Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 24, 2017
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 Commentary
We are now deeply into Ordinary Time on the liturgical calendar. During Ordinary Time we don’t celebrate any of the extraordinary Feasts of the Christian year; we simply walk along with the Incarnate God, the Crucified Jesus, the Risen and Ruling Christ by the power of the Spirit. Our reading for today speaks to one of the great crises of faith that nearly all Jesus followers will face at one time or another on our pilgrimage to the Promised Land—loss, the loss of something we held dear, whether person or position or property or, worst of all, the presence of God.
It is very likely that Psalm 105 was addressed to Israel as they struggled to make sense of the Exile, in which they lost everything, most notably the Land that had been promised to them from as far back as Abraham. That loss, of course, caused a great crisis of faith. Where is God in all this loss? How could this happen? What about the covenant promises God made so long ago? Has Yahweh forgotten us forever?
Psalm 105 addresses this crisis of faith by reminding Israel about how God had remembered his covenant promises. The Psalm does that not simply by abstract of statements about God’s faithfulness (verses 8-11), but more helpfully by retelling the story of how Israel had come into the land in the first place (verses 12-44). Covering centuries of history in just a few verses, this historical Psalm recites the five stages of covenant history from the Promise of the Land to the Possession of the Land.
We’ve already studied the Egyptian bondage and the plagues on Egypt in Psalm 105 (see the Sermon Commentaries for August 13 and September 3 on this website). Now here the Psalmist focuses on the actual leaving from Egypt, the wilderness wandering, and the possession of the land of Promise. The purpose of this history lesson is to help Israel “remember the wonders he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced,” so that they will praise him now and trust him for the future.
If Israel and we are to keep our faith intact when we deal with the great losses of life, we’ll have to focus on the main point Psalm 105 makes about our lives and our history, namely, that God is the main actor. God is sovereign. The Psalmist drives that point home by making God the subject of all the verbs in this recital of covenant history. Note the predominance of the pronoun “he.” Israel’s story is God’s story, the story of what Yahweh has done for his people in fulfillment of “his holy promise given to his servant Abraham (verse 42).”
This is the great claim of biblical religion, whether Jewish or Christian. Our God acts in history, whether in the way Psalm 105 recites for Israel or in the way the Gospels recite for Christians. Of course, humans have a role in their own story. Psalm 106 (the “non-identical twin of Psalm 105”) teaches that in a purely negative way. Israel has landed in Exile because it forgot the God who never forgets them.
But Israel cannot get itself out of Exile, back into the Land, or back into God’s good graces. The wording of Psalm 105 absolutely subverts every human claim to sovereignty, power, and privilege. We cannot save ourselves. Only the God who brought Israel into the Promised Land by the Exodus can bring Israel back into the Land from the Exile. And only that God can save us through the work of Christ in history. That emphasis on God’s sovereign grace in historical acts is the only thing that can help us survive the great losses of life.
But, as I said a moment ago, Psalm 105 helps us with our losses not only with high doctrinal statements about divine sovereignty, but also with the story of what God did for Israel. The most brilliant scholar may struggle with the concept of sovereignty, but even a sad little child can understand the story of how God “brought out Israel… spread out a cloud as a covering and a fire to give light at night… brought them quail… [and] the bread of heaven… opened a rock, and water gushed out… [and] gave them the lands of the nations….”
Notice how this Psalm comforts a grieving people who have lost so much. It emphasizes how completely God provides for the needs of his people. When Israel came out of Egypt, they would have had nothing to take with them, because they had been a slave people. But God provided for them richly, by moving the Egyptians to give them their treasures. So God “brought out Israel, laden with silver and gold.”
And, notwithstanding Pharaoh’s abortive last ditch attempt to get his free help back, Egypt was so thoroughly disheartened by the Ten Plagues that they “were glad when [Israel] left, because the dread of Israel had fallen on them.” In other words, God didn’t just save them a little bit, by the skin of their teeth, so to speak. He delivered them completely, so that their lives were full and free (think John 10:10). In an unimaginable way, God had utterly transformed the lives of his people by his sovereign grace.
