Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 24 (Conclusion)

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‘Taw’

“How Should We Then Live?’ asks the provoking title of Francis Schaeffer’s documentary which bears the sub-title ‘The Rise and Fall of Western Thought and Culture.’ The documentary is an expression of Schaeffer’s defense of Presuppositional Apologetics—the view that Christian faith is the only basis for rational thought. Remove that basis and rational thought decays. It’s a bold presupposition, isn’t it?

We all make sense of our experiences from presuppositions we hold. That is why two observers seeing the same thing can come away with two very different impressions. These suppositions, inferences, even hunches create the worldviews through which we make sense of everything we observe. Christian faith, explains Presuppositional Apologetics, presupposes the universe, the Bible, and Jesus, the Son of God are divine revelations without which every other worldview is lacking essential information for rational human life. There are no neutral assumptions from which reason can arise. Only the assumptions that arise from God’s revelation provide us with full rational thought that leads to full flourishing life.

As the psalmist brings us to his concluding stanza of Psalm 119, he summarizes Scripture’s teaching on the personal nature of God. He connects his experience of God with the rational basis of human thought: the Scriptural revelation that God alone is worthy of worship, that God’s precepts alone are faithful guideposts for life, and that God has created one salvation, the ultimate solution to every human problem.

“May my cry come before you, O LORD; give me understanding according to your word. / May my supplication come before you; deliver me according to your promise. / May my lips overflow with praise, for you teach me your decrees. / May my tongue sing of your word, for all your commands are righteous. / May your hand be ready to help me, for I have chosen your precepts. / I long for your salvation, O LORD, and your law is my delight. / Let me live that I may praise you, and may your laws sustain me. / I have strayed like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commands” (Psalm 19:169-176).

“Give me understanding according to your word,” pleads the psalmist. He is convinced that the wealth of wisdom (rational thought and the behaviours that arise from it) for the present, and hope for the future come from God. As modern thinkers, we may be tempted to think social consensus or political charters make Scriptural revelation obsolete. But can charters of rights and freedoms really trump the noble virtue God’s character and principles express? What about when society or nature and their current cohort of ‘freedoms’ and restrictions fail us?

The psalmist’s hope is in the Lord. “May your hand be ready to help me,” he prays, and “I long for your salvation…” So the psalmist guides us to look to the Hope of the Nations, the Lord’s salvation—Jesus—who alone offers a rational basis for believing that there is hope for us.

How ought we live each day in order to reflect the rational foundation of our faith? By coming to the Shepherd of our souls admitting we are “strayed…lost sheep” and “servant(s)”, and asking for His help to live lives of integrity, lives aligned with the truth of His revealed will. That is the message the psalmist has painstakingly taken 176 verses in twenty-two stanzas to communicate. Without God we are nothing. With His salvation we become everything He imagined. That’s more than epic. That’s rational.

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 22

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‘Resh.’

If there is one thing God has communicated to us humans, it is that we matter. The most relevant piece of information we will ever be able to grasp is that you and I are immeasurably loved and valued by Him.

“(Our) shared core hunger,” writes Tony Schwartz in an article for the New York Times, “is for value…We each want desperately to matter, to feel a sense of worthiness.” It’s what he calls ‘The enduring hunt for personal value’. James Gilligan, who authored “Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic” after studying human violence for over 40 years, began to observe “the frequency with which I received the same answer when I asked prisoners…why they assaulted…someone. Time after time they would reply, ‘Because he disrespected me’.”

As the psalmist moves into the third-to-last stanza of the interminable one hundred and nineteenth psalm, his singular petition is that God—who has embedded an element of His own worth into each person—will express the ultimate act of valuing human life: to preserve it indefinitely.

“…Preserve my life according to your promise,” the psalmist appeals. “…Preserve my life according to your laws,” he adds, and “…Preserve my life, O LORD, according to your love.” What does he mean by promise, laws, and love as the mechanisms of preserving life—the psalmist’s life, or yours and mine for that matter?

Firstly, the promise the psalmist references goes back ages to the time of Abraham. Abraham was God’s handpicked individual to begin a nation and race of people to whom and through whom God would speak. At God’s chosen time some 1500 years later, when strange prophecies like a virgin birth came together with others in fulfillment, Jesus was born from that race. The promise made to Abraham was, in short, “You will be a blessing…and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” The promise of blessing was fulfilled not at Jesus’ birth, but at His death and resurrection, because with that moral ransom paid, Jesus made the eternal preservation of human life available to every person on this planet. That was the promise. That is what is available to each of us who have accepted Jesus as our ‘ransom-payer’; we will find eternal life with Jesus on the other side of this life. That is how the promise preserves lives.

