The Twelfth Decade of Psalms
This psalm is a wonderful testimony of praise, giving glory to God for all the things He did to undertake for the psalmist. The Lord delivered him from grievous trouble, and he is not at all ambiguous about the fact that God is the one who did it. But in order to give thanks this way, we have to adjust some of our modernist assumptions about interpreting the events of history. In his penetrating book about the theological crisis that resulted from the American Civil War, Mark Noll astutely pointed out the fact that the war badly rattled American faith in the intelligibility of God’s governance of the world. Both sides were praying to Him, were they not? And so everyone retreated into the assumption that God’s ways are always and necessarily inscrutable. But how then can we pray as the psalmist does here?
“I love the Lord, because he hath heard my voice and my supplications. Because he hath inclined his ear unto me, therefore will I call upon him as long as I live . . .” (Ps. 116:1-19).
Summary of the Text:
The psalm begins with a profession of love for the Lord, because He listens to prayers (v. 1). He inclined His ear to me, and that is why I call upon Him (v. 2)—as long as I live. The psalmist has been in deep trouble before, down to the point of death (v. 3). That is when I called upon His name (v. 4). God is gracious, righteous, and merciful (v. 5). God preserves the simple, and it is a good thing too (v. 6). He helped me when I was brought low. Calm down, soul, because God is bountiful (v. 7). God has delivered me in three ways—my soul from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from falling (v. 8). I am going to walk around this place alive, and in the presence of the Lord (v. 9). Paul quotes this next verse in 2 Cor. 4:13, and does so from a similar context. I believed, and therefore I have spoken (v. 10).
I said, too hastily I said, that all men are liars (v. 11). This appears to have something to do with men who were the instruments of the answered prayer. When I was in trouble I lashed out at men, but then God used men to deliver. How shall I pay the Lord back for all His benefits (v. 12)? I will take the cup of salvation, and then raise the glass (v. 13). The vows that I promised when I was in trouble are vows that I will pay in the presence of all God’s saints (v. 14). As we saw earlier, God delivered me from death, but here it says that the death of His saints is precious to Him (v. 15). He loves bringing us home. In other words, it would have been an answer to prayer either way. God’s slaves are the ones for whom God has loosed the bonds (v. 16). The sacrifice of thanksgiving is the only way to pay Him back, and so we call on His name (v. 17). Again the vows that were promised will be vows paid—in the presence of all His people (v. 18). Thanksgiving for answered prayer will be offered in the courts of the Lord’s house (v. 19). Hallelujah. When prayers are answered, the house of the Lord is the appropriate place to talk about it.
Two Different Moments
When He was praying in the Garden, our Lord Jesus modeled for us what true submission looks like.
“And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.”
Matt. 26:39 (KJV)
And the apostle Paul prayed three times for his thorn in the flesh to be removed, and was three times denied (2 Cor 12:8-9).
This is not unanswered prayer, but it is prayer with an unwelcome answer, and it is prayer where the petitioner has to be brought to the place of resolve.
But then there is this . . .
“And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.”
“Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.”
John 14:13-14, Mark 11:24 (KJV)
Now what many Reformed (non-charismatic) believers do is this. They treat this as though one passage can cancel the other one out, and they retreat to the (very emotionally safe) position of “not my will, but thine” be done. And so it is that they settle into a life of never asking God for anything specific. And when forced into asking for something specific, as say when a loved one gets really sick, they spend all their time internally braced for the inevitable no that they know must be coming.
Now these passages are addressing two different kinds of situation. The former is when God wants us to be content, and to be resigned to His will. The latter is when He wants us to lean into prayers that are risky.
But how are we to tell the difference? We are to recognize the differing situations by faith, and we are to resign ourselves by faith, and we are to risk by faith. But—we want to know—how can we learn to risk things in prayer? Well, by taking risks there. No, no, we reply. We want to learn how to take risks without actually taking any. It would be lovely to know how to ride a bicycle, and it would be even more lovely never to have skinned a knee.
In the Presence of All the People
God loves it when we give glory to Him. He is not this way because of some kind of megalomania, but rather because He loves what it does in His people when they see, know, and taste His goodness.
One of the things we need to get better at is the practice of boasting in the Lord, bragging on Him when He answers our prayers.
In our extended family, we have for many years told many stories, and among those stories are remarkable stories of answered prayer. In preparing this message it occurred to me that I needed to tell one of them here, in application of this psalm. My father, now 92, has recently finished his autobiography, which I had the privilege of reading and editing—9 decades of stories. The book is entitled Grace Upon Grace and should be released in the next few months. This is an excerpt. These are not high stakes, death-defying answers to prayer, but they are clear, and very visible.
