“What is the Bible really about?” (Psalm 119)

I have a heart for the “unconverted.”  By that I don’t simply mean those outside the walls of traditional Christianity—I mean those who have spent years within those walls, but have been converted to Christendom and not Jesus himself.  In a famous address on the Church in a post-everything world, Pastor and author Tim Keller suggested that for many, Christianity has become like an inoculation.  When we inoculate someone against a disease, we do so by introducing a small amount of the virus into the system.  The person’s natural immune system takes over, producing antibodies to stave off the “real” infection.  In much the same way, Keller argues, many within the walls of the church have heard just enough about Jesus to become immune—their minds and hearts produce antibodies to stave off the “real” message of the gospel—and so they become merely religious converts rather than genuine Christian disciples.

This is why the story of Luke 24 is so significant.  The story takes place after the resurrection, though before the disciples become fully aware of this good news.  What they’re feeling is only disappointment.  And so we join two hangdog travelers on the road to Emmaus:

That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. 16 But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” 19 And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. 22 Moreover, some women of our company amazed us.  They were at the tomb early in the morning, 23 and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.”  (Luke 24:13-24)

Though their hopes had been raised in Jesus’ life, they lay shattered in his death.  What was their hope?  Israel’s world was one of fragile harmony between Jewish custom and Roman oppression.  They hoped for a Savior who would tip the balance in their favor.  All they got was another martyr.  Jesus looks at them and says, Your dreams are too small. 

25 And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27)

Jesus understands something quite elemental: the Bible—the whole Bible—is a story about Him.  The reason these travelers ached with disappointment is because they failed to realize that week’s events had not been a tragedy, but a divine necessity.

Lesslie Newbigin, former missionary to India, says that Western Christianity suffers for lack of story.  The way to reverse the inoculation to the gospel, he says, is to learn to see Christianity as a story that connects to every facet of life:

“The true understanding of the Bible is that it tells a story of which my life is a part, the story of God’s tireless, loving, wrathful, inexhaustible patience with the human family, and of our unbelief, blindness, disobedience.  To accept this story as the truth of the human story…commits me personally to a life of discernment and obedience in the new circumstances of each day.”

The reason that you and I often struggle through our Old Testament devotions is because we fail to see Jesus on every page.  We open the Bible for its usefulness; not its beauty.  We search its pages for solutions to our problems; not for a greater glimpse of the Savior’s face.  And when we do this, we fail to grasp the radical power of the gospel in every word.  Why would psalmists write epic poems—like Psalm 119—unless their hearts quickened to every word on the page?  Such was the experience of these early disciples, who finally recognized Jesus when He broke bread before them—symbolically reminding them of the body broken just days before.

28 So they drew near to the village to which they were going.  He acted as if he were going farther, 29 but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. 31 And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?”

When we see Jesus on every page, our hearts burn within our chests.  I leave you only with a video from Tim Keller, who borrows the “true and better” motif of reformed theology to show the various ways that the Bible—from beginning to end—is an extended biography of the Savior.

 

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The Benefits of Scripture (Psalm 119)

“Everybody serves somebody.”  So says Bob Dylan, arguably one of the greatest prophetic minds of today’s world.  God’s Word calls us to total allegiance, but let’s not forget that ultimately, all of us serve someone—or something.  To worship something is to devote your allegiance—the only question is whether this allegiance will yield delight or despair.

 

As we survey the scope of Psalm 119, we hear the psalmist describe the various ways that scriptural devotion yields immediate, positive results.  Mind you, it would be naïve to suggest Scripture’s truest value is found in personal blessing.  But as we grow closer to the heart of God, we naturally experience His radical goodness in the form of joy.

 

THE BENEFITS OF SCRIPTURE

 

The psalmist describes at least four specific benefits of Scripture.

 

  • Liberation: When God is my master, “service is perfect freedom” (v. 96), and in verse 46, “liberty” is found in God’s precepts, not the absence of them. Verse 133 clarifies this by discussing the way God’s word breaks sin’s “dominion” as we learn to walk in step with God’s commands.

 

  • Light: The psalm mentions “my feet” and “my path” (v. 105), highlighting the power of the Word to guide. In v. 130 this guidance is applies to the realm of the intellect, emphasizing a discerning power (cf. 34, 73, 125, 144, 169). The emphasis is that God’s wisdom is superior to the enlightenment of man.

