January 29, 2023

Psalm 12

Help, Lord, for no one is faithful anymore;
    those who are loyal have vanished from the human race.
Everyone lies to their neighbor;
    they flatter with their lips
    but harbor deception in their hearts.

May the Lord silence all flattering lips
    and every boastful tongue—
those who say,
    “By our tongues we will prevail;
    our own lips will defend us—who is lord over us?”

“Because the poor are plundered and the needy groan,
    I will now arise,” says the Lord.
    “I will protect them from those who malign them.”
And the words of the Lord are flawless,
    like silver purified in a crucible,
    like gold refined seven times.

You, Lord, will keep the needy safe
    and will protect us forever from the wicked,
who freely strut about
    when what is vile is honored by the human race.

Here we find another lament of David.  He looks around and says what I have often heard said these days, though the language is perhaps a bit different.  "Why is there so much evil?"  "Why doesn't anyone follow God anymore?"  "Things have never been this bad."

But David turns to the Lord and opens with "Help!"  Did you know that is one of the best prayers?  That one word communicates so much: surrender and faith.  It says, "Hey, Lord, I know you're the only hope in this situation."  It looks in the right direction for hope and assistance.  Don't ever feel ashamed or afraid to simply say to your loving heavenly Faith and Creator-King, "Help!"

In the pattern of a lament, after issuing his complaint/plea-for-help combo, David expresses confidence in God to shut down the proud and boastful.  Then there's the stanza where God speaks.  It is almost like, mid-prayer, David turns to God's word for language to express his confidence that God is going to answer his plea for help.  God will arise!  His word (promises) will be fulfilled!

David closes with a word of praise to God, the one who keeps the needy safe and protects the vulnerable from the wicked, even if it seems like at the moment they are prevailing.

A Psalm of Contrasts

As per the usual in wisdom literature, God's steadfast faithfulness and power to protect his people and triumph over evil are set in contrast to the pride and dishonesty of "the wicked" - those who refuse to acknowledge God.  Another comparison is presented between their words and God's.  The speech of these unfaithful and unloyal humans is at best unreliable, at worst harmful.  God's word, however, is as trustworthy and pure as can be.  Human tongues wag in confidence their plans will come to pass and nothing can stop them.  But the Lord arises, able to make his word come to pass.

It is worth the time to present a final contrast that may not be as obvious, but I find most personally convicting.  The last line of the Psalm reads, "when what is vile is honored by the human race."  To read that word in the context of this psalm, vile can be understood as lying, deceitfulness, boasting, pride, and plundering the vulnerable.  If I were asked, outside of reading this psalm, what I'd put in the vile category, none of these things would make my list.  I'd be thinking of gross, deviant behaviors that make the daily news and leave us thinking, "Thank goodness I'm not like that!"  But lying, deceit, pride, boasting, benefiting from the plunder of the poor?  Well, I can be like that!  In contrast, we find the faithful - loyal to God and fellow humans - who humbly turn to God, trust in his protection and power, and strive to help the poor and needy.

Good News!

Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, those who put their faith in him have a door opened to freedom from wickedness (dependence on self) and unto faithfulness (humble surrender to God).  God takes hard hearts, prone to lies, flattery, and deception, and gives hearts of flesh in return, hearts soft toward him and toward our neighbor.  The self-preservation-at-any-cost way of living is replaced by a hopeful, faithful, peaceful existence grounded in the love of our powerful and loving Creator-King who sees the poor and needy and is risen.

I am humbled by a psalm like this.  On my own, without the Lord's intervention in my life, I was in the group David talks about in verse one.  But he has intervened and given me faith and his Spirit.  I am no longer at the mercy of my pride and desires!  Nor are you if you have put your trust in Jesus.  Yes, temptation will come - we are not yet in the new earth - but sin's power over us is no more.  We belong to the Lord and are part of his family!

