Opening the Door to Psalm 119; Part 6

PalmSprings071.JPG

‘Daleth.’

“I am laid low in the dust,” begins the psalmist in ‘Daleth’, the fourth segment of Psalm 119. What a start. There’s nothing proud or glorious here. There’s no false gaiety or bravado insulating how he feels. There is no glossy cover hiding the despair and disappointment. But remember, he’s not speaking to us here; he’s pouring out his heart to God.

I am laid low in the dust; preserve my life according to your word.” The psalmist has bottomed out. It’s not just his feet that are dusty—he is flat out ‘laid low in the dust.’ He’s prostrate in it. The arid silt is gritty between his teeth, it’s stinging his eyes, it’s caked in his ears and it’s filling his nostrils. He’s not denying it. It’s threatening to swallow him into obscurity.

Perhaps he’s remembering the Genesis narrative in which the serpent was relegated to “eat dust” after tempting first-woman and first-man to rebel against God. Then first-man and his progeny were abandoned to return “to dust,” an incredible aftermath for creatures made in God’s image who had until then been feeding on the tree of life! For centuries the psalmist’s people had expressed their deepest sorrows with dust, covering their heads with its colourless, lifeless litter, remembering the curse.

But the psalmist doesn’t stop at the dust. He remembers something deeper and truer than his failings. He remembers God’s WORD. God, who “formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” with a word (Genesis 2:7), who created the heavens and the earth with a word, “…and it was so.” To this the psalmist appeals.

In other words, ‘God, Your word is the only thing that can save me now. Speak it over me.’ And like a springtime downpour, God’s life-giving word rains down upon the thirsty souls not only of the psalmist but also of all who call on Him, souls willing to hear the word, take it to heart, and let it transform them from the inside out.

I recounted my ways and you answered me; teach me your decrees./ Let me understand the teaching of your precepts; then I will meditate on your wonders./ My soul is weary with sorrow; strengthen me according to your word./ Keep me from deceitful ways; be gracious to me through your law./ I have chosen the way of truth; I have set my heart on your laws./ I hold fast to your statutes, O LORD; do not let me be put to shame./ I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free.”

The psalmist’s prayer is an agreement with God that he cannot sustain his own life, only God can. And the life that God gives him is the source of understanding and wonder, of strength and truth, of determination and faithfulness—virtues by which the psalmist recognizes God’s life takes hold of human life.

And as the psalmist grasps at the last straw it turns into a living proclamation by which the blight against his life is reversed and through whom the bondage of rebellion is undone. The proclamation is Jesus, anointed “to preach good news to the poor…to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners…to comfort all who mourn…to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes” (portions of Isaiah 61:1-3). Beauty instead of ashes. Rich soil instead of dust. A heart set free.

God’s Word—Jesus—is unparalleled in effectiveness.

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven,” declares the LORD, “and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it”(Isaiah 55:10,11).

As we hold fast to Jesus, God’s Word in the flesh and our hope for life, we begin a race where running is not wearisome, where dust is kicked off at every leaping stride, and where our hearts are finally free to climb up on high places to rejoice in our God.

(Photo Credit: MeghanBustardPhotography)

 

 

Advertisements

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 5

After_the_rain_(14336457057)_2.jpg

‘Gimel.’

Two forlorn characters shambled down the road leading away from the city. They were still disheveled from the events of the weekend. It had started as a party, but had ended in a lynching—and they were lucky, they figured, to have escaped. As they walked, they talked through the problem. And as they talked, a stranger came up and began to walk with them.

“What’s this you are discussing?” the stranger asked.

And they told him. They told how their hope had died with the man they thought was the long-promised ruler who would free them from their nation’s political bondage. That man had been lynched by a mob and now these two were confused. Their culture’s holy writ had disappointed them.

With that, the stranger began to explain to them what the Scriptures were really saying concerning the Man in whom they had hoped. The message flowing through every verse—he explained— was about Him. As the stranger opened their minds to this realization, their hearts began to burn within them with the truth they were hearing—the surprising story-within-a-story contained within their Law.

