By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
April 23, 2023
Psalm 116 (ESV)
1 I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy. 2 Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live. 3 The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish. 4 Then I called on the name of the Lord: “O Lord, I pray, deliver my soul!” 5 Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful. 6 The Lord preserves the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me. 7 Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you. 8 For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; 9 I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living. 10 I believed, even when I spoke: “I am greatly afflicted”; 11 I said in my alarm, “All mankind are liars.” 12 What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me? 13 I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord, 14 I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people. 15 Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. 16 O Lord, I am your servant; I am your servant, the son of your maidservant. You have loosed my bonds. 17 I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the Lord. 18 I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people, 19 in the courts of the house of the Lord, in your midst, O Jerusalem. Praise the Lord!
There are times in my life where I just do not have words. There are days where the stresses that I face are so great that I do not knowledge of where to even start. I am sure most of us have been in a place like that. I have often spoken of my journey of faith. I try to be transparent and honest as I describe my emotions and struggles in faith. I do this because I am not perfect, and I do not want any of you to place me higher than I should be. I am human just like everyone else, and I often fail.
The day I held my first son in my arms, I had a revelation. I suddenly understood the love that God had for me, because I felt that kind of love for that bright eyed, squirming little guy. But there was a problem. How was I going to raise a son, when I was still a child myself? I did not have the words. I did not have the knowledge. And after twenty-four years of being a parent, I still struggle.
From that initial revelation, and subsequent calling into ministry, which I spoke about a few weeks ago, I have grown significantly. I found acceptance, I found love, I have a family, and I have a community that encourages me and that I can encourage as well. Life is good.
I say this, but that does not mean my life has been free of struggle. Far from it. There have been many days, months even where I have been at a loss for words. There were weeks where I had trouble eating and sleeping because of the situations that faced my family. I wanted to cry out to God for assistance and deliverance, yet when I knelt to pray the only thing that emerged from my mouth were groans.
This is where the words of the Psalms come in. Most of us from free church traditions do not utilize written prayers, but there is a place for them. That is what the psalms are. They are prayers and songs. And when it comes to worship, our songs should be prayers. In those times of deep distress, often the only things that come to mind are songs that have provided comfort or encouragement. When Albert was a baby and would wake up in the middle of the night, like most parents I would sing songs to him. But the choice of songs is often different. For Albert, the songs that came to mind were hymns. One was a Christmas hymn, “What Child is This?” I do not know why that song, but he liked it. The second was a song that a friend from the Meeting I grew up in would often request, “I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop.” Weird songs I know, but if you listen to the lyrics of rock a bye baby, my hymns are not quite as scary.
The Psalms are like those hymns, and prayers we lean on in times of great stress. They help us retrieve our own words once again and direct us back to the place God wants and needs us to be. Often when I cannot sleep due to the stress I have faced; I let my bible app read the psalms to me and I join in the prays of David until I find rest.
Today we are reflecting on a Psalm. “I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy.” This is one of the greatest thanksgiving Psalms. Some of my Orthodox friends that I met while I was in Ukraine, and some of the ones that I went to school with at Friends University would tell me that in their traditions there is a Psalm to be read for everything. And they would carry a booklet with them so they could easily pray the proper Psalm for any situation they would face. I believe that the words of the Psalms will help us find our voice in prayer. They give us comfort and strength, but do we listen to what they are saying?
This Psalmist, I will say he for the writer, not because it must be a man, but because many of the Psalms are attributed to David. He praises God, he expresses love for the Lord. This is interesting because although we often think of the Psalms expressing love for God, very few formally express that kind of intimacy. This tells us something. We can be intimate with God. Other Psalms express anger and sorrow, these too are emotions that we can freely express to God. God is big enough to handle our emotions and he is willing to listen.
This Psalmist loves the Lord because he feels as if God listens to him. We often feel as if prayer is something, we must perfect. Some might say I do not know how to pray, and that is ok. Prayer is difficult at times because we do not know what to say, but prayer is a conversation. At times a conversation is difficult and at other times when we are close to someone we converse freely. The same can be said about prayer. It is hard at times, but once we begin and get used to speaking and listening it becomes easier. The Psalmist loves God because God listens and responds.
Why do we feel the need to speak to God? This is probably the one thing that separates those of faith from those who do not profess faith. The Psalmist says, “The snares of death encompass me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish.” Death in most cases is regarded as separation from life, but it can be more. Death can also be a power or force, and it can even refer to a place. This is where Sheol comes in. Sheol is most often regarded as a place, usually it is described physically as in being buried in the ground, but it can also refer to a spiritual place. The spiritual place most would equate to hell. But what if death and Sheol could be an emotional place? Those that suffer from depression might sense the darkness of death or Sheol. I imagine that those that are living in the various war zones around the world; in Ukraine, Sudan and other places in Africa, and even those that are within extreme poverty might feel as if they are currently living in hell.
