Psalm 23-27

King David is a fanatic! He seems to think that life is all about God, God, God. That’s all he talks about! Just maybe that is why God himself calls David, despite his many flaws, a man after his own heart. David knew that God himself was the very source of life itself, the ground of all existence and being. This is no trivial insight. Paul says to the Greek philosophers in Acts 17 , that he gives all life, breath and everything else. He says in Colossians 1 that by Jesus all things were created, and in him all things hold together.

So if this is the case, why do we in effect seek life in anything other than God? Why do we turn limited, worldly things into ultimate things as if in them is the meaning and ground of our existence and fulfillment? God has declared everything he created good, and in fact very good (six plus one times in Genesis 1 alone). Yet we turn good, that is everything in its proper context, into ultimate, that is trying to make these things do what they were never intended or created to do.

That’s the beauty of God’s revelations to us (in his word, in creation and in Christ): they teach us the relative but real value of all things. So we can find true joy and fulfillment and purpose in things and people, and we can enjoy everything in all its relative but not ultimate value to us. That is why we give thanks because it all comes from him. That is why we rejoice in him because it is all a gift from him and he delights in our joy. Let us simply not pervert all these good things by distorting their meaning and relationship to us, and do it by what David does in these Psalms. His focus is continually on God’s power, his character and love for him. He always trusts the Lord regardless of the circumstances. This is the recipe for true contentment in life.

Psalm 21 & 22

These are other Psalms where you wonder what David might have been thinking as he wrote them. They are so clearly Messianic that they could be one Psalm. Twenty-one speaks of a king, but only in the third person. The first two verses take off from the previous Psalm, as if, again, this book had some kind of divine author:

The king rejoices in your strength, Lord.
    How great is his joy in the victories you give!

You have granted him his heart’s desire
    and have not withheld the request of his lips

But in verse 4 he talks about the life the king asked for, and he defines that as, “length of days, for ever and ever.” Maybe it’s hyperbole and he is referring to himself, but he speaks in verse 6 of this king being granted “eternal blessings” and joy in the Lord’s presence.

Verses 8-12 speak of divine judgment, of God’s victories over his enemies and foes, and in this context he switches to the second person in this amazing declaration:

At the time of your appearing,
    you will burn them up as in a blazing furnace.
The Lord will swallow them up in his wrath,
    and his fire will consume them.

Isn’t this strange? The Psalm is written to the Lord, and in this section the judgment is the Lord’s doing, but here he distinguishes between who is appearing and doing the judging and the Lord. But going into 22 and in light of the NT we know exactly what this is. Jesus said these words in Aramaic from the cross:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Or

Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?

In crying those words Jesus was saying in effect, Psalm 22 is about me! Many of the thoughts here obviously would have double meaning, some flowing from David’s heart, others flowing from the heart of God, pointing forward to one “greater than” David. (In Matthew 12 Jesus declares something “greater than” three times, greater than the temple, Jonah, and Solomon.) And how in the world would a Jew interpret these verses:

12 Many bulls surround me;
    strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
13 Roaring lions that tear their prey
    open their mouths wide against me.
14 I am poured out like water,
    and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
    it has melted within me.
15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
    and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
    you lay me in the dust of death.

16 Dogs surround me,
    a pack of villains encircles me;
    they pierce my hands and my feet.
17 All my bones are on display;
    people stare and gloat over me.
18 They divide my clothes among them
    and cast lots for my garment.

Wow! David obviously wasn’t dead when he wrote this, so being laid in the “dust of death” isn’t about him. Either someone made up the crucifixion scene and used this Psalm or this is prophecy, and of course I believe it is the latter, and as such it is stunning, a thousand years prior a perfect description of what happened to a suffering Messiah, Israel’s Savior.

And in the final verses of this Psalm we have a clear declaration of the gospel and its universality:

27 All the ends of the earth
    will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
    will bow down before him,
28 for dominion belongs to the Lord
    and he rules over the nations.

29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
    all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
    those who cannot keep themselves alive.
30 Posterity will serve him;
    future generations will be told about the Lord.
31 They will proclaim his righteousness,
    declaring to a people yet unborn:
    He has done it!

God in Genesis 12 says in his call to Abram that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through” him. God’s redemption was never meant for just one people or one nation, and here he confirms it yet again. And not only that, but this gospel will include a resurrection from the dead; those who “cannot keep themselves alive” will kneel down before the Lord. Notice that these who worship God will not be exalting in their righteousness, but his! As Paul says, Christ is our righteousness, and he himself has accomplished it! What an incredible Psalm. No wonder Jesus pointed back to the OT as all about him.

