To begin our Thanksgiving week this year we looked into Psalm 136 and saw the wonders of God in Himself, as Creator, as Redeemer, and as Defender. Taken together these massive realities led the Psalmist to a gratitude filled praise. We then learned anew that the same gratitude filled praise ought to ever be the posture of our hearts before God in this life. Psalm 136 was a sacred symphony and was a joy to linger in. Today we conclude our Thanksgiving week by looking into another Psalm, another sacred symphony – Psalm 138, where we find a similar song of thanksgiving.
Psalm 138 is something of a beginning of the end moment in the books of Psalms because it’s actually the beginning of the last collection of David’s Psalms in the entire book. But notice the Psalm is bold in its praise. Whoever edited or arranged the ordering of the Psalms didn’t do so haphazardly or randomly but slowly and purposely. We see a bit of this in our context by noticing Psalm 138 comes after Psalm 137. A quick glance into Psalm 137 shows us why this is so. There the people of God are in exile beside the waters of Babylon, sitting in sorrow while being mocked by Babylonians who are taunting them saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” In this context God’s people were quiet, unwilling and refusing to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land casting their pearls before swine, while asking God and trusting in God to rescue them from their enemies. Psalm 137 ends and as Psalm 138 begins we see a different story. Rather than seeing God’s people silent and patiently enduring the taunting’s of their enemies we see a loud and bold praise. We know David wrote this Psalm, but we do not know the exact setting that moved David to write it. But notice the contrast. Here are God’s people not sitting back being silent but boldly and eagerly singing God’s praises before who? False gods in v1, the mighty kings of the earth in v4, the arrogant in v6, and their enemies in v7. As the silence breaks forth with bold praise what is the first lyric resounding from their lips? Thanksgiving. “I give You thanks with my whole heart…”
This symphony of bold thanks and praise comes to us in three movements.
Movement 1 (v1-3)
Every symphony begins differently. Some begin exploding through the silence with loud and sharp notes meant to raise the attention of our slumbering hearts (like Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 or The Ride of the Valkyries), while others begin softer and slowly lead us to the big booming moment of grand finale (like Gustav Holst’s Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity). Psalm 138 is more like the former. Right away as v1 begins we see David caught up and soaring in praise. There is no slow introduction into this, it just starts out with a leap into the heights of worship. This is seen in English sure enough, but it stands out in the Hebrew with more power. You see, in many of our English translations we find God’s name ‘O, LORD’ inserted into v1. This is worth mentioning because in the Hebrew text God’s name isn’t there. v1 simple states, “I give You thanks with my whole heart…” So why do the translators add God’s divine name when it comes over into English? Probably to help us out with understanding who David is thanking. But do we need such help? I think if we leave the Hebrew text alone as is, we see it clearer. David is so caught up in praise that He doesn’t even mention God’s name, because for him, is there anyone else who could deserve the praise and thanks of his whole heart? No! For David only the Lord deserves our whole souled praise.And I pray this is the same for you, for nothing else deserves the full attention of our hearts, nothing else deserves the full force of our praise, nothing else deserves the full vigor of our songs, than our God.
He continues, “…before the gods I praise you.” In the face of the false gods of Babylon God’s people were silent in Psalm 137. Here, before the false gods of the nations around Israel and the false gods many worshipped within Israel, David does not remain quiet. No, he sings. Just because people around him have given themselves over to the worship of idols, does that mean David should stay mute? Does that mean David should hold his tongue? It’s as if he is a cluster of grapes underneath those who were pressing in on him with their various sins and idolatries, and what else can David do as pressed grapes but let ripe and refreshing wine of authentic praise flow forth? We see something of our Lord Jesus here, being the truest and ripest cluster of grapes in God’s vineyard, when pressed to death in His suffering by our sins He let out a flow of trust and praise and prayer to His Father ultimately giving forth a mighty flow in His blood of the sweet wine of gospel redemption for all who believe.
And you and I here today Church, being surrounded by rival truths, rival gods, and rival gospels in our day – will we remain silent? Or will we show forth our true faith by singing loudly in our own whole souled praise?When surrounded by attacks, doubts, sins, and struggles of all kinds I have often found that silence does nothing but thicken the clouds in my soul…but the opposite is just as true. When surrounded by attacks, doubts, sins, and struggles of all kinds I have also found that praise to God often scatters the fog in my heart like a stiff sea breeze. Church, since God is worthy of all praise, since God sent Christ to create a people of praise, we as His people should be known for our praise, even if we’re the only ones singing!
