[Feb 28]--Some Thoughts On Worship

Psalm 150

Since this is the last Psalm and the entire Psalter is traditionally considered a book of hymns, I thought that this would be a good opportunity to present some notes on worship from this passage.

First, worship is based upon who God is and what he’s done (vss.1-2). Literally the word comes from an Old English word meaning “worth-ship.” In other words, it’s declaring the “worth” of God, which of course is infinite and immeasurable. We can make a distinction between praise and thanksgiving which is valid, but for believers they are inseparably related. Angels can sing God’s praises regarding his power, his justice, his holiness, his wisdom, etc., but only we--as redeemed blood-bought children of God--can thank him for turning those attributes toward us in our favor. In his love and grace and mercy, he's freely chosen to display his power, his justice, his wisdom and his other attributes by saving us.

Second, the call to worship is a call to dedicate everything over to him. If you’ve already had this pointed out, then I apologize, but it’s pretty interesting to me. Verses 3-5 call us to worship him using trumpets, harps and lyres, tambourines, flutes and cymbals. Basic music 101 tells that there are three categories of musical instruments, and everything falls into one or more of these: strings, wind, and percussion. In those three short verses you see all three represented. In other words, all types of musical instruments are to be used in his service.

And it doesn’t stop there. The Psalmist also mentions “dancing.” The last verse also hints at singing as well. Using musical instruments is fine, but we shouldn’t neglect using the human body in the worship of our God. You might not be able to play a guitar or drums or a flute, but that does not in any way let you off the hook when it comes to involvement. This isn’t a call to letting chaos reign in a church service, but it does summon audience participation. The idea of professional musicians being set aside for full-time worship has precedent in Scripture, but they were always meant to lead worship. The idea that God’s people are supposed to treat worship like a football game, with a majority of laity watching the professionals do it and cheering them on, is not supported by his word.

And that segues right into my final point on worship. The last verse of the Psalter is a call for everyone to add their voice to the chorus. Do you have breath in your body? Well, who do you think put it there? Paul tells us that our Lord is the source of “life and breath and everything else.” If you have breath within you, then that breath needs to be used in praise of our Savior God.

So how about you? Have you been content to “sit on the sidelines” and let the professionals do everything? Or are you an active participant in the praise of our King, declaring to fellow believers and to the assembled angels the “worth-ship” of our Savior?

Father, Son, and Spirit, you are worthy of all praise and honor and thanksgiving and obedience. May every cell of my body, may my every thought and word and action be used in the worship of you and bring a smile to your face. 

[Feb 27]--Some Thoughts on Accountability

Psalm 141

I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: Sin is inherently deceitful. It fogs the mind and keeps you from objectively weighing costs and benefits. In a way, it's like the deadliest of addictive drugs: The more you indulge, the less sensitive you are to its deadly effects. As C. S. Lewis said, there's only been one Man in the history of humanity who's ever really understood the full power of sin. Lewis compared it to the Nazi army—You don’t find out how powerful it is by giving in to it, but by resisting it. Therefore, our Lord is the only one who's completely clear-headed when it comes to this subject. That’s why today’s reading is so useful, especially vss. 3-5. Let’s examine it in some more detail, shall we?

The Psalmist (David according to the superscript) starts out with a prayer concerning his mouth. Like James said, “Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.” Of course, none of us actually can meet that benchmark, so none of us are perfect. But it’s an important standard for which to strive. I think that all of us could stand to repeat this prayer, early and often.

Next he got to the heart of the matter, literally. He knew, just like our Savior, that “the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” Why did he ask God to not let his heart be drawn to evil? Because unless the Lord directs our hearts, that’s the natural direction we’ll go. And it doesn’t just affect our speech—Solomon said that everything we do flows from the heart, so we need to guard it carefully.

I love how he characterizes temptation, by the way: “delicacies.” Sin always looks good, like your favorite type of candy. To our sinful nature, it’s really attractive. I think that a good cure would be the ability to see sin the way our Lord sees it.

And then we come to another mark of the psalmist’s spiritual maturity. It’s never fun to have someone else criticize you, even if it’s completely justified and completely necessary. Notice how he viewed it. He compares it to “striking” him, which would be pretty painful. But to him, it was a kindness, something a friend would do for another friend as a favor. He even compared it to “oil on [his] head,” which could be in the medicinal sense or an honor you bestow on a beloved friend. Either way, he sees "tough love" as a benefit, not something to avoid.

On a final note, we need to remember the context of this passage. When he wrote this, he wasn’t sitting at home alone in luxury, like when he fell into sin with Bathsheba. From the rest of the Psalm, it’s pretty clear that he was in danger from physical enemies, which was the setting for most of his writings. When the pressure was on, and he didn’t know whom to trust, he wanted to make sure that he didn’t end up bringing dishonor upon his Lord by giving into sin. If only he had kept this resolve in his later years, once things had calmed down a bit, he could've saved himself a lot of heartache. We’re usually at our best when there’s a bit of pressure on us, aren’t we?

There’s a lot of good teaching from this Psalm, so I’ll leave it to you how best to apply it. For me, I think turning vss. 3-4 into personal prayers would be a good start.

Lord Jesus, I want to see sin the way you do. To you, it’s not a “delicacy.” It’s what nailed you to the cross. Please cleanse out my heart, and let that cleansing overflow into a mouth that honors and pleases you.

[Feb 26]--Omnipresence—So What?

Psalm 139

Theologians use a lot of jargon which most people outside the field don’t recognize, but most Christians--if they’re familiar with the Bible--are at least familiar with the three big “O’s.” You probably know what I’m referring to: omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. But I’m what you might call a practical theologian, which means if it doesn’t affect my daily walk with Christ or how I’m supposed to act, I don’t spend a lot of time on it.

Psalm 139 has long been regarded as an all-important description of God’s omnipresence (the fact that he’s everywhere at once). But what difference does it make to me?

The reason why I love this passage so much is because it personalizes this aspect of him so well. The God that’s presented here is very different from the image that some people have of him. To a lot of people, God is “out there” somewhere, and he either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about what happens to me in my personal life. Or even if he does, he certainly doesn’t care about the “little” things that I do or what happen to me.

But look again at the God pictured in this Psalm. He’s everywhere, yes, but even more important, he’s here with me. He’s not just concerned about the “big” issues, like life and death. He’s watching when I “sit” and when I “rise.” What’s more mundane than that? Every word I’m about to utter, including “I’ll take the Diet Coke, please” at McDonald’s, is already known to him. On a much smaller scale, you can compare it to a parent’s observation of his child before he’s about to talk. As far as a first-time parent’s concerned, there ARE no insignificant words coming out of that infant’s mouth.

And this personalized attention began long before we even knew anything about him. Before we said our first words, before we were laid into a baby bassinet, he was there. In fact, he was there with us in our mother’s womb. I love the image here. The first couple chapters of Genesis tell us that we’re all created by him, but this is so much more. . . intimate. When we look at a crowd of people, it’s easy to think of them as mass-produced. But not according to David. We are, each one of us, “woven together” in our mother’s womb. That’s infinite care, like the type an artist displays when he’s working on his masterpiece.

Per usual, C.S. Lewis put it best:

We are, not metaphorically but in very truth, a Divine work of art, something that God is making, and therefore something with which He will not be satisfied until it has a certain character. Here again we come up against what I have called the “intolerable compliment.” Over a sketch made idly to amuse a child, an artist may not take much trouble: he may be content to let it go even though it is not exactly as he meant it to be. But over the great picture of his life—the work which he loves, though in a different fashion, as intensely as a man loves a woman or a mother a child—he will take endless trouble—and would doubtless, thereby give endless trouble to the picture if it were sentient. One can imagine a sentient picture, after being rubbed and scraped and re-commenced for the tenth time, wishing that it were only a thumb-nail sketch whose making was over in a minute. In the same way, it is natural for us to wish that God had designed for us a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing not for more love but for less.

And we can’t get away from this attention, even if we wanted to! That’s where his omnipresence really kicks in—No matter where we go, from the highest heights to the lowest depths, he’s there. His eye is always on us, even when we’re completely unaware of it (which is actually most of the time).

So to sum up, what does this mean to me? Because of what I’ve learned here, there are no

• Insignificant moments
• Insignificant thoughts
• Insignificant words
• Insignificant people (me, or anyone else)

This could be infinitely comforting or infinitely scary. Which one depends on. . . my choices.

And now for your pleasure, here's "You Are There" by Ashely Cleveland, which expresses these thoughts so well.

Father, you are with me, everywhere I go. Please help me to remember that. For good or ill, you’re always watching. I’m never alone.

