Showing posts with label Psalms. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Psalms. Show all posts

Sunday, December 10, 2023

The Price of Proximity

God is holy.

Not a new thought, I know, but one that, in the opinion of the Holy Spirit, merits mention three times in the nine verses of Psalm 99: “Holy is he! Holy is he! The Lord our God is holy!”

Amen. In fact, he’s so holy that in the Old Testament, those closest to God tended to pay a price for their proximity.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

A Bulwark Never Failing

Around 1052 B.C., King David conquered a Jebusite stronghold in the hills and made it the capital of his kingdom. He repaired and built up the city that has come to be known as Jerusalem, Zion, the City of David and Ariel. His son Solomon enhanced it and made it truly world class, and the later kings of Judah supplemented and strengthened it. It has been attacked by history’s greatest empires, razed repeatedly but always rebuilt, and unlike many ancient cities of the East, it’s still there today.

The Sons of Korah called Zion “the city of our God”.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

One and Done

Little is known about the writer of Psalm 89, but it’s still a great deal more than we know about the writers of some other psalms.

Ethan the Ezrahite was a Levite musician, poet and prophet who came to prominence as a young man during David’s reign, continuing his ministry into the reign of Solomon and perhaps even that of his ill-fated son Rehoboam, which lasted from 931-913 BC.

Evidence for that last statement to come …

Monday, July 10, 2023

Anonymous Asks (257)

“Who authored the Psalms?”

Scripture clearly identifies many of the psalmists with superscriptions. Sometimes we even get a little bit of detail about the circumstances in which they wrote. For example, the superscription for Psalm 3 is “A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son”, and Psalm 7 is called “A Shiggaion of David, which he sang to the Lord concerning the words of Cush, a Benjaminite”.

Please don’t ask what a “shiggaion” is. It’s one of those words Strong’s Concordance labels as “doubtful”.

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Utopia as a By-Product

Henry Giroux wrote that a utopia is “an imaginary community or society that possesses highly desirable or near-perfect qualities for its members”. He was generalizing based on the way the concept has been used (and misused) for over five centuries, trying to distill a jumble of ideas down to a basic concept everyone can agree about. The word itself comes from a 1516 book of the same name written by Sir Thomas More, but Plato’s Republic took a crack at the same ideas almost 2,000 years earlier, and it may be argued that even the Tower of Babel was an early, misguided stab in that direction. It would be hard to find a time when men have not dreamed of and yearned for social perfection, though always on their own terms and by their own standards.

Literally, utopia means “no place”. You would think more people might take More’s not-too-subtle hint.

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Semi-Random Musings (30)

“When iniquities prevail against me, you atone for our transgressions.”

This first phrase nicely encapsulates the condition of the believer. Iniquities do not characterize him. Iniquities do not magnetically draw him the way they once did. Iniquities are not his goal or the meaning of his life. Iniquities are an enemy with which he is perpetually in contention.

Occasionally iniquities even prevail. For a moment only.

Tuesday, June 06, 2023

Thee, Thee Only

“Against you, you only, have I sinned.”

Do you have trouble with this verse? I certainly do. Just like I struggle with a lot of hyperbole in scripture.

What? There’s hyperbole in scripture? You mean people said things under the direction of the Holy Spirit of God that weren’t intended to be understood literally?

Tuesday, May 09, 2023

Wasted Worries

Sometimes I think we moderns, especially in the West, are way too literal in our reading of scripture.

I’m not against literalism as a general principle, of course. “When the plain sense makes good sense, seek no other sense” is a solid hermeneutic. No, literalism of that type is just fine. The sort of nit-picking, fussy literalism I’m concerned about has more to do with the negative inferences the Western mindset often tends to draw from positive statements. It’s more about strange leaps of logic extrapolated from the text than about the text itself.

Monday, January 03, 2022

Anonymous Asks (178)

“Which of the psalms stands out the most to you?”

If you were stranded on a desert island and could take only one book of the Bible with you, which book would it be? Forest Antemesaris says he would take the Psalms, and many Christians would agree with him. The Psalms, he says, are “the songbook of Israel, a chronicle of praise from our spiritual ancestors, an emotional catharsis, the New Testament’s Old Testament foundation, and the scriptural bedrock of spiritual formation”. He goes on to say the Psalms are central to both testaments, and foundational to praise, the biblical language of prayer, and the love of God’s word.

All this is true.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Who Reads Anymore?

I’ve heard that Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time may be the most famous book people have never read.

That’s right: Never.

