Tag Archives: Book of Psalms

Is the Book of Psalms Obsolete?

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
–Psalm 51:1 ESV

David wrote about his experience with sin and his discovery of important moral truths nearly three thousand years ago. What does his writing have to do with twenty-first century human beings?

The first time I wrote a blog post questioning the use of the word “marriage” for same-sex unions, I received quite a few comments. Among them were several writers who objected strenuously to my position on that moral question. One person, unlike the other objectors, did not try to persuade me that I had misinterpreted the Bible. Instead, he protested the whole idea of using the Bible to learn the right thing to do. He said that he was smart enough to decide for himself what was right and wrong, and he did not need a Bible to tell him. I had never before encountered someone who thought he needed no external standard to guide his moral choices, and I asked him how he knew that he was doing it right. He replied, “When it makes me feel good, then I know it is right.”

If David had subscribed to that moral standard, he never would have written Psalm 51.

I have been blogging for about 10 years, and I have often blogged about the effect of sin in our lives. David wrote about that problem, too, and in Psalm 51 uses the word “sin” more than once:

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
–Psalm 51:2-3

The word “sin” is not a popular word among secular thinkers, and among those who call themselves “progressives,” there are many who believe that it is immoral to call anyone a sinner. They feel so strongly about it that they even accuse parents of child abuse if the parents tell their children that they are born sinners.

If David’s worldview included rejection of the whole concept of sin, he would never have written Psalm 51.

David makes other comments that arouse scorn and pejorative labels in contemporary culture. David speaks to God and says,

Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.
–Psalm 51:4

Contemporary culture expresses scornful dismissals and abusive language for God that is unthinkable in polite conversation, let alone public discourse. The intellectual elite think they are being polite when they accuse Christians of serving an “imaginary friend,” and those who believe that nothing in all the universe is more intelligent or powerful than themselves utterly reject the notion of letting God push them around with a bunch rules. They believe that they are quite well able to know what is good for them, and they don’t need an imaginary friend to tell them anything.

If David had agreed with contemporary culture that no power in the universe had any right to tell him what to do, he would never have written Psalm 51.

If you closely examine contemporary cultural mantras, you know that the culture would never send you to a higher power in order to fix what is broken in your life. The culture believes that you must merely “dig deep” within yourself to find the power to do the things that make you feel good. When you do what makes you feel good, the culture says that you won’t be wallowing in self-degradation and begging to be cleansed, because, according to secular thinkers, when you feel good about what you are doing, you won’t feel bad about yourself.

Furthermore, if you do doubt yourself, you can simply take a poll and find out what everyone else thinks, and that should clear up your moral choices. According to the culture, when you are part of a consensus that something is right, whether it is abortion, homosexual behavior, or full frontal nudity, the fact that there is consensus means you are not alone. If you act consistent with the consensus, you do not need to do any research at all to know what is right. If everybody else feels good about doing it, you can do it, too, and feel good about it.

If David had believed that knowing the consensus was the same thing as knowing what was right, he would never have written Psalm 51.

David would not have fitted in with contemporary culture at all, just as confessing Christians do not fit in. Studies of the culture, conducted by Barna and Pew, reveal that the culture regards many central Christian teachings as either irrelevant, detrimental to the culture, or dangerous. The idea of sin is anathema to secular thinkers. The idea of God is anathema to all who consider evolution to be the guiding power in the universe. A man who calls himself a sinner for doing something that made him feel good looks ridiculous to secular thinkers. A man who believes he has broken his relationship with the Creator of the universe by doing something that displease the Creator is to be pitied for his lack of self-esteem. A man who believes he needs to be cleansed because he is a filthy sinner, a man who believes he needs to be born all over again with a new heart because he is out of sync with the will of God will be laughed to scorn by those who say they can plainly see that there is no God.

We can all be grateful that David was not a contemporary secular thinker, because instead of leaving us to contemplate our own sinful human nature and our multiple specific sins against God, David confessed his own experience with sin, and then he showed us how to be healed when we sin:

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.          –Psalm 51:10

If you have ever been suddenly brought to attention by the recognition that you committed sin against God, sin you hid from even yourself as you did it, then you know that you cannot heal what is sick, or fix what is broken, by claiming that it made you feel good at the time. You know what David knew—you are a sinner. You have built a wall between yourself and God, a wall  made up of your own will and wishes. Furthermore, the “good” feelings that accompanied your behavior are dissolving in your shame when you realize that your barrier is full of holes, and God can see exactly who you are. Then is a good time to borrow David’s words and pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

The Bible is full of Jesus, from the first page to the last. The day that Jesus rose from the dead, he joined a couple of men walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus. As they walked together, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Christ] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). David’s Psalm 51 surely came up that day. When you read David’s words, baptism is vividly referenced in David’s statements, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!” (Psalm 51:2 ESV) David further wrote, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10 ESV), obviously pointing forward to the work of Christ on the cross, which Paul would describe by saying, “if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature” (2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV).