Suddenly they recognized the stranger. It was Him—Jesus—the one they had seen cut down, strung up, and tortured to death! He—more alive than ever— was speaking about Himself, the fulfillment of every hope, the message behind every word of Scripture, the life of that hope, not the death of it! (Luke 24:13-32, paraphrased)

But we’re here to look at ‘Gimel’ the third stanza of Psalm 119 aren’t we? Our first impression as we see numerous references to the personal pronoun I, me, and my, is that the message is personally relevant to someone. Then we notice each verse makes reference to the Word (also called law, commands, statutes and decrees) as if it is a key to something incredibly important for life. And a third layer shows us it is not merely a what but actually a who impacting human life—the creator and owner of the Word, unnamed here.

“Do good to your servant, and I will live; I will obey your word. / Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law. / I am a stranger on earth; do not hide your commands from me. / My soul is consumed with longing for your laws at all times. / You rebuke the arrogant, who are cursed and who stray from your commands. / Remove from me scorn and contempt, for I keep your statutes. / Though rulers sit together and slander me, your servant will meditate on your decrees. / Your statutes are my delight; they are my counselors” (Psalm 119:17-24).

This is where the event recorded in Luke comes in. How would Jesus have explained this passage, actually “opened the Scriptures”, as Luke puts it, so that His listeners’ hearts were burning? Where is He Himself mentioned? In these eight prayer-like verses we see the fingerprint of life-giving work that characterizes not only Himself, but each person of the triune God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Do good …” the psalmist begins, “and I will live.” Goodness, true goodness, is a characteristic of God the Father working on behalf of the world He created. “And it was good,” is the repeated refrain we hear in the Genesis account of creation. Later, the Apostle James explains, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father…” Goodness epitomizes the Father. The very core of Scripture is the Father’s purpose to bring goodness to people like you and me. The goodness of the Word is God the Father Himself.

This passage is also about the Holy Spirit of God. While the first verse references God the Father through goodness, the last verse references God the Spirit through the word “counselors.” In Jesus’ final hours with His disciples He revealed to them the plan that His physical presence with His followers would henceforward be replaced by His spiritual presence through the Holy Spirit. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16). The counseling aspect of the Word is God the Spirit Himself.

And finally, this passage is about Jesus. “Wonderful things in your law” is a veiled reference to the Messiah whom the prophet Isaiah explained would be called “Wonderful” (Isaiah 9:6). The plan of God to enter into His own creation as a human being to rescue a self-destructing world is nothing less than wonderful. The wonder of the Word is God the Son, Jesus Himself.

And so ‘Gimel’, meaning three or third-letter, gives us the message that God’s Word is really His threefold self, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit communicating with us so we may live. Really live. Try reading the passage again, replacing the phrases like “your word” with “You, Father”, “You, Jesus”, and “You, Holy Spirit.” Then let Him set your heart on fire.

(Photo Credit: By Dwight Sipler – After the rain, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54734606)

OPENING THE DOOR TO PSALM 119, Part 4

1024px-Tyrannosaurus.jpg

‘Beth’.

“Sam”, the so-named petrified remains of an ages-old Tyrannosaurus Rex, towers over the other displays of natural history at Vancouver’s Science World. Jaws gaping, one huge hind leg stretching metres beyond the other, tiny forelimbs posed to attack; this is not T-Rex as he was in life. The description posted near his claw-like feet explains this is not a bony skeleton on display. When this dinosaur had perished in a streambed somewhere in what is now called South Dakota, his body had eventually been entombed under layers of silt and other debris washed downstream or settled after a flood event. Over time, minerals like quartz and iron carbonate within the groundwater slowly seeped over and into old Sam’s bones making a tremendous change in Sam. Dissolving the matrix of bone tissue, and replacing it drop by drop with its own rocky characteristics, the minerals remade Sam—or at least remade his bones. The deep mottled browns of Sam’s new skeleton attest to its altered composition.

