O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures for ever! (Psalms 107:1 RSV)
This is the recurrent theme of the 107th psalm. It introduces the fifth book of the Psalms, the book that corresponds to the book of Deuteronomy in the Pentateuch and has the same message as that book. Deuteronomy declares the "Second Law" and that is what the name means. Deutero means "second;" nomos is "law": the second law. The First Law is the law of sin and death, the law that condemns, the law that destroys, the law that makes us feel guilty and brings us under a sense of fear and condemnation. But the Second Law, says the Apostle Paul, is the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus which sets us free from the law of sin and death. It is the way God finally redeems his people. He buys them back (redeems them) by the operation of the Second Law, of which this psalm speaks.
The Psalmist speaks of the steadfast love of God. In Hebrew, the word means "an eager and ardent desire" and refers to the fact that God's love never gives up. We sing about it in the hymn,
O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee.
The thing that finally gets to us, breaks the back of our rebellion, and sets us free from our emotional hang-ups is the unqualified love of God which never lets us go. We might use a term that is more easily understood in our day. Instead of "steadfast love" read "unqualified acceptance." That is what God's love does. It accepts us without reserve. I ran across an article this week which describes that very well. It is in the October issue of Eternity Magazine.
Acceptance means you are valuable just as you are. It allows you to be the real you. You aren't forced into someone else's idea of who you really are. It means your ideas are taken seriously since they reflect you. You can talk about how you feel inside and why you feel that way, and someone really cares.
Acceptance means you can try out your ideas without being shot down. You can even express heretical thoughts and discuss them with intelligent questioning. You feel safe. No one will pronounce judgment on you even though they don't agree with you.
It doesn't mean you will never be corrected or shown to be wrong; it simply means it's safe to be you and no one will destroy you out of prejudice.
That is what this psalm is all about, because that is what God does. He accepts us as we are and then sets about to make us what we ourselves are longing to be. That ability is what the Psalmist calls " steadfast love of God."
The psalm is very simple in its structure. It is divided into two major parts after the opening sentence which introduces it.
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures for ever.
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 RSV)
In two following sections the Psalmist describes first the works of God and then the ways of God, i.e., how God proceeds in his wonderful demonstration of loving acceptance. The psalmist uses a very modern yet ancient technique for this; he asks for testimonies. We have all been in testimony meetings where people stand and tell what the Lord has done for them. In these next verses, beginning with Verse 4 and on through Verse 32, there are four testimonies of how God delivered people from circumstances and difficulties which are very much like the ones you are going through today. He describes four different kinds of trouble from which God can deliver. The first description is found in Verses 4-9.
Some wandered in desert wastes,
finding no way to a city to dwell in;
hungry and thirsty,
their soul fainted within them. (Psalms 107:4-5 RSV)
Who are these? They are what we might call the restless ones. They are the ones who wander about from place to place or from job to job from marriage to marriage, filled with questions and seeking to find where the answer lies. There are a lot of them today. They cannot find the answers. They are looking for something but they cannot find it. They keep wandering from place to place and from experience to experience, trying to find something to satisfy.
The Psalmist says they are looking for "a city to dwell in." Those of us who live in a twentieth-century city, who are choked with fumes, crowded on the freeways, fighting taxes, crime, and crabgrass, wonder why on earth anyone would want to live in a city; it is the country that attractive to us. But the Bible indicates that God has designed that man should ultimately live in cities. It says of Abraham, in Hebrews 11, that he was looking for the city "which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God." Why? Because a city always has two qualities about it. First, it is characterized by excitement, and then, security. Excitement is created whenever people gather together. There things are happening, that is where the action is. Cities are also a place of security. If you are going to meet trouble it is better to have others around. If you need defense you want to be where others are. Defense is more easily possible in a city if an attack comes. So these people described here are looking for the things you can find in a city: excitement and security.
Surely there is nothing wrong with these. Excitement is a quality we need in life. There is nothing worse than a life filled with boredom and dullness. What a drag it is! How difficult it is to live when everything is dull! But God never intended life to be that way; he intended it to be exciting. Youth today are demanding this, even at the price of their health or sometimes their very life. But it is quite right to want excitement because life is intended to be exciting. It is also intended to be secure, to afford a place where you feel at home, at rest, relaxed. That is what these people are looking for, but they cannot find it. They are hungry and thirsty, the psalmist says. That means their cravings have not been satisfied.
