Tag Archives: Psalms

Psalm 20 – A Sermon

This week we celebrate ANZAC day, remembering the Australian servicemen and service-women who have fought and served in other conflicts. Two years ago it was the centenary of the Gallipoli landing, and the year before that, the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the decisive victory against a devastating and ruthless enemy. What might have happened if that victory had not occurred? One Australian survivor of D-Day was Bob Cowper from Adelaide. Cowper had been a Mosquito pilot, helping keep the skies clear above the massive landing fleet. “It was the greatest military operation in the world’s history,” he said. “To think that we fought the battle that made the world a safer place was very satisfying” (“Our Australian Witnesses to the D-Day Horror” Weekend Australian, May 31, 2014, 20). Many others, of course, were not so fortunate and the article tells some of the stories of those who did not return from the battle.

In some indefinable way, our soldiers who have gone before us represent us, whether for good or for evil. We remember this representation at ANZAC day. In some very real way, we are tied up with them, all in it together. And it remains a very real question: if they did not do what they did, could we, would we be who we are?

For Israel, too, battles were a fact and necessity of life. Psalm 20 has its genesis in the reality of battles and enemies. This brief psalm is a wonderfully positive benediction which masks, perhaps, the dire circumstances presupposed. An enemy, equipped with chariots and horses—the best military equipment of the day—has drawn near. The king and his soldiers are prepared for battle. Sacrifices have been offered, and now the people add their benediction (vv.1-5). The king responds with assurance in verse 6. Then the people declare their trust in God in vv. 7-8, and conclude with an urgent cry for victory in verse 9.

Reading the Psalm (vv. 1-5)

The Lord answer you in the day of trouble!
The name of the God of Jacob protect you!
May he send you help from the sanctuary, and give you support from Zion.
May he remember all your offerings, and regard with favour your burnt sacrifices. Selah
May he grant you your heart’s desire, and fulfil all your plans.
May we shout for joy over your victory, 
and in the name of our God set up our banners. 
May the Lord fulfil all your petitions.

Eleven times the word You or Your appears in the singular: these first five verses constitute a wonderful benediction of the people toward the king. They are pronouncing a blessing of divine victory upon the king before he goes to battle. And why? Because his victory is their victory; his defeat, theirs. He represents the whole nation and their destiny is intertwined: they are all in this together. Their nine blessings (or is it eleven?) all point to a comprehensive victory against their enemy.

Note these nine blessings, and also see the chiastic pattern formed by them.

1a / 5c … The Lord answer you / fulfil all your petitions
1b / 5ab … The Name of the Lord protect you / The Name of the Lord
2 / 4 … May he send you help and support you / May he grant you your heart’s desire and fulfil all your plans
3 … May he remember all your offerings and regard with favour your burnt sacrifices.

The central strophe of the pattern highlights that which is central: that at the heart of this blessing is a recognition of covenant faithfulness toward God represented by a life of worship and devotion. “May he remember all your offerings.”

David comes to the present crisis with a long history of love and devotion to God. What we do day by day in times of peace prepares us for times of war. When our devotional life is a habit we are well served for battle (Williams, Psalms 1-72 Communicator’s Commentary, 160).

What does it mean to be “battle-ready?” Are you dressed for battle in the armour of God? Do you have a history of devotion with God, a history of faith and prayer, worship and love? Worship and warfare seem like the most unlikely companions, but in God’s kingdom, in spiritual warfare, they go together.

The commentators suggest that the verbs in this passage are in an unusual tense they call the prophetic perfect. That is, the words pronounce a blessing which is still in the future, still yet to happen, but so sure and certain, they speak of it as though it is already accomplished. Then in verse 9 they will cry out to God in an explicit prayer for victory, “Save, O Lord! Give victory!” But this does not contradict the faith-filled benediction of these opening verses. Faith works both ways.

Mark 11:22-25                                                         
Jesus answered them, ‘Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea”, and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

‘Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.’

In this text Jesus teaches two complementary operations of faith: faith by saying it, and faith by praying it. The first is an exercise of spiritual authority, a faith-filled or prophetic pronouncement. The second is simply a classic form of prayer. Sometimes faith is exercised by an authoritative declaration or command, sometimes by petition to God.

In this psalm the congregation exercise faith in both ways. I wonder how much boldness it would have taken to declare victory in the face of such a fearsome enemy, equipped with horses and chariots? This is all the more so when we remember that Israel’s king was forbidden to multiply horses and chariots (Deut 17:16). But they do declare this blessing and in so doing, look forward to God’s blessing, God’s help and salvation.

Psalm 20:6-9
Now I know that the Lord will help his anointed;
    he will answer him from his holy heaven
    with mighty victories by his right hand.
Some boast in chariots, and some in horses,
    but we will boast in the name of the Lord our God.
They will collapse and fall,
    but we shall rise and stand upright.

Give victory O Lord;
    May the King answer us in the day we call. (NASB)

Note: many versions translate verse 9: “O Lord, save the king!
May he answer us when we call” (see, e.g., ESV; NIV; NRSV)

Verse six is the king’s response to this blessing, his agreement with this blessing. Verses seven and eight return to the corporate voice, affirming their trust in God. Notice, again, the third mention of the Name of the Lord. To boast in the name of the Lord is to make mention of his name, to remember, invoke or proclaim his name.

The Name of the Lord represents his own person and presence, character and authority. To have faith in his name is to recognise our relationship with God—at his initiative—including his claim on us. Jesus authorises us to pray in his name (John 16:23-24). Proverbs 18:10 says that “the name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous runs into it and is safe.” David went out against Goliath in the name of the Lord (1 Samuel 17:45).

Is it true that God will give us whatever our heart desires, whatever we ask for “in his name”? To ask in his name is to ask in accordance with his person and character. The promise that God would grant David’s heart’s desire was made to someone whose heart was aligned with God’s in sacrifice, devotion and worship. He had a heart after God’s own.

The psalm ends with an explicit petition for victory in verse nine. Notice the interplay between the king and the King: behind the earthly ruler stands the heavenly ruler of Israel. Notice, too, that the day of trouble (v. 1) is the day we call (v. 9).