Notice again the theme we began with continue in v2, “I bow down to Your holy temple, and (what?) give thanks to Your name for Your steadfast love and Your faithfulness, for You have exalted above all things Your name and Your Word.” David is thankful, he gives thanks to God, and his thanksgiving is full of specific content. First, David worshipfully bows down toward the heavenly temple (remember the physical temple hadn’t been built yet) and gives thanks for God’s hesed, His covenant faithfulness. Second, after recognizing God’s faithful love to God’s people David’s thanks goes deeper, he acknowledges God’s name and Word which God has exalted and elevated above all things. Notice the worship of God and the Word of God are coupled together here for David. The same ought to be true for us. Sadly, many think worship is something we do on our own for God really without much thought given to His Word. As if His Word and His worship were two separate pursuits. When in reality worship isn’t something we begin, it’s something God begins. Worship is always our response to the revelation of God in His Word. We respond with awe when thunder peels from the sky, we must also respond in awe when His Word sounds forth in clarity.This is why our public and private worship must begin with and continue on fueled and inflamed by the kindling of worship, sacred Scripture.
All the content in v2 is so rich with gospel saturated Christ centered language that if we peer into it anywhere we’ll see not only what David was doing, we’ll see what we’re to do as well. David looked to the temple and thanked God for His faithful covenant love, for His name, and for His Word…so too we must look to Jesus, who being the very Word of God Himself tabernacled among us as the true and living temple of God, revealing God’s faithful love to us through His redeeming work. Him we praise, because God has now exalted His name and His Word by exalting Christ above all things.
Look at what David’s worship did for his soul in v3. “On the day I called, You answered me (false gods don’t answer prayer); my strength of soul you increased.” Or literally, “You made me bold and strong in soul.” By praising God and thanking God, God strengthened David’s soul. Do you see more of the tragedy of the fall now? What we need the most is for our souls to be strong in the Lord, how does God make our souls strong in the Lord? Answer: by praising the Lord. The praise of God is what the soul of man needs most, and what by our sin, we shy away from the most. Praise God that He slowly but surely turns ourselves back out from ourselves to Him, in showing us things like this. So learn from what we’re seeing in David here, and praise the Lord, as weak and feeble as our praise may be, look how strong and certain God shows Himself to be for His people.And watch God grow you strong in soul. And then praise Him again, because when He strengthens, none can weaken!Indeed, the praise of God is a mirror, which reflects His glory to us; a standard, to which all things are measured by; and a fountain, from which all blessing flows.
Movement 2 (v4-5)
The symphony doesn’t decrease in momentum as v4-5 come into view, it matches the melody v1 launched us out with. “All the kings of the earth shall give You thanks, O LORD, for they have heard the words of Your mouth, and they shall sing of the ways of the LORD, for great is the glory of the LORD.”
Here the Hebrew is also potent. Rather than beginning with “All the kings of the earth…” the Hebrews leaps out once again beginning like this, “Thanks to You O LORD, all the kings of the earth shall give because they have heard of the words of Your mouth…” Giving thanks begins the first movement in v1, and giving thanks begins the second movement in v4. But who shall do this? The kings of the earth will, David says. Question: did David ever see this happen? Sadly, no. Most of the kings then were like the ones today, and all throughout history really. Of all people it is kings who do not easily bow the knee to rulers greater than themselves. But here David’s rejoicing that while it may not be true of his day, it will be true one day. One day the rulers of all the earth won’t only hear God’s Word (as v4 says), they’ll praise His name (as v5 says). But why will they do this? v5 ends with a little comment, “…for great is the glory of the LORD.” See what’s happening? By hearing the Word of God, these kings of earth will see a King unmatched in power and love, a King who’s glory is greater, a King who is the King over and above all kings. From seeing His glory they’ll sing Him a thankful song.
We saw Word and worship coupled together earlier, see here hearing, seeing, and singing coupled together. Just as worship was the result of David’s heart after beholding the revelation of God in v2, so too singing praise to God will be the result of these kings hearing the Word of God and seeing His great glory in v4-5. Hearing, seeing, singing. The pattern is as natural as breathing for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. Have you ever wondered why we sing one more song after the sermon here when we gather together? Because what else can we do? Hear the Word and go on our way? No. God reveals Himself to His people when the Word of God is preached in the power of the Spirit. In this God gives us a fresh sight of the glory of God, which will naturally lead us to praise the God of glory. This is what has occurred is every revival and reformation throughout history and our desire upon looking back at those times shouldn’t be to return to those times but for God to do it again in our time! That God would raise up His Word, that even the kings of our age will hear the whole truth, and that in our preaching God would grant the lost a sight of His glory with their ears, that would move their tongues in praise!
