Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Fourth Psalm

Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness!
You have relieved me in distress;
Be gracious to me and hear my prayer.

O sons of men, how long will my honor become a reproach?
How long will you love what is worthless and aim at deception?
But know that the Lord has set apart the godly man for Himself;
The Lord hears when I call to Him.

Tremble, and do not sin;
Meditate in your heart upon your bed, and be still.
Offer the sacrifices of righteousness,
And trust in the Lord.

Many are saying, "Who will show us any good?"
Lift up the light of Your countenance upon us, O Lord!
You have put gladness in my heart,
More than when their grain and new wine abound.
In peace I will both lie down and sleep,
For you alone, O Lord, make me to dwell in safety.

It seems strange to hear a man speak so boldly to the all-powerful ruler of everything: "Answer me when I call!" In the case of the psalmist, the phrase "God of my righteousness" reveals the kind of relationship that allows such boldness. The psalmist can approach boldly because he admits that his righteous position is God's gift, not his earned or deserved title. There is a history to this relationship that includes the psalmist being saved from distress. Faith built up over time helps the psalmist to trust that God will hear his prayers, though he does not deserve it.

The first two lines are quite straightforward, but the rest of the psalm seemed disjunct. This is because the audience changes abruptly. I also believe the speaker changes from the psalmist to God in two key spots. I came to this conclusion by asking the question, "If this was just a poem, how would I make the most sense of it?" I propose that the stanzas* be categorized the following way:

1) Psalmist speaking to God
2) God speaking to the psalmist and man in general
3) Psalmist's aside to mankind
4) God speaking to the psalmist and man in general
5) Psalmist's aside to mankind
6) Psalmist speaking to God

*The numbers correspond conveniently to the biblical verses, though this was not intentional. In the interest of total openness, I have separated the first five verses into their own stanzas which, while I believe it to be justifiable, is not how the NASB separates the verses. There are slight variations to poetic format when comparing translations, and I have separated them this way for the sake of clarity when referring to them in this post.

The opening stanza has already been established as a bold prayer. I believe the second stanza to be God's words for two reasons. First, it would be a marked change in attitude for the psalmist to start by appealing to the God who overlooked his offenses and suddenly accuse the rest of humanity, worrying about his personal honor. It is not that I think the psalmist is above a hypocrisy of this kind. Instead I see that the psalms reflect the clearest thinking about man's relationship with God, and this would not fit.

The second reason is the phrase "O sons of men." If this was spoken by a human, it would signal camaraderie, a sharing of station. We are all sons of men; you and I are similar. If this was spoken by God, it would signal stark contrast, a condescension. You are the created; I am the Creator. The tone of what follows lends itself much more to the idea of contrast. Also, God's concern for his own honor would be righteous in the eyes of the psalmist. Everything seems to fit.

If we accept that God is speaking, the second stanza is an indictment of the psalmist and all humanity, but the psalmist is quick to clarify the relationship for the benefit of the reader. The third stanza is an aside to let the reader know that, although God is rightly angry about the current human response to his glory, God hears the psalmist and he enjoys the title of "godly man." This is not because the psalmist is without fault, but because he trusts God (more on that to come).

In stanza four, the aside now over, God gives a series of commands. My assertion that this is also God is a bit trickier to present than the first. On my initial reading, I ascribed this portion to the psalmist, partially because the NASB lumped verses four and five into one stanza. On subsequent readings I noticed the term 'Selah' followed this passage as well as the first passage I attributed to God. While the exact meaning of the term is up for debate, most would agree that it is a convention designed to bring added attention to the preceding line or lines. I noted with interest that 'Selah' was used right after the only two places God wasn't addressed, meaning the only two places God could be speaking. This could be coincidence, but the skilled poet is very particular about form. I suggest that, in this psalm, the term is used to bring added attention to the words of God.

The following stanza brings us back to the psalmist who adds some of his own instruction, once again clarifying the relationship:
Offer the sacrifices of righteousness,
And trust in the Lord.
I am so thankful that 'sacrifices' is plural in this stanza. The psalmist is showing us that being righteous is not an all-or-nothing deal when it comes to relationship with God. We would be out of luck. I am not righteous, but I can and should continually strive to offer righteous behavior to God. Multiple sacrifices mean that I can not attain perfection, but God will accept my meager attempts. Then the psalmist comes to the all-or-nothing part of this relationship. Perfection is not required, but trust is. There are no individual trusts, just one. Trust is the faith of the Old Testament.* Even in the psalms we find the relationship between works and faith in God's plan of salvation. Yes, we are called to constantly pursue righteousness, but by faith we are justified.

