Monthly Archives: January 2016

Psalm 135-138

The first three of these Psalms, 135-137 seem to also come from the time of the Babylonian captivity like the songs of ascent. They retell Israel’s history, as is common throughout the Psalms. They always seemed to try to find hope for their future based on what God had done and promised in their past. Even when it looked most hopeless, when it seemed God had completely abandoned them. Think about the time of Jesus birth. The nation had not heard anything from God for over 400 years, yet the Scripture was faithfully read and believed. God would not abandon Israel forever.

Psalm 136 has the phrase, “His love endures forever,” repeated 26 times, once after each line recounting some event from Israel’s past. What has continually stood out to me is how they affirm here and throughout the OT God as creator. That is the foundation of all other things he can accomplish, obviously, but how often do our churches affirm God as maker of heaven and earth? In 135 they are reminded that the gods of the nations are but “silver and gold.” The contrast that the god’s of the nations are idols of literally nothing and God is the creator of the universe is a constant theme upon which Israel places it’s hope. From there God chooses and works to prosper and defend Israel against its enemies. The challenge for them was the word forever. Somehow they had to know whatever it was, it was beyond this veil of tears.

138 is another Psalm of David, and it fits nicely in with the theme of the previous three. It is at once a Psalm of confidence in God’s future vindication, and prayer that this confidence will not be in vain. At the heart of our faith is the realization and embrace of God’s honor above all:

I bow down toward your holy temple
    and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness,
    for you have exalted above all things
    your name and your word.

At hear heart of the nature of sin is the desire to be God, to determine for ourselves meaning, truth, right and wrong. Those who follow him must let him interpret reality according to his revelation to us, and must yearn for him to be glorified above all because, as obvious as it is, he is above all. We are then only acknowledging the state of things as they actually are. We can only know him when we take our rightful place:

6 Though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly,
    but the proud he knows from afar.

Human pride is a strange thing because we really have so little reason to be so. Not only are we wretched sinners who don’t even live up to our own standards, let alone the perfect standards of God, but we are finite and contingent in every way. We have an infinite number of reasons to let God be God, and rejoice in it.

Psalm 128-134

These are the rest of the songs of ascents. Psalm 130 is a prophetic Psalm that shows what Israel is ultimately all about, redemption from sin.

If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
    Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness;
    therefore you are feared.

The writer knows somehow in some way the Lord will not keep a record of sins. But then how can he remain just, for sin must be punished. The Covenant of Works is all throughout the OT. There is law, but here we see gospel, as we see in the final two verses:

Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
    for with the Lord is unfailing love
    and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel
    from all their sins.

The payment for sin will come from God himself. In hindsight it is easy to see that this could only be done by Christ, by God himself becoming man, and paying the penalty, taking our guilt upon himself. Thus he himself does the redeeming. For the followers of Jesus, however, this was inconceivable.

There are other Messianic references in these Psalms as well. In 132:

10 For the sake of your servant David,
    do not reject your anointed one.

11 The Lord swore an oath to David,
    a sure oath he will not revoke:
“One of your own descendants
    I will place on your throne.
12 If your sons keep my covenant
    and the statutes I teach them,
then their sons will sit
    on your throne for ever and ever.”

Ah, but none of the sons can keep God’s covenant, except one. Jesus was that descendant. And as you read on, God says Zion is dwelling place, and here we have a direct prophecy of the incarnation:

14 “This is my resting place for ever and ever;
    here I will sit enthroned, for I have desired it.

So one of David’s descendants will sit on his throne, thus he will be a man, and God says he himself will “sit enthroned.” It’s difficult to get much more clear than that. It will the the God-man. And his sons, his children, i.e. us, will rule with him forever. And the final two verse make it even more abundantly clear:

17 “Here I will make a horn grow for David
    and set up a lamp for my anointed one.
18 I will clothe his enemies with shame,
    but his head will be adorned with a radiant crown.”

Christ, God in flesh, came the first time in mercy to redeem his people, he will come again and be vindicated in his justice. As Paul tells is in Philippians 2, because of his obedience to death on a cross:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

Amen!

