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Psalm 107 (Greek numbering: 106) is a psalm in the biblical book of Psalms. Written by King David, this psalm is a song of thanksgiving to God, who has been merciful to his people and gathered all who were lost. It is beloved of mariners due to its reference to ships and the sea (v. 23).
Psalm 107 is divided into forty-three verses and is one of the longer psalms in the Bible. In the Revised Standard Version (RSV), it is split into seven sections, each section having a related but distinct theme. The first section, the shortest, comprises verses one to three; the second, verses four to nine; the third, verses ten to sixteen; the fourth, verses seventeen to twenty-two; the fifth, verses twenty-three to thirty-two; the sixth, verses thirty-three to thirty-eight; and the seventh and final, verses thirty-nine to forty-three. An interesting feature of Psalm 107 commonly found in the poetic books of the Bible is its overall regularity. The line lengths are different, but the size of the original sectional divisions is pleasingly even. The theme of the psalm moves forward from section to section.
Overall, psalm 107 is considered one of Israel’s historical psalms, along with Psalm 106 and many of the royal psalms, among others. The overall outline of the historical psalms is to tell a story of a God who accomplishes “wonderful works” (v. 8), although the Israelites, His chosen people, have proved faithless. In fact, acts of infidelity often seem to correspond to an eventual awe-inspiring work of mercy from the Lord. Although the exact timing of the writing of psalm 107 is unsure, it was most likely written during a time of increased union among the Jewish people during the reign of King David (1010-970 BC). The psalm also includes several more specific themes which emphasize the general tone of praise and thanksgiving for the God of Israel.
In the introduction, the first section of psalm 107, the Lord is said to gather “the redeemed ... from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south” (v. 2, 3). Following this, the next four sections address individuals who “wandered in desert wastes,” “sat in darkness and gloom,” “were sick through their sinful ways,” and “went down to the sea in ships” (v. 4, 10, 17, 23). Each of these locational descriptors corresponds to a cardinal direction as mentioned in the third verse of the psalm. The desert wastes mentioned in the second section of the psalm seem to indicate a “great, eastern desert” that might be beat down upon by the sun, which rises in the east. Likewise, in the opposing, western direction, where the sun sets, the Israelites are said to sit “in darkness and gloom” (v. 10). The correlation depicted in this section between darkness and helplessness - apart from the aid of the Lord - harkens back to Old Testament descriptions of Abraham (Gen. 15:12). Throughout early Hebrew history, north was thought to be the direction most associated with evil and iniquity, thus adding emphasis to the direction of north’s correspondence to the fourth stanza, beginning with “some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities suffered affliction” (v. 17). And finally, in the orientation of the region that Israel occupied at the time of Psalm 107, to the south lay the sea, directly paralleling the beginning of the fifth section, “some went down to the sea in ships” (v. 23).
Psalm 107 is, above all, a hymn commemorating the power of God. Despite the transgressions of the Israelites, the Lord forgives them. The psalm elaborates on this theme, going on to say that the Lord “turns a desert into pools of water … and there he lets the hungry dwell” (v. 35, 36). This description of miracles as performed by the Lord reinforces the imagery of “wonderful works” mentioned earlier in the psalm (v. 8). The works of the Lord, however, are mentioned in many psalms; what makes psalm 107 somewhat unique is its depiction of the works of the Lord as explication for the people. The psalm is a hymn of thanksgiving to the Lord “for the purpose of making [the Lord’s works] known to humankind, so that they too can join in the praise of [the Lord].” This concept seems to indicate that David has written a sort of circulatory hymn thanking the Lord for enabling the Israelites to thank the Lord. These concordant themes of enlightenment and gratitude reinforce each other throughout the psalm, and, indeed, throughout the rest of the fifth book of psalms, of which psalm 107 is the opening hymn.
As with much of the Old Testament, psalm 107 carries a foreshadowing of an occurrence in the New Testament. A famous story of the life of Christ from chapter four of the gospel of Mark follows the fifth section of psalm 107, which describes the plight and eventual rescue of those on the sea. In the story of Jesus, while he and his disciples are on Lake Galilee in a boat, a storm swells. Jesus calms the storm by saying, “Peace! Be still!” (Mk. 4:39). In the same way, psalm 107 describes the Israelites at sea when a storm arises. The waves “mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths,” (v. 26) and the Lord then “makes still” (v. 29) the storm. The language of both passages is similar, supporting the mirrored imagery and situation that the stories share. The divine being who calms the storm is also the same according to the Christian tradition: the Lord, whether Father, Son, or Holy Spirit, is one being.
Although Psalm 107 does not have any particular importance or fame in any religious tradition, apart from the clear historical significance it has to the Jewish culture, it is retained within the Roman Catholic faith as a part of the Mass. In the Roman Catholic Mass, selections of psalm 107 are read on various occasions throughout the year, with the most common occurrence being during the hymn between the first and second readings. It is often quoted at events involving the navy and seafarers, such as the launching of ships.