Looking back over my Christian walk of the last fifty-four years, I have learned much about how prayer interfaces with problems God, in His sovereignty, sends our way. So far, I can isolate three ways our prayer impacts the trials we encounter. One, our bold prayers of faith sometimes position us to see God save us from a perilous time, as Elijah’s learned when he proclaimed a drought in the wicked and chaotic days of King Ahab (1 Kings 17). Two, our bold prayers can sometimes position us, like Noah and his family, to move through storms with God’s provision and grace. Three, our bold prayers, like that of Nehemiah, the Jewish slave and cupbearer of mighty King Artaxerxes (Neh. 2:1), sometimes turn out in ways we did not anticipate. First Nehemiah received the news of how bad things were in his homeland in Jerusalem, then he poured out his soul to God, and the next thing he knew the earthly king granted his request to return to Israel to rebuild the walls of Israel’s capital city.
God ways are, most certainly, past finding out. His thoughts are, indeed, not our thoughts, and neither are our ways of doing things His ways. As Isaiah declares for God, there is just no comparison between our limited, short-sighted thoughts, and His unlimited thoughts. No doubt this is true when it comes to dealing with life’s difficulties. Sometimes He permits a physical malady to humble a gifted saint like Paul in order to maximize his life impact, even though that saint asked repeatedly for healing (2 Cor. 12:7-10). And at other complex, challenging times, He will answer a prayer uttered by a man of faith like Paul, resulting in an earthquake opening prison doors so His saint, along with others, can escape to freedom (Acts 16). Regardless of how God responds to our prayers, one thing is for sure. We are to live faithful lives, lives which are not afraid to ask God for big things in tough, trying times, but lives which, like that of Paul, are willing to be content with whatever God permits for His providential, lofty purposes.
Having said all of this, I believe we are prepared to study Psalm 116, an ancient Israelites worship song designed to God’s people one unique truth:
If God Delivers From Peril, Saints Should Move To Performance And Praise (Psalm 116)
Note I said, “if.” The conditional particle, for saints, is intimately founded upon the absolute providence of God. Jeremiah, who watched his nation fall to the Babylonians, wrote these wise words,
37 Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? 38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both good and ill go forth? (Lam. 3).
God providentially controlled the fall and discipline of His wayward people, even though prayers were uttered for divine help, and He also providentially controlled the spectacular release of His people some seventy years later as they called out to Him in their captivity. His loving, wise, and sovereign hand is always in control of the details and dangers we face, and as Paul states in Romans 8 for us to remember:
8 And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. (Rom. 8).
There is never a moment in any given circumstance, be it peaceful or perilous, where God is not working to accomplish goals which will echo in eternity. Further, we do not know what God’s plans are; hence, we are summoned to ask, seek, and knock on the door of heaven and wait for His answer, an answer which, at times, can be spectacular, and at other times can be met with silence which calls for our obedience.
Psalm 116 is interesting insofar as it teaches us what to do if God answers our prayer in a dangerous, demanding, and/or deadly situation. If He, as in the case of Moses and the Israelites with their backs up against the Red Sea with the Egyptian army closing in on them, delivers in a profound fashion, it should radically impact how we walk with Him and where and when we praise Him. This main motif is carefully developed in three structural movements:
Perspective In Your Perilous Time (Psalm 116:1-2)
Perspective is, as they say, everything. Liz and I vacationed with friends in Chicago in September of 2007. At one point we took the elevator up to the top of the magnificent Sears Tower. Within a few minutes it appears Liz was outside the building cleaning things up. She wasn’t. She merely stood in a glass structure made to look as though she was busy washing the windows at the 103rd floor. Yes, perspective is all-important in life. We learn this much from the Psalmist when he writes:
1 I love the LORD, because He hears My voice and my supplications. 2 Because He has inclined His ear to me, therefore I shall call upon Him as long as I live (Ps. 116).
I’m sure the Psalmist loved the Lord at all times, but he especially loved Him when He listened to and acted decisively on a desperate prayer he uttered in his recent past. Let us be reminded that the Lord always hears the prayers of His children:
15 The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their cry . . . 17 The righteous cry out, and the LROD hears them . . . (Psalm 34).
