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Good and Pleasant Praise

Series: Psalms Book 5

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Oct 14, 2012

Psalm 147:1-20

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If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Psalm 147. We’re coming close to the end, not just to the fifth book of the Psalter but of the entire Psalter, and you can feel, in these final psalms, that the arranger is building to a crescendo of praise to God. This psalm, like many other praise psalms, begins and ends with an exhortation for us to praise the Lord. You’ll notice that at the beginning of verse 1 and at the end of verse 20. But there are three fairly easily identifiable parts to this psalm and I'd like you to note them.

First of all, you’ll see these parts by the series of exhortations. In verse 1, 7, and 12, you will find an exhortation to praise the Lord, to sing to the Lord. You’ll see that in verse 1 — “Praise the LORD! For it is good to sing praises to our God.” Verse 7 — “Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving.” Verse 12 — “Praise the LORD, O Jerusalem! Praise your God, O Zion!” So in between the opening exhortation and the closing exhortation of verse 1 and verse 20, there are three parts. The exhortation, “It is good to sing praises to our God; sing to the LORD with thanksgiving; praise the LORD, O Jerusalem!” Those exhortations frame the three parts of the psalm. After those exhortations come, you’ll notice in verses 2 to 6, 8 to 11, and 13 to 20, a catalogue of God's praiseworthy acts. Rarely will you find in the Scripture an exhortation to praise God without an accompanying reason for doing that. In this psalm, the reason is supplied by a catalogue of who God is and what He does. And the first catalogue comes in verses 2 to 6, the second one in verses 8 to 11, the third one in verses 13 to 20.

Let's prepare to hear the living God's Word. Let's pray.

Our heavenly Father, we do thank You for this day, a type of the rest which remains, the rest that is to come, the heavenly rest of all Your people. We think now of some who already know that rest and wait in anticipation of all of Your people knowing that rest. Give us rest and refreshment in Your Word at the end of this day, Your day of rest and gladness. Refresh our souls with You. Move us to praise. Receive our worship. Change our lives by Your Word. Conform us to the image of Your Son. Comfort us and grow us in grace. Do all these things for Your own glory, by the work of Your Spirit, through Your Word, in Jesus' name. Amen.

This is the Word of God. Hear it:

“Praise the LORD! For it is good to sing praises to our God; for it is pleasant, and a song of praise is fitting. The LORD builds up Jerusalem; He gathers the outcasts of Israel. He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. He determines the number of the stars; He gives to all of them their names. Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; His understanding is beyond measure. The LORD lifts up the humble; He casts the wicked to the ground.

Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving; make melody to our God on the lyre! He covers the heavens with clouds; He prepares rain for the earth; he makes grass grow on the hills. He gives to the beasts their food, and to the young ravens that cry. His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor His pleasure in the legs of a man, but the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear Him, in those who hope in His steadfast love.

Praise the LORD, O Jerusalem! Praise your God, O Zion! For He strengthens the bars of your gates; He blesses your children within you. He makes peace in your borders; He fills you with the finest of the wheat. He sends out His command to the earth; His word runs swiftly. He gives snow like wool; He scatters frost like ashes. He hurls down His crystals of ice like crumbs; who can stand before His cold? He sends out His word, and melts them; He makes His wind blow and the waters flow. He declares His word to Jacob, His statues and rules to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any other nation; they do not know His rules. Praise the LORD!”

Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

Matthew Henry once said of this psalm, “It is easy in singing this psalm,” Psalm 147, “to apply it to ourselves both to personal and national mercies. Were it but as easy to do so with suitable affections.” In other words, he says when you read this psalm it's very easy to see how you could pray it for yourself and pray it for the nation, but can we do it with the right kind of affection of praise to God? It reminds me of something that the great theologian John Owen once said. He said, “It is easier to bring our heads to worship than it is to bring our hearts to worship.” And that's something that I want us to think about as we look at this psalm and it's three parts tonight, because this exhortation to praise the Lord ought to prompt in us some reflection on our affections in praising the Lord, our desires in praising the Lord.

The psalm itself begins after its first exhortation by telling us three things about the praise of the Lord. “It is good to sing praises to our God; it is pleasant; and it is fitting.” It is a good thing, it is a positively good thing to worship God, to praise the Lord, to sing to Him. And it is a pleasant thing. There is something inherently pleasing in the worship of God, not only to God but pleasing to us. If we love Him, if we know Him, if we're in Him and we're praising Him, there's something inherently pleasant about that. Do you know that experience, from time to time almost palpable in your Christian life? There have been times where you worshiped God, where you were singing His praises, where you were with His people and you just didn't want to leave? You were being blessed in the very giving of praise to God? And the psalmist is reminding us of that here. It's not only good to praise the Lord but there's something inherently pleasant in the praise of the Lord.

