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!
 
GENESIS RETOLD, WITH STYLE
“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.

BREATH AND DEATH
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).

PURPOSE AND PRAISE
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.

THE PSALM”S “DO’S”
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 PSALM’S “WHY’S”
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

 

Friday, June 27, 2014

Making 'Psense' of Psalms--Psalm 95: Gratitude and Grumblers

Part of an ongoing series on selected psalms.
If you’re like me, you have people in your life who are grumblers. You don’t enjoy being around them because the conversation soon turns downward. In trying to coax them to count their blessings instead of rehearsing old negatives, you realize you’re not completely clean of negativism yourself. Psalm 95 holds up a mirror to this very problem. We know that praise and worship please God. But the sin nature pulls us down into complaining, even though God has done so much for us. With its two-part message, this psalm lifts us, then chides us.

COME AND WORSHIP (vv. 1-7)
The psalm opens with a bold call to worship. We’re to sing for joy to the LORD, rendered in small capitals in English Bibles for the Jews’ holiest name for the most high God, “YHWH.” We’re to “shout aloud,” the word indicating loud and enthusiastic responses, like people hailing a beloved monarch. The object of our praise is the “Rock of our salvation,” a term we encountered in David’s Psalm 18. Hundreds of years earlier, Moses used the metaphor “Rock” to refer to God’s stalwart, protective essence (Deuteronomy 32:4, 31). The “come” of verse 2 is a different Hebrew word than that of verse 1. It comes from a root that suggests projecting oneself, deepening the meaning of worship as having an Audience. The behavior before this Audience is, first, “thanksgiving,” from a word for extending the hand, as in praise. Second, we are to “extol” Him with music and song, from a Hebrew word that includes the meaning of “loud shouting.” You get the picture of all-out, hand-waving praise!
The basic reasons for this praise are in verses 3-7. First, God is the “great God, the great King above all [false] gods” (v.3). He is the Creator-God (vv.4-5) of the all the earth and sea. He also made us (v. 6b). Thus He is worthy of another worship posture: bowing down. Finally, He is our redemptive God. “We are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care” (v. 7). His plan from all time was to take care of us, and that care now has the image of His Son’s nail-pierced Hand.
 
IF ONLY! (vv. 7b-9)
The end of verse 7 brings an abrupt change in tone. From all-out praise, it turns to a stern warning based on the failures of the Hebrews during the Exodus wanderings. Linger on the tone of the opening sentence: “Today, if only you would hear his voice.”  In my interaction with grumblers, I think, “If only they would realize how much they’ve been blessed.”  Of course, the finger points back at me for my failures, too. The warning is blunt and harsh: “Do not harden your hearts as you did….” Two examples are given.

*“At Meribah.” Exodus 17:7 records this failure, shortly after the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea and drowning of Pharaoh’s soldiers (Exodus 14), and provision of miracle manna and quail to eat (Exodus 16). When they set up camp at Rephidim, their water skins were empty, and they were so angry at Moses for leading them there that they considered stoning him. When Moses cried out to God, He told him to strike a rock, and water would come, which it did. But Exodus 17:7 records this negative of the situation: “And he called the place Massah [testing] and Meribah [quarreling] because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the LORD saying, ‘Is the LORD among us or not?’” They doubted God’s Person and power!

*“At Massah in the wilderness.”  Numbers 20 tells this story. Continuing their wilderness wanderings, they arrived at Kadesh and once again experienced a water crisis. They quarreled with Moses, blaming him for their predicament. Moses and his brother Aaron went before God, who told Moses to “speak” to a certain rock. God would then cause it to pour out water. Instead, Moses took his now-famous staff and growled, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” Then he struck the rock twice and water poured out. Moses’ anger, his sin of putting himself on par with God (“must we bring you water”), and disobedience in striking the rock, would have consequences. God told Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.” The passage ends, “These were the waters of Meribah [quarreling], where the Israelites quarreled with the LORD and where he showed himself holy among them.”

The alternative names of “Massah” and “Meribah” can get confusing, but these were separate incidents over water. That had this in common: unbelief and grumbling. The people didn’t believe that God had a plan and would provide for them.

THEY KNEW BETTER (vv. 9b-11)
“They tried me,” continues verse 9, “though they had seen what I did.” Over and over, God is faithful to us. Even in the greatest problems or sorrows, He never abandons us. We can’t begin to measure His patience, and His care of the emancipated Israelites is a prime illustration. For forty years, in some of the most inhospitable terrain imaginable, He provided food and water. Yet, verse 10 continues, “For forty years I was angry with that generation; I said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my ways’” (v. 10).

