August 8, 1993

GREAT IS THE LORD

“Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise;  his greatness no one can fathom” (Psalm 145:3).

I had a grandmother who lived to be more than 91 years old.  In her long life, she went through the hardships of immigration, seeing a number of her own children die, losing her husband, and living as a widow for many years.  But she also enjoyed many happy times, and she was blessed with remarkable strength and energy.  She lived in her own house in good health, right up to the night she put herself to bed and woke up in heaven.

It’s been a few years now since Grandma died.  Of everything I remember about my grandma, here’s what I remember best.  I remember that just about every time I heard her pray aloud, at some point in the prayer she would say, in her immigrant brogue,  “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised.”  And I remember something else.  I remember something Grandma said just two days before she died, when a number of us were having supper with her.  She said:  “Live to praise the Lord.”  Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  Just five words:  “Live to praise the Lord.”  But all the sermons ever preached can’t really improve on those five words from the lips of a woman who had spent nine decades living to praise the Lord.

My grandma wasn’t satisfied just believing that God exists and then doing her own thing.  She was deeply conscious of God’s greatness, and she wanted her life to bring him honor.  When Grandma prayed, she wasn’t satisfied to ask only for personal favors.  She wanted her prayers to sound a note of praise, and so she never tired of saying, “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised.”

Those words have been on the lips of God’s people for thousands of years.  You’ll find them in a number of prayers in the Bible book of Psalms.  One such prayer, Psalm 145, begins like this:

I will exalt you, my God the King;  I will praise your name forever and ever.  Every day I will praise you and extol your name forever and ever.  Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise;  his greatness no one can fathom.”

Or, in the words of the older King James translation my grandma used, “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;  and his greatness is unsearchable.”

God’s greatness calls for a response.  We can’t just file away in our memory bank the fact that God exists, and we can’t just think of God as a handy resource we can pray to when we need help.  No, God’s greatness calls for our constant attention and amazement, for our praise and celebration, whether in personal prayer, or public worship, or in our family life.

Praise belongs in our prayers.  Jesus taught us to pray, “Hallowed be thy name.”  The first thing to seek in prayer, says Jesus, is that God’s name will be honored.

The Lord also calls us to join together in church at least one day a week to worship his greatness with others.  Sunday worship isn’t first of all a time to hear some fine music or hear a helpful sermon or get an emotional lift.  It’s a time to praise and adore the living God.

And besides personal prayer and weekly worship, the celebration of God’s greatness should really be a family affair, with praise echoing from generation to generation.  Listen to verses 3-7 of Psalm 145:

Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise;  his greatness no one can fathom.  One generation will commend your works to another;  they will tell of your mighty acts.  They will speak of the glorious splendor of your majesty, and I will meditate on your wonderful works.  They will tell of the power of your awesome works, and I will proclaim your great deeds.  They will celebrate your abundant goodness and joyfully sing of your righteousness.

That’s the sound of praise being passed from one person to another, and from one generation to another.  My grandparents lived to praise the Lord.  So do my parents.  And by God’s grace I also want to live to praise the Lord.  My wife and I want to give God the praise he deserves, and we want to commend God’s “awesome works” and “great deeds” to the next generation, to tell our children the great Bible stories of God’s greatness and his love in Christ, to teach them songs and hymns of praise, to tell them stories of how God has moved and worked in our family’s life, to help them sense that they live in the presence of a majestic God who calls them into his loving embrace so that the praise of God will resound from their lips as well.

Now, I know that some of you don’t have the benefit of parents or grandparents who helped you discover and worship God’s greatness.  But don’t let that discourage you or stop you from getting to know God for yourself.  The greatness of God isn’t a family secret.  God wants everyone to know him.  That’s why I’m talking to you right now:  to tell you that there is a great Someone, powerful and wise and wonderful beyond your wildest imagination.  I’m here to tell you that you can get to know him.  You can go through each day with a deep awareness of his nearness.  You can live to praise him.  You can join with the millions throughout the centuries who worship and adore the living God.  You can bring him the offering of praise he deserves and make the psalmists’ prayer your own:  “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised.”

“Great is the Lord.”  You and I live each moment in the presence of Someone mighty and mysterious, Someone whose genius and power stagger the imagination.  This great God controls and directs the mightiest forces of the universe, and at the same time, he pays attention to the smallest detail in the smallest of his creatures.  Nothing is too big for him to control, and yet nothing is too small for him to notice.  Every galaxy, every plant and animal, every cell and subatomic particle–it’s all comprehended by his infinite mind, and it’s all controlled by his infinite power.

As the Bible puts it, “Great is our Lord and mighty in power;  his understanding has no limit” (Psalm 147:5).  Take all the matter and energy in the entire universe, and you haven’t begun to realize the scope of God’s power.  Take every thought and idea of every genius who ever lived, take all the information in every book and computer, and you’ve haven’t begun to scratch the surface of God’s unlimited knowledge.  His greatness is indeed unsearchable, unfathomable, without limit.