Secondly, the laws the psalmist references go back fewer ages to the time of Moses. Moses was God’s handpicked individual to lead the nation that Abraham had fathered into the Promised Land. On that journey, Moses was also given the daunting task of teaching the nation that God is a God of integrity, and that He can only be in relationship with people who respect God’s authority to require that integrity to be developed in them. The laws were commands God clarified through Moses, commands like: “I am the LORD your God; you shall have no other gods before me” and “You shall not covet.” Those two commands alone were enough to make it pretty clear that every human on planet earth was incapable of obeying God completely. That was fine because it turns out that “through the law we become conscious of sin” (Romans 3:20). Consciousness of sin leads us to do one of two things: rebel further against God and make a grab for complete freedom from God’s presence, or submit to God in humble repentance, accepting God’s gift of forgiveness through Jesus, and access to His presence for eternity. That is how the laws both condemn and preserve lives.

And finally, the psalmist references the LORD’s love which covers both the span of eternity and of creation, of which this planet is a mere blip in time. God, who is three persons in one—Father, Spirit, and Son—exists in a unity described by perfect love. He is completely fulfilled in the expressions of love that bind the Trinity unsparingly, perfectly, and completely together. Yet somehow—in the greatest mystery of the ages—as God created the universe, He made humankind the pinnacle of His loving creative expression. To be in loving relationship with Him was the purpose God embedded into every man, woman and child. We are created in such a way that our greatest joy and fulfillment comes only through loving Him in return.

The psalmist was right. The promise, the laws, and God’s love, are the essential components of God’s great gift to us: the preservation of our lives for eternity. He values us immeasurably. He wants us to be in continuing existence with Him—in future bodies created to last forever—long after these present shadows of bodies have ceased to be preserved. So dig out a Bible. Begin again to pour through its pages and find out how God valuing our person is tied to His intention to preserve us for eternity. Come to this sanctuary of preservation.

 

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 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)

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 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)

WHO IS JESUS? #12

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Promised Blessing.

Looking out at the religious figures that surrounded Him now, Jesus saw livid faces. He saw irritation and annoyance, indignance and outrage. His claims about Himself had been more than they could take; He had called Himself everything from Light of the World, to Out of this World. His claims had not enamoured Him to these men whose religious dictatorship of the community had not before been questioned.

They were an obstinate and thickheaded group. They simply could not understand Jesus because they would not understand Him. Referring to God as His Father had gotten Jesus nowhere—perhaps it was too abstract a concept for them—so He returns to the subject of Abraham. Earlier they had crowed, “Abraham is our father,” and Jesus now uses that notion to reveal His next claim about Himself

“Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day,” announces Jesus; “he saw it and was glad.” His opponents were incredulous.

“You are not yet fifty years old,” the Jews said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”

The air was thick with their incredulity and cynical skepticism.

Jesus had gone further than hard hearts could follow. He was explaining the motivation that had inspired Abraham’s life from the time he left his idolatrous roots in Mesopotamia, the ‘cradle of civilization,’ was a promise. More than a promise, it was a covenant made by Yahweh to the then-named Abram. It was a covenant promising that Abraham would become a great nation quite separate from civilization, as it was then known, a covenant whose purpose was to bless all peoples on earth—eternally. The covenant had come with the stipulation that Abraham leave his own country, people group, and father’s household and go to the land God Himself would show him (Genesis 12:1-3).

The author of Hebrews comments on the kind of faith required to follow a promise like that. He lists Abraham as one of several historical characters whose lives revolved around that kind of faith, who “considered Him (God) faithful who had made the promise.”

“All these people,” writes Hebrew’s unknown author, “were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. They admitted they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own…Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:11,13-16).

Jesus is saying, ‘I am the personification of that promise. I am the Object of Abraham’s faith; I am the One that embedded in Abraham’s heart the joy of knowing Yahweh’s covenant would one day be realized; I am the One whose task is to bless every people group on this planet; I am the Promised Blessing; I am.’

To this very claim each of us must personally respond. The mark of a response that is authentic and truly receptive of everything offered in God’s covenant is that it will be accompanied by two things: it will be focused on Jesus, and it will be attended by an inner joy.

“Therefore,” Hebrews continues, “…let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1,2).

So today we have this before us: we have Jesus and we have joy. These are the anchor points of the covenant God made so many millennia ago in which He even then intended us to be included. Jesus is the Promised Blessing. Let’s embrace Him today and be blessed.

(PHoto Credit: By Till Krech from Berlin, Germany – ghost shipUploaded by perumalism, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28664411)