This is a different (and longer!) blog post than I usually write. I am speaking to a group of college students tonight on Psalm 9:1-12, so I thought I would share a version of it with you. I would also appreciate your prayers today. I love any opportunity to teach the Bible, but it’s been several months since I spoke to a large group!
I confess I was a bit stumped after a first glance at the text assigned to me. The director of the college ministry—where I also attended as a college student and worked for three years—asked me to focus on the theme of thankfulness in Psalm 9. Here are the first twelve verses:
I will thank the Lord with all my heart; I will declare all your wondrous works.Psalms 9:1-12 (Christian Standard Bible)
I will rejoice and boast about you; I will sing about your name, Most High.
When my enemies retreat, they stumble and perish before you.
For you have upheld my just cause; you are seated on your throne as a righteous judge.
You have rebuked the nations: You have destroyed the wicked; you have erased their name forever and ever.
The enemy has come to eternal ruin; you have uprooted the cities, and the very memory of them has perished.
But the Lord sits enthroned forever; he has established his throne for judgment.
And he judges the world with righteousness; he executes judgment on the nations with fairness.
The Lord is a refuge for the persecuted, a refuge in times of trouble.
Those who know your name trust in you because you have not abandoned those who seek you, Lord.
Sing to the Lord, who dwells in Zion; proclaim his deeds among the nations.
For the one who seeks an accounting for bloodshed remembers them; he does not forget the cry of the oppressed.”
The psalmist clearly thanks God in the first verse: “I will thank the Lord with all my heart; I will declare all your wondrous works.” But the rest of the psalm seemed devoid of much gratitude—until I realized my own understanding of thanksgiving was too narrow.
My prayers of thanks usually go something like this: “God, thank you for this new day. Thank you for the beautiful sun rising outside (I’m usually praying this prayer in the morning). Thank you for Will and Charlee…” etc. They sound similar to assignments I had in primary school around Thanksgiving when teachers asked us to make a list of things we were thankful for that year. There’s nothing wrong with this approach to prayer, but a deep dive into Psalm 9 exposed how narrowly I had defined of thanksgiving until now. Tim Keller wrote about thanksgiving,
“Many people talk about ‘praise’ and ‘thanksgiving’ as being two kinds of prayer, and there certainly are important distinctions that should be kept in mind so that we can be careful to do each one. Ultimately, however, thanksgiving is a subcategory of praise. Thanksgiving is praising God for what he has done, while ‘praise proper’ is adoring God for who he is in himself… Thanksgiving for a blessing automatically draws our mind toward the attributes and loving purposes of the God who has done the blessing.”Tim Keller in Prayer (p. 195)
This was the missing link for me when reading Psalm 9 in search of the writer’s thanksgiving. In my own prayers, thanksgiving usually begins and ends with thanking the Giver for his gifts–not praising the Giver for his character.
I read Psalm 9 again with fresh eyes: it is drenched in thanksgiving. So what can we glean today from Psalm 9 about our own prayers? What characteristics of the Giver can we offer thanksgiving as a means of praise and worship? There’s so much one could say and so many directions one could go with Psalm 9, but I think the writer highlights three attributes of God’s character–his faithfulness, permanence, and omnipresence–in this psalm that we can still thank him for today over 3,000 years later.
1. The Faithfulness of God
“I will thank the Lord with all my heart; I will declare all your wondrous works. I will rejoice and boast about you; I will sing about your name, Most High. When my enemies retreat, they stumble and perish before you. For you have upheld my just cause; you are seated on your throne as a righteous judge. You have rebuked the nations: You have destroyed the wicked; You have erased their name forever and ever. The enemy has come to eternal ruin. You have uprooted the cities, and the very memory of them has perished.”Psalm 9:1-6 (CSB)
In the first verse, the psalmist praises God for his “wondrous works.” The phrase “wondrous works” is actually one word in the original Hebrew language. It usually refers to in the Old Testament God’s intervention in human history through his acts like freeing Israel from slavery in Egypt or parting the Red Sea. It also is used to describe God’s acts of creating and sustaining the world. You will find all throughout the Old Testament God’s command to his people to remember these “wondrous works” as evidence of his faithfulness. God commanded the Israelites in Deuteronomy 8:14 to “be careful that your heart doesn’t become proud and you forget the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the place of slavery.”
We find instances in the Old Testament like this one where the Israelites obeyed this command, recounting his wondrous works and lamenting when their ancestors failed to do the same:
“Our ancestors in Egypt did not grasp the significance of your wondrous works or remember your many acts of faithful love; instead, they rebelled by the sea—the Red Sea. Yet he saved them for his name’s sake, to make his power known. He rebuked the Red Sea, and it dried up; he led them through the depths as through a desert. He saved them from the power of the adversary; he redeemed them from the power of the enemy. Water covered their foes; not one of them remained. Then they believed his promises and sang his praise.”Psalm 106:7-12 (CSB)
For the Israelites, thanksgiving for the gift resulted in praise to the Giver for his faithfulness.
