Give Thanks to the Lord, For He is Good
November 24, 2013 Speaker: Bret Rogers
Topic: Thanksgiving Passage: Psalm 118:1–118:29
Sermon from Psalm 118 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Delivered on Sunday, November 24, 2013
Within the nation of Israel, there were a group of psalms that eventually became known as the Egyptian Hallel—“Hallel” meaning praise. This group of psalms were used during the annual Passover celebration to call Israel to worship their great God, who revealed his kingship and his mighty power by delivering them from the hands of their oppressors in Egypt—hence, the Egyptian Hallel. They are psalms that tell a story of the Lord who is high above all nations, whose glory is above the heavens, but who looks favorably on the oppressed and downtrodden (Ps 113), rescues them through the exodus (Ps 114), prospers them as his covenant people (Ps 115)—even responding to their individual cries for help (Ps 116)—and then causes his kingdom to spread throughout the earth (Ps 117). Psalm 113 is the first in the Egyptian Hallel; Psalm 118 is the last. While each of these Psalms contribute a different piece of the story, one theme that is common to all of them is this: the Lord, the one who revealed himself as the God of Israel, is worthy of all our praise, all our adoration, and all our thanksgiving.
“Praise the LORD!” Psalm 113:1 says, “Praise, O servants of the LORD, praise the name of the LORD!” “Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob, who turns the rock into a pool of water” (Ps 114:7). “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!” (Ps 115:1). “In the courts of the LORD’S house, in the midst of you, O Jerusalem. Praise the LORD!” (Ps 116:19). “Praise the LORD, all nations! Extol him, all peoples!” (Ps 117:1). And then Psalm 118 even sets the entirety of its contents within a call for Israel’s assembly to offer the Lord thanksgiving. Verse 1, “Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!” Then verses 28-29, “You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God; I will extol you. Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!”
Written to Thrust the Covenant Assembly into Thankful Praise
These psalms were written and read aloud to thrust the entire covenant assembly into the thankful praise of their great God; and that purpose for these psalms hasn’t changed, because God’s worthiness has not changed. The covenant assembly looks a bit different since the cross and resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost to create the church, God’s new covenant community full of believing Jews and Gentiles in one body. But they’re all united to the same covenant Lord in whom there is no shifting or shadow of change. So the Holy Spirit, through these words, still calls the covenant assembly to give thanks to the Lord; and he does so on two grounds: one, who God is, and two, what God has done.
The First Ground of Thanksgiving: Who God Is
Verse 1 says, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.” That’s the first reason we owe God our thanksgiving: “he is good.” Now, when we think of God’s goodness we shouldn’t think of his goodness in very limited ways like we often do with people. For example, somebody might be a “good” carpenter or a “good” musician or a “good” doctor, while at the same time being morally wretched. When we say they’re “good,” we mean that in a very limited sense—they’re “good” insofar as the services they render; and more than that, they’re “good” only by comparison to other people. But when we speak of God’s goodness, there are no such limitations, because his goodness extends to his entire being, to his whole essence, to all of his perfections, and to all he does in relation to his creation. Moreover, being God means that he has no other competitors by whom we can measure his goodness; rather, who he is defines goodness, meaning all he is and all he does is worthy of our approval. And so the psalmist calls us to give thanks to the Lord, first of all, because he is good. His goodness is part of his God-ness.
The Second Ground of Thanksgiving: What God Has Done
But notice that he adds a second reason to the first for our thanksgiving, namely, “for his steadfast love endures forever.” In fact, he calls the entire assembly to acknowledge the Lord’s steadfast love, not only the nation of Israel and its priests—represented by those of Aaron’s household—but also all the non-Israelite converts who had gathered with them. Verse 2, “Let Israel say, ‘His steadfast love endures forever.’ Let the house of Aaron say, ‘His steadfast love endures forever.’ Let those who fear the LORD say, ‘His steadfast love endures forever.’” Everybody is being called to give thanks because of the Lord’s goodness and because of the Lord’s steadfast love. And the way the two are connected—his goodness and his steadfast love—is that the Lord’s steadfast love is how the Lord’s goodness has been displayed in relation to his covenant people. In other words, if you asked the worship leader of Psalm 118, “How do I know the Lord’s goodness in order to add my thanksgiving?” He would answer, “Look at the Lord’s steadfast love toward you.”