[Feb 25]--Forgiveness And Fear

Psalm 130

Throughout its 2,000 year-long history, the church has struggled to find the balance between extremes. Martin Luther, the great Reformer, compared us to a drunkard who tries to mount a horse: He falls off one side, determines not to do it again, then falls off the other side. The extremes I’m talking about today concern the issue of sin and forgiveness. On one side you have legalism (epitomized by the Pharisees), which basically tries to earn God’s approval by what you do. It majors on externals and forgets how dependant we are on his grace. The opposite error is antinomianism. It’s a long term, but it’s well worth learning, since I believe it’s infected much of American Christianity. It comes from the Greek word nomos, meaning “law.” So literally it’s “anti-law.” This is the heretical belief that once you’ve placed your faith in Christ, you don’t have to be concerned about living a holy life or pleasing him. It’s summed up by the statement “I’ve been forgiven, so now I can live however I please.”

Today’s passage, particularly vss. 3-4 provides a corrective to both errors. Verse 3 provides a great declaration of the universality of sin. Of course, we need to take it context. The rest of Scripture makes clear that he is keeping a record of sins. I think that what the Psalmist is referring to is the possibility of God acting on those records. Psalm 103 says that he doesn’t treat us as our sins deserve. If he did, if he announced that starting at midnight tonight everyone would get exactly what they deserve, who would still be standing at one minute past?

Then we get to the kicker. In fact, we might've found another one of my beloved “tension” verses. Remember what we said about the “fear of the Lord” around this time last year? When we talk about the “fear” of something, we usually mean it in the sense of being afraid of something, trying to avoid it. But the Bible, especially the O.T., means something very different by the term. It’s a reverence mixed with awe mixed with a desire to know him and please him. To quote Ruby Shelly again from last year, it’s “not dread but astonishment. Not terror but reverence. Not shaking-in-your-boots panic, but enraptured-with-love fascination.”

Do you see the paradox, why I love this verse so much? Even with this enlightened understanding of the concept, what do you think would inspire us to fear him? His power, his majesty, his omnipotence, his omniscience, his holiness? The fact that one day all of creation will stand before him to be judged? Absolutely. But there’s something more. It’s his forgiveness, his grace, his mercy, his kindness to us which leads to fear of him. When we see how much we’ve sinned and how much he’s forgiven forever, never to be brought up again, then we experience the fear of him. It’s when we contemplate what it took for him to be able to do this, that’s when we fear him.

Father God, words utterly fail me right now. I just want to bow down in worship of you. With you there is forgiveness, therefore you are feared.

[Feb 24]--Ankle-Biters!!!

Psalm 127-128

Yes, I know that we read Psalm 127 yesterday, but there’s another major subject raised by this passage that I thought needed to be addressed today.

There are a few moral issues on which American culture and the Bible heartily disagree, and I would nominate the top two as sex and kids. Try to find anyone--outside of Bible-believing circles--that agrees that all sex outside marriage is wrong, and you have a long search ahead. And once you get past the blather from politicians about how “Children are our future,” you’ll find that 1) how most secular people view children, and 2) how the Bible views children, are very different.

Some of this is actually a sign of how the extremes of the environmental movement have influenced our thinking. Remember what we said about it a week ago? Due to missing out on the truth of Gen. 1-3, they don’t understand that every single human being is created in God’s image. If you don’t get that, and you believe that this world is all we have (thus denying the afterlife), then it’s easy to fall into misanthropy and see people in general as a parasite on the ecosystem. From there many people make the not-so-great leap that this world would do a lot better off with a lot less people.

Another reason why secular people (and by that I mean people who get their worldview from the prevailing culture, not the Bible) have such an antipathy towards children is, quite frankly, selfishness. They're enjoying a self-indulgent lifestyle, and children would provide a real hindrance to that. They don’t want to be around kids at all, much less be parents. Just a clue: If they refer to children as “ankle-biters,” I think that’s a hint as to their attitude.

Can I be perfectly honest here? I completely, wholeheartedly disagree with the environmental extremism, but there’s a small part of me, purely emotion-based, which sympathizes with the second group. I enjoy intellectual pursuits, and I like consuming TV shows and movies which are geared towards adults. I’ve been exposed to “Barney” and other like-minded shows, and when I do I feel my brain leaking out my ears. I realize that once my wife and I have children, then sacrifices will have to be made, and there’s a selfish part of me that rebels against it.

But how does God's word view them? I’ve read the Bible from cover to cover several times, and I can tell you that children are always seen as a blessing, never as a curse. The only exceptions I can think of are from the book of Proverbs, such as the verses which warn about a child rebelling and/or going astray, such as this one. But that's the result of a rebellious child, not an indication of the intrinsic worth of the child himself. In and of himself, a child is an incredible blessing from the Lord, as today’s passage indicates. Maybe we don’t say out loud that children are a curse, but sometimes they feel like a burden we have to carry.

So when the Bible’s view of something and my emotional reaction to that same thing are different, that what do you think needs to change? I heard my pastor once point out that, humanly speaking, Christianity is always one generation away from extinction. For those who read this as parents, the Lord has honored you with the most awe-inspiring responsibility: the chance to have a part in shaping the future of the world and the church. And for those of us who don’t have children (like myself, for now), we still have responsibilities. Every child we have contact with on a regular basis is watching us. If they know that we’re Christians, then they’re learning about the Father from us. If we see them as interruption of whatever we’re doing, then they get a sense of how valuable they are to us. And we worship a Savior who, when the disciples thought he was too busy for children and were turning them away, got angry with his disciples. Does our treatment of children reflect his heart?

Lord Jesus, you value every child. The child that’s about to step on my last nerve, the child who’s about to drive me to the loony bin, you regard as more precious than your life’s blood. May I see them the way you see them, please.

[Feb 23]--Buildings and Guards

Psalm 127

A few days ago I mentioned how I like “tension” verses—verses in which two opposite Biblical truths are held in tension in order to provide the perfect balance for us. I would submit that 127:1 is one of the great ones, and it holds a great depth of meaning for us.

When it comes to getting things done in God’s kingdom, there are two extremes into which we can fall. On one side you might find people in the “faith” column. When confronted with a problem, they want to pray about it and trust God to work everything out. Their favorite passage might be Eph 2:8-9—“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” or Psalm 46:10—“Be still and know that I am God.” On the other side you might see people in the “do” column. When told we’re going to call for a prayer meeting, their initial response is “Enough praying, let’s just DO what God wants!” They love passages like James 2:14-26—“faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”

Do you see why God’s word provides such a perfect balance for us? To the first group it tells them “Yes, the Lord builds the house, but you do too. He’s not going to build it for you. Yes, he guards over the city, but the verse is assuming that you have human guards as well.” To the second group the verse says “Unless the Lord is behind what you’re doing, you’re wasting your time at best. At worst you’ll actually be working against his purposes, and only a fool wants that.” One of the best examples I’ve seen of this balance is Nehemiah. When he returned to Jerusalem to start rebuilding the city wall, he encountered violent opposition from Israel’s enemy neighbors. So what did they do? They “prayed to [their] God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.”

This principle of “prayer and work” can be applied to so many areas of life, it’s almost uncanny. Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I totally believe Eph. 2:8-9. We're saved by grace through faith in Christ plus nothing. But he expects fruit to come out of our salvation. And this principle especially applies in the area of sanctification, the process of growing to be like Christ in your daily life. He gives us the resources to grow closer to him: his word, prayer, church fellowship, church leadership, and particularly the work of his Spirit within us. But we have to use them, otherwise they’ll do no good.

It’s also found in the area of church growth. As I write this, our church is on the cusp of a large evangelistic outreach campaign. Unless the Lord “builds” the house, we’ll accomplish nothing and I want no part of it. We desperately need to pray for wisdom, strength, the work of the Spirit on unsaved hearts, etc. But he’s not going to do it without us.

When I think about it, this can really be applied in just about every human endeavor. Do I need to find a job? Pray and trust God, and pound the pavement. Do we need to improve our marriage? Pray for God’s blessing on it, and take practical steps to seal up the cracks and strengthen the foundation.

So why don’t you and I take a moment to see what areas we’re not following this balance in our lives?

Lord Jesus, I tend to be lazy and wait for you to do something when you’ve already done everything you’re going to do. Please give me the strength to do what you want me to do.

[Feb 22]--Sowing and Reaping

Psalm 126

Unlike what you might think on Monday morning, work itself is not a result of the Curse on our first parents. Before the Fall, God gave them an assignment to tend his Garden. But it’s a sad fact that one result of sin is futile work. Work was never supposed to be back-breaking, or with a low rate of return, or a waste of time. But because of one foolish decision, our sowing and reaping sometimes produces thorns.

