Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 21, 2017

Psalm 66:8-20 Commentary

On this Sixth Sunday of the Easter season, Easter is frankly fading from our minds.  The trumpets are stored away, the lilies have long been consigned to the trash, and we’re moving on to Ascension Day and Pentecost.  So it’s a good thing to preach on Psalm 66 today, because it reminds us that every Sunday, indeed, every day is a celebration of Easter.  “Come and see what God has done (verse 5).”  “Come and listen … let me tell you what he has done for me (verse 16).”  God has done “awesome deeds (verse 3).”

What awesome deeds has God done for us?  “Praise our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard; he has preserved our lives and kept our feet from slipping (verse 9).”  After a time of terrible testing, God has “brought us to a place of abundance (verse 12).”  The early church recognized this as a Psalm about the passage from death to life.  That’s why some very early Greek and Latin manuscripts have inserted the word “Resurrection” into the superscription.

Psalm 66 is a Psalm of resurrection—not just Christ’s once for all Resurrection, but also the previous world changing resurrections in the salvation history of God’s people and the smaller but personally important resurrections we experience day after day.  The first half of the Psalm (verses 1-12) praises God for those nation making resurrections (the whole Exodus event from the Red Sea to the Jordan and perhaps the return from Exile), while the second half (verses 13-20) celebrates the life changing resurrection of one person whose prayers God answered.

Scholars make a big deal of the move from all the “we’s” of that first half to the “I’s” of the second, from the corporate to the individual.  Many claim that this points to the priority of the gathered people over the lone individual.  Psalm 66 is the corporate praise of the people of God in which the individual has a place.  Others assert, on the other hand, that the occasion for this Psalm was not first of all a regular time of worship, but a special occasion of personal salvation.

Either interpretation captures the genius of biblical religion; it is both intensely personal and inveterately corporate. God does act in individual lives, but the ancient child of God would never think of keeping her experience to herself.  She would always join with the rest of the saints and tell them/show them what God had done for her, so that all could praise God.

There is no place in biblical religion for the “spiritual but not religious” mentality of today’s “nones.”  Nor is there any place for my generation’s “religious but not spiritual.”  People with deeply spiritual experiences of God must gather with God’s people for worship, and people who regularly gather for worship must do so with a deeply personal spiritual focus. “Come and listen… let me tell you what he has done for me.”

Though the first part of our reading for today (verses 8-12) is about the corporate resurrection of God’s people in the Exodus or (more likely) the return from Exile, I’m going to focus on the Psalmist’s personal experience (as explained in verses 13-20).  “I was in trouble… I cried to him with my mouth… the Lord surely listened and heard my voice in prayer.  Praise be to God who has not rejected my prayer or withheld his love from me!”

We have many prayer services in the church—National Days of Prayer, special services of prayer in times of national crisis, times when the local church gathers because of a big problem in the life of that church.  How many times do we have an “Answered Prayer” service?  Psalm 66 is a perfect text for such a service, because it celebrates the way life begins anew when God answers prayer.  Whenever prayer is answered, we experience our own little Easter.

How should we celebrate those personal Easters when God answers our prayer with the miracle of new life?  We should speak directly to God with specific words of praise.  Verses 10-12 remind God of what God did for us.  Then verse 20 cries out, “Praise be to God….”  In other words, we must not forget to return to God with our praise and thanks.  How often have we been like those 9 lepers who did not return to Jesus to thank him for their personal resurrections? Before we walk off into the rest of our life, we must return to the God who has given us new life.  That’s a very personal thing.

But, according to the pattern of Psalm 66, we should not return alone.  We should “come to the temple” to offer a sacrifice of praise.  In this Psalm the Jewish writer expresses his praise and thanks in the form of burnt offerings.  The number of offerings listed in verse 15 indicates both the level of the Psalmist’s wealth and the magnitude of his gratitude.  He wants to “give of his best to the Master,” as the old Gospel song put it.  In the Old Testament those offerings were designed to purify the praise.  They were a God-ordered acknowledgment of the sinfulness of even the most sincere worshipper.

This side of the cross, of course, we don’t offer such sacrifices, because the sacrifice of Christ has washed us clean from all our sins.  But we still come to the Temple, the place where God’s people meet in the presence of the Lord, so that we can offer our sacrifice of thanksgiving in the presence of God’s people.

We do that, because we need the support and, perhaps even more, because they need to know what God has done.  Many people live with unanswered prayers a good deal of the time.  They wonder if prayer works, if God really answers.  They need to hear that he does.  If we don’t tell people that God actually gives new life in answer to prayers, how will they ever know (cf. Romans 10:14-17).

We need to be careful how we tell our story.  Such times of personal testimony can be triumphalistic and self-promoting and discouraging to those whose prayers are apparently unanswered.  So we must be sure to focus on God and God’s grace alone.  Most churches don’t actually allow time in worship for such testimony, so we’ll need to wrestle with how we would shape such an “Answered Prayer” service.

