This psalm is a wonderful testimony of praise, giving glory to God for all the things He did to undertake for the psalmist. The Lord delivered him from grievous trouble, and he is not at all ambiguous about the fact that God is the one who did it. But in order to give thanks this way, we have to adjust some of our modernist assumptions about interpreting the events of history. In his penetrating book about the theological crisis that resulted from the American Civil War, Mark Noll astutely pointed out the fact that the war badly rattled American faith in the intelligibility of God’s governance of the world. Both sides were praying to Him, were they not? And every retreated into the assumption that God’s ways are always and necessarily inscrutable. But how then can we pray as the psalmist does here?
“I love the Lord, because he hath heard my voice and my supplications. Because he hath inclined his ear unto me, therefore will I call upon him as long as I live . . .” (Ps. 116:1-19).
Summary of the Text
The psalm begins with a profession of love for the Lord, because He listens to prayers (v. 1). He inclined His ear to me, and that is why I call upon Him (v. 2). As long as I live. The psalmist has been in deep trouble before, down to the point of death (v. 3). That is when I called upon His name (v. 4). God is gracious, righteous, and merciful (v. 5). God preserves the simple, and it is a good thing too (v. 6). He helped when I was brought low. Calm down, soul, because God is bountiful (v. 7). God has delivered me in three ways—my soul from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from falling (v. 8). I am going to walk around this place alive, and in the presence of the Lord (v. 9). Paul quotes this next verse in 2 Cor. 4:13, and does so from a similar context. I believed, and therefore I have spoken (v. 10).
I said, too hastily, that all men are liars (v. 11). This appears to have something to do with men who were the instruments of the answered prayer. When I was in trouble I lashed out at men, but then God used men to deliver. How shall I pay the Lord back for all His benefits (v. 12)? I will take the cup of salvation, and then raise the glass (v. 13). The vows that I promised when I was in trouble are vows that I will pay in the presence of all God’s saints (v. 14). As we saw earlier, God delivered me from death, but here it says that the death of His saints is precious to Him (v. 15). He loves bringing us home. In other words, it would have been an answer to prayer either way. God’s slaves are the ones for whom God has loosed the bonds (v. 16). The sacrifice of thanksgiving is the only way to pay Him back, and so we call on His name (v. 17). Again the vows that were promised will be vows paid—in the presence of all His people (v. 18). Thanksgiving for answered prayer will be offered in the courts of the Lord’s house (v. 19). Hallelujah.
Two Different Moments
When He was praying in the Garden, our Lord Jesus modeled for us what true submission looks like. “And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt. 26:39). And the apostle Paul prayed three times for his thorn in the flesh to be removed, and was three times denied (2 Cor. 12:8-9).
But then there is this . . .
“And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it” (John 14:13–14). “Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them” (Mark 11:24).
Now what many Reformed (non-charismatic) believers do is this. They treat this as though one passage can cancel the other one out, and they retreat to the (very emotionally safe) position of “not my will, but thine” be done. And thus they settle into a life of never asking God for anything specific. And when forced into asking for something specific, as when a loved one gets really sick, they spend all their time internally braced for the inevitable nothat they know must be coming.
These passages are addressing two different kinds of situation. The former is when God wants us to be content, and to be resigned to His will. The latter is when He wants us to engage in prayers that are risky.
But how are we to tell the difference? We are to recognize the differing situations by faith, and we are to resign ourselves by faith, and we are to risk by faith. But—we want to know—how can we learn to risk things in prayer? Well, by taking risks there. No, no, we reply. We want to learn how to take risks without actually taking any. It would be lovely to know how to ride a bicycle, and it would be even more lovely to never have a skinned knee.
In the Presence of All the People
God loves it when we give glory to Him. He is not this way because of some kind of megalomania, but rather because He loves what it does in His people when they see, know, and taste His goodness.
One of the things we need to get better at is the practice of boasting in the Lord, bragging on Him when He answered your prayers.
Out to the Limit
Realize that this psalm expresses two things. The first is the extent of his troubles. He was in deep trouble, and in such deep trouble that he spoke hastily about how awful men were. All men are liars. But then God sent our salvation, the man Christ Jesus. God sent a man who was the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).