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Psalms: The Christian's Playlist

Saturday, April 25, 2020

"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God."

Colossians 3:16

You've probably noticed I've been talking a lot about the Psalms recently and that's because I've been reading about Jesus in the Gospel accounts! Jesus quoted the Old Testament all the time but the book he quoted most often was the book of Psalms. Of course, this should be no surprise, seeing as how the book of Psalms acted as the prayerbook of Israel and their guide to public worship and personal devotion.

Jesus directly quoted from Psalms at least eleven times not counting all the subtle references and allusions because they, like all of Scripture, were written about him. When he appeared to his disciples after being raised from the dead he reminded them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (Lk. 24:44) The early church used "psalms" as well as other "hymns and spiritual songs" in their regular worship gatherings (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).

This got me thinking about the role of the Psalms in our lives today. The Psalms are a collection of 150 song/prayers to God written by various authors in different situations. King David wrote most of them but several were written by a group of priests and temple worship leaders called "the sons of Korah" and a man named Asaph. Solomon and Moses wrote at least one a piece and there are a few written by unknown poets. The book is divided into 5 smaller "books" which may imitate the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch:

  • 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

The first Psalm acts as an introduction and 'user manual' for the Psalms. The last psalm that ends each book finishes with a beautiful doxology, while Psalm 150 as a whole is the conclusion both of Book 5 and the entire Psalter.

Though some of the psalms are written in response to very specific situations, the wide range of emotions expressed within them can give voice to our feelings today. They do more than simply express our emotions, however. If we study and pray through them carefully, they can also shape our emotions and transform us into people of deep faith and radiant joy! This is the great power of the psalms. The words on the page go beyond the experience of the original authors and speak straight into our own life. They teach us to process how we feel in any given situation through the discipline of prayer. This is one of the reasons why our Lord and the authors of the New Testament quoted them so much. The psalms have much to teach God's people of any day and serve as a practical tool to help us through the general troubles of life.

Because the psalms are poetry and were meant to be set to music (you can see this in some of the liturgical directions at the beginning of some psalms like "To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments." Psa. 4), they should be the soundtrack for our life. These are the words that should fill our hearts and minds as we journey through the wilderness toward our Promised Land. The cadence of poetry within the psalms should keep our feet pressing on toward our goal and keep our eyes on the Lord. The psalms ought to be our spiritual playlist running on a constant loop as we grow and mature as God's people.

  • Are you troubled? Pray through a psalm of lament like Psalm 13.
  • Are you thankful? Pray through a psalm of thanksgiving like Psalm 30.
  • Are you guilty? Pray through a psalm of repentance like Psalm 32.
  • Are you in need of forgiveness? Pray through a psalm of forgiveness like Psalm 51.
  • Are you in awe of God? Pray through a psalm of praise like Psalm 8.
  • Are you appreciative of God's word? Pray through a psalm of celebration like Psalm 119.
  • Are you seeking wisdom? Pray through a psalm of wisdom like Psalm 37.
  • Are you in need of confidence? Pray through a psalm of confidence like Psalm 23.
  • Are you disillusioned with our nation's leaders? Pray through a psalm of true leadership like Psalm 72.
  • Are you thinking of Jesus? Pray through a royal psalm like Psalm 2.
  • Are you in need of a history lesson? Pray through a historic psalm like Psalm 78.
  • Are you forgetful of God's promises? Pray through a prophetic psalm like Psalm 81.

Whatever you're going through in life at the moment, God's word can help guide you through it. Every book of the Bible is important because the words are breathed out by God himself and profitable to shape us into the people we were created to be (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Thank God for the wonderful gift that he has given us in the book of Psalms! I hope that together as we grow in our appreciation for Biblical poetry we can be strengthened by the Psalms.

The Two Ways

Saturday, April 18, 2020

1 Blessed is the man
    who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
    nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree
    planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
    and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
    but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
    nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked will perish.

The first Psalm presents two approaches to life. Using imagery from nature, the Psalmist contrasts these two divergent pathways and their respective ends. 

The Way of Life (vv.1-3)

(v.1) Here is described one who not only lives a happy life but is truly living, in every sense of the word. This person is “blessed” which could be translated as “happy.” Jesus would expound upon this concept of living a happy and full life in His sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5:3-12). 