So what we see here, then, is that God’s goodness is way more than his moral perfections. God’s goodness is bound up with his promise-keeping, loyalty-revealing affection for his chosen people. God’s goodness, for which his people give thanks, is not merely some kind of abstract theological idea. No, the psalmist is saying God’s goodness is known and experienced and observable through God’s very tangible love for his covenant people. His goodness is no hidden secret; it’s been revealed through his loving acts of redemption, and we have a history to back it up. In fact, the worship leader in Psalm 118 goes on to illustrate it—to illustrate God’s steadfast love by recounting what God has done in the experiences of one royal servant in Israel. So he’s already grounded the call to give thanks in who God is—“he is good”—and now he’s further grounding the call to give thanks in what God has done—“his steadfast love endures forever.” God’s steadfast love isn’t stagnant or sluggish or passive. It acts mightily on behalf of his people.
1. God's Steadfast Love Rescues Us from Our Distress
To begin with, God’s steadfast love rescues us from our distress. The servant who called us to worship in verses 1-4 now gives his testimony in verse 5, “Out of my distress I called on the LORD.” And what kind of distress was he in? Verse 10, “All nations surrounded me;” verse 11, “they surrounded me, surrounded me on every side;” verse 12, “they surrounded me like bees [swarming bees];” verse 13, “I was pushed hard so that I was falling [that is, nearly dead].” The scene is one in which a mob of hostile nations are about to consume the servant. They are on the verge of swallowing him up. The enemies are swarming, circumstances are pressing, the snares of death are upon him, and yet the Lord hears the servant’s cry for help and rescues him.
Verse 5 says, “the Lord answered me and set me free.” Literally, “the Lord answered me with a spacious place;” his gift was an “open space.” Instead of the distress crushing the servant into an overwhelmingly narrow panic, the Lord provides freedom, peace, and security—a spacious place, an open field to roam. More than that, the Lord strengthens his servant such that he cuts off all his enemies. In fact, the image we get in verse 12 shows with what ease the Lord deals with the problem—“they went out [or were extinguished] like a fire among thorns.” I grew up around brush-country south Texas; a thorn bush goes up in a flash. The nations burned with rage against this servant, but their burning anger was short lived before the Lord. He snuffed them out. In a matter of seconds he put an end to them, much like the Lord turned Sodom and Gomorra into a heap of ashes (Gen 19:28), or drowned Pharaoh’s armies in the Red Sea (Exod 14:28), or swallowed Korah’s family members with the earth (Num 16:32), or flattened the walls of Jericho (Josh 6:20), or slew the giant, Goliath (1 Sam 17:49).
So, the Lord is where the servant places his confidence for rescue from his distress. The servant does not turn to the world for help when he’s in distress, but to the Lord for help (Ps 118:5). He bears the name of the Lord confidently in battle, and looks in triumph over those who hate him (118:7). He takes refuge in the Lord and not in man; he finds security in the Lord and not in the other princes of the land (118:8-9).
See Christ before Reading Yourself Into the Picture
Now, how easy it would be to start reading ourselves into the picture all too quickly here, as if to say this is how we normally respond in our distress—unshaken by the mounting stresses, utter confidence in the Lord’s might, cries looking for help in heaven, not placing our trust in anything else in this world; and so the Lord is bound by our allegiance to take care of that cranky boss or anyone else who crosses my political party or American dream. It’s easy to read the Psalm that way, because we too often have too high a view of ourselves and not an eye for Jesus Christ. You see, this psalm is first about God rescuing a specific servant in Israel—the one who is apparently leading God’s people into worship, calling us into thanksgiving (vv. 1-4, 28-29). He also has enough influence in Israel that he represents the nation in battle (vv. 8-13, 15). That’s why he can speak of all nations surrounding him (v. 10). He represents the people: to mess with Israel was to mess with him. We’re dealing with Israel’s anointed king, God’s chosen one to lead and represent his people.
The figure in Psalm 118 is very similar to the figure we see in Psalm 2, where “the kings of the earth set themselves [up], and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his anointed [one]” (Ps 2:1). The nations hate him, too, because of his loyalty to Yahweh and his will (cf. Ps 1:1-6); and so they gather around him in an attempt to defeat him and overthrow his throne and the hopes of the nation with it. If we take Psalm 118 in light of Psalm 2—and I think we should since it’s instructive on how to read the rest of the Psalms—this is no ordinary Israelite, but Israel’s chosen king. And if we pay any attention at all to his sufferings as well as his victories throughout the Psalms, what we find is that they actually set forth expectations that we ultimately find fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. The same is true in Psalm 118.
