Friday, April 18, 2014

Making ‘Psense’ of Psalms—Psalms 42-43: Hope

Sunset on a stormy day--photographed at Moscow, Idaho--
an appropriate visual for spiritual hope in life's dark times
Part of a continuing series on Psalms.
 “Well, they have ‘down-in-the-dumps’ right,” I reflected after reading Psalms 42 and 43. At some time, I’d probably whined my own version of the psalms’ refrain: “Why art thou cast down, O my soul? And why art thou disquieted ["disturbed" in NIV] in me?” (42:5, 11; 43:5).  I was the guest of honor at my personal pity party. Then the refrain’s conclusion grabbed me with its remedy for being down-in-the-mouth: “Hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him for the help of his countenance.”  The “cure” for those downcast, “poor me” times was turning attention from myself to the hope I have in the Lord. These psalms need to be read together. Indeed, in early Hebrew manuscripts (before the assignment of chapter-and-verse headings), they were linked. Attributed to the “sons of Korah” (temple musicians), there’s no historical subtitle. But the imagery and intense language transcend time as they speak to us today, particularly when we feel depressed.

Psalm 42 opens with a picture of desperate thirst: “As the hart [deer] panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.” Unlike camels, whose fatty humps help them survive long periods in desert terrain, deer must have regular access to water. I live in “high desert” with miles and miles of rocky scrublands, bisected by a life-giving river. The highway along the river is a death trap for deer trying to get to water. Despite warning signs for drivers, deer still get hit. When I see a deer carcass while traveling, I’m reminded of Psalm 42 and its truth through this image that our true spiritual survival depends on sating our thirst for “the living God” (42:2). 

Spiritual opposition can heighten our thirst. The psalmist tells of non-believers who scoff, “Where is thy God?” (42:3). Deceitful and unjust people jeer the believer (43:1). The psalmist also pines over missing the festive worship at the temple in Jerusalem (42:4). Worship in those days involved processions, dancing and singing.    

Some scholars think the psalm’s author may have been far away, near Mount Hermon, about a hundred miles from Jerusalem as the crow flies. Though separated from the temple worship with all its festive trappings, he found there a new way to connect with God. He refers to Hermon and a lesser hill, Mizar, plus what might be the cascading headwaters that eventually drain to the Jordan (42:6, 7).  He also senses God’s power and plan in the cycle of day and night (42:8). What we today call “natural revelation” reminds him that he can worship God even  away from the temple. Even today, people find special spiritual encouragement by simply getting away to reflect on God’s creative power.

Thinking about God’s attributes encouraged the psalmist. Embedded in both Psalms 42 and 43 are numerous names for the works and character of God. He is “the living God” (42:2, a phrase found in another yearning-for-God psalm, number 84).  He is “my God” (42:6, 11: 43:4), with the pronoun “my” indicating a personal connection to this great God of all.  He is “the LORD” (v. 8), rendered in small capitals in English Bible translations to indicate the name that Jews considered so holy that they would not speak or write it.  We know it as YHWH or “Jehovah.” The psalmist also addresses God as “God of my life” (42:8), suggesting submission.  He is “God my rock” (42:9), a solid and reliable God, a term that shows up in nearly twenty other psalms. He is “God of my strength” (43:2), the source for “keeping on.”  He is “God my exceeding joy” (43:3), who will bring me out of that “downcast” condition. 

Even before studying this psalm, I had begun a practice of meditating on the names and attributes of God.  When problems kept me awake at night, I started going through the alphabet, recalling the names of God that gave me courage and encouragement.  I considered Him as the “Almighty One,” my Burden-bearer, my Compassionate Comforter—and on and on. By “Z,” peace and sleep would usually come. The practice reminded me that God, in the fullness of his deity, is far greater than any problem I might face.

The last part of the psalms’ thrice-repeated refrain also reminded me of God’s care in difficult experiences: “Hope in God: for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God.” One more recent translation renders this “my Savior and my God” (NIV). The idea is that the God who lifts our saddened faces to show us His profound love is indeed the One who “saves” us from this despondency.

For me, the refrain’s key word is “hope.”  The apostle Paul reminded us “we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2). He emphasized that life’s tribulations can lead us, in God’s plan, to hope that never disappoints (“maketh not ashamed,” Romans 5:5 in KJV).

