12 Days of Christmas? – Psalm 103


12 Days of Christmas?

Psalm 103

AUDIO FOR THIS SERMON CAN BE FOUND HERE

Recently I read an article on what the author called the most annoying song ever written.

He was referring to the song we hear over and over this time of the year, the very strange – 12 Days of Christmas.

No one is quite certain when this song was first introduced. There are traces of it back to the 8th century.

In its present form, we get the words from a children’s book published in 1780 titled “Mirth Without Mischief.”

The Tune came to us in 1909.

What in the world the 18th century writer was after in such an odd arrangement of gifts – the enduring thought is that of bounty and good coming to someone they love in celebrating Christmas.

Everyone who is even the least aware of the Biblical Christmas story automatically connects the idea of gift giving at this time, with the gift of God in giving His Son as the Savior of the World.

For the last 2 Sundays, and then especially in last week’s program, we’ve visited these precious and powerful truths again and again.

It’s in keeping with this theme for our last Sunday together before Christmas to visit the true bounty of what God gives us in Christ Jesus just one more time.

In doing so this morning, I’d like to turn our attention to a passage of Scripture that lends itself so very keenly to this 12-gift idea.

The 103rd Psalm is a roster of 12 blessings the Believer receives in Christ which ought to make us consider how very, very rich we truly are in Jesus.

A few years ago, some wag sat down to calculate the actual dollar amount associated with the 12 Days of Christmas in the song.

It came up somewhere around $40K.

Beloved, that’s nothing.

Less than nothing compared to what we’re about to unwrap in this most precious Psalm this morning.

The opening 2 verses set the stage for us.

Psalm 103:1–2 ESV “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits”

It’s easy for us to be so wrapped up in the cares, as well as the hustle and bustle of the season to let the benefits that God lavishes upon us take a back seat, both in our hearts and in minds.

I’ve mentioned countless times to you what is referred to as the noetic effects of the Fall. Those lingering defects in the human soul that continue to plague even the Believer after coming to Christ.

And chief among them to me is that of FORGETFULNESS – especially of Biblical and spiritual truth.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer notes it as the singular problem we face when we are being tempted. He writes that in those moments we are not filled with hatred of God, but forgetfulness of Him.

We forget that the World presents lies and illusions designed to divert us away from Christ and salvation.

We forget we have an enemy who seeks the destruction of our souls with unalloyed bitterness and viciousness.

We forget that Believers were crucified with Christ and are not debtors to live after the desires of the flesh any more.

Most of all we forget how truly blessed we are – and so we’re drawn away after what purports to be better, higher or quicker blessings in the moment.

So it is in God’s good grace we have this opening exhortation in vss. 1-2.

  1. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his book “Spiritual Depression, its Causes and Cures” – remarks that Christians often do not talk to ourselves enough.

We don’t take ourselves in hand when we are tempted to despair in life, or to indulge in self-pity or to covet what others have that seems so much better than what we do.

But that is precisely what David is doing in these opening lines.

He’s talking to himself. In the best possible way.

“Soul” he says – “bless the Lord. Whatever else is going on in this moment, stop and bless the Lord.”

And apparently, knowing how halfheartedly one can exhort themselves in weak moments, he ratchets it up: “ALL that is within me – bless His holy name.”

Don’t just go through the motions, do what it takes to throw off the reluctance to join in praising God wholeheartedly – and praise Him from the depths within!

Perhaps that’s you this morning.

We all know the statistics: Around holidays like these we can get overwhelmed with all that’s going on, and the loss of loved ones, the weight of certain ongoing situations and heartaches can seem greatly magnified.

Loneliness hits its highest point in the year.

A deep sadness can set in, in the midst of all the lights and celebration and hurry.

Maybe this morning, this is just what you need.

To step back and talk to yourself a bit.

To be your own Psalmist.

To remind yourself that God is still on His throne.

That God is still good. Infinitely so.

That God loves you in Christ as His very own child. If indeed you are in Christ.

That the glories of Heaven are not that far off for all who savingly trust Him.

And that He has blessed you astoundingly – as Paul says in Ephesians 1:3 ESV “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places”

Psalm 103:1–2 ESV “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits”

So let’s do a little comparing shall we?

What say we look at this little ditty of a song which has been sung for centuries, and do a little one-for-one comparison.

Just what does the World offer us that is so alluring?

