The God Who Helps by D.A. Carson

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If you live long enough, you’re gonna get kicked in the teeth. If you live long enough, you will be bereaved. If you live long enough you will face major disappointment, you may lose a job. You may lose a friend, you may lose a marriage, you may find yourself impoverished or you may find yourself so enslaved by vicious sins that you loathe yourself. You are so addicted to the porn on the internet and you don’t know what to do. Or you have nurtured bitterness for members of your family and you don’t know how to escape. You know it’s not right, it is poisoning you and you don’t have a clue what to do about it.

Psalm 40

‘God is our helper’. Sometimes we tend to think of the songs as 150 individual pearls on a string. But many of the psalms are grouped together in important ways. Psalm 37 underscores the importance of waiting on God. Psalms 38 and 39 give us the application of waiting on God, worked out in painful self examination. And now in Psalm 40, at least initially, gloom is lifted. There is a triumphant outcome. David has waited on the Lord and the Lord has helped him.

That brings us to the two major divisions of the Psalms. In verses 1-10, the Psalm is full of joy, praise to the God who helps. This can usefully be broken down into 4 stanzas, four parts:

1. Personal testimony verses 1-3

I waited on the Lord – Verse 1 bursts with delight: ‘I waited patiently for the Lord, who turned to me and heard my cry’.  This is a purposefully resolved waiting. Now what was it that David was saved from? Verse 2 describes it metaphorically: ‘He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire. He set my feet on the rock and gave me a firm place to stand. Some miry bog; the image suggests both disgust and floundering helplessness. But what was it? Sickness, en-chaining sin, discouragement, peril from enemies? We don’t have a clue and this is one of those verses that is a blessing that we don’t have a clue. For if we knew exactly what it was, we would be inclined to make appropriate application only if we were exactly in the same peril. But, by preserving the metaphor and not identifying it precisely, God has given us a kind of generic insightWe can fall into very many different kind of bogs and God is our only rescuer.

One is reminded of Paul’s thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians 12: There was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan… to teach him humility. What the thorn in the flesh was? Well, there have been scores of answers. In my mind, I can probably narrow them down to a probable 3 or 4. Beyond that point I can’t quite be certain and once again, the metaphorical ambiguity is a great help. God knows ‘you’ intimately and He knows what kinds of bogs you are either in or have come through, or will fall into if you live long enough. And here this psalm provides David’s testimony, precisely to that kind of experience.

‘New song’ language in the Scriptures always marks some new blessing from God

David, extending the metaphor, has been rescued from this slimy pit, from this miry bog. Not mere escape like Jeremiah in Jeremiah 38, but now with a new place on which to stand. Even so, quite remarkably, David does not focus extensively on his release, as if he were the center of the universe. Rather, his words flow out to God and out to others (v 3). ‘New song’ language in the Scriptures always marks some new blessing from God and evokes a new song. It’s as if all the songs that we’ve sung are inadequate to praise God for the new blessings that we receive.

The most remarkable ‘new song’ of Revelation 4 & 5

The most remarkable ‘new song’ passage in all of Holy Scripture is the one found in the great apocalyptic vision in Revelation 4 and 5. In Revelation 4, God is presented in colorful metaphors, spectacular apocalyptic language- as the sovereign God, the transcendent God, a Creator God. Before Him, the highest orders of angelic beings bow before Him and cast their thrones before Him. They acknowledge their utter dependance upon Him and they come together and sing, „You are worthy because you have created all things, and by Your will they were created. And once this setting is established, God transcendent, God powerful, God the Creatorm then drama unfolds. Revelaton 4 is to Revelation 5 what a setting is to a drama. Once God’s great transcendent glory is established in chapter 4, the drama unfolds in chapter 5.

