psalms

Walking in the Word 2017 - Psalm 137

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
— Psalm 137:4
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Many of us find ourselves dragging our feet to get to church because life has been hard. The circumstances we find ourselves in can often overwhelm us, where we sense a cloud over our hearts in ways that leave us helpless, broken, and discouraged. Whether you're experiencing real, physical oppression and pain or invaded by an indescribable, untraceable malaise, nobody wants to walk into a church and have to turn a switch on and pretend to be joyful. It's hard to say hi to familiar faces, much less new ones. Your motivation to sing out loud or stand and clap or even focus all get sucked into a hole of sadness and sorrow. 

You're not alone. Not only because I've felt this many times, even as a pastor preaching on a Sunday. But because the Bible shows us this picture as well. Psalm 137 is traditionally categorized as a psalm of lament. It clearly describes a particular time and place in history; the Israelite exile in Babylon. Here, the people are captives of a foreign nation, removed from their Promised Land, cast down to the lowest rung of the social order, with no sign of change to come. This psalm is one of many that address this dark time of this people's soul as they cried out to God in their pain and suffering.

Yet this lamentation of a psalm gives hope in a way that should give the struggling Christian hope to sing on a Sunday. Psalm 137:1-4 finds the psalmist wondering aloud how one could possibly sing at all when they're in captivity. Yet this all sets the scene for v.5-6 where the psalmist exclaims aloud, "If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!" In essence, the psalmist says, "Hope in hope that God remains true to His promise." God's promise was that the people would always live in the Promised Land. Having been taken out, it seemed to the Israelites during their Babylonian bondage that they would never have a shot at reclaiming it again. Yet hope in the hope of God. If the psalmist were to lose that hope, he prays that he would never sing again and his heart lose the ability to play any instruments.

Hope in the hope of God. In your darkness and weakness, God calls upon you to hope in something with more assurance than the psalmist had. We are guaranteed the same Promised Land as the psalmist yet made proof positive and fully secured by the blood of Jesus Christ, confirmed by the Spirit. In Jesus, there is always a song to sing, even when you have no strength left to sing. There is always a place to praise, even when your circumstances leave you downtrodden. This is only because our ultimate happiness lies not in the solutions to our situations or experiencing only the best this world has to offer but our identity in and union with Christ. It is knowing that we are loved by the Father regardless of how much we hate what has happened to our lives. The truth is we sing not because we're happy to sing. But in our brokenness, we sing because we have to sing. We have no choice but to sing, to be led back to the Father, and allow our memory to minister God's grace in Christ to our own hearts.

Now as for the rest of Psalm 137 with its proclamation of doom, destruction, and the dashing of foreign babies on rocks? We'll save that for another devotional. ;)

Walking in the Word 2017 - Psalm 67

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth. - Psalm 67:4

So for all you armchair Bible interpreters who want a neat way to hack the Psalms, I give up a simple little tip for unearthing the main point of almost every psalm. Just look at the middle. I know, mind-blowing right? It's a secret that's out in the open, a little too obvious to be true. Old Testament Hebrew constantly uses literary sandwiches with an A, B, C, B, A type pattern (what nerds call chiasms). If you think about A being the bread, B being your condiments, lettuce, tomatoes, then C is the meat, the main reason why you're biting into the sandwich in the first place. You need A and B to add a little pep, texture, flavor but what really feeds you, what sticks to the ribs, is going to be C. This typically ends up being the thesis of any Old Testament passage and regularly works for the psalms. 

So a quick application of this to Psalm 67. Look at the first and last verse; a call for God to bless His people. Go a verse in from the ends, v.2 and 6. They speak of the earth as a whole responding to God. Take a quick pause and note how v.6-7 are a form of response to the call in v.1-2. The people pray that God would make His face shine on the people and that the earth would know His ways in v.1-2 and in v.6-7, the earth has received God's blessing and the earth is called to respond in kind.