Psalm 20

I memorized Psalm 20 back in the day as well, mainly because I thought life was really hard and complicated and frustrating, and David’s musings here were comforting. Life surely looks different at 55 than it did at 19 or 20. As scary as it can be hurdling headlong toward the fulfillment of my mortality (that’s death, in case you’re one of those 21st Century people who think it can be avoided if you just eat the right stuff, exercise and don’t smoke and drink), I would not want to go back to 20 and have to learn everything all over again. It’s like being in a valley, then going up on a mountain viewing that same valley. The perspective is completely different. One looses the forest for the trees, the other sees exactly how those trees fit in the forest, and the rest of the valley.

The Psalm starts with, “May the Lord answer you when you are in distress.” I often felt such distress back then, but saw the possible answer as either getting what I wanted, or making things clear. Verses 4 and 5 were especially poignant:

May he give you the desire of your heart
    and make all your plans succeed.
5 We will shout for joy when you are victorious
    and lift up our banners in the name of our God.

May the Lord grant all your requests.

Really? God cares about the desires of my heart? He cares about my plans? My aspirations?  This is important. Too much of evangelical Christianity thinks in almost gnostic or Buddhist terms. Having just read George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture, I saw very clearly where this suppression of the self came from, and that was the Christianity I was born-again into in 1978. The less self, the more “spiritual” you supposedly are. The more you empty your self, the closer to God you will supposedly be. The more surrendered to God, whatever that means, the more you can fulfill the godly life, and so on.

It took me a while to work through all this, but I realized over time that God doesn’t want me to empty my self, but he wants to make the self everything it can be, i.e. like Christ, in the context of who that self actually is. This includes all the desires, aspirations, talents, likes, dislikes, personality, etc. of the self. I’ve heard sermons and talks where it is said in this regard, that the more I seek and become like God the more his desires will be my desires. Maybe, but that implies my own, unique, one-of-a-kind desires are somehow wrong, or unclean, or less than pure. If “I” am associated with it, it must be wrong. But God works his sovereign will through secondary causes, so each person’s unique desires, ambitions, etc., are in effect God’s. He didn’t give each human being their own unique consciousness to make us all robo-Jesuses, who do the same, act the same, look the same.

I love David’s celebration of another’s victory, lifting up banners in God’s name. Instead of envy, we can be truly happy for another’s joy. But this again is much bigger than just what I want in my life. It is in fact part of the bigger picture of redemptive history. God’s anointed are his chosen people, his elect, those he promised to save from the moment of the fall until Christ said it is finished. The salvation we need most, and the one David I’m sure understands is from sin and death, and I don’t just mean mortal death, but death to God, death in our sin which is alienation from him. Our salvation is in fact a resurrection from spiritual death; we were dead in our sin, as Paul says, and made alive with Christ. And as David says here, it is “with the saving power of his right hand.”

And the most important lesson I’ve learned these last 35(!) years? That would be found in verse 7:

Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
    but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.

The name of the Lord is in effect his character, which includes not only the power of his ordering of the universe and his purposes for everything, but his love for me, the ultimate expression of course is what he did for me in Christ. As Paul says in Romans 5:

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

We are constantly tempted to trust in chariots and horses, so to speak, and God in his love for us has to continually disabuse us of the notion that these things are worthy of our trust, that they can bring any kind of contentment or peace or fulfillment or purpose outside of him. They are all important and good in and of themselves, but they are not ultimate in any sense. Only he is, and only in him do they have their true and relative value to us. Verse 8 says what happens when we do trust in them:

They are brought to their knees and fall,
    but we rise up and stand firm.

What a fantastic juxtaposition! Those good things that are objectified as ultimate things (i.e. become idols) can only serve to ultimately weaken us because these things in the nature of reality, the way things actually are, were never meant to be ultimate things for us. In Him, regardless of the circumstances, we can rise up and stand firm because we can trust his ultimate intentions toward us. We only need look to Christ!

Psalm 19

Back in the day I memorized Psalm 19, but I don’t think I saw in it then what I do now. It is often difficult to see something new in something familiar, and this Psalm is very familiar. The first and last verses are quoted and prayed all the time. The first speaks to the wonders of creation:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they reveal knowledge.

The last is often prayed:

14 May the words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
    be pleasing in your sight,
    O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

What I had not seen before was how there are three distinct sections that address topics I pray and thank God for all the time. That is, God has revealed himself to us in three ways or using three means: in creation, in his word, and in Christ. In this Psalm David addresses all three. I would imagine the first six verses were in Paul’s mind as he wrote Romans 1:

20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

David is of course awed by the majesty of the heavens, but we ourselves are part of God’s creations, obviously, and he is revealed in us as well. You would say the final few verses reflect this aspect of creation and God’s revelation as well. David is dealing with the human inclination to sin, which is a reflection of God’s law written on our hearts, his moral law ingrained in our very being.

