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This psalm is about the aftermath of a dying man who cried to the Lord for help and the Lord rescued him. There is no superscription at the start of this psalm so we do not know who this man might have been. However, we do know this is a very deep and personal psalm. The words I, me, and my appear more than 30 times. This poem is the public expression of a private experience.
The first half of the psalm proclaims what God did for the psalmist. The second half tells us what the psalmist did for God in response. In fact, the shift is so clear the Septuagint and the Vulgate have cut this psalm in half, separating it into 2 psalms. Yet, when the 2 halves are brought together, they form a cohesive and beautiful picture of God’s love and our devotion.
Psalm 116 describes what it is like on the other side of extreme distress. This is a hope-giving psalm. It is a testimony intended to inspire and reinforce our faith in hard times. It reminds us that our God does answer prayer and it shows us what suffering under sovereignty looks like.
Now no one enjoys suffering. There are times when our flesh is drawn to pain and self-pity, but no one delights in distress. When hard times come we want them to end. The sooner the better. However, the sufferings our sovereign God allows into our lives will always produce something good in the end. This psalm encourages the suffering saint to call on the Lord and look beyond their circumstance to the time when they will be delivered and receive these benefits.
Psalm 116 contains four encouraging outcomes for those who turn to the lord in their distress. Having relied on God in their grief, what do the saints walk away with on the other side?
First of all, delivered saints…
1. Love the Lord
The psalmist’s first words are I love the Lord. Everything he is about to tell us flows from this statement. He begins with where this love comes from. He says, I love the Lord because He has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy. In other words, the believer’s love for God is based on God’s faithfulness to them. Why do we love the Lord? Because He first loved us (1 John 4:19).
Those who have received God’s love have every right and reason to love Him back. Having experienced the goodness of God firsthand, especially during the trials of life, we can say with certainty that we love the Lord. The psalmist restates the reason for his love in verse 2, but adds a promise. He says, because He inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on Him as long as I live.
He is saying, “Because God has answered me in the past, I will make it my lifelong resolution to seek Him and trust Him moving forward.” When you have walked through the fire with God, you know where to go when things get hot. You need God. Because you have been there and you have experienced the worst life has to offer, you are living proof that God answers prayer.
The psalmist says, the snares of death encompassed me, the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me. He is describing a life and death situation. The image is that of an animal trapped in a hunter’s net. Death itself is the hunter and he is the prey. The word “pangs” is a rare word meaning, “distressed by constriction.” It carries the idea of being squeezed on all sides until you are so constricted you cannot breathe. Death has caught him in the ropes of his trap he feels the grip of the grave closing in on him.
Throughout Old Testament poetry, death and the grave are aggressive and violent. They don’t wait for you to grow old to whisk you away. Rather, death and the grave come after you to make you sick with sadness and crush your spirit with grief. He says, I suffered distress and anguish. This verse describes rock bottom. It describes the suffering saint trapped in the jaws of death.
Our sufferer takes action in his anguish. Verse 4: Then I called on the name of the Lord: “O Lord, I pray, deliver my soul!” To call on the name of the Lord (Yahweh) is to appeal to Yahweh’s character. His name is His reputation. The sufferer’s prayer is desperate. It is no wonder his heart is so full of love for the Lord. Yahweh heard him. He leaned down and laid his ear next to him. He didn’t ignore his cries or watch him die. Instead, He pulled him out of the trap. Who wouldn’t love a God like that?
Delivered saints also…
2. Trust the Lord
Verses 5 through 11 are all about God’s trustworthy nature. We see why the psalmist turned to Him when he was down and why he will continue to turn to Him for the rest of his life. This section contains memories and descriptions about God intended to reassure anyone who might be caught in the trap of verse 3. He presents three foundational facts you cannot afford to forget when the grave opens its mouth for you.
