Psalms

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This 67-part expository study of Psalms was preached at Flagstaff Christian Fellowship (mostly) in 1993 and 2008-9. Audio and manuscripts are available for each lesson (excepting Psalm 71 which only has manuscript).

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Psalms An Overview: God’s Inspired Hymnbook

Throughout history, when the hearts of God’s people have been right before Him, they have sung praises. When God brought His people out of captivity in Egypt and delivered them from Pharaoh’s pursuing army, Exodus 15:1 records that they sang a song to the Lord. When God gave Israel victory over their powerful enemies under the leadership of Deborah and Barak, they sang (Judges 5). When David brought up the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem, there was much joy expressed through singing and music (1 Chron. 15:25-28). When King Hezekiah restored the temple worship in Jerusalem, the Levites joyfully sang praises to the Lord with the words of David and Asaph the seer, and the whole assembly bowed down and worshiped (2 Chron. 29:30).

At the conclusion of the Lord’s Supper, just before Jesus and the disciples went out to the Mount of Olives where He would be betrayed and arrested, they sang a hymn (Mark 14:26), which commentators agree was the Hallel (Psalms 113-118). When Paul and Silas were unjustly thrown into jail in Philippi, with their backs laid open from being beaten and their feet in the stocks, they sang hymns of praise to God (Acts 16:25).

Since the days of the New Testament, God’s people have continued to sing. In A.D. 112, Pliny wrote a letter to the Emperor Trajan that reported, among other things, that the Christians sang hymns to Christ as God. In 1415, the Bohemian Reformer Jan Hus sang praises to God as he was burned at the stake. During the Reformation, Martin Luther promoted music in the church. A century and a half later, the Pietist movement under Spener and Francke was characterized by singing and hymn writing. The great revivals under the Wesley’s in the 18th Century and Moody and Sankey in the 19th Century were also marked by an upsurge in hymn writing and singing. And one day in heaven, we will all be gathered around the throne of God, singing praises to the Lamb that was slain (Rev. 5:9; 14:3; 15:3). Whenever God’s people have their hearts right before Him, there is joyful singing.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the longest book in the Bible, the Old Testament book quoted most frequently in the New Testament (H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms [Baker], p. 4), is a hymnbook, the book of Psalms. God loves to hear His people sing His praises, and so He sovereignly superintended the inclusion of the Psalms as a major part of His inspired Word. The Book of Psalms has occupied a central place of importance among the Lord’s people down through the centuries. There was a time when as a prerequisite for admission to the priesthood it was mandatory that the candidate be able to recite the entire book (ibid., p. 5)! In addition to other Bible reading, I always read consecutively through the Psalms. There is no other book in the Bible where I have personally found more help in the crises of life. If I could only take one book of the Bible with me to a desert island, it would be the Psalms.

Today I want to give you an overview of the Psalms as an introduction to our study of many specific psalms in the months ahead. (This message is a slightly modified version of one that I gave on April 25, 1993. In this series, I will not repeat the 30 or so Psalms that I preached on in the earlier series.) Today’s message gives some basic information that you need to gain maximum benefit from our study and from your own reading of the Psalms. But in addition to imparting information, I hope to motivate you to meditate on the Psalms regularly for the rest of your life.

1. Title

“Psalms” comes from the Greek word meaning a song sung to a stringed instrument. The book is also called the Psalter. The Hebrew title, Tehillim, means “praises.” Every Psalm except Psalm 88 contains praise. (By the way, when you refer to an individual psalm, use the singular, as in Psalm 23; when you refer to the whole book or to more than one psalm, use the plural, as in Psalms 23 and 24, or the Book of Psalms.) While we no longer know the tunes, we need to remember that the Psalms were set to music.

2. Arrangement, Authorship, Date, Features

The Psalms are arranged into five books: Book 1 (Psalms 1‑41); Book 2 (Psalms 42‑72); Book 3 (Psalms 73‑89); Book 4 (Psalms 90‑106); and, Book 5 (Psalms 107‑150). Each of the five books concludes with a doxology, signifying the completion of the collection. For example, Psalm 41:13 ends Book 1: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Amen and Amen.” The entire Psalm 150 serves as the final doxology to the entire Psalter.

No one knows for sure what theme was followed in arranging the five books. They seem to have been compiled somewhat independently and then brought together into one collection at a later date. There is some duplication: Psalm 14 in Book 1 is repeated as Psalm 53 in Book 2; a portion of Psalm 40 in Book 1 is repeated as Psalm 70 in Book 2; and the latter halves of Psalms 57 and 60 in Book 2 are combined as Psalm 108 in Book 5.

Book 1 is dominated by psalms of David and consists mostly of personal psalms that arose out of his own experiences. Book 2 was probably compiled by Solomon and exhibits more of a national interest. Book 3 was probably compiled soon after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., since Psalms 74, 79, and 89 all have references to this event. David may have compiled Book 4, which focuses more on corporate worship than Book 1 does. Book 5 is also liturgical, but contains several postexilic (after the exile in 586 B.C.) psalms. It probably came into being after the return of 537 B.C. Then a scribe, perhaps Ezra (444 B.C.), probably wrote Psalms 146‑50 as a conclusion and Psalm 1 as an introduction and compiled the five books into one.

In other words the Book of Psalms as we have it today was the result of a process spanning about 1000 years. It began with individual psalms, the earliest being Psalm 90 by Moses (ca. 1400 B.C.). More than half were written by David (ca. 1000 B.C.). Then the individual psalms were grouped into collections of books for corporate worship, and finally the books were arranged into the final book, probably around 444 B.C. (Ezra’s time).

Many psalms contain a superscription, which sometimes identifies the author, the historical setting, and other features. For example, Psalm 3 begins, “A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom.” These psalm titles are a part of the original Hebrew text (they are verse 1 in Hebrew, thus making the Hebrew verse numbering differ in many places from the English) and are just as inspired as the rest of the psalm.

From these psalm titles, we learn that David wrote at least 73 psalms. (From Acts 4:25-26 and Hebrews 4:7 we learn that he also wrote Psalms 2 & 95. From 1 Chron. 16:8-36, we can surmise he also probably wrote Psalms 96, 105, & 106.) Two Levitical clans wrote 22 psalms: Asaph (and his descendants, 12 psalms: 50, 73‑83); the Sons of Korah (10 psalms: 42, 44‑49, 84, 87, & 88). Solomon wrote two (Psalms 72, 127). Ethan the Ezrahite wrote one (Psalm 89). Moses wrote one (Psalm 90). The other 51 psalms do not specify any author.

Some psalm titles indicate technical names to designate the type of psalm. Psalm emphasizes stringed accompaniment (57 psalms have this title). Song indicates a joyful melody (12 have this label, e.g., Ps. 46). Maskil may refer to a contemplative or didactic psalm (13 have this label, e.g., Ps. 32). The meaning of Miktam is uncertain (six psalms: 16, 56‑60). Prayer labels five psalms (Pss. 17, 86, 90, 102, 142). Psalm 145 has the title, Praise. And there are a few lesser-used titles (Pss. 7; 38 & 70; 100).

Fifty psalms are addressed, “for the choir director” (e.g., Pss. 4, 5, 6). There are other notations describing the kind of instrument to be played as accompaniment (Pss. 4, 5, 6) or the tune that the song is sung to (Pss. 9, 22, 45, 46, 60).

Some psalms have titles instructing the worshiper as to the intended use of the psalm in worship. For example, Psalm 92 was “for the Sabbath day.” Psalm 100 is “for Thanksgiving.” Psalms 120‑34 are labeled, “Songs of Ascent.” They were probably sung by pilgrims going up to Jerusalem for the prescribed feasts.

The familiar term, “Selah,” which occurs 71 times in the body of 39 psalms (e.g., Ps. 3:2, 4, 8), probably is a musical notation informing the worshipers either to pause and reflect, or else to lift up their voices. It is not to be read aloud.

3. Hebrew poetry

The psalms are poetry, and you need to understand something about Hebrew poetry to understand and appreciate the psalms. There are three elements of Hebrew poetry to keep in mind as you read the Psalms (and other poetical books such as Job, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations):

A. Parallelism

Instead of rhyming words, as our poetry does, the Hebrews rhymed ideas. One of the key features of Hebrew poetry is the idea of parallelism. As many have pointed out, this makes Hebrew poetry easier to translate than poetry that rhymes words. There are several main types of parallelism:

Synonymous—This occurs frequently. The second line is similar to the first. Every verse of Psalm 114 has synonymous parallelism. Note 114:1-2, “When Israel went forth from Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language, Judah became His sanctuary, Israel, His dominion.”

Synthetic—The second line takes up and develops further a thought begun in the first line. For example, Psalm 95:3, “For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods.” (See also, Ps. 19:7-9.)

Climatic—The second line takes up some words from the first line and adds to or completes them. For example, Psalm 29:1, 2, “Ascribe to the Lord, O sons of the mighty, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due to His name; worship the Lord in holy array.” (See also, Ps. 22:4.)

Emblematic—One line presents an image or metaphor which the other line clarifies or applies. Psalm 23:1, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” (See, also, Pss. 42:1; 44:22; 103:13).

Antithetical—The second line contrasts with the first. Psalm 1:6, “For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” (See also, Ps. 90:6.)

B. Figures of Speech

Hebrew poetry is loaded with figures of speech, and you must recognize that fact in interpreting various passages. For example, Psalm 18:7-15 describes the power of God as seen in a thunderstorm, which apparently was sent in answer to David’s prayer in battle. It describes God in anthropomorphic terms. Literal interpretation of the Bible does not mean that you interpret such figures of speech literally. God doesn’t have smoke coming out of His nostrils or fire coming from His mouth (Ps. 18:8)!

C. Acrostics

Acrostics are alphabetical psalms, where each verse (or in Psalm 119, each verse of successive stanzas) begin with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet (Pss. 9-10 [together = one acrostic], 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, 145, and Lamentations).

Keep in mind that the psalms are poetry and must be read as such. If you coldly analyze them, you’ll miss the flavor. They’re full of emotion, art, beauty, and figurative language. The psalmists were trying to draw forth not just an intellectual response, but also an emotional one. John Calvin wrote of the Psalms, “I have been accustomed to call this book … ‘An Anatomy of all Parts of the Soul’; for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.” (Commentary on the Psalms [Baker], pp. xxxvi-xxxvii).

4. Themes

There are many themes running through the Psalms. Let me outline just five:

A. The character of God

God’s attributes are frequently extolled in the psalms: His righteousness, power, sovereignty, mercy, faithfulness, lovingkindness, etc. (see Pss. 25:8, 10; 63:2‑3). The psalms reveal an almighty God who is gracious and compassionate to His people, but who will impartially judge the wicked.

B. The Kingdom of God

The concept of God’s ruling on the earth in justice and righteousness through His anointed king runs throughout the psalms (e.g., Pss. 2, 96-99, 110).

C. The Messiah of God

Closely connected with the kingdom is God’s Messiah. Many psalms are “messianic,” meaning that in whole or part they prophesy of Christ and His rule (Pss. 2, 22, 45, 72, 110).

D. The Worship of God

The psalms put a great stress on both personal and corporate worship of God. There are frequent individual declarations of praise (Pss. 5:11-12; 9:1-2) as well as references to the sanctuary, the temple, and corporate worship (Pss. 5:7; 9:14; 84, 122).

E. The Experience of man

Many psalms flow out of real-life situations. The authors did not sit down on a beautiful day without a care in the world and write a clever poem. As one commentator puts it, “[The psalms] are often wet with the tears and the blood of the writer” (Leupold, p. 28). The enemy is in hot pursuit. David cries out to God for help. God responds and delivers him against overwhelming odds. After he catches his breath, he recounts the situation and out of the overflow of his emotions, he writes a psalm extolling God’s greatness (see, Pss. 3, 7, 18, 34, 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, 63, 142).

Because of this real-life birthplace of the psalms, God is personal and immediate. God is not some abstract theological idea to the psalmist. These authors knew what it meant to connect with the living God in the midst of their overwhelming crises (see Pss. 56, 57, 59, 60, 63). Even if the situation is not stated, many times you can pick up the circumstances of the author from the context.

This means that to appreciate the psalms, you’ve got to feel with the life-situation of the psalmist. The psalms reflect the gamut of human emotions: fear (Pss. 3:6; 27:1-3); shame (25:2-3); guilt (32:3-4; 38; 51); depression (42, 43); feeling abandoned by God (13); utter helplessness (18:4-6); being betrayed and attacked by those you trusted (55; 57:3-4); as well as great joy, contentment, and delight in God (103; 145). Luther said that these hymns enable us to look directly into the heart of God’s saints (Leupold, p. 27), and he was right.

5. Main lessons

We will learn many lessons. Here are four main ones:

A. Praise is important.

The psalms are filled with praise and with exhortations to praise God. To praise God means essentially to extol God for His attributes and actions. Thus, to praise God we must come to know Him as revealed in His Word and we must be involved with God in our personal lives through prayer and trusting Him so that we experience His all-sufficient help. The psalmists knew God in this way. We need to put more emphasis on praise in the Christian life.

B. Prayer is important.

Many of the psalms are prayers, cried out to God from the crucible of life. The psalms show us that no experience in life is too high or low to exclude God. We are to call on Him when we are in the pits and we are to call on Him when we’re on the peaks. J. Sidlow Baxter observed (Explore the Book [Zondervan], 3:87), “Again and again, in individual psalms, we see how sighing is turned into singing through praying.”

C. Corporate worship is important.

It’s not enough to praise God all alone, as important as that is. We need to worship God corporately and sing His praises together. There’s something about the corporate aspect of worship that is satisfying to God and to us. The psalms are God’s corporate worship book.

D. Beauty and creativity are important.

Our God is infinitely creative and He delights in beauty. We see His handiwork in the natural world, and the psalms are full of appreciation for the beauty that God has created. As Psalm 19:1 declares, “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.” While inspired by the Holy Spirit, the psalms also reflect the creativity of the authors, and God is pleased with it. When we enjoy the beauty of good art, music, and literature, created by people who are created in God’s image, we should praise God the Creator. But especially, we should praise God through the beauty of His creation all around us.

Conclusion

Here are a few action points:

1. Read the Psalms devotionally.

I read through Psalms and Proverbs separately from other Bible reading. I try to read one per day and when I finish, I start all over again, so that I read through them about twice per year. Continually and repeatedly meditating on the psalms will help guard, sustain, and deepen your heart before God. Remember, the main author was a man after God’s heart!

2. Memorize the Psalms.

The Psalms were often on Jesus’ lips. He cited from Psalm 118 to identify Himself as the stone that the builders rejected, which became the chief cornerstone (Mark 12:10). He quoted from Psalm 110 to confound the Pharisees, showing that He was both David’s son and David’s Lord (Mark 12:36). On the cross, He cited Psalm 22:1, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Mark 15:34). His last words (Luke 23:46) were from Psalm 31:5, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” After His resurrection, He taught the disciples from the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms to tell of Himself (Luke 24:44). So Jesus knew and used the Psalms.

Many whole psalms as well as individual verses are worth the effort of memorizing. If you struggle with depression, memorize verses on joy and praise. If you struggle with anxiety, memorize verses on peace, freedom from fear, and trusting God. Jot them on 3 x 5 cards and read them often until you know them.

3. Sing the Psalms.

Many of the psalms are now coupled with modern tunes. Singing them and listening to them often is also a good way to memorize them. If you have a musical bent, work at putting some of the psalms to music.

4. Pray the Psalms.

One modern writer laments, “We are in danger of losing the Psalter in our churches; indeed, many have already lost it, and so it is no accident that many people in our congregations do not know how to pray” (Elizabeth Achtemeier, cited by Willem VanGemeren, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 5:6). As you read the Psalms devotionally and come to a part that is a prayer, turn it into your own prayer: “Make me know Your ways, O Lord; Teach me Your paths” (Ps. 25:4). Or perhaps the psalm points out a lack in your life. Turn it into prayer: “Let all those who seek You rejoice and be glad in You; Let those who love Your salvation say continually, ‘The Lord be magnified’” (Ps. 40:16). Pray, “Lord, I don’t rejoice in You enough. Help me to magnify You in my life!”

John Calvin begins his classic, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. by John T. McNeill, translated by Ford Lewis Battles [Westminster Press], p. 35) with this profound statement: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” The Psalms will take us deeper in both of those aspects of wisdom. Let’s ask God to teach us about Himself and about ourselves as we study the Psalms in the coming months.

[In addition to the sources cited in the message, I also relied on the introductory sections of Psalms 1-72 [IVP], by Derek Kidner; and, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Old Testament [Victor Books], ed. by John F. Walvoord & Roy Zuck, “Psalms,” by Allen P. Ross.]

Application Questions

  1. Some churches emphasize doctrine but downplay feelings; others tend toward emotion at the expense of doctrine. Where’s the biblical balance?
  2. Is praise a command or something we only do when we feel like it? How can we develop sincere praise for God?
  3. Jonathan Edwards argued that “true religion lies very much in the affections” and that we are to sing praises to God “to excite and express” our affections. Agree/disagree?
  4. Will you make a commitment to read and meditate on the Psalms as a part of your regular time alone with God?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2008, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Psalm 1: How To Live Happily Ever After

“And so they lived happily ever after.” So ends many a fairy tale. We enjoyed hearing such stories when we were young, but we all grow up to realize that real life isn’t like that. Life’s too complex. There are too many problems. Nobody lives happily ever after.

Just look around. We’re a nation founded upon the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Ask almost any person what they want out of life, and they will reply, “I want to be happy.” And yet for a people bent on pursuing happiness, we’re not doing so well. Many try to find happiness in love and marriage, but the divorce rate shows that we’re not finding happiness there. Couples hope that having a family will bring them happiness, but often their children cause them more pain than pleasure. Others try to find happiness in a career or in recreational activities. Many try to deaden their pain with alcohol or drugs. But few would admit that they’ve found lasting happiness.

Even many Christians lack happiness. Christian psychologist Larry Crabb tells of a friend whom he describes as “a committed Christian, a gifted counselor, and an unusually clear thinker,” who has not had a difficult life. “Everyone agrees he’s a solid, well-adjusted Christian.” And yet, after an hour of reflective rambling in Crabb’s office, this man quietly asked out loud, “I wonder what it would be like to feel really good for just ten minutes” (Inside Out [Navpress], pp. 26-27). Crabb goes on to say that if we were really honest with ourselves, most of us would admit that we struggle with these same feelings. We aren’t truly happy people.

I must be in denial and totally out of touch with my feelings, because most of the time, I’m a happy man. I don’t say that to boast in myself, but to point you to God’s Word, which promises true happiness to all who follow what it says. Either it’s a fairy tale which, as adults, we shouldn’t take seriously, or it speaks truth which tells us how to have lasting happiness and why we don’t if we don’t. Psalm 1 shows us that ...

To live happily ever after, we must build our lives on God and His Word.

Things can never satisfy us; only God can. Even relationships cannot ultimately satisfy apart from God. Pursuing pleasure, self-fulfillment, or self-centered goals cannot satisfy. Only a life built on God and obedience to His Word will bring true happiness. That’s what this psalm declares.

The first verse begins with “blessed,” which in Hebrew is a plural of intensity and may be rendered, “Oh, how truly happy is the person!” or “Oh, the happiness of the person!” The word stems from a verb meaning to go on or advance. If you want to advance to the fullest measure of happiness, the psalmist is going to tell you how.

It’s significant that he begins by telling us some things that the happy person does not do. Your happiness, both now and in eternity, depends upon your choice of one of two ways. Choosing one means rejecting the other. The psalm begins with that which the happy person must reject:

1. True happiness is not found in a life that leaves God out (1:1).

If you leave God out of your life and reject His ways as revealed in His Word, you will not have true happiness. The psalmist shows three ways it is possible to leave God out of your life:

A. You leave God out by walking in the counsel of the wicked.

This refers to a person who lives his life based upon the world’s wisdom. The word “wicked” comes from a Hebrew word meaning loose or out of joint. In our modern vernacular, it refers to a person who “hangs loose about God.” He doesn’t take God seriously and thus disregards God’s Word.

We need to be on guard, because the “counsel of the wicked” has flooded into the church today. I confess that I myself was tainted by it for a number of years, until the Lord began to open my eyes. I’m referring to the many books purporting to be Christian which are nothing more than worldly psychology, often with a few Bible verses sprinkled in it to make it look Christian. Even some of the most popular Bible teachers of our day endorse these books. But they are endorsing the counsel of the wicked, to the great harm of God’s people.

How can you discern the counsel of the wicked from the wisdom of God? I can only sketch a bare outline. But let me suggest five tests:

(1) The counsel of the wicked denies the sufficiency of Scripture for dealing with the problems of the soul. The Bible claims to be adequate to equip the believer for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17) and to produce in us true happiness by dealing with the problems of the soul (Ps. 1). It provides answers for problems of guilt, anxiety, depression, anger, bitterness, and relational conflicts. “Christian” psychology brings the world’s wisdom to bear on these problems, thus implying that the Bible is not sufficient and often stating “solutions” opposed to what the Bible prescribes.

(2) The counsel of the wicked exalts the pride of man and takes away from the glory of God. The Bible humbles the pride of man and exalts the glory of God (Isa. 42:8; 1 Cor. 1:31). The world’s wisdom builds the self and minimizes the need for absolute trust in God, whether for salvation or for daily living.

(3) The counsel of the wicked denies or minimizes the need for the cross of Christ by asserting either the basic goodness of man or by downplaying the extent and impact of the fall. The Bible teaches that we are all utterly wicked and self-seeking. None of us could or would seek God if left to ourselves (Rom. 3:10-18). The cross humbles human pride and wisdom and exalts Christ alone (1 Cor. 1:18-2:5).

(4) The counsel of the wicked denies God’s moral absolutes and substitutes relative human “goodness.” God is absolutely righteous and His standards of holiness as revealed in His Word are absolute (1 Pet. 1:16). Worldly wisdom rationalizes away God’s absolutes as being too “idealistic” or “harsh” and substitutes some human standard, such as “love.” In other words, human wisdom makes a god in its own likeness, rather than submitting to the true God.

(5) The counsel of the wicked focuses on pleasing self rather than on pleasing God and others. The world’s wisdom does not promote self-denial and love for God and others as of first importance (Mark 8:34; 12:29-31). Often the world’s wisdom provides “help” for a person (relief from the symptoms of his problem) without leading him to confess sin, depend on God, and live in obedience to God. The world’s wisdom counsels you to live first of all for yourself. In “Christian” form, it tells you that if you don’t love yourself, you can’t love God and others.

I could say much more, but that brief outline should give some help in discerning and avoiding the counsel of the wicked. Take note! The psalmist says, “How truly happy is the person who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked.”

B. You leave God out by standing in the path of sinners.

The path of sinners refers to their way of life or behavior. To stand in the path of sinners means involvement with sinners in their sinful behavior. The word “sinners” comes from a Hebrew word meaning to miss the mark. It refers to deviating from the standard of God as revealed in His Word.

In that sense, we’re all sinners. We’ve all missed the mark by deviating from God’s Word. But when we trust in Christ as Savior and Lord, we become converted sinners. Instead of living to please self, the converted sinner seeks to please God (Col. 1:10). He grows in learning how to deny self (Mark 8:34) and to love God and others (Mark 12:28-31).

The Bible teaches that the objective of our relationship with lost sinners needs to change after we come to Christ. On the one hand, “Do not be deceived: Bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Cor. 15:33). If we run with worldly people in their godless way of life, we will be wrongly influenced by them. That is why a new Christian needs to cut off close relationships with many former friends: They will draw you back into the old way of life. You may not think so, but, “Do not be deceived”!

On the other hand, we are not supposed to cut ourselves off completely from sinners (unless they make claim of being Christians). Otherwise, you would have to go out of the world (1 Cor. 5:9-11). Rather, your objective changes. Whereas before you associated with sinners as one of them to join in their evil deeds, now you associate with them as a sinner saved by grace to seek to bring them to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. Take note: How truly happy is the person who does not stand in the path of sinners!

C. You leave God out by sitting in the seat of scoffers.

Scoffers have rejected God and His Word. They now seek to justify themselves by openly deriding that which they’ve rejected. Scoffers think they know more than God. They’re too smart to believe in the Bible. Many scoffers come from church backgrounds, but they’ve cast it off as too “repressive.” Although they almost always hide under an intellectual smoke screen, invariably scoffers have cast off the Bible because they want to be their own god so that they can follow their own lusts. They don’t want God interfering in their sinful lifestyles.

“The seat” of scoffers refers to the assembly or place where such men gather to reinforce their godless philosophy. Birds of a feather flock together. Those who scoff at God love to get together to reinforce their prejudices. To sit in their seat means to belong to such a crowd. Take note: How truly happy is the person who does not sit in the seat of scoffers!

Before we leave verse 1, please note the downward progression in the life of sin. Satan doesn’t cause a person to fall away and spurn the faith all at once. There are degrees of departure from God, as implied in three sets of three words:

(1) Walk > Stand > Sit. First, you walk‑‑you’re still moving, but now in the wrong direction. Then, you stand‑‑you’re lingering in sin. Finally, you sit‑‑you’re at ease in the company of scoffers.

(2) Wicked > Sinners > Scoffers. First, you’re with the wicked‑‑those who hang loose about God. Then you’re with sinners‑‑those who openly violate God’s commands by missing the mark. Then you’re with scoffers‑‑those who openly reject the truth.

(3) Counsel > Path > Seat. First, you listen to counsel‑‑you begin thinking wrong thoughts. Then, you stand in the path‑‑you engage in wrong behavior. Finally, you sit in the seat‑‑you belong to the wrong crowd and have adopted the fatal attitude of the scoffer. And Satan’s got you!

Two lessons: (1) Guard your mind! Satan begins there, as he did with Eve (“Has God said ...?”). Wrong thoughts lead to wrong behavior which leads to rejection of God and His truth. Guarding your mind doesn’t mean that you become a non-thinker. It means that you critique everything by the unchanging standard of God’s Word of truth.

(2) Guard your friends! Those whom you choose as close friends should be committed to the things of God. “What fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Cor. 6:14). Bad company will corrupt good morals. In my fourth year at Dallas Seminary, Dr. Howard Hendricks said, “The two factors which will most influence where you will be ten years from now are the books you read and the friends you make.” Guard your mind! Guard your friends!

But, the negative is not enough in and of itself to produce true happiness. The psalmist goes on to show, positively, that...

2. True happiness is found in a life built on God and His Word (1:2‑3).

Perhaps many of us can claim a negative sort of purity, because we do not walk in the counsel of the ungodly. But how many can say that we delight in the Word of God and meditate on it continually?

There is both a responsibility (1:2) and a result (1:3) described here. To the extent that we fulfill the responsibility, we can expect to see the result.

A. The responsibility: to delight in and meditate on God’s Word continually (1:2).

What does it mean to delight in God’s Word. The word is used in the Old Testament (Gen. 34:19; Esther 2:14) of a man delighting in a woman. Ah! That tells us something! Have you noticed that when a young man delights in a woman, he rearranges his priorities so that suddenly he has plenty of time to spend with her? And he doesn’t do it because he has to; he wants to! Nothing interferes with his time with the object of his delight!

Now let me ask: Do you delight in God’s Word in that sense? Do you make time to spend in the Word because you delight in it? Or has it become a duty? It’s easy to fall into the duty mentality toward the Word: “A chapter a day keeps the devil away!” Besides, it alleviates your guilt to read it. So you grind through a chapter and check it off on your list, but you didn’t commune with the living God or apply His Word to where you need to change.

The Bible is God’s love letter to you. You’re reading the counsel of a loving, all‑wise Heavenly Father as to how you should live. His commandments are for your blessing and good. It should be no more of a duty to spend time in God’s Word than it is for a young man to spend time with an attractive woman. The way to true happiness is to delight in God’s Word.

We are responsible not only to delight in God’s Word, but also to meditate on it continually. To meditate means to think about what the Word says and how it applies to all of life. Meditation is to reading what digestion is to eating: chewing on it, letting it become part of you. We’re to be doing it continually (“day and night”), which implies knowing the Word well enough to think about it all day long.

As we saw in verse 1, the mind is the first bastion we must defend. Whatever shapes your thinking will shape your life. The only way for a person to reject the counsel of the ungodly which bombards him from every side is to be continually meditating on, thinking about, chewing on in his mind, the Word of God and how it applies to life.

That’s our responsibility: to delight in and meditate on the Word of God. Do you do it? Matthew Henry wisely comments, “We may judge of our spiritual state by asking, “What is the law of God to us? What account do we make of it? What place has it in us?” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary [Revell], 3:239). To the extent that you build your life on God and His Word, you will have true happiness.

B. The result: a fruitful, prosperous life (1:3).

The psalmist describes the person who delights in God’s Word as a tree planted by streams of water. This is a tree that has been deliberately cultivated, surrounded by these canals or streams so that its roots have a continual supply of water. It is solid and able to withstand drought or storms. It is fruitful and has continual evidence of life and vitality‑‑its leaves do not wither. He sums it up by applying it: “In whatever he does, he prospers.” There’s a truly happy person: the person God blesses with His prosperity, no matter what circumstances of life he finds himself in.

God is not promising financial prosperity here, but rather, soul-prosperity. The so-called “health and wealth” teaching being promoted by some TV preachers, which claims that God promises financial prosperity, is false. God’s servants may be poor in this world’s goods and afflicted by many trials. But they are rich toward God (Luke 12:21), which is true prosperity.

But perhaps, if you were honest, you’d admit that you question the truthfulness of Psalm 1. You may know people who leave God out of their lives and who seem to be genuinely happy and prosperous. They seem to have good marriages and happy families. They seem to be doing just fine without God. And you may know others who are godly people, who build their lives on God and His Word, and yet they are hit with adversity and difficulties. What about that? The psalmist goes on to show that...

3. True happiness is found in a life that takes eternity into account (1:4‑6).

The psalmist describes the wicked in contrast to the righteous. The righteous is like a sturdy tree‑‑rooted, firm, fruitful. The wicked is like chaff from the wheat‑‑rootless, weightless, useless. This is not man’s view. From our viewpoint, many who leave God out of their lives are glamorous, powerful, exciting people. Rather, this is God’s view, as verse 6 shows. God’s view takes eternity into account and says, “Those who leave Me out of their lives are like chaff.” They have no substance. They may be great before men, but before God they will be blown away like chaff in the final judgment.

The wicked will not stand in the judgment (1:5), which means, they won’t have a leg to stand on. Their case won’t hold up in God’s court. They won’t be in heaven, where those who have been made righteous through faith in Christ will be assembled. Even though it may not look like it at times, “the Lord knows” (is intimately acquainted with) “the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” The wicked will be condemned to eternal punishment in the lake of fire (Rev. 21:8).

You may say, “Isn’t that a cop‑out? That’s the old pie‑ in‑the‑sky‑when‑you‑die bit.” No, it’s not a cop‑out. It is the plain teaching of God’s Word, which says, “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27). We all must stand before God. If you take God and eternity out of the picture, all you are is an accident‑‑the chance product of random chance. Your birth was an accident, your death will be an accident. All you are is an accident suspended between two accidents! There’s no happiness in that view.

Conclusion

The Word of God declares that you are not an accident. You are here as the creation of God, made in His image, designed to find true happiness in Him and in His Word. But due to your rebellion, as seen in your running your own life rather than in submitting to Christ as Lord, you are alienated from God. He could rightfully judge you, but because of His love and mercy, He sent Jesus Christ to die in your place on the cross. You must turn from your rebellion, trust in Him and accept the pardon He offers. If you will do that and then build your life on God and His Word, you will live happily ever after, both now and throughout eternity! And that’s no fairy tale!

Discussion Questions

  1. Can’t the world offer truth that supplements God’s truth? How do we evaluate the world’s “truth”?
  2. What’s wrong with this argument: “The Bible doesn’t reveal everything. Just as we need medical science, so we need the science of psychology”?
  3. How does a Christian develop and maintain an attitude of delight rather than duty toward God’s Word?
  4. How would you answer a critic who said that Christianity is just “pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die”?

Copyright 1993, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Psalm 2: Is The World Out Of Control?

Poet Robert Browning wrote, “God’s in his heaven‑‑all’s right with the world.” Where in the world was he? As we look at reality, we have to question Browning. God is in heaven, but all is not right with the world!

Since the beginning of time, the world has known strife. The history of man is essentially the history of war. One of the earliest of all historical records, a Sumerian bas‑relief from Babylon (ca. 3000 B.C.), shows soldiers fighting in close order, wearing helmets and carrying shields (James Boice, The Last and Future World [Zondervan], p. 98). There have been almost non-stop wars ever since.

In our century, World War I was supposed to be the war to end all wars. About 20 million people were killed. Soon after the world was locked into World War II, which claimed 60 million lives. The December 25, 1967, U. S. News & World Report wrote, “Since World War II [there have been] at least 12 limited wars in the world, 39 political assassinations, 48 personal revolts, 74 rebellions for independence, 162 social revolutions, either political, economical, racial, or religious” (the figures and quote are from Boice, p. 99).

Obviously these figures would have to be revised upward significantly in the 25+ years since then. We’ve seen war between Russia and Afghanistan, China and Vietnam, Vietnam and Cambodia, Iraq and Iran, Iraq and Kuwait, and the current war in Bosnia. There have been and still are numerous regional conflicts and violence: Northern Ireland, South Africa, Lebanon, Israel, Azerbaijan, India, Panama, Peru, Colombia, etc. Our own country faces continued racial tensions, a rising crime rate, gang wars, random violence, and increasing moral degeneracy. Instead of agreeing with Browning that “all is right with the world,” we would probably be more inclined to side with the guy who wrote this limerick:

God’s plan made a hopeful beginning,

But man spoiled his chances by sinning,

We trust that the story

Will end in God’s glory,

But at present the other side’s winning. (Boice, pp. 124‑125.)

We may chuckle at the limerick, but deep down inside we know that the present world scene is no laughing matter. Man is not “in every day and in every way getting better and better.”

Is the world out of control? How should we view the present world chaos? A wife said to her husband, “Shall we watch the six o’clock news and get indigestion or wait for the eleven o’clock news and have insomnia?” (in Reader’s Digest [4/86], p. 2). Should we sink into depression and despair? Should we ignore the world and its news, ostrich‑style? Psalm 2 gives us an answer. In it, the author, King David (see Acts 4:25), views the rebellion of the nations against God. He looks at the chaos of the world scene in his day and says that

Though the nations have rebelled against God, He is sovereign; thus, we must submit to Him while there is time.

Even though the world scene looks as if God has been on an extended vacation, David shows us that God’s plans have not failed and shall not fail. Everything is under His sovereign control and He will ultimately triumph in His ordained time. Thus David appeals to the rebellious nations to bow before the Almighty God while they still have time.

Structure and background of the Psalm:

Psalm 2 is the most frequently quoted psalm in the New Testament. It fits together in an interesting way with Psalm 1 to introduce the Book of Psalms. Psalm 1 begins with, “How blessed”; Psalm 2 ends with the same word (in Hebrew). Psalm 1 ends with a threat; Psalm 2 begins with a threat. In Psalm 1, the godly man meditates on God’s law; in Psalm 2, the wicked meditates (NASB = “devising,” NIV = “plot”; same Hebrew word) on how to cast off the rule of God. In Psalm 1 the theme is the contrast between the righteous and the wicked person; in Psalm 2 the theme is the contrast between the rebellion of wicked rulers and nations and the rule of God’s righteous Messiah. Psalm 1 consists of two stanzas and six verses. Psalm 2 is twice as long, consisting of four stanzas and 12 verses.

The Psalm is structured as a dramatic presentation in four acts. In Act One (2:1‑3), David raises the question about the chaos in the world, and the kings and rulers come forth in a chorus to say their lines (2:3). In Act Two (2:4‑6), God calmly sits upon His throne in heaven and speaks His line against the rulers (2:6). In Act Three (2:7‑9), God’s Anointed One speaks and reveals God’s decree or predetermined plan for dealing with man’s rebellion. In Act Four (2:10‑12), the psalmist speaks out again, giving a closing appeal in light of the previous acts.

For purposes of grasping the message of the psalm, Acts Two and Three may be grouped together so that the psalmist is saying three things: 1. The nations have rebelled against God (2:1‑3). But, 2. God is sovereign and has a predetermined plan to judge man’s rebellion (2:4‑9). Thus, 3. We must submit to Him while there is time (2:10‑12). Let’s examine these three thoughts:

1. The nations have rebelled against God (2:1‑3).

To understand this psalm, we must realize that on one level it applies to King David. The schemes of these rulers against the Lord and His anointed are rooted in a time in David’s reign when some of his vassal nations sought to rebel (such as 2 Samuel 10, when the Ammonites and Syrians rebelled). David, the Lord’s anointed king over His people, Israel, writes this song to show the folly of rebellion against God’s anointed king because of the promises God had made to that king. Thus, on one level, 2:1‑3 refers to those rebel kings and their attempts to shake off David’s rule over them.

But it is also obvious that the psalm goes far beyond David’s experience. It is ultimately fulfilled only in God’s Anointed (Hebrew, “Messiah”), God’s Son who is also David’s son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, David wrote this psalm not only about himself, but in a deeper and much more complete way, about Messiah Jesus. Thus just as these kings rebelled against King David, so all men have rebelled against King Jesus. The Bible teaches that:

A. Satan is the author of this rebellion.

Isaiah 14:12‑14 describes the rebellion of Satan in heaven against God. When he fell, he led a portion of the angels with him. Under his authority, these demons now wage war against God and the righteous angels. The world was created as the theater for this great conflict to take place. Man was created in the image of God and placed on earth to reflect God’s image and rule as His representatives over His creation. But the Scriptures also teach that ...

B. All people have followed Satan in his rebellion against God.

When Adam and Eve succumbed to Satan’s temptation and disobeyed God, the human race fell into sin and thus came under God’s judgment. This rebellion took on an organized form at the tower of Babel, when proud men came together and proposed to build a tower into heaven to make a name for themselves (Gen. 11:4). The Lord confused their languages and scattered them, which was the beginning of the nations. The pride of those at Babel, who sought to make a name for themselves, was diluted by being divided among the various nations of the earth. But Satan works through the pride of world rulers to weaken the nations through conflict and keep them from submitting to God (Isa. 14:12). As biblical prophecy shows, in the end times, the nations will come together under a single world ruler in defiance of the Lord and His Anointed. Satan is the main force behind this world ruler, the antichrist.

But even in His curse upon the serpent, God pointed to the way of redemption that He had planned for fallen man: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He [the woman’s seed] shall bruise you [the serpent] on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel” (Gen. 3:15). Messiah Jesus, born of a woman, would be bruised on the heel by Satan in death as the sin‑ bearer for the fallen race, but He would bruise Satan upon the head in His triumphant victory over sin and death in His resurrection from the grave. By bringing people from every nation under the lordship of God’s Anointed, Jesus, the rebellion of Satan is thwarted.

Thus in His eternal decree, the Father invites the Son, “Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance, and the very ends of the earth as Your possession” (Ps. 2:8). Either through their willing submission to the message of the gospel now or through their forced subjection under the rod of the Messiah when He comes to judge the nations, their rebellion will be quelled.

Meanwhile, where is God in all this rebellion? Did He go to sleep? Has He lost control? No, the psalmist goes on to show that even though the nations have rebelled against God ...

2. God is sovereign (2:4‑9).

God doesn’t even get up from His throne to deal with the vain schemes of rebellious kings: “He who sits in the heavens laughs, the Lord scoffs at them” (2:4). This doesn’t mean that God gets a kick out of man’s rebellion or its devastating results. “‘As I live!’ declares the Lord God, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live’” (Ezek. 33:11). Rather, God’s laughter shows the folly of rebelling against Him. It shows us that ...

A. God has a calm assurance in the face of man’s rebellion (2:4‑6).

Mighty men rise up and proudly think that they’re so great and powerful. God laughs: “You’ve got to be kidding!” Who is puny man to try to stand against the Sovereign God? “He removes kings and establishes kings” (Dan. 2:21) according to His will. The mighty Nebuchadnezzar, the greatest ruler on the earth in his day, grew proud and attributed his greatness to himself. God humbled him with a strange disease, so that he lived in the fields and ate grass like a beast, until he learned that “the Most High is the ruler over the realm of mankind, and bestows it on whomever He wishes” (Dan. 4:25).

Napoleon Bonaparte, when intoxicated with success at the height of his power, is reported to have said, “I make circumstances.” God laughs: “Oh, really?” God let him go on for a while, and then He spoke to him in His anger and terrified him in His fury (Ps. 2:5), and Napoleon came to nothing.

Did you know that God is not worried about man’s rebellion against Him? He isn’t sitting on the edge of heaven, biting His nails, and saying, “Oh, what am I going to do?” He lets man go on for a while in his rebellion, but then His anger and judgment will come, and man’s proud plans will come to nothing. The psalmist thus goes on to show that ...

B. God has a predetermined plan to deal with man’s rebellion (2:7‑9).

This plan centers on the person and the power of God’s Messiah, His Anointed one.

*The person of Messiah (2:7): Verse seven obviously goes beyond David to Christ. The verse is quoted several times in the New Testament with reference to Jesus (Acts 13:33; Heb. 1:5; 5:5). It plunges us into some deep theological waters that we can never fathom. We can never fully understand the Trinity and the nature of the relationship between the members of the godhead. If we could, God would not be God. We can only go as far as the Scriptures reveal, and no farther.

While probably somewhat anthropomorphic (using human terms to describe God) so that we can understand it to some degree, the relationship between the First and Second Persons of the Trinity is expressed as that of Father and Son. This does not imply any inequality, or that there was a point in time in which Jesus was begotten of the Father (in which case He would not be eternal). The scriptures teach, and orthodox theologians for centuries have agreed, that Jesus is eternally the unique Son of God, second person of the Trinity.

