Friday, September 26, 2014

Making 'Psense' of Psalms--Psalm 130: Forgiven

Part of an ongoing series on selected psalms.
Studying Psalm 130 surprised me. For years I thought it was simply about watching and waiting for God to act when I was in trouble--“more than watchmen wait for the morning.” I pictured guards on an ancient city wall, scanning the murky darkness for any signs of an enemy, wanting their long, wearying watch to end. But I don’t see Psalm 130 that way anymore. Instead, Psalm 130 is a wonderful Old Testament anticipation of New Testament redemption. It looks beyond the system of animal sacrifices to the finished work of “redemption” accomplished by Christ on the cross.  Luther called this a “Pauline Psalm” (along with Psalms 32, 51, and 142) because of its emphasis, like the apostle Paul’s teaching, on God’s grace in forgiveness apart from human works. The ex-monk’s preaching of “salvation by grace” led to the Protestant movement, which spurned the legalisms and unbiblical rituals that had crept into the historic church.

Psalm 130 is the sixth of seven penitential psalms (the others are 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143) in which the writer speaks of his sinful nature and need of forgiveness. It’s also the eleventh of fifteen psalms of “ascents,” sung by faithful pilgrims ascending the rugged Judean hills to festivals in Jerusalem. It’s also the only one that literally starts at a spiritual low point: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD. O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy” (vv. 1-2).  Eugene Peterson paraphrased this intense emotion in today’s language like this: “Help, God—the bottom has fallen out of my life!” (The Message). The writer is desperate. It’s not enemies lurking just beyond the walls of his life. The enemy is within: his sin. The eight verses of Psalm 130, in dealing with the sin problem, look beyond the Old Testament sacrificial system to God’s “unfailing love” in sending His sinless Son to die for our sins.
Two four-drawer files flank my desk, full of files of articles, research, speeches, sample copies and research material.  Despite the labeled folders, I’m not sure what’s there any more. Time to clean! In his book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Joshua Harris told of a vision—“in that place between wakefulness and dreams”—in which he was in a room with endless index-card files. The cards, bearing his own handwriting, described what he’d read, lies he’d told, friends he’d betrayed, and so on. Pulling out a card about “lustful thoughts,” he shuddered at the details, sick that such moments were recorded. He tried to pull the negative cards out to destroy them, but they wouldn’t budge. Feeling defeated and distraught, he noticed one file labeled, “People I Shared the Gospel With.” He opened it to a handful of cards.
That’s when the tears came—deep sobbing that threw him to his knees. He wanted this room locked up where nobody could see it. Then He saw Jesus, who walked up to the wall of files, and signed His name in blood-red ink over the untold millions of accusing cards. Jesus signed all in an instant, put His hand on the sinner’s shoulder, and said, “It is finished.” The person in the parable left with Jesus, to write new “life cards.”

This could be one way to picture Psalm 130:3-4:
If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.
Never could we stand before God with our mammoth pile of sins. As Paul wrote in Romans 3:10-12, citing Psalms 14 and 53:
 There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.  All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.
But with Him there is forgiveness (Psalm 130:4): “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

So what is the psalmist waiting for? What is the long, dark night he hopes will end soon, so much so that he repeats, “more than the watchmen wait for the morning, more than the watchmen wait for the morning”?  It’s not forgiveness. That is granted upon confession. He isn’t waiting for his problems to go away. The problem is his sin problem. When his sins are forgiven, he realizes sin broke his fellowship with God. He is waiting for feelings to follow the fact of reconciliation. He is waiting in faith for intimacy with God to be rebuilt. And it can be, through a life changed through the help of the Holy Spirit and the guidance of Scripture.

He also realizes he’s not the only one with a sin problem who needs God’s forgiveness. He wants his fellow Israelites to know about this, too. After centuries of practicing animal sacrifices to “get right” with God, he yearns for them to go beyond the ritual to the reality of a relationship with the living God. The scripture says:
            With the LORD is unfailing love” (v. 7b).  He doesn’t sit in Heaven with walls of “bad stuff” files. He loved us so much that He sent His Son to die for our sins in our place. It’s sacrificial
            “With him is full redemption” (v. 7c). He doesn’t merely shorten the list of burdensome offenses. It’s completely forgiven.
            “He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins (v. 8). God desires us to go forward with lives that reflect His holiness and purpose. Paul captured this truth well:

I post scripture in my work area, including
this one that was so appropriate to Psalm 130.
“But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.  For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:22-23).