Remember God’s Credentials (verses 5-6)
Verse 5 says, Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful. He says, “Don’t forget these three essential qualities about God. He is gracious, righteous, and merciful.” These are the qualities that shine brightest when God obliterates the snares of death. His grace is our getting what we do not deserve. His mercy is our not getting what we do deserve. His righteousness is our guarantee that He will always do the right thing. He will never lie to us. He will never change his mind or default on any of his promises. He will always do the right thing.
Ultimately we see all three of these attributes come together in the most brilliant demonstration on the cross of Christ. It is there that God’s mercy is undeniable, as sinners who trust in Christ for salvation do not get what they deserve. Eventually, death comes for us all and we all deserve hell. In the history of the world, only one man has ever lived a perfect life. Only one man has never offended God by sinning against Him. Jesus is the only man who does not deserve God’s eternal wrath against sin. The rest of us do. It is the great mercy of God that saves us from the death we deserve.
God’s grace is magnificently displayed at the cross as He gives us what we do not deserve. It is because Jesus lived a perfect life and died a sinner’s death, those who trust in Him have His righteousness credited to their account. By dying your death it is as if you lived His life. Your sins are paid for and God has graciously given you the reward His son has earned: eternal life with Him.
Most amazing of all is God’s righteousness found at the cross, because God will not allow sin to go unpunished. His justice demands a reckoning. If God simply looked the other way, He would no longer be righteous. He would no longer be a perfect judge. Instead, He would be a God who excuses evil and He cannot do that. He must deal rightly with men and judge them according to their deeds. So, He punished His son instead.
There is only way for God to justify the ungodly and still be righteous. His precious Son sacrificed Himself. Jesus died in the place of sinners. He gave up His life so you could have life.
Verse 6: The Lord preserves the simple; when I was brought low, He saved me. This word “simple” is typically used throughout proverbs to describe the foolish, the naïve, and the gullible. Here, it is likely a reference to the helpless, inexperienced, common folk. He is saying that God does not triage His salvation. He doesn’t deliver the cream of the crop and discard the rest. He preserves the simple, the plain, the little people. Even those who are brought low find salvation from the Lord. He cares for the simple and saves the lowly.
Remember God’s Care (verses 7-9)
Verse 7: Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you. This is a call to relax because the Lord is far from stingy. His dealings have been super abundant and are described in verse 8: For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling. Deliverance 1: He delivered my soul from death. He breathed life into my inner man and saved my soul. Deliverance 2: He delivered my eyes from tears. He dried my eyes and relieved my heart of anguish. Deliverance 3: He delivered my feet from stumbling. He picked me up when I fell and put me back on track. In other words, He has relieved me of everything that causes sorrow. He has relieved me from death, anguish, and falling into sin by giving me the opposite of those things: salvation, joy, and holiness.
God’s care is complete. As a result, the psalmist makes his resolve in verse 9: I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living. The natural outcome for anyone who has experienced the Lord’s care is appreciative obedience (Genesis 17:1). To walk before the Lord is to live for the Lord. God has saved us because He is not finished with us. We all have work to do (Ephesians 2:10). There are no couch potatoes in god’s army.
Remember God’s Character (verses 10-11)
Verses 10-11: I believed, even when I spoke: “I am greatly afflicted;” I said in my alarm, “All mankind are liars.” Verse 10 has some tricky Hebrew and has been translated a number of ways. The best translation would be, “I believed, therefore I said.” That is how Paul interpreted this verse when he quoted it in 2 Corinthians 4:13. When we look at it this way, as a cause and effect statement, the psalmist is saying, “I poured my heart out to the lord because I believed in Him. I knew I could be honest with God because He alone is trustworthy. Everyone else is a liar.” This word “liar” means “false, deceitful, unreliable.” When he says, all mankind are liars, he isn’t being cynical, he is simply being truthful. If you turn to men for help, you are going to be disappointed. Unlike them, our God is completely trustworthy. Those rescued sinners who have been delivered from death, love the Lord and trust the Lord.
