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.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Making 'Psense' of Psalms--Psalm 118: Capstone

The fringe of trees atop green hills in southeast Washington
state reminded me of how a palm-branch procession
to Jerusalem's temple may have looked to distant onlookers.
Part of a series on selected psalms.
Memorable quotes characterize Psalm 118, including, “This is the day the Lord has made.  Let us rejoice and be glad in it” (v. 24). That verse hung in my thoughts one August day in 1981 as I prepared for my wedding day. Both of us never-married at 34 and 36, we did rejoice in marriage and were glad of it! But as I have taken the time to study Psalm 118 in its historical setting, I realize I may have been guilty of lifting that verse out of context. The psalm was likely written after the Jews returned from exile in Babylon and began rebuilding their temple in Jerusalem. It has strong elements of a festal procession as they rejoice in resuming the worship practices they missed during seventy years of captivity. Yet in another sense, the verse fits any celebration that reminds us that with God, all things are possible. The return of the Jews to their homeland after 70 years under foreign rule stands as one great example of that.  A more important truth from this psalm concerns the “capstone,” a key building block of the temple, which became a prophecy for the role of Jesus Christ. With festive songs at its beginning and end, the psalm seems to build to a climax at the verse exalting the “capstone.”

CHORUS (VV. 1-4)
The psalm opens with a statement based on Exodus 34:6, in which God expressed His nature through Moses after giving the Jews a new set of tablets containing the Ten Commandments.  The quote was a favorite of the post-exilic Jewish community, which like the Hebrews under Moses struggled to come back after failing God.  
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.
In Psalm 118, it is declared antiphonally (alternating singers) as part of a worship processional. Jeremiah even prophesied they’d worship like this after the seventy-years’ captivity (Jeremiah 33:10-11).
Life is tough!  That message resounds in the psalm’s middle section.  He was anguished (v. 5), surrounded by nations (vv. 10-11) that swarmed around him like bees (v. 12) and nearly pushed him over (v. 13). But at each point of attack or pressure, he turned to God. If you count words, the amount given to praise for God’s help far exceeds his list of complaints. He called on the name of the LORD (vv. 10-12). In a declaration that’s become a praise song in our times, he says, “The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation” (v. 14). He credits success to God, not to himself (vv. 15). The whole section suggests victory in the midst of impossibility, which would certainly resonate with the Jews’ elation over being freed after seven decades of captivity. The psalmist admits this battle was a chastening time to bring him back to God:
I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the LORD has done.
The LORD has chastened me severely, but he has not given me over to death. (vv. 17-18)
Only those who live can speak of God—a truth so compelling that Martin Luther had verse 17 written on his study wall.  It also inspired hymn-writer William Cowper, who battled significant health crises yet gave us hymns like “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood” and “O for a Closer Walk with God.”

From this section come many memorable phrases, including this:
It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man.
It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes. (vv. 8-9)
People who track details tell us that these two verses are the exact middle of the Bible. However, it’s important to point out that the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts had no chapter or verse divisions.  For ease in finding passages, chapters were added about 1200 A.D. and verses in the 1500s. Yet it’s significant that the “center” of the Bible points to the central conflict of the ages, between God and evil.  Someday, evil will lose out entirely!
This road construction debris brought
to mind the inevitable mess for
building the temple, despite having
the stones cut off site.
CAPSTONE (VV. 22-23)
The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; The LORD has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.
As the worshippers came through the gates, they could look up at a uniquely angled “capstone,” its Hebrew name from words meaning “chief, foremost” and “corner, pinnacle.” Whatever its placement, it was important to the integrity of the structure. It’s almost important to know that all stones for the temple were cut and “dressed” off-site at the quarry, so that “no hammer, chisel or any other iron tool was heard at the temple site while it was being built” (1 Kings 6:7). The relative quiet was considered essential for ongoing worship services. Given the primitive math, tools and transportation modes of that era, I find that an incredible statement. So why was the eventual “capstone” rejected? One explanation derives from an old rabbinic parable that the “capstone,” though one of the first stones cut and delivered, was rejected and discarded by builders who didn’t see it in their current plans. Only as the temple was finished did they find a glaring gap and inquired the quarry about it. When quarry workers said they’d already sent that important stone, they looked around and found it discarded amidst weeds. I don’t know how true that story is, but the point is that we don’t always recognize what is right in front of us.

