Psalm 1 is series of beatitudes and woes very much like the beatitudes and woes of Jesus which make up the opening section of the sermon on the mount (Matt. 5:1ff; Luke 6:17ff). Both of these are in different ways condensed versions, in poetic verse, of the fundamental principles of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). They outline the blessed life in contrast to the cursed life and call the individual into the former. The Blessed man is first of all distinguished by the philosophy of life (counsel) he adheres to. He does not follow worldly thinking but remains distinct in the way he views the world and his own life in relation to God and others. Secondly the blessed man is distinguished by the general direction and goal of his life upon which all his actions and choices are based. His path is going in a completely different direction to that of those who have no regard for the directives of God. Thirdly the blessed person will not join with the world in making a mockery of life as God intended it to be. In fact he would rather live God's way and be mocked than be one who mocks.
The blessed life is conceived by one simple but profound spiritual activity: That of meditating upon the 'Law' of Yahweh. In other words the blessed man is preoccupied by reading, thinking over, and applying the scriptures. The terminology here should be noted carefully, that is, the terms 'law' and 'meditate.' The term law is important because it says something about the view that the psalmist has of scripture which will then be important for how we understand what 'mediation' entails in this case. The Hebrew word here is 'Torah' and it is correctly translated in the English word 'law.' It is important however to understand what kind of 'law' the scriptures actually are. If you open your bible to the first title page you come to you are likely to find the word 'testament' there somewhere. That, in actual fact, is what the Bible is. The Bible is a testament or a 'covenant' (basically the same thing) in two parts. A covenant, we should note, is a legal agreement or oath that is binding on those who are a party to it. What the Bible records is the covenant between God and his people. This is not just what the bible describes, it is what the bible actually is, it is the actual covenant document issued by God to mankind. But what is also important to note is the nature of the covenant between man and God. It is an intensely relational covenant, like marriage. When two people get married they do so because, in their love for one another, they wish to make vows of love that will be binding upon them for better or for worse. Love comes to a point when it wants to make vows of love and be bound by covenant to its beloved partner. In God's covenant with his people (and whoever has given their life to Christ has entered into a covenant with God) both sides have obligations. We make vows to God and he makes vows to us. This is why the bible often uses marriage to describe the relationship of the Christian or Israelite to God. The bible is 'the law' in this sense, that is, in the sense that it describes the relational obligations we have lovingly entered into. But note this. It is not only the law for us. It is in a very significant sense also the law for God. It is the law for God in the sense that God records here the obligations by which he has bound himself. So we should not see the word 'law' here and read it in a one sided or legalistic sense. It is two sided and intensely relational. The law referred in that time to the first five books of the bible which was as much of scripture as they had at that time. So the word 'law' is equivalent, by way of applying this today, to the bible as a whole and so in our version we use 'the Word' and 'Law' interchangeably.
Let's now think about the word 'meditate.' It is interesting that, in the psalms, this is the only word that is used with respect to what we are to do with the bible. They always say 'meditate,' never just 'read.' This is appropriate for our times since it is a notable problem nowadays that people are generally very passive recipients of all kinds of media, not least of all literature. Actually the sensational multi-sensory contemporary mass media has made things that way. The first thing an advanced reading course will teach you is to learn how to read actively again. The teacher will tell you that in our day most people do not read actively and so use only a fraction of their intellectual capacity in the process and naturally become bored with reading itself. Psalm 1 gives a perfect key to active reading of scripture which requires a special type of spiritual activity, that of meditation. The Hebrew word indicates that meditation is a kind of speaking to yourself, tossing something over in your mind. But this activity is specifically defined by what the bible is. I have already shown how the bible is to be viewed as the covenant document. This means you should not read it as you read a novel, a history book or a manual. It contains stories, and history as well as practical guidance but its significance goes much deeper than all these precisely because it is a covenant. Meditation on a covenant would mean that we consider the words always in relation to ourselves. We read to see whether we are being faithful to the covenant we have entered into and whether we are living in the fullness of what God has promised. We begin not just to read but to actively search the bible for what we can use before the throne of God, what we can appeal to (since this document carries great weight before the throne of God). This is faith: faith comes by hearing the word (Rom. 10:17) and faith does something with the word. We meditate on our situation in the light of scriptures to understand our life's purpose and to understand the world and even ourselves in the light of what God says. Many people live incorrectly, pray faithlessly, and expect things they have no grounds to expect simply because they have not searched it all out in scripture. They have not learned to think biblically by massaging the words into their hearts through the act of meditation on the text.
The fact that the bible is a covenant explains why David says so enthusiastically here and in many other psalms that he 'delights' in the Word. It is because the word is efficacious, it works! God listens and commends us when we pray according to his promises and ask him to fulfil what he has said. He delights in God's word because God speaks to him in it and does things to him and through him by means of the text. As an aside we should note that the Torah was not commonly available in text form to the Israelites. It was to David and others, but in most cases it was communicated aurally and, more significantly, using music. Actually this is exactly what this psalm was used for. It is the principles of the Torah in lyric form to help the people to meditate on it (by singing it) and more importantly to remember it.
The person who delights in the word of God and who meditates upon it will see the effects of that in their life. They will be like a tree planted near a stream bearing fruit (vs. 3). In other words they will live out their full potential as a human being. They will live life to the full and achieve all that God put in them to achieve. As a result they will be commended on the day of judgement in contrast to the 'wicked' who by ignoring God's word become as useless and as futile as chaff that the wind blows away (vs. 4). The righteous are distinguished from the wicked therefore primarily in their delight for applying the covenant directives and promises to their lives thus becoming the people that God intended them to be. Anyone who does otherwise will be judged harshly for living a futile life (vss. 5-6).
One of the most vivid battle psalms of the Psalter psalm 3 wastes no words in calling for the vanquishing of God's enemies. David is surrounded by foes, in this case the encroaching armies of rebellious son Absalom. A key part of the complaint of the psalm, as is often the case in psalms, is the taunts of the enemies who sow doubt in his mind about God's ability or willingness to save him (vs. 2a). This leads to the view that the issue is not just about the threatened child of God but the vindication of God's glory in this situation. This is why these taunts are so often recorded in psalms like this. It is a way of appealing to the highest purpose, that is, the glorification of God's name. In the midst of this threat David declares his confidence that God will come to his aid in the face of his taunters, so much so that he says he can lie down and sleep in peace. And then comes the supplication. He cries out to God to arise and deliver him. And the terms he uses are filled with symbolism. The striking of the jaw and the breaking of the teeth indicate the nullification of the power of the enemy. Teeth are symbolic of the power to harm. So David calls on God to break this power in the enemy so that his bite should be without effect. It is powerful and emotive imagery that we can and should use as we become more aware of the issues of spiritual warfare (Eph 6:10ff).
Psalm 6 is a typical lament psalm. Over half of all the psalms fall into this category and I think that they are the most remarkable feature of the biblical faith (see the article provided here on 'the lament psalms'). Here there is a candidness that expresses an intimacy with God that is truly moving. In these psalms we see the covenant relationship tested and indeed as it is tested we see it manifested in its most passionate form. Here the psalmist reaches out desperately for God and in this there is a powerful revelation of man's absolute need for God. These psalms are particularly notable for their interaction between joyful confidence and in God and the deathly grief which occasions the psalms themselves. Possibly the most astounding aspect of many of the laments is their movement out of sorrow into joy. Some of the most jubilant expressions of praise in the book of psalms are found at the end of lament psalms. This is a feature of this psalm and the journey of the psalm itself to this point is a profound example of the kind of prayer that is appropriate for the covenant relationship.
Psalm 6 is, in particular, a penitential lament. The early church included this one in a small collection of psalms used in their worship for times of penitence and repentance (the collection included also psalms 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143). I think they were using it correctly. The first verse records the cries of a heart truly broken before God, so much so, that we might even find it quite disturbing. We are told in the subtitle that the writer is David but we do not know the occasion of its writing. We can however attempt a general reconstruction of the situation. David is in the midst of profound suffering here. From within and from without he is tormented. His body is racked with pain (vs. 2) and he is tormented outwardly by enemies (though we do not know who) (vs. 7). But what dominates his cries is the agonising consciousness of God's displeasure toward him and he sees all his suffering as God's chastisement upon him. Here is a man in supreme anguish. It is not that God has abandoned him because he sees his suffering as being from God. The hand of God is, as it were, striking him hard. The problem for David is not the absence of God's love but the presence of God's anger. God is still present. Many people find it hard to see God portrayed in these ways. It seems they would prefer to see God as one who is never angry and always loving. Indeed God is always loving. And this is why he gets angry. The words of the proverb apply here:
My son, do not despise the LORD's discipline
and do not resent his rebuke,
because the LORD disciplines those he loves,
as a father the son he delights in.
(Prov. 3:11,12. This is quoted in Hebrews 12:5, 6)
To be chastised by God is something that only the privileged children of God will benefit from. When God is angry with others he judges them by simply giving them up to their sin (see Romans 1:18ff). And so these are the words of one who is suffering but not lost. God's chastisement is harsh here and we should note that God here has used the greatest ills of human existence upon David: sickness, adversary, and inward torment. We should note also that David expects that he may even die unless God relents. And so he makes a desperate appeal. I think that this appeal is the climax of the lament. Here David speaks in the boldness of faith. He presents an argument before God like a barrister before a judge. He is acting here like the Canaanite woman who argued her request with Jesus and was commended for her faith (Matt. 15:21-28). David's argument is a good one. He first appeals to the unfailing love of God (vs. 4). The term here is indicative of the particular covenant love of God and David is cautiously reminding God of his promises. But as if this were not a strong enough appeal David comes up with an even better argument. He appeals to the glory of God. Can God receive glory from a dead man? (vs. 5). Can a dead man remember God and give him praise? What glory does God get from the lips of a dead man? He knows that the highest concern of God in all things is the glory of his name. He knows that the love of God is defined by God's unyielding desire to show his glory to his people. So he climaxes his case with this appeal. And he is right ' he wins the day. It is easy to imagine what God might be saying in the presence of angels in response to David's prayer here. It might have as Jesus said to the Canaanite woman: 'You have great faith! Your request is granted' (Matt. 15:28). When I say, 'he wins the day,' I mean that his faith responds and overcomes the trial. He does not despair but trusts that God simply must save him for the sake of his glory. There is a sense in which David's argument was most effective in building his own trust in God. Such a trust is the very thing that God has bound himself to respond to by covenant. It is not so much the prayer that God answers as much as the trust which is expressed in the prayer. A prayer without trust is a waste of time. God is not interested in words. He wants to relate on a deeper level that that. Trust is the defining relational element of our kinship with God. I think that God would say to many of us as he implicitly said to the Canaanite woman: 'why should I answer you?' He wants to activate not just words from our lips but a trusting passion in our hearts.
The psalm ends, then, in a faith-confidence that transcends David's pain and sees his enemies fleeing before him. It is a wonderful vision. David may even have been healed right there and then as he prayed. We cannot know exactly what happened there in between the end of verse 7 and the beginning of verse 8, but one thing is for sure: his prayer was answered by God. The hand of God now embraces his son again and David moves into the kind of joy that can only begin in lamentation. His enemies are as good as destroyed and he is restored. The change is sudden and marvelous. It is the most exciting characteristic of the psalms and it is evidence that we should expect something to happen when we pray. Not all the lament psalms end like this (see Psalm 88), but all lamenting certainly ends in rejoicing, . . . eventually. This is a biblical promise: ' Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy' (Psalm 126:5).
Psalm 14 is a lament over the unbelief, the evil and the injustice in the world. David who writes the psalm is lamenting, it seems, even on behalf of God as he reflects on the divine perspective. God looks down and sees only evil in the world. The wording of the psalm is possibly intended to remind us of the description of the world in Genesis 6:5, 6. It is therefore a psalm that also anticipates judgment. David sees evil doers ultimately overwhelmed with dread at the fate they have chosen for themselves. For though the strong may win now yet God will ultimately be faithful to his people who are being devoured by evil oppressors. The declaration of this truth leads then to the cry that God would speed his vindication for his people. The cry, 'Oh that salvation would come out of Zion' is the climax of the psalm then. This is what he really wants to see. The rest of the psalm consists of declarations that support the appeal of and lend fervor to the request of this psalm.
Psalm 15 describes how a person must be prepared for worship before the holy God. The person who would come to worship God must be blameless. A person who is sinning against God does the very opposite of worship God. He rebels against God and declares in his being that he cares nothing for God. This psalm describes the character of the person whose worship is true spiritual worship just as Jesus describes in John 4:23: 'true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.' It is easy to fall into thinking that worship is simply the thing we do on Sundays in church. Paul said that our spiritual act of worship is offering ourselves as living sacrifices to God (Rom. 12:1). Worship is primarily a non-verbal activity. It is expressed through our being. The way we act and think and feel reflects our worship for God. Whether we have truly surrendered ourselves upon the alter of absolute obedience to God is made evident in our lives. The person who worships with his lips and does not worship in his life is a hypocrite. The bible throughout warns against hypocrisy as the soul's greatest enemy. Here is a call to worship which does not focus on singing and clapping or upon liturgy and ceremony but upon the very life of the individual. If you want to be a worshipper then see to it that you walk blamelessly. Do not let your feet take you anywhere you should not be. Do let your eye look upon anything that you should not see. Do not let your hand take what you should not have. Do not let your mouth speak lies or slander. When you say something, particularly about God, make sure you mean it: speak the truth from your heart (vs. 2). Express your love for God by loving your neighbour.
Verse 4 does not mean that you should only love the lovely. What it means is that you should not love the evildoer because of the evil he does. The psalmist has already said that we should love our neighbour and fellowman and so he is not contradicting himself here. But neither should we play down this warning and this verse can be taken on face value. There are so many warnings throughout the scriptures against the influence of people who would entice us away from God. We tend to think that any relationship is OK as long as we love the other person. But there are some relationships which for one obvious reason or another God will never approve of. The obvious example is the bond of love between a believer and a non-believer. There may also be friendships which are damaging to us. If the influence of a friend is causing us to go away from God then the friendship is defiled and must be abandoned. If this happens however it is we who are to blame. We are meant to be a good influence on others not a sponge for their bad influence. If we are to relate to God in worship we must see to it that all our other relationships are legitimate.