And of course it's fitting. It's appropriate to praise the Lord. What's the psalmist doing? He's piling up motivations, he's piling up reasons so that when you come to praise the Lord you come to give yourself to the Lord. If I could paraphrase something that Billy Dempsey said during his words prior to the offertory this morning, he said, “Remember, when you give as an act of worship in the gathering of God's people, be ready to give yourself; be ready to put yourself in that plate.” Well the psalmist is giving us reasons; he's stacking up motivations so that we can really give ourselves to the Lord in praise. And I'd like us to see three things tonight that he teaches us here.

PRAISE THE LORD FOR HIS GREATNESS

The first thing that I want you to see, you’ll see especially in verses 1 to 6, and that is, the psalmist tells us that we are to praise the Lord for the Lord's greatness and he wants us to notice who the Lord loves. He asks us to praise the Lord for His greatness and he wants us to notice who the Lord loves. After saying, “Praise the LORD,” after giving that exhortation, if you look in verse 2, he begins to pile up things that the Lord has done. The Lord builds up, the Lord gathers, the Lord heals, the Lord binds up, the Lord determines, the Lord gives, the Lord lifts up, the Lord casts down. So he tells us it's the Lord who builds up Jerusalem, it's the Lord who gathers the outcasts of His people, it's the Lord who heals the brokenhearted, it's the Lord who binds up their wounds.

And then notice what he says. “He determines the number of the stars; He gives to all of them their names. Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; His understanding is beyond measure.” I want to camp on verses 4 and 5 for just a few moments and notice what he's done. He says the Lord determines the numbers of the stars and He gives them names. And this is an illustration of what he says in verse 5 — the Lord is great and abundant in power. And I just want to pause right there for a second and ask you a few questions. Do you know how many stars there are? That's right, you don't, and neither do I and nobody else does either. Even with a Hubble space telescope and all of the amazing advances in science, we don't know how many stars there are. All we can do is guesstimate. Between 2004 and 2010 alone, the standard scientific estimate of the numbers of stars tripled. Scientists think that there are approximately 300 sextillion stars. I can't even imagine that number. I don't even know what that number means. I can tell you how many zeros are behind that number but I can't even imagine that number. That's our closest guesstimate to how many stars there are.

Now let me ask you another question. Are there more grains of sand on planet Earth or are there more stars? There are far more stars than there are grains of sand on planet Earth. Can you imagine that? If you piled all the sand up in the world and you counted every grain — again, scientists think that that number would be somewhere in the quadrillions. Again, I don't even know what that number means; I can't even picture that number. But there would be multiple stars for every grain of sand. Now your God not only knows the number of the stars, the psalmist says He determined the numbers of the stars and He names them.

A number of years ago right after I had graduated from college, as often happens, you have a slew of weddings of your friends right after you graduate from college. I was a little slow on the uptake; it took me about ten years, but many of my friends were getting married and so I went to wedding after wedding. And one of the interesting rehearsal dinners I went to was when a friend gave as a wedding gift to his bride-to-be at the rehearsal dinner, he named a star after her. Now I didn't know you could do this, but he called up the International Star Registry and he picked out some star in the Milky Way that had some long scientific name and a number attached to it, and he named it, for some fee that he paid to this International Star Registry, “Beth Star,” after her. And he had a picture of it in a frame and all that sort of stuff. And I wondered whether she would have rather had jewelry, but she has a star named after her now!

God has named all 300 sextillion of those stars, give or take a few, however many of them there are. He has determined the numbers of the stars and He's named them. That is how great He is. The psalmist is trying to set something in front of your eyes to adequately motivate you to an appreciation of the greatness of the God that you love and serve so that you can praise Him fittingly for His greatness.

And then he does the most remarkable thing. Look at what he does in the very last verse of that first section, verse 6. That God who determined and named 300 sextillion stars loves the humble. That God loves the humble! He doesn't like the exalted wicked; He doesn't like the proud. What he loves is the humble! Look at what he says. “The LORD lifts up the humble.” That God who made the stars, all of them, and named them, so great He is, loves to exalt the humble. The wicked He abases, the proud He casts down, but He loves to exalt the humble. That tells you something about Him, doesn't it?

