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Hallelujah! Amen!

Saturday, November 19, 2022

1 Praise the LORD! 

   Praise God in his sanctuary;

   praise him in his mighty heavens!

Praise him for his mighty deeds;

   praise him according to his excellent greatness!

Praise him with trumpet sound;

   praise him with lute and harp!

Praise him with tambourine and dance;

   praise him with strings and pipe!

Praise him with sounding cymbals;

   praise him with loud clashing cymbals!

Let everything that has breath praise the LORD!

   Praise the LORD!

Psalm 150

The psalter includes five books, each one ending in a doxology (Book 1: Psalms 1-41; Book 2: Psalms 42-72; Book 3: Psalms 73-89; Book 4: Psalms 90-106; Book 5: Psalms 107-150). Psalm 150 concludes the whole book in a brief, loud, exciting doxology of praise. In it, “everything that has breath” is summoned to “praise the LORD” and we are taught the where, why, how, and who of praise.

The where of praise (1) — First there is a call to praise God “in his sanctuary” on earth where Israel gathered for worship. But the invitation extends to “his mighty heavens” where all celestial beings and bodies dwell (Psa. 148:1-4). Thus all creation in heaven and on earth is summoned to join their voices in praise for the LORD. “God’s glory fills the universe; his praise must do no less.” (Kidner, Psalms). From where should God be praised? From everywhere!

The why of praise (2) — Praise and worship are only logical (Rom. 12:1). God is to be praised both for what he has done (“for his mighty deeds”) and for who he is (“according to his excellent greatness”). These are the loci of all our hallelujahs; praise that is not motivated by God’s deeds, such as his saving acts toward us (Psa. 145:4, 10-13), and God’s character, such as his faithfulness and mercy (Psa. 117), cannot rightly be called praise. Why is the LORD to be praised? Because of who he is and what he has done!

The how of praise (3-5) — The method of praise is found in verses 3-5; praise him with, essentially, ‘everything you have!’ What stands out here is the sheer variety of expression. The “trumpet” was blown to mark the start of festivals such as Jubilee (Lev. 25:9), to summon troops or announce victory in battle; “tambourine and dance” for celebration (Psa. 149:3; Ex. 15:20; 1 Sam. 18:6); the “lute and harp” for everyday music making (Gen. 4:21; Job 21:12; 30:31). The point is that every kind of instrument and music, solemn or jubilant, percussive or melodic, gentle or raucous, is mobilized in worship. While under the New Covenant we are called to sing without instrumental accompaniment (Col. 3:16), we are to do so with our whole spirit, mind, and heart (1 Cor. 14:15; Eph. 5:19). The completeness and diversity of our worship today is expressed in the unity of the multi-ethnic church, where every nation, tribe, people, and language join their hallelujahs together with one voice in Christ.

The who of praise (6) — The psalm (and the entire psalter) crescendoes with the glorious variety of God’s creatures “in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Rev. 5:13), from spiritual beings, celestial bodies, all nature and the animal kingdom, to all people, great and small (see Psalms 8 and 148) offering their praise: “everything that has breath praise the LORD!” “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:13) Let God be praised in all creation, by all people, in all things. Hallelujah! Amen!

Dwelling in Unity

Saturday, November 12, 2022

1 Behold, how good and pleasant it is

when brothers dwell in unity!

2 It is like the precious oil on the head,

running down on the beard,

on the beard of Aaron,

running down on the collar of his robes!

It is like the dew of Hermon,

which falls on the mountains of Zion!

For there the LORD has commanded the blessing,

life forevermore.

Psalm 133

This tiny psalm celebrating unity is ascribed to David. Unfortunately there is no way of knowing exactly when he wrote it. Was it the moment when God united all the tribes under his leadership at Jerusalem (2 Sam. 5:1-10) or perhaps when two individual Israelites reconciled? Was it written early on in David’s reign when Israel enjoyed harmony or later after he had exchanged peace for the sword which would “never depart” from his house (2 Sam. 12:10)? Though knowing the occasion might color our reading of the psalm, the theme maintains its truth and beauty regardless of the situation.

