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Lovingkindness. Forever

Series: Psalms Book 5

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Oct 30, 2011

Psalm 118:1-29

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If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Psalm 118, in many ways, the perfect compliment for what we studied together this morning in the gospel of Luke because the psalm that we're about to read is the last song that Jesus sang before He was crucified. Let's pray.

Our Lord and our God, any time we're reading and hearing Your Word we are on holy ground. But it especially moves us when we are contemplating the things that surround our Lord's death on our behalf. And when we contemplate hearing the words that came from His mouth in praise to You in the Upper Room on the night in which He was betrayed, there is a special glory to that contemplation. We ask then that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful things in Your law, to receive, to understand, to believe, all for Christ's sake. We pray it in His name, amen.

This is God's Word. Hear it, in Psalm 118:

“Oh give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; for His steadfast love endures forever!

Let Israel say, ‘His steadfast love endures forever.’ Let the house of Aaron say, ‘His steadfast love endures forever.’ Let those who fear the LORD say, ‘His steadfast love endures forever.’

Out of my distress I called on the LORD; the LORD answered me and set me free. The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me? The LORD is on my side as my helper; I shall look in triumph on those who hate me.

It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes.

All nations surrounded me; in the name of the LORD I cut them off! They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side; in the name of the LORD I cut them off! They surrounded me like bees; they went out like a fire among thorns; in the name of the LORD I cut them off! I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the LORD helped me.

The LORD is my strength and my song; He has become my salvation. Glad songs of salvation are in the tents of the righteous: ‘The right hand of the LORD does valiantly, the right hand of the LORD exalts, the right hand of the LORD does valiantly!’

I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the LORD. The LORD has disciplined me severely, but he has not given me over to death.

Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD. This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank You that You have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.

This is the LORD's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Save us, we pray, O LORD! O LORD, we pray, give us success!

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD! We bless you from the house of the LORD. The LORD is God, and He has made His light to shine upon us. Bind the festal sacrifice with cords, up to the horns of the altar!

You are my God, and I will give thanks to You; You are my God; I will extol You. Oh give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; for His steadfast love endures forever!”

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

This is an exceedingly rich psalm and it will repay your long study, but I want to draw your attention to three things tonight. I want you to see this psalm teach us about the love which will not let us go. That love which will not let us go is the reason that the psalmist exhorts all of us to thank God, to be grateful to God, to praise God. That love that will not let us go is the specific goodness about which this psalmist is moved to sing. And I want to look at that love that will not let us go with you for a few moments. Then, I want to contemplate with you the fact that I stated before we read the Word of God, that this is the last song that Jesus sang before He was crucified and I want to contemplate with you just for a few moments the ramifications, the implications of that. And then, I want us to think in light of the fact that it's the last song that Jesus sang before His crucifixion, I want us to contemplate the lesson that He intended His disciples to learn from the singing of this song as He went to Calvary and the encouragement that He Himself drew from the singing of this song before He went to Calvary. And if we can cover those three things we will have covered a lot, though there would be much, much more that we could do with this great psalm.

the love that will not let us go

Let's look at the first thing - the love that will not let us go. The psalm begins, “O give thanks to the LORD,” — why? “For He is good.” The Lord's goodness is the reason that moves the psalmist to exhort his fellow worshipers to give thanks to God, but he is not satisfied with declaring the general goodness of the Lord. He wants to specifically zero-in on a special kind of goodness and so he says in verse 1, “For His steadfast love endures forever.” And you will notice that he then exhorts all of Israel to say that the Lord's steadfast love endures forever, the house of Aaron, all of the priesthood of Israel to say that the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever, and all who fear Him the Lord to say the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever.

