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EXPEDITION: A Season for Praise  Psalm 103  Dr. Scott Wenig  (2nd Service)

{Manuscript–View video for complete content}  Today we’re going to walk our way through Psalm 103. Before we look into this psalm and see what the Lord would teach us through it, I’m going to ask you to join your hearts together with me in prayer.  Father, a couple of moments ago, we sang about how good you are and you are so, so good to all of us.  So, Lord, today, I just ask that you would reveal that side of your character to us in the teaching.  Lord, as we continue to engage you and try to come to know you, I just pray you would pour out your mercy and your grace and your compassion on each of us.  Father, we probably all walked in here today with different things we’re processing through, different issues we’re struggling with, maybe even sins we’re tempted to commit, so, Lord, wherever we’re at, I just pray that you embrace us and love us and show us how much you care for us.  Now as we look into this psalm, Lord, we ask for your Spirit’s guidance, we ask that you might enlighten our minds, we ask that you might touch our hearts, we ask that you would show us who you are and what that means for us.  We pray all this in the great and powerful name of Jesus.  Amen.

Beginning this week, we’re entering into what our society labels ‘the most wonderful time of the year’.  And for many of us, this is a great time because we get to see family and friends, and eat some great food, and read some great books, and go the movies, and sing Christmas carols, and sleep in more than normal.  But for others here, it may not be so wonderful.  The reason why it’s not so much fun is because there’s pain from family dysfunction, or there’s the increasing cost of buying all those gifts, or we have to stand in the security line at DIA with thousands of our closest friends to board a plane which might be delayed at some point due to bad weather. And while the holiday season is really good for lots of us and not so good for others of us, it’s almost always the BUSIEST time of the year for ALL of us.  Regardless of who we are or how old we are, at one point or another we’re probably going to be shopping for presents at the mall or shopping on Amazon.  At some point, we’re going to be standing in line at King Soopers, or standing in line at Starbucks, or standing in line at Starbucks at King Soopers.  We’re going to be attending Christmas concerts and school concerts.  We’re going to be completing the semester.  We’re going to be wrapping up a big project at work before the end of the year, We’re going to be coming to church; we going to be sitting in traffic.  And that’s just in the first week of December.

The holiday season often reflects what the Red Queen said in the famous novel, Alice in Wonderland:  “Now, here you see, it takes all the running you can do to stay in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you’ll have to run at least twice as fast as that!”

And yet in the midst of all the busyness and the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, Scripture calls us to pause for a few moments here and there, to pause beyond Sunday morning, and then from the very deepest part of our being, praise our great God and Savior.  Look how Psalm 103:1 starts off:  Praise the LORD, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name.

Everyone of these psalms in the psalter has what we call a superscription.  It’s a little statement right underneath the number of the psalm and it usually ascribes the psalm to a particular author.  The superscription for Psalm 103 attributes it to David.  If you’ve ever read the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, you know that David was many things throughout the course of his life.  He was a son, a shepherd, a refugee for a large part of his life, a warrior, a politician, a friend, a husband, a father, a poet, a worship leader, and eventually he became Israel’s king.  Many scholars think David wrote this psalm when he was serving as Israel’s king.  I think it’s instructive that in the midst of all his various royal responsibilities, tasks, and duties, he pauses, he reflects, and he calls upon himself, from the deepest part of his being, to praise God.

What’s it mean to praise?  What exactly is that?  Praise is the verbal and emotional expression we give to something or someone that we heartily approve of.  If you’re a music lover, or a movie lover, or a sports fan, you understand what praise is all about.  If you really like a movie, you say, “That movie was fantastic!”   Or if you loved the music, you say, “Man, that concert was great!”  If you’re a sports fan and your team does something really, really well, you get up out of your chair and automatically go, “They were awesome!  That was fantastic!”

Well, that’s what David is expressing here in the psalm. In the midst of everything, as king, that he’s got going on, he’s pausing to say, “God, you’re my Savior, you’re my Lord, and from the deepest part of my soul I want to praise you!”  In fact, the word that’s used here for ‘praise,’ in Psalm 103:1—it’s also translated ‘bless’ in some versions—is the Hebrew word barak.  It means to humbly bow in the presence of someone who is unbelievably great.   Friends, Psalm 103 calls all of us to dedicate some time, some energy, some effort to praising God in the midst of the good times, the tough times, and the really, really busy times that are going to come our way here in the next few weeks.

The most famous Christian missionary of the 19th century was the Englishman, David Livingstone.  By all counts, Livingstone was a person of exceptional gifts, and he was utterly committed to taking the gospel to places and to people where they had never heard of Jesus.  So in 1866, he ventured deep into the African jungle and was not heard of for years; most thought that he had been killed or died of disease.  A few years later, in 1871, Morton Stanley stumbled on Livingstone coming out of the jungle, all emaciated and dehydrated. But the very first thing Livingstone said upon seeing Stanley was Psalm 103:1, “Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise His holy name.”  