 

  • Life: This term becomes most prominent toward the psalm’s end—appear 5 times between verses 144-159. Kidner writes: “Sometimes the link between Scripture and the gift of life consists of a promise which the singer claims (25, 50, 107, 154); sometimes it is that the very keeping of God’s laws is restorative (37) and life-giving (93); since they turn one’s eyes and steps towards him.”  (Kidner, Psalms, 2:421)  Other phrases such as “revive me” (25) or “give me life” (149, 159) reflect this same idea.

 

  • Stability: Verse 23 hints at a threatening instability—but Scripture fills an otherwise distracted mind. Verses 49-50 highlight the comfort and hope offered by God’s Word (cf. 76, 89-92, 95, 114-118, 165).

 

LIVING BY THE BOOK

But, you might ask, there are other ways of living outside the confines of the Bible.  Our world is an endless spiritual marketplace.  Surely we can simply draw from a variety of sources to find wisdom?

In 2008, yoga teacher Robyn Okrant undertook a project that would put this theory to the test.  She spent the entire year doing everything Oprah Winfrey suggested.  In 2011, her book—based on her experiences—was released.

In an interview with Forbes magazine, she comments:

 [The experience] was incredibly draining, and it made me really sad. It made me sad to think of how many hours I’ve lost–even when I wasn’t doing the project–to blindly following advice and listening to what other people tell me I should be doing to create my own happiness. I wondered how many hours other women have lost in the course of their lives to that.

Contrast this experience with that of A.J. Jacobs, who chose to spend a year seeking to obey every command of the Bible.  While culturally Jewish, Jacobs claims to be an agnostic regarding his spirituality. Yet when he published his book My Year of Living Biblically, he writes that the experience changed his view of the Bible:

 It was an amazing, enlightening and life-changing year. It was a spiritual journey that moved from irreverence to reverence. You see, I grew up in a totally secular home. No religion at all. I’m officially Jewish, but I’m Jewish in the way the Olive Garden is Italian. Which is to say, not very. But in recent years, I decided I needed to see what I was missing. Was I neglecting something crucial to being human, like someone who goes through life without ever hearing Beethoven or falling in love? I dived into the Bible headfirst. And lo, it was awesome. I was surprised by how relevant much of the Bible’s ancient wisdom was to my 21st-century life. I was surprised by how baffled I was by other passages. I was surprised by how a lifelong agnostic like I am could find solace in prayer. I was surprised by how the Bible revealed my flaws and challenged me to be a better person. (from an article appearing in Relevant magazine http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/deeper-walk/features/1454-my-biblical-year)

You may dismiss the Bible as a product of a primitive, superstitious era.  Yet these experiences only testify to the timeless truth contained in its pages.  Live life for yourself, and you will find only misery.  Live life by the Book, and you will find electrifying joy.

 

 

 

The Book that Reads Me (Psalm 119)

Bible BIf we survey the entirety of worldwide literature, we find few books like the Bible.  Yes, there are many great literary masterpieces, many complex tomes of philosophy, but few books have had as lasting impact on the history of civilization than the Bible.  And there’s a good reason: the Bible is the only book that reads us.  Yes, other books offer wisdom and insight into the human condition, but only the Bible has a unique way of penetrating the human soul.  It’s no wonder that the writer of Hebrews described the Bible as something “living and active…piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

As we read Psalm 119 together, what are some of the ways that the psalmist describes the effects of scripture on the human heart?  In his commentary on psalms, Derek Kidner suggests that three distinct experiences emerge:

 

  • DELIGHT

 

We see this first described in verses 14 and 16:

 

In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. (Psalm 119:14)

 

I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word. (Psalm 119:16)

 

Yet this quality emerges throughout the psalm (cf. vv 24, 47, 70, 77, 92, 143, 162, 174).   The psalm’s tone is one of scholarly pursuit, yet it is simultaneously more.  Every word is deeply personal, and echoes a devotion and relational quality not found ascribed to other forms of literature.

 

 

  • LOVE

 

The love of the psalmist runs deeper than the text itself: the love is a devotion not to the Words but to the Speaker—God.  This is why the psalmist can write that the words are “sweeter than honey” (103), and make him “pant” (131) (cf. 47, 48, 97, 113, 119, 127, 132, 140, 159, 163, 165, 167).

