I have thought a lot about what I would like to share with you as we approach the holiday season.
I am sure we all know someone or have even had a dear friend contract COVID-19, and maybe some of us have even lost friends and relatives due to complications from the virus.
I could tell you about all the churches the Chosen People Ministries staff did not visit in the last nine months or the evangelistic campaigns we never held. I could share about people we were unable to visit in person and Bible studies and services either never held or held online.
I could complain about how hard it was for me to stay home and not fly the usual 100,000-plus miles I have traveled annually for the last twenty years!
But this time has also been a blessing in disguise!
I really have enjoyed spending more time with my wife, and I have been able to write articles, study more, and spend time with our beloved staff on Zoom—maybe more than ever before! We have had thousands—and I mean thousands—of Jewish people engage with us online throughout this period, and we have had some great opportunities to share the gospel. Our services and Bible studies have all grown, and we served more than 20,000 people through our online high holiday services. I am amazed at His power and faithfulness.
We have also seen a new openness among very religious Jewish people, and we are regularly speaking with a number of these very devoted sons and daughters of Abraham about Jesus.
I am sure we have all done our best to find godly ways to get through this season. We have also probably asked the question, “Why, oh Lord?” a number of times. There is nothing wrong with asking! In fact, the Bible even gives us answers and sound advice for moving through difficult seasons. Yet, in our heart of hearts, we know we should trust God and look for biblical answers to our hearts’ deepest questions.
Throughout Scripture, we see many others who endured hardship and found a way not only to survive but thrive. My favorite place to look for help in tough times is in the Psalms. Today, I want to reflect upon one of my favorites, Psalm 118, and see if we can discover some truths that will help us along the way.
So, let us take a quick look at Psalm 118, which is best known for the great Messianic prophecy in verses 22–23: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief corner stone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.”
This passage is quoted four times in the New Testament (Acts 4:11; Romans 9:33; 1 Peter 2:7, Matthew 21:42) and in one way or another, applied to Jesus, who is the chief cornerstone of our life and faith. But there is a lot more to this great psalm.
Psalm 118 is one of the psalms the Lord has used to guide me through the dark days of the pandemic.
The Hallel Psalms
It is identified as one of the thanksgiving psalms and is the last of the Passover or Egyptian Hallel Psalms (113–118), which eventually wound their way into the fabric of the Haggadah (which in Hebrew means “the telling”), the prayer and guidebook used by Jewish people for the last 2,000 years in celebrating the Passover Seder.
The psalm is also customarily recited during the other two pilgrimage festivals, Pentecost and Tabernacles, and also during Hanukkah and the new moon.
It is suggested that Psalms 113–118 were recited while the Israelites were marching towards the Temple to offer the great Paschal sacrifice. A celebration filled with pomp, circumstance, and enthusiasm of faith, Jesus would have viewed this parade many times, until the day came when He Himself became the sacrifice—the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
The Hebrew word hallel means “praise,” from which we get the word hallelujah. Psalm 118, like the others in the group, may be viewed as loud shouts of joy to the God who delivers His people from bondage! Psalm 118 begins with a passionate statement of thanksgiving and concludes twenty-eight verses later with the same explosion of praise.
Read the first few verses of the psalm and you will see what I mean.
“Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; for His lovingkindness is everlasting. Oh let Israel say, ‘His lovingkindness is everlasting’” (Psalm 118:1–2).
There is a lot to learn about our relationship to God, especially in tough times, even from this one verse.
The psalmist used the word hodu, which is related to the word todah, which simply means “thank you.” Todah is also the name for the voluntary thanksgiving offering mentioned by Moses in Leviticus 7:12. The thanksgiving offering was often added to one of the mandatory offerings, such as the guilt or peace offerings.
“If he offers it by way of thanksgiving, then along with the sacrifice of thanksgiving he shall offer unleavened cakes mixed with oil, and unleavened wafers spread with oil, and cakes of well stirred fine flour mixed with oil” (Leviticus 7:12).
The thanksgiving offering reflects an extra step of devotion by the worshipper and demonstrates a greater degree of love filling the heart of the one making this “extra” and voluntary offering.
