Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 15, 2017
Psalm 40:1-11 Commentary
“The correct ‘voice’ for Psalm 40 is not in doubt,” says Patrick Henry Reardon in his Christ in the Psalms. “We know from Hebrews 10 that these are words springing from the heart of Christ our Lord and have reference to the sacrificial obedience of his Passion and death.” That may be ultimately true and finally helpful in applying the words of Psalm 40 to our lives, but beginning with that conclusion skips over many centuries and a lot of existential angst. So before we get to Christ, let’s dwell in Psalm 40 for a while. That will help us get to Christ better.
This Psalm of David begins with praise for past mercies (verses 1-5), continues with a testimony of the King’s response to that mercy (verses 6-10), but then concludes with a passionate plea for help (verses 11-17). The Lectionary reading inexplicably ends just as the prayer for deliverance is beginning, which could keep a preacher from noticing one of the most remarkable and helpful features of this Psalm. Psalm 40 reverses the order of most Psalms, which begin with trouble and end with praise for deliverance from that trouble. That is a satisfying order; that’s how I like books and movies and the chapters of my life to end– with a resolution of the problem. I love comedy much more than tragedy.
But Psalm 40 begins with praise and ends with a plea to God to come and help, and to do it quickly. That order is not as satisfying, but it is more like real life. One remarkable act of rescue with subsequent praise is not the end of the story, ever. Before the day is over, there is more trouble again, and again. Psalm 40 reminds us that it is to Yahweh that we must turn in trouble as well as in joy, when we’re in the pit and when we’re on the peak.
That transition from pit to peak is precisely where Psalm 40 opens. It doesn’t take much imagination to feel the Psalmist’s former distress. If we take his words literally, he had been cast into an old cistern, like Joseph, where there was just enough rank water to make the bottom a soggy, slimy, muddy mess. And there was no getting out, no exit (as Jean Paul Sartre put it in one of his desperate plays). Or is the Psalmist using that figure of speech to describe some other experience of hell on earth? We can’t be sure, but we do know how he responded.
All the Psalmist could do was scream for help. The NIV translates verse 1 as “I waited patiently,” but the Hebrew doesn’t paint a picture of a man calmly twiddling his thumbs as he passively sinks into the mire. Rather the original language speaks of intense hope, of passionate pleading from the bottom of that pit. And, says the Psalmist, God heard and did something. In language that sounds remarkably like the story of the Exodus (Exodus 3), we hear verb after verb describing Yahweh’s saving activity: he turned to me (or bent down), he heard my cry, he lifted me up, he set my feet upon a rock, he gave me a firm place to stand, he put a new song in my mouth. What a marvelous description of salvation. God can deliver us from hell where we scream with despair and place us in heaven where we sing for joy. No wonder the Psalmist wanted to memorialize that experience with a “hymn of praise to our God.”
Note that first person plural in verse 3. We hear it again in verse 5, where the Psalmist talks about the “things you planned for us….” That prepares us for verses 9 and 10, where the Psalmist deliberately turns to the “great assembly” of God’s people to tell his story and invite the congregation to join him in his praise. I’ll say a bit more about those last verses later, but for now it is important to note that he turns from his purely personal experience of salvation to the hoped-for effect on the whole community.
David tells his story of deliverance in the hope that “many will see and fear and put their trust in Yahweh.” We ought to preach on that expectation today. One of the reasons the church is so weak and flabby and the world so hard and closed is that believers don’t talk enough in public about their private experiences of being rescued out of the pit and put on a peak. We often wonder how we can fulfill the Great Commission, feeling ill-equipped to share the Gospel. But nearly all of us have a story to tell, a story that will bless people.
Interestingly, that blessing is exactly what the Psalmist turns to next, giving us another of the Beatitudes that beautify the Psalms. It speaks precisely of an unbelieving world, of the proud (meaning the arrogantly self-confident person), even of those who turn aside to false gods. How can we possibly break through that worldly self-sufficiency and that pagan religion? By telling the real life stories of how God delivered us. The blessing we have received and shared may well move the unbeliever to “make the Lord his trust.”
But that change in others is off in the future. Right now the Psalmist has experienced a profound and perplexing change in his own life (verses 6-8). Not only have his feet been pulled out of the miry pit and place on the solid rock, but his ears have been opened and his heart has been strangely warmed. I say that this change is perplexing in part because of the way these words are attributed to Christ (with important changes in translation) in Hebrews 10:5-10. These words are also perplexing because it is very difficult to know exactly what some of them mean, especially verse 6b. Those words about ears could refer to the ancient practice of piercing the ear of a servant to indicate his lifelong commitment to his master. Or they could mean that God has dug a new canal in the Psalmist’s ear, so to speak, that enables him to hear God’s Word better.