Psalms 42 and 43 are no longer the “despondency” psalms for me.  Yes, they describe someone who is downhearted.  But the psalms’ refrains don’t leave me stuck on “downcast.”  They remind me to hang on to hope. As John Stott remarked in Favorite Psalms (Baker, ’88, ’03, p. 50): “The cure for depression is neither to look in at our grief, nor back to our past, nor round at our problems, but away and up to the living God.”

Next week: Psalm 46.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Making 'Psense' of Psalms--Psalm 40: Rescued

"He set my feet upon a rock and gave me a firm place to stand."--Psalm 40:2b.
This huge basalt rock wall is about 30 miles from my home.
Part of a continuing series on selected psalms.
When there’s no chance of survivors in a disaster, the language among responders changes from “rescue” to “recovery.” For the massive March 22 landslide that swept away the Western Washington river community of Oso, that word change came early as workers and machines picked at the mammoth mucky debris pile. Photos of the mess brought to mind the opening lines of Psalm 40, which by coincidence I was studying at the time:
            I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry.
            He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire…(vv. 1-2)
Sadly, few were “lifted out” alive from the tons of debris. Some dead may never be found. But Psalm 40 isn’t about an Oso-style landslide. David used a metaphor for an “entrapping situation” to illustrate difficult times in his life.

It’s worth noting, however, that the Bible does tell about a “slimy pit” experience of a prophet who lived about four hundred years after David. As punishment for his negative prophecies, the king had Jeremiah dumped into a city “cistern,” a huge water collection hole with a small opening at top. Though empty (otherwise Jeremiah would have drowned), its accumulated mud bottom sucked his body down. He would have perished there without the kind intervention of a palace official. Jeremiah 38 says it took thirty men pulling on ropes to extricate Jeremiah.

We could dismiss that as an interesting historical aside—except for its powerful symbolism of the “pits” any of us encounter in life’s journey. I often use the analogy in my prayers for people I care about: “Lord, I pray that they’ll escape the grips of their emotional/spiritual/relational ‘stuckness.’” A good definition of such pits comes from the late James Montgomery Boice in his book Psalms Volume 1 (Baker, 1994, 348-349):
*The pit of sin. Those who’ve turned away from sin know its powerful downward pull.  Romans 1 describes how one depraved choice leads to a worse one. King David surely knew its pull in the whole Bathsheba mess.

*The pit of defeat. Some people complain of defeat in relationships, education, or work.  They’ve never succeeded enough at anything to want to keep going, so they give up instead of believing that God has important things for them to do.

*The pit of bad habits. These may be destructive addictions (drugs, cutting, anorexia) or life patterns (temper, self-pity, laziness, overeating). But, Boice added, with Christ these can be overcome.

*The pit of circumstances. For a what-can-get-worse example, Boice pointed to the extremes of physical, emotional and spiritual distress that Paul experienced in telling his world about Christ. Yet Paul was able to say, “We are hard-pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8-9).

One way to outline the message of Psalm 40 is through four R’s: Rescue (1-2), Response (3-5, worship and proclamation), Reamed (6-10, ears “opened” to hear and obey), Remembrance and Reprise (11-17).

Psalm 40 opens significantly with a phrase of hopeful anticipation. David doesn’t cry, “I’m in a terrible mess! Where’s God in all this?”  Instead, he says, “I waited patiently for the Lord.” He believed God saw every detail of his life. A couple psalms earlier, he wrote, “All my longings lie open before you, O Lord; my sighing is not hidden from you” (Psalm 38:9). Romans 8:30 reaffirms that absolutely nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” David trusted, and God turned and heard David’s cry, lifted him out of the pit of negativity, and set his feet on a rock of renewed hope. For us, that Rock is the Lord Jesus!

David didn’t mope, “Well, it’s about time you showed up, God.” Instead, he praised God with a “new song” with the desire that “many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord” (v. 3). What a lesson for the rest of us—to use our stories of help to bring glory to God and woo others to Him!

Some members of my family have problems with earwax buildup, requiring occasional medical help to remove the compacted wax so they can hear again. Although the outline word “reamed” implies a sharp tool (which would be dangerous for ears!), that’s the basic idea conveyed in Psalm 40:6. David wrote that obedience to God is the best sacrifice, and that God had “opened” his ears (v. 6). The Hebrew word for “opened” is kara and in other scriptures is translated "dig," "make," and "pierce."

