I want you to imagine a special, highly festive event. Psalm 118 was written for such an occasion. It began with a blare of trumpets, the sound of cymbals, and the choir of Israel literally thundering as a chorus, singing forth these words: "His mercy endures forever."
Chesed is a dramatic word that focuses what is behind the dynamics of the giving of thanks. The theme that awakens the thanksgiving of this psalm and many others in the Bible is the chesed of God, the mercy of God. Chesed is a word that has to do with the slight bowing of the neck, a slight stooping. It could be stooping to an act of mercy, coming down to a broken person and ministering to them.
Just the other day our little grandson, one year old, was crying. I stooped down and picked him up, and in just a minute he was a happier little boy. His grandpa was holding him.
One of the most tender songs I've heard about mercy is called "His Word Is Mercy." It begins, "If you could just imagine a bird without a song that has fallen to the barren earth and left alone, and then with just a moment's touch a kind and gentle hand lifts the bird and flight returns and the song is restored again." The chorus says, "The word is mercy." That's the word that describes that action—the stooping with an act of tender mercy. Kindness. And the Bible, in speaking to us about the Lord, says those mercies endure forever.
The mercy of God is an active mercy.
Chesed is worthy of our attention because all the thanksgiving in this psalm centers on it. It has to do with the endless kindness of God that is bent toward our interest and care. This specific act of kindness is the first idea in the word chesed, and there's an illustration of it in the Bible. It's a case study of gentleness that is shown by a woman toward her husband who is asking for something that could put her at jeopardy—and, in fact, does.
The woman is Sarah. She and Abraham are in unfamiliar, foreign territory. Abraham, because his wife is an absolutely gorgeous woman, says these words to her: "Will you show me this kindness while we're here? Say you're my sister and not my wife, because they'll kill me." In that environment, that was true. Sarah, at the risk of her own security, did that. Her husband was not treating her as cattle, saying: I don't care what happens to you. He was saying: Please show me this chesed, a personal, specific act of kindness.
And she did so because his life could have been at stake. It's a good picture of a specific act of kindness.
Every time chesed is used in this way in the Scriptures, it is joined to the verb "to do" or "to make," because it is an action. Please understand about God's mercies toward you and toward me: It is active mercy. It is not simply a thought. He shows himself active, motivated by that mercy.
The second thing chesed depicts is constancy. When Joseph was about to die in Egypt, he said to his sons: God is going to bring you as a people out of this land and back to our land. Don't leave my bones here.
Centuries went by, but the bones of Joseph were taken when Israel left, and he was buried back in the land years later. This is because he said: I'm asking that this chesed be shown me, that you be loyal to these words. In other words, he's saying: I'm asking for an agreement that you will show kindness that sustains itself beyond my power to ever administrate or insist on it. I'm depending on that.
The third picture is that of covenant fidelity. In Hosea, God shows himself to Israel by a dramatic parable that is lived out by the prophet Hosea. The Lord said to Hosea: "Marry that woman who is a prostitute." And Hosea married a prostitute, who was unfaithful to him. And the Lord said to Hosea: I know it breaks your heart, but it breaks mine, too, that my people are so unfaithful. But, Hosea, don't give up on her.
And Hosea didn't, because God had called him to show the constant, covenant fidelity that is frequently forgotten in today's culture, that the marriage that had been made was a marriage of absolute commitment.
The sixth chapter of Hosea says: "Come, and let us return to the Lord; for he has torn, but he will heal us; he has stricken, but he will bind us up." It goes on to say why: "For I desire mercy and not sacrifice." God's covenant is one that abides. He desires chesed, covenant fidelity, notwithstanding everything else that happens. Many people suppose that somehow they have pre-empted the possibilities of God's sustained grace and forgiveness available to them. But the Lord's words are, "His mercy endures forever."
I want to make something clear: the mercy terms are based in covenant. They're available through God's gift in his son, Jesus. They are not abstract. They are not simply received by a process of osmosis, or by stumbling along through life and then saying: "Well, God's merciful; I just hope it works out."
Your eternal soul, not to mention your temporal existence, deserves something on a stronger foundation than human opinion. Enter into covenant relationship with God through his Son, and there is a faithfulness that sustains merciful forgiveness. People have often said: "I know the Lord forgave me when I received Jesus as my Savior. But so many things have happened since then. Where do I stand now? I know he gave me a clean page. I imagine it's pretty smudged by now." But those mercies endure forever. His forgiveness goes on and on and on when you've come within the covenant.
The mercy of God never ends.
The fourth meaning of chesed is the basic and theological concept of mercy. Chesed is one of the most important theological words in all of Scripture. It gives us, as one writer says, an insight into the very essence of God—that his mercy is unending.
