Out of my distress I called on the Lord;
the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place. (NRSV)
The Bible is all about the relationship between God and people. Each one of us has a relationship with the living God—the one referred to as Yah in this particular verse. Like any relationship, our relationship with God can be in a good place, a bad place or it can even be broken.
Relationships have their ups and their downs. The ups and downs are not the only movement however. They also tend to continually move slowly in one direction or another—the relationship either becomes steadily deeper and closer or the partners move slowly inexorably apart—the ups and downs are just noise. The key is the slower background journey.
The Bible looks at the relationship between God and people with remarkable honesty. Much of the language about relationships fits around two words: ‘calling’ and ‘answering’.
The Prophets, that we are so keen to ignore, focus on the sobering reality that when God calls us, sometimes we do not answer him. The Prophets’ concern is of course with communities of people and not individuals. But God calls each of us individually to something—even if it is the base call of being a faithful disciple of Jesus; in fact there is no higher calling, there are only more specific ones.
We all would do well to ensure that we know God’s call on our lives and that we have answered him.
But here in Psalm 118, as is usual for the psalms, we have the reverse situation. Someone is calling on Yah. And Yah has answered. Who is it that calls on God in this way? If we imagine it to be King David then the Psalm makes a lot of sense.
But the writers of the New Testament see this psalm as being all about Jesus. Not only all about Jesus but about his experience in Easter Week and especially Palm Sunday. The psalm takes on a whole new depth when we see Jesus at its centre. It is a festival psalm and so is closely connected with Jerusalem and in fact it refers to entry into Jerusalem. I don’t think it is taking too many liberties to imagine that Jesus might well have prayed this psalm before he himself entered Jerusalem. He would have known something of the deeper resonances that he was about to fulfil. In a few days he was expecting to hear this psalm being read as it is the last in a series of psalms read at the Passover—known as the Egyptian Hallel.
Coming back to verse 5, Jesus would have known the ‘distress’ mentioned in this verse. The actual Hebrew word has a sense of being constrained, being limited in options. Perhaps in English being in ‘dire straits’ captures the sense. Unable to turn left or right for fear of hitting a rock in the midst of turbulent water. This contrasts with the ‘broad place’ that the Lord provides. The psalms celebrate the broad place elsewhere. It is not just about God taking away problems but it can be about being given the resources and strength to remain strong in spite of them. The broad place can be God’s answer to our prayers but it also becomes the place in which we are ready to answer God’s call to us.
What might Jesus have wanted as he called to the Father? What answer did he hope for? He had already set his face to travel to Jerusalem and now he was here. For Jesus the answer was no literal physical broad place. In his final days and hours, by slow inevitability his options narrowed and narrowed. At the end there was not turning to the left or the right. What he did have was the strength to stay the course even though that meant hitting a rock—a roughly-made cross.
If you are in a broad place then rejoice in answering God’s call. If you feel ‘constrained’ or even ‘distressed’ then call upon Yah and know that he will answer. He can relieve or he can strengthen and sustain us. You’ll have an answer if you call out. Do it this Easter Week or better still do it today.