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Praising God from a Troubled Heart

Sermon passage: (Psalm 118:1-29) Spoken on: September 2, 2012
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Dr. Tan Hock Seng
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Psalms

Tags: Hallel, Messianic

Listen to sermon recording with the play button or download with the download link. 您可点播或下载讲道录音。
About Dr. Tan Hock Seng: Dr. Tan teaches New Testament studies, theology and languages in various seminaries in Singapore.
Bible passage (ESV) of the sermon can be found at the bottom of the page.

Sermon on Psalm 118

There are moments in our lives when it is very difficult to pray.

A Presbyterian Church member, who’s a lawyer, received news that a ship had collided and sank. His wife and four daughters were on that ship. They were going to Europe and that man was supposed to join them there later. “Are my family members still alive?” Recently, this man had lost his life-time investment in a real estate that was destroyed by a great fire. Now, he might suffer another major setback in his life. A few days later he finally received a telegraph from his wife with only two words – “Saved Alone.” His wife survived but their four daughters all died.

That is one of those moments in life when it is very difficult to pray.

How would you help a person in this kind of trouble? He wanted to pray but was unable to. The last thing you might want to tell that person is “Praise God for His goodness”.

Try telling a person in distress “Praise God for His goodness” and see what you get.

He may say, “Let’s exchange places. You take my troubles and I take your happiness. Then I shall praise God, and you may praise God all you want.”

That was exactly what the Psalmist was leading the Israelites to do—to praise God in their distress.

In Psalm 118:1-4, the psalmist is calling all the people in Israel—the people, the priests and all who worship the Covenant God to praise Yahweh.

It was easy for the Israelites to praise God when the land was peaceful. It was easy to praise God when there was a magnificent temple that displayed the glory of Israel. It was easy to praise God when they had a caring and efficient ruler, like King David.

Similarly, it is easy to for us to praise God when our country is safe and stable. It is easy to praise God when your job is secured and our businesses are doing well. It is easy to praise God when everyone in our family is well and healthy.

There were times when it was very difficult for the people of Israel to praise the LORD. Praising God became difficult when Judah came under heavy attack by enemy nations. The king was inefficient and the military defense was weak. Valuable objects in the temple had been carried away by invading armies. That was one of those times when it was difficult for everyone in Israel to say, “O, give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!”

This Hallel Psalm 118 was used to praise Yahweh when Israel celebrated the Passover, the Pentecost, the feast of the Tabernacle and the new moon festival. After the exile, they also used this Hallel Psalm to celebrate the Feast of Dedication.

Even when life became unbearable, and it was very difficult to praise God, the worship leader would still say, “Let us begin by praising the LORD for His covenant Love.” When the people meant what they sang, the lyrics of this Psalm would bring comfort to the people and instill hope in the worshippers’ hearts.

The Hebrew word for covenant love is chesed. There is no one word that can fully translate the meaning of chesed; thus, the English Bible translates chesed with many different words.

David prayed “Surely Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life (Psalm 23:6). That word “mercy” is a translation of chesed.

David also prayed “Because Thy lovingkindness is better than life… that word “lovingkindness” refers to chesed.

When Jeremiah walked among the ruins of Jerusalem, after the Babylonian destruction of the city, he prayed, “The steadfast love of God never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.’ (Lamentation 3:22) The term “steadfast love” also refers to chesed.

Chesed is God’s commitment to love His people based on the covenant “And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people.”(Leviticus 26:12)

God’s covenant love is unfailing on His part, even when you do not deserve to be loved, God insists “I will still love you.”

In verses 5-14, the psalmist cites a general situation that helps Israelites remember God’s covenant love vividly in their lives. The situation may refer to the Exodus experience or any battle when Israel’s army was being surrounded by invading force. Although what is described is a battle scene, almost all families in Israel can identify with that situation.

When Israel gets words from the frontline that the king’s army is fighting a defeating battle, the parents will wonder if their sons will ever return home; the wives will wonder if they will see their husbands again; and the children will also worry if their fathers will stay alive, or not.

So, the Psalmist expresses,

“All nations surrounded me… (10a) they surrounded me like hornets… (12a) pushed me so that I was falling… (13a)

The situation looks hopeless. There is no way out. Death is waiting for you down the road. The only hope left is for the soldiers to pray, to cry to God …

From my distress I called upon the LORD. The term “LORD” refers to Yahweh, the Covenant God. The LORD answered me…

When the people cried to their covenant God, He intervened in His covenant-love. In His mercy, God acted to save the people…

The situation did not change immediately; the soldiers were still surrounded by enemies. The problem still existed. But God first filled the people’s hearts with hope—the hope of deliverance.

