Good evening. Welcome to the CPC Lenten series on the Hallel Psalms. For those of you who do not know me, my name is Stephen W. Hiemstra. Since graduating from seminary in 2013, I have been a Christian author and volunteer in Hispanic ministry.
This evening we focus on Psalm 116, a thanksgiving psalm that celebrates our personal salvation in the midst of a dangerous world.
Let’s begin with prayer.
All praise and honor are yours, because you hear our prayers, comfort us in our afflictions, and rescue us from death itself.
We confess that we are unworthy of your affections and we thank you for teaching us to love.
Draw us now to yourself. In the power of your Holy Spirit, open our hearts, illumine our minds, and strengthen our hands in your service. In Jesus precious name, Amen.
What brings you joy? (2X)
In 2012 I worked at Providence Hospital as a chaplain intern and requested assignment to the Alzheimer’s unit in Carroll Manor. There I met a man who I will call Albert.
Albert spent his days wandering up and down the halls in the lock-down unit. Albert would come up to you and attempt to talk, but could only blather incoherently, which disturbed him greatly. Other patients could talk; Albert could only blather.
One Friday afternoon, I recruited some patients to attend Happy Hour. Happy Hour was mostly a punch and cookie affair, but they often invited musicians to entertain the guests.
So being the trouble-maker that I am, I recruited about a dozen patients, including Albert, and headed for the door. As I punched us out, a nurse ran up to me.
Steve, Steve. Where are you going?
We’re going to Happy Hour.
But you can only take three patients.
So, I recruited several reluctant nurses and headed again towards the door.
Again, the nurse approached me. Wait a minute—you can’t take Albert. He will wander off.
I will keep a special eye on Albert!
So finally, with my dozen patients and the reluctant nurses I took the elevator up to Happy Hour.
Well, we had a blast. The jazz saxophonist playing that afternoon was just wonderful. My patients all got up and started dancing to the music, including Albert. Alzheimer’s patients, unlike other seniors, always have fun because they have forgotten what it means to be shy and embarrassed.
Before we were done, Albert had danced with at least three different women and he came back to the unit speaking in complete sentences. (2X) His awakening lasted another six weeks that I know about. His joy at hearing Jazz music again healed him of his former blathering, which I took as a bonified miracle. IT REALLY WAS A MIRACLE.
Well, if a little joy can bring the absent-minded Alzheimer’s patient back to earth, how much more can the joy of salvation in Jesus Christ change human lives, our lives?
What brings joy to our psalmist this evening?
The first four verses of Psalm 116 tell his story—
I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy. 2Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live. 3The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish. 4Then I called on the name of the LORD: “O LORD, I pray, deliver my soul!” (Slide 1)
Verse one here explains his joy—“I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy.” Actually, English translations insert the word, LORD, which does not appear in the original Hebrew or in the Septuagint Greek. The Hebrew simply reads: I have loved because he has heard my voice…We hear an echo of the original Hebrew in John’s first letter: “We love because he first loved us.”(1 John 4:19)
Moving on to verse two, the psalmist reiterates the importance of being heard and takes a vow: “Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live.” This vow is interesting because if you pray or sing this psalm, as is the custom, you also repeat this vow.
How many of us haven’t repeated this vow? I certainly have. My call story began back in 1992 when I cried out to the Lord in Georgetown University hospital over my ten-week-old son, Reza, as he waited for risky emergency surgery for a blocked kidney. God heard my prayer. The surgery succeeded; today my son works as an engineer in Phoenix and here I am as a testimony to answered prayer.
Why is listening so important to the psalmist? Verse three reiterates the answer three times: “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish.” In other words,death had surrounded me; hell had opened its doors to pull me in; and I was terrified. The repetition assures us that the psalmist’s vow in verse two is not to be taken lightly.
Verse four then closes the loop by returning to the second half of verse one. Verse one talks of “pleas for mercy, while verse four cites the psalmist’s actual prayer: “O LORD, I pray, deliver my soul!”
So what brings joy to the psalmist? The Lord rescued him from death. Commentators believe Psalm 116 is a crib notes version of Psalm 18 where King David recounts his own brush with death. Even more bone-crushing details can be found in 2 Samuel 22.
Let me pivot at this point to reflect on the backstory to Psalm 116. In this respect, let me draw your attention to the pattern in Psalm 116 that relates to the promise of Moses in Deuteronomy 30.
Hear the word of the Lord:
“And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, and return to the LORD your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you.”(Deut. 30:1-3) (Slide 2)
This passage in Deuteronomy is known as the Deuteronomic cycle. The cycle can be summarized as committing sin, earning the curse, crying out to the Lord, and, then, being redeemed. This cycle appears repeatedly in the Book of Judges.
Probably the most familiar example in Judges is the story of Gideon. The cycle starts with sin and the resulting curse. In Judges 6:1 we read:
“The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD gave them into the hand of Midian seven years.”(Jdg 6:1) (Slide 3)
After being persecuted by the Midianites, the people cry out to the Lord in verse 6 and the Lord sends an angel to call on Gideon, who is busy hiding wheat from the Midianites in a winepress (verse 11).