The Psalmist says that the snares of death encompass me. The term snare most often refers to a cord or rope. In various survival classes and books, I have participated in we use snares to trap small animals for food. Unfortunately, I did not learn much from those classes and books, so the extent of my snaring ability usually revolves around getting chicken from the store. There is another way to look at snare, it can also represent a band of people. This paints an increasingly vivid picture of the emotional state of the Psalmist. He is in a state where the power or the personification of death is encircling him, slowly and steadily closing in. Pangs, which is usually associated with pain, in this sense could also represent psychological distress. The pangs of Sheol, the distress of complete failure is closing in, and this man, this woman because most of us could put ourselves in the place of the psalmist, feels as if all hope is lost. They are surrounded, there is no way out, no hope, they are utterly powerless.
It is from that place of complete hopelessness that the psalmist has a change. “I called on the name of the Lord” he says. I want us to sit with the psalmist here. I know the pangs of Sheol. I know the darkness of encircling death. I know it not in a physical sense, but I have been there emotionally. I have been in that place many times. It is from that darkness, that hopelessness, that the psalmist calls out. The phrase, “I call”, means to summon, invoke, invite or proclaim. In the state of hopelessness, when there is nothing left, the psalmist makes a proclamation that the only hope is for God to deliver. And he says, “O Lord, please, deliver my soul!”
Too often we regard the concept of soul only in a spiritual sense. It is that part of us that will continue to exist beyond the veil of time as we experience it. That is not always what soul means. In the Psalms the word translated as soul in this verse is used 144 times in various senses. One of the senses is your neck or throat. We might use the phrase, “sticking our neck out,” this is in a very real sense referencing a vulnerability that may lead to adverse consequences. But in this chapter the sense of the word soul does not reference out inner spiritual being, but life and breath. When the psalmist says Lord please deliver my soul, he is saying save my life, free me from deaths noose.
There is now a shift in the emotions of the psalm. “Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our god is merciful.” He is now expressing the core character of God. He is reminding us of who God is and why it is important to invoke his name in our lives. “The Lord preserves the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me.” I sat on the concept of simple as I studied this week. It is the simple that provided the initial direction to my study. The sense of this word is naïve, foolish, inexpert, even to the point of being developmentally disabled. And I hate this. It does not sit well with me that the Psalmist would regard faith in such a manner. But then there is another sense to the word, open-mindedness.
When I was in school being open-minded was the buzz word, it meant that you were willing to try new things and explore new concepts. And like social justice today it became a political talking point, one side was open minded and the other was closed. But what open-minded means in this sense is that you are aware of your limitations. It means that the Lord will preserve or protect those that are unable. God protects the innocent that lack the wisdom, or the knowledge to protect themselves. It means that God will meet us where we are, in our weakness and become our strength. This is not a willful ignorance or rejection of wisdom, but an admission of inability and vulnerability. It is a confession of powerlessness and a plea for assistance and direction. The psalmist in his simplicity is aware that at this moment he does not have the ability, the knowledge, or the strength to overcome the snares of death. And as I reflected on this, I was reminded of the statement that Jesus said, “The poor will always be with you.” There will always be those among us that are in the very place this psalmist find himself. How will we approach them? How will we encourage those around us that feel vulnerable and powerless?
“Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.” I began my study with simple, but once I wrapped my head around that, the next phrase that grabbed my attention was return to your rest. This is partly because I spent much of this week at the pastor’s sabbath retreat, where rest and re-creation were the focus. Return turn back. The word for repent also emerges from this root word, but usually repent is in reference to a turning away from sin. The sense of return is to go or come back to a place, condition, or activity where one has been before. Turn around and go back. And rest in this case means a place where rest can occur, or a state of mind where we can be at ease. Interestingly, the same word is used the book of Ruth as a place of security within marriage. Boaz was rest for Ruth. The Psalmist is saying, turn back to that place where you once had comfort and security. Repent of the battles and seek a place of peace. Return to a place where we can ease our troubled state of mind.
Which leads us to, “the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.” This is a phrase of repayment or to give compensation for action. It can be both positive and negative, but when the word bountifully is used with the word dealt it gives us a positive sense. The psalmist is telling us if we return to that place of rest, we will gain good things. This is where it takes a bit of a twist as well. “has dealt bountifully” can also mean to complete, wean, do to or show. We might receive good things when we return to that place of rest, but it is also a place where we can gain maturity. It can mean that when we go back to those restful places, we can gain wisdom and education, it is in those places we learn how to handle the snares of death that we are struggling with. It is not a place of weakness, but a place of reengagement.
As the psalmist sits in this place of rest, he reflects. “For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” Delivered is an interesting word. We often think of it as rescue, but it can also mean to draw off. When a predator is attacking its prey, something like a juvenile animal or cub, the parent or mamma bear will often draw off the predator. They create a diversion so that the prey can escape. Jesus in his life, crucifixion, and burial dose this for us. He drew the attention of the personification of death from us and placed it on himself.