One of the ways we thank God individually and collectively as his people is by recounting his faithfulness in our lives up to this point. Like the Israelites, how has God revealed his faithfulness to you in the past? How has he been faithful to your friends, family, and church? Take some time to reflect on his “wondrous works” closer to him than the psalmist’s might be, and thank God for his faithfulness. Next, the psalmist turns to the permanence of God in the present.
2. The Permanence of God
You have rebuked the nations: You have destroyed the wicked; You have erased their name forever and ever. The enemy has come to eternal ruin. You have uprooted the cities, and the very memory of them has perished. But the Lord sits enthroned forever; he has established his throne for judgment. And he judges the world with righteousness; he executes judgment on the nations with fairness.”Psalm 9:5-8 (CSB)
Notice the contrasting language in these verses. The nations around Israel were “rebuked,” “destroyed,” “erased,” and “uprooted.” They had come to “eternal ruin” and their memory had “perished.” In contrast, the Lord “sits enthroned forever.” His throne is “established” in “judgement.” He executes “righteousness” and “fairness.”
Do you notice the shift that takes place in verse 7 with the phrase “But the Lord…?” The psalmist uses the conjunction “but” to draw a stark contrast between the nations and God. (This is why I have bolded the phrase above.) In his commentary on Psalms, John Goldingay writes, “Yahweh’s permanency contrasts with the nation’s vulnerability.”
Another word you might hear Christians use to describe God’s permanency is his “immutability.” It means that God’s character is not subject to change or “mutability.” Unlike God’s creation that’s so vulnerable to change, God’s character is permanent. It’s immutable.
Will and I were sitting in a local coffee shop when the President declared a state of emergency regarding Covid-19 last March. None of us knew a lot about the virus then, and I didn’t sleep well for several nights following his announcement and the lockdowns that ensued.
The past 11 months have reminded me of my own fragility and vulnerability, as well as the rest of the world’s, not only because of a worldwide pandemic but because of intense political polarization in the United States. 2020 was not the first time God really pressed upon my heart my vulnerability in contrast to his permanence. In 2019, I wrote on my blog about a season in our lives when change and hardship seemed unrelenting. I want to share a portion of that blog about some faulty theology this 18-month period exposed in my own heart (you can read all of it here):
Most of these circumstances were outside of our control, which is what made this season so difficult. Your own seasons of suffering like this might come to mind—the cancer, the miscarriage, the home destroyed in a hurricane, the lay-off, the car accident, the injuries of a friend or family member, or something else. You might have doubted or even denied God or watched friends, acquaintances, and strangers do the same as a result of suffering outside their control.“The Prosperity Gospel We Don’t Talk about Much” at www.lanieanderson.com
Sorting over what happened in my journal, I realized I had adopted unintentionally a version of the prosperity gospel… When Christians refer to the destructive “prosperity gospel,” we usually mean a false gospel that says God will reward faith in him by pouring out his favor, usually in the form of material wealth, physical health, or social acceptance.
My version of the prosperity gospel was not so much about God rewarding me by gifting me with something but by sparing me from something: suffering.
I think all of us at some point are tempted to adopt a version of this prosperity gospel that says, “With faith and preparation, God will spare me from surprises, changes, or suffering,” and we are easily shattered when they come…
No one is immune to intense seasons of suffering. We can pay the bills, master a routine, work hard in school or at work, worship and obey God, and love those around us as best we can. But suffering will still come because, no matter our situation, this world is broken from the effects of sin.
That might sound like doom-and-gloom to some, but it was a reality check I needed to hear…
In those eighteen months, God shattered my own version of the prosperity gospel… Jesus did not teach any sort of gospel that promises alleviation from suffering outside of our control. No faith, obedience, resolution, or routine can thwart all hardship and suffering. Any gospel that says faith in God will save us from these things in this life is a house of cards waiting to crumble.
2020 reinforced this truth: the only permanence we are promised is the permanence of God. The writer of the Psalm 9 acknowledged as he intentionally contrasted the nations’ vulnerability with God’s immutability. This is good news. When everything else around you seems unstable, God is stable. He sits enthroned forever, and he judges the world with righteousness and fairness. We can thank him for his immutability individually and communally as a vulnerable people in a fragile world.
3. The Omnipresence of God
“The Lord is a refuge for the persecuted, a refuge in times of trouble. Those who know your name trust in you because you have not abandoned those who seek you, Lord. Sing to the Lord, who dwells in Zion; proclaim his deeds among the nations. For the one who seeks an accounting for bloodshed remembers them; he does not forget the cry of the oppressed.”Psalm 9:9-12 (CSB)
Psalm 9:9-10 says, “The Lord is a refuge for the persecuted, a refuge in times of trouble. Those who know your name trust in you because you have not abandoned those who seek you.” The writer of Psalm 46 used similar language in the first verse: “God is our refuge and strength, a helper who is always found in times of trouble.” The English Standard Version says, “God is… a very present help in times of trouble.” I love how the New International Version puts it: “God is… an ever-present help in times of trouble.”