Then we are told how they find satisfaction.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress;
he led them by a straight way,
till they reached a city to dwell in. (Psalms 107:6-7 RSV)
Some of you have had this experience. You too were restless, you were uncertain, wandering, you were hungry and thirsty for life but you could never find it. You tried everything. Finally, when you reached the bottom, you cried to the Lord in your trouble. When you did he heard you. Not suddenly or instantaneously but gradually, he began to set you free. He began to lead you "by a straight way." Those in this condition God delivers by leading them in a straight way. They have been wandering circuitously, deviously; now they start going straight. That is the way described in the scripture. It is a straight way, right through the middle of life. God leads them until they find a city to dwell in, until they reach the place of excitement and security. It does not happen overnight. Sometimes it takes awhile.
Some of us are finding this true in our lives. Gradually, step by step, as we walk the straight way, God is leading us to a place of excitement and security, of adequacy, of power. Power is always exciting, is it not? Those who have found this way then have a responsibility, says the Psalmist.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful work to the sons of men!
For he satisfies him who is thirsty,
and the hungry he fills with good things. (Psalms 107:8-9 RSV)
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, because the factor that reached and held them was God's unqualified acceptance of them. Those who have come from this background ought to praise God. They ought publicly to give thanks for this one quality by which God has led them to contentment, and they are satisfied.
Now here is another problem:
Some sat in darkness and in gloom,
prisoners in affliction and in irons,
for they had rebelled against the words of God,
and spurned the counsel of the Most High.
Their hearts were bowed down with hard labor;
they fell down, with none to help. (Psalms 107:10-13 RSV)
Who are these? These we might call the hostile, the rebellious ones. Notice their condition. They sit in darkness and gloom. That is always the figure in the Bible for hopeless ignorance. They cannot figure out what is wrong with them. Their lives are filled with gloom, they have no hope, but they do not know what is wrong. They cannot understand their condition.
More than that, they are afflicted and in irons. That means they are held by something, they are as men put in chains. They are held prisoner by certain habits, by ideas, by thoughts, by attitudes that hold them in an iron grip. No matter how hard they try they cannot break the grip, despite the misery it causes. There are many things that can do this. Drugs can do it. Just this week the paper told about the body of a seventeen year old boy which was dumped on the steps of the police station, scarred with needle marks. That boy got into the grip of drugs and could not break loose and they finally took his life. Sex can also do it. I have seen young people (and old people too) so given over to sexual promiscuity that they could not break the habit. They were wrecking themselves and wrecking their homes but they could not stop. A bitter attitude can do it, too. There are people who never give way to sex or drugs or alcohol but who nevertheless are bound in irons because of a bitter, resentful, critical spirit. I know a family right now where the whole family is being ruined because the father and mother both have a critical spirit and they cannot seem to break loose from it. The children are growing up afraid of life because they have been affected by this negative, bitter attitude. That is the condition the psalmist is describing here.
The cause is clearly revealed to us. It is because they "rebelled against the words of God." In other words, they did not like what God said about life. They disagreed and they chose to act on what they felt. They did not realize that God was telling them the truth, and they rebelled against reality. That is the first cause. Second, they "spurned the counsel of the Most High," i.e., since they did not like what God said they decided not to follow what he advised. They turned aside from it and thus they found themselves "bowed down with hard Labor." Do you know why that inevitably follows? Because if you will to follow God, who is intended to be the strength of man, you have only one other place to go -- your own resources. The man who is trying do it all by himself is already in trouble. It is a hard, hard life. Remember when the Lord Jesus appeared to Saul on the Damascus Road, he said to him, "Saul, it is hard for you to kick against the pricks," (Acts 9:5 KJV). Yes, it is hard. It is agonizing, exhausting labor to try to work up excitement and security out of your own resources. It will drag you down every time. So, no matter how long it might take, these who rebelled against and spurned the counsel of the Most High turned to their own resources, fell down, and there was no one to help them. Thus they ended up literally prisoners, bound by their own weakness. Well, then what? God does not leave them there. That is the glory of this. He does not say, "All right, you've made your bed; now lie in it. Tough! You made your own decision, you took your own course, now it's too late. You will have to reap the results."
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress. (Psalms 107:13 RSV)
And it tells us how he did it:
he brought them out of darkness and gloom. (Psalms 107:14a RSV)
That was the first step. He opened their eyes to show them that what they were rebelling against was reality, that the words of the Most High are not an artificial standard which God has imposed in order to give man a bad time. God is not a peeved Deity, enjoying the struggles of men. His words are a revelation of the way things are.
