The true King (Psalm 72)

Tolkien’s classic fantasy series culminates in the coronation of Aragorn, king over all Middle-Earth.  And “the hands of the king are healing hands,” it is said. 

As we conclude our week looking at the psalms of the king, we are reminded that the Bible’s ultimate focus is not our glory, but God’s.  And at the end of this great story, God’s glory is most fully revealed when Christ rules and reigns on earth (Revelation 20-22). 

In other words, all of the psalms that speak of wise, earthly kings are only the shadows of this great throne—they describe an ideal; only Christ can embody the reality. 

In psalm 72, we find a prayer for Israel’s king.  In its ancient context, the psalm focused on what it would mean for Israel’s king to rule over the nation.  But we will also see that it hints at a day when the world’s true King would rule over all nations.

 

THE SOURCE OF JUSTICE (Psalm 72:1-7)

First, we see that there is a prominent theme of “justice” and “peace.” 

Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the royal son! May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice! Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness! May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the children of the needy, and crush the oppressor! May they fear you while the sun endures, and as long as the moon,  throughout all generations! May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth! In his days may the righteous flourish, and peace abound, till the moon be no more!

All of the justice and peace language is sourced in the rule and reign of the king.  Wrongs are set right.  Things are put back to where they are supposed to be.

 

THE SCOPE OF JUSTICE (Psalm 72:8-14)

Second, the psalm focuses on how far-reaching this justice truly is:

May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth! May desert tribes bow down before him, and his enemies lick the dust! 10  May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands render him tribute; may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! 11  May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him! 12  For he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper. 13  He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. 14  From  oppression and violence he redeems their life, and precious is their blood in his sight.

In the ancient world, it would have been easy to dismiss the king’s rule as localized to one nation—but here we see that the king is sovereign over all peoples.  Notice again the emphasis on the elimination of oppression and violence. 

 

THE BENEFITS OF JUSTICE (Psalm 72:15-20)

Finally, the psalm concludes with prayers for long life and blessing. 

15  Long may he live; may gold of Sheba be given to him! May prayer be made for him continually, and blessings invoked for him all the day! 16  May there be abundance of grain in the land; on the tops of the mountains may it wave; may its fruit be like Lebanon; and may people blossom in the cities like the grass of the field! 17  May his name endure forever, his fame continue as long as the sun! May people be blessed in him, all nations call him blessed! 18  Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things. 19  Blessed be his glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with his glory! Amen and Amen! 20  The prayers of David, the son of Jesse, are ended.

Justice, peace.  These are the attributes that are associated with Christ’s ultimate rule.  Yet in today’s world we are tempted to write these off as in some way restrictive.  My plans are better—or at least that’s what I’ve been convinced.  And if I am deeply committed to living my own way, I may find myself at odds with Christ’s followers. 

In his Reason for God, Tim Keller offers a helpful anecdote.  He famously says that even if you don’t believe in Jesus, you should “want [his story] to be true:”

“Each year at Easter I get to preach on the Resurrection. In my sermon I always say to my skeptical, secular friends that, even if they can’t believe in the resurrection, they should want it to be true. Most of them care deeply about justice for the poor, alleviating hunger and disease, and caring for the environment. Yet many of them believe that the material world was caused by accident and that the world and everything in it will eventually simply burn up in the death of the sun. They find it discouraging that so few people care about justice without realizing that their own worldview undermines any motivation to make the world a better place. Why sacrifice for the needs of others if in the end nothing we do will make any difference? If the resurrection of Jesus happened, however, that means there’s infinite hope and reason to pour ourselves out for the needs of the world.”

The true king establishes justice, brings peace.  Surely we can each long for a day when the world is set right, and goodness flows through our streets. 

 

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The King and His Bride (Psalm 45)

In Spike Jonez’ bracing (though peculiar) cinematic adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, young Max is transported to a land full of misfit monsters who initially threaten to eat him.  They stop—but only because Max tells them that he’s actually a king.  A king?  They are at once mollified and intrigued.  They need a king, you see, to keep things in line.  “What about, y’know, loneliness?”  One of the monsters asks.  When Max looks puzzled, another monster clarified: “Will you keep out the sadness?”  Max promises, “I have a sadness shield that keeps out all the sadness, and it’s big enough for all of us.”

Of course, Max the child-king is unprepared for adult emotions.  You can’t be happy all the time, he discovers, even in the fantastic kingdom of the wild things.  But for most of us, this is what our hearts long for: a “king,” someone who—if we identify with them strongly enough—can help us find happiness, comfort, or significance.

In psalm 45, we find a fascinating combination of two great themes: kingship and marriage.  The whole psalm serves to glorify a king as he prepares for his wedding.

PRAISE FOR THE BRIDEGROOM (Psalm 45:1-9)

The psalm opens by focusing on the nature of the king himself—how great he is, and how wealthy and powerful.