 So here it is, tucked into a song that pilgrims chanted en route to the temple, the heart of animal sacrifice. Their offerings of lambs, goats or birds couldn’t give them full assurance of being right with God. There was always the nagging question: did I offer enough to cover all the wrongs I did?

Whether they realized it or not, Psalm 130 provides the answer: “with him [God] there is full redemption” (v. 7). Sometimes we have to hit the depths, bottom out, crash from our sins, before we can look up, into the face of our Redeemer.
Next: Psalm 133


Friday, September 19, 2014

Making 'Psense' of Psalms--Psalm 126: Joy and Tears

The analogy: sowing with tears, reaping with joy
Part of a continuing series on selected psalms.
Trapped.  Unappreciated.  Ignored. Rejected. When we experience emotions like this, we’re apt to think that God has forgotten us. Maybe we think our faith has failed us. Ancient Jews, exiled to Babylon, certainly did. The Jews were known for loving their music, but in their misery as exiles they refused to sing for their captors, hanging their harps in the local poplar trees (Psalm 137:2).

In such times, Psalm 126 comes to teach and encourage us. The setting is the release of Jews from captivity in Babylon, with permission to return to their homeland. Never before had a captive people been allowed to relocate “back home.” But not all returned—according to Ezra 2:64-68, about 50,000. That’s a sizeable number, but was only a portion of those taken as spoils of war. Those who opted to leave faced an arduous desert journey of hundreds of miles. Once back in their destroyed homeland, they were on their own.

Psalm 126 replays both ecstatic joy and tearful hope in these circumstances—emotions that we, too, may experience when life takes an unexpected, positive turn, or when life tries to drain us of hope.

Several decades ago, while working at the headquarters of an international mission, I witnessed a dramatic re-enactment of the opening verses of Psalm 126. For nearly eight months—232 days—we’d prayed for a missionary couple and their small daughter, captured by rebels who herded them through the jungles of Southeast Asia. As the months dragged on, we gathered regularly to intercede for their safety and release. Then one morning, a special chapel meeting was called. It could mean only one of two outcomes: death or release. The mission’s Southeast Asia director began the meeting by reading from Psalm 126, his voice choked with emotion:
When the LORD turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing: then said they among the heathen, The LORD hath done great things for them. (vv. 1-2)
By then we knew they had been released!  He continued:
The LORD hath done great things for us; whereof we are glad. (v. 3)
Newer translations clarify verse 1: “When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion, we were like men who dreamed.” The prophet Isaiah had foretold this, even down to the name of the yet-unborn leader, Cyrus, who’d buck custom and release them (Isaiah 44:28). Having this actually happen was like their wildest dream coming true. They probably retrieved their harps from the trees to celebrate this amazing turn of events! Our cultural lens makes it hard to understand the intense emotion of being able to return to one’s historical homeland, steeped in the history of the patriarchs.

The glad declaration of verse 3 is how we should respond to God’s amazing blessings. It’s a witness to those around us (as is was to neighboring nations, v. 2c).  In her book The Satisfied Heart (Waterbrook, 1999, p. 171), author Ruth Myers remarked how it’s refreshing to be in the company of a “glad person.” Such a person can brighten an entire room. Likewise, it’s discouraging to be around someone who regularly gripes, complains, and seems trapped in a gloomy mindset.

Upon learning of our colleagues’ release, tearful prayers of thanksgiving flowed freely during that chapel hour. Though thin and sick, they were still alive. But they’d face many adjustments plus the grief of losing their precious manuscripts of the New Testament in a tribal language—the reason they were in that country. This was the ‘70s, when “saving” information in an internet “cloud” was the stuff of dreams. It was all on paper. As I recall that loss, I think of another couple I know who have devoted their entire adult lives—almost half a century—to translating the New Testament into two dialects of a South American tribal language. They endured deprivation, serious illness, cultural issues, government pressure, apathy and the plain hard work of learning an unwritten language. Recently I watched a video they sent of their second New Testament dedication. As I watched them join their joyful tribal friends, holding their New Testaments aloft as they did a celebratory dance, I thought of this portion of Psalm 126:
Turn again our captivity, O LORD, as the streams in the south. They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him. (vv. 4-6 KJV)
Jews who returned to their homeland faced great hardships. The land was in shambles, the temple burned, and the left-behind occupants hostile. No wonder they prayed, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord” (v. 4, NIV, ESV). They had to build homes and plant crops, using the precious seed they brought from Babylon. If they scattered generously, there would be less to grind into flour for bread for their families, and even less later if those crops failed. No wonder the farmer wept as he planted. He had no guarantee of a crop, only trust in God to provide.

