Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 19

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‘Pe’

There is a mantra, a cliché, a rumbling reaction whenever an ideological conflict arises between members of society. The most vocal insist their rivals are motivated by nothing less than ignorance and hatred along with a good dose of hypocrisy. Any expression in opposition to their voice is routinely termed harassment and is dealt with sternly. These are the current buzzwords. They are emotionally charged words intended to hijack and shut down all dialogue through the shaming of any dissenters. This is twenty-first century western society, and if you don’t agree, you must be one of the ignorant, hateful bullies out there.

It was not much different three millennia ago. The psalmist who wrote ‘Pe’, the seventeenth stanza of the longest Psalm, felt it. He understood that following the precepts of the eternal God—principles and standards for human flourishing—was not politically correct. He felt the oppression both from external sources and from his own internal bent toward selfish autonomy. But was he a perpetrator of ignorance, hatred, and harassment?

“Your statues are wonderful;” the psalmist begins, “therefore I obey them. / The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple. / I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands. / Turn to me and have mercy on me, as you always do to those who love your name. / Direct my footsteps according to your word; let no sin rule over me. / Redeem me from the oppression of men, that I may obey your precepts. / Make your face shine upon your servant and teach me your decrees. / Streams of tears flow from my eyes, for your law is not obeyed.”

Firstly, the psalmist recognizes that his faith is based on understanding—on reasoning and on thinking rightly about God, himself and the world around him. “The Bible,” explains theologian Timothy Keller, “teaches that faith is not only compatible with reason, but that it consists of, requires, and even stimulates profound thinking, reasoning, and rationality.” Christians are deeply committed to truth. So while Christians may need to discern the nuances and applications of truth in difficult areas, they are more likely to be committed to embracing truth than to hide in ignorance. All truth is God’s truth, and “exists,” explains John Piper, “to display more of God and awaken more love for God.”

This brings us to the second challenge. Are Christians defined by hatred? The psalmist describes people of faith as “those who love (Yahweh’s) name.” Jesus expands on that by summarizing God’s Law as “Love the LORD your God…and love your neighbour as yourself.” And the evening before His death Jesus reiterated His foundational command to His followers to “Love each other.” So, just as with ignorance, the accusation of hatred is neither founded nor representative of people who live by faith. A Christ-follower’s life and beliefs may be different from and unpopular with that of the culture around her, but it is not a result of hatred.

And thirdly, how does the psalmist address the accusation of hypocrisy? “Direct my footsteps,” submits the psalmist, “according to your word; let no sin rule over me.” The psalmist recognizes that integrity occurs when understanding and love inform action. Authentic living is the result of ceding God’s authority over our lives and then making choices that are in alignment with His sovereignty over us. Hypocrisy is either the result of saying ‘God is in charge’—but then living as if we are, or else of saying ‘There is no God and no basis for morality’—but then expecting others to abide by our subjective beliefs about ‘rights’. Both worldviews are foreign to Christianity.

The psalmist verbalizes for us that faith is the kingpin for right living. By faith we are given understanding, by faith we are enabled to truly love, and by faith we walk according to the light. These are not in, or by, or of ourselves, but as a result of the indwelling Spirit of Jesus who epitomizes truth, love, and authenticity. The more seriously we embrace faith, the less prone we will be to engage in ignorance or hatred or hypocrisy.

Photo Credit: MeghanBustardphotography

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 18

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‘Ayin’

The most awful realization is that one can never be good enough for God. It is also the most wonderful. No accumulation of good deeds could ever outweigh the sins we’ve committed or earn us eternal life, but then again, it doesn’t need to.

“The gospel,” explains theologian Tim Keller, “is, you’re more sinful than you ever dared believe, but you’re more loved and accepted in Christ than you ever dared hope.”

So in ‘Ayin’—the sixteenth stanza of Psalm 119—as the psalmist opens with the apparent corollary: “I have done what is righteous and just; do not leave me to my oppressors”, we must be careful not to make a faulty assumption. The psalmist is not saying that he has an inherent goodness, which has put God in debt to him to make his life easy. Rather, the psalmist knows of an ancient pronouncement made by God regarding humanity—a presage that hinted of a distant future: In order for anyone to truly flourish in full and joyful relationship with God, a certain Someone must and would come to “crush the head” of evil. Only then would the proper relationship between God and people be restored, would rebellion and its consequences be vanquished, and would love overrule law. Not surprisingly, the psalmist builds the remainder of his stanza around the theme of the loving Master-servant relationship. Listen.