If you could study Psalm 145 in the original Hebrew, you’d find that it’s an acrostic poem, where each poetic verse begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, from the first all the way to the last.  Psalm 145 uses every last letter of the alphabet to praise the Lord’s greatness, but even that is not enough.  You can admire all the things he’s made, you can marvel at all the deeds he’s done, you can pray splendid prayers like Psalm 145 that cover everything from A to Z, and still there’s an infinity of greatness that you haven’t begun to discover.  “Great is the Lord, and most worthy of praise;  his greatness no one can fathom.”

There’s no end to the reasons for praising the Lord.  Creation itself is bursting with testimony to his greatness.  The majesty of a mountain, the delicacy of a flower, the splendor of a rainbow, the vastness of space, the sweetness of a peach, the gracefulness of a deer–all are reasons to praise our great and inventive Creator.  As the Bible says in Revelation 4:11, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”

It’s fitting to praise the Lord for all this, to marvel at the mind-boggling wisdom and strength and creativity that are necessary to uphold the universe but to really appreciate God’s greatness, we need to know his character, his personality, and the way he relates to us.  The Lord isn’t just the God of creation, but also the God of salvation.  He’s not just the distant ruler of all things, but he comes near to us and invites us to be his friends.

We’ve seen that Psalm 145 begins by honoring God as the supreme King, the one whose greatness is unsearchable, who performs mighty acts, but as you read further in the psalm, you find that God’s greatness includes far more than his unlimited power or creative genius.  God is great because God is love.  That’s the best reason of all to praise him.

After the first seven verses in praise of the great King and his mighty deeds from generation to generation, Psalm 145 moves on to praise several different aspects of God’s perfect character, and shows that each is an expression of his love.  Verse 8 introduces one section by saying,  “The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.”  The next main segment of the psalm begins at verse 13, which says, “The Lord is faithful to all his promises and loving toward all he has made.”  Verse 17 begins the final section by saying, “The Lord is righteous in all his ways and loving toward all he has made.”

Each of these sections praises a particular aspect of God’s character.  The Lord is forgiving, he is faithful, and he is fair, and each of these things flows from his love.  Let’s look more carefully at how Psalm 145 expresses all this.

First, God is forgiving.  Verses 8-13 praise the Lord for the gracious and compassionate and patient character of his love.  Listen:

The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and rich in love.  The Lord is good to all;  he has compassion on all he has made.  All you have made will praise you, O Lord;  your saints will extol you.  They will tell of the glory of your kingdom and speak of your might, so that all men may know of your mighty acts and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.  Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures through all generations.

It’s impressive to think about the glory of God’s kingdom and the fact it lasts forever, but the only reason that’s a cause for celebration is because of what the King himself is like.

Nobody would celebrate the great power or long rule of a king if he were a harsh and ruthless tyrant;  it’s only because God is rich in love and good to all that his great power and everlasting reign are such good news.

None of us could rejoice at God’s supreme power if he always used that power to crush those who offend him.  We’re all sinners, and we’ve all done many things to offend the Lord.  But the good news about the Lord of the universe is that he’s gracious and compassionate and patient with us.  He isn’t just great–he’s great in love!

When Adam and Eve fell into sin, God didn’t instantly destroy them.  Instead, he gave them the promise of a Savior.  When the people of Israel rejected the Lord to worship idols, God didn’t wipe them out.  True, he sent punishments and even scattered them into exile, but then he brought them back again and gave them a fresh start.  Ultimately, God loved the world so much that he sent his one and only Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  “God demonstrates his own love for us in this:  While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).  Why, even as Jesus hung on the cross, he asked the Father to forgive those who crucified him, and he promised paradise to a dying criminal who trusted in him.

Now that he’s risen from the dead and seated in heaven, Jesus continues to pour God’s grace and compassion, and love into the lives of sinners through his Holy Spirit.  The apostle Paul was once a vicious persecutor and murderer of Christians, but God’s love embraced this man who later labeled himself the chief of sinners.

A young man named Augustine was an arrogant intellectual, indulging in parties and casual sex, but God never abandoned him, and one day the Word of God pierced through Augustine’s defenses. The Lord set him free from his wicked ways and made Augustine one of the great leaders in the history of the church.

John Newton was a ruthless slave trader, but God in his patience showed Newton the error of his ways and gave him forgiveness through faith in Christ.  No wonder Newton wrote the song, “Amazing Grace,” and rejoiced that he would have all of eternity to sing God’s praise.

And besides these famous and filthy sinners who were embraced and transformed by God’s love, there are countless millions of us, ordinary people, each one deeply aware that we deserve only God’s wrath, who nevertheless know that God has freely given us eternal life in his Son.

Maybe you wonder whether God could possibly love you, after some of the things you’ve done.  You may wonder how he would ever let you into his Kingdom.  Well, God’s love isn’t restricted to those who deserve it.  If it were, we’d all be lost.  But because of his great love, God forgives even the filthiest sinner who turns to Christ.  What a God!  What a Savior!  As the prophet Micah wrote,

Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance?  You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.  You will again have compassion on us;  you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.

Instead of trampling on us sinners and throwing us into the depths of the sea where we belong, God tramples on our sins and throws them into the depths of the sea.  Isn’t it amazing that God would rather forget about our sins than forget about us?