Before I proceed, let me explain the Hebrew poetic structure in verses 5-14.

The two sections, verses 5-9 and verses 10-14 are parallel sections. In order words, the two sections are parallel thoughts that seek to portray one situation.

The two sets of parallel thoughts complement each other to complete one picture. Hebrew poetry readers can naturally merge the two parallel expressions into one in their mind.

In the slide, I am trying to illustrate one of the ways to read parallel structures in Hebrew poetry. The explanation may appear rather technical to us initially, because we are not used to interpreting parallel structures. However, when we are exposed to more of such poetic style, we can easily spot the parallelism and appreciate Hebrew poetry better.

The first section, verses 5-9, describes to the readers how the people felt; and the next section, verses, 10-14 shows the troubled situation.

So, we may understand the psalm this way . . .

10a All nations surrounded me
5 From my distress I called upon the LORD. The LORD answered me and set me in a large place.
10b In the name of the LORD I will surely cut them off.

11a They surrounded me, yes, they surround me;
6 The LORD is for me; I will not fear;
What can man do for me?
11b In the name of the LORD I will surely cut them off.

12 They surrounded me like bees; they were extinguished as a fire of thorns.
7 The LORD is for me among those who help me.
Therefore, I shall look with satisfaction on those who hate me.
12b In the name of the LORD I will surely cut them off.

When the distressed prayed, the LORD assured them of His divine presence. Then God displaced the fear and anxiety in the hearts with the hope of deliverance.

Now let us observe how the people expressed their confidence when they experienced hope in the covenant God.

The people testified in unison…

Verses 6-7
“The LORD is with me; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” (6)
“The LORD is with me as my helper; I shall look in triumph on those who hate me” (7).

Verses 10-12
All nations surrounded me …
In the Name of the LORD I will surely cut them off (10)

They surrounded me …
In the Name of the LORD I will surely cut them off (11)

They surrounded me like hornets…
In the name of the LORD I will surely cut them off (12)
They were extinguished as a fire of thorns… (12a)

Verses 15b-17
“The right hand of the LORD does valiantly” (15b)
“The right hand of the LORD is exalted” (16a)
“The right hand of the LORD does valiantly” (16b)

Because the people felt the reality of God’s presence with them, they had hope. We are focusing on a hope in God, a God-given hope. God gave His people the hope of deliverance, and they experienced the divine assurance …

“I shall not die, but live” (v. 17)

Having hope in the LORD is not the same as the practice of “positive thinking.” Positive thinking can be practiced without God. You just tell yourselves, “Must be positive; must think positively. Things will become better. I can do it.” Very often unrealistic thinking can make a person unbearably egoistic and conceited.

We often see that kind of behavior on TV, for example, the American Idol program, where many contestants who sang very badly would still claim, “I am the best!” When they were asked, “Do you think you can be the next American idol?” they would say, “ABSOLUTELY!” and they would argue with the judges and curse them when they were booted out.

As God’s covenant-people, our hope is primarily anchored in the LORD. Like the hymn reminded us “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow. Because He lives all fear is gone.”

Because the covenant-God is present with us, we have true hope.

Verses 19-21 describe the people who were once surrounded by their enemies and now were returning home safely. At the gate of the city of Jerusalem, the leader would say to the watchmen,

19 Open to me the gates of righteousness that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD.
20 This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it.
21 I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.

When the soldiers returned home to their families, everyone was happy. Parents received their sons back; wives were re-united with their husbands, and children could hug their fathers again.

That day, all the families in Israel would celebrate the God’s deliverance.

With all their hearts they shall loudly proclaim,

“24 This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

Psalm 118: 5-24 reminds the people of God’s covenant love towards all the families in Israel, so that the people may praise God from their hearts, “His chesed, His covenant love endures forever.”

During the celebration of Jewish festivals, this drama of deliverance by the LORD shall be re-enacted. The worship leader will lead the worshippers to Jerusalem, singing this portion of this Psalm at the gate of the temple.

When God’s people were so troubled that they either were unable to pray, or found it difficult to pray, the Psalmist exhorted the distressed people to praise God for His covenant love. He cited a historical situation to help the people recall God’s covenant love in their national life.

In this Psalm, the psalmist seeks to teach God’s people to hope in God during a time of distress.

1. Remember God’s Goodness in the Past to Rekindle Your Faith in the Present

He exhorts the people to remember God’s goodness in the past, so that their trust in the LORD can be rekindled in the present.