 

 

  • AWE

 

God’s Word makes the psalmist “stand in awe” (161)—but he also says that “the fear of you makes my flesh creep” (120).  Related to this is the fact that God is righteous (7, 75, 123, 138, 144. 172), dependable (43, 142), and as unshakeable as heaven and earth (89-91).  Scripture itself reflects this character, meaning that it is inexhaustible (18, 27, 129).

 

MERE WORDS?

Today’s world has come to drive a wedge between truth and personal experience.  For instance, in the last century Ludwig Wittgenstein observed that human language is inadequate to describe the taste and aroma of coffee.  Therefore, how can language ever capture the nature of God?  Now, in a very real sense, this is true.  I remember sharing this while speaking at an event a few years ago—and one of the audience members raised his cup in the air to voice a hearty Amen.  It’s true, isn’t it?  If a picture is worth a thousand words, then experience is infinitely greater.  But even if language proves inadequate to describe the nature of coffee, it remains adequate for giving you directions to Starbucks.  Similarly, human language may be equally adequate for pointing people to God, that they can “taste and see that the Lord is good.”  Doctrine can never replace experience, but it categorizes it, offers it a framework so that we can better understand and navigate the world around us.

The Word Made Fresh (Psalm 119)

Christianity’s most shocking claim isn’t that God exists; it’s that He communicates.  The Bible begins with the story of creation, where God created “the heavens and the earth” with a Word from His mouth (cf. Ps 33:6).  In theology, we know this as revelation—the means by which God “reveals” His nature and purpose.  And while “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps 19:1), it is in Scripture that God’s Word is most specifically articulated.

So when we come to Psalm 119, we find the unnamed psalmist singing a song of praise about the very nature of this inspired Word.  As we observed yesterday, the psalm is an “acrostic” poem of 22 sections of 8 lines each—each of the 22 sections corresponding to a sequential letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  In his study of this psalm, David Noel Freedman calls it“endlessly inventive,” though says there is “no more order than in a kaleidoscope.” (Freedman, Psalm 119, p. 87).  And this is true.  But our aim this week is to surface some of the features of this poem so that we can gain a better understanding of God’s Word.  Today we start by examining the terms that the psalmist uses to describe the Bible itself.

IN A WORD

PSALM 119The psalmist uses a total of eight precise words to describe God’s Word:

  • “Law” (Hebrew: tora): This is probably the most familiar term—used about 25 times (vv. 1, 18, 29, 34, 44, 51, 53, 55, 61, 70, 72, 77, 85, 92, 97, 109, 113, 126, 136, 142, 150, 153, 163, 165, 174). The connection to “teach” (119:33) emphasizes the connection to God.  The Law is meant for obeying God—not merely intellectual satisfaction.  The Law may be used to refer to God’s specific statutes, to the Pentateuch, or to Scripture as a whole (in John 10:34, Jesus uses Law in to refer to the entire OT).

 

  • “Word,” sometimes “Promise” (dabar, also imra): This is the preferred term to refer to the commandments of God. The word “Word” appears roughly 39 times (vv. 4, 5, 8, 17, 34, 44, 56, 57, 60, 67, 88, 100, 101, 129, 134, 136, 145, 158, 167, 168).  The term is general, but it elicits a variety of responses.

 

  • “Testimonies” (‘edot): This term occurs 23 times, always plural with the exception of v. 88 (vv. 2, 14, 22, 24, 31, 36, 46, 59, 79, 88, 95, 99,111, 119, 125, 129, 138, 144, 146, 152, 157, 167, 168). This was a legal term that had both positive and negative connotations. Negatively, Israel was commanded to place the book of the law next to the Ark of the Covenant, ‘that it may be there as a witness against you’ (Dt 31:26).  Positively, the idea of “testimony” suggests the reliability of God’s Word.

 

  • “Precepts” (piqqudim): This term appears 21 times (vv. 4, 15, 27, 40, 45, 56, 63, 69, 78, 87, 93, 94, 100, 104, 110, 128, 134, 141, 159, 168, 173)—always in the plural. This is a word used to refer to some type of officer or overseer.  Jeremiah 23:2 describes that God will “attend to [poqed]” the wayward shepherds.  This means that God’s Word impacts every detail of our lives.

 

  • “Statutes” (huqqim): This term appears 21 times (vv. 5, 8, 12, 23, 26, 33, 48, 54, 64, 68, 71, 80, 83, 112, 117, 118, 124, 135, 145, 155, 171). This term speaks of the binding force of scripture and its durative character—Isaiah 30:8 speaks of God’s Word enduring forever.