To the choirmaster: according to Lilies. A Maskil of the Sons of Korah; a love song. My heart overflows with a pleasing theme; I address my verses to the king; my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe. You are the most handsome of the sons of men; grace is poured upon your lips; therefore God has blessed you forever. Gird your sword on your thigh, O mighty one, in your splendor and majesty! In your majesty ride out victoriously for the cause of truth and meekness and righteousness; let your right hand teach  you awesome deeds! Your arrows are sharp in the heart of the king’s enemies; the peoples fall under you. Your throne, O God, is forever and ever. The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness; you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions; your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia. From ivory palaces stringed instruments make you glad; daughters of kings are among your ladies of honor; at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir.

And, as you might have guessed, while this psalm finds its most immediate application in the ancient kings and customs of the ancient near east, the psalm points forward to the day when Jesus, the true king, would pursue his bride, the Church (Ephesians 5:23-25).

brideJesus is the true and better bridegroom, just as he is the true and better king. Some years ago, the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard told a story of a king who fell in love with a beautiful maiden.  Unfortunately, she was a peasant, and the king’s various courtiers voiced concern about the class division their union might represent.  How could true love exist between unequals?  The king could elevate the maiden to his own status—but she might love this lavish gift more than the man who gave it.  He could reveal his majestic, kingly splendor—but this might evoke fearful admiration rather than genuine affection.  The king realized that “the union could not be brought by an elevation,” therefore “it must be attempted by a descent.”  He shed his royal robes; he donned the tattered clothing of a peasant.  This, says Kierkegaard, is love—the same love that God showed us by putting on the tattered clothing of our humanity.  As a German writer would later put it, “sinners are beautiful because they are loved; they are not loved because they are beautiful.”

 

ADVICE TO THE BRIDE (Psalm 45:10-17)

Next, the psalm turns its focus to the bride.

10  Hear, O daughter, and consider, and incline your ear: forget your people and your father’s house, 11  and the king will desire your beauty. Since he is your lord,  bow to him. 12  The people of Tyre will seek your favor with gifts, the richest of the people.  13  All glorious is the princess in her chamber, with robes interwoven with gold. 14  In many-colored robes she is led to the king, with her virgin companions following behind her. 15  With joy and gladness they are led along as they enter the palace of the king. 16  In place of your fathers shall be your sons; you will make them princes in all the earth. 17  I will cause your name to be remembered in all generations; therefore nations will praise you forever and ever.

Just as the king points to the ultimate king of Jesus, so too does the bride here reflect God’s people in today’s Church.

Whenever I perform a wedding, I’m prone to quote Stanley Hauerwas, a professor from Duke University—a quote I discovered while reading Pastor Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage.  He says that “we always marry the wrong person…Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change.  For marriage, being [the enormous thing it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it.”  That’s not cynicism.  Hauerwas is offering a helpful corrective to a culture that’s turned marriage into yet another means to self-fulfillment.   In her book Divorce Culture, Barbara Defoe Whitehead argues that divorce rates are skyrocketing because we have lost a shared vision of marriage’s true purpose:

“More than in the past, satisfaction in [marriage and family] came to be based on subjective judgments about the content and quality of individual happiness…People began to judge the strength and ‘health’ of family bonds according to their capacity to promote individual fulfillment and personal growth.”

If you say, “I’m doing things my way,” you are not destined for a healthy marriage.  The same applies to your spiritual health.  I often have people tell me, “I tried Christianity.  It didn’t work for me.”  Or, “It’s my life.  My choices are my own.”  We serve self before we serve God.  What’s in it for me?  How much does God really expect me to change?  And like any marriage, we never truly know.

In his famous account of his conversion to Christianity, G.K. Chesterton confronted the conflicting views on marriage in his day:

“…the opponents of marriage…imagine that the ideal of constancy was a yoke mysteriously imposed on mankind by the devil, instead of being…a yoke consistently imposed by all lovers on themselves. They have invented a phrase, a phrase that is a black and white contradiction in two words—`free-love’—as if a lover ever had been, or ever could be, free. It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word.”

A few years ago, a friend of mine got engaged.  As the day approached, he began to notice all the little freedoms he’d be “forced” to give up.  Late-night runs to the drive-thru.  Drinking milk straight from the carton.  Yet he couldn’t possibly weigh these freedoms against the lasting benefits of marital faithfulness.

Could it be that your reluctance to truly follow Jesus has less to do with your doubts, and more to do with your fears?  Let it go.  You never know where faith will take you any more than you know where your marriage will end up.  Follow your own twisted heart, and you’ll only find more emptiness than ever before.  Follow Jesus, and you’ll find everything you never knew you wanted.

 

 

Where is your king? (Psalm 21)

CrownWhere is our king?  In our previous posts, we highlighted the supreme delight and benefit that come from living under the yoke of kingship.  Though Israel’s kings had been dismal failures, they looked forward to a day when all of God’s people would live under the rule and reign of a righteous king. 