More remarkable, Jesus dipped into this curious part of Psalm 118 to show its fulfillment as He answered the religious leaders’ quarrel about His spiritual authority. Matthew 21 and Luke 20 recount how He told a parable about a man who hired caretakers for his vineyard while he was away. At harvest time, they acted wickedly, mistreating three messengers from the owner. Finally the owner sent his beloved son, whom the caretakers murdered. In response, the owner had the caretakers killed, and gave the vineyard to others. Jesus’ story shocked his listeners, and then:
Jesus looked directly at them and asked, ‘Then what is the meaning of that which is written: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone’?” (Luke 20:17)
In rejecting Jesus, God’s Son (=son of the owner), the Jews were rejecting God’s Choice for establishing His kingdom. As the “capstone,” Jesus was to be exalted above all else (Philippians 2:9-11). So compelling was this teaching about Jesus that Peter quoted it in defense of Christianity before the high Jewish officials known as the “Sanhedrin.” He also quoted it in his first letter to the churches (1 Peter 2:4-8). Paul also picked up the analogy (Ephesians 2:19-22) in describing Christians as a dwelling in which God lives by His Spirit.

 CLAP AND CHEER (VV. 19-21, 24-29)
The “capstone” reference is important, but it is framed by enthusiastic and urgent calls to open the gates for those coming through to thank God for all He had done. Note that they’re entering the “gates of righteousness” (v. 19), the difficult decades of exile turning them back to true worship. “O Lord, save us,” the crowd shouts (v. 25). In Hebrew, it’s Hosanna!—the same greeting crowds gave Jesus as He entered triumphantly into Jerusalem just before the week that would bring His death. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD” (v. 26), they cheered, quoting this psalm as Jesus passed by on a humble donkey. In both cases, the people came with boughs in hand for a festal procession (v. 27).  In the psalmist’s days, this ended at the altar where sacrifices were offered. In Jesus’ life, it ended a few days later at a cross, where the Lamb of God was slain for the sins of the world. Like other prophetic psalms, this one cannot be read without thinking of what the Lord Jesus did for us. The psalmist’s response must be ours as well:
You are my God, and I will give you thanks. You are my God and I will exalt you.
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, his love endures forever. (vv. 28-29)

 Next: Psalm 119

Friday, August 1, 2014

Making 'Psense' of Psalms--Psalm 116: Precious

Delicate wildflowers, flourishing on the forest's decay,
a picture of new life from death
Part of an ongoing series on selected psalms.
It was the last place I wanted to be: beside my mother’s deathbed. She was only 59 as cancer knocked her down for the last time. My dad’s call had come that afternoon at my workplace, a three-hour drive away.  “Come as soon as you can,” he pleaded. When I reached home barely four hours later, a neighbor was waiting to take me to the hospital in the next city. Sometime during our death-watch that night, Dad opened a Bible and read to her. I’ve since learned that hearing is one of the last senses to go, so I believe she did hear his voice, though her struggle to breathe may have fogged the words. But these were words that I needed to hear as well:
What shall I render unto the LORD for all his benefits toward me?
I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the LORD.
I will pay my vows unto the LORD now in the presence of all his people.
Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints. (Psalm 116:12-15 KJV)
About 2 a.m. a nurse suggested we go home and get some sleep. “She could last another day,” the nurse said.  So I drove my exhausted father home. He went to bed, I settled on the couch so I could hear the phone. The nurse’s call telling of Mom’s death came about 4 a.m. Though I would have wished to be with her at the end, I knew that she was truly not alone.  Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints, and surely His presence was in that hospital room.

To this day, I cannot read Psalm 16 without tears. Yet I have discovered that it offers a good portion of hope and praise. It is positioned in the book of Psalms as one of the “Hallel” psalms, which includes Psalms 113 through 118.  “Hallel” means “praise,” and these psalms were intended to sung on holy days. Psalms 113-114 were sung before the Passover meal, and 115-118 as the meal closed. They were also sung at major Jewish feasts. Two gospels detail how Jesus led His disciples in the Passover meal (what we now call “The Last Supper”), and afterwards, “when they had sung  a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (Matt. 26:20, Mark 14:26). These psalms, including Psalm 116, were among the last to come from the Savior’s lips before His arrest, trials and crucifixion.  And truly, precious in the sight of the Lord was the death of His only Son.

The psalm hinges on two big ideas: deliverance and thanksgiving.

The opening verse sets the tone of gratitude for deliverance: “I love the LORD, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy” (116:1). He backs this up with descriptive language of a tough, even life-threatening situation: “cords of death,” “anguish of the grave,” “overcome by trouble and sorrow.” Some Bible teachers wonder if this might describe the sickness, perhaps an infected boil, that took King Hezekiah to the brink of death before the “poultice of figs” was applied (Isaiah 38).  The psalm doesn’t list an author, so that’s just conjecture. But it could represent any of us who walk in a doctor’s office to a sobering diagnosis, or have our lives flipped upside down in an accident.