And unfortunately, that futility overshadows most human endeavors. Men build a home, a city, an empire, only to have it eventually collapse into dust and ashes. I think one of the great conceits of modern Americans is the foolish notion that this nation will last forever. When you compare this country’s history to a timeline of human existence, it’s barely a “blip.” On Wall Street, companies and corporations which were at the top of their game a few generations ago are now fading into the background or completely gone.

It can be especially tragic in the “micro” level. Starting around the latter part of 2008, we began to see some major problems in the housing/banking industry. These fault-lines were eventually revealed to run throughout our entire economic structure. It’s one thing to laugh at big “fat cat” bankers who lost their shirts, but we quickly learned that in this modern economy we’re all connected, and it’s impossible for one section to fall apart without all of us getting hurt. And since a majority of Americans have some type of investment in the Stock Market for their retirement, thousands of people who'd meticulously planned for their sunset years found all their savings were gone. All their financial hopes and dreams—gone.

But there’s good news. It doesn’t have to be that way. And that’s what today’s reading, particularly the last two verses, reminds us. The setting for this Psalm apparently was a return from Exile, but we’re not exactly sure of the date. The Lord, because of their rebellion and sin, had given them over to their enemies who had carried them away from their homeland.

Now they were allowed to return, and they were so awe-struck that it was like a “dream” to them. Their mouths were filled with laughter and songs of joy, and even the pagan nations around them were noticing how good the Lord was to them. It’s a Psalm of Ascension, so this would be very poignant—this is a song to be sung as you approach Jerusalem for worship.

Now here comes the punchline. They had surely thought that they would be experiencing nothing but tears for the remainder of their lives. They had gone out to the “fields” of life and sown their seeds while weeping, anticipating that nothing would come of it. And. . . surprise!!! The gracious and compassionate God had turned their sounds of weeping into joyful songs of worship. They'd come back in from the fields carrying sheaves of a fruitful harvest.

Maybe someone who’s reading this feels like those workers. You’ve sowed seeds, and sowed seeds, and then sowed some more seeds, and it looks like you’ve wasted your time. You haven’t, if you’ve been doing it for him. Hold onto Hebrews 6:10 and don’t let go: “God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.” Or maybe you need to reread 1 Cor. 15:58—“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” In due time, in his timing, you’ll bring those sheaves in, and this’ll be your testimony too: “The Lord has done great things for [me], and [I’m] filled with joy!”

Father, it’s so hard sometimes. Please give me the strength to keep working in the fields until you’re ready to give me the harvest. And patience too, please?

[Feb 21]--Protection

Psalm 121

If you’re as familiar with Christian music as I am, then you’ve probably heard at least one version of this Psalm set to music. I myself have heard at least three. It’s a beautiful passage, reminding us of God’s protection. Let’s examine it for a bit, shall we?

You’ll notice that according to the superscription it’s a “Song of Ascents.” What does that mean? The ancient Hebrews were commanded by God, no matter where they lived, to make their way to Jerusalem at least three times a year for a nation-wide festival/holiday: Passover, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Booths. Jerusalem is set on top of a mountain (Mount Zion, of course), so as they ascended it and saw the city of David, these Psalms with this superscription were the traditional songs to sing with your caravan.

That’s what makes the 1st verse so poignant. As the singer climbed these hills, he saw a lot of awe-inspiring creation. But he knew that his help came from no other source but his Creator. Considering that the first singers of this Psalm were climbing a mountain, it’s quite possible that the author was being quite literal when he was talking about protection against someone’s foot slipping.

But of course we can apply this passage in the spiritual realm as well. He’s watching us as we make our pilgrimage to our Final Home. He’ll make sure that our foot doesn’t slip, no matter what the Enemy puts in our path.

Whenever I read vs. 4, I always have to chuckle a bit, since it reminds me of Elijah’s confrontation with the priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel. Remember how he taunted them about the impotence of Baal? “Shout louder. . . Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” In stark contrast to Baal, who has to be woken up by the shouts of his followers, our God never sleeps. He's always watching over us. While you’re sleeping, he’s not. He hears the whispered prayers of the humblest of his children. In fact, you don’t have to speak out loud at all. And as verse 6 indicates, it’s round-the-clock protection.

And it’s not just physical. The word for “life” in vs. 7 is literally “soul,” so a lot of commentators interpret this to mean the entire person, including the spiritual. Naturally this makes sense: Why would he protect us from physical harm but not defend us in the other realm?

There are a lot of ways to apply the last verse, and none of them have to contradict the others. The first meaning was that in all the travelers of these pilgrims, both as they entered Jerusalem and as they left, he would watch over them. He also watches us in the “comings and goings” of daily life. And as you “come” into this life until you “go” into the next one, he’s watching as well. And if you’re his child, he’ll welcome you home.

Now for your enjoyment, here's Eden's Bridge's version of Psalm 121.

Father, I thank you for watching me. I have NO idea how many times, just today, you protected me from harm. You’re my loving Father, and I’m looking forward to making that last stage of the journey so I can see your face.

[Feb 20]--Hooray!!!

Psalm 119:65-80

Aren’t you glad that I didn’t ask you to read the entire 119th Psalm today? It’s got 176 verses, so most people don’t prefer to read it in one sitting. I understand their feelings, but it really is a great Psalm to read, even if you do it in portions. Due to the acrostic nature of the Psalm (read the footnotes if you’re not familiar with this), it’s obvious that the author put a lot of time and effort into it. The longest chapter in the Bible, it’s basically a love poem written to God’s word. It uses eight different words for it, and most of the time the author uses each of these terms within an eight-verse segment. You can see how these Hebrew words for his revelation are translated in several different ways: “Law,” “Commands,” “Decrees,” “Precepts,” etc. But no matter how you translate it, the meaning is still much the same. He’s eternally grateful for God’s written revelation to us.

But I'd like to point out three verses within the reading today, since they have a good reminder for us. The author loves God’s word and wants very strongly to obey his instructions. In fact, this overwhelming desire drips off nearly every verse. But he’s definitely not sinless. This fact shows up even in the last verse, but it’s really on display in the selected passage. Notice vss. 67, 71, and 75. See the pattern? In each verse the Psalmist observes that he'd been going astray, and the Lord used affliction to bring him back on course. Now he was obeying God’s word as never before. Now he was learning his decrees. In vs. 75 he even goes so far as to thank the Lord for afflicting him in “faithfulness.”

This goes against every natural instinct we have, doesn’t it? Our entire economy is based upon the desire to avoid inconvenience, much less real suffering. If we have to wait for 20 minutes for our food to be prepared, we impatiently complain. If we have to undergo any physical discomfort, we do everything in our power to alleviate it. Notice that I said “we,” not “you.” I certainly include myself in this description.

And is that wrong? Since we see the spiritual benefits of suffering, then should we go out of our way to deprive ourselves? Should we become ascetic monks, forgoing any physical pleasure? Are painkillers sinful or a sign of a lack of trust in God? When we go through this type of experience, should we shout “Hooray for affliction!”? I don’t think so. The desire to avoid pain is natural, and not everything that’s natural is sinful.

But I think the question is, “How do we view affliction/suffering?” Is it something that we avoid at all costs? Is it something that we should rail against God about? I think that we need, above all, to submit to the Father’s plan. If he decides that I need to be deprived of some things, then that’s up to him. If he allows me to get a better lifestyle, then there’s nothing wrong with that.

And when we do suffer, we need to first and foremost ask God if he’s trying to get our attention about something. Incorporate Psalm 139:23-24 in your prayer life on a regular basis, but especially if things are going really badly for you. If he doesn’t point out any particular sin, then ask him to use this time to draw you closer to him. If nothing else, use this time to learn to depend on him instead of your own resources.

I promise you, he’s not doing this because of any lack of love on his part. Everything that happens to you is filtered through his perfect loving plan. He loves you, and he'll bring you through this, one way or another. If you let him.

Lord Jesus, I thank you for carrying me every step of the way, even when I have to go through some really painful experiences. Thank you for giving me what I need, whatever that is.

[Feb 19]--Spotlights and Idols

Psalm 115

If there's one major undiagnosed malady afflicting American culture, I would submit that it’s the obsession with becoming famous. That would be bad enough, but the situation has deteriorated to the point that most of these fame-seekers don’t even care what they’re famous for. As of this writing, I recently heard on the news about a father who perpetrated a hoax that fooled the world into thinking that his son was stuck in a balloon above the earth and was in danger. He tried to fool the public in the hopes that he and his family would be candidates for a reality show. He went to extremes, but there are plenty of people who will stand outside in line for hours in order to be the next American Idol.

The Bible, from the very beginning draws us to a different perspective. I mean that literally: The first four words are “In the beginning God. . .” The center of attention of the Bible, from cover to cover, is the Almighty. People are important, but only because we derive our worth/value from our Creator. Like the moon, our glory is a reflected glory.