Gideon then assembles an elite team of three hundred men to fight against the army of the Midianites described as too numerous to number, like locusts ravaging the land. Responding to a vision in a dream, this team woke the Midianites in the middle of the night with trumpets and torches (2X). Frightened in the night, the Midianites began slaughtering each other in the dark (Jdg 7:22).
In this manner, the Lord freed the Israelite people from the oppression of the Midianites and brought them the joy of salvation.
Interestingly, the Deuteronomic cycle usually applies to the Nation of Israel as a whole and brought salvation from oppression. Following the pattern established in Psalm 18, however, Psalm 116 applies salvation to the individual rather than to the nation (2X).
Note that the Deuteronomic cycle starts with the commission of sin—the curses of Deuteronomy are a consequence of disobeying the Mosaic covenant.Thus, the cycle can once again be summarized as committing sin, earning the curse, crying out to the Lord, and, then, being redeemed.
Our redemption in Christ follows this same pattern. We sin; we get into trouble; we ask for forgiveness; Christ offers us redemption.
The key to understanding this parallel is to see sin as a form of oppression (2X). We all experience besetting sins—addictions small and great–that we cannot shake on our own. If gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins, it is also a besetting sin that can destroy our self-esteem, ruin our health, and undermine our relationships. Just like the Midianites oppressed Israel, we can be oppressed by besetting sins and we need to cry out to the Lord for our forgiveness and salvation.
Thus, Psalm 116’s personalized the Deuteronomic cycle and directly anticipated the New Testament and our salvation in Christ. In fact, if Jesus and the disciples sang Psalm 116 after the Last Supper, they took this very same vow and, in the resurrection, Jesus experienced God’s deliverance, as the Apostle Paul described in his letter to the Colossians:
“And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”(Col. 1:18-19)
What brings you joy?
Thank you for listening to us, forgiving our sin, rescuing us in perilous times, and bringing joy to our lives. Be with us now as we return to our homes and daily work. In Jesus’ precious name. Amen.
Brueggemann, Walter. 2016. Money and Possessions. Interpretation series. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. (Review)
Groseclose, Win. 2015. The Egyptian Hallel Psalms: An Exposition of Psalms 113-118—Observations: Practical, Exegetical, and Theological. New Sewickley Township, PA (Review)
Tucker, W. Dennis Jr. and Jamie A. Grant. 2018. The NIV Application Commentary: Psalms, Volume 2. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Wenham, Gordon J. 2012. Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. (Review Part 1, Part 2)
While in the Old Testament salvation focused on the Exodus from Egypt, in the Testament salvation focused on the return of the exiles from Babylon. Judea was a Babylonian vassal nation that had rebelled so the New Testament focus on salvation from the sin of rebellion, which was an analogy to the original sin in Genesis where Adam and Eve rebelled against God’s rule by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
In the New Testament, the only citation of Psalm 116 appears in a context of persecution in 2 Corinthians 4:13.
A lot of people scoff at the idea that salvation and eternal life are real because of skepticism about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul, for example, writes about the importance of the resurrection for our faith in these terms:“if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” (1 Cor 15:14) The resurrection of Christ implies that Jesus lives and will return in the future to bring us home to our true residence in heaven.
The Mechanics of Resurrection
Knowing that the future is in Christ, through faith we know that the future is secure and is good, because we serve a God who loves us and is himself holy and good. Jesus is our rock, as he reminds us:
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.” (Matt 7:24-25)
But not everyone is convinced. How do we know the sequence of events in our salvation and the path to our eternal life?
The Apostle Paul, who met the Risen Christ on the Road to Damascus, answered this question this way:
“that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil. 3:10-11)
In other words, I know that I will be raised from the dead because I have shared in Christ’s suffering and death.
Faith and the Soul
In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul writes again this subject:
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body– Jews or Greeks, slaves or free– and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many.” (1 Cor 12:12-14)
Here Paul is talking specifically about the nature of the church, but a second interpretation is possible.
In Christian thinking, we often talk about the soul, which today we might refer to as our identity. In Hebrew thinking the word soul implies body, mind, spirit, and the people who will are in relationship with. When we come to Christ, we invite the Holy Spirit into our lives, which means that we are also from that point forward in relationship with God. Our soul has forever changed. Much like we are one body in Christ (the church), we are also one with God, who is eternal.
Being one with God implies that our identity is now held in common with the people of the church and with God. Because God is eternal, being in union with God implies that our identity is now eternal.
Example from Alzheimer’s Disease
For those of you unaccustomed to this notion of shared identity and the soul,
what happens to your identity when your mind is taken over with a disease, like Alzheimer’s? Do you stop being a person? Do you loose your identity because you no longer remember who you are? Not at all. When you meet a person with Alzheimer’s disease, their identity is retained, at a minimum, by the people around them who order their favorite foods and tell their stories.