People sure do talk about it. It’s sold ten million or so copies. Lots of people cite the title of the book, laud it, and claim to have found their opinions confirmed by it — but few of these have actually ever read it.

In a way, maybe that’s understandable. It is, after all, a fairly challenging book. For a mathematician, it’s a good read, perhaps; for the average person it’s a quick road to Slumberland. Even though it’s pretty short it only takes a few pages to render most folks unconscious.

Thursday, December 02, 2021

Is Your Faith Boring You?

The great mathematician Blaise Pascal claimed all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

Modern people don’t sit in rooms alone very well. They find it boring. And, in fact, being bored is one thing almost all of us instinctively hate. Particularly in our present day of social media, cell phones, portable games and constant mental stimulation, it seems to us that solitude and silence are indicators of something being terribly wrong. On those occasions when we find ourselves momentarily bored we immediately fumble for our phones or look around for some new distraction.

I suspect we are probably less adept than any previous generation at just sitting still and thinking.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

The Hatred of King Jesus

“You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”

These “companions” were not bad guys.

The psalmist is probably speaking of other Israelite royalty, so Jesus had something significant in common with them despite their human failings: they were all kings. People like David, Solomon and Hezekiah. They served God, they honored God, and they led his people out to victory.

Not bad guys at all, some of them.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

It Ain’t Over ’til It’s Over

The Lord is king forever and ever.”

The 2014 NCAA football championship final was an amazing game. The Florida State Seminoles and their Heisman Trophy winning quarterback, high on a record-breaking season, were pitted against the upstart Auburn Tigers, recent defeaters of last year’s national champions. Florida State was touted as the prohibitive favorite — but as they say, it ain’t over ’til it’s over.

Auburn stormed out onto the field and took the Seminoles off guard. Their crafty game plan, superior aggression at the line and some stellar execution by their offense rapidly staked them to an overwhelming 21-3 lead. Meanwhile, nothing the Seminoles tried seemed to work, and Auburn’s every touch of the ball was golden.

But as they say, the game weren’t over yet.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

What Does Your Proof Text Prove? (14)

Garrett Jones wants to straighten out a very important scriptural misconception.

Perhaps you have read that the Lord Jesus will one day “rule the nations with a rod of iron” and have always understood the rod metaphor to convey irresistible might and the instantaneous crushing of all rebellious impulses.

That’s an immature take, says Garrett, a caricature of God’s intentions for our world, the equivalent of your kid’s refrigerator artwork. You are reading the passage as if it speaks of an angry God who is going to “spank everyone with a long metal stick”, in ignorance of its real meaning.

Sunday, April 04, 2021

Be Careful What You Wish For

What are the limits of the patience of God? More importantly, how many of us are wise enough to discern those limits and stop short of them?

Anyone familiar with the gospels recognizes that testing the patience of God is dangerous. Satan once took the Lord Jesus to a pinnacle of the temple and reminded him of the promises of God in the Old Testament about the protection of those who make the Lord “their dwelling place” in the hope that Jesus would jump in order to make a point. The Lord responded by quoting the Law of Moses: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Leaving Something on the Shelf

“Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands ...”

What is that all about, you ask?

Well, let me tell you what it’s not all about. It ain’t about taking the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, and quoting it to the unsaved in hope of touching an unregenerate conscience and stirring it to life.

Some battles are not between people’s ears.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Running Out of Time

Utopian schemes are everywhere these days, and we would be remiss if we failed to acknowledge that they have a certain appeal to Christians as well as secularists.

Who could argue with solving the food crisis, ending unjust incarceration, abling the disabled, elevating the downtrodden, promoting the good, caring for refugees, or providing protection for the most helpless members of society?

Apart from using their plight to his advantage, the current ruler of this world does not concern himself one iota with the men and women at the margins of society. And yet they are of great interest to God. Social justice matters when it is social justice of the biblical sort.

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Everybody’s an Idolater

“The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands.”

Everybody’s an idolater. Well, almost everybody.

Christians are exempt. Of course we may struggle with temptation to idolatry of various sorts from time to time, but the characteristic pattern of the Christian life is not idolatrous. We do not continue in it. After all, idolaters will not enter the kingdom of God. Anyone whose life is characterized by idolatry is by definition un-Christian.

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

“Christianizing” the Psalms

In Sunday School we used to sing, “Every promise in the book is mine: every chapter, every verse, every line.” And of all the books in the Old Testament that we Christians love to apply to ourselves, the book of Psalms is right at the top of the list.