The second section is God’s law, or his verbal revelation to us. David refers to this word as God’s law statutes, precepts, commands, and ordinances, with fear of the Lord thrown in there as well. And God’s communication according to David is perfect, trustworthy, right, radiant, pure, sure, and altogether righteous. And finally, the benefits we reap in immersing ourselves in it are reviving the soul, making wise the simple, giving joy to the heart, giving light to the eyes, and in keeping them their is great reward.

David’s conclusion is that they are more precious, of more value than huge quantities of gold, and they are sweeter than honey from the comb. They bring fulfillment, pleasure and satisfaction. Why? Because the very essence of reality is in them; we are most in tune with the nature of reality as it actually is, not as we wish it were, when we are immersed in God’s perspective of things.

And finally, God is revealed to us in Christ. We see that throughout the NT of course, but we see it here as well a thousand years before Jesus lived. David realizes he can’t understand the depth of his own sin:

12 But who can discern his errors?
    Forgive my hidden faults.

Yet he wants to be kept from “willful sins.” We know that didn’t always work out well for David, nor does it for us. Exactly what sins do we commit that we do not will to commit? In other words, we can’t do it and we need a Redeemer. David prays that his words and heart would be pleasing to God, addressing him as his Rock and Redeemer. Everything is fulfilled in Christ, the eternal logos, creation, word, redemption; the gospel of God’s love in the salvation of his people in the person of God himself made flesh.

Psalm 18

This long Psalm is introduced by David after the Lord has delivered him from all his enemies. And how does he start it? By declaring his love for God, who is his strength. The Lord in fact is his everything, and he exalts in his awesome power through the first part of the Psalm. God’s physical creation is a manifestation of his incredible strength, but he is not too great to, as David says, “reach down” and save him. The contrast is important because from the moment the fall happened, every human has the temptation: to make themselves God, and to humanize the true God. David is never gives in to this because for him God is God, the Lord is the Almighty, and there is not confusion as to who is the cosmic boss, so to speak.

The Lord rescued David from his foes, “who were too strong for him.” From the vantage point of redemptive history, we know these foes as sin and death. To David these were all too real physical realities, but because David is at the heart of redemptive history, we can freely see these as pointing to a much, much bigger picture. Verse 19 can have such ultimate significance as it applies to God’s elect:

He brought me out into a spacious place;
    he rescued me because he delighted in me.

Not to get to far afield in the theological weeds, but God’s delight, his love is efficacious. This is crucial, and not a trivial thing to hold on to. As I said in a previous post quoting Charles Hodge, God’s favor is the life of the soul. And to use a Reformed theological perspective to view the following verses, David says that his hands are clean, that he is blameless, that the Lord has rewarded him according to his righteousness. A few verses later he says:

25 To the faithful you show yourself faithful,
    to the blameless you show yourself blameless,
26 to the pure you show yourself pure,
    but to the devious you show yourself shrewd.
27 You save the humble
    but bring low those whose eyes are haughty.

It seems very works oriented, and David was a faithful Jew so he knew about the Law and blessings and curses. But he moves instantly to God as the one doing the saving. So it is true that God can only fellowship with perfect righteousness, but as we know now he himself provides that in Christ. To me verse 30 gets to the bottom line:

As for God, his way is perfect:
    The Lord’s word is flawless;
    he shields all who take refuge in him.

Simply put, God is worthy of our trust. And the final verse tells us why:

He gives his king great victories;
    he shows unfailing love to his anointed,
    to David and to his descendants forever.

God’s love can not fail! When I hear people say that God loves everyone, I cringe. In a certain way, yes he loves all his creation, including humans. But his true love, the love that is delight spoken of above, his unfailing love, is a saving love, a victorious love, a love found through David and his descendants, to of course Christ. And it is forever. That kind of love is reserved for his people along, his elect, those who are in Christ from before the foundation of the world. Our only sensible response is the same as David’s in v. 46:

The Lord lives! Praise be to my Rock!
    Exalted be God my Savior!


Psalm 17

David is again praying for God to rescue him from wicked men, and he understands something very important about the struggles he is going through: their context is ultimately eternal. The last two verses:

14 By your hand save me from such men, Lord,
    from those of this world whose reward is in this life.
May what you have stored up for the wicked fill their bellies;
    may their children gorge themselves on it,
    and may there be leftovers for their little ones.