 IT’S US, TOO

The consequence of failing to trust God was such important theology that the author of Hebrews dipped deeply into Psalm 95 to teach about unbelief. Hebrews 3:7-4:13 quotes the psalm and warns against letting our hearts be hardened:
See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first. (Hebrews 3:12-14)
The writer of Hebrews sharpened the analogy: because of their grumbling and disbelief, a whole generation of Israelites wouldn’t enter the “rest” (the gift of settling in one place) in Canaan. For us, that “rest” is the salvation rest in Christ and our future eternal “Sabbath rest” in glory. If we harden our hearts, grumbling that God can’t be trusted to take care of us, He is grieved. He gives and gives. But we ignore, and even malign, the Giver when we live in the murkiness of doubts, stubbornness and grumbling.

A thankful spirit rests on the foundation of seeing life as a gift from God. Gratitude is evidenced by:

*Humility, giving up “rights” to God.

*Noticing each day’s little blessings and kindnesses. For some, a “gratitude journal” is helpful.

*Thankfulness, expressed in prayer and as a testimony to others.

*Service to others in the name of Christ.

Grumbling mars our testimony. The apostle Paul sat in a prison as he wrote a letter to the church at Philippi. In that wretched environment, he probably heard his share of grumbling. Yet he kept His eyes on Jesus. Just after a section in which He extolled Christ’s obedience to the cross (Phil. 2:5-11), he admonished, “Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation” (vv. 14-15).
 
Next time: Psalm 100

Friday, June 20, 2014

Making 'Psense' of Psalms--Psalm 91: Protector

Part of a continuing series on selected psalms.
“There’s been a shooting at SPU,” my husband said, standing in front of the television the afternoon of June 5. A camera in a news helicopter kept panning the campus where he, his sisters, and our daughter-in-law had graduated.  It seemed unthinkable that a random crime had shattered a quiet Thursday at Seattle Pacific University, a college founded by devout Free Methodists over a hundred years ago. Finally news came of one death, another severely wounded, others less so. It would have been worse—far worse—if one student hadn’t risked his life to tackle the shooter, who had chosen to follow a bizarre notion to kill.

A few days earlier, I had finished writing a draft of this blog post on Psalm 91, which speaks so clearly as God our protector. When violence like this strikes, people ask, “Where was God?” I remember that question being debated over and over when thousands died as a result of the 9-11 terrorist strikes. And the answer was this: He was there, in ways we do not yet know or understand. And while evil took a terrible toll, the end of the story has not yet been told. The same can be said of this recent  shooting, and other acts of violence that will inevitably come.

My awareness of the message and ministry of Psalm 91 started deepening about 35 years ago when, fresh out of Bible school, I was asked to teach a senior ladies Bible studies. That stretched me, for sure! One of its members, Alice, had gone through a harrowing experience in Rhodesia, where she was visiting relatives who were missionaries.  They’d gone to a nice resort restaurant as a special treat, and just as she walked into the dining hall, the woman ahead of her was gunned down as a terrorist attack began. As Alice huddled under a table, bullets spewing overhead, she realized she, too, might be killed. Alice began praying, affirming the Lord's love even in this. Soon, phrases from Psalm 91 became her prayer: "He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty."  She rebuked the enemy in the name of Jesus.  She later learned a window frame deflected a grenade that might have harmed her.  Finally, the attackers retreated.
 

I will never forget Alice's real-life connection with Psalm 91. I’d already done some thinking about Psalm 91, especially after reading Shadow of the Almighty, the biography of missionary Jim Elliot. He and four others were killed by isolated Ecuadorian tribes people in 1956. I wondered: if Alice was spared, why weren’t Elliot and the others, who had given everything to reach the lost for Chirst?

Psalm 91 remains one of those “deeper than deep” psalms for me, but I have come to this conclusion of its message: Psalm 91 reminds us that God, our Protector, will carry us in times of danger and fear.

THREE KEY PRONOUNS
If you color-code the pronouns in Psalm 91, you’ll see a pattern that helps outline the psalm.
I/my/He (verses 1-2): A testimony of who God is to me.
You/your/his (verses 3-13): A picture of God’s protection.
He-him/I-me-God (verses 14-16): God’s promises to the believer.

