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Thank God!

Tom Pennington • Psalm 107

  • 2005-11-27 AM
  • Sermons


This morning, I would like for us to leave our study of James for this week as we partake of the Lord's Table. I would like for us to turn instead to one of my favorite psalms, Psalm 107.

I love Wednesdays, in fact, it is probably my favorite day of the week next to the Lord's Day. Because on Wednesday I get to get up early, go to my home office, and lock myself away all day to study. I come out for a brief breakfast and a brief lunch. Other than that, I am there from probably 6 in the morning until about 5 or 5:30 in the evening, preparing for Sunday morning usually.

This past Wednesday as I was studying for this message that I am going to present to you this morning, Jessica, my three year old daughter, came breathlessly running into my office. Tears were streaming down her face and she was saying "Daddy" the way only a child three years old can, a way that just absolutely melts your heart. I pulled her into my lap and after a few minutes I learned the whole tragic story. One of the favorite parts of one of her favorite dolls had broken. She would come running to find dad, absolutely certain that I could fix it as I had done for many other special toys on many other occasions. She was certain that once again it would be dad to the rescue. Sadly, there was no adequate way to repair the delicate little part that she had broken. And she left my office Wednesday having learned one of life's most difficult lessons, there are some things that even dad can't fix.

As she left my office Wednesday morning and my mind came back to the passage that we are going to look at together this morning, it occurred to me that her instinct is universal. There is within each of us the instinct that when we find ourselves at the end of our own puny resources, to run to someone else for help. With adulthood comes the sober realization that rarely can humans help the kinds of problems we have. Rarely can fellow human beings come to our aid and so we find ourselves learning that we must come to God. So we cry out to God. This is universal. Even the most hardened and self-sufficient men find themselves crying out to God in a foxhole and on a crashing plane.

The really remarkable thing isn't that we cry out to God. That certainly makes sense. We are made by God. He is the only one that can come to our aid in the times of desperate trouble. It makes sense that we would do that. But the remarkable thing is that He responds. What a testimony to His amazing goodness. That is the message of Psalm 107.

In this psalm you meet a variety of people. In verses 4 through 9, you meet some travelers, caravan travelers who have lost their way. In verses 10 to 16, you meet some prisoners who have been bound in chains and irons. In verse 17 and following, you meet some fools, they are called, who, because of their own sins, find themselves locked in a desperate sickness that threatens death. And then in verses 23 to 32, we meet a group of seamen, merchant marines, those who do business on great waters.

But this psalm isn't about any of those people. This psalm is about God. It reveals one simple truth about God. And although it is a simple truth, it is absolutely crucial. In fact, if this one truth were not part of our God's character, the universe as we know it would be turned on its head. Because the simple profound truth about God that is revealed in this psalm is that He is by nature a Savior, a rescuer, a deliverer. In fact, we could entitle this psalm, God to the Rescue.

Scripture reminds us over and over again that the false gods that people spend their lives worshiping don't have this capacity. In fact, the prophet Isaiah, turn to Isaiah 46, he presents it in ironic terms. Isaiah 46:5, God says, "'To whom then would you liken Me and make Me equal and compare Me, that we should be alike?'" Are you going to compare Me to idols, he says. Verse 6, "'Those who lavish gold from the purse and weigh silver on the scale, they hire a goldsmith, and the goldsmith makes it into a god; they bow down, indeed they worship it.'" And then in an irony of ironies, verse 7, they take this god that they have just fallen down and worshipped and, "'They lift it on their shoulder and carry it;'" it can't move anywhere, they have to move it; "'they set in its place and it stands there. It does not move from its place. Though one may cry to it, it cannot answer; it cannot deliver him from his distress.'" God says, the false gods of the nations that Paul says are really idols that men worship, demons that lie behind those idols, He says they can't save you. They are not saviors. They are not rescuers.

