Psalm 36:7 “How priceless is your unfailing love!”
We see in this psalm two very different expressions of the hearts of man, two descriptions of very different kinds of people. We have a typical man of the world in the first four verses, a man who has no fear of God whatsoever. He never gives God the time of day. He doesn’t spare God a thought while flattering himself on how mature, competent and wise he is. He cannot detect his own hypocrisy and deficiencies. He is modern man; man come of age. When he relaxes with a glass of his favourite wine, then his thoughts confirm what a successful man he is, how fulfilling his life is without God. He’s made some money and can make more, and he is devising schemes that will make him richer than he is already. In fact he plots evil (v.4).
Then suddenly in the fifth verse the picture changes completely and we have an insight into the thinking of a person who knows the living God. He is a righteous man and here we are told how this man’s mind gravitates when he relaxes and he has nothing in particular to think about. He thinks of God’s love and faithfulness and righteousness and justice and providence, but especially of his unfailing love (v.7). His eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, the Messiah, and he treasures every thought about him, how he spreads his wings and bids sinners come to him and take refuge in the shadow of the Almighty. What wonderful perfections his God has, what a righteous, loving and beautiful character is his. He can drink from the rivers of his delights; the Lord has the fountain of life, and in God’s light we see light.
So we are being challenged as to what we think about when we relax. When we have some spare time, then how does our mind operate? To what does it gravitate? Maybe we are working in the garden by ourselves, or we are on a familiar road driving the car, or we are awake at night. What worthy and helpful thoughts do we have? Do our minds habitually turn in moments of relaxation to the grandeur of God and to his promises, that he is with us and he’ll never forsake us, that he is working all things for our good, that he is supplying all our need, that he is making all grace abound towards us – this very week and in the year or years ahead because he has loved us from before the foundation of the world? Can we let our thoughts off the leash and let them run ahead of us and as we follow them they take us to God? It is a familiar thing to speak of the sheepdogs of the good shepherd in Psalm 23, that they are called Goodness and Mercy. They lead us all the days of our lives; by their influence we know we will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. Do they invariably take us there? Are we conscious of them when we’re all alone? My mother would say to me, “Think nice thoughts!” Does God often help us to do that?
So the psalmist here looks in pity on this poor sinner described in the opening verse. He has no God, think of it! While the psalmist’s Lord is glorious in his perfections, his mercy, faithfulness, righteousness and justice. Let me turn to this one perfection referred to in verse seven, the unfailing love or the loving-kindness of God. He says that it is beyond price. You cannot purchase it. You can only receive it as a mind-blowing gift of God. Let us now seek to understand, appreciate and apply this attribute of God to ourselves. Let’s begin by trying to comprehend this word.
1. WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THE ‘LOVING-KINDNESS OF GOD’?
This word in Hebrew is hesed, and it is one of the most distinctive and special words of the Old Testament and finding an exact equivalent for it is virtually impossible. There is no single word in English that can translate it, and no other parallel word in Hebrew that can do justice to the complexity and richness of this particular idea. It is becoming a popular middle name for boys and girls in America, such as John ‘Hesed’ Wayne or Grace ‘Hesed’ Kelly. I think it is easier to describe the distinctive Welsh word, hiraeth. That word means a longing to be in the place and with the people that we love very much, experiencing all the happiness of the background that is associated with those memories. Hiraeth is more poignant and full of affection than our English word ‘homesickness’ though that would be the best translation. So it is with this word hesed; the N.I.V. here translated it in our text as ‘unfailing love’ while the Authorized Version translates it as ‘loving kindness.’ I think that there are at least eight different English words used to translate it in the Bible. But the vocabulary of the English language is eight times greater than that of the Hebrew language. First I want to select three great elements of the loving-kindness of the Lord. I hope that each one will cast its own light on this perfection of the living God.
i] The loving kindness of God contains the element of the divine mercy. In God there is incredible clemency and forgiveness. We find the same word in verse 5 but there the N.I.V. has translated it by ‘love.’ “Your love O Lord, reaches to the sky” but in the Authorized Version it is translated by the word ‘mercy.’ It is reminding us of one of the principles by which God deals with men. He deals with them in terms of his pity and clemency. Mercy is the way that we deal with those who have wronged us and have no claim upon us whatsoever. They have hurt us and abused us. They have forfeited their right to be ignored. They have offended the law; they are criminals and there is no excuse for what they’ve done. They don’t have a word of defence for their actions. They are guilty.
