A Call to Thanksgiving (Psalm 103)
In a biography about the 19th century Scottish pastor John Brown of Haddington, a story is told about a shop keeper who owned a certain dry goods store. One of the things he sold was gun powder which was kept in large barrels in the basement. One day, while the proprietor was at his desk doing his books or something like that, an employee went down to the basement to retrieve something, taking a candle to light the way. Somehow, the fire from the candle ignited the gun powder and it blew him and the entire shop to kingdom come. The store owner was also blown in his chair quite a ways down the street, but he nevertheless emerged from the ordeal completely unscathed. And so every year after that, on the anniversary of that day, he would spend it in fasting and thanksgiving, in gratitude to God for sparing his life.
How things have changed. In these days, many (if not most) folks would just chalk that kind of survival up to luck, or make jokes about it. R. C. Sproul tells the story of a famous golfer who was struck by lightening (and survived) while playing golf. When he was interviewed later, he made the comment that when God wants to play through, you bePer get out of the way!
How do you look at your life? Do you look at it through the lens of thanksgiving to God? Or do you look at it through a different lens: luck, chance, fate? Are you a grateful person or a grumbling person?
In the NT epistles, the Christian is called upon to give “thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:20), to be anxious for nothing but “in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God” (Phil. 4:6), to abound in thanksgiving (Col. 2:6), and that we should in “everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thess. 5:18). Clearly, there is a lot of emphasis in the NT epistles on the imperative of thanksgiving, and that we ought always to cultivate the attitude of gratitude.
On the other hand, the apostle Paul writes to the Romans, that “when they [people who made up idolatrous Gentile society] knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things” (Rom. 1:21-23). Thus, the opposite of ingratitude is linked by the apostle with idolatry, indicating that it is impossible to fail in this area without serious spiritual repercussions. An ungrateful person is not just an ungrateful person; he or she inevitably ends up an idolatrous person, replacing allegiance to the uncreated God with created things.
Thanksgiving is therefore a serious thing. We can see this confirmed in another way. The opposite of thanksgiving is grumbling or murmuring. Here is what the apostle Paul said about the Israelites in the wilderness: “Neither murmur ye, as some of them also murmured, and were destroyed of the destroyer” (1 Cor. 10:10). To use a phrase of Jeremy Taylor’s: what this shows us is that God threatens terrible things if we will not be thankful.
But it’s not as if we don’t have cause to be thankful. It’s not as if there is not abundant reason for gratitude, no maPer who we are and no maPer what we have been through. To be thankful is not just a good thing to do and be; it is the right thing to do and be.
This Sunday is a good time to consider the duty and delight of thanksgiving, since we will be celebrating the day of Thanksgiving this coming Thursday. To stir you up to it, I want to consider with you for a few moments some of the themes of Psalm 103. You will notice that it begins and ends the same way: “Bless the Lord, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name. . . . Bless the Lord, all his works in all places of his dominion: bless the Lord, O my soul” (1, 22). In this psalm, King David stirs himself up to bless the Lord, to give thanks to the Lord for all his gifts to him. In considering this psalm together, I want to look at the reasons given why we along with David should be thankful to the Lord. In particular, let’s look at things we should remember. A lot of times, our inability to be thankful is linked to a failure to remember. So this is where we should start. We should remember the gifts of God, first to ourselves and then to his people (1-7). Then we should remember God’s grace (8-10), his greatness (11-13), and his guarantee (14- 19). As the psalm ends with a final call to bless the Lord, so let our lives from beginning to end be one of thanksgiving (20-22).
“Bless the Lord, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits” (1-2). The psalmist begins by encouraging himself to bless the Lord. He doesn’t wait for someone else to remind him of it. Rather, he takes the initiative. He calls his own heart to gratitude to the Lord.
In the same way, you ought to stir yourself up to thanksgiving. Don’t wait for it to hit you. Don’t wait until you “feel” like it. Take the initiative. Call your heart to a thankful spirit. Don’t be content until “all that is within you” – your affections – are quickened and stirred to make the thanksgiving more than a mere outward duty but the expression of inward delight in God and his gifts.
We must begin by remembering. Not being made to remember but making ourselves remember. Remember, forget not. Again, one of the chief causes of our lack of a thankful heart is a forgenul heart. Remember that the benefits of God toward us are many. List them until you are convinced of this. And remember that God is the source of our benefits. This means that we are positively to direct our thoughts towards the benefits God’s has given us to. Negatively, it means that we are to uproot all those thoughts that make us biPer against God or cause us to interpret his works in the worst possible light.
Remember God’s Gifts (3-7)
But again we must be specific. We cannot just deal in generalities. We cannot do so, for the things that stir up our hearts to bitterness are most often very specific. Unless we can combat the thoughts that breed bitterness and unbelief with specific examples of God’s goodness and gifts, we will probably find it hard to maintain an attitude of gratitude.
