Archive | June 2022

Draw Closer to God

Psalm 50 calls us to draw closer to God.

Verses 7-9 stress that drawing closer to God is not found in religious hypocrisy: “Hear, O my people, and I will speak, O Israel, I will testify against you.  I am God, your God.  not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me.  I will not accept a bull from your house, or goats from your folds.”

We easily fall for the false assumption that religiosity will bring us closer to God, but we never draw closer to God simply by going through the motions or by trying to fulfill some laws or rituals.

Verses 14-15 point to two practices that are far more effective in drawing us closer to God: Turning to God with thanksgiving and turning to God with our pleas for help: “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High.  Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”

When we make it a practice to present to God our thanksgiving, we build into our lives the habit of remembering God’s care for us and his presence with us.  Such remembrance draws us closer to God.  When we express to God our pleas for his help, we open up our hearts to God, and we stand before God anxious to receive from him.  Such openness to God draws us closer to him.

Verses 16-20 call us away from sin and wrongdoing: “But to the wicked God says: ‘What right have you to recite my statutes, or take my covenant on your lips?  For you hate discipline, and you cast my words behind you.  you make friends with a thief when you see one, and you keep company with adulterers.  You give your mouth free rein for evil, and your tongue frames deceit.  You sit and speak against your kin; you slander your own mother’s child.”

It is impossible for us to draw close to God when we are violating God’s ways, when we are harming others or cheating others.  We draw closer to God when we follow in his ways.  We draw closer to God when we go about acting toward others in ways that match his love for others.  Then we are in alignment with God rather than striving against him.  This is why verse 23 (the final verse of the psalm) stresses, “Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me; to those who go the right way I will show the salvation of God.”

Psalm 50 counsels us that the way to draw closer to God is through the practice of thanksgiving, and by opening up to God about our need for his help and  for his presence with us, and by walking faithfully in his ways.

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The Brevity of Life, but God….

The opening lines of Psalm 49 call everyone to listen, for the psalm is dealing with something of extreme importance that everyone should pay attention to: “Hear this, all you peoples; give ear, all inhabitants of the world, both low and high, rich and poor together.”

Verses 5 and 6 raise two critical questions that are answered in the remaining verses of the psalm: Why should I fear in times of trouble?  And why shouldn’t people trust in their wealth? 

The common issue behind both of these questions is the issue of human mortality, the brevity of life on earth: “Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations” (verse 11).  “Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish” (verses 12 & 20).  “Like the sheep they are appointed for Sheol; Death shall be their shepherd; straight to the grave they descend, and their form shall waste away; Sheol shall be their home” (verse 14).  Since life is short and since death is certain, should we fear?  Should we trust in our wealth?

The psalm addresses the second question first, and invests most of its verses on this question: Can I trust in my wealth?  The answer to the question is a clear “No!”  Wealth cannot save us from death or even make our brief life on earth worthwhile.  Neither longevity of life or fulfillment of life can be manufactured by or purchased by wealth: “Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life; there is no price one can give to God for it” (verse 7).  “When we look at the wise, they die; fool and dolt perish together and leave their wealth to others” (verse 10).  “Do not be afraid when some become rich, when the wealth of their houses increases.  For when they die they will carry nothing away; their wealth will not go down after them” (verses 16-17).

The message here is that it does us no good to trust in wealth.  13th century Persian poet Rumi sums it up well: “Greed makes man blind and foolish, and makes him an easy prey for death.”

The psalm’s answer to the second question is shorter and more concise.  Although life is short and death is certain, verse 15 sets forward a protest: “But God….”  On one side of the scale we stack the gloomy reality that life is brief, that death is certain, that we can do nothing to prevent or overcome death, and that we grieve deeply the loss of our loved ones.  But on the other side of the scale stands God, and God topples the scale.  The gloom of death is overcome by the presence of God: “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me” (verse 15).

We need not fear even death, for God will ransom us.  We are forever safe in his care!