The worshipper is to be a person of integrity. He speaks the truth and when he makes an oath he keeps it. He does not moreover make a profit from the misfortunes of others and he does not accept bribes to do injustice. The practice of 'usury' (lending money at interest) in the time when this was written was not what it is today. A person who needed a loan was generally a person in distress and there were always those who were ready to exploit the poor person. It meant having the borrower in one's power and the opportunity to charge limitless interest.
The person who lives an upright life of love and integrity is the true worshipper. Such a person will not be shaken. Here is a promise common to the psalms. The blessings of obeying God are declared again and again and assurance is given throughout that God delights in those who walk in his ways. Psalm 119 is given largely to this theme.
The worst thing in life is not to have some evil thing done against you. The worst thing in life is when you are the one that does the evil. The greatest peace possible in this life does not come from being invulnerable to external evil but knowing that you yourself have been delivered from internal evil. David here reminds himself of this fact. He is being tormented by evil adversaries from without but he draws consolation from the fact that while he may suffer from their evil yet he will not suffer from having shared in it. His innocence is his greatest possession. And this cannot be taken away. He knows he is cherished by God, the apple of God's eye. Therefore, even in the face of external threat, he is able to hide in the shelter of the God who loves him. He knows his plea will be heard by his God and ultimately he will be vindicated.
The Psalm is undoubtedly set in the time when David was fleeing from King Saul. David had been marked by God as the king of his choice and yet now he is being pursued as a criminal even though he had done no wrong. The appeal therefore is for vindication. He knows he is innocent before God and that is enough for him now, but he is still anxious that God would vindicate him before his people as well. He prays therefore that He might see the favour of God at work on his behalf and that God would be faithful and just and do for David what he had promised. This psalm is a moving prayer for those who feel misrepresented in life and hemmed in by external circumstances. Innocence is given to us through Jesus Christ and this is our greatest gift. But in Jesus name we have access to the throne of God who is eager to help us overcome our circumstances and live freely the calling that he has for us.
Psalm 19 is a celebration of the resplendent glory of God in both the creation and written word of God. The imagery of light is the key strand that connects the two halves of the psalm. In the first half, in which the psalmist calls us to recognize the greatness of God in the physical universe, the focus is on the sun and the penetrating light of the sun. This picture is then carried through into the second part of the psalm which focuses on God's word. God's Word is like the sun in that it gives life but also brings everything into its piercing light. The final prayer of the psalm flows out of this. The psalmist prays that God's word would indeed give him life by bringing to light the things in him that cause the death of his soul. In this sense he is praying that glory of God, that is reflected in the light of the sun, would shine like the sun in his heart.
When the psalm speaks of the 'law' it is not just speaking of lists of rules but of the body of writing that contains God's covenant with his people. These writings contained not only the laws of and covenant promises of God but also the stories of the patriarchs and of Israel which formed key historical covenant precedents. The law (Torah in Hebrew) was David's bible, consisting in part or all of the Pentateuch (the first five books of our bible). So when the psalm speak about 'the law,' 'the decrees' or 'the statutes' of God we can, for the sake of application, think of God's written Word in general. But more than this, we should think of it not just in terms of words on a page, but the truth that is made to shine like light in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. The prayer of this psalm therefore is that we might live in the light just as John speaks of it in 1 John 1:5-10.
The most famous of all the psalms and perhaps the most famous words of scripture, psalm 23 has been the joy of God's people for three thousand years. This would have been a picture close to the heart of most people at the time it was written. Sheep and sheep farming were a common part of life for the Israelites and David himself had been a shepherd before his involvement with Saul. In fact much of David's spiritual development occurred during his time as a shepherd. His astonishing actions before Goliath is the result of a faith developed in his task of protecting his fathers sheep. Note his words from the account in 1 Samuel 17:
But David said to Saul, 'Your servant has been keeping his father's sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.'
God is the shepherd of his people and when David was a shepherd he learned that what he did for his sheep God would do for him and infinitely more. This made him bold in the face of danger so that he could even face death itself with confidence. He could sit and eat in the presence of his foes, in defiance of them, and they could not disturb his peace. The picture is one of a person whose confidence in God's protection is so great that he can sit down for a picnic in the midst of the battle field.
Psalm 24 is a psalm written by David, King of Israel, most probably to celebrate the return of the ark from its place of storage to Jerusalem (997 BC). The ark of the covenant represented the presence of God to the people. The temple which housed the ark would later come to have the same significance. Psalm 99 speaks of God being enthroned between the cherubim. The ark was built with two cherubim (angelic beings) on each side and therefore this is another way of saying that the ark is the earthly throne of God. The first effort to bring the ark to Jerusalem was a sloppy and casual one. We are told that God became angry at the lack of reverence for that which symbolised his own presence and as a result one of the priests ' in whom this attitude was exemplified ' was struck down (see 2 Sam. 6). After this we read that David was afraid of the LORD and asked, 'how can the ark ever come to me.' Psalm 24 fits well as the residue of lessons learnt from this experience. When the ark was finally and successfully bought into the city it was an occasion of great celebration but also of great reverence. God was coming into Jerusalem and the words of psalm 24 serve as the anthem for the entrance of God. Of course God was already present with his people in Jerusalem and he is certainly not bound to objects or places. God is present everywhere at every moment and this truth is not being contradicted here. This occasion marked the formal entrance of Yahweh into Jerusalem. Some people feel that it is theologically contradictory to ask God to come or go anywhere as if God were a finite being who need to travel anywhere. The problem with this sort of objection is that the bible is filled with references to God in human terms and using human imagery, all of which in some way contradict the infiniteness of his being. The fact that God allows us to speak of him is an act of great condescension since human language necessarily contradicts the ineffability of God. We speak of one who is beyond description and therefore by our words we always describe God as infinitely less than he is. But God allows us to use anthropomorphisms (describing God in human terms) in our speaking about him and indeed he has described himself to us largely in terms of human analogy. The scriptures say things like, 'the arm of God is mighty to save.' Now we know that God does not have arms but we use these terms to describe the indescribable God. Likewise when we say that 'God came into our meeting' we are not denying the omnipresence of God we are simply using human terms to describe an indescribable divine action. This psalm celebrates the entry of God into Jerusalem. God's presence was symbolised by the ark and therefore it was an occasion of great joy but also, as I have said, of great reverence.
The psalm begins with an acknowledgement of who God is (verses 1-2). He is the creator of all things. The next logical step is the question as to who may come before such a holy and mighty God. The character of the such a person is described then in verses 1-5. The person who does come before God will be blessed indeed.
Then comes the great chorus (verses 7-10). That the mighty gates of Jerusalem should lift up their heads to allow the King to enter in is a wonderful poetic way of exclaiming the greatness of the divine King. He is the King of glory, but note how he is described here when it is asked who is this King of glory. He is Yahweh (the special covenant name for God ' indicated in the NIV as LORD) strong and mighty in Battle. God is described as a warrior King. He is the God of battle waging war against his enemies for the extension of his kingdom.
This psalm of David contains one of the most beautiful expressions of what I call 'liberated desire,' a topic that I discuss at length in my book Deeper Places, (Baker Books, 2013). Here we find David in one of the most difficult periods of his life. It was a time when he had nothing but God and a time when he discovered that all he needed was God. This does not take away from the grief and pain of the experience but in his seeking it appears that David's desires were transformed. The more he sought after God the more he cultivated his desire for God so that, as the famous expression in verse 4 indicates, his desire for God outgrew every other desire in heart. Hence he was free from the tyranny of disoriented desire that so torments the human heart. It shows that true contentment comes not from getting what you want but reorienting your desires on the one whom desire itself was created for.
With the liberation of desire came freedom from fear. The one thing that David desired the most was the one thing he had and that he could not lose. It was the love and faithfulness of his God. And therefore, whatever the threats before him, David felt completely invulnerable. His confidence echoes that of Paul in Romans 8:28-39. He knew that nothing could separate him from the love of his God.
The second half of the psalm is a heartfelt prayer to God in view of his situation which David still felt the pain of. This psalm is probably set in the context of David's desert period when he was a fugitive from Saul. We see a tension here between the reality of David's situation and the divine promise given to him at the time of his anointing by Samuel. He had been anointed as King and yet now he was living in exile as a fugitive. As is always the case in the psalms the honest acknowledgement of the tension between human reality and divine promise becomes the seedbed for faith. David voices his grievance and resolves to keep seeking God. He believes that he will see God's faithfulness. He just has to wait. And it is in life's waiting rooms that that desire itself is refined and focused.
Psalm 30 is a psalm of testimony and thanksgiving proclaimed before the assembly of God's people. In verses 1-3 we have words of praise to God in the much used expression of being lifted up out of the depths and up from the grave. Verses 4-5 are an exhortation to the assembly in the light of what David has experienced. Verse 5a is virtually a creedal statement by this stage and it is found throughout the Old Testament: 'For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favour lasts a lifetime.' This was a cherished truth and David now gives new testimony of its truth. He also uses an expression that I think is exemplary of the biblical notion of the temporality of suffering and discipline for God's covenant people: 'weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.' Verse 6 and 7a tell of the somewhat careless attitude that David had in the midst of an easy run in his life. But David got a rude shock when all this was taken from him (vs. 7b). The result of this was that David was shaken into some solid faith-action and this is demonstrated in his prayer described in verses 8-10. In his desperation David pleads with God using all the appeals he can summon up in his mind. He knows God and he knows that the most important thing is ultimately that God is glorified. But how can God be glorified by a dead person? What use would he be in proclaiming the faithfulness of God if he were dead in the grave? This is a strong appeal and it is exactly the kind of faith that God looks for in his people. Faith comes by hearing the word (Rom. 10:17) and the person of faith uses the word to put weight into his lean on God. David demonstrates here a deep and knowing trust in God and in the character of God. He is like a lawyer making appeals before a judge though in intensely relational terms. And David's argument indeed carries weight before the throne of God. Jesus always commended those who made appeals like this and remarked at the greatness of their faith.
Consider what this time of suffering did for David. It shook him out of his spiritual comfort and activated him to exercising his faith in a way that was not required in a time of ease. Since faith and trust are at the heart of what it means to relate to God and since our relationship with God is the most important thing of all, it is no wonder that God sometimes let's us go through suffering. But the principle of verse 5 still stands: God may lead us into a time of darkness but he who lead us in will also lead us out. And so David testifies to the fact that God heard his trusting appeals and turned his wailing into dancing (vs. 11-12). David now has far greater capacity to glorify God in his life than he ever did before. And this indeed is the main point of everything.
In Psalm 32 David, King of Israel, describes the passage he took from a state of deception in which he had denied his own guilt to the acknowledgement of his sin and forgiveness. The psalm is a powerful acclamation of the blessing of forgiveness and a call for all people to not stubbornly hide from God but to humbly come to God openly and trustingly.
The background to this psalm is given in 2 Samuel 11. David had acted cruelly and wickedly when he took Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, slept with her and then arranged her husband's death. What is amazing about this story is that David held on to his sin in silence for at least nine months. Let us be reminded that this is the same David who meditated day and night upon God's law and who delighted in the decrees of God more than anything else in the world (Psalm 19). You would think that such a man as this, in whom the Spirit of God dwelt in a notably new-covenant sense, would immediately be stricken with guilt and would humble himself before God in penitence. But the heart is deceitful and David added this sin to his others ' he deceived himself into stillness of conscience. Many a prophet was condemned for deceiving others by saying 'peace! peace!' when their was no peace (Jer. 6:14). But here David deceives himself.
The psalm speaks of the agony that David went through as he stubbornly kept his silence, that is, as he kept from confessing his sin to God (vs. 3-4). This suffering even affected his physical state so that such a mighty warrior as he became weak 'as in the summer heat.'
Finally however he surrendered. God did not allow him to continue in his self deception and the conviction that came with the words of Nathan the prophet was an act of God's grace. David confessed his sin and received the forgiveness of God (vs. 5). The relief and the joy of this experience was so impacting for David that he can write of this as the supreme state of blessedness in the first part of the psalm (vs. 1-2). Here he marvels afresh at the wonder that God does not take account of the sins of his forgiven saints. If we have become at all stale in our zeal for the central aspects of the 'good news' of God's forgiveness the best way to change this is to ask God to shatter us with a view of our own sins. Biblical joy is not cheap.
From this vantage point David now turns to a universal call for anyone who is Godly, or who thinks himself to be godly, to seek the LORD while he may be found (vs. 6). This indicates that the offer of forgiveness will not extend on forever. One day when the water rises to drowning point (a figure of judgement referring to the flood of Noah's time) there will be two kinds of people those who took refuge in God and whom God has surrounded with 'songs of deliverance' (or 'redemption songs') (vs. 7), and those who remained stubborn like mules before God and refused to come to him. Hence the next section implores the listener not to be stubborn 'like the horse or mule which have no understanding' (vs. 9) because those who wickedly refuse God will see many 'woes', while those trust in God will be surrounded by his covenant love (vs. 10). Those who have been made righteous by God have every reason to rejoice (vs. 11).
Psalm 35 is a classic imprecatory psalm which calls down curses upon the principalities and powers that curse the plans and people of God. When God made his covenant with Abraham he said that 'whoever curses you (the covenant people) I will curse' (Gen. 1:3). And so this is a prayer of a man who knows that his complaint and his curses are justified. It is important to understand the spiritual significance of imprecatory psalms in general and for this I would direct you to the article provided on this website on the 'imprecatory' or battle psalms.
It is impossible to know what the specific circumstances of this psalm are. The language at times has legal connotations and this together with the strong military language could suggest that the issue here is that of international relations. It may be that some kind of treaty arrangement is being thrown back in David's face and he is being accused of breaches which he claims to be innocent of. The foreign rulers may be using these accusations to justify a military action against Israel. Whatever the case, whether it be this or simply that David himself is being unjustly conspired against and accused, this is something that David was no stranger to. When David was anointed by God he was not guaranteed a smooth run and in fact it was his anointing that bought him more trouble than anything. He was harassed, unjustly accused, attacked, pursued as an individual and when he was king of a prospering nation that nation itself became a despised entity not least because of its rapid growth to prominence and supreme strength in the Ancient Middle East.