Now you know that that is our status before God. The whole world lies guilty before God. That is the plight unbelieving and unrepentant men and women are in right now before their Creator. That is their status as a race and it is their condition individually and personally, but the loving kindness of God declares that he has never allowed the fact of what men deserve to regulate and determine the way that God deals with them. God deals with them in a way that is utterly different from what an observer might expect – someone who knew the cause of such pain and offence.
At that moment when our first parents fell God refused to allow their guilt and rebellion to determine that strict justice was going to be the way that he would deal with them and their seed from that moment on. Similarly in the whole history of Israel from the time of the judges through to the history of the kings of Israel and Judah we are confronted with a history of rebellion, idolatry, ingratitude and apostasy, but God refuses to deal with that nation in terms of righteousness alone. The psalmist tells them, “Let Israel wait on the Lord for with the Lord there is mercy.”
We see the same thing in David’s own experience. What a pathetic, wretched, evil man. What barbarity, lust and murder, and in a year his conscience is burdened with the enormity of his own guilt, his carnality, cruelty and selfishness – as the king of the nation and as the author of the 23rd psalm. Yet this man does not say, “I cannot believe that there is any hope for someone like me.” He dares to go to God and he dares to ask God for forgiveness. He is saying to God, “Don’t let the heinous way I’ve behaved determine the way you are going to deal with me. Don’t let the actions of the past year define my state for ever.” David is so conscious on the one hand of what he deserves and yet he casts himself on the measureless mercy of God, because that mercy can deal with him in a way that is not at all determined by what he deserves.
We can go one step further in speaking of the vastness of God’s mercy. Men took the Son of God and they laid him out naked on a cross and they drove great nails through his hands and feet and lifted him up to die, and on the cross he opened his mouth and spoke. He did not address them. He prayed to his Father in heaven for them and he said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” What mercy! God forgiving criminals for killing his beloved Son in this terrible way. Jesus knowing that he could never pray to God in vain, pleading for the divine mercy for those who had inflicted such cruelty on him.
And surely, all of us as we gather today with our own record and our stark pasts, so unchangeable, and irrevocable, and irremediable, we think, “Can there be any hope of pardon for us?” Maybe, some of you think that for those who have subsequently lived proper and caring lives, that they have compensated for their wickedness by goodness, that for them they have balanced the scales and so there might be mercy. But here is hanging next to Jesus a dying criminal who frankly confesses that his crucifixion was a deserved punishment for his monstrous crimes, and yet he dares to cry to Jesus asking that he will remember him when he comes in his kingdom. Christ doesn’t say, “You’ll be lucky! What you have sown is now what you’re reaping.” In fact he told him, “I won’t forget you. Today you will be with me in paradise.” There is hope in our God, hope of the divine clemency, and hope of a mercy that is higher than the heavens. Hope for the vilest offender, the very worst, if he cries to the Divine Mercy will receive divine mercy. Think of the father of the prodigal son, and the legs of mercy that run to him, and the arms of mercy that reach out to him, and the voice of mercy that calls him his son, and the kisses of mercy that show his love, and the command of mercy that calls for the clothes of sonship, and the slaying of the fatted calf at his joy that this waster has come back, come back not to reproaches and coldness but to the warmth of a father’s mercy.
ii] The loving kindness of the Lord also contains the element of fidelity and loyalty. You will find in many modern translations the word “steadfast love” because the translators know that the basic meaning of hesed is loyalty. The word that underlies the English word is usually found in the context of a covenant, it is God plighting his troth to men. If two men made a covenant there was a contract. There was a bond, a treaty between two nations, or a solemn pledge between two men, or between a husband and wife plighting their troth, or two commercial parties. When the terms of the covenant were kept then those keeping it were showing loving kindness or steadfast loyalty.
Or you can put it this way, it is loyalty to a particular relationship, whatever the relationship might be. If a husband is loyal to his wife then that is hesed. If a brother is loyal to his brother then again that is hesed. If a nation is faithful to its treaty obligations then again that is hesed. It is fidelity and loyalty in particular relationships. Now we can bring the whole of that idea very, very clearly into our theology, because God stands in covenant with mankind. He is the predictable God; he has made specific promises; he has given definite undertakings and the great comfort in the word is that our God will be loyal. He will be loyal to all these promises; he will be faithful to all those undertakings; he will be steadfast in every relationship in which he stands.
If I go back into the Old Testament there is God’s covenant with Noah. God said to Noah that while the earth remained there would be seed time and harvest, summer and winter, and day and night. There should never again come a calamity of the dimensions of the flood, and that covenant the Lord has made with every man and with the whole creation. To that covenant God will be faithful.
