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The Blessings of Release from Captivity

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Nov 27, 1997

Thanksgiving 1997
Psalm 107

Dr. Ligon Duncan

Before we turn to the Scriptures, I'd like to turn your attention to your order of service, and just point out, under the record of Thanksgiving as viewed by a citizen, exactly 150 years ago this Thanksgiving, John Munn, who was a native of Connecticut, recorded in his journal his experience of the first Thanksgiving in Canton, MS. If you’ll look at the last couple of sentences of his description, he tells us there was a general attendance at church to listen to The Rev. Mr. Halsey of Jackson, and seldom have I listened to a more interesting and appropriate sermon. It was well adapted for a people who were assembled for the first time for such a purpose and those listening attentively could not have been but instructed in the objects of those who first established the custom and the reasons that demand its observance. That Mr. Halsey was one of your ministers, a minister of First Presbyterian Church in Jackson. He had apparently been called to preach the first Thanksgiving services in Canton, MS, and we had that record. Our ruling elder, Otho Johnson, kindly shared with me a collection of stories connected with Mississippi Thanksgivings, and I found that delightful story in it and thought that you might be enriched by it.

If you have your Bibles, I invite you to turn with me to the Psalm 107. It is an appropriate place to go on Thanksgiving morning, to the Word of God and particularly to the Psalms that give us so many instructions in how we can show our gratitude for the grace of God. Psalm 107 is the first Psalm beginning in the final Book of the Psalms. Let us hear God's holy and inspired word.

“O give thanks to the Lord for He is good, for His lovingkindness is everlasting
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, whom He has redeemed from the hand of the adversary
And gathered from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south.
They wandered in the wilderness in a desert region; they did not find a way to an inhabited city.
They were hungry and thirsty; their soul fainted within them.
Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble; He delivered them out of their distresses.
He led them also by a straight way, to go to an inhabited city. Let them give thanks to the Lord for His lovingkindness, and for His wonders to the sons of men!
For He has satisfied the thirsty soul, and the hungry soul He has filled with what is good.
There were those who dwelt in darkness and in the shadow of death,
Prisoners in misery and chains, because they had rebelled against the words of God
And spurned the counsel of the Most High.
Therefore He humbled their heart with labor; they stumbled and there was none to help.Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble; He saved them out of their distresses.
He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death and broke their bands apart.
Let them give thanks to the Lord for His lovingkindness, and for His wonders to the sons of men! For he has shattered gates of bronze and cut bars of iron asunder.
Fools, because of their rebellious way, and because of their iniquities, were afflicted.
Their soul abhorred all kinds of food, and they drew near to the gates of death.
Than they cried out to the Lord in their trouble; He saved them out of their distresses.
He sent His word and healed them, and delivered them from their destructions.
Let them give thanks to the Lord for His lovingkindness, and for His wonders to the sons of men! Let them also offer sacrifices of thanksgiving, and tell of His works with joyful singing.
Those who go down to the sea in ships, who do business on great waters;They have seen the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep.
For He spoke and raised up a stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea.They rose up to the heavens, they went down to the depths; their soul melted away in their misery.
They reeled and staggered like a drunken man, and were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and He brought them out of their distresses.
He caused the storm to be still, so that the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad because they were quiet, so He guided them to their desired haven.
Let them give thanks to the Lord for His lovingkindness, and for His wonders to the sons of men!
Let them extol Him also in the congregation of the people, and praise Him at the seat of the elders.
He changes rivers into a wilderness and springs of water into a thirsty ground;
A fruitful land into a salt waste, because of the wickedness of those who dwell in it.
He changes a wilderness into a pool of water and a dry land into springs of water;
And there He makes the hungry to dwell, so that they may establish an inhabited city,
And sow fields and plant vineyards, and gather a fruitful harvest.
Also He blesses them and they multiply greatly, and He does not let their cattle decrease.
When they are diminished and bowed down through oppression, misery and sorrow,
He pours contempt upon princes and makes them wander in pathless waste.
But He sets the needy securely on high away from affliction,
And makes his families like a flock. The upright see it and are glad;
But all unrighteousness shuts its mouth.
Who is wise? Let him give heed to these things, and consider the lovingkindnesses of the Lord.

