Psalm 116

Bill McFarland

November 20, 2005


If there were just one thing you could do to enrich your family life, to strengthen your congregation and to be an asset to your country, that one thing would be to develop a deeper sense of gratitude in your life.  An unknown writer wrote a paragraph that has blessed me several times.  It says, “Thankfulness, perhaps more than anything else, helps us to keep our eye fixed upon the brighter side of life.  If every night as we retired to rest, we added up and recorded the mercies of the day and started each following morning with that record in our hand, what a transfiguration of our lives there soon would be.  Our countenance would be changed as the face of the earth is changed when the sun breaks out on it.  Our sobs and sighing would be transformed into songs of praise.  Our daily tasks would be done with increased vigor as though some fresh motive force had come into our lives.  The gloom around us would be scattered; the trees would seem to clap their hands; the mountains and the hills would rejoice together and the meadows to break out into song.”  You may not think that the effect of it would be that drastic but thankfulness would change the way we approach our lives. 

Psalm 116 is very much about the mindset of a thankful person.  The key question of this whole psalm is the one stated in verse 12: “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me?”  That statement suggests that this writer has noticed and has recalled and has thought about the things that God has done to bless him.  That person actually has observed the benefits that have come into his life, and then this person wants to dedicate himself in demonstrating his gratitude for that every day of his life.  The thought process in this psalm could be summarized in three statements, and these three statements will serve as an outline as we look into the thoughts of this psalm together.

The first idea would be, “I’ve been helped by the Lord; I have been blessed by him.”  That is what this writer is thinking.  He doesn’t tell us exactly what the situation in his life has been, but he certainly tells us how he felt about it.  That happens quite a bit in the psalms, and one reason is so that all of us can take that song and apply its sentiment to our own situation in life.  In verse 3 you will notice he says, “The snares of death encompassed me.”  In other words, he was like an animal caught in a net or in a trap.  “The pangs of Sheol laid hold on me.”  Sheol is the word for the grave in the Old Testament.  It comes from a root word which means “to crave,” and it suggests that the grave never stops craving to have one more person in its grasp.  In this case, this writer feels like the grave won’t be satisfied until it claims him.  And then he said, “I suffered distress and anguish.”  He experienced all the trouble and the sorrow a human being can know.  I don’t know just how it happened to him, but he felt all the burden and grief and distress that a person may feel in life.  And this experience, of course, as it would anybody, tried his faith.  He struggled with how he felt in that situation.  Verses 10 and 11 tell us that he believed, but he still spoke about how he felt in that situation.  He said, “I’m greatly afflicted.”  Apparently he thought death was near and even wondered if God were paying attention to him in that situation.  In his alarm a little bit of the bitterness, the cynicism began to creep up on him.  He said, “All mankind are liars.”  In other words, none can be counted on to help or to stand by you so loneliness and hopelessness both are threatening him in his distress in his life.  But, he says in verse 4, “then I called on the name of the Lord.”  That “then” is more significant than just being some sort of a conjunctive statement.  What he is saying is that when he was in the grips of trouble and sorrow, when he was afflicted and alarmed, then in the middle of that circumstance he said, “O Lord, I pray, deliver my soul!”  That prayer is pretty brief and simple, isn’t it?  It has the sense of urgency about it.  It may have had a note of complaint suggested in the tone of voice, but it nevertheless was a prayer for mercy, verse 1 says.  This is a man who needed help, and he knew it.  He was calling out for God’s compassion to change what was going on in his life.  Verse 1 says the Lord heard his voice.  He heard because verse 2 says he inclined his ear to me.  It is interesting if you think of that picture in your mind’s eye for a moment.  One writer suggested that “inclined” is a term that suggests a parent bending down low with his ear to his child’s lips so he can hear every concern that child is expressing.  Or maybe that it is like a nurse bending down over the bedside of a very weak patient so that the nurse can take in what that patient has on his mind and heart.  He is saying that God drew near to him so as not to miss a single phrase or word of his feeble prayer.  That is the kind of mercy that God has shown.

In verses 7 and 8 we learn that the Lord more than answered his plea.  He dealt bountifully with his child.  That is what this psalm is saying: “I was bent so low and I called out and God has lifted me so high with his blessings.”  He says in verse 8, “For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.”  Think about what that means.  God has saved his life, has dried up his tears of grief, and has banished the fear of stumbling that might have overtaken him.  Spurgeon in his treasury of David wrote about this verse: “Our life has been spared from the grave, our heart has been lifted from its grief, and our course in life has been preserved from dishonor.  That is what God has given in response to this man’s plea for mercy.  So no wonder his thinking is “I have been blessed.  I have been helped by the Lord.”  If any of us thought about it, we could surely identify with that statement in one way or another. 