David prays in this psalm that God would be the enemy of those who are enemies to his people. He prays that God would fight against those who fight against his people and be the accuser of those who accuse his people. This should make us ask, if we are looking to apply this psalm to aspects of our own lives: 'who is our real enemy.' It is not ultimately any individual person since we are told to love people as individuals. Our real enemy is, as Paul says, 'the rulers, the authorities, the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms' (Eph. 6:12). People often serve the purposes of the ultimate evil will but as such they become more victims than real enemies. And so there is a sense in which we can ask God to seek out who it is that is really harassing us and cut them off in divine vengeance. This may not sound like a nice this to do but it is thoroughly biblical.
Prominent in this psalm is the idea that those who attack God's people end up by doing themselves the greatest harm in the end. David says figuratively that they have hidden a net for him but ironically they will end up being caught up in it themselves (vs. 8). Likewise he says that had dug a pit for him but will end up falling into it themselves. And so those who seek to disgrace God people will themselves be disgraced and ashamed (vs. 4). Those who know the story of Esther will recognise that this is exactly what happened to Haman in a marvellous twist of fate that has to be amongst God's greatest hits.
Ultimately it will not be at the hand of David or David's army that the enemy will perish but they will be driven into oblivion by the angel of the very God whom they have raged against by threatening God's people (vs. 5-6). This idea of being repelled away from God is the essence of the biblical understanding of hell. Hell is suffering under the infinite repulsion of God who repels evil away from himself in infinite wrath and supreme sovereign force. This is a dark and slippery fall if ever there was one (vs. 6).
When all these things happen, says David, then his soul will rejoice again in the LORD (vs. 9). David wants to see here again the way that God reflects the curses of his enemies back upon themselves and he wants to watch this and rejoice in it. He wants to see this because he loves to see the hand of God wield such sovereign power and justice on behalf of his people.
Psalm 37 is a wisdom psalm very much in line with the type of writing present in Proverbs. Like Proverbs there is no strict development of any one single thought here though the main topic is perhaps the idea of recompense. This psalm, in the original, is an acrostic poem (i.e. each stanza begins with a different letter of the alphabet in order). This type of literary device was used particularly for instructional purposes to enable students to easily memorise the words of the psalm. The psalm, in classic wisdom literary fashion, outlines the two ways that God sets before people: the way of the wicked and the fools on the one hand, and the way of the righteous and the wise on the other. Though the wicked may prosper for a while their road is one of destruction. The psalm warns against greed, malice and ungodliness pointing out that those who give themselves over to these things will come to a terrible end. On the other hand the advice of the psalm is simple though beautiful and alluring in its simplicity. The righteous are to trust in God and simply enjoy what he gives to them. But most of all they are to delight in, and enjoy God. To delight in God is the same as glorifying God and it is also to enjoy God with all one's being. The greatest compliment that I can pay to a person is to tell them that I sincerely enjoy their company. So too the most profound act of worship is this: to enjoy God and to delight in God and so to have the capacity to be a vessel for the glorification of God. This principle embodies the essence of biblical spirituality. It is to enjoy God: to read scripture to enjoy God; to pray to enjoy God; to serve God to be able to see him at work in and through our lives and to live a holy life to be close to God.
Psalm 40 is a song written by David, most probably before he was king and when he was a fugitive from Saul. It was common in times of distress and hardship like this to reflect upon God's past acts of salvation. The remembrance of these things acted as the faith-foundation for the prayer that would follow. It was also used as an appeal before God. There is a sense in which the psalmists could 'remind God' of his own faithfulness. To push this further they would then commend God's faithfulness as a normative and firm principle upon which all people at all times could place their trust. It is almost as though the psalmist in this way is putting pressure upon God to answer. And yet all this is in accordance with the kind of boldness with which Jesus taught us to pray (Luke 18:1-6).
Verses 1-3 are testimonial. This section is one of the classic salvation-testimony statements of the psalms. The psalmist predicts that as a result of his testimony many people will put their trust in God (vs. 3). This leads to the pronouncement of blessing upon anyone who shall respond in this way (vs. 4). Verse 5 is notable in the way it refers to the wonders that God does for his people. These wonders are among 'the things [God] planned for us' and it is clear that this is only a fraction of what else lies within God's purpose for his people. It seems that even the experience of being in the 'mud and the mire' was, in a mysterious way, a part of this plan ' as an occasion in which God's name as saviour might be glorified.
Verses 6-8 are quite remarkable and it is easy to miss the significance of these words. The psalmist has been speaking of the wonders that God has planned for his people. It may be hard to see the logic behind the section that follows but it is quite a coherent transition. What kind of dept do we thus owe to such a good God? Surely the sacrifices and offerings of animals are entirely insufficient in themselves to express this dept (as verse 6 indicates). So David indicates that his ear has been pierced. The piercing of the ears of sheep indicated ownership toward a given purpose ' in this case it seems that David is expressing the fact that he himself is the offering that God has 'earmarked.' But here David speaks also in his official role as the anointed king of Israel and as the type of the 'one to come' (the Messiah). In this sense certain things have been written (prophesied) about him and he is expressing his willingness to fulfil this task ' to fulfil the purpose of God for him and to be the sacrificial offering that will cover the debt which the animal guilt offerings fell infinitely short of.
And so the next section (vs. 9-10) is a climactic expression of the faithfulness of God. David here places great significance upon corporate expressions of praise to God and his own public demonstration of thanks. He is not in favour of 'private religion' but rather insists that such acts of God call for God's people to make a public demonstration of their gratitude and to tell openly and loudly of the faithfulness of God. The 'great assembly' is an important part of the spirituality of the psalms (see the article provided here on 'the great assembly'). There appears to be a vital importance for the individual of having his/her own worship expressed and taken up in the corporate declaration. In this way the testimony of one is strengthened as it is reflected in the group. The psalms demands open testimony from the individual of the good things that God has done. Such testimony is an important part of the psalms corporate worship experience.
At verse 11 begins the prayer which is the occasion of the first part of the psalm. The focus here is now upon David's individual situation of hardship. David has been working up to this prayer-point. He asks that God would not withhold from him the mercy that he has so freely shown so often in the past. What is remarkable here is the penitence that characterises David's plea. He takes responsibility for the hardships he is enduring upon himself and expresses his consciousness of his moral dept toward God; he is overwhelmed by his sins. This state of penitence is a positive sign ' it is a result of the sharp spiritual awareness that he had gained as a result of the events described in the first part of the psalm. The closer we come to the holiness of God the more we perceive our own spiritual-moral depravity.
Verses 13-15 contain the specific request relating to David's concrete situation at the time. He is being pursued by enemies who are desiring his destruction. Verse 15 compares with verse 16 as two types of fate. The psalmist is praying that things would simply work out justly. At the time of prayer it seemed that the one trusting in God was being put to shame whilst those who were proudly doing evil were rejoicing. But this should not be and the psalmist prays that this situation be turned the right way up: that the wicked would be ashamed and the righteous would rejoice because they trusted in God. The psalm finishes with an appeal to David's own deplorable situation and to the covenant relationship (vs. 17). Through his covenant God had made himself the help and deliverer of his people, the one who takes away the curse and brings blessing, and now David prayers for this spiritual fact to be made a reality in his concrete situation.
Psalm 42, along with psalm 43 (they are really the one psalm evidently cast in two parts), was most probably written by a Levite who had crossed the Jordan with David when he fled from Absalom during the rebellion. He appears to have been accustomed to conducting pilgrim companies up to Jerusalem for the great festivals. It uses imagery common to many Davidic psalms, that of thirsting for God when a physical need for water was pressing (e.g. Ps 63). The problem in these cases is not immediately the physical needs of the person praying but the question of where God is. God is the answer. What is most disturbing to the psalmists in these kinds of instances is not so much their suffering but their sense of abandonment by God. And in this they show a rightly oriented heart. For they recognize that what they most need in any situation is God. And here again, as in many of the psalms, it is evident that God is standing back, as it were, to let this realization emerge. For faith emerges in hardship and here faith emerges as a passion to find God. The repeated refrain (vs. 5 & 11) sums up the purpose of the prayer. It is to exercise the heart in hoping in God so that the downcast soul would be lifted in faith.
Psalm 45 was originally composed on the occasion of a wedding for Solomon but it is also, significantly, a messianic psalm. It is quoted in Hebrews 1:8-9 where the words are applied to Jesus. The kingship that this psalm speaks of is not just a human kingship but a divine kingship. In fact the throne of Israel itself was a messianic symbol. The kings of Judah were 'types' of the coming Messiah. And therefore there is a very real sense in which this may be read as a psalm about Jesus though it is important to see the original setting so as to appreciate what prophetic significance it may indeed have. A royal wedding was an occasion which focused upon the king. God had blessed Solomon with great wisdom, influence and riches and these occasions were a reminder of that gracious outpouring. We should not think of this psalm as some kind of poetic flattery nor should we think of the king in this occasion as necessarily boastful. In these times the measure of God's blessing was manifest in the extent to which Israel prospered in every way. The glory of Zion, of the temple, of the king and of the nation was also the glorification of God. This is reflected in those psalms which sing about the glory of Jerusalem (Psalm 48, 84) and this is the idea behind this psalm as well as psalm 72. In times of famine, oppression, and hardship when Israel was humbled the prayers of the saints always appealed to the fact that God's glory was at stake in the humiliation of Israel. This is a somewhat undeveloped notion and indeed the prophets would qualify this (psalm 73 also shows a maturing understanding) but at this stage at least, the people understood that the glory of the throne of Israel reflected the glory of God to the world. In this time God's glory does not depend on any earthly throne. However it is reflected directly in the glory of the messianic throne to which this psalm implicitly and explicitly (in verse 6) refers. The glory of the Messiah is the very glory of God himself and to praise the Messiah is to praise God. This is what takes place here.
When the psalm speaks of the bride adorned in gold we might think of the way in which Jesus and the apostle Paul referred to the church as the bride of Christ. The picture here is of a momentous occasion. Indeed the aloes, cassia and myrrh, were only worn on the most significant of occasions. The music of strings speaks of great celebration. One cannot help but think of the great wedding feast that Jesus spoke of; a time when the people of God will be eternally wed to their Lord. The garments of gold, the ivory palaces, the beauty the gifts and the sheer glory that is described in this psalm is a wonderful reminder of what we await: the wedding of all weddings. The Psalm ends on a note of eternal praise. This union will result in the glorification of God.
Psalm 51 was written by David after he had been convicted by God (through the prophet Nathan) of committing adultery with Bathsheba and organising the death of her husband Uriah. In order to understand this psalm therefore you will need to be familiar with this account as it is recorded in 2 Samuel 11-12. Psalm 32 is a psalm that is also based around that event though it is a subsequent reflection on the spiritual dynamics of the situation (see commentary on psalm 32). In Psalm 32 David tells how he tried to suppress his guilt and avoid God. He tells of the agony of this and finally of how he abandoned his self deceit and confessed to God. The result he says was a profound experience of God's forgiveness. This, then, is where Psalm 51 fits in. Psalm 51 records the actual words that David prayed to God in this moment of confession. It records the desperate penitent pleas of David for the mercy of God upon one who is being tormented by the guilt of such a terrible sin. In this sense the psalm is possibly the best biblical example of 'penitence' which is the unavoidable means to experiencing God's forgiveness.
David's prayer is permeated with covenant language. He refers to God's self revelation as one who is compassionate and whose love is unfailing (vs. 1). The latter term is loaded with the idea that God had made vows of love to his people and had promised that he would never cast them off irrevocably but that he would always receive them back if they humbled themselves in repentance. God's compassion and mercy had been displayed all through the history of Israel and David now pleads with God not to treat him according to justice but according to his great and elaborately demonstrated compassion (vs. 1).
David expresses here to the pain and torment that he described later in psalm 32:3-4: 'When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.' He is desperate to be cleansed (vs. 2) and freed from the sin that is always before him burning into his soul and causing him to despise himself so bitterly (vs. 3). He moreover feels the weight of God's displeasure upon him and this becomes the hardest thing of all to endure (vs. 4a). He confesses here that God's conviction through Nathan is exactly right (vs. 4b). He has done a terrible thing, much worse than that which Nathan described in his parable (2 Sam. 12:1-4) and God is right to be angry with him. He expresses in verse 5 the personal realisation that his nature is truly corrupt. He was born with a fallen nature and now he has allowed that sinful nature to blossom in sin.
Truth in the inward parts and wisdom in the inner most place (vs. 6) is the opposite to what David describes in psalm 32 as self deceit. Self deceit is the closing of one's heart to God and the conviction that we are something that we are not. Wisdom and truth on the other hand mean knowing oneself and one's character. It is allowing God to bring to light the sins that cling to the dark corners of our being, the sins that we inherited in our nature and which we have walked in devoutly ourselves.
And so David's plea is for cleansing (vs. 7). He prays that he would be cleansed in the manner that had been demonstrated in his sight every day in the temple sacrifices and rituals. Hyssop (vs. 7) was the branch that the priests used to sprinkle the blood of the sacrificial animal in a symbolic act of cleansing. It was used to sprinkle the blood on the door posts of the houses at the Passover (exodus 12:22); it was used in rituals for the cleansing of lepers (Lev. 14:4,6 49, 51, 52) and in the purification of a person defiled by contact with a corpse (Num. 19:6, 18). David prays that in this manner he would be cleansed to perfection so that he might rejoice again (vs. 8). And indeed his rejoicing would be greater then than if had never sinned in the first place since he would be recipient to a new depth and measure of God's redeeming mercy and love.