I suspect this is because despite being mostly composed between 4,000 and 2,500 years ago by Hebrews living in a very different cultural setting, the psalms contain statements of great universality which we may reasonably apply to believers in every era of God’s dealings with mankind, up to and including ourselves.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

On the Construction Site

Raising children is hard. Doing it right is harder.

Psalm 127 was written by Solomon, and contains several oft-quoted lines about parents and children. To the extent we know much about any of Solomon’s own children, it appears they had limited success in this world. Solomon’s son Rehoboam started his reign with twelve tribes calling him king and ended it with 2-1/2 ... not exactly what we would call an outstanding job performance.

That doesn’t mean Rehoboam’s father knew nothing useful about governance, but whatever Solomon did know, he passed on to his son imperfectly, as is so often the case.

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

A Structural Analysis of Psalm 107

Sometimes the best way to understand something is to try to put it inside your own frame of reference.

The book of Psalms is a compilation of poetry written at various times and places by a bare minimum of eight different godly men with diverse personalities and interests. Some were theologians writing poetry, and some were probably poets writing theology. This means, as you would expect, that there are psalms with obvious and ornate structures (Psalm 119 comes to mind, where the letters of the Hebrew alphabet start each section of the psalm), as well as others that appear to be structured very simply (Psalm 15 is a single question and its answer) or have very little noticeable structure at all (Psalm 117, for example, is so brief that any analysis of its structure is near-pointless).

Pattern recognition is more useful in some passages of scripture than in others. Psalm 107 is definitely structured.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Recognizing Our Limitations

An anthropomorphism is the attribution of human motivation, characteristics or behavior to that which is not human; in The American Heritage Dictionary, an inanimate object, an animal or some natural phenomenon.

The Bible is full of such figures of speech. One psalmist says, “The heavens declare the glory of God ... day to day pours out speech.” Another records, “The mountains skipped like rams.”

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Hyperbole and Analogy

When trying to understand individual psalms, three questions are helpful to ask:
  1. How was this psalm understood by its original audience?
  2. To what other circumstances might this psalm legitimately apply?
  3. Where is Christ in this psalm; and, conversely, where is he not?
The first and third questions are easily understood, even if it is sometimes tough sledding to find the answers to them. The second requires a little explanation.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Worth Dying For

When King David wrote, “He trains my hands for war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze,” the great warrior-poet was not reaching for an apt figure of speech to describe some vigorous spiritual exercise. He meant it absolutely literally. David had men on every side who were trying to kill him with bows, arrows, swords and spears. His enemies were not looking for a bracing intellectual argument; they intended to spill David’s blood, and spill it in copious quantities.

Moreover, God was not standing aloof from David’s very physical struggles. He was right in there equipping his servant to pierce, crush, injure and maim his fellow man.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Seeing What We Want to See

Christians cannot agree across the board about what the Bible teaches. If we could, there would be no need for denominations, and there would be a single, clear, accepted interpretation of every verse of scripture.

Wouldn’t that be nice? But it ain’t so, and we all know it.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

What Does Your Proof Text Prove? (13)

“Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

The commendably-honest Sarah Frazer acknowledges she once believed this familiar promise in Psalm 37 meant “I can have anything I want.” If so, that would be quite a promise, but it would reduce God to a mere term in a larger equation, where if you treat that term a consistent way, you can always expect a predictable outcome.

Nice deal if you can get it, but quite a comedown for the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe to be reduced to a component of your personal math problem.

Let’s suggest that might not be the verse’s intended meaning!

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Fake Piety

Fake piety is usually fairly transparent. Sadly, the fakely pious are the only ones who do not know it.

Christians sometimes caution one another to be careful what we confess, and this is not always a bad thing. A personal testimony full of interesting and semi-scandalous details can serve as a source of enticement to those who have little life experience, whose parents have sheltered them from the evils in the world.

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.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

David’s Covenant and the Resurrection

On Tuesday we looked at the first six public messages in the book of Acts to consider how one’s audience ought to determine the content of a gospel message, a pattern well established by the apostles in their preaching.

It seems obvious that the apostles did not simply memorize a few key points to preach about in every situation. They did not utilize a predictable series of Old Testament proof texts. They were not merely checking boxes, but responded to the needs of the particular audience to whom they were preaching.

So now here we are in Acts 13.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

91 and 19

You will surely remember Psalm 91. That’s the one which begins, “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty ...” It’s often attributed to Moses, and is famous for being very comforting — I heard it read at a funeral recently — and even more so for being quoted by Satan in his temptation of the Lord Jesus.