Thus ends this reading of God's holy and inspired word. May He add His blessing to it. Let's look to Him in prayer.

Our Father we thank You for giving us this word on this day. We acknowledge that we have many reasons to be thankful for things temporal and things eternal that You have given us. As we come into this house this day, with all our burdens and all our joys, we pray that for a moment You would unburden our hearts to focus upon the things of greatest importance that You have given us for which we ought to be thankful. Make us a grateful people because of Your grace. We ask it in Jesus' name, Amen.

It is a difficult thing to foster true gratitude in an age of entitlement and of prosperity. Not only does our generation seem to think that it deserves the most lavish riches, but it has also enjoyed the most lavish riches of any generation before. Someone was saying in a letter that I received this week, “It is ironic, isn't it, that Thanksgiving Day, the day on which we give thanks for the Lord's blessings to us, particularly in the year previous is the day immediately before the biggest shopping day in the year where we go out to get more. So we come into the Lord's house and we give thanks for all that He has given us–all the time with our minds on what we're going to go out and get for ourselves tomorrow.” It's an irony, isn't it? And it's typical of our consumer day in which we live. It's difficult for prosperous people who have learned to be entitled to certain blessings to be truly grateful for them. And that's a real spiritual struggle because gratitude is a key component to biblical spirituality. And when we begin to feel that we deserve everything that we have and that we ought to have more, it's hard to be truly grateful in that setting.

However, it is possible to be temporally wealthy, to be temporally prosperous and to feel temporal entitlement and yet to be spiritually impoverished. And that is actually a very important key to waking up ourselves out of our slumbers and paying attention to things of spiritual significance. It doesn't matter much to be temporally prosperous and to be spiritually poverty stricken. And that would be a terrible way to go through life. This psalm reminds us of the reasons why God's people ought to be grateful, and it gives us some things by which we may spiritually diagnose ourselves in the midst of our prosperity and maybe even in our sense of being entitled.

This psalm gives us a series of pictures about the same reality. It's really about God's people being brought out of captivity. You notice that in the opening words it speaks about God gathering His people from the north and from the south and from the east and from the west. They’re being brought from their dispersion. Because of the sins of God's people and for their discipline, God had sent His people Israel into captivity into Babylon, but in His grace and covenant love He gathered back out. As He gathers them back out, He gives us a series of pictures of what it was like for them to be in that captivity. Those pictures describe spiritual aspects of being under the discipline of God and give us reasons why we ought to be grateful for his redeeming grace.

I'd like to think with you for just a few moments about the pictures that are set forth before us. Before we do so, I would like you to see the repeating refrain that occurs over and over again in this particular psalm. In verse 8, you see it for the first time. “Let them give thanks to the Lord for His lovingkindness and for His wonders to the sons of men. Two things are set forth there. They are to give thanks because of the covenant love of the Lord, because of the unfailing love of the Lord–His lovingkindness, His undeserved mercy. They are to give thanks for that and they are to give thanks for the wonders that He's done. So, it's not only God's love, His character, His person, His love for His people, and the deeds that He's done on their behalf–wondrous deeds. Those two things are at twin focus of the gratitude in this psalm.

Look again and you’ll see it in verse 15. “Let them give thanks to the Lord for His lovingkindness and for His wonders to the sons of men.” Again in verse 21. “Let them give thanks to the Lord for His lovingkindness, and for His wonders to the sons of men.”

And then again we are called upon to praise the Lord in verse 31. “Let them give thanks to the Lord for His lovingkindness, and for His wonders to the sons of men!” And of course, verse 1 and verse 43 encapsulate this psalm with calls for us to “give thanks to the Lord for He is good, for His lovingkindness is everlasting.” Verse 43 asks us to consider the lovingkindness of the Lord. So, the one-point sermon that the psalmist is trying to preach is very clear, and I'm going to try and preach that same one-point sermon here with the illustrations which the psalmist gives us of the blessings of being brought out of captivity.