You will notice immediately that the focus of the psalmist’s thanksgiving is not on the parting of the Red Sea, protection from Egyptian armies, or on any of the other great miracles God performed in delivering the Jewish people from Egypt. Instead, the focus of the psalmist is upon the person and promises of God.
The first lesson we learn about praise, prayer, and thanksgiving is that, like the psalmist, we should first give thanks to God for who He is before we show our gratitude for what He has done!
For His Goodness
If you look again at the text, you will see that, in part, the psalmist identifies the motivation for his thanksgiving in the phrase, “for He is good” (Psalm 118:1).
The Hebrew word for “good” is tov. One of the ways this word is used in Scripture is in reference to an internal quality of integrity, or ethical or moral goodness. With respect to God’s character, when we declare that He is good, we are referring to the goodness of His nature. He is always acting in goodness toward us, even in the midst of a pandemic. We might not understand the why, but we do know that He is still good even in the midst of personal and global tragedy. His nature is unchanging.
Throughout the difficulties of the exodus from Egypt, the forty years in the wilderness, and all of the challenges and threats faced by the psalmist, he still understood that God is good. We should not lose sight of this wonderful truth about the nature of the holy and eternal One: despite our suffering, He is still good.
Keith Green, a Jewish believer who passed away in a plane crash in the mid 1970s, wrote the following words in one of my favorite worship songs:
“Oh Lord, you’re beautiful, your face is all I seek, for when your eye is on this child, your grace abounds to me.”
Imagine walking into the Holy of Holies and coming face to face with the Shekinah glory. If you were able to say anything, you might have cried out, “Oh Lord, you are beautiful. Your person is spectacular, magnificent. Neither my eyes nor yours have seen anything more beautiful than the person of our God.”
Do you remember what God said at the conclusion of creation?
“God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day” (Genesis 1:31).
The phrase is a familiar one to those of us who are Jewish—tov m’od, which means “very good.” God saw His handiwork, especially the creation of man, and proclaimed that it was “very good.”
His creation reflects His beauty. I recall standing in front of the Grand Canyon, speechless at sunset, and all I could really say was, “It is beautiful!” Staring into the face of great beauty stops us in our tracks and leaves us without words to describe what we see. This is only elevated when we speak about the eternal character of God.
Moses may have been the only person in the Old Testament who ever came face to face with God’s goodness.
The Lord said to Moses, “I will also do this thing of which you have spoken; for you have found favor in My sight and I have known you by name.” Then Moses said, “I pray You, show me Your glory!” And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” But He said, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” Then the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand there on the rock; and it will come about, while My glory is passing by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.” (Exodus 33:17–23)
When this event actually transpired, Moses added,
Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 34:6–7).
What makes God beautiful is His character. We are thankful for who He is, and He is indeed beautiful. When I recognize His beauty, my heart and lips are filled with His praise.
Perhaps the clearest window into the beauty of His character occurred during the Incarnation. The beauty of His character was revealed most clearly in the person of Yeshua who the Apostle Paul described as follows, “For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9).
Similarly, the writer of the book of Hebrews wrote, “And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:3).
We offer praise and thanksgiving to God because He is good. We are thankful for His person, and our offering of praise raises our souls above the circumstances of life; Everything He gives or delivers us from, or provides fades in comparison to the beauty of His person.
We are grateful because He is good and beautiful.
For His Everlasting Loyalty
The second reason the psalmist offers thanksgiving to God is that he recognizes that the Lord’s lovingkindness is everlasting. Lovingkindness is a loaded term in the Hebrew language. The word chesed may be translated as “loyalty,” and particularly “covenant loyalty.” The psalmist praises God because He is loyal to His covenants and promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
In Genesis 12:1–3, the God of our forefathers made a fourfold covenantal promise assuring Abram and his children that they would persevere as a nation, possess a land, fulfill a mission (to bless the world), and enjoy a unique relationship with their God. These covenantal promises would be eternally guarded by the very character of the One making the promises.
