Give Thanks

Explore the Bible Series

November 22, 2009

 

Background Passage: Psalm 116:1-19

Lesson Passage: Psalm 116:1-19

 

Introduction:

 

This section of the Book of Psalms, Chapters 113-118, constitutes the ancient Jewish liturgy called the Hallel (root word for “hallelujah”), and its recitation made up a critical part of several annual celebrations: Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles.  The Hebrews followed a carefully prescribed liturgical year that traced important historical events and the theological issues that emerged from these events.  The Exodus experience provided the historical framework for a number of these rituals, like Passover.

 

The Seder (Passover meal) observance stands near the heart of the Jewish faith.  During a seven-day ritual this meal occurs, according to the Talmud, in much the same way it has since antiquity.  As I understand the commemoration, the Jewish family eats a meal consisting of roasted lamb, unleavened bread, bitter herbs, and wine.  The lamb, of course, recalls the Passover story (See Exodus 12:1-51) when the Hebrews splattered lamb’s blood on the doorposts of their homes.  The unleavened bread marks the haste with which Israel left their bondage in Egypt, and the herbs remind the worshippers of the bitter slavery in Egypt. 

 

During the meal, several cups of wine are consumed, and the recitation of the Hallel Psalms follows each cup of wine.   After the fourth cup of wine, the leader of the Seder recites Psalm 116:1-19.  Sometimes, the other celebrants answer, antiphonally, the lines of the Psalm. It is very likely that this Psalm was one of the last hymns Jesus sang before his crucifixion, in the upper room, with his disciples. 

 

We do not know the author or setting of this hymn, but the composer clearly wrote it after a period of grave illness, illness that almost killed this dear man.  As his health failed the author grew desperate, and his prayers took on an earnestness perhaps unparalleled in his life.  Few circumstances try the soul like illness. For many, sickness comes quickly, acutely, and unexpectedly.  For others, the malady becomes chronic, grinding, exhausting. Whatever the case, serious illness heightens awareness of our own mortality and severely tests faith in Christ.  The suffering person may, for a season, question the love of the Lord, and these questions may lead to depression and relentless doubt, doubts that may assault one’s assurance.  The sufferer, in addition, may fear pain or disability, and he may wonder if his usefulness, as a servant of Christ, has ended.  Perhaps our author felt a mixture of all these emotions, as he faced the prospect of death.

 

 

 

 

 

Lesson Outline:

 

I.        The Psalmist’s Love of the Lord (vv. 1-4)

A.     The renewal of the love of the Lord (v. 1): Answered prayer renewed and deepened this man’s love.  Clearly, he already loved God, but answered prayer produced a maturity in his affection.  Sometimes the hardships of life seem senseless, but, in time, we often learn that faith and love have found deeper roots as a result of suffering.  In my judgment, Protestants need to develop a more sophisticated theology of suffering.  This is, I think, particularly needful in affluent American culture.  The psalmist indicates the earnest nature of his prayers by using the word “plea.”

B.     The renewal of the commitment to pray (vv. 2 and 4): Suffering may cause believers to lose confidence in the efficacy of prayer, but this man, buoyed by the Lord’s mercy, determined to call on the Lord’s name as long as he lived.  Note the expressive manner with which the text describes the Lord’s attentiveness to our supplications, “he inclined his ear to me.”  Like a loving Father, Jehovah bends his ear to the faintest cry of his children.

C.     The occasion of the psalmist’s prayer (v. 3): Some severe physical malady plagued this man, and he feared death.  The term “Sheol”, for the ancient Hebrews, denoted the dark and mysterious place of the dead.  As we have seen before, the Old Testament does not reveal a full understanding of the eternal destinies of the wicked and the righteous. This illness brought great distress and anguish on this poor man, anguish that he feared would lead to his death.

 

II.     The Results of a Prayerful Life (vv. 5-9)

A.     Renewed awareness of the character of God (v. 5): This prayerful man learned valuable lessons, in the midst of his suffering, concerning the attributes of the Lord.

1.      God is gracious: This word denotes merciful favor, favor shown despite the unworthiness of the recipient.

2.      God is righteous: God is holy, just, and loyal.

3.      God is merciful: The Lord shows favor to those who suffer.

B.     The nature of the Lord’s mercy (vv. 6-9)

1.      He preserves the simple (v. 6): God honors the contrite heart, and he saves the lowly.

2.      He deals bountifully with his people (v. 7): The Lord gives grace, beyond measure, to those who humble themselves before him.  This verse recalls James 1:5, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him God who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given to him.” This man’s replenished faith found rest (relief from his burden) in the Lord.

3.      He delivers the faithful (vv. 8-9): The psalmist listed three dangers from which the Lord spared him: death, tears, and stumbling. He no longer feared the grave, grief, or faltering under the stress of adversity.  His newfound confidence rekindled his determination to walk before the Lord.

 

 

III.   The Marks of a Faithful Man (vv. 10-14)

A.     He believed even in the face of suffering (v. 10): Trust preceded deliverance from his affliction.  Faith is indeed “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (See Hebrews 11:1).

B.     He believed, in the presence of false accusations (v. 11): Like Job, this man must have encountered “friends” who accused him falsely of bringing this illness on himself.  Commonly, in the ancient world, men concluded that illness invariably arose as a result of serious sin, and this man of faith must have encountered people who drew the conclusion that he had brought all of this on himself by some heinous act of disobedience.

C.     He determined to bring a libation offering to the Lord, thus paying his thankful obligation to his merciful savior (vv. 12-14).  The offering of wine concluded the sacrificial rite described in Numbers 15:1-10.

 

IV.  Final Vows to the Lord (vv. 15-19): The psalmist concludes this hymn by reminding his hearers of the mindfulness of the Lord.  God does not take the deaths of his people lightly.  It is not a small thing to him to see his children suffer and die. They remain precious to God, both in life and death. Verse Fourteen affirms the hymnist’s commitment to serve the Lord in faithful humility, and, in boundless gratitude, he pledged to honor God through submissive obedience.  In light of this vow to service, this man promised two things

A.     “I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving” (v. 17): The Mosaic Law provided a sacrifice of thanksgiving when a person had received special blessing from the Lord (See, for instance, Leviticus 22:29).  The suffering psalmist clearly understood that he owed a grateful obligation to Jehovah.

B.     “I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of his people” (vv. 18-19): The various sacrifices, including the thanks offering, were intended for public proclamation of the Lord’s blessing.  Not only would the supplicant give public witness to the Lord’s goodness, but he would also sustain the faith of others who might suffer in some way.