Friday, November 21, 2014

Gentle reminders

They’re called “lamb’s ears,” or technically stachys byzantina, and the low-growing, compact velvety plants are a popular edging. I can’t resist leaning over and touching the soft, pointed leaves, for they remind me of a spiritual trait I want to grow more in my life.  It’s gentleness, the demeanor expressed by what we do and say. Appropriately, “lamb’s ears” look like tongues as well as ears.

“Let your gentleness (“moderation,” KJV) be known to all,” Paul wrote the Philippians (4:5, NIV). In the original Greek, the word implied something gentle, patient, and forbearing. More telling, Paul wrote verse 5 after asking two Christian women with a rift to “agree with each other in the Lord.” We’re not given details of their rift, but it probably involved some hurtful words to each other or behind the other’s back. Instead of being like lamb’s ears, they were cacti.

Been there, done that? A chapter of Proverbs has especially admonished me about “gentle words.” It begins, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger”  (Proverbs 15:1). In other verses, this chapter counsels:

*Speak truth wisely. “The tongue of the wise commends knowledge,” verse 2 says, “but the mouth of the fool gushes folly.” We’re not to back off from expressing truth, but guard how we express it. Those taken in by “folly” or strange ideas are usually very defensive of them. The best response may be, “I’m sorry, but I cannot come over to your beliefs. Let’s agree to disagree but not let that end our friendship.” When you’re not an easy “convert” to their position, they may back away, but the gentle reply will hopefully leave open the door to their hearts. And then, “The lips of the wise spread knowledge” (Proverbs 15:7).

*Speak to heal. “The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life” (v. 4). Remember the “lamb’s ears” are shaped like an ear. At times we need to engage ears before engaging tongue. James counseled: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (1:19). One person I pray for is like a closed-up box. Careless words can result in that box being shut tighter. Even though it’s arduous to draw out this person in conversation, that’s what God would have me do. I need this person’s trust before offering words of counsel.

*Speak to diffuse anger. “A hot-tempered man stirs up dissension, but a patient man calms a quarrel” (v. 18). “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said (Matthew 5:9). I say, double-blessed, because in that role they often get in the crossfire of verbal barbs and anger.

*Speak to build up: “A man finds joy in giving an apt reply—and how good is a timely word!” (v. 23). Such words are: “Go for it—I believe in you,” “I knew you could do it,” and “I’m proud of you.”

*Know when you need to listen: “He who listens to a life-giving rebuke will be at home among the wise” (v. 31). Several years ago, a godly woman I respected took me aside and gently told me that someone had felt snubbed because I didn’t greet her in the church foyer. I could have passed off it off as a mistaken reaction, but my friend helped me discern this person’s bigger needs of connection. Instead of reacting like a cactus (poke, poke, poke!) to what seemed trivial, I allowed my friend’s remarks to help me see this needy person through God’s eyes.
For several years I’ve thought about getting some “starts” of “lamb’s ears” for my yard. I have a place picked out: near the front door, where they’ll regularly remind me to seek to practice gentleness.        

Friday, November 14, 2014

Waiting for the Glory

They were greenhouse bargains, and past their prime. When my husband brought home three sickly chrysanthemum plants late last fall, I doubted anything would come of them. Re-planting them in a barrel by our door, I was surprised they were still alive by spring. But all summer, all I saw was a growing mound of leaves. A friend counseled, “Give them time.” A few weeks ago, they burst into glorious color.

Give it time. That counsel also applies as I pray for people who aren’t living for Christ. Some are pre-Christians. Others claim to be Christians, but their behavior negates the label. They’re living for pleasures now, not for God. In learning to pray for them, I’ve taken comfort and clues from the six prayers of the apostle Paul recorded in scripture. His prayer in 2 Thessalonians especially seemed to articulate the concerns I have for my struggling friends.