So where is he now?  We have only to glance at a news program to shake our heads in dismay, our crumbling hearts testifying to the injustice that flickers before our eyes.  Are hope’s embers destined to be gradually extinguished?  Or is there another who could come in to breathe life and love and hope back into the world?

For Israel, their hope lay in God.  The previous enthronement psalms (which Randy covered last week) testified to a heavenly king—that God himself rules in majesty.  These enthronement psalms testify to an earthly representative who would carry on David’s line and bring God’s justice to the world.  So the people of the Bible hoped for two things: (1) that God would bring salvation and rule and (2) that an earthly king would lead them.  What these people never imagined—not in their wildest dreams—that both of these expectations would be met in the same person.

In his thorough analysis on the psalms, C. Hassell Bullock writes that all of the enthronement psalms ultimately point to the rule and reign of Jesus:

“The messianic vision, while not complete in the Psalms, develops somewhere in between. We can see this development more clearly in the prophets than in the Psalter. In fact, there is a self-contained messianism in the prophets that we do not find in the Psalms. In contrast, the messianic application of the Psalms develops within the interpretive process of the Jewish and Christian communities, although it is important to recognize that the raw material for the messianic vision is already laid out in the Psalms and is not merely an invention of those communities.” (C. Hassell Bullock, Handbook to the Book of Psalms, p. 183)

So when we read psalms such as Psalm 21—psalms that testify to Israel’s king’s power and justice—we must do so with the understanding that the psalter can only describe the ideal qualities of the king.  Only Jesus fulfills these qualities entirely. 

GOD’S STRENGTH (Psalm 21:1-7)

King David describes the true joy that comes from obedience to God:

Lord, in your strength the king rejoices, and in your salvation how greatly he exults! You have given him his heart’s desire and have not withheld the request of his lips. Selah For you meet him with rich blessings; you set a crown of fine gold upon his head. He asked life of you; you gave it to him, length of days forever and ever. His glory is great through your salvation; splendor and majesty you bestow on him. For you make him most blessed forever; you make him glad with the joy of your presence. For the king trusts in the Lord, and through the steadfast love of the Most High he shall not be moved.

Of course, we know that David’s obedience was often marred by poor decisions.  Only Jesus—the true king—lived a life of perfect obedience.  And the gospel says that the king’s righteousness—and its attendant joy—is granted to us through faith.

 

GOD’S FUTURE (Psalm 21:8-12)

David next described his own dreams of justice:

Your hand will find out all your enemies; your right hand will find out those who hate you. You will make them as a blazing oven when you appear. The Lord will swallow them up in his wrath, and fire will consume them. 10  You will destroy their descendants from the earth, and their offspring from among the children of man. 11  Though they plan evil against you, though they devise mischief, they will not succeed. 12  For you will put them to flight; you will aim at their faces with your bows. 13  Be exalted, O Lord, in your strength! We will sing and praise your power.

Such language may seem a savage barbarism to contemporary ears.  Who could love a God like this?  But the better question is, “Who could love a God who allowed evil and injustice to flourish?” 

On the cross Jesus secured the justice of God by paying an unpayable debt.  True justice comes at last when Christ returns to set right the wrongs and offer renewal. 

And, says Pastor James Stuart, because in Jesus God is both holy and loving, we find in Jesus a personality that mysteriously embodies the extremes of God’s character:

“He was the meekest and lowliest of all the sons of men. Yet he spoke of coming on the clouds of heaven with the glory of God. He was so austere that evil spirits and demons cried out in terror at his coming, yet he was so genial and winsome and approachable, that the children loved to play with him and the little ones nestled in his arms. His presence at the innocent gaiety of a village wedding, was like the presence of sunshine. No one was half so kind or compassionate to sinners, yet no one ever spoke such red-hot scorching words about sin. A bruised reed he would not break. His whole life was love. Yet on one occasion he demanded of the Pharisees, how they were expected to escape the damnation of hell. He was a dreamer of dreams and a seer of visions, yet for sheer stark realism, he has all of us self-styled realists soundly beaten. He was the servant of all, washing the disciples’ feet, yet masterfully he strode into the temple, and the hucksters and moneychangers fell over one another to get away in their mad rush from the fire they saw blazing in his eyes. He saved others, yet at the last, he himself did not save. There is nothing in history like the union of contrasts which confronts us in the gospels; the mystery of Jesus is the mystery of divine personality.”

If I follow a man like this, what does it mean for my life today?  It means that I turn on the news and react with sorrow—but not surprise.  I react to my sinful neighbors with compassion—but not hostility.  I endure suffering with tears—but not clenched fists.  And it means I live a life that relentlessly pursues joy—not temporary happiness. 