Turn back just a page to Isaiah 45. Isaiah 45:21, here we learn that our God delights in rescuing those, even those who find themselves in the worst of circumstances created by their own sinfulness. Verse 21, "'Declare and set forth your case; indeed, let us consult together. Who has announced this from of old? Who has long since declared it? Is it not I, the Lord? And there is no other God besides Me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none except Me.'" And then in verse 22, He issues this universal invitation (By the way, it was a simple layman's message on this verse that the Lord used to bring Charles Haddon Spurgeon to Himself.), "'Turn to Me and be saved," be rescued, "all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.'" Our God delights in being a savior, a rescuer, a deliverer. And Psalm 107 is essentially a hymn of praise to God as our Savior.

You will notice the psalm begins in the first three verses with a brief call to thanksgiving. And then after that brief call, the psalmist provides us with four examples or four illustrations of God's work as a Savior. Now there have been many different attempts to interpret these four illustrations. For example, some believe that these four word pictures illustrate the physical rescue of God's people from the exile in Babylon. They say that each of these pictures illustrates both the individual and the corporate circumstances in which Israel found itself in Babylon.

So they would, for example, see these caravans in verses 4 to 9 as caravans coming back from Babylon, wandering back to Judea through the trackless wilderness. The prisoners in Babylon, in verses 10 to 16, set free to return home to their native land. In verses 17 to 22, they would see the sickness and disease and near-death experience in these verses related again to the captivity. And the words of thanksgiving and praise here are corporate thanksgiving that the Jews who gathered again in Israel after the captivity offered to God.

Now that has some appeal to it and I can understand why some come to those conclusions. But frankly this interpretation is a bit of stretch, especially with the last picture, the picture of those who do business in great waters. It doesn't say those returning from exile on ships, but rather those who do business on great waters, those who as part of their regular life do this. So it is very difficult to make a connection to the exile with this fourth picture.

It is probably best instead, as we look at these four word pictures, it is best to see them as four songs describing four categories of individual physical deliverance, from the everyday life of the people of the ancient world, four examples of God physically delivering people. But these are intended not merely to picture physical deliverance, but they are also intended to picture God's power to effect spiritual rescue as well.

They are a lot like Jesus' miracles. Jesus, of course, was constantly doing miracles of physical healing. Why is that? Well obviously part of the reason was to alleviate human suffering. There is in the heart of God a compassion for those who are suffering. But the miracles of Christ were also intended to picture the reality that God could do in the heart what He did to the body. He could make it new. He could take a diseased and crippled and deaf heart and bring it to life.

That is what these four pictures of physical deliverance are intended to do here in Psalm 107 as well. Not only are they pictures of God delivering people from physical harm, but they become pictures as well of God delivering people from spiritual danger, from their own eternal damnation. It is clear that the psalmist isn't just talking about rescue from physical danger here because two of these graphic word pictures describe human sin as the ultimate problem.

In preparing for taking of the Lord's Table today, I want us to briefly examine just one of these magnificent portraits. Let's look at verses 10 to 16. You follow along as I read them.

There were those who dwelt in darkness and in the shadow of death, prisoners in misery and chains, because they had rebelled against the words of God and spurned the counsel of the Most High. Therefore He humbled their heart with labor; they stumbled and there was none to help. Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble; He saved them out of their distresses. He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death and broke their bands apart. Let them give thanks to the Lord for His lovingkindness, and for His wonders to the sons of men! For He has shattered gates of bronze and cut bars of iron asunder.

These beautiful words capture much more than physical rescue. They describe the path that spiritual salvation always takes. There are three steps that mark the path of all who experience God's salvation. If you are a Christian this morning, you will be able to see yourself in these words, in the path that these words set out for us. If you are not a Christian but God is at work in your heart, you see that you are a prisoner, then you will see here the path to God's eternal rescue.