3. Serve the Lord
The next few verses answer the rhetorical question of verse 12. He asks, what shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits to me? The answer is obvious. He can’t. The God of heaven and earth already owns everything in heaven and earth. There is no way he can repay the Lord, but he can tell others what the Lord has done.
He says, I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord, I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all His people. It is important to point out that he is able to lift up this cup of salvation because God gave it to him in the first place. This cup of salvation stands in stark contrast to the foaming cup of wrath we all deserve (Psalm 75:8). This is every man’s cup (or destiny) who refuses to call on the name of the Lord and be saved. The delivered saint takes another cup (or destiny) and he holds it in his arms up high in service to the lord. He makes good on his vows.
Verse 15 records the loud declaration of what the psalmist has learned throughout the course of this whole experience. He shouts, Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. This word “precious” means prized and highly valued. The idea is that God is personally invested in the welfare of His people and He values the final moments of those who finish well.
Charles Spurgeon writes, “The death-beds of saints are very precious to all believers who delight to treasure up the last words of the departed, but they are most of all precious to the Lord Himself who views the triumphant deaths of His gracious ones with sacred delight. If we have walked before Him in the land of the living we need not fear to die before Him when the hour of our departure is at hand.”
Paul viewed death as a blessing (Philippians 1:21-23). He longed to be with the Lord, but he knew that his time had not yet come. Therefore, the Lord still had work for him to do. George Whitefield is accredited for saying, “We are immortal until our work on earth is done.” Until then, there is only way for the saved sinner to live, as a servant.
Verse 16: O Lord, I am your servant; I am your servant, the son of your maidservant. The psalmist emphatically recognizes that God is in charge of his life. He then adds this phrase, the son of your maidservant. This harkens back to Exodus 21:4. In a way, he is pledging double loyalty. He says, you have loosed my bonds, referring to the snares of death. Therefore, his life is no longer his own. He belongs to the Lord and will therefore serve the Lord.
Finally, delivered saints…
4. Praise the Lord
Verse 17: I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the Lord. This is similar to the contemporary charge found in Hebrews 13:15-16. Those who have been rescued are pleased to praise the Lord.
At this point the psalmist is so full of joy and thanksgiving he repeats himself. Verse 18 is the same as verse 14. Once again, his desire is to praise the Lord loudly and publicly. He says, I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all His people, in the courts of the house of the Lord, in your midst, O Jerusalem. Our delivered saint might have called out to the Lord and prayed in private, but there is nothing private about his praise. He is determined to go to the Lord’s courts in the Lord’s city to the Lord’s congregation. He wants everyone to know that God saved him when it was impossible for him to save himself. The psalm ends with, Praise the Lord! Anguished petitions have turned into answered prayers.
Love the Lord (verses 1-4)
Many Christians suffer in silence when they should cry out to the Lord for deliverance. When death traps you and the grave grabs you, turn your eyes to the Lord and call on Him for help. His love never changes. Hopefully, you can look back and see the Lord’s faithfulness in past deliverance.
Trust the Lord (verses 5-11)
If you have not done so already, repent of your sins and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. If you trust in this God-man’s sacrifice, His perfect standing before God will be given to you. God will not hold you accountable for your sins and He will do for you what He did for His Son. Jesus died, but He didn’t stay dead. God did not abandon His Son to the grave. As the snares of death encompassed Him and the pangs of Sheol laid hold of Him, God the Father resurrected His Son from the dead and exalted Him to the degree He was humbled. He will do the same for you if you deny yourself, pick up your own cross, and follow Jesus. You will not find a better Savior.
Serve the Lord (verses 12-16)
We might not able to pay the Lord back for His love towards us, but we can tell others about His goodness. If you belong to Christ, you are not your own. You were bought with a price (1 Corinthians 7:22-23). He owns you and has every right to direct your life. Redeemed sinners will serve Him with the passionate loyalty of a double slave. When you stand before Christ, you want to hear those words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
Praise the Lord (verses 17-19)
There is no such thing as a closet Christian. If you have experienced the Lord’s goodness in your life (and ultimately the salvation of eternal life in Christ) why would you be silent? It is natural and right for the believer to publicly praise the Lord for His mercy and grace.