Dinosaur bones aren’t the only framework changed by the environment in which they immerse themselves. The poet responsible for penning Psalm 119 moves into the segment labeled Beth, the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, emphasizing the influence of God’s Word upon the human heart.

“How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word. I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. Praise be to you, O LORD; teach me your decrees. With my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth. I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches. I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways. I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word” (Psalm 119:9-16).

What does the psalmist mean by heart? We know he doesn’t mean the organic muscular organ responsible for pumping blood through the human pulmonary system. He’s no cardiologist. He is using heart as a metaphor for the deepest seat of value a person possesses. Heart—as he and we often use it—is the core of an individual’s value system; it is the abstract place within each of us where we assign worth to the things we appreciate. Perhaps the psalmist pairs the thoracic heart with the metaphysical heart as a result of the physical sensations our cardiac organ creates: the pounding when fear, excitement or a burst of action have occurred, the pain when something obstructs its oxygen supply, the weight and tension when the cardiac muscle is compromised. The metaphor helps us assign concrete words to the abstract reality of our metaphysical heart.

So when the psalmist asks the question, “How can a young (person) keep his way (integrated and authentic)?” he answers it by saying that an integrated life comes only by absorbing oneself in the value system God exudes—and which He has communicated to humans through His Word. This is what he means by explaining, “I have hidden your word in my heart.” Through painstaking persistence in immersing himself in God’s Word, God’s moral absolutes become the psalmist’s moral fiber. God’s holy character traits become his fortifying nature. God’s transforming love becomes his source of compassion.

As N.T. Wright puts it in After You Believe (2010), “…these are not…”Rules for the New Life,” but habits of heart and mind, ways of learning how to think Christianly about the ultimate future and about the pathway toward it—the pathway which is, as it were, a daily resurrection.”

Which brings us back to the petrification process Sam the T-Rex and other ancient artifacts have experienced. It might be helpful if we think of immersing ourselves in God’s ways (His Word, His values, His instructions for human living) as a sort of moral version of the petrification process. (Note, we don’t need to be sunk under silt for eons in order for this to happen!). As we consistently make choices based on God’s revealed ways (defined above), His moral fiber begins to replace our weak, capricious, unprincipled tendencies with true human maturity and dignity. Rather than decaying, we experience resurrection, not only for eternity but daily and even hourly as we submit to God and rely on His powerful reconstruction process in and for our lives.

(Photo Credit: Copyrighted free use, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3492758)

OPENING THE DOOR TO PSALM 119, Part 3

IMG_1007.jpg

‘Aleph’ cont’d.

How can we move ourselves onto the path of life and blessing when our natural tendencies draw us toward things that damage and destroy that option? This is the question the psalmist explores in this first stanza of his psalm. In his deepest, truest self he wants to be “steadfast in obeying (God’s) decrees” but knows from experience he is incapable. There is always that part of him that messes up, that unpredictably thinks, speaks and acts in defiance of God’s ways.

Here, in Aleph, the psalmist begins to answer this question in a theme that will fill 176 verses—an answer that for himself and his listeners becomes the seed of the greatest answer available to humanity. The key to the door of blessing, to the path of not only a flourishing life but one that fulfills everything God created it to entail, is immersing oneself in God.

Seeking and immersing ourselves in a god…isn’t this a bit too reminiscent of the religions of the world, the attempts of humans to seek something greater than themselves, and by focused desiring attempt to find meaning in life? Is it, then, all about our efforts, regardless of the specific god we have in mind?

No. The psalmist is very clear to highlight Whom he means. He shows the “LORD”—Yahweh, the Great ‘I AM’—is the locus of it all. People, he says, who “seek him with all their heart” are those who will find life and blessing. What the psalmist doesn’t fully know yet is that God is a greater seeker than we are. God originated the seeking by creating a world that, though it would go afoul of His moral laws by the abuse of its freedoms, would also be the womb out of which a rescuer would come.

Words like the “law of the LORD”, “his ways…decrees (and)…commands” referenced in the psalm are principally and at their core, descriptors of the One who embodies that moral law, the fully God and fully human solution to our problem, the eternally existent One born into humanity: Jesus Christ.