 

  • “Commandments” (miswot): Occurs 22 times (vv. 6, 10, 19, 21, 32, 35, 47, 48, 60, 66, 73, 86, 96, 98, 115, 127, 131, 143, 151, 166, 172, 176). This term simply refers to the Bible’s ability to give direct orders.

 

  • “Judgments” or “Ordinances” (mispatim): Occurs 23 times in the plural (vv. 7, 13, 20, 30, 39, 43, 52, 62, 75, 91, 102, 106, 108, 120, 137, 156, 160, 164, 175) and four times in the singular (84, 121, 132, 149)—though in verse 84 the term is not used of the Word of God. These are most often used in a civil/legal sense—that of a wise judge presiding over His people (cf. Ex 21:1; Dt 17:8-9).  Scripture offers a glimpse of the fair dealings between God and man.

 

  • “Way” (derek): Used 13 times (vv. 1, 3, 5, 14, 26, 27, 29, 30, 32, 33, 37, 59, 168). This term describes a pattern of life that God lays out.

 

THE TRUE AND BETTER WORD

In the  New Testament, John begins his biography of Jesus by cribbing the opening lines of Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1).  What is John saying?  John is saying that Jesus is the exact revelation of God.  This is why the unnamed writer of Hebrews would later say that “Long ago…God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2).  What the Bible reveals in text, Jesus reveals in flesh and blood and sinew.

In his excellent book A Clear and Present Word, Mark A. Thompson adopts a scholarly approach to the subject of language and communication.  God’s Word, he says, can never be separated from God’s redemptive work in history.  But this also means something significant: if Jesus is the embodiment of this Word, then it changes the way the Bible is seen culturally.  How?  In today’s post-everything world, our greatest prophets insist that there are no absolutes, only perceptions.  Language, whether in a sacred book or otherwise, is always colored by the agenda of its culture of origin.  We can only read the Bible as reflective of a primitive, pre-scientific era.  It’s poetry may be moving, it’s stories beautiful, but we can’t possibly apply it to everyday life.  But if Jesus is the exact embodiment of the Bible, then this changes everything.  I can “deconstruct” a text; I can’t deconstruct a person.  So even if I remain skeptical regarding God’s Word embedded in Scripture, I remain confronted by God’s Word embodied in Jesus.

For Christ’s followers, this provides added reason for celebration and worship, because the Bible bursts free from being merely a collection of precepts, but a love song that’s been playing before the needle ever dropped.

In tomorrow’s post, we’ll examine more thoroughly the ways the Bible has an impact on the lives of those who trust in its Author.

Valuing Scripture in a Post-Christian World (Psalm 119)

BibleIf you seek to follow Jesus, you know what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange land.  Today we live in what’s often called a “post-Christian” America.  Though the western world has never had an official religion, a generation or so ago we inhabited a society whose arts and ethics were largely shaped by Christian values.  No more.  Now, Christianity is seen as quaint, outdated—the relic of a “Leave-it-to-Beaver” style America, where women were relegated to the kitchen and blacks to the back of the bus.  We’ve moved past this era; why would anyone wish to go back again?

So it’s only understandable that those who pursue the values of the Bible would be looked down on—at best as religious fanatics; at worst as repressive bigots.

Perhaps it’s surprising, but one of the most beloved psalms of the Bible arose out of a culture not entirely unlike our own.  Psalm 119 is a famously lengthy psalm, one that has fascinated scholars and preachers alike.  Yet no one felt they could ever do justice to its rich depth.  As early as the fourth century, Augustine shied away from commenting on this psalm, feeling it required not “an expositor, but only a reader and a listener.”

Structurally, the psalm follows a basic pattern.  The psalm contains a total of 22 sections of 8 lines each.  It’s also an acrostic poem.  If you were to read the psalm in the original Hebrew, you’d notice that each of the 22 sections begins with a sequential letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  So we can actually think of this psalm as forming something of the “A to Z” of scripture’s impact in our life.

And yes, the subject of the psalm is the Bible itself.  It is the lengthiest and most renowned example of the “Torah” psalms—songs sung in celebration of God’s revealed truth in His Word.  In his commentary on psalms, Walter Brueggeman writes:

“Clearly this psalm probes beyond the simplistic formulation of Psalm 1. A life of full obedience is not a conclusion of faith. It is a beginning point and an access to a life filled with many-sided communion with God.” (Walter Brueggeman, Psalms, p. 41)

But what do we know about the man that wrote this song?  Almost nothing.  This isn’t a song written by David; the author remains a mystery.  Still, the psalm hints at the life situation of the author—and the way he seemed to inhabit a hostile world, one where God’s truth was increasingly being dismissed as irrelevant.

