A sermon on Psalm 66: 8-20
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
May 17, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
I’m sure that many of you will recognize the title of this sermon as a line from a well-known song by singer/songwriter James Taylor. Released in February 1970, “Fire and Rain” became one of James Taylor’s biggest hits, reaching all the way to #3 on the Billboard Magazine’s Hot 100. And it still can be regularly heard on radio stations that play music from that era.
The mood and feel of the song “Fire and Rain” has much in common with today’s reading from Psalm 66. That is especially the case in the way it speaks of hope and of perseverance in the midst of struggle. And the striking image of surviving through trials of fire and water are common to both.1
Taylor has said that the song is about several incidents that he experienced early in his career. The first stanza of “Fire and Rain” deals with the singer’s response upon receiving the news that a close childhood friend named Suzanne Schnerr had recently taken her own life. (“Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone/ Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you.”)
The second stanza is a prayer in which Taylor asks for deliverance from his ongoing struggles with heroin addiction and of his attempts to break free of it. (He has said that he completed writing “Fire and Rain” while he was undergoing treatment in a residential rehab center.) The second stanza goes like this:
Won’t you look down upon me Jesus
You’ve got to help me make a stand
You’ve just got to see me through another day.
My body’s aching and my time is at hand
I won’t make it any other way.
The final stanza alludes to the singer’s battle with depression and of his disillusionment with the music business. Each of the three stanzas is followed by the refrain:
I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I’d see you again…2
1 If we were doing church in person these days, I would be performing “Fire and Rain” with guitar accompaniment at this point in the sermon. Perhaps another time…
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It is a remarkable thing that James Taylor was only 21 years old when he wrote and recorded “Fire and Rain.” That is certainly a lot of serious life-stuff for any person to be dealing with…but especially if you are only 21 years old…
In Psalm 66:8-20, the writer begins with praising God. He goes on to talk about how both he and the community of which he is a part have struggled through difficulties. But in spite of everything, they have come out on the other side of the troubles they encountered because of God’s love and care.
In the opening verses of this passage, the psalmist writes, “Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard, who has kept us among the living and has not let our foot slip.” In this time of the coronavirus pandemic, these are words that could be just as easily flowing from our lips. Throughout the world, the virus has claimed the lives of more than 300,000 people at the time of this writing. And no one is predicting that the death toll is anywhere near the end… But God has been faithful and has kept us among the living in spite of COVID-19. In his mercy, he has kept us in his steadfast love during this time of sickness and death.
In the next three verses, the psalmist uses a series of metaphors to describe the trials that he and his community have had to endure. He says, “You have tried us as silver is tried. You have brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water…” (Emphasis mine)
I confess that I did not know much about the process of refining silver before working on this sermon. But I did some research and found out some interesting things. Silver has been refined since about 4000 BC. The earliest known silver refineries have been discovered in Cappadocia, a land in Asia Minor mentioned in Acts and 1 Peter. The melting point of silver is 1,763° F, so that is how hot the furnace has to be in order to refine silver.
Here is something interesting about silver ore. Some silver-bearing ores contain silver as the largest metal value, but virtually no naturally occurring silver ore has silver as its main component. A typical piece of silver ore might contain silver along with significant percentages of lead, copper, antimony and zinc. In fact, the percentage of silver in the ore is often very minor in comparison to these other elements…3
It seems to me that such a picture is often descriptive of our own lives. All of us have lives that are a tangled mess of responsibilities: job and family, wants, needs, desires, attitudes (wayward and otherwise), sins, memories and experiences, and a whole lot else. Sometimes the spiritual dimensions of who we are can be pushed into the background amid all of these competing interests. It is not hard to
2 Information for this section was taken from www.wikipedia.com/fire_and_rain_(song) and www.metrolyrics.com. (Accessed May 12, 2020) Also Joel Whitburn, The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits. 4th ed. (New York; Billboard Publications, 1989), 415.
3 www.britannica.com/technology/silver-processing (Accessed May 12, 2020)
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do. It happens whether that is our intention or not. Too many times we forget our Lord’s words in Luke 9:62, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
When that does happen—when we let other interests take first place in our lives—when we are not as attentive to the Spirit and in following what Christ wants us to do, then God will often bring troubles into our lives to get our attention, to remove those things that are hindering our life in the Spirit, and to remind us of who we are in him. To remind us of what is really the most important. To remind us of where our priorities should be centered. Getting through these troubles will not always be a pleasant experience—after all 1,763° F is really hot—yet God will use these troubles to purge us of those things that need to be changed—to eliminate those things which are detrimental to us—and to allow us to refocus on the eternal values which Christ intends to develop in us. After all, in Revelation 3:19, our Lord Jesus says, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent.”
The next metaphor that the psalmist uses is that of the “net” when he writes “You brought us into the net.” The Hebrew word used here is me-tso-dah’, a word that can be translated as “net” or “snare” or even “prison.” This word-picture has particular relevance to our current situation. In a recent phone conversation that I have had with one of our members, she likened the current “shelter in place” directive from Governor Northam’s office to feeling like she was “locked up in a cage.”