Now what does he mean by the steadfast love of the Lord? It is an almost untranslatable word. It is so rich. This is the Old Testament word, hesed. It is the word which Myles Coverdale translated, lovingkindness. And modern translators wrestle with how to express it. Is it God's covenant love? Is it loyal love? Is it steadfast love? Is it lovingkindness? How do we say all that's packed into this love? Well what I want to say to you is that it's the love that will not let us go. The psalmist is celebrating the fact that God remains steadfast and immovable in His love for us despite our undeserving, despite our wanderings and our failings and our stumbling. This is the steadfast love of God to Israel that despite Israel's failings God kept His promises to her. And it's recorded throughout the history of Israel, isn't it? You can go back to Abraham and God gives these glorious promises to Abraham and is Abraham steadfast in his love to God? No, he is not. You don't have to cover much of the story of Abraham to find Abraham failing in his love and in his loyalty to the Lord. Or, you go to the story of Moses. And is Moses steadfast in his love to the Lord? Certainly Moses loved his Lord just as Abraham loved the Lord. Abraham loved the Lord so much that he can be called the friend of God. And Moses is the greatest prophet that the Lord ever gave to His old covenant people, and yet Moses himself can become exasperated with God's people and impatient with the unfolding of God's plan and strike the rock in the wilderness rather and speaking to it in accordance with God's Word and thus dishonor God in front of all the people and be barred from the Holy Land. No, even Moses failed. And of course the children of Israel brought out of Egypt by God's mighty hand grumble and complain and rebel in the wilderness and they deserve to be left there, a charred spot in the desert. But God's lovingkindness, His covenant love, His loyal love, His steadfast love will not let them go.

Norman Snaith, many years ago, meditating on the meaning of this love, says this — “God's lovingkindness is that sure love which will not let Israel go. Not all Israel's persistent waywardness could ever destroy it, though Israel be faithless, yet God remains faithful still. This steady, persistent, refusal of God to wash His hands of wayward Israel is the essential meaning of the Hebrew word which is translated ‘lovingkindness.’” I want you to think about that my friends. His persistent love refuses to wash His hands of you and me and we need that. Don't you feel your need for that? Don't you know your need for that? Don't you sense for that? You need a love that will not let you go, and this is what makes the psalmist sing — that we have such a love from our heavenly Father. So there's the first thing I want you to see — the love that will not let us go.

the last song that Jesus sang before the cross

But the second thing I want us to contemplate is that this is the last song that Jesus sang before He went to the cross for you and me. You may remember when we were looking at Psalm 113 that I said that this set of psalms, Psalm 113 to Psalm 118, are sometimes called the Egyptian Hallel, praise songs that were sung around festivals, some of which remembered the deliverance of the children of Israel out of Egypt. And they were commonly sung at festivals in Israel like the dedication festival when that became common in the Intertestamental Period, and Hanukah, and of course the Passover feast. And they were commonly sung as the last part of the Passover meal celebration. So in your gospels when you are told that when they had taken the Passover and taken the Lord's Supper that they sang a hymn and went out into the Garden, this is the set of long hymns that they sang — Psalm 113, 114, 115, the little Psalm 117, and then this psalm, 118. These are the last words that Jesus sang with His disciples.

Now just think about that. When you’re reading this psalm, you’re hearing the words, you’re seeing the words, you’re inwardly digesting the words that your Savior sang after the last Passover, after the first Lord's Supper prior to the Garden of Gethsemane, prior to the betrayal and prior to the crucifixion, but it's the last song that He sang. And realizing that makes you want to plumb the depths of the lessons of this psalm to think how they impacted His own soul and to think of the lessons that He wanted to teach His disciples. And that's where I want to go next and third. Now only the love that will not let us go, not only the last song that Jesus sang, but the lessons that Jesus wanted His disciples to learn from this psalm and the encouragement which He Himself drew from this psalm.

This psalm contains the words that had been sung to Jesus by a crowd of His disciples when He entered Jerusalem at the beginning of Passover week, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” They’re right from this psalm. And if you remember this morning, one of the things that Jesus was mocked about was that. “He saves others; let Him save Himself!” Now you say, “What do you mean that that connects with ‘Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord’?” Because Hosanna means “save us, we pray; save, we pray!” He had been acknowledged as the one blessed of the Lord who had come to save and now He was being mocked as the one who claimed to come to save but could not save Himself.