A TESTIMONY (verses 1-2)
The psalm’s author is unnamed, but the writer apparently had some experience with threats and hardship, perhaps even warfare. Like the book of Job, Psalm 91 wrestles with the problem of why bad things to happen to good people. Yet God is able to save His followers from the full blast of evil. A key word in verse 1 is “dwells”:
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
It’s repeated in verse 9: “If you make the Most High your dwelling.” The Hebrew word for “dwell,” yashab, is found some 1,088 times in the Old Testament. It is rendered into English by more than a dozen different words, suggesting that the original word does not translate well across cultures and languages. The word’s primitive root means to sit down, such as in judgment, ambush, or in quiet. More recent versions suggest “live in.” Understanding “dwell” (or “live in”) requires living out verse 2:
I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”
The “I-my” pronouns indicate that “dwelling” requires a personal faith in God. A lot of people are like Jesus’ disciple Thomas, who had the dubious nickname of “Doubting Thomas” because he couldn’t quite come to the point of saying Jesus was the Son of God. When he saw the risen Christ, who invited Thomas to inspect the wounds from crucifixion that had killed Him, Thomas finally and truly acknowledged Him as the Son of God. Falling to his feet, Thomas declared, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). Psalm 91 is for those who can declare wholeheartedly, “You are my Lord and my God!”


These "pocket caves" dot a cliff about a half-hour drove from
 my home. They remind me of God' s protective power when
troubles attack from life's flatlands of unbelief.
GOD’S NAME
“The name of the Lord is a strong tower,” says Proverbs 18:10, “the righteous run to it and are safe” (Proverbs 18:10). Psalm 91 includes many “strong names” of God:
“The most High” (‘elyôn)—the absolute highest, even higher than any threat.
“The Almighty” (El Shaddai)—the God of greatest power.
“The LORD”—the holiest One, from the Hebrew “abbreviation” for God’s holiest, unspeakable name.
“My refuge” (maḥseh) and “my fortress” (meṣûdâ—notice the similarity to the “Masada,” the Holy Land hilltop fortress)—both strong words of protective places, enhanced by the personal pronoun “my.”
God is not a fickle deity who says He will advocate for us when He feels like it. He is high and lifted up, a strong refuge for those who trust in Him in the midst of trouble.

FEAR
By using metaphors for problems (vv. 2-6), the author helped Psalm 91 speak to all times and situations:
“Fowler’s snare”—Like a trap grabbing the feet of birds, Satan is subtle. He knows one misstep can bring physical, emotional or spiritual harm. His traps can include abuse, gambling, alcoholism, pornography, or infidelity as well as more subtle sins of discontentment, gossip, complaint, and apathy. But as we stay in God’s presence through scripture, prayer, and fellowship with other believers, He will help us from being ensnared.
“Deadly pestilence” and “destruction”—We’re also vulnerable to things beyond our control, like disease, crime, unemployment, or a natural disaster. When these come, God says He will be our protector, like a hen who gathers her chicks beneath her warm, sheltering body. Jesus likened Himself to that hen when He lamented Jerusalem’s state of unbelief (Matt. 23:37). But under His shelter, we’ll be secure within, as God sends strengthening Scriptures, affirming friends, or timely help to remind us of His power.
Fear—It stalks us, night and day. In Bible times, the pilgrimage to Jerusalem by foot or animal meant trekking through hot scrublands and hills on a route infested with bandits. Today, we have terrorism, snipers, reckless drivers, and “pestilence” beyond the healing of modern medicine. Yet God still tells us to trust, not fear: “You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you” (Isaiah 26:3).

POWER
“His faithfulness will be your shield and rampart,” the psalmist declared (v. 4). The first was a large, body-covering piece of equipment. As for “rampart” (“buckler” in KJV), this is the word’s only use in the Bible, but it’s believed to be a smaller, more mobile protection, perhaps even armor. The New Testament, describing a Christian's spiritual protection, says the shield is faith, with which we can “extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (Ephesians 6:16). God’s faithfulness is related to our faith in Him.

Verses 7-8 sadden me, as they describe “ten thousand” who perish as the wicked are punished. I believe this pictures the end-times judgment of all those who rejected Christ. That includes friends and people in my family trees. Could I really just “observe” or will I ache for their eternal destiny? What could I do, now, before it’s too late?

