Believers are not mindless people who walk around whistling in the dark. No, by the grace of God, our minds have been opened so that they can be closed upon truth (Ephesians 4:17-24; Romans 12:1-2). Though, sadly, there are times when we might behave mindlessly, that is not what the Bible calls us to do. Rather, God in His Word reveals to us a rationale for what we are commanded to do (1 Corinthians 2:6-13). So it is when it comes to the matter of praising the Lord. There are some very good reasons for praising the Lord.
We learned previously that the believer is to be characterised by praise. We are to have a posture of praise—and such a posture looks good on us. We learned that it is the gospel that produces this posture (Philippians 2:14-16) and that, regardless of what we are experiencing, praise is to be our default disposition.
Sometimes it can be very difficult to praise the Lord; we at times must dig very deep and pedal very hard in order to stir up a sense of deep gratitude for what God is doing. We would do well to heed the words of the sixteenth century Puritan commentator David Dickson, who wrote, “There is no part of God’s worship whereunto we are more indisposed, or need more stirring up, than to praise God, as the frequently repeated [scriptural] exhortations import [imply].”1
Thankfully, we are not left to our own devices when it comes to doing so. Psalm 147 highlights at least three major reasons for obeying the command to praise the Lord. We find these three reasons in vv. 2-20. These reasons are as follows: God’s goal (vv. 2-6); God’s governance (vv. 7-11); and God’s grace (vv. 12-20).
In this study, we will see that we must praise God because of the certainty that He will fulfil His glorious goal with respect to His church. There is coming a day of the final healing of a very sinfully broken world and, yes, of a sinfully broken church. This will happen as God does four things. May the Lord use this study to straighten us up to a posture of praise for His glory and for our good.
The Lord Builds Up His Church
The first lesson we learn from our text is that the Lord builds up His church. The psalmist writes, “The LORD builds up Jerusalem; He gathers together the outcasts of Israel” (v. 2).
The Psalms were not written in a historical vacuum; on the contrary, each arose out of a particular historical situation. Psalm 147 is no exception.
Based on internal evidences, it appears that this Psalm was written in praise to God for His restoration of Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity. This is a common theme in the Psalms. For example, Psalm 102:16 says, “For the LORD shall build up Zion; He shall appear in His glory.” Psalm 126 is another example of this recurring theme.
As I suggested in our previous study, it is possible that this song of praise was penned in connection with the events recorded in Nehemiah 12:27-43. There we have the record of exuberant and organised praise at the resettling of Jerusalem.
Nehemiah had led the people to rebuild the walls and God had given to the people the wonderful victory of seeing Jerusalem reestablished—to some degree—in the face of persistent attacks from her enemies and other internal challenges. But once the walls were rebuilt and the city was repopulated, the people of the city responded with praise to God for all that He had done. In a word, they praised God for His faithfulness. God had once again proven faithful to His covenant and the people therefore responded with wonderful joy in the Lord.
It should be noted that the people were relatively poor, the population was small, the enemies were still present, and there was still a lot of work to be done. And yet the people of God praised Him. Why? Because they understood something of God’s faithfulness and therefore they were hopeful. And though I will say much more about this later, we, the people of God, need such a reminder. Such knowledge will go a long way toward equipping us for a posture of praise.
Why the Big Deal?
Perhaps it will be helpful for us to get some perspective as to the significance of the restoration of the city of Zion in the larger scheme of redemptive history. When we do so, it will help us in the application of this Psalm to where we live today.
Jerusalem (Zion) was the city of God. It was God’s designated city on earth where He would dwell with His people. It was the capital city of the nation of Israel; God’s unique people; His treasured possession.
It must be remembered that God chose this nation as the means through which He would bless the world (Genesis 12:1-3), for it was through Israel that Messiah would one day appear and by whose life, death and resurrection all the families of the earth would be blessed.
Exodus 19:5-6 sheds light on the importance of Israel and thus of Jerusalem: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.” In other words, God’s goal was for Israel to glorify Him—ultimately and eventually—among all the nations. His chosen nation was the means to all nations bringing glory to their sovereign Lord. After all, as the Lord revealed, “all the earth is Mine.” This assignment, this purpose, only intensified with the establishment of Jerusalem as the spiritual centre of Israel. The designated city of God was to be the hub from which all the nations would eventually bring glory to God.
