Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 11

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‘Teth’

“Do good to (me)…” begins the psalmist in this ninth segment of Psalm 119. Those four words in themselves are enough fodder for a lifetime of thought: God. Good. To. Me. But there’s more. In and around and throughout the references to goodness, there are also references to evil (in the form of affliction, reputation-smearing, and callous hearts). This is interesting and worth exploring. How do good and evil correlate?

Do good to your servant according to your word, O LORD. / Teach me knowledge and good judgment, for I believe in your commands. / Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word. / You are good, and what you do is good; teach me your decrees. / Though the arrogant have smeared me with lies, I keep your precepts with all my heart. / Their hearts are callous and unfeeling, but I delight in your law. / It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees. / The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold.

The psalmist has an idea that is nine-tenths formed. He is beginning to observe a principle and he wants to run it by God in the form of this prayer-song. We might call it ‘The Suffering Principle’. He sees that there is suffering in this world; there is evil in many forms and he has personally experienced it in the form of callous, reputation-smearing affliction-causing individuals. We know there are many other forms of evil too: illness, injustice, natural and social disasters, death. The list goes on. But there is also goodness; God’s goodness—of being and of doing—as well as a learned goodness the psalmist desires to be part of his own character. Somehow God’s Word is involved in this contest between the two opposing influences, resulting in some majestic phenomenon greater than all the silver and gold in the world.

The psalmist’s principle is this: (my) SUFFERING + (God’s) GOODNESS/POWER = GLORY.

Let that principle sink in for a minute. The psalmist is saying that when we experience evil in this life God is able (that’s the ‘power’ part) to use some divine alchemy to apply His goodness (powers of magnitude greater than any evil in existence) to bring about a process of transforming, mind-blowing, magnificence (what we’ll call ‘glory’).

The one-tenth part of the principle that the psalmist was just a millennium too early to know yet, is Jesus. Not one-tenth, really, but ten tenths, because He is the living Word, He is goodness incarnate, He is humankind’s glorious solution to the trouble we have experienced from the moment we arrived on the scene.

But how does Jesus bring goodness into our lives? Does He arrive like a superhero dressed for action pitting His power of goodness against the powers of evil? No and yes. No, He doesn’t eradicate present evil and suffering by imposing His goodwill upon unwilling earth and its inhabitants. But, yes, He does overcome evil by submitting Himself to the destructive powers of death itself, and, after paying the ransom evil holds over this earth, rises triumphant. He then invites each of us to be the throne on which He rules. In this way, Jesus offers goodness in the form of Himself to each of us. Good comes to us not externally but internally through Christ indwelling any and all who accept Him. Listen to how He explains it to an outcast woman who happened upon Him alone at a well late one day.

“When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, ‘Will you give me a drink?’ (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water’” (John 4:7-10).

Jesus initiates the conversation by drawing her to see that the good she can give is but a drop in the bucket of the eternal Good He can give her through His Spirit. As she begins to grasp this offer by degrees, her own suffering as a social outcast becomes the platform through which she invites others to experience the goodness of God too. We do not hear each of their stories, but as a community we hear them rejoicing, “…this man really is the Savior of the world(!)” (John 4:42).

The glory the Spirit of the living Christ living in our lives is beyond our greatest expectations. Jesus, the man of sorrows who took our suffering upon Himself to the point of death, does not stand at a distance offering glib condolences to our sorrows. He, the precious Word of God, actually enters into us, girding us up from within, filling us with His own goodness so that our suffering is used for good—has a purpose that transcends the transience of this earth. The result is and will be the greatest glory: the glory of God transforming lives, the glory of good completely obliterating evil, the glory of God and His people someday entirely outside of the influence of suffering.

So let’s come to Jesus for the drink He offers us. Take a long deep draught of it and be refreshed. It is good.

(Photo Credit: By Themenzentriert – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11362535)

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Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 10

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‘Heth’

People and their perspectives change. Our favourite story characters are those whose names begin as synonyms of fear, or sorrow, or selfishness, but are transformed to become heartwarmingly brave, or joyful, or generous. Much Afraid, the main character in the somewhat obscure allegorical novel ‘Hind’s Feet on High Places’ embodies this type of character. She must travel with her unchosen companions Sorrow and Suffering, rejecting the insinuations of her daunting enemy Craven Fear, as she follows the call of the Shepherd. Eventually she receives her new name, Grace and Glory as do her companions, now renamed Joy and Peace. These are no euphemisms. Each transformation of character represents a complete shift in perspective. Each person becomes as unlike his or her earlier self as an awakening is from a dream.