 PROTECTION
As the psalm winds to a close, it revisits the word “dwell” (v. 9). These promises are for those who “dwell” in the Lord, not for those who casually “check in” with God when things get rough.  God wants whole hearts, not half-hearted spirituality.

Then the psalmist reminds us that angels protect us, probably more than we realize. In 1997, my family was involved in a wreck caused by a drinking driver. Law enforcement personnel who examined the accident scene and our totaled car said it was a miracle that we survived. I’ve often thought how that “miracle” was angels who intervened such that we were spared a fatal, head-on collision.

The other thing to note is how Satan used this section in tempting Christ in the wilderness.  Satan misquoted or “underquoted” the passages to make it seem Christ should acquiesce to him. But Jesus, despite being weak from His fast, countered the falsehoods of Satan, who is elsewhere called the “lion” and “cobra” (1 Peter 5:8, Rev. 12:9, 20:2).

 PROMISES
The final section overflows with hope, as we’re told that God will rescue us, protect us, answer us, be with us in trouble, deliver us, and honor us. As for verse 16, “long life” is literally “length of days.” God doesn’t necessarily promise we will live to old age, but that in the portion of our days on earth, if lived fully to Him, He will satisfy us. He is enough for those who dwell in Him!  Finally, the closing phrase: “I will…show him my salvation.” And what is the end result of salvation, but Heaven and seeing the Lord Jesus, who purchased that salvation?  That will be truly where we “dwell” in the shelter of the Most High, which will be glorious beyond words.  It’s where we’ll rest in His shadow, and worship and enjoy Him forever!

Next: Psalm 95.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Making 'Psense' of Psalms--Psalm 90: Lifespan

 Part of an ongoing series on selected psalms.
I pondered a blip of punctuation, the hyphen, as I wandered among graves at a small cemetery where many of my husband’s relatives are buried. Perched between birth and death dates, that hyphen represents the brevity of life. As expressed in a couplet found on many plaques, “Only one life, ‘twill soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last.”  The quote’s author was C.T. Studd (1860-1931), who left stardom in England’s cricket-playing circles for sacrificial years of missionary work in China, India and Africa.

A similar message comes from Moses, whom most believe wrote Psalm 90. Scripture records two other songs by him. One was a victory song after the Red Sea swallowed up Pharaoh’s army (Exodus 15:1-18). The other was his “farewell sermon” before ascending Mount Nebo to die (Deuteronomy 32:1-43). Scholars suggest he wrote this reflective psalm about the time of incidents recorded in Numbers 20. His sister and brother died, and God barred Moses from entering the Promised Land for dishonoring God in a water-from-the-rock episode. Those circumstances left Moses keenly aware of mortality and of the short lifespan allotted to do God’s work.

Psalm 90 opens with the grand expanses of time known to God:
Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
Eternity is “forever backward” and “forever forward.” Our lives are but tiny dots on this infinite timeline, but God is its entire, unfathomable existence. God had no beginning and has no ending. He is our “dwelling place” or security. As Moses also said in Deuteronomy 33:27, “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.”

 TO DUST.... (vv. 3-6)
“You turn men back to dust,” says Psalm 90:3. One morning my vacuum cleaner gave up in a burst of toxic fumes. I suspected it was beyond repair, so I was an easy target for a call offering me a “free rug cleaning” for learning about “a comprehensive vacuum system.” The cleaning consisted of a misting of spray, then vacuuming by the demonstration machine—after more than two hours of sales pressure. That included shaming me as a housekeeper by vacuuming the top of my mattress, which yielded  a thick haze of dust mite debris on his pristine demonstration filter. The truth is that all mattresses get these tiny, dead-skin-munching visitors over time. (Note I said “mites,” not “bed bugs,” a different and vicious problem.) I didn’t buy his super-deluxe and overpriced vacuum, but I’ll never forget that “dead-bug dust.” On the bigger scale, these bodies that we pamper at such great expense, at the end, also return to “dust.” The mighty end up like mites. Our earthly existence is temporary. We’re like fresh morning grass in the thin Palestinian soil, burnt quickly the same day by the merciless sun.

THE BAD NEWS (vv. 7-12)
Sin offends a holy God. The first sin brought the ongoing penalty of death. God knows all our sins, public and private (“our secret sins,” v. 8). Though Moses lived to 120, the typical life span was 70 to 80 years, and still is. Because of sin, we suffer the death of dreams, relationships, plans and finally health.