In our week-long exploration of this magnificent psalm, we’ll be using Derek Kidner’s excellent commentary as something of a guide.  In his commentary, Kidner identifies three specific things we can learn about the psalmist’s situation:

1.)    AN ALIEN WORLD SHOULD SADDEN US, NOT SURPRISE US

Indeed, we are strangers in a strange land.  “It is time for the Lord to act,” he laments, “for your law has been broken” (Ps 119:126).  Clearly there was more than skepticism at work.  The psalmist’s neighbors seemed literally hell-bent on living their own way.  The psalmist calls them “double-minded” (Ps 119:113), meaning they lacked the singular commitment of God’s people.  They lay in wait “to destroy me” (Ps 119:95), and may have even been rooted in derision and slander (Ps 119:22, 23, 69, 85).  The psalmist’s reaction is simple, yet relatable:

My eyes shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law. (Ps 119:136)

As God’s people, we will find ourselves surrounded by men and women who live by their own set of rules—surely not God’s.  If we’re not careful, this can lead to a sense of moral alarm and outrage.  “Can you believe what the kids are doing these days?”  “I can’t believe that the government would allow ________________!”  And you can fill in the blank yourself.  The psalmist lived in far more threatening world than ours.  Yet his hands never clenched into fists.  Instead his eyes shed tears of compassion.  In his book The Next Christians, Gabe Lyons calls Christians to be “provoked, not offended,” meaning that we react to the moral decline of our world with love.  Yes, we must remain discerning.  But we also must remember that Jesus promised that the world we live in will get worse, not better (Matthew 24).

2.)    GOD’S PEOPLE LIVE IN AN ONGOING BATTLE

The psalmist laments that “the cords of the wicked ensare” him (Ps 119:61ff).  In verse 36, he asks:

 “Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain!” (Ps 119:36)

And while the psalmist knows God’s commands (Ps 119:110), he later admits that they are hard to keep:

 “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget your commandments.” (Ps 119:176)

God made the world so, so good.  Yet there is nothing good that man can’t bend toward his own selfish gain.  In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis suggests that the devil has no power to create—only pervert.  The reason temptation is so overwhelming is because Satan is a master of taking God’s good gifts and enticing us with them in ways or degrees that are inappropriate.  Sex, for example, is a beautiful gift meant to be shared by those who have committed their lives to one another in marriage.  Yet statistics show that this boundary has been repeatedly broken by those outside and inside the walls of traditional church.

We should therefore recognize the profound pull that sin has—even in the Godliest of people.  And we should similarly learn from this writer’s own brokenness, that there will be many battles for our hearts—battles that we often lose and give in to fleshly desire.  Though it’s a lifelong struggle, we can remain confident that at the cross, Jesus won the war—and His victory is credited to our account before God.

3.)    GOD’S PEOPLE PERSEVERE

Kidner characterizes the psalmist’s prevailing attitude as one of “quiet steadfastness.” In verse 44 the psalmist uses such words as “continually, forever and ever.” He presses on, still eager to learn (“give me understanding”) and to grow (“give me life”).   For many outside the church, Christianity must seem a beautiful dream.  It grants people hope, grants them courage in the face of suffering.  But it can be nothing more than that—a dream, a wishful story meant only to numb us to the harshness of our world.  It’s no wonder Marx so famously called religion the “opiate of the people”—implant people with false hope, he said, and they will come to tolerate even the vilest oppression.

But if the gospel is true, if Jesus truly rose from the dead, then Christianity moves from the realm of fantasy into the light of certainty.  The Bible is a story of how we can experience this same victory in our lives, that this harsh world we currently reside in will eventually be transformed into God’s paradise, where we can all experience God’s kingdom like never before.

So don’t lose hope.  Don’t be discouraged by the fact that you live in a world wholly opposed to God’s truth.  Because Jesus is the true and better psalmist.  He chose to leave the security of heaven where he—like the psalmist describes—would experience rejection, ridicule, and death.  But Jesus rose again, so that we might persevere with a new identity and a new hope.

In the next few days, we’ll unpack further the truths of this psalm, and explore the ways we can see the gospel in every letter of this beautiful piece.