In the right hand of Him who sits on the throne, we are told, is a scroll, sealed with seven seals. That scroll has all of God’s purposes for redemption and judgement. That’s what the scroll contains- all of God’s purposes for the entire universe for judgment and redemption, and is sealed with 7 seals. In the symbolism of the day, whatever is in that scroll can be enacted only if you slit the seal. And so, in the drama, this scroll with all of God’s purposes is sealed with 7 seals and now a mighty angel challenges the entire universe: Who is worthy to approach this God and take the scroll from His right hand?  and slit the seals, and thus bring about all of God’s purposes- redemption and judgement. And no one is found who is worthy. Not the cherubim and seraphim, not the elders, no one on the earth, no one under the earth in the abodes of the dead, no angel. And John weeps, not because he is nosy and his curiosity is stifled. But, because in the symbolism of the vision, this means that God’s purposes for judgement, justice and blessing will not be brought to pass. And as he’s weeping, an interpreting elder taps him on the shoulder and says, „John, stop your weeping. Look, the lion of the tribe of Judah has prevailed to open the scroll”. „So, I looked”, John says, „and I saw a Lamb”. We’re not to think of 2 animals, parked side by side- a lion and a lamb. The lion is the lamb. He’s the lion of the tribe of Judah, but He’s also the Lamb of God who is slaughtered. Yet, a Lamb with 7 horns. In the symbolism of the day that means a slaughtered sacrificial lamb, that nevertheless had the perfection of all kingly power that the horn symbolizes. In consequence of this, because He comes from the throne itself and takes the scroll out of the hand of Him who sits on the throne, He prevails to bring about all of God’s purposes for judgement and blessing. And they ‘sing a new song’!

And what is this song? It’s no longer the song praising God for Creation, as great as that song is, as legitimate and perennial as it is. It is a song addressed to Christ, „You are worthy to open the scroll”. For He shed his blood to rescue men and women drawn from every tongue and tribe and people and nation. They shall reign in the new heaven and the new earth. Here is a new song, brought about by the new event it redempted in the ministry of the Lion-Lamb, bringing about all of God’s purposes.

Now this vision here in Psalm 40 is not quite so – Salvation, historically transcendent and yet, in our experience, is there not time when we have tasted and seen that the Lord is good. We do know that God is faithfulWe have known of God’s provision in the past. And then we go through some new, agonizing thing. God pours out His grace upon us in spectacular ways and we sing a new song! Sometimes it’s after bereavement. Sometimes, in the life of the church it’s after decades of really difficult, challenging situation and then suddenly there is massive movement.

D A Carson’s father’s experience in ‘liberal’ Canada

In the province of Quebec, where I grew up, my father was one of the first pastors back in French Canada after liberalism had decimated the relatively few churches in a population of about 6 1/2 million french speakers. He started in the late 30’s when another man from Switzerland, William F. (?) and gradually dozens of pastors from the United States and from english Canada returned, started planting churches… There was a lot of persecution. Baptist ministers alone spent 8 years in jail between 1950 and 1952. We kids were regularly beaten up because we were ‘damned protestants’. As recently as 1972, there were only 35 or 36 evangelical churches of any description, most with not more than 40 people in all of this population of 6 1/2 million. And then in 8 years we grew from 35 churches to 500, and God put a new song in our mouths, even praise to our God.

Here’s personal testimony (David in Psalm 40, verses 1-3). One of the wonderful things is that David immediately turns that to public principle.

 

2. Public principle (v. 4-5) 

Instead of talking in the first person, he now talks about the third person. He connects the 2 sessions by a little hook word. Have you noticed- verse 3: ‘many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord’. And now he talks generically in verse 4: Blessed is the man who makes the Lord his trust, who does not look to the proud, to those who turn aside to false gods. Many, oh Lord, my God are the wonders You have done. The things You plan for us, no one can recount to you.

This is wonderful. There is reflection now in David and all of the good things that God has done. Come through one of these wretched experiences, come out of the other side of a miry bog and it gives time for you to take a deep breath and think about all God’s plans for you. And you look back and think again and marvel at all of God’s goodness. There is a marvelous parallel passage  to this in Psalm 139, sometimes I think, slightly misunderstood. Psalm 139:13: For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb. 14 I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, And my soul knows it very well. 15 My  frame was not hidden from You, When I was made in secret, And skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth; 16 Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; And in Your book were all written The days that were ordained for me, When as yet there was not one of them. 17 How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! How vast is the sum of them! 18 If I should count them, they would outnumber the sand. Do you see? This is not simply a passage that is marveling at God’s omniscience. How can you ever begin to grasp the innumerable thoughts of God?