*An interesting NASB tidbit: The word faith occurs four times in the Old Testament; all other occurrences are in the New Testament. The word trust occurs four times in the New Testament, all other occurrences are in the Old Testament.

The rest of the psalm returns to how it began. The psalmist prays to God. He tells God that humanity is searching for something good, but can't find it. The psalmist knows they are looking in the wrong place and asks God to show himself, a clear admission that only God is good. The psalmist testifies to the joy that this relationship has brought him. It is better than the most extravagant party, the most enjoyable earthly experience! In conclusion, he gives us a personal example of the kind of trust he is talking about.

The psalmist knows the way to relationship with God and he invites us to follow him. I can not refrain from pointing out that this psalm takes the very form of the gospel. It starts with a man crying out to be heard by God, but God rebukes the man for his sin. Then the man shares about his special relationship with God: "But know that the Lord has set apart the godly man for Himself/The Lord hears when I call to Him." Though the psalmist is considered a godly man, he is only a shadow of Jesus Christ. Jesus truly fulfills the role of the godly man who is heard by God and is set apart. He is not just a godly man; he is the god-man. Right in the middle of the psalm Jesus Christ is presented to all who would look! Then we are told to stop sinning and think about the proposition. True trust can not be given if it is not well-considered. After consideration, placing trust in Jesus Christ, God's plan for eternal safety, establishes the kind of relationship that the psalmist enjoyed so much. Even the people who said, "Who will show us any good?" were asking for Jesus. They just didn't know it. Now we can enjoy, not a temporal safety, but an eternal safety, and the fourth psalm showed the way before it was even revealed.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Third Psalm: An Addendum

*I am writing this separately from the previous commentary on the third psalm for two reasons. The first is that the premise of this post didn't fit well thematically with the rest. The second is that it might be a stretch as far as sound interpretation. So, although I always support viewing my commentary (or any other commentary) with healthy, intelligent skepticism, I welcome it in this post even more than usual.

As I read the third psalm, I was struck by the beauty of a metaphor, or, perhaps more accurately, a euphemism in other biblical texts. The idea of sleep being somewhat analogous to death would add great depth in understanding how the temporal redemption that David experienced is a picture of the spiritual redemption that the New Testament writers champion. From what I can find, the word sleep is used quite clearly in this analogous way twice by Old Testament writers: Daniel 12:2 and Psalm 90:5. It is used at least eight times in the New Testament. Of the two Old Testament texts, only Daniel connects the metaphor with the idea of resurrection.

This is the shaky, but not completely unprecedented, ground on which I choose to continue. The opening of the third psalm speaks of opposition that claims there is no deliverance from its power. Death is the greatest opposition of this kind. The huge amount of resources that we spend masking the effects of aging and evading death, until it refuses to be evaded, provides proof that we feel this opposition acutely.

The wonderful beauty of this metaphor forms as we consider the faith that David shows in this time of trial. He is able to surrender himself to sleep, perhaps the second most vulnerable of human positions, with peaceful ease. David's faith in God's ability and will to save him is so absolute that he rests soundly. As we make the comparison, we see the believer faced with death, the most vulnerable of human positions. He is able to approach it with the same peaceful ease because, like David, the believer has faith that his salvation is not dependent on his own performance, but is only dependent on God's power and will to save those who acknowledge the truth of the situation.

As David sleeps soundly, the believer dies with no fear, and then the miraculous occurs. David wakes knowing that God has protected him and will continue to protect him, but the hope for the believer is so much more than this. The believer wakes from death to eternal life, as if life on earth were just a short dream. How magnificently poetic that whether referring to the resurrection of the believer or the temporal salvation of David, the reason and way is clear: "For the Lord sustains me," the psalmist proclaims. Only God could bring safety to David, and only God can bring eternal life to the believer. The tangible redemption that David experienced is a microcosm, a type, a shadow of what God's plan for his people was all along. So we can end triumphantly with the psalmist's final lines. "Salvation belongs to the Lord; Your blessing be upon Your people!"

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Third Psalm

O Lord, how my adversaries have increased!
Many are rising up against me.
Many are saying of my soul,
"There is no deliverance for him in God."
But You, O Lord, are a shield about me,
My glory, and the One who lifts my head.
I was crying to the Lord with my voice,
And He answered me from His holy mountain.
I lay down and slept;
I awoke, for the Lord sustains me.
I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people
Who have set themselves against me round about.

Arise, O Lord; save me, O my God!
For You have smitten all my enemies on the cheek;
You have shattered the teeth of the wicked.
Salvation belongs to the Lord;
Your blessing be upon Your people!