That precept is found in today’s Psalm, and it starts out with one of my favorite prayers in the entire Bible: “Not to us, Lord, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness.” This should be tattooed on the brain of every person whose gifts put him on the forefront, such as in public speaking. It applies to all teachers, pastors, elders, and any other leader in the church. But it can apply generally in all of our lives, since everything that everyone does should be glorifying and honoring to our Savior.

The rest of the Psalm deals with idolatry, and there are a couple of interesting points which I’ve noticed. First, I find it intriguing that vs. 1 would be in a chapter warning against idolatry. But when you think about it, it makes sense. I mean, the idol of “Me” is the most common object of worship for most folks.

But there’s something else which the Psalm notes about idols. First, the author reminds his readers about the nature of these things. The stone statues have eyes, but they don’t see. They have ears, but they don’t hear. They have hands and feet, but are completely immobile. They can’t go anywhere by themselves.

So why would you want to worship something like this? Do you think that something that’s completely helpless can protect you or provide for you? But you might think, “I don’t bow down to worship an idol; this doesn’t apply to me.” Au contraire! Paul, not once but twice, tells us that greed is idolatry. Anything that you place your ultimate trust in—besides the Lord—is not worthy of that trust. In the end, it will fail you as surely as that statue.

There’s something else about idol worship that the Psalmist would like us to consider. Look at vs. 8: “Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.” My friend, you'll eventually become like the god that you worship. Why do you think there’s so little mercy in the Muslim world? That’s because—the Koran’s declarations to the contrary—Allah of the Koran is not compassionate or merciful. If you worship money—an inanimate object that is completely amoral—then that will show up in how you treat people.

As the Psalm concludes, it’s much better for us to trust in and worship the one true God. He alone is worthy of it. He alone is gracious, merciful, compassionate, holy, and able to protect and provide for us. And the principle of vs. 8 applies to us as well. As we worship him we'll become more like him in holiness and righteousness. Do you want that?

Father, I do want that. Please point out any idols that have taken up residence in your temple. I know that your heart’s grieved by any rivals, and I want to love you with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength. Please.

[Feb 18]--A Place For Cursing?

Psalm 109

We mentioned before the different categories of Psalms which the theologians have constructed: Lamentation, Praise, Wisdom, etc. But there's one type of Psalm which we haven’t really discussed, since it’s pretty uncomfortable for a lot of Christians. I’m referring to the imprecatory (cursing) Psalms, the best example of which is today’s passage.

Why would we feel uncomfortable about this type of Scripture? Well, first and foremost, it seems at first blush to be contrary to the spirit of Jesus’ teachings. He told us to pray for our enemies, do good to them, and forgive them. Of course he topped this all off with the perfect example for us on the cross. If anyone ever had a right to pronounce bitter curses on his enemies, it would be the Lord Jesus on the cross. But he didn’t.

But there are some things to consider when reading this and other Psalms like it. First, we need to remember that this is never a justification for personal vengeance. According to the superscript, David wrote this, and he's a great example of letting the Lord deal with his enemies instead of taking justice in his own hands. In fact, a prime candidate for the main foe cited in the Psalm is in fact Saul, whom David could've killed at least twice. Instead, he let God deal with him, and the Lord honored that.

Second, we need to recognize that the N. T. doesn’t disown the cursing Psalms. Did you realize that this particular Psalm is actually quoted in the N.T.? Verse 8 was directly quoted by Peter in Acts 1:20 when they were deciding what to do about filling Judas’ old position. So apparently the Holy Spirit considered Psalm 109 to have some type of fulfillment in the life of Christ himself. Jesus quoted from Psalm 69 or had it applied to himself, which is another harsh Psalm of this type, as did Paul.

Third, I think that these Psalms are an official appeal to the ultimate Judge to settle a complainant’s case. Yes, God was his personal Savior and Redeemer, but he's also the Judge of all the earth. David was bringing his case before him and asking him to intervene. He wasn't just asking for his own personal sake but in the interest of God’s kingdom. These enemies weren't just attacking David but the Lord's kingdom in the person of his representative.

So how do we interpret these Psalms? Is it right to quote them and incorporate them into our prayer lives? Well, Paul’s statement still stands—“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” The best explanation I’ve found is that we should treat it similarly to the Lamentation Psalms. The Lamentation Psalms are filled with bitter complaints and angry accusations against the Lord's goodness and providence. I think that when we feel that way, then we should be honest about that before the Father. But should that be our final word before God about the situation? Are we going to continue walking around in that spirit? Of course not. There has to come a point in which we let go of the anger. If not, it’ll eventually act like acid on our soul. It’s the same principle here.

We also need to keep in mind that we’re all sinners. It is possible to hate correctly, to be able to distinguish between a righteous zeal for God’s honor and purposes (which David had) and a desire for personal revenge (“because they did me wrong”). I’m not sure that I’m enough in tune with the Holy Spirit to do that safely. Until I can, I'm going to be very careful about quoting Psalms like this, and I'm going to move as quick as I can into the much safer territory of following the Lord Jesus in both his example and in his instructions.

To the degree that the Imprecatory Psalms are appropriate for us as N. T. believers, they can’t be the final word. He wants us to be honest. If we truly hate someone who's done us wrong, then we need to bring those feelings before the Lord. There’s certainly nothing wrong with asking the Father to intervene. But the final word on how to handle our enemies is not in Psalm 109 but in the Gospels and Epistles. By both command and example, Christ has called us to rise above our personal feelings. And I’ve found that the more time I spend in his presence complaining about my “enemies,” the more his Spirit calms my anger and changes my attitude. I find myself focusing less on myself and sounding more like the One who--while he was bleeding on the cross--said “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Father God, I thank you and praise you for not only being my Savior but my Vindicator. Please fill me with your Spirit when dealing with people who’ve hurt me. May I treat them like you’ve treated me—slow to anger, quick to forgive.

[Feb 17]--Creation Awe

Psalm 104

I was raised in the residential area of Dallas. Not completely surrounded by buildings, but the downtown area was pretty close. I've never lived in the country or in a rural area or small town. I'm grateful for the modern comforts of air-conditioning and heating, but I think sometimes we "city folk" have missed something by living in an exclusively urban environment with all the light pollution which blocks the stars. The only "wild" animals I encounter are at the zoo, and there's a cost to that.

What does this have to do with today’s Psalm? Well, this has been called the “Creation Psalm,” since it’s such a beautiful description of what God has made. I think it's a good reminder of some things for people like me. But there's more here than just his actions in creation.

Another thing I see here is organization. He didn't create the universe, set it running like a well-made  clock and then step back. He set up boundaries for everything; like the old saying goes, a place for everything and everything in its place. He set boundaries for the waters, and they stay within those boundaries. The sun, the moon and stars all have their places, and the reason they're useful for us in marking out the seasons and times is because they stay within the boundaries their Creator sets for them.

And notice another aspect of his work: Provision. He doesn't create something without providing everything it/he/she needs. The grass and everything else can't live without water, and he pours out the rain for them. The beasts of the field need food, and he provides for them. And he doesn't just give us what we need. He even gives us things to make life in creation more enjoyable (wine to gladden human hears, oil to make our faces shine). The inspired psalmist says he gave the entire sea to the "Leviathan" as its playground.

Every believer knows him as our Savior, Redeemer, Lord, Best Friend, Father and Elder Brother, Counselor, Comforter, and a host of other titles. But we city folk spend way too much time in and around buildings, and it’s a good thing to take some time and look at the world he's made. Regain some awe at the incredible wisdom and power of our great and mighty and wise Creator. He designed us down to the smallest atom, and he's created everything from caterpillars to Red Woods to the greatest stars and set them all in a grand and glorious dance. And just like for the rest of creation, he provides everything we need, including proper boundaries.

And on a final point, please note that the last verse actually talks about a “blight” on creation: not people as such, but rebellious humanity. This is the only reason why the world is not as beautiful as it can be. Yes, that’s your sin and mine which adds to the ugliness. And one day this problem will be dealt with. He'll destroy all rebels against his kingdom, but of course we know from the rest of Scripture that his preferred method of "destroying" rebels is by turning them into his beloved sons and daughters. But rest assured, one way or another, this ugly spot on his beautiful creation will be removed.

On a much lighter note, for your enjoyment I present Rich Mullins's "The Color Green," a song inspired by this Psalm.

Father God, I am amazed that you created all of this with just a word. Your wisdom and power is on display everywhere I really look. I praise you, and I thank you.

[Feb 16]--God’s Goodness

Psalm 103

We looked at this Psalm yesterday, but it’s so packed full of meaning that I had to spend another day on it. Like I mentioned before, God’s goodness to us drips off every line, so I wanted to spend a day focusing on that. Let’s take a moment to see some of the ways that the Psalmist describes it.