Paul was writing believers who had fallen into despair, thinking the world would end soon. Many were living in idleness, not even working. Paul wanted them stirred out of lethargy with a fresh vision of what God wanted them to do. Christ still hasn’t come, but He could, any day. I want to be ready, and I want those I care about to be ready, too! In studying Paul’s prayer, I realized it could be broken into seven parts for praying through the week.

SUNDAY:  “We constantly pray for you”--Pray for their constant awareness of God’s care, that He loves them more than they can know and that He hears others’ prayers on their behalf.

            MONDAY: “That our God may count you worthy of his calling”--Pray for a fresh vision of God’s high calling on their lives.

            TUESDAY: “And that by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours”—Pray that they may sense a compulsion toward godly living, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

            WEDNESDAY: “And every act prompted by your faith.” Intercede that their creed for life be based on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

            THURSDAY: “So that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you”—Pray that they will copy the example of Jesus, so others will be shown the glory of God through their character.

            FRIDAY: “And you in him”--Ask for conviction of places in their lives (like habits or fears) that they have resisted turning over fully to Christ.

            SATURDAY: “According to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ”—Pray for fresh confidence that God is at work in their difficult circumstances and supplying grace for each day.

Consider either tucking this prayer outline into your Bible or copying it into a prayer notebook for a guide in praying for others. And if you’re the one going through difficult times, speak this passage back to God as your own prayer. Even doing so is, as verse 11 says, “an act prompted by your faith,” and God hears.


Friday, November 7, 2014

Keep blooming

Fall had kissed fading chill into public gardens I visited in my daughter’s town. As I wandered the park’s rose section, I thought about an old song with a sad melody, “The Last Rose of Summer.” I’d heard its schmaltzy tune played on a violin long ago, but never knew all the words until I found them on the internet. Oh, my! Talk about a downer song! We can credit Irish poet Thomas Moore for the 200-year-old lyrics:
‘Tis the last rose of summer,/Left blooming alone;
All her lovely companions/Are faded and gone.
As the poem continues, the analogy is clear.  One by one we die until none of our friends is left. It concludes, “Oh! Who would inhabit/This bleak world alone.” Sigh. We can’t deny the inevitability of death (unless the Lord returns in our lifetimes!). But my Bible offers some great encouragement for those “last rose of summer” years.

*God will carry us in our old-age frustrations.
“Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you.  I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you” (Isaiah 46:4). The verse contrasts idols (who couldn’t lift a thing) and the true God who made us and spiritually carries, sustains and rescues us. Even in life’s autumn and winter, He is there.  

 *Character never stops growing.
The apostle Paul (himself in those “last rose” years) outlined a proactive approach for seniors in his letter to friend and helper Titus, who pastored the church at Crete. Paul didn’t want the church to waste its resource of older believers. Even if slowed by health, the “seniors” had a valuable role of “blooming” spiritually.  Thus the instructions in Titus 2 to teach older men to “be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, love and in endurance.” Older women were to be taught “to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good.” They were also to be role models to younger wives and mothers. When I was in my twenties, my best friend was fifty years my senior. Her modeling of sturdy faith and patient mentoring positively marked my life.

*Dreary “organ recitals” don’t glorify God.
Our bodies do a great job of reminding us that we’re mortal. This morning, for example, I got close and personal with a heating pad on an arthritic hip. I'll spare you more J…. I try to resist being someone who seeks sympathy via broadcasting aches and pains (“organ recitals”). It’s popular to grouse that “after 50 it’s patch-patch-patch,” and top another’s complaints. A friend of mine has the right attitude. Though left nearly helpless and in constant pain from polio half a century ago, when asked how he is, he keeps his “organ recital” to “I’m not complaining, just explaining.” Every time I’m around him, I am reminded of Nehemiah 8:10: “The joy of the Lord is your strength.”

