Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Two Psalms

The Psalms are not only richly poetic but deeply personal. That may be one reason so many Christians relate to them on an emotional level. When saying goodbye even temporarily to someone we love, the natural instinct is to reach for a psalm. Psalms touch our hearts in ways much of the rest of God’s word may not.

Let me be very honest about that: I suspect much of the time the Psalms touch us so powerfully because we don’t really understand what they are about to any great extent. Figures of speech will do that; they universalize thoughts that may actually be quite specific. So we feel free to grab bits and pieces of the Psalms here and there to apply to our own experience without worrying too much whether we are violating some principle of exegesis.

They just feel right, and so we are at home with them. Even if at one level they are not really ours.

The Hymnbook of the Remnant

My father believed the Psalms are the hymnbook of the remnant. There are exceptions, but they belong primarily to the repentant Israel of the coming Great Tribulation. They look forward to a time when the much-despised earthly people of God will be restored to that tiny territory God gave them smack dab in the middle of our globe, lost among the oil-rich Arab states and Muslim patriarchies, and close enough to each of Africa, Europe and Asia to influence the entire planet. The more I read the Psalms, the more I am convinced he was right: the Psalms belong mostly to someone else, though much of what we find there may also be applied to the human condition generally.

Do you believe national Israel has a future in the plans and purposes of God that is distinct from his plans and purposes for the church? Most of Christendom does not. I can’t tell you what percentage exactly — Barna is far more concerned with polling Christians about their views on race than eschatology right now — but my online exchanges with believers from the denominations lead me to suspect “replacement theologians” significantly outnumber those who observe a biblical distinction between Israel and the church. Fail to make that distinction, and we will observe little but our own reflections in the Psalms.

I am currently enjoying two psalms of David. We find them side by side. Both are emphatically prophetic. The king of Israel is not just recording his personal experiences for posterity, but peering into the future and giving expression to the voices of others, recording sentiments and convictions which from David’s perspective would have their fulfillment many years down the road. And it is very evident that in the two psalms, David is not speaking on behalf of the same person or persons. Two very different times and places are in prophetic view.

Israel on its Knees

Psalm 25 is the one that speaks to me most powerfully, though it is not truly mine. It hints at something we might call “relative righteousness”. It is the voice of sinners who know they have sinned and want to be free of it, yet also know that even in their failure, they are loved by God, have a purpose in his plans, and that he will one day judge between them and their enemies.

The speaker is repentant national Israel. David as much as says so in the final verse: “Redeem Israel, O God, out of all his troubles.” That is not a mistake or a weird juxtaposition at the end of a personal psalm. It is the whole point of the thing. The psalm is not really messianic, though you might grab a verse here and there and apply it to Christ if you were so inclined. But you’d have to yank those statements out of context to do it. Otherwise, you’d have to explain confessions like these:
“Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions.” (v7)

“For your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great.” (v11)

“Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins.” (v18)
Now, David could also say these things personally. The psalm works on multiple levels. Though a great man, Bible history shows he had much of which to repent at most stages of his life. I can say them too, and so can you. But Israel on its knees before God can say them in greater numbers and with all the conviction of years of national failure. There’s no getting around it: their guilt is great. “He came to his own, and his own did not receive him.”

The Natural Branches

That’s not us. It’s Israel. What an indictment. What a thing to repent of.

But let’s not be too judgmental. After all, had we been tested in the same way, we may well have found ourselves doing exactly the same things for exactly the same reasons. And scripture assures us Israel will indeed repent. The wild olive shoot ought not to be arrogant toward the natural branches.

Frankly, our attitude to Israel has been a problem for the church throughout history. Either we excoriate the Jews, stealing their promises, leaving them their curses and becoming for all intents and purposes as anti-Semitic as much of the world ... or else we become manic supporters of everything Israel does without distinguishing the secular nation of today from the remnant of tomorrow. There is a balance to be found there, and most of us are skewed in one direction or another, I’m afraid.

Historical Baggage and Relative Righteousness

In any case, in Psalm 25 it seems to me David is expressing on behalf of his people not just their sin and guilt, but their awareness of their place in the plans and purposes of God. This “remnant” may not be perfect. It may come with plenty of historical baggage (the “sins of my youth”) and plenty of ongoing personal failure (“my guilt”, “my transgressions”, “my sins”), but this Israel is a nation who lifts up its soul to a God in whom it has placed its trust.