You take again God’s covenant with Abraham. There is a promise and there is a relationship and to that covenant again God is faithful. Take – above all – God’s covenant with Israel on Mount Sinai and take it through all its vicissitudes and all the people’s unfaithfulness, and the apostasy of the nation, and yet Jehovah remains loyal, even in the midst of Israel’s infidelity. Do you remember in the book of Hosea where the unfaithfulness of the people of God is made so constantly plain and clear? The prophet Hosea is required to live faithfully and loyally with his own adulterous wife. In the prophecy God is driving home the message not only of Israel’s infidelity but the message of God’s own loving kindness, right through that faithless wife’s behaviour. Hosea stands in his vulnerability before the people, the disaster of his marriage known to them all, and he is pleading with them, “Can’t you see the loving kindness of God? Whatever Israel has done, however unfaithful she has been, our God remains faithful. He cannot deny himself.”
You can take it back right into our individual life and our personal relation with God. There is a divine commitment; there is a loyalty between God and his people, a covenant love that transcends any love we can show in this life and in our relationships, more than a father loves his son, more than a husband’s loyalty to his husband, more than a mother’s devotion to his children. There is God’s fidelity to his own church, to his own people. Israel goes a whoring after the Baals and idols in its rebellion and repudiation of the covenant, and yet God continues to hold on to her with strong love. “How can I let you go?” he cries to them.
That doesn’t mean that God is indifferent to the way that we behave or to the way the church lives, but it means that even God’s correction of his people, his rebuking and chastising them, and his discipline is a discipline within the covenant. It is a discipline of loyalty; it is the discipline of somebody who is so committed that he will never, no never, no never forsake her. He will never disown her. He will never repudiate her. The moment we enter into faith in Christ, that moment we stand in covenant with God, and in that moment there is the divine promise made over to us. It is applied to us and sealed to us and it becomes firm and irresistible from that moment onwards. “Though my father and my mother may forsake me yet the Lord will not forsake me” because of his covenant loyalty. Life nor death, things present nor things to come, height nor depth nor any other creature shall be able to separate me from the love of God that passes knowledge. No matter what pressure they bring upon me, no matter how deep the fall and how long the time when I’m virtually living divorced from God, the Lord is not going to cast me off. The Lord is merciful; the Lord is loyal to what he promises.
iii] The loving kindness of the Lord also contains the element of kindness – of course. The very word focuses on that – a loving . . . kindness. There is mercy, and there is loyalty but there is also the kindness of patience, and generosity, and benevolence. And the measure of that kindness is that it is from the Almighty God who is infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his kindness, a kindness such as only love can show, and such as only Jehovah can show. There is built into this marvelous word the whole idea of God’s love for those with whom he is in covenant, for those whose God he is, for those that know him, and for those who follow him. The glory of the deep, deep love of Jesus focuses on them. The kindness of which they are the recipients flows to them from the headwaters in glory of the divine love; it’s that kind of love and that kind love. The love of God is kindness; it is the love of family affection, but above all it is the love of God’s passionate devotion and wholehearted commitment to his people and to every single one of his own people, and flowing out of that there is deep, deep kindness, the sort of kindness that only the strongest love can display.
Not only that, but the kindness of this love is wedded to such power. God’s kindness is his loving omnipotence unfailingly shown to his people. Remember in Ephesians 5 we have the marvelous picture of Christ’s love for his church, and we are told there that he “nourishes and cherishes” his bride. And that is what loving-kindness does. It is the bond and ethos of his marriage contract with the people of God. You hear of people who tell us plainly that they are committed to one marriage for life, and would not consider a divorce under any circumstances, and yet all the affection has gone out of that marriage. It is a marriage in name only. It is never like that with God. He is married to us, yes, but that is not a mere formal marriage. He displays perpetual loving kindness to his bride. He is daily nourishing us and constantly cherishing us at every point in our lives and at every turn of the providences that meet us. This reality will always regulate his relationship with us; this kindness will always control all that God does for us and in us. God is even now positively nourishing and cherishing his people. God is at this moment blessing them with every spiritual blessing in Christ Jesus. This kindness of God is determined to supply us with all we need. He has made up his mind.
Or we can put it in slightly different terms; he will do for us “exceeding abundantly above all that we are able to ask or even to think.” The apostle is building extravagance upon extravagance in an endeavour to try to enlarge our understanding and give some due impression of the extraordinary kindness of God. At last it comes to this, that it is a love that gave himself for us. It is the Lord Jesus Christ himself who is the measure of God’s kindness to us. God did not spare his own Son but he delivered him for us all. Christ himself is the measure of that sublime sacrifice; he is the measure of the lengths to which that love will go; he is the measure of what being kind means to God.