 

Who needs God? (Psalm 18)

Though largely fictional, there is an old story about a seminary student who abandons his faith after sitting through many lectures on philosophy and critical scholarship.  So he comes to the office of the school chaplain for advice and counsel.   “I don’t believe in God anymore,” the student confesses.  The old chaplain nods without judgment, saying, “Well, tell me about this god you don’t believe in, because maybe I don’t believe in him, either.” 

The message is simple: sometimes the caricatures we draw of God don’t compare to the reality of God.  Our expectations, our assumptions we so often press upon him—many of the images we create as a culture don’t match the portrait we find in the Bible. 

Like many other psalms, Psalm 18 bridges multiple categories of psalms.  We’re classifying it as a royal psalm, primarily because of the last lines that speak of salvation to the earthly king.  But it could also be seen as a psalm of thanksgiving—full of gratitude for God’s goodness to all people.  Reading along, we can see three areas as to why.

GOD’S CHARACTER (Psalm 18:1-3)

First, Psalm 18 digs deeply into the unchanging character of God, who offers protection and provision for his people:

I love you, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies.

DELIVERANCE (Psalm 18:4-29)

Second, God provides his people with protection from death and destruction. 

The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of destruction assailed me; the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me. In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears. Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because he was angry. Smoke went up from his nostrils, and devouring fire from his mouth; glowing coals flamed forth from him. He bowed the heavens and came down; thick darkness was under his feet. 10  He rode on a cherub and flew; he came swiftly on the wings of the wind. 11  He made darkness his covering,  is canopy around him thick clouds dark with water. 12  Out of the brightness before him hailstones and coals of fire broke through his clouds. 13  The Lord also thundered in the heavens, and the Most High uttered his voice, hailstones and coals of fire. 14  And he sent out his arrows and scattered them; he flashed forth lightnings and routed them. 15  Then the channels of the sea were seen, and the foundations of the world were laid bare at your rebuke, O Lord, at the blast of the breath of your nostrils. 16  He sent from on high, he took me; he drew me out of many waters. 17  He rescued me from my strong enemy and from those who hated me, for they were too mighty for me. 18  They confronted me in the day of my calamity, but the Lord was my support. 19  He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me, because he delighted in me. 20  The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me. 21  For I have kept the ways of the Lord, and have not wickedly departed from my God. 22  For tall his rules were before me, and his statutes I did not put away from me. 23  I was blameless before him, and I kept myself from my guilt. 24  So the Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight. 25  With the merciful you show yourself merciful; with the blameless man you show yourself blameless; 26  with the purified you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous. 27  For you save a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down. 28  For it is you who light my lamp; the Lord my God lightens my darkness. 29  For by you I can run against a troop, and by my God I can leap over a wall.

BLESSINGS (Psalm 18:30-50)

Finally, God provides help and strength and blessing to his people:

30  This God—his way is perfect; the word of the Lord proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him. 31  For who is God, but the Lord? And who is a rock, except our God?—32  the God who equipped me with strength and made my way blameless. 33  He made my feet like the feet of a deer and set me secure on the heights. 34  He trains my hands for war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze. 35  You have given me the shield of your salvation, and your right hand supported me, and your gentleness made me great. 36  You gave a wide place for my steps under me, and my feet did not slip. 37  I pursued my enemies and overtook them, and did not turn back till they were consumed. 38  I thrust them through, so that they were not able to rise; they fell under my feet. 39  For you equipped me with strength for the battle; you made those who rise against me sink under me. 40  You made my enemies turn their backs to me,  and those who hated me I destroyed. 41  They cried for help, but there was none to save; they cried to the Lord, but he did not answer them. 42  I beat them fine as dust before the wind; I cast them out like the mire of the streets. 43  You delivered me from strife with the people; you made me the head of the nations; people whom I had not known served me. 44  As soon as they heard of me they obeyed me; foreigners came cringing to me. 45  Foreigners lost heart and came trembling out of their fortresses.46  The Lord lives, and blessed be my rock, and exalted be the God of my salvation—47  the God who gave me vengeance and subdued peoples under me, 48  who delivered me from my enemies; yes, you exalted me above those who rose against me; you rescued me from the man of violence. 49  For this I will praise you, O Lord, among the nations, and sing to your name. 50  Great salvation he brings to his king, and shows steadfast love to his anointed, to David and his offspring forever.

 

BUT WHAT ABOUT ME?

I could easily imagine that some of you read this and feel it all a cheat.  The words of the psalms—however comforting and pleasant—might seem no more real than the message inside your fortune cookie.  You read them, smile, and go about your day. 

Christianity would tell you that God’s promises of blessing and protection are far from absolute.  The experiences reflected in the book of psalms are highly varied, and may or may not match your own. 

But what Christianity would also say is that while God makes no promises of universal blessing and happiness, he offers incredible promises of lasting joy.  And the greatest gift God ever gave man was himself.