Older commentators connected this to the practice described in Numbers 21 of piercing a hole in the ear of a slave wanting to stay with his master after his six-year required labor. This marked him physically as a servant for life. But “ears” in Psalm 40:6 is plural, and that rite pierced only one ear. More recent commentators believe it refers to "dug" or "opened up," to imply that the obedient person's ears have opened up to take in God's truth. Open to God’s counsel, that person says, “I desire to do your will, O my God, your law is within my heart” (40:8).  Living out divine truth is how he is rescued from his pits of sin, defeat, bad habits or circumstances. More than that, he wants to share the good news of a relationship with a loving God with all around him (vv. 9-10).
With verse 11, David seems to continue to face troubles and enemies. But he comes back to where he began: to patiently trusting God for life in this imperfect world: “You are my help and my deliverer,” he says (v. 17). “Oh my God, do not delay.” We have an even more encouraging word from the Lord Jesus:  “In this world you will have trouble. Take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Next blog: Psalms 42-43

Friday, April 4, 2014

Making 'Psense' of Psalms--Psalm 37: The Meek and the Mean

Part of a continuing series on selected Psalms.
“In three seconds, everything washed away,” The Seattle Times headlines read on March 23, 2014.  The previous day, an entire rain-drenched hillside collapsed, smothering a small community in mud and debris. Some victims were trapped in their homes as the structures were torn from foundations. The disaster was quickly ranked as among the state’s worse, up there with the volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens, earthquakes and horrific windstorms. As I processed the news coverage of this sad, unexpected disaster, I was also thinking of lessons from my study of Psalm 37. Only God knows the true spiritual condition of each who died, and some were likely solid Christians. But the enormity of the landslide made me wonder what will happen at the end of time, when Psalm 37 says the wicked will be destroyed. Jesus also taught about the sobering suddenness of events when He returns: “Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left” (Matt. 24:40-41).
Psalm 37 is one of seven acrostic psalms, built off the Hebrew alphabet. In Bible times, alphabet songs helped teach spiritual truth to children and adults. The big idea behind Psalm 37 is finding spiritual peace in the midst of the age-old battle between good and evil. Or, to simplify it to two “m” words, between the “meek” and the “mean.” Verse 5 is a key: “The meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace” (37:5). In His sermon on the mount, Jesus reiterated that truth: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). He didn’t elaborate, but David had already, hundreds of years earlier, in this psalm.

The same Hebrew word for “meek” in Psalm 37:11 (anayw) was also used to describe Moses’ humble reaction when his siblings criticized Moses’ choice of a wife: “Now Moses was a very humble (anayw, “meek” in KJV) man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3 NIV). A common definition of this Biblical trait is “strength under control.” Moses lived out the proactive responses David gave in Psalm 37:
 “Fret not”—literally, don’t get heated up. Stay cool. As if for emphasis, “fret not” is repeated in verses 7 and 8. It’s easy to fret when bad seems to be winning out, and bad people seem to prosper, but God says keep the long view in mind.

 “Trust in the Lord”—Trusting in God includes practical steps of doing good and doing your best in your circumstances (“dwell in the land”).

“Take delight in the Lord”—Delighting in the Lord shows others that He is worthy of our love and worship, not the frowning, legalistic deity that non-believers tend to see Him as. The promise to give us the “desires of our heart” means that when our desires match up with His, we will know those blessings. It’s not a cart blanche promise to receive any frivolous thing out there.  Sometimes God needs to protect us from our unwise desires.

“Commit your way to the Lord”—The original language is a picturesque term of “rolling off our burdens.” Years ago, visiting a banana planation in Panama, I watched workers shouldering huge just-cut stalks, laden with dozens of green bananas.  They took these burdens to trailers, gently rolling them off into padded platforms. Similarly, God says to roll our burdens onto Him—as 1 Peter 5:7 expresses it:  “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”

 “Be still before the Lord”—Waiting on God goes hand-in-hand with waiting patiently for His perfect timing. David put it another way in Psalm 62:5: “Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him.”

“Refrain from anger”—God wants us to guard against anger, instead fully trusting Him when facing injustice and disappointment.

Psalm 37 gives various names for the “mean”: “the wicked” (14 times in the King James version), “those who do/are evil,” “who do wrong,” “who carry out wicked schemes,” “those he [God] curses,” “enemies,” “wrongdoers,” and “sinners.” This conflict between the “godly” and the “wicked” goes back to God’s covenant with Israel, told in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 27-30. If Israelites obeyed God, they could live in the Promised Land and enjoy its blessings—the reason behind “the land” or “inheritance” repeated eight times n Psalm 37. If they disobeyed God, they’d be chastened by invasion, drought, or famine. Chronic disobedience would mean removal from the land—which is exactly what happened during 70 years captivity under foreign rulers.

