Archive | April 2023

God’s Steadfast Love

Psalm 89 is a psalm of David—not a psalm by David, but a psalm about David.  Specifically, Psalm 89 is a psalm of God’s covenantal care for David at the lowest point of David’s life.  It was written by Ethan the Ezrahite, who had been appointed by David many years earlier to help lead Israel in singing praises to God.  It seems to have been written during the time that David was fleeing Jerusalem when his son Absalom sought to steal the throne.  In verses 38-45 Ethan describes what David’s enemies subjected him to: “But now you have spurned and rejected him; you are full of wrath against your anointed.  You have renounced the covenant with your servant; you have defiled his crown in the dust.  You have broken through all his walls; you have laid his strongholds in ruins.  All who pass by plunder him; he has become the scorn of his neighbors.  You have exalted the right hand of his foes; you have made all his enemies rejoice.  Moreover, you have turned back the edge of his sword, and you have not supported him in battle.  You have removed the scepter from his hand, and hurled his throne to the ground.  You have cut short the days of his youth; you have covered him with shame.”

This matches the description provided in 2 Samuel 16:5-8 & 13-14: “When King David came to Bahurim, a man of the family of the house of Saul came out whose name was Shimei son of Gera; he came out cursing.  He threw stones at David and at all the servants of King David; now all the people and all the warriors were on his right and on his left.  Shimei shouted while he cursed, ‘Out!  Out!  Murderer!  Scoundrel!  The Lord has avenged on all of you the blood of the house of Saul, in whose place you have reigned; and the Lord has given the kingdom into the hand of your son Absalom.  See, disaster has overtaken you; for you are a man of blood…. So David and his men went on the road, while Shimei went along on the hillside opposite him and cursed as he went, throwing stones and flinging dust at him.  The king and all the people who were with him arrived weary at the Jordan.”

Near the close of the psalm, Ethan prays, “Remember, O Lord, how your servant is taunted; how I bear in my bosom the insults of the peoples, with which your enemies taunt, O Lord, with which they taunted the footsteps of your anointed.”

Yet, in the midst of the lowest point of David’s life, Ethan draws our attention back to God’s covenantal care of David.  Thus the psalm opens with a repeated focus on God’s steadfast love and faithfulness: “I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.  I declare that your steadfast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.  You said, ‘I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to my servant David: I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.’”

A bit later in the psalm, Ethan draws our attention to God’s mighty power and faithfulness: “O Lord God of hosts, who is as mighty as you, O Lord?  Your faithfulness surrounds you” (verse 8).

About the vital connection between God’s steadfast love and mightiness and faithfulness, Shawn Brix comments, “Psalm 89 states that God’s love ‘stands firm forever,’ and God is mighty.  These attributes together are closely connected with faithfulness.  God’s love compels him to be faithful toward us and God’s might enables him to overcome any obstacle that stands in the way of that faithfulness.”

Even at the lowest points of our lives, Psalm 89 assures us that God’s steadfast love always propels his faithfulness toward us and his mightiness always enables his faithfulness toward us.

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“You shall not use the name of God in vain”

To really take hold of the significance of the third commandment, it may help to recall the musical Westside Story.  Tony is a member of a street gang in New York City known as the Jets.  The bitter enemy of the Jets is the Puerto Rican street gang, the Sharks.  But Tony meets and falls in love with a Puerto Rican girl named Maria, and his love for Maria changes everything for Tony.  Because he has fallen in love with Maria, he falls in love with the name that identifies Maria.  He sings, 

Maria—I just met a girl named Maria, and suddenly that name will never be the same to me.

Maria—I just kissed a girl named Maria, and suddenly I’ve found how wonderful a sound can be.

Maria—say it loud, and there’s music playing; say it soft, and it’s almost like praying.

Maria—I’ll never stop saying Maria.

Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria.

Say it loud, and there’s music playing; say it soft, and it’s almost like praying.

Maria—I’ll never stop saying Maria.

The most beautiful sound I ever heard: Maria.

Such reverence for the name of the woman he loves is what is at the heart of the third commandment: You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

The command not to misuse the name of God is a call to us to speak God’s name with nothing but reverence.  This means, in part, that we should not use God’s name as a venting of our anger or because we have stubbed a toe.