In Heth, the eighth stanza of Psalm 119, something similar, perhaps even grander is happening. Centred in the middle of the stanza, the phrase “Though the wicked bind me with ropes…” gives us a picture of our natural lives. Conflict, tension, fear, perhaps even hatred and revenge are our natural reactions when we have any sense of bondage in life. This is why as children we each learned to use the word “No!” so powerfully. But the psalmist sees something astounding happening in his life when he invites God into it: everything becomes grace and glory.

“You are my portion, O LORD; I have promised to obey your words. / I have sought your face with all my heart; be gracious to me according to your promise. / I have considered my ways and have turned my steps to your statutes. / I will hasten and not delay to obey your commands. / Though the wicked bind me with ropes, I will not forget your law. / At midnight I rise to give you thanks for your righteous laws. / I am a friend to all who fear you, to all who follow your precepts. / The earth is filled with your love, O LORD; teach me your decrees” (Psalm 119:57-64).

Questions help us get to the heart of any exploration of God’s Word—help us focus on discovering what is going on. Three questions arise after reading this section of the psalm, questions about the psalmist, about God, and about us: What is happening here to the psalmist, in what way is God central to what is happening, and why is it relevant to us?

Firstly, we see the psalmist is speaking directly to God. It’s a prayer of sorts, a prayer in which the psalmist is reiterating a covenant in which he and God are involved. He reminds God of His promise (“to be gracious to me”), and he pairs it with his own promise back to God (“to obey your words…(to) consider my ways and (to) tur(n) my steps….(to) not forget your law”). We notice that the psalmist is not being mercenary here; he’s not saying, ‘Look here, God, I’ll obey your rules but in return you have to give me something.’ No, it’s very different than that. The psalmist is observing that God is the initiator of a relationship described by love: “The earth is filled with your love, O LORD;” the psalmist is doing nothing more nor less than responding to that love. It’s not the psalmist saying, ‘I’ve worked for you all these years, now I want my pay, my inheritance.’ Rather, he is affirming—as loving relationships do—‘It’s you that I love; not what you can do for me, just you.’ We hear that in the very first verse (“You are my portion, O LORD”).

Secondly, we see Jesus mirrored—or better yet hologrammed—into the psalm as the Great Psalmist Himself. Who more than Jesus considers the Father His portion, who commits Himself to obeying the Father’s will with such complete success? Who alone can truly say, “I have sought (the Father’s) face with all my heart”? And who is the greatest “friend to all who fear (God)”? Which leads us to our third consideration.

How is this all relevant to us? The psalmist has tried his best, but really, he couldn’t obey God as fully as he wanted to. The old sin nature was too ingrained in him to be as perfect a promise-keeper as he would have hoped. But Jesus is the perfect promise-keeper; He is the truly wholehearted One; He is the friend of sinners; His perfect sacrifice made the way to deal with our sin nature in a way that frees us to truly turn our hearts and steps toward following God’s heart and will and covenant with us. As Timothy Keller says, in Jesus we go from “fighting a war we cannot win to fighting a war we cannot lose.”

Only through Jesus can we find the transformation of our lives that renames us from Much Afraid (or Much Unreliable, or Much Hurt, or whatever other identity with which we have struggled) to Grace and Glory. God’s grace and glory works itself into and out through our lives in a way the psalmist could only imagine. Thank God we are on this side of Christ’s great redeeming work.

(Illustration Credit: Painting by Daniel Gerhartz)

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 9

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Part 9: ‘Zayin’

“Endurance,” explains Glaswegian minister William Barclay, “is not just the ability to bear a hard thing, but to turn it into glory.” Perhaps this thought is what lies at the foundation of the psalmist’s next stanza of Psalm 119. ‘Zayin’—or seventh Hebrew letter—is the ‘z’-sounding letter that is also a word meaning weapon or sword and food/nourishment. The psalmist seems to have used this letter to explore suffering as a theme for these eight zayin-headed verses. It’s a stanza of the paradoxical, though. In the face of suffering, of enduring mockery, of indignation against the apparent mastery of evil over good we hear of hope, of comfort and even of a song.

Remember your word to your servant, for you have given me hope. / My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise preserves my life. / The arrogant mock me without restraint, but I do not turn from your law. / I remember your ancient laws, O LORD, and I find comfort in them. / Indignation grips me because of the wicked, who have forsaken your law. / Your decrees are the theme of my song wherever I lodge. / In the night I remember your name, O LORD, and I will keep your law. / This has been my practice: I obey your precepts” (verses 49-56).

Suffering becoming glory. It’s an enigma, a puzzle, and a conundrum. It goes against our intuition. We want to avoid pain and heartbreak, not endure through it to reach some distant joy. Yet there it is, both the sword and nourishment contained in Zayin, are laid out for us to help us triumph over our common dilemma. How can the psalmist—not to mention we—access this great paradoxical prescription so that he and we can weather the deepest difficulties of life with the confidence that God will preserve us?