Further, the temple was in Jerusalem and, by extension, so was God. It was therefore the most important place on earth.
If the holy Land was the spiritual centre of earth, then Jerusalem was the spiritual centre of that centre. Therefore, when it was destroyed by the Babylonians, it was as if the whole universe had fallen apart. It was as if God had disappeared. Or, if He had not disappeared, He had at least turned away from His people. It was as though the nation of Israel had come to the end of her unique existence and with it a lot of unfulfilled hopes, unfinished purposes and (dare I say it?) unfulfilled promises.
In fact, for the Jew who considered God’s intended purpose for the nation, the destruction of Jerusalem was tantamount to the world being in a completely hopeless position; that is, if God would prove not to be covenantally faithful. But there was a remnant in Judah who knew that that was impossible. This remnant was reminded that God will always fulfil His goals.
Yes, there was a remnant who believed that God was not yet finished with the nation of Israel. And this remnant was largely the group in a position to celebrate when the city was rebuilt. They were celebrating that indeed God is faithful.
Can You Relate?
Do you ever look at the state of the world, and then the state of the church, and find yourself a bit perplexed, if not discouraged? I must confess that at times I do.
The world at times seems to become darker and the church seems sometimes to be increasingly irrelevant. At such times it is difficult to praise the Lord. In fact, on a more personal level, sometimes at BBC we face the same ugly reality: Even though we are a “city of God,” we are a far cry from the ideal.
Why do we not see the conversion we would like to see? Why is there so much angst between church members? Why do people strategise how to avoid one another so they won’t have to greet? What about some of the family problems that exist in our midst? If we are the people of God, why do we see husbands and wives refusing to love each other? Why do we see so much domestic difficulty? If we are the people of God, why is there so much sin in our own lives and in us as a congregation? Where is the impact that we should be having as salt and light? Should we expect for things to improve?
These are real, flesh-and-blood challenges, which can be quite daunting and can lead to pessimism that eventually creates a circle-the-wagons mentality and a wait-for-the-end mindset—or worse. For by focusing on these realities we can end up forgetting the greater reality: the lordship of Christ. And when this occurs, we may find ourselves doubting the faithfulness of His promises and the certainty of His plan. With such an outlook, we probably won’t find ourselves deeply grateful to God and there won’t be much heartfelt praise coming from our lips. This is all the more reason for us to spend some quality time meditating on the words of this Psalm and the implications to which it points us.
Restoring the Ruins
The word “build” in v. 2 means exactly what you think that it means—and more. Strictly speaking, it means to build as in the construction of a house. The word is also used with reference to the fortification of a city (1 Kings 15:17).
It is used in passages such as Amos 9:14, Joshua 6:26, 1 Kings 16:34, 2 Kings 14:22, Isaiah 44:28, and Psalm 122:3 in the sense of rebuilding or restoring a ruined house or city. This is clearly the primary sense in which it is used here in Psalm 147. The city had once been built; it was then destroyed and now was being rebuilt again. The ruins were being restored. God was building the place where He would meet with rule His people. He both builds and rebuilds the place from which He rules. And for this He is to be praised.
In spite of what looked like the end of the line for Jerusalem, and therefore for the people of God, it was not to be so. God had never given up on His purpose, His promises or His people. And for this He was to be praised. The same is true in the new covenant church.
Restoring Our Ruins
There was a time in church history when the church was said to have been in the midst of a “Babylonian captivity,” and then the Lord raised up Martin Luther and others and God’s new covenant “Jerusalem” was rebuilt. In fact, if you read the history of the church since its new covenant transition, you will be astounded at how often it looked as though there would be no recovery from her decline, and then the Lord did something marvellous. This is not only true of the wider church, but can also be said of many individual local churches.
We need to keep before us the truth of our Lord’s words in Matthew 16:18 that He will build His church and that the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Since the universal church is made up of local churches, we too can take comfort from this in our own smaller context. I understand that the promise is not necessarily the perpetuity of every local congregation, but at the same time there is reason for us to be encouraged that, when things look dark, we can trust the Lord to rebuild a fledgling and foe-surrounded local church (see for example the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2—3).