The author spends little time on his ailment, but more on God’s perspective. “Then I called on the name of the LORD: ‘O LORD, save me!” In “calling on the name of the Lord,” he describes God’s character: gracious, righteous, full of compassion, protective of the simple-hearted (vv. 5-6). Praising God’s character lifts him above “demanding” prayer.

A word on “simple-hearted” (Hebrew: petî)—it refers to silly and gullible people. To say God regards the “simple-hearted” in their foolish or ignorant ways reminds us that we come to Him without any merit of our own, except through His Son.

The bottom line is that God hears the prayers of the helpless. This psalm’s writer found himself “in great need”—a tearful, stumbling, life-or-death matter. He had a miserable outlook, saying all men are liars (v. 11).  God saw through all that, and reached down to help him.

As the writer considers what God has done for him, he responds with thanksgiving:
How can I repay the LORD for all his goodness to me; I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD. (vv. 12-13)
This verse is a rhetorical question.  How can we “repay” God for His goodness? We can’t. It is impossible. But the psalm writer was compelled to express his thanks some way, and so he turned to a ritual of his time, described in Leviticus 7:11ff and Deuteronomy 12:17ff.  He would bring a “thank offering” (an unblemished animal) to the sanctuary for sacrifice. In part of the ritual, the priest would pour a portion of wine on the altar, symbolizing the worshipper’s life poured out before the Lord.  This is the “cup of salvation.”  The priest also kept back part of the meat from the slaughtered, sacrificed animal for the worshiper to share in a special joyful feast with family and friends. During that feast, he’d express public thanks for God’s mercy and love. 

Verse 15, which touched me so deeply at my mother’s deathbed, has prompted a lot of discussion among Bible teachers:
Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.
“Precious” also means “costly.” The death of a “saint” reminds us that sin brought death into the world, but Christ’s death brought eternal life to those who trust in Him.  His death (and resurrection) was costly beyond all understanding. A saint’s death is “precious” to God because it means that person will come to enjoy His presence. Like the psalmist, Paul wrestled with the possibility of dying soon when he wrote his letter to the Philippians. His only desire was that Christ be exalted either by his life or his death. “I desire to depart and be with Christ,” he said, “which is better by far” (Philippians 1:23). 

It is human to fear death. I will never forget the night a drinking driver nearly wiped out my family. But it is the privilege of a believer to trust God for the timing of death. He permits us to stay on earth until He sees that our work here is finished.  We may die of disease or an accident, but the timing is no surprise to God. And after that, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). That transition is precious to God.

And so the psalmist ends at this feast in which he praises God. Apparently it happens in the temple courts (v. 18), where his friends and family and more will hear his story. The psalm concludes, “Praise the Lord,” which in Hebrew is, “Hallelu-jah.” The phrase is common to all of the “Hallel” psalms (113-118) and that is appropriate.  For whether we are making a costly public declaration of faith (like the psalmist’s sacrifice-feast) or quietly witnessing the transition of earthly life to eternal rest, the focus of our hearts should be God Almighty, who loves to hear us lift up His name.
Next: Psalm 118

Friday, July 25, 2014

Making 'Psense' of Psalms--Psalm 107: Redeemed

"Redemption" is often described as a bridge over the
gulf separating a sinful man and a holy God. The
"bridge" is Christ's death on the cross for our sins.
Part of a continuing series on selected psalms.
A doctor’s mistake blinded her in infancy, but Fanny Crosby grew up determined to live well in spite of her disability. Besides being a teacher to the blind, she distinguished herself as a poet and lyricist. From her spiritual depth and a phenomenal memory came nearly a thousand hymn lyrics, many still sung today. One was “Redeemed, how I love to proclaim it!” It beings:
Redeemed, how I love to proclaim it! Redeemed by the blood of the Lamb;
Redeemed through his infinite mercy, His child, and forever, I am.
This hymn’s key word, “redeemed,” brings to mind the key verses of Psalm 107:
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. Let the redeemed of the Lord say this—those he redeemed from the hand of the foe…. (vv. 1-2a)
Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for men. (vv. 8, 15, 21, 31)

Reading Psalm 107 as “Lessons for the Redeemed” helps open up its lessons. It was probably written after a Jewish remnant returned to Jerusalem after 70 years in captivity, about 400 years before the birth of Christ. They were “redeemed” from humiliating exile (“the hand of the foe,” v. 2), with some returning to their homeland. This psalm consists of four pictures of people experiencing loss (home, freedom, health, courage), all followed by a reminder to praise God. A fifth picture exalts God’s power through nature to bless or discipline.

