Two of my heroes of the faith are Augustine and Martin Luther. For them, Psalm 118 was a source of great strength. Augustine spent 25 years preaching through all 150 psalms. But he saved Psalm 118 for the end—which took him another 32 sermons to complete. Luther said,
“This is my Psalm, the one which I love. Although the whole Psalter, and indeed the whole sacred volume, is dear to me as that which is my only consolation and my life, yet I am particularly pleased with this Psalm, so that it must be called and must be mine, for it has often served me well, and has helped me out of many great troubles.”
Before we read this passage let us look to the Lord in prayer for his help in understanding it.
At a time when the world seems to be ravaged by such routine violence we can easily allow fear and maybe even retaliation to remove any notion of gratitude. Whether we are reading about local gang violence, or global terrorism, the effects of our own sin and the sin of others is ever before us. What is there to be thankful for when we see so much wickedness—on a daily basis?
This psalm speaks to those who are on an emotional high as well as those who are down low. It speaks to those who are enjoying the joy of their salvation, as well as those who are struggling to get out of bed. We can give thanks at all times and in all circumstances because of the love of God.
First, we will look at The Call to Be Thankful (1-4). Second, we’ll see Thankful in Suffering (5-18). And third, we will note Thankful for Salvation (19-29).
The Call to Be Thankful (1-4)
This section expresses a responsive call to worship. The psalmist is inviting all the saints of God to join him in praising God.
The psalmist praises God in particular for two attributes. He provides two important reasons we should give thanks:
- God’s Goodness
- God’s Love
We see both mentioned in verse 1 and 29. This is the theme that frames the psalm, which means everything in between is the explanation and proof of God’s goodness and love.
But there is a connection between these two character qualities as well. The goodness of God is most clearly seen in his steadfast love. The reason we know God is good is because we know him to be loving. This is a covenantal love that has been established by the promises of God. It is a love that will not let us go.
But this also speaks to us about how to give thanks and praise to God. Because if we recognize the goodness of God, we are pointed to the love of God, and the result is greater thanksgiving. The greater the good and the greater the love, the greater the thanksgiving.
Listen to Psalm 69:30, “I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving.” How does our praise and thanksgiving magnify God? When we hear “magnify” we think of “enlarging” something the way a magnifying glass does. Isn’t God already infinitely magnified?
Actually, magnification doesn’t make objects bigger, it alters our perception of an object. A microscope can make something that is very small appear to be much bigger that it really is. However, there is another way of magnifying something. A telescope takes something that appears small (but, in reality is massive) and magnifies our view of it.
When we are said to magnify God with thanksgiving, we are using a telescope. We are attempting to bring something of the greatness of God to bear upon our life and the lives of those we come into contact with.
Incidentally, because of the direct correlation between the goodness of God and the love of God, those who are experiencing hardship will often question His goodness for them.
A friend of mine once told me that he didn’t question the existence of God, but because of some difficult experiences he questioned God’s goodness—particularly, he questioned God’s love for him. He was under the impression that goodness and love eliminates suffering. In other words, my friend was minimizing the goodness and love of God because he had gone through circumstances he thought a good and loving God would have prevented him from going through.
If you struggle to give thanks, could it be because rather than magnifying God, you have actually minimized His goodness and love in your estimation? Whenever you allow your circumstances to dictate what you think about God, you diminish His greatness and your thanksgiving fades.
But the psalmist wants to be clear that we can be…
Thankful In Suffering (5-18)
Many scholars agree that David wrote this psalm. There may be some linguistic merit to that assumption, but even if that wasn’t the case we know it was a person familiar with much of the same kind of life experience David had.
Suffering (5-7)—Deliverance from suffering and help within suffering in order to be confident about the victory. The Lord answered the psalmist’s distress call. He proved his loyalty and assured him of victory.
Refuge in the Lord (8-9)—Verse 8 is the middle verse of the Bible. You might take note of that the next time you are on Jeopardy. These verses emphasize the superior wisdom of God over the council of man.
International hostility (10-13)—David speaks of being surrounded by his enemies. But he is confident that he will enjoy victory over all his adversaries, including Saul. Or Satan may be the one who “pushed hard” against him (13) as a culmination of all his adversaries.
Divine chastening (17-18)—Although the Lord indeed disciplined David severely, there was an ending to his suffering. God is a merciful disciplinarian, not giving us the punishment we deserve. There was a purpose in his life and a promise that he would persevere to the end.
Notice what the psalmist is acknowledging. He was in distress. And he had many enemies who hated him and wanted to bring him harm.