No doubt they remembered that God had covenanted to provide adequate food for His people (Deuteronomy 28:1-14), and were claiming that promise in the midst of uncertainties. They were counting on God’s abundance to be as remarkable and refreshing as the rare downpours in the desert of the Negev (v. 4), which temporarily produced torrents that greened up nearby land. They were also trusting God for the time when a heavy heart of uncertainty would become the light, glad heart of joy as they gathered a harvest.

Beneath this picture of sowing and reaping actual food is the spiritual picture of sowing and reaping for God’s kingdom. Spiritual crops take waiting and tears. I try to remember that when I open my prayer notebook and pray again, and again, for loved ones who have rejected Christ or His better plan for their lives. Tears may come as my intense desire to see them spiritually whole overcomes me. Nineteenth century preacher Charles Spurgeon remarked, “Winners of souls are first weepers for souls.  As there is no birth without travail, so there is no spiritual harvest without painful tillage.”

Besides starting over with life’s necessities of housing and crops, the returned exiles faced rebuilding their temple. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell of the opposition and disappointments they faced, and how steadfast trust that God got them through it all. A lesson from that for us if that if things came too easily, we wouldn’t feel our need of God.  Perhaps that’s why we need the balancing exultation and agony of Psalm 126. True joy—deep, hard-won joy—comes from acknowledging that every good gift comes from God.  We sow daily through diligence in our work or studies, building good friendships, parenting the best we can for God, and staying faithful in prayer and Bible study. The journey may bring disappointment and tears. But as Psalm 30:5 reminds, “Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” As we sow in God’s strength, we’ll reap in joy, and give Him the glory for it. Songs of joy, says the psalmist. Or to use the more recent lyrics given us by Fanny Crosby: “To God be the glory, great things he has done!”
Next: Psalm 130

Friday, September 12, 2014

Making 'Psense' of Psalms--Psalm 121: Keeper

Part of a continuing series on selected psalms.
The opening verses of Psalm 121 came to mind as I neared the top of a mountain pass in Washington’s Cascade Mountains:
I will lift up my eyes to the mountains;
From whence shall my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
Who made heaven and earth. (vv. 1-2, 1973 NASV)

The narrow highway gripped the side of a slope as it ascended the pass. I knew that the final curve opened to a splendid, mile-high view of Mount Rainier. Like a mammoth ice cream sundae, it would rise above little “Tipsoo Lake,” a liquid jewel set amidst meadows awash in lupine and other alpine flowers. The site came two hours into a four-hour journey, so I’d pull off for a driving break and just absorb the beauty. More important, the majesty of this setting reminded me of the greater majesty of the Most High God. This same God cared diligently for me, His struggling follower who needed His help.

I drove that route several times that year. I was 31 and still single, struggling through the aftermath of my parents’ same-year deaths. I’d dropped out of graduate school and moved 2,000 miles back “home” to clean out their house and prepare it for selling. From time to time, I’d travel across state to the home of my sister, my only sibling, to help with her young family and business.

I’d been seeking the face of the Lord in the valleys, too, and appropriately my childhood home, to which I was returned, was in a “valley.” In the midst of sorting out my parents’ belongings and holding estate sales, I battled discouragement and fear.  Now that I was alone, with no parental safety “net,” who would take care of me? My answers came as I determined to read through the Bible in a newer translation someone gave me. A fresh reading of psalms reminded me that ancient writers also wrestled with what-if’s. Psalm 121 was among those I underlined or starred, my way of noting, “Remember this!”

“Remember this!” is actually a theme of several psalms of which 121 is a part, the “Ascent Psalms” of numbers 120 through 134. “Ascent” literally means “goings-up” and this group was probably sung by pilgrims “ascending” toward Jerusalem for one of three major annual festivals. With an elevation of 2,400 feet, Jerusalem was literally “up,” accessed by primitive roads known for physical and criminal dangers. This accounts for the focus on remembering God’s “keeping” power. In fact, the words “watch over” and “keep,” are the same Hebrew word, shāmar, repeated six times in this psalm.