The key is Jesus. “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering…Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows…he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed…and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand” (sections of Isaiah 53).

Jesus stepped into the deepest crevasse of suffering known to humankind—the chaos of bearing God’s just wrath against humanity’s rebellion. We want a just God. Here He is, and here Jesus is made to die an exponential death for your rebellion and mine, times the billions who have and ever will live on this planet. But Jesus is God in flesh and so the sword, though it caused untold suffering for Him, could not extinguish His being.

That is the message of Easter. “He is risen. He is risen indeed!” Jesus’ body broken like crisp bread, and His blood draining from His wounds like spilled wine, become for us the nourishment after the suffering. Trusting in the work of Jesus to solve our troublesome dilemma is what the Spirit of God infused into the psalmist’s pen so many years ago.

Jesus Himself, after His resurrection, helped two of His distraught and discouraged followers see that all of Scripture is about this amazing plan of rescue God devised for humanity. “He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27).

There it is again: suffering then glory. Jesus, in His larger than life way, takes the greatest suffering so that we may be infused with His life and become able to bear our portion of this earth’s trouble. But the suffering is only a bothersome interlude—it has no lasting grip on us just as it had no ultimate hold on Christ. The hope of glory to come that God has promised was on the tip of the psalmist’s pen and is ours for the asking too.

The Apostle Paul wrote, sensing the end of his life was at hand, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (II Timothy 4:7,8).

Suffering’s grip is weak compared to the comfort of the Father’s hand. Let’s step into that great loving hand today, and as the lyrics of a current song say, “Just be held.”

(Photo Credit: By James Emery from Douglasville, United States – Bread and Wine (Cracker and Juice)_2048, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35135837)

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 8

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‘Waw’

You don’t need to speak a word of Hebrew to recognize the out-and-back symmetry of the Hebrew letter ‘Waw.’ Forward or backward, it is read the same way. Like the words ‘mum’, ‘racecar’ and even the sentence ‘Madam, I’m Adam’ the phenomenon is intriguing. Linguists call it a palindrome (from the Greek, meaning ‘running back again)’. Palindromes can even occur in the sequencing of our DNA when a region of nucleotides is inversely identical with a complementary strand (Go ask your nearby biochemist for a better explanation). As we look at the ‘Waw’ section of our Psalm, we see it has a sort of palindromic rhythm to it too.

“May your unfailing love come to me, O LORD, your salvation according to your promise; / then I will answer the one who taunts me, for I trust in your word. / Do not snatch the word of truth from my mouth, for I have put my hope in your laws. / I will always obey your law, for ever and ever. / I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts. / I will speak of your statues before kings and will not be put to shame, / for I delight in your commands because I love them. / I lift up my hands to your commands, which I love, and I meditate on your decrees” Psalm 119:41-48

It begins with ‘love’; it rises to ‘for ever and ever…freedom’; and it ends with ‘love’. The hippie culture of the sixties ran with a similar version of that theme—love and freedom—albeit distorted by an anti-establishment ideology. But the psalmist’s theme is different, worlds different. Running like a golden chain through the beads of this necklace is the psalmist’s respect for God’s authority—not just His authority over the macro-world, the physical universe, but also on a micro-scale, over the minute details of each person’s life. That does not sound hippyish at all. The freedom-loving flower-wearing beatniks claimed freedom would be found in rebelling against laws, any laws, not submitting to them. “Don’t let the man keep you down!’ they insisted.

“Freedom itself,” explains N.T. Wright, “must be generated, protected, and celebrated. But thinkers from St. Paul in the middle of the first century to Bob Dylan in the middle of the twentieth, and beyond, are still asking what “freedom” actually means. In a Christian sense it clearly doesn’t mean the random whizzing about of the subatomic particle, however much some eager political or psychological rhetoric may go on about the total removal of constraints.”

The psalmist recognizes that freedom is ultimately about being free to be genuinely human. This foundational freedom is found only in God who sets the necessary constraints that create the framework for freedom and then communicates those conditions to us through His Word. They come in the form of directions, promises, warnings, and ultimately in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. God’s intentions for us are essential for freedom because only God knows what is truly best for us and has taken action to ensure our freedom.

But the psalmist back then didn’t know Jesus in person. He was positioned in history a millennium before Christ’s advent, yet he had a hope, a notion breathed into his writings by God Himself that true freedom would be coming in the shape of One who would embody God’s Word. Notice how he phrases his hope in the ongoing past tense “I have put my hope in your laws,” and how he envisions that hope to affect his life in the future tense, “I will walk about in freedom.” Accepting this concept, trusting its value, and regulating his life by it gives the psalmist something every person on this planet needs. Hope. His hope was not unreasonable. It was not a flippant ‘I hope God comes through for me’ sort of whimsy. It was based on the bedrock knowledge of God’s trustworthiness.