The clause “when brothers dwell in unity” resembles Deuteronomy 25:5, where it applies to physical family living under one roof. But all Israelites were considered “brothers” by God. In fact, the same phrase appears in Gen. 13:6; 36:7 where the land could not support multiple families dwelling in close proximity. In such cases, they had to separate (as with Abram and Lot). Therefore, the psalm could be a celebration both of peaceful relationships between God’s people and the abundance of the land which God provides. Both would make it possible for brothers to “dwell in unity.”

Verse 1 is followed by two illustrations of that unity. The first describes unity with the image of Aaron’s anointing as priest (2). The blessing of unity overflows and spreads among God’s people just as the anointing oil intended for Aaron’s head also ran down his beard and the collar of his robes (Ex. 29:7). As the oil covered the priest and his garments making both holy (Ex. 29:21), so unity among brothers sets them apart from the world. Though fragrance is not mentioned directly, the oil for anointing was “blended by the perfumer” (Ex. 30:23-38). When God’s people “dwell in unity” it gives off an “aroma from life to life” (2 Cor. 2:15f; cf. Jn. 17:20f).

Second, unity is like “the dew of Hermon,” Israel’s highest peak. Just as dew refreshes the land making it fruitful, unity provides an atmosphere conducive to growth. The emphasis in the last part of verse 3 is on God’s initiative; “for the LORD has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.” This fact of God’s blessing coming down from above is further emphasized by the three-fold repetition, which is partly lost in translation: literally ‘descending… (2a) descending… (2b) descending’ (3a). The point being that unity is a gift bestowed upon us by God, “a blessing far more than an achievement” (Kidner, Psalms 73-150). But a blessing to be protected and cultivated.

Sadly, while heaven’s unity was to come down and find expression “there” (3), i.e. in Jerusalem, King David brought discord to the people instead (2 Sam. 11:1ff). But much later, it was also “there” in Jerusalem where David’s great ancestor and Lord died on a cross breaking down the barrier of separation between God and humanity (sin) and between Jew and Gentile (the Law of Moses). Through this achievement God unites humanity in Christ (Eph. 2:11-22). He “commanded the blessing, life forevermore.” The challenge is plain: will we seek to maintain and cultivate that unity which Jesus died to create? (Eph. 4:1ff) Or will we dishonor that sacrifice by seeking our own interests and creating division? God help us to “dwell in unity.”

The Blessing Cycle

Saturday, November 05, 2022

Come, bless the LORD, all you servants of the LORD,
    who stand by night in the house of the LORD!

Lift up your hands to the holy place
    and bless the LORD!

May the Lord bless you from Zion,
    he who made heaven and earth!

Psalm 134

Psalm 134 is the final ‘Song of Ascents’ in a list of fifteen which began with Psalm 120. These hymns were used by pilgrims on their way to worship at the temple in Jerusalem which was situated on a high hill called Mount Zion; hence, they must ascend to reach it. This particular song reads like a call and response. The “servants of the LORD” are the priests who ministered in the temple (“who stand by night in the house of the LORD”). They are called by the traveling Israelites to “bless the LORD.” The priests respond with a benediction on the visiting worshipers which concludes the psalm.