Many commentators believe this psalm represented a liturgy that was practiced regularly in the temple worship. In this liturgy, the reality of the joint destiny of the people of God was enacted.

Battle Ready

Our situation, of course, is vastly different to that of ancient Israel, and it is not likely that we will face the same kind of battle conditions they did. Nonetheless, the psalm still speaks to the reality of our lives: life is a battle. For some people it is more of a battle than for others. All of us, though, are likely to be drawn into various kinds of battles where our life or our sanity, our work or our witness, our future or our family is threatened by powers and circumstances external to us, perhaps stronger than us. Christian life and ministry is a battle, a never-ending engagement with principalities and powers and rulers of the darkness of this world (Ephesians 6:10-12). Maintaining a faithful marriage or sexual purity may prove a great battle for some. Raising our children, paying our bills, maintaining a gentle spirit in the face of provocation—these and much more can be a great battle. What are you battling? You’ve heard of Howard’s battlers; Christians can be battlers too.  How, then, does this psalm help us become “battle ready”?

  1. This psalm will remind us that we are in a spiritual battle and thus need to grow in our understanding of the various weapons of our warfare (2 Corinthians 10:3-5), the ways of faith and spiritual authority (1 Peter 5:8-9). We should develop our faith in the name of Jesus until it truly becomes for us “a high tower” of safety and refuge in times of trouble.
  2. Worship and warfare belong together. We have already mentioned the necessity and centrality of worship and devotion. If we want the Lord to answer us in the day of trouble, we must call upon his name. It is much easier to do so when we are already on speaking terms, in good relationship.
  3. We are all in this together, and we will stand or fall together. This is especially true of families and of churches. The people depended on the king and the armies; the king and the army depended on the people. We need each other because we are inter-dependent. We need each other’s faithfulness, steadfastness, devotion, faith, prayer and blessing. That this psalm was preserved, that it became part of the temple worship collection suggests that the corporate gathering, prayer and faith of the people was absolutely crucial.
  4. Behind the king is the King. God is with us – “at the heart of Hebrew theology lay the conviction that God was involved in their historical experience” (Craigie, Psalms 1-50 WBC, 188). Jesus is our king, and he has gone into battle on our behalf, and has won the decisive victory. We still face fierce battles, mopping-up battles, but he is with us; and as we go forth in his name, victory is assured – Hallelujah!

Scripture on Sunday – Psalm 77:10-12

hot-coffee & beansToday I am preaching on Psalm 77 at Harmony Baptist Church in Perth. It is a wonderful psalm, a personal lament that turns into a song of praise and trust. The key verse that makes the transition is difficult to identify. Verse 10 in the NASB reads:

Then I said, “It is my grief,
That the right hand of the Most High has changed.”

In the NIV the same verse reads:

Then I thought, ‘To this I will appeal:
    the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.’

Evidently the underlying Hebrew is somewhat obscure, leading translators to different conclusions. Either verse 10 is the climax of the lament of the first half of the psalm, or it is the transition to the more hopeful outlook of the second half. We get an indication of how this transition takes place in verses 11-12:

I shall remember the deeds of the Lord;
Surely I will remember Your wonders of old.
I will meditate on all Your work
And muse on Your deeds.

The psalmist meditates on the works of God, as made known in Scripture, and specifically, God’s saving work of redemption at the Red Sea (Exodus 14; cf Psalm 77:16-20). And as the psalmist turns their attention to God, as they meditate in the Scriptures, hope begins to break forth in the midst of their despair. They, too, are the children of Jacob, God’s flock, and so the object of his care and saving mercies.

To meditate is to consider, to ponder, to imagine, to allow one’s mind to turn the Scripture over and over. One analogy I use to describe meditation is the old process of percolating coffee which no one uses anymore. The hot water runs through the beans and as it does, the water is transformed, taking the colour, the scent and aroma, the flavour of the coffee beans. It is no longer water, but coffee. So, too, as we meditate in the Scripture, the fragrance and texture, life and power that is in the Word somehow begins to seep into our lives, working its transformational magic, changing us as the ‘Word takes flesh’, becomes embodied, in our lives.

Scripture on Sunday – Psalm 17

Apple Of My EyeRead Psalm 17

I am not at all sure I can do justice to this psalm. When I first began reading it, I found it odd in several respects. There are two difficult issues with it. First, the opening verses are a cry to the Lord for help, a cry the psalmist justifies by appealing to his own innocence (vv. 1-5). I only wish that I could say with the psalmist, “You have tested me and you find nothing.” Perhaps the best way to understand this claim is to situate it in the very present context of accusation that the psalmist is facing: “With respect to these charges, you know, Lord, that I am innocent!” (Craigie, 162). Yet even the ancient Hebrews had difficulty with these verses, with the Midrash on Psalms constructing a dialogue from these verses in which God demonstrates to David that he cannot pass God’s test, and like everyone else requires God’s pardon and forgiveness (see Charry, 78).

The second odd feature of the psalm, at least as it is presented in the NASB, occurs in vv. 13-14, where the psalmist prays that God would deliver him from the wicked—the very wicked whom it seems God has blessed and favoured! They and their children are filled with treasure and satisfied. He is in effect, asking God to reverse his policy with respect to the wicked.

The psalm begins, as mentioned, as a cry that God would hear, give heed, and give ear to his prayer. He claims a just cause and so the prayer is a plea for justice from one who claims innocence (vv. 1-5). It is also a request for protection, including the beautiful words of verse 8: “keep me as the apple of the eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings” (vv. 6-9; cf. Deuteronomy 32:10-11). The ‘apple’ of the eye is the pupil, with the psalmist requesting that God protect him as he would the most delicate or vulnerable part of the body.

In this section of the psalm we are introduced to the ‘wicked who despoil me, my deadly enemies who surround me’ (v. 9), who are then described as unfeeling and proud, as a lion eager to tear its prey to pieces (vv. 10-12). And so we come to the prayer for deliverance, and it is here that the psalm gets tricky. NASB translates verses 13-14:

Arise, O Lord, confront him, bring him low; Deliver my soul from the wicked with Your sword, From men with Your hand, O Lord, From men of the world, whose portion is in this life, And whose belly You fill with Your treasure; They are satisfied with children, And leave their abundance to their babes.