David is also feeling the destitution of his sense of separation from God in sin. And so he begs God to not leave him as a spiritual outcast any longer. He also prays that the Holy Spirit with which he was anointed would not be taken away from him on account of his actions (vs. 11). He is speaking here about his special kingly anointing. He fears now that God may take from him the empowering Spirit just as he did from Saul. Sin will always rob us of the presence of God in our lives, not because God necessarily abandons us, but because sin shuts the doors of our heart to God. Sin is a rejection of God and by sin we caste ourselves from God's presence and quench the work of his spirit in our lives.
In verse 13 David vows that once God restores him that he will give himself to leading transgressors to the same repentance and forgiveness that he will have experienced. Once God has forgiven him his lips will be opened to declare God's praise and he will become a living testimony to God's mercy and love (vss. 14-15). This in itself is a strong appeal to a God who purposes, in all things, to bring glory to his own name. David will indeed become a reflection of God's glory in salvation once forgiven and cleansed of his sin. As is often the case in the psalms these kind of intelligent appeals become the first sign of the psalmist emerging from despair into hope. The appeals themselves are acts of faith and it is this kind of faith, as in many cases during the ministry of Christ (Matt. 8:5-13; Matt. 15:21-28), that precedes the response of God.
The profound words of verses 16 and 17 are evidence that David has received his assurance and with this the profound truth that he expresses here. He is assured now that what he has at this time is the one thing that God will never despise: penitence. Offerings and sacrifices give no assurance that God will accept the giver. We can offer up our whole lives in service to God and yet this in itself is no assurance that we will be ultimately accepted by God. The only thing that we can bring that God will always accept is this: 'a broken spirit and a contrite heart.' This is expressed throughout Jesus' ministry. While he rebuked many self righteous people and even turned away an earnest seeker who felt that he had walking in God's ways (Luke 18:18-29), Jesus always received, with open arms, the sinners who came to him in sorrow and penitence.
The last two verses of the psalms make an interesting addition to what has reached a resolution in verse 17. The prayer is a classic corporate prayer for prosperity and security in the kingdom. The confidence expressed in the last section naturally gives way to confidence in intercession. Whether these last two verses were also written by David or added by another writer (possibly a writer who lived during the time of Nehemiah after the exile when the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem was the national preoccupation) the lesson of vs. 16-17 is implied in the vision of 'righteous sacrifices' being offered to God (vs. 19). Righteous sacrifices are those which gain significance from the attitude of the one offering the sacrifice. A guilt offering without penitence is meaningless; as is a thank offering that does not come from a thankful heart. The writer prays that there would be many righteous sacrifices to celebrate the goodness of God. And indeed when God built up the walls of Jerusalem in the time of Nehemiah there was just such a celebration of magnificent proportions :
At the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, the Levites were sought out from where they lived and were brought to Jerusalem to celebrate joyfully the dedication with songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps and lyres. . . . And on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy. The women and children also rejoiced. The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away. (Nehemiah 12:27, 43.)
Psalm 52 is an imprecatory psalm (cursing psalm). For a general discussion of this genre of psalm see the article provided here on this. Psalm 52 specifically declares the cursed state of those who not only do evil but who delight in and boast of evil. This is a psalm of indignation against injustice and evil. David here expresses disturbance at evil and in this he shares the sentiments of God. It is important to note that those who are being targeted here are not broken and repentant sinners. These ones are precisely those whom God mercifully seeks, as was demonstrated in the life of Christ. The people whom David is railing against here are those who are proud of the evil they do and who delight in the things that God hates. The declaration that David makes is blunt and simple. 'God will bring them to everlasting ruin.' The psalm therefore contains a strong sense of eschatological anticipation (that is, a longing for the coming of Christ in the end times). The new testament exhorts us throughout to long for what God is going to bring about at the end of the age. We are not to wallow in the present but to live with out spiritual eyes looking out for the coming of Christ. The heart of the Christian is a heart that both joyfully and painfully cries out, 'Come Lord Jesus!' But when we take up this biblical call we are calling, amongst other things, for the judgment of God. The second coming of Christ will be, as Isaiah prophesied, 'the day of vengeance of our God' (Isaiah 61:2b). It will be a day when unrepentant evil doers are judged with a terrible outpouring of the just anger of God. What this psalm expresses therefore is the longing for that day of judgment; it simply pronounces the sure judgement of God upon evil.
The idea of the righteous laughing and rejoicing at the destruction of evil doers is hard to take for us now. But maybe it would be easier if like David we had seen our country and our family ravaged by the emissaries of evil. Justice is the delight of those who have tasted the bitterness of injustice. The only thing greater than this is repentance and mercy, although, as with Jonah before the repentant Ninevites, this was not always easy to accept. Justice is further expressed here in the declaration that one who refuses to trust in God will finally see that their evil design for god-like independence at the expense of others end in disaster. It is a moment of vindication for those who trust in God but do not always see immediate physical benefits of this while the ungodly all around often seem to have more (as was the struggle for the writer of psalm 73).
In the last part of the psalm David declares that he is better off than the evil doers, not because he has more, but because he is planted like an olive tree in the house of God. It is his relationship with God that makes him richer than those who forfeit this for worldly gain. The act of comparing the lot of the ungodly with the godly is an important avenue of reflection in the psalms. By declaring the cursedness of the ungodly life and the contrasting blessedness of the godly life we thereby dissuade ourselves from joining with the former. This is an important role of the imprecatory psalms, that is, they are an indirect exhortation to godliness in the light of the coming judgment. They are not just about denouncing evil. They are very much concerned with warning against the evil in our own hearts.
Psalm 56 is dominated by the theme of the enemy. The writer is David. He has been anointed by Samuel and has proven his anointing in his defeat of Goliath and in many other military campaigns. But the continual success of David begins to make king Saul jealous. And so he conspires to kill David and thus begins David's period as a fugitive (the context also of Psalm 63: 1 Samuel 20ff). It is not difficult to imagine how David must have felt at this time. It was the anointing of God that had made him successful and it is now because of this anointing that David is persecuted. Saul's intent is to reverse the process of David's ascension to fame, ultimately by killing him (vs. 6), but it seems from this psalm that Saul was doing a good job at slandering David and dirtying his reputation with all kinds of lies (vs.5). Saul could not have otherwise raised his army in pursuit of David. David was popular and the mind boggles to imagine the work of Saul to blacken David's name. For David the injustice is nearly unbearable. He faces death everyday from his own people. It is interesting to note the parallel here with David's greater son Jesus who for like reason was also slandered, falsely accused, and was the subject of a murder conspiracy. And all this by his own people.
So now that David is an enemy of his own people he really is on his own. Imagine this. Where does he go? We should remember that just before this period he had been carrying out military campaigns against his neighbours so he is not going to be popular there. The fact that he ends up by running to the Philistine town of Gath indicates that he is pretty desperate (1 Sam. 21:10ff). In Gath David is taken before the king and it seems that the officials were hinting to the king that this man is dangerous and probably should be imprisoned or killed. So David acts like a madman to prevent the king from regarding him as a threat, and it works. The degradation that God allows David to be plunged into here is heartbreaking. He is hated by all and so he has to act mad and degrade himself before his enemies just to stay alive. It was bad enough that he had to be there in the first place but to be ridiculed now by the philistines ' I think that this would have been one of the hardest times in David's life. There is no surprise then in the fiery indignation that is expressed in the words 'bring down the nations' (vs. 7). How could God watch his anointed being slandered and hunted down by his own people and ridiculed by his traditional enemies? David calls on God to be angry at this situation. He calls on God to not allow them to get away with what they have done. Destroy them all! This seems harsh but let it be noted here that David is not out of line in what he is praying. David has covenant sanction to pray these things. The covenant rule was that whoever curses those whom God has blessed will be cursed. David knew his anointing and he knew that he had a right to call on God to destroy these nations in his anger. But note also that the brunt of the imprecation is not directed at a named individual but on the nations, on evil regimes. The philistines represented an anti-covenant and anti-God regime and they were to be seen as much a threat as the serpent was in the garden of Eden. This is why God had demanded the destruction of the Canaanite nations in the first place. God knew that they would lead his people into idolatry. No doubt David, as he lived amongst the philistines witnessed the full extent of their idolatry and this would have given him further cause for anger. If we are to take into consideration the words of Paul in Ephesians 6:12 then we should see these nations as willing servants of the same one who deceived Adam and Eve in Eden. The imprecatory psalms are, in a sense, ultimately directed to 'the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms' (see the article provided here on 'the enemy psalms'). This is also the case when we take the imprecation of this psalm as including the regime of Saul. We should remember that Saul's jealousy had made his heart home to an evil spirit and indeed the text indicates that it was the evil spirit that was driving Saul to kill David (1 Sam. 19:9). Hence what Saul's pursuing army represents here is the will of Satan to kill the Lord's anointed. David refused to hate Saul himself. He had a couple of opportunities to kill Saul but refused to do so (1 Sam. 24, 26). And when Saul did die in battle David mourned his death (2 Sam. 1:17ff). So we must take the imprecation here as a more general imprecation. It is that God would bring down the regime that represents the will of Satan against the Lord's anointed (see Psalm 2).
In the midst of David's cries he expresses his confidence in God (vss. 3-4). His confidence is that because he trusts in God no harm can come to him. To trust God is to evoke the covenant principle that none who trust in God will ever be let down. David's confidence is evidence of his faith. He believes that God will deliver him simply because he is trusting in Him. This is quite an amazing statement: 'what can mortal man do to me?' (vss. 4 & 11). If we take this as a question the answer could be: 'mortal man can in fact do you a lot of harm to you!' After all, David's enemies were ' everyone. The whole world, it seemed, was his enemy and yet he still can ask rhetorically, 'what can mortal man do to me?' believing that his trust in God is a shield that all the armies of the world could not break. Notice also what David specifically has in mind as he trusts in God: 'God's word' (vss. 4 & 10). It is God's word that compels him to trust. Paul said that faith comes by hearing the word (Rom. 10:17) and this is David's testimony here. He was a man who loved the scriptures (Psalm 1:2) and his habit of meditating day and night on God's word gave him a faith to be reckoned with.
I note a third emotion present in this prayer along with the confidence and the indignation ' it is lamentation, and beautifully expressed in vs. 8. David prays that God would record his tears on a scroll. He is like a lawyer calling on the jury to note a piece of evidence that would compel a verdict. 'Note down my tears,' says David. This in itself, he believes, is sufficient to move God to action. And David knew God well. He knew that his tears would echo in heaven and it is this section that therefore leads into a renewed declaration of confidence which brings the prayer into a wonderful declaration of praise.
The line, 'by this I will know that God is for me' (vs. 9) acts as a last appeal. David knows that God is for him but he wants God to demonstrate his faithfulness to this basic covenant promise afresh. Already here however there is the full grown certainty that this will happen. The movement of this prayer is notable and much can be learnt about the experience of prayer itself from it. As David prays things happen in his heart. By the manner of his praying, by his appeals, he builds a case before God. This is how God calls us to pray. It is not just asking for something. Prayer is not important as a means to an end. It is an end in itself. Prayer is the process of covenant relating. We relate to God by hearing his word, taking his promises, praying them back to him, appealing to his mercy and love, calling on him to note our feelings and so forth. In this process we build a level of trust in ourselves that compels God, by his own promises (remember that God has bound himself by a covenant oath in relation to his people), to answer according to his will. Hence as we come to the end of the psalm David speaks as though the prayer is already answered. He gives thanks to God in advance for the answer (vs. 12). His faith is truly the substance of things hoped for (Heb. 11:1). The last few lines are, I think, the crowning glory of the psalm and one of my favourite lines from the psalms: 'For you have delivered me from death and my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before God in the light of life' (vs. 13).
Psalm 59 is concerned with the enemies of God. At the time when David prayed these things it must have seemed as though everyone was an enemy of God. The setting is the night of David's escape from Saul (1Sam. 19). David had won a decisive victory over the philistines and was no doubt in the warrior frame of mind. Having struck down the enemies of God outside Israel David returned only to have an attempt made on his life by Saul. On top of this Saul now had men watching his house ready to finish him off. It must have crossed David's that an option would of course be to simply kill Saul. After all David had just dashed the mighty philistines to pieces. But somewhere along the line God taught David that he did not need to take matters into his own hands. David had a couple of opportunities to kill Saul which he refused to take up (1 Sam. 24, 26). He wanted to express that this judgement was ultimately God's prerogative. In fact this Psalm expresses that it is God's prerogative to punish any of his enemies. And this psalm is a prayer for God to do just this (vs. 5). The injustice of David's position was agonising (vs. 3-4). How could Saul, the king of Israel, be such a traitor to the kingdom? It must have seemed to David that Israel was finished with such a state of affairs at hand. How could Israel maintain her sway over her hostile neighbours when the king was obsessively intent on killing God's chosen general? David must have imagined dreadful visions of the fall of Israel because he prays desperately that God would make sure the hostile nations are finally defeated despite this traitorous episode (vs. 5). Just because David was not permitted to lay a hand on Saul (or show anything but respect for him for that matter) did not mean that he could not pour out his indignation against Saul before God. David's imprecation is justified here. He expresses before God the terrible injustice of his situation and calls on God to save him (vss. 3-4). The elaborate use of the various names of God in verse 5 serves as a covenant appeal: 'Yahweh' (the special covenant name of God), 'God of might', and 'God of Israel.' Basically the prayer of this psalm is that God would destroy everyone who works against his purpose. The 'prowling dogs' of verse 6 are probably the men that Saul sent to kill David but this description is one which elsewhere refers to evil-doers in general (Psalm 22:16, 20). Cities in those times would have been full of mangy scavenging dogs and to be likened to one of these is to be described as the most shameful and desperately evil creature. Just as the dogs return each evening to the streets to devour any food or rubbish lying around so are those who do the bidding of evil. The 'swords' from their mouths refers to the bitter and lying words which they speak, specifically, words of blasphemy against God. This blasphemy involves a denial of God's omniscience and justice. But, says David, God laughs at these evil doers. In Psalm 2:4 the same response of God to those who rage against him is described: 'The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.' It seems strange to think of God as laughing at people but we should remember that this is poetry and that the psalmist is trying to describe poetically how such actions appear to God. What he is describing is the supreme irony of rebellion against God. It is a case of the proverbial 'cutting off the branch you sit on.' When we strike out at God we are always striking at ourselves. To curse God is to curse oneself. God is the life of humanity and to cut oneself off from this life is to execute judgement upon oneself already before God does anything. Something that is comical is not always a matter of flippancy. In philosophy something can be described as comical which nevertheless pertains to the very essentials of existence. In the work of Kierkegaard it is a term that describes the contradiction of the human being trying to create his own existence apart from God while the essence of his humanness consists precisely in the God relationship. It is therefore a matter of not wanting to be what one is: human. We can speak of the comedy of rebellion against God without trivialising that rebellion. And this is what is portrayed in this psalm here in verse 8. Those who blaspheme God are really making a mockery not of God but of themselves. The very presence of God before the speakers of such words is the essence of the mockery against them. God does not need to say anything: they are mocked by his very presence.