And how does it compare with the blessings those in Christ possess even now – before our final inheritance?

1 – Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity (3a)

A Partridge in a pear tree tree  VS  Forgives all your Iniquity

Well now, this is grand isn’t it?

Certainly one should desire with all their hearts a partridge in a pear tree! Isn’t that just what you’ve always wanted?

Me neither. And what does it even mean?

And really, what is that when compared to what Christ offers in forgiving all our iniquity?

The foolishness of it isn’t hard to detect, is it?

In fact, it truly is foolishness.

Those who know birds just a bit, know that partridges are ground birds. They don’t live in trees.

Yes, they are a game bird and can be quite tasty, I suppose even served with pears.

But the rhyme exposes the folly of this world.

For the World can only offer illusions, with a little temporary treat attached.

The picture of a partridge in a pear tree is a picture of something that is a fantasy. Nonsense.

OK, maybe a bird to eat, and at that, then you are hungry again.

But in fact, it is an illusion, since there is no such thing as a partridge in a pear tree. You can’t actually have it.

Sin always advertises what in the end it can’t deliver.

But Jesus! The one who was named Jesus because He would save His people from their sins – now He can deliver!

For both as God, and as the one who died for our sins, He has the authority, the right and the ability not just to forgive our individual acts of disobedience, but as the text says – who forgives (continuously) ALL of our iniquities – even our remaining inner bent toward sin AND the guilt of it!

So the choice is laid out before us: We can have the tasty but temporary illusions the World offers, or the perpetual joy of knowing all of our deepest sinfulness is forgiven that we might have all the wonders of God in Christ forever.

Scratch one off.

2 – Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits…who heals all your diseases

2 Turtle Doves  VS  Heals all your Diseases

The turtle dove has long been a symbol of love and fidelity.

Turtle doves mate for life and have come to represent the embodiment of having found true, enduring, life-time love.

And this does strike at the heart of the human soul doesn’t it?

How we long for, search out and try to find that one enduring love for our lifetime.

A hope the world seeks after with ever increasing fury.

As we sit here today, 40 million people in America alone are using online dating services in an attempt to find that deep and lasting connection with another human being.

After all, as God pronounced even in the Garden, it is not good for man to be alone.

But sin has ruined all of this. Look at the divorce rates all around us.

What we all hope for in this regard, the World has no power to guarantee.

Sin has struck a blow at the very heart of what it means to be human and to love one another.

How vivid a contrast there is here.

The word for diseases here is used only 5 times in the entire Bible.

And it’s always used in relation to the judgment of God upon sin and the ill-effects that judgment brings.

So when this passage reminds us, when David, who was no stranger to how sin destroyed virtually every one of his relationships makes this statement,  it comes from the depths of his own soul: “Bless the Lord, O my soul” – for one of the benefits that accrues to those in Christ is that He heals all our diseases.

God in the redeeming love and grace of Jesus Christ promises to remove from us even the judgments upon sin we so rightly deserve.

He delivers us from our own fall and its consequences.

He restores us to Himself and to others in Him, in unbreakable, eternal bonds of love.

Bless the Lord!

3 – Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits…who redeems your life from the pit

3 French Hens  VS  Redeems your Life from the Pit

What the World offers can only be increased quantity and temporary delicacies.

And so our song ramps up the fare. 3 French hens. Delicious dining for more than one meal. Sumptuous. This is true.

But as is always true with such things, they are lost and consumed in the enjoyment of them.

This is the way it is with all the pleasures the World can offer.

It can only give – no matter how delicious – what can last for only the shortest amount of time.

In my previous employment, because it was in the Food Service industry, I got to dine in some of the finest restaurants in the world.

And when each of those meals was done, some costing several hundreds of dollars, they were gone.

Over.

The delight I had in them in the moment, could not be preserved.

Tomorrow would be another meal, and so on and so on and so on.

But what does the Believer find in Christ?

Not just the promise of this life, but of that to come.

Christ redeems our lives from the pit – the grave.

From death itself.

In Him, the temporary gives way to the eternal.

Death is NOT the end for the Believer.

We know full well with Paul that to be absent from this body is to bring us directly into the presence of our Lord and God and King.

3 delicious meals of the finest delicacy versus being delivered from the wages of sin which is death.

Not much of a choice is it?

