I recently spoke at Bethlehem College & Seminary‘s chapel on the topic, “Joy in the Old Testament.” I took for my text Ps 146 and entitled the message, “There and Back Again.” The people at the school were kind enough to post the video for those interested.
Click through for the manuscript I took into the pulpit that afternoon.
The theme of today’s chapel message is “Joy in the Old Testament.” Now, before I begin, let me admit something that should be obvious to everyone: I have neither the credentials, skill, nor the allotted time to present you with an exhaustive survey of the theme of Joy in the Old Testament. My goal is much more manageable. I would like to use one psalm (Psalm 146) to show some ways the Old Testament discusses joy as humanity’s goal and humanity’s indictment. The title of my message is “There and Back Again: Joy in the Old Testament” for reasons that ought to be clear by the end.
Let’s not dally. If you have your Bibles with you, I invite you turn to our passage: Psalm 146. If you didn’t bring your Bible to chapel, please use a pew Bible. You might need to see this amazing gospel truth to believe it.
Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
2 I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.
3 Put not your trust in princes,
in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.
4 When his breath departs, he returns to the earth;
on that very day his plans perish.
5 Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord his God,
6 who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
who keeps faith forever;
7 who executes justice for the oppressed,
who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
8 the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
9 The Lord watches over the sojourners;
he upholds the widow and the fatherless,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
10 The Lord will reign forever,
your God, O Zion, to all generations.
Praise the Lord!
Let’s start by summarizing the main message of this psalm. At the risk of sounding simplistic, here is my summary: If you want real joy, trust God and not humanity. I am finding that main message in two assertions in this text. After an introduction in verses 1–2, the first assertion is found in verses 3–4. I would summarize it this way: Humanity cannot save. The second assertion is found in verses 5–10. Only God can save. So far, so good? I trust I am not moving too quickly.
Let’s begin with the first assertion: Humanity cannot save. Let’s see that truth in verses 3–4.
“Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.”
The psalmist’s assertion is incredibly practical. Humanity can’t save you, so don’t look to any person to save you. “Put not your trust in princes.” The psalmist is saying that even the best people, the most powerful people, royal people, cannot save. A powerful and royal person cannot save you even when they have the best intentions. Verse four tells us that powerful, royal people have plans, but the sentence ends by warning us that these plans are not guaranteed to be completed. Why? Death. That’s why. Death, the Psalmist says, is the big problem with humanity. Humanity cannot save you because man is doomed to die. Just as you don’t ask thirsty people for a glass of water, you don’t ask dying people for salvation. That’s assertion number 1: Humanity cannot save.
The second assertion in our psalm is “Only God can save.” See the contrast for yourself in verses 5–9.
“Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God,  who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever;  who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free;  the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous.  The LORD watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. 10 The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the Lord!”
God is contrasted with humanity. Even the best humans on their best day could die. But on God’s worst day . . . well, God’s worst day … is a non-category. As the being who invented the category of “days,” He’s doing just fine, thanks for asking. God lives forever. Humanity’s plans perish. But verse 10 tells us the Lord reigns forever. “Our God is in the heavens,” says Psalm 115, “He does whatever he pleases.” Not so humanity. Humanity returns to the earth. But the Lord, verse six reminds us, made the earth. And heaven. And the sea. And everything in them. You can feel the psalmist making his point with tremendous rhetorical power: Don’t trust an earthling with something as important as your salvation. They are screw-ups. Trust the maker of the universe.
Now that we’ve surveyed the basic assertions of the text, it’s time to look at the larger message of the Psalm. In a way that might be initially hidden to us, but would be very clear to this Psalm’s first readers, this text contains an enormous indictment. Summarize it this way: Humanity cannot save because man’s sin is the source of all these problems.
Even though the text does not mention it explicitly (it explicitly mentions death as the problem), there are plenty of clues that humanity’s sin the culprit. The language of our psalm contains several echoes of the failure at the Garden of Eden; several of the lines in this psalm rhyme with Genesis 1–3. And read with this in mind, the psalm is a powerful indictment of humanity’s failure. Let’s go hunting for clues and then we’ll conclude our chapel time by sitting down in our thinking chair and think, think, think.