In David’s time, however, hundreds of years before captivity, the faithful saw wicked people prospering, contrary to their thinking that God should only prosper those who followed Him. In this psalm, David was teaching them to trust God’s character. He would punish the wicked—and thoroughly: “All sinners will be destroyed; there will be no more future for the wicked” (v. 38). In the meantime, they weren’t supposed to give up on the Promised Land and move elsewhere (as did Naomi’s family in the book of Ruth).

Our modern economy has changed customs of inherited lands. One good result of this is the freedom to move to different places to do God’s work. On the other hand, it allows people to give up when God might want them instead to stay and work through problems. One who has learned to listen to God’s call to “wait” or “go” is Edith Schaeffer.  Her words in Common Sense Christian Living (Nelson, 1983, p. 227) are worth considering: “You and I often want to know, ‘What comes next?’ God is saying, ‘Trust Me,’ He is saying, ‘Stay in the place where you are until I show you [in a variety of ways, usually not mystical at all] what comes next.’ He is saying, ‘Blessed is the person who waits in the dark, holding My hand.’”

One more important reason to stay put: our witness to the “mean” or ungodly. This quote by 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon says it well: “If sinners be damned, at least let them leap to Hell over our bodies.  If they will perish, let them perish with our arms around their knees.  Let no one go there unwarned and unprayed for.”  That’s a “bold” assignment for the “meek”!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Making 'Psense' of Psalms--Psalm 34: Deliverance

Learning that many Christian couples chose a “wedding verse,” we decided on Psalm 34:3 to vanguard the vows we were taking that sunny August morning in 1981:
O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt His name together.
A calligraphy of that verse has hung for years in our kitchen. Seeing it reminds me that Lord God Almighty  has been faithful through our joys and difficulties as we sought to honor Him.  I’ve also discovered that Psalm 34 brims with memorable verses and stalwart truths. Underneath them all is a message of “deliverance,” even beyond the four times that specific word is used ((vv. 4, 7, 17, 19). The psalm grew out of David’s “deliverance” in one of the most desperate times of his life, noted  in the psalm’s subtitle: “When he feigned insanity before Abimelech, who drove him away, and he left.”

 “Abimelech” was a title for Philistine kings (like “Pharaoh” for Egyptian potentates), and this references the story told in 1 Samuel 21. Pursued by murderous King Saul, David had fled to a town he knew Saul wouldn’t enter, the Philistines’ Gath. However, years earlier, David had killed the town’s hero giant, Goliath. Worse, David came carrying Goliath’s sword, which he had retrieved from a Jewish worship center at Nob. When David’s true identity became known in Gath, his life was at risk. Scared, he pretended to be insane, scribbling on the town’s gate and drooling excessively. Gath’s disgusted “Abimelech” (Achish) had David chased out of town. He fled to the wilderness, ending up in a cave called “Adullum,”  broke and broken.

This psalm is David’s reflection on God’s deliverance, composed as an acrostic poem using the Hebrew alphabet. It includes a call to worship (vv. 1-3), a hymn (vv. 4-7) that blesses God and thanks Him for deliverance, a “taste test” sermon about following God (vv. 8-18), and finally a prophecy (vv. 19-20).

David didn’t need a “worship leader” to rev him up for worship. His effusive praise came from realizing how God reached down to save him from another’s treachery and his own stupid choices. He didn’t mumble the words with his nose in a hymnal. The psalm’s synonyms for “praise” are exciting and energetic: extol, boast, rejoice, glorify, exalt. He calls on others  (“let us exalt His name together,” v. 3) to join him in glorifying the Lord.

A radiant baby --grandson Josiah!
Think of verses 4-7 as David’s version of the more recent hymn, “O God Our Help in Ages Past.” God answered David’s prayers with deliverance from danger and fears. Two verses deserve extra comment:
Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame. (v. 5)
The King James Version renders this, “They looked unto him, and were lightened.” In our times, we connect “lightened” with a lessening of weight. But the term actually refers to light, coming from the Hebrew “nahar,” which means “to become bright.” The same Hebrew word is used in Isaiah 60:5, which describes the future glory of Zion as her sons and daughters return: “Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy” (NIV). Think of it as a mother seeing her beloved children returning after a long time away.  Or, a soldier’s reunion with family after a safe return home from a war zone. Faces shine with delight and joy. David says that’s what should happen to our countenances when we realize that God is with us through every difficult situation in life.