Yet it goes deeper than that.  William Barclay points out, “In Hebrew the phrase literally means for unreality…. The word describes that which is empty, insincere, frivolous.  This commandment, then, lays it down that the name of God must never be used in an empty, frivolous or insincere way…. The commandment is a prohibition of taking the name of God in vain in a promise or a pledge, that is, of making such a promise or pledge in the name of God with no intention of keeping it” (The Ten Commandments, p. 13).

The command not to misuse the name of God is also a call to us to live God’s name with nothing but reverence. 

If you are a believer in Christ, then you bear his name.  The word Christian means that you are Christ’s one.  You have been given his name.

L. Nishan Bakalian shares, “In the town of Stepanavan, Armenia, I met a woman whom everyone called Palasan’s wife.  She had her own name, of course, but townspeople called her by her husband’s name to show her great honor.  When the devastating earthquake struck Armenia, it was nearly noon, and Palasan was at work.  He rushed to the elementary school where his son was s student.  The façade was already crumbling, but he entered the building and began pushing children outside to safety.  After Palasan had managed to help twenty-eight children out, an aftershock hit that completely collapsed the school building and killed him.  So the people of Stepanavan honor his memory and his young widow by calling her Palasan’s wife.”

Jesus did no less for us.  He laid down his life to rescue us.  We are given the name Christian in honor of what Christ did for us.  As we bear his name, we should be careful not to do anything that would dishonor his name. 

One Sunday, the 19-century Scottish preacher Andrew Bonar held up a brick for his congregation to see—a brick he had brought back from his travels to the ancient city of Babylon.  Bonar pointed out that every brick in the temple bore the name of the king who was reigning when the temple was built.  Bonar concluded, “We, too, must let everything we do bear the name of our King, the Lord Jesus Christ.”  Indeed, everything we do does bear the name of Jesus.  May the things we do and the things we say bring honor rather than dishonor to the name of Christ.

A Psalm of Deepest Darkness

Psalm 88 is a terribly dark psalm, filled with despair.  Near the opening, the psalmist moans, “For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol.  I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I am like those who have no help, like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand.  You have put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep.  Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves.”  The psalm concludes with the complaint, “O Lord, why do you cast me off?  Why do you hide your face from me?  Wretched and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.  Your wrath has swept over me; your dread assaults destroy me.  They surround me like a flood all day long; from all sides they close in on me.  You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness.”

Do you wish I had chosen a happier psalm to share with you today?  Do you wonder why such a gloomy psalm is included in the Bible which we look to for inspiration?

Noted Lutheran theology professor Martin Marty had a similar reaction to Psalm 88.  Philip Yancey tells the story in his book on Prayer: “Martin Marty…began the practice of reading through Psalms with his wife during her long ordeal with terminal cancer.  She had to wake up at midnight and take medication to combat the nausea caused by chemotherapy.  It took a while for both of them to go back to sleep, and during that period her husband read the psalms aloud.  One night she caught him skipping from Psalm 87 to 91.  Marty had skimmed the words of 88 (‘…my life draws near the grave, I am counted among those who go down to the pit…’) and moved ahead to a more consoling image: ‘He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge’ (Psalm 91).

“‘Why did you skip those psalms?’ his wife demanded.  Marty told her he wasn’t sure she could take Psalm 88 that night.

“‘Go back and read it,’ she said.  ‘If I don’t deal with the darkness, the others won’t shine out.’

“Martin Marty later wrote a book about that difficult time (A Cry of Absence) in which he estimated that…half the psalms are wintry in tone, and only a third have the bright atmosphere of summer about them.  They help to ‘domesticate terror and grief’ in circumstances such as his wife faced, he said.  He latched on to the words of others when he found himself wordless.”

Gloomy psalms such as Psalm 88 are included in Holy Scripture not for the purpose of depressing us, but because God is not afraid or ashamed to meet us in the places of our deepest darkness.  And when we realize that God is willing to meet us in the places of our deepest darkness, then we can be confident that prayer is always available to us.  Thus we find verse 13 in the midst of this sorrow-filled psalm: “But I, O Lord, cry out to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you.”

“You shall not make for yourself an idol”

If you were asked to come up with a list of the top ten instructions for how to get the most out of life, I doubt that any of us would think to include in the list Do not make for yourself an idol

We would not think to include such a prohibition because it seems so trivial—so unimportant—to us.  We understand laws against murder and stealing.  Our courts are filled with cases pertaining to these crimes.  But when was the last time you heard about a court case against someone for making an idol?