The situation had gotten out of hand. We are told that this psalm was written by David when he fled from Absalom, his son. Although the history of David's flight is recounted in 2nd Samuel 15 and 16, the problems had started even before that. David, the king of Israel, the nation set apart by the Law of Moses, had egregiously violated that Law. He had committed murder and adultery (2nd Samuel 11 and 12).

David did not have control of his own house either. His daughter Tamar was sexually violated by her brother Amnon, and David did nothing. Absalom, disgusted with his father's  apathy, avenged his sister, killed Amnon, and fled (2nd Samuel 13). Eventually Absalom returned to Jerusalem, not even speak to his father for two years. And right after father and son were finally reunited, Absalom led an uprising to take the throne from his father.

This psalm recounts the thoughts of a monarch ousted by his people who were led by his son. In fact, David deserved death according to the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 22:22 and Leviticus 20:10). His people could have felt fully justified in their desire to kill him. Even by modern standards, many of us would have called for his removal as well. His personal behavior and management of his own family were both indefensible public embarrassments.

On first reading this psalm I had made the assumption that a helpless, pure, and holy man was being persecuted for his righteousness. Furthermore, I thought that David’s adversaries were mocking God’s power to save him. Of course God would save David from these evil men! David feared briefly, but then realized that God was most definitely on his side. The good guy wins again.

The problem is that cookie-cutter morality does not hold up here. David is not the good guy. Absalom is not the good guy either. There is no good guy. So why does David expect special treatment from God? According to the Law, David’s adversaries are correct in stating that “There is no deliverance for him in God.” There is only death. How can David claim that God is his shield and his glory?

There is a small hint to why David’s perspective on the situation differs so substantially from those who are seeking his life:
I was crying to the Lord with my voice,
And He answered me from His holy mountain.
This interchange between David and the Lord gave David confidence that, despite his grave misdeeds, God would still save him. It allowed him to sleep soundly, something most hunted men find difficult to do. He woke safe and secure, confident that he need not be afraid. The conversation that took place must have made up the difference between those who said “There is no deliverance for him,” and David who said, “the Lord sustains me.” Both sides see the overwhelming guilt of David, but David knows that the Law is really about bringing humanity to the realization of its guilt and that God does not desire perfection, or even animal sacrifice, but admission of guilt in the form of a broken spirit, a contrite heart, and acknowledgment of God’s righteous power to save. How do I know David was relying on this information? He recorded it in Psalm 51, which was written before fleeing Jerusalem, after his sin had been made public.

David deserved death, and he knew it. But he also knew that his God had been saving unworthy people who acknowledged their unworthiness and God’s immeasurable worth for generations.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Second Psalm

Why are the nations in an uproar
And the peoples devising a vain thing?
The kings of the earth take their stand
And the rulers take counsel together
Against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying,
"Let us tear their fetters apart
And cast away their cords from us!"

He who sits in the heavens laughs,
The Lord scoffs at them.
Then He will speak to them in His anger
And terrify them in His fury, saying,
"But as for Me, I have installed My King
Upon Zion, My holy mountain."

I will surely tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to Me, 'You are my Son,
Today I have begotten You.
'Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance,
And the very ends of the earth as Your possession.
You shall rule them with a rod of iron,
You shall shatter them like earthenware,'"

Now therefore, O kings, show discernment;
Take warning, O judges of the earth.
Worship the Lord with reverence and rejoice with trembling.
Do homage to the Son, that He not become angry, and you perish in the way,
For His wrath may soon be kindled.
How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!
The nations still roar in vanity against the Judeo-Christian God, and for good reason. They take counsel seeking what they think is best, using diplomacy, force, currency, rhetoric, and whatever other tools are at their disposal. Yet, they can all agree that the God of the Judaic and Christian scriptures is not a friend in the interest of maintaining political and financial power or stability. This is because God claims the right to judge. Every tactic, every word, every thought, is evidence that will be held against, not only the leaders of this world, but every individual. The standard is clear. There is no hope of maintaining innocence. Every ruler is guilty, and no citizen is righteous enough to replace him.

With great human wisdom the rulers of earth quickly come to the consensus that escape is the only way to freedom from guilt. The psalmist records the conspiring rulers' statement:
"Let us tear their fetters apart and cast away their cords from us!"
They clearly see the truth that they can not go free without a change. The law bears down on them, and they know they cannot bear it, so they plan their escape. This hope is false. These rulers are naive to the fact that God laughs at their attempts, because he knows their plans and has a plan of his own. He has appointed his son as his heir. Every nation and everything of value on the earth has been given to this heir. Furthermore, this heir has the authority and power to bring all people into submission, forcing them to bear the burden of their guilt.