By His nature, God is loyal. He never breaks His word. He always keeps His promises. It would be against His eternal nature to break a commitment.
The psalmist offered a sacrifice of praise as he honored the One who fulfilled every promise He ever made. God’s faithfulness does not mean we will not experience distress in this life! It also does not mean the Lord will keep His promises according to our schedule or in the ways we expect!
Pandemics are painful, and from our viewpoint, this has been a dark and difficult season. In verses 17–18, the psalmist seems to be able to balance both hope and despair. He exclaimed, “I will not die, but live, and tell of the works of the Lord. The Lord has disciplined me severely, but He has not given me over to death” (Psalm 118:17–18).
We struggle with the same dilemma, especially now! In our own way, each of us has suffered during the pandemic. Those of us still alive are able to praise Him here. Some of our brothers and sisters have passed into His presence and are now able to praise Him before His heavenly throne.
We might feel like asking the question, “Has God failed to protect us?” or “How could a good God let the circumstances of the last nine months fall upon us?” The answer is always going to be the same. God has not failed us! He has not broken His promises. He is incapable of doing so!
His timing is merely different than ours. His purposes, ways, and thoughts are higher than our own (Isaiah 55:8–9). He uses the darkness to shape our character and prepare us for living in His eternal light. Rabbi Paul penned the well-known passage in Romans 8, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).
We may not understand why He allows us to experience difficulty, but we know that He is eternally good and faithful to His promises. He just has a different plan than we expected. It may be hard for us to comprehend, which is why we walk by faith, trusting in His unchanging character, and in the face of extraordinary hardship, we can continue to say, “Thank you, Lord!”
Thankful for Him
Like the psalmist, our thanksgiving is founded on His unchanging character and not on what He gives us. Yet, we often reverse this order. When asked to list what we are thankful for, we usually begin with what He has done for us. We list all the good things God has given to us, His protection, our family, our daily bread, and so much more. We know the list!
Yet, we really should begin with thanking God for His character because we know He always keeps His promises and that the future is bright.
We must grab a hold of God’s person and promises amid suffering and loss, persecution, and even during the dark days of a pandemic.
We cry out with Job, “Though He slay me, I will hope in Him. Nevertheless I will argue my ways before Him” (Job 13:15).
You see, in the end of it all, all we need is Him!
The Rest of the Psalm
Recognizing that His person and promises form the bedrock for our praise, you can see that there is no human circumstance that can or should keep us from being thankful and praising him. The following promises flow from the character of God:
“The Lord is for me; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” (Psalm 118:6).
“The Lord is my strength and song, and He has become my salvation” (Psalm 118:14).
“I shall give thanks to You, for You have answered me, and You have become my salvation” (Psalm 118:21).
“You are my God, and I give thanks to You; You are my God, I extol You” (Psalm 118:28).
What stunning sentiments of worship, praise and thanksgiving.
And finally, the psalmist concluded the way he started:
“Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; for His lovingkindness is everlasting” (Psalm 118:29).
Thankful for Him!
In light of who He is, how can we not be thankful? I am grateful for the magnificence of His character. I am also thankful for all that He has done. But, if He did nothing for me, I would hopefully be just as thankful because my thanksgiving is focused on the beauty of His person.
The remainder of the psalm speaks about all He is and what that means to the psalmist and to us.
He is beautiful, loyal, everlasting, and true to His promises. We do not need to fear. He is our refuge, strength, song, and salvation. He is our God, and the chief cornerstone is our Messiah and Lord of all. We can say at all times, “This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24). If you feel overcome with COVID-19 anxiety or fear, try praising God and thanking Him for who He is and see if you are not able to push through the difficulties. I believe you will experience the joy of the Lord!
I am thankful for you, too—for your loving the Lord, supporting our common ministry, praying for the global work of Chosen People Ministries, and for allowing us to be part of your life.
Happy Thanksgiving! May the holy, awesome, and glorious Lord of glory fill your soul with praise, and may He bring healing, restoration, and joy to you and your family.
 Keith Green, “Oh Lord, You’re Beautiful,” track 9 on So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt, Sparrow Records, 1980.