Introduction: Years ago when I had a bout with low spirits, I went to the public library and checked out a large number of big long-playing albums. Cassette tape recorders were also on the market, and you could tape from one to the other. I forget how I did it; but I found every happy, upbeat song on the LPs and put them on my tape. I made a couple of tapes, and we played them in the car. We called it our “feel good” music, and it was one of the techniques I used for lifting my spirits and developing a happier attitude. We no longer have LPs or cassettes. We have electronic devices that will hold as much music as we want; but I still have a genre of “feel good music” on my iPod. Katrina and I have one particular jazz pianist that we listen to every Friday night while we’re fixing supper and having our date night. In fact, I recently wrote to her and told her how much we enjoy her jazz piano. We need to make sure the input we’re getting in life is uplifting. We all need some “feel good music.” Well, the Psalms were written to be sung; they originally came with melodies. And I call Psalm 97 the Bible’s “Feel Good Psalm.” Let’s read it together and I’ll show you why.
Scripture: Psalm 97 (NIV)
Theme (Verse 1) – The theme of Psalm 97 is in the first sentence: The Lord reigns; let the earth be glad. The rest of the Psalm tells us what that means in terms of our attitudes and reactions. Because He reigns His people have certain experiences.
1. His People Experience His Presence (V. 2-6) – Clouds and thick darkness surround Him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne. Fire goes before Him and consumes His foes on every side. His lightning lights up the world; the earth sees and trembles. The mountains melt like wax before the Lord, before the Lord of all the earth. The heavens proclaim His righteousness, and all peoples see His glory.
Some of my favorite passages of Scripture are those that describe the throne of God (Daniel 7, Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1, Revelation 4-5), and here is an interesting account in Psalm 97. The writer describes something like a thunderstorm around the throne. He talks about “clouds and thick darkness.” He talks about lightning flashing everywhere, the earth trembling, the mountains melting. What a dramatic picture. It’s a vision or image of the energy and intensity that exists at the throne of the omnipotent and eternal God.
I’m intrigued by the phrase “clouds and thick darkness.” In other sermons at other times, I’ve discussed the fact that God’s presence radiates light. He is clothed in light. He dwells in inapproachable light. But here is a description of “thick darkness.” What does it mean that God dwells in thick darkness? There might be a heavenly phenomenon we can’t understand. As I prepared this message I read the cover story of Newsweek Magazine this week. It was written by a neurosurgeon in Virginia named Dr. Eben Alexander. And what draw my attention is that it was on the subject of heaven and a near death experience Dr. Alexander had. Let me preface this with what I always say about these things. We do not draw any theology or doctrine from someone’s personal experience. We get that in the Bible. But sometimes someone’s experience can intrigue and even encourage us. So with that caveat, here is a little of the article:
As a neurosurgeon, I did not believe in the phenomenon of near-death experiences. I grew up in a scientific world, the son of a neurosurgeon. I followed my father’s path and became an academic neurosurgeon, teaching at Harvard Medical School and other universities. I understand what happens to the brain when people are near death, and I had always believed there were good scientific explanations for the heavenly out-of-body journeys described by those who narrowly escaped death…. Although I considered myself a faithful Christian, I was so more in name than in actual belief…
In the fall of 2008, however, after seven days in a coma during which the human part of my brain, the neocortex, was inactivated, I experienced something so profound that it gave me a scientific reason to believe in consciousness after death….
[Dr. Alexander went on to explain his medical emergency, then said:] There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I’d never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility.
But that dimension—in rough outline, the same one described by countless subjects of near-death experiences and other mystical states—is there. It exists, and what I saw and learned there has placed me quite literally in a new world…
Toward the beginning of my adventure, I was in a place of clouds. Big, puffy, pink-white ones that showed up sharply against the deep blue-black sky. Higher than the clouds—immeasurably higher—flocks of transparent, shimmering beings arced across the sky, leaving long, streamerlike lines behind them. Birds? Angels? These words registered later, when I was writing down my recollections. But neither of these words do justice to the beings themselves, which were quite simply different from anything I have known on this planet. They were more advanced. Higher forms.
A sound, huge and booming like a glorious chant, came down from above, and I wondered if the winged beings were producing it. Again, thinking about it later, it occurred to me that the joy of these creatures, as they soared along, was such that they had to make this noise—that if the joy didn’t come out of them this way then they would simply not otherwise be able to contain it. The sound was palpable and almost material…
I continued moving forward and found myself entering an immense void, completely dark, infinite in size, yet also infinitely comforting. Pitch-black as it was, it was also brimming over with light….