4 – Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits…who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy (4b)

4 Calling Birds  VS  Crowned with Steadfast Love and Mercy

The earliest version of this silly song didn’t read 4 “calling” birds, but rather, 4 “colly” birds – black birds. Crows.

Back when this was composed, it was considered quite the practical joke, for chefs to bake a high domed pie crust in two separate pieces, top and bottom.

Then, they would put blackbirds – living blackbirds inside, seal the top and serve the dish.

When the crust was broken open, the blackbirds would fly out to the great surprise and delight of the guests.

We don’t know for certain if this was behind the imagery of the song, but it surely fits.

For when it’s all said and done, this World under the influence of Satan can only taut us with cruel jokes.

The enemy of our souls seeks to tease and torment us with false promises of all kinds.

Sex outside of marriage will satisfy.

Drugs and alcohol will make everything more bearable.

Position, possessions, power and pleasure are worth all our time, money and effort.

Compromise with God’s Word will finally bring full satisfaction to some deep, inner longing.

And with the promise of all this satisfaction, comes nothing but the cruel joke that it is all a lie.

Have them all, and you’re still empty.

But what of Christ?

He crowns us with steadfast love and mercy.

He plays no cruel joke.

He loves without end.

He remains steadfast and true when the empty promises of this life give way to the disappointments they all are.

He doesn’t bring us harm but that which is as opposite to harm as possible; being merciful to us even in our sins and failures.

5 – Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits… who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s (5)

5 Golden Rings  VS  Satisfaction with good so that your Youth is Renewed

There’s a debate about this lyric. Whether it refers to 5 metal rings of gold, or to the rings of gold around the neck of certain pheasants.

Let’s just go with the traditional thought that in fact 5 costly, gold rings are what’s meant.

That being the case, the thought here is that the World trades on offering people wealth.

Our entire American system seems built upon the possibility of everyone acquiring, growing and maintaining wealth.

This, in the face of God’s Word which warns so clearly:  Proverbs 23:4 ESV “Do not toil to acquire wealth; be discerning enough to desist.”

Why? The next verse says it powerfully: Proverbs 23:5 ESV “When your eyes light on it, it is gone, for suddenly it sprouts wings, flying like an eagle toward heaven.”

Little in life is sadder than to see someone who has spent all their youth and energy on chasing and amassing wealth, only to realize that in the end, life itself has passed them by.

They learn the sting all too late of Jesus’ warning “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”

In truth we’ll all die as penniless as we came into this world. We carry no gold with us when we leave. Nothing.

What a contrast this is then. 5 golden rings versus the promise of God that: Isaiah 40:31 ESV  “but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”

The reality that in Christ – is the promise of the resurrection – a day of renewed life and strength and vigor that shall never wane.

Keep your 5 golden rings thank you – I think eternal life in strength and eternal vigor is just a tad more valuable.

6 – Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits… who works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed (6)

6 Geese a-Laying  VS  Righteousness and Justice for the Oppressed

To our modern ear, 6 geese that lay eggs might draw barely more than a “meh” from most of us.

But when this little ditty was 1st penned – probably in the 8th century or so, till the time it was published in it’s present form in the 18th century – geese were a pretty important animal to have around.

Domesticated for nearly 3000 years, geese were so valuable it was illegal to eat them in England at various periods.

The surprise is, geese would be thought of in terms of safety or security and not as much for food.

As odd as it may seem to you and me, geese have been used as guard animals for centuries.

Let me quote from one source on it: “Geese are still used as guard animals in many parts of the world today. Unable to be bribed with treats and exceptionally loud, geese have keener eyesight and hearing than humans and will not miss potential strangers intruding. They are currently used throughout China’s Xinjiang province to guard police stations, and in West Germany, geese were on guard duty at U.S. military bases.” In the 80’s!

The symbol is fairly evident. One who had a flock of lively geese is one who thought they could live in relative security and safety. Their family and goods were being watched over.

People want security.

A society where justice and righteousness deal with injustice even if they themselves may not be quite as upright as they might imagine.

So far so good. But as Psalm 127 reminds us: Psalm 127:1 ESV “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.”

We can buy our guns, set our house and car alarms, fund our armies, purchase cyber-security ware and hedge all bets with insurances of all kinds – but only those in Christ know true security.

A security that extends far beyond material things.

For our security remains intact even if everything in this material world disappears tomorrow.

We serve a God who works righteousness – and justice for all who are oppressed.

