Written by David, Psalm 138 is a song of praise to Yahweh which begins with these enthusiastic words:
I will praise You, Yahweh, with all my heart; before the gods I will sing Your praise. (Ps. 138:1)
David knows that Yahweh is the only real God, but like us today, he lives in a world with many different religions. In Bible times, every nation had its gods. There were no atheists. Everyone believed that supernatural beings were intimately involved in their lives. In the Old Testament we sometimes find Yahweh speaking about idols as if they were real beings with powers, wills, and personalities—but this is only when He is describing life events from the perspective of misguided humans. Other times, He speaks from His own Divine perspective and mocks how ludicrous it is that people worship gods that they know they have invented. Here David is eager to praise Yahweh—the one true God—and exalt Him in the presence of all the other dumb idol statues that foolish people are worshiping.
I will bow down toward Your holy Temple and give thanks to Your Name for Your loving-kindness and Your truth, for You have magnified Your word according to all Your Name. (Ps. 138:2)
A permanent Temple for Yahweh has not been built yet, but David has chosen a site for it and is collecting materials which his son Solomon will later use to construct it. Yahweh is still being worshiped at the tent Tabernacle which was constructed by Moses and which David relocated into the capital city of Jerusalem during his reign.
The last part of this verse is difficult to translate. Some versions say “You have magnified Your word above all Your Name.” This verse is often used to promote the idea that God considers the modern Christian Bible to be a higher authority than Himself—meaning that He will never contradict it. This is complete rubbish, of course, for David is not referring to written Scriptures here, but to God’s spoken words—meaning His commands, instructions, prophecies, etc.. David’s point is that Yahweh’s spoken words only enhance the glorious reputation that is already associated with His Name in the eyes of the world.
On the day I called, You answered me; You made me bold with strength in my soul. (Ps. 138:3)
This gives us some insight into why David is writing this praise poem. He is thinking about a time when he called on Yahweh for help and Yahweh answered by giving him great courage and victory over his enemies.
All the kings of the earth will give thanks to You, O Yahweh, when they have heard the words of Your mouth. And they will sing of the ways of Yahweh, for great is the glory of Yahweh. (Ps. 138:4-5)
The closer we get to God, the more eager we become for Him to be honored and praised throughout the whole world. David was sincerely devoted to Yahweh, and he often expresses his eagerness to see Him globally exalted.
For though Yahweh is exalted, yet He regards the humble, but the haughty He knows from afar. (Ps. 138:6)
Godly humility is a soul attitude that says, “Because I can do nothing apart from God, He alone deserves the glory for the things that He accomplishes through me.” Humility is a mindset which naturally comes over us when we embrace our total dependency on God. The humble soul does not exaggerate his own abilities, but the haughty soul does. The haughty soul takes the glory that should be given to God and minimizes who God is. Because the haughty soul is refusing to respect God, God does not offer that soul the privilege of knowing Him well.
Though I walk in the midst of trouble, You preserve my life; You stretch forth Your hand against the wrath of my enemies, with Your right hand You save me. (Ps. 138:7)
David isn’t boasting about his ability to sic Yahweh’s wrath on people. Instead, he’s expressing humble gratitude for the way Yahweh has just rescued him from a life-threatening situation.
Yahweh will fulfill His purpose for me; Your steadfast love, O Yahweh, endures forever; do not forsake the works of Your hands. (Ps. 138:8)
David’s confidence in Yahweh’s goodness falters at the end of this psalm as he asks Yahweh not to forsake His own creatures. Is this an appropriate request? No, because David is essentially asking Yahweh not to have any personal boundaries. It is entirely up to God to decide how He will manage His own creations and who He will and won’t be merciful to. If David doesn’t approve of some of the judgments Yahweh makes, tough. God doesn’t answer to us, we answer to Him.
The book of Psalms is a mixed bag, with some psalms modeling terrible soul attitudes and many rotating between good attitudes and bad ones. As praise psalms go, Psalm 138 is a pretty good sample of an Old Covenant believer expressing soul attitudes of gratitude, dependency, reverence and at least some trust. It’s not a good model of submission, and the trust really falters at the end, but given that a human wrote these words, we shouldn’t expect perfection.
Psalm 23: Yahweh is a Good Shepherd
Taking Christ Out of Psalm 2: David Exults in Having Yahweh’s Favor
Misapplying David: How Psalm 8 is Used to Insult Christ
Why We Need to Grow Past the Wishful Thinking of Psalm 1
Psalm 137: Dashing Infants & Disparaging Yahweh