Psalm 120-127

These, and several that follow are called “Song of ascents” (120-134). This from Wikipedia:

Many scholars believe the title indicates that these psalms were sung by worshippers as they ascended the road to Jerusalem to attend the three pilgrim festivals (Deuteronomy 16:16) or by the Levite singers as they ascended the fifteen steps to minister at theTemple in Jerusalem. One study suggests that they were composed for a celebration after Nehemiah’s rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls in 445BC. Another proposes that they were composed for the dedication of Solomon’s temple and were first sung during the night of the fifteenth of Tishri 959 Most scholars, however, consider that they may originally have been individual poems which were later collected together and given the title linking them to pilgrimage after the Babylonian captivity.

They were well suited for being sung by their poetic form and the sentiments they express. “They are characterized by brevity, by a key-word, by epanaphora [i.e., repetition], and by their epigrammatic style…. More than half of them are cheerful, and all of them hopeful.” As a collection, they contain a number of repeated formulaic phrases, as well as an emphasis on Zion.

There are gems throughout. In these eight the theme of looking to the Lord runs throughout, that Israel’s hope is in him alone, that he will protect and bless them, even those who pray for God’s city. Psalm 127 is a classic:

Unless the Lord builds the house,
    the builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
    the guards stand watch in vain.
In vain you rise early
    and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat—
    for he grants sleep to those he loves.

Children are a heritage from the Lord,
    offspring a reward from him.
Like arrows in the hands of a warrior
    are sons born in one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
    whose quiver is full of them.
They will not be put to shame
    when they contend with their opponents in court.

Over the years I’ve thought this house building by the Lord applied to many things I’ve done, most of which haven’t worked, but something different comes to mind today. I think of John 14:2

My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?

But instead of focusing on this eternal house being prepared for me, my focus is on this world as if it were eternal. It is better to simply trust in God, do what we must, and enjoy his peace.

Isn’t it interesting in our day that children are the only blessings that Christians determine they only want to many of. We say, God, I don’t want anymore rewards from you. Evangelicals have bought hook, line and sinker, the secular vision for the family. “The pill” is probably as prevalent among conservative Christians as their secular fellow citizens. There is something wrong with our moral base that this is the case. Certainly, that base isn’t informed by Scripture, where new life is always a gift. And isn’t it interesting that one of the benefits of having children is that of defending the family’s honor. Other versions use this translation:

They will not be ashamed
When they speak with their enemies in the gate.

Life is hard, and we know it can be even harder with children in a lot of ways, but in God’s economy, the blessings far outweigh the challenges. Amen.

Psalm 119

This Psalm is famously the longest chapter in the Bible and all about God’s communication to man. There are a variety of ways the writer refers to God’s communication:

  1. The law of the Lord
  2. His statutes
  3. His ways
  4. Your Precepts
  5. Your decrees
  6. Your commands
  7. Your righteous laws
  8. Your word
  9. The laws that come from your mouth
  10. Your laws
  11. Your wonders
  12. Your promise
  13. Your commandments
  14. Your ancient laws
  15. The law from your mouth
  16. The statutes of your mouth

There is some overlap, and all but a few verses out of 176 have one of these references to the communication of God’s standards for living. It is clear too that all of these flow out of the perfect character of God, and that they are life to the soul of man. Verse 97 says simply and well what ought to be at the very core of those who seek the living God:

97 Oh, how I love your law!
    I meditate on it all day long.

He just can’t get enough. Oh Lord, ought our prayer be, please give us such a love of your word, of the thoughts and insights and truth that flows from your being in your propositional revelation to us. I think the Pietists among us might be disappointed in this Psalm because all of these things engage the mind of man, and through his logic the assessment of the benefits he seeks from God. Like this:

125 I am your servant; give me discernment
    that I may understand your statutes.

And the more we understand of God through his word, the more we are distressed by those who ignore or flout it. Like this:

139 My zeal wears me out,
    for my enemies ignore your words.

But regardless of how fallen this fallen world gets, we can stand because everything God says is “fully trustworthy” (v. 138). That includes when it appears worst, and how much worse could it have appeared than at the cross. All of the hopes of Jesus’ followers crushed in the most cruel and inhumane way possible. It was simply, completely and totally inconceivable that God’s plan included that bloody mess. How could there possibly be victory in this!? Three days later they knew differently. It had to be done in a way most inconceivable to our fallen, distorted sensibilities. As all 176 verses of Psalm 119 tell us, God alone properly interprets reality for us. As that final verse tells us:

176 I have strayed like a lost sheep.
    Seek your servant,
    for I have not forgotten your commands.

We stray, always prone to wander, God seeks us! His words are our life.

