I don’t know what you would say makes you joyful. But if you were to list all your reasons for joy, they’d probably include success and significance. Eg, if your exams have gone well, you have the joy of success. If your job is doing something you think worthwhile, you have the joy of significance. By contrast, failure and insignificance can wipe out joy. Ask the person who’s just been rejected for a job. Or the person in the retirement home who says, ‘I’m no use to anybody.’ Failure and insignificance demoralise like few other things.
Well tonight we continue our sermon series in the Psalms. And the book of Psalms was put together at a time when you could have summed up how God’s Old Testament (OT) people felt about themselves in two words: failure and insignificance. God had meant them to be his witnesses to the nations around them – a shining example of life as it was meant to be, in relationship with him. Instead, they’d been so unfaithful to God that he’d allowed them to be invaded and exiled as a judgement. And even though he’d then allowed them back into the promised land, the sense of failure still hung over them - along with an increasing sense of insignificance, because they were now a minority, at best tolerated, at worst laughed-at, marginalised and attacked.
And God knew that that would also be how his church would often feel, this side of Jesus’ first coming. Eg, he knew that we, the church in our time, in our country, would feel a similar failure and insignificance, and would wonder how - or even whether - the decline of Christianity in our country will end – which is demoralising. And he knew that we as individuals would often feel a similar sense of failure and insignificance. I remember a student coming to meet with me. I hadn’t seen him for ages. It turned out he’d taken a big moral tumble, he was deeply ashamed, he couldn’t face God, he couldn’t see that there was any future for him as a Christian or any way God could use him again. And demoralisation had kept him away for weeks.
Well, the Psalm we’re going to look at tonight was put in the book of Psalms to tackle that kind of demoralisation. So would you turn in the Bible to Psalm 149 – a Psalm to tackle our feelings of failure and insignificance. And it says two things.
First, REJOICE THAT GOD DELIGHTS IN FAILURES (vv1-5)
We don’t know when this Psalm was first written. We do know that the book of Psalms was collected together after the exile, to meet Israel’s spiritual needs at that time. And as I’ve said, one huge spiritual need was this sense of failure that hung over them. And as you read the parts of the Bible about the time after the exile, you find that the question in peoples’ minds was, ‘Can we really have a fresh start? Will God really give us a new beginning?’ Well, read from v1:
1 Praise the LORD.
Sing to the LORD a new song,
his praise in the assembly of the saints. (v1)
Just like the prophets reassured people after the exile that God was giving them a new beginning, that’s probably the significance of the ‘new song’ in v1. This is a new song for believers who need to trust anew that God does give new beginnings. Martin Luther, the reformer, was quite depressive throughout his life. And he once said about the Christian life that, ‘The way forward is to start again.’ And what he meant was that it’s one long string of new beginnings after failures, in which rather than the Lord giving up on us, he forgives us. So read on, v2:
2 Let Israel rejoice in their Maker;
let the people of Zion be glad in their King.
3 Let them praise his name with dancing
and make music to him with tambourine and harp.
4 For the LORD takes delight in his people;
he crowns the humble with salvation.
5 Let the saints rejoice in this honour
and sing for joy on their beds. (vv2-5)
And those verses say two vital things that failures who can’t believe there can be a new beginning for them need to hear. The first is in v2:
2 Let Israel rejoice in their Maker...
When you make something, your honour as its Maker is bound up with that something. I’ve used before the illustration of the couple who took their Rolls Royce to France back in the heyday of grand touring. And it broke down. And Rolls Royce sent out an engineer to fix it. And when they got home, the couple heard nothing about a bill for the work, so they contacted the company and said, ‘We’re waiting for an invoice for repairs to a breakdown.’ And the person at the other end said, ‘There must be some mistake. We have no record of a Rolls Royce ever breaking down.’
When you make something, your honour as its Maker is bound up with that something. And v2 reminds us that God is the Maker of his church in both the OT and the NT. Now to see that unpacked, turn over to Isaiah 43. The prophet Isaiah lived before the exile, but the second half of his book was written for the future generation who would emerge from the exile and need reassuring after their failure. So look at Isaiah 43.1:
1 But now, this is what the LORD says—
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
"Fear not [ie, don’t fear that I’ve given up on you], for I have redeemed you [ie, done everything necessary to forgive you and take you on for the future];
I have summoned you by name; you are mine. [Onto v5:]
5 Do not be afraid, for I am with you;
I will bring your children from the east
and gather you from the west [ie, gather the exiles back into the promised land].