A story is told of a young man who came to America from England and became a naturalized citizen.  He happened to travel to Cuba as civil war broke out there in 1867.  He was arrested as a spy, taken before the Spanish military court and condemned to be shot.  He sent word to the American consul and to the British consul, declaring his innocence and pleading for his life.  The consuls went to the Spanish officers, arguing his innocence and asking for his release.  They were told, “He was found guilty by our government and must die.”  A detail of soldiers was lined up.  The man was brought before them, and a hood was drawn over his head.  But just before the troops received the command to fire, the American consul and the British consul rushed up and wrapped their countries’ flags around the young man.  They said, “Fire on these flags if you dare!”  But the soldiers did not dare to fire, knowing that behind those two flags were two powerful nations.

This psalm assures us that when it comes to death, believers are wrapped in something even more secure than a great nation’s flag.  We are ransomed by God!  We are held securely by our Savior!

God’s Showdown with the Power of Death

From the perspective of ancient Egypt, slaves were slaves because that was their lot in life.  It was a slave’s appointed role in life to labor for the gods—including laboring for Pharaoh, who was considered a god who owned the land and the people.  Any attempt to free a slave would be considered a revolt against the gods.  Therefore, to deliver the Israelites from Egypt, Moses would have to confront and overcome the various gods of Egypt. 

Each of the 10 plagues (in Exodus 7-11) was a showdown with various gods of Egypt and was aimed at making it clear to Egyptians and to Israelites that the gods of Egypt had no authority to hold down the people of Israel.  The final plague (in Exodus 11-12) was a showdown with Egypt’s most foundational gods, Ptah and Isis (or Aset). 

Ptah was so significant a god that our word Egypt is actually a condensed form of the phrase Ha-ka-ptah, which means “House of the Soul of Ptah.”  The land we call Egypt was considered the House of the Soul of Ptah.  He was considered the god of builders—thus directly over the slaves laboring at Pharaoh’s building projects.  The Book of the Dead refers to Ptah as the master architect and as the framer of everything in the universe.  Ptah was considered the creator of the Opening of the Mouth ceremony which was believed to restore life to the dead in the afterlife.  Ptah was looked upon as the great protector of Egypt and was depicted as a mummified man with unbound arms, holding a staff with the ankh (symbolizing life) and the was-sceptre (representing power).

Isis was considered the mother goddess of Egypt.  She was generally depicted with bird wings or with a kite or falcon because the cry of a falcon and the cry of a kite sounds like a mother wailing for her children.  Isis’ hieroglyphic symbol is a throne, and every Pharaoh was considered her child.  Isis was thought to have power over life and death.

The final plague in Egypt is not merely God’s showdown with Ptah and Isis to convince everyone that the gods of Egypt have no authority over God’s people, it is also God’s showdown with the power of death to make it clear to God’s followers that God has authority even over death. 

Death is horrible.  It is disgusting.  It is heart-wrenching.  From the evidence of Scripture, death even breaks the heart of God.

But God does not stand powerless before death.  God provided a rescue, a way out, for all who put into action their trust in him. 

That night in Egypt, while wailing sounded throughout the land, many homes remained quiet and still through the night.  Many families in Egypt found themselves completely unaffected by the horrible plague that swept across the country.

God provided a way to avoid death that night.  Through Moses, God instructed the Jewish people to kill a lamb and to put some of its blood on the sides and top of the doorframes of the homes where they were eating the Passover meal.  When the destroyer swept through the land, he passed over the homes that had blood on their doorframes.  The blood of a lamb on the doorframes saved the lives of the firstborn sons in those homes.

So that the Israelites would always remember how God rescued them from slavery in Egypt, and so that they would always know God’s authority over death, God instructed the Jewish people to celebrate the Passover meal every year on the anniversary of the day death passed them over.  Every year, on this day, they were to sacrifice a lamb and eat it, remembering the lamb whose blood delivered them from death. 