The second verse pictures the might at God’s disposal when we’re in difficulties:
The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them. (v. 7)
The Bible gives a real-life illustration of this in 2 Kings 6, which took place more than a century after David lived. The prophet Elisha and his servant were in a city surrounded by the troops of the king of Aram, who was intent on taking down the prophet. When the servant woke up and panicked to find the city surrounded by enemies, Elisha calmly said, “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6:7). Elisha asked God to open the servant’s eyes to the spiritual protection, and he saw horses and chariots of fire all around. The enemy was later supernaturally blinded and rendered useless.    

David encourages people to “Taste and see that the LORD is good” (v. 8). That’s a big stumbling block for non-Christians.  Typically, they’ll say, “Religion is just not for me.” Yet what they see as “religion” is a vital relationship with the God who created them and died for them. They can’t “taste” when they won’t even try a “bite.” They can’t make that leap of faith that Hebrews 11:6 speaks of: “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”  Faith is believing God and acting on that. David had “tasted” and decided, “Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.”  We might say, “What would I do without the Lord to carry me through my difficulties?”  A non-Christian might consider himself as invincible as a lion (v. 10), but without God he cannot make it.  Christians may experience difficulties like anyone else on this fallen planet, but they won’t lack that “good thing” (v. 10) of knowing God loves and cares for them.

David then switches voices from worship leader to sermon-giver (vv. 11-12).He seems to lean over the pulpit in kindly wisdom as he counsels, “Come, my children, listen to me; and I will teach you the fear of the Lord.” This “fear,” of course, is not panic or dread, but awe and profound reverence that’s repeatedly examined in the books of Proverbs, especially the “wisdom” chapters of Proverbs 1-9. David advises, watch your tongue. Pursue what’s right. Be peaceable. Hundreds of years later, the apostle Peter cited the same advice in describing what Christian behavior looks like (1 Peter 3:10-12).

Life isn’t always easy, David admits, even for the righteous.  But believers have something non-believers don’t: the Lord’s promise to be there for them. Verse 18, about God as our comforter, has encouraged untold millions enduring profound losses: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (v. 18).

Jesus was the ultimate example of a righteous One who wasn’t immune from troubles. Verse 20 turned out to be prophetic of Christ’s crucifixion: “He protects all his bones, not one of them will be broken” (v. 20).  The criminals executed alongside Christ had their legs broken to assure death from asphyxiation. But Christ was already dead, and left alone (John 19:32-33).

Christ’s death on the cross brings New Testament truth to David’s concluding statement: “The LORD redeems his servants; no one who takes refuge in him will be condemned” (v. 22). You can’t improve on that, nor the many other messages of deliverance in Psalm 34!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Making 'Psense' of Psalms--Psalm 32: Hidden Places

God's "good" hiding places include the winter soil for
flower bulbs. These are daffodils, ready for spring.
Part of an ongoing series on selected psalms.
“The Hiding Place,” Corrie ten Boom’s World War 2 account of hiding Jews and punishment in a notorious concentration camp, gripped me when published in the early 1970s. I knew “hiding place” referred to the secret compartment built into her bedroom to protect refugee Jews. I also knew the phrase carried a double meaning from Psalms, for God’s protection.

When “The Hiding Place” was released, I was in my twenties and reading the Psalms with fresh spiritual eyes. When I came across the “hiding place” phrase in Psalm 32:7, I marked it: “Thou art a hiding place for me; thou preserveth me from trouble; thou dost encompass me with deliverance” (32:7). Later, re-reading Corrie’s book, I realized it quoted another “hiding place” passage right after Corrie’s family was arrested and detained at the local police station. The night before her family was split up to go to different prisons, a group had gathered around Corrie’s aged father for evening prayers. She recalled: “His blue eyes seemed to be seeing beyond the locked crowded room, beyond Haarlem, beyond earth itself, as he quoted from memory: ‘Thou art my hiding place and my shield: I hope in thy word….Hold thou me up, and I shall be safe…’” (The Hiding Place, Chosen Books, 1971, p. 126).