6 I will say to the north, 'Give them up!'
and to the south, 'Do not hold them back.'
Bring my sons from afar
and my daughters from the ends of the earth―
7 everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made." (Isaiah 43.1, 5-7)
The point is: since God’s honour is bound up with his people, he will not give up on them, failures though they are. So if you’re a believer in the Lord Jesus, since God’s honour is bound up with you, he will not give up on you, failure though you are - and I am. So what should we do at those times when we feel total failures as Christians? When we feel more undeserving of God’s love than we’ve ever been? (And, objectively, of course, we are always totally undeserving of his love.) What do we pray when we feel we’ve nothing to plead? The answer is: plead God’s honour. The answer is to say, ‘Lord, if I was you I’d have given up on me long ago. But you’ve bound your honour up with me, and therefore, for your name’s sake, for your glory’s sake, please don’t let go of me, please forgive me, please restore me, please make me more into someone who brings honour to you.’ And that’s a prayer he’ll always answer because he always works for his own glory.
Back to Psalm 149. What’s the other thing that failures who can’t believe there can be a new beginning for them need to hear? It’s in v4. When you’re reading a Psalm of praise, look out for the verses that begin, ‘For...’, because Psalms like this don’t just tell us to praise – they fuel our praise with reasons. So if praise isn’t exactly springing to your lips, ponder on the reasons a Psalm gives – eg, on the verses which begin, ‘For...’ Eg, v4:
4 For the LORD takes delight in his people;
he crowns the humble with salvation. (v4)
The LORD takes delight in his faltering, failing people. And to help us take that in, again, turn on to Isaiah 62. This is still the second half of Isaiah’s book, written for the generation who would emerge from the exile and need reassuring after their failure. Look at Isaiah 62.1 - God speaking about how he’s going to treat his people after all their failure, after all their unrighteousness:
1 For Zion's sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem's sake I will not remain quiet,
till her righteousness shines out like the dawn,
her salvation like a blazing torch.
2 The nations will see your righteousness,
and all kings your glory;
you will be called by a new name
that the mouth of the LORD will bestow.
3 You will be a crown of splendour in the LORD’s hand,
a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
4 No longer will they call you Deserted,
or name your land Desolate.
But you will be called Hephzibah, [which the footnote says means, ‘my delight is in her’]
and your land Beulah [which the footnote says means, ‘married’] ;
for the LORD will take delight in you,
and your land will be married.
5 As a young man marries a maiden,
so will your sons marry you;
as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride,
so will your God rejoice over you. (Isaiah 62.1-5)
I don’t know how many bridegrooms’ speeches you’ve heard at weddings, but they’re always full of delight. I’ve yet to hear the one that says to his bride, ‘You’ve got bad breath and have some shocking hair days and I wish you were a better cook – but on balance I decided to marry you...’ You hear them say things like, ‘You just stood out totally as the girl for me. You’re the most wonderful girl in the world.’ Or words to that effect. Now you the guest may not see her like that – but the point is, he does because he sees her with the delighted, love of a bridegroom for his bride. And like they say, ‘love is blind’ - in the sense that it filters out those things that are unlovely and says, ‘I will love in spite of what you are, as well as because of what you are.’
And that’s the picture of how the Lord sees and loves his faltering, failing people. Only he is in no way blind. He can see all our sinfulness. But, as the NT puts it, if our faith is in Jesus, he looks at us ‘in Christ’ – he sees us covered and clothed in Christ’s righteousness, and he sees our sin on the cross, 2000 years ago – paid for and dealt with by Jesus s he died in our place. It’s as if he looks at us through the filter of what he did for us in his Son on the cross, sees that our sins were laid on Jesus, and then is able to delight in us and even in our feeble, imperfect attempts to trust and obey him – just like a parent delights in the faltering three steps of their toddler, before he topples over again.