First, the author brings us back to the days of Moses, when the Lord first revealed his name to us. When Israel completely fell into rebellion, idolatry, and sexual immorality, Moses pled for mercy for them. God appeared to the prophet and called himself “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” That’s a recurring theme several places in Scripture, and David reminds us of it.

Second, we have here what just might be the greatest understatement ever uttered by human lips: “he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.” No joke!!! When I look at my life and you look at yours in an honest light, you know that he certainly doesn’t.

Third, while we’re on the subject of sin and grace, we have two beautiful images of his forgiveness in vss. 11-12. Please note that the verses don’t say that he throws our sins as far away as the north is from the south. No, that’s a finite distance. But you can go in an easterly direction and never run out of space. It’s the same as how high his love is towards us, as high as the heaven are above the earth.

Fourth, we see how far back and far forward is his love towards us in vs. 17. In eternity past, before the stars had been ignited, before the planets had been placed into their orbits, he set his love on you. He knew your name, and chose to shower you with his goodness. And in eternity future, once the stars we see up in the sky have all grown cold, he'll still not be done in displaying his love towards you.

On a final note I’d like to observe where all this leads. I find it interesting that this focus on his love and goodness—in this passage—doesn’t lead to thanksgiving. It certainly should, but in this instance it should lead to praise. In light of what he’s done for us, the author calls the angels to praise the Lord Almighty. We think of them praising him for his mighty acts of power, or his wisdom in creation, and his righteous judgment. But our salvation—and all that entails—leads them to praise, because that’s probably the most wonder and awe-inducing thing he’s ever done.

He then repeats his call for the heavenly host to join in the praise. And then his call extends to us. All of us are his “works” and are in his dominion. Ephesians 2:10 says that we are his workmanship, his art-piece. That should inspire thankfulness, certainly, but it should also work within us a sense of praise. And this should work itself out in our lips and into our lives.

Father, this psalm is so full of wonderful words which describe how wonderful you are, but even they aren’t enough. You have thrown my sins away as far as the east is from the west. From everlasting to everlasting, you have loved me. By your grace, I’d like to praise you better that I have been. Please.

[Feb 15]--Out Of And In To

Psalm 103

This has got to be, no joke, in the top three of my favorite Psalms. It’s so rich in meaning and so poignant in its description of how God has treated us. In fact, his goodness drips like honey off every line. Let’s take a look at some of the notes I’ve made about it over the years.

We're so slow to be grateful and so quick to complain, aren’t we? I recall once when I saw a Preacher on TV speaking about this Psalm, and he made a great point regarding vs. 2 (“forget not all his benefits”): “Don’t forget all the things he’s done for you. Of course, there’s no way that you can remember all his benefits, but at least don’t forget all of them.”

And within three verses, David lists five of these blessings which our Savior has poured out onto us. First, he's forgiven all our sins. This is the first thing he does for us, and it has to be. Unless and until our sin problem was dealt with, he couldn’t do anything more of eternal import. Second, he heals all of our diseases. Of course, often we have to deal with ongoing illnesses in this life, so does that mean that this isn’t in effect? Of course not. If we belong to him, then he will heal all of our diseases, either in this world or in the next one, and of course we have no idea how many times he’s kept us from things we never even know about. Third, he redeems our life from the pit. If you ever want to know what the Psalmist is referring to, try talking to someone who got saved later in life, instead of receiving salvation as a child, which I did. Fourth, he crowns us with love and compassion. Fifth, he satisfies our desires with good things. Like any good parent, he doesn’t give us anything which will harm us, but only what will help us. Please keep in mind that what we need and what we want are rarely the same.

I would like to spend a moment looking at this concept which we find in verse 4. This is a beautiful pattern we find several times in Scripture, and it’s something that we need to contemplate. I call it “Out Of and In To.” For example, when the Lord appeared to Moses, he told him “I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” Paul picked up this motif at least twice. Eph 2:1-7 tells us that although we were by nature objects of his wrath, he saved us from that and raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms. Col. 1:13 proclaims that “he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves.”

Notice the pattern yet, and how it applies to us? He pulled us out of the pit in order to crown us with love and compassion. He rescued us from the land of slavery in order to bring us into the Promised Land. He rescued us from the dominion of darkness in order to bring us into the kingdom of his Son. He forgave all our sins, but that’s only the beginning of what he does for us as believers. He has so much more for us besides just keeping us out of hell. If that’s the extent of your view of salvation, then it’s a pretty limited one.

Lord Jesus, I could NEVER remember all the blessings which you’ve showered upon me, but please don’t let me forget all of them. You're so quick to bless, so quick to forgive, so slow to anger. You have redeemed my soul from the pit, and crowned me with love and compassion. Wow.

[Feb 14]--Standards for Leaders

Psalm 101

When I read this Psalm, I remember a story I once heard about Teddy Roosevelt. He owned a ranch with several head of cattle. He found out that one of his ranch hands had stolen some cattle from a neighbor, and had put the cows into his (Roosevelt’s) herd. He immediately fired the man, and this was his reason: “If he’s willing to steal for me, then he’ll be willing to steal from me!”

I’ve mentioned this before, but David is one of my favorite characters in the Bible, and today’s passage is one reason. Every leader, especially a king, is tempted to fill up his administration with whoever will benefit him the most. You always want the most competent people, but also there’s always the need to take into consideration the political connections that a prospect brings to the table. If he “knows someone,” then that can be really useful, especially to a leader who’s just starting out.

But according to this Psalm, that was not the top priority for David. He was considered not just a political leader but also a spiritual one as well. It was his job to enforce God’s law on the nation, so he couldn’t very well keep lawbreakers within his own administration.

So what type of man was he seeking? Looking over the passage, it looks like there were two qualities he was on the lookout for, which were requirements for working under him. The first, which seems to leap off the page, is honesty. He can’t be “faithless,” he can’t “[slander] his neighbor in secret,” and he can’t practice “deceit.” Just like Roosevelt, he had to have people of principle and integrity who could be trusted.

Second, which gets just a mention in vs. 5, is humility. It would be a great honor to work in direct service to a king, and it'd be very easy to get a “big head” over it. Of course, in God’s kingdom (of which David’s was supposed to be an extension), there’s no room for pride. A place of leadership in God’s kingdom is a place of service, not an opportunity to gain power and lord it over others.

Now, let me lay all my cards on the table. Did David always carry out the principles he asserts here? I wish he did, but no. His commander of the army, Joab, was a cold-blooded murderer. David knew about it (or at least strongly suspected), but because of his (David’s) precarious political position, he never pursued it. If you want to read about it, you can do so here. But just because he didn’t live up to his principles at all times (which none of us do) doesn’t negate the rightness of the principle, nor does it minimize the wisdom David showed in at least recognizing the need for this.

So how does this apply to us? I’m not a King or President. But what about the people with whom you do business? Are you willing to overlook their character in order to get what you want? Do you prize honesty in your friends?

Also, there is another application which strikes me. We're commanded to pray for our leaders. No, it’s not an option. The prophet Jeremiah even advised the exiles to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which [God has] carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” And I'd think that a good prayer for leaders is that the Lord would provide them with good counselors who display these qualities.

And of course this is a good reminder to all of us to ask ourselves “Am I this type of person? Am I faithful? Do I slander anyone? Am I deceitful? Am I prideful?” The King of Kings is also looking for people to serve him, and his standards are even higher than David’s. Do I fit the bill?

Lord Jesus, I want to be a faithful servant in your house. Please help me to be that type of man, by your grace.

[Feb 13]--Sooooo Close!

Psalm 95

When I was growing up, I loved watching a show called Get Smart. A parody of the James Bond movies, this comedy told the story of Maxwell Smart, secret agent. He was pretty much a bumbling fool, but he had one catch-phrase that, for a short time, swept the nation in popularity. When he was trying to shoot at a villain or attempted some other super-cool feat but failed, he would hold his fingers about an inch apart and explain it with the line “Missed it by THAT MUCH.”

We can laugh at Agent Smart, but I can’t help thinking of that line every time I read passages like this one. The people of Israel were delivered by Almighty God by means of incredible miracles and plagues. They watched as Egypt crumbled beneath the Lord’s heavy hand, and they marched out with the riches of the greatest nation on earth in their pockets. They triumphed over the kingdoms of Sihon and Og, and it looked like nothing could stop them.

They were on the very border of the Promised Land, and they screwed up one last time. It turned out that this was one time too many. When the twelve spies came back, ten of them managed to convince the rest of the nation to turn back. They were convinced that God had led them out from Egypt in order to kill them in the desert. Once they rebelled against him this last time, he'd finally had enough. He told them to turn around and head back to the desert. The wilderness outside Palestine is one huge graveyard, holding the bodies of millions of Hebrews. This was God’s final verdict on that entire generation (with two exceptions): “So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’”

I think one of the scariest verses in all the Bible is found in this passage: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” Not tomorrow, today. There are a lot of glorious promises in God’s word, but living to see tomorrow is not one of them. The only day you can listen to God’s voice is TODAY.