The first step in divine rescue is recognize your hopeless condition, recognize your hopeless condition. In verses 10 through 12, that picture is powerfully drawn, "There were those who dwelt in darkness and in the shadow of death, prisoners in misery and chains." We immediately learn that the plight of these people is one of the worst of human fates. They are prisoners. Now remember, this is before Club Fed. This is before the Geneva Convention. These are people who are in the absolute worst of human conditions in the ancient world. We are told in verse 10 that "they dwelt," or they lived "continually in darkness," that is, in a dark dungeon or cave. Throughout history, that has been the condition of those who have been imprisoned.

And they lived constantly under the threat of impending execution. We are told they lived under the shadow of death. It is as if the threat of death came over their heads every morning. They woke up not knowing whether that day would be their last, because again, in the ancient world you lived at the whim of whoever was in authority. Often there was no law or the law wasn't binding in these situations and, at a whim, you may lose your life.

We are told they dwelt in misery, affliction, and literally in irons, in chains, in iron chains. Now it is hard for us who have never experienced this to imagine what such circumstances would be like, to find yourself in such a place without any hope of ever having freedom again. And yet even in our modern world, there is a fear of just this reality. They tell us that a recurring nightmare of many people is finding themselves in prison with no hope of being let loose. That is where these people found themselves.

Now we are not told where they were imprisoned and we are not told by whom they were imprisoned, but we are told why. Look at verse 11, "because they had rebelled against the words of God and spurned the counsel of the Most High." The sole reason they found themselves in prison was because of how they had treated God, how they had responded to the Word of God. They had rebelled against His words. That may be a reference to the Scripture or it may simply be a reference to the Word of God written on the conscience of every man that Paul describes in Romans 2. But however they knew God's rules, however they knew God's law, they had rebelled against it. In the words of Isaiah 53, "they turned to their own way."

And they "spurned the counsel of the Most High." They spurned the counsel they received. But this time, it wasn't the counsel of a caring friend trying to help. It was the counsel of the Most High God, the High One. Now imagine for a moment spurning God's counsel, rebelling against His words, and then finding yourself forever in a prison of your own making. You get the point. You don't have to imagine very much, because that is exactly where each of us found ourselves. Having rebelled against the Word of God, having spurned God's counsel, we, as Isaiah said, "made a path of our own." I did it my way. And we found ourselves in prison, not a prison of iron bars and chains, but a prison nonetheless.

We had done what Zedekiah did. Turn back to Second Chronicles. There is a picture of human sinfulness in 2 Chronicles 36. Zedekiah was at the end of Judah's kings, just before Nebuchadnezzar came and destroyed Judah forever. And listen to what the chronicler writes about him. Second Chronicles 36:11,

Zedekiah was twenty-one years old when he became king, and he reigned eleven years in Jerusalem. He did evil in the sight of the Lord his God; he did not humble himself before Jeremiah the prophet who spoke for the Lord. He also rebelled against King Nebuchadnezzar who made him swear allegiance by God. But he stiffened his neck and hardened his heart against turning to the Lord God of Israel. Furthermore, all the officials of the priests and the people were very unfaithful following all the abominations of the nations around them; and they defiled the house of the Lord which He had sanctified in Jerusalem. [Now watch verse 15.] The Lord, the God of their fathers, sent word to them again and again by His messengers, because He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place; but they continually mocked the messengers of God, despised His words and scoffed at His prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against His people, until there was no remedy.

That is a powerful picture of human sin and depravity, God sending messenger after messenger into our lives, just as He did in the life of Zedekiah, and our constantly refusing to hear, rebelling against that word, not taking God's counsel but taking our own. That is why Paul says that before Christ rescued us, we were prisoners, we were the slaves of our own sinfulness. That is why when Christ came, part of His ministry, He said, was to proclaim the opening of the prison to those who were bound. These people are bound in literal prison, a prison of their own making. We were bound in a spiritual prison of our own making.