Well, back to Psalm 149. The first half is saying: if failure has wiped out our joy, we need to exercise fresh faith that God is a Maker who won’t give up on us because his honour is bound up with us. And we need to exercise fresh faith that God is a Bridegroom who from the day he takes us on to the day we die has committed himself to love us in spite of our sinfulness because he dealt with it all at the cross. So can I call on us to believe that afresh right now – and as and when we feel failures (ie, regularly!).
So, rejoice that God delights in failures. Then,
Secondly, REJOICE THAT GOD USES US IN THE MOST SIGNIFICANT WORK OF ALL (vv6-9)
AS I said earlier, like us in our country today, God’s people after the exile felt increasingly insignificant. People around them often seemed to be successful without faith in their God. People around them didn’t tend to be interested in faith in their God. Like I said earlier, they were at best tolerated, at worst laughed-at, marginalised and attacked. And it would have been easy for them to think, ‘Let’s just keep our heads down, live our own lives God’s way, but just accept the fact that we don’t really have any real influence in the world.’ In terms of our church mission statement, they’d have aimed for ‘Godly Living’ but left ‘Church Growth’ and ‘Changing Britain’ off the agenda. But vv6-9 were to remind them and us that we are called to be the most significant influence operating in the world today. Let’s read on from v6:
6 May the praise of God be in their mouths
[And then suddenly there’s this change of gear that hits you like a smack in the face]
and a double-edged sword in their hands,
7 to inflict vengeance on the nations
and punishment on the peoples,
8 to bind their kings with fetters,
their nobles with shackles of iron,
9 to carry out the sentence written against them.
This is the glory of all his saints.
Praise the LORD. (vv6-9)
What are we to make of that? At a time when there’s plenty of public talk about ‘jihad’ – the Islamic idea of holy war – it’s a shock to find this kind of language in the Bible. Surah 9 of the Qur’an says, ‘Fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them’ – which is one part of the Qur’an that Muslims can and do use to justify the spread of Islam by force. But you then look at vv6-9 of this Psalm and wonder what’s the difference? What are we to make of it?
The first thing to say is that there was ‘holy war’ in the OT. Turn to one last cross-reference - this time, back to Deuteronomy 9. Here Moses is speaking to the people of Israel just before they go in to conquer the promised land:
Hear, O Israel. You are now about to cross the Jordan to go in and dispossess nations greater and stronger than you, with large cities that have walls up to the sky. 2 The people are strong and tall—Anakites! You know about them and have heard it said: "Who can stand up against the Anakites?" 3 But be assured today that the LORD your God is the one who goes across ahead of you like a devouring fire. He will destroy them; he will subdue them before you. And you will drive them out and annihilate them quickly, as the LORD has promised you.
4 After the LORD your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, "The LORD has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness." No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is going to drive them out before you. 5 It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the LORD your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. (Deuteronomy 9.1-5)
The point is that the people living in the promised land had become so godless and immoral that God chose to bring judgement on them by allowing his people to invade them - just as later he brought judgement on his own people by allowing other people to invade them. The point is: this was not Israel deciding to go to war on her own agenda, and then claiming that it was somehow God’s will. This is God deciding to judge the people in the promised land using his own people. And if we have a problem with that, we have a problem with God’s right to call all human beings to account and judgement – whether it’s by and Israelite sword, or by what our culture would call a ‘natural’ death in their sleep. ‘Man is destined to die once and after that to face judgement,’ says Hebrews 9.27 – and it is really God’s judgement – not so much the way it comes about – that we find hard to face up to.
So back again to Psalm 149. When Israel first entered the promised land, the kind of thing that vv6-9 talk about did happen literally. God did literally use his people as agents of judgement, to restore his rule where it had been utterly rejected. Now later, at the time when Israel returned from exile – the time the book of Psalms was put together for – there was no similar literal command to ‘holy war’. So I take it that we have to take this in some way metaphorically, not literally. And when you get to the NT, that’s certainly what the NT does. It says we’re involved metaphorically, not literally, in a ‘holy war’ - as we spread the gospel. Eg, the apostle Paul talks about ‘the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’ (Ephesians 6.17) .He talks about his ministry of spreading the gospel as a fight: ‘I have fought the good fight’ (2 Timothy 4.7). And he says that ‘The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.’ (2 Corinthians 10.4-5). And I could give more examples. But the point is: as we spread the gospel, metaphorically, vv6-9 of Psalm 149 are happening - that is, God’s rule is being restored over human lives. So, say we share the gospel with someone and they come to faith. Ie, they basically say to the Lord Jesus, ‘Yes, you should be Lord of my life, and I now ask your forgiveness for rejecting you so far, and I submit to you from now on.’ Well, God’s rule has been restored over that person’s life. A rebellion has been put down, if you like – but by the rebel voluntarily laying down his arms and receiving Jesus as Lord.
