Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 5, 2017
Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37 Commentary
Though it is the first Psalm in Book V of the Psalter, Psalm 107 seems to be a continuation of the historical Psalms that ended Book IV, the end of a trilogy that includes Psalm 105 and 106. All these Psalms sing the praises of the God who acts in history for his people. Psalm 107 may be the liturgical exclamation point of the trilogy. It is full of indications that it was intended to be used in worship, probably at one of Israel’s great festivals. There are repeated patterns and standardized calls to give thanks. Indeed, the opening words, “Give thanks to the Lord,” might be called the text for the liturgical sermon, followed by examples that illustrate why we should give thanks. Instead of teaching a principle in a didactic way, Psalm 107 moves our emotions with gripping stories.
All of the stories have one main point, announced in the theme text. “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good….” But what does Yahweh’s goodness consist in? It could be his moral purity, or his beauty, or his usefulness, or his justice, because Yahweh is good in all those ways. But the dimension of God’s goodness that always moves God’s people to the highest praise and deepest thanks is his chesed; “his love endures forever.” No matter what happens to us, no matter what we do, no matter how dire our situation or depraved our sin, “his love endures forever.” He will not break covenant with his people.
That is the great truth that stood at the center of Israel’s faith. But true as it may be, the mere repetition of that truth won’t move us to thanksgiving and praise. That’s why Psalm 107 tells these stories of people had lived through hard time and had actually seen Yahweh’s chesed at work in their lives. Each of these stories follows the same pattern, an almost ritualized pattern, pointing to the liturgical purpose of Psalm 107. Whether it is the story of people wandering in the desert (4-9), living in foreign bondage (10-16), dying on a bed of illness (17-22), or suffering through a storm at sea (23-32) each story is told in the same way: a description of their distress, a prayer to the Lord, the details of their deliverance, and a call to give thanks for that deliverance. You can almost hear the gathered congregation repeating the words of thanks in unison.
Indeed, the Psalm opens with an invitation to do just that. “Let the redeemed of the Lord say this.” Or, “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so.” That is either an invitation to repeat the following words; here is the pattern of your praise. Or it is a call to speak up, to shout it out, not to sit in stoic silence, but to sing your thanks. Indeed, Psalm 107:2a was used as a theme text in my taciturn Dutch Reformed tradition when we finally awoke to our evangelistic responsibility. “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so; tell your story, speak up for Jesus.”
It was a good text for us quiet Calvinists, but it was originally addressed to the Israelites who had returned from the Babylonian Captivity. The “redeemed” congregation is identified as “those he redeemed from the hand of the foe, those he gathered from the lands, from east and west, from north and south.” The fact that Jesus used the same points of the compass in Luke 13:29 suggest that Christians can use Psalm 107 in our celebrations of God’s love too. “People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the Kingdom of God.”
Our Lectionary Reading for today focuses on the first representative sample of the Redeemed, those who had “wandered in desert wasteland….” Obviously, that could be a reference to Israel’s post-Exodus wilderness experience, but given the context here it is probably a memory of the journey back from Babylon through the vast Arabian desert. But this description could also fit any believer who has ever felt lost in a “dry and weary land.”
Though hunger and thirst threatened life in a physical way, the heart of their distress was that they couldn’t find a “way to a city where they could settle.” God always provided food and water to Israel in the Sinai Wilderness, but they remained homeless, landless, without a permanent dwelling where they could root their lives.
The yearning of the human heart for a dwelling place, a home, a city goes all the way back to Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden. The promise of a return to Eden is at the heart of the covenant God made with Abraham, the father of all believers. Hebrews 11:9 and 10 summarizes the hope of that covenant in these words. “By faith [Abraham] made his home in the promised land, like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” Is it any wonder that the Bible ends with the redeemed living in the city of God, the New Jerusalem, described with unparalleled beauty in Revelation 21 and 22? The redeemed in Psalm 107 were looking for a city as they wandered in a wilderness, just like the rest of us.
Like all the other redeemed groups in Psalm 107, these wilderness wanderers finally did the right thing. Rather than simply complaining or cursing, “they cried out to the Lord in their trouble.” That very sentence is found in each of the four stories of Psalm 107 (6, 13, 19, 28). It seems so simple and so obvious, but we all know that it is neither. When we get stuck in trouble, we can get so focused on the trouble that we forget the Lord.