Think of the changes seventy years can bring. For us, that would go back to 1944 and World War 2. Then put yourself in ancient times, well over a thousand miles from your homeland, your feet and maybe a donkey your only transportation through desert wastelands. Would you be able to find your way back? Would you have the strength to make it? This section pictures the refugees on a long, arduous journey from Babylon to their former “Promised Land” near the Mediterranean, seeking to regain their identity as God’s people. The section also portrays people today who’ve turned their backs on God, and suffered the consequences of their decisions. Think of those addicted to alcohol or drugs, success, possessions, entertainment excesses (TV, movies, internet, music, books), illicit sexual pleasure, and anything else that takes first place ahead of God. The psalm’s “refugees” cried out to God (v. 6), and He delivered them. He does the same for us, sometimes allowing us to wander in the deserts until we’re parched for more of Him. The stanza ends: “For he satisfied the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things” (v. 9). That verse has an echo in the final stanza of the old hymn, “Come, thou fount of every blessing”:
Prone to wander, Lord I feel it; Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart; Lord, take and seal it; Seal it for Thy courts above.

When carted off to Babylon, the Jews lost the freedoms they’d enjoyed in their homeland. The “prison” of exile left them suffering, subjected to bitter labor (v. 12) and helpless. Today, “spiritual prisoners” walk around with feet shackled by poor choices, bitter spirits, fears, and the heaviest chain of all: separation from God. One who keenly felt that imprisoned “spirit” was Charles Wesley. Born into a minister’s home, he still needed to make his own decision to follow Christ. He gave us a memorable picture of salvation in his 1738 hymn, “And Can It Be,” whose third vcrse describes spiritual chains coming off:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eyes diffused a quickening ray, I woke, the dungeon flamed with light:
My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee!
Amazing love! How can it be that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me!

“Rebellious ways” led to serious illness for those mentioned in this stanza. Food had no appeal to them, and they nearly died. In our times, it could match the severely depressed, drug addicts and anorectics, who eat poorly, if at all. It could also embrace the “sin-sickness” (unbelief, hatred, rebellion) that keeps the afflicted from seeking the healing forgiveness of Christ. We need to remember that Christ’s ministry on earth included healing the diseased and the sin-sick souls: “He Himself took on our infirmities and bore our sicknesses” (Matt. 8:17). He still stands ready to heal the spirits of those who turn from their rebellion and seek Him.

The Jews were not known as sea-faring people, yet the Bible includes many stories of great sea storms. Jonah (tossed overboard to the throat of a whale) was one. The apostle Paul’s shipwreck in the Mediterranean was another. The Gospels tell of two storms involving Christ in the Sea of Galilee. In one, Jesus was asleep in the disciples’ boat when a squall blew up. Another time, He walked on water to His disciples’ boat as they battled a furious storm. Psalm 107 describes a storm so horrific that even seasoned sailors thought they wouldn’t survive. They cried out to God and “He stilled the storm to a whisper” (Psalm 107:28)—just as Christ did in the Gospels. Then, God “guided them to their desired haven.” This section is for those who have lost their hope—as verse 17 says, “at wit’s end.” It offers hope for those whose circumstances are so disastrous that they see no way through them. But God is still with them, ready to guide them to their “desired haven” (v. 30). Henry Gilmore took that image and turned it into a hymn published in 1890:
My soul in sad exile was out on life’s sea,
So burdened with sin and distressed,
Till I heard a sweet voice, saying, “Make Me your choice”;
And I entered the “Haven of Rest.”

Rather than describing the suffering, the psalm’s fifth picture is of God who is wise and powerful. He can allow sin to have its consequences: rivers turning to deserts, springs to dry ground, fruitful land to salt wastes. He can reverse that, too. Some say this stanza pictures the Millennium, when the wasted, wounded earth will enjoy fruitfulness and vigor under Christ’s perfect rule. It also pictures life now, when good people suffer. Because we live in a fallen world, we cannot expect perfect, carefree lives. But suffering can have a positive consequence by strengthening our spiritual character, if we allow those hard times to press us closer to God’s heart. The opposite is also true: those who turn their suffering into complaints and bitterness will distance themselves from God. Thus the psalm ends:
Let the one who is wise heed these things and ponder the loving deeds of the LORD. (v. 43)
In His great wisdom, God can bring good out of all the calamities sketched with broad strokes in Psalm 107.  If you’ve lost your way, freedom, health, or courage, He waits to help—as your Redeemer.

