Sit with the Psalms

An open Bible being read

Sometimes we race through the Bible, trying to get through our reading plans, as though we can win at spiritual growth. (Or maybe this is just me.) When I start a reading plan, it never fails: I get into a good pace, stay on top of things, sometimes even getting a bit ahead. This continues right up until I hit the Psalms. And then…

I stop.

By “stop,” I don’t mean I stop reading. No, I stop trying to win at reading the Bible. The Psalms always do this to me. Always. Every time. No matter what. I just stop. And I sit with them for the longest time:

  • I read David’s awe in Psalm 8 and I feel it. “When I observe your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you set in place, what is a human being that you remember him, a son of man that you look after him?” (3-4)
  • I read his counsel to his own soul, and I recognize it. “Why, my soul, are you so dejected? Why are you in such turmoil?” (Psalm 42:5)
  • I read his cries for justice, and I long for it, too. “Rise up, Lord God! Lift up your hand. Do not forget the oppressed” (Psalm 10:12).

The Psalms are not meant to be rushed through. They are too filled with good news, too filled with promise, and honesty for us to treat them so poorly.[1. As is the rest of Scripture for that matter.] We sit with them. They are meant to be meditated upon. Whenever we come to them, this should be our goal.

What do we do with Psalm 137?

An open Bible being read

The psalms of lament are nothing if not intense. One of the most difficult passages in the Bible is Psalm 137:7–9, one that displays the white-hot anger of the psalmist over what had been done to God’s people:

Remember, Lord, what the Edomites said that day[a] at Jerusalem: “Destroy it! Destroy it down to its foundations!” Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who pays you back what you have done to us. Happy is he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks.

It’s tempting to think this is saying that the Bible justifies horrific violence against children and against the enemies of God’s people. There are many—particularly non-Christians—who think that’s what this psalm tells us. But does it really?

Let me ask you this: would we be right to wish for the death of the children of every atheist, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu or Bahai on the earth? Would we be justified in rejoicing in the death of the late abortionist Henry Morgentaler? Should we wish for the death of those who commit acts of terror around the world?

Of course not.

Simplistic biblicism and hard passages

Why not? Because the Scriptures command us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Because it is better for us to suffer for the sake of Christ than to seek vengeance. And yet so many believe this is what this passage tells us to do. That, friends, is what some scholars that I love dearly call a simplistic biblicism. I prefer to call it being obtuse. Because they pick up so strongly on the psalmist’s anger, they misinterpret what’s happening here.

That, I realize, is a rather lengthy preface, but I want you to understand something: these verses are here for our good. It is, like all Scripture, inspired by God and “profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).

So God clearly wants us to know learn something from a passage like this. Here’s what I think it is (it’s going to take a bit so stay with me): Trust in God’s promise of deliverance.

The people of Israel had been devastated by the Babylonians. Jerusalem was burned to the ground. The Temple was ruined. The people were murdered and those who were kept alive were taken as slaves. And through it all, the Babylonians—who had been used as instruments of judgment against God’s wayward people—rejoiced. They delighted in the destruction they caused.

But God promised through Jeremiah that “for a destroyer is coming against her, against Babylon. Her warriors will be captured, their bows shattered, for the Lord is a God of retribution; he will certainly repay” (Jeremiah 51:56). And through Isaiah, he said the Babylonian’s “children will be dashed to pieces before their eyes” by the Medes (Isaiah 13:16). Just as the Babylonians had delighted in the destruction of Jerusalem, so too would the Medes delight in the slaughter of Babylon’s children.

So the psalmist here is wishing not for vengeance in human terms. He is praying for God’s justice. He is putting his trust in God’s promise to repay the Babylonians for what they had done. He is trusting that God will deliver his people, as God had promised. Throughout this psalm, he calls the people to remember. Remember Jerusalem in your grief—and remember the Lord’s promise of deliverance.

This is what he calls us to do as well.

Hoping in God

This is truly the blessed hope we have in the gospel—Christ died on the cross to deliver us from the most horrible suffering imaginable: An eternity in hell. And yet he took upon himself the wrath our sins deserved so we might be free. And even now, He sits in Heaven at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us, praying for us, preparing a place for us with Him.

What glorious hope that is!

That’s the hope that’s driven Christians from the beginning of the Church. It’s the truth that sustains us.

Brothers and sisters, we are clay jars and God has placed this treasure—this great hope—in us. That’s why we can say with the Apostle Paul:

We are afflicted in every way but not crushed; we are perplexed but not in despair; we are persecuted but not abandoned; we are struck down but not destroyed. We always carry the death of Jesus in our body, so that the life of Jesus may also be displayed in our body. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’s sake, so that Jesus’s life may also be displayed in our mortal flesh. So then, death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Corinthians 4:8–12)

Death is at work in us daily. But Christ is being revealed. That’s what our trials do. They make us look more and more like Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, the one who suffered for us so we might be delivered from death.

Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16–18)

Christian, trials will come. Grieve them, but do not let your despair distort your thinking. Instead, put your hope in God’s deliverance.

Jesus: the helper of the helpless

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In Psalm 10:12–15, the psalmist calls on the Lord to act, to “lift” his hand and remember the afflicted. To “break the arm of the wicked and evildoer.” All throughout the Scriptures, we are told that God will defend the defenseless—he is a friend, a father and a helper to the fatherless. To quote Spurgeon, God “chastises the oppressor,” but “befriends the oppressed.”

The psalmist reminds himself of this reality. To himself and to all the faithful, he says, “God will act. Remember who he is—remember that he is good. Remember that he is faithful. Remember that he is just. Remember that he commits himself to the helpless and helps the fatherless. Remember that he is the friend of the oppressed.”

To the wicked, he says, don’t say to yourself that God won’t call you to account, because he will. Though you sneer now, you won’t for long. God will not let injustice stand. All of us will be held to account for what we do in this life, and all that is done will receive its due. Wickedness will be accounted for until there is no more wickedness to be found in all the earth.

And for those who believe in Jesus Christ, what we know is that the accounting has already been made. It was made by Jesus, God’s only Son—God himself!—when he was nailed to a Roman cross and killed 2000 years ago. He died so that we could be forgiven of all our wrongdoing no matter how great or small. He died because we were oppressed by a greater tyrant—sin—and we were helpless to save ourselves from it.

Jesus is the helper of the helpless—and we are the helpless. That is the good news of the gospel, y’all.

That is not me (but it is who Jesus is making me)

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It was another one of those nights: one where my mind was racing, but there was no one thing that was connecting everything I was thinking of. Nothing, beyond, wishing I could stop thinking and just go to sleep, that is.

Finally, I gave up. I grabbed my pillow, went downstairs, laid down on the couch and picked up my Bible. If I was up anyway, I might as well do something useful, right?

I turned to Psalm 24, and started praying through it (with a hat tip to Don Whitney). By the time I hit verses 3-6, I was wrecked:

Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully. He will receive blessing from the LORD and righteousness from the God of his salvation. Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob. (Psalm 24:3-6)

Think about these for a moment:

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord and stand in his holy place? Only one who has “clean hands and a pure heart.” One who is innocent and pure. One who hungers for God, and whose love for God is on display in their fair and upright dealings with others.

And this is none of us. Even the best of us are far from innocent. None of us is pure. Our love for God is always, at best, faltering. And don’t even get me started on how we can treat one another… In other words, when we look at this, if we’re evaluating ourselves honestly, we’ve got to say, that’s not me.

But when we trust in Jesus, the One who does have clean hands and a pure heart, whose love for his Father is never in question; who deals with others in a way that goes well beyond fairness to extravagant love; who is not the recipient of blessing and righteousness, but is the giver of it to people like you and me, and turns our hearts so we become a part of the generation that seeks him… Wow.

The good news about a passage like this, one that can seem like pretty bad news depending on how we look at it, is it reminds us that in Christ, all of these things are true of us because they are true of him. The Father looks on us not as we were or are in ourselves, but as we are in Christ: pure, innocent, faithful, and just. And more than that, he’s turning us into what he already sees, slowly, day by day.

I can turn to this passage and say, “That’s not me.” And I’d be right. But it is who Jesus is making me. And that is a blessing beyond all measure.

There is faith in asking

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I love the Psalms, but they kind of freak me out. They’re shockingly honest about what life following the Lord is really like–and not every day is a Friday. Sometimes it seems like everyone’s got a perpetual case of the Mondays.

Psalm 10 is like this, right from the opening verse, opening with the question no one wants to admit they ask:

Why, O LORD, do you stand far away?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Psalm 10:1)

But we all ask it, don’t we? Somewhere along the way, we’re all going to have a moment where we’ll be asking, “God, where are you? What’s going on here? Why is this world a giant mess and you don’t seem to be doing anything about it?”

Many of us shy away from admitting it, simply because we’ve been told not that that’s not what faithful Christians say. But in the Psalms and in the prophets, we keep seeing the authors of Scripture asking this sort of question.

In Psalm 55, David the great king of Israel, the man the Bible calls the man after God’s own heart, cried out, “Give ear to my prayer, O God, and hide not yourself from my plea for mercy!”

Habbakuk’s book opens with these words:

O LORD, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?

Jeremiah, likewise, experienced so much turmoil in his ministry that he even went so far as to suggest that God had tricked him! (Jeremiah 20:7).

