By Neil Earle
Well, brethren, our Thanksgiving dinners have come, gone and been digested. What a great American custom. Hopefully yours was an enjoyable as ours.
But as you know the Bible calls us to thanksgiving all year round. Philippians 4:6 says, “In everything give thanks.” I always remember the self-help counselor who was asked: “What mental trait is the best antidote against depression?”
His answer: “That’s simple – thanksgiving.”
The last few weeks I have had my mind focused again and again on the beautiful sentiments and thoughts in one of the Egyptian Hallel Psalms, those from Psalm 111 to Psalm 118 written to commemorate the deliverance from captivity, either from Egypt or Babylon. This is the setting for that great little Psalm 116. With the help of some good commentaries I was able to dig out some teaching here that I think can help all of us as we prepare to kick 2010 out the door – for some, not a minute too soon.
Let’s take a look.
Psalm 116:1-2 open with a calm feeling of triumph and thankful commitment. The Psalmist here loves the Lord because he heard his voice when he was in trouble. Which of us cannot relate to that? As we will see, the troubles he was going through – including facing a near-death experience – led him to draw closer to God. He says in verse 2 “I will call upon him as long as I live.”
There in a nutshell is the overview of the Psalm. Every Psalm in that sense is a sermon relevant for believers today (Romans 15:4). The great Old Testament teacher Walter Brueggemann said that most Psalms have a simple three-part outline:
After the more or less cheerful opening exposition we meet disorientation coming in very vividly in verse 3:
“The cords of death entangled me, the anguish of the grave came upon me, I was overcome by trouble and sorrow.”
That’s disorientation all right. Derek Kidner mentions how Old Testament (OT) writers used very vivid and colorful terms to describe death. Death is almost a living thing. It often is portrayed as a savage monster almost like a giant octopus holding people in its coils as it drags them away. The OT is like that. It is exceptionally concrete, picturesque, and intense in many places. That’s what makes it such great reading.
Now the word for grave here is translated “Sheol” by modern scholars and Sheol was the poetic way the Old Testament people had to refer to the Afterlife. It’s used 65 times in the OT. Sheol was this dark and shadowy place that many of them feared, they didn’t quite know what was going on after death. Jacob may have had a vague hope of seeing Joseph (whom he thought was dead) in Sheol – but the reference is unclear (Genesis 37:35). Job prayed for deliverance from Sheol. He called it “the land of gloom and deep shadow…the land of deepest night, of deep shadow and disorder, where even the light is like darkness” (Job 10:21-22). A glimmer of hope appears in Psalm 139:8 where the Psalmist says God can go into Sheol, which it is under his control. But generally speaking, Sheol conjures up uncertainty and a fair measure of anguish in the OT.
How different the testimony of believers in the New Testament. 2 Timothy 1:10 proclaims really good news about Death. It states that the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ moves us into a different era. Jesus by his resurrection and vindication “has destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel.” Revelation 14:13 very boldly says “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” It shows they go on to their rest, obviously in heaven (Revelation 6:9-11) and from there they will return with Jesus for the reunion of spirit and body at the Great Resurrection (1 Thessalonians 5:13-18).
Now we are not straying from our subject. Death in the OT can mean a lot of dastardly “D’s” such as Depression, Doubt, Debt, Disorientation, Disease especially, Discouragement, Despair, etc. Note how both Jonah and Hezekiah treated the threat of death upon them as a Sheol experience (Jonah 2:2; Isaiah 38:10) Apparently the Anglican Church uses Psalm 116 in its giving of thanks for successful childbirth. This is interesting because many women who have suffered in labor can tell you that sometimes the pain and disorientation can make it feel like you are dying. Even Jesus hinted at this (John 16:21).
But the good news behind this psalm is one of deliverance from Death, in the sense of conquering this disease or setback or captivity or other travail that spurred the writing of the Psalm. That good news is transferred to the ultimate victory over Death all NT believers experience now through Jesus Christ (John 11: 25-26).
Psalm 116, Verse 3 to 6 moves us across three quick statements of relevance for all of us when we get into in trouble:
Where I was
What I did
What I learned
Verse 8 mentions another offering of thanks for being delivered from Death – Death’s second appearance in this Psalm. This deliverance was dramatic, the writer thanks God that once again he can walk before Yahweh in the “land of the living,” another colorful OT phrase we still use. The deliverance is so exquisite that the Psalmist is able to look back and confess how he had almost given up in the midst of his affliction. He felt greatly afflicted, all alone and that everyone about him was a liar (verses 10-11). But he was wrong. Yahweh was on the job and sometimes working through other people.
One of the earmarks of conversion is the ability to confess wrong attitudes and by the time we reach verse 12 this different attitude pivots a new spirit in the psalm. The writer is wondering how he can express his thanks to God – a nice preoccupation, eh, and one we typically spend too little time at (verse 12-14)? Once again Death is mentioned but this time it is mentioned in the context of a victorious (and quite famous) declaration that “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (verse 15). This is reorientation with a vengeance. Numbers 23:10 had said “let me die the death of the righteous” and after our brief excursion into the NT we know why. The radical reorientation of the psalm leads to an expression of recommitment and rededication to God’s work on this earth (verse 16). The writer is going to do two things: he is going to pay his vows to God and he is going to go to church to publically join in the giving of thanks to his Lord and Redeemer.
Now we don’t do all of this (vow-paying, etc) in the NT era but the drift is clear. Singing the great hymns of the faith with other believers can get our thankful juices flowing – remember “Come, ye thankful people come!” As one pastor put it, Where grace is extended, obedience becomes thanksgiving. And we are back to our theme again which closes out this message. Another motivational guru recently said that if you can write down five things you are thankful for you have no right to be depressed. Try it next time depression makes its rounds.
There it is again – thanksgiving. Thanksgiving in November and thanksgiving in December and thanksgiving all year round. And while we are at it let’s be thankful for this marvelous Psalm 116 that once again trains us in how to approach God with right worship in an attitude of humility and thanksgiving. All year round.