29 The LORD is far from the wicked but he hears the prayer of the righteous (Prov. 15).
He always hears and He acts, and sometimes those acts are off-the-charts, as when barren Hannah was given a special child to lead and guide Israel (1 Sam. 1), or when Jonah, locked up in the dark, dank belly of a large fish called out to God for deliverance (Jonah 2:1-2). Hannah, for example, loved God, and that love became effusive when God gave her Samuel, Israel’s prophet and priest. Her prayer of how much she loved God for hearing and acting in her behalf is recorded in 1 Samuel 2 if you would like to read it:
1 Then Hannah prayed and said, "My heart exults in the LORD; my horn is exalted in the LORD, my mouth speaks boldly against my enemies, because I rejoice in Thy salvation. 2 "There is no one holy like the LORD, indeed, there is no one besides Thee, nor is there any rock like our God . . . 6 The LORD kills and makes alive; He brings down to Sheol and raises up. 7 The LORD makes poor and rich; He brings low, He also exalts. 8 He raises the poor from the dust, He lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with nobles, and inherit a seat of honor; for the pillars of the earth are the LORD's, and He set the world on them (1 Sam. 2).
What a mature view of God. She loved God for answering her bold prayer, but she was mature enough to know that God is God, and should be loved, no matter how He responds because He is sovereign in all things.
As you walk through your trial, adversity, and possibly perilous time, is your heart’s perspective focused on God’s love for you no matter what? Do you really understand what Jesus said when he remarked on one occasion . . .
11 Now suppose one of you fathers is asked by his son for a fish; he will not give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? 12 Or if he is asked for an egg, he will not give him a scorpion, will he? 13 If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him (Lk. 11)?
The God who loves you, hears you, and He stands ready to give you, as any good father would, what is intrinsically good for you. Do you believe this? Better yet, do you love the Lord because this is the type of father he is toward you as you walk through the peaks and valleys of life?
Perspective in perilous times is everything, isn’t it? If you know that God loves you, hears you, and will answer in a beneficial way, how can you not love Him? On the other hand, if you don’t trust His leadership, if you vehemently question what He permits, if you are discouraged at your time in His waiting room, is this not a sign that your love is challenged and possibly wearing thin? This is why perspective is important. Our love for Him increases when we firmly believe He loves us, hears us, and will act in a way which will be most profitable for us. And, as we see in the ensuing section, sometimes, as I have noted in the opening, He moves in a powerful, jaw-dropping fashion.
Provision In Your Perilous Time (Psalm 116:3-11)
Join me as I read the text and then come with me as I make some salient observations:
3 The cords of death encompassed me, and the terrors of Sheol came upon me; I found distress and sorrow. 4 Then I called upon the name of the LORD: "O LORD, I beseech Thee, save my life!" 5 Gracious is the LORD, and righteous; Yes, our God is compassionate. 6 The LORD preserves the simple; I was brought low, and He saved me. 7 Return to your rest, O my soul, for the LORD has dealt bountifully with you. 8 For Thou hast rescued my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling. 9 I shall walk before the LORD in the land of the living. 10 I believed when I said, "I am greatly afflicted." 11 I said in my alarm, "All men are liars" (Ps. 116).
You can’t read these words and not sense the psalmist’s total jaw-dropping joy at how God graciously delivered him from a potentially deadly life situation. We don’t know exactly what happened. It could have been a medical malady which attacked his body, or it could have been a situation he faced with an enemy or enemies. Either way, from his perspective it was as if he was caught in a strong, powerful net called death. He could sense his own mortality. The terror of his life ending in the grave/Sheol rattled him to the bone. Don’t you know he had his share of questions: “Why is God permitting this to occur in my life now?” “All of this seems so unfair and untimely. How could God reward my lifetime of obedience with this prognosis?” “How can I process the fact that all I’ve learned and all the memories I have in my mind will all be gone in a moment when death finally wins?” The prospects of impending death shook him to the core of his being and caused him to reach out to God in prayer.