*Keep enrolled in God’s School of Faith. “Remain in me, and I will remain in you,” Jesus said.  “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine.  Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me” (John 15:4). We’ll inevitably have ups and downs in our spiritual lives as God permits trials and challenges to strengthen our faith. I’m reminded of that every time I read my Bible and re-encounter passages that speak to me now in fresh ways. Unlike the “last rose” of Moore’s poem, which was left to “pine on the stem,” maturity grips the stem all the tighter. Connected to Jesus, we're to bloom for all we’re worth, as long as we can.

Wimpy end-of-season roses? Let’s change the image to that of Isaiah:
They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor. (Isaiah 61:4)

Friday, October 31, 2014

Making 'Psense' of Psalms--Psalm 150: Hallelujah!

A rose from my garden--just one tiny part of God's
praiseworthy creation.
And so we come to the end of psalms. It began with a blessing on the one who follows God above all else. It ends with that follower praising God above all else. Simple in words, deeper than words, lovely just by itself, it is a fitting conclusion and invitation to respond to God with praise, and praise, and more praise. “Hallelu-Yah,” Hebrew for “Praise the Lord.”

Just the word “Hallelujah” prompts many to think of the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s oratorio, “The Messiah.” He completed the massive work (my edition of the vocal score is 250 pages) in 24 days in 1741. Tradition says that at its 1743 London premier, King George 2 was present and so moved that he stood, meaning all others had to stand, too.  Some scholars say the king wasn’t there at all, but the custom has persisted. Despite the use of the word “Hallelujah,” Handel’s famed chorus (which concludes the second of three parts in The Messiah) isn’t based on Psalm 150 but on three exultant songs of heaven given in Revelation:
“Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns.” (19:6)
“The Kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.” (11:15)
“King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” (19:16).
The focus of Revelation’s “psalms” is the victory of Christ, slain for the sins of the world, risen to be exalted forever. Psalm 150 tells one part of the God-story, looking forward to a Messiah. Revelation is its final chorus, its true Hallelujah.

Yet Psalm 150 has its own magnificent message. It climaxes the psalter’s five final praise psalms, all of which start with “Praise the Lord” or “Hallelujah.”
Psalm 146 praises God’s greatness in creation and His grace in providing for all, including the oppressed, hungry, prisoners, disabled, alien, fatherless and widowed.
Psalm 147 praises God for allowing exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild it. It also speaks of God’s provision for daily life through the divine plan of growing seasons.
Psalm 148 gives voice to all in heaven and earth in praising God, from sun, moon and stars to the weather, topography and creatures that inhabit it. This psalm reminds me of Jesus’ retort in Luke 19:40.  He had just entered Jerusalem on a donkey to the crowd’s triumphant shouts. But some Pharisees, as usual, disapproved of the love and acclaim Jesus’ followers had given Him. He replied, “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” Indeed, in a week, the Lord would die and the earth convulse. Then a stone would pull back from a tomb opening. I wonder, did it shout “Victory”? He’d rise again, and all Heaven break out in unfathomable rejoicing.
Psalm 149 describes saints in exuberant praise and how evil will be annihilated.
Then comes Psalm 150, like the loudest of the five very loud concluding songs of praise.

“Praise the LORD” (v. 1), the name here being “Yahweh,” the gracious, attentive, caring covenant-keeping God of indescribable love and absolute holiness.

“Praise God in his sanctuary” (v. 1b)—at that time, the temple. “Praise him in his mighty heavens.” The sky, the vault of heaven, reminds us to look up and praise the One who fills the universe. Worship isn’t to be parceled off to a time at church or Bible study, or even that special “devotional time.” It can happen everywhere, anywhere, anytime. God is too big to put in a box.

“Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness”  (v. 2).  One is God’s works, starting with the moment He said, “Let there be light” and proceeded to design and populate the earth. It’s His decision to judge the sin-polluted earth with a flood and give it a second chance via a boatload of hope. His power also sent Jesus Christ, His Son, to earth, to pay for my sins and yours through an excruciating death.