I see the first clue in verse 3, in the phrase “a son of man.” It’s the Hebrew word, “Adam.” It’s not an uncommon word, so finding it here is not a great clue by itself, and so we’ve got to keep looking. But we don’t have to search long before we come to verse 4: “when his breath departs [here comes the back half of our clue] he returns to the earth.” The Hebrew word translated “earth” there, you probably already know, also contains the name Adam. (Or perhaps Adam’s name contains the word “earth.” As my seminary professor used to say, “God wanted to emphasize our connection to the earth, so he said our name is dirt. If this is true, then the most theologically accurate name you could ever give your child is ‘Clay.’ Or ‘Dusty.’ If you have a girl, try ‘Sandy.’”  And even if you don’t know Hebrew—maybe you’re a lowly worship pastor concentrate—you can hear the echo of Genesis 3:19, where God says to Adam, “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
But there are even more clues. Let’s go back to that second assertion in our text from verses 5–10. Implied in the description of God’s saving activity is the indictment of humanity. God gave Adam a job to do, and Adam failed. Eight examples of this in a row. And in fact it gets worse. The job that Adam didn’t do was also the job that the nation of Israel was assigned but failed.
First, verse 6c. The God of Jacob “keeps faith forever.” But this was supposed to be Adam’s job. This exact Hebrew verb, translated here “keeps,” is used in Genesis 2:15 when God creates Adam to “keep” or guard the Garden. But when Adam failed to keep the Garden, God sent a cherubim to (same Hebrew word) “keep” the garden instead (Gen 3:24). This was also the job of the nation of Israel. They were assigned (Ex 19:5) to “keep” the covenant with God and they failed. Here’s the indictment: Humans should, but don’t, keep faith forever. Don’t put your trust in a son of man.
Second, verse 7a. God “executes justice.” But this was supposed to be Adam’s job. This term is used in Genesis 3:13, when God asks Eve, “What is this that you have done?” or literally, what have you executed? Instead of making justice, Adam and Eve used fig leaves to make (again, same Hebrew word) loincloths to hide themselves. This was also the job of the nation of Israel, “Thus says the Lord (Jer 22:3): Do justice [execute justice] and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed.” Here’s the indictment: Put not your trust in princes; they never do justice. And even today, how can we do justice when our actions are tainted with injustice?
Third, verse 7b. God “gives food.” It’s another indictment from the Garden. This was supposed to be Adam’s job. Instead feeding the world from the abundantly fruitful garden, Genesis 3:6 tells us, in the garden, Adam took food from Eve—the forbidden fruit. This was also the job of the nation of Israel. “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat” (Pr 25:21) but they failed (Is 58:7). Here’s the indictment: looking for food? Put not your trust in a son of man. He has failed.
Fourth, verse 8a. The Lord “sets the prisoner free.” But it is Adam’s fault that any prisoners even exist. And so the nation of Israel was commanded “to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free” (Is 58:6). And even now, we are “captive to the law of sin that dwells in our members” (Rom 7:23). Here’s the indictment: Put not your trust in a son of man, for how can we loose the bonds of wickedness on others when our own hands are wicked?
Fifth, verse 8a: “The Lord opens the eyes of the blind.” But it is Adam’s fault that blindness even exists. Adam and Eve ate the fruit, and in one sense “they eyes of both were opened” (Gen 3:7), but in a second more accurate sense, they lost their view of God and became “so nearsighted that [they are] blind” (2 Pe 1:9). And so the nation of Israel was told “cursed be anyone who misleads a blind man on the road” (Deut 27:18). Here’s the indictment: put not your trust in a son of man, for how we help blind people when we ourselves are blind?
Sixth, verse 8b: “The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down.” But it is Adam’s fault that humanity is bowed down. Similarly, the nation of Israel is bowed down to idols in Judges chapter 2 literally four verses after Joshua is buried. And like Peter, we fall “down at Jesus’ knees, saying ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord’” (Luke 5:8). Here’s the indictment: put not your trust in a son of man, for how can we raise up others when we ourselves are bowed down?
Seventh, verse 9a: “The Lord watches over the sojourner.” But it is Adam’s fault that he was driven out of the garden became the very first sojourner (Gen 3:23–24). And the nation of Israel was called to “Love the sojourner” (Deut 10:19), but failed (Jer 7:6). Here’s the indictment: put not your trust in a son of man, for where can we find resources to love the sojourner when we ourselves are sojourning?