Notice verse 12, "Therefore," because they had spurned the counsel of God, because they had rebelled against His words, "Therefore He," that is, God, "humbled their heart with labor; they stumbled and there was none to help." God acted toward these people with one goal in mind, to humble them. Now why is that important? Well, if you have been a Christian any time at all, if you have read anything of the Scriptures, you know that humility is crucial because it is the first step toward home. In the heavenly economy, the way up is down. The first beatitude, the very first rung of the spiritual ladder of the kingdom is, "'Blessed are the beggars in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,'" a beggar who realizes he has absolutely nothing to gain any favor, who realizes he has no cards left to play. He is a beggar. Before the prodigal was willing to consider going home, he first had to be reduced to feeding pigs. God humbled their heart with labor.

Verse 12, "they stumbled and there was none to help." I have seen it so often that before God draws sinners to Himself, He often will bring them to the absolute end of their rope, to the end of all their own resources, where they have nowhere to look but up. If you are a Christian today, it is because at some point God humbled you. God brought you to the absolute end of yourself where you had nowhere to look but up. You recognized your situation, like these prisoners recognized theirs, was absolutely hopeless. You had no way to appeal to God. You had no way to gain His favor. You had no way to merit eternal life. And if you got what you deserved, hell itself would not be hot enough for your rebellion against the God of heaven.

That brings us to the second step on the path of eternal rescue. Repent of your sins, repent of your sins. Recognize your hopeless condition and repent of your sins. Verse 13, having recognized their predicament, there was only one thing they could do, "Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble." It is interesting that the same exact Hebrew expression that is used here in verse 13 is used in each of the other word pictures as well, in verse 6 of the wanderers lost in the desert, in verse 19 of those who were deathly sick because of their own sinful choices, and in verse 28 of those seamen lost in the middle of a great storm. This phrase, "then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble," reminds us that there is a catch. There is a condition to God's rescue. We must repent. It is not enough to recognize our need. We must humble ourselves before God with a contrite heart. We must be willing to turn from our sin. You see, you can't hold onto sin and onto the Rescuer at the same time.

In fact, listen carefully, over and over again, Scripture makes it plain that God refuses a cry for help where there is not a willingness to turn from sin. I have eight or nine references in my notes. I am only going to take you to a couple. Turn back with me to Judges 10, Judges 10. Of course, this is during that dark period of Israel's history, when there was no central government, there was no king in Israel and "every man did which was right in his own eyes." There was a series of nearby nations that oppressed the people of God. And in Judges 10:10, we read this, "Then the sons of Israel cried out to the Lord, saying, 'We have sinned against You, for indeed, we have forsaken our God and served the Baals.'"

Now our immediate response when we read those words is to think, oh, God must be ready to respond to a cry like that; they are crying out to God and just like in Psalm 107, He is going to hear and He is going to rescue them. Well, notice God's response,

The Lord said [verse 11] to the sons of Israel, "Did I not deliver you from the Egyptians, the Amorites, the sons of Ammon, the Philistines? Also when the Sidonians and the Amalekites and the Maonites oppressed you, you cried out to Me, and I delivered you from their hands. Yet you have forsaken Me and served other gods; therefore I will no longer deliver you. Go and cry out to the gods which you have chosen; let them deliver you in the time of your distress.

What is the difference here? They are crying out to God all right, but there is no willingness to leave the gods that they have attached themselves to. So God says, fine, I see what is in your heart; go to them for help. But verse 15, they respond,

The sons of Israel said to the Lord [a second time], "We have sinned, do to us whatever seems good to You; only please deliver us this day." So they put away the foreign gods from among them and served the Lord; and then God could bear the misery of Israel no longer.

Then He responds to send a deliverer to save them.