People will fail us.  We will disappoint ourselves.  But "the words of the Lord are flawless."  Indeed, what he says he will do.  Consider the contrasts in this psalm and, as you meditate on the gospel today, rejoice!  When you were poor and needy, the Lord came to your aid.  Jesus' work is complete and he will return.

When we are tempted to join in David's lament,"Lord, no one is faithful anymore! Evil is winning!" may the Spirit quickly come to our aid, reminding us of God's triumph over evil, his good and true promises, and his love and power at work in his Church (us!) and in the world.  Further, may the Lord guide us into his way for us today and in the coming days, showing us when and where we can be part of his "arising" to the aid of the poor and needy.


January 22, 2023

Psalm 8

Photo by <a href="https://unsplash.com/@mahkeo?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText">Khamkéo Vilaysing</a> on <a href="https://unsplash.com/wallpapers/nature/night-sky?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText">Unsplash</a>

    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory
    in the heavens.
Through the praise of children and infants
    you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
    to silence the foe and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens,
    the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
    which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you care for them?

You have made them a little lower than the angels
    and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
    you put everything under their feet:
all flocks and herds,
    and the animals of the wild,
the birds in the sky,
    and the fish in the sea,
    all that swim the paths of the seas.

    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

David praises Jehovah (LORD), whose name is majestic in the earth because he created it all, including the heavens.  Further, David is in awe of how his Lord ordered creation such that humankind would be positioned its stewards.  Psalm 8 is a psalm of praise.  Indeed this one sounds more like what we sing on a Sunday morning than the lament in Psalm 6 that we looked at last week!

As I read this I thought that perhaps David wrote this at night.  He doesn't mention the sun, only the moon and stars.  I imagine, in an era without the light pollution we enjoy today, him standing out in a field and beholding the expanse above him.  (Note in the psalm that "heavens" is a reference to the sky, not heaven as a place where God dwells.)  What does he see?  Probably something like the photo above.  So.  Many.  Stars.  The experience, even without all the knowledge we presently have about how immense the universe is, makes him wonder at how small he is.  He says, "You have set your glory in the heavens."  Glory refers here to splendor, the grandeur of an imposing form or appearance.  Jehovah's glory is displayed in creation, especially that vastness of the sky!  David recognizes his comparable smallness and worships his Jehovah's majestic name.

Then he moves on to consider that, despite his physical insignificance in comparison to the heavens, Jehovah created all things with an order, within which human beings were the crowning achievement of creation, placed on earth to tend to all Jehovah created.  What a calling!  God is so big, His creation so glorious, and still, God is "mindful" of his image-bearers and "made them rulers over the works of [his] hands."

The hierarchy is clear.  The Creator is on top.  We live and rule in dependence on and in submission to Jehovah.  Yet David communicates in his praise that it is not a hierarchy of fear, but of love.  In the poetic style of the ancient Hebrews, couplets that emphasize an image or idea, we see the mindfulness of God described as care for human beings.

You know, I have no idea how creation happened at the scientific level.  People seem to like to argue about that.  With this psalm, however, let's leave all those details aside and imagine ourselves standing with David out in the dark on a plain or at the top of a mountain beholding the clear night sky in all of its glory.  We are tempted to stop there, simply amazed at what was created.  Then the Spirit reminds us not to stop there with our adoration, but to turn our thoughts to the one who is greater than creation, Jehovah the Creator.

We hold our breath a moment when we remember he calls us his own beloved children through his Son Jesus.  The one who made and placed every blessed star in the heavens knows our names, set us on his earth to steward everything he created, and knit us together to reflect his image in the world.

As we exhale we join David and whisper or shout,

"Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!"

January 14, 2023

Psalm 6

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
    or discipline me in your wrath.
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint;
    heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in deep anguish.
    How long, Lord, how long?

Turn, Lord, and deliver me;
    save me because of your unfailing love.
Among the dead no one proclaims your name.
    Who praises you from the grave?