The Athanasian Creed puts it: “The Son is from the Father alone; neither made, nor created, but begotten ... generated from eternity from the substance of the Father.” The Nicene Creed expresses it: “The only begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Lights, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father” (quoted in Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology [Dallas Seminary Press], I:316).

When Psalm 2:7 says, “You are My Son, today I have begotten You,” there are two possible interpretations. Either it refers to the day of the eternal decree, when Christ was declared to be the Son of God and begotten (John Walvoord, Jesus Christ Our Lord [Moody Press], p. 41). Since the decree is eternal, Christ’s Sonship is eternal. Or, “this day” refers to the time when Christ’s identity was manifested, when the Father bore witness to Christ as being His own Son, which was primarily through the resurrection (Rom. 1:4; this is Calvin’s view, Calvin’s Commentaries [Associated Publishers & Authors], 2:129-130). But both views hold that Christ is eternally the Son of God.

God’s predetermined plan for dealing with man’s rebellion involves the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, whom God sent into the world to pay the penalty for man’s rebellion (John 3:16; Gal. 4:4). He died according to the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God at the hands of godless men (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28). But God raised Him from the dead and He ascended to heaven, where He is now waiting to return with power. That’s the second part of God’s plan:

*The power of Messiah (2:8‑9): Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, will return bodily to this earth in power and glory to crush all opposition and to reign in righteousness from David’s throne. John describes his vision of the Lord Jesus in that great day in Revelation 19:15‑16: “And from His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may smite the nations; and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the winepress of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty. And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, ‘KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.’” At the end of Christ’s 1,000 year reign, Satan and all who followed him will be thrown into the lake of fire where they will be tormented forever and ever (Rev. 20:10-15).

That is God’s plan for dealing with rebellious man and with Satan and His forces. His plan involves the Second Person of the Trinity, the eternal Son of God, who is going to return to this earth in power to put down all rebellion and to rule in righteousness. How should we respond to this fact?

3. We must submit to God and His Anointed while there is time (2:10‑12).

It is not just the proud kings of David’s day who have rebelled against the Lord and His Anointed. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). We have all, in our own way, said toward God, “Let us tear His fetters apart, and cast away His cords from us” (Ps. 2:3). We’ve all said, “I’ll do it my way!”

At first glance, you would have thought that everyone would welcome God’s Messiah, who came to save us from our sins. But the issue isn’t just salvation. Jesus didn’t come to save us so that we could get a free ticket to heaven and then go our own way. The issue is one of lordship. The Lord’s Anointed is the King who will reign, if not by our willing submission now, then by forced submission when He comes again. He does not take second place to anyone. Every knee shall bow!

Thus the exhortation of 2:10-12 applies to each person: All people must show discernment and take warning. All people should bow in submission and fear before God and give the kiss of obeisance to His Son. The picture is that of bowing and expressing submission before a monarch so as not to incur his displeasure. We must submit to Christ as Savior and Lord before He returns in judgment, so that we do not “perish in the way.”

The urgency of submitting to Christ is expressed by the phrase, “His wrath may soon be kindled” (2:12). The signs of our times point to the soon coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. The first time He came in mercy, to save. The second time He comes in wrath, to judge. The end time events predicted in the Bible are all lining up, just as predicted. But even if His coming is delayed, you have no guarantee that you will have another day on this earth. If you do not submit to Jesus Christ before you die, you will face the wrath of His judgment (Heb. 9:27)! As Matthew Henry put it, “Those that will not bow shall break.”

Conclusion

You can’t find peace and safety anywhere in the world, but only in Christ. A few years ago, a retired couple, alarmed by the threat of nuclear war, studied all the inhabited places on earth, looking for the place where they could most likely escape the threat of war. They studied and traveled and traveled and studied. Finally they found the perfect place: a small, obscure island off the coast of South America. They moved to the Falkland Islands just before Britain invaded to reclaim that territory from Argentina!

World chaos and war will only increase as His coming draws near. If we can’t escape it, what can we do? The last line of the Psalm is God’s gracious invitation: “How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!” Don’t run from God; run to Him! Derek Kidner aptly says, “And there is no refuge from Him: only in him” (Psalms [IVP], 1:53). As we see the chaos in the world, we can be truly happy and blessed by taking refuge in our God. The early church took refuge in Him by praying Psalm 2 as they faced persecution (Acts 4:23‑35). In our troubled times, when it looks as if the enemy is winning, we can do the same. Let’s join the early church in doing everything we can to make Christ Lord of all the nations! Even if we should die a martyr’s death, our sovereign God will ultimately triumph!

A cartoon shows a fearful couple, huddled together in bed as they watch TV. The announcer is saying, “And that’s the news. Good night and pleasant dreams!” The only way we can watch the news of this troubled world and have pleasant dreams is if we’ve taken refuge in our sovereign God, who has even the proud rebellion of wicked men under His control.

Discussion Questions

  1. Since God is sovereign, why doesn’t He just send Christ to crush all rebellion and end all this suffering?
  2. Can a person accept Christ as Savior without accepting Him as Lord? Cite biblical support.
  3. How would you answer a critic who said, “If God is sovereign over everything, then He is the author of evil”?
  4. God’s wrath seems like an outmoded concept in our day. How can we get people to take it seriously?

Copyright 1993, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Psalm 3: When Life Falls Apart

Those of us old enough to remember the Watergate scandal recall the stunning, unprecedented resignation of President Richard Nixon. Whether you agreed or not with the man politically, it was a sad spectacle to watch. It must have been terrifically shocking, depressing, and humiliating for Mr. and Mrs. Nixon to endure.

One day, you are one of the most powerful men in the world. You are always the center of attention. You are always surrounded by a cadre of Secret Service agents whose job is to protect you at risk of their own lives. Your words are plastered on the front pages of newspapers around the world. At press conferences, reporters try to parse the nuance of your every sentence. What you say can make the stock market shoot up or down. When you give orders, a bunch of underlings jump to make it happen. You live in a mansion with servants attending to your every need. You have a private jet, helicopter, and limousine, plus a private retreat, at your disposal as you carry out the nation’s business.

But the next day, you resign in disgrace, your presidency a shambles. You leave the public eye. You move out of the White House. Nobody cares anymore what you say or think, unless you’re ready to confess your guilt in the scandal. Life changed drastically on that fateful day for Mr. and Mrs. Nixon!

But the resignation of President Nixon was not nearly as traumatic and humiliating as the events that hit King David when his son Absalom led a revolt against him. David had reigned for decades as one of the most powerful monarchs in the world. His military prowess was legendary. He had extended Israel’s dominion far beyond its borders. He had become fabulously wealthy, living in a palace of breathtaking splendor with his many wives and servants. He had absolute authority of life or death over everyone with whom he had dealings. No one dared to get on his bad side.

But then David sinned with Bathsheba and ordered the death of her husband, Uriah. Although David subsequently repented when the prophet Nathan confronted him, David’s sins set in motion a series of God-ordained devastating consequences. David’s oldest son, Amnon, raped his half-sister, Tamar. Tamar’s brother, Absalom, took revenge by murdering Amnon. Absalom fled into exile for several years, but later was permitted to return. But after his return, David refused to see his wayward son for two years. The resentment built and Absalom began to court the disgruntled people in the kingdom, offering himself as a more sympathetic leader than his powerful father was.

Finally, Absalom pieced together a strong conspiracy. David realized that to survive, he had to flee the capital immediately with all of his supporters and their families. All of his servants and their little ones hastily grabbed what they could and took off towards the wilderness. David followed them, weeping, and walking barefoot with his head covered in shame. To add insult to injury, a man named Shimei, from the family of David’s predecessor King Saul, came out as David passed by. He cursed at David, threw stones at him, and accused him of being a worthless man who had brought about his own downfall by being a man of bloodshed (these events are described in 2 Samuel 15 & 16).

It was David’s most traumatic, humiliating experience in his entire life. Everything that he had spent his life working for had suddenly unraveled. Many whom he had thought were allies and friends had abandoned him and sided with his rebellious son. And the most painful wound of all was the treachery and betrayal of Absalom. It brought home to David his own failure as a father. One son was murdered, a daughter was raped, and the murderer was now after his own father’s life in addition to his kingdom. Life was falling apart for David.

What do you do when life falls apart? Few of us have gone through anything close to the trauma that David was experiencing. But in lesser ways, you’ve probably had times when you could identify with David. Perhaps you thought that things were fine at work, but you suddenly got called into the boss’ office and were fired under false allegations brought against you by those you had trusted. You were out of work and the firing made the prospect of finding another job look bleak. You didn’t know how you would provide for your family. Life fell apart.

Or, perhaps one of your children turned against you and took up a lifestyle of drugs or sexual promiscuity that is totally opposed to your values. He leveled all sorts of false charges against you. He resisted your every attempt to talk or be reconciled. Your many years of love and sacrifice on his behalf were met with scorn and anger. Life fell apart.

Or, much to your shock, your mate suddenly announced that he was having an affair, he was leaving you immediately and filing for divorce. You had no hint of the situation in advance. You had thought that things were fine. You were happy. You trusted him. You were both involved in your local church and in your children’s activities. But suddenly, you realized that you had been lied to and deceived for a long time. Life as you knew it suddenly changed drastically and fell apart.

What do you do when life falls apart? David wrote Psalm 3. He wrote a psalm! Maybe that’s why he is called a man after God’s heart! Some scholars call Psalm 3 a morning psalm, and Psalm 4 (which may have been written at the same time) an evening psalm. Perhaps David wrote Psalm 3 just after he crossed the Jordan, awaiting the inevitable battle with Absalom’s forces. Verse 5 hints that he wrote it after waking up safely after a good night’s sleep. Psalm 3 shows us that…

When life falls apart, you can experience God’s peace by laying hold of Him in believing prayer.

After the superscription, which gives us the circumstances, the psalm falls into four strophes of two verses each. The first (3:1-2) reveals David’s peril. Strophe two (3:3-4) records his initial prayer. Strophe three (3:5-6) shows the peace that results from his prayer. The final strophe (3:7-8) gives a repeated prayer and an affirmation of faith that God alone can deliver and bless His people.

1. There are times when life falls apart (3:1-2).

David cries out (3:1-2), “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.’” The first, second, and final strophes are followed by “Selah,” which is probably a musical notation meaning, “pause,” or “crescendo.”

David begins by crying out to Yahweh, translated Lord (in small caps). When the NASB uses “Lord” (not small caps), it is translating the Hebrew, Adonai, meaning “Sovereign Lord.” “Lord” in small caps translates Yahweh, the personal, covenant name of God. God revealed Himself to Moses with this name at the burning bush. It is related to the Hebrew verb, “to be,” so that God tells Moses, “I am who I am” (Exod. 3:14). For David to address God as Yahweh had the same connotation as New Testament believers addressing Him as, “Abba, Father” (Willem VanGemeren, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 5:74). It is an intimate, personal cry for help.

I’ve already described David’s traumatic situation, but note a few other features brought out by these verses. First, David’s adversaries were increasing in number. He always had enemies, but the ranks were growing daily. Things were snowballing against David. Like a dam that first leaks and then suddenly bursts, the raging torrent of the rebellion was threatening to sweep David and his loyal followers to their deaths.

Second, verse 2 reports the words of David’s enemies, who were impugning his relationship with God. The verse reads literally, “Many are saying to my soul….” That is, their words were hitting David in his heart or soul, saying, “There is no deliverance for him in God.” Probably, they were bringing up his now-public sin with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband. They were saying, “Hypocrite! Scoundrel! How can he claim to follow God? His claim that God has anointed him as king is a joke! God is not on the side of such a phony!” C. H. Spurgeon (A Treasury of David [Baker], 1:25) writes,

Doubtless, David felt this infernal suggestion to be staggering to his faith. If all the trials which come from heaven, all the temptations which ascend from hell, and all the crosses which arise from earth, could be mixed and pressed together, they would not make a trial so terrible as that which is contained in this verse. It is the most bitter of all afflictions to be lead [sic] to fear that there is no help for us in God.

Of course, Jesus, David’s Son, went through similar trials as He hung upon the cross. His enemies taunted Him (Matt. 27:43), “He trusts in God; let God rescue Him now, if He delights in Him; for He said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” And, even worse, as He bore our sin Jesus felt forsaken by the Father as heard in His awful cry (Matt. 27:46), “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” The difference was, David knew that he was being taunted because of his own sins. But, Jesus was without any sin or guilt.

Although I have never gone through anything close to what David experienced, I have had several times in the past 32 years of pastoral ministry when a disgruntled faction in the church rose up against me. These painful situations follow a pattern similar to Absalom’s rebellion. A leader or several leaders begin to spread seeds of discontent among the church. People who already are unhappy about something gravitate to these men, thinking that they may understand their complaints. These leaders, like Absalom, always seem understanding and ready to listen (see 2 Sam. 15:2-6). The word begins to spread and more people begin to air their grievances to these “sympathetic” leaders. The whole thing begins to snowball. In the process, the leaders of the rebellion impugn not only the pastor’s teaching and his leadership, but also his motives: “He doesn’t really care for hurting people like you.” “He isn’t walking closely with God.” When people that you have cared for and prayed for slander your motives, it really hurts!

Note that even though God knows all these details, David tells Him what’s going on. He’s not informing God, but rather laying his burden on the Lord. David is acknowledging to God that he is not able in himself to handle this overwhelming situation.

2. When life falls apart, you must know who God is and how to lay hold of Him in prayer (3:3-4).

“But You” (3:3) reflects David’s shift of focus from his frightening circumstances (3:1-2) to the Lord in prayer. This strophe shows the Lord to be our shield, our glory, the restorer of our joy, and our prayer-answering God.

A. The Lord is our shield.

We recently studied this as we looked at the shield of faith as a part of our spiritual armor (Eph. 6:16). It first occurs in the Bible when God told Abram that He is Abram’s shield (Gen. 15:1). It also occurs frequently throughout the Psalms (5:12; 18:2, 30, 35; 28:7; 33:20; et. al.). It means that God is our protector and defender. He shields us from the enemy’s attacks. Note how David personalizes it, that the Lord is a shield “about me.” Your faith in the Lord must be personal.

B. The Lord is our glory.

Although David had great earthly acclaim before this catastrophe, he is acknowledging that his identification with the Lord is his only claim to glory. Whether the Lord restored David to his place of earthly prominence or not, God was his glory. The term points to “the comparative unimportance of earthly esteem, always transient and fickle” (Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72 [IVP], p. 54). As Christians, we will share in Christ’s glory (2 Thess. 1:10).

C. The Lord is the restorer of our joy.

“To lift up the head” is a Hebrew expression for restoring someone who is cast down to his dignity and position. Joseph told the cupbearer (Gen. 40:13), “Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your office.” (See, also Gen. 40:20; 2 Kings 25:27 [NASB, margin]; Ps. 27:5-6). By way of application, it refers to God restoring to us the joy that we had before the crisis brought us low. He humbles the proud, but lifts up the humble who cry out to Him, bringing joy to those He restores (1 Sam. 2:1-10; Ps. 107:9, 33-42).

D. The Lord is our prayer-answering God (3:4).

J. J. S. Perowne (The Book of Psalms [Zondervan], p. 123) observes that David’s crying to the Lord with his voice does not express “a single act, but the habit of a life.” Spurgeon said (ibid., p. 26), “We need not fear a frowning world while we rejoice in a prayer-hearing God.”

God’s “holy mountain” (or hill, 3:4) refers to Mount Zion in Jerusalem, where the ark of the covenant remained. Zadok and the Levites were carrying the ark to join David in his escape. But David sent them back into the city, saying (2 Sam. 15:25-26), “Return the ark of God to the city. If I find favor in the sight of the Lord, then He will bring me back again and show me both it and His habitation. But if He should say thus, ‘I have no delight in you,’ behold, here I am, let Him do to me as seems good to Him.” David’s heart was humbled before God. If the Lord restored him, David would worship Him. If the Lord did not restore Him, David still would bow before His just and holy ways. But even though now David was separated geographically from the symbol of God’s dwelling place, the separation was no hindrance to his prayers.

We should learn to humble ourselves before God, realizing that our only plea is His grace. Also, no matter where we’re at or in what kind of difficult circumstances we find ourselves—even if our difficulties are the result of our own sin or failure—we can cry out to the Lord for grace and know that He will hear and answer according to His purpose.

Thus when life was falling apart, David laid hold of the Lord in prayer. Then what happened?

3. When you lay hold of the Lord in prayer, you will experience His peace (3:5-6).

The whole of Psalm 3, but especially verses 5-6, is a real-life drama illustrating Philippians 4:6-7: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” David cried out to God in prayer, then he went to bed—not in the palace, but camped in the wilderness—and slept through the night. It reminds me of Peter on the night before his intended execution. He was so sound asleep in the prison between two guards that the angel sent to rescue him had to hit him to wake him up (Acts 12:7)! David awoke safe and sound, because the Lord sustained him. As reports came in of the tens of thousands set against him, he was not afraid (Ps. 3:6).

When the Lord is your shield and the one who sustains you, the odds or numbers against you don’t matter. As someone has said, “One plus God is a majority.” Or, as Paul puts it (Rom. 8:31), “If God is for us, who is against us?” As he goes on to say, even if we are like sheep for the slaughter, “in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37). Even if our enemies kill us, we can have God’s peace in our soul.

4. Believing prayer depends completely on God for deliverance (3:7-8).

In a make-believe world, David could have said, “Amen” after verse 6. But in the real world, when not only you, but also hundreds of loyal supporters and their families are depending on you, anxiety has a way of creeping back in. So David cries out to God again (3:7-8), “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.”

In verse 1, many were rising up against David. Now, he uses the same verb to ask God to rise up against his enemies. In verse 2, David’s skeptics had said that God would not deliver him. Here, David uses the same verb to ask God to save him. He pictures his enemies as ravenous beasts baring their teeth, ready to devour him. So David asks God to break their teeth, which would render them powerless. The verbs may be translated as petitions (VanGemeren, 5:78) or they may reflect David’s sure confidence that God would act. So he wrote as if He already had acted (Alan Ross, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. by John Walvoord & Roy Zuck [Victor Books], 1:793).

David’s final exclamation, “Salvation belongs to the Lord,” shows that David was not depending on his troops, or his counselors that he had planted to mislead Absalom, or on any military strategy. Rather, he acknowledges that any victory would come from God alone. When we cast ourselves on God alone for deliverance, He gets all the praise when He answers our prayers.

David’s final request, “Your blessing be upon Your people,” shows that David was not praying selfishly. He was the anointed king of God’s people. Absalom’s rebellion negatively affected the entire nation. So when David asked God to deliver him, he saw it in terms of God’s blessing His people.

Believing prayer always keeps this kingdom purpose in focus. The Lord’s prayer teaches us to pray, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). If your world has fallen apart because you’ve been wiped out financially, or your marriage is in trouble or your child has rebelled, don’t just pray selfishly so that your happy world might be restored. Pray in light of God’s kingdom purposes. Pray that God will act so that He will be glorified and His people will be blessed and strengthened.

Conclusion

David turned this horrible experience of betrayal, emotional pain, and nearly being killed into a song of praise. This teaches us that God can use our worst trials to deepen our trust in Him and to produce praises that will encourage His people. When life falls apart, you can experience God’s peace by laying hold of Him in believing prayer. When He answers, He gets the glory, you get the joy, and God’s people get the blessing.

Although, as I said, I’ve never gone through anything close to David’s experience, I have weathered a few difficult attacks. On one such occasion, as I faced a difficult meeting that evening, I spent the day fasting and seeking the Lord in prayer. I realized that not only was my survival as a pastor at this church at stake, but also the well being of the church. About mid-day, the Lord encouraged me with a phone call from the man who had succeeded me as pastor in California. He had learned about the crisis here because one of my opponents had called him to try to dig up some dirt to use against me. But this pastor told me that the elders at my former church had been up past midnight praying for me. They were standing behind me.

But as I walked up the sidewalk towards the meeting that evening, I was anxious. I asked the Lord why I didn’t have His peace in this situation. I was reciting Philippians 4:6, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Those two words, “with thanksgiving,” hit me between the eyes. It was as if the Lord said, “I haven’t heard you thanking Me for this opportunity to trust Me.” I stopped, bowed my head, and whispered, “Lord, thank You for this trial.” I immediately sensed His peace. He worked that evening to deliver me.

Whether it’s a minor crisis or whether life is falling apart at the seams, if Jesus is your High Priest you have access through His blood to the same prayer-hearing God who rescued David. Even if the crisis is the result of your own sin, humble yourself before Him in repentant, believing prayer and He will exalt you at the proper time.

Application Questions

  1. Why does God not always remove the consequences of our sins, even after we’ve repented? See Hebrews 12:3-11.
  2. David not only prayed; he also escaped and then organized his army to fight the enemy. Where is the proper balance between prayer and the use of permissible means?
  3. Some say that to pray in faith means to “command God” to act according to His promises. Why is this wrong? See 2 Sam. 15:25-26.
  4. Why is it essential not just to pray for your problems, but also to pray for God’s greater purpose and glory for His people?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2008, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Psalm 5: What to Do When Under Attack

A story is told of four pastors from the same community who got away for a fishing trip together. One night around the campfire, one of the pastors suggested, “We’re a long ways from home and from our church members. What do you say that we bare our souls and each of us tell what his secret sin is? I’ll go first.”

The others agreed, so he began, “Nobody in my church knows this, but every once in a while I slip down to the track and bet on a pony. My secret sin is gambling.”

Another pastor spoke up, “My secret sin is an uncontrollable temper. Every once in a while I get mad and yell at my wife.”

The third preacher gulped and offered, “I never thought I’d tell anyone this, but here goes. I keep a bottle of rum in the cellar. Whenever I get into a hassle with my deacons, I go down to the cellar and drink a shot of rum.”

Everyone waited for the fourth pastor, who had a faint smile on his face. Finally he said, “Brethren, my secret sin is gossip, and I can’t wait to get home and talk to your church members!”

We laugh at that story, but it’s not funny when someone gossips about you! It often happens at work. It happens with people whom you thought were your friends. It even happens at church, where you thought you could trust people. It hurts when you find out what they’ve been saying about you behind your back.

I read about the president of a Bible institute who was visiting a man who had formerly supported the school. This man had stopped giving because he had heard that the former president of the school had two Cadillacs. Well, the fact was, the man lived a very simple lifestyle and didn’t even own one car, let alone two Cadillacs. So the new president couldn’t figure out how such a rumor started. But then it dawned on him that his predecessor had had two cataracts! Somehow as it went through the rumor mill, two cataracts got changed into two Cadillacs!

Sadly, Christian leaders often are the targets of vicious attacks from those that profess to be Christians. I know of pastors who have grown discouraged and left the ministry because they could not handle the criticism and personal attacks on them and on their families. Somehow they thought that because they were serving the Lord, they would get an exemption from criticism. I’m not sure how they came up with that idea! Look at David: although he was God’s anointed king, he was constantly under fire. It’s all through the Psalms. If you serve the Lord in any capacity, you will be criticized and attacked. Count on it!

So what do you do when you’re under attack? How should you handle it? Psalm 5 gives us some answers. We don’t know exactly when David wrote it. Since it occurs just after Psalms 3 & 4, which were written in conjunction with Absalom’s rebellion, Psalm 5 may have been written at the same time. Or, Calvin suggests that David could have written it as he reflected back on the years that he ran for his life from King Saul (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on the Psalms, p. 52). Whatever the situation, David’s enemies were not nice men! They were spreading lies, they were deceitful, they used flattery outwardly while inwardly they were intent on destroying him, and they were violent (5:6, 9, 10).

What did David do? In a nutshell, he used these trials to draw near to the Lord. As Stephen Neill said (source unknown), “Criticism is the manure in which God’s servants grow best.” Psalm 5 isn’t a comprehensive answer. Other scriptures show that there is a proper time to confront your critics or to defend yourself or your ministry. But Psalm 5 tells us,

When you’re under attack, take refuge in the Lord as your righteous defender.

The psalm falls into two halves (1-7, 8-12), both of which follow the same outline:

Verses 1-3 and verse 8 are parallel as prayers. Verses 4-6 parallel verses 9-10; in both sections David appeals to God as the righteous Judge. Verse 7 parallels verses 11-12; in verse 7 David reverently draws near to God by His grace; in verses 11-12, he exhorts all that take refuge in God to rejoice in Him because of His gracious blessings.

Cycle 1 (Psalm 5:1-7): When you’re under attack, take refuge in the Lord as your righteous defender.

1. When you’re under attack, take refuge in the Lord through prayer (5:1-3).

The normal response when you’re attacked is to fight back immediately. As the person is accusing you, you’re thinking of what you can say to get back at him. If he insults you, you’re thinking of a better insult to hurl back at him and you hardly let him stop speaking before you let it fly. But David didn’t do that. He took his complaint to the Lord in honest, personal, persistent, expectant prayer.

A. Pray honestly.

David’s repeated appeals (5:1-2), “Give ear to my words, O Lord, consider my groaning, heed the sound of my cry for help,” are not the politically careful words of a man who is trying to project that he has it all together. Rather, they are the honest groans and cries of a man in great need. The word translated “groaning” is used only one other time (Ps. 39:3, “musing”) and refers to silent or barely audible sounds. The repetition conveys David’s honest, heartfelt cry to God. He wasn’t putting on his Sunday best and framing his words in a controlled, restrained manner. He was calling out to God honestly in his pain.

God knows everything about us, so it’s ridiculous to try to hide our feelings from Him. As Psalm 62:8 exhorts, “Trust in Him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before Him; God is a refuge for us.” So pray honestly, even if you’re groaning.

B. Pray personally.

David addresses God as “my King and my God” (5:2). The name Lord (5:1, 2) is Yahweh, the personal covenant name of God. Even though David was the king, he knew that he only served under a far greater King, the Lord God. As Matthew Henry put it (Matthew Henry’s Commentary [Fleming H. Revell], 3:255), “Kings on their own thrones (so David was) must be beggars at God’s throne.” David knew God personally as “my King” and “my God.” He was in a close personal relationship with God. He was not a stranger in God’s presence.

Prayer should be a personal, intimate relationship between you and God. You must come before Him as your King, the Lord of your life. You cannot pray rightly unless you are submissive to do His will. You must know Him as your Lord and Savior, who invites you to come into His presence through the blood of Jesus.

C. Pray persistently.

Twice David says that he will pray “in the morning” (5:3). The idea is that David’s first thought on waking was about the threats of these evil enemies. So he immediately turned those thoughts into prayer. Whatever trials God sends into our lives are to cause us to turn to Him in honest, personal, persistent prayer.

I chuckled when I read an exuberant morning person, such as Matthew Henry (ibid.), who exhorts us that morning prayer is our duty because then we are the most fresh and most lively! While I do attempt to pray in the mornings, I must say that it is definitely not my most lively and fresh time of the day! I don’t understand how anyone can have a morning quiet time without coffee! John Wesley attributed his long life and health to his consistent practice of rising at 4 a.m. and preaching at 5 a.m.! If I tried that, I think it would shorten my life significantly and I doubt if anyone would come to hear me at 5 a.m.! But whenever you pray, be persistent at it. Spurgeon said (A Treasury of David [Baker] 1:50), “Prayer should be the key of the day and the lock of the night.”

D. Pray systematically.

David says (5:3b), “In the morning I will order my prayer to You.” The Hebrew word for “order” was used of the priests ordering the sacrifice on the altar and arranging the bread of the presence on the table. Some apply that by suggesting that our prayers should be orderly or systematic, and that may be a helpful approach. I am not as systematic as some, who pray for different categories on different days of the week. But I often follow the outline of the Lord’s Prayer as a pattern for prayer.

E. Pray expectantly.

David also says that he will “eagerly watch.” It is the same word that Habakkuk uses (2:1) when he says, “I will stand on my guard post and station myself on the rampart; and I will keep watch to see what He will speak to me, and how I may reply when I am reproved.” It pictures a guard at his military post, waiting for the messenger that he has sent to return. It implies that when we pray, we should look for the answer. As our King, we can expect God to listen and respond to our needs as His subjects. So when you’re under attack, take refuge in the Lord through prayer.

2. When you’re under attack, appeal to God as the righteous Judge (5:4-6).

David’s reasoning here is that since his enemies are so evil, surely God, who is righteous, will act on his behalf. So David rehearses God’s righteousness to encourage himself with the truth that God will right all wrongs.

A. God is separate from all evil and will judge all evildoers.

When David says that God does not take pleasure in wickedness (5:4) it is a figure of speech that means, He hates it! Far from winking at sin or chuckling about it, God stands apart from it and His Word warns us repeatedly that He will condemn all unrepentant sinners to the Lake of Fire forever. If you think that your good deeds will outweigh your bad deeds and get you into heaven, you’re going to be terribly shocked! Just a single sin will bar you from heaven, unless you trust in Jesus as your Savior.

You often hear the cliché that God loves the sinner, but hates the sin. But here David says that God not only hates the sin, He also hates “all who do iniquity” (5:5). “The Lord abhors the man of bloodshed and deceit” (5:6). Jonathan Edwards no doubt had texts like this in mind when he preached his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  There Edwards warned (The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth], 2:10), “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire….”

That doesn’t quite sound like, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life”! So, does God love the sinner or hate him? Doesn’t the Bible say that He loves the whole world?

Calvin (The Institutes of the Christian Religion, edited by John McNeill [Westminster Press], 2.16.2-4) explains the apparent contradiction by saying that we need the verses about God’s hatred of sinners so that we will be overwhelmed with how terrible and offensive our sin is to an absolutely holy God. Only then will we properly appreciate what He did for us in Christ. He cites Augustine who explains that in a sense, God loved us even when He hated us. He hated us for our sin and rebellion, but He loved us in Christ before the foundation of the world.

In my judgment, we err if we are quick to tell arrogant, unrepentant sinners that God loves them. They need to hear that they are objects of His terrible wrath. If a person is broken by his sin and guilt, then yes, tell him of God’s love in Christ. But otherwise, he needs to hear of the terrors of the coming judgment.

But in Psalm 5, David rehearses God’s hatred of the unrepentant wicked to encourage himself with the fact that God will bring justice for His people. But there is also an inherent warning for believers here:

B. Make sure that you are in Christ and walking in obedience.

As we’ll see in verse 7, David didn’t trust in his own righteousness to approach God. We can only come into His presence by His grace as we trust in Christ. But, at the same time, before we condemn as sinners those attacking us, we need to take the log out of our own eye! Are they wicked? What about me? Am I judging my own sins and obeying Christ? Are they boastful or hateful or dishonest? What about me? While I can appeal to God to bring justice, at the same time I need to examine my own heart.

3. When you’re under attack, reverently draw near to God by His grace (5:7).

As David thought on God’s absolute hatred of sin and His holiness, he realized that he could never approach God on the basis of his own righteousness. So he acknowledges that the only way he can enter God’s house is by His abundant lovingkindness. The Hebrew word translated “lovingkindness” is the Old Testament word for “grace.” Perhaps David’s phrase, “abundant lovingkindness” is where Paul got his phrase, “the riches of His grace” (Eph. 1:7; 2:7). But the only way that anyone can draw near to God is through His abundant grace as shown to us in Christ.

David’s mention of God’s house and His temple leads some to reject his authorship of this Psalm, since the temple did not yet exist. But both words are used of the tabernacle (Josh. 6:24; 2 Sam. 12:20; 1 Sam. 1:9; 3:3). They are symbolic of God’s presence, where His glory was seen. Thus the only way to draw near to God is with reverence or fear. That’s why Jesus told us to pray, “hallowed be Your name” (Matt. 6:9). Although we are told to draw near with confidence (Heb. 4:16), we must also come with reverence.

Thus in the first cycle, when David is under attack, he takes refuge in the Lord through prayer; he appeals to God as the righteous Judge; and, he reverently draws near to God by His grace.

Cycle 2 (Psalm 5:8-12): When you’re under attack, take refuge in the Lord as your righteous defender.

The second cycle follows the same three ideas, with some variations. I must be more brief here.

4. When you’re under attack, pray for the Lord to keep you on the righteous path (5:8).

David is painfully aware of the tendency that we all have, when under attack, to respond to our attackers in a sinful manner. When someone sins against you, it is very difficult to follow the command of 1 Peter 3:9, “not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead.” So David prays (5:8), “O Lord, lead me in Your righteousness because of my foes; make Your way straight before me.” His prayer isn’t just that God would protect him from the wicked, but also that God would protect him from becoming like the wicked. David’s critics would have loved to see him stumble, so that they could have more ammunition to throw at him. It also would have brought an occasion for them to further mock David’s God. So he asks God to show him His way.

As I said, it is not necessarily wrong to defend yourself against critics that attack you. Paul did this in Galatians and 2 Corinthians. But it requires God’s wisdom to know when to defend yourself and when to ignore the critics. And whatever you do, it takes God’s grace and wisdom to respond in a gracious, Christlike manner.

5. When you’re under attack, appeal to God as the righteous Judge (5:9-10).

David describes the evil of his attackers and asks God to judge them. As with the earlier tension of whether God hates the wicked or loves them, so here there is a tension: Should we ask God to judge our attackers or to forgive them? Before you quickly conclude that the New Testament way is to forgive our enemies, you need to remember that the New Testament also says (2 Thess. 1:6), “For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you.” Paul goes on to say (1:9) that these wicked people “will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.” And in Revelation 18:20, when God judges wicked Babylon, we are commanded to rejoice over her. Even the Lord’s Prayer, that His will would be done on earth as it is in heaven, includes His judgment of the wicked.

When evil people who are opposed to God attack me as God’s representative, I ask God to be glorified either in saving them or by judging them. Since I don’t know His sovereign purpose, I leave it up to Him. He could save them as He saved the persecutor of the church, Saul of Tarsus. Or, He may send them to eternal damnation if they do not repent.

Note how David describes his attackers (5:9): “There is nothing reliable in what they say; their inward part is destruction itself. Their throat is an open grave; they flatter with their tongue.” These were not constructive critics who were trying to help David do a better job. They were trying to destroy him. David asks God to judge them not only because they opposed David, but also (5:10), “they are rebellious against You.” If you are walking with the Lord and doing His work and someone attacks you, not with constructive criticism, but rather to destroy you, it may be that the person is rebellious against God. So don’t take it personally. You’re just God’s messenger. The critic is only angry with you because you represent God to him. Let God take care of him.

Before you pray verses 9 & 10 against your critics, you need to remember that Paul cited these verses as an indictment against the sinfulness of every one of us (Rom. 3:13). Even though we have been redeemed, we still have to fight against our old nature, which is prone to all these sins. So, again, we must take the log out of our own eye first.

6. When you’re under attack, take joyous refuge in God as your defender (5:11-12).

David broadens the application from himself to all of God’s people who may be under attack (5:11-12): “But let all who take refuge in You be glad, let them ever sing for joy; and may You shelter them, that those who love Your name may exult in You. For it is You who blesses the righteous man, O Lord, You surround him with favor as with a shield.”

Apparently, David’s attackers were still prowling around like a pack of wolves, trying to get him. But David has taken refuge in God and so he is so overflowing with joy in the Lord that he bursts forth in singing. (This is the first of 70 references to singing in the Psalms.) Being glad and joyful in the Lord is our duty, because glorifying God is our duty. As John Piper says, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.”

The picture of God surrounding the righteous man with favor as with a shield reminds me of a Colgate toothpaste ad that was on TV many years ago. A man was standing near a bunch of kids playing ball. A hardball came flying at him, but it just bounced off an invisible shield. He went on to say that Colgate put that kind of protective shield around your teeth, to keep them from decay. David is saying that the believer can be joyful even when under attack, because the shield of God’s favor surrounds him.

Conclusion

So each cycle of this psalm emphasizes the same truths: When you’re under attack, take refuge in the Lord through prayer. Appeal to Him as the righteous Judge. And, draw near to Him by His grace, rejoicing in Him as your defender.

Paul and Silas knew that joy when they sang praises to God from the Philippian jail after being wrongly accused and beaten. Hudson Taylor knew that joy on the evening after burying his second wife in China. He sang, “Jesus, I am resting, resting, in the joy of what Thou art. I am finding out the greatness of Thy loving heart.”

Do you know that joy when you’re under attack? It is found in God as your refuge and righteous defender. Run to His loving arms!

Application Questions

  1. Some Christians allow the attacks of others to drive them away from the Lord, whereas for some it drives them to the Lord. What makes the difference?
  2. Should Christians take pleasure or be grieved at the thought of God judging their enemies? How does Rev. 18:20 fit in?
  3. I said that it is not advisable to tell an arrogant, unrepentant sinner that God loves him. Agree/disagree? Why?
  4. How can we know whether to defend ourselves before critics or just to ignore them? What biblical principles apply?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2008, All Rights Reserved

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Psalm 8: God’s Majesty and Ours

The older I get and the faster that the New Year seems to pop up on the calendar, the more I think about, “What is the significance of my life?” Life is so uncertain that none of us knows whether this will be our last day on this planet, much less our last year. And even if we live a long life, it all goes by so quickly. So I often ask myself, “What have I accomplished of any lasting value in light of eternity?” And, “If the Lord gives me ten or fifteen more years of health and strength, what should I seek to accomplish?”

My parents used to have a little plaque on the wall by our front door that read, “Only one life, ’twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.” That little couplet states it well. The significance of our lives can only be measured in the light of our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. As we seek to live in light of God’s purpose for our lives, we will know where we fit into His plan and our lives will take on the significance that God intended.

Psalm 8 explores the theme of God’s majestic splendor and our puny insignificance by way of comparison. And yet at the same time, God has created us in His image and graciously crowned us with glory and majesty. He has assigned us the role of ruling over His creation. All of these thoughts should lead us, as the psalm both begins and ends (Ps. 8:1, 9), to declare in worship, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth!”

Derek Kidner (Psalms 1-72 [IVP], pp. 65-66) comments,

This psalm is an unsurpassed example of what a hymn should be, celebrating as it does the glory and grace of God, rehearsing who He is and what He has done, and relating us and our world to Him; all with a masterly economy of words, and in a spirit of mingled joy and awe….

The range of thought takes us not only “above the heavens” (1) and back to the beginning (3, 6-8) but, as the New Testament points out, on to the very end.

We don’t know when David wrote this psalm. Obviously, it stemmed from his experience (which most of us have had) of gazing up at the night sky and marveling at its vastness compared to his own puniness on this speck in the universe called planet earth. We don’t know for certain what the term “Gittith” in the title means. It refers to the Philistine town of Gath, which means winepress. Thus it may refer to a psalm for the grape harvest (such as the Feast of Tabernacles); to the ark’s journey from the house of Obed-edom the Gittite to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 6:11); or to a tune or musical instrument named after the city. Two other psalms (81, 84) have the term in their titles. In Psalm 8, David is exhorting us to…

Worship the Lord because His name is majestic in all the earth and because He has graciously crowned us with glory and majesty.

1. Worship the Lord because His name is majestic in all the earth (8:1, 2).

A. The Lord has displayed His majesty in all the earth and in the splendor of the heavens (8:1).

To try to comment on verse 1 is kind of like commenting on the splendor of the Grand Canyon. Words really can’t do it justice. You just need to get out of the way and let people see it! David begins with the exclamation, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth, who have displayed Your splendor above the heavens!”

The first word translated “Lord” is the Hebrew word, Yahweh, God’s personal covenant name. It stems from the Hebrew verb, “to be.” God revealed it first to Moses at the burning bush when He said (Exod. 3:14), “I am who I am.” It points to God’s eternal self-existence. He is the only uncreated being in the universe! The second “Lord” is the Hebrew “Adonai,” meaning sovereign or lord. We could paraphrase David’s address, “O eternal covenant God, our personal Sovereign!” Although God is eternal and totally separate from His creation, He has graciously condescended to enter into a covenant relationship with His people as their Sovereign Lord.

The word “majestic” implies royalty, a concept which we as Americans do not properly appreciate. For a commoner to come into the presence of a king on his throne was a frightening and awe-inspiring moment. When Israel celebrated God’s mighty deliverance at the exodus, they sang (Exod. 15:11), “Who is like You among the gods, O Lord? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in praises, working wonders?”

David says further that it is God’s name that is majestic. His name refers to the perfection of His attributes and the mightiness of His deeds. In other words, God’s name refers to who He is and what He has done, as revealed in His Word. David also says that the majesty of God’s name is seen in all the earth and above the heavens. It is similar to what Paul states when he indicts the human race for suppressing the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18). He explains (Rom. 1:20), “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”

When we consider God’s majesty as seen in all the earth, I could cite enough examples to keep you here all day. There is enough evidence for the Creator in the human body alone to convince anyone willing to think about it that we are not the product of random chance over a long period of time.

The human brain has 10 billion nerve cells interacting in coordination to allow us to function as we do. Your eyes have about 100 million receptor cells in each retina, which also contains four other layers of nerve cells. The system makes billions of calculations per second, traveling through your optic nerve to the brain, which has more than a dozen separate vision centers to process it. Your skin has more than 2 million tiny sweat glands, about 3,000 per square inch, to regulate your temperature.

Your heart beats an average of 75 times per minute, 40 million times per year, or two and a half billion times in 70 years. It pumps about 3,000 gallons of blood per day. Your body is supported by more than 200 finely designed bones, connected to more than 500 muscles and many tendons and ligaments. Some muscles respond to your conscious will, whereas some react automatically. Your digestive system contains about 35 million glands that secrete juices to digest your food and sustain your life. I haven’t even mentioned your lungs, your other senses (hearing, taste, smell, and touch), your endocrine glands, your immune system, and much more. And it all works together!

And this is just the human body. When you consider the complex balance of the natural world, with the hydrologic cycle, the way that plants grow and process carbon dioxide to produce oxygen, the seasons, the balance between insects and birds and the other animals, it is simply absurd to suggest that it all came about by sheer chance over time without the Creator!