The moral values of contemporary culture are not very different from the values in the cultures contemporary with David’s lifetime. In fact, contemporary values are well described as far back as Genesis, where God observed that “every imagination of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5 ESV). That is why the work of Jesus on the cross is relevant to every era. In every age it is always necessary to pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10 ESV).

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A Verse for Meditation

Torah ScrollLet them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his majesty is above earth and heaven.  Psalm 148:13 ESV

This psalm is among the five intense praise psalms at the end of the book. Verses 2-12 name many, many elements of creation that are called upon to praise the Lord.

  • What is the reason for creation to praise the Lord?
  • What is different about God’s name that earns it the right to be praised?
  • Write your own statement of praise for God. Don’t ask for anything. Don’t even give thanks for anything. Just brag on God.
  • What in all creation most inspires you to praise God?

Pray Psalm 4

The book of Psalms is often called a hymnbook, but it might just as rightly be called a prayerbook. I like to take possession of a psalm and pray it as my prayer. Psalm 4 is a prayer that can easily be prayed as a personal, very contemporary, prayer.

 Answer me when I call, O God of my right!
This cry sounds almost disrespectful – “Answer me when I call” – but the psalmist is simply crying out for God from the depths of his distress. To whom else can he turn in this hour of distress and despair? I, too, have moments of great distress when I almost shout for help. I need God to answer, and I trust he will answer. The culture around me, and government of my beloved country conspire to repress my expression of faith, because they think I believe an ancient myth. I call to God because he is real, and he is actually near me in my time of need.

You gave me room when I was in distress.
Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer.
It is good to remember that God has already answered me many times and helped me through problems in the past. When I remember what God has already done, I am able to calm down and simply ask for help.

How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame?
How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies?
Secular philosophy disdains the very existence of God. Secular thinkers see beauty in church buildings and kindness in church people, but they completely dismiss existence, the death and the resurrection of Christ. The Bible, hymns, worship and all acts of faith are scorned as imagination at work. Instead, secular thinkers look for some evidence that their fictional concept of the steady, gradual maturing and improvement of human beings is taking place. I wonder when the scorn of secularism will stop. I wonder if they will ever be open to truth.

But know that the LORD has set apart the faithful for himself;
the LORD hears when I call to him.
My faith and my experience teach me that God does not forget us no matter how we are treated by the world around us. I remember that Jesus said the world would hate us, because it hated him first. I remember that Christ my Lord promised to be with me. He will hear my prayer.

When you are disturbed, do not sin;
It is disturbing when people pressure us to give up our silly religious ideas that make us look immature to the sophisticated thinkers who have moved past imaginary ghosts and makebelieve heroes who walk on water. We can’t give in to that pressure, even though we do not have the power in ourselves to fight back against the combination of culture and state.

Ponder it on your beds, and be silent.
Offer right sacrifices,
and put your trust in the LORD.
When I take the time to think about it, I know I can trust the Lord. I can offer my sacrifice of praise and trust him to empower a faithful testimony.

There are many who say, “O that we might see some good!
Much as I desire to be faithful, I do get discouraged. Sometimes I look around and ask if there could be some sign, some signal, that all is not lost.

Let the light of your face shine on us, O LORD!”
The demands of the world suck light and life out of every day, and in my deep discouragement I call for help. Sometimes I simply can’t hold it all together on my own.

You have put gladness in my heart
more than when their grain and wine abound.
To know Christ and to live in relationship with him overcomes the effects of cultural restrictions and state oppression. I may not be in good fellowship with secular thinkers around me, but I am glad anyway because of Christ in my life.

I will both lie down and sleep in peace;
for you alone, O LORD, make me lie down in safety.
My neighbors think I am silly to believe the same thing some ancient Bedouin believed. My government does not think my convictions about the way Christ wants me to live have any validity when they interfere with presidential policy, but I can tune all that noise out and trust God to carry me through the dark night. My peace does not come from what is around me but rather from Christ living in me.

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Pray Psalm 4 as your own prayer for strength and wisdom

 

Answer me when I call, O God of my right!
You gave me room when I was in distress.
Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer.
How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame?
How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies?
But know that the LORD has set apart the faithful for himself;
the LORD hears when I call to him.
When you are disturbed, do not sin;
ponder it on your beds, and be silent.
Offer right sacrifices,
and put your trust in the LORD.
There are many who say, “O that we might see some good!
Let the light of your face shine on us, O LORD!”
You have put gladness in my heart
more than when their grain and wine abound.
I will both lie down and sleep in peace;
for you alone, O LORD, make me lie down in safety.