Corrie’s father had quoted from Psalm 119 (starting at verse 114), but both that verse and Psalm 32:7 used the same Hebrew word (sether) for “hiding place.”  In both places, “hiding place” is a metaphor for God’s loving presence, even when we face unspeakably difficult circumstances.
 Psalm 32 deals with two types of “hidden” things. One is hidden sins. Psalm 51 tells how David confessed his hidden sins of adultery and conspiracy to murder. Psalm 32 also refers to that incident, but was written later, probably to warn and teach others about falling into hidden sin. Psalm 32 reveals how hiding sin damaged David’s health. He describes his bones wasting away, groaning all through the day, a sense of heaviness, and sapped strength. The second “hidden” subject, after confession of sin, is God’s love and protection, described as our “hiding place.”  The psalm also speaks of spiritual teachings that are hidden from the hard hearts of the unsaved.

Both Psalms 1 and 32 open with the word “blessed.” The Amplified version, trying to catch the energy of the original Hebrew (‘esher), translates this “happy, fortunate, to be envied.” Psalm 1’s “blessed” person completely followed God. Psalm 32’s “blessed” person realizes he has fallen from God’s perfect path, but knows the blessing of forgiveness after confession. Hebrew poetry is characterized by parallel thoughts, and Psalm 32 begins with an excellent example as David seems to rake the Hebrew language for synonyms for the hideousness of sin.
            *Transgression (v. 1), from the Hebrew peshah, a “going away,” “departure,” or “rebellion” against God.
            *Sin (v. 1), from the Hebrew chattath, a falling-short of a mark, like an archer failing to hit his target. In this case, sin is “falling short” of God’s law.
            *Iniquity (v. 2), from Hebrew hawon, something corrupted, twisted, crooked—which we become in twisting away from God to sinful choices.
            Next, the psalmist gives three divine responses to sin.
            *Forgiven—literally, to have our sin burden lifted off, like Pilgrim losing his burden at the cross in John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress.”
            *Covered—a term picturing the Old Testament sacrificial system. A priest would carry blood from a sacrificed animal and sprinkle the “mercy seat” or cover of the ark, which contained the law the people had broken. The blood symbolized shielding the sinner from God’s judgment. Christ’s death fulfilled that ritual, once and for all.
            *Not counted against him—like a divine bookkeeping term.  God takes the sins recorded in our life’s ledger book, removes them and put them in Christ’s ledger book. He died for them, and His righteousness was credited to our ledger. In Romans 4, the apostle Paul quoted these verses and went to great lengths to explain “justification by faith.”

The word selah, which denotes a musical pause to “think about this,” separates each section of this psalm. First David defined sin and revealed how it wrecked his health. Selah, he wrote, as though urging people not to go down similar paths. Then David recounts his confession and the relief of getting what was dark and hidden out in the open. “You forgave the guilt of my sin,” he said, followed by selah (v. 5).

Next comes an admonition to keep accounts clear with God and not wait for the fearsome floods of chastening (“when the mighty waters rise,” v. 6). Earlier, he was hiding from God.  Now forgiven, he hides in God, his “hiding place.” David knew well how God led him to “hiding places” in the rocky wastelands during the dozen years he hid from Saul’s murderous campaigns. That was worth a big selah.

The psalm ends with Proverbs-like counsel. Verse 8 spoke to me during a scary time of change when I was a young adult. I’d decided to leave my newspaper reporter’s job with its steady paycheck for “mission service” a thousand miles away, and “support” for income. To help me decide, I’d flown to the mission headquarters to talk with people there. I had thought much about Psalm 32:8, now marked in red in my Bible: “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.” On the flight back, as I looked out on clouds and land, I had an inexplicable sense of God guiding me with His all-seeing wisdom.

The next verse was my challenge: to not be like a mule that had to be pulled into submission.  Lyrics of an old hymn kept coming to me: “Have thine own way, Lord…I am waiting, yielded and still.” How well these summarize the message of Psalm 32. When we quit hiding from God, we can rest in God’s hiding place. There is no better place to be.  And though it’s not written in David’s text, this is another place where a selah would be very appropriate!
Next time: Psalm 34


Friday, March 14, 2014

Making 'Psense' of Psalms--Psalm 27: Light

Part of a continuing series of selected Psalms.
When I sense cares and worries trying to take over, I check my “light intake.”  Are the curtains and blinds open during the day, so I get enough sunshine? Am I augmenting that with walks to ward off Seasonal Affective Disorder (with its appropriate acrostic SAD)?   More important, am I seeking  the spiritual “light therapy” of Psalm 27?  Best known for its opening line, “The Lord is my Light,” Psalm 27 is for any of us who need the reminder that God is greater than life’s dark times. The psalm’s subtitle simply says, “Of David.” The descriptions of danger fit the years David lived in constant fear of being killed before assuming the throne. The middle section of the psalm contains a “lament” or woe-is-me section. But it’s sandwiched by affirmations that God is on his side.