So, having dispelled their ignorance,
...and[he] broke their bonds asunder. (Psalms 107:14b RSV)
I love that. That means that when these people cried to God they found a power to act which they never had before. It means that though they were in the grip of vicious things (drugs, sex, alcohol, bitterness, whatever it might be), they finally brought their problems to the Lord and laid it at his feet. Then they rose up with a new kind of power, suddenly, just like that. It does not mean they did not have a struggle, but the struggle was on different terms from then on. It was no longer a struggle to break free but to keep from sliding back again. They fought on a wholly different basis. Some of you have had this experience. You know what the psalmist is talking about here. You can sing, with Charles Wesley,
He breaks the power of canceled sin,
He sets the prisoner free;
His blood can make the foulest clean;
His blood availed for me.
When this happens their responsibility is to give thanks, and to give thanks with a special note. They are to thank God for his shattering power, his ability to deliver suddenly and instantaneously.
For he shatters the doors of bronze,
and cuts in two the bars of iron. (Psalms 107:16 RSV)
There is a place of deliverance for anyone bound by evil. If you are struggling with habits you have not been able to break, there is power in God to set you free. Once you experience it you ought to spend the rest of your life talking about it. There is a power that can do what no psychologist, or psychiatrist, no social worker, or any other well-intentioned person can do for you; it can set you free. That is what the Psalmist is singing about.
Now the next condition.
Some were sick through their sinful ways,
and because of their iniquities suffered affliction;
they loathed any kind of food,
and they drew near to the gates of death. (Psalms 107:17-18 RSV)
Here are the neurotics. They are sick people, either physically or emotionally sick. How many millions there are like this today! Some, perhaps, are here this morning! The characteristics of them are, first, they loathe food. Now food is what the body requires and, figuratively, it is what the soul requires. It is that which ministers health and strength. But these neurotic people are characterized by the fact that they do not want healthy things. They do not want good food. They do not want the plain fare of meat, potatoes and gravy; they want whipped cream and caramel sauce. They do not want to read good books; they want highly spiced literature that sets them a-tingling, and panders to their lust. That is all they will eat. That is all they will read. That is all they want to live on. Therefore they get worse and worse. "They draw near to the gates of death." Here are sick people, neurotic people, who are unable to handle life. They are fearful, nervous, anxious, afraid to go out and face life as it is.
The cause of this sad condition is given to us. It is because of their "sinful ways" and "their iniquities." As a pastor I have met with scores of this kind. They never like to be told that their problem is their sinful ways, because they never think of themselves as sinful. Yet they cannot be helped until they see that that is their problem. Dr. Henry Brandt once told of a woman who came to him in deep emotional difficulty. She told her story and he watched her as she talked for a half hour or more. Finally he said to her, "You're not a very peaceful woman are you?" She said, "Why do you say that?" He said, "Well, I've been noticing you chewing on the edge of your handkerchief, upset and distraught, and you tell me all these terrible things that happen to you all the time. Even though you're a Christian, you are not very peaceful, are you?" She wanted to know what that had to do with it. He said, "You know, in Isaiah it says, 'There is no peace,' sayeth my God, 'to the wicked."' She sat straight up and said, "Are you calling me wicked?" He said, "Well, you know, there are various degrees of wickedness. It's wicked for a man to take a gun and go into a bank and rob it of a hundred thousand dollars; but, if a little boy takes a nickel out of his mother's purse when she isn't looking, that is wicked too. It is wicked to take a knife and plunge it into someone's heart and thus murder him; but it is wicked also to use your tongue to shatter, destroy, and murder the reputation of another. It is the same kind of wickedness, but of a different degree. But in each case, there is no peace to the wicked. If you do not have any peace it is because you are wicked." Little by little he began to show this woman that her troubles came from sinful ways of which she was not aware, things that she was doing to herself and to others that were wrong. She did not mean to do these, but this was what was destroying her and making her sick and neurotic.
Then what happens?
