Life is Better in God’s Hands (Psalm 130)

A lot of people look at God as simply angry and judgmental – a sort of cranky jurist ready to pronounce a punishment upon any and every offender. And it is true that God is righteous and just, and that he will judge sin.

But God is along with everything else the very model of grace and forgiveness. That forgiveness is granted of course based upon a just payment – ultimately in the blood of Christ.

God’s desire is to be gracious, even as the bulk of mankind refuses to trust in him and receive the gift of life in Jesus Christ.

This short Psalm 130 today speaks of God’s heart of forgiveness. He didn’t have to be this way; he could have justly held mankind’s sins against them. But he made the ultimate provision.

There is forgiveness with God, and with that secured we can “reverently” (verse 4) serve him and find a life of satisfaction.

This is a great truth for use to remember during those times of waiting … and there are lots of times of waiting in the Christian life. There are some long and dark nights; you know the daytime is going to come, but the night seems like it will never end.

I could quickly identify for you several items in life that I have waited for, and continue to wait for, now for years. I don’t know why the night is so long, but I know that God is in control and that on the other side of it I will be able to look back with thanksgiving for God’s perfect timing… again!

The final two verses call upon the original singers of this song – Israelite pilgrims – to put their hope in the Lord because of his “unfailing love.” This references that big idea of God’s special covenant love for the nation. And we have such a covenant of grace through Jesus Christ.

So, whatever you’re dealing with, hope in the Lord – there is nothing better.

As we end with this devotional – the 65th in the God’s Playlist series – on Sunday we begin with a new four-week sermon series on the Scriptures. Along with it will be a total of 15 days of devotional readings, beginning this coming Monday.

If you have been getting these devotionals automatically sent to you, it will be there for you on Monday morning, though under the name of “Framework.” The page will have a different look and graphics, but it is all the same webpage – and you can look back through all the 340 devotionals written in the past two years that accompany eight different sermon series. Actually, reading all of them would take you approximately one-third of the way through the Bible.

Psalm 130

A song of ascents.

1 Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord; 2 Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.

3 If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?

4 But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

5 I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope.

6 I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.

7 Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption.

8 He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.

Advertisements

The Boringly Successful and Happy Life (Psalm 128)

It seems that every day I hear of another story, either in the news or within the relatively small circle of people with whom I’ve been familiar over six decades, of someone who has given up on life – even done something desperate.

What is the secret to a happy and contented life?

Most people seem to believe this to be an elusive goal that can only be achieved through extraordinary accomplishment and accumulation of worldly gain. Such gain could possibly accompany happiness as a byproduct, but it is never the source of the contentment.

Though the old hymn “Trust and Obey” is a trite little ditty, it actually does sum up the essence of what it takes to experience a successive life of contentment – and that is to trust and obey, for there’s no other way.

That is essentially what this Psalm taught – to the adults who would sing it on the pilgrimage roads toward Jerusalem, within the ears of younger generations travelling along.

Here is a quick summary of Psalm 128 today:  Even in an imperfect world, the general pattern of life is that those who trust in God and keep his commandments find the Lord’s provision to be sufficient through their work; and their home life is largely blessed through several generations that in turn are a blessing to the nation and others around them.

Though there have been a few Buchman renegades over the years, this general truth has proven itself for as many generations as I can trace it back to the Swiss Reformation, and I believe I am living to see it pass on to grandchildren – who are a great blessing and lots of joy.

But let me talk about another family of my lifelong acquaintance. Among my parents’ best friends was a couple who were about the same age. The husband was an insurance agent and the wife the mother of six children. They were faithful in serving in the church on a weekly basis and shared their faith with their children. Though there were a few circuitous routes of life of the six kids (the youngest being my age), they all eventually (and continue each one to this day) to live lives of service: a pastor, a Christian college president, directors of several ministries including World Vision, Christian school educators, etc. At the time of the deaths of this couple a few years ago, every last child, grand child and beyond … they all knew the Lord.

There are no guarantees that this will work perfectly for every family, but there is a principle that a long, long, consistent life of trust and obedience largely yields personal and family fruit of this sort. It’s not complicated actually. It just requires the work of yielding to the Spirit rather than the flesh. No tricks. No gimmicks, no hidden secrets for success. Just do it!

The blessing at the end of a “boring” life of faithfulness is worth it all. Let’s make generations of people like this at TSF! That is our church vision.

Psalm 128

A song of ascents.