Trust,” explains apologist Ravi Zacharias, “is not antithetical to reason.” It is supported by reason, by considering a body of empirical evidence and concluding it is reliably worthy of trust. The psalmist had found God to be faithful to past promises, and experiencing that faithfulness led naturally to his trust and hope in God to be a Man of His Word. The hope of God’s loving and ultimate plan to provide freedom for people is a theme that runs throughout Scripture.

Jesus Himself read from the scroll of Isaiah, claiming to be the fulfillment of the passage, “The Spirit of the LORD is on me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor.” The Apostles John and Paul follow that same theme saying, “(Y)ou will know the truth, and the truth will set you free“ (John 8:32); “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (II Corinthians 3:17); and “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1).

The psalmist got us started by speaking of love and freedom and trust, but he must pass the baton on to Christ who is love and freedom and hope embodied in the perfect human. Because of Christ, we have not only a hope of freedom but more, an ever-present friend who Himself is freedom and gave up His freedom to purchase ours. That’s love, freedom, and more love.

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 7

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‘He’

Eight verses; nine requests. A flood of appeals leaps off the page as the psalmist makes his entreaty to God. For what does the ancient writer ask? Is he pleading for fertility for his land, his people, and his own posterity—like the Greeks would assign to their gods Aphaea and Demeter? Does he want power over invading armies—like the Assyrians’ pleas to Ashur and Ishtar? Is he demanding protection from environmental disasters—like the Incas did through their child sacrifices to the sun god Inti? Is he exploiting the powers of a deity of the dead—like the Egyptian demands of the embalming afterworld gods, Anubis and Ra? No. Rather, the fifth stanza of Psalm 119—petition to the One known as LORD—is a prayer for authentic, holistic, whole-life relationship with God.

Teach me, O LORD, to follow your decrees; then I will keep them to the end./ Give me understanding, and I will keep your law and obey it with all my heart./ Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight./ Turn my heart toward your statutes and not toward selfish gain./ Turn my eyes away from worthless things; preserve my life according to your word./ Fulfill your promise to your servant, so that you may be feared. / Take away the disgrace I dread, for your laws are good. / How I long for your precepts! Preserve my life in your righteousness”. (Psalm 119:33-40).

The psalmist has come to the Great One Himself to ask to be part of God’s plan for humanity. He wants to become what God envisions for him, and is willing to undergo whatever the process requires. Did you see that as you read his request?

He asks for a transformed mind (”Teach me…Give me understanding”)—he recognizes that his natural mind is prone to misunderstandings, assumptions, even ignorance. He wants to know God’s commands so that his rational, logical mind can be engaged in the process of obeying God.

He also asks for a transformed heart (“Turn my heart…”)—he acknowledges his usual set-point is one of selfishness, and this self-centredness has distorted his humanity. To get to the root of the problem, the psalmist knows, to be truly authentic his heart must be God-centred. He must love God, but he needs God’s help to do it.

He then asks for clarified goals (“Turn my eyes…”)—he identifies the fickleness of his own desires, the tendency for his sensual nature to override his mind and his heart. To become constant, committed and unswerving, the psalmist asks God for blinders. He wants to repulse the flare and dazzle of temptation so as to be sensible to the radiance and glow of true (hu)manliness. But he needs God’s help if he’s ever going to conquer this powerful adversary.

But the high point of the psalmist’s appeals comes after the requests for his mind, heart, and senses. The zenith of his petition points to a promise. The psalmist has read God’s word and has discovered a treaty, a promise made by God and confirmed by a covenant. It was a promise to bless all peoples (Genesis 12:3) through a ‘seed’ (Genesis 3:15). The psalmist recognizes that a promise made by God is as good as a promise gets, and he wants to benefit from it. What the psalmists doesn’t yet fully understand is how the promise will be fulfilled—that the promise is not a what but a who.

Centuries later who would come onto earth’s scene but a baby, a descendant of the woman of Genesis 3 and of the man of Genesis 12. He was Jesus, the Promised One who alone could assure the transformation the psalmist desired in himself.

For the Son of God, Jesus Christ,” explains a later writer, “…was not “Yes” and “No,” but in him it has always been “Yes,” For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ…Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (I Corinthians 1:19-22).

So we see it is He, Jesus, who answers and completes the psalmist’s petition. He transforms hearts, minds and goals. He takes away the disgrace the psalmist dreads of being less human than his Creator intended; He is the source of the precepts of Scripture; He is the Righteous One whose ransoming death and resurrection preserves the lives of those who submit to Him. He is the source of relationship with God. He is the answer to every prayer.

(Photo Credit: By Alex Sancliment – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33675549)