Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Songs (psalms) for a Good Life (Psalm 119)

The good life1 is lived in attentiveness to God’s Word. In Psalm 119, every verse in this longest psalm2 has a reference to God’s Word, using a variety of vocabulary words. This study will only look at the first section of Psalm 119:1-8. There must be some significance that this psalm pronounces a double blessing (verses 1 and 2) for the one who seeks to live the good life according to this prescription, in order that they may enjoy the blessing of God. There is blessing in the disciplines of submitting, and there is blessing in the receiving.

The first half of the first section, verses 1-4, of Psalm 119, the aleph3 section, verses 1-8, is marked by strong commitment and action. Blessing does not come as one sits passively to see what will happen. It is a walking psalm, not a sitting psalm (verses 1 and 3). It involves close observation and energetic pursuit (verse 2). This person exercises remarkable restraint (verse 3). Verse 4 understands that we are assigned to keep a close watch and careful guard related to God’s instruction.

But the tide turns in the second half. This blessedness depends not only, or even primarily, on the level of our own commitment, nor the heat of our own actions. In verse 5, the psalmist’s intention sounds almost like a dream - far from a certainty. He first hints, then begs, for God’s assistance. He wants to avoid the shame (verse 6), but isn’t quite sure that it is possible. The giving of thanks in verse 7 is not an initiating action plan, but rather a response to God’s necessary activity. The psalm closes with another statement of determination, followed immediately by the plea of the helpless: “don’t leave me hanging out to dry!”

Living the good life is not the lazy life. It requires blood, sweat, and tears. We have to be all in, pledging our whole hearts (verse 2), and clean hearts (verse 7). But we are never self-sufficient. Our labor is ever and always a decorative accessory to the strong framework of God’s grace.

It is not that God helps those who help themselves. Nor is it that we would expect God to bless those who haven’t bothered to attend to their ways. Rather, we are blessed that God would bother to bless us, and His promise holds a power and persuasion over us, so that we want to find our feet on His path, our eyes on His instructions, and our hearts in His hand.        

1The six psalms that begin with “blessed” are: Psalm 1, 32, 41, 112, 119, and 128. Articles analyzing each one begin here.
2Psalm 119 is an acrostic psalm. There are 22 stanzas of 8 verses each, totaling 176 verses. The 22 stanzas correspond to the 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet.

3’aleph’ is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. ‘bet’ is the second letter. Get it? alephbet, which spell check, and you, want to change to alphabet.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Songs (psalms) for a Good Life (Psalm 112)

I have included Psalm 112 among the 6 Blessed psalms, or, collection of psalms that begin with “blessed.”1 I am calling this series, “Songs (psalms) for a Good Life”, and I am attempting to distill a distinctive teaching from each of these songs.2 

I find Psalm 112 to be a psalm that describes how the blessed person is stretched. Living on earth, halfway between heaven and hell, we live in tension. We are partakers of glory, and yet we deal daily with shame. We are, according to Luther, “Simul Justus et Peccator,” “at the same time just(ified) and a sinner.” 

Notice with me some of these “stretches.” In verse 1, he is a person who both “fears” and “delights.” You have probably heard discussions that attempt to rub the hard edges off these words. But at face value they do not sit comfortably close together. Verse 2 may hold in tension those yet to be born with those whose years linger on - the tension between the young and the old. Do you think no such tension exists? Ask grandpa to listen in on little Johnny’s jam session. It exists. In verse 4, he is the light in the midst of darkness, no simple task, as we learned from Lot. In verse 9, we find that the person who bends low to help the poor is the one who is lifted up in honor, a very common Biblical theme. Finally, in the biggest stretch of all, verse 10 contrasts the plight of the wicked, who will perish, in contrast to the enduring righteousness of the blessed person, which leads to our next theme - but first an application.

If the blessed life is marked by tension, then why do we complain about tension? If the road to blessedness involves being stretched, then why do we think it strange to be stretched? He whom the Lord loves, He disciplines - He stretches with a view to greater usefulness and fruitfulness and blessedness.

Enduring righteousness is mentioned three times, in verses 3b, 6b, and 9b. The long distance runner trains over long distances. How could it be any different? Can a person train for a 5 mile race by running a block? She can get real good at running the block. But she will not be ready for the 5 miler.There is a time component in blessed discipleship. The question is not so much, “how was your day?”, but “how was your year?” “the last 5 years?”

It seems to me that the heart of this psalm can be found in the little chiasmus that occurs in verses 7-8, following a (little bit messy) ABBA structure. The two center phrases are the key to living in tension: steadfast is his heart (Hebrew word order); upheld is his heart. He has learned through the high’s and low’s of life to replace fear with trust. Neither bad news or bad people (the outer phrases) will shake his confidence. The stretching has made him strong; the tensions have made her tough.

Finally, let me ask you a question, and see if your observation matches with mine: Where is God in this psalm? Oh, He is there, but not in the front row. He is the God who is feared (verse 1), and the God in whom we trust (verse7), and, well, that’s about it. What should we make of this?