Why, then, do we find this particular command in God’s Top Ten list of Commandments?

Interestingly, in his commentary on the book of Deuteronomy, Dr. Peter C. Craigie remarks, “It has been noted that the giving of this commandment was ‘perhaps the unlikeliest thing that ever happened.’”

Craigie makes this comment not on the basis of the trivial nature of idols but because of the widespread popularity of idols among the peoples surrounding the nation is Israel.  In every home and in every field, idols would be found.  That’s how the people lived.  They made idols; they bought idols; they bowed down to idols; they prayed through idols; and they worshiped the gods who were represented by the idols.  Bowing down to idols was as natural to the people of that day and place as was eating and sleeping.

But there are two primary problems with idols:

#1: Any representation of God diminishes God by reducing our understanding of God to whatever is depicted in that particular representation.

Ironically, while Moses was up on the mountain, receiving the Ten Commandments, the people who remained in the camp at the base of the mountain melted their jewelry and constructed a golden calf.  It could be argued that the people meant the golden calf to be a compliment to God.  After all, they had just come out of Egypt where the great Egyptian goddess Hathor was depicted as a cow.  She was referred to as the mother to Horus, the god of the sky, and as mother to Ra, the sun god.  Other times she was referred to as the wife of Horus and the mother of Pharaoh.  It could be that they intended to liken the God who rescued them from slavery to the great goddess of Egypt who was over Pharaoh and who gave birth to them as the new nation of Israel.  But Hathor was also the goddess of music and dance, and goddess of the Celebration of Drunkenness, and the goddess of love and fertility, which may explain why their celebration of the golden calf seems to have quickly devolved into a drunken orgy.  While creating an image of God that exulted God’s prominence and power, they neglected God’s holiness, and while creating an image of God that perceived God’s fertility, they abandoned God’s self-discipline.

The commandment not to make an idol is a call to us not to shrink God in any way but to keep our eyes open to the fullness of who God is.  That’s why Scripture offers such a rich variety of names and descriptions of God.  God is described as Lord Almighty and as our Loving Father; as Judge and as a Mother Hen who would hold us gently under her wing; as the Lion of Judah and as the sacrificial Lamb; as Righteous and as Merciful; as Protector and as our Wonderful Counselor; as a Whirlwind and as our Comforter; as Creator and Shepherd and Savior. 

#2: When we diminish worship to bowing down to idols, we diminish what it truly means to worship God.

God wants far more for us in worship than simply bowing down to an image.  God wants us to follow him so that we will join with God in the work God is doing on earth. 

Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw write, “In the South, we have a saying: You are the spittin’ image of someone.  Folks still speculate over how exactly the phrase originated, but I’ve heard it put like this: It’s shorthand for ‘spirit and image.’  Spittin’ image.  It means more than just that you look like that person.  It goes beyond just appearance to include character and temperament.  It means that you remind people of that person.  You have their charisma.  You do the same things they did.  In the truest sense, Christians are to be the spittin’ image of Jesus in the world.  We are to be the things he was.  We are to preach the things he preached and live the way he lived…. We are to remind the world of Jesus.

The greatest reason why we are not to make an image of God out of stone or a block of wood or anything like that is that God wants to build his image in us.  When we follow God closely, God’s image gets shaped in us.  That’s where God wants his image to be shaped.

“All my springs are in you”

Psalm 87 delights in the city of Jerusalem, for the city of Jerusalem is the place where God’s temple resided.  It is the place where people came to worship God and to have their sins forgiven.  You could say that all of God’s goodness toward his people flowed forth to them from Jerusalem.

Psalm 87 concludes with a particularly moving line: “Singers and dancers alike say, ‘All my springs are in you.’”

Those who led Israel in worship announced that the springs which nourish and refresh our lives flow forth from the place where we meet God.

Jonathan Hill remarks, “The beauty of a spring is that it brings life to everything near it.  It waters the landscape and gives vegetation an opportunity to thrive.  It brings cool refreshing water to those who come and drink from its pool.  And, if a spring is big enough, it does more than water those that are close.  It turns into a stream and wanders down the landscape to water those far from its initial offering.  It sends water cascading down the hillside in a waterfall to those below.”