Next: Psalm 116

Friday, July 18, 2014

Making 'Psense' of Psalms--Psalm 104: Creation Glory

Part of an ongoing series on selected psalms.
“Use more descriptive language,” I wrote on my writing student’s assignment.  This middle-age man aspired to become a travel writer, and was pursuing that goal through a correspondence writing course I taught. But his prose was lifeless: “The town has a lovely lake with good fishing.” I challenged him to help the reader see, hear, smell and touch the scene through compelling description: “The tourist-friendly hamlet clutches the shore of a sapphire lake, its surface continuously pocked by hungry trout.”  Well, you get the idea! In a similar way, Psalm 104 brings vibrancy to the Genesis account of creation.  Psalm 103 praised God as Redeemer. Psalm 104 praises God as Creator. Both begin and end with “Praise the LORD, O my soul.” Though no author is cited for Psalm 104 (David is credited with 103), they form a pair that show scripture’s balance. Psalm 103’s message is God’s goodness in salvation, and the benefits we have as children of God.  Psalm 104 is God’s greatness in the works of creation, bringing Him praise and pleasure. Verse 31 holds its key:
May the glory of the LORD endure forever;
May the LORD rejoice in his works.
It’s easy to race through the Genesis order of creation and forget that all this brought God pleasure!
“And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light,” reports Genesis 1:3. But Psalm 104:2 says, “The LORD wraps himself in light as with a garment, he stretched out the heavens like a tent.” Psalm 104 brings vigor to the creation account while staying faithful to its historical pattern. Reading the passages side-by-side:
Day 1—Light—Genesis 1:3, Psalm 104:2a.
Day 2—“Firmament” and waters—Genesis 1:6, Psalm 104:2b-4.
Day 3—Land distinct from water—Genesis 1:9-10, Psalm 104:5-9, maybe 10-13; vegetation and trees—Genesis 1:11-13, Psalm 104:14-17.
Day 4—Sun, moon and stars—Genesis 1:14-19, Psalm 104:19-23.
Day 5—Sea and air creatures—Genesis 1:20-23, Psalm 104:17, 25-26.
Day 6—Animals and man—Genesis 1:24-28, Psalm 104:18, 21-24; plus provision of food in Genesis 1:29-31 and Psalm 104:27-28.

A few passages need some explanation:
He set the world on its foundations; it can never be moved. (Psalm 104:5)
The earth cannot be changed apart from God’s command. Yet the Bible teaches that someday, at the “Day of the Lord” (the judgment-end of time), “the heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare” (2 Peter 3:10). After that will come a new heaven and earth lasting forever: “Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth.  The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind” (Isaiah 3:17). “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (Revelation 21:1).

He makes springs pour water into the ravines…He waters the mountains from his upper chambers. (Psalm 104: 10, 13)
Water was very important to peoples of the mostly arid Middle East. This verse celebrates God’s wisdom in continuous evaporation of oceans for replenishing water on land.

He makes…plants for people to cultivate—bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens human hearts, oil to make their faces shine, and bread that sustains their hearts. (vv. 14-15)
This passage names the three life staples of near East peoples. Wine, diluted with water,  provided hydration and must be understood in that historical context. The Bible condemns drunkenness (Proverbs 20:1), a frequent consequence with today’s high-alcohol-content wines. Olive oil, besides a food staple, protected faces from sunburn. Bread was the staple of all meals.

Then man goes out to his work, to his labor until evening (v. 23).
After mentioning some nocturnal animals (forest beasts, lions), the psalmist shows that people normally work during the day. The point is that all creation has a rhythm of work and rest.  More important, the ultimate provision for both animals and man comes from God:

Local cherries--now in harvest
These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. (vv. 27-28).
The phrase “gather it up” is reminiscent of manna, the “bread from heaven,” which appeared atop the wilderness soil six out of seven days of the week during the Exodus wanderings.  In a bare land where no crops grew, God provided. But they had to work for it: stooping over to pick up the manna and then cooking it. God expects us to work.

Verses 29-30 take us right back to our dependence on God as creator. Without infusion of life from Him, we wouldn’t “be”: When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust.  When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground. The words “breath” and “Spirit” come from the same Hebrew word (rûah), taking us back to the creation of man: “And the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). When we quit breathing, we die, and our bodies disintegrate. But Psalm 104 reminds us that life is more than the hyphen between birth and death dates. We—yes, the people-creations given the breath of life—are part of why God rejoices in His creation (v. 31). But “sinners” who choose to live apart from God will vanish (v. 35).