1 Blessed are all who fear the Lord, who walk in obedience to him.
2 You will eat the fruit of your labor; blessings and prosperity will be yours.
3 Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table.
4 Yes, this will be the blessing for the man who fears the Lord.

5 May the Lord bless you from Zion; may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life.
6 May you live to see your children’s children—peace be on Israel.

The Dew and Oil Bucket Challenge (Psalm 133)

The big craze that has swept the country like few things I’ve ever seen is the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Along with the fund-raising component, it serves to bring awareness to the awful Lou Gehrig’s disease. People essentially baptize themselves in identification with this worthy cause of researching for a cure.

In today’s brief little Psalm of only three verses, there is a statement of the blessing of God’s people living in unity, with two illustrations that may seem to us in our modern age as rather unusual … of a downward flow of oil and water.

Psalm 133

A song of ascents. Of David.

1 How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!

2 It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down on the collar of his robe.
3 It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.

This final week of studying Psalms: God’s Playlist we are looking at a category of psalms known as Songs of Ascent. This is helpful in understanding the meaning. Again, these are pilgrim songs – sung by the Jewish people on their travels in “going up” to Jerusalem for the three big feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles.

These feasts were a time when all of the nation came together before God in worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. We’re speaking of the 12 Tribes of Israel … and what are the tribes? They are the families of the 12 brothers who were the sons of Jacob (Israel). Many translations use the term “brethren” in verse one to translate the Hebrew שֶׁבֶת אָחִים גַּם יַחַד (that was fun to put that in there)… like the American Standard Version “how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”

Diana and I always liked it when the “brethren” of our five boys dwelled together in unity! They really do like to get together and do things with each other now, but it wasn’t always that way!

So when the nation came together for these feasts, the assembled pilgrims were essentially a gigantic family reunion. It was an opportunity for them to have a renewal of their unique relationship with each other and with God through the Covenant made together.

But families don’t always get along, and bitterness from past wrongs and conflicts get in the way of unity. Over my years of preaching there is one sermon that I have given now three separate  times at the Christmas season called, “Dealing with the turkey at your table and the sap in your family tree” … and is about a godly model of dealing with the crazy relatives at the holidays. Without any doubt, this is by far, far, far, far the most commented-upon sermon I’ve ever done!

There were some bad feelings here and there in the family of Jacob (Israel). It went all of the way back to that time the brothers threw Joseph into a pit and sold him to slave traders. Though he would save the family from destruction and all would be reconciled, it was far from the last time there would be national/family strife.

The picture in verse two of the oil flowing over Aaron’s head looked back to his consecration as the high priest at the outset of the sacrificial system. In Leviticus 8:10-12 it says, “Then Moses took the anointing oil and anointed the tabernacle and everything in it, and so consecrated them. He sprinkled some of the oil on the altar seven times, anointing the altar and all its utensils and the basin with its stand, to consecrate them. He poured some of the anointing oil on Aaron’s head and anointed him to consecrate him.”

So the picture in Ps. 133 is of this oil running down and off his beard and onto the priestly garments that included the breastplate – which represented the 12 tribes. In Exodus 28:29, this article of clothing is spoken of, “Whenever Aaron enters the Holy Place, he will bear the names of the sons of Israel over his heart on the breastpiece of decision as a continuing memorial before the Lord.” Putting this all together it pictures the unity of the nation in covenant relationship with the Lord.

In verse three is another sort of “running down” picture of water coming off Mount Herman in the north of Israel. Heavy dews bring the life-giving water for the otherwise arid areas of Palestine.

The idea of “brethren” was a part of the earliest days of the church. For example, it says this in Acts 16:40, “After Paul and Silas came out of the prison, they went to Lydia’s house, where they met with the brothers and sisters and encouraged them.” And then Paul writes to the Corinthians, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.”

Unity is a big deal; it is important. Discord should not be an acceptable pattern of behavior in the church community. One of the ideas involved with communion is that of a coming together of the family to be reconnected and restored to one another in the body of Christ – to put away divisions and conflicts … because it is good for brothers to dwell in unity.

Providence is more than a Rhode Island city (Psalm 127)

I stole today’s title from Bob Shelly. Only those of you who are in the era of 15-20 years at Tri-State Fellowship will remember our friend Bob, who served the church well as an interim pastor. He lives in York, PA and has been involved in discipleship ministries and teaching at Lancaster Bible College. He used the “Providence” title in a sermon he did at TSF sometime shortly before I came here 20 years ago, and I’ve always remembered it.

