Friday, October 17, 2014

Making 'Psense' of Psalms--Psalm 139: Known

Part of a continuing series on selected psalms.
When my son and his wife showed me the ultrasound image of my first grandchild, the words of Psalm 139 immediately came to mind:
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I will praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. (vv. 13-14)
That would probably be my choice for a “key verse” for this exquisitely-crafted psalm. Through remarkable descriptions of the God who is infinite and intimate, it expresses how all of creation, in existence and purpose, is “fearfully and wonderfully made.” English has words for these attributes of God, all starting with the prefix “omni,” from the Latin for “all”: omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence. Those words suggest an outline for the psalm’s first three sections, with the final one inviting us to self-examination. But the simplicity of its structure defies the jewels that could be mined from this psalm that expresses God’s extravagant Being and love for us.
The first two words already provide a stopping point: “O LORD.” This term of address not only establishes it as a prayer, but it emphasizes God’s high and revered essence through use of His holiest name, “YHWH,” which English translations indicate through “LORD” in small capital letters. It’s the ancient “name” of God that no pious Jew would dare write or speak out of profound reverence. David reached deeply into his native tongue to find words expressing God’s all-knowing character—ones we translate in English as search, know, perceive, discern, and are familiar with. God’s perfect knowledge includes a person’s location and subconscious life (thoughts, plans, habits, and soon-to-be-spoken words)—and all this “completely” (v. 4).

To picture God’s constant presence, David used a military expression, “you hem me in—behind and before” (v. 5). Unlike an enemy, which would hem in a city to destroy it, God surrounds us, both past and present, for our good. He is personal in His guidance: “you lay your hand upon me” (v. 5b). This expression brought me great comfort and confidence at change points in my life. When I felt besieged by circumstances and unsure of the future, being confident of God “behind” and “ahead” with His hand upon me, helped me go forward in faith.

God’s “omniscience” is so immense that we barely begin to understand it. No wonder David added: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain” (v. 6). We don’t know how He does it, but He does it. In response, we might say with the apostle Paul, “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).

I babysit my year-old grandson while his parents work, and if I’m not within his sight, he gets worried. When he wakes up from napping in his crib, he cries for that “people” connection he depends on for just about everything. Similarly, God’s constant presence should comfort us, as Paul observed in the well-known “God works for good” teaching of Romans 8. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Paul asks as a rhetorical question, listing negatives like hardships, persecution, personal deprivations, even death by an enemy. “No,” Paul adds, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through whom who loved us” (Romans 8:35, 37).

As David looks at God’s “omnipresence” or ability to be everywhere, he also touches on the sinful tendency to want to hide from God. “Where can I go from your Spirit?” he asks, “Where can I flee from your presence?” (v. 7). The answer is nowhere. God is in heaven and in the place of the dead (“sheol”). If we could travel at the speed of light (like the “wings of the dawn”), we couldn’t get away from Him. We can’t hide from Him in some dark place, for even the absence of light is no problem for Him. God surpasses the abilities of forensic law workers, who attempt to solve crimes. He sees crime when it happens. He also sees into the dark hearts of those who commit offenses. Darkness is as light to Him (v. 12).

David could not have chosen a better example of God’s all-powerful hand than the miracle of creating a human life from one cell merging the mother’s and father’s genetic codes. He couldn’t know about coils of DNA when he chose the wonderfully appropriate Hebrew word sarak (“to entwine”) that more modern English translators render “knit”: “You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Even when hidden inside a mother’s womb (now seen in shadows via ultrasound), our growing “beings” were never hidden from God. God also “knew” the life-path for each of us “before one of them came to be” (v. 16). God has a purpose for each human being, as many other Bible verses attest. He described Jews who would return from Babylonian exile as those “whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made” (Isaiah 43:7). Each of us has a divinely-crafted role: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). When we go off and do our own thing apart from God, then come back, He will help us change to do “his good, pleasing, and perfect will” (Romans 12:2).

Against all these reminders of God’s presence and power, it’s easy to feel insignificant, especially when life’s problems dim our perception of who He is. That’s why the concluding verses of this section are so comforting. They’re a wonderful prayer for those “down days” when God seems distant: “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!  Were I to count them, they would out number the grains of sand. When I awake [even when I waken to dread the day ahead] I am still with you [which gives me hope for the day ahead!]” (verses 17-18, my comments in brackets).