“In the beginning was the Word,” explains the Apostle John in the opening lines of his gospel account of the life of Jesus, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it” (John 1:1-5).

There it is. “In him was life.” John will also later quote Jesus as calling Himself not only “the life” but also “the way”, “the truth”, “”the door”, “the vine” and many other metaphors to help us see that it is He of whom the psalmist speaks as the source of blessing.

So God first seeks, but then we seek too. This is the foundation of the solution to the problem the psalmist mulls over. A blessed life is one wrapped in relationship with God. Knowing the Father as our loving provider, Jesus as our redeemer and friend, and His Spirit as our internally-abiding comforter and confidante is the beginning and end of what the psalmist is trying to convey. God does, but we also do. God provides moral strength, but we must avail ourselves of it. God reveals His will for our thoughts, speech and behaviour, but we must obey it. God expresses His majesty in His creation but we must choose to recognize it and worship Him within it.

It’s a learning process. We don’s always respond as we should, even if we have surrendered ourselves to Jesus. The psalmist admits it is a process of “learn(ing) your righteous laws.” But God is patient, and everything in Him is encouraging us to learn and to seek Him, because when it comes to God, “everyone…who seeks finds” (Matthew 7:8).

OPENING THE DOOR TO PSALM 119, Part 2

IMG_1005.JPG

‘Aleph’ (vs.1-8).

“Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the LORD. Blessed are they who keep his statutes, and seek him with all their heart. They do nothing wrong; they walk in his ways. You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed. Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees! Then I would not be put to shame when I consider all your commands. I will praise you with an upright heart as I learn your righteous laws. I will obey your decrees; do not utterly forsake me.”

Not many of us know Hebrew. Many Bibles, though, have labeled the stanzas of Psalm 119 in that ancient language. The first stanza is labeled ‘Aleph.’ Does it sound familiar? Think of our word alphabet. The Hebrew Aleph is our ‘A’ and Bet is our ‘B’. Alphabet is simply ‘The A’s and B’s of a language.’

It’s an interesting device the psalmist uses. It’s as if he is saying, ‘These are the a b c’s of living in close communion with God; this is the language we must learn if we want to be part of God’s original intention for creating us.’ But just read through those verses again. It doesn’t take a Hebrew scholar to see the incongruity and conflict that has escaped from the psalmist’s pen.

“Blessed are they whose ways are blameless…Oh, that my ways were steadfast…!” he bemoans. The psalm-writer has begun to examine his own life and beliefs about God and with a shudder realizes he has fallen short of the glorious God-centred life he thought he could live. Perhaps he suddenly recognizes the two-edged sword of human free will: God has revealed His moral nature, but He gives humans the choice to discount Creator-dependent living in favour of their own freedom-seeking trial-and-error methods. To do so comes naturally to us, but also comes with a price. We bypass the blessing and success God designed our lives to produce.

We hear in the psalmist’s words his anxiety and apprehension. His best attempts to be true to God, to be morally consistent and steadfast in obedience have failed. He is a sinner with a sense of morality that won’t go away. He tries to reverse the negative influence of his choices by looking up at the moral benchmark where he sees hope shining. He sees blessing and an upright heart and an overall goodness of living that he wants. What he also discovers is an intersection of two distinct and diverging paths, a crossroads he faces every day. He seems to describe the paths as the Way of Blessing and the Path of Shame, roads he, like every human, consciously or unconsciously walks upon as a result of choices made. He hasn’t got the full picture, but he knows his own anxiety because his walk is inconsistent.

Centuries later, Jesus elaborated on the picture the psalmist was beginning to sketch. He described those paths and the dilemma of our struggling moral nature. “Enter through the narrow gate,” He advised, “for wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13,14). Jesus clarified the psalmist’s and our dilemma by revealing that the situation is both worse and better than the psalmist had imagined.