Turn over to 1 Kings. In 1 Kings 8 you see a similar sort of message, this one in the prayer of Solomon at the dedication of the temple. And in 1 Kings 8:35 he prays, "'When the heavens are shut up and there is no rain, because we have sinned against You.'" He is talking now about people of the future in Israel. He says, God, if You, because of the sin of Your people, were to shut up the heavens. Now remember, this is an agricultural society so to have no rain, to have no crops, meant that their economy was absolutely devastated. He said, "'and they pray towards this place,'" this temple that I built, "'and they confess Your name,'" and watch this, "'and turn from their sin when You afflict them, then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of Your servants and of Your people Israel.'" And this is the way it is throughout the Scripture. If you want God to rescue you from your spiritual prison, you must be willing to leave your sin. You must be willing to leave all known sin.

As we will learn tonight, repentance, true repentance is always accompanied by true faith. They go together. It is as if they are two sides of the same coin. What is this crying out to God in Psalm 107? It is both repentance and faith. Crying out to God means you are not only willing to turn from your sin, but that you are willing to turn in faith to God. It is leaving all that you have known to pursue God.

And what does God do? Verse 13, "He saved them out of their distresses." Now don't misunderstand. God doesn't always rescue us from our physical problems or deliver us from our circumstances. There is no promise of that in Scripture. And in fact, people of faith have often encountered great difficulty. Keep your finger in Psalm 107 and turn over to Hebrews 11. We love a portion of Hebrews 11, that great hall of fame of those who believed in God. We love Hebrews 11:32,

what more shall I say? For time will fail me to tell of Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead back by resurrection.

We love that. But we would just as soon skip over the next part. Verse 35, "and others,"

and others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection; others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated, wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground. [Verse 39.] And these all, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what is promised.

The point is faith can demonstrate itself both in mighty acts of deliverance as well as bearing up through trouble and difficulty and trial and persecution. God doesn't always rescue us from temporal, physical trouble and circumstances, but listen carefully, God always rescues those who repent from their sins, although not from all their temporal problems, always from their sin, from its penalty and its power.

Turn to Isaiah 55. Isaiah is one of my favorite Old Testament books because Isaiah is the most evangelistic. And in Isaiah 55 you have an incredible invitation to embrace the free offer of mercy in God. He begins chapter 55, verse 1, "'Ho! Every one who thirsts, come to the waters; you who have no money come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.'" He is saying, listen, there is nothing you can bring that will obtain this; this is God's free offer of mercy.

And then he gets to the heart of the invitation in verse 6, "Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near." Call upon God, he says. Cry out to God. But it is not enough to cry out to God. It must be accompanied, as we saw, by genuine repentance. Verse 7, "Let the wicked forsake his way," you have often times heard me mention that this word way refers to patterns of behavior, the wagon ruts of your life, the way you act as a habit. "Let the wicked forsake his patterns of behavior and let the unrighteous man forsake his thought patterns; and let him return to the Lord, and He will have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon." Here is a promise from God. It never changes.

Shortly after I became a Christian, and for a period of years, I struggled with assurance of my salvation. And I would often come to this passage and find great comfort here because this is an unequivocal promise. Let the one who calls out to God forsake his patterns of behavior, let him turn from his thoughts to the way he used to think, and return to the Lord, and He will pardon in abundance. He will have compassion. How can God do that? Verse 8, "'My thoughts are not your thoughts, and My ways are higher than yours, as the heavens are above the earth.'"

These three steps mark the path that everyone who experiences God's salvation experiences. First of all, recognize your hopeless condition. Secondly, repent of your sin. And thirdly, after you have been rescued, respond to God's grace. Respond to God's grace.

He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death. He broke their bands apart. Let them give thanks to the Lord for His lovingkindness, and for His wonders to the sons of men! For He has shattered gates of bronze and cut bars of iron asunder.

This psalm not only lays out the path to God's rescue, but it lays out the proper biblical response to God's salvation, whether we are talking eternal deliverance from sin or some temporal deliverance from some earthly difficulty.

