As a little boy I recall thumbing through an old church hymnal. I came across a piece that has become one of my favorite Thanksgiving songs. First, because it is so simple, and second, because it is specific. It doesn't simply ask us to count our blessings and name them one by one without helping us with some of those blessings that are ours. It has a Swedish origin. Just listen to a couple of the lines:
Thanks to God for my Redeemer,
Thanks for all thou dost provide,
Thanks for times now but a memory,
Thanks for Jesus by my side.
Thanks for pleasant, balmy springtime,
Thanks for dark and dreary fall.
Thanks for tears by now forgotten,
Thanks for peace within my soul.
Thanks for prayers that thou hast answered,
Thanks for what thou dost deny,
Thanks for storms that I have weathered,
Thanks for all thou dost supply.
Thanks for pain; thanks for pleasure,
Thanks for comfort in despair,
Thanks for grace that none can measure,
Thanks for love beyond compare.
What is true of a church hymnal is also true of a Bible. In every Bible you will find a hymnbook. This ancient hymnbook is called the Book of Psalms. Threaded through these 150 psalms are hymns of thanksgiving that become favorites to us the longer we walk with the Lord. I have chosen today not the longest, and certainly not the most eloquent, psalm of thanksgiving, but one that is simple and specific: Psalm 138. I think you will take it with you through the Thanksgiving season as you hear three or four reasons we have to be thankful this time of year.
First let me say a few words about the structure of the psalm—and only a few, for it's the content of it that makes it meaningful. David wrote it. The first three lines or verses, as we have them in our Bibles, form what I will call "first-person praise." They're full of words like I, me, my, and mine. David is exulting in his God, and he is giving God praise in a burst of spontaneity. In verse four, he changes the garb of a shepherd and a king to that of a prophet. In verses 4, 5, and 6 he looks to the future and he sees the kings of the earth that are yet to reign and he says, "They, too, will give you praise. They, too, will sing of the glory of the Lord, the glory of Jehovah." Then, in the last couple of verses in Psalm 138, David turns back to his need and thanks God again for one very special blessing that is his in the trouble he finds himself in.
First, let's look at the first-person praise, this section where David brings his statements of praise and thanksgiving to God. He begins, "I will give thee thanks with all my heart." Praise is like that. Praise starts from the soles of our feet and comes up through the muscles and sinews and joints and organs of our bodies, and it bursts from our throat. It's with all our hearts that we give God praise. It is not something shallow or frivolous, flippant or superficial. Praise is the deepest expression of the soul in love with God. He says, "With all my heart I give you thanks." Interesting term—the original means to give public acknowledgement. It's the thought of telling others about something that means much to us, not the normal term for giving thanks.
My friend Ron Allen has done a beautiful job in his book Praise: A Matter of Life and Breath explaining some of the psalms, and this is one he chooses. In this 138th Psalm he locates that verb, "I will give thee thanks." He renders it acknowledge and then tells this story:
"I was approached by an elderly gentleman who wished a word with me. He gave me his card and introduced himself as a veteran medical missionary to India. He had established a medical mission in a region where progressive blindness was peculiar to that region—where thousands of people were born sighted but were doomed to blindness as they matured. In a marvelous ministry to the whole man, the ophthalmologist had developed a procedure to arrest the terrible disease that had ravaged the people of that region. He then told me that as people would leave the clinic knowing that they would see, when otherwise they might have become blind, they would not simply say, 'Thank you,' for that was not in their dialect. Instead, they would say, 'I will tell your name!' "
That's the meaning of this term. With my whole heart, from the bottom of my feet, all the way up through the throat of my neck and out the mouth and lips of my face, I will tell your name!
And of all things, he says, "I will sing of it before the gods." Seems almost a contamination in a psalm this grand even to mention the gods of the Canaanites, those that had rooted themselves in that land. It's easy for us to forget that this little finger of land called Palestine was actually an island of monotheism surrounded by a sea of polytheism—paganism, heathendom—whose idols were numerous, and often obscene. David says, "As I walk among these peoples, and as I represent you with praise, I sing among those gods my song of glory."
