God’s grace to the dying – Psalm 116

The idea of God’s grace to the dying might not seem like a joyous subject. Yet this is a psalm of real joy. Or maybe relief. Or both.

The psalms are songbook, and songs always convey emotion. The psalms are meant to move your mind and your emotions, so that you respond with your whole being. And this one is about something we all have to come to terms with: Dying.

And yet, it’s a psalm of joy. That’s because the psalmist has been spared death – and he’s very excited about that. His reflections about the experience are wonderful, perhaps especially so when you realise that, one day, you too will die.

These notes accompany a sermon on YouTube. You can find more in the series in our Sermon Index.

God hears you (1-4)

Read Psalm 116:1-4.

We’re looking at psalms 113-118 as we approach Easter. They’re the psalms that Jews traditionally sang at Passover.

  • The original Passover was when lambs were killed and their blood used to protect God’s people from judgment.
  • Putting the blood over the door was an act of faith.
  • The whole nation was saved from judgment and then redeemed from slavery in Egypt. They were saved.

There’s an “Exodus flavour” to the psalms we’ve looked at so far. But here we turn from national salvation to personal salvation. And it’s not a theoretical textbook about suffering; it’s a personal account of crying out to God for help.

There’s a difference between knowing there’s all sorts of stuff going on in the world, and what it feels like when it’s you in the hospital bed, and your world feels very small and painful. And while God is very much over all those things in the world, he’s also very close to you.

“He bends down to listen” is literally “he inclines his ear”. The psalmist was heading for death. He cried out “Please, LORD, save me” (lit. “save my life/soul”).

But why should God do such a thing? The New Testament tells us that “the wages of sin is death” so why shouldn’t he just let you die? In fact, if we’re all going to die some day of something, what grounds have you got for praying that God not let you die? And yet God did hear this writer’s prayer. So why?

God cares about you (5-11)

In these verses the writer goes back and forth between what he was like, what he’s like now, and how God cared for him always.

Read Psalm 116:5 (NLT).

Or, as the CSB puts it, The LORD is gracious and righteous; our God is compassionate.

The LORD is gracious (“kind” NLT). 

  • He chooses to grant you good things that you don’t deserve. Why should he do that? Because that’s how he is
  • On the internet, if something seems “too good to be true” then it probably is! Not so with God. He is gracious.

And he’s righteous (“good” NLT).

  • Everything he does is morally right. No-one can ever point at any indiscretion, or meanness, or moral failure.
  • In any court assessing right and wrong, God only does what is right. He act with perfect justice and goodness.

And our God is compassionate (“merciful” NLT).

  • It’s a word that always has someone greater looking down on someone lesser with great care and affection.
  • If a premier league footballer breaks a toe on a live match as you watch, you might shrug and not think more about it.
  • But if your child/grandchild did it on a walk with you, you’d bend down, soothe, and (if necessary) carry that child to get treatment. That’s compassion. You act because you care deeply, and because you can do something to help.
  • That is how God sees you.
    • In your pain; illness; grief; sin; mortality.

The problem of grace

His emotion towards you actually gives him a problem, so to speak. How can he love you and be gracious if you’re a sinner?

  • In his grace, he desires to overlook your sin.
  • In his righteousness, he can’t overlook your sin. That wouldn’t be just. We’ll come back to that.

For now, know that this gracious, righteous, good, compassionate and merciful God stoops down to silly old you. Read psalm 116:6. “Those of childlike faith” is a kind translation. Others have “the inexperienced” or “the unwary”. It’s a word used in the proverbs meaning, “the silly”.

To him, even the cleverest, wisest, or strongest of us are all just silly, weak, foolish, mortal. No bother, he cares just the same. In v7, the psalmist can return to calm.

Because, v8, he’d been an emotional wreck. Who hasn’t cried over family members in hospital? Maybe you’ve been so ill you wondered if you might be at the end, and cried for yourself, or your family. This writer did, and he’s not ashamed to say he cried over it.

In v9 again he reminds us that those days are behind – he’ll continue in the land of the living. Verses 10-11 are translated differently across the versions but the meaning is clear: He was in emotional turmoil. He cried out to God in distress! And he complained about all the useless, lying people around him!

Emotional turmoil just shows that you’re human. It’s not a lack of faith. Not at all.

Crying out to God at such times – in your hurt, confusion, pain – is an expression of faith. You expect him to hear; you trust him to act.