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress;
he sent forth his word, and healed them,
and delivered them from destruction. (Psalms 107:19-20 RSV)
They cried to the Lord. It is when a man gets into trouble that he cries to the Lord. "And he delivered them." How? "He sent his word, and healed them," and thus delivered them from destruction. Is that not wonderful? I love that phrase, "he sent his word, and healed them." When the psalmist says, "He sent his word," it does not mean God gave them a Bible to read; it means he identified with them. The Lord Jesus is called the Word of God, the Living Word, the Logos. We read of that Word, "he became flesh and dwelt among us." He came to live where we live. Thus when it says that God sent his word and healed them, it means that in some way he moved right in where they were. He identified with them. He did not reject these neurotic people because they were difficult to live with, he moved right in beside them, put an arm around their shoulder, and said, "I understand; but let me show you what's causing this." And with his word he healed them. He set them free. Jesus said, "If you continue in my word, you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free," (John 8:31-32). Is that not wonderful? How many have been set free as they have begun to understand the truth about themselves and about life through the word. That is what God does by his word.
These kind of people have a special responsibility to praise the Lord.
Let them thank the lord for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to the sons of men!
And let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving,
and tell of his deeds in songs of joy! (Psalms 107:21-22 RSV)
Joyful service is the thing for them. Sacrifice always pictures costly service. But it is service that is done with joy, with gladness, with cheerfulness. That is the way to say "Thank you," to a God who has set you free from neurosis.
Now, let us look at the next:
Some went down to the sea in ships,
doing business on the great waters;
they saw the deeds of the Lord,
his wondrous works in the deep.
For he commended, and raised the stormy wind,
which lifted up the waves of the Sea.
They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths;
their courage melted away in their evil plight;
they reeled and staggered like drunken men,
and were at their wits' end. (Psalms 107:23-27 RSV)
Through the Christian centuries, some have actually been saved through this sort of circumstance. We sing the hymns of John Newton who was a slave trader and owner of a ship running slaves from Africa to England. He was converted when he ran into a great storm. In the midst of that storm, fearing for his very life, John Newton cried out to God and God changed that man's heart right there. He became a great preacher and wrote many songs which have helped many since. It is easily possible to get into trouble at sea. A friend was telling me this week of a man who went out on a sailboat for the first time. As they were sailing along the owner of the sailboat fell overboard. Suddenly this man was confronted with a crisis: he had never been on a sailboat before, and the owner was now overboard, struggling to keep afloat. He had two choices: he could turn the helm this way, or that way, but he didn't know which to choose. The one he chose promptly capsized the boat, he too was "at his wits' end." That is exactly what the Psalmist is describing here.
But we can take this also as figurative language. The Scriptures often picture life as like the sea. Here is a man who is going out to do business on the great waters, i.e., he is a business man. He is carrying on his business ventures on the sea of life in a normal fashion. There is nothing wrong with what he is attempting to do. But suddenly he is confronted with a crisis. The interesting thing is, the Psalmist says God sent that crisis. It is God who "commanded and raised the stormy wind" which lifted up the waves of the sea. It is God who brought this man into trouble.
Surely trouble can come that way. A business man told me this week of how suddenly, out the blue, two men to whom he owed money on a short-term loan (which business men use frequently) suddenly decided to foreclose on him and take over his business. Within hours he was confronted with a crisis in which his business and livelihood was severely threatened. This is what the Psalmist describes. A storm comes up suddenly and courage melts away. Men reel and stagger like drunken men and are at their wits' end.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and[now it is the fearful whom] he[God] delivered from their distress. He made the storm be still,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad because they had quiet,
and he brought them to their desired haven. (Psalms 107:28-30 RSV)
What can we learn from this? Here is the account of people who are engaged in the normal practices of life when a crisis arises. They had been counting on themselves, thinking they had what it takes to handle their affairs, when suddenly a crisis of overwhelming proportions arises and now they do not know what to do or where to turn.
At last they turn to the Lord and they discover that he, and he alone, is capable of getting them to their desired haven. When that occurs they have a responsibility to thank the Lord for his steadfast love and for his wonderful works to the sons of men, and to do it publicly.
Let them extol him in the congregation of the people,
and praise him in the assembly of the elders. (Psalms 107:32 RSV)
There are many in this kind of circumstance and for their sake thanksgiving ought to be expressed publicly and openly, for all to hear.
Now there are the works of God. He delivers the restless, the neurotic, the hostile, the fearful; those who are sick, who are wandering, and who are unsatisfied. He delivers them by that unqualified love which keeps after them and will never let them go. That is what sets them free.
The latter part of the psalm we will go through very quickly. It describes the way God does this, his methods.