A Week of Answered Prayer
The day was Saturday, January 4, 1958. Bessie and I had three pre-school children. We realized that we had no money, and we had none of the children’s staples—milk, bread, or orange juice. We stood together in the dining room and read Matthew 6:31-34 aloud to the Lord:
“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
Having read this together, we told the Lord we weren’t being anxious and that we were seeking in fact to put His kingdom first, and His righteousness, so it was up to Him. Then we thanked God for His supply.
The morning mail arrived. In it was an envelope from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It contained three $1 bills and a tract on hell by Bishop J.C. Ryle. I had never been to Lancaster and did not know anyone there. We thanked God for the money, and I went to Safeway and bought $2.96 worth of milk, bread, and orange juice.
But by Tuesday we were back in the same place. We were out of basics again and still out of money. So that night we gathered the family in the living room. We explained the situation to the children and said we were going to ask God for our food. I asked Douglas to pray. He was 4½ years old. In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, he thanked God for milk and bread.
We put baby Heather to bed with a half a bottle of milk. (Bessie always remembered this as happening on Wednesday morning instead of Tuesday night.) But according to my recollection, the next morning, I made pancakes with no milk and no eggs and went to our room for study.
There was a knock on the door. Bessie and Douglas answered it. It was the milk man. He said, “I have four quarts of milk for you.”
Bessie said, “You must have the wrong address. We did not order any milk.”
He said, “I have the right address.”
Bessie asked who sent the milk.
He replied, “Let’s say Santa Claus sent it.”
Bessie said, “Let’s not say Santa Claus sent it. The Lord God sent it because this little boy prayed for it.”
Four quarts arrived that Wednesday morning, six quarts arrived on Friday, and four on Monday for the next eleven months. It only quit because we moved to Annapolis, and the dairy did not deliver that far. We never found out who sent it, although we have suspected it was Ernestine Hersey. God is good, and we praise Him for whoever it was.
We put the milk on the floor of the entryway, stood in a circle around it, and thanked God for it. We reminded Him that we had also asked for bread. I went back upstairs.
Soon Bessie was running up the stairs with a $5 bill in her hand. She had been dusting the furniture in the living room and found the five dollars underneath a lamp on the end table. We bought bread and some other basics for $4.50.
We held another praise meeting, and then told God we needed $24.50 that day—$9.50 for an insurance premium and $15 to get our car out of the mechanic’s shop. When the mail arrived that morning, there was a $25 check in it from Alex Aronis in San Diego. We held another prayer meeting and told God that I needed a new suit.
On the next Tuesday evening, a Navy dentist named Scott Smith came to see me from Bethesda Hospital. He was the one who had left the five dollars. He thought he should pay me for the help I had given him but knew I would not accept it. He was also embarrassed to give it because we lived in a nice house, and it did not look like we needed the money. But he still felt compelled by the Lord to give it, so he had slid the money under the lamp.
At the end of our conversation, I told him that he should start a Bible study at Bethesda. He said, “With whom?” I told him that there were at least two other officers who wanted to study the Bible. He did not think there were any. I said, “Let’s pray that God will lead you to two officers who want to study the Bible.” Scott thought it was a useless prayer.
When he got back to the BOQ at Bethesda, he went to the men’s room. He was still carrying his Bible. A Lt. Jim Scribner saw the Bible and told him he had a friend who wanted to study the Bible, and would Scott join them? On Wednesday morning, Scott called to tell me of the answered prayer, and to ask if I would come that night to help them start the study.
I went to Bethesda for the new Bible study. In addition to those three, there was a Navy nurse, a commander Marjorie Von Stein. She became a Christian either that night or soon after.
After the study, Jim Scribner asked me if I had been a Navy officer. I told him yes. He asked if I still had my uniforms. Again I said yes. He said, “You are my size; I will give you $50 for a uniform.” I accepted the offer. He gave me the $50.
The next morning, I went to JC Penney to look at suits. I looked through what was available, and did not like any of them. The salesman came up to me and said, “You look like a 39 extra-long. I am sorry, but I only have one that size in the store.” He took it off the rack. It was the only one I liked.
I asked, “How much?”
He said, “Fifty dollars,” and then he corrected himself. “Fifty-one dollars—the extra dollar is for the state.”
I had 50 cents left over from Scott’s $5 and 50 cents left over from Alex’s $25, so I gave him the $51 dollars and left with the suit.
Out to the Limit
Realize that this psalm expresses two things. The first is the extent of the psalmist’s troubles. He was in deep trouble, and in such deep trouble that he spoke hastily about how awful men were. All men are liars. But then God sent our salvation, the man Christ Jesus. God sent a man who was the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).