Jesus expands the psalmist’s word shame into total destruction. A gram of rebellion against the Creator becomes a mushrooming cancer of self-destruction in the eternal realm Jesus foresaw. Yet Jesus also expands on the psalmist’s term blessing; he calls it life, an expansive, God-infused, flourishing and eternal life to which He will refer on many other occasions. He shows us something we know deep inside. The stakes are high; the rumours are true: the decisions we make in this life matter for eternity. Our moral nature intimates and necessitates it. We are more than tissue and bone; the One who made us calls us to prepare ourselves for our unseen future while we are still bound by that tissue and bone.

The trouble is that inhabiting bodies as we do, we are the most natural materialists and sensualists. We are drawn toward things that satisfy our senses—things we can see, touch, hear, taste and smell. Many of those hankerings are good and are essential for our survival: food, clothing, shelter, loving relationships, and meaningful work are the basics of life. But some of those appetites damage us: harmful addictions, injurious relationships, and unethical work. We can make our own lists of those ones.

But the real danger is when we allow our senses (empiricism) to block our perception of God communicating to us through our spirit. Because we fail to literally see the two paths, our tendency, in practice, is to deny or at least ignore that they exist. Yet, recognizing this, there seems to be nothing more we can do than to cry out as the psalmist does, “Oh, that my ways were steadfast…!” Or is there?

(To be continued)

OPENING THE DOOR TO PSALM 119, Part 1

IMG_1072

Introduction.

At one hundred and seventy-six verses, Psalm 119 is a marathon-length inscription among the Bible’s collection of ancient Hebrew poetry. Its length alone is enough to keep even the most devoted of Psalm-lovers decidedly busy elsewhere.

Daunting as the psalm is in length, its form is also singularly baffling; it was constructed along Hebrew alphabetical patterns that mean nothing to modern English readers like you and me. The ancient acrostic must have been intriguing for those who could appreciate its rhythm and rhyme in its original form but it’s lost on us. We are not able to grasp the linguistic play on words that would have accompanied the lyrical song.

There is a third reason to avoid the Psalm, if it comes to that. It is unabashedly repetitious. It tells us in dozens of ways how the psalmist feels, thinks, and acts (or wishes he could act) in regard to the driving theme, the concept of God’s morality. True, there is some variety; he uses several carefully chosen synonyms to describe the many facets of God’s moral nature. But what if we’re left feeling cornered, discomfited, even shamed to see we have disregarded such lofty maxims? Or worse, we might have no defense after one hundred and seventy-six verses other than to conclude that God’s moral Law is to be fully obeyed, something of which we fear—even know—we are incapable. Reading the psalm might imply moral liability. Wouldn’t it be better just to align with the axiom, “Ignorance is bliss”?

But we’ve come to recognize that ignorance is a shallow sort of bliss. A God-perspective on life, though, marks humans who are deliberately seeking the goal—dare we call it bliss—God designed for us. That is precisely why God ensured the psalmist would write Psalm One Nineteen: to present to our eyes a picture of the goal of human living that radiates with something amazing and quite beyond us—God’s plan for us. And God has good plans for you and me. It’s as if we’ve come to a door with a nameplate over it marked “The Real You and Real God Meeting Place.”

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the LORD…” (Jeremiah 29:11-14a).

We’ll find that in some ways the psalmist has only a glimpse of that goal. But it’s an important glimpse. Jesus Himself was the one who would come centuries later and open the door wide for humans to access that goal.

“Jesus came, in fact,” explains author N.T. Wright in his book After You Believe, “to launch God’s new creation, and with it a new way of being human, a way which picked up the glimpses of “right behavior” afforded by ancient Judaism and paganism and, transcending both, set the truest insights of both on quite a new foundation. And with that, he launched also a project for rehumanizing human beings, a project in which they would find their hearts cleansed and softened, find themselves turned upside down and inside out, and discover a new language to learn and every incentive to learn it.”

So as we enter on this journey through Psalm 119, let’s go as seekers—explorers with hearts of hope and with eyes open to a future where God makes it possible for us to ultimately live, dare we imagine it, as rehumanized human beings.

The door is about to swing open.