RESPONSE (VV. 19-24)
The concluding section almost seems out of place after the majority of the psalm exalts God’s great knowledge, presence, and power. David expresses righteous indignation about his enemies when he asks God to slay the wicked. This seems strange unless we remember that God is holy, and all face the choice of accepting Him in all His holiness, or choosing to sin and reject Him. Sinners are objects of both God’s love and God’s wrath: “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). David is also separating himself from the evil around him (vv. 21-22) as he seeks to love and serve only God.

Not only does David abhor the evil of his nation and culture, he wants all of it purged from himself:
Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.  See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (vv. 23-24)
Of course, God doesn’t need to “search” because He knows all about David (and us), anyway. But David is expressing his desire to be shown his sin.  As someone once put it, “Roof off to God.” Paul explained it to one of the New Testament churches, as taking captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians. 10:5).

A key word for this psalm is “known.” God is so great—so all-knowing, so “everywhere,” and so powerful--that we cannot “know” all that He is. Yet He knows everything about us, from the very first cells that became “us,” custom-designed for His purposes. And that brings us back to David’s awe expressed in verse 6: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me.”

Next: Psalm 145

Friday, October 10, 2014

Making 'Psense' of Psalms--Psalm 138: Purpose

Part of an ongoing series on selected psalms.
Life's unknowns stretched ahead of me like a road with no markers that summer. I was finishing up a graduate degree that I hoped would lead to a new career. But as the weeks ticked away with no job offer, and with my college housing soon to end, I struggled to trust God. I was 31, single, orphaned (so no option of going “home” to sit it out), and wondering if God would allow me to experience homelessness. That’s when Psalm 138:8 burned into my heart: “The LORD will accomplish what concerns me” (NASB).  I will never forget those humbling prayer times, kneeling by my desk chair and confessing, “I’m up against impossibilities, Lord, but I believe you will accomplish what concerns me.”  With just days to spare, He brought both an offer of a job I’d dreamed about and temporary housing with a company employee.

Psalm 138:8 still speaks to us as it focuses on God’s exalted and loving character in our trials. The historical background is God’s promise to David to raise up from his family a dynasty that would “endure forever before me” (2 Samuel 7:16), unlike that of the first king, Saul. During Saul’s stormy reign, God told the prophet Samuel to anoint an unlikely, godly shepherd boy, David, as king-in-waiting. From David’s children would come successive kings. Even though over the next thousand years, Jewish history got quite messy with bad kings and deportations, there would be a “forever king” from David’s line.  Matthew 1 and Luke 3 trace the lineage from David to a humble carpenter named Joseph, whose virgin betrothed, Mary, would bear Jesus, “Immanuel,” God-with-us. Or as Luke reported the angel’s message to young Mary: “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:32-33). The crucified, risen, and ascended Christ will return to this embattled earth to reign!

Living in a democracy where we vote for leaders, good or bad, we tend to forget that monarchies have problems, too. Royal families can get complicated (Henry VIII’s many wives, Edward abdicating for love). Even though David couldn’t see into the far future, he was ecstatic that God chose to keep the Davidic line going. That’s why Psalm 138 opens on such an emphatic note of praise:
I will praise you, O LORD, with all my heart; before the “gods” I will sing your praise.
I will bow down toward your holy temple and will praise your name for your love and faithfulness…(vv. 1-2a)
The word “praise” in these verses and in verse 4 comes from the Hebrew yadah, which means “to stretch out the hand, confess.” This was no mindless recitation. David put everything he had into praising God. He wasn’t fazed by any local false gods or offending their deluded worshipers. He was God-focused only. He was also humble. There was no pomp-and-circumstance (“here comes the king to church”). He bowed down in adoration and humility as he praised God.

A key Hebrew word, chesed, almost gets short-changed by its English translation as “love and faithfulness.”  It is a loaded word, referring to God’s covenant love expressed through constancy and fidelity to His people. In praising God for His chesed, David was thanking God for all He is and does. David was expressing the truth that anything good in his life came as a result of God’s chesed toward him.