In 1975, Natalie Babbitt published a children’s novel titled Tuck Everlasting. The main characters were a family who had discovered the “fountain of youth” and would never die. But because others around them did die, immortality wasn’t all that great. They realized they’d experience the world’s brokenness forever, unable to get away from it. Here’s where the New Testament answers the sorrow of the Old.  When Jesus came, He said, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25-26). Believing in Him and His promise of eternal life will make immortality in Heaven a real and wonderful thing. In the meantime, we have work to do: “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (v. 12).

THE HOPEFUL NEWS (vv. 13-17)
In the mid-1980s, an older friend gave me calligraphy he had done of Psalm 90:12, 14 from the 1966 Jerusalem Bible translation. It hangs above my kitchen sink, reminding me daily of its truths:
Our lives are over in a breath.  Teach us to count how few days we have and so gain wisdom of heart.  Let us wake in the morning filled with your love and sing and be happy all our days.
Psalm 90’s closing section is an appeal for God’s mercy in the short time we do have on earth. Every day is a gift. Even though the days, months, and years may bring their share of sorrows, God intends that we grow through them and beyond them. Moses was bold enough to ask God to allow the bad times to be balanced by the good: “Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen trouble” (v. 15).

When I am around people whose conversation dwells on the past or on their difficulties, I feel dragged out. We can’t undo the past, but we can go forward with God into a fresh future. Our trust in God can encourage others to do likewise, and is a testimony to the generation behind us: “May your deeds be shown to your servants, your splendor to their children” (v. 16). Notice the phrase, “sing and be happy”? Indeed! Singing happy and worshipful songs lifts the spirits.  One suggestion: the classic 1719 hymn by Issac Watts that paraphrases Psalm 90, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.”

JOB EVALUATION (v. 17)
Employment typically involves a regular “evaluation,” in which a superior tells the employee what’s been done well and what needs improvement. The “evaluation” of our whole lives is still ahead, and will take place in Heaven before God. The psalm ends with a reminder that life is so short that we dare not throw away our skills and opportunities, particularly those which draw others to the Lord Jesus. Moses concludes:
May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us—yes, establish the work of our hands.
The word “favor” in Hebrew is noam, which also translates “beauty” or “delight.” Derek Kidner, known for the Hebrew scholarship in his commentaries, preferred “delight.”
God, who crafted us--weak humans that we are--does delight in seeing us do what He originally intended, and that’s to bring Him glory through the skills He gave us. Doing so will lead, at the end of this short life, to the “well done” from the Master (Matthew 25:21, 23). As often said, we’re saved not just to “get to heaven,” but to serve well until we get there. Or, as Ray Waddle remarked in
A Turbulent Peace (Upper Room, 2003, p. 110): “Knowing the inevitability of death brings zest to life.” Time’s short: live it for God. One life: live it right.
Next; Psalm 91

Friday, June 6, 2014

Making 'Psense' of Psalms--Psalm 84: Longings

The doors of one of the older churches in
my town--always a reminder to me
of the "Doorkeeper's Psalm."
Part of a continuing series on selected psalms.
If “going to church” has become stale for you or someone you care about, this psalm offers a glimpse into true worship of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. I am thankful for the opportunity to worship with my church family, but know some there are spiritually or mentally “elsewhere.” Oh, that we all shared the attitude of Psalm 84’s authors, who opened with simplicity and deep devotion: “How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD Almighty!”

Psalm 84 is a bouquet arranged with the most delightful flowers in the garden. Like blooms picked at the peak of color and perfume, it emanates loveliness. Charles Spurgeon, author of the mammoth “Treasury of David” psalms commentary, called Psalm 84 one of the choicest and sweetest of the psalms. One possible reason: it expresses a believer’s longing to be as close to God as possible.

UP-CLOSE AUTHORS
The psalm was written by the “Sons of Korah,” a branch of the Levite tribe that helped maintain the temple as doorkeepers and janitors. Other Levite branches performed the sacrifices and provided music. The Korahites’ role was defined in First Chronicles 26, a chapter people may find boring for all its names and instructions. You may have even heard some wit claim that 1 Chronicles 26:18 is the “golfer’s verse.” The King James version renders it, “At Parbar, westward, four at the causeway, and two at Parbar.” No, it’s not about golf. “Parbar” is an uncommon Hebrew word referring to the temple’s western colonnade. The word apparently puzzled King-James-era translators, who just used the Hebrew transliteration (spelled out in English letters). More recent translations render it: “As for the court to the west, there were four at the road and two at the court itself.” This verse reminds us that God took care of all the details for security at Israel’s house of worship, even assigning men to watch the doors.