When I was doing my doctoral work in Edinburgh, one of the most remarkable men that I had the privilege of meeting was what we would call a janitor. He was the college officer of the Free Church of Scotland college, the seminary for the Free Church of Scotland denomination, the conservative Presbyterian denomination in Scotland, and he took care of the building — he emptied the trash and swept the floors and mopped the floors. He made tea for the professors, he cleaned up after the students, he helped at lunch time. He just did all of the menial things that had to be done to keep that building going and to keep the staff taken care of and the students and the professors served. And he was a polymath. He knew all sorts of things. He was a brilliant art historian. He was almost blind but he could tell me details — I would go down to the National Gallery of Scotland and I would spend hours just staring at the portraits. And Mr. Anderson, who was legally blind, would point things out to me in the portraits that I had missed having looked at them for hours and hours. We could walk around the city of Edinburgh and he would say, “Now do you see up there in that third window?” He couldn't see it but he knew that it was up there, somewhere, and then he would begin to tell me some historical detail. He was a remarkably humble man. He was very knowledgeable but he was very humble.

One day, an English lady, literally an English lady, a woman of noble stature, was coming to the college to the Thomas Chalmers Housing Association board meeting. She was a major donor to the housing association and she had been invited by the board to observe the details that were going to go on at the meeting that day. And when they got there, she asked for a tour of the building because the building itself was historic. It was three or four hundred years old and it had a number of very interesting architectural features and she was to be met by professor Douglas Macmillan, the professor of Church History, and he was going to give her this tour. Well Mr. Anderson was along on the lift and they walked around the building and she would turn to professor Macmillan and say, “Now what is this?” and he would shrug his shoulders and not know and he would turn to Mr. Anderson and Mr. Anderson would give a full architectural description. And at the end of this tour, she said to professor Macmillan, “Now what does he teach here at the Free Church College?” and professor Macmillan said, “I don't know but he ought to be teaching Church History and I ought to be the janitor.” But that was the kind of man Mr. Anderson was. He loved to serve, he knew more than most people, he knew more than most people that he met, but he was a humble man. And the Lord loves that. He loves that humility. Even though He's great, precisely because He's great, He loves the humble. Praise the Lord for that kind of God.

PRAISE THE LORD FOR HIS PROVISION

Secondly, if you look at verses 7 to 12, the psalmist tells us to praise the Lord for God's provision and to praise Him for who He takes pleasure in. Look at what he says about the provision of the Lord in verses 7 to 9. “He covers the heavens with clouds, He prepares rain for the earth, He makes grass grow on the hills, He gives to the beast their food and to the young ravens that cry.” He's the provider of all His creation. He gives the animals what they need, He gives the beasts what they need, He gives the birds what they need; He provides rain. He is the provider and so we are to praise Him for that rich provision.

But then note again in verses 10 and 11 who He takes a special pleasure in. “His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor His pleasure in the legs of a man, but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear Him, in those who hope in His steadfast love.” Now look at what he's just said. The Lord's especial delight and pleasure is in those who fear Him and those who hope in His lovingkindness. Not the strong, not the swift, not the great, not the powerful, but those who reverence Him in awe and those who put all their hope in His lovingkindness. He takes pleasure in them. You know, we have around us all manner of contests for superlatives in almost every human endeavor. We have the Olympics for sports, we have art competitions and music competitions and math competitions and various other scholastic competitions, and we greatly honor and praise those who excel in those things and appropriately so. Those gifts are gifts that God has given to people and we ought to rejoice, not envy, not begrudge, others who are gifted in those areas. But isn't it interesting that the Lord says His especial delight is not those who are great and strong and swift, but His especial delight, His pleasure, is in those who fear Him and who hope in Him. You see, the psalmist has told you something about the Lord. The Lord is great and the Lord provides, but he's also told you something about the Lord in what he shows you that the Lord loves and what He takes pleasure in.

Many years ago, George Whitefield, before he was the famous preacher, discovered a book that had been written by a man named Henry Scougal, and that book was called, The Life of God in the Soul of Man, and George Whitefield said that he never had understood true religion, he had never understood Christianity, he had never understood the Gospel until he read that book. Well in that book, Henry Scougal says this. “The worth and excellency of a soul is to be measured by the object of its love.” The worth and excellency of a soul is to be measured by the object of its love. In other words, you know what a soul is like based on what that soul loves. And I want us to think for just a few moments before we move to the third point, and I want us to think of the third point in light of this truth as well, I want us to think for a few moments about what we learn about the object of our own soul's love when we look at this psalm and what we learn about God's heart when we look at the object of His love in this psalm.