The story is told about the baptism of king Aengus by St. Patrick in the middle of the fifth century. Sometime, during the rite, St. Patrick leaned on his sharp-pointed staff and inadvertently stabbed the king’s foot. Once the baptism was over St. Patrick looked down at all the blood, realized what he had done, and begged for the king’s forgiveness. He asked him, “Why did you suffer this pain in silence?” To which, the king replied, “I thought it was part of the ritual.”
Charles Spurgeon once visited a friend who had built a new barn. On top of the barn was a weather vane with the words, “God is love.” Spurgeon asked his friend, “What do you mean by that? Do you mean that God’s love is as changeable as the wind?” To which his friend answered, “No! I believe that God is love whichever way the wind blows.”
There’s an old story of a sea captain who attended a prayer meeting in Boston in the 1800’s. There, he shared his thrilling experience with a man who had almost drowned. He said, “A few years ago I was sailing by the island of Cuba when the cry ran through the ship ‘man overboard!’ It was impossible to put up the helm of the ship, but I instantly seized a rope and threw it over the ship’s stern crying out to the man to seize it as for his life. The sailor caught the rope just as the ship was passing. I immediately took another rope and (making a slip noose of it) attached it to the other and slid it down to the struggling sailor and directed him to pass it over his shoulders and under his arms and he would be drawn on board. He was rescued, but he had grasped that rope with such firmness with such a death-grip that it took hours before his hold relaxed and his hand could be separated from it. With such eagerness indeed had he clutched the object that was to save him that the strands of the rope became embedded in the flesh of his hands.
Elizabeth Prentiss, the wife of a Presbyterian minister, spent most of her adult life as an invalid with chronic pain. Hardly a day went by without constant hurt coursing throughout her body. And yet her friends would describe her as a bright-eyed cheery woman with a keen sense of humor. Elizabeth was a rock. She was always strong in her faith and encouraging to others. That is until tragedy struck the Prentiss family beyond what even she could bear. The loss of two of her children brought tremendous sorrow into Elizabeth’s life. For weeks no one could console her. In her diary she wrote of “empty hands a worn-out exhausted body and unutterable longings to flee from a world that has so many sharp experiences.” During this period of grief, Elizabeth cried out to God asking Him to minister to her broken spirit. It was at this time that Elizabeth’s story became a living testimony (much like our psalm). For almost 200 years the church has been encouraged as they sing the words Elizabeth penned in her deepest sorrow.
More love to Thee, O Lord
More love to Thee
Hear Thou the prayer I make
On bended knee
This is my earnest plea
More love, O Lord, to Thee
Once earthly joy I craved
Sought peace and rest
Now Thee alone I seek
Give what is best
This all my prayer shall be
More love, O Lord, to Thee
Let sorrow do its work
Send grief and pain
Sweet are Thy messengers
Sweet their refrain
When they can sing with me
More love, O Lord, to Thee
Then shall my latest breath
Whisper Thy praise
This be the parting cry
My heart shall raise
This still its prayer shall be
More love, O Lord, to Thee
More love to Thee, more love to Thee
Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms (90–150): Commentary, vol. 3, Kregel Exegetical Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2016).
C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David: Psalms 111-119, vol. 5 (London; Edinburgh; New York: Marshall Brothers, n.d.).
Derek Kidner, Psalms 73–150: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 16, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1975).
Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver, and Charles Augustus Briggs, Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977).
James Montgomery Boice, Psalms 107–150: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005).
Ludwig Koehler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000).
Moisés Silva and Merrill Chapin Tenney, The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: The Zondervan Corporation, 2009).
Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Exultant, 1st ed., “Be” Commentary Series (Colorado Springs, CO: Cook Communications Ministries, 2004).
Willem VanGemeren, ed., New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997).