I find it interesting that the composer of a famous operatic rendering of Psalm 27 also struggled with life. Mary Francis Allitsen (1848-1912) hoped to make a living as musician, but her family was hostile toward that choice. She suffered health issues, including the loss of her singing voice, yet managed to have several musical compositions published and performed. Her “The Lord is My Light,” published in 1897, is based on Psalm 27:1-6. But to fully understand Psalm 27, we need verses 7-14. After David expresses confidence in God (vv. 1-6), he admits his anxious fears (7-12), then returns to trusting God (13-14). Each part has a generous portion of memorable phrases and truths.

Verse 1, “The Lord is my light,” is the only time in the Old Testament that God is actually called “light.” The metaphor appears more frequently in the New Testament. John began his gospel referring to God as “light” (John 1:4, 9). He repeated it in his epistle: “God is light” (1 John 1:5). Jesus even called Himself “the light of the world” (John 8:12). Revelation 21:23 says heaven’s illumination will be God, “for the glory of God gives it light.” It’s a metaphor that defies a simple definition, characterizing God’s purity, power to dispel darkness, joy, life and hope.

David also calls God “my salvation,” or deliverer. God is a “stronghold” (“strength” in the KJV), from a Hebrew word for a fortified place. The point is that God isn’t “out there” when life get hard. Because He is with us, we need not fear. The New Testament counterpart to this is Romans 8:31: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” No matter the strategy of the enemy—a quick attack or a long siege—David placed his trust in God to carry him through.

The source of David’s amazing trust is fellowship with God (vv. 4-6). As a fugitive, David couldn’t worship at “God’s house” in Jerusalem (then a sacred tent sheltering the ark; the magnificent temple wouldn’t be built until Solomon’s time). Although yearning for the energy of corporate worship in Jerusalem, David found ways in his wilderness exile to draw close to God.  In expressing a desire to “dwell in the house of the Lord” (v. 4), David may have been thinking of hospitality customs of his times. In the ancient Near East, when someone welcomed another into his tent, he took responsibility for the visitor’s protection and provision. David put that frame on his relationship with God: “For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling” (v. 5). He adds the picture of being safely perched on a strong, high rock that enemies cannot scale (v. 5).

 Right after this magnificent declaration of trust, David rides a pendulum to the other side. The darkness seems to hide God’s face, a symbol of divine favor. David realizes he’s a sinful human, calling out to a holy God. This sounds a lot like what we might hear today from people: “I’m not good enough for God to hear my prayer,” or “I never got into this God-thing.  Why would He listen to me?” Such comments miss the truth of God’s mercy.

In imagining God’s rejection, David also felt very lonely, like a child rejected by his parents. As far as known, David’s parents never disowned him. But this verse has resonated with many people who had imperfect parents who weren’t there for them or who hurt them physically or emotionally. This “what-if” has a hopeful ending: “Though my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me” (v. 10). God is the perfect parent—a fact that has helped many people wounded by their families. David also felt vulnerable before foes who used both physical and verbal weapons (vv. 11-12). He was anxious and discouraged, the emotional opposites of his opening declarations of confidence.
The psalm has a real-world ending. Our life stories don’t always take the plot lines we desire. Good people suffer. Bad people seem to win—for now. But God is still on the throne. He does answer prayer—either “yes,” “no,” “another way,” or—as this psalm points out, “wait”:
            Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord. (v. 14)
David could be satisfied without instant solutions because He believed that God, as light, was at work in dispelling the dark fears and anxieties of his life. Right now, the curtains of life seemed locked shut. But He trusted God in the darkness, and in faith was willing to wait. How much like the New Testament’s definition of “faith”: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1)!

Psalm 27 teaches us to take things a day at a time with God. Faith and trust are the cords that can part the curtains of our “Sin Affective Disorder,” letting the brilliance of God’s perfect light pour in.    