When I stopped at this Mount Rainier viewpoint, letting its majesty fill my heart with awe, this wasn’t “mountain worship.” I knew that ancient Native Americans of that area called this “Tahoma,” “the mountain that was god.” I also was aware of a misunderstanding of Psalm 121 that some had from the original King James translation, which began “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from which cometh my help.” Period. Unfortunately, this earlier translation permitted the idea that people were helped or rejuvenated through the “spirit” of the hills or mountains. It’s an ancient idea. Even in Bible times, there were idolatrous worship spots in the nearby hills or “high places.” One prominent “deity” was a goddess named Asherah, connected with degrading sexual practices. Israel’s bad kings left the idolatrous practices alone.  The good kings, like Hezekiah, diligently cleansed Israel of them: “He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles” (2 Kings 18:5). The point is this: neither Mount Rainier, nor any other earthly site, is worthy of worship. But such places can move us to worship the Creator, whose amazing craftsmanship includes these breathtaking places.

The mountain also reminded me that God always was, always is, and always will be. He is so powerful that His sculpturing of 14,410-foot ice-capped volcano took a symbolic flick of His finger. The One who ordered Creation and intervened in human history is worthy of my awe, devotion, and trust.

Psalm 121 uses the analogy of a journeying pilgrim to remind us of His steadfast help and watch-care.
*He won’t let our feet slip (v. 3a). It was easy for pilgrims to stumble on the rocky, buckled primitive roads. This doesn’t say that God will send in an earth-mover to level the road. Even obedient believers face difficulties and dangers. They deal with emotional and physical pain. God permits that, often for our spiritual growth, but He draws the line at spiritual harm.  

*He won’t sleep on the job (vv. 3b, 4b). This verse reminds me of the almost comic scene in the Mount Carmel showdown between the prophet Elijah and the prophets of the false god Baal. They’d both set up altars, with the understanding that the “real” god would be able to supernaturally ignite the sacrifice. Despite much carrying-on and body-cutting, the Baal-followers couldn’t get results. Elijah taunted, “Shout louder…Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened” (1 Kings 18:27). Of course, they followed a false, useless God. Soon, Elijah’s God would ignite a pile of wood that had been drenched with water! (v. 29). We have a God of power and constant oversight. He doesn’t have “business hours” for calling His hot line. When needs arise in the middle of the night, He is there as much as during the day.

*He will watch over us (vv. 4, 5). When I care for my infant grandson, I check on him every ten minutes when he naps—and constantly when he’s crawling about the house! So much more are we in God’s watch-care. Of the many other Biblical references to God watching over us, I’ve always been drawn to these: “I will counsel you and watch over you” (Psalm 32:8). “The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous” (Psalm 34:15, quoted in 1 Peter 3:12). 

*He offers shade (v. 5). Like a wide-brimmed hat or shady place might protect us from the full blast of sun or even rain, God shields us spiritually. He is the “shadow of the almighty” of Psalm 91:1.

*He keeps us from harm, day and night (vv. 6-7).  Travelers faced the blistering heat of day and the bone-chilling cold of overnight campouts along the way. In whatever changes we face in life, God is there for us. This isn’t to say that our lives will be like a luxury motel room. Instead, in these challenges we have His presence and power to get through the difficulties that will inevitably come.

*He constantly watches over us, wherever we go, forever (v. 8). “Thy going out and thy coming in,” the King James version says poetically. In the daily routines of life—going out to work, coming in to eat and rest—God watches over us. In our travels, wherever they take us—down the street or across the oceans—God watches over us. Most important, He is committed to doing this forever. This verse has echoes of the beloved Psalm 23, which in verse 6 speaks of “goodness and love” following me “all the days of my life.”  It’s not just the duration of our earthly lives, but forever we enjoy this loving watch-care of God. He is our portion forever (Psalm 73:26).

As the pilgrims neared Jerusalem, and spotted the temple ahead, their hearts must have been full of gratitude that once again they’d made it safely to their destination. Although they knew God didn’t actually “dwell” in that temple (to think so would have been idolatry), it symbolized the relationship of God with His covenant people. They must have sung this psalm with real gusto!