Of course it has immense repercussions for us who are the body of Christ, in the demands it makes for the people of God. “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love” (Ephs. 5:1). We are to be characterized by the divine kindness, kindness to our families, kindness to others in the congregation, and kindness to our neighbours. Peter has an exhortation in the early verses of his second letter in which he tells his readers to be sure they are adding one virtue after another to their lives, and one of those graces is brotherly kindness. In your whole life make sure you are adding to your life kindness, imaginative deeds of love and patience and thoughtfulness. Derek Swann heard a preacher often and with profit, and what he noticed about him was that always as he addressed God in prayer he began in this way, “Kind and loving heavenly Father.” Finally one day Derek asked him why he always spoke of the kindness of God like that. He told Derek that he had been in another church as the minister, and that church was possessed with a bitter spirit. There was backbiting and criticism. No fall or mistake was allowed to occur without someone commenting on it, and the atmosphere in the church was fragile and tense, everyone watching their backs. How differently God had acted towards them, and when this preacher was called to this other church where he now served he was determined not to give an inch to such a spirit so he confronted the people each Sunday with the kindness of God. Be imitators of God! So I have spoken to you about God’s loving kindness as containing three principal elements, the divine mercy, the divine loyalty and the divine kindness.
2. HOW THAT LOVING KINDNESS IS DISPLAYED.
i] It is immeasurable loving kindness. The BeeGees would sing, “How deep is your love?” and King David could answer them by telling them that the question is not the depth of God’s loving kindness so much as its height. How high is your love? Higher than Snowdon? Yes. Higher than Mont Blanc? Yes. Higher than Everest? Yes, because it “reaches to the heavens” (v.5). How high is that? Beyond any ability we have to grasp. It is as high as you can see, and then some; it reaches to the stars in remotest space, and then some. Here we live in the depths and from the heights of glory there’s trained on us the loving kindness of God. As it homed in on Lot, and Jacob, and David, and the prodigal son, and the apostle Paul and then it even homed in on us. That love comes down and down to sinking sands and it has lifted us, to the fearful pit and the miry clay and it has lifted us, with tender hands it’s lifted us up and up to the heavenlies. To what lengths will God go to lift us up, not sparing anything in the enterprise, not even his very Son. Man to man we have no experience of such loving kindness. We don’t know in our own souls this kind of mercy. I cannot say to you that there exists on this planet such a man or a woman who is capable of bestowing such extraordinary blessedness on those who little deserve it. It is uniquely divine; it is the immeasurable loving kindness of God.
ii] It is priceless loving kindness. He says in our text, “How priceless is your unfailing love” (v.7). He is pouring over in his mind what are the things that really matter. What is the thing that is supremely important? Of what can he say, “This one thing I do?” Where is the pearl of great price that I’ll sell all I have to possess? Where is there in this world something I could attach myself to, for which I could lay down my life? What is worthy of all my loyalty and total commitment? He will tell us; “How priceless to be loved by God’s unfailing love!” How precious is God himself, and that he loves as he does love, and that he loves me! Does everyone see it that way? That most sublime reality in all the universe is this, that God’s loving kindness surrounds us on every side. That is what our tongue singles out as the single most important factor under the heavens and in all the earth. There is nothing that is as priceless as God’s unfailing love for his children.
iii] It is a sheltering loving kindness. King David gives us a reason for this claim, that it protects us from anything more base, that we become convinced that everything else is unworthy of our souls and lives and all we have and are. David asserts that there is just one safe place in all the world, and that is “finding refuge in the shadow of your wings” (v.7). Those that would destroy us can’t touch us there, and the wonderful thing about it is that there’s no entry fee to that safe place. It is accessed without money and without price! Who may find refuge in the loving kindness of the Lord? We are told that whosoever will may come and find this refuge. How does he describe them here? “Both high and low among men” (v.7). The peasant woman who is rice planting in China, the banker on Wall Street, the Kikuyu subsistence farmer and the army chief of staff. Come high and low and find refuge in the loving kindness of God! You are all invited to come under the shadow of his wings; this loving kindness is offered to you.
