A sermon on Psalm 40 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 17 October 2021
One of the most important lessons in life, is knowing what you want and how to get it. “Mum, I want an ice cream. I want an ice cream. I want an ice cream, now!” The child has certainly learned what she wants, but if mum is wise, she hasn’t yet learned how to get it. Making demands, making threats, shouting them at the top of your voice, – these are great ways of communicating your desires. Everyone around you is absolutely clear about what you want. But is it the way to get what you want? We need to learn to be persuasive. We need to learn how to make people want to help us and to give us what we need.
But what if the only person who can help you is the creator of the universe? He’s not just mum or dad who will give us what we want to make us go away. He’s not just a friend who will do us a favour for a favour in return. He’s the king of the universe. He’s not some government bureaucrat who will just say no because he doesn’t care. On the other hand, there is nothing he needs that only you can give him. He’s our heavenly Father. So how do we communicate our needs to God and how do we persuade him to give us what we need?
We communicate with God in prayer. And the great thing about the psalms, as we’ve seen over the last few weeks, is that they teach us to pray. They show us how to pour out our heart to our heavenly Father. They show us what we are allowed to say. They provide the boundaries within which we are safe in our relationship with the Lord. And time and again the psalms show us that what God wants from us is raw and intense honesty.
Like Psalm 40. Psalm 40 can be divided into two sections. The first 10 verses describe what happened to the psalm writer in the past. The last 6 verses describe what was happening to him in the present.
I waited patiently for the Lord. He turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire. He set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.
It describes an answer to prayer in the past. The writer waited patiently and cried out to the Lord.
To wait patiently on God doesn’t mean that we sit around and expect him to solve all our problems. If you need a drink of water, get up and get it yourself. If a door is shut, turn the handle and open it. Don’t hang around waiting for someone else. But the writer’s problem wasn’t so trivial. He describes it as being like stuck in mud. He probably wasn’t stuck in actual mud, but it felt like it. And you know how it is, the more you struggle in the mud, the further you sink it, and the harder it is to get out. The more you try to scramble up the side, the harder you slide back down. The filth is the least of your problems. If you never get out, you will die. And panicking will only make your situation worse.
The writer cried out to the Lord and waited patiently. It doesn’t mean he only asked once. He might have asked again and again, “Lord, get me out. I’m stuck and only you can help me.” But to wait patiently on the Lord means that he trusted him to help, that he believed God could help and that God wanted to help, and that he would in time come to his aid. But in the meantime he was not going to panic. He wasn’t going to do anything that was going to make it worse.
“O Lord, I need a new job,” someone might cry. Not me. Someone else. “Give me a new job.” They cry out to the Lord and, if they are wise, they wait patiently. They apply for jobs. They go to interviews. But they don’t do anything that means losing the job they’ve already got, or that means they stop looking if they haven’t got a job. They wait patiently, confident that God can help and wants to. The impatient person wants what they want right now and they do the stupid thing that means they never get it. They struggle and fight in the mire and mud until they are so stuck they will never get out. The patient person wants it just as much right now, but does the wise thing that means they get it eventually.
The psalm writer was stuck in the slimy muddy pit and escaped because the Lord rescued him. The Lord turned to him and heard his cry and did what he asked.
The writer says in verse 3,
He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.
What the writer means is that the Lord gave him a reason to sing. The Lord did something that made him want to praise him. It reminds us how important it is to remember to give thanks. A few years ago I read an interesting quote.
What if you woke up today with only the things you thanked God yesterday?
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t have had much this morning. It’s a shame that we forget to thank God for all the wonderful things we have, for all the wonderful things he’s done for us. It’s a shame, because being thankful is a wonderful way to stop feeling so miserable. You know those people in your life who are always so miserable. Who are always complaining. Something’s always going wrong. Sometimes, on my bad days, I’m that person.
But what joy it is, what a relief from our misery when we choose instead to be grateful. When we choose to be thankful. Looking back and being glad.
The writer goes on.
Many, O Lord my God, are the wonders you have done. The things you planned for us no one can recount to you. Were I to speak and tell of them, they would be too many to declare.
To his thanksgiving the writer added his praise to the Lord. Not because God is like some self-absorbed celebrity who needs to be continually told how great he is. Praise is what he deserves from us. And praise is good for us. It reminds us that God is God and we are not. That each moment is a blessing. Every breath we take is a gift from God. Every milestone and achievement we celebrate is a miracle of our creator. And how we are surrounded by the wonders of God. Praise opens our eyes to a beauty and majesty that is all around us, which many people never see.
Sacrifice and offering you did not desire. But my ears you have pierced. Burn offerings and sin offerings you did not require. Then I said, “Here I am. I have come. It is written about me in the scroll. I desire to do your will, O my God. Your law is within my heart.
We see here, that in response to God’s great kindness the psalm writer does not offer just a part of what he has. An offering. A sacrifice. One of the beasts of his flock. An animal he could purchase at the market. Or even some grand gesture, no matter how generous and breath taking. But the writer offers to his Lord nothing short of all he has and all he is.
Here I am. I have come. I desire to do your will.
It is nothing short of complete surrender and consecration of his life.
Psalm 40 is a psalm of David. And these psalms of David are often also psalms of the great Son of David, the Lord Jesus. Who else was stuck in the slimy pit than our Lord Jesus on his cross? Who else was raised up and set upon a rock, like his resurrection? Who else but him has set aside all the sacrifices and offerings? Who else but him has placed himself at his Father’s disposal and desired to do his will? Which one of us can say that the law of God is within our heart, except our Lord Jesus Christ?
This much of Psalm 40 is about what happened in the past. He felt stuck in the mud. He cried out to the Lord. The Lord rescued him and he offered his praise and his all to the Lord. But from verse 11 on is about what was happening in the writer’s present.
Do not withhold your mercy from me, O Lord. May your love and your truth always protect me. For troubles without number surround me. My sins have overtaken me. My heart fails within me.
He brings his honest appeal to the Lord. Notice firstly his honesty about himself. He does not lie to himself. He does not try to cover up his distress or his responsibility. He tells himself the truth and in his prayer he admits the truth to God. He doesn’t pretend that everything’s all right, that he’s got it all sorted. On his knees, before his God he doesn’t try to play games or try to impress. He is speaking to the one who knows him better than himself.
Notice secondly how direct he is in his requests.
Do not withhold your mercy from me. May your love and your truth always protect me.
He goes on from verse 13
Be pleased, O Lord, to save me. O Lord, come quickly to help me. May all who seek to take my life be put to shame and confusion. May all who desire my ruin be turned back in disgrace.
He does not grovel before his God. He doesn’t qualify his needs with weasel words. “If it’s alright with you. If you can see your way to getting around to it.” He does not make bargains or make promises that he cannot keep.
This is how people talk who know each other and who rely on each other. They don’t beat around the bush. They get straight to the point and they are not too proud or too scared to ask for what they want and for what they think they need. This is the raw and intense honesty I was talking about earlier. It’s the way people talk to each other in a healthy family. Where the children are taught that they don’t have to be afraid to ask, that they don’t have to make demands or threats or have to manipulate their parents to get their way. Where they know that mum or day won’t give in to make them go away or jack up if they are asked one too many times. And where they know that if they ask with sincerity and need they may not get what they want but their parents still love them. If this is how it is in a healthy family, how much more when we know that God is our heavenly Father.
The psalms teach us to pray. Psalm 40 teaches us to pray with trust, to pray with thanks, to pray with praise, and to pray from our own raw and broken need to the Heavenly Father who loves us and invites us to ask for what we want and for what we think we need.