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Praying the Psalms: Psalm 107

November 21, 2010
Sermon: Praying the Psalms:  Psalm 107
Text: Psalm 107

 

“I am at my wits’ end,” she said.  The woman was a single mother of two.  Her husband had betrayed her trust and left her for another woman. She was living with little money and little emotional support. “I simply do not know what to do,” she said.

“I got my last unemployment check today,” he said.  “I have applied for a job everywhere I know, but still there is nothing.  I don’t know what to do.  I am at the end of my rope.”

“The bitter end” is a nautical term, one that sailors understand.  The bitter end is the piece of rope that never leaves the ship.  All the rope may go out with the anchor except for that small section at the end fastened to what is called a bit, a post mounted on the boat that holds it secure.  When a rope is played out all the way to the end, it is said to have reached the bitter end.  It simply means no more rope is available for use.

Psalm 107, the last text for our series Praying the Psalms, is for people who are at the end of their rope, for people who have reached the bitter end.  Psalm 107 is a psalm of restoration and hope.

I invite you to open your Bibles to Psalm 107 as we consider its structure.  The first three verses, an introduction that provides the overall theme, seem to have come from the Babylonian Exile.  God had restored the people of Israel from their captivity.  The psalm offers a reminder about some of the terrible experiences the people have endured.  It also helps them understand how God has been present in all of those difficult circumstances.  It serves as a reminder of God’s merciful progress in the various emergencies of life and as a reminder that we have reason to give thanks.  It must be regarded as an instruction for celebration.

The captive people mentioned in the psalm – some wandering in the desert wastelands and some living in famine – have great need of deliverance.  God, in His goodness and mercy, has granted their request.  The psalm reminds them of what God has been doing in their lives.  The last verse states the theme of the entire psalm:  “Whoever is wise, let him heed these things and consider the great love of the LORD.”  You have heard it said that the Old Testament depicts only a God of wrath.  That particular verse shows us a God of great love.

The next four stanzas outline four kinds of experiences the people endured.  Verses 4-9 describe people who are wandering in a wilderness and desert region.  They are frantic and restless.  In the Hebrew language, the word that is translated “thirsty” can also be translated “frantic.”  In fact, a person who is thirsty is frantic, searching for water.  These people are looking for a place to rest.  They are searching for something in which they can put their trust, something they can grasp.

Stanza 2, which begins at Verse 10, describes those who are dwelling in the darkness, in the shadow of death, in bondage, in misery, in chains.  They can do nothing to free themselves from their oppression.  Verses 17-22 describe their discouragement and hopelessness.  The psalmist suggests that their afflictions – perhaps resulting from their own sin – make them abhor all kinds of food, even those items that might offer nourishment and sustenance.  The fourth stanza, beginning with Verse 23, provides a view of people who seem to be doing quite well at first glance.  Merchants are seen in the midst of normal life activities doing business on the sea.  They, too, however, encounter the perils of a terrible storm.

These four different accounts all describe people who are hurting, people who are at the end of their rope, at their wit’s end, at their bitter end.  They all feel the need for security.  They feel trapped in bondage, discouraged and hopeless, ready to quit.  Even those whose lives are going well, must, at some point, deal with tragedy when it strikes.  Unexpected storms will drive them to their knees.

Are you included here in this group?  Do their experiences describe your life?  Certainly the people of Israel could identify with the psalmist’s words as evident in the fact that they included this prayer as a part of their worship.

According the psalm, people respond to crisis situations in a similar way.  People who are hurting “cry out” to the Lord during a time of trouble.  It is a way of saying that they pray.  Their prayers are not simple.  They do not recite, “God is great, God is good” or “Now I lay me down to sleep.”  Their prayers show desperation.  God reaches out to these who cry out to Him and answers them.  He relieves them and draws them out of their distress.

Charles Spurgeon, in his commentary on the psalms called The Treasury of David, said that some people never pray until they are half-starved. For their best interest, it is far better for them to be empty and faint than to be full and stouthearted.  Hunger that brings us to our knees is more useful than feasting.  Thirst that drives us to the fountain is better than the deepest draughts of worldly joy.  Fainting that leads us to crying is better than the strength of the mighty.  The truth is that sometimes we have to come to the bitter end before we cry out to God and seek His help.

The Psalm offers a way of responding to the difficulties of life. Versus 8, 15, 21, and 31 all reiterate the same message:  “Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for men.”

During this time of year, I usually do some reading in William Bradford’s journal Of Plymouth Plantation.  Bradford’s records state that the Pilgrims included a reading of Psalm 107 in their first Thanksgiving.

I want to tell you a story you already know, a story of a remarkable chapter in America’s beginnings.  I want you to see the connection between the Pilgrims’ experience and the content of Psalm 107.  I have taken the liberty of slightly rearranging the stanzas of this text to help us better understand why this psalm was so important to the Pilgrims.  The story will enhance your appreciation of the connection and prepare us to pray this psalm as our own.

