In August 1914, a British scientist and explorer set out from England with a crew of 28 men, intent on accomplishing a spectacular goal: crossing the whole continent of Antarctica coast to coast on foot. The explorer’s name was Sir Ernest Shackleton, and his ship was called the Endurance—which, in 2022, was found at the bottom of the Weddell Sea about 96 miles off the coast of Antarctica. As you could probably guess, Shackleton and his crew never made it to the continent; instead, the Endurance got stuck in pack ice, and the crew was forced to abandon ship.

What followed is one of the most harrowing survival stories of the twentieth century. You can read about it in several books, including the memoir Shackleton wrote titled, South! It details the months they spent floating on ice flows in the southern ocean, then their months on a barren, uninhabited island about 800 miles away from civilization, then Shackleton’s desperate journey across those 800 miles of treacherous sea in a lifeboat to South Georgia Island, and then finally a 36-hour-long trek across the mountains and glaciers of South Georgia to arrive at a whaling port. In all, from the moment the Endurance had gotten stuck in pack ice to Shackleton’s arrival at the whaling port, it had been 492 days—almost a year and a half. Miraculously, every single member of the crew was rescued—not one of the 28 men lost their life.

Shackleton wrote his book in 1919 not only to record their scientific discoveries and retell their wild adventures of survival, but also to express his profound gratitude and admiration for those involved in his rescue. What we see in Shackleton’s story is the same thing we see in Psalm 116, and the same thing we feel in our own hearts: rescue stories demand to be shared. When we receive a radical rescue, our hearts demand a response. How can we respond to the rescue we have received from God? Psalm 116 will help us answer that question.

1 I love the Lord, because he has heard
my voice and my pleas for mercy.
Because he inclined his ear to me,
therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
The snares of death encompassed me;
the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
I suffered distress and anguish.
Then I called on the name of the Lord:
“O Lord, I pray, deliver my soul!”

Gracious is the Lord, and righteous;
our God is merciful.
The Lord preserves the simple;
when I was brought low, he saved me.
Return, O my soul, to your rest;
for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.

For you have delivered my soul from death,
my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling;
I will walk before the Lord
in the land of the living.

10 I believed, even when I spoke:
“I am greatly afflicted”;
11 I said in my alarm,
“All mankind are liars.”

12 What shall I render to the Lord
for all his benefits to me?
13 I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the Lord,
14 I will pay my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people.

15 Precious in the sight of the Lord
is the death of his saints.
16 O Lord, I am your servant;
I am your servant, the son of your maidservant.
You have loosed my bonds.
17 I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving
and call on the name of the Lord.
18 I will pay my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people,
19 in the courts of the house of the Lord,
in your midst, O Jerusalem.
Praise the Lord!

The psalmist answers our question by giving us a pattern, following the shape of his rescue story: crisis, rescue, and response.

What is the crisis the psalmist finds himself in? We’re not given a ton of specifics, but we do see at least two aspects of this crisis. First, we see the threat of death. See how the author poetically depicts this threat in verse three: “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me.” Death is portrayed like a hunter, and the author is its prey. It’s like he’s gotten caught in a trap and knows he’ll soon be taken by death. Sheol is the Hebrew notion of the place where the dead go; it’s not so much a fiery hell like Hades as it is a gloomy, muddy darkness, like a grave. The psalmist feels the panic and the horror of being dragged down into the grave. Whatever the specifics, this is clearly a desperate situation.

Second, we see that the psalmist has no hope of rescue apart from God. This expression, “all men are liars,” might indicate a specific context for the crisis, maybe some kind of betrayal or set-up. But really what this aims to express is the total unreliability of other people. The word for “liars” here contrasts with the description the author gives of God. People constantly fail to fulfill expectations. They aren’t faithful and aren’t trustworthy. It’s a similar expression to the psalm Paul quotes in Romans 3:10: “None is righteous, no, not one.” So, no one else is going to rescue him.