Craigie, who admits that verse 14 is ‘exceptionally difficult to translate’ (161), translates:

Arise, O Lord! Confront him to his face. Make him bow! Deliver my soul from wickedness by your sword. Kill them by your hand, O Lord! Kill them from the world, their portion from among the living. But your treasured ones—you will fill their belly, sons will be sated, and they will bequeath their surplus to their children.

Craigie acknowledges that his translation makes the prayer especially violent, but argues that the language should not be understood literally, but as part of the military metaphor rather than a precise expression of the psalmist’s desire (164). It sets the fate of the wicked and the faithful in stark contrast, in a way reminiscent of the two ways (see Psalm 1), and perhaps also funds a kind of prosperity message.

Both translations, then, are problematic. It may be that the best resolution is found in verse 15: “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; I will be satisfied with your likeness when I awake.” This verse may, of course, reflect the assurance of the psalmist that God will indeed answer his prayer so that his anxious concern of the night (v.3) might give way to vindication in the day. Or it may be read as a point of contrast with verse 14, and in light of the hope of the resurrection. The “men of this world” (cf. 10:18) have their portion only in this life, whereas the psalmist finds his portion in God alone. He shall behold the face of God, and be found like him when he ‘awakes.’

The life of the children of God transcends the bounds of this life. Its primary concern is not its own fullness in this world, but the hope of seeing God and being transformed into his likeness. This religious and moral emphasis in life may not result in earthly prosperity, but the psalmist, however, suggests he will be satisfied. To see the face of God, and to be conformed to his image, is more than enough.

A Sermon on Sunday

IWOK_widescreenToday I am speaking at Lesmurdie Baptist Church—my old stomping ground… The church and congregation hold a special place in my life; I was pastor of the church for five years, and an ordinary member for another two years, and in that time grew to love the people and the pastoral team with whom I worked. It is always a privilege and a joy to return. My topic for today is: “If We Only Knew: From Academia to Application.” My brief is to bring something from the world of academia which might otherwise take years to filter down into congregational awareness and life. I love the fact that senior minister, Karen Siggins, wants her congregation to be informed concerning important developments and trends in contemporary theology: may her tribe increase! She and the pastoral team have devoted the whole month to this series.

I have chosen as my theme a topic completely out of my comfort zone: the relation between science and theology, and exploring the particular issue presently experiencing vigorous debate in Evangelical theology—the historicity or otherwise of Adam. Here is the outline…

*****

My own awareness of these issues has been stimulated by a BBC production The Incredible Human Journey and by the work of the Human Genome project. I recognised almost immediately that both these scientific projects would issue a great challenge to Evangelical Christianity. I was right. In the next few years a debate arose in evangelicalism around the historicity of Adam and Eve: did Adam and Eve really exist? Two books from evangelical biblical scholars spotlight the issue: C. J. Collins’ Did Adam and Eve Really Exist and Peter Enns’ The Evolution of Adam. As you can guess, the two books took opposing positions with respect to this question.

Of course, serious theological questions arise around this issue: not least the issues raised by common interpretation of Romans 5:12-21.

Lost WorldHuman Origins: How did we come to be here?
In the modern era many answer that question with the word evolution. Some Christians accept evolution as fact. Others reject it out of hand, and insist on a literal six-day creation by divine fiat. Still others adopt a position of theistic evolution. Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, is not comfortable with the term theistic evolution and prefers simply to speak of evolution by itself. Yet, as a committed Christian, Collins believes that God being almighty and all-knowing pre-loaded the evolutionary process so that it would result in his intended purpose.

Science and Faith: Must the relation be conflictual?
This issue raises the perennial question of the relation between science and faith. On the one hand, in the modern west science has achieved a kind of cultural status as the arbiter and final authority of truth and wisdom. That which is not ‘scientific’ is intellectually and possibly, morally, suspect. Yet Christians—and not only Christians—claim that there are other sources of truth and wisdom, the Bible in particular. How, then, are Christians to respond when it seems that science and faith come into conflict?

The response of liberal theology to that question was simply to re-interpret or even jettison those parts of the Bible which conflicted with scientific discoveries; they gave science the priority. Other Christians adopted a defensive posture, ignoring or attacking the science, or else developing their own supposedly ‘scientific’ programmes to insist that the Bible teaches precise and actual scientific knowledge, with the result that ‘true science’ agrees with the Bible. If it does not agree with the Bible it is not ‘true’ science.

A major part of the issue, however, concerns the question of biblical interpretation. Sometimes Christians fail to recognise that what we think is the teaching of the Bible is in fact our interpretation of the Bible, and the reality that the Bible can be and is interpreted in different ways by believers who are equally committed to a high-view of Scripture. And so the question comes to us: Can we be open to new ways of interpreting familiar
passages? And can we look for ways of interpretation that maximise the possibility of finding common ground between science and faith without compromising what we consider to be essential theological convictions? Note, here, Augustine’s wisdom:

In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it (cited in Collins, “The Language of God,” in Metaxas, Socrates in the City, 317).

Two Interpretive Moves
I want to suggest two interpretative moves that will assist us as we think about this particular issue. First, Millard Erickson’s view of progressive creationism. Erickson argues that God uses both the processive mechanism of micro-evolution—evolution within a particular species, and de novo creative events. There may well have been ‘pre-human’ creatures prior to the creation of Adam and Eve, but Adam and Eve were a fresh creative work of God (Erickson, Christian Theology 3rd ed., 446).

I note also, that Francis Collins, despite his insistence that God pre-loaded the evolutionary mechanism, also speaks of God ‘gifting’ humanity with ‘the knowledge of good and evil (that’s the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul. And Homo sapiens became Homo divinus’ (Collins, in Metaxas, 315). This sounds very much like a direct intervention to me.