As a monarch, David had huge prayer requests, and he saw dramatic answers to prayer. He kept the perspective that solutions didn’t come through his cleverness or military strategizing, but the power and constancy of God:
For you have exalted above all things your name and your word.
When I called, you answered me; you made me bold and stouthearted. (v. 3)
We know God by many names that express His character, and we have learned of them through His Word, the Bible. I am reminded of that on nights when sleep doesn’t come easily. I’ve learned to turn my frustrations over insomnia into praise sessions, speaking back to God His names and attributes, as I have learned them in scripture. False gods simply cannot match all the dimensions of His character.

David apparently had a dramatic answer to prayer, prompting this psalm. Whatever the situation, he had to respond with an uncharacteristic boldness. Similarly, the apostle Paul wrote of times of weakness when God gave him the strength and boldness to persevere. Instead of answering Paul’s prayer to be healed of his debilitating ailment (whatever it was), the Lord Jesus came to Him in a special way (a vision?) and said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”  (2 Corinthians 12:9). From that point, Paul decided not to fuss about his weaknesses and hardships, but instead focus on what Christ could achieve through them.

Today’s headlines of violence and trouble remind us that knees bow to different and hostile philosophies (gods), willing to kill and die for them. But David had the vision of a time when all the kings of the earth would praise the Lord, even sing of the glory of the Lord. This far-forward look to Christ’s final reign as Messiah is what Paul also spoke of with loving anticipation:
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)

As if to correct the impression that God is so high and holy that He doesn’t care to bother with lowly people, David adds this comforting truth:
Though the LORD is on high, he looks upon the lowly, but the proud he knows from afar. (Psalm 138:6)
David adds, in a verse reminiscent of Psalm 23: Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life; you stretch out your hands against the anger of my foes, with your right hand you save me. (v. 7)

My son-in-law photographed a repairman working on my
daughter's violin. It reminded me how we need to yield
to the repairing touch of the Master Craftsman of our lives
so that His purposes are achieved.
For me, the psalm’s key phrase is in verse 8: “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me.” An older translation says the Lord “will perfect” what concerns me, which can be confusing if perceived as saying God will straighten out problems to make my life “perfect.”  But I have learned that He uses the struggles, disappointments and pain to craft my character. David’s work as king was not without conflict—far from it! In this psalm, he alludes to opposition several times. But he also knew that God had purposed for him to have a royal legacy. We often forget that we, too, have a royal legacy:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)
As David ends the psalm, praising God’s enduring love, he adds an interesting postscript: “Do not abandon the works of your hands” (v. 8). This dusting of doubt reminds us that David faced real dangers. Yet he believed that God would direct his life as long as he sought to do God’s will. Or as the apostle Paul said, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).
Next: Psalm 139

Friday, October 3, 2014

Making 'Psense' of Psalms--Psalm 133: Harmony

Ancient olive oil didn't come in bottles
like I buy it, but had many uses in the
holy land, including perfumed anointing oil
Part of a continuing series on selected psalms.
“Get along!”  How often had I uttered those words in raising my children? More important, how many times had God challenged me about being the peacemaker, not troublemaker, as I lived in a world of imperfect people, myself included!  “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity,” Psalm 130 begins. But in reality, we don’t always enjoy that unity.

Biblical harmony, Psalm 130 says, is like:
“...precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes.” (v. 2)
To appreciate this allusion, it’s helpful to review the ancient texts about the early Hebrew worship system.  When the Exodus from Egypt occurred about 1440 B.C., the emancipated Jews had a sense of the Great High God who brought about this miracle. But the former slaves needed a unifying religious system, which God outlined in revelations to Moses. These included extensive instructions about worship leaders, the worship center (tabernacle) and rituals, detailed in various parts of the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy. The worship system and its procedures helped teach the Hebrews about God’s holiness and man’s sin. One tribe, the Levites, was charged with spiritual care, with only one man and his descendants in the top leadership role as priests.

Furnishings (like altars) and people were commissioned for priestly service by anointing with an  olive oil perfumed with myrrh, cinnamon, fragrant cane, and cassia (Exodus 30:23-33). Leviticus 8 tells how Aaron and his sons prepared for commissioning by bathing and putting on clean, simple tunics with sashes. Then Aaron, as high priest, received extra ceremonial dressing:  a robe, ephod (a type of apron), breastplate with precious stones, and turban-like crown. Finally, Moses anointed Aaron’s head with the special scented olive oil in enough abundance that the oil dribbled from his forehead and on down his clothes. The anointing represented favor from on High, coming down on God’s appointed servants. As Aaron went about his tasks, the powerful fragrance emanated wherever he passed.