Additionally, the psalmist recognizes that he’s not going to rescue himself. Not only has he gotten trapped, but the psalm also suggests this may be his own fault. It’s fascinating that all the adjectives in this psalm are positive declarations of God’s attributes, except for one. The psalmist calls himself “simple.” It’s equivalent to the fool—someone who lacks wisdom and inevitably falls into trouble. The psalmist is acknowledging, “I got myself into this mess, how could I possibly be the one to get myself out?” So then, the author is facing a life-or-death crisis with no one to depend on.

What is your crisis? It might not be as dire as the psalmist, and it might not be your own fault. No one in this room is stranded on an ice floe in the southern ocean like Shackleton. But what is your crisis? Maybe you’re thinking, “I can’t relate. I’ve never faced a life-threatening crisis,” or “I grew up in a wealthy, loving family in a safe neighborhood and with good health.” If that’s your position, that’s okay—and praise God! Honestly, that’s how I felt for most of my life (until my junior year in college). You can rejoice if you’ve avoided a crisis as severe as the one in this psalm, and you can buckle up, because life happens to everyone. The Bible promises that you will face hardship. Jesus himself says so in John 16:33: “In the world you will have tribulation.” Your crisis is simply future-tense. The good news is, you have an opportunity right now to learn how to respond before you’re in the middle of a crisis. This psalm shows you how.

For most of us though, we can empathize with the psalmist: we might not be in a crisis right now, but we’ve survived them before. You faced a terrifying diagnosis but are now in remission. You went through a really hard break up but are slowly finding yourself ready to move on. After a long season of unemployment, you found a job. Now, for many of us, that past-tense crisis is well behind us.

I know that’s not true for everyone. For some of us, we’re in the middle of a crisis and are wondering when or if rescue will come. Maybe that past-tense cancer story has once again become a present-tense reality. Maybe you feel like you’re totally isolated from community, surrounded by people who know and love each other but seemingly see right past you. Maybe you’re coming to terms with an addiction you never wanted to admit you struggled with and have no idea how to fight it. What is your crisis, whether past-tense, future-tense, or present-tense? Whatever it is, this psalmist shows us what to do in crisis—it’s the only thing he can do: “O Lord, deliver my soul!” He cries out for rescue to the only one who can save him. And see what happens: God brings rescue.

Look again at the text. The psalmist’s rescue pairs exactly with his crisis. First, the author is delivered from death. Consider verses 8-9: “For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” First, there’s the explicit acknowledgement that he’s been freed from the snares of death; he’s no longer trapped in whatever situation he was in. Second, he’s been released from the emotional turmoil he was in—no more distress and anguish, no more tears. Third, he’s been saved from his own simple foolishness—his feet are kept from stumbling.

The psalm summarizes this with the common phrase, “I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” This is the opposite of Sheol. Notice its proximity to God. The grave, Sheol, is the place of death, and God is distant from Sheol. The Lord is the God of life, and his dwelling place is with the living; in fact, to be with God is to be alive. Life is defined by closeness with God. The psalmist rejoices that he walks with God and is still alive. So, the author is delivered from death—but he doesn’t consider it enough to recount his rescue. He also specifically draws attention to his Rescuer.

Notice two things about his Rescuer. First, the character of his Rescuer. “Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful” (vv. 5-7). Unlike the liars who aren’t dependable, God is faithful and merciful. Unlike the ruthless hunter Death, the Lord is gracious and righteous.

Second, the cost assessment of his Rescuer. Verse 15 is a famous verse but might seem odd in context: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” What does the author mean by “precious?” There’s actually quite a debate among scholars about how to best interpret this. Here is what’s probably going on. The word here is referring to something that’s costly, something that’s weighty. God considers the death of those who are faithful to him as very costly—in fact, too costly. That’s likely what the author means here: “God thinks I am too valuable to be left to the grave, and so he looses the snares of death.”[i] That helps fit verse 15 with 16: See the poetic juxtaposition here? To be a servant of God is to be free from death: God has purchased our lives from death.