David also considers God’s splendor above the heavens. Of course, he had no telescopes to show him how big the universe is. What would he have thought if he knew what we know! The sheer vastness of outer space and the coordination of it all is astounding. If you could travel at the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second, it would take you 8 minutes to get to the sun. To go from the sun to the center of the Milky Way would take about 33,000 years. The Milky Way belongs to a group of some 20 galaxies known as the Local Group. To cross that group, you’d have to travel for 2 million years. The Local Group belongs to the Virgo Cluster, part of an even larger Local Supercluster, which is a half-billion light years across. To cross the entire universe as we know it would take you 20 billion light years (National Geographic World [Jan., 1992], p. 15)!

And yet supposedly intelligent scientists see all of this and then attribute it to “nature” or random chance! Sir Isaac Newton had an exact replica of our solar system made in miniature. At its center was a large golden ball representing the sun. Revolving around it were small spheres representing the planets, attached at the ends of rods of varying lengths. They were all geared together by cogs and belts to make them move around the sun in harmony.

One day as Newton was studying the model, a friend who did not believe in the biblical account of creation stopped by. Marveling at the device and watching as Newton made the heavenly bodies move in their orbits, the man exclaimed, “My, Newton, what an exquisite thing! Who made it for you?”

Without looking up, Newton replied, “Nobody.” “Nobody?” his friend asked. “That’s right! I said nobody! All of these balls and cogs and belts and gears just happened to come together and wonder of wonders, by chance they began revolving in their set orbits and with perfect timing!” His unbelieving friend got the message! (From “Our Daily Bread,” 1977.) But Newton’s model was nothing compared to the vastness and complexity of the universe! Truly, God has displayed His splendor above the heavens!

B. The Lord has displayed His majesty and power in seemingly weak infants, through whom He triumphs over His enemies (8:2).

David knows that in spite of all of the evidence of God’s glory in His creation, there are still adversaries that oppose Him. They have an a priori bias against God because they want to be the lords of their own lives. They begin by assuming materialism and so they have no place for God.

How does God deal with such enemies? David says that it is “from the mouth of infants and nursing babes You have established strength” (8:2)! What does he mean? I think that John Calvin was right when he said that the process of the conception and birth of an infant displays God’s splendor so clearly that even a nursing infant brings down to the ground the fury of God’s enemies (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on Psalms, p. 98). Calvin didn’t know anything about the complex biological and chemical processes that take place in the mother and child at birth. He was just observing the wonder of a newborn baby. How can you look at a baby and say that it happened by sheer chance, apart from a Creator?

But the biological process of birth is amazing. At nine months after conception, the baby’s brain sends a hormone through the placenta and into the mother’s pituitary gland. Although it is a complicated chemical, its message is simple: “I’m ready! It’s time!” All of the baby’s complex systems—lungs, heart, gastrointestinal system, nervous system, brain—are ready to make it on their own. The baby’s skull has not yet fused, so that it can be pliable enough to fit through the birth canal. As the process starts, the baby’s adrenal glands add a shot of stress hormones to help the baby cope.

The child will not breathe until it has cleared the birth canal. If it breathed too soon, it would suffocate. But if it waited too long, it would suffer brain damage. Just before the mother and child separate, the newborn gets a last-minute blood transfusion through the umbilical cord. The placenta has stored the nutrients the baby needs for this exact moment. There is far more going on that we don’t understand. (The above synopsis of birth is from Geoffrey Simmons, Billions of Missing Links, pp. 11-12, in The Summit Journal, April, 2007.) But the cry of the newborn displays God’s strength.

Beyond this, there is the fact that little children often praise God. The Septuagint (LXX, Greek translation of the OT) translated the word “strength” somewhat freely as “praise.” God’s strength as seen in creating children leads to His praise. On Palm Sunday, as Jesus rode the donkey into Jerusalem and then healed the blind and lame in the temple, little children saw these things and cried out, “Hosanna to the Son of David” (Matt. 21:15). Jesus’ enemies, the chief priests and scribes, became indignant about what the children were saying. Jesus replied by quoting this verse (21:16), “Yes, have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies You have prepared praise for Yourself’?” James Boice explains (Psalms, Volume 1 [Baker], p. 68),

If these leaders of the people had been indignant before, they must have become nearly catatonic now. For by identifying the praise of the children of Jerusalem with Psalm 8, Jesus not only validated their words, showing them to be proper. (He was, indeed, the “son of David,” the Messiah.) He also interpreted their praise as praise not of a mere man, which a mere “son of David” would be, but of God, since the psalm says that God has ordained praise for himself from children’s lips.

Thus the Lord overcomes His enemies by the marvel of little children and the praise that they sing in their simple faith. So David’s first and main point is that we should worship the Lord because His name is majestic in all the earth.

2. Worship the Lord because although we are puny and insignificant, He has graciously crowned us with glory and majesty (8:3-8).

A. Compared to the vastness of God’s created universe, we are puny and insignificant (8:3-4).

David looked up into the vastness of the night sky and saw the moon and the stars, the work of God’s fingers. He has somehow set them all in their appointed places and orbits. Then David thinks of how small he is and marvels (8:4), “What is man that You take thought of him, and the son of man that You care for him?” The Hebrew word used for “man” emphasizes man in his frail human existence (see Pss. 9:20; 90:3; 103:15). The second line referring to him as “the son of man” may hint at our fallen condition, since all of the sons of Adam were born after his likeness and image, in sin (Gen. 5:3ff.). Compared to the vastness of the universe, what is man that God thinks of us, much less that He cares for us!

Years ago, there was a famous explorer named William Beebe. He was a good friend of President Theodore Roosevelt. Often when he visited the President at Sagamore Hill, the two men would go outdoors at night to see who could first locate the Andromeda galaxy. Then, as they gazed at the tiny smudge of distant starlight, one of them would recite, “That is the spiral galaxy of Andromeda. It s as large as our Milky Way. It is one of a hundred million galaxies. It is 750,000 light years away. It consists of 100 billion suns, each larger than our sun.” Then Roosevelt would grin and say, “Now I think we are small enough! Let’s go to bed.” (7,700 Illustrations, Paul Tan [Assurance Publishers], #2213.)

B. Yet in spite of our insignificance, God has crowned us with glory and majesty and assigned us to rule over His creation (8:5-8).

David probably intended the Hebrew Elohim to refer to God, not to the angels (on rare occasions, it can mean “angels” or “human leaders,” 1 Sam. 28:13; Ps. 82:1, 6). David is referring back to Genesis 1:26, where God created man in His image and likeness. In the same context, God assigned to man the task of ruling over the rest of creation, as David here enumerates. David could have said that we were made just a little higher than the other animals, but instead, he says that we were made a little lower than God to reflect the wonder that we are created in His image. As H. C. Leupold states, “Nowhere is man’s dignity asserted more clearly and boldly than in this passage. But we again remind the reader that the reference is to man before the fall” (Exposition of Psalms [Baker], p. 104).

But the LXX translators took the rarer meaning and translated that we were created a little lower than the angels. The author of Hebrews followed that translation (Heb. 2:7) because he wanted to make the point that Jesus for a short while had been made lower than the angels, so that through His death He could accomplish our salvation. Thus,

C. Psalm 8 is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who restores what Adam lost.

Man since the fall has accomplished some remarkable feats in gaining dominion over creation. Think of all of the wonders of modern science, including the advances in medical science. And yet, all of these accomplishments are tainted by sin. Proud man boasts in them and does not acknowledge that the ability to discover scientific facts has been given to him by God. Like the builders of the Tower of Babel, proud modern man uses his scientific breakthroughs to proclaim his independence from God. With a few more breakthroughs, we can cure all our diseases and live forever!

But science cannot reconcile us to God. So what did God do? He sent His own Son, the Son of Man, to provide the sacrifice for our sins and to fulfill Psalm 8 in a way that we cannot. Hebrews 2 cites Psalm 8:4-6 and then applies it to Jesus (Heb. 2:9): “But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.” Leupold summarizes (p. 101), “man as created reflects God’s glory. But the Son of man, in whom the original pattern is more fully realized, reflects this same glory far more perfectly.”

So David tells us to worship the Lord because although we are puny and insignificant, He has graciously thought of us and cared for us. Although we marred God’s image through sin, God has restored it in Jesus Christ. In Him, we are again crowned with glory and majesty. Thus,

3. Worship the Lord because His name is majestic in all the earth (8:9).

David comes full circle and closes the wreath of praise: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth!”

Conclusion

How can we apply this psalm? I could elaborate extensively on each of these points, but I can only list them and trust that you will think through the applications more fully:

1. We should bow in awe before our majestic Creator!

This psalm should humble us and cause us to marvel at God’s grace and love in caring for us by sending His Son as our Savior.

2. We should treat each person with value and respect as beings created in God’s image.

John Piper has said, “You cannot worship and glorify the majesty of God while treating his supreme creation with contempt.” (http://www.desiringod.org/ResourceLibrary/Sermons/ ByScripture/1/860_What_Is_Man/) Christians must oppose all racism. We must treat all people with respect.

3. We should stand firmly against the horrors of abortion, which treats God’s majestic creation as trash.

From the point of conception, the only difference between the baby in the mother’s womb and you and I is time and nurture. To kill children simply because it is inconvenient to care for them, is a horrible sin that we must confront.

4. We should stand firmly against the absurdity of evolution, which denies that we are created in God’s image.

Evolution is simply a way for sinful people to attempt to avoid their Creator. It is one of the greatest scientific frauds that the enemy of our souls has ever foisted on the human race!

5. We should rear our children to love, fear, and serve God as the only way to make life count.

When we are rightly related to God through Jesus Christ, our lives take on eternal significance.

6. We should be good stewards of God’s creation.

While modern man worships the creation rather than the Creator, we should not neglect the fact that we are the stewards over God’s creation. We should oppose the greed that often destroys creation with no regard for its beauty and preservation.

7. We should take pleasure in whatever work God gives us to do, doing it heartily as unto Him.

As the Puritans emphasized, every legitimate occupation is a God-given vocation. No matter what you do to earn a living, you can do it for the Lord (Col. 3:22-24).

8. We should enjoy God through His creation.

Forget the mall or the movies. Take a hike and enjoy God through the wonders that He has made!

Application Questions

  1. Is it futile or potentially useful to debate an atheist about the existence of God? Is the atheist’s problem intellectual or moral?
  2. Clearly, the Bible condemns racism. Does it prohibit interracial marriage? How would you counsel someone on this matter?
  3. Should Christians be at the forefront of the environmental movement? Where is the biblical balance?
  4. Some jobs seem tedious and boring. How should a believer in such a job view it? (See Eph. 6:5-8; Col. 3:22-24.)

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2009, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Psalm 13: When God Seems Distant

Years ago I talked with a well‑known Bible teacher after hearing him preach. At the time I had been going through a dry spell in my spiritual life. So I asked him what he did during his personal devotions and if he ever had dry times. I was rather surprised when he answered that he never had dry times with the Lord. I pursued the matter, challenging his answer, but he stuck to his guns, insisting that he never had times when God seemed distant. He gently rebuked me by saying, “Brother, if you expect nothing from God, you will get it every time!” In other words, the source of my dry spell was my lack of expectancy and faith.

Since then I’ve thought a lot about what he said. I’m happy for him that he never has dry spells, but I must admit that I can’t relate to that. I’ve had times when God seems distant. I agree with him that usually when that happens, it’s because of my lack of faith or sin. But I also believe that there are times in the life of every Christian, when even though you are walking by faith and there is no known sin in your life, God seems far away. You pray, but God doesn’t answer. You read the Bible, but it does not speak to you. You seek God, but it seems as if He is hiding.

When that happens, you’re in good company. David, the man whom God called “a man after My own heart,” had that experience. He describes it in Psalm 13. Out of the depths of his heart David repeats four times the haunting cry, “How long?” There is no indication in these verses that David had sinned. But his enemy was about to get him. In spite of David’s repeated prayers, God seemed unavailable. Have you ever been there? You desperately call out to God, but He seems to have taken an extended vacation. Psalm 13 tells you what to do when God seems distant.

The psalm falls into three stanzas of two verses each: 1. The problem (13:1‑2); 2. The petition (13:3‑4); 3. The praise (13:5‑6).

The stanzas seem to decrease in their magnitude or turmoil. At first David cries out in anguish. Then he offers a more gentle petition. Finally, he rests in the joy of knowing that God will answer him. Franz Delitzsch says it well: “This song as it were casts up constantly lessening waves, until it becomes still as the sea when smooth as a mirror, and the only motion discernible at last is that of the joyous ripple of calm repose” (Commentary on the Old Testament, [Eerdmans] 5:199). In a sentence, the psalm is saying:

When God seems distant, we must call to Him and trust in His unfailing love.

At those times when it seems as if God has turned His back, we must deliberately trust the fact that He loves us with an unfailing love, and that He will not forsake us, even though it may seem that way for a while. Let’s examine the three parts of the psalm:

1. The problem: God seems distant (13:1-2).

God’s distance in the face of the enemy’s prominence resulted in a lot of inner turmoil for David.

A. David’s God seemed distant (13:1).

It seemed as if God had forgotten David, had hidden Himself from him, and as if it would last forever. It always seems as if a time of intense trial lasts forever, doesn’t it? The hard thing about waiting is that you have to wait! Don’t you hate to wait? Waiting is especially hard if you don’t have much to do while you wait. If this psalm was written when David was being pursued by Saul, then David had a lot of time on his hands. He was holed up out in the desolate wilderness of Judah. About all he and his men had to do was to get their daily provisions and keep watch. The hours, days, weeks, and months dragged on as David waited for God to act.

Sometimes it seems as if God moves so slowly! We live in a day that says, “Hurry, hurry, hurry!” But so often God says, “Wait! Wait! Wait!” Most of us can relate to a comment by the New England preacher, Phillips Brooks. Normally, he was a calm man. But one day he was clearly agitated. He paced the floor like a caged lion. A friend asked him, “What’s the trouble?” Brooks replied, “The trouble is, I’m in a hurry, but God isn’t.”

Have you ever noticed the difference between God’s timetable and ours? We think in terms of minutes, hours, and days, but God works in terms of years. Do you remember the story of Joseph? God wanted him in a position of influence in Egypt. How did He get Joseph there? First, he had him sold into slavery by his brothers when he was a teenager. He was hauled off to a foreign land. Then, he had him falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife and thrown into prison. A long time went by. Don’t you suppose that Joseph was praying fervently, “God, get me out of here?” But God didn’t seem to hear.

Finally, an opportunity came to interpret the dreams of a couple of fellow inmates. To the one man, the king’s cupbearer, who would be released from prison and restored to his job, Joseph pled, “Remember me and get me out of here!” The cupbearer assured him that he would--but he forgot! The next verse (Gen. 41:1) casually reads, “Now it happened at the end of two full years that Pharaoh had a dream ....” Two years! Think back to two years ago in your life. For two more years Joseph languished in prison. Couldn’t God have given Pharaoh his dream sooner? Why the long wait? As it was, Joseph spent the better part of his twenties either as a slave or in prison in Egypt.

Or take the Apostle Paul. He was God’s greatest apostle to the Gentiles. There was so much work to be done for the Lord, and so little time to do it. Paul wanted to go to Rome and then on to Spain with the gospel.

How did God get Paul to Rome? He had him imprisoned on a false charge. The governor in Caesarea heard his case and knew that he was innocent, but he kept him in custody because he knew that Paul had some influential friends and he hoped for a bribe (Acts 24:26). Acts 24:27 reads, “But after two years had passed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus; and wishing to do the Jews a favor, Felix left Paul imprisoned.” Two years! God’s great apostle was confined in Caesarea. People were perishing without Christ! Why didn’t God do something? Why didn’t He move the governor to release Paul? Wasn’t Paul walking by faith? Wasn’t he praying? Why did he have to sit there for more than two years?

That’s what David was going through. He had been anointed as king by the prophet Samuel when he was a teenager. But Saul was pursuing him like a partridge in the mountains (1 Sam. 26:20). David was perhaps now in his late twenties. This had been going on for years! Where was God? Had He forgotten about David? Perhaps you can relate! When God seems distant, it always affects our emotions:

B. David himself was in turmoil (13:2a, b).

The idea of the Hebrew in verse 2 is that of adding one thought to another in an attempt to get out of the difficulty, but they all fail and just add sorrow to sorrow. At night David made his plans, and by day he tried them, but they were all futile, just causing him more grief (H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms [Baker], p. 135). David had gone from hope to despair so many times that he felt like he was on an emotional roller coaster. He was like a rat in a maze with no exit; God had dropped him in and walked away. Thus,

C. David’s enemy seemed to be winning (13:2c).

Saul was still the king. He was enjoying the comforts of the palace, while David was sleeping in caves. What made it worse, Saul was the bad guy! He wasn’t seeking the Lord; David was. Saul was trying to kill David without cause, even though David had spared Saul’s life. Didn’t God know what was happening? Couldn’t He do something? Had He forgotten about David?

Sooner or later you’ll be there! You’re in an extended time of trial. You call out to God, but He doesn’t answer. You try to figure out how to get out of your circumstances, but nothing works. You go from the heights of hope to the depths of despair so many times that your stomach can’t take much more. Meanwhile, those who aren’t following the Lord are living the good life in the palace while you’re seeking the Lord from the cave. There are two vital lessons to remember at such a time:

(1) God has not forgotten you! Note Isaiah 49:14‑15: “But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, and the Lord has forgotten me.’ ‘Can a woman forget her nursing child, and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you.’“ You may suffer for years, but God never forgets you if you are His child. “... He Himself has said, ‘I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you’“ (Heb. 13:5).

But God does seemingly forget some of His choicest servants, as we have seen. Joseph, Paul, David‑‑all of them were shut up in unpleasant circumstances for years during which it seemed that God had forgotten. Do you know what was happening during that time? God was building maturity into those men as they learned to trust Him. Just as it takes years to grow a sturdy oak tree, so it takes years to build the godly character qualities needed to be an effective servant of the Lord. That’s the second lesson:

(2) There is no such thing as instant godliness. We have instant everything in our society, but there is no instant godliness. David was anointed as king in his teens. He had a strong faith at that time, as seen in his victory over Goliath. Did God put him on the throne when he turned twenty-one? No. Twenty-five? No. Twenty-six? Twenty-seven? Twenty-eight? Twenty-nine? No. Through all those years of running from Saul and living in caves, David learned to wait upon God. God was developing His man.

That’s so out‑of‑joint with our rush‑rush world! But that’s how God works. If God has you shut up in some frustrating circumstances; and you have racked your brain trying to figure a way out, but nothing has worked; and you see the godless prospering while you suffer; and it seems like God is far away; hang on! Let God do His perfect work in you. He hasn’t forgotten you. Learn to wait on Him.

2. The Petition: Call to the Lord (13:3-4).

Do you know why many Christians do not grow to maturity and why they are not used by God in a mighty way? It’s because when God seems distant to them, instead of calling out to Him, they just shrug their shoulders, say “Oh, well,” and go back into the world. Or, they go buy the latest self-help book that promises to fix their problem, but it doesn’t help them to trust in God alone.

David didn’t do that. When God seemed distant, he called on Him to answer him. Instead of turning from God, he turned to Him. Instead of complaining to men about God, David complained to God about men. Matthew Henry wisely observes, “We should never allow ourselves to make any complaints but what are fit to be offered up to God and what drive us to our knees” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary [Revell], 3:282). Four lessons from 13:3-4:

A. Our prayers should be concerned for God’s glory, not just for our happiness.

David wasn’t just praying for deliverance so that he could escape from his problems and be happy. His fear was that the enemy would rejoice (v. 4). Since David was God’s anointed king, if he died at the hands of his enemies, it would make God look bad. God’s honor was tied up with David’s deliverance. If you profess, as David did, to trust in God alone, then your defeat becomes God’s defeat. To defend His own honor, God will defend you. So in a time of crisis, you can call out to God to rescue you, not just for your relief, but for God’s glory. God delights to honor such prayers.

B. We must seek God especially when He seems distant.

David was sensitive to the presence of God in his life. If he lost the sense of God’s presence, he went after it with a holy fervor. The test of your faith is not when God’s presence is real, when you see God at work in your life. The real test of your faith is when God seems distant. Do you seek Him then? If you seek Him, you will find Him, but if you turn to the world or look for a quick fix for your problems without seeking God, you won’t find Him. Seek God especially when He seems distant.

C. We must keep an awareness of God and the enemy before us at all times.

Derek Kidner writes: “Awareness of God and the enemy is virtually the hallmark of every psalm of David; the positive and negative charge which produced the driving‑force of his best years” (Psalms [IVP], 1:78). We need to keep both realities before us as the factors which motivate us to holiness and put us on guard against sin. As Christians, the honor of our God is at stake through us. If we fail Him, the enemy will rejoice. Satan is trying to drag the name of our Savior through the mud by getting us to forsake the Lord or fall into sin. We need to keep God and His honor and the reality of our unseen, evil adversary before us at all times so that we will not disgrace our Lord.

Dr. Howard Hendricks said: “When you are doing what Jesus Christ has called you to do, you can count on two things‑‑and you can stake your life on it: you will possess spiritual power because you have the presence of Christ, and you’ll experience opposition because the devil does not concentrate on secondary targets. He never majors on the minor” (Leadership [Summer, 1980], p. 114).

D. God allows us to come to the end of ourselves so that we must rely on Him.

David was fearing for his life. For the Hebrews, “dim eyes” were a sign that the vital powers were growing dim and that death was approaching. Bright eyes were a sign of life. David calls out to God to enlighten his eyes, that is, to bring him from the brink of death back to life again.

The Apostle Paul said that he and his co-workers in the gospel “despaired even of life”; “we had the sentence of death within ourselves, in order that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:8-9). Sometimes God seems distant and allows us to go right to the brink, to come to the end of ourselves, so that we learn to trust Him more. Whatever their intensity, all trials are designed to bring us to a deeper trust in the Lord. If we dodge them without learning that lesson, we missed what God had for us. David came to that point of trust. Thus, we see that David’s problem led to his petition which led to his praise:

3. Praise: Trust in God’s unfailing love (13:5-6).

David has not yet been delivered, but he trusts in the lovingkindness (NIV = “unfailing love”) of God, and a calm assurance comes over him. His heart is filled with joy as he thinks of the deliverance which God will bring about. By faith, David counts God’s future deliverance as past and says, “I will sing to the Lord, because He has dealt bountifully with me” (v. 6).

Please note that David’s circumstances had not changed one bit from the start of the psalm, when he felt confused, depressed, and forsaken by God. David was still hiding in caves; Saul was still on the throne, trying to kill David.

So what changed? David’s focus! From focusing on himself and his problems at the start of the psalm, David shifted his thoughts to God’s loyal love and salvation. That shift in focus moved him from confusion and depression to joy and praise!

It didn’t happen accidentally, either! “But I” (v. 5) is emphatic (in Hebrew) and points to David’s deliberate choice to rely on God’s loyal love. He chose to interpret his circumstances by God’s love rather than to interpret God’s love by his circumstances. In a time of trial, Satan tries to get us to doubt God’s love. But we have to resist that temptation and affirm with God’s Word that He “causes all things to work together for good to those who love God” (Rom. 8:28). With Joseph, we must affirm that even though those who wronged us meant it for evil, God meant it for ultimate good (Gen. 50:20). So we deliberately choose to trust in God’s loyal love.

This Hebrew word for trust has the nuance of relying or leaning upon someone or something. You ask, “Then is God a crutch?” Yes, and we’re cripples! One of the main reasons people do not trust God is that they’re too proud to admit their total need. Or they mistakenly think that they must earn God’s love. But His love does not stem from any merit on our part, but only from God’s nature. Thus it is pure grace, undeserved on our part. But since God’s love stems from His unchanging nature rather than from our feeble effort, we can trust in it.

Conclusion

The famous preacher, Charles Spurgeon, was walking through the English countryside with a friend. He noticed a barn with a weather vane. At the top of the vane were the words, “God is love.” Spurgeon remarked that this was an inappropriate place for such a message, because weather vanes are changeable, but God’s love is constant. But Spurgeon’s friend disagreed. “You misunderstood the meaning,” he said. “That weather vane is stating the truth that no matter which way the wind blows, God is love.”

When God seems distant, join David in deliberately trusting in God’s unfailing love, however the winds of circumstance are blowing. As David wrote in Psalm 103:11: “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him.” You can count on it, even when your circumstances seem contrary. He is only taking you through the difficulty to develop maturity and godly character. “But it’s been months! Years!” Yes, that’s the way He works. He builds things to last, and that takes time. But the finished product is so much better in quality than quick imitations that don’t develop trust in the living God.

If you are distant from God because of known sin, the answer is the same: Call out to Him and put your trust in His unfailing love as supremely demonstrated in the cross of Jesus Christ (John 3:16). He died as your substitute, taking the penalty you deserved. If you will flee to Him for refuge, He will never turn you away (John 6:37).

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you answer a critic who said, “You’re denying reality to believe in God’s love when terrible things happen to you”?
  2. Some groups offer instant godliness through some dramatic experience. Why is this so appealing? Is it biblical?
  3. If a “Christian self-help” book “works” in solving our problems, why could it still be spiritually harmful?
  4. How would you counsel a Christian going through a difficult trial who said, “I just can’t trust God”?

Copyright 1993, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

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Psalm 16: Pleasures Forever

God gets bad press. The name “devil” means “slanderer” and from day one Satan has engaged in an aggressive campaign to slander God. His original temptation to Eve suggested that God was withholding something good by forbidding Adam and Eve from eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The temptation also suggested that the first couple would find true satisfaction by sinning. The devil has used that same strategy again and again: “God is opposed to your enjoyment of life. Following God is gloomy. Sin will bring you true pleasure.”

But the truth of the Bible is that sin may bring short-term pleasure, but it always brings long-term misery and pain. Submitting to God may bring short-term difficulty and pain, but it always results in lasting joy and pleasure. And so the core of the Christian life is to seek lasting joy and pleasure in God. The familiar Westminster Shorter Catechism begins, “What is the chief end of man?” Answer: “To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” John Piper has thoughtfully improved on that by altering it to, “The chief end of man is to glorify God BY enjoying him forever” (Desiring God [Multnomah Books], Tenth Anniversary Edition, p. 15). As Piper often explains, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.”

Piper (p. 16) cites the French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, who points out that all men seek happiness and that this motive is at the root of every action we take. Even those who hang themselves are seeking happiness, although in a very wrong way! Then Piper cites C. S. Lewis, who points out that contrary to what many think, the Bible consistently appeals to our desire for lasting pleasure. But that pleasure is not found in “drink and sex and ambition,” but in knowing and following Jesus Christ. Psalm 34:8 invites us, “O taste and see that the Lord is good.” It’s an invitation to enjoy God!

Psalm 16 is about experiencing joy and pleasure in God: “In Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever” (v. 11). The scholarly German commentator, Franz Delitzsch, wrote of Psalm 16 (Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes [Eerdmans], by C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, p. 217), “There reigns in the whole Psalm, a settled calm, an inward joy, and a joyous confidence, which is certain that everything that it can desire for the present and for the future it possesses in its God.” The message of the Psalm is:

When we make the Lord our supreme treasure, we will be satisfied with pleasures now and forever in Him.

There are different ways of outlining the psalm; I’m basically following Derek Kidner (Psalms 1-72 [IVP]), who divides it into two main sections. Verses 1-6 describe how to make the Lord your supreme treasure. Verses 7-11 show the results that follow, namely, you will be satisfied with present and eternal pleasures in Him. But, also, there is a third point to be noted. Some (Spurgeon, following James Frame) take the entire psalm to speak of Christ, and that may be so. But all agree that verses 8-11 speak prophetically of Christ, because Peter quoted them of Christ (Acts 2:25-28). So my third point is that all of God’s treasures are centered in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

1. Make the Lord your supreme treasure (16:1-6).

We do not know what the word “Mikhtam” in the title means. It also occurs in Psalms 56-60. Both Peter and Paul (Acts 2:25-28; 13:35-37) affirm that David wrote this psalm (as the title indicates). The first section shows five ways to make the Lord your treasure:

A. Make the Lord your refuge and Savior (16:1).

“Preserve me, O God, for I take refuge in You.” We don’t know whether David wrote this at a time when his life was in imminent danger or if he was reflecting on the general course of his life. But the fact is, we all need a place of refuge and protection, both in time and for eternity.

Temporally, we instinctively try to protect ourselves from harm and danger. We avoid risks that could kill us. We wear seat belts when we drive. We avoid smoking and junk foods that can cause disease. While these are prudent measures, the bottom line is that the eternal God, who spoke the universe into existence by His power, must be our protector. Colossians 1:17 states that in Christ, “all things hold together.” If He were to let go, we would literally disintegrate! So it is right to pray for safety for our loved ones and for ourselves. We need the Lord’s protection constantly.

But even more than temporal preservation, we need an eternal place of refuge from the frightening wrath of God that is coming on the whole world because of sin. In the Old Testament (Num. 35:9-28), God ordained cities of refuge where a person who accidentally killed a man could flee for protection. Those cities were a picture of the ultimate place of refuge, the Lord Jesus Christ. He bore the curse of God’s wrath that we deserved for our sins. To experience eternal pleasure at God’s right hand, you must flee now to Jesus for refuge. Then you will be safe on judgment day.

B. Make the Lord your Lord and your supreme good (16:2).

“I said to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord; I have no good besides You.” The Hebrew of the last phrase of verse 2 is difficult, resulting in two different translations. The KJV translates, “my goodness extendeth not to thee.” The New KJV renders it, “My goodness is nothing apart from You.” Both Calvin and Spurgeon follow this approach, taking it to mean that God does not need anything good that we may offer Him. He doesn’t need our good works, because they can contribute nothing to Him.

But all the other modern translations and commentators understand the verse to mean (as in the NASB), “I have no good besides You.” As Psalm 73:25 proclaims, “Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth.” It goes on to state (73:28), “But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord God my refuge, …” Sam Storms expresses it this way (http://www.enjoyinggodministries.com/article/satisfaction-psalm-16/): “Everything without God is pathetically inferior to God without everything.”. He cites C. S. Lewis, “he who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God only” (“The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996], p. 31).

Can you truly affirm that in your heart: “Lord, I have no other good besides You”? The only way you can truly affirm that is if you can affirm the first part of the verse: “I said to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord.’” In verse 1, David addresses God as El, the Hebrew title for the God of infinite strength. In verse 2, the first Lord is Yahweh, the personal covenant name of God. It is the name that God revealed to Moses at the burning bush when He said (Exod. 3:14), “I am who I am.” The eternal, self-existent God has entered into a covenant relationship with His chosen people. But it is not enough to be a part of the larger group that calls itself by His name. You must personally bow before Jesus Christ as your Lord. The second Lord means Sovereign. When the Sovereign Lord God is your Lord, you begin to experience Him as your only good.

Jesus explained this by two parables (Matt. 13:44-46):

“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

Being a Christian, a follower of Jesus, means that the Spirit of God has opened your eyes to see Jesus as the most valuable treasure in the world. He is the pearl of great value, worth giving up everything that you have to gain Him. From joy over this discovery, you forsake all else in order to gain Christ. As Paul explained it  (Phil. 3:7-8):

But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ….

Have you done that? Has the Holy Spirit opened your eyes to see Jesus as your treasure and supreme good, so that you bowed before Him as your Lord? It is the only path to pleasures forever.

C. Make the Lord the basis of your friendships (16:3).

“As for the saints who are in the earth, they are the majestic ones in whom is all my delight.” Making the Lord our only good (v. 2) does not imply separating from all people and becoming a monk in solitary confinement. Rather, it is to put God at the center of everything, including our relationships. David’s point in verse 3 is that his joy in God is actually enhanced because he has delighted himself in the company of God’s people, whom he refers to as “saints” and “majestic ones.” The latter term may be translated “excellent ones” (ESV). Together these terms describe God’s people as those set apart unto Him, whose character is excellent or noble. The idea is that we should delight in the company of God’s saints, growing together in holiness and love as together we find joy in God.

Thus make the Lord your supreme treasure by making Him your refuge and Savior; by making Him your Lord and your supreme good; by making Him the basis of your friendships.

D. Make the Lord the exclusive object of your worship (16:4).

David’s thoughts about God’s saints also cause him to reflect on those that turn their backs on God and pursue idols (16:4): “The sorrows of those who have bartered for another god will be multiplied; I shall not pour out their drink offerings of blood, nor will I take their names upon my lips.” The translation of the Hebrew verb here is difficult, resulting in either “bartered for” (NASB) or “run after” (ESV, NIV). Either way, the idea is that they have forsaken the living and true God to go after idols. David affirms that he will not partake in their pagan sacrifices, nor will he take their names upon his lips. Calvin interprets the last phrase to refer to the names of the false gods or idols.

While we should maintain relationships with lost people in order to reach them for Christ (Luke 5:29-32), we must take care not to be enticed to follow their false gods or to join them in godless behavior (1 Pet. 4:1-6; Jude 22-23). As Paul warned (1 Cor. 15:33), “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company corrupts good morals.’” David says that the sorrows of the ungodly will be multiplied. God uses similar words in pronouncing the curse on Eve in Genesis 3:16 (Kidner, p. 84). So the warning to us is that while the godless lifestyles of those who pursue sinful pleasure may entice us, such ways only multiply sorrow. “Solid joys and lasting treasure, none but Zion’s children know” (John Newton, “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken”). So make the Lord the exclusive object of your worship.

E. Make the Lord your present and eternal inheritance (16:5-6).

“The Lord is the portion of my inheritance and my cup; you support my lot. The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places; indeed, my heritage is beautiful to me.” The NIV brings out the truth that there is a sense in which you can’t make the Lord your inheritance. Rather, He chooses your inheritance for you (16:5, NIV): “Lord, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure.” As Paul puts it (Eph. 1:11), “In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will.”

The idea behind Psalm 16:5-6 is God’s apportioning the land to the twelve tribes of Israel. They determined by lot the various boundaries. But God did not give an inheritance of land to the tribe of Levi, the priests. Rather, the Lord said to Aaron (Num. 18:20), “You shall have no inheritance in their land nor own any portion among them; I am your portion and your inheritance among the sons of Israel.”

As David reflects on this and applies it to himself, his thought is that having the Lord as his portion is better than the best piece of land that anyone could inherit. John Calvin has some especially sweet words on these verses. He says (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on Ps. 16, p. 224), “None are taught aright in true godliness but those who reckon God alone sufficient for their happiness.” He adds (p. 226), “For he who has God as his portion is destitute of nothing which is requisite to constitute a happy life.”

I can’t leave this first section of this beautiful psalm without urging you not to rest until the Lord is your supreme treasure. If that concept is strange to you, then ask the Lord to open your eyes to see the treasure of Jesus Christ, so that out of joy, you will give up everything you have to gain that treasure. What happens when the Spirit of God enables you to do this?

2. When the Lord is your supreme treasure, you will be satisfied with present and eternal pleasures in Him (16:7-11).

David’s primary joy is not in God’s gifts, but in the Lord Himself (Willem VanGemeren, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, [Zondervan] ed. by Frank Gaebelein, 5:157). But these verses list four blessings, all resulting from the supreme blessing of having God as our treasure:

A. When the Lord is your supreme treasure, you enjoy His counsel and instruction (16:7).

“I will bless the Lord who has counseled me; indeed, my mind instructs me in the night.” The Hebrew word for “mind” is literally, “kidneys.” It refers to the innermost personal life (J. J. Stewart Perowne, The Book of Psalms [Zondervan], p. 194). “Night” is plural in Hebrew, so the thought is, “night after night the Lord has counseled and instructed me as I have meditated upon Him.” David may be referring to the night watches or to times when he woke up in the night and thought about the Lord. When you treasure God’s Word in your heart, you receive His instruction that will sustain you during the nights of difficulty and trials.

B. When the Lord is your supreme treasure, you experience His stability in trials (16:8).

“I have set the Lord continually before me; because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” Calvin (p. 228) explains, “The meaning, therefore, is, that David kept his mind so intently fixed upon the providence of God, as to be fully persuaded, that whenever any difficulty or distress should befall him, God would be always at hand to assist him.” He concludes (ibid.), “David then reckons himself secure against all dangers, and promises himself certain safety, because, with the eyes of faith, he beholds God as present with him.”

C. When the Lord is your supreme treasure, you experience gladness and joy in His security (16:9).

“Therefore my heart is glad and my glory rejoices; my flesh also will dwell securely.” Glory refers to the soul, but the LXX translates it as “tongue.” The tongue expresses what is in the soul. By adding, “my flesh,” David means that his total being, inward and outward, is glad and joyful because God has caused him to live securely. When we reflect on our security in Christ, as Paul does in the climax of the wonderful Romans 8, we cannot help but be glad and rejoice in the Lord. If God is your treasure then you are His treasure (Deut. 26:18), and He isn’t about to lose you! Rejoice!

D. When the Lord is your supreme treasure, you experience eternal joy and pleasure in God’s presence (16:10-11).

“For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol; nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay. You will make known to me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever.” As we will see in a moment, these verses find their ultimate, literal fulfillment in Christ. But as applied to David, the idea is that although he will die, the Lord will not permit him to suffer eternal alienation. To “undergo decay” “is a metaphor for total isolation and abandonment from God’s presence” (VanGemeren, p. 158). Rather than that, David had a hope beyond the grave to enjoy fullness of joy and eternal pleasure in God’s presence. That is your hope if you know the Lord as your supreme treasure.

David’s satisfaction as expressed in verse 11 stands in stark contrast to the sad experience of his son, Solomon. Solomon sought satisfaction in his work, but found it empty. He sought fulfillment through wisdom, but found it vain. He built a beautiful mansion and landscaped it with a breathtaking garden, but found no pleasure in it. He tried laughter and wine, but found these to be madness. He had sexual pleasures that few men have experienced, with 700 beautiful wives and 300 concubines, but they could not satisfy him. He had fabulous wealth, but it couldn’t buy him happiness. He chronicles all of this in Ecclesiastes, where he finally concludes (Eccl. 12:13), “fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person.” Too bad he didn’t learn sooner from his father to make the Lord his supreme treasure!

But maybe you’re wondering, “If I don’t go after worldly pleasures and instead seek pleasure in God, how can I be sure of the eternal joy and pleasure that God promises? Maybe I’ll live a hard life of suffering or persecution and die and that’s it. How can I know that I will have pleasures forever with God?”

3. All of God’s promises of eternal pleasure are secured by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (16:8-11).

Both Peter and Paul (Acts 2:25-28; 13:35-37) cite these verses and assert that they did not find ultimate fulfillment in David, in that he died and his body underwent decay. David wrote prophetically of the son of David, God’s Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He came to this earth to bear the awful curse of God’s wrath for the sins that we have committed. God placed our guilt on Him. “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him” (Isa. 53:6). As Paul explains (Gal. 3:13-14), “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’—in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”

As Paul also explains (in 1 Cor. 15:12-19), the entire Christian faith rests on the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead. If His body is in the tomb and underwent decay, then we are not forgiven! But Paul and Peter and many other faithful witnesses joyfully testify that God did not leave Jesus in the tomb. He is risen! That means that God’s promises of eternal joy and pleasure in His presence are secure for those who trust in the risen Savior!

Conclusion

In Desiring God, John Piper explains how C. S. Lewis helped him to see that it is not wrong, but right to seek our own pleasure. Lewis wrote (Piper, ibid., p. 17), “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Infinite joy and pleasure are offered to us in Jesus Christ. Sell all that you have to buy the field with that great, eternal treasure and you will have fullness of joy and pleasures forever in Him!

Application Questions

  1. Your friend claims to be a Christian, but is not experiencing joy in Christ. He asks your help. Where would you begin?
  2. Is it okay to enjoy things other than God (family, friends, possessions, etc.)? When do they become idols?
  3. Is it sin to be depressed? Why/why not? Defend biblically.
  4. Does Psalm 16 alter your view of God? How so?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2009, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Psalm 19: God’s Revelation, Our Response

The late Bill Klem was one of major league baseball’s best-known umpires. When he stood behind the plate, he was in charge of everything that mattered. He was the unquestioned authority; you didn’t challenge his word. He had a way of looking contentious managers straight in the eye and backing them right into the dugout.

On one occasion, it was the ninth inning of a critical game. The batter hit the ball to left field and the runner on third broke for the plate with the potential winning run. The catcher crouched to make the tag. There was a fierce collision with the catcher, the runner, and the umpire all knocked to the ground. Everyone eagerly awaited the decision. In one dugout the players were screaming, “He’s safe! He’s safe!” In the other dugout they yelled, “He’s out! He’s out!” The fans were in a divided uproar.

In the midst of the noise and confusion, Bill Klem stood up, looked directly into the stands, raised his fist and exclaimed, “He ain’t nothin’ ‘til I’ve called it!” Klem was the authority and nobody was going to take that away from him!

We live in a day of spiritual and moral confusion. Some claim, “This is the way to live!” Others counter, “No, this is the way!” Many more claim, “There is no one way to live; each person must choose his own way!” Philosophers, educators, sociologists, psychologists, politicians, and even pastors offer their speculations about how we should live. But what we need is not more speculation, but a sure word of authoritative revelation which tells us why we’re on this planet and how we should live in light of that purpose.

What we need is a sure word from God. If the sovereign God has spoken, then some may shout one thing and some another, but the only judgment that matters is what God declares. If God calls it, that settles it! We can only lay aside our speculations and submit to what He says.

In Psalm 19, David shows that God has spoken to us through His revelation in His world (19:1‑6) and in His Word (19:7‑11). He concludes by showing how we must respond (19:12‑14).

Perhaps David wrote the psalm after arising for an early watch out in the Judean wilderness, where he tended sheep for his father and later hid from King Saul. As he sat in the early morning darkness, he was awed with the vastness of space and the immensity of God as he gazed into the starry sky. Soon the darkness gave way to the first rays of light and to a glorious sunrise. David, moved with the greatness of God, wrote this psalm which combines beautiful poetry with profound theology and the appropriate moral response. It shows God’s general revelation in the heavens, God’s specific revelation in the Scriptures, and David’s response.