This world is full of pressure, stress, peril, danger and the stuff we can hardly cope with. Soon we come to the end of our tethers. What then do we do? Where then will we go? So many seek refuge in a world of make believe, in fantasy, in entertainment and pleasure in which we anaesthetize our souls – not that I quarrel with pleasure, but I do quarrel with it as an anaesthetic, and as a solution to the pain of meaningless and purposeless living. Pleasure is made out to be the solution to this kind of problem. Or perhaps we simply collapse and give up, and try to cope with life by our wits and character, or we stand and cry at fate to do its worse. Or you can do this, “Find refuge in the shadow of his wings” (v.7). You go to God for the energy to endure the problems of life; you go to God for the strength to be contented and make melody in our hearts. Go and find refuge close to him, so close you’re actually in his shadow, and why do we do it? We do it because of his loving kindness. We don’t do it because we deserve it; we don’t do it because we feel worthy; we don’t do it because we’ve had the second blessing. Why do men go to God? Because he is there, and because he is a God of loving kindness.
Are you prepared to say, “I’m a very ordinary person. I’ve never had a mountain top experience. I’ve often tried to get special conviction of sin, but failed. I’ve often tried to stir up a genuine interest in religious things, but failed. I have tried to make myself better, more qualified to receive the grace fo God, but I never succeed. I have said that if I could get only a glimpse of God then what blessings would be mine but I have never had it.
“I am the most ordinary person here today. And at times it gets me down that I am so ordinary. I am fed up with being ordinary and I’m disappointed at being ordinary, but I am going to come to take refuge in Jesus Christ, and find shelter in the shadow of his wings because the word tells me that both high and low among men have already found refuge there. People who have found difficulty in coping with life can find refuge there, and those who want to cope better can come there to. They have heard of his mercy. They have heard that he is a God who doesn’t deal with people as they deserve. They come because of God’s loyalty and commitment to such words as the words before us today.
In our experience the world has too many people who let you down. It is full of broken relationships and broken promises, of abandonments and renuniciations, of broken reeds and broken hearts, and from all of that we have turned and come to the God of loving kindness because we’ve heard he never abandons men, and he never lets men down, and he never breaks his promises. He is a God of steadfast love and covenant loyalty and above all of generosity. He forgives sinners; He gives them new hearts. He clothes them with the righteousness of Christ, he preserves them, He helps them. He keeps them. He blesses them with every spiritual blessing. He is a God who does more for his people than ever they do for him and he does more than they ever think. He even has given his only-begotten Son to be their Saviour, and given his Spirit to indwell them. So we have come to find refuge in the shadow of his wings.
You remember what a mess of his life David made so that all he could say to God was, “Lord, cover it. I never want it mentioned. I never want it talked about. I don’t want it brought back. I want it left there in the depths.” So the king comes to the King of kings and he says to him, “According to your loving kindness O God have mercy upon me.” Because of your generosity O Lord, forgive me.
I want to tell you that God heard his cry, that out there, I tell you, there is a heart so tender, a heart so loyal, a heart so generous and forgiving that the person in this congregation today whose life is in the biggest shambles conceivable may go to God and ask him to cover it and bless it with his own loving kindness. You may go to God and expect God to be loyal to every promise he has made.
And my problem in speaking of that love of God to you is that some of you are more concerned about the pubs you will be missing if you trust in Christ, and the dances you will no longer be able to attend if you trust in God. You are afraid of being saved because you think that being saved means no longer going to clubs, and that worries you far more than losing out on the love of God and experiencing a lost eternity. You are scared of something that is unreal, that will prove to be some fit of emotion. You are afraid of embarrassment, and of making a fool of yourselves.
There are others of you who are anxious to get right with God, but you want to make yourselves special first. You dare not come to God ordinary; you want to come to God prepared; you want to come special. But everyone I know who’s come to God has come kneeling before him and asking him to forgive the way they’ve been and the way they are, feeling they are very unqualified to be Christians, and wishing they were more sincere and that they had more conviction and more faith, and more desire for God. But when you come to God you come terribly unprepared. You have to come ordinary to God. Well, let’s come ordinary, as ordinary sinners, who want just an ordinary conversion, and become ordinary Christian disciples.
What do ordinary men and women do? They find refuge under the shadow of his wings. “I need your protection O Lord,” they cry. And what do they ask from God after that? Do you know that there is just one request here, just one solitary petition in this entire psalm, and it is this in verse 10, “Continue your love to those who know you.” In other words, “Go on loving us! Give us more of the same!” Please don’t stop loving me, not for a minute, not for an hour, not for a day. Go on loving me. Go on protecting me. Go on keeping me. Alone I can’t keep going in the Christian life, loving you with all my heart and loving my neighbour as myself. I can’t live like that. Come to me in all your loving kindness and continue your love to me, and to all those who know you. Help us all by your loving kindness. It is better than life. “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light” (v.9). Let me drink of the fountain of your loving kindness all the days of my life and see its glorious shining light by the light you have given to me in the book of Psalms of your loving kindness.
31st August 2014 GEOFF THOMAS