Either meaning would fit the Psalm, but the way Hebrews 10 uses these words pushes me toward that latter interpretation. All three of these verses are about the Psalmist’s surprising response to God’s saving grace. Rather than offering an animal sacrifice, as the grateful often do in Psalms of thanksgiving, David expresses his determination to obey Torah with a willing heart. What God wants from the redeemed is not conventional religion, but new obedience to his will. And not just surface obedience, but heartfelt obedience, obedience that is born of a deep desire to do God’s will. Here is a point to press upon our listeners and take to heart ourselves. When we have experienced God’s redemptive power and love in our lives, we should be delighted to do God’s will from the heart.
Further, we should be eager to share our testimony with the rest of God’s people, who perhaps have not had such an experience. Now, we have to be careful how we do that. I have heard testimonies in which far too much time was devoted to the “miry pit” part of the experience, to what life was like before God intervened. And I’ve heard testimonies to God’s grace that were really testimonies about the faith of the one delivered. They were filled with that awful word, “I.” Psalm 40:9-10 is a model of how to give a testimony in the great assembly. You focus on God. Note how the Psalmist uses words associated throughout the Old Testament with the Gospel: righteousness, faithfulness, salvation, love and truth. That’s what I will proclaim—your righteousness, your faithfulness, your salvation. I will not hide what you have done. I will go public and tell how your love and truth have delivered me.
On that high note our reading from Psalm 40 almost ends, but for some inexplicable reason the Lectionary goes on to verse 11, where the tone changes decidedly (unless we read the verbs not as a prayer, but as a statement of fact). That is a grammatical possibility, but the verses that follow are a clear indication that verse 11 is a prayer for deliverance, much like the one we heard in verses 1 and 2. After singing God’s praises, dedicating his life to obeying God’s will, and testifying in church, the Psalmist is once again plunged into trouble, troubles without number that seem to overwhelm all the wonders the Lord has previously done (verse 5). As I said above, this is exactly what happens in our lives again and again. So we can’t leave Psalm 40 without at least a glance at verse 11 and what follows.
What follows is another desperate prayer for deliverance. Given his heartfelt desire to do God’s will, it is incredible that the Psalmist should say “my sins have overtaken me.” But isn’t that just like us, again. Even the most committed person is “prone to wander… to leave the God we love.” Often our troubles are of our own making. But the trouble caused by the Psalmist’s own sin has been exacerbated by the foes who surround him. Appealing to God’s justice, the Psalmist begs God to visit the sins of his enemies upon them and to grant salvation to the righteous (verses 14-16). He ends where he began, as a poor and needy person crying for help and deliverance. And, says the man who “waited patiently” for the Lord, make it snappy; “O my God, do not delay.” How like me!
The way this Psalm ends points us to the Christological interpretation with which I began this piece. Our ever-recurring cycle of deliverance followed by dedication followed by depravity followed by desperation followed by deliverance finds its final resolution in the once for all sacrifice of Christ. As Hebrews 10 says, even our best efforts to save ourselves will always fail. Even the most faithful observance of Torah cannot save, “because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin.” (Heb. 10:4) In the very next verse of Hebrews 10, Psalm 40:6-8 are put in the mouth of Christ, proving that only the obedience of Christ can make us holy in the deepest sense. “And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” Once and for all, by his obedience and death, Jesus delivers us from our sins, from our enemies, and from the slimy pit.
Psalm 40 shows us how to praise God for his deliverance, how that deliverance should affect our lives, how we should share our experience with others, and how we should react when our mountaintop experiences inevitably leads to a disastrous slide back into the pit. But most of all, it tells us that our up and down experiences of sin and grace are ultimately redeemed by the once for all sacrifice of Christ. Even when we try to rely only on the Lord, when we try to obey the Lord gladly from the heart, when we try to give testimony to the Lord’s deliverance, we will always slip and fall. But Jesus never fails. He has done once and for all what we can never do. Thanks be to God.
The idea of going public with our experience of grace should resonate with our congregations, because we live in a culture where going public is often a negative thing. WikiLeaks goes public with embarrassing emails. Women abused by powerful men go public with their accusations. People go public with news of their sexual orientations and activities. Often we wince at these public revelations. We long for a good word about God spoken in public.
I’ll never forget a man who told me about his experience of God’s grace. He was an intensely private man, a man who never expressed his emotions– not his faith in Christ, not even love for his family. Indeed, they were estranged by his cold and distant demeanor. But when his wife fell terribly ill and was hospitalized for a length of time, he was deeply worried about her. He prayed fervently that she would be healed.
As he prayed, he heard God say, “She will be just fine.” He was startled. He had never had a direct experience of grace like that, even though he was a lifelong believer. He told me about it with tears in his eyes, repeating over and over, “I’ve never had an experience like that.”
But he never told his family; he never went public, even in private with them. And they never got close to him. One day in the depths of depression, he took his own life. I wonder what would have happened if he had told them what he told me. Thank God that Jesus’ once for all sacrifice covered all his sins, including the sin of despair.
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