In this journey of the someday blessed, we walk by faith and not by sight. We believe that God is there. We know that He is there. But we often cannot see Him, hear Him, feel Him, or anything else, other than believe. We walk the wire, not seeing the net, but knowing He’s there. We face the enemy, quite unsure about our abilities, but banking hard on His.  “You love him even though you have never seen him. Though you do not see him now, you trust him; and you rejoice with a glorious, inexpressible joy” (1 Peter 1:8 NLT). It makes you want to shout, “Praise the LORD.” Maybe that’s why they added it to the beginning of this song.

1Psalm 11-113 begin with the phrase, “Praise the LORD!” It seems to me that this serves almost as a title that identifies a mini-collection, similar to the “psalms of ascent” (Pss 120-134). In both cases, the opening words, or heading, are part of the Hebrew text.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Songs (psalms) for a Good Life (Psalm 41)

“How blessed1 is he who considers the helpless; The LORD will deliver him in a day of trouble.” (Psalms 41:1 NAS95)

Certainly we are to help the helpless. We are to give to the poor. And here we are, in the month of December, and there is a lot of giving; a lot of gift-giving, and a lot of extra effort to give to the poor. And we realize the truth of the phrase, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”2

But I don’t believe that this is the challenge of this psalm. The first verse does not specifically say to “give” to the helpless, or, poor. Rather, it says to consider, to view the poor with understanding, and to think carefully before you judge that they do not prosper or have success simply because they are poor.Somehow, we must see that "a good life" and poverty or helplessness are not antithetical to one another.

Another reason that I don’t think that this psalm pronounces blessedness of giving to the poor is because of the second sentence: “The LORD will deliver him.” Who is this “him”? Will the Lord protect the one who gives to the poor. That would be nice, though I don’t know why he needs special protection right now. As the psalm flows, it seems, rather, that the “him” of the second sentence is actually the plight of the poor or helpless person. As we consider the poor, we find that they are people who stand under the special protection of God.

And that’s not all. We read that some time, somehow, he will be called “blessed” by people on the earth. His estimation in the eyes of the world will change. I wonder if it is at that time when he inherits the kingdom, because that is the promise of the first Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). They will endure over the ill treatment by their enemies (further described in verses 5-8), and they will be sustained in sickness, even though they have no access a “cadillac” health plan. On their (death?) bed, God will restore, perhaps a veiled Old Testament reference to future resurrection (compare with verse 10). These are things that we do not normally expect, unless we take time to consider the poor, that they are in position to receive a special blessing from God.

The center of the psalm seems to be verse 4: As for me, I said, “O LORD, be gracious to me; Heal my soul, for I have sinned against You.” This makes sense to me, if this psalm is a consideration of the plight of the poor, that he is a blessed person; and, if this person who may be poor in material things is also poor or humble spiritually. He is in touch with his need, not only against his enemies, but in relation to his God. And he confesses that here plainly. And there is a blessing in that.

Remember Jesus’ story of the two men who went up into the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). The one was so full of himself that it sounds as though he is there to instruct God! But not so the other. “But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ This is the Jesus-provided visualization that we need for our consideration of the helpless. He is blessed, in that “this man went to his house justified.”

Psalm 41 not only begins with a blessing, but it also ends with one: “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, From everlasting to everlasting. Amen and Amen.” It is the poor and helpless, who is the midst of their material/spiritual poverty find that God is reaching out to them in mercy and forgiveness - it is this kind of people who are most apt to bless God. And Jesus had a story for that as well.4

1This is the third of six psalms that begin with “Blessed.” Two earlier posts are available on Psalm 1 and Psalm 32.

2Paul ascribes this phrase to Jesus in Acts 20:35, though we do not have that quote recorded in any of the Gospels. Of course Jesus said far more than what was recorded. I don’t doubt that. 
But do you know how some phrases sound like they should be in the Bible, and then you are surprised to find that they aren’t (e.g., cleanliness is next to godliness)? Well, in my mind, this is one that I wouldn’t guess would be in the Bible, but it is. 

3Here is a listing from the NAS Hebrew Dictionary on how this Hebrew word is translated in its various uses. You will see that I have used a few of these renditions in giving the sense of our particular usage in Psalm 41: act wisely(1), acts wisely(3), behaved wisely(1), comprehend(1), consider(1), considers(2), discern(1), expert(m)(1), failed*(1), gain insight(2), give heed(1), give insight(1), gives attention(1), giving attention(1), had regard for(1), have insight(4), have success(m)(2), instruct(2), instructed(1), intelligence(1), prosper(1), prospered(3), prospering(2), prospers(1), prudent(2), show discernment(1), showed insight(1), showing intelligence(1), succeed(1), teaches(1), understand(4), understanding(2), understands(2), understood(1), wisdom(1), wise(7), wise behavior(1).

4Luke 7:36-50

The Son we don't Deserve (Isaiah 9:6)

Isaiah 9:6 tells us about Jesus: "a child will be born; a son will be given." But these phrases are not merely parallel. Yes, Jesus would be born as a child is born - one among a million. He shared in our flesh and blood. He walked in our shoes, so that he could die in our place. He fully identified with us so that he could bear our sins.
But Jesus as "son" is not just like us. Throughout world history, sons have disappointed, starting with Adam, "the son of God" (Luke 3:38), and then Adam's son, Cain. The reason that our sons disappoint is because they find that they are like their fathers. 