“I have done what is righteous and just; do not leave me to my oppressors. / Ensure your servant’s well-being; let not the arrogant oppress me. / My eyes fail, looking for your salvation, looking for your righteous promise. / Deal with your servant according to your love and teach me your decrees. / I am your servant; give me discernment that I may understand your statutes. / It is time for you to act, O LORD; your law is being broken. / Because I love your commands more than gold, more than pure gold, and because I consider all your precepts right, I hate every wrong path.”

We need to consider our reaction to the psalmist’s three-fold use of the term “servant”. Virtually every human based master-servant relationship to ever have occurred in history has been painfully flawed: masters have abused their power causing much suffering; servants have resented their masters’ power, secretly trying to undermine it. It has been a lose-lose situation.

But imagine a Master whose character is noble and perfectly good, who is loving and generous and just. Imagine a Master whose goal is to empower His servants to steward tremendous resources put into their care. Imagine a Master who shares with His servants the fruit of all His labours and who helps them find greater freedom within their servanthood than they could ever experience in their rebellion. Imagine a Master who became human to “ma(k)e himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant…and who…humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:7,8). This is the Master-servant relationship the psalmist catches a glimpse of in his psalm.

The psalmist hints at this relationship because he–writer in the second millenium B.C.– occupies a place in history well before the arrival of Jesus, the Master-incarnated-as-servant. He is yet “looking for (the One who would be his) salvation.” But leaf forward through the pages of Scripture to the Gospel of John, and we hear Jesus speaking to His disciples on the night before His crucifixion.

“You call me Teacher and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet” (John 13:13,14).

Jesus claims to be the Lord God, the eternal Master of humanity, calling loving hearts to be His servants, recipients of His love, to even become transformed individuals. And how must they demonstrate this new role? Like their Master, they must serve others with humility and love; they must demonstrate their new life to the Master who took the sting out of death by bearing the spiritual death penalty Himself in His crucifixion. They must fix their hope on the eternity their Master Jesus has prepared for them—an eternity of productive, fulfilling, beloved servanthood.

So while it is natural to call upon God to interrupt the oppression and injustice we suffer at times, it is important we recognize God’s greatest act of justice in the history of humankind—the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His death has made impotent the power of evil. His resurrection has given His followers new lives that will eventually be characterized perfectly by Christ’s own character.

Let’s join the psalmist in looking to God’s salvation, His righteous promise: Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, whose perfect goodness is credited to our account as we entrust ourselves to Him.

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 17

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‘Samekh’

Kim Peek could read two pages of an open book at one time by splitting his vision. Using his unique savant skill, Peek was able to memorize more than 9,000 books while he had an IQ rated at only 87. It seems that the prenatal development of his corpus callosum—the tissue normally connecting the two hemispheres of a brain—had somehow been arrested, leaving him with a condition known as ‘split-brain’. The surgical operation to produce this condition is called corpus callosotomy, and is used to reduce epileptic seizures. It seems to accomplish its purpose, but it comes with the strange side effect of dis-integrated actions. In one instance, a split-brain individual was documented as finding himself pulling down one pant leg with his left hand while pulling up the other pant leg with his right because of dueling desires to undress and dress. There are difficulties with being double-minded.

In ‘Samekh’, the fifteenth stanza of Psalm 119, the Psalmist tackles the dilemma of double-minded thinking. He is appealing to God with deep intensity a prayer borne out of experience. He has felt the sting of opponents whose double-minded treachery has traumatized him. Perhaps he has even felt the influence of succumbing to their faithless double-dealing deceptions. The old King James version begins by translating his words as, “I hate vain thoughts…” Actions begin with thoughts, and none of us are immune to surrendering our minds to moments of low and ignoble imaginings in the hidden arena of our thoughts. Hatred against this most base indication of human degradation is appropriate. There is something in each of us—the vestige of a memory—that knows we were created for true and noble thoughts; we cringe when we recognize how far and how easily we can slip from the single-minded, undivided loyalty to our Creator and His calling.

With this caveat in mind, we read a newer version/translation of the stanza to say, “I hate double-minded men, but I love your law. You are my refuge and my shield; I have put my hope in your word.”

Why does the psalmist contrast double-mindedness with loving/hoping in God’s word? It sounds like he’s comparing apples to obelisks. We might need to begin by exploring and defining double-minded thinking.