15 And I–in righteousness I will see your face;
    when I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness.

David knew, and states elsewhere in the Psalms, that this life is fleeting, a mist that appears for a moment then is gone. Men of this world seek rewards in this life, but the man of God sees things in terms of forever; his perspective puts everything in an eternal context. This can be really hard, as every human being knows, but without it life is as Thomas Hobbes said, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. As the rest of verse 14 implies, God gives these people what they want, and they “gorge” themselves on it.

For David the contrast to this worldly perspective could not be more different. He knows true life is relationship with God, and in seeing God’s face he is declaring an intimacy that is almost shocking. God is holy, enthroned above the heavens. Look what happens when Job and Isaiah see God, or Moses or Abraham; they cower in fear. As Isaiah says, “Woe is me!” But even though David has a limited understanding of what he’s talking about, the divine author of this Psalm doesn’t. We can only see God in righteousness, and only in Christ can we have the righteousness of God. Paul says this in I Cor. 5:21:

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

It is in this righteousness that David knows he will see God, not one of his own making. He also gets a glimpse of the resurrection, when he awakes. He is not referring to waking up in bed, but waking up into eternity. And it’s interesting that he says he will see God’s likeness the second time. No one, God tells Moses, may see him and live. So here we have an oblique reference to Christ, of whom Paul says in Colossians that he is the “image of the invisible God,” and that “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him.” If the nature of God is invisible, then the only way we can actually see him is in the second person of the Trinity. And seeing is much more than optical. I would say it is more like completely experiencing the person, and that is what we will do with God himself in Christ for eternity.

Psalm 16

This is such a profound Psalm in so many ways. David was completely God focused, even when he screwed up, even when according to human eyes his life looked like anything but God blessed. He starts by praying for God to keep him safe, that God is his refuge. Then he says something that is so incredibly important that all of God’s people should realize every minute of every day:

I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord;
    apart from you I have no good thing.”

Every blessing, every good thing, is of the Lord. Just yesterday I came across this quote from C.S. Lewis in his Screwtape Letters:

Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden.”

Pleasure is God’s invention! We only get in trouble when we absolutize it, turn it into an idol as if the pleasure were an end in and of itself, as if it could bring us any lasting fulfillment. In fact the next two verses say just this:

As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones,
    in whom is all my delight.

The sorrows of those who run after other gods shall multiply;
    their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out
    or take their names on my lips.

God’s holy people in his holy land, those he has saved, are his delight. Imagine that, God delighting in me! All because of Jesus. I can have absolute confidence that when Jesus said, “It is finished,” that God’s orientation to me as judge was completely changed to Father, and thus delight. I love what I just read in Hodge’s Systematic Theology (Vol. 3, p. 172) that captures this so perfectly:

According to the Bible the favor of God is the life of the soul.

This could not be more simply stated and more profound. The transformation in me is because of what God did for me in Christ: His wrath satisfied, my guilt washed away. Once an enemy, running away, blaming God, ashamed, scared, I am now his child, adopted into his eternal family, and loved with an everlasting love. Amazing, and all of the Lord.

The contrast could not be more stark. People don’t just ignore the true God, they “run after” other gods. They’re passionate for these other gods, as if they could really deliver on their promises, but all they deliver is increasing sorrows. And God let’s them go, in fact, it is he who ignores them. Paul in Romans 1 puts this starkly. Since they refuse God’s knowledge implanted in them, or suppress it by their wickedness, God gives them over to their sin. They get exactly what they want, they think, and it ends in eternal misery. Very sad. But it makes me very glad that God never gave me over.

The middle part of the Psalm is David’s gratitude expressed for God’s blessing in his life, and that he knows this because he always sets the Lord before him. Again, why David was called a man after God’s own heart. The essence of true life is trust in Him.

The final three verses, we’re told by Paul and Peter in Acts, refer to the resurrection. You wonder what David was thinking as he was writing this:

Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
    my body also will rest secure,
10 because you will not abandon me to the grave,
    nor will you let your holy one see decay.
11 You make known to me the path of life;
    you will fill me with joy in your presence,
    with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

He clearly has in himself in mind. David knows this mortal mess we inhabit isn’t it; there is more. But as Peter points out in Acts 2, David is in fact dead and in a grave. David knew he would be too, but life, and joy, and pleasures in God’s presence, would somehow go on forever and somehow in bodily form. This could not be fully fleshed out, so to speak, until the other side of the resurrection, but that event completely transformed our perspective of the OT. I can imagine in the weeks after he was raised and teaching the disciples, that he told them exactly what these verses meant. What we have to look forward to, these eternal pleasures that God has the power to give us (his right hand), make the momentary and light afflictions of this life, as Paul put it, seem trivial in comparison.


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