If you ever have the privilege of traveling in the Orient, you will see the gods visibly. You will see them on rooftops, and you will see them by doorposts. You will see them stories high, covered with gold. You'll see their feet and legs as they sit like huge, fat giants, marked by blood and the droppings of candles. You'll smell the incense. You will not hear songs; you will hear chants. You will see people moaning, many of them pleading. If we put it into today's language, David says, "As I walk among the streets like that, I will sing 'Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!' 'Like a river glorious is God's perfect peace. 'A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing!' I'll sing my praise with all my heart when I am among the gods of the lands about me."
We give thanks for extraordinary answers to prayer
Why is he singing? Why is he acknowledging and telling the name of God? Why is he bowing down toward 'thy holy temple'? Why is he giving thanks to God's name and to the loyal love of God and to the truth of God? And of all things, verse 2 intrigues me. Why does he say that God's word is magnified even above God's name? That is manifestly inconceivable. That seems to be bibliolatry, to say that God's word is magnified above God's name. With due respect for many commentators who suggest that it literally means the Bible—Scripture—and fully believing in the inspiration and the inerrancy of God's Word, I don't think in this case he has in mind God's Word, Scripture. For the term word is used in various ways through the Psalms. You must read verse 3 to capture what he has in mind. "On the day I called, thou didst answer me. Thou didst make me bold with strength in my soul." That's the reason he's praising God. He's saying, "God, I had a need that was great, and I brought my need before you in utmost prayer, and you answered me. You gave me revelation, you gave me relief, you gave me assistance, and I write the word of your answer above your name. I give you praise for that answer that seems to be a motto above your name—an extraordinary answer to prayer."
Before I get too ethereal in this, let me come back to earth and say you have had an extraordinary answer to prayer—quite likely in the last few days. Don't forget that this Thanksgiving season. For some of you there has been a healing of a relationship that has been damaged over many, many months—but no longer. For others there has been relief from physical pain. For some, a child has come home, back to God. For others there has been a glorious, marvelous provision of an occupation that you needed, and God gave it. I think it's good for us right now to pause in silence and recall an extraordinary answer to prayer God gave. We give our God thanks for an extraordinary answer to prayer.
David, without announcement, turns the corner and moves into the world of the future. Now, like a prophet, he says, "I'm not the only king who will praise God. All the kings of the earth will give thanks." Note that—it's future. "They will give thanks to thee, O Jehovah, when they have heard the words of thy mouth. They will give thanks and they will sing of the ways of the Lord." Isn't it interesting that we have never seen a king sing? Really, we've never even seen a president sing. I'm sure they must, but we don't see that. David says, in that Messianic age, King Jesus reigns and the kings of the earth will lift their voices and sing to him.
What will they sing? You see the content in verse 5: "Great is the glory of the Lord." Isn't that a great thought? When they gather for that millennial conference and they have their summit meetings, it will not be a talk of war or peace; it will not be a negotiation in maintaining peace; it will be a gathering of praise, for the kings of the earth will meet at his throne and they will sing, "Great is the glory of Jehovah!" I love that thought.
We give thanks because of the unsurpassed glory of God
It brings us to the second reason we have to give thanks: Because of the unsurpassed glory of God.
When you were born again, God came in his glory. Remember the verse, "For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God"? In that verse, Romans 3:23, the glory represents his standard. Over in the Old Testament, the glory is seen as light. The shekinah it was called in the tabernacle. No man could walk into that holiest of all without death. When it struck men, it blinded them, like Saul on the road to Damascus. The glory visited him and took away his sight. It is a picture of God's character, a picture of his holiness.
I suggest this Thanksgiving that we focus not simply on the fields that grow with grain and the marvelous patriotic background of our nation. I suggest we lift our eyes heavenward and thank him for his standard, for his character, for the excitement of his power. I suggest that we adore our God simply for who he is. One person has attempted to describe glory this way: "It is the excellence, beauty, majesty, power, and perfection of his total being; the completeness, wholeness, and the utter desirability of God; the appeal, the fascinating power, he exerts over men." Not bad.