This old house in my neighborhood was soon torn down.
Reading of this reminded me of how 1 Corinthians 2:14-15 spoke of a believer’s spiritual “fragrance”:  “Thanks be to God, who…through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.”  But I’ve had my “skunk cabbage” times, too.  One happened in my late twenties when a marginally employed single woman in my church found herself on the verge of homelessness, and asked to move in with me. I lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment but agreed, giving her the bedroom (for privacy with her medical and emotional needs) while I slept on the couch. When the “few weeks” became months of free housing, I allowed resentment to grow. Then, to my surprise, I came home from work one night to find she had moved out to another “free” situation. In my hurt, I indulged in the sins of enmity and backbiting. I became like a boarded-up house, almost cut off from the Holy Spirit’s correcting voice. But my habit of scripture reading helped me from persisting in this sin. When I read Matthew 5:23-24, about interrupting one’s worship (leaving a gift at the altar) to be reconciled with someone you wronged, I was stricken by my sin in this relationship.

By now she had moved out of state, but I got her address from mutual friends.  As I wrote a letter owning my part in our rift, and asking her forgiveness, I broke down and cried. When I dropped that letter in the mailbox, a burden slipped off my heart. I didn’t expect to hear from her, but in a few weeks, she replied, forgiving me and asking forgiveness for her wrongs. As I read her letter, I imagined—as never before—the humbling effects that Aaron must have felt in his drenching with holy, aromatic oil. I felt re-anointed, too, for a fresh consecration to God’s work. As God has prompted me to review my past relationships, I’ve been led to write other letters seeking forgiveness.  Some were gracious and dismissed the offense. One never replied, and while I wish there had been closure with that person, God knows my heart.

The second simile in Psalm 130 also expresses God’s favor:
It is as the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the LORD bestows his blessing, even life forevermore. (v. 3)
Mount Hermon, northeast of the Sea of Galilee and about 130 miles from Jerusalem, at 9,101 feet is the highest mountain in Palestine. Famously heavy dews fall on its slopes, sustaining plant life. In contrast, Mount Zion (Jerusalem) has little rainfall except in September. The first image in the psalm spoke of anointing oil descending over Aaron’s face and onto his vestments. This second image speaks of moisture, so necessary for agricultural fruitfulness, descending from on high. The dew and rains are the work of God. Likewise, the healing that brings unity among God-followers is also a divine work.

It’s worth noting that this poetic study of harmony came from the heart of King David, who lived with more than his share of disharmony. After being anointed king-to-be, he lived on the run from the wrath of King Saul. When he finally came to the throne, he dealt with loyalists to the now-deceased Saul.  Then there were all his wives. Even before Israel had kings, God had declared, “He [a king] must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray” (Deuteronomy 17:17). Scholars find eight “named” wives, believe there were more unnamed, plus his ten concubines.  So many family relationships, and so little time from a husband/dad, understandably led to much dysfunction.

Aside from David’s woes, it’s important to remember that in Bible times, extended families lived in proximity. Grandparents, aunts and uncles were a few tents or partitions away, which allowed for little “personal space” if they didn’t get along. The historical transition from family interdependence to  independent family or single units has brought with it a growing intolerance for one another. 

Perhaps that’s why New Testament teaching on getting along is so appropriate for us. Besides urging the often-dissident Corinthians to be an aroma of Christ in their circle of influence, Paul took great pains in Ephesians 4 to list the negatives he saw in relationships, including “bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (4:31). He urged the Colossian church to “Bear with each other and...forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:13-14).

The message of Psalm 133 also applies to “church wars,” which smolder over issues varying from doctrine (both essential and non-essential) to culturally-affected choices like dress and music. When I walk through the doors of my church, I have my “druthers” about what I see, hear, or think should happen there. But Christ is bigger that my cultural lens.  “In essentials, unity,” wrote the ancient church leader Augustine. “In non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Or, as I often told my children, “Get along!”—sometimes easier said than done, except for the gracious power of God’s Holy Spirit.
Next: Psalm 138.

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