This is what King David does. He doesn’t just call upon his heart to bless the Lord, but he gets down to brass tacks. He gives multiple, specific instances of God’s goodness toward him. He does this in verses 3- 5: “Who forgiveth all thine iniquities; who healeth all thy diseases; who redeemeth thy life from destruction; who crowneth thee with lovingkindness and tender mercies; who satisfieth thy mouth with good things; so that thy youth is renewed like the eagle's.”
Gifts towards himself (3-5)
Notice the things he lists. This is not, of course, meant to be an exhaustive list, but this is certainly a good place to start for all of us. Let consider them under the heading of pardon, protection, promotion, and provision.
David was a sinner, just like I am and just like you are. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). There are other psalms which are psalms of lament in which David and confesses and mourns over specific sins. Just as our thanksgiving needs to be specific, so often does our confession. We can talk about God forgiving our sins, but until we can point to specific sins in our lives and are willing to say that those sins are so evil and vile that they are worthy of eternal punishment, we almost certainly know liPle about our need for forgiveness.
To thank God for the forgiveness of sins implies at least two things. First of all, that he is the one we have sinned against. We may have sinned against other people; almost always our sins do affect other people, even our most private sins. But ultimately and most importantly our sins are sins against God. It is his law we have broken; it is his just authority over us that we have unjustly flaunted. King David put it this way in another psalm: “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest” (Ps. 51:4). What makes this statement so remarkable is that he said this in the wake of his sin with Bathsheba and against Uriah. In fact, he confesses the sin of bloodshed: “Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness” (14). And yet even so, David felt the reality that as bad as his sin was against Uriah, his sin against God was infinitely worse. It cannot be otherwise: to sin against a person is to sin against someone like we are. But to sin against God is to sin against infinite majesty and authority and glory. My sin against another person may be heinous; but even the Tiniest sin against God is infinitely despicable and worthy of infinite punishment.
The second thing thanking God for the forgiveness of sins implies is that God is the only one who can forgive our sins. It is important that we understand that this is not a transaction between us and the Lord as if we pay him back for the debt we owe, and he remits the punishment. No one is forgiven because of something they have done. No one merits forgiveness from God. It is an act of grace: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy” (8).
How is it an act of grace? It is an act of grace because of the promise of God to forgive those who receive the forgiveness offered in the gospel. We can have forgiveness, not because we merit it, but because Jesus Christ, God’s eternal Son, did. He died for our sins when he died on the cross, by standing in our place and taking the punishment that was due to our sins against God. Because of what our Lord has done for us – what we could never have done – David and we can be declared forgiven by sheer grace and mercy through faith in Christ.
Of all the gifts of God to us, this is incomparably the best of all. Through forgiveness, we are reconciled to God, and we have eternal life and everlasting blessedness to look forward to. This life, bad as it can get sometimes, is a vapor, but the age to come is endless. This is what is given to all who are forgiven in Christ.
Protection (from disease and destruction)
“Who healeth all thy diseases.” Now some take this to mean spiritual healing. Perhaps so. But I don’t see why it can’t refer to physical healing as well. The health that we have today is health given to us by God. Note that and thank him for it!
Someone may argue back and say, “Well, no, God didn’t make me physically healthy. I’m physically healthy because I have taken measures to prevent bad health. I don’t eat unhealthy foods, I exercise, and so on.”
There are a number of problems with this type of thinking. First, it assumes a “god-of-the-gaps.” It assumes that God can only be credited with something if I can’t explain it. But God is not the god of the gaps. He is the God of the whole show. He is the God who created your body so that if you take care of it, it will be healthy. He is the God who gave you the mind to understand how to take care of your body.
Second, I have known people who have been health freaks, and yet end up with diseases anyway. The length of life is not necessarily determined by your caloric intake or your consumption of certain types of foods or the amount of exercise you take. Our days are numbered, and God knows their number, not the health guru you follow on Instagram.
Nor does this verse teach that God always heals all our diseases. Of course he doesn’t. We will all die, some sooner than others. But the fact is that whatever health we do have, the ultimate credit belongs to God, and we ought to thank him for it. We don’t deserve it, do we? And yet He holds your very being in existence, every cell in your body that works properly is a gift of God, and every breath you take is a gift from God.
“Who redeemeth thy life from destruction.” There is a verse in 1 Sam. 20 where David tells Jonathan, King Saul’s son, that “there is but a step between me and death” (3). It was a correct appraisal on some level. The king wanted David dead because he perceived him to be a threat to his reign and kingdom. As you read the account of David’s early life, you see that time after time his life was in danger. But as David looked back over his life, he also saw another reality. That time after time, God protected him from danger.