In the flow od the sequence, it is very personal. God has created us in the womb and His sovereignty is so sweeping . Even before we are born our days are ordained for us. God knows the terrible things we will be going through, the bogs in this broken world that we will ourselves fall into. He knows them all. Hid sovereignty is extended even unto all these details He thinks about and He knows about them all. All of His thoughts concerning us are innumerable and still He can be trusted as the sovereign, good God that comes to rescue His people.

3. Personal self dedication (v 6-8)

What is the only proper response for such deliverance? Slaughter a lamb? Perhaps. Bring a bull? Well, maybe you’re poor, so 2 turtle doves will do instead. Is that an adequate response to this sort of God? Ultimately we must bring our entire being to God, our heart and will. We read, „Sacrifice and offering You did not desire”,  (now the next line is extremely difficult, I’ll come back to it), burnt offerings You did not require. Then I said, „Here I am, I have come. It is written about me in the scroll. I desire to do your will, o my God. Your law is within my heart”. Now, the general thought in these 3 verses is clear: Mere formal offering of sacrifice is not adequate response to a God who saves us from all of these miry bogs, whose sovereignty extends to every dimension of our life, we trust HIm to help us with every kind of situation. The only adequate response is to say, „Here I am, I have come to do your will. It’s the only ultimate response that is even the beginnings of being adequate.

The ear piercing = an open ear to hear the Lord

And before we press farther we need to think about the second line in verse 6. It is difficult to understand. Many English versions have ‘sacrifice and offerings you did not desire but, my ears you have pierced. And the Hebrew verb can be understood that way. And then, people wonder if this is a reflection of something that takes place in the Book of Exodus, chapter 21. In the ancient world, sometimes people fell into slavery because of raiding parties or military activity. But, sometime they fell into slavery because there was no chapter 11 and chapter 13 laws, no bankruptcy laws. So, you borrowed some money, then your business went belly up and the only way out was to sell yourself and perhaps your family into slavery. But, perhaps you fell into the hands of a really good master who provided you with food and shelter for you and your family, at a time when the unemployment rate is a nays 20-25%. Under Jewish law, when the Israelites were actually observing it, after a set number of years, then you were supposed to be released. In other words, slavery in Israel was not supposed to be open ended, it was a form of indentured service rather than being open ended. Supposing, someone came to the end of this 7 years of indentured service  and looked around and saw that the economy wasn’t very good and his master was really good, maybe he should just stay on a slave. It might be just a bit better. Then he went on with an ear piercing ceremony. It was a way of saying- henceforth, this man will belong to this household.

So perhaps that is what it’s saying- that from now on, David will belong to the house of God. Now the problem with that interpretation is- everything we know about this ear piercing ceremony describes only one ear being pierced. But here, the text says: My ears you have pierced. Now, there’s another way of understanding that verb in Hebrew and literally, it means ‘my ears you have dug out’. Now, what does that mean? It is merely saying: Listen up, what’s blocking your ears? Pay attention! In other words, what is required here is not merely offering of sacrifice, but an open ear before the Lord so that we hear what He says and listen to Him.

There is a wonderful passage in one of the servant songs of Isaiah, in Isaiah chap. 50, with exactly the same thought, not the same verb, but the same thought. Isaiah 50:54 where the suffering servant of Yahweh says, „The sovereign Lord has given me an instructed tongue to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning. Wakens my ears to listen, like one being taught. The sovereign Lord has opened my ears and I have not been rebellious. I have not drawn back. I offer my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pull at my beard.” Do you see? This is an anticipation of the suffering servant’s suffering. An anticipation of Jesus crying in Ghetsemane, „Not My will, but Yours be done”, because His heavenly Father gave Him an open ear. He listened to the voice of His heavenly Father and was perfectly obedient. If David was obedient, how much more so David’s greater Son?