Double-mindedness is a mindset of dualism that separates life into disconnected categories. Relationships, work, leisure, goals, desires, character and behaviour all stand apart from one another, and may be manipulated to achieve whatever an individual desires. There is no regard for any integrated whole to the sum of the parts of that individual’s life. If one were to investigate this kind of life more thoroughly, one would find inconsistencies and illogical, indefensible reasoning, a foundation crumbling from within. Double-minded thinking causes people to reject truths that annoy them and imprecate “Ignorant!” to deflect reality from piercing their souls.

Whereas, loving God’s revealed truths—His principles for living, His solution for our rebellion and His goals for our future—is the epitome of single-minded wholehearted thinking. It provides an integrity for our lives. It gives cohesion and logical coherence to everything we think, say and do. Only God can provide true single-mindedness. He does it by directing us to “Fix (your) eyes on Jesus,” to “Set your minds on things above…with Christ,” and to “not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves…(but to) do what it says(!)”

This is why Jesus is quoted so many times as prefacing His remarks with the phrase, “I tell you the truth.” It is because He intends us to pay close attention to His words, to mull over them, to discuss them with other people and wrestle with the concepts until we can incorporate them fully into our lives. His words make us people of integrity and are the only remedy for double-mindedness.

“I will give them singleness of heart and action” promises God to the body of people He considers His children. What a promise! Let’s reach out and embrace Jesus, accept the gift, and embody the trueness He longs to impart deep into our being.

 

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 16

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‘Nun’

Taking the ‘path of least resistance’—also known as the principle of least effort—is the brain’s natural impulse to choose the easiest route. Art Markman, cognitive scientist at the University of Texas, suggests that the path of least resistance is also a dead end to finding solutions to difficult problems. “Our memory drives us back to things tried and true” says Markman, even if those solutions no longer work for today’s problems. For instance, the ‘white lie’, used in the past to escape interpersonal consequences for seemingly ‘unimportant’ issues, becomes a major dead end to developing a long-term relationship like marriage. Markman suggests three solutions to combatting the principle of least effort: “expand the information you have in memory, re-frame the creative problem, and change your collaborators.”

The psalmist pens a lyrical yet strangely parallel message in ‘Nun’, his fourteenth stanza of Psalm 119.

“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path. / I have taken an oath and confirmed it, that I will follow your righteous laws. / I have suffered much; preserve my life, O LORD, according to your word. / Accept, O LORD, the willing praise of my mouth, and teach me your laws. / Though I constantly take my life in my hands, I will not forget your law. / The wicked have set a snare for me, but I have not strayed from your precepts. / Your statutes are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart. / My heart is set on keeping your decrees to the very end” (Psalm 119:105-112).

The psalmist seems to apply Markman’s three points to the ancient yet common human dilemma of breaking out of the rut of life. Look carefully and we see the psalmist’s formula: Scripture as a directive resource, eternity-informed living, and God as collaborator.

Step One. The truest way to break out of our comfort zone and see the world and ourselves in a new way is to take God’s Word seriously. The psalmist recognizes God’s Word as the only light to truly reveal wise living, and he takes an oath to bind himself to it; he is fully cognizant of the restraint this will put on his future decisions, but he understands the principle of freedom-producing restrictions. A mindset of keeping God’s decrees—summed up by Jesus as firstly loving God wholeheartedly and secondly loving our fellow human beings as creations of God—expands the information in our memory as to be a powerful decision-making resource.

Step Two. Eternity-informed living is the most radical way to re-frame our problem. Earth as the stage wherein we access God’s mercy through Jesus’ sin-paying ransom for us is the most profound and far-reaching innovative thought to ever hit our species. The hope offered us not only sets our sights on a glorious afterlife, it gives us strengthening support in our present hardships.

Step Three. Make God our number one collaborator. God’s approach to human living is radically different than our natural bent. Read the gospels and see if the way Jesus lived and taught wasn’t counter-cultural to the nth degree. A commitment to listening to the Holy Spirit speaking through Scripture and through the life of Jesus will force us to consider things from a completely new perspective. Yet the psalmist recognizes God is not only the perfect collaborator; He is ultimately Master and Lord. Our autonomy must bow to His authority. Then and only then will we experience the strange oxymoron that dying to self produces full, flourishing life.

Bowing to the deep innate drive to satisfy self is nothing more than the path of least resistance, the principle of least effort. Bowing to the Almighty Creator resists that path. Obeying God’s Word, accepting Jesus’ authority, and inviting His Spirit to indwell us is the beautifully releasing restraint that guides us to be truly human for eternity. It’s a choice—a challenging, breath-taking, leap-of-faith choice—but it’s infinitely more satisfying than the old life. Come; join the resistance.