In reading it today, we may not break out in tambourine-shaking joy like long-ago Jews. But when we face our own unknowns and difficulties, and need assurance of God’s watch care, it’s a vital psalm to study and claim. I know its truths sustained me through some of the darkest months of my life. As I revisit it, I am reminded of one big truth.  No matter how deep my pain, or big my problem, God is my keeper and helper-- no matter what.  
Next: Psalm 126

Friday, September 5, 2014

Making 'Psense' of Psalms--Psalm 119:113-176: Rescued and Renewed

Part of a continuing series on Psalms.
References to danger build in the last third of Psalm 119 as the author keeps returning to the stability and hope he finds in God’s Word. Saints of the previous century—their faith anchored in scripture amidst wars and disaster—seemed to be more attuned to these truths. One was Corrie ten Boom, who survived the atrocities of World War 2 to tell of God’s sustaining power in her family’s story, particularly as it is highlighted this verse in Psalm 119:
Thou art my hiding place and my shield: I hope in thy word. (119:114 KJV)
In her autobiography The Hiding Place, Corrie told of her family’s late-night arrest for hiding Jews from the Nazis. They were briefly detained in their hometown before being split up and shipped to prison and concentration camps. The last night they were together, a group gathered around her godly, elderly father for evening prayers. His Bible left behind at their store apartment, he reached into his memory to quote Psalm 119:114 (above) and 117: “Hold thou me up, and I shall be safe.” “Hiding place” comes from the Hebrew sitrâ, which means “cover,” rendered throughout the King James version by ten different English words. The NIV uses “refuge.” The point is that we have God’s covering or place of safety, even in trouble. That “covering” may not always translate to physical safety and freedom on earth, but God holds us up for safety and freedom in His presence.

This 15th stanza of the psalm, built on the Hebrew letter “Samekh”(vv. 113-120), speaks of the conflict between evil men and those who trust in God’s Word. “I stand in awe of your law,” the psalmist says (v. 120). If only all of us would affirm that loudly and boldly! Some other nuggets from the remainder of Psalm 119:

16. Ayin (121-128): It is time for you to act, O LORD: your law is being broken (v. 126). I mark a star or date beside Bible verses that stand out for me during my reading time. This one has “11-15-12” and “our broken nation” beside it for news of election results. Another marks verse 125: “I am your servant; give me discernment that I may understand your statutes.” My marginal comment: “Help me be a teaching writer.”  The Hebrew word for “servant” appears fourteen times in psalm 119, three in just this stanza. More and more, as I age, I want to serve God through writing material that leads people closer to Jesus. That was one motivation behind this lengthy series on Psalms.

17. Pe (129-136): The entrance of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple (v. 130). A few hundred years later, this verse came to life as two people, walking to Emmaus, discussed the death and reported resurrection of Jesus. When someone they didn’t recognize joined them en route and heard their doubts, He said, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Luke 24:25-26). Then, starting with Moses and going through the Prophets, Jesus explained how He fulfilled the scriptures.

18. Tsadhe (137-144): Righteous are you, O LORD, and your laws are right. This whole stanza deals with the idea of “righteous,” whose Hebrew word (tzedek) starts with the alphabet letter for this section. Some form of “righteous” is used four times. God’s Word is “righteous” because it reflects His character. Even amidst a world fouled by unrighteousness, the Word of God remains untainted as our standard and instructor.

19. Qoph (145-152): I rise before dawn and cry for help; I have put my hope in your word. My eyes stay open through the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promises (vv. 147-148). First century Christians in Thessalonica were probably wondering if things could get any worse, or maybe if the wickedness around them meant the Lord had already come again and they had missed out. The apostle Paul reminded them of the sequence and suddenness (“like a thief in the night”) of end times. As he wrapped up his letter, he gave them practical steps (helping, being thankful) for the “meantime.” Tucked in that list is a powerful two-word verse: “Pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). This was the psalmist’s mindset in the midst of his own troubling times. It should be ours, too.