“Counsel,” “path” and “seat” are all ways of talking about the realms of thinking, behaving and belonging. By using the words “walk,” “stand” and “sit,” the Psalmist shows three degrees of departure from God. When a person walks by the advice of the world, lives in accordance with it to the extent that he identifies with it, he will live wickedly, sinfully and will mock those who don’t. The “scoffer” describes the person farthest from repentance, and thus, farthest from God. The man is “happy” who avoids this path!

(v.2) The journey of life begins in the mind with a choice, so the mind is the key to the “blessed” life. The happy man rejects the world’s counsel in favor of “the law of the LORD.” Whatever shapes a man’s thinking will shape his life. The happy man spends his time meditating on Scripture.

(v.3) What effect will this man’s meditation have? He will steadily grow and be fruitful. Like a “tree” drinking “water,” the happy man absorbs the Lord’s instruction which takes root within him to produce something new and delightful. In a word, he “prospers.” He will never be crippled by drought because of his consistent, healthy intake of God’s word.

The Way of Doom (vv.4-5)

(v.4) The wicked man is a desert shrub compared to the happy man (Jer. 17:6). He is rootless, weightless “chaff” driven by the wind. His life yields nothing useful. The image is one of winnowing the threshing floor in harvest, where the grain is tossed into the air and the bits of straw and empty husks are blown away. It's an ominous image with dark undertones of judgment (Lk. 3:17). 

(v.5) The wicked may seem to be people of substance (Psa. 37:35-36) but when the day of “judgment” comes, the men of straw will be seen to be straw indeed, blown away and burned up (cf. 1 Cor. 3:12-13). They chose to “stand” in the path of sinners (v.1) but when their end comes, they will not have a leg to stand on. In fact, the only people who will be able to stand in the “judgment” are those who lived in the “assembly of the righteous” (Rom. 14:410-11).

The Parting of the Ways (v.6)

To "know" is more than just being informed. The LORD recognizes and acknowledges, even guards (NET), “the way of the righteous.” The LORD recognizes the course of life of the “righteous” and rewards his choice to live in this direction with security and prosperity (perhaps not physical prosperity in the here-and-now [Psa. 73], but ultimate, eternal prosperity). 

In the end, the “way of the wicked” comes to nothing. Their wicked behavior has set them on a course of life that ends in ruin (“perish”). His hopes are frustrated (Psa. 112:10), he wanders without direction (Psa. 119:76) and comes to grief (Psa. 9:6). Why? Because this man chose to fill his mind (and by extension, his life) with emptiness, the “counsel of the wicked” (v.1), instead of finding his “delight” “in the law of the LORD” (v.2).

Which Way Will We Choose?

Here, the two ways part for eternity. There is no third option. The first bastion to defend is the mind, what the Bible calls the “heart,” “for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23). We must be careful what we choose to influence our heart with because it will alter the course of our lives and ultimately decide our destiny. Jesus sheds light on the eternal implications of what we choose to believe and trust in: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). So, we are left with a choice to live or to perish.

Let the gospel be your meditation, night and day. Soak it up like the living water it is (Jn. 4:14). Be firmly planted at the foot of the throne of the God near the banks of the river of life so that you are fruitful and your leaves never whither (Rev. 22:1-2).

Panic & Peace

Saturday, April 11, 2020

David wrote Psalm 11 in the middle of a crisis. The nature of the crisis is not stated so the general wording of the Psalm gives it a broad application to any who might find themselves in distress today. It opens with David giving a spirited answer to some demoralizing advice. 

Voices of Despair (vv.1-3)

1 In the LORD I take refuge;
how can you say to my soul,
“Flee like a bird to your mountain,
2 for behold, the wicked bend the bow;
they have fitted their arrow to the string
to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart;
3 if the foundations are destroyed,
what can the righteous do?”

David’s advisers (whether the quotes are David’s own voice of doubt or the voice of someone else is not clear) had counseled him to find “refuge” from his crisis by fleeing to the “mountain.” There, they believed, the king could hide from his enemies. Their advice could be well intentioned, like Peter’s to the Lord, when he rebuked Jesus for suggesting He would “suffer many things” at the hands of evil men and eventually be “killed” (Mt. 16:21-22). They could just as well have been insincere like the Pharisees’ words of warning to Jesus not to proceed to Jerusalem because of Herod’s violent designs (Lk. 13:31-32). Either way, the voice is persuasive. There would be little defense against an enemy whose bow was bent to “shoot at the upright in heart” in the open wilderness (v.2). A “mountain” would at least provide some cover.