But those are not the only places we see it: Psalm 44:24, Psalm 88:14, Psalm 89:46… Over and over and over again, God’s people keep asking this question when they are so overwhelmed in the midst of trials and suffering, when they are overcome by unrelenting injustice: Where are you, God?

So what do we do with this?

There is faith in asking

Now, one of the things Christians really struggle with is being honest about the difficulties we face. We seem to have bought into this idea that if we don’t understand what God is doing, or opening up about what’s going on and how we’re feeling—to say that it feels like God is absent from our lives—that we’re denying him. We’re abandoning the faith or on the road to apostasy.

And to be perfectly clear, there is a kind of questioning God that is absolutely rooted in unbelief. It is presumptuous. And it is arrogant. When we do this, we’re really just trying to placate ourselves as if to say, “Well, God isn’t paying attention anyway, so I’ll just go do what I want.”

But what we need to recognize is that the author of Psalm 10 is not asking out of unbelief, any more than David, Habbakuk or Jeremiah did. He’s not looking for an out. He’s at the end of his rope. He knows what God has said about justice and mercy and compassion, and he knows the commands of God—that he is to love the Lord with all of his heart and to love his neighbor as himself—but he looks around and sees something other than that. He asks because in all of it, he feels the apparent absence of God, and for the person for whom the presence of the Lord is their greatest and all-consuming joy, that is a terrifying thing.

His question is an act of faith, and it can be one for us, too.

This is something I’ve had to learn and relearn numerous times over the last few years. When we lost a baby—and Emily nearly lost her life—during a difficult miscarriage in 2009, it was hard to understand what God was doing there, despite some of the good we saw from it. When Emily developed epilepsy three years ago, neither of us jumped for joy because we had a new opportunity to glorify God in our circumstances. When I was in a place where every single night I would come home from work begging and pleading for it to be okay for me to go in the next day and resign, and the answer was always no, I didn’t just shrug my shoulders and say, “Well, the Lord’s will be done.”

Life doesn’t work that way, and it’s okay to admit it.

But the point of asking the question isn’t to allow us to wallow in our despair. We ask not out of unbelief, but to help our unbelief. We ask because we need to be reminded, as the author of Psalm 10 did, of the sovereignty of God. He asked because he needed to remind himself that God would indeed act, that justice would be done.

The Lord is king forever and ever;
the nations perish from his land.
O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted;
you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear
to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed,
so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more. (Psalm 10:16-18)

He gives thanks to the Lord, who is king forever and ever—Jesus, the Son of God, the heir to the throne of David, the One through whom and for whom all things exist. The one who even now holds all the universe together and has promised that a day is coming when justice will be fully and finally served. Sin and sadness and death will be no more. There will be no more tyranny or tears. The fatherless and oppressed will rejoice and be strengthened. No man will strike terror ever again. Evil will perish. All the accounting will be done.

That’s what we all need, isn’t it? And the good news is, when we see the injustices in this world that seem to go unmet, we can have hope. No matter how frustrating things are, we need not despair. No matter what circumstances we face, we need not believe God has abandoned us. We need to remind ourselves of this, even as we plead with him to act and call on him to help the humble and oppressed. His is here. He is with us. He is good. And he is faithful to answer your call. He will do justice and man will strike terror no more.

So don’t think asking is an act of unbelief—there is faith in asking.

The irony of God’s strength

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In, Psalm 8:1-2, David gives God praise, describing the gloriousness of His nature and the majesty of His name. And almost immediately, he presents us with a curious irony: God’s strength is displayed in weakness:

O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger. (emphasis mine)

Notice how God has established his strength—”out of the mouth of babies and infants.” God reveals His majesty using the “weak” and “foolish” things of this world. He uses voices that don’t matter, at least in worldly ways. He revealed himself to the world through the nation of Israel—redeemed slaves taken out of the land of Egypt. Through Moses, God revealed himself to Pharaoh with power and authority. Moses, a man who stuttered. Later, as Israel’s earthly throne was established, God rejected Saul, who was the epitome of what a human king should be, and gave the throne to David, a lowly shepherd boy.… On and on we could go through the Old Testament as God consistently used seemingly insignificant voices within the culture of the time—the poor, women, children—to reveal his power and majesty to the world.

And today, it’s no different. God continues to reveal his strength through the weak things in the world. He reveals himself through the church. A church founded by uneducated fishermen, a former tax collector and zealots, with a message that sounds like absolute lunacy to most who hear it: that God would come in human form, suffer and die on a roman cross to pay for the sins of the world, and rise again from death.

In his excellent book, The Way of the Righteous in the Muck of Life, Dale Ralph Davis describes the day General T.J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s world came crashing down around him. His wife had given birth to a stillborn son, then she suffered an uncontrollable hemorrhage. In the span of a few hours, Jackson went from joyful expectant father to crushed widower.