Eighth, verse 9b: The Lord “upholds the widow and the fatherless.” But it is Adam’s fault that death entered the world and created widows and orphans. And the nation of Israel was called to “bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Is 1:17) but failed (Is 1:23). Here’s the indictment: Put not your trust in a son of man, for how can we uphold widows and orphans when, the apostle Paul tells us, we are children of wrath, like the rest of mankind (Eph 2:3). Verse 9 of our psalm ends with these words: “the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.” That is terrible news — for wicked people like us — who are children of wrath.
But wait, you say, your AWANA-trained minds flashing error messages. Those last two New Testament quotes weren’t quite right. And the entire answer begins to reveal itself. The apostle Paul said that we were children of wrath.
Where Adam did not obey God and failed, where God’s people, Israel, could not obey God and failed, the Lord Jesus Christ has succeeded. Salvation belongs to the Lord. Let’s get through the entire psalm and use verse 10 as our trampoline: “The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the Lord!” The title of the message is “There and Back Again.” Let’s work our way through the psalm backwards to show how the “sad things become untrue” and how cross undoes the effects of sin.
It is true that Adam’s deadly failure created widows and orphans. And so at the cross, Christ was abandoned—orphaned—by his Father so that we might be received as sons and daughters of God. And now, through Jesus’ resurrection victory, we are no longer indicted orphan makers, but joyful as Ephesians 5:1 says that we imitate God as beloved children.
And true, Adam’s deadly failure created sojourners who were exiled out of the Garden, out of God’s presence. But at the cross, Jesus sojourned outside the city, and now his resurrection victory keeps us from stumbling and presents us blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy (Jude 24). We are no longer indicted, but joyful as He brings us into the presence of God with the words of Hebrews 2:13: “Behold, I and the children God has given me.”
True, Adam’s deadly failure bowed down humanity’s fate. But at the cross, Jesus bowed his head so that, with his resurrection victory, our heads might be lifted up. True, Adam’s deadly failure blinded the eyes of humanity. But at the cross, Jesus closed his eyes in death so that we “may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple” (Ps 27:4). So we are no longer indicted with shame and blindness, but we are joyfully seeing and worshiping our risen King.
True, Adam’s deadly failure made humanity prisoners, “captive to the law of sin.” But at the cross, Jesus surrendered to hell’s worst so that, through his resurrection victory, we might be freed to attain heaven’s best. So we are no longer indicted imprisoners, but joyfully free. And if the Son has set you free, you are free indeed.
True, Adam’s deadly failure led to a hunger and thirst that could never be satisfied. But at the cross, Jesus was thirsty (Matt 27:34) for us. And now, because of his resurrection victory, “out of [our hearts] will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38). Because Jesus is “the bread of life; whoever comes to [him] shall not hunger, and whoever believes in [him] shall never thirst” (John 6:35). We are no longer indicted as hunger causing rebels, we joyfully look to the day when we “shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore” (Rev 7:16).
True, Adam’s deadly failure executed injustice instead of justice. And so infinite punishment was due, and at the cross, infinite punishment was endured. Christ endured all anguish and was punished like an criminal. Now, because of his resurrection victory, we can know every joy and be welcomed as a friend. We are no longer indicted by our own unjust works, but we joyfully receive the benefit of his perfect work imputed to us.
True, Adam’s deadly failure to keep the garden and to keep faith and trust God led to his exile and cherubim guarding Eden. And so, at the cross, Jesus kept entrusting himself to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23). Now instead of being indicted as a covenant breaker, we joyfully believe that “the God of peace himself will sanctify us completely … [and keep us] blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess 5:23).
When his breath departed, Christ returned to the earth. But—you’ve got to get this part—on that very day, God’s plans DID. NOT. PERISH. “Put not your trust in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.” Instead, Bethlehem College & Seminary, put your trust in the son of man. He came to seek and to save the lost. “Put not your trust in princes.” Instead, my friend, put your trust in the prince of peace.
And now, we have eternal life. Adam’s deadly failure resulted in his death and ours. But Christ’s resurrection victory means our resurrection as well. It gives new meaning to the beginning of our Psalm, doesn’t it? Verse 2: “I will bless the Lord as long as I live. “If anyone keeps [Christ’s] word, he will never see death” (John 8:51). I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.”
Indeed, let us end with the beginning: “Bless the Lord. Bless the Lord, O my soul.”