 20. Resh (153-160): Your compassion is great, O Lord, renew my life according to your law (v.  156). God’s compassion sets Him apart from the false gods whose religious systems see them  as harsh or demanding. Other religions are “do, do, do,” and Christianity is “done”—at the cross. As 1 John 2:2 reminds us, “He [Christ] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”

Psalm 119 reminds us to take the
"upward look" to God's sufficiency
 through life's problems
21. Sin and Shin (161-168): Great peace have they who love your law, and nothing can make them stumble (v. 165). The epistle by Jude, Jesus’ half-brother, ends with a similar doxology: “To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without  fault and with great joy….” (Jude 24).
22. Taw (169-176): May my lips overflow with praise, for you teach me your decrees (v. 171). Psalm 119 ends with the writer’s deepest hopes for his faith walk. The word “may” occurs five times, asking that his cry, supplication, praising lips, and singing tongue be heard by God. Finally, he asks, “May your hand be ready to help me” (v. 173). He’s saying that he’s helpless on his own—indeed like a dumb sheep that’s prone to stray (v. 176).  In a concluding verse that looks forward to the Good Shepherd, who leaves the ninety and nine to seek the lost sheep (John 10), the psalmist says, “I have strayed like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commandments.” Thus it comes full-circle from the beginning statement that those who “walk according to the law of the Lord” are blessed (119:1).

How can we possibly respond to all that Psalm 119 teaches?  Perhaps as Paul did in the doxology tucked into his letter to the Romans:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments and his paths beyond tracing out! (Romans 11:33)

Next: Psalm 121

Friday, August 29, 2014

Making 'Psense' of Psalms--Psalm 119:57-112: Ruts and Bumps

Another picture of "tracks" or trodden ruts,
taken at an Idaho tree preserve
“See those lines in our lane?” my friend said, pointing to parallel ruts in the asphalt of a rural country road. “Those were worn down by the wheels of Amish buggies.” In this section of Psalm 119 comes a similar picture of “ruts” and “road” from the meanings of the original Hebrew.
I have considered my ways and have turned my steps to your statutes (v. 59)
The word “ways” comes from Hebrew for a “trodden road.”  A related Hebrew word is used earlier in the psalm, in this famous line:
How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word (v. 8)
“Way” means track or rut, like made by a cart or chariot’s wheels. When we choose God’s “tracks,” we’re headed the right way, even when “the way” seems like a detour. Hebrews 12:10 explains it better: “Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best, but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.”

Afflictions—ruts and bumps—seem to run through the second third of Psalm 119. Some highlight verses:
8. Heth (57-64): You are my portion, O LORD. I have promised to obey your words (v. 57). This verse seems to echo Psalm 16:5: “LORD, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure.” Both share “portion” (heleq), which refers to lands inherited after the Israelite tribes conquered Canaan. All the tribes except the Levites got expanses of land, but because the Levites were priests to be scattered throughout all tribal areas for spiritual service, they had a special heleq: “The LORD, the God of Israel, is their inheritance” (Joshua 13:33). Their special gifts from God would be better than pastures and croplands. Perhaps the use of “portion” here is a reminder that God’s gifts aren’t always what the world sees as “success,” like wealth or influence. Rather, having Him is the greatest gift of all.

9. Teth (65-72): Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word…It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees. (vv. 67, 71).
For more than a decade, as a victim of a drinking driver, I have addressed convicted drunk drivers in a court-ordered “educational session,” urging them to choose life (theirs and others) over alcohol- or drug-impairment on the highways. Afterwards, a few sometimes tell me they’re convicted and ready to make changes. On a bigger scale of life, when troubles resulting from our poor choices come our way, we can kick at them, or be grateful God disciplines those He loves (Hebrews 12:5-13).

10. Yodh (73-80): May they who fear you rejoice when they see me, for I have put my hope in your word (v. 74). If you’re part of the human race, there are probably people in your life who drag you down. You weary of spending spend time with them because they’re not interested in God’s solutions for their issues or problems. Yet seeing them through Christ’s eyes means coming alongside and nudging them closer to God. “Carry each other’s burdens,” Paul wrote the Galatians (6:2), “and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”  How much better the opposite, when others can rejoice in spiritual progress.

11. Kaph (81-88): They almost wiped me from the earth, but I have not forsaken your precepts (v. 87). The psalmist is “down, but not out.” Jesus reminded us of that truth in some of His last teaching words to His disciples: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

12. Lamedh (89-96): If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction (v. 92). Sometimes, in talking with believing friends about difficult situations, we agree on this tried-but-true conclusion: “What would we do without the Lord?” Paul reminded us of the same principle: “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).