Centuries later, the night before Jesus was crucified, he ate the Passover meal with his disciples.  As he ate the meal, he took a cup of wine and spoke not about what the blood of a lamb did for people centuries previously but about what his own blood would do for us forevermore.  Blood on the doors in Egypt kept faith-filled people safe from death for one night; the blood Jesus shed for us overcomes death forever for faith-filled people.  Blood on the doors rescued Israelites from slavery in Egypt; the blood Jesus shed forgives our sins and rescues us from the burden of guilt.  Blood on the doors in Egypt put an end to Ptah’s oppression of people; the blood Jesus poured out for us brings us into the eternal love of our Savior.

Ponder God’s Steadfast Love

Psalm 48 begins by lifting up praise to God: “Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised.”

Quickly, the focus of the psalm turns to the city of God: “Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised in the city of our God.  His holy mountain, beautiful in elevation, is the joy of all the earth, Mount Zion, in the far north, the city of the great King.  Within its citadels God has shown himself a sure defense.”

What is it that makes Jerusalem “the joy of all the earth”?

It is God’s presence among his people in the House of God that makes Jerusalem “the joy of all the earth.”

But why would God make a home on a hill in Jerusalem?

What prompted God to make a home in Jerusalem is that God loves us.  Out of that love for us, God sought to make connection with us by establishing a place where we could meet God and where God could meet with us.  

No wonder the call to us in verse 9 is to “ponder” the “steadfast love of God.” 

Please take some time to ponder “the steadfast love of God”:

Many years ago, Norwegian explorer Nansen Fridtjof tried to measure an extremely deep part of the Arctic Ocean.  The first day, he used his longest measuring line but couldn’t reach the bottom.  He wrote in his log book, “The ocean is deeper than that.”  The next day, he added more line but still could not measure the depth.  He wrote into his record book, “Deeper than that.”  After several days of adding more and more pieces of rope and cord to his line, he had to leave that part of the ocean without learning its actual depth.  All he knew was that it was beyond his ability to measure.  Such is the nature of God’s love: The depth of God’s love is beyond our capacity to measure.

Alexander Whyte puts it this way: “The love of Christ has no border; it has no shore; it has no bottom.  The love of Christ is boundless; it is bottomless; it is infinite; it is divine…. We shall come to the shore, we shall strike the bottom of every other love, but never the love of Christ…. You will never come to the length of it, or to the breadth of it, or to the depth of it, or to the height of it.  To all eternity, the love of Christ to you will be new.”

Brennan Manning asks and answers questions about God’s love for us: “Are you afraid that your weakness could separate you from the love of Christ?  It can’t.  Are you afraid that your inadequacies could separate you from the love of Christ?  They can’t.  Are you afraid that your inner poverty could separate you from the love of Christ?  It can’t.  Difficult marriage, loneliness, anxiety over the children’s future?  They can’t.  Negative self-image?  It can’t.  Economic hardship, racial hatred, street crime?  They can’t.  Rejection by loved ones or the suffering of loved ones?  They can’t.  Persecution by authorities, going to jail.  They can’t.  Nuclear war?  It can’t.  Mistakes, fears, uncertainties?  They can’t.  The gospel of grace calls out, Nothing can ever separate you from the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Annie Johnson Flint writes,

            When we have exhausted our store of endurance,

            When our strength has failed ere the day is half done,

            When we reach the end of our hoarded resources

            Our Father’s full giving is only begun.

            His love has no limit; His grace has no measure;

            His love no boundary known unto men.

            For out of His infinite riches in Jesus

            He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.

A Showdown with False Gods

Walking home from my Junior High School one day (many years ago), my friend and I startled a mama quail and her brood of baby chicks who were crossing the street.  The mama quickly hopped from the gutter to the curb and scampered into the woods beyond the curb.  Her babies, unable to jump from the gutter to the curb scampered around in a panic, not knowing what they could do to re-join their mother.  My friend and I found some rocks and pieces of wood, and we constructed a stairway which the baby birds used to reach the top of the curb and scurry into the woods after their mother. 