Friends, we can’t afford to miss the wonder in our author’s voice. He writes, “He heard my voice! Me, a simple fool! Brought low—he saved me! He considered me precious.” He is in awe that in the Lord’s cost assessment, he was too valuable to leave.

What does this mean for us? We talked about our crises as past, present, and future. Let’s think about our rescue as past, present, and future. Some of us can chart this psalm directly onto our own stories. We’ve seen how God rescued us from our crisis. I mentioned earlier how my crisis came when I was a junior in college. I found myself deep in anxiety and depression, and in October of 2016 I came face-to-face with death. And in that moment of crisis, when I was on the brink, God met me there. He saved me from myself and then by his grace brought me to a place where I could get help. And after dropping out of college for a semester and years of counseling and the support of my Christian brothers and sisters, I realized that God had brought me into the land of the living.

I know I am not alone in seeing myself in this psalm. God delivered me—delivered you from death, and you have come to truly know and feel and believe that he values you as precious. It’s been many years since my rescue but reading psalms like this makes that past-tense rescue feel present-tense again.

What about those of us who are still waiting on rescue? What if you still feel like you’re in the snares of death? Let’s be as honest as Scripture when we talk about the difficulty of life—life is hard. There are far more psalms about lament and suffering than there are psalms about thanksgiving. Psalm 88 is about as raw and honest about suffering as you can get. Sometimes we find ourselves in crises we never could have imagined, no matter how well prepared we thought we were to face hardship. Sometimes those crises can be way more intense and last way longer than we had hoped.

If that’s you right now, know this: God hears you; he sees you in your grief and pain and loneliness. God loves you; he considers you so precious. God knows what it’s like to face crisis. God is faithful to rescue you. This psalm is evidence of it, and I am living proof of it.

This isn’t a guarantee that every crisis you face will be resolved or that every prayer will be answered the way we want. We’re given examples in the Bible of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who still get pushed into the furnace, or of Stephen who still gets stoned. But in those crises, we see the faithfulness of God all the more clearly. Stephen, as he was being stoned, beheld the glory of Jesus in heaven, and as he fell asleep in death he awoke in the arms of his Savior. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were not alone in the furnace.

One of the most poignant parts of Shackleton’s book is him looking back on his final 36-hour trek to rescue, when he and the two crewmates he brought with him were at their weakest and most desperate. He writes the following:

When I look back at those days I have no doubt that Providence guided us, not only across those snowfields, but across the storm-white sea that separated Elephant Island from our landing-place on South Georgia. I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia [Island] it seemed to me often that we were four, not three. I said nothing to my companions on the point, but afterwards Worsley said to me, “Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.” Crean confessed to the same idea. One feels [to quote Keats] “the dearth of human words, the roughness of mortal speech” in trying to describe things intangible, but a record of our journeys would be incomplete without a reference to a subject very near to our hearts.[ii]

Plenty of saints can testify to the truth that God draws nearest to us when we feel furthest from him and weakest of all. God is faithful to deliver us from many of our crises in this life. But Psalm 116 doesn’t stop there; it pushes forward. It sees the light at the end of the tunnel and invites us to ask the question: What will you do when you reach the end? How will you respond to rescue, whether it’s past, present, or future tense?

Look at how the psalmist responds. There are a few places where we see the author talk about his response. See verses 12-14: “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord, I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.” Verses 17-19 express the same thing. Even the opening two verses state the author’s intent. That first expression, “I love,” includes the idea of faithfulness, of commitment to obligations. It is as if the author is saying “Because God was faithful to rescue me, I will be faithful to him; because God heard my pleas, I will proclaim so others hear me.”