I. God's people are called upon to give thanks
First of all, look at verses 1-3. There we see God calling on all of us, all of His people to give thanks. “O give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His lovingkindness is everlasting. Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, whom He has redeemed from the hands of the adversary and gathered from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south.” This is a call for all God's people, from the west, from the north, from the east, and from the south, this is a call for all God's people to give thanks to Him because He's redeemed us. He's redeemed us from our dispersion. And the basis of the thanksgiving is the goodness of the Lord; He is good in His nature. He is showing covenant love to His people. His people didn't deserve to be brought back from the dispersion. He did it because He was faithful to the promises that He had made to them, and we can say the same things. The wonderful thing about these psalms of Israel is we can join into Israel's experiences; we are connected with her spiritually because all of God's children know what it is like to be redeemed from that dispersion. We may not have been in the wilderness with Israel, but we all have our own experiences as believers that God has redeemed us from. And so, we can join with them in thanking God for who He is, for His nature, for His lovingkindness and for His actions–specifically, His redeeming us from sin.

Now, beginning in verse 4, we see the first of several pictures of what this captivity was like. We read here that they wandered in the wilderness in a desert region and we have a picture of people wandering out in the desert–thirsty, and hungry, stumbling under the heat of the sun, not finding an inhabited city, and we learn here in this passage from verse 4 to verse 9, that God's people are to give thanks because of their redemption from isolation. One of the things that we see in the picture of the children of Israel wandering in the desert is a picture of isolation, of fragmentation. There off from inhabited reality; they’re off from the city; they’re off from the place where people are gathered; they’re isolated. That's one thing that sin does to us; it isolates us. And so, in the captivity, the people of God experience isolation because in the captivity, one thing that God wanted to drive home to His people, is the effect of sin. And as we are redeemed from that isolation, as we are redeemed for reunion, as we are gathered together from the east and the west and the north and the south, the Lord wants us to thank Him for His lovingkindness because when we are redeemed, we are reunited.

That is one of the blessings of redemption, is it not? The communion of the saints. When people who have been fragmented or brought back together again, when families are reunited, when friends are reunited, when those who have been estranged are reunited, is that not one of the blessings of redemption? And the Lord is saying, “Give thanks for those things.” It will be good for you to give thanks for those things. You’ll be reminded of what I did for you even in the giving of thanks for that redemption from isolation.

In verses 10-16, another picture is given. There it's a picture of prisoners. Look at verse 10. “There were those who dwelt in darkness and in the shadow of death, prisoners in misery and chains.” There God looks at captivity and its effect of imprisoning Israel. Israel had been sinful; Israel had gone after other gods; Israel had neglected the Lord Her God, and the Lord took her into captivity. And of the glorious lessons He taught her is that sin does not liberate you; sin enslaves you. And He gave them a tangible imprisonment to remind them of that truth. Sin is not a good thing; sin is not a good thing that makes your life better; sin always makes your life smaller, and narrower, and worse. It may take it a while for that to seep home to us, but that's the way it always is. And so, in this picture of the prisoner, He reminds us that sin imprisons; it takes dominion over us.

But, He tells us in verse 15 that we are to give thanks because the Lord has redeemed us from that bondage to sin. One of the things that He does to us when He saves us is that He redeems us from that captivity to sin; He redeems us from that domination of sin. Sin no longer is our master; we're no longer imprisoned by sin. The Lord Jesus Christ takes dominion of our life and we are not dominated anymore by that sin. It doesn't mean that we don't cease to struggle against sin, but it does mean that sin is no longer our master.

Again, in verses 17-22, He gives another picture. There He gives a picture of people that the Lord has afflicted with certain maladies because of their sin. Look at verse 17. “Fools, because of the rebellious way, and because of their iniquities, were afflicted. Their soul abhorred all kinds of food, and they drew near to the gates of death.” In other words, they were so sick, they couldn't even eat. Now, He says directly here that the physical consequences in these people in the captivity, were due to their sin.

Now, it doesn't always work that way; every time we're sick, it doesn't mean that the Lord is punishing us for a particular sin. But here, He tells us that He was punishing these people physically for their sin against Him.