How did God respond? Powerfully. Graciously. Bountifully. Unexpectedly. He prayed a big prayer, he made a big ask of God in faith, and that prayer coincided with the will of God and God turned and brought healing. John speaks of this in his first of three letters at the close of the Bible:
14 And this is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. 15 And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him (1 John 5).
As mortals, we can’t arrogantly demand God to do anything for us. As people of faith, however, we can humbly ask God for big things, and if our request is within the sphere of His will for us, He will move.
Think of King Hezekiah. The author of 2 Kings recounts his personal ordeal, amazing prayer of faith, and God’s miraculous reaction:
1 In those days Hezekiah became mortally ill. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him and said to him, "Thus says the LORD, 'Set your house in order, for you shall die and not live.'" 2 Then he turned his face to the wall, and prayed to the LORD, saying, 3 "Remember now, O LORD, I beseech Thee, how I have walked before Thee in truth and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in Thy sight." And Hezekiah wept bitterly. 4 And it came about before Isaiah had gone out of the middle court, that the word of the LORD came to him, saying, 5 "Return and say to Hezekiah the leader of My people, 'Thus says the LORD, the God of your father David, "I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; behold, I will heal you. On the third day you shall go up to the house of the LORD. 6 "And I will add fifteen years to your life, and I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria; and I will defend this city for My own sake and for My servant David's sake"'" (2 Kings 20).
Hezekiah’s response to God’s largesse could have easily been expressed in the words of the Psalmist in chapter 116. Facing death, the King humbly fell before God and made a big, bold request in a prayer of faith. God responded by giving him fifteen more years of life.
Years ago I, along with the elder chairman from my California church, went to give last rites to an elderly lady in our church named Lydia Grout. Her neurosurgeon suggested we do this because a massive spot appeared on her brain in a scan and when that spot blew she would be in the Lord’s presence instantly.
Gerry and I gave her final communion, and then we anointed her with oil and prayed for her. We asked that should it be God’s will for Him to heal her. He did. The next day the neurosurgeon couldn’t find the site for the aneurism. God healed this eighty-year-old woman.
Years later she wound up in a rest home. While visiting her she said she struggled with depression, so I put her in a wheelchair and took her outside in the sunshine near a fountain. I asked, “Lydia, what are you depressed?” She responded, “I just can’t figure out why the Lord spared me just to have me come to a place like this.” I replied, “Well, does your roommate know Christ?” She shook her head no. “How about the various nurses?” “I don’t think so,” she concluded. “Then I think I know why you are here. God has sovereignly placed you to reach people with the gospel I will never have exposure to.” Until she died, Lydia not only thanked God for her healing, but she lived with purpose for she knew God had her on a special assignment with His gospel.
Does the Lord always answer our prayers during perilous times in a spectacular fashion? No. Thirteen years ago today, August 22, at 6 p.m., my godly father, Al, passed into the Lord’s presence because he lost his battle with brain cancer. Did we pray for his healing? You bet, many times. Did God heal? No. His will, unlike that for Lydia, was for my father to leave this life for the next life sooner rather than later. Do I love God less because He didn’t answer our big ask for my dad? No. I still love Him just as much, perhaps even more. Did God answer our prayers for my father in other ways? Yes. He opened the door so he could be in a home near all of us. He gave him wonderful nurses, nurses he impacted with the gospel. He caused my father’s situation to move all those he had impacted in his life, both young and old, to form a line outside his nursing home room more often than not. I don’t know how many times the staff asked, “Who is this man?” Yeah, God answered our prayers for my dad in ways beyond what we anticipated, and in ways He showed us that He walked with us and loved him and us.
The point of all of this should be clear: God does provide, really, He always provides for us in perilous times. We should, therefore, never flinch at asking Him for big things in faith, knowing there are times when He does touch someone like a Hezekiah or a Lydia. Likewise, we should always look for His wonderful provision, even when He answers us in ways we did not expect.
