Psalm 66 is the history of an individual believer as he or she walks with God though a time of crisis and beyond. It is one of those texts in which Scripture vindicates itself, and lays its claim upon the reader. The Psalm is not less than 2500 years old, yet it is so timeless that, with just a few modifications, it could have been written by any 21st century believer calling upon God in a time of trouble. What the psalmist did; we do; let’s take a look.
1. In verse five the Psalmist invites us to “come and see what the Lord has done.” He then recalls how Israel passed “over the sea as on dry land, and through the river Jordan on foot.” It was Moses who led the children of Israel through the Sea of Reeds. You will certainly recall how a strong east wind blew all night, and the waters stood in a heap, and the children of Israel passed over the sea as on dry ground; but when the Egyptians tried to follow, the waters rushed back in upon them, “and horse and rider were cast into the sea.” Perhaps you will also recall how Joshua led the children of Israel over the river Jordan and into the Promised Land. Joshua put the Arc of the Covenant at the head of his army to indicate that the children of Israel were following God. According to the text of Joshua three, as soon as the feet of the priests who were carrying the ark dipped in the brink, the waters of the river rose up in a heap far-off, and the people passed through the river on foot to win victory after victory over the people of the land.
The miracle at the Sea, and to a lesser extent, the miracle at the River, were formative for the people of Israel. For centuries to come, every-time there was a crisis in the nation, a prophet would rise up to exhort the people to “remember what the LORD God did to Pharaoh and to Egypt,” or to “remember when God delivered them from slavery,” or simply to “remember the LORD who is great and awesome.”
The premise is simple—the God who acted for the benefit of the nation in the past, has the power to act for the benefit of the nation in the present. A devout Jew could have written the first verse of one of my favorite Christian hymns:
O God our help in Ages past,
Our hope for years to come;
Our shelter in the stormy blast;
And our Eternal Home.
We Christians have a miracle of our own to sustain us in times of crisis: The Resurrection of Jesus. The uniform witness of the New Testament is that Jesus was rejected by the leaders of Israel, turned over to the Romans, crucified under Pontius Pilate, died, and was buried; but on the third day, God raised him from death, and exalted him to the right hand of the majesty on high, giving him a name that is above every name. Over a period of forty days, the Risen One showed himself alive to his disciples by many proofs. Then he sent the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, and they came to know him not as a beloved teacher who died before his time; but as a living Savior who continued to walk with them in good times and in bad.
Just as devout Jews once thought that all things were possible for the God who delivered them from slavery in Egypt, so the first Christians came came to believe that all things were possible for the God who raised Jesus from death. Today, every church in every place proclaims that the same power that took Jesus Christ out of the grave is available to us today, not just in the moment of death; but in the midst of life! If we aren’t doing that, we aren’t really the church.
2. The Psalmist not only invites us to recall how God worked wonders to deliver the nation of Israel; but he also invites us to remember that God did not work these wonders until after he has severely tested the nation. In verse ten the Psalmist says that God tried the people of Israel “as silver is tried.” He says that God “brought them into the net, laid burdens on their backs, and let people ride over their heads.”
This is a clear reference to Israel’s time of slavery in Egypt, and, perhaps, depending upon how one dates the Psalm, in Babylon.
The Psalmist like the Hebrew prophets believed that God uses the enemies of Israel to punish her for her sins and strengthen her as a people. The Psalmist could easily have asked with Job,“Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and not receive bad also?”
That said, the important thing for the Psalmist is not that God permits or even sends suffering. It is that God sends suffering for the ultimate good of the people. God “refined his people like silver.” God led Israel through “fire and water.” Only then did God lead them out to “a spacious place,” a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey.
The 1st Epistle of Peter says that God is doing the same thing with us. Even though we are guarded by God’s power through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time, we still may:
“… have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of (our faith), more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
3. In verse 14 the Psalmist turns personal, and tells us that there was a time when he himself was “in trouble.” We don’t know what his trouble was. It could have been a crisis of health. It may be that he feared the loss of his place in the hierarchy of the temple. It may be that he had family problems, or that people were plotting against him. There are more possibilities for trouble in the life of a single individual that we can possibly calculate. Imagine, if you will, the range of prayers that those of us who believe throw up to God each and everyday. There is endless variety!