All these lead to awe and praise for God’s greatness and glory. We can praise Him because He isn’t a remote, disinterested or fickle god. He is holy but stoops to the lowly. His love for His creation is beyond understanding or description.

These talented hands belong to our long-time
church organist, who has served God
through music for six decades.

God’s people used every instrument of their times at their disposal to praise Him.

“Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet”—probably the rams’ horns (shofar) of those times.

“Praise him with the harp and lyre”—simple stringed instruments, like David played.

“Praise him with the tambourine and dancing”—as also used for Miriam’s victory dance (Exodus 15:20-21), the women welcoming Saul and David as victors (1 Samuel 18:6-7), and David’s uninhibited joy-dance when the ark was returned to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:14-16).

“Praise him with the strings and flute”—again, early ancestors of today’s instruments.

“Praise him with the clash of cymbals…with resounding cymbals”—bronze instruments used by temple musicians like Asaph (1 Chronicles 15:19), credited with Psalms 50 and 73-83.

The fish symbol for this tambourine!
Today, opinions about “appropriate” instruments for worship go across the spectrum. Some “non-instrumental” church bodies, sensitive about instruments once used in worldly places like dance halls, practice singing a capella. At the other end are those using all modern instruments at their disposal (including those orchestras-in-a-box called synthesizers). Though his comments were made more than a century ago, it’s worth noting that William Booth, who established Salvation Army bands for street evangelism, declared that we should sanctify and use our voices and any instruments for the Lord. As for texts, Scripture gives us these guidelines:

Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:19-20)

“Let everything that has breath praise the LORD.”
Another psalm reminds us that even things without breath praise Him:
Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
Let the sea resound, and all that is in it;
Let the fields be jubilant and everything in them.
Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy. (Psalm 96:11-13)

Devotional poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) famously wrote that “Heaven is revealed to earth as the homeland of music.” Isaiah 55:12 says some day, “the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.”  When the Lord spoke to Job about His majesty, He asked, “Where were you….while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4a, 7).

What more could be said for “praise”?  Perhaps just a reminder of the object of our praise, expressed in the final chorus of “The Messiah,” based on Revelation 5:12-13.
Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing.  Blessing and honor, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever.  Amen.

As I end these ten months of studying my “Top 40” psalms, I’m wondering if any readers have been encouraged by any specific posts. The blog “engine” tells me there are readers all over the world, with the top four countries of origin regularly being United States, Ukraine, Turkey, and France. I’d love to hear from you (use the reply form below). To God be the glory! I hope you’ll continue visiting as I seek to write about encouragement from God’s Word.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Making 'Psense' of Psalms--Psalm 145: Awe

This site awed me--a church that survived the devastating
2014 fires of North Central Washington. Trees around it were
singed, homes in four city blocks to the left destroyed,
but the church was spared. More than 320 homes burned.
Part of a continuing series on selected psalms.
One of the worship choruses sung in my church is about standing in awe of God. In its ancient format—an acrostic built off the Hebrew alphabet—this is the message of Psalm 145.  The last psalm attributed to David (who wrote approximately half the psalms), it is almost breathtaking in its breadth of praising God’s many attributes. Verse 5 puts the message in a capsule: “Great is the LORD, and most worthy of praise; his greatness no one can fathom.”

 For our times, when many have become careless and even flippant about God’s name, this psalm rightly reminds us that His person and His name are intertwined. “I will exalt you, my God, the king,” David begins. “I will praise your name for ever and ever.” This also went beyond “worship day.” David said, “Every day I will praise you and extol your name for ever and ever” (v. 2).  Then, starting with the Hebrew “aleph” and on to “taw,” he offers a teaching psalm about exalting God for His greatness, graciousness,  faithfulness, and righteousness. The word “all” is prominent throughout the psalm, a reminder that worship is not the domain of a select few, but all.
As I began underlining and circling words in this section, I realized the statements had a similar grammar form: action verb/direct object. Like a hammer pounding a nail into wood, it gives many ways to exalt God’s greatness:
*Commend/His works to another. This verse specifies: “One generation will command your works to another” (v. 4a)—a reminder that unless we pass on our faith, it’s one generation from extinction.  The Enemy is hard at work! Thus we need to:
*Tell/His mighty acts.
*Speak of/the glorious splendor of His majesty.
*Meditate on /God’s wonderful works.
*Proclaim/God’s great deeds.
*Celebrate/God’s abundant goodness.
*Joyfully sing/of God’s righteousness.