The second interpretative move involves ‘re-thinking’ of Genesis 1:31: must God’s ‘very Time Cover God vs Sciencegood’ be understood in terms of some kind of metaphysical perfection, or might it be understood in terms of the value God the Creator places upon his work? English theologian Colin Gunton suggested that, “Rather like a work of art, creation is a project, something God wills for its own sake and not because he has need of it” (Colin E. Gunton, “The Doctrine of Creation,” in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, 142). Such an interpretation suggests that God’s work of creation was not the end of his purpose, but the beginning of a project playing out across history and moving toward a divine purpose and climax. In this view, the immanent God accompanies his creation, at times doing new things, providentially guiding the creation toward his appointed goals.

These two interpretive moves may help us find a place of common ground between contemporary science and biblical faith. The fact that we share 96%+ of our DNA with chimpanzees, the fossil record of pre-modern humanoids creatures, the idea that the complexity of the human genome requires a beginning population of not two but many thousands—all these and more may be addressed within this interpretive framework. Nor does this require the story of Adam & Eve to be a fictional story. Christians may still argue that God ‘instilled’ this distinctively human nature and spirit into an original couple so they were not simply pre-modern humanoids but ‘new creatures.’

But what about death? Does not this interpretation undermine the biblical teaching that sin entered the world through one man and death through sin? Not necessarily. It may be permissible to interpret death strictly as spiritual death, both in Genesis 2:17 and Romans 5:12. Adam & Eve died when they ate the fruit—but not physically. Prior to this special creation physical death was in the world but not spiritual death for God had not created the earlier creatures as spiritual beings in the same way as modern humans have been created.

Further benefits of ‘re-thinking’ our interpretation of Scripture include a greater awareness of our natural solidarity with other creatures, especially the animal kingdom, and so of our responsibility for their care. If God’s creation is God’s project, and God has created us in the divine image, it speaks to God’s intent that we participate in this project, that we ‘play’ and ‘paint’ with him, as it were, actively taking our place and playing our part in building the kind of world that God always intended, aiming always at the festivity and shalom of the Sabbath rest which is the climax of the first creation narrative.

Scripture on Sunday – Psalm 16 (Part 2)

The Path of LifeLast week we studied the first six verses of this psalm and found a single-minded, whole-hearted declaration of allegiance to the Lord. The psalmist looks to God himself as his inheritance, rather than to God’s blessings and gifts. And yet, the Lord does give blessings as well as his own presence; the second part of the psalm enumerates these many blessings that the faithful might experience. For the psalmist, these blessings include counsel and guidance, defence, security, and deliverance. Nevertheless, to have the Lord is to have all there is, every blessing and more besides.

David blesses the Lord “who has counselled me.” If we recall that this psalm was probably composed in the midst of desperate circumstances, we might assume that this divine counsel specifically addressed David’s present need. That may be the case. But it is also true that God’s general counsel provides the foundation for his wisdom in specific circumstances. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10), and unless one is instructed first in this initial wisdom which learns to view the world from a theocentric centre, it may be that they cannot discern the specific direction required in particular circumstances. David’s allegiance to Yahweh, and his whole-hearted trust in him, provides the framework within which he receives the divine counsel.

It is also of interest to note the manner in which this counsel came: “Indeed, my mind instructs me in the night” (NASB). The counsel did not arrive in some spectacular manner such as via an angel or a vision, but by means of his own thought processes as David prayerfully pondered his circumstances. God can and sometimes may use more spectacular means to convey his wisdom and will, but it is good for us to be reminded that more often, it seems that God uses very ordinary channels to accomplish his purposes. Of course there remains the twin requirements of learning to distinguish the divine counsel from the counsel of our own hearts, and of learning to test and confirm this guidance by means of the other gifts of grace God has given us in Scripture and the community of his people.

The final verses of the psalm are a celebration of confidence in God, again, in the midst of the most desperate circumstances. Craigie (153) titled his exposition on this psalm, “Confidence in the Face of Death.” Convinced that Yahweh is his only good, and thus his only hope, the psalmist sets the Lord continually before him, giving his attention to the Lord, placing his hope and confidence in him. More comforting still is the thought that the Lord himself is at his own right hand: even in dire straits he will not be shaken (cf. 15:5). Therefore, the psalmist rests in God, his whole being rejoicing in God’s presence, power and promise—heart, soul and even flesh.

Craigie reads these final verses as applying directly to the psalmists own immediate circumstances:

With respect to the initial meaning of the psalm, it is probable that this concluding section should not be interpreted either messianically or in terms of individual eschatology; … The acute concern of the psalmist was an immediate crisis and an immediate deliverance. His body had been endangered and his life threatened with untimely termination in Sheol. … The psalmist acknowledges that God makes him know, or experience, the “path of life,” not the afterlife, but the fullness of life here and now which is enriched by the rejoicing which emerges from an awareness of the divine presence (Craigie, Psalms 1-50, 158).

In this interpretation, verse ten is simply the psalmist’s assurance that his present circumstances will not result in his death, while the eleventh verse portrays the ongoing life that God gives as one of joy and satisfaction. This joy is grounded both in who God is and what God gives: the joys of his face (“presence”) and the joys of his right hand (“in your right hand”; see Kidner, 86).

Craigie’s conclusion helps make sense of the psalm in its original context, with the added benefit of instructing our hearts in the ways of faith, especially when ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ loom large. The path of life issues from a steadfast allegiance to God in faith, a recognition that only in him is our good to be found; seeking our good and deliverance elsewhere is to embark on a different path where hope is vain and sorrows multiply.

Nevertheless, from the earliest days of the Christian church this psalm has been read messianically. In his great Pentecost sermon, the apostle Peter argues that David indeed died and was buried. But David spoke as a prophet of the resurrection, for it was Christ who was neither abandoned to hell and whose flesh did not suffer decay in the grave (Acts 2:25-31). And so from the earliest days of the Christian church this psalm has also been read in terms of individual eschatology: the “path of life” transcends the bounds of this world and its hopes, extending beyond the grave to the life to come, evermore in the presence of God and the fullness of joy.