1. God has revealed Himself generally in His world (19:1‑6).

“The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands” (19:1). The Scriptures plainly teach that the universe was created by God: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). “...by the word of God the heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and by water” (2 Pet.

In 19:1‑6, David shows us three things concerning God’s revelation in His creation:

A. There is abundant evidence of God’s glory in His creation (19:1, 2, 4a).

“Glory” comes from a word meaning “weight” or “worth.” We see abundant evidence of God’s weight or worth by looking at His creation, especially at the vastness and grandeur of the universe. Every day the sun in its splendor and every night the stars in their glory tell about the greater glory of the God who spoke them into existence.

If people choose to ignore God’s revelation in His creation, it is not because of a lack of evidence: “Their line has gone out through all the earth” (Ps. 19:4). The message extends everywhere. If you live in this universe, you have clear testimony to the God who created it.

The reason people do not see the evidence is moral, not intellectual. As Paul put it, they “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four‑footed animals and crawling creatures” (Rom. 1:18, 20‑23).

The evidence is there. The problem is that people do not want to submit to God as Lord; they want to be their own lord.

B. There is no need for an education to grasp the evidence.

It is a silent witness (19:3). You don’t have to be literate to grasp God’s general revelation. It speaks with unwritten words to everyone alike. In fact, being educated in the speculations of proud men may hinder you from grasping the simplicity of God’s revelation of Himself in creation.

I saw a film about a couple who went to Papua New Guinea to take the gospel to a primitive, illiterate tribe. They learned the language and began to tell the story of the Bible, starting in Genesis. When they told these tribesmen the story of creation, the missionaries mentioned that in their own country (America), many people believed that human beings descended from apes. These simple, uneducated people responded in mocking laughter by exclaiming, “That’s stupid!” Anyone should be able to look at the awesomeness and complexity of creation and conclude that there is a Creator.

C. There are several attributes of God revealed in the heavens.

David is writing a poem or song, not a scientific or theological treatise, so he is not comprehensive or systematic. But we can draw out at least five things about God from Psalm 19:1‑6:

(1) God is infinite in His power. The next time you step outside on a starry night and look up into the sky, think about the fact our galaxy, the Milky Way, contains more than 100 billion stars. And there are probably at least 100 billion other galaxies in the universe, each with billions of stars!

Imagine that the thickness of the page in your Bible is 93 million miles, the distance to our sun. The distance to the nearest star (4 1/2 light years) would be 71 feet. The diameter of our own galaxy (100,000 light years) would be 310 miles. The edge of the known universe would be 31 million miles on the same scale! God spoke this universe into existence! What does that tell you about His power and infinitude?

(2) God is consistent and faithful. Just as the sun faithfully and consistently rises in the east every morning and sets in the west every evening, so God is faithful and consistent. You can count on Him to keep His Word. He never fails.

(3) God is radiant in His splendor. David poetically compares the sun to a bridegroom coming out of his bridal chamber, radiant with exuberance and joy. The sun rising in the eastern sky is just a finite picture of the radiance of the infinite God who alone dwells in unapproachable light and on whose splendor no mortal can look.

(4) God is consistently strong (19:5b). Just as the sun consistently runs its course daily and gives off its life‑sustaining warmth, so God is consistently strong. If the sun varied just a few degrees in its temperature, it would either melt the polar ice caps and flood much of the world or cause an ice age on the earth. God is consistently strong like the sun.

(5) God is omnipresent and omniscient. Just as the sun’s rays shine everywhere upon the earth and nothing is hid from its heat (especially in the Middle East, where David wrote), so God is. He searches you out and knows all that there is to know about you, so that there is no escaping Him.

Let’s draw three applications:

*1. Let God’s creation humble you in His presence. The Bible is clear that the sinful tendency of the fallen human race is proudly to exalt ourselves, to think that we are like God. But the clear truth is, we are not like God. He alone is the Almighty Creator. Try speaking anything into existence, let alone the entire universe, and you will see that, compared to God, you are nothing! This means that you cannot use God for your own ends. God doesn’t exist to make you happy as you pursue your selfish goals. He is the sovereign of the universe, who alone is great. We need to humble ourselves and submit to our awesome Creator!

*2. Don’t let modern evolutionary theories infect your thinking. Evolution is a religious faith that enables proud men to act as their own gods. It is almost always presented as fact, not theory, even though evolutionists cannot explain how the complexities of the natural world came to be, except through incredible odds (even given billions of years) and through attributing exceptional intelligence either to lower forms of life or to “Mother Nature,” which mystically and powerfully has equipped our world with amazing things! But there is no such thing as Mother Nature; there is only Father God, the Creator!

If I had time, I could give you many ludicrous examples, but one must suffice. Dr. Lewis Thomas, distinguished medical doctor and author of several scientific books, in his book, Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (in Reader’s Digest [4/84], pp. 131-132) tells about an amazing beetle which depends upon the mimosa tree for breeding. The female, as Thomas describes it, has three consecutive thoughts, always in the right order. First, she looks for a mimosa tree; no other variety will do. Next, she crawls out on a limb, cuts a slit, and deposits her eggs. Third, since this beetle’s larvae can’t survive in live wood, she goes back up the limb a foot or so and cuts a neat girdle through the bark all around the limb. This takes her about eight hours. The limb thus dies and falls off, allowing her young to survive.

Also, as “lucky evolution” would have it, the mimosa tree, if left unpruned, has a life expectancy of 25 to 30 years. But if pruned, which the beetle’s cutting accomplishes, the tree will live for a century or so! Pretty smart of the beetles, huh!

Thomas thinks so. He muses, “How did these three linked thoughts emerge together in her evolution? Is this mindless behavior, or is it possible for the tiny brain of a beetle to contain thoughts and bits of awareness exactly like ours, just three microscopic thoughts popping into her mind, always in the right order? And how did the mimosa tree enter the picture in its evolution?” His conclusion: “It is good for us to have around such creatures as this insect and its partner tree, for they keep reminding us how little we know about nature.”

I would counter, “How little we know about God!” Don’t let evolutionary garbage cloud your awe of the Creator who designed such an intricate creation! That’s the third application:

*3. Worship God in His creation. Don’t worship the creation, but let your study of the many facets of the created world direct you beyond itself to worship the infinite God who designed it all.

Thus God has revealed Himself generally in His creation. David only uses the name “God” (Hebrew, “El,” God’s creator name) once in 19:1‑6. But in 19:7‑14 he uses “Yahweh” (“Lord,” the personal covenant name of the God of Israel), seven times. We can know God in a general sense as the Almighty Creator through His creation, but we can know Him personally in a much fuller and perfect way through His Word.

2. God has revealed Himself specifically in His Word (19:7‑11).

In a beautiful section of Hebrew parallelism, David (19:7-9) enumerates six synonyms for God’s Word followed by six descriptive adjectives, followed by six verbs. The first four verbs describe the effects of God’s Word on people; the last two describe the inherent qualities of God’s Word. Having thus described God’s Word, David shows (19:10‑11) why God’s Word is to be desired. I must limit myself to five facts about God’s Word:

A. God’s Word is authoritative.

Note the nouns: law, testimony, precepts, commandment, fear (the response produced in the sensitive reader), judgments. These words imply authority. God doesn’t timidly tap us on the shoulder and say, “Excuse me, but may I suggest that you consider incorporating my point of view with your own?” He doesn’t mumble when He tells us how we are to live! He didn’t give us “Ten Hints on How to be Happy.” God speaks, and we had better listen!

We live in a culture that despises authority. I often hear Christians excuse disobedience by saying, “We’re not under the law!” But read your New Testament! All ten commandments, except the Sabbath, are repeated, accompanied by some awfully scary threats if we disobey (e.g., Matt. 7:23; Gal. 5:19-21). We defy God’s authoritative Word to our own peril!

B. God’s Word is abundantly adequate.

It is sufficient for all the needs of the human soul. God’s Word is “perfect, restoring the soul.” As Paul says, Scripture will make the man of God perfect (or adequate) for every good work (2 Tim. 3:17). The Word makes “wise the simple.” The word “simple” shows us that to receive God’s wisdom, we must humble ourselves by setting aside proud human wisdom. The wisdom from God’s Word shows us how our infinitely wise Creator has ordained for us to live a blessed life, as seen in the next phrase:

“Rejoicing the heart.” God’s Word is not a burden to take away your fun, but a blessing to give you real joy in every circumstance of life if you follow it. It “enlightens the eyes,” so that we do not stumble and hurt ourselves in the many traps Satan has set for us. God’s Word is better than fine gold or honey, and in keeping it there is great reward (19:10-11). We ought to desire God’s Word more than money or a good meal, since it has value not only for this life, but for the life to come.

God’s Word is abundantly adequate to meet every need of every hurting human heart. Why is the Christian world running headlong after the godless advice of modern psychology when we have such a sufficient source of wisdom from our loving Creator?

C. God’s Word is accurate.

Note the adjectives: “perfect” (complete, having integrity); “sure” (a solid foundation for life); “right” (mapping out a straight course); “pure” (no unwholesome elements); “clean” (free from impurity; it will cleanse us from sin); and “true” (total dependability). If there is any seeming error in God’s Word, it is due to our limited knowledge, not to God’s mistake. Thus, you can entrust your life to following God’s Word and you won’t be led astray. As Calvin points out, “A man’s life cannot be ordered aright unless it is framed according to the law of God.”

D. God’s Word is absolute.

It “endures forever”; it is “altogether righteous.” It applies in every culture in every age to every person. God’s standards are not relative and shifting. We aren’t to be tossed around by every wind of doctrine in our day, but rather to live by God’s unchanging standards, revealed in His Word.

E. God’s Word is abrasive.

By God’s Word, His “servant is warned” (19:11). God doesn’t always pat me on the head and say “nice boy.” His Word often scrapes against my sinful grain and says, “That is wrong and you had better stop doing it!” God’s Word confronts us. But it does so for our benefit. Thus, God’s revelation always demands a response. So David concludes,

3. We must respond by facing our sin and submitting to God’s revelation (19:12‑14).

David’s response to God’s revelation was to face his own sin and call out to God for His help in overcoming it. The Bible is not given for speculation, but for application. David mentions three types of sin:

A. Hidden sins (19:12).

Sin is so much a part of us that we don’t even realize much of our own sin. God has to reveal them and deal with them in us.

B. Willful sins (19:13).

This is outright disobedience. There are times when you know what God wants you to do and you act like a defiant child and say, “I will not!” David doesn’t want either kind of sin to dominate his life, and so he prays that God would deliver him.

C. Sins of word and thought (19:14).

David is aware that sin lies deeper than our outward actions, and so he prays that the words of his mouth and the meditation of his heart would be acceptable to God. God’s Word searches our innermost being and shows us wrong thoughts which are the source of wrong words and wrong deeds. “The word of God is living and active and sharper than any two‑edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).

If David, who calls himself here God’s servant, whom God called a man after His own heart, knew that he was so inclined toward sin as to pray this, how much more must we constantly confront ourselves with God’s Word and call out to Him for purity in the inner being! We’ve got to let God’s revelation shine into the inner recesses of our heart and scour away the sin which we so often try to hide.

Conclusion

Because God has spoken in His world and in His Word, we must respond by facing our sin and submitting to God’s revelation.

Perhaps the thought of God as the awesome, Almighty Creator and of His authoritative Word makes you want to run from Him. But notice that David responds to God as “my rock and my redeemer” (19:14). He did not say “my accuser and my judge,” but “my rock and my redeemer.” A rock refers to a place of refuge, where a sinner can run for protection and rest. A redeemer refers to one who has protected or rescued another from bondage and slavery by paying a required price. “My” means that David had fled personally to God for redemption.

God wants to be to you a rock of refuge and your redeemer who rescues you from bondage to sin and death. He paid the price to rescue you from bondage to sin by sending His only begotten Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. He died in your place, so that God’s judgment for your sins fell upon Him. God is now free to forgive and accept you if you will accept the pardon He offers in His Son. Instead of being the God who accuses and condemns you, He can now be the God who forgives you and welcomes you to take refuge in Him.

God’s world shows us how awesome He is. God’s Word shows us how we can be right with Him and how we can live a truly blessed life. Our response should be to face our sin and submit to the living and true God who has made Himself known through His world and His Word. He alone is the umpire who calls the plays. Make sure you’re safe in Him!

Discussion Questions

  1. Does the Bible allow for so-called “theistic evolution”?
  2. How can we harmonize David’s extolling of God’s law with Paul’s saying that we are not under the law?
  3. If “all truth is God’s truth” then why can’t we benefit from the insights of modern psychology?
  4. How can a person who is not a reader benefit from God’s Word? Must every Christian become a Bible scholar?

Copyright 1993, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Psalm 22: The Sufferings And Glory Of Christ

If a “Time Machine” existed, which could take you back to any time and place in history, my first choice would be to go back to a Sunday a little over 1950 years ago, to a dusty road between Jerusalem and a village called Emmaus. There two men were walking on the day of Jesus’ resurrection when the risen Savior appeared to them. Not recognizing Him at first, they explained to Him their confusion about the events of the last several days. He said to them, “‘O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?’ And beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:25‑27).

If there had been tape recorders then, I would trade the hundreds of books in my library to obtain a tape of Christ (in English!) explaining what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Himself! I’m certain that in that tape you would hear Him explain Psalm 22. It speaks of Christ’s suffering (22:1-21) and His glory (22:22-31; see 1 Pet. 1:10‑11).

On one level, the psalm refers to some event in the life of David, probably when he was being pursued by Saul. But there is no situation recorded in Scripture where David went through trials to the degree the psalm describes. David is going beyond himself, applying things prophetically to Christ. Thus to do justice to the psalm, we must leave David’s experience and focus on how it applies to David’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. It describes a death by crucifixion hundreds of years before that mode of execution was known. The details of the psalm were fulfilled by the Son of David, Jesus the Messiah, about 1,000 years after they were written.

We are standing here on holy ground. If you’ve ever wondered what Jesus actually said in the Garden of Gethsemane as He wrestled with bearing our sins (the gospels only give a brief synopsis), you probably have it here. I always feel inadequate to preach, but I feel especially inadequate to speak on a text as profound as this one. We see here something of what our salvation cost the Savior. Though His sufferings go far beyond anything we can ever comprehend, we get a glimpse of the agonies He endured for us. The only proper response is to bow in worship and to submit ourselves afresh to do the will of Him who loved us and gave Himself for us.

1. Christ suffered on the cross for our salvation (22:1‑21).

The first section consists of three cycles of complaint and confidence:

First Cycle: 22:1‑2 = Complaint (to God)

22:3‑5 = Confidence (in God)

Second Cycle: 22:6‑8 = Complaint

22:9‑11 = Confidence and Petition [v. 11]

Third Cycle: 22:12‑18 = Complaint

22:19‑21 = Confidence and (mostly) Petition

By looking at the complaint sections we can see with prophetic clarity something of Christ’s sufferings on the cross. As we think about the fact that “Christ the mighty maker died for man the creature’s sin,” our hearts should well up in thanksgiving for what He endured for us. Note what happened to Christ on the cross:

A. He was forsaken of God (22:1).

When Jesus was crucified, darkness fell upon the land from about noon until 3 p.m., when Jesus cried out the haunting words of Psalm 22:1: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46).

We enter at once into the most unfathomable mystery of the gospel. No one can really know what was involved in God’s forsaking Jesus during those three hours of darkness. We know that Jesus bore God’s curse upon world’s sin and that somehow God in His holiness was forced to turn His back upon His Son while He bore that sin. Jesus, the spotless Lamb of God who knew no sin was made sin on our behalf (2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13). He bore God’s wrath which we deserved. Thus He was forsaken by God the Father.

So while the physical agony was terrible, the spiritual agony was infinitely worse. We can’t understand, because we have not enjoyed perfect fellowship with the Father from all eternity as Jesus had. Not sharing His holy nature, we can’t imagine what it was like for Jesus to become sin. But that’s what happened on the cross.

B. His prayers were not answered (22:2).

He cried for deliverance from death; that, if possible, this cup should pass from Him. Yet He was not delivered from death or spared the cup. Instead, He went through death and was delivered in the resurrection. How awful it must have been for Him who enjoyed unbroken fellowship with the Father to cry out to Him, only to have Him not answer!

C. He was despised and mocked (22:6‑8).

He calls Himself a worm and not a man. A worm is an object of weakness and scorn. (Can you imagine a sports team calling themselves the “Worms”? We have the Giants, Bears, and Broncos, but no “Worms.”) The worm referred to is the cochineal, which produces a scarlet color used as a dye when it was crushed. It was used in the Tabernacle to dye part of the coverings and veils (Exod. 26:1, 31, 36). Jesus was crushed so that His blood might cover our sins. But from man’s point of view, He was scorned and despised. Verses 7‑8 describe the exact actions and words used by Jesus’ enemies when He was on the cross (Matt. 27:39‑43)! They mocked His own claims of trust in God.

D. He was overpowered by ferocious men (22:12‑13).

His enemies are likened to ferocious animals--bulls, lions, and dogs (22:12, 13, 16). (Bashan [v. 12] was an area noted for its well‑fed bulls.) I read about a man who was attacked by pit bull dogs and I’ve read of David Livingstone’s being mauled by a lion. I’d rather not go through either experience! That was what Jesus felt like as He hung upon the cross while the Jewish rulers snorted their ridicule and false accusations. Even though He could have called 10,000 legions of angels, the Savior chose to suffer silently.

E. He went through the physical and emotional agony of crucifixion (22:14‑18).

Verses 14‑18 are amazing prophecies of Christ’s crucifixion. I think they prove the divine inspiration of the Bible, since this was written hundreds of years before crucifixion was known to man. Crucifixion arose as a means of torture somewhere in the East, perhaps with the Medes and Persians. Alexander the Great seems to have learned it from them and brought it West. The Romans learned it from the Phoenicians through Carthage and perfected it as a means of execution reserved for the worst criminals. It was a brutal, torturous, humiliating means of execution. Note the psalmist’s description, which goes far beyond his own experience:

“Poured out like water” (v. 14)‑‑points to the excessive perspiration caused by the suffering plus the feeling of weakness as life slowly ebbed away. This was reflected in Jesus’ cry, “I thirst!”

“Bones out of joint” (v. 14)‑‑not literally, but the feeling of being stretched out by the arms as He hung on the cross.

“Heart turned to wax and melted” (v. 14)‑‑the heart struggling to supply blood to the extremities.

“Strength dried up like a potsherd, tongue sticks to roof of mouth” (v. 15)‑‑weakness as His life ebbed from Him; extreme thirst as His body was dehydrated.

“Dust of death” (v. 15)‑‑He is all but dead.

“Surrounded by evil men” (v. 16)‑‑at the scene of the cross as His enemies waited for His death.

“Pierced hands and feet” (v. 16)‑‑the vowel pointing (added by Jewish rabbis in the Christian era) of some Hebrew manuscripts renders it, “like a lion,” but it is difficult to make any sense out of that meaning. Calvin argues that the rabbis changed the text to escape the obvious reference to the cross. The LXX (200 B.C.) translates the Hebrew “pierced.” Two other Old Testament passages (Isa. 53:5; Zech. 12:10) refer to Messiah being pierced.

“Count all my bones” (v. 17)‑‑from being stretched out naked on the cross.

“People stare” (v. 17)‑‑a public crucifixion.

“Divide my garments and cast lots for my clothing” (v. 18)‑‑a specific prophecy of the activity of the soldiers around the cross of Christ.

That’s just a glimpse of Christ’s suffering as seen prophetically by David 1,000 years before Christ. His great suffering shows us our great salvation and how we should respond.

How should I respond to Christ who suffered for me?

(1) I should see both the greatness of my own sin and the greatness of Christ’s love.

My sin put Jesus on the cross. His love made Him willing to go there. “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

The famous Dutch artist Rembrandt did a painting of the crucifixion. The focus of the painting, of course, is the Savior on the cross. But he also painted the crowd gathered around the cross. Standing there in the shadow at the edge of the picture, Rembrandt painted himself! Rembrandt, a participant in the crucifixion!

How true that is! We need to join Rembrandt by putting ourselves there. We need to make it personal. It was my sin which put Jesus on the cross! I was raised in a Christian home and never did many of the gross outward sins that many commit. It’s easy for me to think that I’m not as bad a sinner as others. But the more I grow as a Christian, the more I discover how utterly wicked my heart is. The way to holiness is not thinking more highly of myself, but rather, realizing more how sinful I am which drives me to cling more tightly to the cross, where I receive God’s mercy.

It’s not popular in our day to emphasize our sinfulness. We want an upbeat message that glosses over sin. Our hymn book has even changed the words of Isaac Watts’s great hymn, so that instead of, “Would He devote that sacred Head for such a worm as I?” it reads, “for someone such as I?” We’re too good to call ourselves worms! A lady once told me in a Sunday School class, “I’m sorry, but I’m not going to call myself a worm!” I explained that Watts took that line in his hymn from Psalm 22 and said, “That’s what Jesus called Himself when He bore our sins. Don’t you want to be identified with Him when He did that for you?”

Dear brothers and sisters, we need to be careful not to exalt ourselves against the Lord. If you think that you’re a pretty good person and that God just had to give you a little boost to get you into heaven, you won’t love Jesus much. “He who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:47). But if you recognize the truth, that you were lost in your rebellion against God and that He saved you from hell in spite of your awful sin, forgiven much you will love Him much. As Spurgeon put it, “He who has stood before his God, convicted and condemned, with the rope about his neck, is the man to weep for joy when he is pardoned, to hate the evil which has been forgiven him, and to live to the honour of the Redeemer by whose blood he has been cleansed” (C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography [Banner of Truth], 1:54).

So this glimpse of the cross should impress upon me the greatness of my own sin along with the greatness of Christ’s love.

(2) I should submit to and trust Him who ordains suffering to come into my life.

Note 22:15: “You lay me in the dust of death.” The Hebrew verb for “lay” has the nuance of ordain or appoint. Although evil and godless men crucified the Lord Jesus, they did it in accordance with the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God (Acts 2:23; 4:27‑28). And so in one sense it was the sovereign plan of God which put Christ on the cross.

The confidence sections of the psalm (22:3‑5, 9‑11, 19‑21) show Christ’s response to the Father. Did He malign God or shake His fist in God’s face for ordaining this awful suffering? No! He affirms the holiness of God and uses it as the basis for His plea (22:3). He recalls God’s faithfulness with others in the past and in His own past experience (22:4‑5, 9‑10). And He calls out in faith to God for deliverance (22:19‑21).

How do you respond when trials come into your life? The author of Hebrews says that Jesus “learned obedience from the things which He suffered” (Heb. 5:8). Not that He was disobedient before; but you don’t know obedience experientially until you suffer. If you’re going through a hard time, learn to obey by submitting and trusting.

Later, the same author tells us, “For consider Him, who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb. 12:3). Jesus endured by entrusting Himself into the hands of a loving, sovereign God. So should we!

(3) I should trust God when my prayers go unanswered.

Jesus prayed for deliverance, but God didn’t answer Him‑‑at that point. God did answer in the resurrection. But Jesus had to go through crucifixion and death before He received the answer to His prayers. And yet He continued to call God, “My God” (22:1‑2, 10) and “My Help” (22:19).

Sometimes God will answer our prayers in a better time and a better way from His perspective. But we may not understand it. But we have to trust Him as our God even though we don’t understand. I’ve had times where I’ve prayed diligently for something that I believed to be God’s will, but it seemed as if things couldn’t have gone any worse if I hadn’t prayed at all! It’s easy to begin doubting God when you pray and He doesn’t seem to answer.

At such times, come back to the miraculous prophecies of this psalm, and let them bolster your faith. If God’s Word could accurately describe a crucifixion hundreds of years before that mode of death was practiced, and predict the specific details of Christ’s death, even down to the words His enemies would say and the gambling of the pagan soldiers for His robe, it’s solid evidence that you’re dealing with a supernatural Book! There are dozens more such prophecies in the Old Testament concerning Christ. So you can trust in God and His Word, even if you are going through trials and your prayers seem to be unanswered.

So verses 1-21 show us how Christ suffered on the cross for our salvation. But the psalm doesn’t end on the defeat of the crucifixion. It goes on to the victory of the resurrection and the glories which follow.

2. The glories of Christ’s resurrection require proclaiming God’s great salvation to all peoples (22:22‑31).

The psalm doesn’t say in black and white that Christ arose, but several things indicate that the resurrection took place between verses 21 and 22. First, at the end of verse 21 most scholars translate, “You have heard” or “You have answered” (NASB, NIV margin, New KJV). There is a sudden note of confidence.

Second, in verse 22, Messiah says, “I will declare Your name to my brothers.” Jesus never called the disciples His brothers before the resurrection. But immediately after the resurrection, He told Mary Magdalene, “Go to My brothers and tell them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God” (John 20:17; see also Heb. 2:11‑12).

Third, the results described in these verses are things that resulted from Christ’s resurrection. They obviously go far beyond David’s personal experience. They are:

(1) Fellowship (22:22)‑‑We’re His brothers. He declares God’s name (= His character and attributes) to us.

(2) Praise (22:22‑23)‑‑If Christ only suffered and died, there is no room for praise. We would still be in our sins (1 Cor. 15:17). But Hallelujah! He is risen! We can praise Him!

(3) Testimony (22:24)‑‑God did not abandon His holy one to the grave (Psalm 16:10). He listened to His cry and raised Him from the dead. Now we can testify to God’s deliverance in raising Christ from the dead.

(4) Thank‑offering (22:25‑26)‑‑These verses picture a Hebrew thank‑offering. When God answered his prayers, a worshiper would offer a thank‑offering at the temple. The poor would be invited and there would be a feast giving thanks to God. The worshipers would greet one another with, “Let your heart live forever!” (22:26). In the same way we have a feast of thanksgiving, the Lord’s Supper (eucharist), where we gather to offer thanks and praise for God’s gift to us in Christ and the deliverance we have from our sins through His death and resurrection.

(5) World‑wide evangelism (22:27, 30‑31)‑‑The good news of the risen Savior will be proclaimed beyond the Jews to all peoples, and to succeeding generations. There is no good news if the Savior is dead, but there is salvation if He is risen. The message applies to the poor and rich alike (22:26, 29), to all who acknowledge their need.

(6) Kingdom Rule (22:27‑28)‑‑This part has not yet been fulfilled, but it will be soon. He will return bodily to crush all opposition and to rule the nations with a rod of iron in His millennial Kingdom. Every knee shall bow before Him. Just as the other prophecies have been fulfilled, so this one will be. You can count on it!

Conclusion

So the message of Psalm 22 is:

Because Christ suffered on the cross for our salvation, we must proclaim it to all nations.

Two applications: (1) Put the cross at the center of your walk with God. When I focus daily on the cross, my heart is filled with joy and thankfulness for God’s priceless gift to me. The cross also keeps me aware of my own sinfulness, so that I don’t trust myself, but cling to Christ. Focusing on the cross helps me resist temptation as I remember that I was redeemed with nothing less than Jesus’ blood. How can I sin against Him who so loved me? We tend to forget the cross, which is why Jesus ordained that we come often to His table in remembrance of Him.

(2) Put God’s heart for the lost as the bottom line of your walk with God. He wants all the ends of the earth to turn to Him and worship Him (22:27). That means that if I’m not actively focusing on world missions, I’m too self-focused. I’m not in tune with God’s purpose to be glorified in all the earth. We have His command to go and His promise that “all the families of the nations will worship” the Lord (22:27). How can they worship Him if they’ve never heard? How will they hear if we don’t give, send, and go?

Discussion Questions

  1. Should we focus on the fact that we’re sinners, saints, or both? Give Scripture to support your answer.
  2. Which view results in greater faith in God: That He ordains suffering or that He only permits it?
  3. Is missions for every Christian or only for some?

Copyright 1993, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

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Psalm 23: Contentment

Coming downstairs one morning, a British nobleman heard his cook exclaim, “Oh, if I only had five pounds, wouldn’t I be content!” Wishing to satisfy the woman, soon after he handed her a five pound note, then worth about $25. She thanked him profusely. But after he stepped out of the room again, he overheard her say, “Why didn’t I say ten?”

How much do we need to be happy? Just a little bit more than we’ve got! A reporter asked the late oil tycoon, J. Paul Getty, “If you retired now, would you say that your holdings would be worth a billion dollars?” Getty did some mental calculations. “I suppose so,” he said. “But remember, a billion doesn’t go as far these days as it used to.”

Never content! You would think that Americans, of all people, with our many material comforts and high standard of living, would be content. But our discontent tips its hand in our constant striving after more things, in our living on credit, in our insatiable lust for sex, and in widespread restlessness. Even many of God’s people are not content, as witnessed by unprecedented numbers of believers flocking to psychotherapists and reading self-help books that promise to sort out the inner turmoil stemming from a difficult past.

But the Bible says that God has provided us with everything pertaining to life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3), and we are to be content with His provision. Psalm 23 is the psalm of a contented heart. In it, David, the shepherd-King, shows that…

Contentment comes from experiencing all that our Good Shepherd has provided for us.

David compares his relationship to God with that of a contented sheep with its caring shepherd. It was a familiar analogy in David’s day. But I have to confess that the only times I’ve been around sheep is when I’ve gone into the children’s section of the zoo. So I’m depending a lot on Phillip Keller’s excellent book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 [Zondervan], for his knowledgeable insights into the psalm.

I am going to develop the psalm as a spiritual history of the believer, describing the steps to experiencing the contentment that comes from God’s provision in Christ, our Good Shepherd.

1. The first step to contentment is to make the Lord your Shepherd (23:1).

The key to not wanting is to have the Lord as your Shepherd. Many people apply this psalm to themselves for its soothing effect, but they do not know the Lord as their personal Shepherd. But David is emphatically personal: “The Lord is my Shepherd.”

Jesus made it clear that this is not a blanket truth. Not everyone has Jesus as his or her personal Shepherd. Some of His critics said, “If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus replied, “I told you and you do not believe; the works that I do in My Father’s name, these bear witness of Me. But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish” (John 10:25-28).

So according to Jesus, the way to become one of His sheep is to hear what He claimed, as verified in the things He did, and to believe it in the sense of following Him. At the core of what Jesus taught and did was the cross, where He took the penalty we deserve for our sins. It is significant that Psalm 23 follows Psalm 22. In Psalm 22 we see the Messiah forsaken of God as he bears our sin on the cross. It is only after that that we read, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” I must believe in Him as my sacrificial substitute, who died on the cross for my sins, before I can know Him as my good Shepherd who meets my every need. Without Psalm 22, there can be no Psalm 23.

If you know the Suffering Savior of Psalm 22 by trusting in His death on the cross for you, and you’re seeking to follow Him, then you can say with David, “The Lord, the covenant-keeping, faithful God, is my personal Shepherd.”

The nature of the shepherd determines the welfare of the sheep. Phillip Keller (pp. 28-29) tells about a tenant shepherd whose flock was kept next to his. The man showed no concern for his flock. To him, they were just a bunch of dumb animals fit for slaughter. His fields were brown and impoverished. There was insufficient shelter to protect the sheep from the storms. They had muddy, polluted water to drink. They fell prey to dogs, cougars, and rustlers. In their weak, sickly condition, they would stand at the fence, staring blankly at the lush, green pastures where Keller kept his sheep. If they could have talked, they would have said, “Oh, to be set free from this awful owner!” They’re a picture of those in bondage to sin and Satan.

A little girl had learned Psalm 23:1 in Sunday School, but she slightly misquoted it as, “The Lord is my shepherd; I’ve got all I want.” But even though she misquoted it, she got it right: If you have such a one as the Lord as your good Shepherd, then you can truly say, “I’ve got all I want.” The first step to contentment is to know that the Lord Jesus is your personal Shepherd.

2. The second step to contentment is to know and enjoy the Good Shepherd’s gracious provisions (23:2-3).

He has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, but many Christians are not content because they don’t know what God has so abundantly provided. Or, as the Lord puts it in Jeremiah 2:13, “My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.” If we turn from God and what He has provided to other things, we’ll not be content. David mentions four things God has provided:

A. The Good Shepherd provides spiritual food.

“He makes me lie down in green pastures.” Sheep will not lie down until they’ve eaten enough. Then they will contently lie down to chew their cud. God’s Word is the full banquet He has provided for His sheep.

I believe that the main reason we, as God’s people, lack contentment is that we don’t feed consistently on God’s Word. Instead, we fill our minds with the poisonous weeds of TV, movies, and the daily newspaper, and then wonder why we’re anxious and troubled. God’s Word has milk for the babe in Christ and meat for the more mature. If we would feed on it daily and chew on it as a sheep chews its cud, we would find contentment in Christ Himself.

B. The Good Shepherd provides spiritual drink.

“He leads me beside quiet waters,” or, “waters of rest,” that is, waters by which the flock may rest because their thirst has been quenched. A sheep cannot be content if it is thirsty.

Jesus our Good Shepherd cried out, “If any man is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37-38). John explains that Jesus was speaking of the Holy Spirit whom Jesus would give to those who believe.

The Bible teaches that we are born again through the power of the Holy Spirit (John 3:5-8) and that He indwells every believer (Rom. 8:9). The Spirit empowers us to live holy lives as we depend on Him (Gal. 5:16-23). He gives us hope in the trials of life (Rom. 5:3-5; 15:13). He guides (Acts 13:2-4; 16:6-7) and teaches us (1 John 2:27); He prays for us (Rom. 8:26) and gives us help and comfort (John 14:16; 15:26). He gives us spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:7-11) and empowers us to bear witness of Jesus Christ throughout the world (Acts 1:8). With such a full provision of living water from our Good Shepherd, why do we try to quench our thirst with the polluted, broken cisterns of the world?

Yet, as Phillip Keller points out (pp. 56-57), sometimes stubborn sheep will not wait for the clear, pure water that the shepherd is leading them to. They stop to drink from the polluted potholes along the trail, contaminated with the manure and urine of previous flocks. It satisfies their thirst for the moment, but it will eventually riddle them with parasites and disease. It’s the price they pay for instant gratification and not following the shepherd to clear water.

Some Christians are like those sheep. They don’t want to wait upon the Lord to fulfill their inner longings. They want a quick fix, instant happiness, so they go for the polluted potholes of the world. They shrug and say, “What can it hurt?” But they don’t realize that the consequences of sin are often delayed. Seeds sown to the flesh take a while to sprout. Suddenly the person finds himself in deep trouble and then blames God for his problems! Don’t be deceived! Whatever you sow, you will reap! If you want true contentment, you must learn to walk by the Holy Spirit, God’s gracious provision to make you more like Christ.

C. The Good Shepherd provides spiritual restoration.

“He restores my soul.” The Hebrew word “restore” means “turning back” or “refreshing.” Perhaps the sheep has strayed off the trail to nibble on some interesting looking plant, little knowing that it is poisonous. Or perhaps it has gotten separated from the flock and a predator is ready to pounce. Sheep also can become “cast,” where they roll onto their backs and are not able to right themselves. A sheep left in such a position will die unless the shepherd helps it get upright within a few hours.

As God’s sheep, we can stray from the path He has called us to walk in. Some enticing diversion in the world or some desire of our old nature lures us to separate ourselves from the rest of the flock and from the shepherd. Our enemy is waiting to pick off straying sheep. And so, when we start to stray, we’re in grave danger and need restoration.

God uses two primary means to restore us: His Word, and His people. Psalm 19:7 states, “The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul” (same Hebrew word). His Word points out where we are off the path, and what we must do to be restored (2 Tim. 3:16-17). God has entrusted to those who are spiritual the ministry of using His Word to help restore His straying sheep (Gal. 6:1; James 5:19-20).

D. The Good Shepherd provides spiritual guidance.

“He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” We all need guidance to know how to live in this confusing world. God’s Word tells us, “Go this way! Don’t go that way!” His paths are paths of righteousness. We need to be clear on this in our day of cheap grace. There are many who claim to know the Good Shepherd, but they don’t walk in paths of righteousness. They excuse sin by saying, “We’re under grace.” But God’s Word plainly states, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord abstain from wickedness” (2 Tim. 2:19).

God’s name is bound up with our walk as believers. He has chosen to identify His holy name with us. If we live just like the world, we cause His name to be blasphemed. For His name’s sake, He guides us in paths of righteousness.

Thus the first step to contentment is to make the Lord your shepherd. The second step is to know and enjoy the Good Shepherd’s gracious provision for us: spiritual food, drink, restoration, and guidance.

3. The third step to contentment is to walk with the Good Shepherd through the hard times (23:4-5).

The Good Shepherd does not provide contentment by keeping His flock from trials, but rather by providing His presence in the midst of trials. It’s worth noting that in 23:1-3, David uses the third person (“He”) to refer to the Lord. But when he speaks about times of trial (23:4-5), David shifts to the more intimate second person (“You”). In a time of trial we need to draw closer in communion with the Good Shepherd, not to pull away in anger or hurt. Three types of trials are pictured here:

A. Times of fear (“the valley of the shadow of death”).

Sometimes the Shepherd has to lead his sheep through some dark valleys. As Keller points out (pp. 84-89), the valley is usually the most gentle route to the higher summer feeding grounds. Also, valleys have the best source of water and thus provide the best feeding spots on the way to higher ground.

But there are dangers involved. The Hebrew (in 23:4) does not necessarily point to death, although that could be involved. Rather, it points to a fearful place of extreme danger and darkness (see Jer. 2:6, the Sinai wilderness).

Sometimes Christians express a desire to walk on a higher plane of Christian experience. But we often mistakenly think that God airlifts His flock to such a place! He doesn’t! The only way to higher ground is to walk with the Good Shepherd through some fearful valleys, where you despair at times even of life itself. But, as Keller points out (p. 86), “it is in the valleys of our lives that we find refreshment from God Himself.”

Two things give contentment to the sheep when they walk through valleys of fear: The Shepherd’s presence; and, the Shepherd’s rod and staff (23:4). Many missionaries have testified that at terrifying times, when they thought they would be killed, the Lord’s presence was especially real to them.

One night David Livingstone, in the heart of Africa, surrounded by hostile, angry tribes, was strongly tempted to flee. He read the Lord’s words, “Go therefore and teach all nations, and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” He wrote in his journal, “It is the word of a gentleman of the most strict and sacred honor, so there’s an end of it! I will not cross furtively tonight as I intended.... I feel quite calm now, thank God!”

Years later, when receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Glasgow, he said, “Would you like me to tell you what supported me through all the years of exile among people whose language I could not understand, and whose attitude towards me was always uncertain and often hostile? It was this: ‘Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world!’ On those words I staked everything, and they never failed!” The presence of the Good Shepherd makes us content even in a time of fear.

The second thing that gives contentment in the valley of fear is the Shepherd’s rod and staff. The rod was a symbol of authority, used to ward off predators and to discipline wayward sheep. It’s a comfort to know that God is in charge and to be subject to His authority in a time of fear. The staff was a symbol of concern, used to draw the sheep to the shepherd and to guide them on the right path. The sheep could be comforted by the rod and staff, knowing that they would be used for their own benefit, even if it might hurt at times.

B. Times of conflict (“in the presence of my enemies”).

The Bible is clear that the Christian life is not free from conflict. Looking back from the end, Paul calls his ministry a fight (2 Tim. 4:7). If you stand for God’s Word of truth, you will have enemies and conflict. Nobody likes conflict. But the Good Shepherd takes care of His own by preparing a table for them in the presence of their enemies.

During a time of intense conflict in my ministry, I was reading a biography of Luther. The author pointed out how Luther came to see from his reading of Scripture and history that life on this earth is never without conflict. But Luther, Calvin, Spurgeon, and many others who have fought the good fight have known the abundant provision of the Good Shepherd, even in the presence of their enemies.

C. Times of irritation (“anointed my head with oil”).

Shepherds anointed sheep with oil to heal their wounds and to keep the flies and bugs off. Sheep cannot lie contentedly if insects are swarming around their nostrils or ears or open wounds. So the shepherd would pour oil on them.

It’s often the little irritations that rob us of our contentment. To cope with frustrating circumstances and people, we need qualities like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Where do these come from? The Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23)! In the Bible, oil is often a picture of the Holy Spirit. Our Good Shepherd has given us the oil of the Spirit to keep irritations from bugging us. Contentment comes from walking with the Good Shepherd in the hard times of fear, of conflict, and of irritation.

4. The fourth step to contentment is to see God’s goodness in every situation, both now and in the future (23:6).

Two “sheep-dogs” follow God’s sheep continually: goodness and love. The rest of the world pursues goodness and love, but we have God’s goodness and loyal love pursuing us! “We know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). With Joseph (Genesis 37-40), we may go through horrible trials which we don’t understand at the time. But also with Joseph, we can always look back and say, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20).

And our future is secure. We will always be in God’s fold, in this life and in eternity! He loves and cares so much for us! We are the most blessed sheep in the world, so why go elsewhere? The thought in the phrase “dwell in the house of the Lord” is that of actual communion with God as a member of His household. As Paul put it, though the world counts us as sheep for the slaughter, “we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us” (Rom. 8:36-37)!

Conclusion

Are you a contented sheep in God’s pasture? Do you walk each day in the conscious joy of all the spiritual riches that are yours in Christ? Or, could it be that you’ve gotten so caught up in the world and all of its pressures that you complain and gripe a lot? A grumbling spirit means that you’re not enjoying the gracious provision of the good Shepherd. You’re lacking the contentment He wants you to have.

A 14-year-old wiser than his or her years wrote this poem (from an Operation Mobilization newsletter, 10/91):

It was spring, but it was summer I wanted—

The warm days and the great outdoors.

It was summer, but it was fall I wanted—

The colorful leaves and the cool, dry air.