Levitical priests ministered in the temple in various ways. Still other Levites assisted them (1 Chron. 23:32) and conducted the musical worship (1 Chron. 25). 1 Chronicles 9:33 says, “Now these, the singers… were in the chambers of the temple free from other service, for they were on duty day and night.” And again, “they were to stand every morning, thanking and praising the LORD, and likewise at evening.” (1 Chron. 23:30). This description fits well with those “who stand by night in the house of the LORD.” (Psa. 134:1)

These singers are summoned to “bless the Lord” (v.1) by “lift[ing] up [their] hands to the holy place” (v.2), i.e. the temple, God’s dwelling. To lift one’s hands to God was a typical posture for prayer (Lk. 24:50). Paul addressed proper demeanor in worship by telling men to “pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling” (1 Tim. 2:8). This posture signified purity; the hands lifted to God were holy and clean, free from the soil of “anger or quarreling.” (References to prayer with uplifted hands in Judaism, see 1 Kgs. 8:54; Psa. 28:2; 63:4; 141:2; 2 Macc. 14:32; Philo, Flaccus 121; Jos. Antiquities 4:40; for early Christianity, see esp. Tertullian, On Prayer 17.)

The keynote of the psalm is the verb “bless,” which appears in each verse. In vv.1-2, the blessing is directed toward God (“bless the LORD” or “praise the LORD” in some translations); in v.3, the blessing returns from God to humanity in the form of a benediction (“may the LORD bless you”). The exchange of blessing is unequal, however. For us to bless God is to gratefully acknowledge God for who he is, to praise him and give him what belongs to him. For God to bless us is for him to share with us what is his and to make of us what we are not. Blessing belongs to the God “who made heaven and earth.” But in his grace, our God returns that blessing upon us in ways that cannot be counted or measured.

Finally, note from where God dispenses his blessing: “from Zion.” This is a fixed place where Israel could go to give and receive blessing. Therefore, God’s blessing, like his commandment, is not “far off… it is not in heaven… neither is it beyond the sea… but… is very near you” (Deut. 30:11-14; Rom. 10:6ff).

Christ has come from heaven both to bless us and praise his Father. Though we were dead in our sins, God has “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 2:6). Being raised, we are to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is” (Col. 3:1), ever ascending to the true Mount Zion, that “heavenly Jerusalem,” from where our King reigns as “the mediator of a new covenant.” (Heb. 12:22-24) As his forgiven people, we have become both God’s “spiritual house” and his “holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Pet. 2:4-5) In Christ, we bless the Lord and are blessed by him.

Your Plans & God's Plans

Saturday, October 29, 2022

Commit your work to the Lord,
and your plans will be established.

Proverbs 16:3

While the Bible speaks of the meat and the milk of the word (Heb. 5:11-14), the proverbs are like the hard candy of the word. Biting right into them or swallowing them too quickly risks injury. You have to savor them, meditate on them, take them in slowly one at a time.

This proverb surprised me. I expect it to say, “Commit your plans to the Lord and your work will be established.” This is certainly true. When we submit our plans and thinking to the Lord’s revealed will, the things we do will bear fruit (“will be established”). But the verse flips this idea. If we commit what we do (our “works”) to the Lord then our “plans will be established.” That is, if we want our plans to succeed then it requires committing everything we do to the Lord.

The word translated “commit” means literally “to roll” as in rolling all one’s weight on a support. This same figure is found in Psalm 22:8; 37:5; and 55:22 to describe one who completely trusts the Lord and unreservedly commits everything to him. Such a person who relies on God to bear him up and humbly commits his work to him will be blessed with the ability to make wise plans.

What is the practical value of this verse? Making plans is generally a good idea. God gives us freewill to make those plans.“The plans of the heart belong to man” (Prov. 16:1a). When we are careful and diligent in our planning instead of impulsive, things tend to work out better: “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty” (Prov. 21:5). There is usually a very clear cause and effect relationship between our plans (or lack thereof) and the outcome.

However, life is not always so simple. “The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD.” (Prov. 16:1) Again, “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” (Prov. 16:9). There is a contrast here between the plans we make in our own heart and God’s control of the outcome.

We are free to make plans and our choices will impact our life for better or worse (Prov. 21:5). But God also has plans that may override ours (Prov. 16:1, 9). On the one hand, our choices matter and we are responsible for them. On the other, what actually happens as a result of our plans, whether our “answer” (Prov. 16:1) or our “steps” (Prov. 16:9), are in God’s hands (Psa. 31:15).