When we meet with God—when we come before God in worship—we come to the spring that nourishes and refreshes our lives.  But it doesn’t stop there.  When we meet God, the spring that fills us flows through us to bring love and hope and goodness to those who may still be far from the spring’s initial offering. 

In The Way to Love, Anthony DeMello writes, “Take a look at a rose.  Is it possible for the rose to say, ‘I’ll offer my fragrance to good people and withhold it from bad people’?  Or can you imagine a lamp that withholds it rays from a wicked person who seeks to walk in its light?  It could do that only by ceasing to be a lamp.  And observe how helplessly and indiscriminately a tree gives its shade to everyone, good and bad, young and old, high and low; to animals and humans and every living creature—even to the one who seeks to cut it down.  This is the first quality of compassion—its indiscriminate character.”

By the very nature of meeting with God, the Spring that fill us splashes out of us to refresh others.

“You shall have no other gods before me”

God gave to Moses a set of ten commandments by which people are meant to live.  The first of these commandments is: You shall have no other gods before me.

Why does God consider this to be the first rule by which we are to live?  Why is it so important for us to keep this command?

Perhaps a story shared by Craig Brian Larson will shed some light on the importance of this command.  Larson writes, “As a kid, I saw a movie in which some shipwrecked men are left drifting aimlessly on the ocean in a lifeboat.  As the days pass under the scorching sun, their rations of food and fresh water give out.  The men grow deliriously thirsty.  One night, while the others are asleep, one man ignores all previous warnings and gulps down some salt water.  He quickly dies.  Ocean water contains seven times more salt than the human body can safely ingest.  Drinking it, a person dehydrates because the kidneys demand extra water to flush the overload of salt.  The more salt water someone drinks, the thirstier he gets.  While drinking salt water, he actually dies of thirst.”

Salt water is like false water to a thirsty person. 

Our world is filled with false gods—things that call out for our attention and allegiance, that promise to make us happy but only let us down, leaving us deliriously thirsty for the contentment that the gods of this world cannot provide. 

Bertrand Russell summed it up well.  He remarked, “The center of me is always and eternally a terrible pain—a curious wild pain—a searching for something beyond what the world contains.”

The first commandment tells us to have no other gods before the true God because God is loath to see us suffer deliriously of thirst from trying to satisfy our souls with false gods.  God knows that we need relationship with the true God as much as we need blood running through our veins.

Imagine a person who has lost much blood in a car accident being rushed to the hospital.  The doctor in the emergency room calls for an I.V. to be inserting into the person’s arm, but since they do not have a lot of available blood of this person’s particular blood type, the doctor orders that the I.V. be hooked up to a can of Tomato Juice.  After all, the Tomato Juice looks like blood and is more readily available.

No!  A doctor would never do that because a doctor knows we need blood rather than Tomato Juice running through our veins.  Anything less than blood will kill us. 

God has designed our souls in such a way that we live in relationship with the true God.  If anything less than God fills our souls, we will end up deliriously thirsty for the real thing

In the comedy film Cool Runnings, John Candy plays the part of a former American gold medalist who becomes the coach of the Jamaican bobsledding team as they prepare for competition in the winter Olympics.  The Jamaican athletes grow to like the American coach and affectionately call him “Sled-god.”  That name is telling.

Later in the movie, the coach’s dark history comes out.  After having already won a gold medal, in a subsequent Olympic meet he tried for a second gold medal by cheating, by illegally weighting his sled to gain an unfair advantage.  One of the Jamaican bobsledders could not understand why anyone who had already won a gold medal would cheat.  Nervously, Candy admitted, “I had to win…. I learned something.  If you are not happy without a gold medal, you won’t be happy with it.”

Sledding had become his god, and such a god could not satisfy his deepest hunger.

God tells us to have no other gods before him because no other god brings lasting contentment.

Tephillah

The heart of Psalm 86 is prayer.  Indeed, Psalm 86 is one of five psalms in Scripture specifically tiled a Tephillah—or Prayer.  The psalm begins with expressions of deep longing for personal and deep connection with God:

  • “Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me” (Verse 1)
  • “To you do I cry all day long” (Verse 3)
  • “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul” (Verse 4)
  • “Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer; listen to my cry of supplication” (Verse 6)
  • “In the day of my trouble I call on you, for you will answer me” (Verse 7)

The psalmist longs to connect intimately with God.  But there is something further we need to understand about the Tephillah—or Prayer—of Psalm 86.