Their argument in verse 3 is to suggest a situation beyond all hope. To David’s advisers the “foundations” of the kingdom of Israel had been “destroyed.” Everything was falling apart. Against the prevailing anarchy in the kingdom what could one “righteous” man like David do? But David knew, despite the voices of fear and hopelessness, that his true refuge would not be found in a physical mountain but only “in the LORD.”

The Lord’s Vantage Point (vv.4-7)

4 The LORD is in his holy temple;
the LORD's throne is in heaven;
his eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man.
5 The LORD tests the righteous,
but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.
6 Let him rain coals on the wicked;
fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.
7 For the LORD is righteous;
he loves righteous deeds;
the upright shall behold his face.

As impossible as David’s situation seems in v.2, his problems are dwarfed by the LORD, whose name David repeats emphatically in this section. The true King hasn’t fled for He still reigns from His eternal heavenly “throne.” Israel’s “foundations” had not been “destroyed” for the LORD’s city has divinely constructed and immovable foundations (Heb. 11:10). God’s “temple” is not an earthly palace to be invaded. God’s “throne” is not an earthly seat whose occupant can be unseated. Later, in the midst of his own crisis, the prophet Habakkuk would quote v.4 adding to it, “let all the earth keep silence before Him” (Heb. 2:19). 

In times of trouble we must remember God’s position has not and will not change. He is seated in a high position with a heavenly vantage point where He is aware of the plight of the “righteous.” The moments of trial are the LORD’s “tests” for “the righteous.” He is still and watchful in those moments. But His stillness is not inertia. The LORD is concentrating; “His eyes” are gazing intently (“see”) as “His eyelids” examine (“test”) both the “righteous” and the “wicked” to see what they are made of. The faithful should view times of crisis as opportunities to prove the genuineness of their faith (Jas. 1:2-3; 1 Pet. 1:6-7) knowing God is watching.

Then, in His time, the LORD will act decisively and righteously (v.6). Burning hot “coals” will “rain” down on the “wicked” for their injustice. The “fire and sulfur” that were God’s means to overthrow Sodom “shall be” the “portion” of the wicked. Though the timing of judgment is uncertain, the event of judgment is sure, and will be sudden and final.

David’s psalm ends as it began (v.7), with “the LORD,” whose “righteous” character answers the distress and frustration of verses 2-3. The “foundations” of “righteousness” (v.3) were never destroyed for they are the very character and will of God; what He is and what He “loves.” David’s safety was well placed in the LORD (v.1). But David was not only seeking the preservation of his own life. His ultimate goal was to “behold” his LORD’s “face.” He loved the LORD. David had beheld the LORD with eyes of faith in worship (27:4; 63:2) but he was looking forward to the time when he could look upon God’s “face” with unmediated vision in the day when God would finally awaken His children from death to behold His true face in righteousness (16:8-11; 17:15; 23:6; 49:15; 73:23ff; 139:18).

May we learn to develop David's godly grit in this present distress.

(adapted from Kidner Classic Commentaries: Psalms 1-72)


The Next Right Thing

Saturday, April 04, 2020

“And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.”

(Acts 16:6-8)

I’m not proud to admit it but, only a few weeks into this limited shelter-in-place thing, Rachael and I have already allowed our children to watch Frozen 2 four times. Yes. Four times. Don’t get me wrong. The movie is colorful, fun, well animated, skillfully voice-acted and has great music. But four times is a lot. Needless to say, the soundtrack is now stuck in my head. In the darkest moment of the film (don’t worry, no spoilers here) Anna sings through her grief and uncertainty. And in that darkness, she remembers the wise words of Grand Pabbie, “When one can see no future, all one can do is the next right thing.” She sings:

I won’t look too far ahead

It’s too much for me to take

But break it down to this next breath, this next step

This next choice is one that I can make

She resolves to move forward by simply doing the “next right thing.” This lesson is perhaps the greatest contribution of the film. We find ourselves in similar times now when, faced with uncertainty, all we can do is the next right thing. (Note the structure of Anna’s song resembles that of many Psalms of lament in the Bible, albeit lacking that one all-important quality of being prayers sung to God)

As Paul and Silas journeyed through the Cilician Gates into familiar territory in Southern Galatia, they picked up young Timothy in Derbe to join them on what we call the Second Missionary Journey. They traveled west “strengthening the churches” along the way (Acts 15:41) by communicating the important decisions of the Jerusalem council of the previous chapter (16:4).