“The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.”

After praising God for his forgiveness, Psalm 145 praises him for his faithfulness.  Listen to verses 13-16:

The Lord is faithful to all his promises and loving toward all he has made.  The Lord upholds all those who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down.  The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time.  You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.

God’s faithfulness means that he keeps his promises, that he is steadfast and reliable, and that he sustains the creatures he loves.

Jesus pointed out how God provides the birds with plenty to eat and gives splendid clothing to the lilies.  If that’s how God cares for his smaller, less important creatures, says Jesus, you can be sure he’ll meet the needs of his children.

According to the Bible, God “determines the number of the stars [trillions of them!] and calls them each by name” (Psalm 147:4).  He also numbers the hairs on your your head, and knows you by name.  He sees everything you do, he hears every word you speak, he knows every thought you think–he even knows your unconscious motivations.  The Lord knows more than just our physical needs.  He knows our emotional and spiritual needs, and he is faithful to provide.  He lifts us up when we’re down, he feeds us when we’re hungry, he satisfies our deepest longings.  And the greatest thing about God’s faithfulness is that he doesn’t just give us various things;  he gives us himself.

God’s faithfulness means that he’s not the sort of God who loves us one moment and then abandons us the next.  This is the Lord who promises, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Joshua 1:5).  He sticks with his people;  he gives us everything we need for this life and for eternal life.  Jesus said, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish;  no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28).  The Bible is full of these wonderful promises, and “the Lord is faithful to all his promises and loving toward all he has made.”

Well, after praising God’s forgiveness and faithfulness, Psalm 145 goes on in verses 17-20 to praise his fairness:

The Lord is righteous in all his ways and loving toward all he has made.  The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.  He fulfills the desires of those who fear him;  he hears their cry and saves them.  The Lord watches over all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy.

God is fair.  He hears the cries and prayers of his people.  He listens when they call for deliverance from abuse and discrimination and poverty and other kinds of oppression.  He will save them from their oppressors.  And that’s good news for all God’s children who suffer injustice.

To do this, the Lord has to deal with the wicked.  He has to eliminate those who persist in wickedness and keep hurting the world he loves.  Throughout history, the Lord’s righteous judgments have brought down governments and individuals who were cruel and oppressive, and at the end of history, the Lord will completely eliminate the wicked. Revelation 19 shows us

a great multitude in heaven shouting: ‘Hallelujah!  Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgments.  He has condemned the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her adulteries.  He has avenged on her the blood of his servants.

We saw earlier how God’s forgiveness means that Christ died for his enemies and that he calls his enemies to repent and become his friends.  Here, though, we discover another truth.  Some sinners refuse God’s call to to repentance, they reject his gift of forgiveness in Christ, they harden their hearts, and they remain in their wickedness.  Because God’s love is a righteous love, he finally destroys such people in hell.

That’s bad news for the wicked, but it’s good news for their victims.  The Lord won’t stand by and allow the wicked to corrupt the earth or destroy his people.  When Christ returns, he will judge the world in righteousness.  So even when Christians suffer unfairly, they can praise God, because they are confident that “the Lord watches over all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy.”

All of this, and much more, is what Psalm 145 means when it says, “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised.”  This is the living God.  This is the mighty and wise King of the universe, the one who is forgiving and faithful and fair in his love.  And this is the God who has come near to us in Jesus Christ, who calls us even now to turn from our selfish, narrow-minded ways, to enter into a relationship with him, and to devote each moment of our lives to praising him.

Do you know this God?  Have you put your faith in him?  If not, then now is the time.  And if you are a child of God, do you really pay attention to his greatness?  Are you living to praise him?  Nothing can be better than that.

Psalm 145 begins by saying, “I will exalt my God the king” and it ends with similar words: “My mouth will speak in praise of the Lord.  Let every creature praise his holy name forever and ever” (v. 21).

When I read those words, I’m reminded of a Christian friend who was dying of cancer.  Bill had just a few days to live, but as he talked, his biggest regret was that he didn’t have much longer to tell others about Christ.  He was so close to the Savior in that moment.  His face was haggard and yet glowing with joy.  He raised one boney arm, with a catheter dangling from it, and said, “Praise the Lord.  He is king.  He is king.”  In that moment, Bill had nothing left but God himself–and that was more than enough.  He had lived to praise God, he was determined to die praising God, and he planned to spend eternity praising God.  Was that because Bill was such a fine man?  No, it’s because the Lord is such a great God.  Bill’s heart and mind were gripped by God’s greatness and love, and he just couldn’t help praising him.

And when I think of Bill, I think again of my grandma.  She wasn’t really extraordinary.  She was an ordinary woman in the grip of an extraordinary God, and she knew it.  That’s why she frequently prayed, “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised,” and that why she told us:  “Live to praise the Lord.”

I can’t improve on that advice.  Live to praise the Lord.

PRAYER

Lord, you are great, and greatly to be praised.  Help us to really know you, to sense your majesty and power and wisdom and love.  Save us from our sin, and help us to exalt your name forever and ever, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.