There are four responses in this psalm. Let me give them to you briefly, four responses to God's grace. If you are a believer, this is how you should respond to the deliverance you have experienced. Number one, give thanks, give thanks. Psalm 107:15, "Let them give thanks to the Lord." The Hebrew word translated "give thanks" is literally "to confess." In the Old Testament it is used in two senses. It is used of confessing sin as well as of praise and thanksgiving. How could those two concepts have anything in common? Well, the root idea is to acknowledge. In confession of sin, you acknowledge your failures and your sins. In thanksgiving, you acknowledge God's character and His work in what He has done for you. You want to respond rightly to what God has done for you? Confess or acknowledge some things that are true about God.

And by the way, as you will notice, the things we are told to give thanks for here have to do with God, have to do with His own character, not so much the things He has given us. Notice in verse 1, "Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good." Give thanks for His goodness. Back in verse 15, "Let them give thanks to the Lord for His lovingkindness." This is that incredible Hebrew word that encompasses both love and loyalty and brings them together. It could be translated "steadfast love" or "unfailing love," God's covenant love to you. Praise Him for His goodness. Give thanks to God for His covenant love. Verse 15 also says, give thanks "for His wonders to the sons of men!" That is, all of those acts of God that provoke our awe, our astonishment, give Him thanks. Confess, acknowledge to God these things that are true about Him. In verse 22, the psalmist puts it in the language of sacrifice, "Let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving." So give thanks.

A second response is be joyful, be joyful. Be filled with joy. Verse 22 hints of this. It talks about "joyful singing," singing that is filled with joy. David, at the end of his psalm of confession, Psalm 32, one of the two great penitential psalms of David, at the end of that psalm he writes these words, "Be glad in the Lord and rejoice," "shout for joy." David says, the proper response to forgiveness of sin, to spiritual deliverance, is joy. I agree with Lloyd-Jones, "So many Christians walk around with such sour countenances that it is no wonder the gospel isn't attractive." Contemplate what God has done. Be joyful.

Thirdly, not only give thanks and be joyful, but tell others, tell others. Verse 2, "Let the redeemed of the Lord say." Let them speak. Verse 22, "tell of His works with joyful singing." Verse 32, "Let them extol Him also in the congregation of the people, and praise Him at the seat of the elders." Talk about God. Do the people in your life ever hear you talk about God and what He has done for you and what He is doing? That is what the psalmist says. If you have experienced God's deliverance, you have to tell others.

And fourthly, if you are going to respond to God's grace, you need to think about these things. The psalm ends in verse 43 with these words, "Who is wise? Let him give heed," literally, let him watch, let him keep, "these things," that is, all that we have learned in this psalm, "and let him consider," that is, give attention to, "the steadfast love of the Lord," the unfailing love of God, the covenant love of God. Think about it. Do you ever think about these things? What do you do with your mind when you are not forced to think about something else? The psalmist says the thoughts of a person who has experienced God's deliverance should rise to God in that moment, and to God's deliverance, as a balloon rises from the earth. Think about these things. God is by nature a Savior.

When you think about God working for our salvation, of course we are aware that the Trinity works together to accomplish our salvation, but there is one person whose role it is very directly. It is the second person of the Trinity, Christ is our Savior. Christ came to rescue prisoners. You start this message in the Old Testament. Isaiah writes that the servant would come "to bring out prisoners from the dungeon and those who dwell in darkness from the prison," Isaiah 42:7. In Isaiah 61:1, Jesus used these words in His sermon at Nazareth. He says, "the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners."

Matthew 1:21, the angel tells Joseph, "'you shall call His name Jesus,'" Yahweh saves, "'for He will save His people from their sins.'" Luke 2:11, "for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." Acts 4:12, "there is salvation in no one else." And Acts 5:31, "'He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance and forgiveness of sins.'"

Christ is the One who has accomplished our deliverance, whether it is from temporal problems in this life or whether it is from eternal hell. He is our rescuer. And the Lord's Table is a memorial of Christ effecting our rescue, of Christ acting as our Savior. That is what we celebrate together this morning. Let's bow our heads together.