In his novel Life After God, Douglas Coupland offers a series of vignettes of life through the eyes of an atheist.  But he concludes with a fascinating confession:

“Now—here is my secret…My secret is that I need God—that I am sick and can no longer make it alone.  I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.” 

Do you need God?  Faith is more than a comforting set of beliefs.  Faith provides us with a path that illumines and guides us each and every day.  And the most shocking part of all, is that God stepped into our path in the person of Jesus, that he might lead us back to God. 

What good is a king? (Psalm 2)

Wooden crownWhat good is a “king?” 

The question, really, is one of authority.  But what is “authority?”  Authority refers to how we can trust something—or someone—it’s the reason we tend to view the Wall Street Journal as more reliable than Wikipedia.  In the last century, the noted sociologist Max Weber noted that the concept of authority has shifted markedly in western culture.  Once, he said, we believed in something called “traditional authority,” meaning we believed that we put our trust in a holy book or religious experience.  Then came the “modern” period, and we increasingly believed in “rational-legal” authority, meaning we placed our trust in human reason and truths held to be “self-evident.”  But, he says, we then shifted to “charismatic” authority.  Now we place our trust in…well, whoever we want, really.  Popularity reigns supreme.  Authority now rests in the number of one’s Twitter followers. 

In short, we’ve entered a world where feeling is believing.  And we invariably find no shortage of voices and talking heads all primed to direct our thoughts and attitudes toward some particular agenda.  If we’re not careful, we become numb to the constant barrage of information, the persistent siren song of a world off its hinges, in love only with new ideas and triumphant progress. 

But for all the voices offering a variety of means, we remain lacking in ends.  What is life about?  What is my purpose?  It’s not that these questions aren’t being answered—it’s that beneath all the chatter of political pundits, spiritual gurus and rock stars, it starts to seem as if the answers don’t matter.  Authority, ultimately, rests only on my own shoulders. 

Yet I wither beneath its weight.

 

REBELLION (Psalm 2:1-3)

These problems run deep.  They predate us by centuries, even millennia.  The question of who to trust first arose on the lips of a serpent, who tempted our ancestors into insurrection against God’s perfect goodness.  The juice from the forbidden fruit ran down our chins, and we stood naked in our prideful autonomy.  And then creation fell.  All of the hurt, all of the shame, all of the mistrust, all of the tears that have fallen to the ground since that day—we’re reaping a harvest of our own self-centeredness. 

God gathered to himself a people whose only common trait was having been chosen through his grace.  Through Abraham was birthed the nation of Israel, starting a lifelong pattern of rescue and rebellion that would last until today.  In 1500 BC, God rescued his people from Egyptian slavery, bringing them to the promised land where he established his rule in their lives. 

But in 1000 BC, the people had realized the failure of God’s system of judges.  The conclusion of the book of Judges reminds us that “there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”  Looking to their neighbors in envy, Israel demanded that they be given a King.  And while their first King—Saul—was a dismal failure, their hope soon lay in a humble shepherd-king named David. 

And so songs of the earthly king gave shape to the nation’s hopes—hopes that one day they would all experience a world where God would rule over them through an earthly ruler. 

So in Psalm 2, we see the need expressed:

Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying, 3  “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” (Psalm 2:1-3)

In a very real sense, Israel understood what it was like to live in a world with no central authority.  Instead, everyone continued to live his own life—and it was a disaster. 

Even today we live in a world where true freedom is assumed to be the absence of all restriction.  To place boundaries on another human being is unloving at best and bigoted at worst.  It’s no wonder that Christianity is routinely mocked as morally backward and sexually repressive—for it represents a call to sacrifice our autonomy in favor of a life of devotion to God.

 

RESOLUTION (2:4-6)

Thankfully, God’s plan remained undamaged.

He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.”

This seems a strange statement—that God would mock his wayward people.  But surely you can see the irony?  If Christianity is untrue, then it only makes sense to “dabble” in spirituality.  That is, if the gospels are mere legends, if Jesus never rose from the grave, if my forgiveness is less than sure—then life becomes only as meaningful as I make it.  I can pick and choose what religious beliefs to hold dear, and which to soften and mold to cultural standards.  But if the gospel is true, then that changes everything.  I can no longer dismiss Christianity as a crutch for the weak-minded—at least not without agreeing that many ways of life offer crutches all their own.  Sex, career, sports, fashion—these and a thousand lesser gods have the power to rule my heart but never offer me lasting joy.  So while God’s derisive laughter may seem abrasive—perhaps insensitive—it’s only because God affirms the basic futility of living life on my own.   I need a true king.  I need the true King. 