The Christian reception of Ps. 16 illustrates a reading strategy that quite transforms the original pedagogy. The general counsel for a morally flourishing and satisfying life with God morphs into a uniquely Christian vision of adhering to the risen Lord … Christianity is born by wrestling with ancient texts in light of startling events that require textual grounding in order to be theologically warranted. The Christian reading of David’s psalm is a fresh instruction for people in a quite different context than the one the psalmist originally attributed to David. But the underlying hope is the same (Charry, Psalms 1-50, 76).

Scripture on Sunday – Psalm 16

The Path of LifeWe do not know the origin of this psalm, or the circumstances in which it was written. The superscription refers to it as “A Mikhtam of David.” Just what a Mikhtam is, no one really knows, and numerous suggestions have been made. Five other psalms of David are also named Mikhtam (Psalms 56-60), and four of these include a historical note of desperate circumstances faced by David. Perhaps, then, a Mikhtam is a type of Psalm that instructs “one how to think and behave theologically when in extremis” (Charry, Psalms 1-50, 73). If so, then this psalm is a beautiful picture of trust and confidence in God, in a time when the singer was under extreme pressure.

The psalm opens with an appeal for protection: “Preserve me O God, for I take refuge in you.” The image of taking refuge in God is prominent in the early psalms, with its first appearance in 2:12 setting the tone: “How blessed are all who take refuge in him!” (cf. 5:11; 7:1; 11:1; 14:6). This psalm enumerates the rich blessings that await the ‘refugee’ who seeks their shelter in God (Kidner, Psalms 1-72, 86).

What it means to seek refuge in God is shown in the following verses. Verses 2-4 are a firm declaration of allegiance towards God, and a refusal to seek help and refuge elsewhere. Verses 5-6 are a joyful acknowledgement of God’s enduring blessing. Thus, to take refuge in God is to turn to him, acknowledging and submitting to his lordship, and to seek and find in him alone our sole good and sole source of good. That is, it is to turn away from every other promise or source of good, blessing, life, joy or satisfaction (Stott).

Every commentator acknowledges difficulties in the translation and interpretation of verses 2-4a. Craigie suggests that the psalmist is not the speaker in these verses but is presenting a dialogue with a syncretist (“You said to the Lord”)—someone confessing Yahweh and also trusting in idols (‘holy ones’ and ‘the noble’ or ‘mighty ones’; Craigie, Psalms 1-50, 154-155).  While Craigie bases his argument on the grammar of the Hebrew, it is more straight-forward and easier to make sense of the passage if we accept the traditional interpretation which reads verse two as “I said to the Lord…”

Thus, the psalmist acknowledges the lordship of Yahweh: “You are my master,” and recognises that his sole good is found in God. This affirmation is expanded in verses 5-6 where the psalmist confesses that God himself is his inheritance. That is, the Lord does not give something else as his inheritance, something other than his presence and being, but gives himself. The psalmist finds that he is satisfied with God himself and not simply with the gifts, blessings and protection that God gives. “The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places; Indeed, my heritage is beautiful to me.” God himself is his portion and cup. God himself is his hope and inheritance.

This single-minded allegiance to God has a corollary: the repudiation of all other gods as the source of good, protection and life. Thus the psalmist vows that he will not participate in idol worship, nor even speak the names of these so-called gods. Nor will he associate with those who follow other gods: his associates will be the ‘saints,’ the ‘holy ones’ and ‘the noble’ of the land. He delights in the fellowship of the faithful. Verse 4a gives the reason: “those who choose [or run after] another god multiply their sorrows.” Again, although the underlying Hebrew text is difficult, the meaning of the traditional translation is quite clear: the path of sorrow awaits those who turn from the Lord to trust in and serve other gods. Kidner (84), noting that the language echoes that of Genesis 3:16, notes that “there could hardly be a more ominous allusion to what follows from apostasy.” Just as the fall of Adam and Eve resulted in great suffering and loss for them and their children, so those who forsake their allegiance to God ultimately will know only sorrows.

The first six verses of this psalm, then, are an affirmation and declaration of steadfast allegiance to Yahweh, and an acknowledgement that only in him will the psalmist find his true and only good. That Mikhtam suggests that these words were spoken in a time of stress and distress only heightens the degree sense of trust being shown by the psalmist. It is easy to trust when the sun is shining; far more difficult when life is a struggle, and exceedingly hard in desperate times when we are tempted to look for any refuge that promises deliverance.

For myself, the psalm speaks not only to external pressures, but also to internal. To what do I turn when feeling stressed or distressed? What do I see as my ‘good’? To what do I look to satisfy an aching heart, a lonely soul, a distressed mind, or a stressed life? Where do I look for my source of joy, relief, satisfaction and hope? Can I truly say to the Lord, “You are my sole good—my soul good—I have no good besides you”? Idols are made not only of wood and stone; our psychological idols can also drive the sins and addictions that assault our lives. This psalm reminds us that all our hope, joy, satisfaction and life is found only in God, and that we err when look for them elsewhere.

To be continued next week

Scripture on Sunday – Psalm 15

Light through CloudsRead Psalm 15

I am writing these words in the guest room of our Melbourne friends who, over the years, have time and again shown us great kindness and hospitality, welcoming us into their home, and taking an interest in our lives, work, and family. What a privilege to be a guest in someone’s home, to find a place of welcome and acceptance, kindness, warmth and blessing. Thank you Gordon and Maggie!

And so it is with Psalm 15: “O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” I might re-phrase it differently: “God, who can be a guest in your home? Who will you invite to live with you in your tent?”

It is important to begin, perhaps, with an acknowledgement that this psalm does not sit easily with Protestant convictions concerning grace, justification and acceptance with God. Must one work in order to find acceptance with God and entry into God’s house? Or is one freely welcomed on account of grace with no entry requirements whatsoever? It is equally important to recognise that this way of setting up the question, this either-or dichotomy, misrepresents not only Scripture, but Protestantism as well. As this psalm so clearly testifies, it has ever been the case that the call to be welcomed as God’s people includes within that call a responsibility, a concurrent call to holiness in the presence of the holy God. “Be holy, as I am holy!” (Leviticus 19:2; cf. 1 Peter 1:15-16).