This section begins with an ancient jewel:
The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. (v. 8)
This verse is drawn from God’s revelation of Himself to Moses, told in Exodus 34:6. After getting two tablets with God’s “Ten Commandments” for living, Moses came down to find the Israelites foolishly worshipping a golden calf. In anger, he smashed the two tablets. Before long, Moses went up the mountain again to receive replacement tablets, and this time God described Himself with the words partly quoted in Psalm 145:8. God also described Himself as “forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin,” but not letting the guilty go unpunished (Exodus 34:6). Instead of wiping out the fickle nation, God gave them a second chance—just as He does for us. Like the first section, this one also has action verbs for praising and extolling God. We’re to:
*Tell/the glory of God’s kingdom
*Speak of /His might “so that men may know of your mighty acts and the glorious splendor of your kingdom” (v. 12). In other words, we’re to be about soul business!

Eastern Washington grain elevators--symbols of God's supply.
Psalm 145 wouldn’t be a true “alphabetical” or acrostic psalm without a second part to verse 13, which starts with “nun,” the Hebrew letter between mem and samekh:
The Lord is faithful to all his promises and loving toward all he has made.
That verse isn’t in the 1611 King James version, but subsequent discoveries of more ancient manuscripts with that verse resulted in it being put in newer versions, at least in footnotes. The verse, like the previous section, paraphrases part of God’s revelation about His nature in Exodus 34:6. More important, it fits the theme of this section, which portrays God as taking care of our daily needs.  He upholds us or lifts us up when negatives strike us. We can trust Him for our daily needs:
The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time.  You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing. (vv. 15-16)
This verse became meaningful to me during lean financial times as a graduate student, when unexpected jobs helped me buy my food. It’s encouragement for those who run “soup kitchens” of food banks for the needy. It’s also about those who have enough to eat and to share. It should prompt us to thank God for those in the food chain, all the way to farmers and ranchers, who depend on God’s gifts of good weather, seed, and soil. They all are part of the hands of God in providing “food at the proper time.” No matter how He orchestrates taking care of our needs, He is faithful. As David prayed while offerings came in to build the temple: “Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand” (1 Chronicles 29:14b).

In another allusion to Exodus 34, Psalm 145 affirms that God’s righteousness means He abhors evil but loves the sinner who comes to Him in repentance. Exodus 34:7 speaks of Him:
Maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.  Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished.
Then in Psalm 145:20:
The LORD watches over all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy.
Oh, the benefits for those who call on Him “in truth” (in faith):
*He will come near to them (v. 18).
*He will fulfill their desires (v. 19, an echo of Psalm 37:4).
*He will hear their cries and save them (v. 19).
*He will watch over them (v. 20, a frequent benefit named by David, who needed much “watching over”!).
*He will destroy the wicked (v. 20).
The fate of the wicked shadows this psalm about God’s blessing. If God tolerated evil forever, then He wouldn’t be a holy God.  He’d be a compromising deity—and what would be the use of that?

Often at a holiday family dinner we will all sing the “Doxology,” the ancient hymn that begins, “Praise God from whom all blessings come.” Psalm 145 also ends with a doxology as David essentially says, “I’ll praise God, but really all of us, even all creatures, should praise His holy name forever.” And so Psalm 145, which began with praising God’s name, ends with that same theme. This is right, for in praising God’s Name, we praise all that He is—His greatness, graciousness, faithfulness, righteousness, and so much more!

Next: Psalm 150.

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