I am worn out from my groaning.

All night long I flood my bed with weeping
    and drench my couch with tears.
My eyes grow weak with sorrow;
    they fail because of all my foes.

Away from me, all you who do evil,
    for the Lord has heard my weeping.
The Lord has heard my cry for mercy;
    the Lord accepts my prayer.
All my enemies will be overwhelmed with shame and anguish;
    they will turn back and suddenly be put to shame.

Before this Psalm, there are musical instructions: "with stringed instruments."  I kinda giggled to myself thinking about what it would be like if our music team led us in a song with these lyrics on Sunday morning.  Not your typical praise chorus.

And yet,

how many Sunday mornings do we roll into church and could easily answer, "I am worn out from my groaning," if we were to answer honestly when asked how we were doing?

Allow me to state the obvious: Psalm 6 is a psalm of lament.

I don't know what tradition you were raised in or what your perspective of contemporary Christianity is if you weren't, but I know that I came out of my upbringing thinking that a Jesus follower had to be like Joy from the movie Inside Out(She's the one with her arms outstretched in the picture above.)  I remember a praise lyric, "I'm inside, outside, upside, downside, happy all the time!"  And there are a lot of verses about God giving us joy: the joy of the Lord is our strength; it's a fruit of the Spirit; heck, we're even supposed to consider it pure joy when we face trials of many kinds.  A passage like Psalm 6 can leave you wondering.  Was David not as fantastic of a God-follower as we've been told, too emotional or whiny?  Is Pixar better at acknowledging our humanity than the Bible?!  Or are the psalms of lament included in the canon of Scripture to teach us about the nature of God, how we can relate to Him, and a rebuke of Christians-must-be-pretutally-happy- robots -people message?

Let's see!

What's the main idea of Psalm 6?

When approaching the Word, we always want to begin by considering what it has to tell us about God.  The Bible is, after all, a book of revelation about him, that we may know him and respond to his invitation to relationship with him.  Psalms of lament have some or all of these elements, with the bold being the most common: invocation, plea for help, complaint, confession, cursing enemies, confidence in God, and a hymn or blessing to close.  In Psalm 6 we find an invocation, plea, complaint, and confidence in God.  Considering the genre and what it has to tell us about God, the main idea of psalm 6 is when we find ourselves in dire straights, running to God and declaring what is true about the situation, our feelings, and His character is the faithful move, because it expresses our trust in his love, strength, and sovereignty.

Do you see how David does this?  He doesn't shy away from brutal honesty, and in the first verses one gets the impression that he's maybe a little concerned about this blunt approach.  He's like, "Hey God, um, yeah, like, don't wipe me out, have mercy on me.  Your anointed King is not at his best right now."  But given how the Lord has guided, protected, and preserved his life so far, David knows that it is okay to come as he is.  Things are just plain hard!  He is literally dealing with enemies who want him to fail or, worse, die.

"How long, Lord, how long?" is not an unreasonable question from the man who knows he's to be Israel's next king.  God made the promise, but the road has been rocky!

I believe it's important at this juncture to share a theme I see emerging from Psalms.  Like in Psalm 1, we saw the contrast between the righteous and the wicked (those who trust God and those who do not), there is another major contrast presented, God and humankind.  God is a self-sufficient, powerful, eternal, holy, merciful refuge.  Humans are dependent, weak, finite, and very much in need of refuge.

In our psalm here we see how David is worn out, beaten down, and defeated.  He needs God to intervene, so he turns to Him.  Even in his grief, David recites what is true: God hears his prayers; his enemies will be defeated (God promised); he will know God's comfort; this weeping isn't the end of the story.

David, in lament, runs to his only true refuge, the very source of his hope.

What's this got to do with worship?

