Tag Archives: psalms

Truth in all its Splendor

The more I read Psalm 19, the more I love it. This psalm is like a layered sauce for shrimp and pasta. Each layer has been reduced to its flavorful essence, and there are so many flavors that it is impossible to appreciate each one.

Psalm 19 begins with a lavish statement of the way creation testifies to God’s work and ongoing sovereignty. Pointing out that created things have no voice in the sense of a sound we can hear, the psalmist says, as translated in The Message, “Their silence fills the earth: unspoken truth is spoken everywhere.” (Psalm 19:4) This statement feels like a Hubble photograph. It responds to my hunger for truth. The world around me suffers from a massive truth deficit, but all of creation speaks truth that fills and comforts my heart. To hear these words is to be built up in faith that God has a purpose for all things, and his purposes do not fail.

The heart of the psalm is a master statement of the way God’s law testifies to the same truth which creation speaks without words. God’s law is perfect, sure, right, clear, pure and true. There really is order behind the chaos I encounter everywhere. Like a painter’s palette of many colors, the psalmist’s word palette names God’s law as the facets of a jewel – law, decree, precept, commandment, fear, ordinance. I feel as if I hold this treasure in my hand turning it this way and that to catch the light the way I might view a beautiful diamond ring.

In case I don’t really absorb the value of God’s law, the psalmist explains what will happen if I make the law a part of myself. If I absorb it into my spirit, it will make me feel alive, it will make me look wise even if I am not smart, it will make me happy with a happiness that cannot be crushed, it will give me insight into reality, it is never out of date, and best of all, it is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Using God’s personal name, the name God gave to Moses to emphasize his eternal presence with Israel, the psalmist makes the revelation of the law intimate and vibrant, just for me.

In sum, the psalmist says, God’s revelation of himself is so rich and so valuable that it is better than the finest gold or the sweetest honey. Maybe I don’t think so highly of honey as the psalmist, but I do know that when Israel left Egypt bound for the Promised Land, they called it the land of milk and honey. As far as the psalmist is concerned, the law is a real treasure.

There is only one legitimate response to such a revelation. I bow my head in worship and prayer. God has given me the priceless treasure of himself, wordless truth in creation, words of truth in his law. With the psalmist, I ask nothing more than to speak and think truth in all things as my creator does.

If you don’t have a Bible handy, here is a copy of the Psalm

Psalm 19

1      The heavens are telling the glory of God;

and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

2     Day to day pours forth speech,

and night to night declares knowledge.

3     There is no speech, nor are there words;

their voice is not heard;

4     yet their voice goes out through all the earth,

and their words to the end of the world.

In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,

5     which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,

and like a strong man runs its course with joy.

6     Its rising is from the end of the heavens,

and its circuit to the end of them;

and nothing is hid from its heat.

7     The law of the Lord is perfect,

reviving the soul;

the decrees of the Lord are sure,

making wise the simple;

8     the precepts of the Lord are right,

rejoicing the heart;

the commandment of the Lord is clear,

enlightening the eyes;

9     the fear of the Lord is pure,

enduring forever;

the ordinances of the Lord are true

and righteous altogether.

10    More to be desired are they than gold,

even much fine gold;

sweeter also than honey,

and drippings of the honeycomb.

11    Moreover by them is your servant warned;

in keeping them there is great reward.

12    But who can detect their errors?

Clear me from hidden faults.

13    Keep back your servant also from the insolent;

do not let them have dominion over me.

Then I shall be blameless,

and innocent of great transgression.

14    Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart

be acceptable to you,

O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

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Unrepentant Plagiarist

Psalm 13

1      How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

2     How long must I bear pain in my soul,

and have sorrow in my heart all day long?

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

3     Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!

Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,

4     and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”;

my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

5     But I trusted in your steadfast love;

my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.

6     I will sing to the Lord,

because he has dealt bountifully with me.

 

I love the book of Psalms. I didn’t always love it. As a child, I found it confusing. I appreciated it, but I did not love it. My Sunday School teachers called it a hymmbook, but it didn’t seem much like the hymnals I was familiar with.

I have grown to love this book, because I learned that it is also a prayerbook. When I learned that I could borrow the words of the Psalmist and use them for my own prayers, I began to love the book of Psalms. I gleefully plagiarize its prayers and grow in the discipline of prayer as I do so.