I imagine that we have all felt that to some extent. Over the last couple of weeks, I have read news stories about how people are developing serious cases of “quarantine fatigue”—that sense of being weary of abiding by the state’s guidelines for mostly staying at home. The truth is that we all want to be out and about once more, doing all the things that we used to do before the arrival of the virus. All of us want a return to normal. And it’s hard sometimes. (All I can say about sheltering at home is, “Praise the Lord for Netflix and Amazon Prime!”)
The next metaphor the psalmist uses is “You laid burdens on our backs.” The language used in this phrase is the language of slavery. This naturally brings to mind the history of the Hebrew people as recorded in the book of Exodus. You remember how the people had been enslaved by the Egyptians who had become terrible taskmasters. The people cried out to the Lord for deliverance. God heard their pleas and sent Moses to bring the people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. What the Psalmist is communicating is that the Lord had laid burdens upon their ancestors. But then, when the time of trial was over, the Lord was faithful to remove the burdens as well…
The next phrase is one that only occurs here in the Bible. The Psalmist writes, “You let people ride over our heads.” No one seems to be sure exactly what the phrase means, though it certainly is an arresting word-picture. But even if the meaning is a bit vague, the image is one of dominance of one over the other. God has permitted someone (or some group) to run roughshod over the community as a part of his chastening and cleansing work.
The last of these images is the one that was alluded to at the beginning of the sermon: “We went through fire and through water.” It is reminiscent of what the prophet Isaiah wrote in Isaiah 43:2,
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“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.”
Fire is often used as a symbol of judgment in the Bible. Everyone knows the story in Genesis 19 of how God destroyed the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by raining fire down from heaven. Fire again figured in the story of the prophet Elijah on Mount Horeb as he called down fire from heaven on his sacrifice, condemning the pagan religion of Baal in the nation of Israel. And in the New Testament, 1 Peter 4:12 says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you, as though something strange were happening to you.” Fire often recalls judgment and testing…
Many times in the Old Testament water symbolizes chaos and trouble. Two quick examples for you: In the opening verses of the Bible, we are told that “The Spirit of God was hovering over the waters,” even as the creative work of God brought order out of which had been previously formless, empty and dark. And in a few chapters later in Genesis 7 and 8, you remember that God covered the earth with waters, allowing only for Noah, his family and the animals in the ark to be saved. In the gospels, you may recall one of our Lord Jesus’ first miracles was calming the waves of the Sea of Galilee when the boat in which he and his disciples were riding was in danger of sinking.4 Fire and rain…fire and water…symbols of trials and of judgment and of spiritual cleansing in the life of the child of God…
The second half of verse 12 brings us to a place where the trails have ended. The fire of testing has been extinguished and the waters of trial have subsided. The psalmist writes, “Yet you have brought us to s spacious place.”
In response to coming to this place of abundance, the Psalmist declares his intention to give thanks to God for the deliverance that he has experienced. He writes, “I will come into your house with burnt offerings; I will pay you my vows, those that my lips uttered and my mouth promised when I was in trouble.”
All of us have heard the expression “There are no atheists in foxholes.” No one knows who first said it, though it seems to have originated sometime during World War 2. The meaning is that for those who a fearful—like being shot at in a foxhole during a battle—all people have a tendency to seek for divine help or protection from God. You know it goes: a person finds himself or herself in dire circumstances. They see little hope, so they will pray to God to help them, promising that they will amend their lives once they are out of this particular situation. It’s kind of like bargaining with God: “God, if you will get me out of this jam, I promise that I will attend church every Sunday” or “I promise that I will live a better life” or some such. (Have you ever done something like that? I suspect that many more of us have done that than are willing to admit…)
4 Matthew 8:23-27, Mark 4:36-41 and Luke 8:22-25.
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I have heard testimonies of people who have bargained with God in just such a fashion. And others who may not have actually spoken those words out loud, but that was the intention of their hearts. It is a sad commentary on the human heart that often what happens is that, once the crisis has passed, the promises we make to God in times of trouble are often as quickly forgotten as they were made. Not so with the Psalmist. He may have made some promises to God, looking for God’s help and mercy in the emergency, but when it came time to fulfill his part of the deal, he owned up to his promise. He writes, “I will pay you my vows, those that my lips uttered and my mouth promised when I was in trouble.” He was going to make good on what he had promised the Lord…
Worship is the proper response for deliverance. In verse 15, the Psalmist says, “I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings, with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams; I will make an offering of bulls and goats.” The remarkable thing about the Psalmist’s statement is the extravagance of his offering to God. This is no small offering that he is proposing to offer to the Lord. Any one of those things is a large and significant offering. To promise all of them is a sign that he was truly grateful for all that God had done for him in his time of distress. The outpouring of his gratitude toward God for his guidance and protection during the time of trial was reflected in the generosity of his thanksgiving.
And so it is with us. The COVID-19 crisis in which we find ourselves today will not last forever. We will come out of it on the other side. And the lesson from the psalmist for us today is to persevere. We live out our faith in the knowledge that our lives and times are in God’s hands. This time of testing may be hard. It might be tough. But through it all, God will lead us gently through to the spacious place. And when we finally get to that place because of God’s steadfast love and mercy to us, we will be able to “sing and shout the victory…”
To God alone be the glory! Amen