Next time: Psalm 32   

Friday, March 7, 2014

Making 'Psense' of Psalms--Psalm 25: Teachable

Part of a continuing series on selected psalms.
Growing up means trying new things—and for my now-seven-month-old grandson, Josiah, that means solids like rice cereal. Title this “pfftt!”  As I care for him while his parents work, I’ve re-discovered the importance of multiple learning experiences. Feedings, books, walks, lap play and songs keep his day rolling along plus provide teachable moments.  And then there are the blessed naps! This granny sneaks onto the bed next to his crib and catches some winks, too.
In thinking about Psalm 25, the word “teachable” rises to the top. It’s about enemies lining our way, and God’s honor, but it’s also about how we grow up from spiritual infancy. Like many psalms, this one is subtitled simply, “of David.” It’s one of nine “acrostic” psalms (according to the Hebrew alphabet), of which Psalm 119 is the crown jewel of poetic perfection. It became a sing-able psalm in our generation, thanks to the music arrangement given the first two verses by Maranatha! Music in the 1970s. Maybe you can recall the tune, set to words of the King James version:
            Unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul. (repeat)
            O my God, I trust in thee:
            Let me not be afraid, let not my enemies triumph over me.

The overall message of Psalm 25 is growing spiritually through life’s hard places, whether they’re the result of our choices or from living in a sinful, fallen world. I almost wonder if David’s reference to those “who are treacherous without cause” (v. 3) stemmed from the time he almost let anger push him into treachery. The incident, recorded in 1 Samuel 25, happened during his years on the run from King Saul. He and his band of warriors supported themselves, as was the custom, by providing freelance police protection for local farmers and ranchers. One of them was Nabal, who lived out the meaning of his name: “fool.” Stingy and arrogant, Nabal wasn’t going to part with a dime for these vigilantes, and David was incensed.

As David and his crew headed to Nabal’s spread to teach him a bloody lesson, Nabal’s beautiful and wise wife, Abigail, intercepted them with food and a plea to think about how David’s anger wasn’t the best response. “Let no wrongdoing be found in you as long as you live,” she said (1 Samuel 25:28). She knew he’d been designated the next king, and he’d regret carrying out this plan. Her wisdom worked. Amazingly, Nabal suddenly died apart from David’s sword. And Abigail was taken into David’s household.

When he became king, David found himself in similar circumstances. He had enemies bent on taking down him and the nation he led. It was an overwhelming responsibility.  How could he, a mere man—albeit chosen by God—accomplish it all? Only by the help of God. Only by being teachable and learning God’s ways. Only by trusting God to keep “growing” him, taming the immature rashness as he learned to walk with God. Psalm 25 is peppered with “teach” and its synonyms: show, guide, instruct. As we’re obedient to God, as He speaks through prayer, scripture, and the teaching and counsel of godly people, that spiritual growth takes place.

Growth also requires an honest look at our sins. David knew well his failings—the “sins of my youth and my rebellious ways” (v. 7).  He asked God to “forgive my iniquity, though it is great” (v. 11). Rather than dumping us for our failures, God works with us:
            Good and upright in the LORD;
            Therefore he instructs sinners in his ways. (v. 8)
Perhaps the better word of this process is “surrender.” A young single woman I know, in her early thirties, is trusting God for everything as she ministers to at-risk children in Belize. She writes of her trust in God despite discouragement, harm and deprivation in a blog appropriately titled, “Daily Surrender.” Oswald Chambers, author of the classic My Utmost for His Highest, commented on Psalm 25: “All the blessings God brings to our lives will never take the place of our surrender to Christ.  We must let Him have His own way. God may bless us beyond all measure, but that is not a sign we are sanctified. He longs to give us more.” (1)

“Shame” is also key word for Psalm 25.  It’s used three times in the first three verses and again at the end (v. 20). In the Hebrew (bosh), it has a particular meaning that’s different from our concept of being ashamed or embarrassed about something, like our own failures. The idea is more “to be disappointed” because something proved unworthy of your trust. It’s more the idea expressed in Romans 5:5: “Hope maketh not ashamed” (KJV) or “Hope does not disappoint us” (NIV). If we walk through life trusting in God—no matter the scoffers who line the roads with their futile “designer” religions—He will vindicate us in the end. We need never be ashamed of following Christ, because all other routes to God are dead ends.

Someday, I’m hoping my infant grandson will understand that, and put his trust in Jesus as Savior. My job as “Grandma” is to represent the loving arms of God, and to pray that someday he will say, as did David, “In you I trust, O my God” (v. 1).
Next time: Psalm 27

(1) Oswald Chambers, Devotions for a Deeper Life (Zondervan, 1986, p. 225).