Here is an instance that I love to read every time I go through the Bible each year. Recorded in 1 Samuel 23, it is the time when David and his men are on one side of a mountain and Saul and his forces are on the other side. Saul , knowing where David is, sends his forces around both sides of the mountain to encircle David, and would almost certainly have caught him (and then promptly executed him), but we are told that at the last minute Saul receives urgent news that the Philistines – Israel’s ancient enemy – have invaded the land and Saul has to call off his pursuit of David in order to deal with the Philistines.
I don’t doubt but that David was thinking of times like this when we blessed God for redeeming his life from the grave. What about you? Just because God doesn’t save everyone from an early death does not mean that when it does happen he is not behind it. I think of Larry who just a few weeks ago was hit by a car and sent flying 20 feet and we wondered: how is he going to survive? Yet he has – and the courage and faith he has shown through it all has been a blessing to watch. Yes, there is mystery here: why didn’t God protect Larry from the car in the first place? He didn’t – and yet, we rightly credit God for his deliverance through that ordeal. God redeemed his life from destruction. I’m sure we can all look back on times in our lives where God has done the same thing for us too. Thank God for it!
“Who crowneth thee with lovingkindness and tender mercies.” What promotion! To be crowned by God with his lovingkindness is the highest honor and blessing. By this phrase David indicates that the things he is thankful for are not random acts of kindness; rather, they spring from God’s undying commitment to him. The two words here are indicative of that commitment. “Lovingkindness” is sometimes translated “steadfast love” and sometimes by “faithfulness” or “covenant faithfulness” (it is the Hebrew word hesed). It is a rich and wonderful word. Again, it indicates that God’s blessings have God’s love and faithfulness behind them. With God’s steadfast love comes his tender mercies. David sees these as a crown on his head, bePer than any earthly crown for sure.
It’s important for us to remember this. God is not indifferent towards his children. What David will say in a few verses amplifies this point: “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him” (13). Listen, God is generous toward us (cf. Jam. 1:5). Our lives are covered in God’s lovingkindness and tender mercies. We don’t have to look far to see them. Thank God for them and bless his name!
Finally, with respect to the blessings with which God has given to David, he writes, “who satisfieth thy mouth with good things; so that thy youth is renewed like the eagle's.” Clearly, David is talking about the provision of food here that sustains him and gives him strength. The eagle was a symbol of strength and vitality, and so David acknowledges that again the liberality of God towards him.
Does this seem too prosaic to you? To thank God for food? We often do this of course as a maPer of course, but do we really mean it? Our Lord, when he taught us to pray, said that we should pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Which means that when we receive our daily bread, we should thank him for it. We should acknowledge the fact that the food we have is a gift of God. The fact that we might have so much of it is not a reason for taking it for granted. Thank God for your daily provision of food!
We should not only thank God for his goodness to ourselves, however. We should remember that as God’s people, we belong to a larger community and our prayers ought to reflect that. It has been often observed that the Lord’s Prayer is prayed in the plural rather than in the singular. Our prayers ought to be like that. David’s was, which is why he moves from praise for private blessings to praise for public ones.
Gifts towards the People of God (6-7)
“The Lord executeth righteousness and judgment for all that are oppressed. He made known his ways unto Moses, his acts unto the children of Israel.” In verse 6, the psalmist is probably thinking of God’s justice in rescuing Israel from the hands of the Egyptians who enslaved them for four hundred years. In the next verse, he specifies Moses as the one God chose to lead God people out of slavery.
David saw himself in the stream of God’s redemptive plan that included the people of Israel with whom he made this covenant at Mount Sinai. The blessings he received as an individual were tied to the blessings he received as a member of God’s covenant people and then as king over them. And he is blessing God for that here.
In the same way, when God saves us through faith in Christ, he unites us not only to Christ but also to his church. And we ought to thank God for the church. It is such a gift to participate in the life of the church, in the life of the New Covenant people of God. Just as God was revealing himself and his word through the nation of Israel, God is revealing himself and his gospel through the church. His saving acts are still being seen through the people of God as they live out and share the word of God.
Are you thankful for the church? I know that a lot of people are down and out when it comes to the church. “They’re all a bunch of hypocrites,” and so on. When I hear that, I just want to say, “Gimmie a break!” You think there aren’t hypocrites everywhere else? And what about yourself? If you’re honest, you’re one too. Of course the church is going to have hypocrites in it, because the church has sinful people in it who aren’t yet perfect. I’m not of course condoning sin in the church. When we sin we should acknowledge that and repent of that. But don’t hold the church up to a standard you’re not willing to hold your own self up to.