But then came the wilderness, that vast and howling expanse of nothingness that made Israel long for the good old days of slavery. Even there, however, God provided for their every need: protection by the cloud that covered them like Harry Potter’s invisibility cape, guidance through the darkness by that pillar of fire, sustenance in the barrenness of the desert by the gift of quail and manna and water, and success in the wars of conquest that gave them a fully developed new home where “they fell heir to what others had toiled for….” To a people who had nothing, God provided everything. As Paul would put it many years later, “my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory forever and ever (Phil. 4:19 and 20).”
That’s the message of Psalm 105 to people who wonder where God is in their time of terrible loss—not an attempt at theodicy, but a simple retelling of what God has done for his people in the past. It is a firm reminder that he did all those miraculous signs and wonder because “he remembered his holy promise” (verse 42) and he always does (verse 8). So remember him, and praise him, and trust him, even when it seems that all is lost.
Oh yes, and obey him. That’s the surprise ending to Psalm 105. All of God’s saving actions on behalf of Israel were aimed at their obedience—“that they might keep his precepts and observe his laws (verse 45).” It is not enough to remember and rejoice in what God has done. We must also do something in response. No, this is not some tit for tat, quid pro quo deal making. It is the plan of God for saving not only Israel, but also through Israel the whole world.
God told Abraham this very thing from the very beginning when he entered covenant with that pagan, wandering Aramaean. Not only will I make you a great nation, but also “all the nations on earth will be blessed through you (Gen. 12:3).” Of course, the ultimate fulfillment of that promise would be through the ministry of Abraham’s greatest Seed, Jesus Christ. But in a penultimate way, Israel was chose to be a witness to the nations, a testimony to the greatness of the one God, a light in the darkness of a fallen world, a beach-head for the kingdom of God in a rebellious world. (Cf. Exodus 19:5 and 6, Isaiah 42:6,7, 49:6, 52:10 for samples of Israel’s “Great Commission.”)
Israel would be all of that by demonstrating how life could and should be lived by the grace of God. Rather than overwhelm the world with his glory and power, God started small in his campaign to overcome sin and save the world—with one man, one family, one little nation. He created a “colony of obedience, an enclave of those who represented and displayed his reign.” (James Luther Mays) In the words of Jesus, they were a “city set on a hill, a light set on a bushel,” so that “men may see your good works and glory your Father who is in heaven.”
Of course, Israel failed in that mission, as do we. That’s why God finally sent Abraham’s Seed, the quintessential Israelite, whose work was to obey the will of his Father in heaven, and thus do what we did not and cannot do. Psalm 105 reminds us to remember how God’s sovereign grace has redeemed us, rejoice in God’s miraculous acts in history, and respond with lives of consistent obedience.
That last point is necessary to make, even when we’re grieving losses, perhaps especially then. Yes, God will remember his promises and supply all of our needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. But we must remember that we have a purpose here on earth. It’s not all about us. It’s about God’s glorious purpose of saving a lost world. And the way we live, even in our sorrow, is a key part of that plan.
Here’s how Paul put it in Titus 2:11-14. “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passion, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify himself a people who are his very own, eager to do what is good.”
All of the talk about Exodus in Psalm 105 reminded me of this year’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Underground Railroad. It re-tells the story of the historical Underground Railroad that enabled many slaves to escape their captors in the Nineteenth Century. The interesting twist in the novel is the author’s imagining that there was an actual railroad that ran underground from south to north.
The slaves who ride that railroad are let off at various places along their way to eventual freedom. At each stop, life seems to be a little better as they move north, but then the fugitive slaves discover that the cruelty of slavery has simply morphed into something more subtle than, but just as horrible as they had encountered further south. Even when they reach a tranquil and prosperous enclave of former slaves who have built their own little town, they discover that hatred and bigotry can still devastate their lives. A white mob destroys the community and the slaves lose everything.
The Underground Railroad is a heart-breaking book, and it provides a stark contrast to the complete salvation God provided for Israel through the Exodus and for us through the cross. Its story of stubborn and systemic injustice should encourage us to promote the Kingdom of God by being a beacon of grace and truth and obedient love toward all who are enslaved.
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