If you preach on Psalm 66 on this Sixth Sunday of Easter or at the kind of service I’ve suggested above, I urge you to give your sermon texture so that people can get a grip on it.  I found three things in the Psalm that are gnarly enough to keep people’s attention.

First, that business of testing in verses 10-12 is troubling and helpful.  That, as I’ve said before, is probably a reminder of the Egyptian bondage or the wilderness wandering or the Babylonian exile.  While human beings did terrible things to God’s people and natural forces added to their suffering, God was at work in those hard times purifying his people in the same way that a metallurgist makes gold and silver more precious by applying fire.

That is reminder to us in our individual lives.  When we pray to be delivered from hard situations, God may finally deliver us from them.  But in the meantime, he will use those situations to test us, so that in the end we will be better, purer, more able to enjoy the resurrections.

We need to be careful with this theme, but it is a very helpful ramification of the good news that God hears our prayers.  The theme of testing assures us that bad times are not merely an accident, totally out of God’s control.  Nor are they punishment by God for some sin we have committed; indeed, all our punishment has been poured out on Christ.  And such hard times should not lead us to reject God, because he only intends us good.  After he has tested us, he will release and restore and resurrect.  (Cf. I Peter 1:6-9 for the classic New Testament teaching on testing.)

Second, the Psalmist talks in verses 13 and 14 about fulfilling his vows.  Making vows is not something we talk about much today, aside from weddings. Indeed, most of us would be hesitant to promise anything to God as we pray for resurrection.  That feels like bargaining at least and bribery at worst.  But we often read about making vows in the Old Testament.  So we might challenge our listeners to think about that today.

What is the purpose of vows?  At the very least they are an indication that we are deadly serious about our prayers.  How often are our prayers the rote recitation of the same old things?  Making a vow ratchets things up.  We care enough about our prayers to promise God something when he answers.  We’ll make a sacrifice when he answers.  At least that is what the Psalmist’s vows amounted to: “I will sacrifice….”

What kind of sacrifice is fitting?  John Calvin said that we should never vow anything except what we know is God’s will. Think of that tragic Old Testament story about the king who vowed to sacrifice the next thing he saw, and what he saw next was his daughter.  So he fulfilled his vow, contrary to God’s will. Further, said Calvin, make sure that the only purpose of your vow is to show gratitude to God for his gracious answer.  Never use a vow to try to manipulate God.

Use this vow idea to challenge people to take their prayer seriously.  Expect God to answer.  And expect that you will respond with gratitude.  Indeed, promise yourself and God that you will.  This emphasis may help your listeners be more fervent and intentional about their prayers.

Finally, the Psalmist says a startling thing in verse 18.  “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” Can that be?  Not only would the Lord not have answered, but he also would not have listened to begin with.  Is this an often forgotten reason for unanswered prayer?  If so, we’d better figure out what it means to “cherish sin in my heart.”

This is surely not a warning that God doesn’t listen to sinners, because then all of us might as well forget about praying.  As Calvin so wisely put it, “In one sense God hears none but sinners; for we must all apply to him for the remission of our sins.”  That’s what verse 18 is talking about— clinging to our sins, clutching them close to our heart, rather than “applying to God for remission of our sins.”.

Calvin continues: “to ‘regard iniquity [his translation]’ does not mean to be conscious of sin—for all the Lord’s people must see their sins and be grieved for them, and this is rather praiseworthy than condemnable—but to be bent on the practice of iniquity.”  If we are bent on holding onto our sins, if sin is at the center of our hearts, if, in other words, we are not open to the grace of God, God will not listen to our prayers.  Except the prayer that changes everything, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Again, this does not mean that God only hears the prayers of perfect people.  It only points to the centrality of repentance and faith in our prayer life.  If we want to be raised from the dead, we must be willing to let go of the sin that kills us and cling to the Risen Christ.

Illustration Idea

From Tolkien’s Trilogy of the Rings comes the tragic figure of Gollum, the former Hobbit-like creature (called one of the “River People”) transformed into a miserable little monster by his fixation on the Ring of Power.  Can you see him huddled over the Ring, muttering, “My Precious, my Precious.”  That precious ring had ruined his life.


That’s what verse 18 is getting at.  When we huddle over our sin, treasuring it as something precious, holding it close to our heart, it will ruin our lives.  We need resurrection, but it won’t happen until we let go of the Ring.

Replace that picture of Gollum with Jesus’ picture of the Tax Collector in the far corner of the Temple, beating his breast in penitence.  He is crying for one simple thing, one precious thing.  “God be merciful to me a sinner.”  That very day he went down to his house justified.  It was a new beginning for him, his own little Easter.


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