In short, the psalmist is responding to his rescue with worship. That’s what verses 12–14 depict. “Lifting up the cup of salvation” is likely a ceremonial act of worship at the temple in Jerusalem; Scripture talks about “drink offerings” poured out to signify God’s favor. “Calling upon the name of the Lord” is always a form of public worship, including prayer and singing and offering sacrifices. “Fulfilling vows” points to the author making good on the promises he made to God in his crisis. We see a similar example of this in Psalm 51, that famous prayer of confession David makes after sleeping with Bathsheba and having her husband murdered. After confessing his sin and asking for forgiveness, he writes this:

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise. (Psalm 51:13–15)

This isn’t meant to be a bribe of God, trying to entice him to forgive. Rather, these vows are genuine expressions of the heart’s desire: “God, I want my life to be a testimony of your grace and mercy.” This is what we see the psalmist doing in Psalm 116.

In fact, this psalm is the author’s response. There’s a reason we’re not given a ton of details about his particular crisis. The author intentionally makes it general so that others can see themselves in it—he’s reframed his own story for corporate worship. He wasn’t content to just write an entry in his diary or praise God in his silent prayers at night. He wrote a song so that the whole world could know that God is gracious and righteous, merciful to deliver even simple fools like him.

What would it look like for you to live out Psalm 116? To turn your rescue story into open worship? I’ve got three suggestions for you.

First, take time to process your story. You can follow this exact progression of crisis-rescue-response; it might be helpful to write it down. This doesn’t have to be a whole novel like Shackleton’s book; you could go for something as brief as Psalm 116. Do something to process your story not as a tragedy but as a rescue story, where God is the deliverer.

Then find a way of expressing your story in more than just words. You could do what the psalmist did, you could write a poem or a song. Maybe you’re not a poet type, but you could write a song without lyrics on the guitar or piano. If you’re gifted with the visual arts, you could draw a picture or paint a painting or sculpt something. You could even plan a party to celebrate what God has done.

Then, find a way to share it! If you’ve decided to plan a party, then invite your friends over and set aside time to share your story with them. Share your art or song or poem with your friends or family. Post it on Facebook or Instagram and add your story with it. Maybe you’re thinking “I have literally no artistic ability—I can’t draw, I don’t like poetry, I can’t believe you even suggested sculpting.” Fair enough, you and I would probably be good friends. My artistic ability hasn’t progressed beyond fifth grade doodles.

But think about this—how amazing would it be if you chose to sign up for a class and learn how to paint watercolors or decorate cakes or play guitar. You walk into the class, you meet a complete stranger, and they ask you, “What brings you here? Why’d you sign up?” You can say to that person, “You know what, I’ve got no artistic talent, and I’ve never done something like this before. But to tell you the truth, God has done something so miraculous in my life that I just have to find a way to express it—and this is me trying to learn how to do that.” Imagine the impact that would have on someone! Imagine the follow-up questions and the opportunity for worship and gratitude! That right there is a perfect example of what it would look like to live out Psalm 116. It’s moving from crisis to rescue to response and responding with open worship.

If you are a believer, if you call Jesus your Lord and Savior, you are already at the heart of the greatest rescue story imaginable. God was not willing to leave us to our sin and misery; to abandon his people to death is contrary to his very nature—he can’t bear the thought of it. So rather than leaving us behind, God draws as near to us as possible: he becomes one of us. To draw us into the land of the living he himself entered into the snares of death, he entered into the grave. He considered you and I so precious that he paid the cost of his own life. Jesus doesn’t merely rescue us from our circumstances—he rescues us from the threat of death entirely by defeating death itself. Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath so that you and I could lift up the cup of salvation. Drink deeply from it today.

[i] J. A. Emerton, “HOW DOES THE LORD REGARD THE DEATH OF HIS SAINTS IN PSALM Cxvi. 15?” The Journal of Theological Studies, Volume 34, Issue 1, April 1983, Pages 146–156

[ii] Ernest Shackleton, South! London: Heinemann Publishing, 1919. Public Domain. Ebook, 537.

Patrick is a Pastoral Intern at McLean Presbyterian Church. After graduating from Christopher Newport University and spending two additional years there as an intern with Reformed University Fellowship, Patrick returned to Northern Virginia where he grew up, met and married his wife Erin, and is currently pursuing his MDiv at Reformed Theological Seminary.

Meet Patrick