Some modern commentators view Psalm 15 as an ‘entry liturgy’ in the worship of ancient Israel. As the pilgrims and worshippers assembled at the Jerusalem temple for one of the great annual festivals, the priests instruct them concerning the requirements which dictate entry into God’s presence (see also Psalm 24:3-6 and Isaiah 33:14-17). While it may well be that such liturgies occurred in ancient Israel, it is likely that the psalm should be understood in a more general sense than ‘entry’ requirements. It speaks of those who would not simply seek entry to God’s house, but who would abide and dwell in his presence. Thus it is concerned with the kind of life appropriate for those who would identify as God’s people, of those who would be guests in his house—and more than guests—children!

If verse one poses the essential question, the rest of the psalm supplies the answer. Craigie, notes that the psalm provides ten exhortations as the answer to the opening question, and that this structure indicates the function of the psalm:

This tenfold structure of conditions is analogous to the Decalogue in principle and with respect to the sense of wholeness, though there are no precise inner correspondences between the conditions and the Commandments. Rather, the tenfold structure suggests once again the didactic context of the wisdom school; young persons were being instructed to tick off, as it were, on their ten fingers the moral conditions prerequisite to participation in worship. Thus the conditions for admission to worship are apparently presented here in the curriculum of moral instruction and symbolically represent morality in its entirety, rather than covering every facet of the moral life in detail (Craigie, Psalms 1-50, 150-151).

Despite the evident attractions of Craigie’s view (and its equally evident applicability to pastoral work and parenting), I prefer to think of the second verse as the answer to the question, with vv. 3-5b providing illustrations and amplifications of the answer given in verse two. The second verse lists three overarching criteria for those who would ‘dwell’ in God’s presence: they are those who walk with integrity, who work righteousness, and who speak truth in their own hearts. I find in this characterisation a certain correspondence with Micah 6:8:

With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? …
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

To ‘walk with integrity’ suggests congruence between one’s private and public self: ‘what you see is what you get.’ The word itself (tāmîm) refers to wholeness or completeness, to be ‘perfect’ in the sense of blameless; thus it speaks of wholehearted devotion and consecration to the Lord (Vangemeren (ed.), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, vol. 4, 307). To ‘work righteousness’ speaks of active goodness, especially in relationship toward others, and so corresponds to Micah’s “to do justice and to love kindness.” To ‘speak truth in [one’s] heart’ rules out the kind of self-deception whereby we are wont to rationalise bad behaviour and impure motives (Charry, Psalms 1-50, 71). It refers to an inner honesty with oneself and before God, an acknowledgement of the truth about ourselves, including our own brokenness and sin. Such confession orients us humbly toward God, and prepares us for genuine worship.

Verses 3-5b then unpack these positive characteristics with reference especially to the way in which we speak, relate with others, and use our money. This in itself is significant: true righteousness has more to do with character and relationships than it does with ‘religious’ acts and activities. God is concerned with relational and social holiness and not simply with personal morality, although that, too, is important. The righteousness which is to characterise the people of God consists in truthful speech, generous use of our resources, and care of our neighbour.

It is of interest that the psalm uses both positive and negative descriptions to describe the character of the righteous, since righteousness consists not only in active goodness but also in the absence of evil (Craigie, 151). The righteousness person does not slander, does not take bribes, etc. What is proscribed protects the neighbour and acts as a brake or restraint on our own tendencies. It may be that the positive descriptors set forth the path of righteousness that we are to walk, while the proscriptions act as fences to keep us from wandering from the path.

Inner dispositions, self-regulation, and habitual practices come together for the formation of virtue. This is a life that pleases God and is fitted for worship. But who could possibly meet these exacting standards? Here, once more, Craigie’s pastoral wisdom is evident:

In the history of Christian and Jewish worship, there have emerged two extremes toward which the worshipper may be tempted to move. On the one hand, there have been times when the holiness of God has been stressed so powerfully, that the ordinary mortal has felt it impossible to approach God in worship or prayer. On the other hand, the open access to God in prayer has sometimes been so stressed that admission to God’s presence becomes a thoughtless and casual matter. Between these two poles, there is a proper median: there is indeed access to the Holy God in worship and prayer, but it must be employed carefully, not casually, with appropriate preparation and reverence. … One the one hand, we must live in such a way that we may prepare for worship with integrity, without hypocrisy; on the other hand, the introspection involved, prior to worship, clarifies beyond any doubt the need for forgiveness (152-153).

The psalm climaxes with a wonderful promise: “Those who do these things will never be moved.” Surely this refers back to the opening question: never moved from God’s presence and grace, regardless of circumstances that arise on earth.

Scripture on Sunday – Psalm 14

Brad Pitt Atheist Quote

Read Psalm 14

Psalm 14 is a challenge to modern—and not so modern—self-reliance, to the kind of practical atheism so widespread in contemporary Western society: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”

The fool, here, is a fool in God’s eyes rather than a human label, for those labelled fools in Scripture are anything but fools from a human perspective. The problem is not lack of intelligence or common sense; it is not mental deficiency but moral deficiency. As Craigie (147) notes, the ‘fool’ may in fact be highly intelligent, cultured, worldly-wise, and esteemed. Yet, when “the Lord has looked down from heaven,” he sees—a fool.

I must pause. It is much too easy at this point for Christians to read this psalm with a defensive or otherwise aggressive and antagonistic ‘us-versus-them’ attitude, as though the label is not rightly applied also to them. It is much too easy to claim the high moral ground and despise those ‘godless fools!’ This the psalm does not allow: “There is no one who does good…not even one….They have all turned aside” (vv. 1-3). If we are not presently fools, we have been, and, from a New Testament perspective, it is only by divine grace that we are not fools now.

In my experience, Proverbs 22:15 has an ongoing significance: “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child”—it does not depart just because one grows up! Parents rightly discipline their children to help them learn the pathways of wisdom and righteousness. Adults, even Christian adults, must discipline themselves lest the fool buried deeply within emerge and return. “The fool is not a rare subspecies within the human race; all human beings are fools apart from the wisdom of God” (Craigie, 148).