Psalm 13 is one that is easy to borrow. For starters, I have gone through numerous periods in my life when I felt beleaguered by enemies. I have felt despair, because it seemed to me that God ought to do something about the situation, and I could not see any evidence of improvement.

I have observed of myself that, like everyone else, I view my experiences from within the limitations of time and space. It is hard for me to remember that God views them from the perspective of eternity and infinity. In that point of reference, every point in time is now and every point in space is here. The resolution and completion I yearn for is already working, even as I pray, but I am not able to see it. God does not disdain my fears, my suffering, or my inability to see the culmination that is everpresent with Him. Kohelet, the author of Ecclesiastes, observed that God  has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11b)

In Psalm 13, however, David summons up faith to assert, despite all appearances to the contrary, that he will “sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.” (Psalm 13:6) By the time I reach verse 5 of this Psalm, David’s words of lament have worked like a drawing salve on my fear and frustration. They empty out all the things that make me need to cry out, “Help my unbelief!” I am finally able to step outside my time/space limitations and enter worshipfully into God’s throne room where my vision is expanded beyond the limits of my own worldview. David invites me to worship with the saints who see history from God’s point of view in that heavenly throne room. David’s faithful words nourish my own faith, and I am refreshed and encouraged.

I highly recommend plagiarizing David’s prayers and making them your own.

 

 

No Rescue for You

The biblical story of Absalom and David is a dramatic tale of broken relationships and the complete inability of humans to heal the breach. Most people know that Absalom attempted to usurp his father David’s throne, but few people take the time to discover that Absalom’s scorn for his father was sparked by his father’s unwillingness to rescue the honor of Absalom’s sister Tamar after she was raped by the heir apparent. David’s unwillingness to sully the image of the crown prince by taking any action on behalf of his own daughter had terrible consequences, capped by Absalom’s attempt to steal the kingdom from his father, whom he doubtless regarded as feeble and useless.

Psalm 3 is tagged as a prayer David wrote during Absalom’s rebellion. The author’s lament that people think his situation is hopeless makes sense to anyone who has read how Absalom spent years building himself up in the eyes of David’s subjects, largely by implying that David was remote and impotent while Absalom was out among the people and ready to do what needed to be done. David had, indeed, avoided knowing what Absalom was doing and was totally unprepared to respond when Absalom moved to seize power. The Psalm is attributed to David, who would probably have tired of hearing people say, “It’s hopeless.”

No rescue for him through God. (Psalm 3:3)

Here is a prime example of the wisdom of ignoring gossip. David knew that people were muttering that God wasn’t going to pull David out of the fire this time. He knew that a lot of people thought it was good enough for him that Absalom had rebelled. Just as a voter might hear a political promise in an election campaign and hope that there would be some reward for his vote, many of David’s subjects likely hoped that Absalom’s fine words would mean good things for them in the future. God had dumped Saul and anointed David. Why think God wouldn’t dump David and enthrone handsome, virile, silver-tongued Absalom?

It comforts me to know that God did not abandon David just because David was not good at relationships. When I hear the teaching that God’s most important laws are, Love God above everything else, and Love your neighbor as yourself, I know that I am doomed. I am not good at relationships, either. If David had had any skill at building and healing relationships in his family, the tragedy of Absalom’s rebellion could have been avoided. If I were good at relationships, some tragedies in my life might have been avoided, too. I often give thanks that God didn’t dump me. I am reminded in David’s words that God didn’t dump him, either.

You, Lord, are a shield for me. (Psalm 3:4)

When I pray Psalm 3, I tend to paraphrase some lines. Verses 6 and 7 come out as, “Thank goodness, I can get some sleep, because I know God is with me. It feels as if everybody is against me, but I know I can let God take care of me.” I am inclined to skip over the lines about God breaking people’s teeth, because that isn’t the outcome I really hope for.

 

I am inspired and comforted and motivated by the final verse. In the NRSV, Psalm3:8a reads, “Deliverance belongs to the Lord.” Every time I read it, I remember that this was the cry of Jonah from the belly of the fish. Talk about dire straits! David’s rescue from Absalom’s rebellion was dramatic, but Jonah’s rescue after being thrown into the sea was 3-D drama. Of course, David’s cry in Psalm 3 is a statement of faith that we expect from David. When Jonah cried out those words, it was his moment of truth. In David’s story, Absalom was the rebel, but in Jonah’s story, the rebel was Jonah himself. When Jonah cried out those words, it was more of a confession that he had finally seen the light than a statement of his ongoing faith that God was with him. After all, Jonah arrived in the fish’s belly precisely because he had sought to escape God’s presence.