13. Mem (97-104): Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long (v. 97). Posting scripture around the house is one way to do this. Memorization is another. But more important that being able to repeat words is this: “Let the word of Christ dwell in your richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom” (Colossians 3:16). The second half of that verse describes a song service! Indeed, what encouragement singing scriptural truths can bring!

14. Nun (105-112): Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path (v. 105). When I was new in the faith, someone explained verse 105 to me this way: “God gives us just enough light for where we are now. We couldn’t bear to see the whole way.” Peter encouraged believers to pay attention to what had already been revealed in scripture, “as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (1 Peter 1:19).

God offers just enough light to navigate the bumps and ruts, and His hand to hold us steady!

Next: stanzas 15-22

Friday, August 22, 2014

Making 'Psense' of Psalms--Psalm119:1-56: Walking, stumbling

Headlines about our Central Washington firestorms became personal with a phone call the morning of July 18. Made from a borrowed phone, the call came from a family friend who said, “The fire took my home.” About 11 p.m. the previous night, a neighbor roused him with frantic knocking and the warning that flames were close to their little rural neighborhood. He escaped with his truck and the clothes he hurriedly put on. A bachelor in his early seventies, the only child of parents long dead, he turned to us in this devastating event that destroyed the simple home he’d built himself in a rural area.
What was left of our friend's home.
What would you do if you were numb with unexpected, incomprehensible loss?  At the time I’m writing this, more than 300 homes about an hour’s drive north sit in ashes from this monster wildfire. Their owners never imagined that such devastation would come their way. And never did I expect my study of Psalm 119 to resound so strongly with these circumstances:
My soul is weary with sorrow; strengthen me according to your word. (119:28)
Found in the psalm’s fourth stanza (verses 25-32), built on the Hebrew letter “Daleth,” it’s part of the picture of someone who’s down-down-down. The stanza begins, “I am laid low in the dust,” which in the original Hebrew speaks of “cleaving to the dust,” or, as we might say, “eating the dust.” He is flat-out humbled and sorrowful. But he doesn’t stay face down in utter despair. He asks God to renew him, teach him, help him understand, strengthen him, and keep him from “deceitful ways.” He wants to rise out of this. In amazing contrast to the dust-biting stance of the stanza’s first verse, he concludes:
I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free. (119:32)
The word translated “run” reminds us that the Christian life is not a reluctant walk, but a race, as Hebrews 12:1 says: “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Even when life throws us against the wall (like marathon runners experience when they think they can’t keep going), God says, “Keep going, I am with you.”

Some truths from other stanzas of Psalm 119:
1. Aleph (1-8): Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees! (v. 5). Against such yearning stand quotes like this by Robert Murray McCheyne, passionate missionary to native Americans in the early 1800s, who died before he reached 30: “According to your holiness, so shall be your success. A holy man is an awesome weapon in the hands of God.”

2. Beth (9-16): How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word. I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you (vv. 9-11). One mark of youth culture is conformity to “do what everybody else does.” Today, that includes the shallow values of electronic social media, and the false idea that the number of Facebook “friends” you have reveals your personal worth. Instead, we need what this verse says and fresh reminders of how it worked out in the lives of spiritual giants of the past. We have the legacy of people like Jim Elliot, martyred in the 1950s alongside an Ecuadorian river. His biography, Shadow of the Almighty, prepared by his widow, is a classic insight of an all-out faith that included commitment to scripture memory.
3. Gimel (17-24): Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law (v. 18).  The apostle Paul expressed a similar yearning: “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better” (Ephesians 1:17, and though I won’t quote the rest, verses 18-23 complete this amazing prayer for spiritual insight). 

4. Daleth (25-32): Already covered, above. I would also add the Lord Jesus’ encouraging word to Paul in the midst of his trials: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).

5. He (33-40): Turn my eyes away from worthless things; renew my life according to your word (v. 37). The psalmist wants to keep faithful to the end (v. 1) and he wants his heart and mind filled with things of eternal significance. The phrase “worthless things” (translated “vanity” in older versions) is from a word that also refers to useless or desolating things.  I have “TV” written in the margin of my Bible, and that could include other fluffy electronic and internet entertainment. Along those lines, the apostle James decried those who had a little Bible knowledge but didn’t act on it to change their lives (James 1:22).