It also includes two statements which we might be inclined to try to apply to nasty little flu viruses that kill people, among other things: “For he will deliver you from ... the deadly pestilence” and “no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent.” On a quick reading, it sounds as if dwelling in the shelter of the Most High and making God our refuge is the ticket out of most of the unpleasant and disturbing things that can happen to us in this life — not just new and virulent diseases, but war and wild beasts and even unfortunate accidents — as well as being the absolute guarantee of a long life. What a sweet spot to live in!

But does 91 really apply to COVID-19? Can Christians reasonably claim its promises in connection with the current pandemic? I hate to be a party-pooper, but a careful reading of scripture does not allow us to appropriate this familiar psalm for our own comfort quite so freely.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Times and Dates

The phrase “unto this day” or its equivalent occurs 92 times in scripture by my count, 86 times in Hebrew and six times in Greek. Well over a dozen Bible authors use it. When I was much younger and more solipsistic, I read it — don’t laugh — as if it meant up until the late twentieth century, as if “this day” meant the day I was reading it. It seemed rather cool to me that so many landmarks in Old Testament history could survive so long.

Later it dawned on me that of course it really means up until sometime between the first moment the writer put quill to papyrus and the moment he finished editing what he had written. No more, no less.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

God’s Eyelids

God is spirit. I think we can confidently affirm that spirits do not have physical features like we do.

So what’s this the psalmist says about God’s eyelids then? Seems a strange expression:

“The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven; his eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man. The Lord tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.”

Hmm.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Who Reads Anymore?

The most recent version of this post is available here.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Giving and Taking of the Spirit

Today I want to do a short follow-up from yesterday’s post, which was about bad songs that conservative evangelical congregations are singing these days.

My particular concern in that one was the really atrocious doctrine of the Holy Spirit that they seem to be teaching in song. I pointed out some of the raw falsehoods that are being sung passionately by those of us who really ought to know better: and I said that the victims of our error include all untaught believers and our own children, as well as the Spirit of God himself, concerning whom these songs promote raw falsehoods.

I ended with a passionate plea for us to stop.

And I really hope somebody is listening.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

It Ain’t Over ’til It’s Over

The most recent version of this post is available here.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

God’s Sovereignty vs. the Idiocy of Man

What happens when, as Christians, you or I make a mess of our lives in very serious, potentially permanent ways?

I ask the question not as someone with a theoretical curiosity, but as someone who has a habit of doing so.

So, really, where is God when, as his servants, we make complete and utter idiots of ourselves?

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Is Your Faith Boring You?

The most recent version of this post is available here.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Fatherhood Foreshadowed

How many times in your life have you started a prayer with the word “Father”?

For me it’s thousands upon thousands. Tens of thousands, perhaps. I can’t even begin to guess. In fact, it is fairly common for Christians to address God as their father, though I know many whose prayers customarily begin with “Dear God”, which, when you think about it, is a little perplexing.

How many of us think much about the fact that the family relationship with God into which we have been brought through faith in Jesus Christ is not only intimate but also unprecedented?

Monday, March 26, 2018

The Rest of the Psalm


So said the exiles of Judah in Babylon, and they wept as they recalled it. Their real home was far away. They belonged in Zion, and their present status was, to all appearances, quite degraded. Had things gone as they should, God’s people would have been singing psalms in the temple courts of the great city of Jerusalem, not sitting in servitude by the waters of Babylon.

But there they were all the same.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Future Harvest, Present Grace

Fox Business says one reason a significant number of Millennials struggle to find work is that self-control is still considered a major workplace asset. Rightly or wrongly, employers tend to associate that quality with older workers.

Self-control is the ability to subdue our impulses in order to achieve longer-term goals; to do the necessary things even when our emotions get in the way — not a priority much stressed in the last few generations. Karl Moore notes, “Millennials value emotion. They are taught in high school and university a Postmodern worldview which puts thought [and] emotions on nearly the same plane.”

Well, if how I feel is going to dictate what I do today, I should not be surprised to find at the end of the day that I haven’t got a whole lot done. And that is a problem.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Sojourners and Citizens

Not everything about sojourning is to the sojourner’s taste. That’s part and parcel of being on the road. As someone with no vested interests in the society around you — as someone just passing through — you have to kind of accept the way the locals live and occasionally look the other way, even if what they do is more than a little cringeworthy at times. When in Rome and all that …

In the Bible, sojourners were more refugees than tourists. Like Naomi or Jacob and his family, they were where they were because their own nation was experiencing famine, drought or invasion. Or, like David, Moses, Jacob (again) or Joseph and Mary, they were on the run because their king, their own people or even their family members would have been happy to see them dead.