 

SUBMISSION (2:7-12)

So the psalm concludes with a response to God’s authority:

I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me,  “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” 10  Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. 11  Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. 12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled.  Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

Bob Dylan famously said that “you gotta serve somebody.”   And it’s true.  Everyone bows to someone else’s authority—whether based on specific credentials or the sheer force of charisma.  Christianity says that your ability to flourish depends entirely on whose authority you choose to follow.  So what good is a king?  But perhaps we could ask a better question: does the “king” you currently follow bend you closer toward truth, or closer toward self?  Does your current lifestyle empower you to love God and neighbor, or only affirm your prideful self-sufficiency?  Do your beliefs offer you genuine refuge, or are they only a surrogate hope built on wish-fulfillment? 

In the next series of posts, we’ll look at the ways that Israel’s hopes for a king find true fulfillment in the arrival of Jesus—and we’ll see how this arrival ushers in a fresh and wild hope for you and I.

Wanting Revenge, or Desiring Justice? – Psalm 98

With today’s final look at our week-long category of Heavenly Enthronement Psalms, I have to marvel at the timing of our consideration of these concepts in the light of current events.

Knowing that these devotionals will be online for perhaps years, for those in the future who will read these words, let me tell you that they are written the day after an American journalist was beheaded on video by the ISIS fighters in Iraq for all of America to see. The country is enflamed with righteous indignation and anger at such barbaric behavior. There is a palpable feeling of desiring revenge.

Sadly, atrocities are not new on the human landscape. What would be considered war crimes by international standards over the past century were the common fare of nation versus nation conflict in the era of the writing of the Psalms. The practice of making human popsicles out of enemies by impaling them on a stick was invented by the Assyrians—the people who would take captive the northern tribes of Israel.

Without doubt, those who do such things – either 700 BC or AD 2014 – deserve to be eliminated from the planet. The problem is that, even when we are capable of making a perfectly moral and accurate judgment, we are incapable of executing it with flawless effect and perfect results. We can labor toward justice, but we will never be able to establish it in a world that remains under the curse of sin.

And so we live in a suspended state of inability and futility to bring about the righteous desires of our hearts. Paul says in Romans…

Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.

Though we may want revenge, it is better to desire justice. And justice can only be fully and perfectly realized with the coming of the Lord as the judge upon the earth.

Put all of this together, and you have the spirit and feeling of Psalm 98 …

1 Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.
2 The Lord has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations.
3 He has remembered his love and his faithfulness to Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.

4 Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music;
5 make music to the Lord with the harp, with the harp and the sound of singing,
6 with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn—shout for joy before the Lord, the King.

7 Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.
8 Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy;
9 let them sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.

The Incomparable Coming of the Lord – Psalm 97

It is one thing to write about the Scriptures as Chris and I do in these regular devotionals to accompany our preaching series. But it would be quite another thing to have to write the original material … although being under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit would certainly help one write even better stuff than we do here!! Imagine that!

Some of you may have, or may have had some years ago, a Ryrie Study Bible. There are many study Bibles out there, but in the late 70s Charles Ryrie sort of established the first of these modern guides to the Scriptures with annotated footnotes throughout – with charts, indices, and maps in the back. Another Dallas Seminary couple along with Diana and I invited he and his wife to dinner one evening in that era when I was a student there (78-82). His first full version of the Bible had just been published and he was telling us about some of the odd mail he was receiving with varied criticisms of his notes. He told us that when he did choose to write back to some of them that he reminded these critics that he “only wrote the stuff below the line, and the Holy Spirit wrote what was above” … which is what the folks were really having a problem accepting.

This enthronement Psalm portraying the greatness of God in his coming to the earth as a judge presents the writer (and the interpreter) with the challenge of picturing and describing something that is beyond comprehension. Nothing like the return of Christ has ever happened before, and even picturing the grandest scene that is imaginable – something like an epic storm or all the mountains melting like a chain of volcanos – still falls well short of this future reality.

I remember as an elementary child going on a local field trip to our area newspaper, where they showed us around the place and how a newspaper was produced (I would later work for this newspaper as a sportswriter – the first place I ever used a computer keyboard when they were first invented). This was in the era of metal type setting, and it was fascinating to see it put into place letter by letter.

It is my understanding that newspapers at that time had a font type and size that was sometimes called something like “the second coming text.”  This was a largest possible metal print font that was essentially held in reserve for the biggest possible news. I also recall that in 1963, when JFK was assassinated, newspapers were said to be tempted to break out this font size.

Again, this is the challenge of the writer – to talk about the magnificence of the coming of God in judgment. What would be the effects upon the natural world? How would the peoples of the world at that time react? Of this latter question, the Psalmist pictures all of them bowing before God, including the evil and wicked folks who did not honor the Lord – even to the extent that their dead and meaningless idols would acknowledge the true God.

The people of God, on the other hand, would rejoice. This would bring about justice and righteousness and the ending of all things that are wrong and futile.