The experiences of the royal servant—both his distress and his victory—set forth an expectation that God would raise up a servant in Israel who was actually so loyal, who was actually this faithful, who was actually this brave, who was actually this willing to face the distress with such prayer and the enemies with such trust that God would rescue him. And sure enough, Acts 4 says that the nations gathered against Jesus at the cross, where he took on the ultimate enemies of sin, death, and the devil (4:25-26). Mark 14 tells us that Jesus became greatly distressed going to the cross; his soul was very sorrowful, even unto death (Mark 14:33-34). And then Mark tells us that he did not turn to the world for help, but fell to the ground and cried, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Jesus’ allegiance was to the Lord, his Father, alone and whatever his will was for him. And the Lord listened when he prayed, because three days after his bloody cross, where he bore the wrath of God, he walked out of the tomb victorious. Moreover, 1 Cor 15 tells us God sat him at the right hand of authority in heaven where he is now putting all his enemies beneath his feet (15:25-27).
God Rescues Us from Our Distress in His Anointed King, Jesus
That’s how the Lord rescues us from our distress. God rescued this servant in Psalm 118 from the distress of the nations, not only to teach Israel that he saves his people through his faithful, anointed king, but also to give them a hope that he would raise up such an anointed king—which the New Testament writers tell us he has in Jesus Christ. And whatever’s true of him is also true of the people he represents. If he is victorious not merely over nations, but over sin, death, and the devil, then so are the people who follow him. Talk about a spacious place—true freedom from our chief enemy within, sin, true peace with God, true security from the world and the devil’s temptations come to the one united to Jesus Christ. They come to the one who submits to his lordship, and who acknowledges with verse 6 that Yahweh is on his side.
Only when we recognize that Jesus alone has the right to assert that the Lord is on his side—because of his covenant loyalty—can any one of us say, “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” But once we treasure this about Jesus, we can say it every day with the same confidence the writer of Hebrews has in helping the church through persecution: “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” (Heb 13:6). When you treasure Jesus as your kingly representative before God, the one through whom God wins all the battles, Ps 118:6 belongs to you every hour. So, it makes complete sense that if God’s steadfast love rescues us from our distress—freeing us to take absolute confidence in him—then God’s steadfast love also produces worship.
2. God's Steadfast Love Produces Worshipers
That should be a second takeaway from this passage: God’s steadfast love produces worshipers. Here’s where we begin to see more clearly that the rescue of the servant back in verses 5-13 is actually a rescue that benefits the people he represents. Remember that only he prayed in verse 5 because of his distress and he appears to be the only one delivered by the end of verse 13. He’s even the lone voice in verse 14 that expresses worship: “The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.” But then, all of a sudden, “Glad songs of salvation are in the tents of the righteous,” verse 15 says. Praise for the Lord’s victory through the king has come into the entire assembly he represented in battle. His victory is their victory, and they rejoice. The image is one in which the king himself hears his people celebrating the Lord’s victory. The Lord had already become his strength and song; and now they’re all singing with him, “The right hand of the LORD does valiantly, the right hand of the LORD exalts, the right hand of the LORD does valiantly!”
Our Distresses Designed to Increase the Volume of Worship
But notice something of the diversity of worship in the next couple of verses. We’ve already seen singing with both the king and his people; but now we also get proclamation. He says in verse 17, “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the LORD.” It might be better translated, “I shall not die, for I shall live in order to recount the deeds of the Lord.” In other words, that’s why he’s alive—his “living” is described in terms joyfully recounting the Lord’s works, even the Lord’s use of his previous distresses to discipline him. Even that’s part of his proclamation. Verse 18, “The LORD has disciplined me severely, but he has not given me over to death.” Only a true worshiper, whose heart wholly belongs to the Lord, can respond this way. Don’t get me wrong, the distress nearly killed him; he was in the midst of falling. But his faithfulness through the distress has now opened his eyes to something new about it. The distress was never God’s rejection of him, but his discipline. In fact, it was designed to increase the volume of worship in the tents of the righteous. But even more than that, he could even take all of these worshipers and lead them right into the presence of God almighty.
