The Shadow of Death – Psalm 107:10-16

Psalm 107 was probably written during Judah’s exile in Babylon/Persia, that is sometime after 586 BCE (in the Persian period likely in the late 6th or 5th cent. BCE). The psalm shows different groups of Israelites who were awaiting the coming redemption from Yahweh. Psalm 107:10-16 is very similar to Isaiah 9:1-2 (and is probably playing off of it), which Matthew uses to illustrate the reason for Jesus’ coming to Galilee for his ministry (Matt. 4:12-16).  Very interestingly, these three groups of people each experienced different shades of the shadow of death.
1.) Isaiah’s audience = the shadow of the Neo-Assyrian War Machine. Assyria would ultimately lay waste to the kingdom of Israel in two waves 732 BCE (Tigaleth Pilaser III) directed at conquering and deporting Transjordan and Galilee, including Zebulun and Naphtali and 722 BCE (Shalmaneser V/Sargon II) directed at wiping Israel/Samaria off the map and placing it under direct Assyrian rule.
Skinning Elamites, Ashurbanipal

Neo-Assyrian soldiers skinning alive Elamites, Ashurbanipal, Nineveh, drawing by H. A. Layard

2.) Psalm’s audience = the remnant of Judah’s inhabitants who had been exiled to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC. They were at times in the very “shadow of death” (e.g. Esther/Purim) and in need of deliverance from their Persian captivators.
3.) Matthew’s audience = the remnant of Judah/Levi that had at some point returned to the geographical area of Zebulun and Naphtali (i.e. “the land of the Shadow of Death”) after one of the returns from Persia (ca. 539 BC, 516 BC and 458 BC). This group which included Jesus’ maternal family was for a time, independent from a foreign oppressor and was ruled by the Davidic Hasmonean Dynasty (167-63 BC), however, that independence was brought to an end by Pompeii who brought Galilee, Samaria and Judea under the patronage of the emerging Roman Empire in 63 BC.  Three different oppressions – Assyrian, Persian, and Roman. Each writer expresses that deliverance has only one source, Yahweh.
In the words of the Psalmist:

Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and burst their bonds apart. Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love (Hebrew hesed – literally covenant-keeping faithfulness), for his wondrous works to the children of man! For he shatters the doors of bronze and cuts in two the bars of iron.” (Psalms 107:13–16 ESV)

In the words of Isaiah the prophet and by citing the beginning of the passage,* Matthew:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.” (Isaiah 9:6–7 ESV)

This child would/will be the one who vanquishes the darkness with his light (John 1:1-5), who burst open the bonds of the prisoners, and who shows “covenant-keeping faithfulness” both to who his chosen physical offspring (Abrahamic and Mosaic covenant) and his chosen spiritual offspring (Jeremiah’s New Covenant – Jer. 31:31-33).

The Psalmist gives us the best response to such good news:

Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever! Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, whom he has redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south.” (Psalms 107:1–3 ESV)

It is also interesting to think of the textual relationship between Psalm 107:23-32 and the calming of the Sea of Galilee (e.g. Matt. 8:23-27).

*New Testament writers that cite a portion of an Old Testament passage are bringing to bear the entirety of the passage that they are quoting and not just the specific references that they include in their writing. Therefore, when Matthew quotes Isaiah 9:1-2 in Matthew 4:12-16 he is directing his audience to the entire passage – that is Isaiah 9:1-7. This is an important point to remember and can be helpful in understanding some seemingly inexplicable passages (e.g. Luke 4:16-30.)

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