He draws death away from life. He dries our eyes from tears. He steadies our feet from stumbling. All these point to maturity or rejuvenation. Those that call on God in the place of struggle, will find with and through him the ability to walk confidently, they can see clearly and have a restored life force. Instead of being consumed by the darkness we have vigor.
He embraces that life with God. And he again reflects on the life before. He says, “I believed.” There are three levels of belief. The first is knowledge of or and opening to and idea. We know the concept of something, but that is just it. It does not affect your life. The second level of belief is trust. This is putting that knowledge into practice. I have the concept of swimming and not I am going to wade into the pool. The third level of belief is entrusting. You lean into it or give yourself over to it. We entrust our body on a chair when we relax and allow our full weight to rest on it. “I believed, even when I spoke.” The belief the psalmist remembers is not in God, but he is reflecting on the fear that was once surrounding him. Fear leads to death and suffering. He recognizes that he was resting in or believing in the fear as he says, “I am greatly afflicted.” He continues, “I say in my alarm, ‘All mankind are liars.’”
Alarm give us the key to his reflection, because alarm is fear or panic. He recognizes that he was leaning into the fear the panic of the situation. And this alarm caused him to make a statement. “All mankind are liars.” In our emotional response to the stresses that we face we often cannot perceive things rationally. He is not stating that all men are liars, but in his ignorance and lack of expertise, as the alarm grips his soul, he believes an exaggeration. All is rarely all, this is a lie that alarmist push us to believe. And in his panic, while the anguish of the snare of death encircles him, his alarmist mind says, “All mankind are liars.” No one can be trusted, everyone speaks falsehood, he is alone. If we rest in the fear, we are alone with no one to trust. When we look beyond the fear, when we gain wisdom from God, we will begin to see through the lies our emotions tell and we can begin to recognize the truth.
What is the truth the Psalmist want us to see? It goes back to verse eight. “For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” He once believed a lie, but now he is leaning into the hope of God. He leans into it and he has experienced the benefits. He has experienced the release from deaths grip and the pangs of Sheol no longer hinder him. Now he reflects on his deliverance. “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me?” What can I give? How can I properly repay God for the hop that he has given?
“I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.” The cup is a vessel, and salvation refers in this case to victory. The victorious vessel in this case is the psalmist himself. He will carry himself as a sign to those around of the hope he has found in God. And he will, “call on the name of the Lord.” This time the call is not an incantation or plea, but a proclamation of praise.
We repay God for the victory he provides in us, by taking the life he provides through Christ, onto ourselves. We wear the cup. We become the vessel of victory, and we pay our vows to the Lord by living the life he calls us to in front of all people. We embody that of God and reflect it in everything we do.
Now again this song, this prayer of thanksgiving gets a bit weird. “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” The psalm began by speaking of the fear of death, and now the psalmist is saying death is precious to God. What does this mean? Is this individual now accepting his fate? No, in the next verse he speaks of being a servant, and a son of God’s maidservant. The death that is precious in the sight of the Lord is the death to self. It is the relinquishing our own will so that we can be bound to the will of God. We die to our own selfish desires and give every aspect of who we are to serve God. Why is this important? It all goes back to the fall of humankind.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. God set the initial course of the world, and he placed our first parent in the garden that he established as his throne and temple. He gave us a command to go out into all the world to bring it into submission or extend the garden and as payment for our work he gave us the fruit from all the trees but one, the tree of knowledge. But while they worked a serpent came to speak to them, this was not a snake as we so often believe, but a shining one, a spiritual being that was supposed to be a servant of the Most High God. This serpent deceived our first parents and set us all on a path where we struggle. Trying to figure out on our own what direction to go, what is right and what is wrong. And while we struggle, God continues to call us to return to the place of rest, the place we were created to dwell. He calls us back to the refuge where he will walk with us and provide the wisdom we desire. When the psalmist says, “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints,” he means precious is that turning. Precious are those righteous people that recognize the separation we have from God. A separation that leaves us vulnerable to the pangs of Sheol.
The Psalmist praises God, he sings thanksgiving to his Lord because he recognized that without God he was lost and vulnerable. Without God he was living at the whims of everyone else in the world seeking to do what they perceive is right in their own eyes, and this selfishness of humanity became a threat to our very existence. Death surrounded him, the struggle, the anxiety, the depression was slowly squeezing in and choking out his very will to live. He was lost and alone, and in that moment, he cries out to God, and God met him in his weakness. God entered that weakness and became his strength. God transformed the psalmist into a vessel of victory.
We all struggle at times. Maybe some of us more than others. Maybe our struggle is of our own design and maybe it is a circumstance beyond our control. As we face these struggles, I pray that we will call on the name of the Lord. That we will recognize that we are not alone, that there is a community here whose desire is that God will give you victor, and we have a God that preserves us all.
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