Put Not Your Trust in Princes—An Exposition of Psalm 146

Put Not Your Trust in Princes—An Exposition of Psalm 146

Jesus is the God of Jacob and that great king who reigns from Zion. This is why the people of God assemble together to “praise the Lord” and offer “hallelujahs” unto our creator, redeemer and covenant Lord. Jesus accomplishes all of things through his word and through his sacraments. Therefore, let us do as the Psalmist exhorts us to do. Let us “praise the Lord!” Let us “praise the Lord as long as we live.” Let us “sing praises to our God while we have our being.” For “the Lord will reign forever, the God of Zion for all generations.”

Background to the 146th Psalm

My guess is that almost everyone reading this can recite the 23rd Psalm from memory. Yet can you recite Psalm 146 from memory? Probably not. Although not as well known as the 23rd Psalm, Psalm 146 is certainly worthy of our time and study. Consider the fact that Christians frequently use expressions like “praise the Lord,” and “hallelujah.” Where do these expressions come from and why are they used? These expressions come from biblical passages like Psalm 146. Like many other Americans, Christians are prone to place their trust in great men (politicians, military heroes, people of fame, wealth, and power), because such people can exercise influence upon over lives and our ways of thinking. But in Psalm 146, we are reminded not to place our trust in anyone or anything other than God, who is the creator and sustainer of all things. And then it is our Lord Jesus who alludes to this Psalm when beginning his messianic mission. So there is much here for us to consider in the 146th Psalm.

Psalm 146 is representative of an important group of five Psalms at the end of the Psalter, the so-called Hallel Psalms (146-150). As we will see, Psalm 146 is a joyful Psalm of praise. Together with Psalms 147-150, these five Psalms bring the fifth Book of the Psalms (Psalms 107-150), as well as the entire Psalter, to a close. The five Hallel Psalms are classified as “Psalms of praise,” and are used as daily prayers in most synagogues. Collectively these Hallel Psalms reflect a sense of joy and delight and although not as well-known as other Psalms (such as Psalm 23) this group of Psalms does include Psalm 149 (in which we are urged to “sing a new song”) and Psalm 150 (with its famous refrain, “let everything that has breath praise the Lord”).

Psalms of Praise

There are Psalms written by David, Moses, and the sons of Korah. Psalms are used in the temple (for worship), royal Psalms (with messianic implications), wisdom Psalms, and a Psalm such as the well-known 23rd Psalm, often classified as a “Psalm of trust.” Here, we consider another genre (or form) of Psalms–a Psalm of Praise. This Psalm has been used as the text for several German hymns, and Isaac Watts’ hymn “I’ll Praise My Maker While I’ve Breath” is also based upon this Psalm. The 146th Psalm is a Psalm which directs us to offer praise to the Lord, as well as to exercise great care in choosing in whom we place our trust.

As a so-called Psalm of Praise (and part of a section of the Psalter devoted to praise), this Psalm is often called a Song of Zion (because of the reference to Mount Zion, in v. 10). It was almost certainly composed for use in the temple.[1] As with other Psalms (especially those used for worship in the temple), the authorship of Psalm 146 is unknown. Ancient Jewish tradition identifies Psalm 146 and 147 as coming from prophets Haggai and Zechariah, and therefore to the fact that these Psalms were written for use in the temple after Israel returned from the exile in Babylon, making these Psalms among the most recently written in the Psalter. There is nothing in these Psalms which ties them to either of these prophets, so it is probably best to consider this Psalm’s authorship as undetermined (unknown).[2]

An Exhortation to Praise the Lord in Private and in Public

Psalm 146 opens (vv. 1-2) and concludes (v. 10b) with an exhortation for the people of God to praise the Lord (individuals who assemble together for corporate worship). Verses 3-4 call for us to renounce our dependency upon kings and princes, while verses 5-6 remind us that God is creator. In verses 7-9 we read of our sustainer and covenant Lord, who is the great king (v. 10a).[3] There is also a progression in this group of five Hallel Psalms from the individual’s praise of God (Psalm 146:1), to the people of God offering him praise collectively (Psalm 147:1, 12), with their praises ultimately extending to the heaven and earth (Psalm 148:1, 7). These five Psalms wrap up the Psalter by affirming that God’s word goes out to the end of the earth (Psalm 149) until everything that has breath praises the Lord (Psalm 150).[4] This arrangement of these five Psalms is certainly not accidental.

We now turn to the text of Psalm 146. In the opening two verses we read, “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.” The Psalm opens with the call to “Praise the Lord” (the Hebrew is hallelujah). This call is an imperative (a command) to praise the Lord which is followed by a heart-felt desire to obey the command– “I will praise the Lord as long as I live.” The idea seems to be that each one of us as individuals offers our heart-felt praises (hallelujahs) to the Lord. Although each one of us praise the Lord, in the Psalm, God’s people come together and form a chorus (i.e., public worship), of people who praise the Lord all our lives.

To put it another way, as the people of God we are called together to praise the Lord and together we form an assembly (all those individuals who praise the Lord from the heart). We are to do so throughout the course of their lives. The point is that our praise of God is not a momentary thing–“oh yeah, I praised the Lord once,” but such praise to be the pattern of our lives (“as long as I live,” “while I have my being” I will praise the Lord). It is not a stretch to say that the contemporary application is that we not be Easter and Christmas Christians, but we make both the individual and corporate praise of God an important and frequent part of our lives. In other words, corporate Lord’s Day worship is the appropriate place for the people of God to praise our Lord and offer up to him our hallelujahs.

Princes Are Necessary, but Cannot Save Us From Sin

This call to praise the Lord has important ramifications. Because we are to “praise the Lord” all our lives, we are not free to direct such heart-felt praise to anyone else. In verses 3-4 the Psalmist tells us, “put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. When this breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.” While we are to praise the Lord, we are not to praise kings or princes. Yet as soon as we say this, some clarification is needed because elsewhere Scripture seems to say otherwise. As we read in 1 Peter 2:17, “honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” In 1 Timothy 2:1-3, Paul, like Peter, writes,

…first of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior.

The idea expressed by the Psalmist is not that princes are kings are unimportant, and therefore not to be honored. Kings and princes (or even presidents and prime ministers) are raised up by God, and play vital roles in the civil kingdom where they exercise legitimate rule and authority. Because this is the case, Paul says, we are to honor our leaders, pray for them (which should be done every Lord’s day in the pastoral prayer), and even obey them as long as what they command does not conflict with the word of God. But the Psalmist says we are not to trust them or praise them in the same manner in which we trust and pray to God. A Christian can serve the king, the prince, or the president, but not Der Fuhrer or the Caesar who claims divine rights and prerogatives for themselves. Such a ruler is an Antichrist.

The Psalmist’s point is that all rulers in the civil kingdom remain sinners, and despite their earthly prestige and power stand before God on the day of judgment just as the rest of us do when we die. This is why in Psalm 118:8-9 we read, “it is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes.” We have no business trusting (having faith) in those men and women whom God has made, rather than trust in their creator. In chapter 35:2, Isaiah makes the point that on the day of judgment “the fool will no more be called noble, nor the scoundrel said to be honorable.” Great men and women are often not so great. In Psalm 116:11, we are reminded of the grim reality that “all mankind are liars.” Because they too are fallen, kings and queens cannot save us from the guilt and power of sin. Eisenhower, Churchill, and Stalin “saved us” in a sense from the tyranny of men like Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo. Yet, because all of these men are sinners in need of a savior, not one of them could do a single thing about the guilt and power of sin. Salvation from sin can only come as a gracious gift from the Lord, not from any king or prince.

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