He will bring final justice in His day for His people.

And as for oppression, there’s an oppression that is far more wicked and destructive than any exercised by any totalitarian regime or despot – and Jesus was sent in specific regard to it: Acts 10:38 ESV “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.”

Blinded by the Devil from the Gospel so as to keep men from being reconciled to God.

Bound in sin and shame, serving the lusts of the flesh without even knowing what slaves to it they are.

Bound by the fear of death. In unforgiveness, bitterness and slaves to the values of this fallen world.

Christ has come to bring justice and vengeance upon all sin, and to let the oppressed go free in Him.

Keep your squawking geese! They can’t protect a thing.

7 – Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits… who made known His ways to Moses & His acts to the people of Israel (7)

7 Swans a-Swimming  VS  Revelation of God’s Acts & Ways

I will have to admit to you all that I am a person who has been terribly neglectful of appreciating the aesthetic beauty that God blesses us with every day in the creation all around us.

Some of you here are so good at pointing it out to me at times, or capturing it in photographs or in your artistry.

In fact, there are those who give their whole lives up to perusing, crafting and owning such beauty.

And there IS true beauty in this world. Beauty we are meant to drink in, appreciate and delight in. God made it that way.

But there are beauties above the present aesthetic, the tactile, olfactory and auditory.

Yes, we enjoy sights, tastes, touches, sensations, sound and smells that are each truly, exquisitely beautiful.

Such is the picture of 7 swans swimming, isn’t it? Graceful. Elegant. Serene. Calming. Sweet.

Oh but there are beauties higher yet that can easily escape our attention, that our Psalmist points out here.

It is one thing to know how pleasing and delightful to the senses such scenes are – but quite another to know the heart and the mind of the one who creates such beauty and places it before us to bless us.

So David says: With all God has done, He made His ways known to Moses. He revealed His plans and purposes and reasons to Him – and by proxy in His Word to all of us.

I love great architecture. And I especially love the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

But I would rather know the man than merely His buildings. To really know the genius and how his mind worked creatively.

How privileged are Believers then to not only see the handiwork of God, but to KNOW Him. To know His ways – what motivates Him, delights Him, stirs Him. To draw out His thoughts and His heart.

This He has given to us in His Word that we might KNOW Him, not just know about Him.

To encounter beauty on a scale we can’t even begin to imagine yet.

For what beauty must be bound up in the One who made beauty itself a thing for us?

Would you know Him?

Know Him as He is revealed in Christ in the pages of the Scriptures, where we find His ways and His acts laid out for us search out over and over to that we might see more and dazzling sights.

7 Swans swimming is a beautiful sight. But the sight of the one who made those swans is transcendentally higher.

8 – Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits… who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (8)

8 Maids a-Milking  VS  The Lord Merciful, Gracious, Slow to Anger & Abounding in Steadfast Love

Indeed, someone with 8 maids a milking is someone who has a vast and prosperous estate.

But tell me, what is such an estate to knowing God – that God who must judge sin, and whom you and I have sinned against over and over again?

To know Him in His mercy, in the fact that He does not just act out of grace, but IS gracious.

This One whom we offend by our fallenness every hour of every day is slow to anger, and abounding toward us in steadfast, never wavering love.

Even when He does rebuke us in our folly, He does not remain angry with us. He never freezes us out.

Keep your cows and keep your maids – Give me a God who is like this! This is worth everything.

9 – Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits… who does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities (10)

9 Ladies Dancing  VS  Not being Dealt with According to our Sins, nor Repaid According to our Iniquities

And oh, how the World loves to give us entertainment.

It is our entertainers who command the highest incomes.

Entertainers who get the royal treatment. Whose voices get to be heard on any and all topics as though they know better than the rest of us.

We live in a world of endless entertainment. 24 hours a day.

And it’s a great diversion.

It was in 1985 that Neil Postman’s powerful book hit the shelves. “Amusing ourselves to Death” was the title. “Public Discourse in the Age of Show” the sub-title.

We crave amusement and entertainment like no generation before us. All the while being drawn away from the serious concerns of life and eternity.

We think so little on subjects like sin, death, meaning, purpose, values, the human condition and especially the need for and substance of the Gospel.

But if you want to muse rather than a-muse yourself. If you want to think deeply to the point of having your soul moved and your innermost being transformed and lifted into the heavenlies – think on this for a bit: That God has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor repaid according to our Iniquities.