He turns rivers into a desert,
springs of water into thirsty ground,
a fruitful land into a salty waste,
because of the wickedness of its inhabitants. (Psalms 107:33-34 RSV)
First, to accomplish his purposes, God uses adversity. He deliberately at times sends into our pathway trouble and disaster, because it is the only way he can get our attention. You know that you never had time to listen to the voice of God until you got sick, or in difficulty, or in trouble. But when trouble loomed then you had time to listen to what God had to say. But God knows that the most important thing for you to learn is to hear his word, because that word reveals what life is all about. So he sends trouble, deliberately. C. S. Lewis put it well. "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our consciences, but shouts at us in our pain. Pain is his megaphone to reach a deaf world."
Then God can use prosperity.
He turns a desert into pools of water,
a parched land into springs of water.
And there he lets the hungry dwell,
and they establish a city to live in;
they sow fields, and plant vineyards,
and get a fruitful yield.
By his blessing they multiply greatly;
and he does not let their cattle decrease. (Psalms 107:35-38)
When you take God at his word, you walk in the fullness of his strength and supply, and you begin to fellowship with him and enjoy his presence, he rewards you. He sends you the very thing you are looking for. He meets your needs, satisfies your heart, and fills you with good things. Your prayers do not go unanswered for God moves to meet your need. And protects you. He not only supplies, abundantly, but he also protects.
When they are diminished and brought low
through oppression, trouble, and sorrow,
he pours contempt upon princes [your enemies]
and makes them wander in trackless wastes;
but he raises up the needy out of affliction,
and makes their families like flocks. (Psalms 107:39-41 RSV)
Protected and sheltered. God uses adversity and God uses prosperity to accomplish his work.
Then we get, in closing, the reaction of men to this.
The upright see it and are glad. (Psalms 107:42a RSV)
That is, if you are beginning to understand God and relate to him, you can see these two things and neither one disturbs you. If things get rough, it does not bother you, neither are you turned aside by prosperity. As Paul says, "I have learned whatever state I am therewith to be content." Whether I am abased or abounding it does not make any difference, he says, because God knows what he is doing.
...and all wickedness stops its mouth. (Psalms 107:42b RSV)
It has nothing left to say. That was the reaction of the Pharisees when they questioned Jesus. They tried to trap him but when he answered they were reduced to silence. They had nothing to say. This is what God says will happen to the upright man. As he works his way through life and men become aware of the whole story of how God acts, they simply have nothing to say. They are reduced to silence. It becomes evident that God is fair and just in what he does, and no man can complain.
So the last word is one of admonition.
Whoever is wise, let him give heed to these things;
let men consider the steadfast love of the Lord. (Psalms 107:43 RSV)
That means, think about all this! How does this relate to you? Ask yourself that. There are people here this morning who have been going through one or more of these difficult situations. Many are wandering, restless, hostile or bitter. They are held prisoner by some attitude, outlook, or habit. Or they are sick, neurotic, emotionally upset. Perhaps some are fearful, troubled by a crisis into which you have come. All right. Stop and think about how God accepts you, how he loves you, how he is deeply concerned about you and will meet you right where you are and take you just as you are. His love does not change a bit whether you are a failure or a success. It does not make any difference to him how you appear in the eyes of men. God loves you, he is concerned about you and has already received you, already given you all that he can give, in Jesus Christ. All right, then. Begin to rejoice in that fact. You will find that love will set you free, so that you can act upon the power and liberty God gives.
When think about your relationship to others. Give heed to these things. Have you ever tried unqualified acceptance on your boss? Or your mother-in-law? Or the kid next door who is so mean and difficult? Have you ever tried unqualified acceptance with your children who are giving you so much trouble, your teenagers who make you mad every time you come in the door? Have you ever tried unqualified acceptance with your parents who are always on your back and never seem to give you a break? Have you ever tried unqualified acceptance with those who are difficult or demanding of you? That is what this Psalmist is saying.
Whoever is wise, let him give heed to these things;
let men consider the unqualified acceptance of the Lord. Psalms 107:43 RSV)
Our Father, we ask you to help us with this. We are beginning to catch on to the wonderful way you work. How different it is than the way the world around us acts. Father, how wonderful to see that your unqualified love is designed not only for church but for life and the situations in which we find ourselves right now. We ask you to set us free by love that we might sing this wonderful song of deliverance. In Christ's name, Amen.