The Providential Love of God: Reflections on Psalm 107
Psalm 107 is a song celebrating the steadfast love of the LORD: “Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” This love is experienced by God’s people after a particular historical pattern; one that deserves some reflection if for no other reason than the corrective it provides to the banal triumphalism that pervades so much of American evangelical celebration of the love of God in song.
Psalm 107 forms the final part of what was originally read as a kind of three-part epic, rehearsing the Israelite history from Exodus through Exile. The phrase in verse 3—“[whom he has] gathered in from the lands”—notably answers the previous psalm 106:47: “Save us, O Lord our God, and gather us from among the nations…,” indicating that the two are supposed to be read sequentially. Psalm 106, similarly, follows on from Psalm 105. After rehearsing the salvation of the LORD in the exodus event, 105:44 declares that God gave them the lands of the nations, “that they might keep his statutes.” Psalm 106 opens menacingly: “Remember me, O LORD, when you show favor to your people… Both we and our fathers have sinned.” (vv. 5-6).
Together, then, these three psalms form a trilogy, describing the Jews’ liberation from Egypt and entrance into their promised land (Ps. 105); the Jews’ rebellion and exile from their land (Ps. 106); and God’s covenant love and rescue of his people from exile (Ps. 107). This trilogy provides the Christian a wonderful place to mentally camp-out, as it were, and contemplate the history of God’s salvific work amongst his people; for it is our history as well.
The Sovereign Love of God
In order to set the backdrop against which the love of God comes to the fore, the majority of Psalm 107 (vv. 4-32) is taken up with the various ways the exiled people experienced their exile.
“Some wandered in deserts wastes, finding no city to dwell in” (v. 4) These wanderers, precisely because of their wandering, were unable to meet their basic needs. Cities emerged in large part in response to the harshness and unpredictability of the wilds. There were places where people gathered together and worked together to stave off the wilds, the dangers, the deprivations of the wilderness. To make it on one’s own as a wanderer, a pioneer, was most difficult, and most simply could not.
These wanderers had no city, no community. They suffered the deprivation of those basic necessities of life to such a degree that they were ready to give up, to let death make its final mark on their sinewy bodies. “Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, And he delivered them from the distress” (v. 6).
The Lord’s delivery led them to a city, a refuge, a place of safety and abundance. They had longed in their souls, and God had satisfied them. “For he satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things” (v. 9). And so, “let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love” (v. 8). Hospitably, God gathers in the wanderers and nourishes their desperate souls.
“Some sat in darkness and in the shadow of death, prisoners in affliction and in irons…” (v. 10). These prisoners were not unjustly condemned. They had rebelled against God, they had “spurned the counsel of the Most High” (v. 11). For this reason they were punished with prison camps. They were made to work hard labor, the psalm says; their hearts were bowed low (v. 12).
Their rebellion against God was an indication that they had elevated themselves in pride. The Lord justly brings the proud low. In their low estate, burdened, and pressed, “they cried out to the LORD, and he delivered them from their distress… for he shatters the doors of bronze and cuts in two the bars of iron” (v. 13, 16). And so, “Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love” (v. 15). In mercy God sets the prisoner free.
“Some were fools through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities they suffered affliction,” or rather, “sickness” (v. 17). Their bodies were so plagued that “they loathed any kind of food, they drew near to the gates of death” (v. 18) As with the prisoners, these too were not innocently suffering. They had indulged the sinful flesh. So here we find them near the end of the road they had chosen, physically decrepit, drooping, broken.
Yet in the midst of their physically vulnerable state, “they cried out to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from their destruction” (vv. 19-20). Having spurned the word of the Lord for the fancies of the flesh, they are now healed by that word they spurned, the words which “are life to those who find them, and healing to all their flesh,” (Prov. 4:22). They now take their proper place under the instruction of the Lord. And so, “Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works among the children of men!” (v. 21). Compassionately, God restores the sick back to health; with wisdom he instructs the simple.
“Some went down to the sea in ships…” (v. 22). These people would seem to have been much better off than the previous groups. They were going busily about their economic enterprise. Apparently, they were intent on simply getting on with life. They would make lemonade out the lemons given to them in the exile. But God is too jealous to let his people serve mammon; he is too loving to let them make an idol of money. Like Jonah, these people took to the ships to get on with life without God; and like Jonah, they found that even “in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me…” (Ps. 139:9-10).
God stirred the sea with a finger. A tempest arose. Waves so high, that when atop the crest one felt as if the very heavens themselves could be touched; and so low, that having descended to the trough, one felt as if in the very depths of the earth (v. 26). The tossing and turning of the sea had the sailors “staggering about” like drunken men (v. 27). They lost all courage; they were at their wits’ end. “Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress” (v. 28). “He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed…and he brought them to their desired haven” (v. 30). And so, “Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love…” (vv. 31). With great might God brings the endangered to safety.
The Sovereign Love of God, part II
The pattern that emerges in Psalm 107, then, is this: calamity –> cry –> salvation –> thanksgiving. What is important to notice is the primary agent standing over, underneath, and throughout that pattern: the LORD. “I form light and I create darkness; I make well-being and I create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things” (Is. 45:7).
There is a theological time and place to ask about how we should understand this and speak of it so that we don’t end up attributing evil to God; a blasphemous thing which ought not be done. But the more immediate point drawn from psalm 107 is this: The LORD’s love is a providential love by which he directs the affairs of humanity. He will not allow the human bent toward self-destruction to have its final way, and so in his love he directs men and women back towards him—even if by way of the purgatorial path.
He turns rivers into a desert,
springs of water into thirsty ground,
a fruitful land into a salty waste
because of the evil of its inhabitants. (vv. 33-34)
Such can be our destructive bent, our rebellion, that we refuse to listen while there remains even the slightest prospect of making it on our own. While we have rivers in life, we think ourselves quite capable of sustaining our own needs. And even when these begin to dry, we turn to our own stagnant cisterns. God often must make our rivers dry as dust. So long as our life’s vineyards are producing, we fancy ourselves able to make a go of it. God often must remove our vineyard’s hedge, and break down its walls. He allows the vineyard to be trampled upon. He will waste it away so that nothing grows; a salty wasteland.
God does this, to use the metaphor of C. S. Lewis, so that we don’t go on making mud pies in our slum and miss out on the holiday at sea. We are led by these various trials to cry out to God, to return to him. And then we find,
He turns a desert in to pools of water,
a parched land into springs of water.
And there he lets the hungry dwell,
And they establish a city to live in;
they sow fields and plant vineyards and get a fruitful yield.
By his blessing they multiply greatly,
And he does not let their livestock diminish. (vv.35-38).