Psalm 66 invites and encourages us to praise God: “Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth; sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise. Say to God, ‘How awesome are your deeds! Because of your great power, your enemies cringe before you. All the earth worships you; they sing praise to you, sing praises to your name.’”
We are invited and encouraged to praise God not only because God is worthy of our praise but also because praising God is good for our souls. Praise is the deliberate act of remembering and declaring the goodness of God regardless of our circumstances. In the process of doing this, our hearts begin to settle into the truth that God’s goodness withstands all of our hard times. True praise is not the declaration that our situation makes us entirely happy; rather it is the declaration that we cast our hope on the goodness of God whether things are going well or poorly for us. Praise then shifts the focus of our soul from the limitedness of our circumstances to the immeasurable love and capabilities of God.
Charles Swindoll asks a series of questions that draw out the significance of praising and worshiping God: “What comes from the Lord because it is impossible for humans to manufacture it? Wisdom. What comes from humans because it is impossible for the Lord to experience it? Worry. And what is it that brings wisdom and dispels worry? Worship.”
Psalm 66 begins with the invitation and encouragement to all of us to praise God. It concludes with the psalmist’s personal expression of gratitude and praise: “But truly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer. Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me.”
May God bring to your mind awareness of things for which you can praise God so that the focus of your soul might shift from the limitedness of your circumstances to the immeasurable love and capabilities of God.
I love being out in nature! I love how the beauty of God’s creation fuels my soul. I love how mountains and valleys, and trees and flowers, and lakes and rivers, and deserts and oceans, and wildlife fill me with a mix of thrill and peace and awe. I agree wholeheartedly with John Muir’s assessment, “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of autumn.”
Psalm 65 seems to have been written after spending time soaking in the wonders of nature. It is titled, “Thanksgiving for Earth’s Bounty.” The opening words of the psalm declare, “Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion….” The word translated in the New Revised Standard Version as “due” comes from a Hebrew root meaning ‘to be silent.’ This opening verse is translated most literally as “Praise is silence to you.” This suggests a kind of awe that leaves us without words. Derek Kidner comments, “It may sometimes be the height of worship…to fall silent before God in awe of His presence and in submission to His will.” Charles Spurgeon remarks, “Certainly, when the soul is most filled with adoring awe, she is least content with her own expressions, and feels most deeply how inadequate are all mortal songs to proclaim the divine goodness.”
Psalm 65 nudges us to put ourselves, from time to time, in places or situations where all we can do is stand in awe of God’s goodness
The final verses of Psalm 65 (verses 9-13) sound like a Thanksgiving Hymn: “You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain, for so you have prepared it. You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth. You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with richness. The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.”
In your mind, can you get a glimpse of the beauty that surrounded the psalmist? Can you recall beauty you have beheld? Can your soul share in the sense of awe and gratitude expressed by the psalmist?
This psalm stirs up in my soul a hymn:
For the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies,
For the love which from our birth over and around us lies,
Lord of all, to Thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise!
For the wonder of each hour of the day and of the night,
Hill and vale, and tree and flower, sun and moon, and stars of light,
Lord of all, to Thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise!
In Ephesians 5:14, we find a line that seems to have belonged to an early Christian hymn: “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Indeed, some scholars speculate that it may have been part of a baptismal hymn, sung to new followers of Christ as they come up out of the baptismal water, to stress that, in Christ now, they are entering into a new life: “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
The city of Ephesus was a port town—arguably the most important port in the province of Asia. It was a place where sailors came ashore for leave. Ephesus was well known as a city of self-indulgence, a city for seeking to fulfill one’s most carnal desires. William Barclay commented that the Ephesian “found his happiness in filling himself with wine and with all the pleasures which are worldly pleasures.”
With a self-indulgent life, we think we are pursuing happiness, but actually we are reaping misery.
Many years ago I performed a funeral for a man (Gerald Richardson) who was a bit of a poet. One of his poems addresses the limitations of self-indulgence:
“If nobody smiled and nobody cheered,
And nobody helped us along,
If each one looked after himself,
And the good things all went to the strong,
If nobody cared just a little for you,
And nobody cared for me,
And we all stood alone in the battle of life,
What a dreary world it would be.”