Do you find that you live with a longing … a hope or anticipatory expectation of such a day? If we lived in a more difficult context than modern America, we might have an enhanced longing. I know that aging brings it more to the front of our minds, as the accumulation of years of seeing pain in this world, and feeling more and more the effects of physical decline, cause us to have a greater sense of longing for ultimate things. And that is good.

Psalm 97

1 The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad; let the distant shores rejoice.
2 Clouds and thick darkness surround him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.
3 Fire goes before him and consumes his foes on every side.
4 His lightning lights up the world; the earth sees and trembles.
5 The mountains melt like wax before the Lord, before the Lord of all the earth.
6 The heavens proclaim his righteousness, and all peoples see his glory.

7 All who worship images are put to shame, those who boast in idols—worship him, all you gods!

8 Zion hears and rejoices and the villages of Judah are glad because of your judgments, Lord.
9 For you, Lord, are the Most High over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods.
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.
11 Light shines on the righteous and joy on the upright in heart.
12 Rejoice in the Lord, you who are righteous, and praise his holy name.

The Place of the Just Verdict – Psalm 96

We hear much in our world today about the desire for justice. This day, in the central part of our country, there is much civil strife going on in a Missouri town due to the outrage that an injustice has been committed.

The governor of Texas was indicted yesterday, fingerprinted like a criminal, all in a political stunt of grave injustice to give the public appearance of wrongdoing for an act that was the simple execution of his constitutional prerogatives.

Over the years there have been occasions in the news where we hear of a court verdict that leaves one shaking his head in amazement. Yet other occasions have the residual confusion of not knowing what really happened in a “he said, she said” presentation of contradictory facts where no witnesses were present.

I have a friend right now who is being unjustly treated in the workplace – having been set up to fail with impossible criteria that will be presumably used for job removal. Truth and justice do not seem to be nearby whatsoever.

We could go on and on with such examples, even in our own lives where we have all been hurt by the aspersions of others.

Wouldn’t it be great if the truth would always prevail! That would be something to celebrate and be joyful about, wouldn’t it?

Well, that is the very spirit of Psalm 96. Here in this enthronement Psalm, God is declared as the sovereign over all things, all nations and all peoples. There is no higher authority.

God will ultimately judge all things and all nations and all people. This is something to be joyful about, because justice will prevail. And at the same time this is something to be fearful about, because justice will prevail.

Though evil people and nations seem to too often get away with injustice and oppression, it will not always be this way. We can be pleased with that!

But we are sinners, and if God is to be a just judge, we are really in trouble, right? And that is fearful. Yet as we stand before Him, not in our own “goodness” but rather in the righteousness of Christ who paid the price by dying for us, we have no reason to fear God’s wrath … because it has already be spent on His only begotten Son. That is amazing!

There in the ground His body lay

Light of the World by darkness slain

Then bursting forth in glorious Day

Up from the grave He rose again

And as He stands in victory

Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me

For I am His and He is mine

Bought with the precious blood of Christ

No guilt in life, no fear in death

This is the power of Christ in me

From life’s first cry to final breath

Jesus commands my destiny

No power of hell, no scheme of man

Can ever pluck me from His hand

‘Til He returns or calls me home

Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand

Psalm 96

1 Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.
2 Sing to the Lord, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day.
3 Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples.

4 For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods.
5 For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.
6 Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and glory are in his sanctuary.

7 Ascribe to the Lord, all you families of nations, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
8 Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering and come into his courts.
9 Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness; tremble before him, all the earth.
10 Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns.” The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity.

11 Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it.
12 Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them; let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.
13 Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness.

Getting in Step with Eternity – Psalm 93

Today’s enthronement Psalm is a simple song that extols the greatness of God and His authority over the world.

As an exercise today, really try to think like a person who lived up to 3,000 years ago. Living at that time, when you thought of what was powerful in your world, what would most come to mind?

In the realm of human dynamics and interactions, you would think of kings and powerful nations and empires.

In our day, apart from the security details and secret service that precedes and surrounds every step that a president takes, there would be nothing to distinguish him from anyone else in a crowd of people. (I don’t mean to make any reference here to Obama specifically.) He is not dressed or clothed in any fashion that would particularly catch the eye.

This would not be so in ancient times. There was no mistaking who the king was, even from a significant distance. He was clothed with the finest attire that would be very distinctive.

The strongest empires were those that lasted a significant period of time. Weaker empires and nations had a continual sort of battle that went on between rival factions—preventing centralization of power and authority. The great nations and empires were dynasties.

And so in this 93rd Psalm, God is spoken of as a great sovereign who is clothed in something beyond this world – in majesty and strength. And it is this way forever.

Back into your sandals – what would you think of as the ultimate natural power on the planet, the least tamable element? You might think of wind and storms, or perhaps earthquakes or floods; but all of these more or less come and go. The least conquerable and vast power on the planet really is the ocean. Its voice and power are heard in the thundering sound of angry waves.

But God is mightier than the seas.