It is interesting that God used men of conviction and faith like Nehemiah to restore the city. Nehemiah believed the promises of God with reference to His goal for His chosen nation. And because of this he both prayed and laboured in response to God answering his prayers (Nehemiah 1:1-11). Nehemiah believed that God would restore Jerusalem and therefore behaved accordingly. His conviction regarding God’s covenantal faithfulness enabled him to see beyond the rubble to a greater glory. So it has been throughout church history. God has used men and women to restore the ruins for His glory and for the good of His Church—for generations. He still uses such.
Living off a Diminishing Capital
The church of our day is living off the spiritual capital of the sixteenth century Reformation and much that flowed from those days. But the capital is diminishing because we have wasted much of it. Our failed stewardship has resulted in much “rubble” of ruins that needs to be cleared out and the church and local churches needing to be restored once again. The good news is that we can be sure that this goal will one day be realised. The question facing us, however, is, will we be those who are blessed to restore the ruins?
Sometimes, as in the days of the restoration, the Lord makes a change in leadership so that His city and work may be rebuilt. Such is still often the case under the new covenant. That is why sometimes a pastor’s ministry comes to an end and another comes to strengthen and fortify the walls. Though I do hold to the viewpoint that a pastor should come to the church to which he has been called with the goal of lifetime ministry, at the same time I realise that sometimes a man’s ministry comes to an end—for the good of the church. We should not fight this but rather trust the Lord to build His church.
In order for the ruins to be restored it is sometimes necessary for a new vision and new ministries and structures to be embraced. One thinks of a renewed emphasis upon discipleship and missions. The revival of the publishing of great Christian books in the latter half of the last century is another example. One thinks also of the Christian school movement followed by the home-schooling movement. The point is simply that the Lord will build and restore a broken church, and we are to praise Him for it. But how much more meaningful will be our praise when we have actually invested our own blood, sweat and tears into this work!
Forty years ago, founding members of BBC invested sacrificially in the work of the Lord, and a church was formed. Forty years later, I am convinced that another generation needs to pay a similar price to see the work of the Lord furthered in Brackenhurst for His glory.
It is the Right Thing to Do
Let us keep in mind that praising God for church growth, restoration and reformation is the right thing for the Christian to do. The Lord’s Prayer should be our cue. The Lord’s passions should drive ours and thus we should be moved to praise for the growth of God’s church.
The writer celebrates the fact that the Lord had gathered together the “outcasts of Israel” and brought them home. The word “outcast” speaks of being “thrust aside” and “pushed or thrown down.” It is a word of violence. And this was precisely what the nation of Israel, with particular reference to Jerusalem, had experienced. And yet by the grace and the power of Yahweh, she had been regathered. This is the story of the church. The story of God building His church is that of sinners who were thrust down by sin being gathered in by God. Regardless of the destruction experienced, God built His church and continues to do so. He continues to restore the backslidden. He continues to bring the wandering sheep into the fold. Jesus does make a difference.
When it looks as if the last word has been said about the demise of the church, don’t believe it! God is able to gather in all of His elect from every place on earth. Praise the Lord: He is building and even rebuilding His church.
The Lord Binds Up His Church
The second lesson that we learn from our text is that the Lord binds up His church. The psalmist writes, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (v. 3).
The text tells us that, in the process of building up Jerusalem, God also “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” These are not separate acts but are instead intimately connected.
We need to understand that, when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, there was great lamentation over its destruction. In fact, the prophet Jeremiah wrote an inspired lament over this. In that five-chapter lament we read that the city was not only physically destroyed but that, in the process, women were violated, children were killed and the enemies mocked the God of Israel. It is small wonder that Jeremiah’s work is called Lamentations! The heartache of the remnant was unimaginable and to some degree inconsolable. It was truly a dark night of the soul; a dark night that lasted for seventy years.
But thank God that this was not the whole story, for the Lord did once again build the city, with the result that the brokenhearted were healed and the deep wounds of the heart and soul were bound up. They were assuaged.