Indeed, for those in Christ, He deals with us according to Christ’s righteousness and repays us according to His perfect obedience.

As high as the heavens are above the earth – that’s how great His steadfast love is to those who fear Him.

And as far as the east is from the west – that’s how far He has removed our transgressions from us.

Entertain that for a while – and see what it does for your heart and mind.

10 – Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits… who as a father shows compassion to his children, shows compassion to those who fear Him (13)

10 Lords a-Leaping  VS  Divine Compassion and Understanding

Oh how some persue prestige and power over others.

The picture here is poignant. Having 10 Lords – men of standing and power themselves – leaping at your whims and wishes. Dancing to your tune. Marching to your drum.

And many is the man and woman today who seeks that power in politics and industry and wherever else they may find it. In the home. Some, even in the Church.

But there is something far more heady than having other people at your beck and call.

The wonder, the joy the blessedness of knowing that the God of the universe is our Father, and that He knows full well how weak and frail and faulty we are.

He remembers our frame.

He knows that in ourselves we are just dust.

He remembers that our lifespan is barely a blip on the timeline of eternity.

And He is full of compassion toward us.

Oh what a sweet and glorious Father He is to the redeemed.

11 – Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits… whose steadfast love is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him, and His righteousness to their children’s children (17)

11 Pipers Piping  VS  Steadfast, Divine, Eternal Love that overflows to our Children & Grandchildren

Music is a wonderful thing. I love it.

I love all different genres of it. Jazz, Pop, Metal, Classical, Rock, Folk – I’m trying with Country – Big Band. Gospel. Hymns and anthems. I’m not big on marches I’ll admit.

But people can be so charmed by music as to be lost in it as well.

Here is a great gift from God. But woe to us if we fail to strain after a music the likes of which the World can’t produce if all the prodigies of all the ages were assembled.

Music like that which we never heard – the book of Job tells us rang out from the angels at creation.

We’ve just finished our study in the Book of Revelation and one aspect I never got to go back and explore was something I noticed in that study – that there are 11 or 12 hymns in that book. And I want to hear them some day with that choir of angels and of the Redeemed in the heavenlies.

Throughout the Psalms and everywhere else we are exhorted to sing to God in joy and gladness and to lift up our hearts in song.

And surely the World can offer up some grand musicianship.

But there is a music which transcends all.

Its theme is the Steadfast, Divine, Eternal Love of the Lord that overflows to the Children & Grandchildren of those who keep His covenant.

And we only sing part of it. No, here is a music of which all of the music of earth and even of the angels pales in comparison: It is a divine duet. It starts with us and then…Zephaniah 3:14–17 ESV “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies.
The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: “Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”

11 Pipers? OK, if you want.

But I want to hear God sing – to hear what it sounds like when He rejoices over His redeemed ones with gladness – and exults over us with loud singing!

12 – Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits… who has established His throne in the heavens, and whose kingdom rules over all (19)

12 Drummers Drumming  VS  The Lordship of the Eternal, Magnificent God who Loves me, over Everything

12 drummers drumming is a great picture of someone being honored in a parade. Pomp and circumstance.

And how we love to be celebrated don’t we?

We love to be recognized for achievements and talents and, just because. The human ego loves being stroked.

But there is a gift that so outstrips our being recognized and lauded and honored by anyone for anything – It is to have my Father, My Savior, My Lord and God and King and the One who gave His life for me, finally ensconced in Heaven as He should be – ruling and reigning over all in righteousness, holiness and power.

When He is at last fully revealed in all of His glory – that will be the greatest gift He can give us. And so Jesus prayed: John 17:24 ESV “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”

The 12 Days of Christmas was meant to be sung by children as what they used to call a forfeit game.

If you could remember all 12 while singing through the song, you got a reward. And if you stumbled along the way, you forfeited the prize.

Oh that we would practice as much to retain the 12 gifts, the divine benefits of Christmas in Psalm 103.

How remembering His benefits would inoculate us against the soul disease of self-pity.

How it would prevent covetousness.

It would remind us over and over of how loved we are.

And it would remind us of how good our God is, and how much He delights to shower blessings on His people.

The World can only give us counterfeits, copies and lies.

But God has given us Himself in Christ Jesus, and the salvation He wrought by dying in our place on Calvary.

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits…

Merry Christmas!

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