How should you spiritually respond when God’s face smiles on you, when He reaches down into your world and does something amazing? The closing verses give us the much needed wrap-up counsel:
Performance After Your Perilous Time (Psalm 116:12-19)
Again, I’m not going to do my typical detailed Hebrew exegesis of these moving verses. I want to read them and let them sink into your heart and soul:
12 What shall I render to the LORD for all His benefits toward me?
Isn’t that the question? What do you for a God who is self-sufficient? An extremely wealthy person helped Liz and me once, and other than just verbally saying “thank you,” I sought to give him a gift. I remember groping at what to buy someone who had more money they could spend in a lifetime. This is just a small view of how you feel when God gives you a miracle you have prayed for. It leaves you asking, “Really, what can I give to the LORD in light of what He has graciously done for me?”
The Psalmist gives you two ideas:
13 I shall lift up the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the LORD. 14 I shall pay my vows to the LORD, oh may it be in the presence of all His people. 15 Precious in the sight of the LORD Is the death of His godly ones. 16 O LORD, surely I am Thy servant, I am Thy servant, the son of Thy handmaid, Thou hast loosed my bonds. 17 To Thee I shall offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and call upon the name of the LORD. 18 I shall pay my vows to the LORD, oh may it be in the presence of all His people, 19 In the courts of the LORD's house, In the midst of you, O Jerusalem. Praise the LORD! (Ps. 116).
Twice here he says he, as a servant of the LORD, will pay what he vowed God he’d do in the middle of the storm, and he will make sure he will praise Him publically at the Temple in Jerusalem when he attended corporate worship.
As a side note, he reminds us he knows that even had he died, his death would have been precious to God for God’s eyes, like a loving Father, are always on His child, especially in death. Leaving my father’s room one night at 11 p.m., he asked me to come back into the room because he had a question. Standing next to him, this godly, mature saint asked me, “Marty, is it all right for me to be afraid?” ‘Yes, Dad. You are only mortal, and you have walked your life by faith, not by sight. Now, as you face death’s door you need to remember all of the truths from God’s Word you have built into your life, along with my life.” After we talked about those truth, peace came over him and he knew things would be okay. We placed his favorite truth verse on his headstone:
1 For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Phil. 1).
Death was gain for him. It always is for the saint for immediately walks into the presence of the living God who is waiting for him.
Yet, apart from this spiritual truth, the author highlights what we should do when God does, in fact, work in our lives in a profound way during perilous times. We should pay our vows and publically praise Him. The Scriptures are clear we should fulfill our obligations to God. Here are samplings of pivotal texts:
4 When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it, for He takes no delight in fools. Pay what you vow! 5 It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay (Eccl. 5).
21 When you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay to pay it, for it would be sin in you, and the LORD your God will surely require it of you. 22 "However, if you refrain from vowing, it would not be sin in you. 23 You shall be careful to perform what goes out from your lips, just as you have voluntarily vowed to the LORD your God, what you have promised (Deut. 23).
Keeping your word with God is important for He remembers what you said and will hold you to it. Typically, of course, we tend to make vows in perilous times: Lord, if you get me out of this fix, I will go to seminary. Lord, if you heal me I will go to the mission field. Lord, if you spare me, I will use my finances to support kingdom work like never before. I’m sure you could fill in your own vow you uttered in the past. The question is, “Have you kept your vow?” If not, I’d suggest it is time to perform your vow.
As another aside, I would offer this counsel. The LORD is gracious and compassionate (Psalm 116:5; 145:8). He’s also merciful and He knows the limitations of our earthly frame (Psalm 86:15; Luke 6:36; James 5:11). Why do I offer this observation? The short answer is this: You may have given God a vow thirty or forty years ago, and, for whatever reasons, you have failed to realize it. You might not even be in a position to fulfill that vow anymore. What should you do? Let it go. Don’t let the guilt of your lack of truthfulness plague you anymore. Confess it at the Lord’s feet and I’m sure He will forgive and restore you.
For those of you who have experienced the miraculous hand in your life at a critical time, I counsel you to publically fulfill what the Psalmist’s suggests in this powerful, highly practical psalm. Now is the time to stand before God’s people and praise God. I have microphones set up throughout the sanctuary. All I want you to do is to walk up to a mic near you and quickly fill in this sentence: Lord, love you and praise you today for . . . When you are finished with your short statement, please find your seat as others give God praise. Once the Spirit of God is through working with you on this applicational idea, we will sing a song in praise to our Lord.