Thirty years ago, I saw a replica of the Mayflower, the vessel that brought the Pilgrims to the shore of the New World.  I was struck by its small size.  Made entirely of wood, the ship that measured only 128 feet long made the journey across the Atlantic Ocean in sixty-six days.  It was absolutely mind boggling for me to realize that a vessel this size brought 102 passengers to the shores of this country.

Verses 1-3:

Give Thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
his love endures forever
Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story –
those he redeemed from the hand of the foe,
those he gathered from the lands,
from the east and west, from north and south.

The Pilgrims’ story actually begins with the Act of Uniformity, enacted in 1559.  This English law demanded that all British citizens attend worship services and follow the traditions of the Church of England, a church known in America as either the Anglican Communion or the Episcopal Church.  A group of English dissenters known as the Puritans strongly disagreed with some of the church practices within the Church of England.

In about 1606, in the small village of Scrooby in Nottinghamshire, England, the group formed their own church independent of the national Church of England and its head, King James I.  William Brewster, Richard Clifton, William Bradford, and John Robinson and their families felt that their Christian faith required a greater degree of reformation than the Church of England had provided.  Feeling it was impossible for them to worship in a church where the king was the established head, they decided to gather themselves into a church of their own under a separate covenant.  Such a move was considered treasonous because church and state were united at the time.  The Separatists, as they were called, were forced to flee the country lest they be imprisoned or even executed.  Years earlier, some of their number had been imprisoned and actually put to death for their Christian beliefs.  Under King James, the practice of executing Puritans for disobeying the act of uniformity ended.  The group, however, still found themselves hated by society.

After removing themselves from the Church of England, the Separatists immigrated to the tolerant haven of the Netherlands in 1609.  The little congregation lived as exiles in Holland.  There they enjoyed religious freedom but opposed the idea of their children learning the Dutch language and traditions.  After twelve years there, they felt the need to live in an area that spoke English and one that would allow them to practice their faith as they chose.  The only place where that was possible was in a new location.  The Pilgrims decided to travel to the New World.

Verses 10-16:

Some sat in darkness, in utter darkness,
prisoners suffering in iron chains,
for they had rebelled against God’s commands
and despised the plans of the Most High.
So he subjected them to bitter labor;
they stumbled, and there was no one to help.
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and he saved them from their distress.
He brought them out of darkness, the utter darkness,
and broke away their chains.
Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind,
for he breaks down gates of bronze
and cuts through bars of iron.

These Separatists negotiated for three years before obtaining the necessary sponsorship to establish a colony in the New World.  Only eight Separatist families seeking religious freedom were prepared to make the pilgrimage across the ocean.  Thinking that the group was too small to survive, the sponsoring company, the Virginia Company, recruited volunteers to join the voyage.  These recruits, or “strangers” as they were called, were a motley crew, consisting of released prisoners, n’er-do-wells, and debtors.  These individuals, along with their families, soldiers and sailors, and eight Separatist families made the perilous voyage together.

Verses 4-9:

Some wandered in desert wastelands,
finding no way to a city where they could settle.
They were hungry and thirsty,
and their lives ebbed away.
Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
He led them by a straight way
to a city where they could settle.
Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind,
for he satisfies the thirsty
and fills the hungry with good things.

In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the small Mayflower encountered a large storm.  A tremendous wave broke across the deck of the ship, splintering boards and fracturing one of the ship’s main beams.  With Captain Christopher Jones shouting orders above the raging sea, the crew employed a large iron screw jack to lift the broken beam and the sagging deck back into place.  After inspecting the repairs, Captain Jones decided that the Mayflower’s hull was sound enough to continue on its journey to its intended destination of the Jamestown colony.

Whether or not Captain Jones knew that the ship was off course is unknown.  At sunrise on November 9, 1620, the high ground of Cape Cod was sighted.  The Mayflower sailed three more weeks before reaching Jamestown.  The decision was made to go as far south as the mouth of the Hudson River, just inside the boundary of the Virginia Company’s claimed land.  Only a few hours later another storm roaring out of Nantucket Sound drove the small ship back to the north.  The Mayflower found refuge just inside the tip of Cape Cod, a place they named Provincetown.

Verses 23-32:

Others went out on the sea in ships;
they were merchants on the mighty waters.
They saw the works of the Lord,
his wonderful deeds in the deep.
For he spoke and stirred up a tempest
that lifted high the waves.
They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths;
in their peril their courage melted away.
They reeled and staggered like drunkards;
they were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
and he brought them out of their distress.
He stilled the storm to a whisper;
the waves of the sea were hushed.
They were glad when it grew calm,
and he guided them to their desired haven.
Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind.
Let them exalt him in the assembly of the people
and praise him in the council of the elders.

Steven Hopkins was one of the “strangers” onboard.  His wife had given birth to a son aboard the Mayflower only a few days after the fierce storm that broke the cross beam.  The infant was named Oceanus.  Hopkins had overheard mutinous talk among some of the strangers who declared that if the Mayflower landed outside the Virginia Company’s territory, the authority of the colony would not be legally binding upon them.

