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)

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DANIEL: PATTERN FOR PRAYER #7

 CONFESSION

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In our modern culture of preservation of self-esteem, confession is a scarce commodity. We prefer to avoid blame. We redirect misdemeanors, reorganize misbehaviours and reconfigure misadventures, but we rarely confess. Confession requires we admit our shortcomings, some of which may seem to be irreparable. We hate to admit we have failed to maintain a moral standard so we avoid confession. Our consciences prefer evasion to confrontation. We fear admission of guilt would reinforce the discomfort of our inner turmoil. Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard calls it ‘angst’, this apprehension and anxiety over moral failures. Daniel calls it shame.  Daniel has not been in the habit of avoiding difficult situations. From his youth Daniel has confronted difficult and dangerous situations with uncommon boldness, and now in his latter years his verve is not about to wane.

Daniel has studied the Scriptures available in his day. He’s especially interested in prophecy. He observes his contemporary, the prophet Jeremiah, has connected the ‘desolation’ of Jerusalem to the stubborn rebellion of the Jewish people. God warned his chosen people, but they ignored His advice, and now they were exiles in Babylon. But Daniel’s study has also unearthed a promise from those same Scriptures. He observes the banishment is prophesied to last seventy years. And he’s done the math. The seventy years are nearly done.

But instead of an attitude of entitlement, Daniel is struck by the weight of Israel’s sin. Instead of considering Israel in terms of ‘they’, he thinks in terms of ‘we’. He accepts responsibility for the corporate rebellion of his people.

His confession is staggering. He lifts the shroud of Israel’s guilt and drapes it across his own shoulders, bowing before God in repentance. This is a prayer worth noting. It’s found in Daniel chapter nine. Observing the number of times Daniel uses the personal pronouns “we” and “our” in verses 4-19 is revealing. This is the same Daniel who, as a youthful prisoner, resolved “not to defile himself” in a culture of compromise; whose awe and acknowledgement of God was the source of his wisdom; whose steadfastness in prayer earned him a death sentence. Now he prays, “We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws…O LORD, we and our kings, our princes and our fathers are covered with shame because we have sinned against you…Just as it is written in the Law of Moses, all this disaster has come upon us, yet we have not sought the favor of the LORD our God by turning from our sins and giving attention to your truth.”

This is not shallow kudos designed to manipulate a rigid deity. Daniel’s understanding of God’s morality has altered his view of his own self-righteousness. He is man; he is a member of the race Homo sapiens. He feels the weight of the sin of his people and knows confession is the only route to relief.

The Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel says: “In repentance and rest is your salvation” (Isa. 30:15). Daniel not only believes it, he acts upon it. He prays. He confesses. He relies fully upon God’s mercy.

It’s a lot for us to think about. Confession is not easy, but it is necessary to be in right relationship with God. Let’s do it; let’s get on our knees and confess. It’s good for the soul.