The second stage in his thinking is really the one stated in verse one, “I love the Lord.”  You will notice that this psalm begins with “Praise the Lord,” and it ends with “praise the Lord.”  Someone observed that it would be appropriate for every expression of thanksgiving to begin and end with that hallelujah. The writer of this psalm is saying as John did in the New Testament, “I love the Lord because he first loved me.”  The last part of verse 6 says, “When I was brought low, he saved me.”  I love him because he heard my voice, he inclined his ear, he delivered my soul from death, he dealt bountifully with me.  I love him because he loves me.”  When you have been loved like that, how else are you supposed to respond besides to love him back?  Someone said, “The psalmist not only knows that he loves God, but he knows why he does so.  When love can justify itself with a reason, it is deep, strong and abiding.”  One of the things that you and I can do to deepen the spirituality in our lives is to answer the question for ourselves and for God of why it is that we love him.  What has he done that makes me personally love him? 

In this experience that this writer has passed through, the singer has learned some things about God that has made him more deeply in love with God.  For example, in verse 5 he says, “Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful.”  God’s righteousness stands in the middle and on one side is his grace and on the other side is his mercy.  What that means is significant.  It is because of his grace that someone with my weaknesses can approach him.  It is because of his righteousness that I can trust his promises, and it is because he is merciful that he will help me when I call upon him.

Then he says in the first part of verse 6, “The Lord preserves the simple.”  The word “simple” here is the Old Testament word for the young and the inexperienced, and what he is saying is the psalmist has learned that God cares for those who recognize that they are helpless to preserve themselves. 

And then he has learned in the third place in verse 15, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”  Saints are people that he has bought and they are his.  They are set apart in a special way to belong to him.  Saints may face death.  Saints die physically like everybody else in the world, but precious in the sight of the Lord is that occurrence.  It is not something that he takes lightly or ignores.  It is prized and guarded and watched by him because he loves his people.  And so this psalmist has come to the place where he sees loving the Lord as his rest, verse 7 says.  His rest is to be right with God and to love God and to be grateful to God.  The word “rest” here is plural, interestingly in the original language.  It indicates a complete and entire rest.  Rest at all times and under all circumstances is found in the attitude toward God that this singer has developed.  I have been blessed by him; I love him.

The third thing that stands out in this psalm is this idea: I want to show my gratitude to him.  I want to express my thankfulness to the Lord.  I know I can’t repay him for all the bounty he has given in my life, but I can and surely I should demonstrate my appreciation for all his benefits to me.  So sprinkled through this psalm are the proper intentions of a thankful man.  They are found in five “I will” statements in Psalm 116.  If we are to turn the “Lord, we thank you” of our prayers into reality in our lives, these are the ways our thankfulness has to act.  First, he says, in verse 2, “I will call on him as long as I live.”  That must be important because I noticed he repeats it in verse 13 and verse 17.  He says three times in this song, “I will call on him as long as I live.”  Think about it.  If the Lord had answered his prayer at such a crucial time and in such an abundant way and if he really did appreciate God’s answer to his prayer, then we would expect him to go on calling on the Lord and not just when he has nowhere else to turn.  If you are a father or a mother and your children, when they are on their own making their own choices, still think enough of you to call on you, that is a rewarding relationship, isn’t it?  That is what God wants from his children.  He doesn’t take it as an imposition when we approach his throne and make a plea to him.  He takes it as an expression of love and of thankfulness for the last time he answered our prayers.  What God can’t abide is for us to call on him and him bless us, and then as soon as we have been blessed for us to forget about him until we end up in an emergency again.  God wants to be our father, not our insurance man.  He wants us to call on him.

Secondly, this psalmist says in verse 9, “I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.”  This is a way of saying, “He has delivered me from death.  He has given me life.  He has saved me and now I am going to live that life for him.”  It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?  This singer can see that real thanksgiving requires thanks living, and so he is going to make his journey in the Lord’s presence and he is going to be the Lord’s servant.  In fact, verse 16 says twice that he sees himself as a grateful and willing servant of the Lord.  The Lord, he says, “has loosed my bonds.”  What do you think when bonds have been loosed?  Well, this man is no longer a slave; he is no longer a servant.  But what did he turn right around and say?  “I am your servant.”  I can only conclude it is because that is what he wants to be.  He wants to be the servant of someone who would bless him that abundantly and that richly.