The word translated “heal” means, literally, “to sew together” and “to mend.” When a person’s heart is broken, it needs to be sewn back up. This is the picture here (see Isaiah 19:22; 30:26; Job 5:18; Ecclesiastes 3:3).
The word translated “brokenhearted” is a word full of pain. It speaks of breaking in pieces (Genesis 19:9; Jeremiah 19:10; Isaiah 42:3). It is used to describe the breaking of ships by the wind (Ezekiel 27:26). It also carries the idea of tearing, destroying and breaking down. Leupold comments, “The ‘broken-hearted’ . . . [are] those who grieve over their sins as well as those who are afflicted by life’s manifold adversities.”2
I think you get the picture. The psalmist is telling us that, even though these people had been shattered, there was hope; hope which, in fact, they had recently experienced. God had fixed their hearts in the process of restoring His city; in the process of restoring and reforming His church.
The text also speaks of God binding up wounds. The word translated “wounds” could also be rendered as “sorrows” (Job 9:28; Psalm 16:4; Proverbs 15:13). It speaks of pain and of trouble. It is used in Genesis 3:16 to speak of the woman’s “sorrow” in childbirth. But the good news is that the great Physician “binds up” the sorrow. He heals it. “For He bruises, but He binds up; He wounds, but His hands make whole” (Job 5:18).
You will note that Job speaks of God both bruising and binding up. There is no doubt that the Jews had been in captivity by the sovereign hand of God (see Lamentations 2:1-3, etc.) But it was also He who delivered them from captivity. In other words, this was all according to plan. We today need to recognise and to reckon on this. When the Lord seemingly tears down His church, He does so in order to heal her (see, for instance, Revelation 2—3). In other words, the work of reformation is often preceded by a work of sorrow. But wait upon the Lord for His healing touch (see Lamentations 3:25-26)!
Yes, God’s people had been spiritually, emotionally, materially and even relationally torn by the Babylonians—and even by one another. It is to be noted that Nehemiah 5 records God’s people extorting one another. Clearly, there were broken relationships. And yet the Lord healed them. He bound them up. He sewed up their wounds and harmony was now a thing to once again experience and to enjoy. We have the same need today.
Broken Hearts Today
Those who have had long experience of church life know of the heartache that can occur in the fellowship of believers. Not only is life generally ugly at times, but particularly, church life can be ugly—very ugly.
The church is made up of sinners, and sinners, by definition, sin. They sin against one another. This is painful in any realm, but when it happens in a church then the pain can be awful. After all, “a brother offended is harder to win than a strong city” (Proverbs 18:19). But the Psalmist wrote to praise the Lord because He had healed the breeches. He did then and He does still.
Local churches go through difficult, heart-wrenching, times. Yes, believers can be the most painful people to deal with. Consider the angst created in the church by Diotrophes, as spoken of in 3 John.
Believers can be thoughtless, inconsiderate, cold, cruel, malicious, arrogant, backbiting, unappreciative, calloused, dishonest, deceitful, hurtful, thieving, selfish, pushy, obstinate, self-righteous and more. Each of these sins is addressed in the New Testament in the context of the local church! At a recent music outreach at our church, a fellow elder was reading 1 Corinthians 13 and I found myself cringing and waiting for him to stop. My behaviour toward others is far too often contradictory to the description of love in that chapter.
Recently, I spoke to a pastor who sat in his office and literally sobbed over the heartache that some careless church members had caused him. I tried to point this brother to this Psalm and to Psalm 42. Yes, church life can break your heart!
I read this week of another pastor who regularly receives an anonymous note under his door, claiming to speak for many church members, which reads, “I pray every day that you will leave the church.” Nice! Again, church life can break your heart!
But praise the Lord: He heals the brokenhearted as He builds His church. I don’t doubt that the pastor spoken of above will find one day—perhaps soon—that his heart has been sewn back together in the process of the Lord using him to build up either his present church or another one to which He leads him.
In the New Testament we have the record of heartache, but we also have the record of hope for the wounded.