If my childhood friend and I did that for a brood of young quail, how much more should we expect an All-Loving God to provide deliverance to a nation of people who were stuck in misery in Egypt?

Israel’s misery in Egypt was two-part.  The Israelites suffered from physical slavery, forced to build Pharaoh’s projects, and they suffered spiritual bondage to the false gods of Egypt.  God sent Moses to Egypt to free the Israelites from both physical slavery and spiritual bondage.  The way God accomplished Israel’s deliverance from both forms of bondage was through a showdown with the gods of Egypt.

The showdown begins early in Exodus 7 when Aaron’s staff is thrown to the ground and becomes a serpent.  Thermuthis, the Egyptian goddess of fertility, harvest and fate, was symbolized as a serpent.  When Aaron’s staff was thrown to the ground and became a serpent, it was as if God was saying to Pharaoh and to the Egyptian sorcerers, “I challenge your goddess to a duel.”  The Egyptian sorcerers accept the challenge.  Their staffs also become serpents.  But Aaron’s serpent swallows the serpents of the Egyptian priests.  Egypt’s goddess of fate was swallowed up by the God of Israel.

The Egyptians worshiped Khnum as the giver of the Nile and as the creator of humankind.  During the late summer of each year, as the river would swell with the runoff of storms in the higher ground, Pharaoh would go down to the river each morning to take daily readings of the river to chart the greatness of the river.  Plutarch commented, “Nothing is in greater honor among the Egyptians than the river Nile.”  But when Aaron’s staff struck the river its water turned to blood.  Fish died; the water stunk.  People had to dig holes in the ground to come up with drinkable water.  Scholars note that late summer rains in Ethiopia have, at other times, washed large quantities of fine, red earth down the river, along with microcosms known as flagellates, reddening the river, killing the fish, and making the water undrinkable.  But does a natural explanation of the plague diminish its significance?  Whatever explanation you give to it, the revered god of the Nile was not able to protect the Egyptians or to provide safe water for them.

With the water of the Nile turning bad, frogs cover the land.  The primordial goddess Heket was represented by a frog.  As people find frogs in their beds, their ovens, their kneading bowls, and so forth, the message God seems to be making to the people of Egypt is that their country is overrun with its gods and goddess who turn out to be nothing but nuisances to them as well as a horrid stench.

After that, Aaron strikes the dust of the earth with his staff and gnats or lice fill the country.  Such a proliferation of gnats would be a great irritation and could actually be deadly.  In her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard reports that 20,000 head of domestic livestock died from a host of black flies that swarmed the banks of the Danube River in 1923.  Striking the dust of the earth was a showdown with Seth, the Egyptian god of the earth, of the desert, of storms, and of chaos.  At this, even Pharaoh’s magicians recognize that their gods are no match for the God of the Israelites.

Next, God sends swarms of insects throughout the land of Egypt, except for the land of Goshen where the Israelites live.  Khepri, worshiped by the Egyptians as the primordial god and as the god of the rising sun, was symbolized as a beetle.  Again, the message that seems to be getting through to the Egyptians is that their proliferation of gods is out of control and destructive to the country and to the people.

After that, the Egyptians’ livestock suffer severe pestilence, but the livestock of the Hebrews are unharmed.  The Egyptians worshiped Apis and Hathor, the sacred bull and the sacred cow, but they are powerless to protect the Egyptian cattle.  It is only the God of the Israelites who protects his people’s cattle.

Then Moses takes handfuls of soot from a kiln and throws them in the air in the sight of Pharaoh, with the warning that it will bring boils on the people of Egypt.  As the Israelites were forced to make bricks in kilns, now the ashes of those kilns brings punishment to those who had inflicted cruel labor upon the Hebrews. 