Lamentations 3:22 is a case study of this. Jeremiah is outside the broken, breached walls of Jerusalem. The gates are still smoldering from the destruction from the Babylonian invasion. He's singing a bemoaning song as captives are being carried away: "Search and try our ways. Turn again to the Lord, for his mercies are new every morning." He is saying: You're going to wake up another day in another place, but God's mercies will still be yours there. You will never be so distant from this city, he was saying to them, but God's mercies will still reach to you.
This is the theme that awakens the praise of the psalmist here, and that is the heartbeat of this concept of dynamic praise. Dynamic praise is rooted in the awareness of the awesomeness of God's constant, tireless, gentle patience and understanding.
When you know the story that activated the thanksgiving in this passage, it's clear what is being said with virtually every verse. They are celebrating laying the foundation of the temple. They never dreamed such a day would come. That's why we come to these words in verse 24: "This is the day the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it."
From the time of Jeremiah's singing that the Lord's mercies endure, 70 years have gone by. After 70 years, through a miracle of release, tens of thousands of Israelites return to Jerusalem. A generation or two have gone by. Some who were children when they were taken captive are returning with others in their later years. They return to the rubble of the broken walls, to the charred stone. Soot is everywhere. Weeds have grown up. Lizards bask in the midday sun on those stones. They decide to start rebuilding the temple. And as they begin to lay the foundations, hosts of people begin to praise the Lord.
But there are other people, the Bible says, that weep, because they have seen the earlier temple in all its splendor—the temple of Solomon. And having seen that temple, they feel this is a pathetic attempt at making a replica of what was. Stones are taken from the rubble, a residue of what was before. It is so far removed from the splendor of what had been, many would not even support the building project. Builders say, "We don't want to work with this kind of stuff. We want something that has more glory than this."
Verse 22 says: "The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord's doing, and it's marvelous in our sight." It is a miracle and a marvel in their eyes, and they are praising the Lord for mercy that had sustained them through the exile, mercy that had brought them back, mercy that enabled there to be something built of their own hands that was a praise to God.
Loved ones, many of you wonder if anything can come out of the rubble of your past. The Lord is able to bring marvels of life out of death, and victory out of what has been brokenness and defeat. That's what this whole situation had to do with. And in the facts that activated the people's thanksgiving on this occasion, there is the picture over and over of things they faced and how God had brought them through.
Look at verses 6–9: "The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me? The Lord is for me among those who help me. Therefore, I shall see my desire on those who hate me. It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man. It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes."
When they had come into the land, they had been given papers that said they could rebuild this temple. But there were people who had lived in that area in the meantime, princes who had authority in that region of the Persian Empire. They were resisting this, and they wrote letters back to the emperor's palace. There was a long period of transaction while files were being researched. Because a long time had gone by and there was the question of whether the Israelites had a legitimate right to build, discouragement came among the people.
You have that feeling of Zerubbabel when he comes to the pile of rocks that were to have been fashioned into a temple; it's a mountain before his eyes, and he is discouraged. And the Lord comes by Zechariah, who says: Zerubbabel, the Lord says this mountain shall become a finished product. It will be leveled off and there will be the achievement of God's purpose, for it will not be by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.
And the promise was made that the mercies of God would bring about what never could be. They rose to praise God and say on this day: What people do finally doesn't make any difference, because God's mercies transcend that. They are active mercies, and he will see that his purposes are achieved. I have made the Lord my point of reference. I won't be afraid of what man may do to me.
It applies today just as then. Look at verse 5, "I called on the Lord in distress." The word "distress" here depicts a very pinched and tight circumstance. "I called on the Lord in distress; the Lord answered me, and set me in a broad place." Just when everything was closing in, God pushed the boundaries back to where they were intended for me. Hallelujah! There are boundaries God wants to give us, boundaries of promise and purpose.
Just when it looks like this isn't going to happen, we discover the Lord's mercies are active and powerful. He never forgets. He keeps on working until he achieves his purpose.
These figures of speech are intended to show the picture of those who felt that the government back in Persia was never going to hear anything, that this thing was dead in the water. Zechariah says to Zerubbabel: "This mountain that is before you will be leveled, though you can't see it now. Then suddenly there came the answer. What looked like a dead issue was suddenly resurrected: I shall live, and not die, and see the mighty works of God."
There are people in this room today that face situations, and they think nothing could be deader than that hope. Nothing could be deader than that dream. Nothing could be more withered than what it is that seeks to crawl into your present circumstance. And the Lord's mercies endure right into the middle of your circumstance. And by reason of the chesed, the kindness of God, his arm is reaching your way. He's stooping in mercy your way, and there's reason to say: "This situation shall not die; it shall live, and I will behold the work of God. Hallelujah!"