And that’s why genuine Christianity can never spread by force. It only spreads as we spread the gospel and leave people freedom to respond - and as God works in their hearts by his Spirit to overcome their natural rebellion and move them to respond. So Christianity cannot be spread by crusades or by Christianising the legal system. It only spreads through evangelism. The only ‘forced’ response that Christianity speaks of is the response that unbelievers will have to make to the Lord Jesus on the day of judgement, when the Bible says that, ‘Every knee should bow... and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord’ (Philippians 2.10-11). And for some, that will be an unwilling, reluctant, ‘forced’ response as they’re turned away from the kingdom they’ve refused to be part of. That is not something I take any pleasure in saying. And can I say: please don’t let that be the outcome for you, if you’re still just listening and weighing up what you make of the Christian message. Please do keep coming back to hear more until you’re able to respond to Christ willingly in this life, before you have to meet him in the next.
By contrast – and this is an unpopular thing to say - Islam can and does spread by force. An ex-Imam (ie, Islamic teacher) who converted to Christianity put it like this: Islam is a political system tied to a false religious belief - and you can spread a system like that by force. You can make people leave or submit to it, as is happening in parts of the world today.
That was all to do with what we make of the language of vv6-9. But to finish, we need to put these verses back into the context of the Psalm and say, ‘So what point are they making?’ And the point is in v9:
This [ie, being involved in this metaphorical holy war] is the glory of all his saints [ie, all God’s people]. (v9)
In fact, you can translate that, ‘This is the honour of all his saints.’ Just as v5 says, ‘Let the saints rejoice in this honour’ – where the ‘honour’ (in the first half of the Psalm) is that the Lord delights in us just as we are – so in the second half, we’re to rejoice in the honour that the Lord uses us in the most significant work of all – the work of spreading the gospel, that changes eternal destinies.
And that’s what we need to hear when we’re tempted to believe that God’s church is insignificant - or that the part we individually play in it is insignificant. So, eg, are we tempted to see just one friend coming to Christianity Explored this coming year as insignificant? Yes we are. Are you tempted to see the youth work you do here at church as insignificant – teaching the gospel to 7-year-olds or 12-year olds? Yes you are. Are we tempted to see the total evangelistic impact of our church on Tyneside over the coming year as insignificant? Yes we are. And the second half of this Psalm calls on us to resist that temptation and to rejoice in the honour of being used by God in the most significant work in the world. Eg, we’re to rejoice in the honour of the international ministry here at JPC – as we heard in that presentation from Ramzi. Think of the honour of being the host who looked after that international student who subsequently became responsible for missionary visas in a Muslim country – the honour of influencing the course of the spread of the gospel in that country. Or, eg, we’re to rejoice in the honour of whatever part we play in a Sunday gathering like this – whether it’s inviting, giving lifts to church, being a good host to a newcomer, being on the Welcome Desk or sound desk, being a sidesman or helping with crèche – the honour of contributing to the spread of the gospel (with newcomers galore here every Sunday) and the building up of the church. And so on.
So that’s the message of Psalm 149, as I understand it. If we’re demoralised by a sense of failure – corporately or individually – we need the first half of the Psalm. We need to believe afresh that God still delights in us, failures that we are, and that he’s committed to keep forgiving us whenever we need it and to keep working on us. And if we’re demoralised by a sense of insignificance – corporately or individually – we need the second half of the Psalm. We need to believe afresh that whatever we do to contribute to the spread of the gospel and the building up of the church – however small or practical or unseen – is of eternal significance – and that in heaven we’ll meet people for whom God used us, in some way, as a link in the chain of their coming to Christ.
And if we do believe those things afresh, we’ll begin to find the fresh joy of this Psalm:
1 Praise the LORD.
Sing to the LORD a new song,
his praise in the assembly of the saints. (v1)