READ : Psalm 116:1-19
What might cause you to feel grateful to God, so grateful you couldn’t help but sing out your thanks? How about a miraculous deliverance from certain death? If that wouldn’t make you thankful, nothing would!
Psalm 116 is a song of thanks, written by a man who had a lot to be thankful for. It has all the marks of a spontaneous testimony, rather than a studied composition. This psalmist doesn’t sing so much as he gushes; his words pour out as naturally as if we were standing beside him in the Temple courtyard, listening to his testimony about what God has done for him. And what God has done has made this man more thankful than he can say.
THANKFUL FOR WHAT?
What would make you thankful? A close brush with death would do that, wouldn’t it? At least it should. To have your life obviously and miraculously spared when it was sure to be lost; well, that would probably rank pretty high on most people’s list of reasons for feeling grateful to God. It certainly did for the man who wrote the song of thanks we call the 116th Psalm. This is his personal testimony of how God has rescued him from the grip of certain death. The psalmist wastes no time in telling everybody how he feels: “I love the Lord, [because] he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy” (v. 1, niv). And then he proceeds to describe what has happened to him.
He starts with the desperate situation he had been in: “The ropes of death were wrapped around me. The horrors of the grave came over me. I was overcome by trouble and sorrow” (v. 3, NIrV). The psalmist doesn’t specify what sort of trouble and sorrow had overcome him. Most likely it was a serious illness that had brought him to the brink of the grave. He speaks of it with vivid imagery: death had captured him. It had tied him up. It had wrapped its cords around him until he was trapped completely in death’s grip with no hope of escape. He could imagine his own grave yawning open to swallow him up, and it horrified him. This wasn’t just a man who was in some danger, or who faced the possibility of dying. Death had him by the throat. It was so close he could smell its putrid breath. He was finished, and he knew it. And he was helpless and terrified in the face of his own imminent destruction.
So this man did what most of us would do in his case. He threw out a desperate cry to God for help. His prayer was brief and to the point: “Then I called out to the Lord. . . . ‘Lord, save me!’” (v. 4, NIrV). Whenever a pilot has an emergency in the air, his radio call is, “May-day! May-day!” It’s the international distress signal, the same everywhere in the world. It is said that those words come originally from a French phrase that sounds just like them, and means “Help me!” That was what the early French Canadian canoemen – the voyaguers – shouted when they got in trouble in rough water. Well, that’s exactly what the psalmist’s prayer was – it was a “May-day.” In his panic and fear he was crying out to God for emergency help.
Many of us have prayed “emergency” prayers like that. I know I have. You probably have too. We throw them up because there’s no other alternative. You might even be embarrassed to do it, because maybe you’re not normally a praying person. But desperation is much stronger than embarrassment. When we find ourselves in a spot as tight as the psalmist’s we’re too scared not to pray.
So pray he did, and a most amazing thing happened. God heard him, and saved him. God answered this man’s prayer, and saved his life. He restored him to health again. Maybe the psalmist didn’t deserve to have his prayer answered. Maybe he didn’t even expect to have it answered. But answered it was, and that’s what made him want to sing.
The Lord is gracious and righteous;
our God is full of compassion. . . .
when I was in great need, he saved me.
Be at rest once more, O my soul,
for the Lord has been good to you.
For you, O Lord, have delivered
my soul from death,
my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling,
that I may walk before the Lord
in the land of the living.
(vv. 5-9, niv)
The Lord heard the psalmist’s desperation cry, and gave him the help he needed. God answered, God acted, and as a result, the psalmist was healed. Death may have been all around him, rapidly closing in, but God stepped in and now suddenly this man is well. He’s alive again. Think of it -alive! He can see the sunshine on a warm spring day, feel the breeze on his face, smell the good earth and the sweetness of new growth. He can hug his kids and listen to their happy chatter. He can sit with his grandchildren on his lap, or hold his wife’s hand. He can sing a song, enjoy a meal, go fishing, take a walk, work in the garden, listen to music, taste ice cream, relax in his arm-chair, read a book, talk to a friend. You don’t have to nearly lose your life to be thankful for all those simple gifts, but it helps. It helps us realize that it’s life itself which is the greatest gift of all. We don’t need wealth; just to be alive is to be rich beyond measure. That’s what this man has learned all over again. No wonder he sings.
HOW CAN I SAY THANKS?