It is no different when we die. When we die, our identity is retained not only by all of the people that knew us, but also for the Christian by the Holy Spirit, who is eternal. God who created us from dust can easily recreate us, complete with our identity, our souls, because we are in relationship.
“The LORD said to Moses, Consecrate to me all the firstborn.”
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
Around 1980 after I returned from year’s study in Germany, I returned to Iowa to visit my grandparents and other family. My grandparents had moved to Oskaloosa at that point, but continued to rent the farm to a neighbor who purchased the farm outright about four years later. Grandpa Frank and I drove out the farm to take care of some chores when he engaged me in conversation about seminary. He encouraged me to go to seminary saying that he would pay my tuition, but I was more interested in the prospect of entering a career in agriculture. I will always remember the look that he gave me—he clearly thought I was nuts to even consider farming.
Later in that trip I drove up to Clarion, Iowa to visit my Uncle Hubert’s family who all farmed a section of land that Hubert had purchased during the Great Depression. Hubert, who was Frank’s cousin and not a close relative, bought land when everyone else was leaving agriculture in those days because he felt strongly that families should stick together and that farming afforded the opportunity for children to grow up with roots that were not available to kids growing up in the city. Hubert mentored my father when he attended Iowa State University in the 19050s and then he mentored me when I attended Iowa State. As a local republican party chairman, he knew everyone and introduced me to the governor and several presidential candidates who would always stop by for a visit at local political gatherings.
Hubert’s kids did not pick up his interest in agricultural politics. Hubert set up his kids, a son and two daughters, in farming that same section of land and built himself a modest home on one of the properties as a retirement residence. His generosity led, however, to family conflict because his son, the oldest, believed that he should inherit the entire property. This disagreement led to a family split. When I would visit, I would be received at each farmstead and bear news of the siblings at each stop along the way. They were so close and yet so far from each other—Hubert’s generosity was not enough to overcome this jealousy and his pain ran deep enough that years later he despaired greatly, but always to himself.
On this particular trip, I was invited to a dinner party but everyone seemed a bit distant. I sat on a couch for a few minutes before I recognized that the young woman sitting next to me was someone that I was actually quite fond of several years earlier. She was one of Hubert’s grand-daughters and lived in Minnesota, far from my usual stomping grounds when I attended Iowa State. As we talked, she related how she had been a year in Brazil as a foreign student, much like I had been in Germany. She also felt rather distant in the group. Recognizing a common issue, I questioned other family members about why they were not talking with us. They responded that they did not think that we, as world travelers, would find their company very interesting. I quickly dispelled that idea; the ice was soon broken; and I was able to enjoy their hospitality to its fullest.
Hospitality was always a core value in the Hiemstra family.
On a later trip in October 1996, my office at the Comptroller of the Currency sent me to an agricultural bankers’ conference in Des Moines. Because my uncle, Dave, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in August, I rented a car and drove to Cedar Rapids to visit him. Dave met me with complete grace and we spent the day quietly putting together puzzles, which were long a favorite family pass-time. Puzzles offer shy people the opportunity to hang out with no requirement that anyone be forced to make conversation. Conversation was certainly not on my mind—what do you say to someone dying that you will never see again in this life?
At one point, we took a break from putting puzzles together and Dave made a puzzling comment—“I don’t know that I am good enough to go to heaven”. I was shocked; I took his statement as a theological question; I was shocked because his brother, John, is a pastor and I certainly was not—at the time, I was only an agricultural economist—why was he asking me? I assured him that as a Christian his salvation was assured, even if life is sometimes a bit confusing. To make my point, I cited the Apostle Paul:
“So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:7-9)
If the Apostle Paul could suffer weakness and be saved, then so could we, I argued. Dave seemed satisfied by my explanation and remained ever gracious. When I stood speechless at his door, not knowing what to say, he reached over and kissed me on the cheek goodbye—Dave is the only man that I have ever allowed to kiss me.
Dave’s question about salvation and my grandfather’s offer to pay for seminary puzzled me for years. I later learned that my grandfather held the doctrine of the first fruits close to his heart. He was not himself the oldest sibling, but as a young man wanted to enter the ministry but did not have his father’s support so he went into farming. My uncle, John, was the oldest sibling and pursued a career as a minister in the Reformed Church in America. As the oldest grandchild, grandpa naturally looked to me to go into ministry and in God’s timing I did eventually hear the call.
We praise you for your gift of salvation available to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ who is our great high priest that transcends our weakness having also been tempted yet without sin (Heb 4:15) For out of Him, by means of Him, and into Him are all things created, sustained, and restored (Rom 11:36). And we are grateful. In the power of your Holy Spirit, work in us to complete our journey from isolation in ourselves to the person that we were created to be, from isolation from others to full persons able to offer hospitality to others, and from isolation from God to people of faith able in your power to cast off sin and idolatry. In the power of your Holy Spirit, enable us to follow the example of Jesus Christ who in life, in death, and in resurrection was merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Exod. 34:6). Especially in teachable moments, like persecution. In Jesus’ name, Amen.