6. Waw (41-48): I will speak of your statutes before king and will not be put to shame (v. 46). I’ve heard the term “Arctic River Christians,” explained as those “frozen at the mouth” in sharing their faith. That wasn’t true of Paul: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Romans 1:16). For historical proof of that, go to Acts 24-26, where he laid out the Gospel before the enthroned Festus and Agrippa.

7. Zayin (49-56): Your decrees are the theme of my song wherever I lodge (v. 54). Paul, along with Silas, illustrated this remarkably as they sat in a filthy Philippian jail after their arrests and severe beatings: “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25). The rest of the story was an earthquake and the conversion of the Philippian jailer.  When we lift up the Lord in negative circumstances, people take note.

Next: stanzas 8-14.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Making 'Psense' of Psalms--Psalm 119: A-B-C

These days I’m reading A-B-C books to my year-old grandson. As he sits in my lap and hears the alphabet sounds, I sometimes think of children hundreds of years ago using “hornbooks” to learn the essentials of reading. Dating to the Middle Ages, when paper was scarce and expensive, they consisted of a paper attached to a paddle and covered with a semi-transparent animal horn that had been boiled and scraped. The hornbooks typically contained the alphabet and vowel combinations, the benediction, the Lord’s Prayer and Roman numerals. With improvements in making paper, hornbooks faded from use in the early 1800s

In some ways, Psalm 119, known as an acrostic psalm (based on the 22-letter Hebrew alphabet), is like a “hornbook.” Although not brief like hornbooks—the psalm is the Bible’s longest chapter with 176 verses—it does proclaim essentials of faith as it praises God for His Word.

Though it’s tempting to skim through Psalm 119, it’s also worth noting that its depths have gripped history’s great Bible teachers. Puritan Thomas Manton (1620-1677) wrote a 1,677-page book on Psalm 119, devoting a chapter to each verse. The Church of England’s Charles Bridges (1794-1869) at age 33 published a 481-page book on Psalm 119. Famed preacher Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) devoted 349 pages in his massive Treasury of David just to Psalm 119. Obviously, they highly valued the scriptures. I wonder what they’d think of contemporary churches whose lost-and-found closets are full of forgotten Bibles.

No author is cited for Psalm 119, and perhaps it’s best we don’t know, for then its lessons come across for all of us. Psalm 119’s literary excellence includes its outline off the Hebrew alphabet, with each stanza’s eight lines also beginning with that letter. The subject matter speaks across centuries to issues we still face. We are “aliens” among the ungodly (2 Peter 1:11-12). Life is a struggle (1 Peter 4:12). Yet, with the Lord’s help, we are to press on (Romans 12:1-3).

Scholars say Psalm 119 uses eight different Hebrew words for scripture. All of its verses except perhaps seven directly mention God’s Word. Of those seven, four use strong synonyms (translated in KJV “thy ways,” twice; “thy Name,” “thy faithfulness”) and only three have no expression for God’s Word.  In subject matter, it has a connection to Psalm 19, in which David used six names for scripture, five found in Psalm 119.  Both compare the “Word of God” to gold (19:10, 119:72, 127) and honey (19:10, 119:103). Both emphasize keeping or obeying God’s Word, express a hunger for holiness, and reveal a passion to understand scripture.

The end of Psalm 119 comes back to this essential truth: God is holy, and people are in need of salvation. “I have strayed like a lost sheep,” the psalm says in the very last verse.  “Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commandments. There’s an echo of this in Isaiah 53:6: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray.” Yet God is ready to help those “sheep” prone to wander, and Psalm 119 patiently rehearses the ways the scriptures help us live for Him. We need to keep in mind that the author of this psalm had only early scriptures to inspire him, mostly likely just the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and perhaps a few more historical books.

I’d be hard-pressed to pick one key verse from all 176 of Psalm 119. Even the first one has a significant message:
Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the LORD.
With the introductory word “blessed” (‘esher), it echoes the first verse of Psalm 1:
Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of mockers, but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he mediates day and night.

Over the next three blogs, I’ll highlight significant verses from Psalm 119. My treatment will be like bugs touching a pond surface, but maybe it will encourage you to return on your own to this amazing alphabetical praise of God’s Word.