This is one of the most precious of these commands to thanksgiving to me because it's kind of noble to suffer for something that you haven't done, but it's hard to suffer the consequences of something that you know that you've done. At least, it is for me. When I look at my friends going through trials and tribulations for things that are just completely out of their control, I sometimes envy that when I think of the trials that I go through because of my sin. But the beautiful thing about this passage in verses 17-22, is that we are told that God redeems us even from the consequences of our own sin. That is a very exceedingly precious thing to me to know that even when I have messed up, and I'm paying the consequences for it, I love and serve a God who wants to redeem me even from the consequences of my own sin. It's noble to suffer for things that we haven't done; it's not noble to suffer for things that we have done, and yet, the Lord desires to redeem us from those consequences. And so, God's people are to give thanks because He redeems us from the consequences of sin. He's a forgiving God and He desires to restore us. And it is not surprising to me that, in verse 21, we not only have a repetition of the phrase, “Let them give thanks to the Lord for His lovingkindness and for His wonders to the sons of men. Let them also offer sacrifices of thanksgiving and tell of His works with joyful singing.” In verse 22 we read that He adds an extra phrase in that particular section. This redemption of the Lord deserves some thanksgiving in the midst of God's people and a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Lord because He redeems us from the consequences of sin.

Again, in verses 23-32, the scene shifts. Now we go to the sea. This is not a normal Jewish or Israelite scene. Israel was never known for her navy. There's not a record book titled “History of Famous Jewish Admirals.” That's not one of the books that you read about out there. Israel was never known for its navy, but here in verses 23-32, there is a picture of those who go out onto the sea and they face those storms and the swelling waves and the chasms that those waves seem to plunge one into. The sea, in ancient Israel, was a picture of the fallen world out of control. And in this passage, the people of God are called upon to give thanks because God is even in control of that which seems like its out of control–the raging sea. So, we're called upon here to give thanks because of God's providential care of us in the midst of the dangers of a fallen world.

This uncontrollable sea, something that's completely out of our human control. We can be great pilots; we can be great navigators; we can be as safe as we can possibly be, but we're not in charge of the weather. We may be able to predict the weather a little more successfully in our day and age than they. I don't know. Weathermen still have a reputation for missing it. But we can't control the weather. This section of the psalm thanks God because He cares for us even in those circumstances, where out best intentions and preparations and efforts can't help us. When we're out at sea in the midst of the storm, God's people are to give thanks because of His providential care in the dangers of a fallen world.

And then, in verses 33-42, another scene is given to us. It is a description of God raising up the humble and bringing down the proud. A picture of God helping and securing those who are oppressed, and God bringing down those who are oppressors. This is a picture of God's sovereignty in the lives of His people. From His throne in heaven, He administers justice. He punishes the wicked; He rewards those who love Him and who do justice and love mercy. God's people, we are told in this section, are to give thanks because of His sovereignty in their lives. For all these reasons, God calls us to give thanks in this psalm. All of these are spiritual matters. One can be rich or poor and know all of these blessings. One can be wise or one can be not so wise and know all of these blessings. One can be famous or one can be obscure, and you can know all of these blessings. These are the things for which we ought to be thankful. But verse 43 culminates on the focus of the love of God itself. God's people are to give special care to meditate on His covenant love.

In verse 43, the psalmist asks, “Who is wise?” Who is the wise man? “Let the wise man give heed to these things, and consider the lovingkindnesses of the Lord.” The focus of the Psalmist is on the lovingkindness of the Lord. When we are unfaithful, He remains faithful. That should be something that comforts us all in this season of Thanksgiving. For, if we know ourselves, we know that at our best, we fall short. And so, ultimately, our realization of grace, the Lord's grace to us, provides the foundation of our gratitude. Show me an ungrateful person, and I’ll show you someone who has never tasted grace, because once you've tasted grace, you can't help but be grateful. May the Lord make us grateful people. Let's look to the Him in prayer.

Our Lord, in the midst of abundance, it is tragically possible to underestimate our debt to grace. Through all these pictures in this great psalm, remind us again of our debt to grace. For it is precisely those people who have the greatest sense of indebtedness, even unworthiness, who are the happiest.

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