But this early Christian hymn called the followers of Christ to a new and better way of living.
This new and better way of living involves seeking not our own self-indulgence but the will of God. Thus Paul challenges us in Ephesians 5:10, “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.” And thus he challenges us in Ephesians 5:17, “So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” It turns out that deepest personal fulfillment does not come to us through self-indulgence but by walking in the ways of God.
And this new and better way of living involves being filled with God’s Spirit rather than being filled with wine. Thus Paul writes in Ephesians 5:18, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit.”
Charlie Steinmetz has been described as “a deformed dwarf with one of the greatest minds in the field of electricity.” One day, Henry Ford’s generators in Dearborn, Michigan, broke down, and the plant came to a halt. Ford brought in various mechanics, but these mechanics were not able to get the generators running again. Finally, Ford called on Steinmetz. Steinmetz came, seemed to putter around for a few hours, then threw the switch that put the plant back into operation. A few days later, Henry Ford received a bill from Steinmetz for $10,000—which was a great amount of money at the time. Ford returned the bill with a note, “Charlie, isn’t this a little high for just a few hours of tinkering around on those motors?
Steinmetz returned the bill to Ford with some modifications. This time the bill read, “For tinkering around on the motors: $10. For knowing where to tinker: $9,990.”
Ford paid the bill.
Paul tells us not to be filled with wine, for wine does not know how to “tinker around” effectively with our soul, but to be filled with the Spirit, for the Spirit of God knows precisely where and how to “tinker” on us so as to bring out the best in us.
Psalm 64 is identified in Scripture as a “Prayer for Protection from Enemies.”
Enemies elicit within us a longing for vengeance. We want to get back at our enemies. We want them to suffer for the suffering they inflict upon us. But this psalm takes a different approach to the matter of enemies. Rather than pursuing his own vengeance, the psalmist commits himself to God’s care and trusts God to bring justice: “Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint; preserve my life from the dread enemy. Hide me from the secret plots of the wicked, from the scheming of evildoers….”
Robert Fudge comments, “It is so easy for us to think that we have to defend ourselves against those who would seek to do us harm. We feel that urge to get even with them and to see them suffer, even as we have suffered at their hand. After all, this has to be right because it is justice and God is just. So we seek our own revenge. This is not God’s way for our lives. God is just and he will repay trouble to those who trouble us, but he will do it justly, in his own time and in his own way—and that may not be according to our understanding. We may not ever see how God carried out his vengeance in our lives but we can know he will. We are to leave the revenge up to God and not try to execute it ourselves. In fact, what Jesus teaches is far from seeking our own revenge and justice. He says we are to love our enemies, pray for them and seek to do them good. We are to forgive them for whatever they have done to us, even though they do not acknowledge that they have done anything wrong. Our attitude and ensuing life is to demonstrate the love of God shown to us when he offered his forgiveness while we were still his enemies. This removes all the burden from us and leaves it all between the one who has done wrong and God.”
Verse 9 stresses that when we leave the matters of justice and vengeance with God, “Then everyone will fear; they will tell what God has brought about, and ponder what he has done.”
Ed Rea points out, “There are two Hebrew words for fear used in the Old Testament: pachad, meaning terror or dread; and yirah, meaning piety and reverence connected with love and hope, something like what children feel for their parents. David does not use the word for terror and dread here, but rather the word for reverence and love. It is difficult for our 21st century mindset to even associate the words fear and love with each other. But that is what C.S. Lewis was trying to capture in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when Mr. Beaver was describing Aslan (the king of Narnia who is a lion) to the human children who had never heard of or met him before: ‘“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver…”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”’”
In his book How to Begin the Christian Life, George Sweeting tells this story: “In an Italian city stands a statue of a Grecian maiden with a beautiful face, a graceful figure, and a noble expression. One day a poor little peasant girl came face to face with the statue. She stood and stared, and then went home to wash her face and comb her hair. The next day she came again to stand before the statue, and then to return home once more. This time she mended her tattered clothing. Day by day she changed, her form grew more graceful, and her face more refined, till she greatly reflected the famous statue. She was transformed in appearance!”
The apostle Paul gives a similar challenge to us in Ephesians 5:1: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children….”