The famous Bible teacher of a few decades past – J. Vernon McGee – gave this definition of “God’s Providence.”

Providence is the means by which God directs all things — both animate and inanimate, seen and unseen, good and evil — toward a worthy purpose, which means His will must finally prevail. Or as the psalmist said, “his kingdom ruleth over all” (Psalm 103:19). In Ephesians 1:11 Paul tells us that God “worketh all things after the counsel of his own will.” Our God is running the universe today, friends, even though there are some who think that it has slipped out from under Him.

There are Christian people who chafe under this sort of view of God’s providence, as it seems to them to make the world too mechanical or too predetermined. I am convinced that, at the end of the day, those who are annoyed by this are really irritated with the notion that they are not the God of their own lives.

I understand that those who resist a high view of God’s sovereign control into all the details of life do so because it smacks of irresponsibility … of a sort of “why bother working hard if it doesn’t matter, because God is going to do whatever He wants to anyhow.” But the whole of Scripture teaches much on the value to responsibility, yet also of the bottom line nature of God’s authority over everything.

Arriving at a high view of God’s sovereign hand in all affairs of life, down to the smallest of things, is one of the great and calming moments of my life. I would put it together this way: I will be as fully responsible as humanly possible with everything that I am able to do in a given situation, and then I will seek to no longer worry about, giving it over to God for a final resolution that is for His glory, and my good.

The 127th Psalm speaks of God’s providential involvement in all things. It is He that will bless and prosper any endeavor … like building a house. The second verse has the idea that it is vain to work in human effort apart from God’s strength and blessing.

The second section of the Psalm goes on to talk about the blessing of families. Children are indeed a gift from the Lord.

This was especially true in an ancient culture where large families provided extra hands for the tasks of life, including security in dangerous times. There is a picture also of a man going to the gates of the city – the place where business transactions were done publically. And it pictures a guy standing there with a posse of big ole boys who are his sons! I like that picture!

As I have written these devotionals, you’ll not be surprised that I will often (though not always) reference a couple of nearby commentaries to see what some previous writer has said about a particular Psalm. Many commentaries are pretty geeky and go into extensive remarks on variant Hebrew constructions with alternate meanings, etc.  So it cracked me up and I did laugh out loud when a classic commentary on Psalms by Derek Kidner – an Anglican scholar at Cambridge University – wrote:

“And it is not untypical of God’s gifts that first they are liabilities, or at least responsibilities, before they become obvious assets. The greater their promise, the more likely that these sons will be a handful before they are a quiverful.”

As a father of five boys, I can say “Amen” to that.

Psalm 127

A song of ascents. Of Solomon.

1 Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain.

2 In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat—for he grants sleep to those he loves.

3 Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him.

4 Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth.

5 Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their opponents in court.

The Desire for Peace – Psalm 120

This short Psalm for our reading today is the first of a series of songs from 120-134 that are called Psalms of ascents. These are psalms of particular interest and use by the people of Israel as they made their regular pilgrimages to Jerusalem to worship and join with others of the nation at the Temple there.

It is a song where the writer speaks of being in distress against enemies—amongst whom he lived. He talks about desiring peace, though they wanted war.

The writer is certain that God will judge and that His punishment will prevail. The tree that is spoken of—the broom bush—is one that was especially long-burning and used for firewood.

When we read this song and understand that the two areas spoken of in the Psalm—Meshek and Kedar—were areas to the north and south of the land of Palestine, we cannot help but think of the ongoing struggles in this region. Like this Psalmist who lived near and among people who hated him and were enemies of God, so also does Israel face the same situation today. There is a lack of truth, and there exists rather the prevalence of complete lies that come out of these people who make claims that have no basis in fact or historical reality. These people simply want the destruction of the Jewish State.

God will prevail. God has a plan for this nation, and it is one that will come to final fruition in the last days.

Psalm 120

A song of ascents.

1 I call on the Lord in my distress, and he answers me.
2 Save me, Lord, from lying lips and from deceitful tongues.

3 What will he do to you, and what more besides, you deceitful tongue?
4 He will punish you with a warrior’s sharp arrows, with burning coals of the broom bush.

5 Woe to me that I dwell in Meshek, that I live among the tents of Kedar!
6 Too long have I lived among those who hate peace.
7 I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war.

 

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. 

 

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.