The memory of God’s goodness in the past transfers the people from a state of fear and distress into a state of trust and hope in the present.

There is a song that summarizes this part of Psalm 118 very well.

The lyrics say,

“You are my hiding place.
You always fill my heart will songs of deliverance.
Whenever I am afraid, I will trust in you.”

Psalm 118 is one of those songs of deliverance that would lead the hopeless to find hope in God.

2. Do Not Waver in Your Trust in the LORD

The psalmist cautions the people not to waver in their trust in the LORD.
He warns the people,

8 It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man. 9 It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes.

Two OT stories will help us understand more clearly why the psalmist exhorted God’s people to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man.

The first story is about King Ahaz. He typifies what it means to trust in princes and men.

The second story is about King Jehoshaphat. He exemplifies what it means to trust God.

During the reign of Ahaz, Judah was attacked by two nations—Israel and Syria. Ahaz and the people were much petrified by the invading forces. Isaiah describes that

“The king’s heart and the hearts of the people shook as the trees of the forest shake with the wind” (7:2).

Then God sent the prophet Isaiah to comfort Ahaz, “Take care, and be calm, have no fear and do not be faint-hearted.” God assured Ahaz that the invasion will never be successful (7), and that He Himself will soon wipe out Israel and Syria (Isaiah 7:1-16)

Ahaz, however, refused to believe God. He preferred to seek help from Assyria, a super power nation (2 Kings 16:7-9). The Assyrian king, Tiglath Pileser, was quick to come to Ahaz’s rescue, but Judah had to pay a high price in soliciting help from Assyria. When the crisis was over Judah became a vassal state of Assyria. The people had to pay heavy taxes to Assyria every year.

King Ahaz’s choice of trusting in men and princes instead of God incurred a great cost for God’s people.

During the reign of Jehoshaphat, Judah was attacked by three nations—Ammon, Moab and Edom (2 Chronicles 20:1-30).

King Jehoshaphat was very frightened, but the first thing he did was to seek the LORD.

He prayed,

Our enemies are strong and we are powerless.
You have always delivered us in the past, so do it again.
Come and save us!”

Then God sent a prophet to speak to Jehoshaphat,

Do not fear; This battle is Mine, not yours.
Go and face your enemies tomorrow,

Jehoshaphat fully trusted the LORD’s word.
When the battle began, he instructed the temple-choir to sing praises to God.

At the frontline, the choir sang,

“Give thanks to the LORD, for His chesed is everlasting.

Those were the same words we read in Psalm 118:1

As the people sang, God intervened and fought the battle for His people

First, the LORD caused Moab and Ammon to unite together and defeat Edom.
After Edom was defeated, that armies of Moab and Ammon began to slaughter one another.

Jehoshaphat and the people only had to witness the Amazing Grace of the covenant-God in their midst that day.

That was why the psalmist wrote,

8 It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man. 9 It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes (Psalm 118:8-9).

3. God Uses Unlikely Candidate/Means to Accomplish His Purpose.

The psalmist reminds the people that God sometime uses an unlikely candidate or means to accomplish His purpose.

David was an unlikely candidate to be a king of Israel.
When Samuel visited Jesse’s home to look for the person whom God wanted to anoint as king of Israel, Jesses first introduced his eldest son, Eliab to him. Samuel was much impressed by Eliab, and he thought, “Surely this must the one the LORD wants to anoint. However, God clearly told him, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature. I have rejected him… For Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:6-7). Then Jesse introduced his next son, Abinadab, and another, Shammah, and finally all his seven sons, except one whom Jesse perceived as the most unlikely.

David was out in the field tending sheep, but the LORD’s eye was upon him all along. Then Samuel told Jesse, “Bring him here; we will not sit down until he comes” (16:11)

David was an example of what Psalm 118:22 says,

22 The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone (Psalm 118:22)

During the New Testament times, Jesus Himself was also perceived by the leaders of Israel as an unlikely candidate to be the person whom God had chosen to be the anointed One

Even as the people were shouting “Hosanna!” when Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, many people, who were anticipating the Messiah, failed to see Jesus as the One whom God had sent to save His people (Luke 19:37-39).

After the Ascension of Jesus, Peter preached before the elders and rulers,

“This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone” (Acts 4:11).

God often uses unlikely candidates to accomplish His purpose.

Psalm 118 begins with a call to the distressed people to praise the LORD;
the Psalm ends with the distressed people’s response in praising the LORD.
However, in the heart of this psalm lies a short, simple prayer.
What would troubled people say when they had so many things weighing on their hearts?