Photo Credit: Mr. Arif Solak [[File:Caglayan Waterfalls Honaz Denizli Turkey.jpg|thumb|Caglayan Waterfalls Honaz Denizli Turkey]]

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 15

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‘Mem’

Comparison provides context. In Jonathan Swift’s classic tale, Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver observes “a royal personage inspiring awe among the tiny Lilliputians because he was taller than his brethren by the breadth of a human fingernail.” In this case, the character Gulliver—of gigantic proportions compared to his miniature captors—sees from his perspective the diminutive physical differences that constitute ‘royalty’ by Lilliputian standards as nothing compared to his own human size.

In the same way, the writer of Psalm 119 uses comparison in this thirteenth stanza labeled ‘Mem’. He uses it to help him register the impact of knowing the boundless, enduring existence of God (especially as extolled in the previous stanza, ‘Lamedh’) in contrast to ignorance of God.

‘Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. / Your commands make me wiser than my enemies, for they are ever with me. / I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statues. / I have more understanding than the elders, for I obey your precepts. / I have kept my feet from every evil path so that I might obey your word. / I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me. / How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! / I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong path” (Psalm 119:97-104).

Did you hear the comparisons: ‘wiser than’, ‘more insight than’, ‘more understanding than’ and ‘sweeter than’? Let’s look a little closer. God’s message to humanity—His word recorded as Scripture and the person of Jesus communicated throughout those Scriptures—is of vastly greater significance than the difference between Gulliver and his Lilliputian governors. The psalmist observes that God’s Word and presence gives him a wisdom advantage not only over his enemies, but also over the wisest of his teachers and leaders. The gospel message of God’s love for humanity has transformed him from the inside out. God’s presence has moved his choices toward an unimagined wholesomeness and given him a greater appetite for virtue than for the sweetest things this world can offer. How is it this change has happened?

An even more ancient writer than the psalmist put it this way. “I kept thinking, ‘Experience will tell. The longer you live, the wiser you become.’ But I see I was wrong—it’s God’s Spirit in a person, the breath of the Almighty One, that makes wise human insight possible’ (Job 32:7,8).

God’s Spirit, the breath of the Almighty One, in us? Impossible as it seems, that is the psalmist’s prayer and the gospel message in a nutshell. The Apostle Paul puts it this way: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” That is the outcome of Christ’s work: His dying to ransom us from our perishing, His resurrection to lay the foundation for our eternal life, His ascension to the heavenly throne of glory, and His indwelling in us to enable us to experience the glory of true humanness as God intended it.

In some ways the psalmist’s comparison only lifts the edge of the page to a whole new story for us. There is really no comparison between the best of what the world can scrape together and the life Jesus offers. It’s not a new, improved and better life. It’s a whole new way of living. So cast off the feeble ties with which this Lilliputian world is trying to hold you down. Rise to a life filled to the fullness of God Himself. Know the One who is Wisdom Himself.

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 14

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‘Lamedh’

At 117, Violet Mosse Brown holds the honour of being earth’s oldest living person. She saw the advent of flight, the early development of the automobile, the overthrow of Czarist Russia, the rise and fall of Nazi Germany, the rum-runners of the Prohibition, and the decolonization of the British Empire. She has outlived everyone in her generation, and most of those in her children’s generation. She predates virtually every household appliance including every digital device upon which our lives are now so dependent. To her, insulin, anaesthesia, and antibiotics are new inventions. If there is one thing we can say about this supracentenarian, it is that she is enduring. But compared to Someone Else, Violet Mosse Brown’s life is but a breath, here today and gone tomorrow—a speck on the horizon of earth’s history. Listen to how the psalmist puts it.

“Your word, O LORD, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens. / Your faithfulness continues through all generations; you established the earth, and it endures. / Your laws endure to this day, for all things serve you. / If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction. / I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have preserved my life. / Save me, for I am yours; I have sought out your precepts. / The wicked are waiting to destroy me, but I will ponder your statutes. / To all perfection I see a limit; but your commands are boundless”(Psalm 119:89-96).

That is ‘Lamedh’, twelfth letter of the Hebrew alphabet and twelfth stanza of Psalm 119. In Lamedh, the psalmist uses words and phrases like “eternal”, “continues through all generations”, “endures”, “preserved” and “boundless” to express the lofty theme of God’s great timelessness. There is something secure and restful in the contemplation of God’s boundless, enduring existence. He is the epitome of one who keeps His word, both because He is unerringly faithful in His promises, and because He is unlimited in His enduring perseverance loving humans.