 

All of which is truly comforting. Whether my enemies gang up on me, or whether I gang up on myself by trying to run away from God, I can’t escape God’s presence. Even though God can’t count on me to love him or to love people, and even though God can’t count on me to be where I am supposed to be when I am supposed to be there, God never gives up on me. That is the deep truth that I pray when I pray Psalm 3 in the spiritual company of David and Jonah and all the saints. There is rescue for me, after all.

 

 

 

Pray Psalm 11

Bonhoeffer’s guidance

In his book Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The Psalms are given to us to this end, that we may learn to pray them in the name of Jesus Christ.”[1] The Psalms would have been the prayers Jesus learned as he was growing up Jewish in Nazareth, and Bonhoeffer writes that in praying the Psalms, we appropriate the language and prayer focus of Christ himself. He advocates that we learn to pray by praying as Christ prayed, saying, “The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart.”[2]

In that spirit, I prayed Psalm 11 today, and I share that experience with you.

I can trust God – Psalm 11:1a

The Psalmist opened this prayer with the words, “In the Lord I take refuge.”

These words assert faith in God in the face of trouble all around. I can identify with that situation. When I read or hear the daily news, I am overwhelmed with despair and dread. The events of each day are disturbing, and the consequences I foresee in the future are dispiriting. Yet, with the Psalmist, in words Christ himself would have prayed as he faced his ministry challenges, I can pray, “In the Lord I take refuge.”

People without faith counsel running away – Psalm 11:1b-3

It always seems easier to run away from challenges than to confront them. In fact, the strength of civil disobedience is always that their willingness to be confrontational is expected eventually to wear away the resistance of the general population to the change desired by the demonstrators.

Violent rebellions often triumph, as we see in the Middle East, just because people do not want to risk death to challenge them. Unlike a lot of commentators and political pundits, I do not see an outbreak of democracy in the Middle East as the guaranteed result of the violent ejection of some tyrants; there is no evidence so far that the rebels are any more supportive of freedom and democracy than the autocrats they have unseated.

People who see that nations around the world are in chaos will say, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” They accept that evil is winning, because it looks that way at the moment. I hear a lot of people blame God, saying things such as, “If God is so good, why is there war (or poverty, or hunger, or AIDS)?” Just like the people in the Psalmist’s day, they accuse God of weakness and indifference when things don’t go well. When Christ prayed these words, he knew the answer to the question, because he had come to be our defense against evil.

God knows what is going on – Psalm 11:4

The Psalmist sees beyond the world of time and space into the world of eternity and infinity. The Psalmist sees what John saw when he wrote in Revelation 4:2 – “There in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne!” The Psalmist wrote “[The Lord’s] eyes behold, his gaze examines humankind,” asserting his faith that God, indeed, sees what is happening.

The wicked suffer the consequences of their faithlessness – Psalm 11:5-6

To those who complain that God is doing nothing, the Psalmist responds that God is quite attentive and involved. Christ himself judged evil by his very presence. Religious and political leaders whose lives were evil behind pious facades felt that judgment when they were in his presence. The presence of God in the world fills evil people with guilt and shame which feel like coals of fire in the pit of their stomachs. In Revelation John wrote that the wicked feel so deeply anguished by the judgment that they run to the mountains and would prefer to be crushed under rockslides than endure the judgment of God’s presence, all because they refuse to receive his love and grace. They are not sent to the mountains; they run to the mountains, the very advice that faithless neighbors gave to the Psalmist.

Made righteous by Christ, I can trust God – Psalm 11:7

There is hope for me. When Christ prayed these words, he could stand in his own righteousness before the throne and say, “the upright shall behold his face.” I can never make myself righteous, but I am made righteous through the death and resurrection of Christ. I have no confidence in my own ability to withstand evil. On my own, to see God is to die, but clothed in the righteousness of Christ, I can stand upright and face God. No matter what is going on around me, I can trust God, because Christ has made me worthy.

The world of time and space looks hopeless. I fear that in this world, evil is so pervasive that I see no place to run where I could escape it. My own efforts to defend myself and lead others to reject evil seem completely useless. If I could not trust God, I would, indeed, be doomed. I have hope only in Christ who has redeemed me and rescued me from the evil of these days.

 


[1] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible© 1970 (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, Minneapolis) p. 15

[2] Ibid, p. 15