If this is indeed David, he might be referring to the self-inflicted suffering of his own personal sin with Bathsheba, which led to his orchestrating the death of Uriah. He was humiliated and devastated, and disciplined severely, but God preserved him and used him.
David might be referring to the deep wounds inflicted by his own son, Absalom, who hunted him and wanted to kill him. It’s one thing to have enemies, but there is an even deeper suffering when that enemy is your own family.
Sometimes it is hard for us to respond to the call to be thankful. It can be a lot like the call to worship we open with each Sunday. Many of us are simply too distracted to hear it. Thanksgiving can be the same for us. We have so many things on our mind that we either forget to show our gratitude, or we think it isn’t important. But gratitude shows the giver that we have recognized their goodness and love.
Our tendency is to question God’s love whenever we suffer, but David knew that patience was required. Knowing the goodness of God does not mean we will always enjoy gladness. But even in the midst of suffering and certainly through reflecting back upon past experiences—we can see how God provides help and refuge, defense and discipline.
Sometimes it is in the darkest places that we are reminded what we have received (i.e., Jonah). In that way, our suffering can actually be a gift because it causes us to cling that much tighter to the cross of Christ.
When we can be thankful in suffering it is because we have learned to be…
Thankful For Salvation (19-29)
“Salvation” is mentioned several times in this psalm. Here we see the distress of the psalmist (v.5) turned into praise (v.14). His description about God has turned into a prayer of praise to God.
vv.14 and v.28 echo the first song of Thanksgiving in Exodus 15:2 where God delivered the nation of Israel out of Egypt. As soon as they were across the Red Sea, Moses led the people in a song of Thanksgiving to their Deliverer.
vv.19-20 pressing desire to give thanks in the gates of righteousness (i.e., the sanctuary). Why there? He could have said, “Open to me the door of my closet, that I might give thanks in private.” But instead, he expresses a desire to gather with other saints in praise.
vv.21-27 begin to use the first-person plural “us” emphasizing the thanksgiving and praise we as a gathered community give to our Heavenly Father.
vv.28-29 close out with a personalized covenantal praise. The psalmist is no longer speaking about the Lord, but to the Lord (cf. v.19).
So the psalmist recognizes a personal as well as corporate element to our salvation.
For some of us, I imagine it is difficult to personalize our faith. We might be able to point out the strength of faith that we see in others, and that causes us to question our own faith. We might believe in God, but is He “my God”? Remove all the people encouraging you to move towards God and ask yourself if you would still give thanks to him as your God.
But for others of us, the challenge is the corporate aspect. You have no problem with Jesus. You are quick to pray to “my God”. But where you struggle is the idea of praising “our God” which implies you are surrounded by other worshippers.
The true deliverance is the deliverance we have received out of the grip of our greatest enemies—sin and death! And the experience of that deliverance causes us to celebrate. Now, I don’t know about you, but generally—celebrations are more enjoyable when we are with other people, especially when we are with people that we love and have enjoyed similar experiences.
When we learn to praise God rightly, we can say both the personal “my God,” and the corporate “our God”.
What is also fascinating about this psalm is that it was a Passover Psalm. It would have been sung year after year as Jews journeyed to the temple to remember God’s deliverance of Israel out of Egypt. The true and final Passover Lamb—Jesus Christ—probably sang this psalm during the week of his crucifixion. Surely, he had experienced the breadth of emotions the psalmist displays all within that very week.
Suffering and salvation have always gone together in God’s plan.
God is not just a God who controls suffering. Nor is he a God who only rescues us out of suffering. But we have a God who suffers on our behalf.
v.22 and v.26 are some of the most frequently quoted texts from the Old Testament found in the New Testament. They are clearly fulfilled in Christ. But it isn’t only vv.22 and 26 that speak of Christ, but the psalmists experience ultimately points forward to Christ’s experience:
- Christ called out in distress, but was comforted by God to boldly face the cross (5-7).
- The whole world was aligned against Christ (10-12), and Satan pushed hard to make him stumble (13).
- But, it was also a day of victory over the enemy (13-14).
- A day when Christ was risen and the wrath of God that was upon him—not because of his own sin, but because of the sins that his own people committed against God—was fully satisfied (17-18).
- He ascended to God’s right hand in perfect righteousness (19-21).
- That was the day the rejected stone became the chief cornerstone (22)!
This is the steadfast love of the Lord that endures forever! And regardless of our circumstances we can always give him all of our praise and thanksgiving for drawing us in by that love. This is the gift we have been given this Thanksgiving.