And do you know why it was that He could not save Himself? It's because of what David taught the children tonight. He was acting on our behalf. You see, God's lovingkindness, His grace and mercy towards us, His unfailing love, His steadfast love is always just. And the only way that we could partake of that steadfast love, being unjust, was through the death of the only one who was ever just. And so though those religious leaders did not realize the depth of what they were saying when they mocked Him, “He saved others, let Him save Himself,” they were speaking a profound truth, for He could not save Himself because He was acting for you and me so that we could receive a steadfast love that is not conditioned by our faithfulness and righteousness, but by His faithfulness and righteousness, so that God is just in what He does and yet steadfast in His love toward a multitude that no man can number that is not steadfast in love and faithful in righteousness. And Jesus wants His disciples to understand that. There are lessons that He wants them to learn.

encouragements for the Lord as He goes to Calvary

But there are also encouragements from this psalm for the Lord even as He goes to Calvary. Look at the language, for instance, of verses 5 to 7. “Out of my distress I called on the LORD; the LORD answered me and set me free. The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me? The LORD is on my side as my helper; I shall look in triumph on those who hate me.” You remember what Hebrews says? That “He endured the cross despising the shame for the joy that was set before Him.” There it is right there; there it is right there. And do you see how your Savior is reminding Himself of that truth? And if your Savior has to remind Himself of that truth, how much more do you and I need to remind ourselves of that truth? If He had to strengthen Himself with the Word of God before He went into the darkness of Calvary, how much more do we need to strengthen ourselves with the Word of God when we go forth into the dark providences of our lives? You see what He's doing. He's drawing encouragement from God's Word. The Savior is drawing encouragement from God's Word.

And then you look at the language of verses 10 to 12. He's surrounded by the nations; He's surrounded on every side; He's surrounded like bees; He's pushed hard to the point of falling. Do you remember the surrounding of the mocking soldiers and religious leaders that we read about in Luke 23 this morning? He's surrounded on every side. Yes, maybe the origin of what we're reading here is in David's experience of treasonous rebellion against his rule when the very people who were supposed to be his supporters abandoned him for his son, Absalom, and drove him out of Israel. Maybe it's some circumstance like that and maybe David is celebrating the fact that the Lord did not allow his enemies ultimately to triumph against him but he ultimately cut off his enemies. And the language of verse 17 and 18 may speak of that. “I shall not die but shall live and recount the deeds of the LORD. He's disciplined me severely but He's not given me over to death.” But you understand Jesus’ experience transcends this. It fulfills it but it transcends it. Just as David was spared, so the Savior was spared in an even more dramatic way. He does die but He does live. He is given over to death but He is not conquered by death. The Savior died and rose again triumphant from the grave and Jesus is reminding Himself of this truth as He prepares to go out into dark Gethsemane.

And then again, the words of verse 22 and following — “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” The very people who should have been rejoicing over the presence of the cornerstone have rejected Him, but God has made Him the chief cornerstone. “This is the Lord's doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.” This is why this verse was sung by believers on resurrection morning. And Jesus is rehearsing it in His own heart as He goes to Gethsemane.

And then think of Him singing these words. After repeating the words of the Aaronic benediction in verse 27, “The LORD is God and He has made His light to shine upon us,” and realize that the Lord Jesus is going to lose the sense of His Father's countenance in those dark hours on the cross, think of Him singing the words, “Bind the festal sacrifice with cords.” And as He sings it, He says, “Lord, I'm Your festal sacrifice. And as Isaac was bound, I'm going to be bound, but there's going to be no one to spare Me. There's going to be no ram to substitute for Me,” because He's your substitute and there can be no substitute for your substitute. It's because He's your substitute that there is no substitute for Him. And imagine Him singing these words knowing what none of His disciples realized around Him as they were singing this song, but edifying them when on the other side of the cross, in their remembrance, they would pull up the singing of these words with Him.

And then the bold declaration of verse 28 — “You are my God; I will give thanks to You. O give thanks to the LORD for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever.” You see, the steadfast love of the Lord is the costliest love ever given. You know, all true love costs you. All true love costs you because true love considers the best interest of another before your own interests. True love is self-denying and so all true love is costly. But this is the costliest true love ever given. For you to receive the lovingkindness of the Lord, it cost the Father His own Son. But here's this — the Father gladly gave Him and the Son willingly accepted because they loved you. You have never been loved by anyone like that, and that is why this psalmist says, “O give thanks unto the Lord for He is good; His lovingkindness lasts forever!”

Let's pray.

Lord, I really do believe that if I, if we, could believe that, even just a little of that, it would change our lives. So Lord, in our belief, help our unbelief. We ask this in Jesus' name, amen.

Would you 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.

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