The glory of God will give your pain purpose. I read in the Gospel of John, chapter 9, of a blind man born in that condition. The disciples come to Jesus and say, "Who is to be blamed—this man or his parents?" Jesus says, "Neither. This is for the glory of God." How mysterious! What a strange answer!
When Lazarus dies suddenly, and the disciples are grieved and embarrassed over not having been there, and they are troubled in their soul Jesus' friend is dead, Jesus calms them and says, "This death is for the glory of God." How mysterious!
Men and women, we who tend to think far too lightly of God, let's acquaint ourselves with him this season. Let's force ourselves to pull away from the demands of our economy and the filling of our stomachs only, and let's focus on God's person. If you find yourself in pain, it will help you. For there is no better reason to suffer than for the glory of God.
A. W. Tozer, a prophet ahead of his time, said it straight: "When viewed from the perspective of eternity, the most critical need of this hour may well be that the church should be brought back from her long Babylonian captivity, and the name of God be glorified in her again as of old." What can plain Christians do to bring back that departed glory? It is simply the old and ever new counsel: Acquaint thyself with God. As your pastor, as your friend, I challenge you: Acquaint yourself with God. Acquaint your children with your God. The unsurpassed glory of our God is deserving of our thanks. He didn't lower his standard when he met us at the Cross. He didn't change his character when we contaminated our lives with sin. He didn't walk away from us when we were wracked with pain, and he doesn't leave us when we die, because of his glory.
Now that sounds terribly ethereal, and verse 6 will bring us back to earth again. "Though the Lord is exalted," and he is, "yet he regards the lowly." Here we are back in focus: Our God, praise be his name, is in touch with the lowly. He moves up close. He hugs us to himself. He pulls us near. He comforts us though we may feel lonely and deserted and rejected. He puts his arms around us and he holds us close. Verse 7 says, "Though I walk in the midst of trouble, thou wilt keep me alive." Good word. Are you in trouble? Does your soul feel like it's dying, barren, cold?
God says to us in his counsel, "I will keep you alive. I will keep your heart warm. I'll be there in trouble."
"Thou wilt stretch forth thy hand against the wrath of my enemies." I'll tell you, David had the assassination plots against his life. He's a king; things haven't changed. And he was a righteous king, and godless men hate righteous leaders. He says "You have done hand-to-hand combat for me, and your right hand will deliver me."
We give thanks for ongoing hope in the midst of despair
The third reason we have to give thanks: For ongoing hope in the midst of despair. Know what God says to us directly? "Don't despair."
Don't despair—every time I use that expression, I have to tell you, I think of a story. It is a story of a missionary lady who is living in a missionary home. On the second floor she has a room. She's strapped financially. She receives mail from home, and to her delight as she slices open the envelope, out falls a $10 bill from her parents. A warm letter accompanies that and she begins to read it. But she's distracted because outside the window is a shabbily dressed old man leaning against a post, moving about, shuffling here and there. She cannot finish the letter for her compassion for this old man, and she thinks, I cannot keep this money. I am well loved, I am well fed, and here is a man in need. So she puts the $10 bill in a blank envelope, seals it shut, and writes two words on it as she sails it out the window. He catches it. He opens it, finds the money, gives a quizzical look, and reads on the envelope "Don't despair." She says up above, "I'll be praying." He walks away hurriedly; the day passes uneventfully. The next morning, a little after daybreak, there's a loud knock at the door. The missionary family opens the door, and they come up to her room and bring her down because they say, "There's a man down here that describes you and says he has to talk to you." She walks down—has her robe on—looks through the screen, and there he is. She opens the screen, and he tosses her a roll of money.
"What's this?" "That's the money you got coming, Lady. Don't Despair paid five to one."
You can think at times you are really, really communicating. Even for me to say to you from this pulpit, "Don't despair!" could say something altogether different to you. But let's see in the Scriptures what it's saying. It's saying, "Though I am walking in the belly of distress, there's no reason to despair. Though I am surrounded by enemies, there's no reason to despair. Though I feel all alone, there's no reason to despair." It isn't just a bet. Ah, it's a promise.
One of my favorite poets, Ruth Harms Calkin, writes:
Lord, I'm drowning in a sea of perplexity.