Rabbi Nathan Diament explains, “The English word prayer is derived from the Latin term for prayer, which literally means ‘to beg.’  Begging God to fulfill our needs and desires…is not tephillah.  Tephillah is derived from the Hebrew word pileil, which means to judge, and the act of engaging in tephillah is…to judge or to analyze oneself.  Self-evaluation and begging are very different enterprises with the former being a much more arduous, intellectual and constructive activity.  Authentic Jewish prayer requires one to take a long, hard and honest look at himself in the shadow of God’s Presence where nothing can be hidden or denied.  Have I been living up to my potential?  Have I used the gifts that God has given me properly?  Are there things that should be more important to me or less important to me?  Haphazardly begging for whatever we want is, quite frankly, spoiled, childish behavior.  But through sincere self-examination we will hopefully be able to discern between that which we want and that which we need, and truly have our priorities in order as we stand before God.” 

In Psalm 86, the longing for deep personal connection with God is not toward the goal simply of begging God for what the psalmist wants.  Instead, when we read Psalm 86, we are invited to evaluate ourselves before God to determine who we are in relationship with God and to determine what we most deeply need from God.  Thus we come to verses 11-13: “Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name.  I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever.  For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.” 

A bit of prose is reported to have been found in the pocket of an unknown soldier who seems to have been practicing a tephillah form of prayer:

I asked God for strength that I might achieve.  I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.

I asked for health that I might do great things.  I was given infirmity that I might do better things.

I asked for riches that I might be happy.  I was given poverty that I might be wise.

I asked for power that I might have the praise of men.  I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.

I asked for all things that I might enjoy life.  I was given life that I might enjoy all things.

I got nothing that I asked for but everything I had hoped for.

Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.

I am among all men most richly blessed.

Jesus: The Resurrection and the Life

A painting by Moritz Reitzsch called “Checkmate” hung in the Louvre Art Museum until it was sold by Christie’s in 1999. The painting depicts two chess players, engaged in a tense match, gambling upon the game for the highest of stakes.  One of the players is Satan, who appears arrogantly confident, for it looks as though his victory is certain.  Deep anguish is painted into the face of the other player, for it looks like he has lost, and if he loses the game, Satan gets his soul.

According to a report in the Columbia Chess Chronicle in 1888, a chess champion named Paul Morphy visited the museum once and looked at the painting long and hard, bothered by Satan’s haughty expression and the young man’s forlorn countenance.  As he studied the board, Morphy was suddenly elated to discover that the title was incorrect.  It was not checkmate!  The young man’s king had one move left, which would result in him winning the game.  There, in the Louvre, Morphy shouted out, “All is not lost; the king still has a move.”

The scene was similar near the tomb of Jesus’ friend Lazarus in Bethany in John 11.  Grief was painted on the faces of Lazarus’ sister and friends.  In tears, Mary said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  But all was not lost.  The King still had a move.  Jesus declared, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.”  And Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  And Lazarus came forth from the tomb, brought back from the dead.

And the scene was similar outside the walls of Jerusalem on Good Friday.  As Jesus hung upon the cross, deep anguish was painted on the faces of those who loved him.  Satan gloated.  As Jesus gasped his last breath, it looked as though Satan had won.  But all was not lost.  The King still had a move.  That move was revealed on Resurrection morning when Jesus burst forth from the grave.

Because Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life, death is not the final word, for Resurrection and Life overcome death.  Fulton Sheen put it this way: “The Lord of Life himself descended to taste death and to conquer it by resurrection from the dead.  He thereby overcame death at its most devilish and destructive.  The worst thing evil can do is to kill Divine Life; having done that, and having been defeated in the moment of its greatest show of strength, it never could be victorious again.”

In another art gallery, a man gazed intently at a picture of Christ hanging lifelessly on the Cross.  Tears trickled down the man’s cheeks as he contemplated the pain Jesus suffered.  Beside the man stood a young girl, looking at the same painting.  The tearful man asked the girl, “Do you know who that is in the picture?”

“Sure,” the girl replied.  That’s Jesus.  He died for our sins.  I learned that in Sunday school.”

A short time later, the man walked away from the picture.  He hadn’t gone far when he felt a tug on his coat.  “Say, Mister,” the young girl said, “I want you to know that you don’t need to cry.  Jesus came alive again!”