And despite its imperfections, the reality is that God is doing wonderful things through the church. It is through the church that we grow in Christ, that we exercise our spiritual gifts and are used by God in helping others in their sanctification. It is in the context of the church that we are best situated to be warned and weaned off our sins. And it is through the church that a lot of people outside the church are helped as well. Churches are the forces behind most of the educational establishments in this country and around the world. It is the church, not the state, that is the origin behind the hospital. And it is as the people of God shine their light in the world around them that many people find help and hope. And so we bless God that he is still making known his ways through the church to the world as they hold forth the word of life.
Why can we expect God to be like this? The answer lies, not in us, but in who God is. That is why the rest of the psalm focuses on attributes of God’s good nature. In particular, we are to remember God’s goodness (8-10), God’s greatness (11-13), and God’s guarantee (14-19).
Remember God’s Grace (8-10)
“The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger for ever. He hath not dealt with us aHer our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.”
In remembering God’s nature, David is remembering how God revealed himself to Moses when he asked God to show him his glory. The Lord responded through the following declaration: “And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation” (Deut. 34:6-7). David’s God is not one of his own imagination. It is the God who revealed himself in history through Moses on Mount Sinai.
In his revelation to Moses, God declared unequivocally that he is holy: he will not clear the guilty. And yet he is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy.” How do you reconcile those two things? You reconcile them on the cross. God has never and will never just look the other way. He will never let a single sin go unpunished. If anyone is forgiven, it is only because on the cross Christ took our place and suffered for our sin and took the punishment we deserved. The atonement is, I think, the only way you can make sense of Deut. 34:6-7.
It is because of Christ that God does not deal with us according to our sins, and that instead of being quick to judge he is merciful and gracious. All who relate to God through Christ have all their sins forgiven and are no longer under condemnation (Rom. 8:1). We need to understand how profound this blessing is: that those who are in Christ never relate to God on the basis of their goodness but on the basis of Christ’s finished work. And that means that the realities of Ps. 103:8-10 are always true for all who belong to Jesus. Praise God for this indescribable gift!
When we are tempted to be angry with God, let us always remember this reality. God is gracious and he does not deal with us according to our iniquities. Our trials are always fewer than our sins.
Remember God’s Greatness (11-13)
“For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us. Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him.”
It is not only important to remember that God is gracious, but that God is incomparably gracious and merciful to all those who belong to him through the merit of Christ. We should not always compare God’s mercy and grace with the way people are gracious and merciful. As God’s greatness is unsearchable, so is he mercy. You will never get to the boPom of it. You will never be able to reach its heights: “For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him.”
And such is the extent, the greatness, of his forgiveness, that when God forgives a sinner, he never holds that sin against him or her again: “As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.” The point, of course, is that east and west never meet. In the same way, God will never bring up our sins against us when he puts them away. As the prophet Micah put it, “Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? he retaineth not his anger forever, because he delighteth in mercy. He will turn again; he will have compassion upon us; he will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea” (17-18).
But then the psalmist does compare God’s kindness to human tenderness, namely, the affection a father has for his children. Why does he do that? Well, I think it is in part to remind us that God is personal, and that he relates to us in a personal way. God is not some impersonal cosmic force that we cannot have a relationship with. He is not like us in many ways, and he is infinitely above us in the ways we are like him. Nevertheless, God does, in all his greatness, relate to us in the way a father relates to his children. The pardon we receive from our Lord is not like that which a criminal might receive from a king. The criminal has received his beneficence, but he is never likely to appear before him, and certainly never to relate to him as a child to a father. But this is what God does: he takes his enemies and makes them his children. Surely this is something for which we should be thankful.
Remember God’s guarantee (14-19)
“For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust. As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more. But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children's children; to such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them. The Lord hath prepared his throne in the heavens; and his kingdom ruleth over all.”
In considering God’s blessings which we have received, we need to remember that the guarantee of God’s goodness and grace does not depend on us. That’s the point of this part of the psalm. This is what King David glories in and is thankful for. God knows who we are; he knows we are but dust and ashes and that our time here on earth is a brief moment. God will not therefore let the weight of his promise hang on our necks. He carries the promise through. He is the guarantee that his steadfast love will endure forever. And he can carry through his promise precisely because he is eternal and sovereign. His mercy is from everlasting because he is, and because his kingdom rules over all there is no place where his mercy cannot reach.
If you belong to the Lord, if you are among those who fear his name, keep his commandments, and who have entered into covenant with God through faith in Christ, then these are all realities you can thank God for. And so therefore, let us not hesitate to praise God, to bless him, for his goodness towards us. Let us join with the psalmist in praising God: “Bless the Lord, ye his angels, that excel in strength, that do his commandments, hearkening unto the voice of his word. Bless ye the Lord, all ye his hosts; ye ministers of his, that do his pleasure. Bless the Lord, all his works in all places of his dominion: bless the Lord, O my soul” (20-22).