Waves of confusion crash over me.
I am too weak to shout for help.
Either quiet the waves or lift me above them.
It's too late to learn to swim.
Do you feel like that, feel like you need a harbor? You've got Jesus, you've got a harbor. John Newton—rugged, leathery old saint that he was, who came from such a horrendous, godless background, the one who gave us "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!"—wrote a hymn that has long since departed from our hymnals: How tedious and tasteless the hour when Jesus no longer I see. Sweet prospects, sweet birds, and sweet flowers have long lost their sweetness to me. The midsummer sun shines but dim; the fields strive in vain to look gay. But when I am happy in him, December's as pleasant as May.
How could John Newton say that? If you knew his life, you wouldn't ask that. He's swimming in trouble. He's surrounded by enemies. He's living on the brink of despair. But he has an ongoing hope in the midst of his trouble and he's thankful. There is an unsurpassed glory of God, and he's serving that. There's an extraordinary answer to prayer that accompanies his life, and he hasn't forgotten that.
We give thanks for God's involvement in what concerns us most
There's one more. I think if I had my choice it would be my favorite of the four. Verse 8: "The Lord will accomplish what concerns me. Thy loyal love, O Jehovah, is everlasting. Do not forsake the works of thy hands." It's the picture of one at work, and the tools he's using while he's working are love and faithfulness. What is it that God is doing? Verse 8: "Jehovah will accomplish what concerns me." Think with me for a moment. The key term in the verse is the verb accomplish. Gamar means to complete, to end, to bring to closure. There's a permanence in the word. If I could wrap all of that together, I think it would be this: Fourth, we are thankful for God's thorough involvement in what concerns us most.
If I could picture God as a rider on a wild horse, I would say he is in the stirrups of my life. That's as close as you can be to the action. He is deeply entrenched and involved and preoccupied, working with the tools of loyal love and forever faithfulness on my behalf, to accomplish what he wants to see fulfilled in me. You know the thing that concerns you the most, but do you know who has a greater concern about that than you? You've got it: Jehovah. Remarkable—the God who blew that universe into action, and flung the stars into space, and set up that timepiece in all of this orbiting about us, and yet cares about the thing that concerns me.
Extraordinary answers to prayer. The unsurpassed glory of God. Ongoing hope amidst distress—don't despair. A thorough involvement in the thing that concerns me the most.
When my wife and I were at Dallas Seminary back in the early 1960s, we lived in a little apartment that was a part of a small group of apartments that have since then been destroyed, I am happy to say. Hot and cold running rats-all the joys of home were there. In the summer the weather came inside, and it was hot. Hot? Hotter than you can imagine. Like a desert. That hot fall, we began to pray for an air conditioner; we didn't have one. I remember through the cold, blowing winter—strange!—we were praying for an air conditioner. Through December, January, and February, we told nobody, we made no announcement, we wrote no letter; we just prayed. The following spring, before we were to have another summer there, we visited my wife's parents in Houston. While there, one morning the phone rang. We hadn't announced our coming; it was for a brief visit with her folks and mine before we went back to seminary. The phone rang, and on the other end of the line was a man I hadn't talked to in months. His name happened to be Richard. Richard asked to speak to me. As soon as I got on the phone, I said, "How are you?"
He said, "Great! Do you need an air conditioner?" I almost dropped the phone. "Uh, yes."
"Well," he says, "we have just put in central air conditioning here, and we've got this little three-quarter-ton air conditioner that we thought you might like to have. We'll bring it over and stick it in your trunk and let you take it back, if that's okay."
"That'll be fine, Richard. Bring it on over."
We put that thing in the window, and we froze winter and summer in that little place. It was so comfortable and cool. An extraordinary answer to prayer that revealed to me the glory of God, that told me there is no reason to despair, that assured me my slightest or deepest concern is his involvement. He's in the stirrups of my life.
Thanks to God for my Redeemer, thanks for all thou dost provide.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Charles Swindoll is pastor of Stonebriar Community Church in Frisco, Texas, the Bible teacher on the radio program Insight for Living, and a best-selling author.