In a showdown with Shu, the god of the atmosphere, God sends lightening and hail upon the land.

Because of Pharaoh’s continued hardheartedness, God sends a great infestation of locusts.  Locusts are actually harmless grasshoppers who have been overly irritated until they transform into swarming, destructive locusts.  Annie Dillard describes them as “grasshoppers gone berserk.”  She writes, “If you take ordinary grasshoppers…and rear them…under crowded conditions, they go into the migratory phase.  That is, they turn into locusts.  They literally and physically change from Jekyll to Hyde before your eyes…. They are restless, excitable, voracious.” (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, p. 208-209)  To teach a lesson about the deadly danger of hardheartedness, God used gentle grasshoppers turned into destructive locusts. 

In a showdown with Ra, the national god of Egypt, the god of sun, earth, and sky, God brought darkness upon the whole land, showing that the God of the Israelites has authority even over the sun.

Finally, in a showdown with Ptah, whom the Egyptians honored as the god of life, the God of the Israelites struck down the firstborn son throughout the land—except in homes where the blood of the Passover Lamb was placed upon the top and the sides of the door, revealing that it was the God of Moses who alone had power to protect the lives of his people.

The Lord, the Most High, is Fear-Inspiring

Psalm 47 is a psalm of praise.  It begins with the call to us to clap our hands and to shout to God with loud songs of joy.  Then it provides the reason for our praise and joy: “For the Lord, the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth” (verse 2).  The source of our joy is God’s sovereignty. 

The message of God’s sovereignty is returned to in verses 6-7: “Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises.  For God is the king of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm.”

When we understand that God stands powerful over all that can  come our way upon the earth, we can breathe easier, for we realize that nothing can wrench us out of God’s eternal care.

Brian Croft shares, “This lesson came alive to me when my dear friend, Bruce Ware, told me the story of how he taught his daughters this great truth when they were about 5-6 years old while on vacation at the beach.  Bruce took them to the beach one day and said, ‘Hey girls, you know how the Bible teaches that God holds the oceans in the palms of his hands?  Well, you see how big daddy is right?  I’m going to walk into the water, cup my hands, and when I pull water out with my hands, I want you to watch to see if the ocean level goes down at all.  Okay?’”

Though my handful of water can do nothing to disrupt the depth of the sea, God holds all of the oceans in his hands.  Nothing that happens to me on earth is too big for God to handle!

Verse 2 describes God as “awesome.”  The Hebrew word is translated most literally as “fear-inspiring.”  I remember the first time I hiked to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.  At the top I walked out onto a promontory of rock and gazed 4,000 feet down at Yosemite Valley.  That sight was fear-inspiring!  I was filled with a sense of awe over the danger of my position, the thrill of the view, and the bedazzling beauty of the park from that perspective.  For our souls to truly behold the Almighty God is no less frightening, no less thrilling, and no less beautiful!

Brennan Manning adds to our understanding of God’s fear-inspiring nature.  Manning writes, “When Victor Hugo described God as ‘a divine and terrible radiance,’ he used the word terrible not to indicate something frightening or dreadful but to imply an experience that attached a degree of unbearable intensity.  In that phrase, Hugo caught not only the core meaning of kabod (‘glory’ or ‘radiance’), but the truth contained in an old Jewish epigram that says, ‘God is not a kindly old uncle; he is an earthquake.’” (Ruthless Trust, p. 52)

Karl Rahner shares that for him “God is and has always been absolute mystery.  I do not understand what God is; no one can.  We have intimations, inklings; we make faltering, inadequate attempts to put mystery into words.  But there is no word for it, no sentence to contain it.  Understanding God lies outside the usual categories of human thought.”

We cannot explain the mystery of God’s greatness.  All we can do is to join the psalmist in clapping our hands to God, and shouting to God with loud songs of joy, and declaring, “The Lord, the Most High, is awesome!”