The Christian, too, is far from home. All believers are.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Tick Tick Tick …

In my Bible, Psalm 114 has only sixteen lines, but it makes a powerful point: Where God is personally present, big events inevitably follow.

Now, it’s obvious that in one sense God can be said to be present everywhere. David asks, “Where shall I flee from your presence?” The answer: Don’t bother. You can’t. God is present in the realm of the dead, in heaven and in the uttermost parts of the sea. Holding the universe together requires that sort of presence.

But that’s not the sort of presence I’m talking about.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Imprecations and Maledictions

There’s an old eighties dirge about an abused child that starts, “My name is Luka. I live on the second floor …”

In the real world the writer’s name was not Luka, it was Suzanne. She was majoring in English Lit. at Barnard College and performing regularly in Greenwich Village when she penned that hit, and the little boy she wrote about was neither abused nor even named Luka.

So much for verisimilitude.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Of Judges and Secret Kings

Not every popular song is about you or me.

For every My Funny Valentine, in which almost every listener pictures someone who makes me “smile with my heart”, instantly identifying with the songwriter in his slightly maudlin rhapsodizing, there’s a “Galileo Figaro magnifico!”

Say what? What does that even mean? But Bohemian Rhapsody was hugely popular and remains a rock classic, though nobody who’s ever heard it has the slightest idea what it’s about.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Price of Proximity

The most recent version of this post is available here.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Remember to Quote the Whole Thing

Christians in the habit of proof-texting should consider examining the context of their favorite “gotcha” verses once in a while. It’s a healthy exercise, useful in maintaining doctrinal balance.

Determinists, for instance, would benefit immensely from making context-scrutiny a daily practice. Most of the great passages they like to cite on the subject of God’s sovereignty have overtures to human responsibility at their core.

Let me grab a couple of favorites from The Calvinist Corner, because nobody can make the point better.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Forests and Trees

When I pick up a Bible and try to understand a particular verse or passage, I am at a slight disadvantage compared to the writer’s original audience.

“Slight?” you might well ask, taking out your logical 2x4 and preparing to give me a smart tap on the frontal lobe, hopefully in the interest of bringing me to my senses.

“How can you possibly call the disadvantage of living thousands of years after the original writer slight? Sure, you can read the words that the author penned, assuming there has been no significant textual corruption along the way, but you have no idea what was in the author’s mind. You’re not a Hebrew, and you didn’t live in his day. You don’t know the cultural baggage with which his language was freighted. You didn’t have his experiences. You don’t know Greek idioms or how they came about.

“Chances are quite high that you are coming to the text with all kinds of modern assumptions that influence how you read things.”

Monday, January 29, 2018

A Bright Thought for a Brisk Winter Morning

Life is affliction.

Too dark an opener? Maybe. But it’s true.

It’s too short for one thing, gone before we fully appreciate it. “Dust”, says Moses. Like a dream. We wither like grass. We are swept away like a flood. Seventy years on average. Eighty maybe, if we’re unusually robust. Almost nothing. At some point after we enter this world, we discover that death is a universal reality. From that moment on, the spectre of our own imminent demise and that of all those we love hovers over, informs, taints and affects every moment of our lives. Affliction.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Wintry Landscapes

“A wintry landscape of unrelieved bleakness.” That’s Lutheran scholar Martin Marty’s take on Psalm 88.

One of the difficulties encountered by those of us who like to go scratching around the Bible to background its characters is that, just like in the phone directory, lots of different people have the same name. That makes certainty an issue. Names like Mary, John and James appear all over the place. Disambiguators help, of course, and the Holy Spirit provides them here and there: Mary Magdalene, James the son of Alphaeus, and so on.

This morning I’m more than a little curious about Heman the Ezrahite, the poet credited with the aforementioned “wintry landscape”.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Two Kindreds

“All the nations you have made shall come and worship before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name.”

The Psalms declare that God made the nations.

By “nations”, the Psalmist means the natural ethnic divisions of our world; the families, clans and specific language groups that exist almost from pole to pole. The Hebrew term for these divisions is gowy; the word goyim is thought to be related.

David’s not speaking here of states or republics or empires or flags or unions — those grand expressions of the will of exceptional and powerful men, held together by law and force of arms, that spread across whole continents only to disappear into the history books when an even greater will or a bigger army rises up against them.

No, he’s talking about something smaller, more fundamental, more instinctual and longer-lasting.