But he does more than that. The psalmist also wants to thank God for what he has done, for the marvelous gift of life that has been restored to him. Part of the charm of the Psalms is that they don’t take much account of secondary causes. Everything is attributed directly to God. We recognize that God ordinarily chooses to work through secondary means in accomplishing his will. He operates through intermediaries -through nature or through people -to effect his purposes for the world and for our lives. So his care comes to us through our families, his truth through pastors or teachers, his healing through medical treatment, his judgment through war or natural disaster.
Most of the time we focus on those secondary causes. “God heals,” goes one of Benjamin Franklin’s sayings, “but the physician takes the fee.” And if there is no obvious person or thing to credit, we call it good luck. But with the Psalms, it’s just the opposite. They credit everything directly to God himself. He is the one who deserves the thanks. When you walk away from a car wreck, it wasn’t the air bag that saved you; it was God. When the operation is successful, it wasn’t the surgeon’s skill that healed you. When you go into remission from cancer, it wasn’t the chemotherapy. It was God. When you sit down to a fine dinner in your own home, it isn’t the supermarket or the farmers who supplied your food. It isn’t your employer or the government who provide for your needs; it isn’t even your strength or ability or hard work; it’s God you have to thank for everything. That’s the biblical view of things.
Our song writer recognizes this basic truth about God’s primary role; in his case, God’s primary role in healing. Now he wants to know what he can do to express his gratitude to God for that wonderful gift. “The Lord has been so good to me! How can I ever pay him back?” asks the psalmist in verse 12 (NIrV). “How can I say thanks for the things you have done for me?”
Our biblical singer wants to do more than just say thanks to God, however. He wants to show his thanks. He wants to do something for God, give something to God. Words alone aren’t enough for him. “How can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me?” he asks (v. 12, niv). And he answers his own question with three statements.
First, “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord” (v. 13, niv). This is the language of worship. The psalmist decides that he will become a true worshiper of God. “Foxhole religion” isn’t enough for him. He doesn’t want to call on God’s name only when he’s in desperate trouble; he wants a continuing relationship with the Lord afterwards. He’s determined to keep praying after the crisis has passed. Before this man tries to give anything back to God, he wants to take something more – something that he calls “the cup of salvation.” That cup isn’t the psalmist’s gift to God; it is God’s further gift to him. So he starts his thanks by receiving even more to be thankful for. This cup of salvation is a symbol. It represents God’s very best gift, better than healing, better than health, better than life itself – his grace-filled love that reaches out to touch us and heal our souls as well as our bodies. So this man experiences God’s salvation in its fullest sense: physically, emotionally, spiritually – salvation from sin. He takes all that from the Lord and enters into an ongoing relationship of worship with him. Here’s something to think about. If God has blessed you, if God has given you something you really needed, if he has answered your desperate cry for help, then be sure that you have also received all that he has to offer, including the gift of his own saving love.
Second, the psalmist says thank you to God this way: “I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people” (vv. 14,18, niv). He pledges himself to keeping the promises that he has made. Maybe you’ve done something like that. When you were in the deepest kind of trouble, you made a vow to the Lord. “God, if you only help me, if you just get me out of this, I promise I’ll . . . . “ You’ll what? Never do that again? Be faithful to him for the rest of your life? Turn your life around and start to go straight? Give the Lord all the glory? Offer yourself to his service? It’s not necessarily wrong to pray like that, though I don’t think we should get into the habit of thinking we can bargain with the Almighty. But it’s okay to make a special vow to the Lord. The thing is, if you do that, just be sure to keep it.
The third way the psalmist expresses his gratitude is by giving. “I will offer you a sacrifice to show how grateful I am, and I will pray” (v. 17, cev). The Old Testament book of Leviticus describes the rules for personal offerings, such as the one the psalmist is talking about here. Any individual who so wished could bring a gift of money or of meat, bread, grain or oil to provide for the priests, the temple workers and their families. A gift given to God as an expression of gratitude for a particular blessing was called a thank offering. It was intended as a way of expressing gratitude to God for his goodness, but these gifts were actually used to help people. Since God has no need himself for anything we have, he is pleased to accept what we offer to meet the needs of others as if it was given to him.
I like a saying of the famous American football coach, Woody Hayes: “You can’t pay back, you can only pay forward.” How can I say thanks to the Lord for all the things he has done for me? I can’t ever pay him back. But I can keep my promises to him. I can worship him, with all the love and gratitude I have. And I can pay forward, by sharing the physical and spiritual blessings God has given me with those who don’t have as much. Those who have been given much should love much, not just in word and speech, but in deed and in truth (1 John 3:18).
Don’t you agree?