Now move into v.3 and v.5. They're exactly the same, calling upon the people to praise the Lord. It's like walking between the two pillars that form a gateway to glory, as if they're guarding and protecting the treasure of truth that lies in between them. That would be v.4; "Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon the earth." It's an exclamation of God's desire for this whole world, that any and all would come to sing His praises. That the world would be witness of God's greatness and respond in kind. It's a pre-Revelation picture of the new heavens and new earth. It's glorious, awe-inspiring, and worth rejoicing over. In a time where we're concerned about civil authorities both near and abroad, where it doesn't seem like this world can get along, we are reminded who is truly in control and how all things are in His hand. His faithfulness, sovereignty, and righteousness cannot be impugned upon by any earthly power. Instead, God's people have a place to give thanks and reason to call the nations to do the same.

The beauty of all this is how the structure of the poem builds up to v.4. Our appreciation of the psalms should go beyond picking out one pithy verse that brings us comfort or gives us fuzzy feelings. But a little simple interpretive legwork can sometimes bring out even greater delight in the book of God's songs and prayers.

Walking in the Word 2017 - Psalm 54:1-7

With a freewill offering I will sacrifice to you; I will give thanks to your name, O LORD, for it is good. - Psalm 54:6

This is a psalm of David, prayed while on the run from Saul. The Ziphites, that band of snitches, were revealing David's hiding places to Saul, never allowing a fugitive David to rest. It is in the desperation of the soul that he prays this psalm. 

The key theme for David in this psalm is the power of God's name. After all it's about who you know right? We've surely been in situations where you've met someone and don't know anything about them but when they give you the name of someone you both know, there is some association, some connection that is made. The name alone doesn't identify that you each know the same person but does more than that. It provides inferences on whether the person giving the name is trustworthy, likable, or trustworthy. Such is the power of a name. 

I have a difficult first name to pronounce and have had it slaughtered by well-meaning substitute teachers and salesmen on a regular basis. When I was younger, I adopted an "American" name that made it easier for others. It didn't last long because at the end of the day, it simply wasn't me. There was no reference point for the name beyond simply giving native English-speakers to identify me. 

There is power in being named. Parents name a child because he or she is their creation. We name our pets because it is our responsibility to care for them. There is an authority inherent in naming others. People change their last names because they don't want to be associated with their family's painful past or are looking to forge a different future with a new one in marriage.

Only one being has never been named by another for he was never birthed and has no father nor mother. He has no beginning nor end but always was, is, and will be. None has power or authority over him for he named himself. He is the Lord, Yahweh, Jehovah, I AM.

The beauty of this psalm is the build up to God's name. David prays and uses "elohim" in speaking to God, even as he calls upon God, "Save me by your name." He repeatedly uses this term to refer to God in this prayer as he recalls the character and compassion of his God. It's as if David's tapping the ground in his prayer, trying to make sure he's on sure footing, before he confidently takes his stand in the name of his Lord, which happens in verse 6. As the first 5 verses bubble up, David erupts in verse 6, exclaiming YAHWEH. You can imagine the cry this was. I simply can't see this being whispered to himself or said in his own head but had to have been yelled out.

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The fears and anxieties of the present and future give way to confidence in the true name of the Lord and the victories and comfort David has experienced in the past in the hands of our Lord. In so many ways, this provides one possible pattern for our own prayers. So much of our time is often spent on calling upon God to address our current troubles and future anxieties yet so little is spent on the exclamation and outburst of praise and hope that comes from remembering God's faithfulness in times gone by. 

We also live in a time where God's name is used in vain, a curse word muttered under the breath of the frustrated. What weight does the name of the Lord carry in your heart? What comfort does it bring to your soul? To hear that the Lord is near in your struggles, to hear that the victory is the Lord's in your defeats? This is what David experienced and what God desires for us today. Trust in His name.

 

Walking in the Word 2017 - Psalm 1

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 1 Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
 2 but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.
 3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.
 4 The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
 5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
 6 for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish. 
Psalm 1:1-6

In every superhero movie, the protagonist is faced with a choice. They have two ways to live; follow the path of light or the path of darkness. Choose good or choose evil. Be awake or continue to dream. 