And what’s he warning against? Hardening your heart. If you hear God calling out to you and ignore it, your heart can be hardened. Next time (if there is one), his voice will be that much more difficult to discern.

But we’re not the Hebrews of 3,000 years ago, right? We don’t have to worry about this, do we? Well, the author of Hebrew would disagree. He spent a chapter and a half expounding on this passage, pointing out that God’s warning is still in effect.

So what about you? If you haven’t placed your trust in Christ, then why not? Can’t you hear his voice calling for you to take that final step? God’s grace and mercy and unlimited, but his patience is not. As Matthew Henry put it, his reprieves are not pardons. Just like with that generation of Hebrews, there will be the last chance, and then that’s it. If that applies to you, then please read this.

Or perhaps you’re a believer in Christ. You’re saved, but there’s some area of disobedience. Yes, you know better. I believe that believers can harden their hearts as well; Paul warned against “[quenching] the Spirit,” right? The Spirit might even be speaking right now. Are you listening?

Father, please give me a soft heart and listening ears. When your Spirit speaks, I need to pay attention.

[Feb 12]--Castles in the Sand

Psalm 90

I remember as a kid reading Ozymandias, a poem by Percy Shelly. You can look it up on Wikipedia, but I can summarize it here. It’s a short sonnet recounting how the poet went to Egypt and saw the remains of a statue, half-buried in the sand. At the base of the broken statue lies the inscription “"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" In other words, this great emperor once commanded the lives of millions of people and inscribed this great tribute to his power and glory. And Shelly is putting on stark display the king's foolishness to think that his works would be an eternal monument to his greatness.

I thought about that story as I read today’s passage. This Psalm is unique, being the only one (according to the Superscript) composed by Moses. Assuming he’s the author, then he would have a good perspective on the two main points here.

The first issue he raises is the eternity of God. Moses uses an interesting phrase here: “From everlasting to everlasting.” This means from eternity past to eternity future. Before the stars and planets were flung into their proper orbits, he was God. Trillions of years from now, when the stars have grown cold, he will still be God. He has never changed, and he never will. A thousand years are nothing to him. Nations rise and fall, deluding themselves into thinking that they’re going to last forever. Kings, Presidents, and dictators do everything in their power to insure that they’ll be remembered forever. And the Almighty laughs.

In contrast to the everlasting God stands fragile, mortal man. The best of us live 70-80 years (maybe a little more if we live right), and then we’re gone. Moses compares us to new grass, which flourishes in the morning, but is burned up by the heat by the end of the day. Literally it’s “here today, gone tomorrow.” From the greatest of kings to the lowliest of slaves, all of us have an appointment with death, and the ironic thing is that very shortly all of us will be forgotten.

So what should we do about this? Well, the first thing I notice from this passage is that we need a “heart of wisdom.” How do we do this? By numbering our days. This doesn’t mean that we literally count our days; instead we need to take stock of our immortality and prepare for the inevitable.

And it starts with the truth found in the first verse: make the Lord your “dwelling place.” Make him your refuge. Trust in him. Do what he says. Submit to his instructions. Find your satisfaction in his “unfailing love.”

And then an amazing thing happens. Notice the last verse of the prayer? He asks the Lord to “establish the work of [their] hands.” How can that be? Didn’t he just spend the last 16 verse talking about the brevity of our lives, and that nothing we accomplish has any permanent meaning? Yes, but if we commit our way to him, then we CAN have an eternal impact. What we do in the here and now counts forever. We don’t have to be like poor Ozymandias, building castles in the sand which will be dust and ashes someday. When the stars have grown cold, our work will have just begun.

Father, from everlasting to everlasting, you are God, and there is no other. Please help me to number my days aright, so that I can gain a heart of wisdom. Whatever it takes.

[Feb 11]--Out of the Depths

Psalm 88

I said this while discussing the friend’s betrayal in Psalm 55, and it bears repeating here: I really hope this passage applies to you as little as possible. If you read Psalm 88 and come away thinking “Man, those sons of Korah really nailed it! It sounds like they’ve been bugging our house!” then I really feel for you.

This has got to be one of the darkest and most depressing portions of Scripture. The very first verse addresses the Lord as “the God who saves me” or “God my Savior.” That is the only positive note in this entire Psalm. The rest is pure despair, without one ray of hope.

In fact, Job himself could have really sympathized with this portrayal. The author of this Psalm was abandoned by everyone who ever meant anything to him. His closest friends all avoided him (literally) like the plague, since he was apparently stricken with some loathsome disease (vs. 8). He was overwhelmed with some sort of personal disaster, and grief filled his days and nights (9). Verses 4-5 describe a man who was written off by everyone who knew him, setting him apart with the dead, in effect counting him as a “dead man walking.”

The main difference between this man and Job, however, was the length of suffering the respective men had faced. Job’s afflictions began when he was a middle-aged man, and it had only gone on for a few months when his friends confronted him. All told, the impression I get from his book is that he only went through his experience for a relatively short amount of time (of course, it probably felt like years). Not so this Psalmist. Look at verse 15: “From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death.” In other words, this man had suffered for year after year after year. He apparently had never known a life without this misery.

And just as it was with Job, the worst part was the feeling of total abandonment from God himself. Actually, it was much worse. Nowhere in this Psalm will you find him placing blame on anyone else but God for what he was going through: “You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths.” “Your wrath lies heavily upon me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves.” “You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them.” “Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me.” As far as he was concerned, God was doing all of this.

And unlike the rest of the Psalms like this, where the authors were crying out to God for deliverance, there was no “happy ending” here. Psalm 13, for example, had some pretty desperate words about David’s situation, but he ended on hope. The other Psalms called out to the Lord to deliver them out of their dire circumstances, but they ended on a bright note of hope that he would, in the right time and in the right way, save them out of their troubles. Again, not so here. I wasn’t 100% accurate a minute ago when I said that all his friends had abandoned him. He did have one last companion: darkness. The last verse declares that the darkness was his closest "friend." That’s about as low as you can get.

So why did I include this Psalm in the devotional? Did I want you to get depressed? Of course not. As I stated before, I hope that you can relate to this author just as little as possible. But all of us have “blue days,” some people more than others, and it’s just possible that someone reading this, either now or in the future, can find himself in a place not unlike this man's.

So instead of worrying about why I included it, it might be useful to ponder why God would include something like this in his word. I mean, Paul is pretty clear that all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, correcting, and training in righteousness. So why would God do it? Because the Lord wants us to come to him. Even when we’re angry and bitter towards him, bordering on hatred. Even when we blame him for all the terrible things in our lives. He wants us to come to him so much that he puts words in our mouths to express our grief and anger and despair like this.

The lesson I want to get from this is pretty clear. No matter what, we need to be open and honest with him about the emotions we’re facing. If you’re feeling anger towards him, then come to him and tell him about it! If you feel like God is treating you unfairly, then tell him about it! But the key is to come to him and lay your heart out before him. I promise you, he’s listening, and he’s waiting for you to come.

Father God, I thank you for your listening ear. Even when I’m being foolish enough to doubt your goodness, you want me to come. Thank you.

[Feb 10]--Undivided Heart

Psalm 86

Before we get to the subject of today’s title, I’d like to point out some very note-worthy verses. Vs. 8 asserts that there is no God like the Lord. Well, of course he’s not like the gods that the pagans worship; to start off, he actually exists, so there’s one main distinction right there! But even if there were “gods” out there, none of them would be worthy of trust, praise, and worship like the one true God. That’s why David is coming to him in his time of trouble, which is the main point of the Psalm. But then he makes a wonderful promise, inspired by the Holy Spirit. Read vss. 9-10, slowly. Note the universality: Not some, not most, but all the nations which the Lord has made will one day come before him and bow down in worship and bring glory to his name. Why? Two reasons. (1) Because of what he's done (great and marvelous deeds) and (2) Because of who he is (the only God). Despite the best efforts of the Enemy (or maybe even because of them), we'll eventually see this come to pass.

Why did I bring this up? Didn’t we just study Psalm 67, which talks about God’s plan to reclaim the nations? Yes we did, but I just thought that this would be a great spring board for some research my wife and I did a few years ago. We read all through the Psalms and took note of every time there’s a mention of the “nations” (or Gentiles, same word) worshiping the one true Lord alongside Israel. We counted each time this was predicted or in which the Psalmist expressed a desire to see it happen. By our count, we found 19 Psalms that fit this criteria, with 43 verses in these Psalms which at least mention or strongly hint about God’s desire to redeem the nations. As John Piper put it, missions exist because worship doesn't. In a very real sense, every missionary and every evangelist (and every believer obedient to the Great Commission) is a worship recruiter.