When the Separatists heard the rumor, leaders including Reverend Elder William Brewster, William Bradford, John Carver who became the first governor of the colony, and Edward Winslow who would become governor in 1633, wrote out a short statement of self-government.  They persuaded the others on board to sign the document before anyone set foot on solid ground.  Forty-one men – including both “strangers” and Separatists – signed The Mayflower Compact, which would later become the model for the Constitution of the United States of America.

Over the following weeks, the Mayflower continued to explore the inner curve of Cape Cod, searching for a suitable harbor.  Finally on December 21, the trustworthy vessel found a haven at Plymouth.  By Christmas Day – a holiday the Separatists did not observe – construction on the first buildings in the village had begun.  While homes were under construction, the people continued to live aboard the cramped Mayflower.

This first winter in the New World was severe.  Hunger weakened the group.  During the hardest part, Miles Standish, a hardened soldier who had found a small cache of Indian corn, rationed out five kernels of corn per day per person.  Disease was rampant.  Pneumonia, scurvy, and tuberculosis decimated the ranks of colonists.  The hardship and bereavement bound the travelers together.  Sneering sailors and praying Puritans now shared a common suffering.  Miles Standish tended the sick alongside the Separatist preacher William Brewster.  By spring, only five of the Separatist men and eight men among the “strangers” had survived.  Fifteen of the eighteen wives had died, and five of the twenty-eight children had died.  Nineteen of twenty-nine hired men and fifteen of thirty sailors had died from hard work in the harsh weather. Teenager Priscilla Mullins lost her entire family.

Following the death of Governor William Carver, the Mayflower set sail for a return voyage to Europe.  The fifty people of Plymouth colony – more than half of them children – were left in America.  Priscilla Mullins became the bride of John Alden.  Widows and widowers were united in marriage.

Verses 39-40:

Then their numbers decreased, and they were humbled
by oppression, calamity and sorrow;
he who pours contempt on nobles
make them wander in a trackless waste.

In March of 1621, an Indian named Samoset walked into Plymouth Plantation.  To the settlers’ surprise, he spoke broken English.  He introduced them to Squanto, an Indian who had learned to translate in London.  The Indians recognized that the pilgrims were different from the sailors that had raided and attacked their villages.  These settlers did not threaten the Indians, nor did they try to steal their food.  They showed respect for the burial sites of the Indians.  Squanto taught the settlers how to survive in Plymouth.  He taught them how to collect maple sap from trees, how to grow native crops, and where to find the best fishing and hunting grounds.  He helped the Pilgrims and other local Indian tribes live together peacefully.  Massasoit, the chief of the Narragansett tribe that befriended the Pilgrims, signed a treaty that kept the peace for fifty-four years.

Verses 35-38, 41-43:

He turned the desert into pools of water
and the parched ground into flowing springs;
there he brought the hungry to live,
and they founded a city where they could settle.
They sowed fields and planted vineyards
that yielded a fruitful harvest;
he blessed them, and their numbers greatly increased,
and he did not let their herds diminish
But he lifted the needy out of their affliction
and increased their families like flocks.
The upright see and rejoice,
but all the wicked shut their mouths.
Let those who are wise heed these things
and ponder the loving deeds of the Lord

In the fall of 1621, the settlers and natives observed a three-day feast, which we refer to as the first Thanksgiving.  It was far from the first thanksgiving, but it was the first at the Plymouth colony.  The Pilgrims invited Squanto, Samoset, and Massasoit, as well as their families, to their feast.  Ninety Indians joined in the celebration.  Beware of inviting Narragansett Indians to your Thanksgiving dinner.  They have big families.  Inviting them is almost as hazardous as inviting the Neely clan to your Thanksgiving meal.  The Pilgrims hunted duck and turkeys, and the Indians brought deer.  Corn, pumpkins, squash, and maybe even cranberries were served at the meal.

People of the Mayflower serve as an example for us all.  I hope you can see why these settlers chose Psalm 107 as their psalm for thanksgiving.  It fits their experience like a hand in a glove.

The act of thanksgiving does not depend on all circumstances going well in our lives.  In fact, our deepest expressions of gratitude may be in the midst of great difficulties.  Psalm 107 is God’s word for you if you are restless and frantic and looking for a place of refuge, a place of security.  Psalm 107 is for you if you are discouraged.  It is for you if you are feeling hopeless and looking for freedom from bondage.  If you have been hit hard by some unexpected tragedy, Psalm 107 is God’s word for you.

This passage reminds us of God’s promise, “I will never leave you, and I will never forsake you.”  God always answers.  God always gives us His undivided attention.  He may not answer as quickly as we would like.  He may not answer in the way we would like, but He gives us unconditional acceptance.  He responds with loving kindness.  The last verse, “Let those who are wise heed these things and ponder the loving deeds of the Lord,” is reason enough for thanksgiving.

We now have the full revelation of God.  We understand how God has kept His promise of always being with us.  He has done that through the incarnation of his son, Jesus Christ, who came into the world to join us in our difficulties and to provide for us an example of how we should live.  Jesus has freed us from bondage to sin and debt and given us the great hope of life eternal.

Have you accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord?  If not, what better season than Thanksgiving to invite Christ into your life as you Savior?  We invite your response to the invitations from God.

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