We must hold the truths of human freewill and divine sovereignty together. This protects us from falling into the fatalistic thinking of the stoics who believed in a merciless system of blind fate. Instead of struggling against it, they simply accepted things with a spirit of resignation; “que sera sera” (whatever will be will be). It also protects us from falling into the hedonistic tendencies of the epicureans who believed the gods had totally given up on them and that they were on their own to determine their destiny; “carpe diem” (seize the day), “let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.”

Instead, Scripture teaches that we will be held accountable for our choices therefore we have every incentive to live wisely. But because God is in control we can rest in knowing that he will accomplish his good purposes in the end. Even human evil cannot frustrate God’s plans (Prov. 16:4-5; cf. Gen. 50:20; Acts 2:23).

It is proper to make plans but how do we become people who make wise plans, the right kind of plans, plans that “will be established”? Only by committing our “work to the Lord.” When we totally commit our work to him, that is, the minutiae of day-to-day living, the plans we make will then align with his. In all things, let us seek God’s will (Mt. 26:39) and God’s glory (1 Cor. 10:31).

All Nations Praise Him!

Saturday, October 22, 2022

1 Praise the LORD, all nations!

Extol him, all tribes!

2 For great is his steadfast love toward us,

and the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever.

  Praise the LORD!

Psalm 117

While this psalm is short in length the reach of its message is vast. The scope of its invitation to “praise the LORD” encompasses “all nations” and “all tribes.” This universal scope was too big for many of Paul’s Jewish contemporaries to grasp. During his arrest in Jerusalem he was allowed to address those who accused him of defiling the temple by bringing Greeks into it (something he never did). His kinsmen listened to him right up until he explained that Jesus sent him away to the Gentiles. Then they cried out, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.” (Acts 22:22)

But Paul was simply carrying out God’s will. The great mystery, hidden for ages, “has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (Eph. 3:5-6) The origin of God’s plan stretches further back than even his promise to “bless all the families of the earth” through the seed of Abraham (Gen. 12:3). The creation of one diverse, multi-ethnic family “was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 3:11) Therefore, the diversity of God’s subjects (Psa. 117:1) was something decided “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4).

We see Psalm 117 in the multitude of Revelation 7:9-10, a crowd so large “that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!””

Israel was called by God for the sake of the world (Gen. 12:2-3; Ex. 19:5-6; 1 Kgs. 8:41-43). The Psalms anticipated the time when the nations would turn from their idols and join with Israel in worshiping the one true God (Psa. 96). Christ has come and, through his sacrifice, created one new humanity from the two (Eph. 2:11-22). We hear the unity of this praise in the “us” of Psalm 117:2. This is why Paul quotes this verse to clinch his argument for Jewish and Gentile unity in Christ (Rom. 15:11). The time for praise is now!

But what unites the world in this harmony of praise?

God’s steadfast love is great — The cause for this universal praise is that God’s “steadfast love toward us” is “great” (2a), in the sense that it is powerful. The same word was used of the stronger side in a battle (“prevailed”, Ex. 17:11) or of the flood waters which “prevailed and increased greatly on the earth” (Gen. 7:18-20). In Christ, God’s covenant love deluges us, his grace is “lavished upon us” (Eph. 1:7-8), and prevails mightily over all our sins.

God’s faithfulness endures forever — While God’s love is mighty, his faithfulness is eternal (2b), in the sense that it is continuous and never failing. God’s promises are as fresh and intact now as they ever were. And they will always be! Generations come and go, nations rise and fall, “the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isa. 40:8). Peter helps us to see that that faithful “word” mentioned in Isaiah 40 is, in fact, “the good news that was preached to you,” the living and abiding word by which we were born again to love one another (1 Pet. 1:22-25).

Through the gospel, God is summoning all nations to praise him for his unconquerable love and his eternal faithfulness. The shortest psalm turns out to have the longest reach!

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