Do you pray for this? If you don’t I would ask you to, not that we would be more famous in this city but that His Word and His praise would be the glory of this city. This would make our city a royal orchestra playing a royal song to a royal audience of One.
Movement 3 (v6-8)
The third movement brings the melody down a bit to our level with a set of contrasts and a conclusion.
Contrast 1: v6 says, “For though the LORD is high, He regards the lowly, but the haughty He knows from afar.” Contrast 2: v7, “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, You preserve my life; You stretch out Your hand against the wrath of my enemies, and Your right hand delivers me.” Conclusion: v8, “The LORD will fulfill His purpose for me; Your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of Your hands.”
In other words no one is higher than God, and yet even from the heights He stoops and He loves the lowly and is not deceived by the proud. The lowly think little of themselves so God thinks much of them – while the proud think much of themselves so God thinks little of them.This is very gospel-esq isn’t it? God the high and lofty King, condescends and becomes one of us in Christ who dwells among us and as He walks about in His ministry who is it that find welcome but those who acknowledge their lowliness, their poverty, their sin. They’re the ones who find help in trouble and deliverance. But turn it around and see the end of those who don’t. Who is that finds rejection but those who boast of their might, their riches, their goodness, they find not only rejection, but find that God knows them as no one else does. They may make a good show before others, and even be held in high honor among men. But God knows the truth, and from knowing it He keeps them at a distance. Yes, He promises to preserve His own in the midst of troubles, but also yes, He permits His and our enemies to enter into trouble.
Lesson from this third movement? Because God is concerned about what concerns His own, we have great confidence that none of His plans for His glory in and through us will fail to be fulfilled! What is the foundation of such confidence? Not in any goodness or faithfulness we have. We leave many things undone after beginning them. God isn’t like us. His hesed, His covenant faithfulness, His steadfast love endures forever. God was worthy of our thanks last week. God was worthy of our thanks this past Thursday, God is worthy of our thanks today, and God will be worthy of our thanks for all eternity. May we plead as the Psalmist does here, and ask God to remember His great promises. May He have your whole souled praise and thanks!
Time out…do you have a feeling sense of this? I think this praise heavy language is why we both love the Psalms the most and why we grow weary of them at times. We love the Psalms the most because they’re so full of rich and meaningful content for every situation our souls could ever be in. But I think if we’re honest we’d admit that we grow weary of the Psalms because so much praise is put before us.Think of this from God’s perspective. He is unmatched in greatness and to bring Himself praise and admiration and love for His gloriously unique nature He filled the earth made with seven billion images of Himself. But sin entered, and turned the affections of our hearts away from God and in on ourselves. Now, we prefer to live for our glory, not His. For this reason, the Psalms, which so often say “Praise Him! Praise Him! Praise Him!” grow tiring for us because we’re not the ones in view, we’re not the ones being praised. This is the great tragedy of the fall, that we now naturally avoid what is best for us. If you still feel bored, here are six steps to jolt your heart back to life.
1) Repent and be ashamed of your coldness.
2) Lament the absence of the appropriate warmth in worshipful and thankful praise.
3) Grow discontent…and long for what you lack.
4) Pray, with all your heart, pray for these things to begin growing in you.
5) Worship, trusting that God will use the very act of worship to put a deeper and more whole souled worship within you.
6) Repeat steps 1-5.
Church, these are steps and only steps…but I find them helpful in getting my heart where it needs to be. I find them helpful, because a disciplined delighting in God with thankful praise doesn’t come natural to me. You know what comes natural to me? Praising myself. I know I’m not alone in this, but that you too have this battle to fight. I’ve got to work on this, I know you do too. Will you join me in this?
Charles Spurgeon, Treasury of David – vol. 3, part 2 (McClean, Virginia: MacDonald Publishing) page 243.
Jeremiah Burroughs, ibid., page 252.
Charles Simeon, ibid., page 251.
John Piper describes this in chapter 1 of Reading the Bible Supernaturally: Seeing and Savoring the Glory of God in Scripture (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2017) page 37-52.
Modified for my purposes here from a recent ‘Ask Pastor John’ episode entitled Should I Ever Go Through the Motions in Worship? (https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/should-i-ever-go-through-the-motions-in-worship) accessed 11/24/18.