However, there is at least one thing that many of our prayers have in common. Like the Psalmist we try to make bargains with God to gain God’s favor. The Psalmist promised God that if God would deliver him through his crisis, he would make a series of offerings at the temple. We often promise God gifts of time, or money. Sometimes we offer him our entire lives.
When Elayne and I were members of the Nicholasville Presbyterian Church in Nicholasville Kentucky, our pastor was named Claire Albright. Preacher Albright was a glider-rider during World War II. Gliders were motor-less aircraft that were towed by big bombers and then released to land. They were made from plywood, and were called “flak-bait” and “flying coffins.” The newsman Walter Cronkite rode a glider into the Battle of Market Garden in Holland. Years later he he opined that, “If you have to go into combat, don’t go by glider. Walk, crawl, parachute, swim, float—-anything. But don’t go by glider.” Many good American soldiers died in a gliders. Well, during the Normandy Invasion, Clair Albright’s glider flew into the worst possible German resistance. Flack was everywhere. Gliders all around the glider Clair Albright were exploding, and the bodies of their passengers could be seen falling from the sky. Clair said that, as the glider he was in was making its final approach, he promised God that if God would get him safely on the ground, and safely home again, he would become a Presbyterian preacher, and a good one, too.
Now a crisis, particularly a crisis we survive, is no bad thing. Individuals, like nations, frequently profit from having been tried like silver. Consider these examples. Ben Franklin had to drop out of school before his tenth birthday. Franklin was a leading figure of the American Revolution.. Alfred Einstein could not speak for the first three years of his life, he over came the handicap; and gave us the theory of relativity, and ushered us into the atomic age. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was partially paralyzed at age 39. He served four terms as President of the United States. Oprah Winfrey was repeatedly molested by her cousin, and her uncle and a family friend. At the age of 14, she ran away from home, and gave birth to a baby boy who died shortly thereafter. Today Oprah is one of the richest and most influential women in the world. A final example: Stephen King’s first novel was rejected 30 times. It finally sold, and became a best seller. King’s books have now sold more than 350 million copies. I could go on and on.
When believers survive a crisis, and get beyond it, we invariably give the credit to God. I have told you before about how St. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth telling them how, on one occasion in Asia, he and his companions were once so bitterly, unbearably crushed that they despaired of life itself, but this, he said, “was to make us rely not upon ourselves, but upon God who raises the dead. He delivered us, and on him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.”
4. There is a fourth point I would make. In verse 18 the psalmist speaks of his spiritual condition before God. He says, “had I cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened (to my prayer).”
The Psalmist does not say that he was totally innocent of sin. He says that he did not cherish “iniquity,” meaning that he did not try to cling to his sins.
When we ask God to walk with us in a time of crisis, it is always good to search out our lives before God. We often bring our troubles on ourselves through the bad we have done, and through the good we have failed to do. God wants to help us, but God cannot help us until we have done all that we can to help ourselves, and that means confessing our sins, and moving beyond them. In Psalm 32 King David tells of a time in his own life when he had to come to grips with his own sin. In verse 3 and following he writes:
When I declared not my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. I acknowledged my sin to thee, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”; then thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin. Therefore let those who are godly offer prayer to thee; at a time of distress, in the rush of great waters, the waters shall not reach them.
Finally, in verse 20, the Psalmist celebrates and blesses God because God has not rejected his prayer, or removed his steadfast love from him.
It is a wonderful feeling to pass through a crisis. I remember standing on the corner of Hawthorne Road and Queen Street, sometime about 1984, talking on a pay phone, and learning from my doctor that the two black moles he had removed, not one—but two, were not yet cancerous. Likewise, I remember being told after my first heart attack at the age of 59 that there was no damage to my heart, and I had the heart of a much younger man. You have had similar experiences. As long as we live, our personal story of God walking with us in times of crisis and beyond continues to grow. We don’t always get exactly what we pray for. We sometimes suffer loss; but each time we pass through a period of testing, we become more and more convinced that God is faithful.
Eventually we learn to see every difficult of Christ’s suffering, and we learn to celebrate each victory in light of Christ’s Resurrection. After all, we rely not on ourselves, but on God who raises the dead. He had delivered us, and on him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.