The next day he wrote his sister Laura; he told her he thought he could submit to anything if God strengthened him for it; but he made no attempt to cover his sad despair. But then there in the middle of his note, there is a most moving one-liner. He says: “Oh! my Sister would that you could have Him for your God!”

Can you imagine that? Can you think of anything weaker than Jackson dashed and devastated by the Lord’s “taking away”? Here is a man beaten and crushed who nevertheless says, Oh that you could have him for your God.

This is one of the great ironies of the gospel: God’s strength is made known in weakness. That is what God has entrusted to us. Fallible, foolish, sinful people, who, by God’s grace, have been saved and redeemed by this foolish message of good news and great joy. And so, like David, we give God praise because of the irony of his strength.


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The righteous don’t go with the flow

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The happy man (or, the man enjoying God’s blessing) is the separated man, a man who is not in neutral but who has a bias against evil in all its forms.… So… how happy the man who does not… He is countercultural. He is, in a word, different. He is not just a nice, easy-going, tolerant chap who likes to share a Löwenbräu with you. There’s a difference between the righteous man here and what my culture calls a ‘good old boy.’ He resists the vacuum-cleaner power-moves that evil puts on him. Mardy Grothe tells of a long-lived lady who, when asked what was the best thing about being 104, replied, ‘No peer pressure.’ But the righteous man in [Psalm 1:1] is not 104 and he meets plenty of peer pressure. It may cost him. But the righteous man is the one who does not go with the flow.

Dale Ralph Davis, The Way of the Righteous in the Muck of Life: Psalms 1-12, 15

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Book Review: The Essential Bible Companion to the Psalms

The Psalms is one of the most read books in the Old Testament. It’s not hard to understand why since, in many ways, it is the most human book of the Bible. The Psalms are weighty and textured, showing God’s people rejoicing in faith and lamenting in despair. They contain some of the most comforting and provocative words in all Scripture.

Yet, because of the span of time between us and the culture in which they were written, there are a few things that gets lost in translation. When was Psalm 110 written? Why is Selah off to the side in Psalm 3:2? And what is a miktam, anyway? While there are a lot of resources out there that can help readers dig into the meat of the Psalms and clear up confusion about words, expressions and ideas, many are not terribly accessible for a popular audience. With The Essential Bible Companion to the Psalms, authors Brian L. Webster and David R. Beach provide readers with a helpful introductory level companion to this beloved section of Scripture.

In many ways, The Essential Bible Companion to the Psalms serves as an amped-up version of the introductory notes you’d find in your typical study Bible. They give a very brief overview of the background and structure of each psalm, as well its type and unique characteristics. For the average reader, this is tons of information, but it’s all valuable. There have been many times as I’ve read the Psalms where having some of this material would have been very handy.

A nice feature of the book is the “Reflections” section of each synopsis. These sections offer a devotional element as the authors share their own thoughts on the content of each psalm.

While there are a number of elements that I appreciated, there were a few things that stuck out as negatives. Some are simply preference issues (I thought the majority of the accompanying images were a bit on the cheesy side, for example). But there was one big miss for me, which is that some of the background notes lacked an appropriate connection to Christ. Read More about Book Review: The Essential Bible Companion to the Psalms

Blogging the Psalms: Rejoicing in Foreknowledge

O Lord, you have searched me and known me!

You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar.

You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.

Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.

You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it. . . .

For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.

My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. . . .

Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts!

And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!

Psalm 139: 1-6, 13-16, 23-24

I love Psalm 139. As David moves through the psalm, we see him confronted with a keen awareness of God’s sovereignty—that God fully knows David. He knows every deed.

And he knows every thought.

“Even before a word is on my tongue . . . you know it altogether,” he writes. Every thought. Every word. Every action.

Every ugly sin that David would try to hide from anyone else, God knows it.

How does he react? Guilt? Shame?

Awe. Read More about Blogging the Psalms: Rejoicing in Foreknowledge

Blogging the Psalms: The Perfect Worshiper

Who is the perfect worshiper of the Lord? Who is worthy of standing before Him?

O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent?
Who shall dwell on your holy hill?

He who walks blamelessly and does what is right
and speaks truth in his heart;
who does not slander with his tongue
and does no evil to his neighbor,
nor takes up a reproach against his friend;
in whose eyes a vile person is despised,
but who honors those who fear the Lord;
who swears to his own hurt and does not change;
who does not put out his money at interest
and does not take a bribe against the innocent.
He who does these things shall never be moved.

Psalm 15:1-5

Read More about Blogging the Psalms: The Perfect Worshiper