‘You are God, You are sovereign. Dig out my ears so that I may listen. Let me be Yours in thought and word and deed, my whole body serving you.’ Isn’t that same thought found in the apostle Paul- ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind‘. And before that, ‘I beseech you brothers by the mercies of God to present your bodies as living sacrifices, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship‘. There is Paul, saying something very similar to David. But, the ultimate one who hears God’s word in this way is Christ Himself, and it takes Him to the cross. That is what is required of us, by way of response, to the fact that God takes us out of miry bogs.

4. Public proclamation (v 9-10)

I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; behold, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O Lord. 10 I have not hidden your deliverance within my heart; I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation. That is ‘I don’t hide it in my heart as if it’s entirely private, I announce it! I speak of your faithfulness and salvation’

I know full well that there are different styles of display of thanksgiving that are in part culture driven. This is true even in greetings. This sort of thing comes out in how we give thanks to God. David is realistic. I think some of us from more reserved traditions are afraid to let it hang out. Less people will look down on us. But David is not in that group. Listen to what David says, this is the word of God: „I proclaim righteousness in the great assembly, I do not seal my lips, as you know, o Lord. I do not hide your righteousness! I speak of your faithfulness and salvation. I do not conceal your truth and love from the great assembly. „

Brothers and sisters in Christ, those of us who have been in those deep waters owe it to the entire assembly to speak of God’s goodness and mercy in the public arena so that others, a new generation coming along behind and those who have not had many miry bogs yet learn how to give thanks to God. It’s not just that you show the way of how to go through the bog, you also show the way of how to give thanks afterwards. And, as Christians give thanks to God almighty for all of the blessings they’ve received, not in the least in the hardest times. They teach a whole new generation to trust the living God.

Brothers and sisters, when you come out of your miry bog don’t slink into an endless pity party. Give thanks to God in the assembly and teach a new generation the goodness of God.

Now the second division of the psalm (Psalm 40) I can cover in 3 or 4 minutes, but it is important to note how it works. Here is verses 11-17 there is renewed anticipation of the God who helps. Verse 11 can be understood either as a petition or as a statement. What strikes you about this , granted, he’s just come through a miry bog, why is David going on to talk about ongoing protection? Because, of course, just because you have lost a child does not necessarily mean that you can escape cancer. Just because you’ve been through a really difficult ecclesiastical situation does not necessarily mean that you won’t face bereavement. This is still a damned world. There are wonderful things here, signs of God’s grace in so many ways, but this is still a death dealing world and David is astute enough to understand that just because God has taken him out of one miry bog, it doesn’t mean that there won’t be any more miry bogs down the road.

And so, David reminds himself that God must still be his helper. He runs through six domains, he still needs help. He will always need help.:

  1. God helps in the arena of personal sin (v. 12)
  2. God helps in the arena of bitter enemies (v. 13-15)
  3. God helps all who seek him, that is, all who seek God’s glory (v.16)
  4. God helps even me (v.17)

God is not our helper like some kind of a genie who comes along and gives some assistance, the help He gives is always within the framework where God is God. And we respond by saying, ” Thy will be done, may the Lord be exalted!”  Religion demands we do certain things to get help from God. Ancient paganism was like that. But supposing you’re dealing with a God to whom you really can give nothing, who already owns it all, a God with whom you cannot possibly barter. Then what does religion look like? That’s why religion of the Bible is no standard of religion at all. It is a disclosure of a living God of grace who comes along to help us. And we, his creatures, first of all acknowledge our creatureliness, then our guilt and bow before and accept His sovereignty and forgiveness. There is no other proper relationship with this living God. Finally, we bow before Him on bended knee in contrition and brokenness because we know that we don’t have something to trade with Him.
Nothing in my hands I bring,
only to Thy cross I cling,
naked come to thee for dress,
hopeless look to thee for rest.
Foul, I to the fountain fly,
wash me Savior or I die.
And so we come to the cross and to the Father who sent His son and we find Him always a help in time of need.

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