“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Thus begins Lev Tolstoy’s marvelous novel, Anna Karenina. You might also think the writer of Psalm 107 thought along similar lines. Righteous people are all righteous alike, because they follow God’s way; every unrighteous and disbelieving person is unrighteous and disbelieving in his own way. The psalmist begins this psalm looking at several different ways that people failed to trust in God. Perhaps his analysis may be of benefit to us as well.
Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, whom he hath redeemed from the hand of the enemy; And gathered them out of the lands, from the east, and from the west, from the north, and from the south. They wandered in the wilderness in a solitary way; they found no city to dwell in. Hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted in them.
These people are not really unrighteous; at least not blatantly so. Like all men, they no doubt were guilty of sin. They did not brazenly act in a sinful way, however. They were just lost. They had no guide, and knew not how to follow God. As a result, they had wandered all over the map. Without a guide they missed the oases, and became hungry and thirsty.
These people could find no city to dwell in. Contrast with them their Father Abraham. Although he did not know where he was going, he was following a guide. Rather than wandering aimlessly, he had a goal.
He went out, not knowing whither he went. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God. (Heb 11:8-10)
Many today wander aimlessly through life. They know they are hungry because they cannot find the food that satisfies. They long to drink of the water that will cause them to thirst no more (Jn 4:14). But they do not know how to find the water or the bread. They don’t have a map to Abraham’s city.
These people will be blessed, because they hunger and thirst after righteousness. (Matt 5:6) As the psalmist here says, “Then they cried unto the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them out of their distresses. And he led them forth by the right way, that they might go to a city of habitation.” People ask, often to justify their own disbelief, whether God will condemn those who never had the opportunity to hear the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. This passage seems to answer, at least partially, that question. Those who truly seek God will find deliverance. God will bring them into the right way. How will he do it? That is entirely up to him. He may choose someone to travel thousands of miles, just to give that one person a chance to hear the gospel. He may invent an Internet, so that the gospel can reach places it may be otherwise prohibited from going. He may cause a person to write a letter that says just what this one person needs to hear. He has thousands of ways to get his word to people. For Cornelius it was a fisherman. For Lydia it was a tentmaking rabbi. For the Laodicaeans it was probably that Lydia who was taught by the tentmaker. When someone cries to the Lord, he will deliver, and lead them to his city; he will satisfy the longing soul, and fill the hungry soul with goodness.
Such as sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, being bound in affliction and iron; Because they rebelled against the words of God, and contemned the counsel of the most High: Therefore he brought down their heart with labour; they fell down, and there was none to help.
Some people have accepted that God exists. They have even accepted that he will punish for eternity. Their problem is that none of this matters to them. They choose to rebel against God. This is no longer a passive, “I didn’t know” kind of sin. This is an “I know but I don’t care” kind of sin.
There are probably several variations of the rebellious person. Frequently, though, they fall into one of two categories.
The first says that it doesn’t matter if they sin or not, because God is a loving and merciful God who would never let anybody be punished forever. Everyone will be saved. Therefore, they don’t need to worry about sin. This is one of several variations on second century Gnosticism. The writer of Hebrews knew about this kind of person, and shuddered.
For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries. (Heb 10:26-27)
The other group just can’t, or won’t, see beyond the present. One characteristic of career criminals is that they do not see beyond the here and now. They want something now, and they never consider the consequences if they get caught. Many who rebel against God are like this. Unlike Moses, they would rather “enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season.” (Heb 11:25) Peter called them “scoffers, walking after their own lusts, And saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.” (2 Pet 3:3-4) He goes on to call them “willingly ignorant.” They may know of judgement to come, but they choose to worry about that later.
The psalmist says that these people will, in many cases, receive punishment now, as well as later. God may bring them low so that they will finally recognize his power and call upon him. When this sort of person has cried to him, “he saved them out of their distresses. He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and brake their bands in sunder.” Yes, God is a merciful God, but to those who seek his mercy.
Fools because of their transgression, and because of their iniquities, are afflicted. Their soul abhorreth all manner of meat; and they draw near unto the gates of death.
Sometimes the Bible talks about the “simple” man. This is a person who has not been taught. Other times it talks about a different kind of personthe fool. The foolish man has opportunities to learn; he just refuses to see them. Rather than rebelling against God, “the fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.” (Ps 14:1; 53:1) This is the sort of person that lets you study with him for weeks, and then says, “If the Bible is true, then I recognize that I should be baptized for forgiveness of sins; but I just don’t accept the Bible is true.” Because of a self-constructed wall of indifference, the fool cannot see the truth if he runs into it face first.
The thing about the fool is that when he does lose his foolishness, he has a willing heart. “He sent his word, and healed them, and delivered them from their destructions.” It may take a while to convince them, but when they become convinced they stay there. In this the fool may be better than the rebellious man.
They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep. For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof. They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted because of trouble. They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wit’s end.
I understand this person, because I have been there. Not just fearful. I’ve been at sea in the storm, and staggered like a drunken man. When your stomach won’t stay down and your body won’t stay up it is easy to get discouraged. When you can’t sleep for fear of being rolled out of your bunk it is easy for your soul to melt.
This kind of person is not necessarily unrighteous. He just loses sight of God, and his faith wavers, like the rolling waves. He has not had the experience of God’s strong hand. If he survives the first storms, then he will not lose heart during the next ones. This is the sort of person that needs to see the faith of people who have been through the very storms he is facing. God puts recovering alcoholics, former abusers, reformed adulterers, parents of handicapped children, cancer survivors, and many others in the church so that those to come who will face such storms can see them, and not lose heart. “He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still. Then are they glad because they be quiet; so he bringeth them unto their desired haven.”
God can, and does, save all of these kinds of unrighteous or wavering people. The psalmist throughout uses the same style: the problem, the salvation when they cry out, the praise. He has no doubt that God will save when these people cry out to him. He knows God’s nature. God does not vary. He will save those who ask him.
After describing each of these kinds of people, and their salvation, the psalmist sums it all up with the same line. This is the attitude of those who have been saved. This is the attitude of those who want to see others saved. “Oh that men would praise the LORD for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men!”