Friday, September 12, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 5, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: Psalm 121

Friday, August 29, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: stanzas 15-22

Friday, August 22, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: stanzas 8-14.

Friday, August 15, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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