3. God's Steadfast Love Leads Us into God's Presence
That’s the third takeaway: God’s steadfast love leads us into God’s presence. The Lord has rescued his royal servant from distress; and by so doing he’s also rescued his people from their distress and made them into true worshipers; now he’s going to lead them in great procession up to the “gates of the righteous” or what he also calls the “gate of the Lord” in verse 20. These gates were the temple gates, the entry way into the Lord’s presence, much like the gates to the outer courts of the tabernacle in the wilderness. Only the righteous—only those who were loyal to Yahweh—could enter these gates and enjoy his presence. We even see very similar gates on the city of the New Jerusalem in Rev 21: nothing unclean will ever enter through the city gates; but those who can enter are blessed beyond measure, wearing their washed robes and eating from the tree of life in God’s presence (Rev 21:27; 22:14). So the gates guarded the way to the presence of the Lord; you had to be righteous to enter. Verse 20 even says, “The righteous shall enter through it.” And here you have the king, returning through the city with a train of rescued worshipers following him, and he comes right up to the gates and commands them to open: “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD.” What kind of king speaks like that? Only one—only one who wants his people to enjoy the Lord’s presence. Only one who wants his people tasting of the Lord’s goodness day in and day out. Only one who’s willing to lay down his life in battle to see his people singing.
Verses 22-23 even tell us a bit of a parable of what kind of king speaks this way. He’s a king who was like “the stone that the builders rejected [but which] has become the cornerstone. This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” In other words, despite his adversity and his rejection—compared here to the builders tossing aside what they viewed to be an insignificant stone—the Lord actually uses his rejection to secure and establish his work, namely, to rescue a bunch of people in distress, change them into worshipers, and then bring them into his presence through the work of his kingly servant. The celebration only builds for the assembly in the rest of the chapter, mixing praise and prayer and blessing.
“This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save us, we pray, O LORD! O LORD, we pray, give us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD! [That’s the king and everybody who joins him!] We bless you from the house of the LORD. The LORD is God, and he has made his light to shine upon us. Bind the festal sacrifice with cords, up to the horns of the altar!”
Jesus Leads Us into God's Presence
Again, how could we overlook how this pictures the work of our Lord Jesus Christ in leading us into God’s presence? Like the stone the builders rejected, Jesus was rejected by men, even unto death on a cross. He was tossed aside even by his own people as a cursed criminal pretending to be their king. But because of his faithfulness to God in spite of the rejection, God raised Jesus from the dead and made him the chief cornerstone of the church. Jesus wasn’t rejected and crucified because there was anything truly wrong with him; rather, he was rejected and crucified because there was plenty that was truly wrong with us. He was loyal to the Lord; we were not. He was faithful to the covenant; we were not. He trusted in the Lord; we had not. He honored the Lord with his life; we did not. We deserved to die and suffer the wrath of God; he did not. But he willingly underwent the rejection, so that through his crucifixion, God would forgive all of our unrighteous, covenant unfaithfulness, and give to us all of his righteous, covenant faithfulness (2 Cor 5:21). He went to battle with sin and death, suffered the wrath of God in our place, and won, so that he might take us up to the gates of the city of God, shout “Open!” and they will open for us.
Brothers and sisters, this is how God’s steadfast love acted on our behalf; this is how we’ve observed his goodness displayed. In Christ we have tasted and seen that the Lord is good, that his steadfast love toward us is forever, because Christ’s victory over our sin, death, and the devil is forever. And when we follow Jesus as our King, nothing can ultimately stand against us; nothing can ultimately win out over the omnipotent grace of our Lord working through his kingly Servant. When God rescues you from your distress, when he makes you his worshipers, when he has done everything necessary to bring you into his holy presence—including giving up his own Son—then his love will never fail you for eternity. It is a loyal love, a certain love, a love that’s “vast as eternity,” as Isaac Watts once wrote. When Jesus is your king, God will always love you and welcome you into his presence. The life, death, and resurrection of his divine Son is so good, so thoroughly saving, so wrath-satisfying, so fellowship-with-God-winning, that God will always welcome you into his presence, both now as we lay hold of him by faith, and on the Last Day when we see him face to face. Give him thanks. Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!