They just simply cried out,

“Save us, we pray, O, LORD” (25)

In Hebrew, that prayer is expressed in just one word - “Hosanna!”

Instead of babbling a long string of words, the people only uttered a short, simple prayer “Hosanna!” - “Save us, O Lord!”

Why such a short prayer?

Let me explain:

When a person is able to feel the strong presence of the LORD with him …; When one is so assured that God’s love for him is full of grace, mercies, and unfailing… ; When your heart is filled with God’s given hope of deliverance, that God has not forsaken you… there is very little left to say to the LORD who watches over you.

All you need to tell Him is “Save me, O LORD!” Hosanna! That is enough.

There is a song that expresses this type of experience.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

When life becomes unbearable to you, Psalm 118 reminds us to turn our eyes on the Covenant God. When we turn our eyes on Jesus, our covenant LORD, we will experience that the “things on earth will grow strangely dim.”

When our many problems become strangely dim, even a short prayer “Hosanna” (LORD, save us) is good enough.

Now I shall finish the story I told at the beginning of this sermon—the man who lost his four daughters in a shipwreck.

Some weeks later, that man joined his wife who had survived the shipwreck. Together they sailed to the sea, near the area where their four daughters had drowned. At that spot, he penned this text that describes God’s comforting presence with him in his grief:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way;
When sorrows like sea billow roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well; it is well with my soul.

That man was Horatio G. Spafford. In his pain, he recalled what God had done for him in the past. His memory of Jesus’ death for him led him to say, “Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord, O, my soul” towards the end of the third stanza. “I can live with my losses because God is still with me.”

Psalm 118 turns the worshippers’ eyes from their troubles to the Covenant God.

The Psalm encourages people to remember God’s goodness in the past,
so that their trust in God can be rekindled in the present.

When the people experience the God-given hope, they are strengthened to begin praying again, “Save us, O LORD!”

Here is an outline of Psalm 118: [The outline is for display only, not to be read]

I. A Call to Distressed People to Praise the LORD (1-4)

II. Recalling God’s Deliverance in Past to Rekindle Faith in the Present (5-24)

A. The memory of God’s past goodness helps instill hope in the present (5-14)

B. Do not waver while trusting the LORD (8-9)

C. God uses unlikely candidates or means to accomplish His purpose (22)

III. A Renewed Strength to Pray, “Save Us, O LORD” (25)

IV. The Distressed People Respond to the Call to Praised the LORD

Closing Words:

Give thanks to the LORD for He is good.
For His covenant-love (chesed) is unfailing

Psalm 118 (Listen)

118:1   Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
    for his steadfast love endures forever!
  Let Israel say,
    “His steadfast love endures forever.”
  Let the house of Aaron say,
    “His steadfast love endures forever.”
  Let those who fear the LORD say,
    “His steadfast love endures forever.”
  Out of my distress I called on the LORD;
    the LORD answered me and set me free.
  The LORD is on my side; I will not fear.
    What can man do to me?
  The LORD is on my side as my helper;
    I shall look in triumph on those who hate me.
  It is better to take refuge in the LORD
    than to trust in man.
  It is better to take refuge in the LORD
    than to trust in princes.
10   All nations surrounded me;
    in the name of the LORD I cut them off!
11   They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side;
    in the name of the LORD I cut them off!
12   They surrounded me like bees;
    they went out like a fire among thorns;
    in the name of the LORD I cut them off!
13   I was pushed hard, so that I was falling,
    but the LORD helped me.
14   The LORD is my strength and my song;
    he has become my salvation.
15   Glad songs of salvation
    are in the tents of the righteous:
  “The right hand of the LORD does valiantly,
16     the right hand of the LORD exalts,
    the right hand of the LORD does valiantly!”
17   I shall not die, but I shall live,
    and recount the deeds of the LORD.
18   The LORD has disciplined me severely,
    but he has not given me over to death.
19   Open to me the gates of righteousness,
    that I may enter through them
    and give thanks to the LORD.
20   This is the gate of the LORD;
    the righteous shall enter through it.
21   I thank you that you have answered me
    and have become my salvation.
22   The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone.
23   This is the LORD’s doing;
    it is marvelous in our eyes.
24   This is the day that the LORD has made;
    let us rejoice and be glad in it.
25   Save us, we pray, O LORD!
    O LORD, we pray, give us success!
26   Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!
    We bless you from the house of the LORD.
27   The LORD is God,
    and he has made his light to shine upon us.
  Bind the festal sacrifice with cords,
    up to the horns of the altar!
28   You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
    you are my God; I will extol you.
29   Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
    for his steadfast love endures forever!