Their natural route would have led them west into Asia but, for some mysterious reason, the Holy Spirit forbade them from preaching there (v.6). So they headed north through Phrygia into Bithynia, a 200-mile journey of about 2-3 weeks on foot, “but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them” there either (v.7). Their northward progress stopped, the band was forced west toward the coast and Troas (v.8). And because Troas was technically part of Asia they couldn't preach the good news while they were there (cf. v.7). 

Who knows what Paul was thinking in Troas, let alone Silas and not to mention poor Timothy! “What are we doing here? What did I sign up for? What does God want me to do? Where does he want me to go? Everything seems so muddled.” They were ‘in the dark,’ so to speak. Uncertainty, confusion, and perhaps small seeds of doubt, were trying to lodge themselves into their hearts. Only when we see a map of their progress does it become clear what God was doing. He was channeling them towards Macedonia, guiding them as one does the blind, keeping them on the right path.

But the view looked quite different from the ground. Paul and his friends didn't have a clue what their next move was. We all have moments in life when the future is uncertain and we’re not sure how to proceed. But in those moments, all we can do is trust the Lord and “do the next right thing.” God didn’t reveal his whole plan to Paul all at once. Rather, he did so in stages. Paul almost certainly would have been praying and waiting for the Lord to make his path clear. Who knows how long he waited in Troas. But finally, one night, he received a vision calling them to preach the good news in Macedonia (vv.9-10). God didn't want them rehashing old ground so he led his ambassadors into fresh, uncharted territory for the gospel!

What are we to learn from this? We never know what’s around the corner in life but we don’t have to because we know how the story will end. Walking in the light of God’s word (1 Jn. 1:7; cf. Psa. 119:105) doesn’t mean every future decision is revealed to us. But the light illuminates enough of the path for us to take the next step.  It's a bit like driving home at night with your headlamps on. You know where you eventually want to end up and you can see what's right in front of you but everything in between is a mystery. This is partly what it means to "walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Cor. 5:7). 

God’s word gives us the tools to prayerfully and faithfully “do the next right thing” each day. In the meantime, we can trust that God will bring us where he wants us in his own time. Pray for wisdom (Jas. 1:5) but understand it may come at an unexpected time and in unexpected ways. But when it does come it will be exactly what you need when you need it. While we might love to have a clear vision like Paul that night in Troas, the wisdom the Father gives his children is no less perfect a gift (Jas. 1:17).

The fact is, we lack imagination to conceive of the many thousands of possibilities that God might have in store. In what ways will he use us in his service? Whose lives might the Lord touch through us? How will he bring beauty out of tragedy? God knows and that is enough. Through it all, God works everything together for good to those who love him. And as we put our trust in him, he shapes us, experience by experience, into the image of his Son (Rom. 8:28-29).

We don't know what the next few months will bring. We can't know for sure. The virus may continue to spread and the death toll may rise but it will not go unchecked forever. Our holy God will not allow it. "He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his faithfulness." (Psa. 96:13) In the meantime, may our Father equip us with the wisdom and strength to "do the next right thing," in the name of Jesus and in the power of his Spirit.

The Devil in John's Writing

Saturday, March 28, 2020

“You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

(John 8:44

The outbreak of COVID-19 has many thinking about the origin of evil. Who's to blame, ultimately, for the spread of this pandemic? The short answer is the devil, the source of all evil and death in God's world. The Bible doesn’t answer all the questions we might have concerning the devil - he appears without explanation on page 3 in the form of a serpent (Gen. 3:1ff; cf. Rev. 12:9) - but it gives us enough to go on. The writings of the Apostle John in particular shed a great deal of light on the issue. John wrote the gospel and three epsitles that bear his name as well as the book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible. 

First of all, John tells us something about the devil’s origin. Looking at Jesus’ statement in John 8:44 we notice that the devil “does not stand in the truth”. This seems to indicate that the devil did at one time stand in the truth but has since fallen from the truth. So, the devil is a created being that went rogue. Now, “there is no truth in him”. This absence of truth is evidence of the devil’s fallen state. The devil has been this way “since the beginning” (Jn. 8:441 Jn. 3:8). Not, of course, since the beginning of creation but since the beginning of his fall. In other words, he is the original sinner, the very origin of evil.