It was fall, but it was winter I wanted—

The beautiful snow and the joy of the holiday season.

It was winter, but it was spring I wanted—

The warmth and the blossoming of nature.

I was a child, but it was adulthood I wanted—

The freedom and the respect.

I was twenty, but it was thirty I wanted—

To be mature and sophisticated.

I was middle-aged, but it was twenty I wanted—

The youth and the free spirit.

I was retired, but it was middle-age I wanted—

The presence of mind without limitations.

My life was over—but I never got what I wanted!

Real contentment comes from experiencing all that the Good Shepherd has provided for you. It’s available in Christ, for every one of His sheep. Don’t miss it!

Discussion Questions

  1. Is it realistic to believe that a person from a difficult past can find contentment in Christ alone?
  2. Agree/disagree: American Christians have an inadequate theology of suffering.
  3. Is all conflict with others wrong? If not, how can we know when it’s right and when it’s wrong?
  4. What’s the difference between contentment and complacency? Is discontent ever from the Lord? Cite Scripture.

Copyright 1993, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

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Psalm 25: Seeking God in the Hard Times

Have you ever been in a difficult trial and you knew that you were in the trial because of your own sin? You knew that you should cry out to God for help, but you were afraid to do so because of your sin. Or, maybe your problems were not due to deliberate sin, but rather because of immaturity or stupid decisions. Sometimes even though I have prayed for guidance and wisdom, I still have done something that resulted in a heap of trouble. What should you do at such times?

Psalm 25 teaches us to seek God in the hard times, no matter for what reason we are in those hard times. It seems to me that James 1:5-6 is a succinct summary of Psalm 25: “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.” The context of James’ counsel is the need for wisdom in the midst of various trials (James 1:2-3). James tells us by faith to seek God and His wisdom in our trials. That’s what David tells us in Psalm 25:

No matter how difficult your trials or what their cause, seek the Lord for His wisdom and trust Him to work for His glory and your good.

This psalm is an acrostic, where each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. (There are a few variations that are too technical to explain here.) The psalmists may have used this form to help people memorize the psalms. James Boice (Psalms, Volume 1, Psalms 1-41 [Baker], p. 223) also suggests that in the case of this psalm, there is the dominant theme of learning or instruction, which fits with the alphabetical arrangement. David prays for the Lord to teach him His ways (25:4-5, 8-9). Boice concludes (ibid.), “So we could rightly say that the psalm is a school-book lesson on how to live so as to please God and be blessed by him.” I would only add, “in the context of difficult trials.”

Acrostic psalms are often difficult to outline, because the content is guided more by the alphabetic arrangement than by a logical outline. Spurgeon (A Treasury of David [Baker], 1:441) divides this psalm into prayer (1-7); meditation (8-10); prayer (11); meditation (12-15); and, prayer (16-22). But rather than following such an outline, I want to treat it by dealing with some of the major themes: Trials; sin and guilt; seeking the Lord for wisdom in such situations; and, the Lord’s capability of delivering us from these trials for His glory and our ultimate good.

1. God’s saints often find themselves in difficult, frightening circumstances.

We can’t be certain about David’s circumstances in this psalm. In light of his repeated references to his sins, including the sins of his youth, he must have been older. Since his sin with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband led to the events of Absalom’s revolt, it probably was written during that episode.

Note David’s situation: He has treacherous enemies that are seeking to exult in his demise (vv. 2-3). These foes are many in number and they hate David with violence (v. 19). They have gained the advantage over David, because he describes his feet as already caught in their net (25:15). David feels lonely and afflicted, and his troubles are growing worse, not better (vv. 16-17). And, David’s repeated requests for God to teach him (vv. 4-5, 8-9, 12, 14) imply that he is confused in the midst of this mess.

If David, who walked with God from his youth, was facing these kinds of trials as he was about my age (early 60’s), then none of us are exempt. Sometimes I hear Christians bemoan, “I’ve been following the Lord and seeking to be obedient. Why am I experiencing all of these trials?” They think that if you obey God, He gives you a free pass from trials. But read your Bible! Many of the most godly men and women in the Bible went through difficult trials. Don’t be surprised (1 Pet. 4:12)!

But maybe you’re thinking, “Yes, but you said that the trials behind this psalm seem to stem from David’s sin. That leads to the second point:

2. Sometimes the difficult circumstances that we face are due to our own sins or shortcomings.

David’s painful guilt runs through this psalm. In verse 7 he prays, “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions.” Apparently his troubles later in life dredged up the sins that he had committed in earlier years. In verse 8, he refers to himself as a sinner. In verse 11, he again cries out, “For Your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my iniquity, for it is great.” In verse 18, he again asks the Lord, “forgive all my sins.”

The older I get, the more I relate to the prayer that God would not remember the sins of my youth. The closer you draw near to the Lord, the more hideous the sins that you committed when you were younger appear to be. Some of the sins from my youth keep coming back to haunt me. I think, “How could I have done those things? What was I thinking?” Answer: “I wasn’t thinking! I was pretty much running on hormones! Only God’s grace kept me from doing some things that could have had far more serious consequences!

I try not to dwell on those sins, because they are now under the blood of Christ. But when they come to mind, they remind me of how corrupt my heart not only was, but still is (because I am still susceptible to the same sins). And, I thank God for His great love that sent His Son to bear my penalty for those sins. And I realize both my own enormous need for grace and my need patiently to extend God’s grace to others, as He has done to me.

There is one other application here: Whenever I am in a difficult situation, whether a health need, a financial need, an interpersonal conflict, or whatever, I use the trial to examine my own heart. Am I in this mess, whether in part or in whole, because of my own sin? No matter why I’m in this difficulty, what is the Lord trying to teach me? Even when I get a cold, I use it to humble myself by realizing my own weakness and mortality. I’m like the grass of the field, here today and gone tomorrow. I’m dependent on God for every breath I take and every bite of food that I eat. So, use your trials to examine your heart and life before God.

If you conclude that your trial is directly related to your sin or to your stupidity, what should you do? The tendency is to try to cover it up and bluff your way through. But that’s a wrong approach. There is a better way:

3. In whatever trials we find ourselves, seek the Lord and His wisdom for what to do.

One of God’s main reasons for bringing such trials into our lives is to get us to seek Him more fervently as we recognize in a new way how dependent on Him we really are. And, if our trial is due to some sin that was previously a blind spot, He wants us to confess it and turn from it. John Calvin comments (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on Ps. 25, p. 428), “But we must know, that as often as God withdraws his blessing from his own people, it is for the purpose of awakening them to a sense of their condition, and discovering to them how far removed they still are from the perfect fear of God.”

Calvin also points out that David directed all his desires and prayers to God alone. Verse 1, 2a: “To You, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in You I trust.” Calvin says (pp. 413-414), “Nothing is more inconsistent with true and sincere prayer to God, than to waver and gaze about as the heathen do, for some help from the world; and at the same time to forsake God, or not to betake ourselves directly to his guardianship and protection.” He adds (p. 417) that if David, who was such a wise man in the ways of God, cries out for God’s wisdom in his trials, how much more do we need to do the same!

So, how do we seek the Lord in our hard times? There is enough in this psalm to preach separate sermons on just about every verse. But briefly note three things:

A. To seek the Lord properly, confess your sins and ask for His pardon.

As already noted, David is painfully aware of his sins, not only in the current situation, but going back to his youth. He doesn’t just shrug off his sins by thinking, “What do you expect? I was just a teenager!” He doesn’t compare himself to his enemies and say, “I may have my faults, but these guys are evil!” He doesn’t belittle his sins by saying, “Okay, I was wrong to sleep with Bathsheba, but hey, I’m just a red-blooded guy who likes women!” He doesn’t say, “Being the king is a tough job. So if I made some mistakes, back off! I’m only human!” Rather, David’s guilt over his sins drives him to confess his sin to God and plead for pardon.

Note again verse 11: “For Your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my iniquity, for it is great.” God’s name refers to His attributes, to all that He is as He has revealed Himself to us in His Word. In one of the primary, early instances of God’s revealing Himself, Moses “called on the name of the Lord” (Exod. 34:5). Then we read (Exod. 34:6-7), “Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.’”

David was referring to this when he asks God to remember His compassion and lovingkindnesses (v. 6). Then he prays (v. 7), “according to Your lovingkindness remember me, for Your goodness’ sake, O Lord.” God is free to deal with us according to grace (“lovingkindness”) because Jesus satisfied His holy justice when He bore our sins on the cross. Thus God now can be both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). Thus the first step in seeking the Lord during your hard times is to examine your heart and confess your sins, relying on His grace through the shed blood of Jesus Christ.

B. To seek the Lord properly, review and affirm God’s attributes.

After David’s initial prayer (25:1-7), he pauses to review who the Lord is. Calvin (pp. 421-422) observes that it is difficult to be steadfast in prayer unless we pause and refresh ourselves by meditating on God’s goodness, as David does here. The psalm is full of God’s attributes: God is trustworthy and faithful (vv. 1, 3), because none that wait for Him will be ashamed. He is marked by truth (vv. 5, 10). He is the Savior (v. 5). He is compassionate and loving (v. 6). He is good and upright (v. 8). He is just (v. 9) and forgiving (v. 11). He reveals His truth to those who fear Him (v. 14). He is gracious and comforts the lonely (v. 16). He is powerful to rescue His people from their afflictions (vv. 15, 17, 18, 20). He will redeem His chosen people from all their troubles (v. 22).

As you review and affirm these and God’s other awesome attributes, it will encourage you to seek Him more fervently in prayer in the midst of your trials.

C. To seek the Lord properly, you must be teachable and willing to walk in His ways.

Throughout the psalm, David asks God to teach him His ways or paths (vv. 4, 5, 8-10, 12, 14). The Hebrew word for “paths” refers to ruts made by wagon wheels passing over the same ground often. God is consistent in His paths or ways, which stem from His holy nature. It would be ludicrous to ask God to teach us His ways or paths if we were not seeking to walk in them. But, thankfully, God instructs sinners in His way (v. 8)! We qualify!

To walk in God’s ways includes several things as revealed in this psalm. It includes prayer (the entire psalm is a prayer). It means to wait on the Lord (vv. 3, 5, 21), because His timing is not always our timing. It means being teachable to grow in understanding God’s truth (as noted above). It includes humility (v. 9), because God gives grace to the humble, not to the proud (James 4:6). To walk in God’s ways means to obey Him (v. 10). It means to fear Him (vv. 12, 14). It means to look to the Lord continually (v. 15). It requires walking with integrity and uprightness (v. 21).

Running through all of these qualities is what David repeatedly affirms, namely, his trust in the Lord (v. 2): “O my God, in You I trust.” (Trust is implicit throughout the psalm.) Trust is behind David’s repeated plea that he not be ashamed (vv. 2, 3, 20). I have struggled to understand this, because it seems to me that shame-based cultures, such as currently exist all over the Middle East, are pride-based cultures. To kill someone to maintain your honor is simply to act in sinful pride. So why is David so concerned about not being ashamed? Is he just being prideful?

I think that the main idea is that David has gone public in affirming his trust in the Lord. If the Lord lets him down and David’s enemies triumph over him, not only David’s honor, but also the Lord’s honor, is at stake. Here is a man who trusted in the Lord. Was he a fool to do so or is God worth trusting in? So David’s argument in prayer is, “Lord, I’m trusting totally in You. Don’t let me be ashamed, because if I’m ashamed, Your name is going to be dishonored.” That leads to the final lesson:

4. No matter how difficult our trials, the Lord is able to deliver us from them, for His glory and our good.

We need to be careful to define “deliverance” biblically, not superficially. The Bible is clear that it is not always God’s will miraculously to heal us or to get us out of all our problems. God “delivered” John the Baptist, James, and Paul (2 Tim. 4:18) by having their heads cut off! Many of God’s faithful witnesses have died young through sickness or accidents. We often do not understand God’s ways. His way of getting the gospel to the Waodani tribe in Ecuador was to have them murder five choice young missionaries.

Our duty is to affirm by faith, as David does here, that the Lord is always good, loving, and compassionate. He is fully able to deliver us from our trials, even when we were the cause of them because of our sin or stupidity, if we humble ourselves and seek Him. He will instruct us as sinners so that we know His wisdom to guide us out of our trials. Our difficult circumstances should drive us to examine our hearts, confess and forsake all known sin, and cry out to the Lord for His gracious deliverance, all for His glory and our ultimate good.

One final thought before I give a specific application: Verse 22 grabs attention (in Hebrew) because it doesn’t follow the alphabetic scheme. Up to this point, the psalm has been David’s individual prayer, but at the end, he unexpectedly broadens it: “Redeem Israel, O God, out of all his troubles.” Perhaps David did this because he realized that as king, his problems were Israel’s problems. David’s grief over his own problems reminded him of the nation’s problems, so he prays for them. But it teaches us that our prayers must always include others. So if you’re going through a hard time, don’t forget to pray for others.

Conclusion

The last verse compels me to share with you the “troubles” that we’re facing as a church. For some of you, this will not be news. But I often have newer people in the church ask me, “What is this Equestrian Estates property that you often pray for a buyer?” Briefly, here is the situation. Several years ago, we were overcrowded. We were praying for property so that we could grow. After much prayer and many hours of discussion and counsel, we purchased this 14-acre parcel in west Flagstaff. It has a large indoor riding arena and stable, and a duplex, along with some other features. We planned to convert it into our worship and educational facility. The church raised about $750,000 in cash and we borrowed $1.8 million to make up the $2.5 million purchase price.

Due to many factors that I cannot go into here for lack of time, just before we were ready to move ahead, we decided that the Lord did not want us to pursue developing the property. There was also another piece of property that seemed more suitable for us. So we put the equestrian property on the market. But shortly after this, the real estate market fell apart and we have not been able to sell the property. Our three-year loan ran out and we recently had to refinance. The bank was only willing to give us a two-year note. So we need to pay off the note by December, 2010, or pray that we can refinance the loan again.

As the numbers in the bulletin indicate, we are currently in arrears in our property fund by over $52,000. That money came out of some general funds that we held in reserve. Also, we are currently falling behind in our property expenses (compared to giving) by about $6,000 per month (it was over $7,000, but it has slightly improved). At current rates of giving and expenditures, we could be out of funds by early next year. Also, a roofer has told us that we need a new roof on our main Beaver Street buildings within the next couple of years, which will cost in excess of $60,000. We can stay solvent for a few months longer by trimming some discretionary costs, such as staff salaries and giving to missions.

I am not trying to be an alarmist, but only to let you know as the body the difficult situation that could be ahead if there are no changes from our current course. We need either the sale of the property for a reasonable amount, a lessee who could make our payments, or increased monthly giving to meet our obligation. If we received some large gifts, we could pay off the mortgage and then consider whether the Lord would have us keep the property and use it for some ministry purposes. For example, it was recently suggested that we use it for a Bible college. But to do that, we must pay off our note, plus raise additional funds. The Lord can do that!

So I’m asking you to do two things. First, would you pray often that the Lord would guide us, either by providing an adequate buyer or by providing $1.7 million in donations to get us out from under our note before December, 2010? Second, as the Lord leads and provides, would you consider giving faithfully and regularly to the need? Perhaps you can only afford $50 per month extra. Some could give much more. But we need to sustain our mortgage until the Lord provides a solution. I realize that it is not exciting to give to a property that we are trying to sell, but we must meet our obligation to the bank. If we come away with any extra funds, we can then decide how best to use them for the ministry here. But we need to make up the $6,000 monthly shortfall before we exhaust our reserve funds.

Psalm 25 encourages me to continue to entreat the Lord for this need. We did not act in self-will when we bought the property. To the best of our ability at the time, we were seeking the Lord. But even if we made mistakes, this psalm tells us that the Lord can still deliver us. I felt the need to inform you so that you will pray fervently and give faithfully. Let’s ask that the Lord will be glorified as He leads us in His paths of lovingkindness and truth!

Application Questions

  1. Why do many Christians seem to think that following Christ grants them a free pass from trials? Why is this not biblical?
  2. Consider the life of David (esp., 2 Sam. 12) and discuss the following: Does God remove some or all of the consequences of our sin when we repent? Why/why not?
  3. Where is the balance between proper self-examination and spiritually unhealthy introspection?
  4. Do inner feelings have any place in seeking God’s guidance? Support your answer from Scripture. Consider 2 Cor. 1:12-13.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2009, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Psalm 27: Overcoming Fear

My thirty-sixth birthday is forever etched in my memory. On that day I did the funeral service for Scott, a 39-year-old man in our church, who lost a long battle with cancer. He left behind a wife and two children. Two-and-a-half years later, just after Thanksgiving, I buried Scott’s wife, Glo, who lost her battle with cancer.

When you’re closely involved with people about your own age who die, it has a way of making you face your own mortality. But the Lord hammered the lesson home, so I wouldn’t miss it. A few months after burying Scott, I felt an unusual pain in my back. I looked in the mirror and was shocked to see a large lump. I found that the large lump had a more firm, smaller lump in the center of it. Since Scott’s cancer had started in his back, my immediate thought was, “I’ve got the same thing that killed Scott! I’m going to die!”

We all know intellectually that we’re going to die someday. But it’s another thing when it jumps out in front of you. It was a Saturday night and I had to prepare my heart to preach the next morning. I prostrated myself before the Lord and sought Him until my heart was calm. The hardest thing was entrusting my kids to the Lord. I had to keep seeking Him for peace until I could get in to see a specialist who told me that the large lump was most likely a strained back muscle and the small lump was a cyst which he thought was benign.

About a year later, the small lump was bothering me, so I decided to have it removed. They did a biopsy as a routine matter. A week later I called the doctor’s office to see if I could drop by and have the nurse remove the stitches or if I needed to make an appointment with the doctor. The receptionist put me on hold to check. She came back on the line and said, “The doctor wants to see to you.”

Instantly, I was engulfed with fear as I thought, “The only reason he needs to talk with me is if the lump was malignant! I’ve got cancer!” I couldn’t concentrate on my work. So I put Psalm 27 on a card and walked around Lake Gregory, reading the psalm over and over as I called out to the Lord. About half-way around the lake, I regained God’s peace. When I went to the doctor, I discovered that the cyst was benign. He just wanted to chat with me and see how I was doing!

I share that experience to let you know that applying Psalm 27 to my personal fears is not theoretical! David shows us how to overcome fear, whether it be the fear of death, the fear of speaking in public (which surveys show to be greater than the fear of death!), fear of losing your children (my greatest fear), fear of the future, or whatever. He says:

To overcome fear, seek the Lord!

You may be inclined to scoff, “How simplistic! That doesn’t apply to my fears.” But this isn’t ivory-tower-theology, unrelated to life. David knew what he was talking about! He had evildoers coming at him to devour his flesh (27:2). They were breathing out violence (27:12). Nothing would have made them happier than to see David’s head removed from his body. He had an entire army encamped against him. The soldiers had probably been told, “Whoever comes back with David’s head gets an instant promotion to general and a fat reward!” And yet David could say, “My heart will not fear; though war arise against me, in spite of this I am confident” (27:3)! The man knows his subject! He can teach us about overcoming fear.

Though “seeking the Lord” may sound easy or simplistic, I warn you that David isn’t dispensing a formula that’s easy or simple to apply. God isn’t a good-luck charm which you can pull out when you’re in a jam and rub the right way. David is talking about a total way of life that is focused on God and which clings to God with naked faith in desperately overwhelming situations where there is no other source of help.

The structure of the psalm is in line with the subject matter. Liberal critics have asserted without any textual basis that the psalm was originally two psalms, because the tone of verses 1-6 differs from verses 7-12. But the difference can easily be explained by the reality of life-threatening fear. In 27:1-3, David asserts his confidence in the Lord alone in the face of these violent enemies. He follows this (27:4-6) by affirming his deliberate focus on the Lord and His presence, even as he is surrounded by enemies.

But anyone who has struggled with this sort of fear knows that it doesn’t go away and stay away the first time you tell it to get lost! You can bar the door, but fear climbs in the window! So David, who was confident in verse 3, finds himself anxious again in verse 7. So he redirects his focus to the Lord (27:7-12) and then reaffirms his faith in the Lord and His goodness by repeatedly reminding himself to wait for the Lord (27:13-14). So David shows us practically how to seek the Lord to overcome all our fears (see Ps. 34:4).

1. Seek the Lord in a time of fear by affirming your faith in Him alone (27:1-3).

              To appreciate what David is saying here, we need to remember that he was a mighty warrior. As a teenager he had gone one-on-one with the fearful giant, Goliath, and won. Before that he had defended his father’s flock by killing a bear and a lion. If Psalm 27 was written before he became king, while Saul was pursuing him, David had with him a tough bunch of fighting men. If the psalm stems from Absalom’s rebellion, David had with him an army of tough, seasoned warriors that had defeated all the enemy nations around Israel. It would have been easy for David to boast in his own strength or in the might of his army. But instead, he affirms that his defense is the Lord alone (27:1)!

              Because of the fall, we all have the proud tendency to trust in ourselves. We see this in the widespread notion that we can get to heaven by our own good works. Sure, if we’re really humble, we’ll admit that we need a little boost from the Lord: “God helps those who help themselves.” But we take pride in our own goodness and in our own ability to commend ourselves to God.

              But the Bible strips us of any avenue of congratulating ourselves: “For by grace [unmerited favor] you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). Everything, even our faith, comes from God. He alone is our salvation. We dare not trust in our goodness, our efforts, or even in our faith.

              If the Lord has saved us apart from our own efforts, then He will defend us until the moment it is His time for us to leave this earth. As Paul put it (Rom. 8:30-31), whom the Lord “predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us?”

              So in a time of fear, make sure that the Lord is for you, not against you. If you are still in your sins (and the pride of thinking that you are good enough to save yourself is a great sin!), then the Lord is opposed to you (James 4:6). But if, renouncing trust in yourself, you have put your trust in Christ alone as Savior, then you can say, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the defense of my life; whom shall I dread?” (27:1-2). If you fear God, then it is God alone you need to fear, because He is on your side! So in a time of fear, seek the Lord by affirming your faith in Him alone.

2. Seek the Lord in a time of fear by focusing on the Lord Himself (27:4-6).

              If we were writing this psalm, we would have written verse 4 differently: “One thing I have asked from the Lord, that I shall seek: GET ME OUT OF HERE!” We’d be crying out for deliverance! Of course, David is praying for deliverance. But--and this is crucial--David realizes that the only deliverance that matters comes from drawing near to the presence of God (the tabernacle [or temple] was the place where God’s presence was known) and being caught up with God’s beauty.

              So David isn’t just praying for an escape from his troubles, but for an ongoing experience of God Himself, both in this time of trouble and forever thereafter. He wants his fear to drive him to a deeper experience of the Lord Himself. Beholding God’s beauty points to being emotionally caught up with the very being of God. Matthew Henry [Revell, 3:332] explains, “The harmony of all [God’s] attributes is the beauty of his nature.” Most of us have had an aesthetic experience in nature, where we’ve been emotionally caught up with the beauty of God’s creation. But what David wanted was to be caught up with the beauty of God’s person. He wanted to be captivated by the Lord.

              Have you ever been captivated by the beauty of the Lord? When I read the life or works of Jonathan Edwards, the great New England preacher, I am usually challenged. Comparing my experience in the Lord with his often makes me feel like I’m not even a Christian. But after I recover, I realize that I’ve got a lot more growing to do! He describes his own conversion experience in terms of delighting in the beauty of the Lord:

                            The first instance that I remember of that sort of inward, sweet delight in God and divine things that I have lived much in since, was on reading those words [1 Tim. 1:17], “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever, Amen.” As I read the words, there came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the Divine Being; a new sense, quite different from any thing I ever experienced before. Never any words of scripture seemed to me as these words did. I thought with myself, how excellent a Being that was, and how happy I should be, if I might enjoy that God, and be rapt up in him in heaven, and be as it were swallowed up in him for ever! ...

                            From about that time, I began to have a new kind of apprehensions and ideas of Christ, and the work of redemption, and the glorious way of salvation by him. An inward, sweet sense of these things, at times, came into my heart; and my soul was led away in pleasant views and contemplations of them. And my mind was greatly engaged to spend my time in reading and meditating on Christ, on the beauty and excellency of his person, and the lovely way of salvation by free grace in him.... The sense I had of divine things, would often of a sudden kindle up, as it were, a sweet burning in my heart; an ardor of soul, that I know not how to express. (Cited in Jonathan Edwards, by Iain H. Murray [Banner of Truth], pp. 35, 36.)

              He goes on (p. 37) to say how from this time onward, he had “vehement longings of soul after God and Christ.”

                            My mind was greatly fixed on divine things; almost perpetually in the contemplation of them. I spent most of my time in thinking of divine things, year after year; often walking alone in the woods, and solitary places, for meditation, soliloquy, and prayer, and converse with God; and it was always my manner, at such times to sing forth my contemplations. I was almost constantly in ejaculatory prayer, wherever I was. Prayer seemed to be natural to me, as the breath by which the inward burnings of my heart had vent. The delights which I now felt in those things of religion, were of an exceeding different kind from those before mentioned, that I had when a boy; and what I then had no more notion of than one born blind has of pleasant and beautiful colours. They were of a more inward, pure, soul-animating and refreshing nature. Those former delights never reached the heart; and did not arise from any sight of the divine excellency of the things of God; or any taste of the soul-satisfying and life-giving good there is in them.

              There’s a man caught up with the beauty of God! It’s interesting that in the same section, Edwards mentions how that before this conversion experience, he was terrified of thunderstorms. But afterwards, he rejoiced in them and was entertained by them, because he could see the majestic voice of God in them, which led him to “sweet contemplations of my great and glorious God.” Beholding the beauty of God alleviated Edwards’ fears!

              Perhaps not many of us will be as caught up with the Lord as Edwards or David were. But the point still stands, that we will overcome our fears to the extent that we focus on the Lord Himself and are captivated with His glorious beauty. Make that the one thing you seek: To dwell in the Lord’s presence and to behold His beauty all the days of your life.

              But this psalm wasn’t written by a man out of touch with the real world. David had a hostile army encamped against him. As I said, when that kind of mortal fear comes calling, it doesn’t go away the first time you slam the door in its face. So David’s early confidence turns to anxiety and we find him redirecting his focus to the Lord in prayer (27:7-12) and then reaffirming his faith in the Lord (27:13-14). We must do the same.

3. When fear returns, seek the Lord by redirecting your focus to the Lord in heartfelt prayer (27:7-12).

              Note briefly the following principles of prayer:

              A. Prayer flows out of awareness of our need (27:7).

                            The fact is, we are totally dependent on the Lord. But the fact also is, we are often ignorant of the extent of our need. Hence, we do not pray as we ought. So the Lord graciously brings us into situations where we are overwhelmed and we realize, “If God doesn’t come through, I’m doomed!” Precisely! But that’s true every day, not just in a crisis.

                            Do you ever get tired of going through the motions of giving thanks for your food before you eat? It can become a meaningless ritual. But does it ever occur to you that if the Lord doesn’t provide, you would starve? We are dependent on the Lord for our next breath. Colossians 1:17 says that in Him all things hold together. If He let go, we would all disintegrate! And yet we’re so self-sufficient that we think we can handle everything by ourselves, except the really big crises. So we don’t pray.

                            The well-known Bible teacher, G. Campbell Morgan once had a woman come up to him after he spoke and ask, “Dr. Morgan, should we pray about everything in our lives, or just about the big things?” In his formal, British manner Dr. Morgan stiffened up and said, “Madam, can you think of anything in your life that is big to God?” Prayer flows when we see our total need for God in everything.

              B. Prayer is based on God’s mercy (27:7).

                            “Be gracious to me and answer me.” David didn’t say, “Answer me because I’m such a good person; I deserve it.” In fact, in verse 9 David gives a tacit confession of sin when he asks the Lord not to turn away in anger. If God should count iniquities, who could stand? (Ps. 130:3). The only way to approach God is through His abundant grace and mercy as shown to us in the Lord Jesus Christ.

              C. Prayer should expect answers (27:7b).

                            “Answer me.” Sounds obvious! But how often we pray but don’t expect God to answer, especially when the answer is delayed for years. We should be surprised when the Lord doesn’t answer, not when He does!

              D. Prayer is a response to God (27:8).

                            The sense of the Hebrew of verse 8 is ambiguous, but the idea is that God invited David to seek His face and David responded by doing it. When we see God in all His splendor and beauty and when we recognize our own sinfulness, we might be hesitant to draw near to Him. But He graciously invites us to draw near with confidence to His throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need (Heb. 4:16).

              E. Prayer should be a seeking after God Himself, not just after answers (27:8-9).

                            While we should look for and expect answers to our requests, prayer involves more than just bringing our shopping list to God. Prayer ought to be a seeking after God Himself, a seeking of His face. David didn’t just want an answer; he wanted God.

              F. Prayer is always a resource (27:10).

                            I believe the sense here is hypothetical. David’s parents had not abandoned him, but he is saying that even if that most basic of earthly relationships should fail, he still has access to God who will take him in and defend him. Nothing can cut us off from prayer as our link with our loving Father.

              G. Prayer is linked with our obedience, especially in a time of trial (27:11-12).

                            David was aware that it’s easy to get out of line when you’re under attack. It’s easy to react to wrongs against you with retaliation or revenge. And so he humbly asks the Lord to teach him His way and to lead him in a level path because of his foes. He had a teachable heart and he was willing to do what the Lord showed him. We can’t honestly pray to God for deliverance from a fearful situation if we aren’t willing to learn and walk in His ways. God brings us into trials to teach us to obey Him on a deeper level than we would have known apart from the trial. In a trial, ask God to teach you His way.

                            Thus when David’s fears returned after his initial confidence, he redirected his focus to the Lord in heartfelt prayer. Then he reaffirmed his faith:

4. Continue seeking the Lord by continually reaffirming your faith in Him (27:13-14).

              The Hebrew here is elliptical to produce an abrupt effect: “Unless I had believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living ... (I would have been doomed)!” Calvin gives the sense, “Had I not relied on the promise of God, and been assuredly persuaded that he would safely preserve me, and had I not continued firm in this persuasion, I had utterly perished: There was no other remedy.”

              The Hebrew verbs of verse 14 are singular, as if David is talking to himself. In a time when God seems silent and the crisis is severe, you’ve got to talk to yourself and reaffirm the goodness of God (which you’re tempted to doubt) and your own need to keep waiting on Him. This isn’t just passive stoicism; it’s an active mental attitude that says, “I believe that God is and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). As often as you veer off those thoughts, you bring your thinking back on course and keep it there, just like keeping a boat on a compass course in a storm.

Conclusion

As I said at the outset, we don’t have here a simple formula for overcoming fear. What we have is a way of life: Seeking the Lord is the way to overcome fear. If God gave us a formula, we’d use it and then forget God until the next crisis. But seeking the Lord is a daily matter.

Years ago a number of people in the jungles of Central Africa responded to the gospel. Since they had no church building where they could gather for prayer, they cleared a central spot in the jungle for that purpose. Soon individual trails from many different directions converged there as believers walked through the grass to that place of meeting with God. Whenever a Christian seemed to be losing his first love, the others would admonish him by saying, “Brother, the grass is growing on your path.” What about your path? Are you seeking the Lord and His face each day? That is God’s way to overcome all your fears.

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you counsel a fearful person?
  2. If psychology helps a person overcome fear, is it wrong to use it?
  3. How can a person who lacks faith get it?
  4. How can we know, in a given situation, whether fear is healthy or not?

Copyright 1993, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

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Biblical Topics: 
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Passage: 

Psalm 31: The Remedy for Stress

As I said last week, if you want to pick one word to describe our modern culture, that word would probably be pressure. We have stress management classes, as well as many books and articles aimed at helping us reduce stress. You can take classes on meditation and yoga at most community centers. Even many Christians ignore the spiritual dangers of these methods and claim that they help them to cope with stress. Some take tranquilizers or turn to illegal drugs or alcohol. But precious few turn to the living God and take refuge in Him! If you dare to suggest that someone under stress trust in God, you will often be met with scorn, even by fellow Christians.

Try this for a stressful situation: a group of enemies have conspired together to kill you. They have instigated a widespread campaign of slander and lies. As a result, your name has become a reproach, even among your neighbors and former friends. When they see you coming, they turn and run the other way. They fear being identified in any way with you, because they figure that your time is short. They don’t want to be implicated by association.

As a result of these problems, you’re struggling with depression. You also realize that many of your troubles stem from your own sin. So on top of everything else, you’re wrestling with guilt. The whole experience has taken its toll on your health. You don’t have strength to do your daily tasks. Your body is wasting away. Wherever you look, it seems that terror is staring you in the face.

This is how David describes his situation in Psalm 31. We can’t be certain of the exact situation that lies behind this psalm. Many think that because David mentions being rescued from a besieged city (v. 21), it was when the residents of Keilah conspired to hand David over to Saul, who was trying to kill him (1 Sam. 23:7-14). But in light of David’s reference to his own sin (v. 10), I’m inclined to agree with Spurgeon that David wrote this psalm in connection with Absalom’s rebellion.

Perhaps we’re not told specifically when it was so that we can apply it to our own stressful situations, whatever the causes. Whatever the exact circumstances, we know that this psalm is not coming to us out of the ivory tower of a poet who was insulated from life’s pressures. Rather, it comes from a man who despaired of life itself. The psalm gives us a guaranteed, simple (but not simplistic) remedy for stress:

The remedy for stress is to trust in the sovereign, personal Lord.

My prayer is that the Lord helps us to see that trusting in Him, the living, sovereign, personal God, is the most practical, time-proven way to deal with stress in this world.

1. Stress is a fact of life, especially for the godly.

Somehow, we have gotten the crazy notion that if we follow and obey the Lord, He will protect us from difficult trials. But the Bible repeatedly shows that it is often because you follow the Lord that you encounter various trials. If you blend in with the world, they don’t bother you. But the fact that you follow Christ makes you the special target. Jesus explained this very plainly (John 15:19), “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.” Note four things:

A. Stress produces a gamut of emotions, even in the most godly of people.

We need to understand that trusting in the Lord does not insulate us from the roller coaster of emotions that hit when we face stressful situations. Some spiritual life books make it sound as though when you discover the secret of resting in the Lord, you will be perfectly calm in the midst of the worst of trials. To the extent that your emotions go up or down the roller coaster, you must be lacking in your spiritual life.

But look at David’s emotions in the psalm. Remember, he was not a spiritual novice at this point. He was a man after God’s own heart. First, he was feeling shame, as implied by his repeated prayer that he will not be ashamed (vv. 1, 17). Perhaps his enemies were accusing him of being a hypocrite: “He claims to trust in God, but look at what he did with Bathsheba and her husband! Look at his family life—it’s a complete shambles! Ha! Some ‘man of God’ he is!” Coupled closely with shame was David’s own guilt, as he acknowledges his iniquity as a part of his current troubles (v. 10).

Also, David was afraid. He states that “terror is on every side” (v. 13). You can hear the panic in his voice as he cries out to God to rescue him quickly and pull him out of the net (vv. 2, 4). He states that he is in distress (v. 9). He is overwhelmed with sorrow, sighing, and grief (vv. 9, 10). These emotions are so strong that they are affecting him physically, making him waste away. He is feeling rejected, even by his former friends (v. 11). He feels as useless as a broken vessel (v. 12).

But, everything is not down for David. He also experiences some highs. He is rejoicing and glad in the Lord’s lovingkindness (v. 7). He bursts forth in praise because of God’s great goodness that He has stored up for those who fear Him (v. 19). He blesses the Lord because He has made marvelous His lovingkindness to David even while he was under siege (v. 21). In a final burst of praise, he exhorts all of God’s saints to love Him, be strong, take courage, and hope in Him (vv. 23-24). Derek Kidner (Psalms 1-72 [IVP], p. 130) notes the unusual feature of this psalm, that it makes the journey from anguish to assurance twice over: once in verses 1-8 and then again in 9-24.

In other words, this psalm is very true to life. David gains the victory, but then the waves of distress sweep over him and he plunges again into despair. Then he gains the victory again. This means that it is very normal, even for the most godly of saints, to feel a gamut of emotions in the midst of severe trials. The key is not to be passive in letting your emotions keep you down. You’ve got to wrestle to process your emotions and gain the victory in the Lord. That’s why the psalms are so helpful. The psalmist is often in despair at the beginning of the psalm, but he takes you through the process of fighting his way into the clear with the Lord, even if his circumstances haven’t changed at all (see, also 2 Cor. 1:8-11).

B. The time to prepare for stress is before it hits.

Psalm 31 makes it clear that David knew God in a personal, practical, and deep way before he got into this crisis. Note the many attributes of God that David recites throughout the psalm: God is a refuge and shelter (vv. 1, 19, 20). He is righteous (v. 1) and will judge righteously (v. 23). He is a rock of strength (vv. 2, 3). He hears and answers prayer (vv. 2, 22). He is a stronghold and fortress (vv. 2, 3), David’s source of strength (v. 4). He is the God of truth (v. 5) and of lovingkindness (vv. 7, 16, 21). He is all-knowing (v. 7) and gracious (v. 9), in that He forgives and doesn’t cast off the rejected (implied in vv. 9-13). He has unlimited storehouses of goodness for those who fear Him (v. 19), even if they are going through the worst of trials.

David didn’t learn all of that about God suddenly in the middle of this calamity, although he no doubt deepened his knowledge of God through this distress. David had begun to know God through His Word (Ps. 19) as a boy tending his father’s sheep. So when this crisis hit, David had resources in God to lean on.

If you’re not in a crisis, take the time to sink down roots in the Lord that will enable you to weather the inevitable storms that will come. Spend time alone with God and His Word, feeding your soul. Let His Word confront your life with sin that needs to be dealt with. Then you’ll be ready for stressful times.

If you’re already in a crisis and you don’t know God as David did, seek Him like you never have before! He is gracious and may meet you there, if your heart is right. But the time to prepare for stress is before it hits.

C. Even if your stress is the result of sin, you can take refuge in God.

We saw this also in Psalm 25. Here (31:10), David recognizes that, in part, his own sin was behind the crisis he was in. As I said, this leads me to think that the psalm was written in connection with Absalom’s rebellion. God will forgive our sin if we confess and forsake it (Prov. 28:13), but He doesn’t necessarily remove the consequences (Gal. 6:7-8). But David’s experience shows that even if our calamity is the direct result of our sin, we can still run to God for refuge and know that He will receive us!

It’s significant that David’s enemies were still condemning him long after God had forgiven him. They were talking against him, making his name a reproach (31:1, 11, 13, 17, 20). And, what’s more, at least some of the charges were true! But David’s enemies didn’t know the sincerity of David’s repentance or the magnitude of God’s grace.

We must never condone sin, but we must be careful not to condemn repentant sinners. Thank God that He is gracious and through the blood of Jesus forgives all our sin, or none of us could be here today! Yes, in His righteousness He often makes us suffer the temporal consequences of our sin. But we need to encourage repentant sinners who are suffering those consequences, even then to take refuge in God’s grace and love.

D. God will never let us go through more stress than we can bear if we trust in Him.

“God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted [or, ‘tried’] beyond what you are able” (1 Cor. 10:13)! Though David’s trial was terrifying, so that he despaired even of life itself (v. 13), God gave him strength to endure. God isn’t into easy solutions. He doesn’t usually remove the trial the instant we seek Him. But none who have waited on Him have found Him to fail. “He gives more grace when the burdens grow greater!”

It’s only when we trust God in the midst of severe distress that we prove His faithfulness in our own experience. Often it’s the waiting for God to deliver us that’s the most difficult thing. Think of Joseph, languishing for the better part of his twenties in the dark Egyptian dungeon, his feet in irons. Why? Because he obeyed the Lord by resisting the advances of Potiphar’s wife! Why didn’t God answer his prayers sooner? We know the outcome, but for years, Joseph didn’t know that one day he would be released from prison and promoted to second in the land. But because Joseph trusted in God, he could later say to his brothers, “You meant it for evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20).

So recognize that stress is a fact of life, especially for the godly. We don’t get a free pass, but here’s what we do get:

2. The sovereign, personal God is a rock of refuge to the godly who are under intense stress.

We’ve already seen the many attributes of God that David enumerates in this psalm. But notice again how repetitive he is in the opening verses about God’s being a rock of refuge. First, David affirms that he has taken refuge in God (v. 1). Then he asks God to be to him a rock of strength, a stronghold to save him (v. 2). Then, he affirms again that God is his rock and fortress (v. 3). He adds one more time (v. 4) that God is his strength. Then, later in the psalm he changes the place of refuge from the rock to the secret place of God’s presence (v. 20). But the idea is the same, that God, the Almighty Sovereign of the universe, is a personal shelter for His oppressed people.

David affirms God’s sovereignty over all when he says (v. 15), “My times are in Your hand.” Daniel 2:21 uses this same Hebrew word for “times”: “It is He who changes the times and the epochs; He removes kings and establishes kings....” Our God is not sitting on the edge of heaven, biting His nails as He sees the rebellion of the human race unfold. No one can thwart His purpose (Job 42:2).

God has a sovereign plan for all of history. He is working all times and epochs, as well as our times, after the counsel of His will, for our ultimate good (Eph. 1:11; Rom. 8:28). We can know that when tragedy hits us, God was not asleep or on vacation. His sovereignty is a great comfort in a time of trial. We can know that He has designed our distressing situation to teach us more about what it means to take refuge in Him.

But God is not only the Sovereign of the universe, unapproachable in His splendor and might. He is also the personal God who knows and cares about every detail of our situation. This entire psalm is personal and intimate, but note especially v. 14: “But as for me, I trust in You, O Lord, I say, ‘You are my God.’” And it is not just that David knows God personally, but also God knows David personally (v. 7), “I will rejoice and be glad in Your lovingkindness, because You have seen my affliction; you have known the troubles of my soul.” Although David’s acquaintances had forgotten him (v. 12), he knew that God had not forgotten him.