The word for fool in this psalm is nāb̲āl, which implies an ‘aggressive perversity’ (Kidner, 79). The concept is common in Israel’s wisdom tradition, and especially prominent in Proverbs. The sense the word carries is seen in Proverbs 1:7 where it is set in opposition to the fear of the Lord which is the beginning of knowledge (cf. Proverbs 9:10). The essential characteristic of the fool is that they do not take the reality, relevance and reign of God into consideration in their thought: they live as though “There is no God” (cf. Psalm 10:4).

For faith, however, this is the fundamental reality of existence: there is indeed a God. This God looks upon human affairs, cares for his people and will be their refuge and salvation. This God will ultimately judge the world, holding its inhabitants to account. Fools are such because they do not acknowledge this fundamental reality and so live and act as though they were their own god. It is this aspect of human life that St. Paul so clearly outlines in Romans 1:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools… (vv. 18-22).

That Paul has Psalm 14 in mind is confirmed in Romans 3:10-12 where he cites this psalm to emphasise the universal sinfulness of humanity. (Craigie (146f.) notes that some Hebrew manuscripts include Paul’s entire passage from Romans 3:10-18 in their version of Psalm 14. This is of historical interest for it shows that perhaps some Jewish scholars in the early Christian centuries were also reading Paul to the extent that his words found their way back into the Hebrew manuscript tradition.)

The essential characteristic of the wicked is further described in Psalm 14:4, presented as God’s own speech: not only do the wicked fail to “call upon the Lord,” they also “eat up my people as they eat bread.” Here the failure to show due regard to God is linked with its corollary: the failure to show due regard to others. Again, Craigie’s exposition (147) is worth hearing:

The fool is opposed to God, threatens the life of the righteous, and thus evokes both lament and prayer for deliverance from those whose lives he affects. … The fool is one whose life is lived without the direction or acknowledgement of God. Thus, the precise opposite of fool and folly is not wise man and wisdom; the opposite of folly in the wisdom literature is lovingkindness. That is to say, the fool is defined by the absence of lovingkindness, which in turn is the principal characteristic of the relationship of the covenant; he lives as if there were no covenant, and thus as if there were no God (Craigie, 147, original emphasis).

Wisdom therefore laments the folly and oppressive activity of the wicked, and cries out to God for salvation, and is also hopeful that God will indeed “restore the fortunes of his people,” and show himself their refuge, especially in the judgement. Thus the people of God continue to counsel the wicked (v. 6), declaring their faith in God, and instructing others in the fear of the Lord. Although their affliction and lament is genuine, their posture is resolute in faith toward God, steadfast toward their companions in sufferings, and firm in their attitude toward the oppressor.

Once again, as in Psalms 9-10, we find that practical atheism issues in “abominable deeds” (v. 1) which oppress others. This atheism is grounded not so much in philosophical speculation as in moral scepticism (Charry, 65). Thus Ellen Charry insists that “the pedagogical import of Ps. 14 is that faith in God is the moral basis of society” (69). When we turn from God as the orienting centre from which and toward which we live, we substitute something else—almost invariably the self—as that centre. We become, in Luther’s famous phrase, homo incurvatus in se—humanity turned in on itself—and so selfish, or sinners, which is to say the same thing.

Scripture on Sunday – Psalm 13

Airplane-passes-over-an-eclipse-resizecrop--Read Psalm 13

How long O Lord? Will you forget me forever?           
How long will you hide your face from me?    
How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long will my enemy be exalted over me?

In these first two verses, the psalmist cries plaintively to the Lord who seems absent and unhearing, removed and uncaring. The words carry a sense of duration—interminable drudgery and aloneness, the fourfold repetition of ‘how long’ emphasising the silence and inactivity of God. The reader feels the tension; on the one side an unrelenting enemy and on the other an unresponsive God, the desperate psalmist caught helpless in the middle.

The enemy is singular, though the psalmist’s adversaries are multiple (cf. v.4). Craigie has no doubt that the enemy is “death” which is fast approaching, the singer being struck down with a life-sapping illness of some kind (Craigie, 142). Whether or not Craigie is correct, the circumstance is common in these early psalms of David: his enemies are ever present, and it seems they have the upper hand, their triumph assured. He has a sense of being alone and vulnerable in the world.

In the midst of this ‘dark night of the soul,’ the psalmist prays (vv. 3-4)—“lament is pointless unless it culminates in prayer” (Craigie, 142)—his faith evidently deeper than his experience, a bulwark against despair. Nevertheless, only the Lord can rescue him from the ever-present threat of death, and so he prays for God’s attention and action: “Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!” Kidner (77) notes that in the Old Testament “God’s ‘remembering’ and ‘seeing’ are not states of consciousness but preludes to action” (cf. Exodus 2:24-25). Thus the prayer is for deliverance, that God would turn again toward the psalmist, rather than ‘hide his face.’

Given the desperate tone of David’s lament, one is unprepared for the final couplet, where optimistic praise and trust seem incongruous with what has preceded. David has trusted in God’s lovingkindness, and so his heart shall rejoice in God’s deliverance. Because he has trusted, he will rejoice and he will sing. David’s faith is deeper than his experience because God is a deeper, more enduring, and more encompassing reality than his suffering. God’s love is steadfast despite his seeming absence; his salvation is assured; his grace is bountiful: therefore David will trust in anticipation of deliverance, and even rejoice and sing.

If the path is prayer, the sustaining energy is the faith expressed in verse 5. … However great the pressure, the choice is still his to make, not the enemy’s; and God’s covenant remains. So the psalmist entrusts himself to this pledged love, and turns his attention not to the quality of his faith but to its object and its outcome which he has every intention of enjoying (Kidner, 77-78).