Is our heart captivated by the greatness and provision of God or do we doubt God and think that He has underserved us? And if we do, what does that say about our soul and what does it say about the great object of our soul's love? Again, Scougal says, “The worth and excellency of a soul is to be measured by the object of his love.” The largest soul is the soul captivated by the greatness of God, revering, holding in awe the God with whom we have to do, and who hopes in the provision of God. That's the enlarged soul, the big soul, the great soul, is the soul that is captivated with the greatness of God. And I just have to tell you, I am so often, I am so often tempted to be captivated by far, far less than God, and to think that there's something out there other than God that can provide the real satisfaction that I want. If that's where you are, what does that say about your soul?

But I want us to think about it the other way around as well. The fact that God is like He is, what does it say about His soul that He's so great and yet He loves the humble? He provides so lavishly and yet He takes pleasure in those who fear Him and who hope in His love rather than those who are great in the eyes of the world. What does that say about the heart of your God? I think that if you understand that, it will make you love Him more.

PRAISE THE LORD FOR HIS COVENANTAL PRIVILEGES

One last thing, if you look at verses 12 to 20, he gives the third exhortation to praise, “Praise the LORD, O Jerusalem! Praise your God, O Zion!” This section of the psalm especially focuses on the unique privileges that God has given to His old covenant people, Israel. “He strengthens your gates” — He protects you — “He blesses your children. He makes peace in your borders; He fills you with the finest of the wheat. He sends out His command; His word runs swiftly. He gives snow like wool; He scatters frost like ashes. He hurls down His crystals of ice like crumbs; who can stand before His cold? He sends out His word, and melts them; He makes His wind blow and the waters flow. He declares His word to Jacob, His statues and rules to Israel.” Now this is what I want you to see, verse 19. Here, amidst all those other things that He does, all those other things that He gives to His people, the psalmist highlights this especially. He gives His people His word. He gives His people His word. “He declares His word to Jacob, His statues and rules to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any other nation; they do not know His rules.” In other words, the psalmist is reminding us that God has uniquely given His people His Word. And he's asking us to praise the Lord for what He has given His people, especially the Word.

And do you feel that way about the provision of God's Word? I've told you before on a number of occasions that wonderful story that Mark Dever recounted when he was giving a lecture on the Puritans and their practice of preaching in London, England once. And he was telling the people at the conference what this iron hook was that was on the pulpit where he was standing delivering the lecture. He said that iron hook was designed to hold a gift from the congregation to the minister and the gift was an hourglass. Don't get nervous! And the congregation would typically give the pastor one or two turns of the hourglass for his preaching. And when he said that, a woman who was in attendance at the lecture audibly gasped. And she said, “Well if they preached that long, they wouldn't have had any time left to worship!” And Mark explained that when those gifts were first given in the 1500s in England and attached to the pulpits by the congregation, that many of the people who would have been sitting in those pews listening to their pastor expound the Scriptures, would have remembered the smell of burning flesh from those who had been burned at the stake for translating the Bible into English so that they could read it and hear it in their own language. And so for them, to be able to hear the Word of God read to them in the their own language and to hear it preached to them in their own language was not a burden but a blessing, an enormous privilege to be able to hear the Word of God read in their own language and proclaimed in the church. In other words, they viewed the Word of God as a blessing and a privilege.

Do we think of the Word of God that way and do we praise Him for it? There are billions of people on this planet who have never heard the Word of God read in their own language in a Christian service of worship — billions of people on this planet who have never heard the Word of God read in their own language in a Christian worship service. And we hear it every week and we're sort of ho-hum about it; no big deal. The psalmist wants us to praise the Lord for what He gives, especially His Word.

But I just want to end with this, taking you back to Scougal's question. What does the object of your love say about your soul? If your heart is set on praising this great God, this providing God, this God who blesses with His own words, who delights in the humble, who takes pleasure in those who fear Him and who hope in Him, who wants His people to love and treasure His Word, if your delight is in Him, it says that your soul is in a very good place. No matter what's happening to you in your life, your soul is in a very good place. But if you find your delight in something other than Him, well that too says something about your soul, and I can promise you this — no matter what that other delight is, it will be lesser and your soul will be smaller than if your delight is in this great God.

Let's pray.

Heavenly Father, thank You for this psalm. Grant that we would learn to sing it with the full force of our affections because we realize who You are, Your greatness and Your provision, and we're so thankful for Your Word. We give You praise in Jesus' name, amen.

Would you please stand for the Lord's benediction?

Peace be to the brethren and love with faith, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, until the daybreak and the shadows flee away. Amen.

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