David declares that he will now wait and watch for God who is his strength. It is a classic declaration of faith. To be able to wait upon God and do nothing in the way of taking things into one's own hands in the midst of such a situation is trust indeed. Here is a man who really believed that God would save him. We could even say that his faith is: that he was convinced, on the basis of who he knew God to be, that God must (by his own covenant promises) save him (what form that salvation takes or when it is, is up to God). He goes on to describe what he believes will happen when God saves him. He will gloat over those who slander him. He asks God then that his enemies not be destroyed completely. Let them wander around in destitution like Cain so they might be an example of God's justice to the people of Israel. Let the people see the proud bought down. Let them see them caught in their pride and ruined by it. Let them see the proud condemned by their own words. When this happens, when God consumes them in his wrath, the world will know that the God of Israel reigns. Here is a strong appeal. Let it be done so that the might and justice of God is displayed to all the peoples of the earth. Let it be done in such a way that people will never forget that God did it. Let the glory of the God of Jacob be manifest in this.
The psalm returns in verse 14 to a description of the rebellious as dogs prowling about for food never satisfied but always wanting more. In the face of these dogs already described David can sing of the strength of his God which he knows is about to fall upon them at any moment. By now he is sharing in God's attitude toward their threats described in verse 8. At this stage in the prayer David's confidence is such that he no longer laments in the face of these dogs but rejoices in anticipation of how they will be used to facilitate a mighty demonstration of God's justice. All people will be used to glorify God whether through condemnation or salvation. David ends with the refrain which, in verse 9 and 10, spoke of waiting. But here there is no mention of waiting, only singing. David feels that his prayer is as good as answered and he is already rejoicing in what is yet to happen.
Psalm 63 is a psalm of intense devotion to God. Written by David, king of Israel, most probably when he was a fugitive from the rebellious Absalom (circa. 980 BC ' the history of this period is recorded in II Samuel 15-18 ' it is a large section though worth being familiar with for a good understanding of the context of this psalm). Most of this time was spent by David in the wild, inhospitable desert region between Jerusalem and the Jordan. The desert which neighboured Jerusalem is the source of an ongoing metaphor in the psalms. The metaphor of the desert represents a lack of blessing, a lack of the presence of God in one's life and circumstances. On the other hand water was a common symbol for blessing and particularly for the spirit of God Himself. The thirst that David was overcome by in the dry wasteland where he was hiding was not primarily a thirst for water but for God. At the outset David calls God his God (vs.1). This intimate familiarity with the almighty God is what characterises the covenant relationship: 'I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God' (Exodus 6:7); I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people' (Lev. 26:12). In a sense David at this time has been exiled from Jerusalem. The situation is similar to that in Psalm 137 where the writer reminisces of the days in Babylon where the people wept when they remembered Zion. David longs to be back in the sanctuary of God where he has always found nourishment for his thirsty soul. Note the specific things that David recalls to have fed his soul and for which he now thirsts. In the first place he has seen the power and glory of God (vs.2) and in the second place he has received God's love (vs. 3). Because David has tasted these things he will now 'praise' (which simply means to commend the supreme worth of something) and he will lift up his hands in prayer (vs.4). As he does this he is confident that he will be filled with even greater measures of the things he has already received. The scenario is one that accentuates the primacy of the soul's nourishment over that of the body in the most vivid way. David declares that his soul will be satisfied with fat (cheleb ' NIV translates it dynamically as 'richest of foods'). The fat was the choice part of the offerings given in the temple and was always the specific part of the beast that was removed and offered before God. The sense here is that God bestows upon his worshippers the choicest things, that they will certainly be filled with only the best that God has and never second best and that as a result they will be truly satisfied. The message here is that it is not the satisfaction of the body that matters most in life but that of the soul. The person who has God in their life will have their soul filled with 'the richest of foods' and this will be their joy no matter how desolate outward circumstances may be.
Verses 6-8 of the psalm are a testimony to the constant devotion of David and contain a beautiful portrait of David's serenity in the loving care of God. The picture of being sheltered beneath the wings of God (vs. 7) is a common one in the psalms with a notable example in Psalm 91:1. The picture is of a hen protecting her chicks with her own body so as to let herself be the barrier between her young and any harm that may threaten them. However there is a reciprocal action here on the part of the psalmist. Because he is held by God he will cling to the one who holds him (vs. 8).
As a result of God's zealous protection David can feel confident that they who now seek to take his life will certainly be destroyed (vs. 9). The 'depths of the earth' is a reference to death though in a vague sense since at this point in the progression of God's unfolding revelation their was only the vaguest concept of heaven and hell which is revealed finally in Revelation. To 'be given over to the sword' on the other hand is a clear expression of divine judgement as is the fate of becoming food for jackals (vs.10). The people of Israel, as with most peoples of the Ancient Near East, respected the human body highly so that even at death it was to be treated with utmost care. To have a proper burial in a suitable place was absolutely requisite. The Israelites cared greatly not only about death but about how death came and what would happen to their bodies. The manner of death and burial was seen as a kind of statement about the life of the deceased. The fate of being consumed by jackals was the extreme worst case scenario. It will be recalled that the evil woman Jezebel, when she died, was eaten by dogs (2 Kings 9:30-37). The manner of her death and the fate of her body were important indicators to the ancient Israelites as to how she was regarded by God.
And so the psalm ends with the rejoicing of the king (vs. 11). That David puts it in this way (referring to himself formally as the king) indicates that he now confidently can picture himself being returned soon to his throne in Jerusalem to take up his kingly role as before. At that time he will rejoice as the king of Israel again. And this rejoicing will be shared by all who acknowledge God's name.
This psalm was evidently composed by David to fulfil a vow of praise made during times of hardship. Many lament psalms use the appeal that if God delivers the person from trouble then he will declare the goodness of God openly before the assembly of God's people (e.g. Psalm 22:22). The individual thanksgiving psalms were often written to fulfil vows like this by giving detailed testimony of what God had done before the assembly (Psalms 40, 77, 116 etc.). In this case it is probably not an individual but the people as a whole who are giving thanks for a communal prayer that had been answered. They credit God as one who hears prayer and as a result of their testimony they envisage all people turning to the God who is so ready to hear and answer prayer. He a merciful God who not only forgives sin but answers prayer 'with awesome deed of righteousness.' The God who created, controls, and cares for the natural world is ready to wield his power for those who seek him. As he 'cares for the land and enriches it abundantly' so too does God care for his people and bless them abundantly.
Psalms like this were and are instrumental for building the faith of God's people. This psalm embodies an important act of confession given to us to sing again and again in order that our faith might be fed by a testimony of God's willingness of hear prayer. God wants all people to seek him and this psalm is an invitation to do so in the assurance that God will hear and answer.
Psalm 67 is a psalm of benediction, that is, a blessing psalm. It moves from the blessing of God's people to the blessing of the whole earth which is a deliberate reflection of the structure of the original simple form of the covenant in Genesis 12:1-3. In this sense it is, like all blessings must be, firmly based upon the promises of scripture. In Gen. 12:1-3 God reveals his plan to bless a chosen people (those who have the faith of Abraham) and through them to bless the whole world. People are the channels of God's blessing and therefore we are blessed always in order to be a blessing. This is why the psalm moves from 'God bless us' to 'God bless the world.' If we are not experiencing the fullness of the spiritual blessings that we have in Christ (i.e. Ephesians 1) then we have no capacity to bless the world.
This psalm is one of those psalms which contains a repeated chorus section and in this case the chorus contains the ultimate covenant vision of a world in which all peoples praise and fear God. In this sense the psalm has a strong eschatological (i.e. pertaining to the end times) outlook. This psalm would have been used as a means of declaring the blessing of God over the people of God. It is a certain and covenant focused call for God to fulfil his promise. It expresses that fact that God has given us the right, and indeed the responsibility, to declare blessing upon one another, an action that has more effect than we could ever imagine. In the mind of the psalmist speech is an efficacious action and we are responsible for what we say whether we mean it or not. When we curse, someone is injured whether we meant it or not. But on the positive side, a blessing declared in faith is the ultimate positive use of the authority that is restored to us through Jesus Christ.
The imagery used in this lament is graphic and yet deeply satisfying as a description of a common experience for us all at some time. The picture is of someone swirling around and sinking fast in deep muddy waters. It portrays the disorientation of life whether from the inward deceits of our own hearts or from the seemingly absurd circumstances of life. The psalm was written by David and it speaks specifically of betrayal and insult. One can only think of the suffering David endured during the rebellion against his rule that was led by none less than his own son, Absalom (2 Sam. 15ff). David knew that, even though he was forgiven, this was a consequence of his own sin as Nathan had predicted (2 Sam. 12:10). But what is at stake here is more than David's personal issues. The reputation of the people of God, who were meant to shine as a light to the ungodly nations around them, was in danger of being marred here. David had worked himself into deep waters and now he expresses his anguish. His anguish would be lessened if were not so concerned about honour of God's house, the temple in Jerusalem. The words of verse 9 are applied to Christ when he drove the merchants out of the temple in fury over the dishonouring of God's temple (John 2:12-17). The second part of this verse is particularly reflective of Christ's experience as those who insulted him did so because he did indeed show the character of God.
The cry of this psalm is of a person seeking God in the midst of confusion. There is the imagery of someone neck deep in mud and sinking with his eyes looking upward waiting for God's hand to reach out and save him. 'My eyes fail looking for God' is an expression so characteristic of the lament psalms where the pain of waiting for God to do something without any immediate response is a common experience. But in this psalm, as in all the lament psalms, the movement of faith is portrayed in all its glory. When God steps back from us it gives us an opportunity to show how much we desire God by stepping forward and the further God steps backward the greater the act of worship in seeking him tirelessly. Psalms like this express a depth of spiritual engagement that is more apparent than any other circumstance might allow.
Psalm 73 represents possibly one of the most important spiritual breakthroughs portrayed in the psalms. The writer has an experience which is similar to that of Job and Habakkuk. If we can understand this movement, if we can grasp the point where the writer arrives by the last section of this psalm (which is the section we have recorded) in contrast to where he begins, then we have understood the essence of biblical spirituality.
The psalm begins with a declaration of an unconditional and central biblical truth: God is good to his people (vs. 1). This is what the psalmist believed and yet he was in a situation where it was impossible to see this goodness in any way. He explains how he was being plagued and punished with suffering every day without respite (vs. 14). He saw no sense in this at all, no patterns, no reasons, no sense at all. He had walked faithfully in the ways of God and he had kept himself devoted and pure. And yet this is what happened to him. Moreover, as he suffered he saw godless and wicked people all around prospering and enjoying all the blessings of life. When he tried to understand this he says that it was oppressive to him (vs. 16). He found himself envying their position and despising his own (vs. 3). What was the point of walking with God when there was no indication of any sense in the whole thing? Everything seemed arbitrary and it seemed that an arbitrary and cruel fate was tormenting him mercilessly. And so he says he nearly lost his foothold. He nearly abandoned his faith to go and live like the ungodly (vs. 2). And why shouldn't he? What is the point of walking in the ways of God when there seemed no reason to do this? He says: 'Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence' (vs. 13). He admits that his thoughts were so bitter and confused that if he would have said anything before God's people he most probably would have betrayed them by telling them to give it all up (vs. 15).
Such was the torment of this man. And we read that it took him at last into the sanctuary of God in one last ditch effort, it seems, to see if God was there (vs. 17a). And this is where he receives an astonishing revelation. Like in the case of Job his questioning climaxes in an encounter with God that transforms his entire perspective. The significance of this revelation is that he is given a glimpse, as it were, into eternity. He sees the eternal torments of the wicked and he also sees the true blessings of the righteous. Up to this point in the history of the unfolding revelation of God there had been little mention of the eternal realm. God taught his people in stages and revealed more and more to them as they matured as a people in their faith and grasp of what they had already been taught. This is an early encounter with a realm little known until that time. But now God opened it up to him and suddenly he is horrified by the very fate of those whom he had envied (vss. 18-20). In the light of this revelation he realises how senseless and ignorant he had been before (vs. 21-22). How could he have envied these people? But the most important thing he had be senseless and ignorant to was this: He had not realised to any extent of what God had given him. He had expected to see God's goodness manifest in such shallow materialistic ways and yet such things are incomparable with what he now sees before him. It seems that at this moment, as he waits in the presence of God, he sees what his portion in life really is. It is God. And so the last six verses of this psalm are the expression of a man who is freed from every need and who clings to the God whom he has now rediscovered. There is an old Spanish proverb that says, 'the richest man is not the one has the most, but the one who needs the least.' And here a man is transformed from poverty to a wealth, contentment and joy that the world knows little about in its endless addiction to fill what only God can fill. He desires nothing but God, and so he is free, truly free, because he has arrived at what his heart has always needed and wanted. He expresses in his life the simple essence of biblical spirituality: to love God with all one's being and to be so content in God that one is free from all the desires of life that drag us down. There is nothing in life more profound than this and I encourage everyone who reads this to do everything it takes to get to the point that verses 23-28 of Psalm 73 portray.