Can you relate? I sure can.

Between the guilty man pouring out his confession of his transgressions and trusting God for his salvation and the “wantonly treacherous” there is a great distinction to be made. We must make it in our own minds, and, thank God, he makes it in righteous judgment. He instructs sinners in the way. He delivers those who take refuge in him from innumerable foes in the face of violent hatred, notwithstanding their personal shortcomings.

David took comfort in that thought. There is great comfort in that for us in the present. Repentant Israel will take comfort in it in a future day.

Glancing Over Their Shoulders

But then we come to Psalm 26, where the prophetic intent is entirely different. It’s a psalm that still belongs in the hymnbook of the remnant, but we can surely glance over their shoulders and join them on the chorus. Why? Because David is speaking for Christ here, and it is not sufficient in the plans and purposes of God that repentant Israel confess their sins; they must embrace their Messiah with a whole heart. They must know him as he is and love the things he loves.

How better to do that than to speak for him in his own voice?
“I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.”
Without wavering. Could David say that? Can I say that? Can the remnant say it of themselves? Not really. But our Lord can say it, not as a rhetorical exaggeration, but as a plain statement of the truth.
“Prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and my mind.”
Others have expressed this sentiment, and the heat of God’s forge has been applied to them as requested. But nobody has ever come out of that fire in glorious perfection like Jesus Christ. No spot, no blemish, no impurities to be burned away. He could say “try me” knowing he would hear back the words, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Nobody else could say that. “I wash my hands in innocence,” says the Lord Jesus. Never was it so perfectly true of any man.

The Man Who Would Not Consort with Hypocrites

Jesus would be accused of eating with publicans and sinners, but he would never “sit with the wicked”. He refused to validate the religious establishment of his day. They said one thing and he said another. The standards of behavior accepted and promoted by religious legalists were intolerable to the holy Lamb of God. He hated the assembly of evildoers. He would not consort with the hypocrites; in fact, he took them to task in public and at great length. Matthew 23 records his thoughts about hypocrisy. He would not associate himself with such even if they were the “great religious minds” of his day.

The Lord Jesus could say, “O Lord, I love the habitation of your house and the place where your glory dwells,” and he could say it in absolute truth. David loved the place of God’s dwelling too, but he also feared it. When Uzzah reached out to steady the ark of the covenant and was struck down by God and died, David was no longer willing to bring the ark into Jerusalem. He was afraid, and he left the ark in the care of a Gittite named Obed-Edom. He fled the presence of God. And there is still a measure of healthy fear when we come into his presence today. We know God is holy, and we know we are not, and so it is appropriate in gathering together that we “examine ourselves” first. It’s a perfectly reasonable safety measure even for those who are God’s children coming to worship him.

But there was no such fear in the heart of the Lord Jesus where his Father’s habitation was concerned. None at all. He was at home in God’s dwelling in a way that none of us has ever been.

“In the great assembly I will bless the Lord.” How can we hear these words without thinking of the book of Hebrews? David could stand in the assembly of Israel and bless the Lord. It is our privilege to do something similar from time to time in church. But when the Lord Jesus does it, it is a reminder of something even more wonderful which David could not imagine: the Son of God is not ashamed to call us his family. He does not say in Hebrews, “I will tell of your name to the masses,” but “I will tell of your name to my brothers.” That great assembly is the assembly of the redeemed; it is the family of God. When Jesus sings the praises of God in the presence of the congregation, it is a congregation now without spot or blemish. There was a Judas at that last Passover supper, but there will be no traitors, liars or dissemblers in the great assembly when Jesus blesses the Lord. He is “not ashamed to call them brothers”, and one day there will be nothing for us to be ashamed of.

Something Important

If we must be technically accurate, these are not really our Psalms. Not first and foremost. One speaks the words of repentant Israel; the other speaks the words of the spotless Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. A wild olive shoot is not a natural branch, and relative righteousness is not absolute righteousness. But even if these are not our own words to speak, both psalms have something important to say to us today.

At one level they are not really ours. At another, they certainly are.

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