We can get so absorbed in all the awesome “omni” attributes of God—omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence—that we forget that He has personality that expresses unfathomable joy in His creation. If I may say it, maybe it’s knee-slapping joy and excitement over what He created. A blast of God-power, and a zebra! A zinnia! A redwood! A butterfly! Another blast, a saguaro cactus. Imagine creation like an infinite Fourth of July fireworks, with never-ending power and delight. No wonder He rejoiced in his works (v. 31), along with all the heavenly beings who saw it happen!

For our part, there’s rejoicing, too. Even the greatest magnifications of microscope or telescope stun us with the variety and complexity of creation. The psalmist gives us our marching orders of praise:
I will sing to the LORD all my life;
I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
May my meditation be pleasing to him, as I rejoice in the LORD. (vv. 33-34)
The psalm ends:
Praise the LORD, O my soul.
Praise the LORD.
English translations don’t convey it, but that last “Praise the Lord” in Hebrew is “Hallelujah!”—the word’s first appearance in psalms. It’s a fabulous word to end on—or even to begin with, in our focused times of praising God!
Next: Psalm 107

Friday, July 11, 2014

Making 'Psense' of Psalms--Psalm 103: All Praise

Part of a continuing series on selected psalms.
If your prayers became letters to God, would He slit open the envelope and read complaints and demands? Or would His heart be warmed by praise and thanksgiving? Those more prone to the complaints/demands end need the perspective of Psalm 103, which steps away from petitions to simple praise of who God is and all He does. David wrote his share of down-in-the-dumps and corporate praise psalms, but this psalm is positive and personal.  This is no polite “thank you” prayer.  David’s words throb with intensity as he tries to embrace all that is God and all of God’s blessings. The simple word “all” (used eight times in NIV) attempts to convey the concept that God is complete in who He is and what He does.Many outline the psalm this way:
*Personal praise to God (vv. 1-6)
*National praise to God (vv. 6-18)
*Universal praise to God (vv. 19-22)
Because the psalm focuses on praise, I’d suggest another outline off the acrostic PRAISE.

P—Provision for life (vv. 1-3). David realizes that without God, he is nothing. “All my inmost being,” he says, “forget not all his benefits.”  God forgives “all my sins.” The forgiveness of sins, which enables us to have a relationship with a holy God, is the greatest benefit.  The second part of verse 3, “he heals all my diseases,” has led some systems of theology to stress “healing in the atonement,” which presumes that salvation goes hand-in-hand with healing of physical affliction. But believers do get sick, and many other passages teach that God may have purposes in a person’s illness. Paul desperately sought healing, but the Lord told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). It is true that all healing comes from God, whether through medical intervention, the power of the body to heal itself, or a miracle.

It’s also worth mentioning that sins like anxiety, sexual misconduct and an unforgiving spirit can bring on illness. David experienced that when his effort to hide his sexual sin with Bathsheba left him a physical wreck. In Psalm 32, he spoke of his bones wasting away, day-long groaning, a sense of heaviness, and sapped strength. I read recently of a woman who had numerous problems that baffled doctors.  Finally, a pastor confronted her about bitterness toward a family member. As soon as she broke down and confessed it, and started the steps toward reconciliation, her symptoms began to fade.

R—Renewing presence (vv. 4-5). Redeemed from the pit of hell (v. 4), we are “crowned” with God’s love and compassion. “Crown” comes from a word meaning “encircled,” like a monarch’s crown. It helps picture how God encircles us with good things of which we are unworthy, except for His amazing love. He is aware of our desires, and He knows the world’s definition of “satisfied” won’t fill us apart from Himself. The next verse, “so that my youth is renewed like the eagle’s,” has given rise to some strange tales about the molting habits of eagles. It’s best read as a reminder that, like the mighty eagle, with God we can be lifted to higher, better things.

A—Almighty plan (vv. 6-9). History turns on God reaching down in power and mercy to emancipate the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. David referred to that almighty plan in these verses, referring to how “The LORD works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed” (v. 7). When David described God as “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love” (v. 8), he was quoting from the account of God revealing His essence to Moses (Exodus 34:5-7). Remembering this key historical event emphasized God’s patience even among stubborn and grumbling people.