See, David comes to us here, friends, and he tells us that regardless of our circumstances, praise can be a core part of who we are, but like everything else in the Christian life, it has to be learned and practiced.  So King David wants to push us in that direction by giving us some very specific reasons to praise our great God.  The first comes to us in Psalm 103:2-5:  Praise the LORD, my soul, and forget not all his benefits—who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

The first reason David tells you and me to praise God is because of the many, many, many benefits He’s bestowed upon us.  Let me walk through these one more time.   God is the One who forgives our sins. He heals our diseases. He redeems our life from the pit.  He crowns us with love and compassion.  He renews our youth by giving us good, good things.  I like the way the great 19th century preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, phrased this:  “Here David begins his list of blessings received which he rehearses as themes and arguments for praise. He selects a few of the choicest pearls from the basket of divine love, threads them on the string of memory and then hangs them on the neck of gratitude.”  I love that, because Spurgeon says in such an eloquent manner that God has blessed us with all of these benefits! 

I want us to pause here for a moment and do just a little bit of personal reflection. Is there one benefit in this list that applies to you more than any of the rest?  Let me rephrase the question:  I mean, we’re all the recipients of all of those benefits, but does one stand out in your mind as a special reason for YOU to praise this great God today?   For me, it’s that second phrase: heals your diseases.  In early December 2005, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. My mom had died about 15 years before that from cancer, and so I knew that if the Lord did not intervene the medical professionals would just buy me some time. But, by God’s grace, my two doctors had caught the cancer early, did a great job of diagnosis and surgery, and were used by the Lord to heal my disease.  Friends, our great and gracious God has blessed us with incredible benefits and even though we’re busy right now—and we’re all going to get a whole lot busier over the next four or five weeks—let’s do what David says here and take some time to pause, reflect, and praise our great God.

David says you should do that first of all because of his many benefits, but then he goes on to give us a second reason to pause and praise God. He says that the Lord deserves our praise because He forgives each and every one of our sins.  Look at verses 6-12:   The LORD works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed.  He made known his ways to Moses, his deeds to the people of Israel:  The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

The historical context that David is referencing here is that period of time in Israel’s history known as the Exodus.  God called Moses to be the human agent of His divine deliverance in bringing the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt.  Then they wandered for forty years in the desert, grumbling, and complaining, and sinning against the Lord who had miraculously delivered them and then provided for their needs.  Sometimes that sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  Maybe sounds a little bit like us.  Praise and gratitude don’t come easily to humanity.  Praise of God is not our normal default mode.  I think that’s especially true for us as Americans, in spite of all our abundance, and our wealth, and our mobility.

In fact, in American society, if things don’t go too well, a lot of Americans have the tendency to grumble, to complain, to blame others, and then sue them.  I don’t know if you knew this, but a few years ago, the San Francisco Giants baseball team was sued for passing out Father’s Day gifts to ONLY men.  Not long after that, a psychology professor sued for sexual harassment because there was the presence of mistletoe at a Christmas party.  One I just read recently about:  A psychic was awarded almost a million dollars in damages when a doctor’s CT scan impaired her psychic abilities.  You have to wonder about that third one a little bit, don’t you?  If she was really a psychic, wouldn’t she had known she shouldn’t have gone to that doctor or gotten that CT scan in the first place?

Psalm 103 pushes back on all that negativity by calling us, as God’s people, to give Him praise.  In this section of the psalm, we’re to praise Him for his gracious forgiveness.  As David says in verse 10, “Listen, listen, listen, He doesn’t treat us as our sins deserve, He forgives our iniquities,” and I love how he states it in verse 12, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.”  So let me ask you, how far, how far, how far is the east from the west?  That’s a wonderfully poetic way of illustrating that our God is never reluctant to forgive humble, penitent sinners.  I’d also like to suggest that this phrase, that David wrote around 1000 bc, points forward 1000 years to when Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross for our sins.  As the Apostle Paul would write in the fifth chapter of his great letter to those first Christians in Rome—God showed His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

The novel Sophie’s Choice was made into a movie back in the early 1980s. The film revolves around the main character, Sophie, who was placed in a German concentration camp along with her two children.  At one point the camp commandant comes to her and says, “Choose. Choose one of your children to live and one of them to die. And if you don’t choose, they’ll both die.”  And so Sophie is forced to make the most horrible decision that any human being, any parent, any mom, would ever have to make.  Choosing one of your children to live and the other child to die. 