But let’s move on to the main subject for today. Whenever I read a passage like vs. 11, I always think of my favorite quote by Kierkegaard, the Lutheran theologian. He defined purity of heart (which our Lord blessed) as desiring one thing out of life. That was David’s prayer, that the Lord would give him an undivided heart, so that he (David) could fear his name. I certainly can’t claim that I’m anywhere close to that. In fact, the closer I get to Christ, the clearer I see how far I fall short.

But the good news is that he lives within me, and he isn’t finished with me yet. He is continually purifying me, and even the desire to have a pure heart comes ultimately from him. But this prayer so captures what I want to see in my life. I want to love him with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength. And it starts out with crying out to him, asking for him to fill me. Do you want that too?

Lord Jesus, I’m nowhere near where I need to be, but by your grace I want to be. This is the cry of my heart: an undivided heart, so that I may fear your name.

[Feb 09]--Pilgrimage

Psalm 84

For several years I’ve had an interest in history, especially church history. I believe that every generation has its own mistakes to which it’s prone, so we can use the insight of people from bygone eras to look at our own with more objectivity.

One of the biggest differences I’ve seen between this generation and others before it is the sense of pilgrimage. In fact, that’s a word which isn’t used much now, but which was used a lot more frequently a hundred years ago. By this term I’m referring to a deeper understanding that this world is not our final home. And it’s that theme that is woven through today’s reading.

The author (or authors) starts out with a declaration of longing for God’s dwelling place. Of course, it’s not God's temple per se which he’s missing so much as it's God’s presence. No matter where the Lord was, this man wanted to be there. It’s a very poignant image he presents in vs. 3. There were stringent restrictions on who could enter certain parts of the tabernacle (or temple). There were sections only priests could enter. And in the center of it all, only the High Priest could enter the Most Holy Place within the inner sanctuary where the Ark was. But apparently there were no restrictions on animals like little birds. One of the humblest of creatures had a place next to God’s altar, and how envious this man was of those little birds! To have unrestricted access to the very presence of the Almighty! To be able to bask in his glory without fear, without shame, and without guilt!

But then the Psalmist talks about more blessings even during the travel to God’s house. He pronounces a blessing on those who've set their hearts on pilgrimage. Faithful Jews were expected to come to Jerusalem at least three times during the year. Remember, this was a time in which no one had access to automobiles, and most had no access to any type of transportation besides feet. To travel from one part of the nation to the City of David was not something to undertake lightly; in fact, they would pretty much would have to set their heart on it.

And there are two striking things about it. First, they are blessed, but they’re also a blessing to others. We’re not sure where “Baka” is, or if it’s a literal place. “Baka” means “weeping,” so it might be symbolic of any place that’s arid on the way to Jerusalem. As these pilgrims pass through, they turn desert wastes into places of springs.

Also there’s a wonderful promise to them. Trekking through dangerous wilderness on tiresome journey, they have the assurance that the Lord himself will supply them with what they need for each step. They go from “strength to strength”; in other words, when one source of strength is about to wear out, another one will come along. Please note that he doesn’t normally supply everything we need for the entire journey, just what we need for this very moment.

But it’s all worth it. Every expense, every heartache, every sacrifice they have to make is worth it in the end. The “wicked” might stand off to the side and call them fools, but the Psalmist would rather spend one day in the presence of his Lord than a thousand days elsewhere. In fact, he'd rather take the lowest of the lowest spot, just as long as he can be close to his Savior God. Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost famously boasted that he'd rather reign in Hell than serve in Heaven, and that’s the exact opposite spirit here.

So this is the spirit of pilgrimage: First, it starts out with a longing for God, which will take whatever we can get of his presence over the best that the world has to offer. It sees how much a blessing we can be to others as we pass through our “Valley of Baka.” It sees how he carries us each step of the way. And finally, it sees how much it’s worth it. It bears repeating, since it’s so true: There's never been a single person who gave up something to God who ended up regretting it in the end.

Lord Jesus, I thank you for carrying me this far. Truly one day in your court, even on the outskirts is better than anything this world has to offer.

[Feb 08]--The Lunatics Are In Charge!

Psalm 79

We spoke about God and politics a couple of days ago, but there are just a couple more points I’d like to make about the issue. Remember the conversation/argument I had with my brother in Christ a few years ago? There was something else I read around that time that put that--and every other--election into perspective. I was a subscriber to Our Daily Bread, a daily devotional put out by Radio Bible Class. I also received their quarterly newsletter, and something they wrote just prior to the election has stuck with me since that day. I’m reproducing it from memory, but basically what they wrote was this: “As of this writing, the Presidential election is still a couple of months out. But no matter who wins it, there are some principles we can learn from God’s word. Sometimes the Lord gives us a leader like David or Hezekiah, a godly man who cares about others, who can take correction, who wholeheartedly seeks after God’s wisdom and guidance. And at other times. . . .he gives us the type of leader we really deserve.”

That's absolutely true, both on a spiritual level and on a human level, especially in a representative democracy, where we actually have a voice in our government. None of us deserve anything from the Lord except judgment, and when he does bless us with a godly leader who's wise and who actually takes God’s word seriously, we should rejoice. When we have someone who doesn’t measure up to that standard, when it seems like—in the words of the old cliché—“The lunatics are in charge of the asylum!!” then what should we do?

Before we start getting any lessons from this Psalm, I need to make sure I’m perfectly clear. I don’t believe that we’re on the cusp of some huge organized persecution like in Soviet Russia. I don’t foresee us being herded into prison camps or arrested en masse for the crime of being Christians. It might someday come to that, but I don’t think it’s immanent. So when I use this Psalm, I’m not trying to hint that we’re heading towards scenes like the ones described there.

But when we have leadership over us who seems to be hostile to what God’s word teaches, there are some principles we can learn. First, we need to examine ourselves (vss. 8-9). Multiple times in history, God used hard times to bring his children back into line with his instructions. So if the political situation seems to be getting grimmer, then we need to start out on our knees. Psalm 139: 23-24 is my standard prayer: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

Second, we need to remember who's ultimately in charge. When the nation was in trouble, the Psalmist immediately went to the one Person who could actually rescue them. This doesn’t excuse the foolishness of men or take away any responsibility for their actions. Nor does it call for us to be politically uninvolved. But to paraphrase another Psalm, some trust in ballots, others trust in bullets, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.

Finally, when times get better (and I think they will), we need to praise our Savior God for the relief he provides. Once he decides that we’ve been through enough, his deliverance will come. And when it does, we need to echo the Psalmist’s last word: “Then we your people, the sheep of your pasture, will praise you forever; from generation to generation we will proclaim your praise.”

Father God, you’re in charge, even when it doesn’t look like it. I will trust in your name. Jesus, like your name says, you are the Lord who saves.

[Feb 07]--Selective Amnesia

Psalm 78:1-22, 34-38

I worked as a sales representative for a pest control company for a little over a year, and it was—without a doubt—the most stressful job I’ve ever had. The hours weren’t that bad, the pay was really good, and I got along great with most of my co-workers. The problem, probably endemic to just about every sales job out there, was summed up in a common question asked by my boss on a regular basis: “What have you done for me lately?” He didn’t care if I had made a lot of sales last year, last month, or even last week. If I wasn’t making the numbers required, then my job was on the line. More so than in any other profession, my job was continually in jeopardy.

The reason I bring this up is because I think of that question whenever I think about the history of Israel. Psalm 78 has 72 verses, so we won’t read them all here. The rest of the Psalm basically goes through a list of how God had blessed Israel over and over and over, starting in the land of Egypt and continuing through to the present day. He'd chosen them out of all the peoples of the earth, not because they deserved it, but because of his sovereign choice and because of his promises to Abraham. He'd performed incredible miracles, signs, and judgments in Egypt, and delivered them out of death and slavery. Let’s make just a partial list of what he did—just during the time of Moses, shall we? The ten plagues of Egypt (sparing the Hebrews), the parting of the Red Sea, a cloud to shade them by day, a fire to give them light at night, bread out of heaven, water from a rock, protection from their enemies, victory in combat, the giving of the Law, etc.

And what had been their response to all this? Gratitude? Obedience? No—selective amnesia. Asking him continually “So what have you done for me lately?” Repeated rebellion. Continuous complaints. Attributing to God the basest of motives (“He’s brought us out here to kill us all!”).

And how did he treat them? With patience. Kindness. Mother-like gentleness. Mercy. Grace. When God revealed himself to Moses, he called himself “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” Time after time after time, he demonstrated this.