In a time of trial, Satan tempts us to doubt either God’s sovereignty or His personal love and care for us. David confesses (v. 22), “As for me, I said in my alarm, ‘I am cut off from before Your eyes’; nevertheless You heard the voice of my supplications when I cried to You.” Peter wrote to a suffering church, some of whose members were suffering martyrdom. He exhorted them to cast all their anxiety on God, adding (1 Pet. 5:7b), “because He cares for you.” Then, after warning them that the devil was seeking to devour them through their trials, he writes (1 Pet. 5:9-11), “But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world. After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you. To Him be dominion forever and ever. Amen.”

You may be thinking at this point, “Well, then, if God is sovereign and if my times are in His hands, then there’s nothing left for me to do. Whatever will be, will be.” Not so! There is a third element. Stress is a fact of life, especially for the godly. The sovereign, personal God is a rock of refuge for us in stress. Also,

3. We must actively trust in the sovereign, personal God repeatedly during our times of stress.

David is determined to trust God during his stressful times, but it isn’t automatic. The psalm is full of repeated affirmations of trust in God. David begins, “In You, O Lord, I have taken refuge….” Okay, sounds like a done deal! But in verse 2 he cries, “Be to me a rock of strength.” He goes on to affirm that God is his rock and fortress, but he is fighting for God to be that rock of strength for him. Then again in verse 5, David commits his spirit (i.e., his life) into God’s hand. In verse 6, he affirms again his trust in the Lord. Then he plunges again into the depths of despair (vv. 8-13), only to emerge again in verse 14 with the strong affirmation, “But as for me, I trust in You, O Lord. I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in Your hand.” The whole psalm is this repeated fight for faith in God in the midst of this severe trial.

Maybe you’re thinking, “What else can a believer do than trust God in a time of trial?” But it’s not automatic, as I said. Seemingly out of nowhere, David exclaims (v. 6), “I hate those who regard vain idols, but I trust in the Lord.” Why does he say that there? I think it’s because many, even many of those who in the good times profess to follow God, turn to vain idols or worldly “solutions” when trials hit. Calvin observed this in his day. He wrote, (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on Psalms, p. 502), “It is marvelous [incredible], that, although many things distress us all, scarcely one in a hundred is so wise as to commit his life into God’s hand.”

I once had a couple coming to my church in California who had dropped out. When I saw the husband, he told me that they were going to a Science of Mind group, because his wife had back pain and when she went there, her pain got better. I gently told him that the group was a false cult. He angrily flashed at me, “Look, if my wife is in pain and she gets relief from pain there, that’s where we’re going.” I never saw them again. I’ve seen many others who turn to worldly psychology, rather than to God and His Word, for supposed answers to their problems. It’s as if God had not given us His remedy for stress and other problems. His remedy is to trust in Him as the sovereign, personal Lord. Finally,

4. Our trust in God should overflow into exuberant praise.

In verse 19, David erupts, “How great is Your goodness, which You have stored up for those who fear You, which You have wrought for those who take refuge in You, before the sons of men!” Again, in verse 21, “Blessed be the Lord, …” Verse 23, “O love the Lord, all you His godly ones!” Verse 24, “Be strong and let your heart take courage, all you who hope in the Lord.”

David’s exuberant praise does not mean that his battles are over. In fact, there is no indication that his circumstances have changed at all. Rather, David has found strength in the battle as by faith he has taken refuge in the Lord. With regard to David’s final exhortation to be strong and take courage, Calvin realistically notes (ibid., pp. 520-521),

Nor is his exhortation to courage and firmness unnecessary; because, when any one begins to rely on God, he must … arm himself for sustaining many assaults from Satan. We are first, then, calmly to commit ourselves to the protection and guardianship of God, and to endeavor to have the experience of his goodness pervading our whole minds. Secondly, thus furnished with steady firmness and unfailing strength, we are to stand prepared to sustain every day new conflicts.

Conclusion

It’s interesting that Jonah echoed a phrase from this psalm when he cried out to the Lord from the belly of the great fish (Jon. 2:8; Ps. 31:6a). Jeremiah, whose message was rejected and whose life was often threatened, often borrowed another phrase from the psalm as his motto (Jer. 6:25; 20:3, 10; 46:5; 49:29; Lam. 2:22; Ps. 31:13). As an old man, the author of Psalm 71 (perhaps David himself), took refuge in God by praying the words of Psalm 31:1-3. But most significantly, the Lord Jesus had meditated on this psalm so often that His final words from the cross were a quote from Psalm 31:5: “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). He endured the supreme stress of bearing our sins by entrusting Himself to the sovereign, personal God! So must we!

How are you coping with the stress in your life? Hudson Taylor, the great missionary to China who endured many pressures including narrow escapes from death, used to say, “It doesn’t matter, really, how great the pressure is; it only matters where the pressure lies. See that it never comes between you and the Lord—then, the greater the pressure, the more it presses you to His breast” (Dr. & Mrs. Howard Taylor, Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret [Moody Press], p. 152). God’s remedy for stress is for us trust in Him, the sovereign, personal Lord.

Application Questions

  1. Is God’s sovereignty a source of comfort or consternation to you? Why?
  2. How can a person who lacks faith in God increase in faith?
  3. Agree/disagree: Being “stressed out” is evidence of a lack of trust in God?
  4. Is it true that God will never give us more stress than we can bear? What are the implications of this?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2009, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Psalm 32: The Blessings Of Forgiveness

You have never been so tense in your life. You have been held in custody without bail on a murder charge. The courtroom battle has dragged on for weeks, draining your vitality and weighing upon you with increasing anxiety. Finally, the big moment has arrived. With your hands manacled, the bailiff leads you into the courtroom. The jury files in after several days of deliberations. The courtroom falls silent as the judge calls the court to order. He asks, “Mr. Foreman, do you have a verdict?” Your heart is pounding and your mouth is dry as you watch him rise. The rest of your life depends upon his words. “Your honor, the jury finds the defendant not guilty.”

Not guilty! A flood of relief sweeps over you and tears of joy well up in your eyes. Not guilty! It’s as if a heavy weight has dropped from your shoulders! The bailiff unlocks your handcuffs and you hear the judge declare, “You are free to go.” Freedom from condemnation! Life suddenly takes on new meaning. You are free from confinement, free from the constant pressure of the charges against you, free to begin a new life, because you have been released from those charges. Can you imagine how that would feel?

I hope so! Every believer ought to know. David knew how it felt! Whether Psalm 32 stemmed from David’s sin with Bathsheba or from some other incident, it shows that he knew how it felt to have God as his condemning judge. But he also knew the joy and relief of experiencing God’s forgiveness. He instructs us (title, “maskil,” a psalm of instruction) so that we can know the blessings of God’s forgiveness.

The blessings of forgiveness should impel us to confess our sins.

This psalm flows out of the great anguish of David’s heart as he groaned under the load of his guilt. It teaches us that

1. To know the blessings of forgiveness, we need to feel the burden of guilt.

Whatever happened to guilt? I fear that it has become a forgotten emotion in our day. Rather than feel guilty when we sin, we psychologize the reasons for our actions. Recently a nationally-known pastor resigned, explaining to his congregation, “Along the way I have stepped over the line of acceptable behavior with some members of the congregation.” He added that “he tried on his own to face unspecified childhood issues and had been involved in years of denial and faulty coping techniques” (Los Angeles Times [2/22/93], p. B1).

You’ll notice that David does not say, “How blessed is he whose unspecified childhood issues are forgiven and whose denial and faulty coping techniques are covered. How blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute stepping over the line of acceptable behavior.” David knew that he had sinned and he felt deeply the guilt of his wrong actions. His guilt was making him feel physically ill (32:3-4; see Ps. 38:2-8).

A good case of guilt is a healthy thing when we have sinned. As I heard Garrison Keillor say, “Guilt is a gift that keeps on giving.” Those who appreciate most the gift of God’s forgiveness are those who have felt most deeply the guilt of their sins. The great British preacher of a century ago, Charles Spurgeon, went through five years as a child of feeling intense guilt before he was saved. He goes on for a whole chapter in his autobiography describing the agony of those years. Here is a brief excerpt:

When but young in years, I felt with much sorrow the evil of sin. My bones waxed old with my roaring all the day long. Day and night God’s hand was heavy upon me. I hungered for deliverance, for my soul fainted within me. I feared lest the very skies should fall upon me, and crush my guilty soul. God’s law had laid hold upon me, and was showing me my sins. If I slept at night, I dreamed of the bottomless pit, and when I awoke, I seemed to feel the misery I had dreamed. Up to God’s house I went; my song was but a sigh. To my chamber I retired, and there, with tears and groans, I offered up my prayer, without a hope and without a refuge, for God’s law was flogging me with its ten-thonged whip, and then rubbing me with brine afterwards, so that I did shake and quiver with pain and anguish, and my soul chose strangling rather than life, for I was exceeding sorrowful. (C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography [Banner of Truth], 1:58.)

Today we’d probably take such a boy to a counselor to find out what was wrong with him! But God was preparing a man to preach the wonders of His grace. Until we feel the burden of guilt, we can’t truly exclaim with David, “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered!” The burden of our guilt should drive us to seek the blessings of forgiveness. Maybe some here this morning are tormented by guilt. Perhaps no one else knows about your sin, and although you are trying to put up a good front, deep down inside you are troubled. Don’t shrug it off or explain it away. Let it drive you to the cross where you’ll know God’s boundless mercy!

2. The blessings of God’s forgiveness are great.

Psalm 32 begins just as Psalm 1 does‑‑with a plural which might be rendered: “Oh the happinesses ....” The Living Bible puts it: “What happiness for those whose guilt has been forgiven! What joys when sins are covered over! What relief for those who have confessed their sins and God has cleared their record.”

There are many blessings or happinesses for the person who experiences God’s forgiveness. Here are four:

A. The blessing of a clean conscience (32:1‑2).

David uses four Hebrew words for sin and three words for forgiveness which help us understand what it means to have a clean conscience before God.

Words for sin:

(1) “Transgression” = Rebellion, refusing to submit to rightful authority. God has ordained certain limits for human behavior for our good and the good of society. When we go against those limits, we transgress; we refuse to be subject to God’s rightful authority in our lives.

(2) “Sin” = To miss the mark. While transgression looks at the violation of a known law, sin looks at a coming short of that aim which God intended for us to reach.

(3) “Iniquity” (NIV, “sin”) = from a word meaning bent or twisted. It has the nuance of perverting that which is right, of erring from the way. Any time you have done something crooked you have committed iniquity.

(4) “Deceit” = deliberate cover‑up, falsehood, hypocrisy. Trying to present a false front so that you look good even when you know you’re not.

Those words for sin condemn us all as guilty before God. But David’s words for forgiveness show us what it means to have a clean conscience before God.

Words for forgiveness:

(1) “Forgiven” = To bear, carry off, or take away a burden. Our sin is a burden which God Himself bears or takes away. You are all familiar with the term “scapegoat.” A scapegoat takes the blame and everyone else goes free. The term comes from the Hebrew sacrificial system. The high priest would select a goat, lay his hands on its head and confess the sins of the people, thereby, in ceremonial fashion, putting their sins on the goat. The animal was then sent into the wilderness as a picture of how God carried their sins away from Himself.

The sacrificial system pointed ahead to Jesus Christ. He was the perfect and final scapegoat for sins. He bore our sins away once for all, so that when we put our trust in what Jesus did on the cross, our sins are gone.

(2) “Covered” = Out of sight. God puts our sins out of His sight, which means He will never bring up our sins as a matter of judgment between Him and us. If we’re in Christ, our sins are covered by His blood!

(3) “Not counted” (“impute,” NASB) = Not charged to our account. This is the verb used of God’s dealings with Abraham: “Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned (credited) it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). As Paul argues, this is the righteousness which comes from faith alone, not from works (Rom. 4:5‑8).

It’s as if I had run up a million dollar charge account bill at a department store and I didn’t have $10 to my name. There is no way I can pay the debt. But the store informs me that the charge number on my card actually charged the debt to another man’s account, and that he was a multi‑millionaire and was willing to pay it on my behalf. That’s what God has done for us in Christ. We owed an unpayable debt for our sin. But Christ paid it on the cross. When we trust in what He did, God credits our account paid in full and even adds the righteousness of Christ to our account!

Martin Luther said, “Sin has but two places where it may be; either it may be with you, so that it lies upon your neck, or upon Christ, the Lamb of God. If now it lies upon your neck, you are lost; if, however, it lies upon Christ, you are free and will be saved.” If your sin is upon Christ, you enjoy the blessing of a clean conscience.

B. The blessing of having God as your refuge (32:6‑7).

The same man who in verse 4 complained that he was oppressed by God’s hand here declares God to be his hiding place. Whereas before he feared God as his judge, now he takes refuge in Him as his protector who surrounds him with songs of deliverance. The flood of great waters (32:6) refers to God’s judgment. The man who has experienced God’s forgiveness need not fear the flood of God’s judgment. What a blessing that, instead of having to run from God, now we can run to God and know we are safe!

The story is told of a wagon train crossing the prairie, which came over a hill and was terrified to see a prairie fire racing in their direction. It seemed as if they would be engulfed by the flames. But the leader quickly rode to the rear of the caravan and lit the dry grass behind them on fire. The same winds blowing the flames toward them fanned this fire away from them. Within minutes they all moved to the burned-off area. As the heat and smoke became more intense, a little girl cried out, “Are you sure we’re safe?” “Oh, yes,” said the wagonmaster, “we’re safe because we’re standing where the fire has already been.” If Christ has taken the fire of God’s judgment, then we’re safe if we take refuge in Him.

C. The blessing of God’s instruction (32:8‑9).

Some understand 32:8‑9 to be David instructing his readers (see Ps. 51:13; title of Ps. 32, “maskil”). I prefer to take these verses as God speaking (because of the promise that His eye will be on us). Either way, we have the promise of God’s instruction as one of the benefits of His forgiveness.

These verses are saying that God will teach and guide the person who is sensitive to Him. If we confess our sins and grow in sensitivity to His Word, He will direct us in His ways. We’re not to be stubborn or self‑willed, like a horse or mule, so that God has to put a bit and bridle on us to direct us. Rather, we are to be sensitive to His Spirit and His Word, developing a tender conscience. God will use those means to direct the forgiven sinner into paths of righteousness.

Is your conscience growing more tender toward the Lord? We’re not pardoned to go our own way, but rather to go God’s way. The person who understands forgiveness by God’s grace won’t continue in sin, but will grow more sensitive to the ways of the God who has freely pardoned him.

D. The blessing of God’s joy (32:10-11).

David ends the psalm by contrasting the wicked, who have many sorrows, with the righteous, who are surrounded by the Lord’s unfailing love. The righteous are not those who never sin, but rather those “upright in heart” because they have confessed their sins. The thought of God’s mercy to sinners who don’t deserve it causes David to break forth with joy (32:11). The Judge of the Universe has pounded His gavel and proclaimed, “Not guilty!” You’re free from the weight of your sins, free from condemnation, because Christ has paid the penalty! There is no greater joy than that of knowing that your sins are totally forgiven.

John Calvin sums it up: “David here teaches us that the happiness of men consists only in the forgiveness of sins, for nothing can be more terrible than to have God for our enemy; nor can he be gracious to us in any other way than by pardoning our transgressions” (Commentary on the Psalms [Associated Publishers & Authors, Inc.], p. 362).

Those are some of the blessings of experiencing God’s forgiveness: we have a clear conscience before God, we have God as our refuge, we have His instruction, and we have great joy in Him. But how do we experience those blessings of His forgiveness?

3. The great blessings of God’s forgiveness are experienced as we confess our sins.

The turning point in this psalm is verse 5, where David confesses his sin, and verse 6 where he exhorts his readers to pray to God while He may be found. This implies that there is a window of opportunity for repentance, when God is appealing to our conscience. If we refuse to turn to the Lord, we may be hardened beyond remedy (Prov. 29:1). Please note that David confesses his sins directly to the Lord (32:5), not to a priest; not even to the ones he had wronged at this point. Sin is first and foremost against the Lord, and so we must confess it to Him. What does it mean to confess sin?

A. To confess means to acknowledge our sin to God.

The Hebrew word and the Greek word used to translate it in the LXX both have the idea of telling forth or acknowledging openly one’s sins. If we uncover our sins before God, He covers them from His judgment. The New Testament word used in 1 John 1:9 has the nuance of agreeing together with God. Acknowledging our sin means:

(1) We call sin “sin.” We don’t explain it away as “faulty coping techniques due to a dysfunctional family background.” We don’t excuse it “weakness” or “just human nature.” We say, “Lord, I sinned.” The sooner we confess, the sooner we experience God’s blessing. So we ought to be in the habit of “fessin’ ’em as ya does ’em.”

(2) We see sin as serious. The closer you get to the Lord, and thus see sin from His perspective, the more serious you will see it. My sin put my Savior on the cross. And sin always causes damage: to the name of Christ; to others in His body; and, to me. Sin always erects barriers between us and God, and between fellow human beings. Thus we must take sin seriously. Confession must not be flippant!

(3) We see confessed sin as forgiven. “You forgave the guilt of my sin” (32:5b). No sin is too great to be forgiven. If I have truly confessed my sin and still feel guilty, it is not the Lord, but the accuser of the brethren who is troubling me (Rev. 12:10-11). The blood of the Lamb fully satisfied the demands of God’s righteousness. We must rest in the promise of God, that He is faithful and just to forgive all our sins when we confess them to Him.

B. To confess means to accept responsibility for our sin.

Sin deceives us; confession means that we remove deceit (32:2b). We stop the cover‑up attempt. We are open and honest about it before God. Accepting responsibility means being willing to forsake the sin in His strength. “He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion” (Prov. 28:13). It’s a sham to confess sin if you have no intention or willingness to forsake it. You may not feel like forsaking it, and you may need to confess that fact. You may need biblical counsel to know how to forsake it. But you haven’t truly confessed if you aren’t seeking to put the sin away from your life.

Accepting responsibility for sin also means confessing to others you have wronged. David doesn’t deal with this aspect here, but it is a part of the biblical teaching on the subject which cannot be ignored. If you have sinned against someone else, first confess it to God, but then go to the person and confess your sin to them and seek their forgiveness. That way your conscience is clear before God and man. You may need to make restitution if your wrong has deprived another person.

Thus, the great blessings of God’s forgiveness are experienced as we confess our sins. Confession involves acknowledging our sin to God and accepting responsibility for it.

Conclusion

The forgiveness and freedom from guilt which Christ offers changes lives. I heard Ron Blanc, now a pastor in Phoenix, tell how he was called to visit a 14-year-old boy who was in a catatonic state in the psychiatric ward of a hospital. The boy was lying on his bed as stiff as a board. Nothing had helped. The nurse, thinking Ron to be a doctor, said, “I think the boy is suffering from too much religion.” (Ron let her get both feet in her mouth and then told her he was the boy’s pastor.) He went in and began to talk and the boy finally began to open up. He was under a pile of guilt.

Ron shared the forgiveness Christ offers. Before he could invite the boy to pray, the boy began to pray on his own. Ron bowed his head. The boy asked Jesus to come into his life and forgive his sins. When he finished praying, Ron looked up to find the boy sitting on the edge of the bed, freely swinging his legs. Ron asked, “What’s this?” The boy exclaimed, “I’m free, man! Jesus has forgiven me!” They walked out to a little patio area to chat some more. Ron got great delight in watching the surprised expressions on the nurses faces as they saw the boy moving around.

You can be free from guilt before God today and every day! There is no greater blessing than that of having your transgressions forgiven, your sins covered, and your iniquities not counted against you by the Lord. That blessing is available to you right now if you will confess your sins.

Discussion Questions

  1. Is guilt a major problem or not enough of a problem in our culture? Have we explained it all away?
  2. How can we know whether our guilt is from God convicting us or from Satan accusing us?
  3. Must confession involve contrition to be genuine? Cite biblical evidence.
  4. How can we develop a tender conscience before God? Can our conscience be too tender?

Copyright 1993, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

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Psalm 33: The Key to a Thankful Heart

Katherine Mansfield was a brilliant writer, but she did not know God. Because of health reasons, she moved to Switzerland, where she found herself rejoicing in the bracing mountain air and the beauty of the mountains. She wrote to a friend, “If only one could make some small grasshoppery sound of praise—thanks to someone, but who?” How empty for a person to feel thankfulness and praise for the beauty of God’s creation and yet not know the Creator so as to render thanks to Him!

If I were to ask, “Would you like to develop a thankful, worshiping heart?” I would guess that all of us would say yes. We recognize that it’s right to be thankful to God for His blessings. It’s even American, in that we have a national holiday once a year to give thanks, although many would be like Katherine Mansfield—give thanks to whom? But as Christians, we realize that it is right thank God in everything (1 Thess. 5:18).

But before we jump on the thanksgiving bandwagon, we need to realize that genuine thankfulness is inextricably bound up with trust. We will never truly thank God until we first truly trust Him. We will not be grateful to God for all that we have until we first recognize that we’re dependent on Him for all that we have.

By nature, we’re not trusting creatures. We’re creatures of necessity. We trust God when we’re forced to trust Him because our problems go beyond our abilities. The rest of the time, we get along just fine by ourselves. If we can solve the problem by ourselves, we don’t resort to prayer and trusting God, because we don’t need to trust Him. But it’s only when we come to the end of ourselves and cast ourselves in total dependence on the Lord that we begin to experience genuine praise and thanksgiving.

Psalm 33 was written to those addressed as “righteous ones” and “the upright” (v. 1). That is, it is written to those who know God personally and who are seeking to please Him by living obedient lives. But even these people need to be exhorted to “sing for joy in the Lord” (v. 1), to “give thanks to the Lord” and “sing praises to Him” (v. 2). The psalm tells us that…

The key to a thankful, worshiping heart is to rely completely on the Lord.

We don’t know who wrote this psalm. It is sandwiched between two psalms of David, so perhaps he wrote it. David certainly had learned the lesson that the psalm communicates. David was a man of praise and thanksgiving because the Lord had put him in so many situations where every prop was knocked out from under him, forcing him to trust in God alone for deliverance. When God did deliver him, he was flooded with thankfulness and praise.

The psalm begins with an exuberant call to praise God in song and with musical instruments (vv. 1-3). Then, the psalmist gives the reason to praise God (vv. 4-5), because of His word and His work. Then verses 6-12 develop the theme of God’s word as seen in His creation (vv. 6-9) and in His counsel (vv. 10-12). Verses 13-22 then develop the other theme of how God works. He does not work through man’s strength or schemes (vv. 13-17), but rather through those who fear and trust in Him (vv. 18-19). The psalm ends with a final affirmation of trust in the Lord (vv. 20-22).

If the key to a thankful, worshiping heart is to rely completely on the Lord, then the question arises, “How do I learn to rely completely on the Lord?” This is developed in the two main sections of the psalm:

1. We learn to rely completely on the Lord by recognizing the power of His word (33:6-12).

The psalmist is referring primarily to God’s spoken word, but it applies no less to His written word.

A. The power of God’s word is seen in His creation (33:6-9).

John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on Ps. 33, p. 542) insightfully points out that the psalmist brings before us God’s creation of the world, because until we believe that He created all that is, we won’t believe that the world is controlled by His wisdom and power. In other words, believing that God created the world also leads us to the truth of His providence in ruling the world, which the psalmist develops in verses 10-12. This relates directly to our believing that He controls the circumstances of our lives, working everything together for good for us according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28). So to develop a thankful, worshiping heart, we must bow in awe before the Lord as we realize His immense power in speaking the universe into existence (Ps. 33:8-9).

The immensity of the universe is staggering! This week I was listening to the “Star Date” feature on NPR. They said that astronomers are discovering vast regions of space that are completely empty. One such space is a billion light years across. That is 10,000 times greater than the distance across our Milky Way galaxy! And there are billions of huge galaxies like our Milky Way! Truly, with David (Ps. 8:3-4) we can exclaim, “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained; what is man that You take thought of him, and the son of man that You care for Him?”

God didn’t have to struggle and strain to create the universe. Rather, He did it by His bare word (v. 6). As Genesis 1 records (eight times), God said, “Let there be…” and it happened! As our psalm puts it (33:9), “He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast.” Creation is a miracle of God’s power. He created everything out of nothing by His word alone. As with all miracles, you cannot prove it; you must accept it by faith in God (Heb. 11:3). But the only alternative is that nothing produced everything, or that matter has always existed, but in some miraculous manner by sheer chance alone it came to have the intricately ordered form that we now observe. Which view takes more faith?

The psalmist then goes on to consider the oceans (Ps. 33:7). God “gathers the waters of the sea together as a heap; He lays up the deeps in storehouses.” The only ocean that the psalmist may have seen would have been the Mediterranean Sea, or perhaps the Red Sea at the Gulf of Aqaba. He would not have known that the world’s oceans cover two-thirds of the earth’s surface. The Pacific Ocean alone covers almost 64 million square miles at an average depth of over 14,000 feet, with its greatest depth almost 36,000 feet! If you’ve ever flown over it or sailed it, you know that it is huge! But the psalmist pictures God as piling the water together as a farmer would pile a heap of grain in a barn. This could be a reference to God’s stacking up the waters of the Red Sea when He brought Israel safely through, or it may be a poetic description of God keeping the mighty oceans within their boundaries.

But either way, when you consider the grandeur of the heavens and of the oceans, the conclusion is (33:8-9): “Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him. For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded and it stood fast.” There is no way to harmonize or reconcile this text with the view that the universe and life on earth came about by random chance over billions of years. Nor is there room for the view that God guided the process of evolution over billions of years. Rather, God spoke and it was done instantly! The obvious application is that we should fall on our faces before such a powerful Creator. Who are we to vaunt ourselves in pride against Him?

The apostle Paul applies the doctrine of creation to our salvation. After saying (2 Cor. 4:4) that Satan “has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ,” he adds (2 Cor. 4:6), “For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” In other words, if you know Jesus Christ as Savior, it was not your doing. You were in utter spiritual darkness; furthermore, you loved it (John 3:19)! Just as He spoke the sun into existence, even so God spoke light into your dark heart.

You may be thinking, “But didn’t I have to choose to believe in Christ?” Yes, of course you did. But the question is, “How were you able to choose to believe in Christ?” The Bible is clear, if you have believed in Christ as Savior and Lord, it is because God first opened your blind eyes to see. That is the only doctrine of salvation that causes us to humble ourselves in awe before the Creator.

But the human race is prone to pride. We band ourselves together in nations and assemble powerful armies to conquer kingdoms and control our destiny. So the psalmist goes on to show…

B. The power of God’s word is seen in His counsel (33:10-12).

“The Lord nullifies the counsel of the nations; He frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart from generation to generation. Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people whom He has chosen for His own inheritance.” Contrast these words with the proud words of poet William Ernest Henley, “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” God says, “No, you’re not!”

A story is told of a newly-elected politician who had just arrived in Washington, D.C. He was visiting at the home of one of the ranking Senators. The two men stood looking out over the Potomac River as an old, rotten log floated by. The older Senator said, “This city is like that log out there.” “How’s that?” asked the younger man. The Senator replied, “Well, there are probably hundreds of bugs, ants, and other critters on that old log as it floats down the river. And I imagine that every one of them thinks that he’s steering it.”

Proud man thinks that he is steering the course of history. But the Bible is clear that God sets up and takes down the most powerful kings in history for His own sovereign purposes. Whether it was Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, or Artaxerxes, God used them to further His purposes for His chosen people. Of course, none of those men knew God or were seeking to follow God. They were making decisions that they thought would further their own agendas. But behind the scenes, God providentially used their decisions to further His agenda. They were responsible for their decisions and they will answer to God for those decisions. And yet God used those decisions to implement His own counsel and plans.

We see this plainly illustrated in the most important event in human history, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. This was Satan’s and proud man’s most serious attempt to cast off God’s rule. Yet in Acts 4:27-28 the early church prays, “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.” These self-centered, proud rulers were responsible for crucifying the Lord’s Anointed One. And yet, in so doing they inadvertently carried out God’s eternal plan of redemption. God nullified and frustrated their plans and established His plan.

The power of God’s word as seen in His counsel is further stated in verse 12: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people whom He has chosen for His own inheritance.” This refers to Israel, whom God chose as distinct from all other peoples to be His people (Deut. 7:7-8). Although they were often disobedient and rebellious, He used them to bring the Savior into the world. As I understand Romans 11, although God has set them aside for these past 20 centuries because they crucified the Savior, He will yet graciously bring a widespread revival among the Jews, to the praise of the glory of His grace. Meanwhile we (the church) are “ a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9). The reason that any of us are a part of God’s people is His sovereign choice of us.

So the point of verses 6-12 is that we will learn to rely completely on the Lord when we see the power of His word as seen in His creation and in His counsel or His sovereign plan. Because His word stands against all opposition, we can confidently rely on Him. But, also,

2. We learn to rely completely on the Lord by recognizing the pattern of His working (33:13-22).

In verse 4, the psalmist says that we should thank and praise the Lord for His word, but also because “all His work is done in faithfulness.” So after developing the theme of God’s word (33:6-12), he now shows that God does not work through man’s strength or schemes (33:13-17), but rather through those who fear and trust in Him (33:18-19). Therefore, we trust and hope in Him (33:20-22).

A. God does not work through man’s strength or schemes (33:13-17).

“The Lord looks from heaven; He sees all the sons of men; from His dwelling place He looks out on all the inhabitants of the earth, He who fashions the hearts of them all, He who understands all their works. The king is not saved by a mighty army; a warrior is not delivered by great strength. A horse is a false hope for victory; nor does it deliver anyone by its great strength.”

The psalmist pictures God as looking down from heaven as you or I might look down from a tall building on people below. But God sees everyone on earth. He sees the woman bent over her rice paddy in Thailand. He sees the Indian in the loincloth hunting for food in the jungles of South America. He sees the executive at his desk on the 44th floor of the skyscraper in Manhattan. He sees us sitting here. But more than seeing everyone, God knows what they’re thinking in their hearts. He made every heart and He understands not only what we do, but also why we do it.

There is the king going out to battle with what to him is a “mighty army” (v. 16). Is he trusting in that army for victory? God knows. There is the soldier, his muscles rippling with strength, mounted on his impressive horse (vv. 16b, 17). Is he trusting in his own strength or in the strength of his horse? God knows.

The fact is, our human tendency, even as redeemed people, is to perfect our methods and then to trust in them. We live in a day that is awash in methods and techniques for how to live the Christian life or how to have a happy family or how to build a successful church. Of course, many of these methods are helpful because they are based on Scripture. Granted, God’s normal way of working is not through faith plus nothing, but rather through faith plus using certain methods or means to accomplish His will. But the ever-present danger is that we plug in the methods and trust in them to work, instead of using the methods while we trust in God to work. The psalmist is saying that God does not work through man’s strength or schemes, because then man gets the glory.

B. God does work through those who fear and trust in Him (33:18-19).

The psalmist just said (v. 13) that the Lord sees everyone on earth. But now (v. 18) he states that the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him. What does he mean? He means that God looks with favor on those who fear Him and trust in Him to deliver them from overwhelming situations. In other words, God’s means of working is not to find people with slick methods and bless them, but rather to find people who trust in Him and bless them.

Note that these people are not described as strong and self-sufficient. In fact, they’re in grave difficulty. They are facing death and famine (v. 19). People who learn to be thankful must first learn to trust in God. And people who learn to trust in God must at some point be stripped of every human prop so that they look to God alone for deliverance. As Paul put it (2 Cor. 1:8b-9), “we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead.” As George Muller said (A. T. Pierson, George Muller of Bristol [Revell], p. 437), “It is the very time for faith to work, when sight ceases. The greater the difficulties the easier for faith. As long as there remain certain natural prospects, faith does not get on even as easily … as when all natural prospects fail.” Hudson Taylor said (source unknown), “You have proved the sufficiency of God only when you have trusted Him for the impossible.” God works through helpless people who trust in Him.

C Therefore, we trust and hope in Him (33:20-22).

Verses 18-22 are filled with synonyms for trust in the Lord: “fear” (v. 18); “hope” (vv. 18, 22); “waits” (v. 20); “our help and our shield” (v. 20); “our heart rejoices in Him” (v. 21); and “we trust in His holy name” (v. 21), which means, “in His holy character.” The psalms, which emphasize praise and thanksgiving, also emphasize trust. The Hebrew word for “trust” occurs more frequently in the Psalms than in any other place (50 out of 181 times). Again, it’s not that methods are wrong, but rather that trusting in methods is wrong. Our trust must be in God alone. What is the result? Go back to the beginning of the psalm:

3. Complete trust in the Lord results in a thankful, worshiping heart (33:1-5).

Thankfulness and worship are bound up with trusting in the Lord. When you have no human means of escape and you cry out to God as your only hope and He delivers you, your heart overflows in thankfulness and praise to Him. When a slick method works, the method gets the praise. When God works, then He gets the praise.

And it’s rather exuberant praise that the psalmist calls for (vv. 1-3): “Sing for joy in the Lord…. Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre; sing praises to Him with a harp of ten strings. Sing to Him a new song [i.e., one that celebrates some new deliverance or victory]; play skillfully with a shout of joy.” You don’t get the impression that he would be pleased with folks reading their bulletins or sitting stoically through the singing! Calvin (p. 538) describes this as “the vehement and ardent affection which the faithful ought to have in praising God.”

You may protest that your personality is too reserved to get excited about worship. But we all get excited about that in which we delight. If you’re watching a close football game and your team makes a spectacular catch in the end zone, do you sit there stoically eating potato chips? You’d probably fling the bowl of chips in the air! Why? Because you delight in football.

The secret to heartfelt praise and thanksgiving is to recognize that you were in a desperate situation. You could not save yourself from God’s righteous judgment. You cried to the God who spoke the universe into existence, the God who sent His Son, to save you by His grace. Because now you have experienced His great love and grace, you delight in Him and His great salvation and you can’t help but sing for joy!

Conclusion

Matthew Henry (Matthew Henry’s Commentary [Revell], 3:351) comments on verse 5, “What a pity it is that this earth, which is so full of God’s goodness, should be so empty of his praises, and that of the multitudes that live upon his bounty there are so few that live to his glory!” I hope that that cannot be said of us. As God’s “righteous ones,” let’s lean hard on Him to work through us for His glory. When we see Him deliver our souls from death and keep us alive in famine (v. 19), our response will be to sing and praise Him exuberantly with thankful hearts.

Application Questions

  1. Why does evolution fly in the face of biblical Christianity? Can one believe in “theistic” evolution and still believe the Bible?
  2. How does affirming God’s sovereignty over all (Ps. 33:10-12) help us to be thankful, worshiping people?
  3. Where is the balance between using human methods versus trusting in God alone? How can we avoid putting our trust in the methods? When are we presuming on God?
  4. Is worship style a matter of personality or of being thoroughly delighted in God? Give biblical examples.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2009, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Psalm 34: Enjoying God and His Blessings

A question that I often ask those who come to me for counsel is, “Do you want God’s blessing in your life?” On the surface, it sounds like a no-brainer. “Duh! Of course I want God’s blessing in my life! Do you think I’m stupid, or what?” But answering yes to that question commits you to an often-difficult way of life. God does not bless those that ignore His commandments and live to please themselves. He blesses those that fear Him and walk in His ways, turning from their sins. Now, do you really want God’s blessing in your life?

David did. In spite of his many failures and sometimes flagrant sins, he kept coming back to the Lord, repenting of his sins, and seeking God as his chief joy and treasure. David wasn’t just, as so many do, trying to milk God for His blessings, but continuing to live for his own selfish ends. Rather, David saw God Himself as the supreme blessing. He would agree with what Asaph wrote (Ps. 73:25), “Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth.” In Psalm 34, David tells us how to enjoy God and His blessings:

To enjoy God and His blessings, seek Him for salvation, fear Him, and walk in His ways.

Psalm 34 is an acrostic, with each verse beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Interestingly, as in Psalm 25, one letter (vav) is missing and the final verse interrupts the sequence, thus making it stand out for emphasis. As with all acrostics, the outline is not as clear as in some other psalms. Derek Kidner (Psalms 1-72 [IVP], pp. 138, 140) outlines it broadly as, “Rejoice with me” (vv. 1-10) and “Learn from me” (vv. 11-22). The first section is David’s testimony; the second section is his teaching. Addressing his audience as “children” (34:11) was a common way for Hebrew teachers to address their pupils.

The psalm comes out of an embarrassing incident in David’s life. He was running from King Saul, who was seeking to kill him. He came famished to Ahimelech the priest, who gave him and his men the consecrated bread. David also took Goliath’s sword, which had been stored at the Tabernacle. An informant told Saul where David was at, so he had to flee again. This time, perhaps in panic, he fled from Israeli territory and went to Achish, the Philistine king of Gath. It’s rather bizarre, because Gath was the hometown of Goliath, whom David had killed! So here is David, carrying Goliath’s sword (which could hardly be camouflaged!), showing up in Goliath’s town! Achish, by the way, is referred to in the Psalm inscription as Abimelech, which was a dynastic title for Philistine kings (it means, “my father is king”), much as Pharaoh was a title for Egyptian kings.

David wasn’t long in Gath before the servants of Achish said, “Isn’t this David, of whom the Israelis sing, ‘Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands?’” (See 1 Sam. 21:11.) So, fearing that he had jumped from the frying pan into the fire, David panicked. He decided to act like an insane man, scribbling on the city gate and drooling into his beard. Achish fell for the ruse. He sarcastically asked his men (1 Sam. 21:15), “Do I lack madmen, that you have brought this one into my presence?” And so by his deception, David was enabled to escape. But his acting like a madman had dishonored God in front of these pagans.

But then he wrote this psalm, praising God for his deliverance and denouncing deception (Ps. 34:13). What’s going on here? It seems that in reflecting back later on this close escape from death, David realized that in spite of his failure, God had been gracious in rescuing him anyway. True, David had been in a very tight spot, but that did not justify his deception. He actually continued this pattern of deception with Achish, convincing him that he was raiding Israeli villages, when he actually was slaughtering off the inhabitants of the land (1 Sam. 27:8-12). This almost resulted in David’s being forced to go into battle with the Philistines against his own countrymen. It also resulted in the capture of David’s and his men’s wives and property, so that his own men were talking of stoning him (1 Sam. 30:6).

So sometime after David recovered from all of these difficult trials caused by his own panic and deception, he penned Psalm 34. He realizes now that deception and evil are not the way to the good life. Rather, seeking God for deliverance, fearing Him, and walking in His ways are the way to enjoy God and His blessings.

Even some conservative commentators have said that the psalm does not bear any resemblance to the circumstances alluded to in the title. But there are connections that can be made. In verses 4-6 David alludes to the extreme danger that he was in. Some may ask, “How can he say that he cried out to the Lord for deliverance when he was using deception to get out of this jam?” The answer is that he did both. It is rare, especially for younger believers, to be completely pure in our methods, especially when we’re in a sudden crisis. So the psalm is a testimony to God’s grace in bearing with our weaknesses. This does not justify our sin, but it does magnify God’s grace towards his weak children.

Further allusions to David’s situation include verse 7, which pictures the angel of the Lord guarding David’s camp at the cave of Adullam, where he fled from Achish. Verse 10 refers to the lions that inhabited the area. Some commentators take this as a poetic reference to powerful, rapacious human leaders. But it would be natural for David to refer to the hungry lions that he saw around him, contrasting them with God’s care for him and his men. Verses 13 and 18 reflect David’s later repentance as he thought back on his panicked use of deception. And, verse 20 reflects David’s safe escape from the Philistines. He was probably handled roughly, but he got away with no broken bones.

We can draw four practical lessons from this psalm:

1. The life that God blesses is not free from extreme trials.

This is a psalm about close escapes from death. We see this in the psalm title. It is also evident in verses 6 & 7 and 17 & 19. Verse 19 states plainly, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous….” I bring this up because I often encounter Christians who think, “I trusted in Christ as my Savior and I’m trying to follow Him. So why am I having all of these trials?” They mistakenly think that following Christ means that He puts a protective shield around you, so that trials just glance off. But Paul told the young converts in the churches he founded (Acts 14:22), “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” Peter wrote to a suffering church (1 Pet. 4:12), “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as if some strange thing were happening to you.” Note three things:

A. Some trials are due to our own sins and shortcomings.

We have already seen this with David. He may have fled to Achish in panic without pausing to seek the Lord. His later trials when his and his men’s families and possessions were taken were a direct result of his wrongful thinking that he would perish at the hand of Saul (1 Sam. 27:1). Later, David watched his own family fall apart and his kingdom go through Absalom’s rebellion as the consequence of his sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12). He also saw many in his kingdom die as a direct consequence of his sin in numbering the people (2 Sam. 24:10-17).

The important lesson is to learn how to respond when God brings into your life these consequences for your sins. It’s easy to minimize your own responsibility for the sins by blaming others or by excusing yourself, and then to get angry at God. You can think, “What I did was no worse than what everyone else does. Besides, if I hadn’t been provoked, I wouldn’t have done this. So it’s not fair for God to discipline me when others do far worse and get away with it.”

Or, you can humble yourself before God, as David did, with a brokenhearted, contrite spirit (Ps. 34:18). You can submit to God’s dealings with you, as difficult as they are (2 Sam. 16:5-13).

B. Some trials are due to the sins of others against us.

David got into this jam with Achish and the Philistines because Saul was wrongly trying to kill him. David had done nothing to undermine Saul’s authority or leadership. He had been loyal to Saul, serving him as a son. And yet Saul was insanely jealous of David and was trying to kill him.

Again, it is important how you respond when someone else has sinned against you in a terrible way. Perhaps your father molested you. Or your parents may have abused you verbally and physically. Or, a trusted friend betrayed you. Or, you were sabotaged at work by unscrupulous co-workers who got you fired, even though you were a conscientious, hard worker. Do you take refuge in the Lord and pray for those that wronged you? Do you recognize that if God had not been gracious to you, you would be acting just as they acted or worse? When we’re sinned against, we need to be very careful not to sin in reaction.

