Consult most commentaries on Psalm 116 and there will no reference to the Lord’s Supper, and not surprisingly so for the psalm was written centuries before the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. Rather commentators point out that of all the 150 Psalms it is only here and in Psalm 18 where the Psalmist declares his love for the Lord: “I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice and my supplications” (v1). In particular he loves God, because God has saved him from “the danger of death” (v3 GNB).
Precisely what happened we do not know. It is often assumed that the Psalmist may have been sick (so the NRSV heads Psalm 116 ‘Thanksgiving from recovery from illness’), although in fact the Psalmist may have been delivered from enemies about to stick a knife into his back. Whatever the specific issue, the Psalmist “called on the name of the Lord, ‘O Lord, I pray, save my life’” (v4), and God did so.
However, read this side of the Cross and Resurrection, Psalm 116 can be seen to point to the salvation which God offers us in Jesus. Indeed, as a preacher I have spoken of the model of salvation which the Psalmist presents: if we would know God’s saving power in our lives, then we too must “call on the name of the Lord” and ask for salvation. What is more, read through this Christological filter, the Psalm can also deepen our understanding of what it means to ‘remember’ Jesus when we eat and drink at the Table of the Lord.
Significantly the connection between Psalm 116 and the Lord’s Supper has its roots in the fact that this psalm was one of the ‘Hallel’ psalms read during the celebration of Passover as Jews remembered how God had saved them on the night when the angel of death had struck all the Egyptian first-born. According to the Mishnah (a compilation of past Jewish oral traditions), four cups were raised and blessed in the course of the meal. Psalms 115-118 were recited in connection with the fourth cup, called ‘the cup of salvation’. The recitation of theses psalms was introduced by a thanksgiving to the Lord, who “brought us from bondage to freedom, from sorrow to gladness, from mourning to a Festival-day, and from darkness to great light, and from servitude to redemption” (Pesachim 10.5). There is little doubt that Jesus, at the Last Supper, will have recited this Psalm – to read Psalm 116 in the light of the experience of Jesus brings a new dimension of interpretation to this Psalm.
Precisely because of this link to the Passover and the Last Supper, Psalm 116 then became associated with the Lord’s Supper. In some liturgical traditions Psalm 116 is the Psalm laid down to be read on Maundy Thursday. In most Baptist worship manuals Psalm 116.12-14 is among the Scriptures to be read at the regular Sunday celebration of the Lord’s Supper: “What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people”.
Seen through the filter of the Lord’s Supper, the Psalm 116 can be applied in a two-fold manner.
- First the Psalm reminds us that every time we eat bread and drink wine at the Lord’s Supper, we “call on the name of the Lord” and in so doing share again in the benefits of our salvation. Simply put, as we take the cup, we proclaim that in Jesus there is salvation – and as we drink from the cup we say in effect ‘Yes, Lord, your blood was shed for me’. The cup of “salvation” (v13) in turn becomes a cup of “thanksgiving” (v17) – this is the moment when we praise God afresh and tell him how much we love him (see v1)
- Secondly the Psalm challenges us to “pay” our “vows to the Lord” (v14). Just as in our baptism we declared that we would die to self and live for Jesus, and for Jesus alone (see Rom 6.1-4), so in the Lord’s Supper we renew our baptismal vows and in effect say again, “Lord we will die to self and live for you alone”. In other words, to “lift up the sup of salvation” is an opportunity not just to praise God, but also to rededicate ourselves in God’s service.