James Luther Mays explains this sentence in a way that should give us all pause. “What sets the chesed of the Lord in motion in every case is the cry to the Lord in trouble.” That may sound too much like “prosperity gospel” to folks who believe in the absolute sovereignty of God, but it is exactly what the text says. “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.” That’s something we can sit and think about until our heads ache. Or it is something to simply give thanks for, as Psalm 107 calls us to do.
Verse 7 validates my comments above about the centrality of city. The Lord responded to Israel’s cry for deliverance not just with food and drink, but with a city. In other words, he didn’t just meet the immediate needs of his children; he took care of their larger, long term needs. They needed a place where they could settle down, raise their own crops and tend their own livestock, and have a dependable means of making a living. As verse 9 puts it, he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things. But he does that not with food and drink dropped from the sky and flowing from a rock (though he did that once, for a long time), but with a city where they could settle.
Notice how the Psalmist puts it. “He led them by a straight way….” It wasn’t just that Israel was in a wilderness; it was even more that they were wandering in circles. They were lost; they didn’t know the way. So, in words reminiscent of Isaiah 40, he led them by a straight way. This is something to be thankful for. Even when we are utterly lost, the Lord can “make straight in the wilderness a highway for the Lord. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low, the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all mankind together will see it (Isaiah 40:3-5).”
The Lectionary leaves off the end of this story, and that’s too bad, because verses 8 and 9 echo the point of the Psalm. When Yahweh hears your prayer and redeems you from trouble, there’s one thing you should do above all else. “Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love, and his wonderful deeds for men.” Again, this is clearly a liturgical refrain to be repeated by the congregation, as it is found in each story in exactly these words.
The words of this refrain remind us that God’s unfailing love is not just an idea or an attribute; it is an action. As I’ve said ad nauseam in these articles, at the heart of biblical religion is the conviction that Yahweh acts in history. We give him thanks because he has “performed wonderful deeds for men (and women and children, of course).” Intervention, interruption, incarnation are the center of our faith.
The God we worship is the great Reverser of Fortune. That is the point of the second half of our Lectionary reading for today. Verses 33-38 are a kind of summary of the way God acts in human history. These verses sound more like wisdom literature than the narrative that occupies most of Psalm 107. Reflecting back on God’s actions in history, particularly in the wilderness, the Psalmist arrives at some generalizations about what God does. He turns things upside down, reversing the natural course of things. He turns rivers into deserts for the wicked and turns deserts into pools of water for the righteous.
Do not think that we make our own fortunes, says the wise man. Yes, we play a role in our own destiny, but ultimately it is God who lifts one up and puts another down. But it takes wisdom to see that. Thus, Psalm 107 ends with a call to think wisely about human experience. And that means, think about God’s role in human history as previously outlined in this Psalm. “Whoever is wise, let him heed these things and consider the great love of the Lord.”
It’s almost as though the Psalmist is saying to Israel, “Give thanks to the Lord,” but don’t stop with thanks. You also have to think. Yes, thinking without thanking can led to sterile emotionless faith that never grows close to God. But thanking without thinking can led to mindless emotionalism that is blown away with the first problems that challenges your faith. Thus, Psalm 107 is not only an exaltation of chesed; it is also an exposition of it. We need both.
Somewhere in your sermon or in a liturgical response to it, you simply must use that grand old hymn, “Now Thank We All Our God.” It puts the poetry of Psalm 107 to soaring music.
Above I gave two readings of the phrase, “let the redeemed of the Lord say this/so.” Here’s another way to picture that call. The Psalmist is priming the pump of thanksgiving. You might need to explain that image to children. Back in the olden days when people got water out of a well by vigorously pumping a big iron handle, sometimes they had to pour a bucket of water down the well to get the water flowing. That was called priming the pump. Or to put it another, more modern way, Psalm 107 is designed to jumpstart the engine of thanksgiving. When your car won’t start of a frigid morning, you can use a set of jumper cables to connect your dead battery to a battery of a car that is already running. The current from the good battery will get your dead battery started. Or, to use an analogy that even little ones will get, Psalm 107 reboots the computer of thanksgiving. When your computer is not working right and you’ve tried everything to fix it, sometimes the best thing to do is turn it off and restart it. That’s called rebooting, and it often gets the computer working again. For folks who are a dry well of thanksgiving, or who have a dead battery when it comes to thanksgiving, or who have a malfunctioning computer of thanksgiving, Psalm 107 primes the pump, jumpstarts the battery, and reboots the computer. Corny? You bet, but the imagery just might help your folks grasp the point of this great Psalm.
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