Christians are called to build into our lives the habit of imitating God. We are called to build into our lives the habit of looking intently at Jesus then going home and determining what we can do to resemble him more, then coming back and looking intently at him again, and then considering again how we can resemble him more closely.
An episode of the old television show Mission Impossible involved the need to sneak Gregor Antonov, a Russian chess champion and nuclear scientist, and his daughter out of the Czechoslovakia. The Russians knew that Antonov wanted to defect, so security around him was rigorous. To sneak Antonov and his daughter out of Czechoslovakia, one of the Mission Impossible team members would have to impersonate the Russian chess champion well enough for long enough for the rest of the team to smuggle Antonov and his daughter out of the country. Nicholas was made up to look identical to Antonov, but looking like Antonov was not enough. He also had to learn to play chess like him, and to talk like him, and to walk like him. For the success of the mission, he had to learn to copy exactly all of Antonov’s movements and mannerisms. He had to learn to copy the way Antonov interacted with various people. This meant that Nicholas had to sit down in front of a television set and watch hour after hour of tapes of Antonov, observing and copying everything Antonov did in the way he did it. At last, he was ready. The two exchanged places, and Nicholas impersonated Antonov precisely until Antonov was safely out of Czechoslovakia.
This is what Paul calls us to do—to imitate what Jesus did in the ways he did it. Particularly, this calls us to love like Jesus loved. Thus Paul writes, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
As with the episode of Mission Impossible, our ability to imitate Jesus can save a person’s life. One day, as a woman was crossing a street at a London railway station, an old man stopped her, saying, “Excuse me, Ma’am, but I want to thank you.”
She looked at him in surprise. “Thank me? For what?”
He answered, “Yes, Ma’am. You see, I used to be a ticket collector, and whenever you went by, you always gave me a cheerful smile and a friendly ‘hello.’ I knew that smile must come from inside somewhere, and not just from the surface. I wondered what it was that put that smile within you. Then one morning I saw a little Bible in your hand. So I bought one for myself, and I found Jesus. So, thank you, Ma’am.”
Because that woman imitated Jesus—because he saw in her the joy and compassionate concern of Jesus—his life was saved. “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
When I coached high school soccer, I had to help many young women undo some bad habits they had developed while playing poorly coached youth soccer. I had to go over basic skills with them, saying, “Don’t do that; do this, instead.” They had to unlearn bad habits that got in the way of them playing up to their full potential.
Paul does much the same in Ephesians 4:17-32. He spends a lot of time saying to them, “Stop doing that; do this instead:
- Put away all falsehood; instead speak the truth to our neighbors (verse 25).
- Thieves must give up stealing; instead let them labor and work honestly so as to have something to share with the needy (verse 28).
- Let no evil talk come out of your mouths; instead speak what is useful for building up so that your words may give grace to those who hear (verse 29).
- Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with malice; instead be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you (verses 31-32).
In many ways, the Christian life is a life-long challenge of unlearning bad habits in which we used to live and developing new practices that can enable us to reach our greater potential.
Stuart Briscoe offers a helpful analogy: “The famous cuckoo bird never builds its own nest. It flies around until it sees another nest with eggs in it and no mother bird around. The cuckoo quickly lands, lays its eggs there, and flies away. The thrush, whose nest has been invaded, comes back. Not being very good at arithmetic, she gets to work hatching the eggs. What happens? Four little thrushes hatch, but one large cuckoo hatches. The cuckoo is two or three times the size of the thrushes. When Mrs. Thrush brings to the nest one large, juicy worm, she finds four petite thrush mouths and one cavernous cuckoo mouth. Guess who gets the worm? A full-sized thrush ends up feeding a baby cuckoo that is three times as big as it is. Over time, the cuckoo gets bigger and bigger, and the smaller thrushes get smaller and smaller. When I was a kid, you could always find a baby cuckoo’s nest. You walked along a hedgerow until you found dead little thrushes, which the cuckoo throws out one at a time.”
Briscoe adds, “Paul teaches…that spiritually speaking, you’ve got two natures in one nest. The nature that you go on feeding will grow, and the nature that you go on starving will diminish.”
The Christian faith is a life-long challenge of unlearning old ways and bad habits so that we can reach greater potential of what we can be in Christ.