His power, authority, and truth (statutes) are from eternity to eternity.

As I write this, I do so on the day of a large funeral in which I participated as one of a number of speakers. A couple of the others talked about the brevity of life – speaking of the “dash” … you know, that symbol between the year someone is born and the year they die. Our lives are a simple dash.

It really is small by comparison. So why do we so often focus all of our energies on maximizing a “dash” when we compare it to being properly aligned with the eternity that is to follow.

The oft unspoken, but presumed theme and application of the enthronement / praise Psalms is that such greatness solicits and even requires our alignment with it – with God. The Lord is not going to align with us and our small, personal ideas about what is best. We need to get in step with him, and the good news is that doing so leads us to success and satisfaction in life.

Psalm 93

1 The Lord reigns, he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed in majesty and armed with strength; indeed, the world is established, firm and secure.
2 Your throne was established long ago; you are from all eternity.

3 The seas have lifted up, Lord, the seas have lifted up their voice; the seas have lifted up their pounding waves.
4 Mightier than the thunder of the great waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea—the Lord on high is mighty.

5 Your statutes, Lord, stand firm; holiness adorns your house for endless days.

God Holds the Trump Cards (Psalm 47)

This week we will be looking at “Enthronement Psalms” – which are Praise Psalms that include royalty / kingdom sort of language and tone. Next week we move on to a different category of Enthronement Psalms that look at the Davidic king – fulfilled in Christ. These are also called Messianic Psalms.

Notice the superscription of this Psalm: For the director of music. Of the Sons of Korah. A psalm. So this was a song to be used in the corporate worship of the community of Israel.

Most of you have heard of my educational background in music. It was before the launch of the contemporary churchmusic movement and thus was a largely classical-oriented education in choral and orchestral sacred music.

A part of me wishes that would have never changed. But in any event, so much of that era of music still rings through my ears in the juke-box of the mind. I don’t know how many people are like me in the following respect (I know I’m not alone): there is ALWAYS a song playing in the background in my brain.

Whatever the song is at any given time, it was likely triggered by some thought or event. And now for the next several days I can tell you that a whole series of choral pieces from 40 years ago are ringing through my head from a simple reading of this Psalm 47 today. And you can see why it would be such a great text for praising God as the Sovereign King over it all.

A favorite of those varied songs I’m hearing is one that began with the words from verse 8 today, repeated several times with long sustained tones supported by the bass strings section of the orchestra: “God reigns over the nations; God is seated on his holy throne.”  The final word “throne” is sustained with a crescendo, when suddenly the total mood changes into fast-moving and joyful notes of the beginning verse, “Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy.”

Let me ask this: Why should God’s people (be it in Israel at the time of the psalm’s writing, or in America in 2014) clap their hands and find joy in the knowledge that God is the great king over all the earth and all the nations? As I write this devotional on Sunday evening, 8/17/14, here are some headlines from wire news sources:

Iraq Kurdish Forces Launch Ground Offensive

Is the World Doing Enough to Stop ISIS Atrocities?

Netanyahu Warns Hamas on Rockets

Four Reasons to Worry about Pakistan’s Latest Political Crisis

Ukraine Forces Enter Rebel-Held City

Do you have any solutions for these problems that plague the world? The world is a mess; it has always been a mess. Nations and empires that hated Israel surrounded them in the era of the united kingdom under David and Solomon … and even more in the divided kingdom of Israel and Judah – Assyria, Egypt, Media, Persia, Babylon and a host of smaller national entities. And it remains the same today as Israel is massively outnumbered and under assault.

The same is true for Christians and democracies around the world. What will be the final geo-political outcome of the international war of Islamic extremists? How revived is Russia and Communist / Socialist ideologies such as we see happening in Crimea and the Ukraine? When will China peak in power and what does that mean for the rest of the world? Will there be an economic collapse in Western Europe? And how does the USA fit into all these crises?

So, is there any comfort or perspective to be had in the biblical truth that God reigns over the nations? Is it comforting to know that the bombastic and pompous dictators and political tyrants in the world are nothing more to God, and no more powerful, than a series of mice rushing about in a closed plastic maze?

I’m pretty much bottom-line glad about that! I’m pleased that the God who loved me enough to send Christ and effectually call me to Himself through his efficacious grace is the one who holds all the trump cards. Yep, I’ll clap for that.

 

1 Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy.

2 For the Lord Most High is awesome, the great King over all the earth.
3 He subdued nations under us, peoples under our feet.
4 He chose our inheritance for us, the pride of Jacob, whom he loved.

5 God has ascended amid shouts of joy, the Lord amid the sounding of trumpets.
6 Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises.
7 For God is the King of all the earth; sing to him a psalm of praise.

8 God reigns over the nations; God is seated on his holy throne.
9 The nobles of the nations assemble as the people of the God of Abraham, for the kings of the earth belong to God; he is greatly exalted.