Third, a thankful man’s intentions are stated in verse 13: “I will life up the cup of salvation.”  That statement seems a strange answer to the question, “What shall I render to the Lord?  How am I going to repay him?”  I am going to take what he offers.  I am going to be like a man at the Jewish feast who would take a cup of blessing and raise it up and thank God before the family for what he has given to all of us.  Gratitude takes what is offered and enjoys it with appreciation, and the one who has given the gift takes that acceptance as payment enough.  We are going to go down to have lunch with my mama on Thursday.  I don’t know what else will be there at that lunch, but one thing I know.  There will be some coconut cream pies that she has made.  My mama makes the best coconut pies in the whole world, except of course for what Kay makes.  We boys always make a big deal out of it as to who is going to get there first and if there is going to be any left for the rest.  I have observed over the years mom’s face when that is going on.  She loves it when we take what she has prepared for us.  We have a father who has given so much for us.  For us to turn up our noses at him and to ignore it like we don’t need it is the worst form of ingratitude.  In Luke 14 Jesus told a story about a man who gave a great banquet and invited many.  At the time for the banquet, he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, “Come, for everything is now ready.”  To understand this you have to notice that they have been invited ahead of time.  He has gone to a lot of trouble to get things ready for the ones who have said they would come.  But, he says, “They all began to make excuses.  The first one said to him, ‘I have bought a field and I must go out and see it.  Please have me excused.’  And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen and I go to examine them.  Please have me excused.’  And another said, ‘I have married a wife and therefore I cannot come.’  And so the servant came and reported these things to his master.  Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city and bring in the poor and the crippled and lame and blind.’”  The suggestion is to find somebody who will appreciate what I have prepared to share with them.  A grateful man says “I will take up the cup of God’s salvation.” 

In the fourth place, he says in verse 14 and 19, “I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.”  Vows were not required under the law of the Old Testament, but they were sacred.  What I mean by that is that you didn’t have to make a vow, but once you did, you needed to keep your promise to God.  Here in this psalm by his vows this singer probably means the kinds of commitments that he has been making with these other “I wills.”  “I will call on him; I will walk before him; I will take up the cup, etc.”   Gratitude, in other words, keeps those promises.  Gratitude does not start and then stop.  It doesn’t begin and then drop out.  It remembers and it follows through.  Notice that this gratitude is to be expressed in the presence of God’s people.  Verse 14, 18, 19.  He says this three times.  There is something about saying, “Thank you” that requires that it be said in the presence of people.  If worship is sending the message of gratitude to God, saying it to God in the presence of other people has the way of encouraging all the rest of us to count our blessings and to live like people who appreciate God’s goodness.

Fifth, he says, “I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving.”  The gift of a grateful person is his heart because the one who already gave him those things is obviously not dependent on those things himself.  The other night on the history channel I saw a story of something that happened in the Pacific in the Philippines in WWII.  When the Japanese occupiers took over the islands of the Philippines, they captured hundreds of soldiers who were already there, and they marched them from the peninsula of Baton to the interior of the island to a prison camp.  Thousands died along the way.  It is called the Baton Death March.  Of the survivors who were left and made it to that prison camp, almost 3,000 of them died.  When the allied forces came back in the first few hours, having heard about the prisoners who were kept at the point of death at that place, one of the first troops of army rangers were sent through the enemy lines behind the enemy lines to that prison camp to rescue those poor men who were kept there.  Some of them died in the process, and amazingly they brought out over 500 prisoners from that camp.  One of these old veterans who was rescued who had been just skin and bones was interviewed at the end of this program.  His name was Ralph Rodriguez.  Ralph Rodriguez was asked if there was anything he would like to say to the heroes who had saved his life.  This old gentleman in a very emotional way said, “I guess all I would like to say is thank you. I can’t add very much to that.”  He said, “Just a thank you.”  God says in Psalm 50, “If I were in need, I wouldn’t call you.  I already own cattle on a thousand hills; every beast of the forest is mine.  I don’t need your sacrifices, but what I want is your heart.  I want the sacrifice of thanksgiving from you.”  A genuine “thank you” which has meant so much that it affects the course of our lives is really what God is after.

Norman Gibson wrote a little poem that tries to express this from a Christian man’s point of view.  He titled it “My Gratitude,” and he said, “For loved ones thou hast given me, for friends I cannot number; for blood which daily cleanses me, for nightly peaceful slumber; for work to do; for love to share; for burdens often lifted; for open hearts and open doors and help from those more gifted; for guidance of the living word and comfort of the spirit; for intercession at thy throne when prayer shall bring me near it; for confidence that others give; for trust they place within me; for godly souls who for thee live and strength they ever lend me; for steadfast souls that stand the shock when Satan fierce assails them; whose feet are firm upon the rock where thou doest never fail them; for peace and calm amid the storm; for lessons learned through failing; for faith that o’er the evil yet the good will be prevailing; for crown and throne and golden home and life when life shall end; I thank thee Father, Lord of all, in Jesus name.  Amen.” 

Whatever reason the psalmist had for which to be thankful in Psalm 116, I have more.  As a Christian redeemed by the blood of the lamb, I have more.  So do you.  The one question that we are laying before each of us today is, “What am I rendering to the Lord for his benefits to me?”  Maybe you are here today and would like to give him your heart in gospel obedience or coming back home to him.  If we can help you, would you let it be known while we stand and sing together?