Why do I bring this all up? Well, why do you think I brought it up? Because Israel’s history is ours. How often has my Father blessed me and I take his goodness for granted? How often has he forgiven me for outright rebellion?

Please don’t misunderstand me. The point here is not to lay a guilt trip on you or me, at least that’s not the goal. The goal is to inspire some gratitude, and maybe a stronger commitment to following him more closely and listening to his instructions more intently. And maybe to stop asking that stupid question.

Lord Jesus, you are so good to me. You have blessed me so much in so many areas of my life. Please help me to trust, and to obey.

[Feb 06]--God and Politics

Psalm 75

I attended East Texas Baptist University, so all of my fellow students at least claimed to be Christians. Thus, although we had some interesting theological discussions, we didn’t have too many in which there was a really sharp disagreement. But I remember one conversation I had with a dear brother in Christ, and unfortunately it rapidly turned into a vehement difference of opinion which stayed just shy of a shouting match. It was in 1996, just on the eave of a Presidential election, and we were discussing the possible outcomes.

We were both rooting for the same man, but our difference unfolded on the issue of what God’s will was. I proposed (what I thought) was the Biblical position that whoever was elected President was put in the White House because the Lord put him there. My friend countered “So what about Hitler? Was he put into power by God’s decree?” Based upon my understanding of the Bible, I'd have to say yes. In fact, I'd go even further. People tend to forget this, but Stalin made Hitler look like an amateur when it came to mass murder, and Mao Tse-Tong leaves them all behind in the dust. According to Scripture, God placed each one of those men in power.

What really disturbed me was that this was actually a controversial issue, since the Bible seems to be pretty clear on it. Roman 13:1-4 explicitly teaches it. Much of the book of Daniel deals with God’s sovereign control over the nations, especially in his dealings with Nebuchadnezzar in chapter 4. This is the main point that the king learned the hard way: “[The] Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.” Today’s Psalm repeats this motif—“No one from the east or the west or from the desert can exalt themselves. But it is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another.”

Now, when I said "controversial" in the last paragraph, I didn't mean it in the sense of "difficult to accept." Of course this is really tough for us to accept, especially when we're under leadership which seems to be incompetent at best and blatantly anti-God at worst. I get that. I struggle with this as well. But if the Bible is God's inerrant word to us, then in the end we have to decide whether we're going to accept it or not. And the Bible is crystal clear that 1) God is sovereign and places people in authority (and removes them) as he chooses, and 2) Every individual is responsible before the Lord for the sinful choices he/she makes.

It might help us, however if we clarify what this does not mean. Remember what we discussed last year when looking at Joseph and his brothers? The Bible’s teaching on sovereignty does not mean that God somehow “takes over” people’s brains and makes them do something they don’t want to do. The Lord used the sinful decisions made by Joseph’s brothers to bring about a great deliverance.

Also we need to keep in mind that just because the Lord places someone in authority, that doesn’t mean that he (God) approves of everything that the authority does. I actually feel weird having to tell someone this, since there are sooooo many counter-examples to this nonsensical idea: Pharaoh, King Saul, Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar (also in the book of Daniel), and my personal favorite—Pontius Pilate. All of these men were specifically described in Scripture as being placed by God into a position of authority, and all of them came under his judgment for doing something wrong.

So what do we do with this? Right now, there are a lot of Christians, especially politically conservative ones, who are very dismayed by the results of the last Presidential election. I share a lot of their concerns. But can we keep some perspective? Can we keep in mind that our Father is the one who placed him where he is today? This means that our Lord has placed him there with a purpose in mind. And if he’s doing something that you disagree with--especially if it’s something that’s blatantly against God’s word--then by all means speak up. But please keep calm, and remember that our loving Father is still on his throne. Trust me, he really does know what he’s doing.

Father, you’re in charge, and I can trust you. You are good, and you are God. That’s really all I need to know, isn’t it?

[Feb 05]--Love for the Loveless

Psalm 68:1-19

As you might've guessed from my writing, I love “tension” verses. This is my term for verses which display in front of us two great Scriptural truths held in tension. For example, Phil. 2:12-13 on one hand tells us to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” which talks about the effort we have to put into displaying our salvation through our actions. On the other hand, the very next verse shows the other half of the tension: “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” We work out our salvation, but the Lord works in us to accomplish this.

This Psalm contains another “tension” verse, and it’s one of the most beautiful in all of Scripture. Look at vs. 5: “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.” Here we have wonderfully presented both the immanence and transcendence of our God.

Let’s focus on the second half first. God is in his holy dwelling. The word “holy,” remember, means “different” or “separate.” He’s God, and we’re not. He’s up in heaven, directing the affairs of nations and keeping the stars in their proper orbits. He moves world leaders around like pieces on a chess board. He holds the future of the human race in his hands, and everything is going forward according to his ultimate plan, despite how it looks at times. Angels--creatures before whom we would be tempted to bow down--come before him and make sure to shield their faces with their wings as they approach.

With a God like this, how could we possibly think that he actually cares about my personal problems? I’m late with my bills as it is, and the boss is talking about layoffs. My marriage is on the rocks, and it looks like it’s about to take the final crash. Or maybe you’re really desperate, like the “fatherless” or the “widows” of that time. Fathers and husbands were the main protectors and providers of families. They were there to make sure there was food on the table and that the family wasn’t taken advantage of. Without him, there would be little hope.

But remember our discussion of the concept of a "Kinsman-Redeemer" from last year? If a family member had no source of income, or was being oppressed by someone, then it was this person's job to step in for the family member. That’s the same idea behind the word “defender” in vs. 5. If a “fatherless” child or a helpless widow had no one to turn to, then the Almighty God himself promised to step forward and be their Father and their Defender. In fact, the very next verse goes even further—“God sets the lonely in families.” One way or another, he'd provide the family they needed.

Maybe someone who’s reading this doesn’t even have a father, humanly speaking. Your father barely even merits the title. If so, I promise you that our Heavenly Father is not like that. Yes, he’s directing the affairs of the nations, but he’s never too busy for you. Talk to him. Cry out to him. He’s listening. This can be your personal testimony: “Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior, who daily bears our burdens.”

Father God, you are the Father to the fatherless and the Defender or widows in your holy dwelling. I praise you, and I thank you.

[Feb 04]--The Reason For It All

Psalm 67

Anyone who knows me is aware that my passion for some time has been international missions. There are a lot of people all over the world who haven’t heard the Good News, or if they have, then it hasn’t been in a format to which they can relate effectively, and I plan to be involved in the endeavor to reach them with the Good News in a way they can understand and respond to.

Lot of Christians think that the Great Commission was God’s first official sending-out of believers to tell unevangelized people about Christ. That’s true to a certain extent, but his plan to redeem the nations is found throughout the Bible, starting in Genesis 12. Since today’s psalm is a favorite among missions-minded believers, let’s see what we can learn from it.

First, we need to understand the ultimate purpose for our blessings. Note the phrasing of the first two verses: “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine upon us so that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations.” America, as I’ve mentioned before, is by far the richest and most prosperous nation in human history. Our poor people tend to have a weight problem. Immigrants risk their lives everyday in order to share in our prosperity. And why has God blessed us so much? Just so we can enjoy it? No, so that we can use those blessings to bring knowledge of him to the world.

Second, we need to understand the ultimate purpose for missions. This might shock you, but the ultimate reason you were saved was not for your own sake. Yes, God loves us and doesn’t want us to go to hell, but that’s not the primary reason why we were saved. The primary reason why you were saved was to bring glory to God. In other words, it’s not all about you. And as a corollary to this, what’s the primary purpose for missions? As John Piper once put it, missions exists because worship does not. Yes, we want to see people saved from eternal darkness, but we must fix in our mind that the reason why we’re doing all of this is to recruit worshipers.

Third, we need to see the ultimate turnaround. Did you notice how the psalm ends? When all the nations are worshiping the Lord as he deserves, then "[The] land yields its harvest, and God, our God, blesses us. May God bless us still, and all the ends of the earth will fear him.” Once the “peoples” start worshiping God the way he deserves, then the blessings will flow back to us. It’s like the opposite of a vicious cycle; more like a blessed cycle, so to speak.

Let’s get practical for a moment. We’ve been at war with some segments of the Muslim world for several years now. I’m not against defending ourselves, but I'd submit that the only thing that will bring peace to the Middle East (and thus benefit us) would be the Good News of Jesus Christ. Once peoples’ hearts get changed by the Prince of Peace, then real and lasting change can result.

So the question is, what part in all this will you play in all this? What’s your focus?

Father God, you have given the nations to your Son as an inheritance, and I want to play a part in helping him claim that. Show me what to do, and I’ll do it.