Psalm 77 is one of those remarkable psalms that begins in a place of felt alienation from God and moves to a place of triumphant praise. It is probably a cry representing the distress of the nation as a whole. It is a great example of a characteristic aspect of biblical spirituality that I address at length in my book Deeper Places (Baker Books, 2013). We see in this psalm, and others like it, that faith is cultivated in the tension between human reality and the divine promises.
In Psalm 77 the reality for the psalmist is that he feels that God has forsaken his people, probably because of external military oppression. The divine promises are implied in the historical precedents of the past. Here we see that faith neither downplays the seriousness of the prevailing situation nor does it lower expectations of what we can expect from God. Rather than seeking to resolve this tension between present reality and divine promise by dialing down either element of the tension, faith is actually dialing up both at the same time. It seems that what is happening here is that the Psalmist is seeking to provoke the faithfulness of God by strong appeals to the key covenant precedents. This is faith at work and it is profound and instructive.
The turning point of the psalm comes as the psalmist begins to reflect on the past acts of God. This is a classic case of the Hebrew idea of walking into the future facing backwards. Reflection on the acts of God in the past creates faith to face the future. The events being referred to here are of course those of the Exodus.
Psalm 80 is a communal lament probably occasioned in its original setting by the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC (2 Kings 17). The Assyrian capture of Samaria and the deportation of the people of Israel left the two small tribes of Judah in the south shocked and alone. Their brothers in the north were gone forever and the family of God's people was now but a tiny remnant compared to the glory of the past. God had bought in the Assyrians to destroy the northern kingdom for its sins. The writer of Kings explains saying, 'All this took place because the Israelites had sinned against the LORD their God, who had brought them up out of Egypt from under the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. They worshiped other gods and followed the practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before them, as well as the practices that the kings of Israel had introduced' (2 Kings 17:7,8). This was a sobering event for the remnant that remained in the south and a solemn warning that rebellion and idolatry spell disaster. Aware that they are not a whole lot better than their northern brothers the people of Judah now cry out in the words of this psalm for God to save them from the same fate.
The appeal to God as the shepherd of Israel is a reminder to God of his covenant love for his people. They were seeing the anger of God unleashed before them and in desperation they appeal to his mercy. The plea for God to make his face shine upon his people is a call for God's special loving favour to be shown again to his people. Restoration is what they called for. The original mighty nation that God had raised up from Abraham, pictured here as a vine, was now 'cut down and burned with fire.' The great covenant vision of a glorious kingdom of Yahweh that shone before the whole earth was being dashed to pieces before their eyes. Instead of being a light to the world the nation was now an object of scorn and ridicule.
At the end of the psalm there is the plea that God would rest his hand upon the son of man at his right hand, the resurrected son of man. In its original context this refers to Israel as the firstborn son of God and the right-hand man of God among the nations. But in the light of the coming of Christ, and from theological point of view particularly, this appeal can only have any weight if it is ultimately an appeal to the risen Christ. Christ became the representative of Israel in his life and death. His life is our righteousness and his death is our forgiveness. This applies now and retrospectively to any person in the past to whom the favour of God was ever shown. This was only possible, indeed, prayer itself was only ever possible, because of what Jesus did. His resurrection was the trumpet call of victory over judgment and therefore it is to the resurrected of Christ that we appeal for God to hear and answer our prayers. Verse 17 must therefore be taken as a Messianic reference. Israel was the son of God as also are we because Jesus was the firstborn of God who, through his death and resurrection legitimized us all as God's children. This is therefore the strongest appeal of the whole psalm. All our appeals in prayer are made 'for Jesus sake' and 'in Jesus name.' To ask God to remember the Son of Man whom he raised up is an appeal such that God has bound himself to hear. We therefore pray that God would make this favour shine upon us for Jesus' sake.
Psalm 91 is a psalm of blessing that articulates, in the most beautiful poetic way, the covenant blessings promised in Deuteronomy 28. The blessings are pronounced upon those who bring themselves under the authority of Yahweh. This authority provides a sure covering that makes the child of God invulnerable. The question is, invulnerable to what? Does this psalm promise us freedom from any and every misfortune?
It is important to read the list of misfortunes describes here in terms of the curses for disobedience promised in Deuteronomy 28-29. The psalm is saying that if we remain under the protective covering of God's authority that we will be shielded from judgement. The invulnerability that we have under God's protection is not a blanket guarantee against all hardship in life but a promise that God will not judge us and will not allow the evil one to thwart what God is doing in us. On the contrary the promise of Psalm 91 is that those who live under the covering of God's authority are themselves empowered with that authority to trample the head of the serpent as foretold in Genesis 3:15.
Since we do not have the resources within ourselves to live autonomously any attempt to do so only leads to disaster. When we come out from under God's authority we become vulnerable to the evil one who would keep us under oppression. To come back under God's authority therefore is to be returned to a state of rest. No longer are we burdened by the onerous yoke of the oppression of the evil one and the weight of carrying our own lives. Freedom is not being without authority over us (for, as I said, we do not have the resources within ourselves to be autonomous). Freedom is having the right authority over us. God loves us infinitely and when we come under his covering he empowers us to be all that he created us to be.
As we live under God's authority and walk in the path that he has laid out for us then we are indeed invulnerable. Though we might go through times of hardship yet these hardships will not indicate any failure in the realisation of that purpose. There is no external force that can thwart what God wants to do in us and through us. We will live the full life that God has purposed for us and nothing can take that away from us. This is the declaration of Psalm 91.
The fact is that God is saving you from all sorts of disasters all the time. We don't notice because life goes on, but the fact that it goes on is always because of God's protection over us. Because, if the evil one had his way, we would be pounded with disaster after disaster every day. God is protecting you more constantly than you imagine.
Psalm 93 is the first of a group of psalms (up to Psalm 99) that celebrate the sovereign rule of God over the earth. Like the rest of these psalms this is a psalm that expresses an attitude of reverence and awe. It brings us toward the kind of experience that Job came to by the end of the book that bears his name. In the face of the awesome strength and magnitude of the natural world the psalmist experiences something that words cannot do justice to. Hence only the language of the pounding seas will suffice to express something of what is felt here. In the ancient world the ocean was viewed not as we romantically view it today but with a great measure of dread. The great abyss of the ocean was the place where many lost their lives and was viewed as unfathomable as the sky in many ways. It was also seen therefore as a place of mystery. It is not hard then to see why the psalmist calls on the ocean to express what he feels about God. The experience of awe, that is, the fear of the Lord, is the experience of the unfathomable greatness of God and the infinite and mysterious nature of God's being. Riding on the will of God can make one feel as vulnerable as riding on the great ocean and yet the greatness of God is also felt in this psalm to be celebrated as a person's greatest security. For the throne of God stands firm and cannot moved. The transcendence and immutability of God is seen here to be the anchor in a creation that makes man feel so miniscule and vulnerable.
The movement of Psalm 95 is interesting in the sense that it moves from a mood of exuberant praise to one of solemn warning. The first part of the psalm is a call to reverent joyful worship. Reverence is a key factor here since what is being highlighted is the greatness of God. The appeal to the grandeur of nature to elicit a sense of awe (vs.3-5) before God the creator is a common point of reflection in the psalms. Many psalms refer to God as the creator of the mountains and the sea particularly, both of these being amongst the more impressive features of nature. In the psalm it is pointed out that this mighty transcendent God who created the world in all its grandeur is the very same God who is our shepherd. This highlights a characteristic element of biblical spirituality and it defines the idea of reverence. The experience of reverence is essentially an intimate experience of the transcendence of God. It is the combination of intimacy with a God who is infinitely beyond our capacity to grasp.
The call to worship leads naturally to the exhortation in verse 8 to listen to God: "Today if you hear his voice do not harden your hearts." The connection between the solemn exhortation of verses 8-11 and the exuberant call to worship of the first part of the psalms is this: The true worshipper is the one whose heart is open to God. To draw near to God in a spiritual sense means opening our hearts to God's voice and being willing to trust him. If we are unwilling to listen to God and trust him then we express rebellion rather than worship. This rebellion was exemplified by the Israelites in the desert period after the exodus at Meribah and Massah (Exodus 15:22-17:7; Numbers 20). This account is the classic expression of rebellion and is often referred to in the rest of the Bible as an example of apostasy. The problem here was that the Israelites were simply unwilling to embrace the life of faith. They repeatedly expressed their preference to be back in slavery in Egypt rather than be on their journey with God. Hence they rejected God. As a result they were made to wander restlessly in the desert for the rest of their lives until a new generation came forth who would inherit God's promised land. The Psalmist, as he sounds his call to worship, is thus calling for his worshippers to be genuine. It is possible to make outward gestures of worship while inwardly being in rebellion against God.
The use of the biblical narrative here sheds light on how the psalms are intended to be used. There is an important sense of prophetic exhortation in the psalms ' such that is given to us to be sung and repeated for generation after generation. The events of biblical history are given to us to teach us and here this instruction, as in many other psalms, is made to be a part of the corporate worship experience.
Psalm 96 is a call to praise God and celebrate his victorious reign over the earth in anticipation of his coming to judge the world. This psalm appears to have been part of David's song of celebration during the bringing up of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. David's song recorded in 1 Chronicles 16:23–33 appears to be a blend of Psalm 96 with 105 and 106.
In the light of God's coming Psalm 96 exhorts all the earth to acknowledge Yahweh as the only God and to give him praise as the creator and Lord of all. The means for this happen however is the proclamation of God's people who are called to proclaim his salvation among the nation and to declare that 'The LORD reigns.'
It is interesting to note how this exhortation is so well represented in Jesus' ministry and that of the apostles after him whose message of salvation focused on the proclamation that 'The Kingdom of God is at hand.' Thy proclaimed the Lordship of Christ and exhorted people to acknowledge him and come under his rule while the time of amnesty lasted for all those in conflict with God. They were doing exactly what Psalm 96 is exhorting us all to do.
Psalm 99 picks up a theme that was important to the Jews particularly during and after the Babylonian exile (586-537 BC). It speak about God's sovereignty over all the nations. In this period the Jews were a very small and seemingly insignificant people group in the midst of vast and powerful empires at war with one another. But it was in this period that they also received prophecies about their place in world events. They were reminded at this time that their God was not just a local deity as with the various gods of the ancient world. Rather their God is the God who is sovereign over the nations and draws all history toward his own ends. And though they suffered great abuse and persecution as a nation yet their God who is just would one day vindicate them. This is the theme that is expressed in Psalm 99. It calls all nations to tremble before the God who will call them to account on the day of his just judgement. This was an important confession for the Jews and it was encapsulated vividly in this psalm.
This Psalm is a celebration of the exodus event. One of the roles of the psalms, and this is the case also with this one, was to help generation after generation remember and reflect on the acts of God in the past. God speaks through what God does and therefore he repeatedly tells his people to remember and not forget the things he has done for them (Deut. 8). Psalms like these were designed to make this possible in the most effective way that people had available to them, i.e. through the medium of music. And arguably it is still the most effective way to reflect on the things of God. Music encapsulates things in a way that makes them memorable but also communicates the emotive aspect of the events or truths. It is not just about history. It is about revelation. These events were remembered so that they could continue to elicit the response that God wanted to elicit from his people in the first place when he did these things. And so this psalm, after recalling the wonder of the things that happened during the time of the exodus, calls us to an attitude of reverent awe in the light of these things.
Psalm 116 is a testimonial and thanksgiving psalm. It is a psalm of public edification and it is also a psalm of self-edification. The psalmist is not only seeking to glorify God before others but he is seeking to bolster his own love for God and trust in God by recalling what God has done. I have found this practice remarkably effective for times of prayer, particularly when it is hard to really engage, or when my faith is feeling weak. By recalling what God has done for us in the past, by even saying it aloud and describing the events in detail we create a fountain of praise within us from which prayer flows naturally.
Psalms like this were used as offerings in the temple or at least as accompaniments to thank offerings of produce or livestock. The psalm itself is a formal offering of thanks in the form of a testimony to be made before the assembly. Many of the psalms contain promises to God to declare his goodness to the assembly and in prayers of distress this is often used as an appeal: that when God answers the individual he will declare what God has done before the people by physical sacrifice and by verbal declaration. This is a vow which was obviously made by this psalmist when we was 'overcome by trouble and sorrow.' Hence toward the end of the psalm he says that he is fulfilling his vow of thanksgiving in the presence of the people.
The psalmist implicitly calls upon others to trust in God in the act of thanksgiving which is embodied in this psalm but most significant is the explicit exhortation which the psalmist makes to himself: 'Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the LORD has been good to you' (vs. 7). The practice of giving thanks is good for the soul, it brings rest and assurance as it bolsters our faith.
Psalm 116, the first half of which appeared on our album, 'Light of Life,' is a thanksgiving psalm. It is the type of psalm that was itself present as an offering alongside some kind of formal thank offering in the temple. The psalm was presented as a testimony to declare to the congregation gathered what God had done. The second half of the psalm makes this context explicit and it speaks of presenting thank offerings and declaring God's praise in the presence of God's people. The psalmist is aware that he cannot repay God for the mercy he has received and so the best he can do is to make a gesture of thanks in the prescribed way (Lev. 7:12) and then glorify God by telling others.
Psalm 117 rings forth the universal imperative for all people to live the way human beings were made to live: as vessels of praise to God. Here is the great vision to which the worship of the psalms naturally looks: that one day all the peoples and nations of the earth would bow the knee in worship to God. The practice of calling the whole earth to worship God is an important ingredient in the worship of the psalms. The worshipper is not content here to worship in a minority whilst around him the world is wholly ignoring its creator. As he perceives God through his worship the natural desire of the worshipper is to see the whole earth join in one universal acknowledgement of the sovereignty of God.
There are many reasons to give praise to God but the greatest theme is the unyielding covenant love of God. God is always faithful to his people and he will keep his covenant of blessing. Those who accept God's provision for the salvation of their souls, the work of Jesus Christ (prefigured in the Old Testament sacrificial system) will be saved indeed and they will join that great multitude in heaven that is spoken of in the psalms and finally in the book of Revelation (7:9-10):
After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:
'Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.'