Psalm 118

What a glorious Psalm to the Glory of God. It is yet another Messianic Psalm, and one that firmly places salvation in the hand of God. There is no doubt who does the saving here. Repetition is also used effectively to make wonderful points about the character of God. The first four verses have the same four words in each verse, “His love endures forever.” Yet again the forever theme. You wonder how they conceived of it before the resurrection. They knew they would all die, but somehow God’s love would affect them for eternity.

In the next nine verses the writer describes life as a battle, a common theme in the Psalms. There is anguish, but he cries out to the Lord who sets him free. There is nothing man can do to him, thus “It is better to take refuge in the Lord” (repeated twice) than to trust in man, or princes. In these battles the ultimate truth, and his ultimate hope:

14 The Lord is my strength and my song;
    he has become my salvation.

One of the translations at Biblegateway is the Orthodox Jewish Bible. Notice it’s translation of this verse:

14 Hashem is my oz (strength) and zimrah (song), and He is become my Yeshuah (salvation).

The name of our Savior means salvation! It is no coincidence that

15 Shouts of joy and victory
    resound in the tents of the righteous:
‘The Lord’s right hand has done mighty things!

And that last proclamation is repeated in the next verse. The shouts of joy and victory are not because we are personally righteous, as we know from the NT, but because Yeshuah is our righteousness. He has made this happen by his power, his right hand. The next verses make so much sense when we understand that the Bible and the history of redemption is not about us, but about him:

19 Open for me the gates of the righteous;
    I will enter and give thanks to the Lord.
20 This is the gate of the Lord
    through which the righteous may enter.
21 I will give you thanks, for you answered me;
    you have become my salvation.

And the very next verse is the famous verse where we read about the stone the builders rejected. How could this ever be about my own personal righteousness if God himself has become my salvation. As the verse says, this is something “the Lord has done, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” We are exhorted by the Psalmist to rejoice in this day that the Lord has made, to “rejoice and be glad in it.” How incredible that we don’t have to worry about our pathetic efforts of obedience (which we should indeed make), but that we can rejoice that ultimately our acceptance before our holy God really has nothing to do with us, and everything to do with this “day.” I think the day reference is in once sense to history, to when the Lord himself accomplished this great salvation, but in another sense it is for us every day. We can rejoice every day because our salvation rests in him. We can be glad in it. We can be truly at peace.

And finally we read here Jesus’ famous words in Matthew 23 as he finishes excoriating the Jews who are rejecting him: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” In so many ways Jesus left no doubt who he claims to be. He is the Lord, our Savior, our righteousness, thus we can:

29 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    his love endures for ever.

 

Psalm 116 & 117

Psalm 117 is, I think, the shortest chapter in the Bible, just two verses. The Lord is to be praised among the nations because of his love and faithfulness, which endures forever. Yet again the theme of eternity in the Psalms. Psalm 116 on the other hand is an existential Psalm, all about the struggle for existence in a fallen world. The author is in a vortex of death and sorrow, and you can sense he feels like a drowning man at sea. He cries out, “O Lord, save me!” For the people of God, this is always our response to life’s vicissitudes. The author then says something kind of strange, but fully biblical. Because our God is gracious and righteous, and full of compassion:

The Lord protects the simplehearted;
    when I was in great need, he saved me.