C. When we turn to the Lord in our trials, He can use even our past sins for His holy purposes.

This is not in any way to say, “Let’s sin so that grace may increase” (Rom. 6:1)! Rather, it is to recognize that God is the God of the second (and third and fourth) chance. The Bible is full of stories of those whose disobedience God used to teach us and to further His holy purposes. Here is David, teaching us not to use deception as he did. Jacob’s story shows us the same thing. Jonah’s story shows us God’s grace in using the disobedient prophet. Peter’s denials and restoration have encouraged most of us when we have failed the Lord.

So whether your trials are due to your own sin or to the sin of others against you or due to living in a fallen world, don’t let those trials cause you to turn away from the Lord in bitterness. Rather, let them push you to the Lord for deliverance and grace.

2. Our trials should drive us to the end of ourselves so that we seek the Lord for salvation as we fear Him and learn to walk in His ways.

We can break this down into four components:

A. To come to the end of ourselves, we must be brokenhearted and contrite over our sins.

David is boasting here (34:2), but not in himself. He is boasting in the Lord, which means that he recognizes that he is the object of God’s undeserved favor (see 1 Cor. 1:26-31). As a result, the humble (those who also recognize that they are recipients of grace) will rejoice with him as he tells of God’s deliverance. So David concludes (34:18), “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”

John Bunyan wrote an entire book titled, The Acceptable Sacrifice, or The Excellency of a Broken Heart (in his Works [Baker], 1:685-720; also, published separately by Banner of Truth). I cannot recommend it highly enough! (I put a page full of quotes on the back of today’s bulletin and also on the church web site.) Bunyan goes into great detail to spell out what a broken heart and a contrite spirit consist of, so that we can evaluate our own hearts before God to make sure that we are broken and contrite. While we grow in brokenness before the Lord over time, if we have never been broken and contrite before Him, we are not truly saved.

While I cannot begin to condense all of Bunyan’s gems into one sermon, let alone one paragraph, let me summarize how he explains the two terms, broken and contrite. To have your heart broken means “to have it lamed, disabled, and taken off by sense of God’s wrath due to sin, from that course of life it formerly was conversant in” (1:695). As for a contrite spirit, it “is a penitent one; one sorely grieved, and deeply sorrowful, for the sins it has committed against God, and to the damage of the soul” (ibid.).

Further, the brokenhearted man sees himself to be a poor man, as David here acknowledges himself to be (34:6). Jesus picked up on this theme when He said (Matt. 5:3-4), “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

Bunyan’s treatise is primarily based on David’s cry after his sin with Bathsheba (Ps. 51:17), “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” Isaiah also writes about a broken and contrite heart (57:15): “For thus says the high and exalted One who lives forever, whose name is Holy, ‘I dwell on a high and holy place, and also with the contrite and lowly of spirit in order to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.” If you need reviving, it begins with a broken and contrite heart! (See also, Isa. 61:1; 66:2.)

B. Our brokenness should drive us to seek the Lord for salvation and take refuge in Him.

Until you realize that you are broken beyond your own ability to fix, you will not cry out to God for salvation from your sin. As long as you think that your own goodness or works will get your life put back together, you will not see yourself as a poor man (or woman), crying out to God to save you (34:6). As God opens your eyes to the seriousness of your sin, let it drive you to the cross for God’s salvation. Although David may have hid in a cave from Saul and from the Philistines, in his heart he was hiding in God as his refuge (34:8). Are you? Have you come to the place of feeling broken and crushed by your sin, so that you have cried out to God to save you through Jesus and His shed blood?

C. To experience God’s salvation, we must fear Him.

David feared Saul and he feared the Philistines. But he testifies (34:4), “I sought the Lord, and He answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.” He goes on to state (34:7), “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear Him, and rescues them.” Further (34:9), “O fear the Lord, you His saints; for to those who fear Him there is no want.” Again (34:11), “Come, you children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.” Fearing God is inextricably bound up with experiencing His salvation.

I read somewhere last year that a professor at a Christian college mentioned fearing God in his classroom. He said it expecting that all the students would agree that we are to fear God. But he was stunned when they all vigorously disagreed that as Christians we should fear God! They argued that God’s love excludes all need to fear Him! While it is true that perfect love casts out the fear of punishment (1 John 4:18), it is also abundantly clear that we are always to fear God in the sense of bowing in reverent awe before Him. Even the saints need to be exhorted to fear God (Ps. 34:9)! If you do not fear Him, you will not take refuge in Him.

D. To fear the Lord is to live in obedience to Him.

Throughout this psalm, there is an emphasis on being righteous, which means, to obey the Lord. David addresses his readers as “saints” (or, “holy ones”), which is somewhat unusual in the Old Testament (Willem VanGemeren, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 5:284). He exhorts us to “depart from evil and do good” (34:14). He assures us (34:15) that “the eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous and His ears are open to their cry.” Most scholars also take verse 17 to be referring to the cry of the righteous (the Hebrew word “righteous” is lacking). He also mentions the righteous in verses 19 & 21.

By contrast, David states (34:16), “The face of the Lord is against evildoers, to cut off the memory of them from the earth.” Further (34:21), “Evil shall slay the wicked, and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.” So either God’s eyes are towards us favorably because we obey Him (34:15), or His face is against us because we disobey Him (34:16, 21). At the root of obeying the Lord is fearing Him. As Proverbs 8:13 states, “The fear of the Lord is to hate evil.” Fearing Him leads to obeying Him, which leads to enjoying God and experiencing His blessings.

3. When we experience God’s blessings, He expects us to share it with others and to invite them to experience God’s blessings, too.

The entire psalm repeats the theme, “I’ve received God’s blessings; you can, too!” Verse 3, “O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt His name together.” In verses 4-10, the idea is, “God rescued me; He can rescue you, too!” Thus, the invitation (34:8), “O taste and see that the Lord is good; how blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him!” Don’t just look on, wishing that my blessings were yours. Taste the Lord’s goodness yourself! Prove in your own experience that the Lord saves all that take refuge in Him. Or, again, based on David’s experience of not being in want of any good thing (34:10), he invites his readers to listen as he teaches them about the truly good life (34:11, 12).

Praise is best when it is shared. Have you ever stood alone at the rim of the Grand Canyon, admiring the spectacular view, when a stranger walks up? It’s hard not to say, “Isn’t this amazing!” Why? Because praise is meant to be shared. In verse 5, David says that those that looked to the Lord were radiant. The Hebrew word is used (Isa. 60:5) of a mother’s face lighting up with joy when her children, given up for lost, return home. She can’t hide her delight. When you’ve experienced God’s salvation, your face should be radiant when you think about your Savior! And you should want to share your praise with others in joyful song.

But the psalm states that God delivers the righteous from all of his afflictions (34:19). “He keeps all his bones, not one of them is broken” (34:20). John (19:36) cites this verse (or Exod. 12:46) as applying to Jesus not having His legs broken on the cross. Yet Jesus was not delivered; He died. We all know of many of God’s faithful servants who have not been delivered from all of their afflictions. Many have not only had their bones broken, but they have been brutally killed for the gospel. Thus we must consider a final point:

4. The ultimate experience of God’s blessing and salvation will not be in this life, but in the life to come.

The final verses (19-22) must find their ultimate fulfillment beyond death, when God will finally justify His servants and condemn the wicked. These verses make obvious what the Bible clearly teaches throughout, that there is a great divide between those whom God redeems and those whom God will condemn. The Hebrew word for “condemned” (34:21, 22) means to bear one’s guilt (Kidner, p. 141). It is the opposite of being justified. “Those who hate the righteous will be condemned” (34:21b). “None of those who take refuge in Him will be condemned” (34:22b). Those are the only options! Make sure that you’ve taken refuge in Jesus Christ! “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).

Critics scoff, “That’s just pie in the sky when you die!” My response is, what will you have in the sky when you die? We’re all going to die. The question is, where will you spend eternity? If Jesus is not bodily risen from the dead, you don’t need to worry about it, because there is no eternity (1 Cor. 15:12-19). But if He is risen, you had better make sure that He has redeemed your soul and rescued you from God’s righteous judgment!

Conclusion

So, how many of you want God’s blessing in your life? No, don’t raise your hands. Rather, repent of your sins. Ask God for a broken and contrite heart. Cry out to Jesus for salvation. Then, live by fearing Him and walking in His ways. You’ll be blessed!

Application Questions

  1. Why do so many Christians think that following Christ brings exemption from trials? Why is this view spiritually dangerous?
  2. How does a person who lacks a broken and contrite heart get one? How would you counsel such a person?
  3. Why do so few Christians live in the fear of God? Have we over-emphasized His love?
  4. Why is it not a cop-out to say that our final blessing and salvation only comes in heaven?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2009, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Psalm 36: Deceived by Sin or Delighted in God?

God profoundly changed my spiritual life in the summer of 1970 when I first read A. T. Pierson’s, George Muller of Bristol [Revell]. I have gone back to that book time and time again for spiritual encouragement and guidance. Muller was a great man of faith who trusted God to provide for over 2,000 orphans at a time in Bristol, England, in the 19th century. He refused to make any of the needs of the ministry known to any potential donor. Rather, he demonstrated that God hears and answers our prayers when we diligently seek Him by faith.

Roger Steer aptly subtitled his biography of Muller [Harold Shaw Publishers, 1975], “delighted in God!” Muller was a man who found joy in God. Muller emphasized that the first business of every morning should be to secure happiness in God through time in God’s Word and prayer (Pierson, pp. 257, 315). Pierson said of Muller (p. 257), “He taught that God alone is the one all-satisfying portion of the soul, and that we must determine to possess and enjoy Him as such.”

David was also a man who was delighted in God. In Psalm 37:4 he wrote, “Delight yourself in the Lord; and He will give you the desires of your heart.” We see the same emphasis in many other psalms (e.g., 5:11-12; 16:11; 27:4; 31:19; 32:11; 33:1; 34:8). It is certainly a major emphasis in Psalm 36. We don’t know what the circumstances were that prompted David to write this psalm. The title identifies David as “the servant of the Lord,” which is only used elsewhere in Psalm 18. We can’t be sure why it is only in these two psalms. But it is true that only those who are the Lord’s servants, that is, submissive to Him as Lord, can be delighted in Him.

David begins the psalm in a rather unusual way, giving a succinct but profound analysis of the sinfulness of sin (36:1-4). Then he abruptly turns his focus on the delightfulness of God and the blessings that He bestows on His people (36:5-9). The psalm concludes with a prayer that the Lord will continue His lovingkindness to His people and protect them from the wicked. The final verse is a prophetic look at the final judgment of the wicked. Thus David shows us in stark contrast two ways to live—in the deceitfulness of sin or in the delightfulness of God.

The deceitfulness of sin and the delightfulness of God should cause us to seek Him for a continuing experience of His love.

Charles Simeon has no less than seven sermons on different verses in this psalm, so there is much here that I cannot cover in depth. We will follow David’s three divisions:

1. Sin deceives the sinner by flattering him so that he actively plans and pursues it (36:1-4).

Is David here describing only what may be called “the abandoned despisers of God” (John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on Ps. 36:1, pp. 2-3), or does it refer to all sinners generally? I would agree with Derek Kidner (Psalms 1-72 [IVP], p. 146), who comments on Paul’s citing, “there is no fear of God before his eyes” (36:1b), at the end of his indictment of the human race in Romans 3. Kidner observes, “This is the culminating symptom of sin in Romans 3:18, a passage which teaches us to see this portrait as that of Man (but for the grace of God) rather than of an abnormally wicked type. All men as fallen have these characteristics, latent or developed.”

In other words, Psalm 36:1-4 is a snapshot of the fallen human heart, apart from God’s grace in Jesus Christ. It unfolds a progression, showing that sin begins in the heart and expresses itself in words and deeds. We can look at it in two parts:

A. Sin deceives the sinner by flattering him so that he does not fear God or hate sin (36:1-2).

The first two verses contain some complex difficulties in the text, translation, and interpretation that go beyond my scholarly ability. One Hebrew scholar (J. A. Alexander, The Psalms Translated and Explained [Baker], p. 155) says of verse 1, “This is one of the most difficult and doubtful verses in the whole book of Psalms.” The King James and NIV follow the reading “my heart,” whereas the NASB and ESV follow the reading, “his heart.”

If the first reading is correct, the NIV translation makes good sense, “An oracle is within my heart concerning the sinfulness of the wicked: There is no fear of God before his eyes.” David would be reporting an oracle or word from God about the wicked, that their sin is rooted in the fact that they have no fear of God. If the variant behind the NASB and ESV is correct, transgression is personified as speaking to the hearts of the ungodly. That is, sin speaks to and entices them in their hearts.

The second verse is also difficult. It may mean that sinners flatter themselves into thinking that their sin is not so bad, even though others grow to hate them for it. The sinner is blind to what everyone else plainly sees, namely, that his sin is repugnant. Or, it may mean that sin flatters the sinner so that he cannot see his own sin or hate it for how evil it is. He is so deluded by his sin that he thinks he is right, or at least that he is no worse than everyone else.

If we can get beyond the interpretive difficulties, there are some profound insights here regarding sin and how it works to deceive us through flattery. First, at the heart of sin is a complete lack of understanding of who God is, so that sinners do not fear Him. They do not understand God’s absolute holiness. Therefore, they do not believe that He will judge all sin. Invariably, sinners think that God is a good old boy upstairs, who winks at sin, or at least who is tolerant of all but the worst sins. They view God as loving, but not as just and righteous. So He will be lenient on judgment day. This is verified by polls, which show that most Americans think that they will go to heaven when they die.

Second, sin flatters the sinner into thinking that he isn’t a really bad sinner, and so he does not hate his sin. He thinks, “Well, at least I’m not a terrorist or a child molester or a serial murderer.” So he excuses his lying, lust, greed, gossip, and other such sins, because these are more acceptable sins.

Harry Ironside (Illustrations of Bible Truth [Moody Press], p. 71) tells of asking a man after a gospel meeting, “Are you saved, sir?” The man replied that he was not, but he would like to be. Ironside asked him if he realized that he was a lost sinner. The man replied, “Well, I suppose I am, but I’m not what you could call a bad sinner. I am, I think, a rather good one. I always try to do the best I know.” Imagine that—a good sinner! We should rather agree with Puritan Ralph Venning, who wrote, “Consider that no sin against a great God can be strictly a little sin” (cited by Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints [Zondervan], p. 219).

Jonathan Edwards has an insightful sermon on verse 2 in which he spells out eight ways that sinners flatter themselves (“Self-Flatteries,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth], 2:218-219):

1. Some flatter themselves with a secret hope, that there is no such thing as another world…. 2. Some flatter themselves that death is a great way off, and that they shall hereafter have much opportunity to seek salvation…. 3. Some flatter themselves that they lead moral and orderly lives, and therefore think that they shall not be damned…. 4. Some make the advantages under which they live an occasion of self-flattery. [He is referring to those living in a Christian country or raised in a Christian home, who think that they are thus right before God.] 5. Some flatter themselves with their own intentions [they intend to seek God later]…. 6. There are some who flatter themselves, that they do, and have done, a great deal for their salvation…. 7. Some hope by their strivings to obtain salvation of themselves…. 8. Some sinners flatter themselves, that they are already converted [when they are not].

Since sin is so deceitful through its flattery, how can we know whether we are being deceived by it? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

         Do I fear God, before whom all things are open and laid bare (Heb. 4:13)?

         Since God knows the very thoughts and intentions of my heart, am I in the habit of judging my own sin quickly on the thought level?

         When I read the holy standards of God’s Word, do I apply them to my own heart, or do I just skim over them or apply them to others?

         Am I growing to identify and hate my own sins more and more through God’s Word?

B. Sin deceives the sinner so that he plans and pursues it (36:3-4).

David shows how enveloped in deceit the sinner really is. First, sin deceives him so that he cannot see and hate his own sins (vv. 1-2). But, then he uses wickedness and deceit in his own words toward others (v. 3). The second half of verse 3 indicates that this person is in a downward spiral. He used to have some semblance of common wisdom and good behavior, but he long ago abandoned it. Now, rather than despising evil, he lies awake at night thinking about his next sin, planning how to do it and plotting a path to get there (v. 4). So he is not just inadvertently drifting into sin. Rather, he is deliberately planning it.

If you are thinking about how you can get your girlfriend into bed, or how to sneak your next view of Internet pornography, or how to get your next drink or hit of drugs, then David is describing you! You do not despise evil; rather, you’re planning how to do it. You may profess to be a Christian, but your secret thoughts reveal that there is no fear of God before your eyes! Take heed!

Then, without any transition, as if this contemplation of how sin flatters and deceives is too horrific, David abruptly shifts focus:

2. The delightfulness of God attracts us to seek Him as the source of every blessing (36:5-9).

From the depths of depravity, David leaps to the heights of God and His abundant blessings towards those who seek Him. Note five things:

A. God’s lovingkindness and faithfulness are immense (36:5).

“Your lovingkindness, O Lord, extends to the heavens, Your faithfulness reaches to the skies.” David mentions God’s lovingkindness three times in this psalm: in verse 5 with regard to its immensity; in verse 7 with regard to its value; and, in verse 10 as a prayer that the Lord will continue dispensing it.

The Hebrew word that the NASB translates “lovingkindness,” is hesed. It is often coupled with “faithfulness,” and thus has the nuance of “loyal love,” or “covenant love.” The Septuagint usually translates it with the Greek word for “mercy.” The Hebrew word for “stork” comes from hesed, because the Hebrews observed the tender care that the stork has for its young. It flies into the high fir trees to make its nests secure from predators (Ps. 104:17). If you’ve ever seen a baby bird, there isn’t much to be attracted to! They are scrawny and ugly and spend all their time with their mouths open, squawking for food. And yet the stork parents show loyal love for their young, providing for all their needs. That’s how God’s loyal love is towards us.

God’s “faithfulness” means that He always keeps His promises. He is consistent, never changing. By saying that God’s lovingkindness extends to the heavens and His faithfulness to the skies, David means that these qualities are immense or inexhaustible. We can keep coming to Him for more of His love and He never runs out of it!

B. God’s righteousness and judgments are impressive (36:6).

“Your righteousness is like the mountains of God; Your judgments are like a great deep. O Lord, You preserve man and beast.” The Hebrew word for “righteousness” means “conformity to an ethical or moral standard” (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. by R. Laird Harris, Gleason Archer, and Bruce Waltke [Moody Press], 2:752). God Himself is the standard for what is righteous. He always wills what is right and does what is right. To say that His righteousness is like the mountains of God (or, the mighty mountains) is to say that His standards are impressive and immovable, because they stem from His holy character.

God’s judgments in this context refer to His providential governance of His creation. By saying that God’s judgments are like a great deep, he means that they are unfathomable. God’s ways are not our ways. We cannot understand all that He does or why He does it. We cannot understand many of the trials that He brings into our lives. Why does the Lord allow a drunken Herod to chop off the head of the godly John the Baptist? Why does He allow another Herod to execute James, while God delivers Peter from the same fate? All we can say is, it was His sovereign purpose.

When David adds that God preserves man and beast, the meaning is that since he takes care of irrational animals, surely He will care for our needs (Calvin, p. 10). When Paul considered God’s impressive judgments, he exclaimed (Rom. 11:33), “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!”

C. God’s lovingkindness is precious and inviting (36:7).

It’s as if David can’t contain himself as he thinks about how delightful God is, so he exclaims, “How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God! And the children of men take refuge in the shadow of Your wings.” Derek Kidner (p. 147) observes, “The word precious establishes at once the change of scale from the immense to the intimate and personal. Steadfast love … needs both emphases: that of verse 5 as too great to grasp, and of verse 7 as too good to let slip.” The idea here in contrast to verses 1-4 is, how stupid it is of the wicked to disregard God and His ways! To miss out on God’s immense and intimate love in order to pursue sin is the height of folly! God’s love invites us to take refuge under His protective wings, as baby chicks hide under their mother’s wings.

D. God’s provisions for His people are abundant and delightful (36:8).

“They drink their fill of the abundance of Your house; and You give them to drink of the river of Your delights.” “Abundance” is literally, “fatness.” It pictures the best portion of meat from the sacrifices offered at the temple. In modern terms, picture prime rib or a delicious steak. To drink their fill literally is to be drunk with. So it mixes metaphors, but communicates having all of something delightful that you want or need.

To appreciate the river metaphor, you have to remember that David was writing to people who lived in a desert. For them, a flowing river was especially wonderful. It meant life and refreshment. You could have all that you needed to drink. You could cool off by bathing in it. You could irrigate your crops with it. The word “delights” is “Eden” in Hebrew, so it may be a reference to the original Garden, with the four rivers flowing from it.

Is this your concept of God towards you? Do you see His lovingkindness and faithfulness as immense? Do you think of His righteousness and judgments as impressive and awesome on the personal level, because He cares for you? Is His love precious and inviting to you? Do you see His provisions as abundant and delightful? But, there’s more!

E. God Himself is the source of life and light (36:9).

“For with You is the fountain of life; in Your light we see light.” Life means not only that physical life comes from God, but also spiritual life. This verse sounds like John 1:4, which says of Jesus, “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men.” Or, as Jesus claimed (John 5:21), “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes.” Jesus is the source of eternal life for His chosen ones. The fountain of life suggests an unending supply. He never runs dry!

God through Jesus is also light for His people. Adam Clarke writes (Clarke’s Commentary [Abingdon-Cokesbury Press], 3:335), “No man can illumine his own soul; all understanding must come from above.” Spiritually, we are all like the man born blind (John 9). In our natural state, we can’t see the beauty and glory of God and His many delights, because Satan has blinded our minds (2 Cor. 4:4). Only God can open blind eyes to see “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

Jonathan Edwards has a wonderful sermon on Matthew 16:17, where Jesus tells Peter that he did not arrive at his understanding that Jesus was the Messiah through human reason. Rather, the Father revealed it to him. Edwards’ sermon is titled, “A Divine and Supernatural Light, Immediately Imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God, Shown to be both a Scriptural and Rational Doctrine” (in his Works, 2:12). He argues that this divine and supernatural light is not just the rational belief that God is glorious and holy, but also a sense of the loveliness and beauty of these qualities.

So David begins by showing how sin deceives the sinner by flattering him so that he plans and pursues it, rather than hating it. Then he abruptly contrasts the immense delightfulness of God, to make us want to seek Him as the source of every blessing. Finally,

3. The delightfulness of God should cause us who know Him to pray for a continuing experience of His love (36:10-12).

“O continue Your lovingkindness to those who know You, and Your righteousness to the upright in heart. Let not the foot of pride come upon me, and let not the hand of the wicked drive me away. There the doers of iniquity have fallen; they have been thrust down and cannot rise.”

David’s prayer is for those who know God (36:10). Even though we who have come to know God through Jesus Christ have experienced His grace and love, we need a continuing, steady flow of it. Even though He has promised it (Rom. 8:35-39), we still need to ask Him for it.

Also, David asks for God’s righteousness to continue to be given to the upright in heart. We might think, “If they’re already upright in heart, why do they need more righteousness?” But we are never fully sanctified in this life. We will not be completely like Jesus until the moment that we see Him face to face (1 John 3:2). And so we must continue to ask God to give us His righteousness. Also, this isn’t just outward behavior, but uprightness of heart. We need to seek God for a pure heart, or thought life. All outward sin begins with corrupt thoughts that are not judged. If your righteousness is outward only, it is only a matter of time until you sin outwardly, because you haven’t cut off the source.

In verse 11, David asks that the Lord protect him from the proud and wicked, who would try to bring him down to their level. Evil people feel convicted by righteous people. So they want to see the righteous fall so that they can justify their own sin. In the final verse, David prophetically looks ahead and sees the place where the wicked meet their final demise. David is so confident of God’s righteousness and justice that he sees this yet-future event as if it has already happened. God will surely judge the wicked or else the Bible is false!

Conclusion

Have you cried out to Jesus Christ for life and light? Has He opened your eyes to the deceitfulness of sin, so that you hate it? Are you delighted in God and His abundant love? As John Piper points out, it is your duty to delight in Him (The Dangerous Duty of Delight [Multnomah Publishers]). As he also says (p. 21, italics his), “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” I encourage you to join George Muller in making the first business of every day to find happiness in God.

Application Questions

  1. Why is the fear of God the foundation for a holy life? Why is fearing God not opposed to experiencing His love?
  2. Edwards mentions eight ways that sin flatters the sinner. Can you think of other ways?
  3. Why are so many people who were raised in church turned off towards God? Do we properly emphasize His abundant goodness and delightfulness in our homes and in the church?
  4. How would you advise a Christian who said that he wanted to hate sin more and love God more? What should he do?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2009, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Psalm 37: What To Do When The Bad Guys Win

What do you do when the bad guys win? I’m not talking about when the Chicago Bulls beat the Phoenix Suns for the N.B.A. championship (although if you’re distraught, you could apply this message to that situation)! I’m talking about how we respond when we do what’s right and get penalized, while the wicked seem to prosper. For example:

Your neighbor brags to you about how he cheats on his taxes each year. His home is loaded with the finest in furniture and appliances. He has two new luxury cars and all the latest toys. They vacationed in Hawaii last year. You are honest and pay your taxes. You give faithfully to the church. Your furniture would be rejected by Goodwill. Your one clunker of a car is on its second 100,000. And the closest thing to vacation that you could afford last year was to manage to go to the Grand Canyon for a day. Galling, isn’t it?

You’re single and trying to follow the Lord. You will only date Christian guys. Your last date was in 1989. The girl next door has no moral standards and she’s got handsome hunks lining up to see her. Irritating, isn’t it?

I’ve had personal experience with losing while the bad guys win. I’m not in the Social Security system, so I have to set aside something for my retirement. It’s not much, not even enough at this point to live on for more than a year. We’re not being greedy or storing up treasures on earth. We give generously to the Lord’s work each month. But we lost both a major portion of our retirement funds and 15 years’ equity in our home due to two separate instances of being defrauded by crooked men who are doing quite well.

Sometimes it seems like it doesn’t pay to be good! When the evil prosper and the good suffer, you can be tempted to doubt God, especially if you’re the good guy! If you’re not careful to cultivate the right perspective, you can be tempted to say “Forget it!” and join the evildoers.

David had been there. Although he had been anointed king as a teenager, he spent the better part of his twenties running from the ungodly King Saul. On several occasions, David did the right thing by sparing Saul’s life, only to watch Saul return to his comfortable palace, while David went back to a cave. During that time, David and his men did right by a man named Nabal, protecting his shepherds and flocks from bandits. But when David asked a small favor of Nabal in return, Nabal said, in effect, “Drop dead!” David had many occasions to reflect on the problem of personal injustice.

As an old man (Ps. 37:25), David wrote Psalm 37 to share his insights on this problem. The psalm reflects the wisdom he had gleaned from years of walking with God. There is far more here than we can cover in one short message. But in skimming it, we can discern some principles for how we should respond to personal injustice:

When the bad guys win, submit to God, be content in Him, and do rightly, trusting the Lord to judge righteously.

The psalm is an acrostic in which approximately every other verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet (the English gets out of sync). This made it easier to memorize, although it makes it more difficult to discern the structure of the ideas which are interwoven throughout. But roughly, 37:1-11 deals with the idea of submitting to God; 37:12-26 speaks of contentment in Him; 37:27-40 expands on doing rightly; and, trusting the Lord to judge righteously recurs through the whole psalm.

1. When the bad guys win, submit to God (37:1-11).

Although the word “submit” does not occur in these verses, it is the idea behind both the negative and positive commands given here. Negatively,

A. Submitting to God means putting off irritation, envy, and anger.

Three times we are commanded not to fret (37:1, 7, 8). The Hebrew word means to burn. The verb is in the Hebrew reflexive stem which could be translated, “Don’t work yourself into a slow burn” when you see evil men prospering. Don’t let it get under your skin; it will only lead you into wrong (37:8). One reason we get irritated when we see evil men getting away with their schemes is that we are assuming that we know how to run the world better than God does. So one aspect of submission to God is to put off such irritation, giving God the sovereign right to deal with evildoers in His time and way.

We’re also commanded not to envy wrongdoers (37:1). This confronts the selfishness and evil motives in our hearts. Often the reason we don’t want evildoers to prosper is not that we abhor the sin they commit, but that secretly we wish that we could do the same thing. We want for ourselves the pleasures of sin which they are enjoying. But we must submit to God by judging our envy.

We’re also commanded not to anger (37:8). The first word (“anger”) comes from a Hebrew word meaning “nostrils.” When someone gets mad, his nostrils flare out. The second word (“wrath”) comes from another Hebrew word meaning “hot” and points to rage. The Bible teaches that most anger is sinful and that we can control it (otherwise it wouldn’t command us to stop doing it). Anger shows that we are not in submission to the sovereignty of God. We’re saying, in effect, “God, I don’t like the way You’re running things! It’s not fair! I don’t deserve this kind of treatment from these wicked people.” The bottom line is, we’re not submitting ourselves to God.

A rule of thumb for discerning righteous anger from sinful anger is this: If I am angry about injustice done toward others, it may be righteous anger. This anger should motivate me to take appropriate action on behalf of the victims. If I am angry about injustice done toward me, it’s probably sinful anger. Most anger is selfish and therefore sinful. Submitting to God when I see the bad guys winning means putting off irritation, envy, and anger.

B. Submitting to God means putting on trust, obedience, patience, and humility as we delight in the Lord.

When we see the bad guys winning, we need to shift our focus from the evildoers to the Lord. Five times in 37:3-9 David mentions “the Lord” by name and five more times he uses the third person pronoun to refer to the Lord. He is saying that the antidote for getting frustrated with the prosperity of the wicked is to be deliberately God-centered. This involves putting on several qualities:

Put on trust (37:3a, 5). “Trust in the Lord” is not a hollow slogan; it is a course of action. It means that when evildoers seem to be winning and you are losing, you roll the whole problem onto the Lord and watch Him vindicate you in His time (37:6).

Put on obedience (37:3b). “Do good; dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness.” Leave things in God’s hands (trust) and go on with your normal duties obediently before the Lord. Don’t let the other person’s sin lead you into sin. Do what God has given you to do in obedience to Him.

Put on patience (37:7, 9). “Rest in the Lord and wait patiently for Him.” That’s the hard part of submission, isn’t it! He may not act on your timetable. It may take months, years, or even a whole lifetime for God to act and vindicate you. But if you trust Him to be a just and righteous God and if you submit to Him, then you’ll wait patiently.

Put on humility (37:11). To be “humble” (NASB) or “meek” (NIV) means to realize our own weakness and sinfulness so that we rely on the Lord, not ourselves. This awareness of our sinfulness means that we won’t self-righteously judge the wicked. Apart from God’s mercy, we would act just as they do. Humility means being aware of our own inadequacy apart from the Lord, but at the same time of our adequacy in the Lord (2 Cor. 3:5). Meekness does not mean weakness but, rather, brokenness. A humble or meek person is like a strong but broken horse: powerful, yet submissive to its master’s touch.

Jesus took Psalm 37:11 as His third Beatitude: “Blessed are the gentle [humble, meek], for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). The world says just the opposite: “Blessed are those who assert themselves and stand up for their own rights.” But Jesus and David disagree; it’s the meek who will ultimately come out on top. The “abundant prosperity” of 37:11 is literally, “abundance of peace” and refers to soul-prosperity, not to material riches. The person who finds his adequacy in the Lord rather than in himself or his things has an abundant source of peace.

Be delighted in the Lord (37:4). Trust, obedience, patience, and humility can all be summed up in the phrase, “Delight yourself in the Lord.” Be captivated with the Lord and all that He is. Rather than focusing on the things which the world seeks, focus on the Lord. In gaining the Lord, you gain everything else you ever need: “He will give you the desires of your heart.” This doesn’t mean that He will give you anything your selfish heart desires. If you are delighting yourself in the Lord, then your desires will be in line with His desires. This is the Matthew 6:33 of the Old Testament: “Seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness and all these things [your needs] will be added unto you.”

You may apply these principles to your marriage (or to any relationship). Say that a husband wrongs his wife (insensitivity, verbal abuse, adultery--you name the sin). She will be tempted to get irritated, to be envious (“he does as he pleases, but I can’t”), and to get angry. If she responds selfishly, by getting even or standing up for her rights, she will only cause more damage to the relationship.

But if she responds to the wrong done her by putting off irritation, envy, and anger and putting on trust in the Lord, obedience, waiting patiently on Him, and humility (awareness of her own inadequacy but also of Christ’s sufficiency), not in a spirit of self pity, but rather delighting herself in the Lord, her husband will say, “She’s got something I need!” He may be brought to repentance and the marriage may be saved. But whatever the outcome, she enjoys the abundant peace that comes from the Lord.

So the first principle is, When the bad guys win, submit to the Lord.

2. When the bad guys win, be content in the Lord (37:12‑26).

This psalm doesn’t come from an ivory tower. It comes out of the crucible of David’s life and recognizes the fierce conflict which exists between the wicked and the righteous (37:12-14). We may face some difficult times that try our faith. We may be afflicted and needy. But whatever the trial, we can learn to be content in the Lord. These verses reveal two areas for contentment:

A. Be content that the Lord will judge (37:12‑15).

God isn’t worried about the proud schemes of the wicked (37:13). He knows that the seeming victories of the wicked only last for a season, and then their schemes will come back on their own heads.

An atheist farmer ridiculed those who believe in God. He wrote a letter to a local newspaper in which he boasted: “I plowed on Sunday, planted on Sunday, cultivated on Sunday, and hauled in my crops on Sunday; but I never went to church on Sunday. Yet I hauled in more bushels per acre than anyone who believes in God and goes to church.” The editor printed the letter and then added this remark: “The Lord doesn’t always settle His accounts in October.”

As Christians, we can be assured that if the Lord doesn’t settle the account in this life, there is a coming judgment when everything will be made right (Rev. 6:10-11). We can leave vengeance to God, being content in Him (Rom. 12:19-21).

B. Be content that the Lord will provide (37:16‑26).

Personal injustice often hits us in the pocketbook. (I speak from experience!) But there are great lessons to be learned when the bad guys win by stealing your money or goods. Here are two:

(1) The Lord will provide for your needs, but your needs may be less than you think (37:16). You may only have a little, but it will be enough. You may fall (37:24; financially or materially in this context), but you won’t totally fail. The Lord will sustain you (37:17, 24‑25). Sometimes the Lord has to take away our things to reveal to us how much we take pleasure in this world and how little we take pleasure in Him. We need to learn that if we have food and covering, with these we can be content, as long as we have the Lord (1 Tim. 6:8).

(2) If you expect the Lord to provide, you’ve got to trust Him by giving. David says (37:17), “The Lord sustains the righteous.” If you keep reading you discover that the righteous are marked by generosity (37:21, 25-26). To claim God’s promises to the righteous, you have to meet the conditions of being righteous! You have to be a generous giver.

Many years ago a secretary of a British missionary society called on a Calcutta merchant for a donation. The man wrote a check for $250, a sizeable amount in those days. Just then an urgent cablegram was brought in, informing the merchant that one of his ships and all its cargo had been lost at sea. The merchant explained and told the secretary, “I need to write you another check.”

The secretary understood perfectly and returned the check for $250. The merchant wrote another check and handed it to him. The secretary was amazed to see that the new check was for $1,000. “Haven’t you made a mistake?” he asked. “No,” said the merchant, as his eyes filled with tears. “That cablegram was a message from my Heavenly Father which said, ‘Do not lay up treasures on earth.’”

If you’re walking uprightly before God and giving generously to support the Lord’s work, and someone cheats you out of money (or you lose it some other way), you can be content that God will provide for your needs. He’s not blind to what’s going on. Keep walking uprightly, keep being generous, and keep trusting Him, and He will take care of your needs and your family’s needs (37:25-26).

So when the bad guys win, submit to God and learn to be content in Him.

3. When the bad guys win, do rightly (37:27-40).

We saw this theme earlier (37:3), but it’s prominent in 37:27-40. When you’re wronged, the temptation is to retaliate with wrong. But our focus should be on pleasing the Lord in spite of how others wrong us. Here David outlines three areas of righteous living: Righteous actions (37:27); righteous speech (37:30); and, righteous thinking (37:31, “heart” = the inner person). Let’s consider them in reverse order.

Righteousness begins in your thought life (“heart”). God changes us by renewing our minds (Rom. 12:1-2) through His Word (Ps. 37:31; 119:11). If you are not steeping your mind in Scripture so that it shapes your thinking in every situation, you will not respond in a manner pleasing to the Lord when someone wrongs you.

If your thought life is being shaped by Scripture, then your words will become progressively righteous. When someone wrongs you, rather than lashing out with abusive speech, you will speak words of wisdom (37:30) that build up and give a blessing (Eph. 4:29; 1 Pet. 3:9). And, if your thought life and words are in conformity with Scripture, you won’t retaliate with wrong actions (Ps. 37:27). Instead of responding to evil with evil, you will seek to overcome evil with good (Rom.12:21). Instead of being mean, you’ll respond with kindness.

So David is telling us that when the bad guys win, we should submit to God, be content, and do rightly. Permeating the whole chapter is a fourth principle:

4. When the bad guys win, trust the Lord to judge righteously (37:2, 9, 10, 12-15, 17, 20, 22, 28, 34, 35-36, 38).

If you’ve been wronged, get the long‑range picture. God is a God of justice (37:28); He will right all wrongs someday. Have you ever noticed in the Book of Revelation how God lets wicked Babylon go on in sensuality and wealth until the last hour? Then in one day, in one hour, her judgment falls (Rev. 18:8, 10, 17, 19). Right up to the eleventh hour it looks like wickedness will triumph. Don’t be fooled! In that final hour, God will act on behalf of His saints (Rev. 18:20, 24).

So David’s bottom line must be our bottom line: “The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord; He is their strength in time of trouble. And the Lord helps them and delivers them; He delivers them from the wicked, and saves them, because they take refuge in Him” (Ps. 37:39-40). If you take refuge in God, you can trust Him to judge righteously and vindicate you.

Conclusion

But you may be thinking, “That’s great for eternity, but what about now? Is getting trampled on by ruthless scoundrels while I wait for heaven all that I have to look forward to?”

You may get trampled on, but you have something while you wait. In this psalm God’s blessings upon the righteous are summed up in a recurring theme: “inherit the land” (37:9, 11, 22, 29, 34). What does this mean? In its context, it applies to God’s covenant promise to Israel, that they would dwell in Canaan, the land of His promise. David is saying that God isn’t going to let the wicked displace the righteous from God’s promised land.

There is an application for us. There is a sense in which the righteous (or the meek) inherit the earth now. The righteous man, as we have seen, is submissive to God and content in all that God provides. The apostle Paul was such a man. He described himself as “having nothing yet possessing all things” (2 Corinthians 6:10). He knew how to be content no matter what his circumstances (Phil 4:11), so he could enjoy all that God richly supplies (1 Tim. 6:17; 1 Cor. 3:21‑23).

The disciples were righteous men. On one occasion, Peter was concerned because he and his companions had left everything to follow Jesus. He asked, “What is there for us” (Matt. 19:27; Mark 10:28). Jesus answered, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he shall receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms” ... then He adds ... “along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30). Christians have it now and then!

There’s no guarantee of exemption from persecutions, but there is a sense in which even now we inherit the earth as we trust in and follow the Lord. We can enjoy what He has supplied even if we’re persecuted, because we know the Creator. We can delight ourselves in abundant peace (37:11), even when the bad guys win.

Discussion Questions

  1. Is it sin to be angry when someone wrongs you?
  2. Does “trusting the Lord” mean not taking any action? Can you trust the Lord and confront an evildoer?
  3. Is it wrong to go to court or stand up for your rights if you’re treated unfairly? What biblical principles apply?

Copyright 1993, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Psalm 39: How Transient I Am!

Special New Year’s Message

Two things always make me think about the shortness of life: illness and the New Year. When I get sick, as I was the week before Christmas, I realize how weak and vulnerable I am. An invisible germ can invade my body and sap my strength and there isn’t much that I can do about it. When you’re well and especially when you’re young, you tend to think that you’re strong and invincible. I recently read an interview with Tom Cruise in Reader’s Digest. He comes across as being in total control of his life. He’s not! He should look at actors like Christopher Reeve, who broke his neck, or Michael J. Fox, stricken with Parkinson’s disease, and realize that life is very tenuous. Illness reminds me of that fact.

Changing the calendar to a New Year also has a way of reminding me of how short life is. I preached on this psalm on the first Sunday of 1981. I was lamenting then, 25 years ago, how quickly the years fly by! Now my kids are all married and I’m looking at my last year in my fifties. The clock of life never stops to give you a time out. It just keeps ticking toward the final buzzer.

Since life is so short and goes by so quickly, how can we make the most of it? None of us would say, “I’d like to waste my life!” However many years God gives us, we want to make them count for eternity. But, how?

Psalm 39 reflects David’s struggle with this problem. We encounter the mixed emotions of a man who is reeling under God’s discipline as experienced in some illness (39:10), and yet who knows that God is his only hope (39:7). He has no one else to turn to. David’s answer is simple and yet profound:

Because life is so transient, we must live it for the Lord.

James (4:14) states that life is a vapor. Scripture often mentions that we are like the grass of the field, flourishing in the morning, but faded and gone by sundown (Job 14:2; Ps. 90:5-6; Ps. 102:11; Isa. 40:6-8; 1 Pet. 1:24). Because life is so short, to be lived meaningfully and productively, it must be lived for the Lord in light of eternity. My parents used to have a plaque by our door with the familiar couplet, “Only one life, ‘twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.” That’s what David is saying in this psalm.