But Jesus, like the king on the throne, is a son in a different sense. This is the one who is appointed by God to stand in special relationship with Himself, and to represent God to the people. Psalm 2:6,7 reads,  “But as for Me, I have installed My King Upon Zion, My holy mountain.”  “I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to Me, ‘You are My Son, Today I have begotten You." Historically, this refers to David, the king. But theologically, it looks ahead to Jesus. 

And it is at this point that we realize that Jesus is the "son given" who is not just like us. He is the Son that we do not deserve, but the Son that we need.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Songs (psalms) for a Good Life (Psalm 32)

This second psalm of blessing (psalms that direct the godly person into a rich relationship with God; see article on Psalm 1 here) speaks directly and honestly about the need for a clear(ed) relationship with God. It speaks of the maintenance of the spiritual life that depends completely on the gracious forgiveness that only God can and will supply, and yet it calls for a thorough and honest participation on the part of the  sinner.

Let’s do a little theology before proceeding. There is a proper tension that exists between imputed righteousness, and practical righteousness; between that forensic (legal) standing that we have in Christ through justification by faith because he stood in our shoes and died in our place, and that functional walk with Christ that is the pleasant fruit of the Gospel root, that salvation, again, has not been achieved by me, but graciously provided through the sacrifice of Christ. That which is imputed and forensic is the foundation upon which the practical and functional ‘working-out’6 of faith operates. We must never confuse the two. The danger in this psalm is to get confused about forgiveness, failing to distinguish between that which is foundational and functional. Because of the death of Christ, all my sins, past, present, and future, are forgiven. The forgiveness of my sins, in this foundational sense, does not depend upon my confession of sin. Not one of us is even aware of all our sins - so how could we confess them all? I believe what this psalm is dealing with is the functional maintenance of a clear(ed) relationship with God, that is based on the foundation of the acceptance and forgiveness that has already been won by the grace of God in Christ. This psalm is talking about the kind of practical responsiveness to and continuance in God’s grace described in 1 John 1:9 - “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”

The center and key, I think, to the psalm is v.6: “Therefore, let everyone who is godly pray to You in a time when You may be found.” A clear(ed) relationship with God assumes the practice of prayer, as does the idea of godliness. Let’s be honest: If prayer is not a prominent feature of our lives, then we must face the ugly truth that there is no clear(ed) relationship with God, and that I am simply not, then, a godly person. Christians pray. A feature of their prayers is thorough and honest confession of sin. 

The problem of sin is devastating in the life of the believer. It is sand in the piston chamber of our souls that will do damage, and more damage, and then still more, as we continue to strive, or pretend, that everything is okay. It can affect our health, and will definitely affect our mood and outlook. Because of this, it directly affects our witness, and how we relate to others, whether it be family members, or the general public. It is a huge energy drain (v.4), since we lose the comfort and power of the Spirit, and so much of our energy is consumed inward with our own brooding selves rather than being turned outward, loving others. Sin makes us selfish and brutish, living properly only by fear or constraint (v.9). Perhaps the indication at the end of the psalm (v.11), corresponding to the initial statement of blessing and forgiveness at the beginning of the psalm (v.1), is an appropriate summary. A clear(ed) relationship with God results in joy, and thus, failure to live in a clear(ed) relationship with God will certainly rob us of our joy.

Isn’t it amazing how dirty our cars get? Maybe it’s not so amazing, since that car travels along roads at high rates of speed with mud and dust mixing with the road grime from dirty petroleum products. We track in and out directly to the car’s carpet from parking lots covered with sand and salt. Let alone what we spill from our drinks and snacks. How could it not be dirty? And so, car cleanness takes regular maintenance. Or, we just give in and drive around a dirty, trashy car, and hope that we aren’t put in the position of giving a stranger a ride.

And similarly, how can our souls not get dirty, living in this iniquitous world. As we travel through, it sticks to us, and we track it, and we contribute to it. And without regular confessing, and receiving the cleaning that comes from functional forgiveness, the Person with whom we most need fellowship is indeed a stranger to us, and we spend more time trying to cover over our sins rather than practicing the truth that the only way one can truly have his/her sins covered is through the forgiveness that God alone graciously offers.

Let’s abandon travelling with dirty souls and all its consequences. Let’s enjoy the blessedness of a clear(ed) relationship with God.7

1notice that there are two “blessed”s in this psalm. The godly person seeking to live a good, God-oriented life is doubly blessed as he participates in a clear(ed) relationship with God.

2blue marks words for sin - 4 different Hebrew words

3red marks words for God’s forgiving actions

4the two larger lines show that, on the front side of center, the “I’s and my’s” refer to the sinner; on the back side of center, they refer to God.

5green marks words of confession, including the action of refusing to hide

6“So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling;” (Philippians 2:12 NAS95)

7Psalm 32 is the first of 7 penitential psalms in the Books of Psalms. They are Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143