Friends, we are in the same boat as David.  Yes, we live after the death and resurrection of Jesus and have the Spirit, but we still wait His second coming, the new heaven and the new earth, the end-end of all sorrow and grief.  Groaning is part of this present season.  David shows us how we can groan faithfully with hope.  We can come to our loving heavenly Father and say, "How long, Lord, how long?" and we can repeat to ourselves and one another the truth that a day is coming when all of God's enemies and the sin that entangles us will be vanquished once and for all.

Reading the Bible and considering the timeline of God with His people reveals two things:
  1. God keeps His promises.
  2. God, in wisdom, works in His time.
The second one is hard.  I would hurry things along, especially the painful stuff!  But I wonder what I would miss about living by faith, hope, and love if life was always Easy St.?

Oh boy, one final really important thing we learn as we read God's Word to us!

**God is present with His people.**

God wants to be with us and went as far as sending His own Son to die for us so that we can live with Him eternally.  Can you believe it?!   Our Creator-King, whom we have offended with our constant efforts to be our own god, loves us and wants to be with us forever.  He wants to restore and renew us so we can look like Him!

A passage like Psalm 6 reminds us of our desperate need of a delivering and merciful God. 
Psalm 6 teaches us that authentic coming to Him doesn't have to clean up; He comforts and leads us in our sorrow. 
Psalm 6 also shows us how to live faithfully while in distress: weep because it is hard; pray because He hears; look forward to His promises because He is faithful.

Have you ever noticed how many hymns end with a verse of anticipation of Christ's return?  That keeps everything into perspective, just like the psalms of lament closing with words of confidence in God and a blessing of His name.  There's a plan for the end of all this madness.  Someone is overseeing it all and He's good and able.  There is hope because God is, sees, loves, and has a plan!

Tomorrow is Sunday.  May the Lord meet you in worship, whether you are bursting at the seems with joy this weekend or you're "worn out from groaning" like David was. God with with us when our hearts are light, when they are aching, and everything in between.  He delights that we come to Him, no matter what Inside Out character we resemble at the moment!

Lord, help us by your Spirit to be faithful to you in the waiting; it is hard and you know our fragility.
Thank you that your Word teaches us that we can come to you authentically, that you are aware of our trials and tribulations, and that you have a plan to make all things new.
You are present.  All glory to your name.

January 6, 2023

Psalm 1

 Psalm 1

Blessed is the one
    who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
    or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord
    and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leave does not wither --
    whatever they do prospers.

Not so the wicked!
    They are like chaff
    that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment
    nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous
    but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

The word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God!

The psalm above is the opening psalm of Psalms.  As I mentioned in the previous post, the compilers of the book put it together with intention.  We can thus assume that this first poetic prayer sets the tone for the book.  In fact, as I have been reading the first three psalms over and over this week, I have been impressed by how all three prepare the reader for what is to come: the first lays out a contrast between ways of living; the second extolls God's authority, sovereignty, and power; the third demonstrates living righteously by crying out to and depending on the God introduced in psalm two.  But today we focus on Psalm 1.

What is the main idea of this psalm?

Without understanding the main idea, we run the risk of missing what the psalmist is trying to say or, worse, misinterpreting or misapplying the Scripture.  Consider this sobering thought in How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, (p218, emphasis mine):

Decontextualizing any part of a psalm is to betray the psalimst, and will often lead to wrong conclusions.  Whenever one takes even a part of a piece of literature and uses it wrongly, and especially with poetry(!), that literature will be unable to do what it was intended to do, and so God's purposes in inspring it are thwarted.
That made me pause the first time I read it!  How important it is to treat the Word of God with proper respect and honor.  That reminds me of Psalm 1 a little!

In this psalm, we find the main idea in the major contrast that is presented between the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked; the former is laid out by God and the other is not.  Using the imagery of a flourishing tree in contrast to chaff that gets blown away, the way of God is presented as fruitful and lasting while the way without him as unproductive and finite.  The focus is on these two ways of living; one is under God's direction and wisdom, the other not.  It's not about individuals and whether or not they are good or bad.  The central theme of the psalm is the two ways of living.  Will we take God's wise way or will we go on our foolish own?