So they were praising the Lord. They were saying: We have been brought through miraculously, but this is only the beginning.
Look at verse 19. The psalm pivots from the past into the future. Everything to this point has been: "God did this." "He brought us through." "We were in a tight place; he brought us into a broad place." "People were manipulating against us, but the Lord is able to transcend that by his mercies." "It looked like it was a dead issue; the Lord made it a living deliverance."
And now, that having happened, the psalmist says: "Lord, open to me the gates of the future, a righteousness I can go through."
Righteousness has to do with the Lord's power to work right where no one else can, where everything else has gone wrong. His righteousness is what saves our souls. Everything about me and you was wrong outside the power of God to forgive. Whatever we thought was right wasn't right enough to save our eternal soul, until the righteousness of Jesus Christ reached our way and we opened to receive it. The psalmist says: Just like you saved me there, Lord, open the way into the future.
Thanksgiving is the proper response to God's mercy.
And here we come to the issue of thanksgiving as an active issue, something we do. Notice verse 19: "Open to me the gates of righteousness. I will go through them, and I will praise the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord, through which the righteous shall enter. I will praise you, for you have answered me and have become my salvation." I will praise you as I move into the future, because you've proven yourself so strong in the past.
"You've become my salvation" is an echo of the words at the end of verse 14: "The Lord is my strength and song, and he has become my salvation."
That verse is a song within a song. There was no person that day, centuries ago, who didn't recognize this song. The time here is approximately 520 B.C. But almost a thousand years before, approximately 1400 B.C., their forbearers were standing on the shore of the Dead Sea, where the waters had just closed over their oppressors. They not only had been delivered from slavery through the blood of the Passover Lamb, they had now been delivered through the Red Sea from the pursuit of their former oppressors and slave masters.
It was there that Miriam, Moses' sister, began to sing a song that was called later the song of Moses. The Book of Revelation says we'll sing the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb in heaven. The song of Moses is these words right here in verse 14: "The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation." Miriam and the women of Israel danced and sang this song, and it became a timeless song sung throughout history.
Here, almost a thousand years later, they're singing it as the temple is dedicated, the second temple about which some had said, "It has no real glory to it; it's just a collection of stones that have been burnt over." But prophecy had gone forth. Haggai had said, "The glory of this house will be greater than the glory of the former house." Everyone had to have thought, How could it be? The former house was a multi-billion dollar structure, so encrusted with gold and jewels under Solomon's wealth and David's provision that it was a milestone in architectural and economic achievement. How could it be greater?
What they didn't know was that into the temple they were building there, just a short five centuries later, would walk Jesus, the Son of God himself. The glory of God incarnate came into that temple, and the glory of the latter house was greater than the glory of the former house. The glorious beauty of God says: Watch what I can do in the future.
Listen. Jesus is set on coming into your house in ways you can't imagine. Praise is the key to welcoming it. And praise is the key to resisting whatever causes you to feel as those people felt.
Another psalm says, "I will enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise." Praise is described right here. Don't miss it. The Bible says the way you possess God's purpose in the future is through praise. Verses 19–21 say: "I will praise the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord, through which the righteous shall enter. I will praise you." Verse 20 is sandwiched with, "I will praise you, Lord." This is praise that becomes the kind of strength that is mentioned in verse 14: "The Lord is my strength and song." It's a strength that rises in you.
This is not the Lord saying, I'll make a defense around you. He does that other times. This strength rises in you as a conviction, an assurance that praises God in the face of everything else. Why? Because you know his unending interest and kindness toward you. It won't go away, whatever people do. It won't go away, whatever circumstances dictate. It won't go away, no matter how dead the issue looks, because his mercy endures beyond that.
And so the call is, "Praise the Lord." The meaning of the Hebrew word for giving thanks and praise is the use of the hands to express and lift up praise to God. It is a physical expression. In fact, the word is used in a few places in the Scripture for there being something thrown, as though a person would take a rock and throw it at a wild animal in defense or in the hunt.
The idea is to hurl praises to heaven. Hurl praises in the face of the adversary. Take praise and throw it at what it is that would tell you that this cramped circumstance won't have a large place, that this is a dead issue and it won't have life, and that the contrivance of man will trap and you won't realize what God has for you. Take aim and throw praise right at the situation.
Say to the Lord: "I look to you. I'm going to cause there to be an abiding praise to you no matter what. I'm going to stand firm in the spirit of praise." Stand firm even when it looks like it's not going to work out.
Jack Hayford is chancellor of The King's College and Seminary, Van Nuys, California, founding pastor of The Church on the Way, and former president of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. He is author of Rebuilding the Real You (Charisma House).