Simplehearted is also translated as just simple or helpless. I think Jesus telling us that unless we become like a little child we cannot be saved gets at this. We trust in the character of God. We know we can’t save ourselves. We acknowledge our great need, always. And because of this, the next verse says, our soul can once again be at rest. And, I might add, because we are right with our God. That is the only relationship that matters because it includes all others, to people, things, circumstances, everything. But it is never easy. The writer then speaks of being delivered from death, his eyes from tears, and feet from stumbling. This so he may “walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” I love this because it speaks to how messy and difficult life is. It is very easy to become cynical, as he does:

10 I believed when I said,
“I am greatly afflicted.”
11 I said in my alarm,
“All men are liars.”

This is how we feel at times, that all the world is against us, yet he keeps his focus on God’s goodness and continues to call on the name of the Lord. Then this seemingly strange thought:

15 Precious in the sight of the Lord
    is the death of his saints.

Every version translates whatever the Hebrew word is, precious. It simply means of great value, cherished, treasured. You almost get the sense of empathy here. He knows how traumatic it is, and he knows what happens on the other side, when we are with him absent this body of death. The writer then gets to the bottom line: the Lord has freed him from his chains. Those are chains of sin and death, and thus we can “sacrifice” a thank offering to him and call on his name. There again is the theme of thanksgiving being a sacrifice. It is not easy, but when we know what he has done for us even amidst the struggle, our hearts can be filled with gratitude. All this is done in the presence of God’s people, in his courts, in his city. The context of our faith is never individualistic. God is saving a people to be with him forever.

Psalm 114 & 115

Psalm 114 is short, only 8 verses, and is yet another recapitulation of the Exodus. The conclusion? “Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob.” This is very important: God is always the God of his people first and foremost. The whole history of mankind starts in Genesis chapter three with God’s promise to Adam and Eve, and is given specific definition to Abram nine chapters later, and even more three after that. God’s covenant promise to make himself a people. And like many of these Psalms the either seem to fit together or flow nicely into the next one, this one can easily flow into 115 which begins:

Not to us, Lord, not to us
    but to your name be the glory,
    because of your love and faithfulness.

Why not to us be the glory? Because we didn’t save ourselves! Why is the Exodus recounted in 114 so important in the history of redemption, and why is it recounted by God’s OT people over and over again? Because Israel was enslaved for hundreds of years while God was silent. I can imagine the promises of God to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were recounted to each generation, over and over and over again, but when, O Lord? Then God picks another man to lead his people, and by God’s own power leads them out of slavery by mighty deeds. Thus the wonderful comparison in the Psalm to idols:

Why do the nations say,
    “Where is their God?”
Our God is in heaven;
    he does whatever pleases him.
But their idols are silver and gold,
    made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
    eyes, but cannot see.
They have ears, but cannot hear,
    noses, but cannot smell.
They have hands, but cannot feel,
    feet, but cannot walk,
    nor can they utter a sound with their throats.
Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them.

This comparison of the Living God to idols is of course a theme throughout Scripture, but the contrast is always powerful. The utter worthlessness of idols is so because they are in fact nothing. Whatever value or meaning we ascribe to them is an illusion, as are all the idols of human imagining that we somehow think will replace God. We think we will find lasting fulfillment and meaning in things or other people or accomplishments. Look at a cemetery to see how that’s worked out. And every single person on earth knows this! Satisfaction even for the richest and most talented and most successful and most famous among us is fleeting. And every single one of them comes up against Father Time who mocks their accomplishments with memories of what can never be again; memories are a feeble reminder of fleeting greatness.

The contrast one again is with God’s people, the “house of Israel.” Three times the Psalmist says of these people, “he is their help and shield.” And what can we expect from the Lord?

12 The Lord remembers us and will bless us:
    He will bless his people Israel,
    he will bless the house of Aaron,
13 he will bless those who fear the Lord
    small and great alike.

God loves to bless his people, and how much more we who live on this side of the cross when we know that blessing is in and because of Christ himself. We must appreciate and enjoy and be thankful for the blessings that come from his hand because they all do. And yet again, the Psalms reveal to us that the context of these blessings is not confined to this life:

17 It is not the dead who praise the Lord,
    those who go down to the place of silence;
18 it is we who extol the Lord,
    both now and forevermore.

They must have wondered about this forever thing. Some Jews believed in a resurrection of the dead, but someone actually did it, in history, space and time, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. Our hope is eternal.