Later, when I was back, I found a quotation by the 17th-century Christian poet Henry Vaughan that came close to describing this magical place, this vast, inky-black core that was the home of the Divine itself. “There is, some say, in God a deep but dazzling darkness …” That was it exactly: an inky darkness that was also full to brimming with light. I know full well how extraordinary, how frankly unbelievable, all this sounds. Had someone—even a doctor—told me a story like this in the old days, I would have been quite certain that they were under the spell of some delusion. But what happened to me was, far from being delusional, as real or more real than any event in my life.[i]
Well, I don’t know what to make of those kinds of stories and I don’t put too much faith in them; I certainly don’t build my view of heaven from them. But I was amazed that on the same day I was grappling with this phrase in Psalm 97 I read the article in Newsweek. “Clouds and thick darkness surround Him.” We don’t have to wait till we get to heaven to experience His presence. It’s the daily joy of the Christian.
2. We Experience His Supremacy (V. 7-9) – All who worship images are put to shame, those who boast in idols—worship Him, all you gods! Zion hears and rejoices and the villages of Judah are glad because of your Judgments, Lord. For you, Lord, are the Most High over all the earth; You are exalted far above all Gods.
It’s interesting that “idol” is such a common word in our culture. We have a television show called “American idol.” We talk about “teen idols” and “pop idols” and we say things like “he was idol.” But sooner or later our idols always disappoint us. A good example is Lance Armstrong. He won seven Tour de France races and a well-publicized battle with cancer. This week we learned that he was evidently the ringleader of the most sophisticated doping scandals in the history of sports. But do you know what he wrote in his book, It’s Not About the Bike.
I asked myself what I believed. I had never prayed a lot. I hoped hard, wished hard, but I didn’t pray. I had developed a certain distrust of organized religion growing up, but I felt I had the capacity to be a spiritual person, and to hold some fervent beliefs. Quite simply, I believed I had a responsibility to be a good person, and that meant fair, honest, hardworking and honorable. If I did that, if I was good to my family, true to my friends, if I gave back to my community or to some cause, if I wasn’t a liar, a cheat, or a thief, then I believed that should be enough. At the end of the day, if there was indeed some Body or presence standing there to judge me, I hoped I would be judged on whether I had lived a true life, not on whether I believed in a certain book, or whether I’d been baptized.[ii]
In other words, Armstrong said: “I can be a good person and go to heaven just on my own goodness.” But look at him now—his goodness and integrity is in shatters. Our idols always fail; but our God is the God above all gods. He is Lord of lords and King of kings. He can feel thankful about life because He is a true God who will never fail us or forsake us.
3. We Experience His Protection (V. 10) – Let those who love the Lord hate evil, for He guards the lives of His faithful ones and delivers them from the hand of the wicked.
In the book, Touching Incidents and Remarkable Answers to Prayer, Rev. S. B. Shaw reported on a minister who felt impressed to visit an older couple and pray for them. The conviction grew too strong to ignore, so he drove to their house, knocked on the door, knelt down, and prayed earnestly for their protection from violence of any kind. He specifically prayed that if any hand should be raised against them, it would be paralyzed. Some months later this pastor was visiting a prison. One of the inmates asked to speak to him. This man had gone to the couple’s house to steal a sum of money he knew was there. He had crept into the house and, as the minister prayed, raised his gun to fire his pistol. The prisoner pointed to his right arm, hanging lifeless by his side. “It was paralyzed on the spot,” he said, “and I have never moved it since.”[iii]
Years ago I preached a series of sermon entitled “Columns in the Clouds.” I was inspired with that title after driving somewhere in a storm with a blackened sky, but sudden up ahead the clouds broke and several distinct rays of sunshine bore down on the landscape. Well, in Psalm 97 we have God’s throne described in terms of a thunderstorm, but from that throne brilliant rays of sunshine beam down on the Christian. We are cheered by columns in the clouds. We experience His joy. No one has better experiences in life than the Christian. That’s why we can feel good about life. That’s why Psalm 97 is our feel-good Psalm.
[i] “Heaven is Real: A Doctor’s Experience with the Afterlife” in Newsweek, October 12, 2012, at http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/10/07/proof-of-heaven-a-doctor-s-experience-with-the-afterlife.html.
[ii] Lance Armstrong, It’s Not About the Bike (NY: G.P. Putnam, 2001), 116-117.
[iii] Related in Touching Incidents and Remarkable Answers to Prayer by S. B. Shaw (Grand Rapids: S.B. Shaw Publisher, 1893), in the segment entitled “A Would-Be Murderer’s Arm Paralyzed.”