While the psalmist admits he experiences the affliction and conflict common to humans, he sees himself as brought into an uncommon circle of friendship with God that allows him to request help from God. He says, “For I am yours.” He is claiming God’s ownership of him. He is acknowledging he relinquishes his autonomy and self-made rights, accepting God’s purpose for his life. Not as a mercenary contract but as a natural corollary, the psalmist anticipates being the recipient of God’s great salvation through His word—the living Word we know as Jesus.

Where the psalmist ends, limited by his place in history, other servants of the ever-enduring God continue expanding on the concept of the boundless nature and gift of God. The Apostle Paul records in a letter to early Christians on the coast of present day Turkey a prayer he prays for all who will ever say, “I am yours” to God.

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:16-19).

This passage is rich with descriptions of the boundless love with which our enduring, persevering God wants to transform our lives. His love, rooting and establishing us, fills us with His fullness. It is wider, longer, higher and deeper than we could ever imagine.

Timothy Keller suggests “wide” refers to the scope of God’s love, available to every human being—no exceptions; “long” refers to the eternal nature of His love—His never-ending faithfulness to bring good into our lives; “high” suggests the heavenly realm to which His love will ultimately bring us, where body, soul and spirit will enjoy the fullness of God’s design for humanity; and “deep” reminds us of the depth of horror to which Jesus submitted Himself, dying on the cross to pay the penalty for my sin and yours.

Which brings us back to the psalmist’s request to be saved. God’s love, fully expressed through His Son Jesus, is the culmination of the answer to that prayer. The Father’s love and the Son’s ransom-paying act ultimately save us from ultimate harm, preserving us even through death for a boundless, delightful eternity with Him. Now that’s enduring.

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 13

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‘Kaph’

Hunger, yearning, longing, desire: these are all concepts God endorses. In contrast to Eastern religions, Christianity boldly advocates—even insists upon—desire. We’re not talking about desire as an end in itself, though; that would be discontent. Nor are we talking about desire for anything that attracts us; that would be greed. And we’re definitely not talking about desire for things that could in any way harm us or harm anyone or anything around us; that would be destruction. What Christianity embodies is a desiring for what God specifically promises us in His Word. We’re talking about desiring God. Some of His promises are accessible right now, but some of them are for the future, a distant but very real future. This is what the psalmist speaks of in the stanza labeled ‘Kaph’.

“My soul faints with longing for your salvation, but I have put my hope in your word. / My eyes fail, looking for your promise; I say, ‘When will you comfort me?’ / Though I am like a wineskin in the smoke, I do not forget your decrees. / How long must your servant wait? When will you punish my persecutors? / The arrogant dig pitfalls for me, contrary to your law. / All your commands are trustworthy; help me, for men persecute me without cause. / They almost wiped me from the earth, but I have not forsaken your precepts. / Preserve my life according to your love, and I will obey the statutes of your mouth”(Psalm 119:81-88).

The psalmist is fairly bursting with desire. His soul faints with longing for God’s salvation. His eyes fail for looking for God’s promise. He bemoans how long he is being required to wait for comfort, for relief, for rescue. He desires these things so fully that it occupies his heart, his mind and his senses. This desire is essentially for God to make good on a promise He made centuries earlier. It was a promise initially wreathed in mystery with revelations by increments made through an array of God’s prophets. Yet as little as the psalmist knows of the promise’s vast extent, he is entirely consumed by hoping for it, because he knows it embodies God’s love for him. So the promise itself has been the cause of the desire that fills the psalmist.

Since Jesus incarnated as a man and accomplished His redeeming work on the cross a millennium after the psalmist lived, the bulk of the promise has been fulfilled. But rather than dulling the desire of the promise, He magnifies it. His vast expansive eternal being enlarges and expands our appetite for Him so we desire Him not less than the psalmist but more. It seems to be true that ‘the more you have the more you want’. Jesus’ unbounded, immeasurable, limitless love makes us hunger more for Him with each successive taste of Him we swallow.

Not only is Christ the source of “the mystery of God…in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3), but He is “this mystery…Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). Christ living in the lives of those who invite Him within is both the source of and solution to our deepest desiring. ‘Jesu, joy of man’s desiring’ was Bach’s name for Him. All other desires are cheap imitations of Him our true desire.

“Come, all you who are thirsty,” invites Jesus through the prophet Isaiah, “come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!…Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?…Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David” (Isaiah 55:1-3). If we want our desiring satisfied, it’s Jesus to whom we must come.

(Photo Credit: By Deepak Vallamsetti – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52197985)