The idea of being forgotten by God haunts us—could God, would God, actually forget us? Could God utterly overlook us or cast us behind his back? Does God hide his face from us, turn his back, keep his counsel, and ignore our hurt and dire straits? It is likely that no one who has tried to live a life of faith has not had the experience the psalmist describes here. It is an experience that Jesus, too, endured when on the cross he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Our experience is often at odds with our expectation, and to the extent that a Christian’s expectation is that their faith should exempt them from the common trials of life, their expectation is unrealistic. Our expectations with respect to God, however, are another matter entirely. We expect God to care—and not only to care, but to act. Is this also unrealistic? Not according to this psalm.

Kidner captures something crucial with his observations about God’s covenant and David’s faith. David’s faith was not a vague or amorphous hope, but conviction born of a lifelong awareness of God’s covenant love toward his people, including himself. Because God is the ultimate reality of all things David cannot help but pray. His being caught in the tension between God and his enemy is an inevitability on account of his faith.

Even if it makes sense to be a practical atheist, as Ps. 10 suggests, distrust of divine oversight is not psychologically possible for those who cannot but believe in both the loving-kindness and punishing judgement of God as the moral grounding of society. To believe otherwise is to succumb to a morally chaotic reality in which might makes right and personal agency is denied, further robbing the sufferer of power (Ellen Charry, Psalms 1-50, 64).

David laments because he has faith, and prays for the same reason. Indeed the power and astonishing boldness of his prayer lies precisely here: God’s own integrity is at stake. In this psalm there is no confession of sin, no self-blame or condemnation, no blaming of the victim: the reason for divine silence is not judgement on the psalmist’s sin. “On the contrary, God’s failure to act reflects badly on God, for it enables the enemy to gloat” (v. 4; Charry, 63). And so David calls God to account with a boldness born of a faith so deeply embedded in his soul it contradicts the seeming finality of his experience.

Years ago the Corrs, an Irish singing group sang “forgiven, not forgotten.” The words, if not the song, catch the reality of covenant existence with God. We are forgiven. We are never forgotten. God’s covenant lovingkindness is the deepest reality of our lives, and of all reality, something upon which we can trust, and so also rejoice and sing. Lament turns to praise because God’s covenant love and grace is the defining reality of the psalmist’s existence.

Scripture on Sunday – Psalm 12

Psalm 12Read Psalm 12

The first two words of this psalm—Help, Lord!—identify it as a cry for help, and yet it is also a declaration of confidence in God’s promise and goodness. When human speech becomes empty or evil, deliverance from its power is found not in retaliation whereby we return evil for evil, but in hearing, receiving and trusting the speech of God, especially God’s promise.

In verse one, the psalmist calls out to the Lord for help in the face of the disappearance of the faithful. As in Psalm 11, the focus is on society as a whole and the psalmist laments the evil and unfaithfulness which rises on every side. When one has companions it is perhaps easier to practise godliness and remain faithful while all around falls into decay. With the loss of any companions, however, the psalmist can but cry to the Lord.

Verses two to four characterise the unfaithful in terms of evil speech rather than evil deeds. Ellen Charry remarks that “the picture is of a contemptuous community in which each one takes him- or herself to be his or her own master or mistress, beholden to no one” (Charry, Psalms 1-50, 61).

The words of the wicked are empty, ‘smooth,’ and boastful; they use their words as weapons to prevail over others (vv. 2, 4). Falsehood and flattery issue from a deceptive, ‘double’ heart. While they speak with flattering words to gain the trust and allegiance of their hearers, in their hearts they are seeking their own rule and lordship. Their true intent is warfare, not welfare. So distressed is the psalmist that he cries that God would shut their mouths and cut off their flattery and boastful speech (v. 3). In effect, this is a prayer that God would overcome those who boast that no one can master them. Their claim to self-lordship is seen as a challenge and as an affront to the one true Lord.

Verse five marks a decisive change in the psalm as the voice of the Lord now speaks: “Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now arise,” says the Lord. “I will set him in the safety for which he longs.” How this prophetic word is delivered is not known. Did it come to the psalmist in answer to his prayer? Does he in hope put the words in God’s mouth? Is it a liturgical word spoken in the midst of temple worship? However the prophetic word comes, it is the answer to the cry found four times in the psalms thus far: “Arise, O Lord!” (Psalms 3:7; 7:6; 9:19; 10:12).

Craigie translates the last phrase of verse five as “I will set him in safety. I will shine forth for him” (Craigie, Psalms 1-50, 136). Although he acknowledges that his translation is by no means certain, the image of God shining forth speaks of the revelation of his faithfulness in answer to the opening cry for help from the psalmist.

Thus, over against the empty, deceitful and boastful words of the wicked stand the promises of the Lord, which are characterised in verse six as ‘pure.’ God’s words are pure as silver is pure:

The word of the Lord is by its very nature valuable (as are silver and gold), but through refinement and purification, in the language of the metaphor, there is no dross in it. By implication, the speech of wicked persons is all dross, devoid of silver and gold! That of God is pure silver, pure gold! It is devoid of the dross of flattery, vanity, and lies, and can therefore be relied upon (Craigie, 138).

Encouraged by the divine promise the psalmist cries out in trust that the Lord will guard and protect his people, even in the midst of a hostile and faithless generation. Because God’s word is true and to be trusted, he can be confident. This confidence is based not in a change of circumstances but in the reliability of God’s word: the wicked will not triumph over the godly for the Lord will preserve them.

The wry observation of verse eight makes this clear: the battle continues. This verse might be seen as an amplification of verse one: the godly and faithful have disappeared from the social environment, while that which is ‘vile’ has been exalted and celebrated. Here the NASB is preferred to the NRSV: the wicked do not so much ‘prowl’ (as though in darkness), but ‘strut about’—openly and boldly in the broad light of day, and on every side. The psalmist’s observation, then, highlights the social implications of God’s ‘pure’ words. As Derek Kidner has pointedly noted, “The battle of words is no side-issue: a weakness here, and the enemy is in” (Kidner, Psalms 1-72 TNTC, 76).

At issue is what it means to be a faithful and godly community. Which words will shape the life of the community—empty and deceptive words, or the pure words which come from God? The people of God are to hear, reflect on and trust the words of God, choosing, declaring and embodying his words, even in a social context.