Its tone of “yearning” may make Psalm 84 sound like other pilgrim songs, like the “ascent psalms” (120-134) sung en route to Jerusalem. But verse 10 suggests it comes instead from the worshiping hearts of Korahite temple workers: “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord than dwell in the tents of the wicked.”

BLESSING #1: THOSE WHO REST IN GOD
Three verses begin “Blessed are.” The first addresses those who rest in God, as symbolized by birds that nested in the open arches of the temple:
Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you. (v. 4)
“Your house” refers, of course, to the temple and its system of sacrifices dating to the giving of the law after the Exodus. Every Jew knew that those God-inscribed tablets were stored in the temple, under great security behind heavy curtains, in a sacred box called “The Ark of the Covenant.” Today, we know that God doesn’t dwell in man-made buildings (Acts 7:47-50), but we’re to show reverence for the buildings where we gather to worship. Part of that reverence is having an open heart, knowing that God is approachable, even by the so-called “insignificant.” That’s what the section on birds teaches.

*Sparrows. In Bible times, sparrows were considered nearly worthless, sold two for a farthing (the smallest, least valuable copper coin). But Jesus said no sparrow falls to the ground without God noticing. If God pays attention to common birds, so much more is true of us: “Don’t be afraid,” Jesus said, “you are worth more than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:31).
*Swallows. These birds were symbols of restlessness. They flit all over the sky, all day long, until time comes to build a nest and settle down. How appropriate is the now-famous observation of Saint Augustine in his Confessions: “Our hearts are restless till they rest in thee.”

BLESSING #2: PILGRIMS
As the temple’s doorkeepers, the Korahites saw many pilgrims who had drawn on God’s strength and protection for the arduous and dangerous journey to Jerusalem by foot, donkey or wagon: “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage” (v.  5). Verse 6 might baffle those who can’t locate it on Bible maps: “As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools” (84:6). “Baca” is a Hebrew word for the balsam tree, whose sap can ooze like tears.

The psalmist isn’t referring to an actual geographical location, but to any of us going through this “vale of tears” in our spiritual lives. Life “down here” is not all bliss. We live in a fallen world. Heartbreaks will come. We’ll feel slashed by the harsh storms of adversity. But our true pilgrimage is not to some earthly destination, but to Heaven, to the home of God (Hebrews 12:22). We’ll be strengthened as we continue the journey, step by step, by faith.  This is the Christian walk: living with focus, and encouraging others along the way, until we appear before God!

BLESSING #3: THOSE WHO TRUST GOD
This blessing comes at the psalm’s conclusion: “O LORD Almighty, blessed is the man who trusts in you” (v. 12). Earlier parts of this psalm seemed to portray someone relishing the presence of God within the temple environment. This verse reminds us that we can enjoy the presence of God anywhere, by faith. The closing verses remind us that God’s attributes are of far greater comfort and hope than anything on earth.
For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the LORD bestows favor and honor. (v. 11a)
God, who created the sun, is our “sun” for daily illumination and warmth in life’s dark and cold times. As our “shield,” God is what he declared Himself to be when making a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15:1: “I am your shield, your very great reward.” No matter what happened in the future, God would be there to protect Abraham.

Then, in a verse many have cherished and memorized, Psalm 84 declares God’s goodness to His children:
No good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless. (v. 11b)
These words are echoed in Paul’s letter to the Romans, in which he affirmed God’s love and purpose even in life’s difficult times:
And we know that in all things God works fore the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)
Author Ruth  Meyers, in The Satisfied Heart (Waterbrook, 1999, p. 155) remarked of this passage: “He won’t hold back a single blessing from us if we relate to Him as Lord of our life—of our thinking and choosing, of our feelings, our actions, our relationships.”

This sense of “oneness” with God was what the Korahites sought and cherished. But in Old Testament days, being “right” with God depended on constant sacrifices for sins. That ended when Jesus came and died for all our sins. God sees us as “blameless” through His Son. What the Korahites sought, we now can have. No matter how grand or how simple the building of our worshipping community, when God’s people gather with humble hearts, then it can be a place of true, holy loveliness.
 
Next: Psalm 90