Remembering we are dealing with poetry, not prose, commands, or narrative helps us to keep the words of the psalm and our hearts in check.  So when we read lines like "whatever they do prospers," we know it's not a promise for following a formula.  Even the Bible highlights that bad things happen to good people and vice-versa!  Nor can we get puffed up and think, "At least I'm not like the wicked," because we know darn well that we aren't as righteous as the righteousness described in the opening verses.

Considering Psalm 1 within the full counsel of the Bible is helpful at this point.  This two-ways message is reiterated over and over again throughout the Bible.  God created us to be with him.  The story of the Bible is his unfolding plan to be with his people again as he was with Adam and Eve in the garden in Genesis 1 and 2.  Part of that plan was the provision of the law, to show his people what his way looks like and that they could be a light to the nations by living it.  To be frank, the law devastatingly (to human pride) revealed that there was no hope for them to walk in that way without complete dependence on the giver of the law.  The point was not to get the list of rules, obey them perfectly, and prove their worth to the Lord.  The point was to worship and fall into step with the way of the One who gave the law, that they might know the flourishing of a tree planted by streams of water that is fruitful and unwithering.  The coming of Christ to fulfill the law and be the way is the climax of the story.

About Worship

I woke up thinking about how to close these blog posts this year.  In the opening post I mentioned that the primary purpose of the psalms is liturgical, to guide us in worship.  Let's consider Psalm 1 from that perspective then.  Psalm 1 is not an us versus them psalm.  Psalm 1 is not a "live this way and you're guaranteed a prosperous earthly life" psalm.  Psalm 1 is not about instilling fear of a capricious God who will blow you away if you don't get it "right."

Psalm 1 certainly humbles us to the dust; we know we are incapable of constant meditation on the Scriptures and that our delight in God cannot be sustained by our own willpower.  Yet Psalm 1 also lifts up our heads; the Creator-King God loves us so much he shows us the way that we might enjoy the blessing of walking in it with him, now and eternally!  Psalm 1 is an invitation.  Psalm 1 is a gift.

You know how it opens "Blessed is ...?"  Well, I read once in reference to the beatitudes that it could be translated as congratulations!  "Congratulations to the one who walks in God's way!"   It's a way of joy, peace, hope, and flourishing.  Happy is the one who finds it, indeed.

To bring this ancient psalm into the present, lest we ever be tempted to pat ourselves on the back for being "righteous," our worship is reoriented when we remember that it was because God loved us and while we were still sinners that Christ - the Way, the Truth, and the Life - died for us to set us free from sin and send the Spirit to enable us to walk in His way.*  As it was for David, it is for us; to be a person after God's heart is a work He initiates, directs, and sustains.  All glory belongs to God!

Praise the Lord, Christian.  Worship him with wonder and delight!

If you believe, that was his work.
        If you walk in his way, that's his provision and protection.
                If you count yourself among the righteous, that is all to his credit.

Without the God who reveals the two ways, we're blind.  But when we hear about Him, learn of His way, and take Him at his word, He gives us hope, makes us righteous, and walks with us in His way.

The goal is not righteous living for righteous living's sake.  The end is our Creator-King Himself, who watches over His children on their way, helping them bear fruit as they abide in Him, and keeping their leaves green as they stay close to the river of life.

Enjoy Him and walking in His way!  And, while you're at it, why not invite a friend to join you?


*I realize I'm assuming some knowledge here, feel free to get in touch if you have any questions!

January 2, 2023

How to Read the Psalms for all Their Worth

Hello and welcome!

