesus in heavenly places, now ruling with Him (1 Corinthians 6:3).
Think of Jesus, once despised and rejected by men, crucified outside of the city proper as accursed and treated as the filth of the world, now ruling and reigning at the right hand of the Father. Especially consider this in the light of Jesus singing this song that night. Praise the Lord indeed!
God’s Providence for the Barren
The psalmist goes on to highlight God’s providence for the barren: “He grants the barren woman a home, like a joyful mother of children” (v. 9a).
Perhaps it is difficult for some to identify with what barrenness meant for a woman in the ancient East, and perhaps especially in Israel. We may get a glimpse into this as we consider Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Hannah.
In each case there was deep heartache. A sense of usefulness was attached in the mind of many women when it came to childbearing. Further, with the promise of Genesis 3:15 before them, barrenness would minimise their sense of expectation and even participation in the promise. Whatever contributed to this sense of shame, we know that it was felt deeply. Perhaps it is most detailed in the story of Hannah:
Now there was a certain man of Ramathaim Zophim, of the mountains of Ephraim, and his name was Elkanah the son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. And he had two wives: the name of one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children. This man went up from his city yearly to worship and sacrifice to the Lord of hosts in Shiloh. Also the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, the priests of the Lord, were there. And whenever the time came for Elkanah to make an offering, he would give portions to Peninnah his wife and to all her sons and daughters. But to Hannah he would give a double portion, for he loved Hannah, although the Lord had closed her womb. And her rival also provoked her severely, to make her miserable, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it was, year by year, when she went up to the house of the Lord, that she provoked her; therefore she wept and did not eat.
(1 Samuel 1:1–7)
Elkanah’s feeble effort to comfort her—“Am I not better to you than ten sons” (v. 8)—rings hollow in the light of the preceding description of her pain.
But note that the Lord intervened and opened Hannah’s womb. She praised the LORD in response with a song of praise including these words: “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the beggar from the ash heap, to set them among princes and make them inherit the throne of glory.” Hannah ultimately had even more children than her firstborn (1 Samuel 2:5).
Hannah’s song of praise (1 Samuel 2:1–10) answers the psalmist’s question: “Who is like the LORD our God?” Her answer is, “No one is holy like the LORD, for there is none besides You, nor is there any rock like our God” (1 Samuel 2:2).
What’s the point?
This psalm ends by saying that the great exalted God of the Bible is not only concerned about needy people in general but also with the individual. Downtrodden individuals are not a collective mass, though this is how society generally regards them. They are individual people who have suffered specific setbacks.10
God is to be praised as the one who transforms the direst and most desperate situations into the most blessed. He can give life where there is apparently only fruitlessness. He can do this for you relationally, spiritually, missiologically, financially and physically. Regardless of the source of your mourning, He can turn it into joy.
So Praise Him! And when He acts, then praise Him continually.
And if God does not “bless the womb” of your desire, know that He has something better in store: a closer communion with Him, effective ministry, etc.
But there is more. This psalm finds its New Testament voice with Mary in Luke 1:46–55 and then it is fulfilled later in Jesus. Again, consider what this meant for Jesus as He sang this.
He was down to eleven disciples and soon, as He well knew, they would forsake Him and the “womb” of His ministry would appear barren. But this is not the end of the story. The Jewish Targum comments that God “makes the congregation of Israel, which was like a barren woman mourning for the men of her household, to be full of crowds, like a mother who rejoices over her sons.”11
Isaiah 53 describes the “barren womb” of Christ’s ministry:
Who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground. He has no form or comeliness; and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him. He is despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.
Is that the end of Christ’s ministry, and therefore the eternal destiny of His people? Thankfully not, for the prophecy continues the story:
“Sing, O barren, you who have not borne! Break forth into singing, and cry aloud, you who have not laboured with child! For more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married woman,” says the LORD.
“Enlarge the place of your tent, and let them stretch out the curtains of your dwellings; do not spare; lengthen your cords, and strengthen your stakes. For you shall expand to the right and to the left, and your descendants will inherit the nations, and make the desolate cities inhabited.
Do not fear, for you will not be ashamed; neither be disgraced, for you will not be put to shame; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and will not remember the reproach of your widowhood anymore. For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is His name; and your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel; He is called the God of the whole earth. For the LORD has called you like a woman forsaken and grieved in spirit, like a youthful wife when you were refused,” says your God.
“For a mere moment I have forsaken you, but with great mercies I will gather you. With a little wrath I hid My face from you for a moment; but with everlasting kindness I will have mercy on you,” says the LORD, your Redeemer.
Jesus was soon to see a turn in His fortunes as the Father would give Him the Seed for which He died and rose again (Isaiah 53:10–12).
We too should believe God for greater fruitfulness. We should believe Him for conversions. We should praise Him for the “births” we have seen while praising Him for those yet to come. And when they do come, praise Him some more, continually!
Calvin understood this as he wrote, “The Church constitutes the principal and august theatre where God presents and displays the tokens of his wonderful power, wisdom, and righteousness.”12 In other words, as the church experiences fruitfulness, the august and yet condescending God is glorified.
This psalm opened with praise to the Lord of all the nations and the expectation is that all of the nations will praise Him. We are, as the ESV Study Bible notes, to “live in confidence that one day [our] God will be praised from the rising of the sun to its setting, i.e. all over the world by all kinds of people, as he deserves.” We are to do so, continually and confidently
As we come to the end of this psalm there is only one reasonable response: “Praise the LORD! Continually.” After all, beauty will rise.
- A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms (Cambridge: Scripture Truth, n.d.), 677. ↩
- Derek Kidner, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, 2 vols. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 401. ↩
- Willem A. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 5:714. ↩
- H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1969), 790. ↩
- Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, 3 vols. (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), 3:28. ↩
- VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 5:714. ↩
- Kidner, Psalms, 402. ↩
- VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 5:714. ↩
- Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 791. ↩
- James Montgomery Boice, Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 3:926. ↩
- Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, 679. ↩
- John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 22 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 6.1:335. ↩