Philippians 4 speaks of Euodia and Syntyche, two women in the Philippian assembly, who were at loggerheads. I expect that they heeded the words of Paul and were reconciled. I expect that Paul and Barnabas were reconciled, as we know that Paul and John Mark were. God can heal broken lives and broken churches. I have seen it myself, and God’s Word clearly offers hope for the broken. I know pastors who have suffered nervous breakdowns but who are faithful today. God heals the brokenhearted! There is a church in our own country that I know went through a terribly difficult time years ago, but which is today experiencing what I can only describe as a revival. God heals the brokenhearted.
Let me conclude this point with the wonderful pastoral observation of Graham Scroggie: “What God was to His people of old He still is to His Church. He is still the binder of broken hearts, and the healer of wounded spirits. He still restored backsliders, and gives back the years which the locust has eaten.”3
The Lord Looks Upon His Church
In vv. 4-5, we learn that the Lord looks upon His church. “He counts the number of the stars; He calls them all by name. Great is our Lord, and mighty in power; His understanding is infinite.”
These verses indeed seem rather jolting after reading about God’s tender care of His people. These words may seem out of place, but upon reflection we see that they are not. Why, we might ask, does the writer now turn his attention to talking about the stars? What is the connection?
I believe that he does so as a means of highlighting how much God cares for His people. After all, if God is interested in the stars to the point that He actually names each of them (each of the trillions of them!) then how much more does He care for His people! As Kirkpatrick observes, “He who knows each separate star will not lose sight of one single Israelite.”4 If I can change the metaphor, borrowing from the apostle Peter, God is concerned about every brick in the wall (1 Peter 2:4, 5).
The point is that God knows and cares about what is happening to His people. And He is able to do something about it. When the Israelites in Egypt cried to God, He saw, He heard, and He acted (Exodus 2:25; 4:31). We can expect Him to do the same today.
I would suggest that one of the greatest therapies for the discouraged believer is to go outside and look up at the sky on a clear night. Think about the fact, as this text tells us, that God has placed every one of those stars in the sky. He knows the location of every one of them. He has determined their number and has actually named each one of them.
As you look at the stars, you are not to do so with the sense of how insignificant you are (there is a place for that, according to Psalm 8); instead, you are to reckon on the reality that God is concerned about you. God is concerned about His people. This is why, after making an “astronomical statement” in v. 4, the Psalmist exclaims in v. 5, “Great is our Lord (adonai), and mighty in power; His understanding is infinite.” A God that powerful and that wise is certainly able to build His church despite the onslaughts of evil. In fact, He is able to build His church in spite of the deeds of church members! God is powerful and wise to accomplish His goal (see Ephesians 3:8-13).
A. .T Robertson once quipped that the proof of the inspiration of the Bible is that it has endured centuries of bad preaching. The same could be said of the proof of the divine power behind the church: It has endured twenty centuries of so much human failure.
When we are tempted to lose hope as we see the problems facing the church then we too need to look to the stars. We need to be reminded of the Morning Star (Revelation 2:28; 22:16).
We need to contemplate the truth that God’s understanding is infinite. In other words, He knows what He is doing. He knows how to keep the stars from falling and how to build His church. He also knows how to rebuild it and how to restore it. He may choose ways and people that would surprise us but that is okay. After all, He is Lord and we are not!
The Lord Lifts Up His Church
In the final verse of this first section, the writer exhorts us to praise the Lord because He “lifts up the humble” and “casts the wicked down to the ground” (v. 6). “Though the language is general, it has obviously a special reference to the restoration of Israel and the humiliation of their oppressor.”5
The words “lifts up” come from a word meaning “to restore” or “to confirm.” It is translated “relieves” in Psalm 146:9. The word translated “humble” means primarily “to be afflicted” and carries with it the idea of “being lowly and of a modest mind which prefers to bear injuries rather than return them.” Hence the idea of meekness and gentleness is predominate.
We are to praise God because He relieves those who have chosen to let Him be their defence. And that is very important when it comes to the building of the church. Only God can build the church and He does so in the face of opposition. In fact, He does so through opposition (see 1 Peter 2:21-25).
When the church is at her weakest, she is at her strongest (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). When she is beaten and downtrodden then she is in a wonderful position to grow. China, in our day, is a prime example of this truth.