Psalm 121 is a psalm of ascents. This group of psalms were traditionally sung by pilgrims in the regular 'ascent' to Jerusalem for the sacred feasts. It celebrates the covenant relationship with God. The hills being spoken of here are specifically those of mount Zion (Jerusalem). Jerusalem, with the temple in its midst, was the place where God dwelt in a formal and favourable sense. It was the place where people went to meet with God together. As the pilgrims looked ahead up the road they travelled they could see the great mount of Jerusalem and were inspired by the anticipation of the blessings they would receive there in God's presence. But God's presence, as I said in the commentary on Psalm 24, is not bound to a place. God used the physical presence of the temple to remind his people that he was dwelling in their midst. In fact God is everywhere and in a special sense he is with his people watching over them. God sees everyone at every time but this watching spoken of here is more than just seeing ' it is the watching of a zealously protective parent. God will not allow his children to be eternally harmed by the threats of life. The idea of pilgrimage is a wonderful metaphor of the Christian life. Those who came to Jerusalem were faced with many threats along the way. Thieves made the most of the gift laden pilgrims whenever they could. But the psalm says that God will watch over the coming and going of his people as the head for the holy city. This life is not meant to be one of aimless wandering. Those who are in covenant with God live their lives as a pilgrimage to the holy city, the heavenly Jerusalem. There are many threats along the way and Satan always prowls around like a roaring lion, as Peter says. But God will keep his people secure in his love and will bring them home safely whatever the obstacles.
Psalm 123 is a communal lament in a particularly desperate tone. This is not just a pious expression of humility but the cry of a man on behalf of a people who are feeling humiliated, possibly in some military context. He says that they have been ridiculed continuously by arrogant men and have been completely impotent to do anything. The situation might be reminiscent of the way in which Goliath of Gath ridiculed and humiliated Israel while they sat trembling in their tents. Warfare in the ancient world was a dirty game and ridicule and fear tactics played a big part. The traditional style of military ridicule was very often aimed at the faith of the people as much as at the people themselves. There are many imprecatory psalms which record the mocking words of the enemy since the psalm writers felt that such words could only serve to give God the best possible reason to act. In Psalm 3 David complains that 'many are saying of me, 'God will not deliver him.'' In Psalm 22 the writer tells of how 'All who see me mock me; they hurl their insults, shaking their heads: 'He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him, since he delights in him.'' These taunts were against the fact that the individual was trusting in God and the enemies are delighting in God's absence. Psalm 123 does not record what the arrogant were saying but we can justifiably imagine that it was something like this. And the principle that the psalmist is appealing to is that often repeated scriptural statement: none who trust in God will ever be put to shame.
The writer of this psalm seems to have taken some of this kind of ridicule onboard since there is a sense of great distance from God in this prayer. It seems like the psalmist was beginning to wonder whether God had abandoned his people. He has lost any sense of connection with God and is reduced to pleading for whatever scraps of mercy may fall from God's table. In some ways he sounds like the prodigal son when he returned to his father in rags expecting to be received back as a servant. Such is his sense of destitution and rejection that he feels on behalf of his people. So a man who feels an infinity away from the throne of God lifts up his eyes and cries in desperation. He feels that he is 'way down' while God is 'way up' and so he approaches God asking to be received like a helpless slave. So the psalm expresses a humble approach to God with something of a prodigal son type attitude. The principle is clear: come with the humility of a slave and be received with the honour of a son.
Imagine you are a Jewish pilgrim, 3000 years ago, heading up to Jerusalem for the Passover. Up ahead, upon the mount called 'Zion,' towers the ancient and mighty fortress city of Jerusalem. The sight is inspiring and the stories of the scores of armies that had tried unsuccessfully to penetrate its great walls immediately come to mind. Then you remember the words that you were taught by the Levite singers in Psalm 125: 'Those who trust in the LORD will be like Mount Zion which can never be shaken.' In this context these words, written as a song for pilgrims ascending to Jerusalem (i.e. it is traditionally entitled a 'song of ascents'), truly capture the imagination. Those who trust in the LORD will be like this great impenetrable fortress. Though the armies of the world may beat against its walls, yet it shall not be shaken. Likewise the person who trusts in God will have impenetrable peace no matter what comes from outside.
The promise of verse 3 that the ruling sceptre of evil doers will not remain over the land (the promised land) may be applied more broadly to the world at large. Though the world lies under the influence of Satan who is called the prince of this world (John 14:30) the time will come when he will be destroyed and the righteous will inherit the new heavens and earth. The reason that God is so eager to destroy the illegitimate dominion of the wicked is not only to take back what is his but also to prevent the destructive influence of the ungodly over his people. It was for this reason that the Israelites were told to clear the promised land of all its inhabitants and ultimately the promise here is that God himself will clear the world of its evil.
In the light of this the psalmist asks that God would simply do good to the good and upright. This is a plea for justice. Often what God sees as good for us is not what we feel is good at all ' but by accepting the way God handles us we demonstrate our acceptance of his infinite wisdom and sovereignty. What is certain though is that evil doers will be banished from God presence. The Psalmist give us a taste here of the final judgment when those who choose to remain enemies of God will be banished into 'outer darkness.'
Psalm 126 was written after the return from exile in Babylon probably around 516 BC. It refers to the first return of the captives from Babylon in 537 BC. This event was hugely significant for the people and a time of great joy, so much so that it seemed that they were dreaming at the time. Never had there been an instance like this where it could be said that the God of a nation had restored a people after their deportation. Exile was usually so effective in wiping out a people group that it was irreversible. And so when Yahweh bought them home to Jerusalem they had inexpressible joy. But in this psalm that joy is already in the past and the fortunes of Jerusalem are looking very poor. In fact the joy of the deliverance accentuates the tragedy of the situation that remains. Many of the people had decided to stay in Babylon. They had lost the resolve of psalm 137 to never be content and have joy while in a foreign land. They had gradually become comfortable and at home in Babylon and so they never came home. Here is a powerful message to God's people in every age. Peter speaks of Christians as being 'aliens and strangers in the world.' This is the language of exile. The New Testament in various places exhorts us to never become content with, and at home in, the world. We must not love the world but rather we must have within us the very same frustration with the present imperfections and the longing for the future redemption of the world that creation itself has (Rom. 8:18ff). If we become to comfortable here and begin to 'love the world' we will become like the exiles in Babylon who never saw Jerusalem (and in our case the heavenly Jerusalem of Rev. 21).
And so the natural progression of the psalm here is from a note of rejoicing in the restoration of a few to a note of lamentation over the remaining absence of the many. The psalmist prays that God would restore their fortunes and that the restoration would be as marvellous as streams flowing out of the Negev desert that neighboured Judah (vs. 4). 'Fortunes' is to be understood here in terms of the city's population primarily but there is also a strong desire to see Zion restored to her past glory and indeed to that which was prophesied by Ezekiel (chap. 40ff).
The principle stated in verses 5 & 6 is a simple but profound piece of wisdom and a key insight into what it is that constitutes the spirituality of the psalms. If we want to climb to the heights of joy we will find the first rung of the ladder down in the depths of lament. Those who sow in tears are those who lament over the things that rightly warrant lament. If we fail to lament over our sins how can we then truly rejoice in our salvation? If we fail to lament the present destitution of the world how can we truly rejoice in the glories to come. If we fail to lament the things that grieve God how can we rejoice in the things that God himself rejoices in. Lamentation yields a harvest of joy. This is the principle that Jeremiah drew from when he called on rebellious Judah in exile to 'let your tears flow like a river' (Lam. 2:18) so that God may bring his salvation to them. If we are to reap the joyful harvest from God's mercy we must sow in penitence and contrition. This is the only way that we can reap any kind of spiritual harvest.
Psalm 127 was written by Solomon and in many ways it is a mixture between the style of language of Ecclesiastes and the style of Proverbs. This is a wisdom psalm in its practical message and also in its beatitude upon those who have children. At first read this psalm might seem like it is really two different psalms in one. Verses 1-2 speak about the irony and the futility of labouring without God and likewise upon those who seek protection in their own strength. Verses 3-5 are a celebration of children. Certainly verses 1-2 carry quite a different message to verses 3-5 but the theme is basically consistent if we take 'house' in verse 1 to be a metaphor for household or family. God is the one who must build a person's family and he must be the one who keeps the family secure. It may be that the psalm was used to celebrate the birth of a son. The psalm focuses on male offspring in particular since in ancient times a son meant that a family had another person to work the land, protect the family from hostility and in particular to carry on the family line (hence sons are referred to as a 'heritage'). But there is a strong generic meaning to this and this is seen in the underlying covenant implications of children in general. Blessing and children go closely together in the Old Testament simply because every child born into Israel was a further fulfilment of the covenant with Abraham. God promised Abraham that his descendants would be numerous as the stars in the sky and that through his offspring blessing would come to the ends of the earth (Gen.12:3). So another covenant child meant another vessel of blessing in an immediate sense to the family and ultimately a blessing to the world. This is the most important sense of blessing in children and in this sense the psalm is applicable in a generic and timeless sense to all children born into households of which God is the architect and builder.
Psalm 128 does two things. It declares that God will bless every person who fears him and then it prays that God would fulfil this principle concretely upon the lives of those in the hearing of the psalm. It is a psalm of blessing.
The fear of God is the expression for the ongoing sense of God's awesome presence in our lives and the way in which this effects the way we live. God is the all powerful creator and more we are awed by this the more we will be compelled to obey. The fear of God is always placed in the scriptures as the opposite to sin. We should note that the driving principle behind the motivation not to sin is not a dry piece of propositional knowledge. Rather it is a real ongoing experience of the reality of the divine person who is beyond all our capacities to grasp. His presence perpetually makes us aware of the eternal realm and the infinite significance of all of our actions.
And so the psalm declares the blessings on those who walk in godly fear (vs. 1). At least initially the most important symbol of blessing for the people of Israel was physical prosperity and particularly a large number of children (vss. 2-3). As the people matured in their understanding of blessing and curse God eventually showed them that the fear of God and obedience were not just the means to being blessed but were blessings in themselves. It is by obedience that we discover the liberty to walk with God and experience God in our lives. Psalms like Psalm 73 portray a situation in which God withdraws the physical rewards for godliness so as to show us this distinction. As we grow up we no longer expect our parents to give us rewards for good behaviour since we realise that good behaviour is in itself rewarding. But while we need to keep this distinction in mind when we read psalms like this that speak about the physical rewards of obedience, we should not think that what the psalm says is at all obsolete. God wants us to trust that as we delight in him as our greatest blessing that he will supply all our needs. As we seek first the Kingdom of God and seek obedience as a blessing in itself, God promises to look after us. And there is the added blessing. We do not have to even worry about our physical needs. Worry is a crippling thing in life and it can be a painful experience especially when we feel that we have missed out or when we do not see how our needs can be met. But God says that if we concentrate on walking before him in godly fear and obedience that he will give us the things that we naturally are set up to need in life. As Jesus says in Matthew 6:25ff:
25 'Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? 28 'And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
And so this psalm can be appealed to as much as ever with the above principles in mind. God will indeed give us an abundance of life's blessings especially as we prove that we are ready to use what we have for the sake of God's kingdom. The more we are prepared to give the more God will entrust to us. I do indeed pray that God would give his people great resources and great wealth. But I also pray that God's people will be obedient enough to use this the way God wants them to use it. By all means let the money flow into the kingdom but let the hearts of the people also flow into the kingdom and not into the money. We should bare in mind the principle that I mentioned in the commentary on psalm 73: 'The richest person is not the one that has the most, but the one who needs the least.'
The most important basic physical blessing for the Israelites was children and this is because of the strong covenant implications of offspring. Children signified that God was fulfilling his great plan of salvation which is stated initially in the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 and in which the blessing of descendants was a key part. People embody blessing and people carry blessing to other people. So a child born to a covenant family (apart from the obvious fact that the child is a blessing in itself) is another vessel of blessing in a cursed world.
Psalm 130 contains a simple but profound message. In the midst of a desperate prayer for salvation the psalmist hits upon the most fundamental fact of life. He cries out from the depths of despair, guilt and torment and yet he acknowledges that God is right to keep a record of our sins and to hold them against us. And indeed no one who remains in this plight cannot stand in the end. Such a person will suffer an eternal curse under the just anger of God. But this is not the way God has planned for mankind. Here the adversative 'but' is worth emphasising. This could be the case and God could justly hold our sins against us, but he has freely and mercifully forgiven us, if indeed we shall receive this forgiveness in repentance and faith from him. In the light of the New Testament we see that this forgiveness if offered through the atoning death of Jesus Christ who is the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world (prefigured in the Old Testament sacrifices). Because of this says vs. 4b God is to be feared. This might seem very strange to us that forgiveness should lead to fear. Is not the peaceful father-child relationship with God the culmination of biblical redemption? What place does fear play in this? If there is 'no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus' what is there to be afraid of? Can we not now come 'boldly before the throne of grace'? Through the blood of Christ that cleanses us from sin we may now indeed come boldly before the throne of grace; we now have access before God into a relationship of unparalleled intimacy. Before trusting in Christ we certainly had good reason to fear God since apart from Christ we were still under his wrath. But now Jesus has taken God's wrath away from us. Does this forgiveness in Christ therefore make the fear of the Lord defunct? Clearly this psalm teaches the opposite. The experience of forgiveness leads to the experience of the fear of God. How is this so? It is simply because forgiveness gives us direct access into the immediate presence of God. The very encounter with the infinite majesty of God that we have through Christ is the source of godly fear. The fear of the Lord is the experience of intimacy with transcendence. This in itself is a paradox since transcendence by definition involves being 'far above' and yet through Christ we are bought into a blissful and paradoxical tension of knowing the unknowable and relating intimately to the transcendent God.
Through this profound reflection upon the forgiveness of God the psalmist declares that he is going to wait upon the LORD (an active expression of trust) and that he is putting his hope in God's word, that is, in God's promise of redemption and blessing (vs. 5). Both the intensity and the assuredness of the psalmist's expectation are beautifully expressed in the statement that he is waiting 'more than the watchman waits for the morning.' The night watch was a fearful time to wait through for the Jewish soldier. He might at any time be targeted by the enemy seeking to raid the city with a surprise attack. But as the watchman waited for the morning he was not waiting upon something that was uncertain. The sun always rises for the night watchmen and likewise God's blessing always comes to those who wait patiently and expectantly.