I—Immeasurable mercy (vv. 10-12). This section of the psalm is full of superlatives. There aren’t words big enough to describe how God’s mercy covers our sins and iniquities (Hebrew: “twistedness”). Instead, “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” The distance to Heaven, wherever it is, is unknown, and the universe defies numbers. In David’s time, people thought the world was flat, yet still couldn’t comprehend the extent of “east” or “west.” We know now that the world is round, and east and west never meet in its circumference. I will never forget the difficult night a phone call summoned me to the apartment of a young woman who had attended a Bible study at our home. She was dating a young man who “played church” but lived immorally. Once she had yielded to his sexual pressures, he dropped her. She felt God would never forgive her. As she sobbed in my arms, that verse came to mind as I tried to explain God’s expansive (and expensive) love for her.

S—Sympathetic care (vv. 13-18).  As that young woman moved away to a fresh start in life, including marriage to a Christian young man who honored her, I thought of the subsequent verses: “As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him.” This section of Psalm 103 reminds us that life is fragile (we’re essentially “dust”) and fleeting (like wilting flowers). But even in life’s brevity, God cares for us: “From everlasting to everlasting, the LORD’s love is with those who fear him.” Verse 18 explains “fear” as “those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts.”

E—Eternal dominion (vv. 19-22). The psalm that began with David’s personal praise ends with him calling on heavenly beings to praise God, who reigns over all. As in the beginning, the word “all” is again prominent. His kingdom rules over all. David calls on angels, mighty ones who do His bidding and obey God’s Word, all the heavenly hosts, servants who do his will, and all God’s works, everywhere (all places) in His dominion. The cadence intensifies until David has exhausted his undersatnding of heavenly beings. Finally, he returns to himself: “Praise the LORD, O my soul.” He is so in awe of God, so grateful for God’s mercy, that he can’t do anything but praise.

When our faith gets comfortable with “church ways” and worship routines, we need to be pulled back to the truths of Psalm 103. He is the mighty God, yet merciful. He is beyond our understanding, yet intimately acquainted with us, worthy of all our praise. Henry Lyte’s 1834 hymn, based on Psalm 103, still rings true:
Praise my soul, the king of heaven,
To His feet your tribute bring;
Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven,
Who, like me, His praise should sing.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Praise the everlasting King

Next: Psalm 104

Friday, July 4, 2014

Making 'Psense' of Psalms--Psalm 100: Worship!

Part of a series on selected psalms.
Hymns or choruses? Psalm 100 is a good place to stop and consider how worship styles have changed from the original Hebrew melodies and worship postures. As Christianity spread to Europe, the psalms were often chanted to plain melodies. Then came earnest reformers like Martin Luther (1483-1546), who felt the common people ought to have sing-able and memorable hymns based on scripture truth, like his “A Mighty Fortress is our God.”

After Luther’s death, John Calvin rose to leadership in France’s Protestant movement. Anti-Reformation riots drove him to settle in Geneva. Besides writing huge volumes of theology, Calvin took a psalms-only stance that only the Bible texts were appropriate for church worship music. Thus his followers set to work versifying the ancient psalms into metrical (poetic) English. One of his colleagues was William Kethe (?-1593), who had fled his native Scotland during the persecutions of Queen Mary. His rendition of Psalm 100, “All People That on Earth Do Dwell,” was published in a 1516 hymnal and became known as “Calvin’s Reformation Hymn.” Also called “Old Hundredth,” it’s perhaps the oldest hymn of praise in the English language still in regular use.

But the story of Kethe’s hymn also requires the story of hymns by Thomas Ken (1637-1711), who didn’t believe “psalms-only.” An orphan who rose to the role of bishop and confidante to royalty, he boldly condemned immorality in royal courts, leading to several years’ imprisonment in the Tower of London. He also ministered to students in Winchester College, writing three hymns for their morning, evening and midnight devotions. (Few, it’s believed, stayed up to sing the “midnight” hymn!). His morning devotional hymn, “Awake my Soul, and with the Sun,” is still in many hymnals, though not all fourteen verses of it. All three hymns ended with this stanza, which we sing today as “The Doxology” (the name from Latin and Greek for glory/praise+speak):

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him, above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

Both Ken’s three devotional hymns and Kethe’s “Old Hundreth” use a melody written by Louis Bourgeois (published 1551). And it all goes back to Psalm 100, probably written a thousand or so years before Christ.