Yet the Bible tells us that that’s the choice our heavenly Father was faced with.  On the one hand, He had His Son Jesus who was sinless, holy,  and perfect, and on the other hand He had each one of us who are by nature deeply sinful.  That was the choice our heavenly Father faced, and yet He chose us to live and Jesus to die! Friends, this God that is pictured for us in Psalm 103 is a God of gracious compassion who forgives every single one of our sins, and if only for that, we should pause, bow down, and praise Him every single day!

Listen, listen, listen, David comes to us here and says we should pause and praise God for his many benefits.  We should pause and praise God because of his gracious forgiveness.  But he doesn’t stop there.  He goes on to say that we should also praise God for His everlasting love.  Look at verses 13-18 of this psalm:  As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.  The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.  But from everlasting to everlasting the LORD’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children—with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts.

As David makes crystal clear, we’re all frail and mortal creatures.  We come from the dust of the ground and someday, we’ll return to that.  We’re like grass or flowers that flourish in the summer, but now it’s November and they’re gone. The wind blows over our lives and before we know it, life is over.

I don’t know if you’ve ever come across this website:  You type in your date of birth, gender, and your body mass index—they have a chart to figure it out.  Then you press a button that gives you the date of your death based on actuarial tables from insurance companies.  But the creepy thing is there’s a clock right in your face that’s counting down the seconds!

Friends, we’re mortal, frail creatures.  Some day we will return to dust.  That’s the bad news, but Psalm 103 doesn’t stop there.  It gives us the good news that God gives us His everlasting love.  David mentions God’s love in verse 4 and verse 8 and verse 11 of this psalm.  But I want us to look again at verse 17.  But from everlasting to everlasting the LORD’s love is with those who fear him.  The word that he uses here for love is the Hebrew word hesed.  Hesed means God’s covenant love with His people from eternity past all the way into eternity future.  The Apostle Paul was a great Jewish rabbi.  He knew the Old Testament by heart.  Certainly he had hesed in mind when he wrote that passage in Romans 8 — …neither height nor depth, nor angels or demons, neither the present nor the future, or anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Karl Barth is considered by many to be the greatest Christian theologian of the 20th century.  In 1919 he wrote a brilliant commentary on the Book of Romans that completely changed the nature and scope of biblical studies for the next sixty years.  Then in the 1930s he went on to write a massive four volume treatise of systematic theology known as Church Dogmatics.  On one occasion, after giving a lecture, someone asked Barth for the most profound theological insight he had gained through all his work and scholarship.  And Barth said, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  Friends, you might not believe this, but the truth is Jesus loves you and He loves me.  He is with us through thick and thin, good and bad, sickness and death.  Then, on that great day of His return, He’ll love us beyond what we can think or imagine by resurrecting us from the dead and giving us a glorified body that is not made of dust, that is not frail, that is not mortal, that can do all kinds of unbelievable things and is indestructible for all of eternity!  Friends, in this busy season of the year, David comes to us here in Psalm 103 and he tells us that we should praise God for His many benefits.  You should praise God for His gracious forgiveness.   You should praise God for His everlasting love.

As you read this psalm and you read all these reasons why we should praise God, it makes sense to think that David was ready to draw it to a close. But that’s not what happened.  It’s like that as he thought about how God has done all these things for us, and how great God is, and how we have all these reasons why we should praise Him, David got more inspired.  It looks like he got more emotional and more and more pumped up.  I imagine him sitting in his room in the early evening, and as he comes to this section of the psalm, he’s so wired he gets up and runs outside.  He looks up to the sky and it’s become dark and he sees all those stars—those million and million of stars and galaxies.  He calls on the entire cosmos to break out in praise of this great and glorious God.  Look what he says here in 19-22:  The LORD has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all.  Praise the LORD, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word. Praise the LORD, all his heavenly hosts, you his servants who do his will.  Praise the LORD, all his works everywhere in his dominion.  Praise the LORD, my soul.

In 1741, the great German composer George Frederick Handel composed what quickly became his most famous oratorio, “Handel’s Messiah.” Written in three parts, it follows the narrative of the New Testament from the birth of Jesus the Messiah, through His life, death, resurrection, and his ascension.  Handel also went on to include Jesus’s promised return to get us in glory. The high point of “Handel’s Messiah” is the famous “Hallelujah Chorus” which always brings audiences to their feet in a standing ovation.  These final four verses of Psalm 103 are David’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ to this great and awesome God that you and I get to serve.  David’s calling on everyone and everything in the universe, from the tiniest creature to the largest galaxy, including angels and heavenly hosts, to rise up and praise this great and glorious God who has given us so very much, and who sovereignly rules and reigns over all!

As Aaron and the team come up on stage, I want us to do the exact same thing that David is calling the cosmos to do. I want us to stand on our feet, in honor of this Old Testament version of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus,’ and then from the deepest part of who we are, let’s give praise to God for his many blessings, his gracious forgiveness, his everlasting love!