The final section of the psalm is a call on the people of God to trust in God for their redemption. The redemption of God is 'full redemption,' that is, he will, in the end, save his people completely from their sins. For the Christian redemption is indeed a present experience but it is still very much in the future. The New Testament emphasises this in many places and it is easy to forget. Full redemption comes with the return of Christ and God wants us to look earnestly for this event ' 'lift up your heads for your redemption is drawing near' (Luke 21:28). We can tend to want everything now but the emphasis in scripture is upon then and indeed God may allow us to feel the curse of this life for a season so as to make us anticipate and long for the coming of Christ. This attitude of anticipation is hope and scripture teaches. That hope is born out of suffering (Rom.5:3,4). The object of Christian joy is also said to be the hope of Glory (Rom.5:2). This hope of glory comes from feeling the imperfections and frustrations of this present life (Rom.7:14ff). This is very much the case in this psalm. As the psalmist suffers in the depths his eyes are set firmly upon the hope of salvation from God. The prayer is both individual and corporate. Here the psalmist prays also on behalf of the people of Israel in the firm and assured hope that God 'himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.'
This psalm, at first glance, might sound a little conceited in the light of Jesus' dislike for the practice of showing off our own righteousness. However the psalm is expressing something quite different from self-righteous confidence. What we have here is an intimate inside view of the inner spiritual rewards of obedience to God. The psalmist has resolved to abandon pride, haughtiness (looking down on others) and the desire to be able to view his life from a god-like perspective where he can grasp and control his own affairs. Instead he has cast himself into the arms of God in complete dependence. He has chosen to accept the providence of the God who loves him in submission to the fact that the ways of such a great God can never be fathomed. He has realized his smallness in relation to the majesty and greatness of God and embraced humility. And yet it is the greatness of God, something that we only experience, once we have abandoned our own prideful positions in life, that leads him to a place of complete tranquillity. He is resting transparently in the power of God. In this place of intimacy and trust he has discovered an unshakable peace and stillness of soul. He likens the experience to that of a child that has just been weaned off its mother breast and lies contentedly and peacefully in her arms. So too when we rest our lives in the arms of God do we find a stillness of soul and a contentment that all the external threats of this world can never take away from us. The final cry of the psalm sums up the reason for this personal spiritual testimony. The psalmist wants people to see the inward spiritual rewards of humility in order that they might trust in God. 'O Israel ' hope in the LORD.' In this position of peace and joy the psalmist longs that all of God's people would learn to do the same and discover what peace is available to them in the arms of God if they will only put their trust and hope entirely in him.
Psalm 137 is a psalm that I personally have struggled with more than any. The Lyrics shocked me and I found the ferocity of the emotions portrayed in it hard to deal with, particularly the last line. I also found it hard to see how I could sing this and see any relevance in it for me. What follows is the residue of my coming to terms with and learning to appreciate this psalm.
This song harks back to the lowest period in the history of the people of God: the Babylonian captivity. Jerusalem suffered a cruel defeat under the Babylonian Army (605-586 BC). The city was laid waste and those who were not killed were taken into exile. It was a common practice of conquering nations in the Ancient Near East to prevent against nationalist uprisings in conquered territories to deport the large proportion of conquered peoples far away from their home land. The idea was that after some time their identity and faith would be lost as the people were assimilated into the foreign culture. Judah remained in exile for 70 years and in this time the flame of the covenant faith continued to burn. However the very experience of being in Babylon was a painful one for a people whose whole identity was caught up in their nationality, faith, and the glory of Jerusalem and the temple which stood at the centre of Jewish life. God had sent them away and had allowed them to be captive to a foreign nation just as they were in Egypt. In the biblical typology the land of Canaan (with Jerusalem and the temple as its heart) was like a second Eden, though Isaiah had made it clear that this was only provisional until the new heavens and earth was created (Isaiah 65:17) ' the new Eden. Eden, in biblical thought, is the place where God dwells in harmony with his people. Because Adam and Eve sinned they were cast out of Eden. When God began his process of redemption with the covenant with Abram (Read Gen. 12:1-3; Gen. 15) he included, with the promise of blessing, the promise that he would give Abram a land; the promised land. The promised land was to be a new Eden, a place where God would again dwell in harmony with his people. But the story of Genesis 3 repeated itself in the history of Israel. The people sinned and so God cast them out of the land. Read 2 Kings 17:7ff for the account of this.
While the people had been sent away from God into captivity there is a sense in which God still went with them. Read the book of Esther to see how God prevented a near genocide of the Jewish people during this time under the Persian king and also the Book of Daniel to see how God still blessed and protected his people even though they were suffering in captivity. The destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army had been a devastating one. Read the book of Lamentations which is a vivid description of the destroyed city by Jeremiah who had warned the people many times before this event came. The defeat was a cruel one. Moreover it was bought about to the great delight of the neighbours of Judah, such as Edom, who applauded the cruelty along.
The Psalm, then, recalls the people's grief as they lived in captivity amidst the system of canals that spread throughout the Babylonian region (vs.1). Musical instruments were generally associated with rejoicing and so when the Babylonians asked for a demonstration of their renowned music ability they refused (vss.2-4). The gesture of putting away their instruments was symbolic of the fact that there is no joy apart from God. The vow to never forget Jerusalem was a vow of utmost piety and a gesture in defiance of the enemy's attempt to try and squash their faith by taking them so far away from their home. The psalmist wishes all kind of calamities upon himself if he ever forgets Jerusalem, if he starts to feel at home in the foreign land and if he becomes content with his life in captivity (vss.5, 6). These calamities are like those described in the curses of Deuteronomy 28:15ff for those who forget God. In other words the Psalmist says, 'may God do to me all that He has said He will do if I forget Him.' In his zeal to remember and delight in Jerusalem above all things the psalmist remembers the jeering and cursing of the Edomites over the destruction of the sacred city (vs.7). Then he turns his anger upon the Babylonian empire who did these things. The anger of the words that follow match the zeal of the writer. What must be borne in mind for understanding verses 8-9 is the covenant promise that those who curse the covenant people will be cursed (Gen. 12:3). Psalm 37:15 invokes this principle when it says that the sword of the covenant enemies will slay those who wield it. They will fall into the pit they have dug (Psalm 9:15). The Babylonians did terrible things to the people of Jerusalem. Those who were not deported were killed ' this included children ' even those in the wombs of their mothers. This was prophesied by Hosea (if you feel brave you could read Hosea 13:16). The practice of killing infants in the ancient times represented the absolute destruction of a people. Progeny were seen as the continuation of a person's life so the destruction of children was like rubbing a person's name out from existence ' it was the worst of all curses. According to the principle of the Genesis 12:3, then, the psalmist, in his righteous indignation, declares the curse back on the heads of those who did these things.
The Relevance of Psalm 137 for the Christian lies first of all in the spiritual solidarity that all God's people share. Abraham's children, said Jesus and Paul, are those who have the faith of Abraham. These belong to the great family of God. Psalm 137 remembers one of the most significant times in our history. The psalm carries an important lesson for us. Lest we are tempted to stray from the faith into which we have been called we should remember that there is no joy when we are far from God. But for the Christian there is an even deeper significance in psalm 137. Our promised land is heaven ' the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21) ' the new heavens and earth (Isaiah 65:17ff) ' the Kingdom of God (Luke 13:28,29; 14:15ff; 22:14). If we forget the Kingdom of God (and Jesus told us to seek first the Kingdom of God ' Matt. 6:33), may God chastise us severely lest we become assimilated into the world and our identity and faith is lost. If we forget the New Jerusalem, that is, if we become satisfied with our life here on earth in captivity to the corrupt nature of our mortal bodies (Rom. 7:24b cf. Gal. 5:17), if our sojourn here (Hebrews 11:13; 1Peter 1:17) becomes too settled, if we are not continually longing for the coming of God's kingdom (Rom. 8:23), may God bring upon us such chastisement that we will be bought to our senses. The forces of evil in heavenly realms wage war against the Kingdom of God (Eph. 6:12). They delight in the downfall of the Christian and they work tirelessly to take us captive and to snuff out our faith and hope. But may God bring about their own downfall as he has said he will do. May God cut off the memory of the evil one from the earth and may that destruction be absolute. This is the way we understand the reflection and prayer of Psalm 137.
Psalm 139 is about the omniscience of God, that is, the fact that God is all-knowing and all-seeing. But it applies this fact not just in a 'spooky God-is-onto-you' way but as a comfort for God's people. The theme of 'God watching over his people' is a common one in the psalms and indicates God's love and care for his people. It stands alongside the shepherding metaphor also common in the psalms. But this psalm takes that theme to a new level. It speaks about God's knowledge of our thoughts and even the fact that God predestines the path of our lives. It celebrates the fact that God loves us so much we could not get away from him even if we tried. In the last part of the psalm, not included in our adaptation of this psalm, the mood turns to the condemnation of evil. And this is quite a natural movement even if it somewhat distasteful to those who prefer the sweeter sentiment of the first half of the psalm. The idea of God watching people goes two ways, and this also is common in the psalms. For God's people it entails safely and care but for those who set themselves against God it entails judgement. In this context the omniscience of God means that God sees their evil and will store up judgement for them unless they turn and repent. Hence naturally again the psalm ends with a cry to God to examine our hearts to see if there is any evil in us that we might be delivered from it.
Psalm 144 follows a prayer sequence that is common to many of the psalms and we would do well to note it as an example of powerful prayer. The prayer is prayed by David in the setting of warfare and it expresses David's desire to see his enemies defeated so that Israel can prosper freely. The first part (verses 1-2) is a declaration of praise and confidence in God. He declares that God is the one who gives David the skill to fight, the protection from harm, and the ultimate victory over his foes. It is a confession of faith and a statement of reliance. He is, in a sense, reminding God of his covenant responsibilities. God had said that he would be the God of his people and this meant that he would be their 'loving God', their 'fortress,' their 'stronghold', their 'shield,' their 'refuge' and their 'deliverer.' The abundance of the titles assigned here to God is the weight of the appeal: This is what God is, so let us see him be what he said he would be to us.
The second part (verses 3-4) is a statement of humility. The appeals are strong in this psalm and the requests are made in boldness but David shows here that he is not taking his relationship to God for granted. He declares that it is amazing that God should even place any significance upon mere man let alone be so intimately concerned with him and loving toward him. And yet God does care, and this expression of humility becomes another strong appeal. He saying, yes, it is amazing that you care for us so much; so let us see this amazing care at work here.
The third part (verses 5-8) is the request and like many of the psalms it calls for the destruction of those who are rising up against the will of God. The blanket denunciation of 'foreigners' sounds a bit rough to our ears but understand here what the outside threat implied for David at this time. Israel is pictured as a light burning in the midst of a dark world with the darkness constantly trying to snuff out the light. 'Foreigners' refers to those who threaten to wipe out the people of God and therefore also the purpose of God. God's redemptive plan was intimately wrapped up in his people who were to be the priestly nation mediating salvation to the world. Many foreigners came to Zion in Solomon's time who simply came to see the glories of Zion and hear the wisdom of the king. This is a different matter and the nation always welcomed these seekers. But in most cases, when a foreign nation came to Israel they did not come as tourists or seekers. They came with sword and bow to kill and destroy. It is from this threat that David is here seeking deliverance.
The fourth section (verses 9-10) is a declaration of praise again, but it is also an implicit appeal since David refers to God as the one who gives victory and delivers him from the sword. Again he reminds God of his self imposed covenant responsibilities. This then leads into a repeat of the request of verse 7-8 in verse 11.
The penultimate section (verses 12-14) is a celebration of how it will be for the people of Israel when God answers the prayer that is now being prayed. It is a common and remarkable feature of the psalm-prayers. The psalmist celebrates the answer before it comes with poetic descriptions of how the people will flourish and how God's name will thus be glorified. This is both a further appeal but also a profound expression of biblical hope. It is the rejoicing in what is to come, and the rejoicing in the future deliverance is compounded by the present hardship.
The final verse is the perfect conclusion to such a prayer. The psalmist, as he involves himself earnestly in the relational act of prayer realises how blessed he is to be able to call on God. This is particularly significant following the words of verses 3 & 4. He realises how blessed are the people whom God has called his own and who has given himself in covenant love to people. They are blessed because all the things he has described in verses 12-14 will certainly be true but mostly because Yahweh (the LORD) is their God.
A classic exuberant song of praise, Psalm 147, extols the character and greatness of God. A key idea of this psalm is that of a mighty God who is not impressed by the strength of man but who values, above all, joyful submission and trust. In the light of God's greatness the psalm call us to rest trustfully and securely in the strength of God. The psalm moves from reflection on the transcendent greatness of God to the intimate care and compassion of God. In each case the one makes the other more remarkable. The God who set the stars in place and created the world is the God who is irresistibly drawn to the plight of the needy. As he cares for his creation so too does he care for the everyday needs of people. The delight of God is to display his strength through the humble dependence of man. And therefore it is those who turn from their own strengths to trust him who are the ones who experience this surpassingly great power in their lives. The finishing picture of the psalm is of God directing the affairs of the natural world by the power of his word. In a final stroke of wonder the psalmist points out that this is the very same word of which his people are the custodians and bearers.
Psalm 148 bids everything that exists to praise God. But how can inanimate objects like trees and mountains and stars praise God? They do so not by word but by virtue of what they are. Their very existence bears testimony to the awesome power of God who made them. This is the true way to praise God, not just by word but by the mode of one's existence. Christians embody in themselves the greatest act of God ' redemption through Christ. Their song of redemption must not just be on their lips but in their character. God has set apart a people to reflect not only his creative power (as nature and the universe does) but his own loving and holy character ' this is the way we must praise God. Not even the Universe with all its solar systems can reflect this central aspect of the character of God. This is why he has created human beings ' to reflect his image and to be a testimony of praise to his grace and love.