When I first memorized Psalm 100, I found it helpful to use hand motions for its imperatives (“do’s”). “Shout” was hands to mouth, “serve,” palms out and up; “come,” beckoning gesture; “know,” hand to head; “enter,” pointing; “give thanks,” hands together; and “praise his name,” hands upward in a praise posture. Later I realized that the psalm is built around these action “imperatives” (“do” phrases) and two “why” verses. First, the “do’s”:

Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth (v. 1)—The KJV renders this, “Make a joyful noise,” but “shout” is closer to the original Hebrew rûa‘. It comes from a primitive root meaning “to mar” (especially by breaking), and by association to “split the ears with sound.” It’s a “glad shout,” like loyal subjects give when a king appears. I’ll remember the “ear-splitting” meaning the next time my church’s guitarists and drummer ramp it up! Seriously, we don’t come close to the exuberance shown in worship in Bible times. I grew up in a traditional church in which the organist tried to rev up the tempo of hymns, but the congregation inevitably dragged behind. The peppy hymns that grew out of the revivals of the late 1800s and those after the “Maranatha!” infusion of the 1970s have given us a livelier collection of worship songs.  Be glad of that!

Serve the LORD with gladness (v. 2)—Translated “worship” in the KJV, the “serve” chosen by other translations is closer to the meaning of the original ābad, which refers to working. It’s one thing to express our faith in a worship service, it’s another to work it out in service to others. Jesus clarified that in Matthew 25:35-36 when He said works of service and love done do those in need (the hungry, thirsty, strangers, those needing clothes, sick) were done to Him. 

Come before Him with joyful songs (v. 2a)—For those physically able, there’s no “Mattress Methodist,” “Bedside Baptist,” or “Pillow Presbyterian.” We’re to come together in formal worship. James Montgomery Boice, in his commentary on Psalms (Baker, 1996, Vol. 2, p. 812), remarked: “Silent belief is not enough. I am struck by the well-rounded nature of these terms—shout, serve (“worship”), and come—for they embrace our verbal witness, our humanitarian activities, and worship, three necessary parts of Christianity.”

Know that the LORD is God (v. 3)—From the Hebrew yāda, “know” refers to perception and understanding. We don’t “guess” or “assume” there is a God, we know, and He wants us to know Him. Yet even today, people have their own “gods.” Some worship “nature” or the god of success. Many make “gods” of their own beings, thinking they are the highest creation. In Paul’s days, men debated over which might be the greatest god from all that grew up in their legends. They even had an altar to an unknown god. Preaching in Athens to these so-called intellectuals, Paul said, “Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23). Then he proceeded to preach about a God who could be known, in whom “we live and move and have our being” (v. 28).

Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise (v. 4). This verse echoes the declaration of David: “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD” (Psalm 122:1). It’s a reprimand for those who approach Sunday worship grudgingly, feeling forced by a parent or culture to come, not really connecting with the God who is worthy of our praise or with fellow believers. Notice there are two steps to worship, gates and courts. They could be a reminder to us that as soon as we see the church (the “gates” of its location), we begin a worship mindset. When we enter the courts (the sanctuary and beginning of the worship service), the “outside” distractions (including electronic devices for calls or games!) are to cease.

 “Give thanks to Him and praise His name (v. 4c). To make sure we get the message, “thanks” and “praise” are repeated. Yet some come to worship with a bag full of complaints. Warren Wiersbe, in Be Exulted (Victor, 2004, p. 41) remarked on this verse, “A spirit of thanksgiving helps us overcome” sins like complaining, idolatry, pride and ingratitude. There’s something purifying and humbling in thinking about the names of God. In the back of my prayer notebook I have begun an A-Z list of the names and attributes of God, for meditation and praise. Like glasses, they correct my vision of the Holy One who created me to love and serve Him.

The middle and end of Psalm 100 give us the “why’s” of thankful praise.
Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; We are his people, the sheep of his pasture” (v. 3). “Knowing” God means we acknowledge Him as creator of the world as well as each of us. It also means recognizing our subordination to Him (“we are his”). Even more, we are in His care, “the sheep of his pasture.” As a former shepherd, King David previously used the analogy of God as shepherd in his Psalm 23. Jesus used it, too, calling Himself “The Good Shepherd” (John 10).  More than a caretaker, He is our Redeemer: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Sheep, inherently dumb, must be gently led by the wisdom of the Shepherd. We, too, must trust that He has only our best interests in mind. Few of us will endure, like the apostle Paul, multiple imprisonments and abuse for our faith. But even in these trials, Paul was able to say, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Philippians 4:12b). The secret was trusting the Shepherd.

For the LORD is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations (v. 5). The psalm concludes with three key attributes of God: His goodness, His love, and His faithfulness. What God inspired the authors of this psalm to write thousands of years ago is still true. The best way to contemplate the psalm’s conclusion may be to repeat it with certain words emphasized: The Lord IS.  He is GOOD. His love is FOREVER. His faithfulness CONTINUES to ALL generations.

Or, go back to the beginning of this posting for the words of the Doxology and sing them:  “Praise God from whom all blessings flow….”
Next: Psalm 103