My thoughts (Keith Phillips):
In a Be Still and Know devotional that ran recently where I wrote about Hebrew poetry and how the parallelism is a major element, I mentioned synonymous, antithetical, and synthetic forms of parallelism. It is linked below.
But the Psalms are more than poetry. It was the Book of Worship for the ancient Israelites. Those of you from the Roman Catholic tradition have had the privilege of participating in a liturgy of an antiphonal responsive psalm each worship service, much like the ancient Israelites. One of my favorites is Psalm 136, in which the story of creation and the history of Israel is retold. After each phrase spoken by the worship leader, the people of God repeat: “for [the Lord’s] steadfast love endures forever.”
There are two refrains, each repeated four times here in the first part of Psalm 107: the first, “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and [the Lord] delivered them from their distress” (verses 6, 13, 19, and 28); and the second, “Let them thank the Lord for [the Lord’s] steadfast love, for [the Lord’s] wonderful works to humankind” (verses 8, 15, 21, and 31).
Most likely, this is a post-exilic psalm. The Israelites have been brought by God out of captivity in Babylon, returning to their homeland. The worship leader reminds the people of their previous situation: “Some wandered in desert wastes,” (verse 4a); “Some sat in darkness and gloom,” (verse 10a); “Some were sick through their sinful ways,” (verse 17a); and “Some went down to the sea in ships,” (verse 21a). After the description of their ancestors’ miserable circumstances, the worshipers respond with the common appropriate response, both human and divine: “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and [the Lord] delivered them from their distress.” The worship leader reiterates God’s act of salvation, and the people respond again with the appropriate response to God’s deliverance: “Let them thank the Lord for [the Lord’s] steadfast love, for [the Lord’s] wonderful works to humankind.”
Four times it’s repeated: 1) the calamity; 2) the people’s cry for help; 3) God’s salvation; and 4) the people’s thankfulness. What’s all this repetition about? We rarely think about it, but hardly anyone ever read the Psalms; they were read aloud by the only literate persons in the society, a few religious leaders, but they were heard by the masses gathered for worship. Repetition was a rhetorical means to plant spiritual truths into the minds and lives of the people of God. (Make note that the various kinds of parallelisms were also ways of repeating a truth.) Repetition was a way of helping the people of God to remember life-transforming lessons. In this case, it was that when we are in a calamity, we need to cry to the Lord who will deliver us; and our only appropriate response is to be thankful.
Thought for the day: Why is it that we have such trouble remembering what’s so basic?
We encourage you to include a time of prayer with this reading. If you need a place to get started, consider the suggestions on the How to Pray page.