John also tells us of the devil’s activity. He is evil distilled in spiritual form. From his presence in the Garden of Eden the devil’s work has been to lead humanity into doubt and suspicion toward their Creator. He is constantly malicious because he is by nature “the evil one”, a term used by Jesus (Mt. 6:13) and six times by John (Jn. 17:151 Jn. 2:13143:125:1819). His evil takes shape in three realms: truth, love, and righteousness, the very issues that correspond to John’s tests of spiritual life in 1st John. 

  1. First, the devil is devoid of righteousness. He has “sinned from the beginning” (1 Jn. 3:8) and tempts others to sin (Mt. 6:13). His sinful nature is so certain John can say that all those who make a practice of sinning are “of the devil” or are his offspring (cf. Gen. 3:15). 
  2. Secondly, the devil is devoid of love. He was “a murderer from the beginning” (Jn. 8:44). So Cain killing his brother gave evidence of his spiritual heritage being “of the evil one” (1 Jn. 3:12). Likewise, the Jews who sought to kill Jesus were of their “father the devil” (Jn. 8:40-4144). Being defeated by His resurrection, the “destroyer” (Rev. 9:11Heb. 2:14) now turns his attention to persecuting the children of God, the church (Rev. 12:4-613-17). 
  3. Thirdly, the devil is devoid of truth. He is “a liar and the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44). Now that “there is no truth in him” he accuses God’s children (Rev. 12:10, Satan means adversary in Hebrew), slanders them (slander comes from Greek word diabolos), and seeks to lead them into error by the teaching of false prophets (1 Jn. 2:21-224:2).

John has also written on the devil’s power. Just look around and you can see the effects of his rule. Not only can he insinuate evil thoughts and designs into the minds of people (Jn. 13:2Lk. 22:3) so as to enter them personally (Jn. 13:27) but “the one who is in the world” (1 Jn. 4:4) is the “prince” or ruler of this world (Jn. 12:3114:3016:11; cf. 2 Cor. 4:4Eph. 2:1-26:12). He rules from a place of limited authority, a “throne” of sorts (Rev. 2:13), and his dominance is so widespread that “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 Jn. 5:19). That is why those who have rejected Jesus are not just under the power of the devil but rather are “of the devil” because he is their father (Jn. 8:441 Jn. 3:10). The devil has real influence over people’s lives so that they are motivated by his evil desires (2 Tim. 2:26). Their will is to do his will.

Lastly, John has given us a word concerning the devil’s defeat. His downfall began with the arrival of the Son of God. He just couldn’t get a hold of Jesus like he could with other humans (Jn. 14:30Mt. 4:1ff). Jesus came to face off with evil, to destroy all the devil’s work (1 Jn. 3:8). He accomplished this by His death and resurrection. Now, when believers participate in Jesus’ death and resurrection, the devil loses his grip on our lives. Looking forward to His death and resurrection, Jesus could say, “now” (Jn. 12:31), the “ruler of this world is judged” (Jn. 16:11) and as a result He would draw all people to Himself (Jn. 12:32). 

Satan’s downfall has begun in earnest. Today, he is bound (Rev. 20:1ffMk. 3:27), his power is limited, and his time is running out (Rev. 12:12). For now, the devil is merely dethroned but not yet destroyed. His final defeat will take place when Jesus returns to set all things right (Rev. 20:10). 

Today, though the devil still has power in this world, through faith in Jesus, the Father can protect us from the evil one (Rev. 12:11-12, 17). This is the substance of Jesus’ high priestly prayer: “I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one” (Jn. 17:15). In fact, all those who are born of God are kept safe from the evil one so that the evil one cannot even “touch” them! (1 Jn. 5:18)

It is possible to “overcome the evil one” (1 Jn. 2:13) only through the new birth offered through Jesus who has overcome the world (Jn. 16:33). John says, “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 Jn. 5:4-5) Indeed, the faithful can overcome the devil “because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world” (1 Jn. 4:4).

The devil will be definitively destroyed when our Lord returns. The serpent’s head, the very source of all the evil in the world, will be crushed once and for all (Gen. 3:15). But you and I have a part in the devil’s downfall. Through righteous living, loving our neighbor, and living in the truth, God will crush Satan under our feet (Rom. 16:20). And along with him, all the manifestations of his power (greed, disease, war, pride, etc.) will be totally eradicated by the overwhelming power of the Lord's judgment. Then the faithful can enjoy eternal life with God and one another in the new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21-22). 

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