How can you repay? (12-14)

The psalmist is delighted. His life has been spared. Those who have come through cancer treatment and heard the expression “Full remission” know how he feels. Or when your Covid peaks and then starts to fade. Even when your illness is diagnosed and treatment starts.

And as you reflect that God has given you life, how can you repay? Read Psalm 116:12-14.

On the one hand, you can’t repay it. God’s grace is exactly that. Grace is free. He doesn’t want paying – and what can you give to God that he doesn’t have anyway?

And yet this psalmist’s response very much brings glory to God.

  • I will lift up the cup of salvation – he will humbly accept the healing and salvation from death that God has given (giving God the glory for it, even if delivered through the NHS, is entirely right).
  • and praise the LORD’s name for saving me – Many people pray for healing (or will ask you to pray for someone) when all they want is healing, not the healer. Not so the psalmist; and not you either.
  • I will keep my promises to the LORD – This isn’t “LORD save me and I’ll give £100 to charity!” This is a man who has renewed faith and trust in God, and will continue to do so.
  • in the presence of all his people – his near-death experience has left him with a powerful testimony to God’s goodness, and he will tell everyone about the LORD.

His prayer is stronger; his faith is stronger. So his witness is stronger too. Perhaps, his brush with death was a good thing?

Your death is precious to God (15-16)

For all this praise for healing, there’s still a tough reality. We do all die. Everyone you love will die, and so will you. The psalmist knows that, obviously.

Read Psalm 116:15-16.

We’ve seen that God is gracious, righteous, and compassionate towards you. You matter to him; your life is precious to him. So he won’t take your life lightly. Life is the Lord’s to give, and the Lord’s to take.

There’s a crucial word that runs throughout the Old Testament that describes God’s love for his people: Usually you’ll see it translated as his “faithful love” or “steadfast love”.

  • It’s the language of covenant love, relationship love.
  • It’s the love of commitment whatever comes.
  • God loves his people as the perfect husband, despite his bride’s waywardness.

And that’s the force of verse 15: The LORD cares deeply when his loved ones die. The death of those he is bound to in covenant matters profoundly to him; their death is precious to him.

For the wicked, death is due payment. The New Testament tells us that the wages of sin is death. For those who care nothing for the life-giver, they have no right to be angry at a life-taker.

But for his loved ones, your death is costly to God’s compassionate heart.

Which is another “problem” (so to speak) for the Lord. God is gracious, righteous and compassionate towards you. Your death is precious to him, yet your sin and his righteousness demand your death – otherwise God isn’t just.

Everything is ‘yes’ in Christ

He has resolved all that by dying for you.

  • Galatians 2:20 I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. – alive in Christ now
  • Romans 6:5 For if we have been united with him in the likeness of his death, we will certainly also be in the likeness of his resurrection. – alive in Christ forever

See God’s incredible emotional outpouring for you: His grace, his righteousness, his compassion all displayed in sending his Son to die for you.

  • Physical restoration is a wonderful thing to give thanks for.
  • But spiritual life in Christ is of far more value – eternally so

As you turn in repentance and faith and humbly accept the salvation he offers you today, you can experience the fullness of his salvation. The fullness of his committed love forever.

Because he loves you, he won’t let you just die in your sin.

  • Christ died for you, voluntarily laying down his life in love.
  • He has resolved his own grace and justice in the cross
  • He did it to bring you life; Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
  • To call you from being an object of his wrath, to a child of his love.
  • Your death is precious to him, costly, precisely because Christ took the curse of it for you – and gives you life.

Trust in the Lord (17-19)

The psalm finishes on the same themes as before. Read Psalm 116:17-19.

You’ve heard the expression, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”? (It’s patently nonsense, but at least you’ve heard it!) You’ve been through bad times too. You might be there right now.

For this psalmist, his awful brush with death has actually left him in a better place. Take your pain to Christ too.

  • His prayer life is stronger because he has a bigger, lovelier understanding of the grace, righteousness and compassion of God; he knows God cares about him and bends to hear his prayers.
  • That means his faith is stronger too. He knows God can and will do amazing things in response to prayer. So he’ll trust him again with thanksgiving.
  • He then tells people about what he’s been through, with a stronger witness about God. “I nearly died, but the Lord was gracious and compassionate to me.”
  • All of which gives him stronger love for God himself; back to v1 I love the LORD because he hears my voice and my prayer for mercy.

Romans 8:28 We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Jesus said, (John 11:25) I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, even if he dies, will live.

Trust in the Lord, and he will see you home safely.