It must be remembered that the tribes of Judah had been taken into captivity because of their sin. And yet the Lord had not abandoned His plan and purpose, and certainly He had not forgotten His promises. It was for this reason that He had told them through Jeremiah to seek the peace and welfare of the city in which they had been taken captive (Jeremiah 29:4-14).
They were not to go into captivity kicking and screaming but were to submit to the chastening hand of God. God would bless this disposition in exile. He would also bless them by bringing them out of captivity. And, true to His Word, He did just that. They learned indeed that the Lord lifts up the humble and is therefore to be praised.
I believe that a large part of the church of our day needs this exhortation. Much of the church is in a similar kind of captivity. We have for far too long, at least in nations like South Africa, the UK and the USA, been unfaithful to the Word of God, with the result that we are being oppressed by the wider culture—including government. We are under the chastening and mighty hand of God. And judgement must begin at the house of God (1 Peter 4:17).
Our required response is to modestly bear our injuries as we trust the Lord to grant us repentance, reformation and restoration. In other words, rather than becoming embittered (a difficult temptation to fight) and returning evil for evil, we must seek the peace of the city for the glory of God. We are to have a posture of humility, which will go a long way towards developing a posture of praise when the Lord lifts us up. We need to train the next generation for this,
Finally, the last part of v. 6 reveals that we are to praise God because, while relieving His afflicted people, He at the same time brings judgement on the wicked. He ultimately brings justice upon the enemies of His people, the church. We are told that the Lord “casts the wicked down to the ground.”
The word “casts” means “to make low.” Essentially, the word means “to depress,” in the sense of removing one from a higher to a lower position. The word “wicked” does not merely connote being unrighteous, but rather carries with it the idea of being actively opposed to the righteous (Genesis 18:23; 2 Samuel 4:11; etc.). Therefore, putting this together, we can conclude that we are to praise the Lord because God will bring justice to our world. His church will be defended and its enemies will be defeated.
This may not sit well with some. After all, should we rejoice over the destruction of the wicked? Should we rejoice that the wicked will be in hell? Well, we need to consider that there are two ways that the Lord can bring the wicked to the ground.
First, the wicked can be cast down to the ground through eternal condemnation. And yes, eventually there is coming a day when we will rejoice that those who persisted as God’s enemies (as often manifested as being enemies of His church) will be finally judged and cast away from God’s presence forever. But I would also want to say that, until the day we are glorified, such thoughts should not be joyfully entertained. We are still sinners and are not therefore able to have a holy and joyful delight in judgement.
Second, the wicked can be brought low and defeated by the gospel. The Lord is able to defeat His enemies—and our enemies—by giving them new hearts. He can transform the wicked into the righteous. He can do this just like He did when we were His enemies!
When the Lord saves the wicked then His justice is satisfied through the cross work of His Son. The former enemies, by the power of the gospel, are humbled as they fall to the ground in repentance and faith and are relieved by grace. This is what the Great Commission is all about (see Psalm 2; Psalm 110).
But this qualifying statement aside, the psalmist was right in praising God for the fact that he builds and binds His church. We must never lose sight of the reality that the Lord loves those whom He has called out of the world to be His unique possession. He has His eye especially upon His people. Be encouraged: The wrongs will be righted; justice will prevail!
It should be noted that God has His timetable and no amount of fervency will speed that up. God had prescribed seventy years for this captivity and not a day less. The same can be said of His plan for the new covenant church. In His appointed time, we will be able to enter more fully into this Psalm as we see our captivity lifted, and we will more fully praise God for building His church.
In the meantime, while we wait for what Switchfoot calls “the final healing,” let us heed the words of Spurgeon: “Let each reader feel that he and his family ought to constitute a choir for the daily celebration of the praises of the Lord.”6
- David Dickson, Psalms: The Geneva Series of Commentaries (London: Banner of Truth, 1965), 520. ↩
- H. C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1969), 989. ↩
- W. Graham Scroggie, The Psalms, 4 vols. (London: Pickering and Inglis, 1972), 4:134-35. ↩
- A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms (Cambridge: Scripture Truth, n.d.), 822. ↩
- Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, 823. ↩
- Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Treasury of David: An Expository and Devotional Commentary on the Psalms, 4 vols. (Welwyn: Evangelical Press, 1978), 4:396. ↩