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 2

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‘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

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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.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS FROM HEBREWS ELEVEN

ALIENS AND STRANGERS

Hebrews 11:13,14

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“…they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.”

The SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute believes they are ‘conducting the most profound search in human history’. They are searching for aliens. They are convinced these strangers hold the key to our earth’s beginnings and to our future. They are right. But the aliens and strangers are not as far away as they might imagine.

The writer of Hebrews speaks of men and women of faith as being “aliens and strangers on earth”; of people who are “longing for a better country—a heavenly one”; of people who have so fixed their minds and hearts and eyes on Jesus that His home is their home and earth-living is a visit. These aliens seem to be characterized by five peculiar qualities:

1. Their primary loyalty is to heaven rather than earth’s civilizations; while they participate in various sub-cultures’ activities and responsibilities, their connection with the family of God takes precedence.

2. Their roots go into spiritual soil rather than into material attachments; the development of spiritual character has more significance than does temporal gain. They are often characterized more by giving than by taking.

3. Their visit is purpose-driven; their objective is to ascertain and fulfill the will of God in their lives. Their own desires become secondary. Loving God and others takes precedence.

4. Their return home is assured; the Father has put into their hearts a longing for heaven. It is the ‘eternity in their hearts’ that strengthens them with hope. Death is merely the vehicle by which they will be brought to their eternal heavenly abode.

5. Their mother tongue is prayer; while on earth they call home regularly. Prayer is the means by which they keep in intimate connection with the Father. The deeper their commitment to prayer, the richer their vocabulary develops. This language of love then spills over into the earthly languages they have acquired.

As aliens and strangers here on earth, we of the Faith have a high calling. We hold in trembling hands the key to our earth’s beginnings and future. We are ambassadors of the Lord of the Universe, the Almighty God, creator of heaven and earth.  We have a message of a bright future for those who will accept the Son, the greatest otherworldly Being. As the words of a seventies tune once said, “He’s an unidentified flying object coming back to take you home. He’s an unidentified flying object, he will roll away your stone.” (‘UFO’ by Larry Norman). Let’s arise and reveal our true identity as aliens and strangers. Then this world’s search will not be in vain.