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A cursory glance at Psalm 1 tells the moral person that the path is clear. Choose righteousness. Choose to be a tree planted by streams of water. Choose to prosper. Why would you want anything else? Yet take a moment to consider your own heart. Which of us doesn't like listening to false flattery or engaging in a juicy bit of gossip (counsel of the wicked)? Which of us hasn't allowed anger, greed, or lust to swallow our hearts and minds (stand in the way of sinners)? Which of us hasn't had a bout of unbelief, questioning the goodness of our God, doubting that His promises are true and that He is who He says He is (sits in the seat of mockers)? 

Or approach it from what you don't regularly do. What does it look like to love God's law? To not only obey it in a manner that leads to self-denial and self-forgetfulness but to love dying to yourself? To meditate on it in every moment, to have it be the song of your heart, the first thought when you wake and the last when you sleep? I can't say I've ever known what that's like.

So the truth is, while there might be two ways to live, I only seem to follow one path; that of the wicked.

Thanks be to God though that Jesus lived in perfect righteousness for us. That He didn't just love God's law, He fulfilled every single letter of it and had nothing to do with sinners and scoffers. Yet as the Righteous One, He still went to the cross, stood in our place, and received the judgment for us. All so that by His sacrifice, we might stand in the congregation of the righteous. So that we might yield the fruit of the Spirit as we remain grafted into the tree of life that is Christ. That even in our sinfulness, we would not wither but may prosper for Christ is our righteousness. He is our life.

So yes, it's true, there really are only two ways to live. But it's not to do good or do evil.

It's either in Christ or without Christ. Which path will you walk down today and all your days?

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Advent Devotional Week 1 - Psalm 91

The advent season is a unique opportunity to draw closer to God through reflection, worship, and celebration. In a time of year where the world beckons us to satisfy our consumer and materialistic urges, the anticipation of the incarnation of Christ draws us away from our self-centered desires and turns our gaze outward and upward. The desire for our staff over this next month is to help lead you deeper and deeper into the mystery and wonder of Jesus' birth with a weekly advent devotional. Each week, we'll reflect on an Old Testament passage that foretold the coming of our Savior. Our prayer is that it would serve to encourage and bless you as you rest and rejoice in the good news of Jesus Christ.

“With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation” (Psalm 91:16).

Many people believe that the Christian’s future hope is a desire for escape. And a lot of Christians have given them good reason to think that. Throughout my life in the church, I’ve heard people say this world was “just going to burn anyway.” This, of course, excuses their ungraciousness, unneighborliness, or their propensity to litter.

In fact, in high school I used to use that line to excuse leaving my fast food garbage in various parking lots across Southern California.

Yes, that’s right, Jesus’s imminent return—the Second Advent—was my excuse to keep from cleaning up after myself. And this perpetuates the idea that we don’t have to worry about the here and now because we’re going to ditch this world one day. Jesus is going to come back, open up a can on the unbelievers, and all the Christians will say one last cosmic, “See ya!”

But that’s not the way it works at all.

We don’t escape this world. Our hope in Christ’s return isn’t about leaving behind a bad physical world in favor of a good spiritual one filled with babies playing harps at one big long eternal church service. It’s about Jesus ushering in a very physical new heavens and new earth. It’s about him making all things new, restoring everything to what he meant it to be.

Hope isn’t about escape. Psalm 91 reminds me of the future tense of God’s salvation for his people. We don’t want to leave this physical world and all the dirt that comes with it. Rather, especially in this Advent season—as we look to back to Christ’s first coming and forward to His second one—we hope in the salvation that will come to us in the end because our God is a faithful God.

God will deliver (v.3), will cover (v.4), you will not fear (v.5-6), danger will not come near (v.7-8), no evil will be allowed to befall us (v. 9-10). God will deliver us, be with us in trouble, will rescue and honor us, and he will show us his salvation (v.14-16).

Advent reminds us of our hope that God will right all wrongs and deliver us from evil. We don’t look to escape this hard, cursed world. We put our hope in the God who promises to deliver us. And we can put our hope firmly in that deliverance because we already received the down payment of it in a manger in Bethlehem.