Ever-present. I love that description of God. He is ever-present with you and everyone else in the world at the same time. “Omnipresence” is another word used to describe this ever-presence of God.
Jen Wilkin, one of my favorite Bible teachers, wrote in her book None Like Him that a knowledge of God’s omnipresence should encourage both vigilance and assurance among God’s people. First, why vigilance? She wrote,
“[T]he knowledge of God’s presence should make us vigilant about sin… While governments must decide the appropriate boundaries for a citizen’s privacy, no privacy laws exist between Creator and creature… Because of this, every sin we commit is first and foremost a sin against God.”Jen Wilkin in None Like Him (p. 100-101)
The psalmist even recognized this, too, in verse 12: “For the one who seeks an accounting for bloodshed remembers them; he does not forget the cry of the oppressed.” Even in the most heinous, hidden crimes against humanity, God “judges the world,” as the psalmist says in verse 8, because he is omnipresent. He “remembers” unjust bloodshed and “does not forget” the oppressed. Wilkin continued in her book,
“The fact that he is witness to our every foible and sin, public and private, should inspire us to vigilance. It should elicit from us confession and repentance… The fact that he sees all, yet, against all expectation, stands ready to forgive should awaken a gratitude of the deepest kind, a desire to be the same person in public that we are behind closed doors–a person who thinks, acts, and speaks as one who fears the Lord.”Jen Wilkin in None Like Him (p. 102)
Do you see how God’s omnipresence can provoke thankfulness for his forgiveness as we remain vigilant about sin? But God’s omnipresence gives us assurance, too. Let’s read verses 9-10 again: “The Lord is a refuge for the persecuted, a refuge in times of trouble. Those who know your name trust in you because you have not abandoned those who seek you, Lord.” He is an “ever-present” help, remember? This gives us assurance.
When our daughter was about 3-4 months old, we noticed a clear developmental change in her. We could tell she finally knew we were “her people.” If others were holding her, Charlee’s eyes would dart back and forth as she scanned the room until she found her parents. When we she was in an unfamiliar place, she would clench her tiny fist, gathering the fabric of our shirt as we held her in our arms. She is 16 months old now, and, when we move out of her sight, she immediately starts trying to find us. She will begin to cry and run frantically around the house until she spots a parent again.
You see, our daughter wants her people to be “ever-present” with her. As she gets older, that will change. She will not want her parents around all of the time. Even if she did, it’s impossible because we are not omnipresent. We are not God. Only God can be the “ever-present help in times of trouble” our daughter and all of us need.
Jen Wilkin says this gives us assurance through any circumstance because “[God] wills that his chosen children will never be left alone” (None Like Him, p. 103). In our praise, we can thank God for his omnipresence in our lives and the lives of others.
In conclusion, let’s look at the beginning and end of Psalm 9 again because they act as “bookends,” encouraging a response from God’s people. Verses 1-2 say, “I will thank the Lord with all my heart; I will declare all your wondrous works. I will rejoice and boast about you; I will sing about your name, Most High.” Then verse 11 says, “Sing to the Lord, who dwells in Zion; proclaim his deeds among the nations.”
For the psalmist, the proper response to the Giver—not just to his gifts but his character—is action: declaration, rejoicing, singing, and proclamation. It isn’t enough to know these attributes of God. When we grasp the weight of God’s faithfulness, permanence, and omnipresence, the only proper response is worship. The psalmist’s whole heart bursts with worship.
In his book Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis admitted he struggled at first with the idea that God commands His people to worship. He wrote, “We all despise the man who demands continued assurance of his own virtue, intelligence, or delightfulness.” But then he realized we praise objects all of the time, so isn’t the greatest Being worthy of all thanksgiving and praise? Lewis wrote,
“But the most obvious fact about praise—whether of God or anything—strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honour. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise… The world rings with praise—lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favourite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favourite game—praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars. I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious, minds praised most, while the cranks, misfits, and malcontents praised least…C.S. Lewis in Reflections on the Psalms (Kindle)
[P]raise almost seems to be inner health made audible…. I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: ‘Isn’t she lovely? Wasn’t it glorious? Don’t you think that magnificent?’ The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about. My whole, more general, difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can’t help doing, about everything else we value. I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment.”
We delight in thanksgiving and praise all of the time. While writing this blog, I stopped writing mid-sentence, kissed my daughter on the cheek, and said, “You’re so precious!” I cannot help it, and neither can you.
The question for us is whether we will stop at praise for the gifts or go on to praise the Giver or, in the words of Lewis, “the supremely Valuable.”