This year you're invited to join me on a journey through Psalms as I outlined in the previous post.  I am really looking forward to learning and growing together as we take in this book of poetic prayer during 2023.  As we begin, it behooves us to consider the book as a whole so we know how to approach the genre, which will protect us from misunderstanding or misinterpretation.  Also, did you know that Psalms has a specific structure?  The editor(s) of the book put all of the psalms together intentionally. Finally, the book was written for the people of God in a particular time and place, which guides how we approach it as twenty-first-century Christians.  I don't want to make this blost* too long or academic, but the following are vital things to keep in mind so we not only read, but read well.**

The psalms are poetry.  Maybe you remember your poetry units in middle or high school English class.  I remember.  As a  concrete thinker, sometimes I had no idea what a poet was trying to say!  Thankfully, the language and imagery of the Hebrew psalms are not difficult to understand.  The real challenge, I believe, is accepting the invitation to surrender to the God they address!

Nevertheless, here are some helpful things to know about Hebrew poetry:

  • Characterized by terseness, imagery, and parallelism  As you read you'll notice that much is communicated with few words, a lot of imagery is used, and ideas are reinforced or intensified by repetition and the use of synonyms or antonyms in successive lines.
  • Not the Bible's overly-emotional "fluff"  The psalms are emotional and relational and teach us a lot about God (theology) and how to relate to him (formation).  So, as Dr. Abernathy of Wheaton College said in his lecture on 'The Composition and Organization of the Psalter' in class this fall, "Read to learn."
  • Different types of psalms The psalms fall into three major categories: lament, hymn, and thanksgiving.  The reader must understand each on its own according to its genre.

Psalms is a structured book.  I grew up with the Bible, so I knew there were little subtitles in Psalms that said "Book I" and such, but I had never really cared to learn why.  Sidenote about me: I am not an investigator, because I'm impatient; thankfully, I married an investigator and he teaches me to take the time by being who he is.  It's also a good thing I'm back in school where they remind me not to overlook things!

Hebrew scholars organized Psalms into five of these "books" and they have a rough correlation with the history of Israel.  There's "increasing focus on God's kingship and wisdom post-exile, but not giving up on David's kingship" (Dr. Abernathy).  The book of Psalms as we know it was arranged after Israel returned from exile, but had been used in worship prior.  Books I (Ps 1-41) and II (Ps 42-72) focus on David's faithfulness, Book II (73-89) the experience of the exile, Book IV ( Ps 90-106) on wisdom and God's kingship, and, finally, Book V (Ps 107-150) David reappears and there's hope for the fulfillment of the kingdom.  The opening and closing psalms in the Psalter also communicate the message of the book; we'll hit more on that at another time.

The Psalms, Israel, God, and Us Perhaps the most important thing we must bear in mind as we read the Bible is that it was written to a specific people at a specific point in history.  Scripture also says it was inspired by God for us.  The psalms were "functional ... they served the crucial function of making a connection between the worshipper and God (Fee & Stuart 218)" individually and corporately.  While much more could be said, let us keep in mind that the primary purpose of the Psalms is liturgical.  That is a fancy word for worship.  May our hearts be open to what that means for each of us in our relationship with God and fellow believers.

As I sat with the Lord this morning and reread Psalms 1-3, I wrote,

The Psalms are nice but meaningless without the God of whom they speak.  Trust Him and you can tell Him anything. 
Don't be afraid to verbalize the questions Scripture brings.

Can't wait to see what God has in store for us as we read, study, and meditate on this poetic worship book He has given us!  The picture above is this month's image on a calendar of psalms that my neighbor gave me, unaware that I was starting this series.  How cool is that?


* If you're new here, I refer to blog posts as "blosts."  I have this ridiculous pet peeve about people calling a single post a blog but agree that it's nice to have a single word for a blog post.  Thus, "blost" was born!

**Pretty much all of what I share here I learned from lectures in BITH 533 from Wheaton College, fall 2022, and How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, by Fee and Stuart - a book we've had on our shelves since college that I finally read when it was assigned!  Really wish I would have read it sooner, but better "late" than never.