It is easy to read this psalm and consider God to be a cruel despot who cares nothing for humanity. Yet, we praise the human judge who enforces the laws that protect us from the wrath, jealousy, or stupidity of others. Further, we would look very unkindly indeed on the warden who knew of his convicts' plan to escape, but turned a blind eye, affording them the chance to endanger the public welfare again. We consider God to be cruel because either we refuse to accept our guilt, or we know that we are guilty, but don't want to suffer the consequences.

The rulers' view:
We might say calmly, "I am a good person, and though I endanger the public welfare (or at least the hearts of those close to me) with my fits of wrath, jealousy, and stupidity, I don't mean to do it. It just happens, and everyone is a bit wrathful, jealous, and stupid sometimes." Then the pitch of our voice raises slightly, " And anyway, you stop picking on us, God. You know we are going to screw up." We become a bit more frantic, "I can't be perfect, and you could have chosen to create me that way, but you didn't, so ignore my guilt, or change your standards, or something, because this is not fair!" And we have absolved ourselves of guilt because God should have made a way out for us.

Then we come to the advice that the psalmist gives to the rulers of this world who rage against the chains that God binds them with on account of their overwhelming guilt. He pleads with them to show discernment, the ability to judge the situation rightly:
Now therefore, O kings, show discernment;
Take warning, O judges of the earth.
Worship the Lord with reverence and rejoice with trembling.
Do homage to the Son, that He not become angry, and you perish in the way,
For His wrath may soon be kindled.
It is so important that we judge the situation rightly, or we will mistake this advice for foolishness. If we believe the cruel despot view of the situation this advice is the most detestable, self-abasing, unrighteous way of moving forward. I would rather perish than worship such an unfair god.

But what if God has provided a way out, and we are too prideful to consider it?

The psalmist's view:
The psalmist says with tears, "You have made me and all mankind, but we are wrathful, jealous, and stupid. I see the goodness of this creation, but I also see that my thoughts, words, and actions are in opposition to the continuance of that goodness. I admit that I don't belong here and deserve death, but you, God, deserve worship because your thoughts, words, and actions are the source of that goodness. I have heard that you have a plan to redeem me from my wrath, jealousy, and stupidity. I beg that you would do it."

If the psalmist has judged the situation rightly and is begging the leaders of this world to do the same, then his advice makes perfect sense. He even seals it with with the final line of hope for redemption:
How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!
Why are the nations in an uproar and the peoples devising a vain thing? Because they have wrongly judged their situation. Yet, the psalmist presents the truth, hoping that all may reconsider.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The First Psalm

How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers.

The wicked are not so,
But they are like chaff which the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
Nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
But the way of the wicked will perish.
I read this psalm many times as a child. Truth be told, I read the first part of most every book of the Bible many times during my childhood. I lacked the willpower to continue on toward the ends of them. At that time it seemed so simple. The thrust of the text was: Be good, stay away from the bad people, and read your Bible; then you will be saved and successful. I remember a picture in a children's bible that corresponded to this psalm. It completely supported my view. The drawing showed a group of thuggish figures in the distance vandalizing, stealing, or something equally horrible, while calling the handsome boy in the foreground to join them. Naturally, I put myself in the handsome boy's position. I consoled myself that I would never steal, vandalize, or do something equally horrible and went on with my day happy that I was righteous and promised success.

I now see the big problem in the first psalm. The reasoning supported by the illustration was deeply flawed. I am in trouble. I do not stand in the path of sinners; I am stuck inside the very body of a sinner. Sure, I don't do anything really bad or fraternize with people who do, but it doesn't matter. I have acted selfishly and self-righteously. Considering myself righteous on my own merit proves my depravity. Furthermore, the psalm states clearly that part of being righteous is being separate from sinners, but every person I interact with is guilty as well. I am destined to perish with the unrighteous, who happen to be the rest of humanity. The reward of righteousness is nothing more than a cruel irony that can never be attained.

Thankfully the psalmist leaves a clue to the path of righteousness that dispels the previous line of thought:
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
This law tells that a sinner can be made righteous, not by his own striving, but by the power of God.  The righteous man now has reason to delight. He gives thanks because of the miraculous promise of a Messiah who will deliver in spite of iniquity. The sinner can be set free from the bondage of the sin within him. His standing will not be effected by the sinful company he keeps. Even they can have the same freedom as well!

I am humbled by the psalm's second stanza. I would perish. I could not be in the assembly of the righteous. I could not stand in judgment. I would be useless, singed nothingness. Yet, the Law proclaims that the Lord can still know my way. I can still be considered righteous before Him. I can be like a firmly planted tree. May it be so, and let the delighting begin.