Background:

This psalm arises out of some unspecified problem in David’s life (39:10). Apparently he had some illness, which he relates to God’s hand of discipline (39:11). It may be that David saw a direct link between a sin that he had committed and this trial, or he may be simply relating his suffering to the curse on the human race that stems from Adam’s sin.

But whichever the case, in the midst of his suffering, David is tormented with the severity of God’s discipline in view of the shortness and uncertainty of life. Derek Kidner says (Psalms [IVP], 1:155), “The burning question of this psalm is why God should so assiduously discipline a creature as frail and fleeting as man.” It’s the same question that the suffering Job asks (Job 7:16-19):

“I waste away; I will not live forever. Leave me alone, for my days are but a breath. What is man that You magnify him, and that You are concerned about him, that You examine him every morning and try him every moment? Will You never turn Your gaze away from me, nor let me alone until I swallow my spittle?”

In his intense pain, Job is asking, “God, don’t You have better things to do than to afflict me? Just leave me alone!” But although both Job and David complain, they are not defiant. David knows that unbelievers are waiting to scoff at him and at his God, and so he is careful to voice his protest in a submissive manner, as a learner (39:4) whose only hope (39:7) is the God who seemingly is being so harsh with him. It’s in this context that David makes his point, that life is transient and thus must be lived for the Lord.

1. Life is transient (39:4-6).

David is painfully aware of the shortness of life, as brought home to him by his suffering. He prays that he might learn the lesson of his suffering well. It’s so easy to forget the lesson as soon as the suffering is past and to revert to the mindset that life will go on for a very long time to come. David prays that God would not let him forget how transient he is.

Twice (39:5, 11) David repeats, “Surely every man at his best is a mere breath.” The word breath comes from a Hebrew word that is used 36 times in Ecclesiastes to mean vanity. It refers to that which has no substance, or to that which is transitory and frail. One early writer illustrates the Greek equivalent word with building houses of sand on the seashore, chasing the wind, shooting at the stars, or pursuing your shadow (Richard Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament [Eerdmans], p. 181). A modern example might be that of a child chasing soap bubbles. There is no substance to that activity. If you try to catch one, it bursts in your hand.

David is saying that life seems like that. It is like your breath on a frosty day. You see it for a quick instant and then it is gone. He gives two factors that make life seem so transient:

A. Life is transient in view of eternity (39:5).

David compares his short life to God in eternity: “Behold, You have made my days as handbreadths, and my lifetime as nothing in Your sight.” When you’re young, 70, 80, or 90 years may seem like a long time. But when you view the few fleeting years of life in light of God and eternity, they are nothing.

David had a similar thought in mind when he wrote Psalm 8:3-4: “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained; what is man that You take thought of him, and the son of man that You care for him?”

Looking up at the night sky should give you the sense of being a speck in time comparison with the eternal God, who spoke the universe into existence. If you look carefully on a clear night, you can spot Andromeda Galaxy, the most distant object visible to the naked eye. If you could travel at the speed of light, it would take you 2.2 million years to get there! It contains hundreds of billions of stars. I used to have a poster that showed the Milky Way galaxy. An arrow pointed to a tiny spot and said, “You are here!”

Think about that and then pray with David (39:4), “Lord, make me to know my end and what is the extent of my days; let me know how transient I am.” Life is transient in view of eternity!

B. Life is transient in view of death (39:6).

Whatever man does, it all comes to nothing at death. Men work hard and scheme and fight to amass huge fortunes. They die and their bodies go into a box in the ground. What was the point of all their frenetic activity?

Since you cannot escape death, you should not live as if you could. A legend tells about a Baghdad merchant who asked his servant to run an errand. While at the marketplace, the servant rounded a corner and came face to face with Lady Death. He was so frightened that he ran back to tell his master. “I’m terrified,” he said. “I want to take the fastest horse and ride toward Samarra.” The master granted the request.

Later that day, the merchant himself went to the marketplace and he, too, saw Lady Death. “Why did you startle my servant?” he confronted her. Lady Death replied, “Frankly, it was I who was startled. I couldn’t understand why your servant was in Baghdad, because I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.” None of us can escape that appointment!

Maybe you’re thinking, “I know that death is certain, but I’m young and I’d rather not think about it. I still have plenty of time.”

But, death is not only certain, it is also unexpected. You don’t know whether you will be alive at this time tomorrow, let alone on next New Year’s Day. I read about a Scottish pastor who was burdened for the soul of a businessman who occasionally attended his church. The man readily admitted that he was not born again. Whenever the pastor would try to talk to him about his soul, the man would reply that as long as he was in good health, he would wait. Besides, he was just too busy to think about such matters.

So one day, the pastor decided to startle the man into realizing that he couldn’t afford to keep dodging the matter of where he would spend eternity. So he walked into the man’s office without knocking or calling in advance. When the startled man looked up, the pastor asked abruptly, “Did you expect me?” “No, I didn’t,” the man replied. The pastor then said grimly, “What if I had been Death?” Then he spun around and walked out.

The haunting question kept echoing in the ears of the businessman. It demanded an answer. By the end of the day he had trusted in Jesus Christ as his Savior and Lord. (“Our Daily Bread.”)

So we need to keep in front of us at all times the fact that life is transient in view of eternity and in view of death. But, maybe you’re wondering, “So what? What can I do about it?” Well, you have two choices. You can live for yourself, figuring, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Or, you can live for the Lord, which is the only option with any hope. That’s what David did. He knew that because life is transient, …

2. Life must be lived for the Lord (39:1-3, 7-13).

You may be thinking, “That’s a nice cliché, but what does it mean?” David delineates three things:

A. To live for the Lord means that I put all my hope in the Lord (39:7).

David writes, “And now, Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in You.” The longer I live, the more I realize that there is nowhere else to put your hope. Is your hope in your family or friends? Loving relationships are a wonderful gift from God, but people can easily be taken away. If your hopes are there, you’ll be left empty and disappointed. Is your hope in this world, or in the things of the world? You will surely be disappointed, because those things cannot satisfy your soul and they’re as fleeting as your breath on a cold morning. But, if you make the Lord and His promises your hope, you will never be disappointed.

That’s easy to say and even easy to agree with. But in reality, even Christians can easily get caught up with the things of this world, rather than with the things of God. Many Christians, who would say that they hope in the Lord, subtly drift into the pursuit of financial security ahead of the pursuit of God. They work long hours to provide a comfortable lifestyle for their families. But they hardly give any thought or effort to get the gospel to those who have yet to hear about Jesus Christ. They’re too busy pursuing financial success and security.

Other sincere Christians have been tainted by the world concerning the pursuit of pleasure. There is a proper place, of course, for recreation. We all need time to be refreshed and renewed. But how much is enough? Many Christians won’t get involved in serving in the local church because, they say, “It would tie me down on the weekends.” Frankly, they are more committed to pursuing their favorite activities than they are to seeking first God’s kingdom. So the church lacks faithful workers because we give lip service to the things of God, but our hearts are really in the pursuit of pleasure.

Even the family can wrongfully take precedence over the things of God. Certainly, God wants us committed to our families. But I’ve seen Christians who frequently take weekends away from church for “family time.” They are communicating to their kids that fun with the family takes priority over the kingdom of God. That’s the wrong message.

The solution to being enamored with the world is not to make a resolution to stop being enamored with the world. The solution is to become enamored with the Lord. When He becomes your delight and the object of your love, the things of the world fade away by way of comparison. The problem is not the pursuit of pleasure. Rather, it is the pursuit of pleasure in the wrong places, instead of pursuing pleasure in the only source that really delivers—in God.

B. To live for the Lord means that I make holiness my desire (39:1-3, 8).

David prays (39:8), “Deliver me from all my transgressions; make me not the reproach of the foolish.” The foolish are the godless, who are quick to pounce on any failure on the part of believers. David prays that they would not have occasion to scoff because of him. For that to be true, David knows that he needs to be delivered from his sins. He mentions two areas for holiness:

(1). Pursue holiness in speech (39:1-3).

David was aware that his words of complaint might be misunderstood or misinterpreted in the wrong company. He wanted to be careful not to say anything in the midst of his trials that would make God look bad. So, he muzzles his mouth (39:1).

To grow in holiness, you must learn to muzzle your mouth, if I may be so blunt. We see this in James 3:2, “For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.” James (3:8) goes on to say that the tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With that poison tongue, we can damage and even destroy lives, families, and entire churches. We should use our words to glorify God and to build up His people.

When I was in college, I met for a weekly dinner and discipleship group with a bunch of guys. While we waited for dinner to be served and often during dinner, we would exchange “friendly” put-downs. One guy would say something funny that put down another guy. That guy would respond by topping the first guy’s put-down. It was all supposedly in good fun.

Then one night one of the guys, a muscular, athletic new believer, got a stern look on his face and said, “Guys, we’re sinning!” We all began to protest and to put him down for being so overly righteous. But he stuck to his guns. Finally, we all realized that he was right and we were wrong. Our supposedly friendly put-downs violated Scripture. One such verse, which I recommend that you memorize, is Ephesians 4:29: “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” Pursue holiness in your speech!

(2). Pursue holiness in behavior (39:8).

David wanted to be rid of all his transgressions. Since all sin begins in our minds, to be holy in our behavior, we have to judge our sins on the thought level. Jesus explained (Mark 7:21-23):

“For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.”

Jesus gave the positive side in Matthew 5:6, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” Hunger and thirst are strong motivators. When you hunger and thirst, you recognize your need. Sadly, even God’s people often do not sense their intense need for holiness, and so they dabble with it. But they don’t hunger and thirst after it.

Maybe, if you’re being honest with yourself, you’re thinking, “He’s describing me. I don’t really hunger and thirst after righteousness. If God wanted to lay it on me, I suppose it would be nice, but I’m not striving after it as if my survival depended on it.”

If that describes you, how do you develop a hunger and thirst for righteousness? One means that God often uses is the one that He used here with David: trials. So, to live for the Lord means that I put all my hope in the Lord and that I strive after holiness. Also,

C. To live for the Lord means that I submit to His hand of discipline in my life (39:9-13).

God often uses trials to show us our lack of holiness. Trials should cause us to examine ourselves, to see what God may be trying to teach us. David here realized that God was disciplining him and he states a general principle (39:11): “With reproofs You chasten a man for iniquity; You consume as a moth what is precious to him….” Why would God consume as a moth what is precious to us? That sounds cruel! The answer is, because we’re counting the wrong things as precious. Our hope isn’t fully in the Lord, but in other things. So God has to consume those things to show us that He alone is worth hoping in.

David’s final plea is full of mixed emotions. He pleads with God to remove the trial before he perishes (39:10) and yet he acknowledges God’s right to reprove him, thus showing his submission to God’s hand (39:11). His final appeal (39:12-13) contains a plea that God would hear his prayer, his cry, and his tears (note the increasing intensity). Then he asks God to turn away His gaze so that David could have a brief respite from his trials before he dies. Derek Kidner compares David’s request here with Peter’s illogical cry, “Depart from me” (Luke 5:8). He observes (p. 157) that such prayers in the Bible are a witness to God’s understanding of how we speak when we are desperate. He grants the request of our hearts, not necessarily the words of our lips.

When God disciplines you, it is fine to plead with Him to remove the trial. It is also okay to complain, as long as you do it with a submissive heart that acknowledges God’s right to deal with you as He sees fit. It is not okay to rage defiantly against God and accuse Him of treating you unfairly. The key to growing through His discipline is to submit to Him in it and to ask Him to help you learn the lessons He has for you in the trials (see Heb. 12:3-11).

Conclusion

I don’t mean to be morbid, but I think that it is helpful to think about the questions, “What if 2006 were my last year on earth? How would I live differently than I lived in 2005?” The only way that your life will count for eternity is if your trust is in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord and if you live each day for Him.

How can you know if you’re living for the Lord? Ask yourself three questions:

(1) What are your hopes? What are you counting on for happiness and fulfillment? Your marriage? Your children or grandchildren? Your retirement plans? Your financial stability? All of those things have their place, but they shouldn’t be the focus of your hopes. Only the Lord will satisfy. Put your hope in Him.

(2) What are your desires? What is it that you really seek in life? Happiness? Comfort? Peace? Love? These are all good things, but they do not come from seeking them, but rather from seeking the Lord. Hunger and thirst after His righteousness in your life.

(3) How do you respond to God’s hand of discipline in your life? When you encounter trials, what do you do? How do you deal with your attitude at such times? Do you complain and shake your fist at God? Do you turn your back on Him and turn to the world? Or, do you submit to His hand of discipline?

With David, pray in the New Year, “Lord, let me know how transient I am!” In light of that, live every day for the Lord!

Application Questions

  1. Is it possible to think too much about how transient life is? If so, where is the balance point?
  2. Can a Christian legitimately serve God just as well in a menial job as in “full time” service for Him? Why/why not?
  3. Obviously, every parent has hopes for his marriage and family. Is this wrong? What does it mean to hope only in God?
  4. If a Christian admits that he does not hunger and thirst after righteousness, how can he kindle that desire?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2006, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Psalm 40: When You’re in the Pit

The late Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis, said to his frustrated, impatient daughter, “My dear, if you would only recognize that life is hard, things would be so much easier for you.” (Source unknown.)

Jesus told the disciples to expect trials. He begins John 16 by stating (16:1, 2), “These things I have spoken to you so that you may be kept from stumbling. They will make you outcasts from the synagogue, but an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God.” He ends that chapter in a similar vein (16:33), “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.”

Yet in spite of these words and many other similar Scriptures (John 15:18; Acts 14:22; 1 Thess. 3:3-4; 2 Tim. 3:12), many that profess to know Christ stumble and fall away when they get hit with various trials. If you’re going to persevere with Christ, you must know in advance that you will face times when you are in the pit, and you must know what to do when you’re there. Rather than turning away from the Lord, you must learn to turn to Him to rescue you from life’s pits.

Psalm 40 is a song about the pits. It falls into two sections. In the first half (40:1-10), David tells how God got him out of one pit and he sings God’s praise for doing so. But he did not then live happily ever after. Rather, it is evident from the second half of the psalm (40:11-17) that he is in another pit, crying out to the Lord to deliver him from this one. Because David waited intently on the Lord to rescue him from the first pit, he knew how to wait on the Lord to get him out of the second pit. So it’s a psalm about what to do when you’re in the pit.

When you’re in the pit, wait intently on the Lord and proclaim His goodness when He answers.

Rather than follow the structure of the psalm, I want to follow David’s plan for getting out of a pit and his example of what to do when the Lord rescues you.

1. When you’re in the pit, wait intently on the Lord.

What is “the pit”?

A. The pit could be any of a number of life’s trials.

David does not specify exactly what the trials of the first pit entailed. The second pit clearly involved the consequences of David’s sins (40:12) and many enemies that were trying to destroy him (40:14-15). But he doesn’t exactly say what the first pit was, except to describe it as a “pit of destruction” and “the miry clay” (40:2). Some think that it was David’s enemies, while others think that it could have been physical illness or some deep emotional distress. Perhaps as with Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” we are not told so that we can relate all of our trials to David’s situation.

Marla and I do a fair amount of hiking, and we have encountered a lot of mud. We were hiking a muddy trail in Kauai when the man in front of us fell flat on his face, covering his entire front side with mud. We were hiking in the rain in Nepal when Marla slipped and hurt herself. Arizona mud is especially sticky and slippery. It gets on your shoes and you can’t walk. If you fell into a pit whose walls and bottom were mud, you would be in big trouble! That’s where David was. He was trapped and unable to free himself.

If you have not yet cried out to God to save you from judgment and eternal punishment for your sins, then you are in a deep pit with no human way out. You may not feel like you’re in that pit. You may feel as if life is going reasonably well. But Paul describes your future this way (2 Thess. 1:7b-9), “when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.” It’s the worst of all pits to be in!

Your pit could be poor health, the loss of your job, former friends that turned against you, an unfaithful mate, rebellious children, or any other overwhelming problem. You may be responsible for being in your pit, or you may be a victim of the sins of others. David’s situation in the second pit seems to have been a combination of both. He acknowledges his many sins, which have overtaken him like a fog, so that he can’t see his way clear (40:12). I think that he is not referring to sins that he was currently committing, but rather to the consequences of past sins that were now coming home to roost. But, also, the consequences involved wicked people who were wrongly intent on destroying David (40:14).

B. When you’re in the pit, you’ll be tempted toward pride or falsehood to get out of the pit.

In verse 4, David writes, “How blessed is the man who has made the Lord his trust, and has not turned to the proud, nor to those who lapse into falsehood.” When you’re in a pit, it’s very easy, even if you profess to trust in the Lord at other times, to grab onto any seeming way of escape, even if it means compromising your faith. The proud are those that boast in their own abilities. They don’t recognize or admit any personal weakness. Rather, by their own ingenuity and effort, they will get out of their crisis on their own. Or, if you’re in a jam and it looks like a little “white” lie will get you out of the jam, you can be tempted to use it. You justify it by thinking, “Well, it’s just this once and I do need to get out of this pit.” But you’re trusting in your lie, not in the Lord.

King Asa was a classic example of a good man who fell into this trap. He was a good king who instituted many reforms in Judah. When a million-man Ethiopian army invaded Judah, Asa called out to God and affirmed his trust in God alone to deliver them  (2 Chron. 14:2-12). But many years later, after a long reign that God had blessed, when the king of Israel came up against him, Asa sent tribute to the king of Syria and enlisted his help against the enemy. Interestingly, his ploy worked. The king of Israel had to abandon his invasion of Judah to defend his northern flank.

But, a prophet rebuked Asa for relying on the king of Syria instead of relying on the Lord (2 Chron. 16:7-9). Asa’s final days were plagued with painful gout. But 2 Chronicles 16:12 reports, “yet even in his disease he did not seek the Lord, but the physicians.” It’s not that it’s wrong to go to doctors, but it is wrong to trust in doctors if your primary trust is not in the Lord. The lesson is, it is always wrong to trust in anything or anyone other than the Lord to get out of your pit, even if it works.

C. The way out of the pit is to wait intently on the Lord.

David says (Ps. 40:1), “I waited patiently for the Lord; and He inclined to me and heard my cry.” Waiting on the Lord is a common theme in Scripture. For example, Psalm 37:7: “Rest in the Lord and wait patiently for Him; do not fret because of him who prospers in his way, because of the man who carries out wicked schemes.” Again, Psalm 37:9: “For evildoers will be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord, they will inherit the land.” And again, Psalm 37:34: “Wait for the Lord and keep His way, and He will exalt you to inherit the land; when the wicked are cut off, you will see it.” But, what does it mean to “wait” on the Lord? Our psalm gives us at least seven clues:

(1). Waiting on the Lord is intently active, not passive (40:1).

The Hebrew of verse 1 is an intensified form of the verb, literally, “Waiting, I waited.” The New English Bible translates it, “I waited, waited for the Lord.” It’s not a passive, ho-hum kind of waiting, like you do at the doctor’s office when you thumb through a bunch of magazines to pass the time. Rather, it is an intently active time when your situation in the pit tunes your heart to the Lord in ways that you would not normally experience. It means to wait expectantly as you hope for God’s promises to be fulfilled on your behalf. The more intense your situation, the more intently you wait upon the Lord to fulfill His promises.

(2). Waiting on the Lord means to cry out to Him for deliverance (40:1, 13, 17).

God’s timing often does not coincide with our timing. We want it done instantly, but God has other purposes. But when you’re in a pit, there is a sense of urgency. In verse 1, David mentions his cry, which may have been as simple as, “Help, Lord!” In verse 13, he directly cries out, “Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me; make haste, O Lord, to help me.” In verse 17, he repeats, “Since I am afflicted and needy, let the Lord be mindful of me. You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God.”

One reason we often do not cry out to God for deliverance is that we do not see ourselves as afflicted and needy. This is especially true in the case of those who do not see their own need for salvation from God’s judgment. They’re like the guy I mentioned last week, who saw himself as a “good sinner.” Good sinners may admit that they need a little assistance now and then, but they don’t need a Savior. You don’t need a Savior unless you are helpless at the bottom of a slimy pit. Because our tendency, even after salvation, is to think that we can do it ourselves, the Lord graciously keeps putting us in one pit after another, so that we cry out to Him.

(3). Waiting on the Lord means trusting Him alone (40:3, 4, 11).

In verse 3, David expresses his hope that because of his testimony of waiting on the Lord, others will also come to trust in Him. In verse 4, as we’ve seen, he mentions how blessed is the man who has made the Lord his trust. In verse 11, some versions translate it as a prayer. The NIV, for example, translates, “Do not withhold your mercy from me, O Lord; may your love and your truth always protect me.” But Derek Kidner (Psalms 1-72 [IVP], p. 160) says that unquestionably it is not a prayer; it’s a statement or reaffirmation of trust: (NASB) “You, O Lord, will not withhold Your compassion from me; Your lovingkindness and Your truth will continually preserve me.” Waiting on the Lord means, “Lord, You’re my only hope for deliverance.”

So waiting on the Lord is not just a passive biding your time. It is an active crying out to the Lord, trusting Him to answer because of His love and compassion.

(4). Waiting on the Lord means recounting His many wonders and His providential care (40:5).

Waiting on the Lord gives you time to think. But you’ve got to direct your mind to think about the right things. If you think, “Oh no, God has abandoned me! I’m doomed!” you will either panic or turn to the world for help. But if you think about God’s many wonders and how He has worked in the past to deliver His people, you will wait with expectant hope in Him.

As David waits on the Lord, he thinks about who God is and what He has done. He says (v. 5), “Many, O Lord my God, are the wonders which You have done, and Your thoughts toward us; there is none to compare with You. If I would declare and speak of them, they would be too numerous to count.” Maybe David was thinking about the wonders of creation (see Ps. 104). God established the earth so that it is hospitable for us to live here. He placed the earth at the proper distance from the sun, so that we do not burn up or freeze. He waters the earth, providing crops for our food. He preserves us from many catastrophes that we don’t even know about. I heard recently that a meteorite came uncomfortably close to earth. If it had hit, it would have wreaked major damage. And yet I never heard any newsman giving thanks to God for preserving us from destruction!

David also was probably thinking about God’s many wonderful acts of delivering His people from trouble. He brought them out of Egypt in the Exodus. He preserved them in the wilderness. He enabled them to conquer the powerful Canaanite nations and occupy the Promised Land. He saved them time and again from powerful foes that threatened to destroy them. On the personal level, David had seen God deliver him from the bear and the lion, not to mention from Goliath and from Saul’s repeated attempts to kill him. If you have known the Lord for any length of time, you can think back to many times when you were brought low and the Lord delivered you. So as you wait on Him now in whatever pit you may be in, recount His many wonders and His kind thoughts toward you. Truly, there is none to compare with Him!

(5). Waiting on the Lord means obeying Him (40:6-8).

“Sacrifice and meal offering You have not desired; my ears You have opened; burnt offering and sin offering You have not required. Then I said, ‘Behold, I come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me. I delight to do Your will, O my God; Your Law is within my heart.’”

The thought of verses 6-8 in the context is (I am following J. J. S. Perowne, The Book of Psalms [Zondervan], p. 335), “My heart is full of Your abundant goodness towards me. How can I express it? In times past, I might have thought that an offering was the proper thing to do. But now I realize that what You really desire is an obedient heart that delights to do Your will.” In other words, David is affirming what Samuel told the disobedient King Saul (1 Sam. 15:22), “Has the Lord as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams.”

As you know, the author of Hebrews applies these verses to Jesus (Heb. 10:5-7). There, the author quotes the LXX, which translates the second line of verse 6, “a body You have prepared for Me.” This was apparently an interpretive paraphrase, where they used a part (the ear) and expanded it to the whole body (F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 232). The Hebrew text (of Ps. 40:6) is literally, “My ears You have dug.” It has wrongly been interpreted to refer to the master’s piercing the servant’s ear with an awl (a different Hebrew word; Exod. 21:6; Deut. 15:17). But the idea here is that God opened the ear of His servant so that he would be obedient to His Word, which was in David’s heart. Applied to Jesus, that obedience was unto the cross (see Isa. 50:5-7).

The application for us is that when we’re in a pit, we must focus on continuing to obey the Lord, even if He does not deliver us quickly. The devil will tempt us to give up trusting in the Lord and to seek fulfillment in other ways. He will whisper, “God isn’t meeting your needs. If you want to get a mate, why keep waiting on the Lord? Look at all these nice, available non-Christians who could meet your needs!” Keep obeying God’s Word as you wait.

(6). Waiting on the Lord means seeking Him (40:16).

“Let all who seek You rejoice and be glad in You; let those who love Your salvation say continually, ‘The Lord be magnified!’” In this context, seeking the Lord is a synonym for crying out to Him in expectant prayer. If you’re seeking the Lord and not just deliverance from your pit, you won’t forget about God after He delivers you. Sadly, many “use” God like Aladdin’s Genie and put Him back on the shelf when they get what they want. But here, the reason that David waits on the Lord and seeks Him is so that He will be magnified, or glorified. If David turned to some human scheme for deliverance, then David and his ingenuity would get the credit. By seeking the Lord alone, when the Lord answers, He gets the credit.

(7). Waiting on the Lord means rejoicing in Him (40:16).

No doubt, David was rejoicing and glad about his deliverance when it came, but he makes the point here to rejoice and be glad in You (“in the Lord”). The joy is not just in the deliverance, but in the Lord who delivers. It means finding God as our eternal treasure, so that we rejoice in all that He is, as well as in all that He does for us.

So when you’re in the pit, wait intently on the Lord. Don’t turn to the world for answers. Turn to the Lord. Waiting on Him means crying out to Him; trusting Him; recounting His many wonders; obeying Him; seeking Him; and rejoicing in Him. Then,

2. When the Lord rescues you from the pit, proclaim His goodness.

David hammers this theme throughout this psalm. In verse 3 he says, “He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God; many will see and fear and will trust in the Lord.” In verse 4, David testifies to the blessing that is on the man who makes the Lord his trust. In verse 5, he extols God for His many wonders and His thoughts towards us. In verses 9 and 10, he again affirms, “I have proclaimed glad tidings of righteousness in the great congregation; behold, I will not restrain my lips, O Lord, You know. I have not hidden Your righteousness within my heart; I have spoken of Your faithfulness and Your salvation; I have not concealed your lovingkindness and Your truth from the great congregation.”

Why does David repeat himself so determinedly? It is because he knew that if he did not repeatedly make it plain that the Lord had done great things for him, others would chalk it up to David’s good luck or to his natural abilities. But David wants everyone to know that he was helpless in a pit of destruction, sinking into the slimy mud. He never could have rescued himself. All he did was cry out to God and wait expectedly for God to deliver him. And when God did rescue him, David made sure that God got all the praise.

Conclusion

A telescope takes what looks like a tiny object in the night sky and magnifies it so that we get some idea of how awesome it really is. Without a telescope, people either ignore the stars or maybe look up and think, “Twinkle, twinkle little star.” Little star? With a telescope, astronomers know that many of those stars are anything but little. They dwarf our own sun, making it look like a speck of dust by comparison!

Many in the world either ignore God or think of Him as small and distant with regard to their lives. As Christians, we have cried out to the Lord to save us from the pit of destruction. We were mired in our sins with no way out. He sent His Son to offer Himself obediently on the cross on our behalf (as Ps. 40:6-8 predicts). Since He has delivered us, we are to be like telescopes. We are to magnify the Lord and His great salvation to a world that shrugs Him off, while they waste their lives watching inane TV shows or pursuing riches that will perish at their deaths. We should also tell others about how the Lord rescued us from other trials, so that they will join us in saying continually, “The Lord be magnified!”

Application Questions

  1. How can we determine the balance between trusting completely in the Lord versus using legitimate means or methods?
  2. Why is pragmatism (“if it works, it must be okay”) dangerous? Do ungodly methods sometimes “work”?
  3. Study Genesis 41:1 and Acts 24:27 in their contexts. Why does God make His choice servants wait, especially when they could accomplish so much if they were free?
  4. Read the story of King Saul (1 Samuel 15). Why was he tempted not to wait on the Lord, but to take matters into his own hands? What were the consequences?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2009, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Psalm 42-43: Dealing With Depression

The psychology instructor had just finished a lecture on mental health and was giving an oral quiz. Speaking specifically about manic depression, she asked, “How would you diagnose a patient who walks back and forth screaming at the top of his lungs one minute, then sits in a chair weeping uncontrollably the next?”

A young man in the rear raised his hand and answered, “A basketball coach?”

We laugh, but real depression is a serious problem. “Mild or severe, depression affects more people in our culture than any other emotional disorder,” says Harvard psychiatrist, Dr. Armand Nicholi II. According to a Newsweek article (5/4/87, p. 48), an estimated 30-40 million Americans, twice as many women as men, will experience depressive illness at least once. The disorder is so common that it is called “the common cold of mental illness.”

It should not be surprising that the Bible has much to say about depression. A thorough study would consume many sermons, but Psalms 42 & 43 give us some solid counsel. In some ancient Hebrew manuscripts these companion psalms are a single psalm. Whether two psalms or one, the subject is obviously similar and they are united with the common refrain of 42:5, 11, and 43:5. Many reputable scholars think that David was the author, in which case the title, “of the sons of Korah” indicates a group of Levites in charge of temple worship to whom he presented the psalm.

We cannot say for sure who wrote it, but we do know that the author found himself exiled from Israel and from the worship festivals of God’s people. He was being taunted by enemies who said, “Where is your God?” (42:3, 10). Their oppression (42:9; 43:2) had plunged the psalmist into deep depression. But he doesn’t stay depressed. He grabs himself by the shoulders, takes stock of his situation, confronts his depression, and seeks God with renewed intensity. He shows us how to pull ourselves out of the nosedive of depression:

When you’re depressed, rouse yourself to seek God as your hope and help, no matter how despairing your circumstances.

I see three steps in these psalms for dealing with depression:

1. When you’re depressed, recognize it and begin to confront yourself as to why you’re depressed.

The first step to conquering depression is to admit it. The psalmist readily admits, both to himself and to God, that he is in despair (42:5, 6, 11; 43:5). The Hebrew verb means to be bowed down or prostrated; we might say, “Laid low,” or “in the pits.” If you don’t recognize your emotional condition, either because you don’t know the symptoms or you don’t want to appear unspiritual or whatever, you can’t deal with it.

Various symptoms in varying degrees point to depression. Note the psalmist’s description of himself: He mentions his countenance (42:11; 43:5). A depressed person looks sad or down. A loss of appetite and frequent crying are often present (42:3). He describes his anguish as “pouring out” his soul (42:4); he felt emotionally drained. He felt as if he were in the deep, being overwhelmed by the waves (42:7). (Jonah quoted this verse when he was inside the great fish [Jon. 2:3].) Often depressed people feel overwhelmed by circumstances to such an extent that they are immobilized. They don’t know how to cope or where to begin.

The enemy’s relentless taunts felt like a shattering of the psalmist’s bones (42:10). Often physical symptoms such as headaches, digestive disorders, and chronic pain accompany severe depression. He repeatedly describes himself as being in despair (hopeless) and disturbed (anxious; 42:5, 6, 11; 43:5). The psalmist feels abandoned, even rejected by God, and he’s confused by it (42:9; 43:2). Feelings of guilt and rejection are common symptoms of depressed people. In addition are often fatigue, a loss of motivation to do anything, difficulty in concentrating, sleep disturbances (either insomnia or excessive sleep), and thoughts of suicide.

There are a number of causes of depression. Once you recognize the symptoms, you’ve got to do as the psalmist does here, and begin to confront yourself as to why you’re depressed (42:5, 11; 43:5). Depression is like the red warning lights on the dashboard of your car. They tell you that there’s a problem under the hood. If you keep driving and ignore the warning light, you could cause a lot of damage to your engine. So you’d better pull over and figure out what’s wrong.

Depression may be due to physiological causes. We’re complex creatures. Our emotions are not separate from our bodies. Some people are more prone to depression due to their physical makeup (glands, hormones, etc.). Many women struggle with depression related to their menstrual cycle, to having a baby, or to menopause. Certain changes in the aging process can make us prone to depression. Perhaps we’ve pushed too hard or have been under unusual stress and we’re just exhausted and need some rest and a change of pace. If you’re depressed, get a medical checkup if you haven’t had one for a while.

Depression can hit when we come down from a spiritually enriching experience. Perhaps the excitement of the early days of our faith wears off or is dulled by our trials. The psalmist here fondly recalls the earlier times when he enjoyed going to God’s house in procession with other believers (42:4). Sometimes I’ve gotten depressed when I suffered a disappointment that I didn’t process mentally before the Lord. I had hoped and prayed for something, but it didn’t happen. If I don’t consciously submit my disappointment to the Lord, I can end up feeling depressed, but not knowing exactly why until I think it through. Self-pity is another common cause of depression. And, depression is a common reaction when we suffer a loss of any kind, especially the loss of a loved one through death.

It’s important to know yourself. If your depression is just a minor mood swing, like a pilot flying in minor turbulence, you make a slight adjustment and don’t get too concerned. But if you’re in a nosedive, you need to take some drastic action to avoid a crash. The psalmist is doing that here: He grabs himself by the shoulders, talks to himself about what he knows to be true in spite of his feelings to the contrary, and eventually pulls himself out of it.

It takes the psalmist a while to get on top of his depression. There are four cycles of lament and hope in these two psalms:

Lament

>

Hope

42:1-4

>

42:5

42:6-7

>

42:8

42:9-10

>

42:11

43:1-2

>

43:3-5

It may take you a few cycles of up and down before you pull out of your nosedive. But the crucial thing is that you are aggressively dealing with it and not just drifting with the circumstances. Even if you feel depressed, you are responsible to please the Lord by living in obedience to His Word.

We need to be very careful at this point! We live in a feeling-oriented culture. We hear that “feelings aren’t right or wrong, they just are.” So we need to get in touch with and accept our feelings. If we defy our feelings or seek to conquer them by going against them, we’re “in denial.” But we need to develop a biblical theology of emotions and weigh the world’s counsel by the Scriptures. Many believers are defeated by depression and other negative emotions because they have not sought a biblical approach to dealing with these problems.

The Bible says that we must discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness (1 Tim. 4:7). Discipline, by definition, means going against my feelings. I may not feel like exercising, but if I’m disciplined, I do it anyway. I may feel like spending money impulsively, but if I’m disciplined, I go against my feelings because I have decided to live by a budget.

While even the most mature believers are susceptible to depression (Elijah, 1 Kings 19:1-4; John the Baptist, Matt. 11:2-3; Peter, Matt. 26:69-75), the Bible is clear that we should be marked by joy in the Lord, even in some of the most difficult circumstances (John 15:11; Acts 5:41; 16:25; Gal. 5:22; Phil 4:4). A consistently depressed Christian is a lousy advertisement for the Lord and His salvation. And so we must confront our depression and bring it under the control of the Holy Spirit. When we think rightly and act rightly, our depression will be replaced by genuine joy in the Lord. So the first step when you’re depressed is, recognize it and begin to confront yourself as to the reasons why.

2. If your depression stems from overwhelming circumstances, think biblically about those circumstances.

Learning to respond biblically to trials is one of the most crucial lessons you can learn as a Christian. God has given us the resources to be overwhelming conquerors in even the most desperate situations, including torture and martyrdom (Rom. 8:35-37). Living by faith means choosing to believe God and His Word rather than circumstances. So we need to answer several questions when we are overwhelmed by circumstances, as the psalmist was:

(1) Are my circumstances due to any known sin on my part? In Psalms 32, 38, and 51, David’s depression was due to his sin. If we’re aware of disobedience to the Lord, we need to confess it, turn from it, and appropriate His cleansing and forgiveness. If we’re not aware of any sin, then we need to be careful to continue walking uprightly before the Lord, and not give in to the temptation to rail against God in our time of trial. There’s a difference between complaining to the Lord in a submissive manner and shaking your fist in His face.

The psalmist here doesn’t mention any sin on his part. He is confused and he feels as if God has rejected him, and he tells God those feelings. But it’s also clear that he had taken a stand by testifying to his enemies that the Lord was his God. They were throwing it back in his face, asking, “Where is your God?” This added to his despair, because he didn’t want to bring reproach to the name of the Lord. The psalmist wants to follow God’s light and truth (43:3). He wasn’t suffering due to sin.

(2) Does God want me to do anything to change my circumstances, or am I shut up until He acts? Sometimes the Lord wants us to take steps to get out of our troubles: write a resume, call for the job interview, etc. I remember once when I was single and feeling as if I’d never get a godly wife. At the time I was meeting with a few Christians in a house church where there weren’t any candidates for a wife. There was a commercial on TV for Hertz Rent-a-Car which showed a person flying through the air and into the seat of a convertible while the announcer said, “Let Hertz put you in the driver’s seat.” As I was praying for a wife, the Lord brought that commercial to my mind and said, “I’m not going to bring your wife floating through the window while you pray! If you want me to bring you a wife, put yourself in some places where you might meet a likely candidate!” It was shortly after that that I was introduced to Marla.

The psalmist seemed to be shut up in his overwhelming circumstances, with no where to go except to pray fervently. If that’s where you’re at, then pray fervently! As long as we have access to God in prayer, there’s hope! God can change things drastically and quickly when He’s ready (see Gen. 39-41, Joseph in prison in Egypt).

(3) If I can’t change my circumstances, how does God want me to change my attitude? The psalmist here is aggressive in confronting himself (three times) to deal with his despair so that he can regain a sense of God’s presence. He can’t change his circumstances, but he can change his focus from himself and his overwhelming situation to God. By the end of the psalm, his circumstances haven’t changed, but his attitude has, because he has deliberately focused on the Lord. We are commanded in the Bible to rejoice in the Lord always (Phil. 4:4; 1 Thess. 5:16). The only way to obey that command sincerely is to change my attitude by changing my focus from self to God.

(4) Is God in sovereign control of this situation or not? If so, what is He trying to teach me? Obviously, God is sovereign even over the evil and sinful things going on in this world. No one can thwart His purpose (Eph. 1:11; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28). But it’s easy to doubt or forget that fact when you’re overwhelmed by a trial. So you have to affirm God’s sovereignty in the midst of your trial. The psalmist does that here when he calls the waves that were crashing over him ““Your breakers and Your waves” (42:7). It was evil men who were oppressing him, but the psalmist knows that God has them on His leash, as it were, and that He has sent this trial for His purpose.

I hear some Christians say that God didn’t cause a trial, He just “allowed” it, as if that somehow gets Him off the hook! Or, they blame Satan for a trial, as if he sneaked up and did it when God was asleep! But the Bible is clear that trials come from the Lord for our benefit (Ps. 66:10-12; Rom. 5:3-5; Heb. 12:1-13; James 1:2-4)! You may think, “How can God be good and bring a catastrophe into the lives of His children?” Our problem is, we underestimate the strength of our flesh. We are blind to the extent of our pride. We are dull as to how much we love this wicked world. So the Lord in love sends overwhelming trials to teach us not to trust in ourselves, but in Him alone (2 Cor. 1:8-9). That leads to the third step in dealing with depression:

3. When you’re depressed, your main need is to seek God Himself, not just relief.

When we’re in emotional pain, we should see it as an opportunity to seek God and grow in Him, not just try for quick relief. Though the psalmist was in pain, he realized that his real need was God (42:1-2, 5-6, 11; 43:4-5). In fact, he begins this psalm by recognizing that above all else, his need was for God and God alone. I love the way Matthew Henry ([Revell], 3:394) comments on 42:1: “casting anchor thus at first, he rides out the storm.” The first place you need to cast your anchor when the storms of depression hit is pray, “O God, my soul pants and thirsts for You, the living God!”

(1) Seek the person of God. The psalmist’s thirst for God seems to grow in intensity, not slacken. Matthew Henry puts it (3:394) that the psalmist thirsts “for nothing more than God, but still for more and more of him.” Depression can either whet or dull our thirst for God. God allows suffering to drive us closer in dependence upon Him. The need for the depressed person is reality with the living God. We are to hope in Him; He is our help.

The psalmist knew God personally before this trial hit. Note how he calls God “my God” (42:6, 11; 43:4, 5); “the God of my life” (42:8); “my rock” (42:9); “the God of my strength” (43:2); “God my exceeding joy” (43:4). This tells us that the godly can feel depressed. But it also tells us that the time to prepare for crises is before they hit. He had spent time with God before and knew God as his God. Therefore he had a refuge, a familiar relationship to turn to in his time of despair.

(2) Seek the presence of God. The psalmist wanted to appear before God (42:2), to know the help of His presence (42:5). That sounds good on the surface, but when you think about it, to appear in the presence of God can be a terrifying thing, even to the godly. If there is sin in your life, the light of God’s presence shines on it and brings it into the open. So the only person who can truly desire the presence of God is the one who is willing to confess and forsake sin. God sometimes shows us our need for Him by depriving us of the sense of His presence and help, so that we will all the more seek Him. The thirst for God when He is absent is a sure sign that we are His children.

(3) Seek the praise of God (42:8; 43:4). When you’re depressed, the last thing you feel like doing is praising the Lord. But, praise is a command, not a feeling. If we obey, we often feel better. The song drives the darkness away. To praise God is to focus on His attributes and actions. As we deliberately direct our thoughts to God’s saving grace toward us in Christ, that He, by His mercy, drew us out of a horrible pit, our spirits will be lifted.

(4) Seek the precepts of God (43:3). God’s light and truth from His Word will show us the way back. Again, even if you don’t feel like it when you’re depressed, read God’s Word and ask His Holy Spirit to shine His light into your darkened heart. God’s light and truth are threatening to the soul who does not want to confront his own sin and self-focus, but God’s truth will lead you to His dwelling place where you will find God Himself to be your exceeding joy (43:3-4).

(5) Seek God with the people of God (42:4; 43:3-4). The psalmist seems isolated in his depression, which is often the case. But he realizes that the place of joy where the need of his soul would be met is in corporate worship with God’s people. When you’re depressed, you often want to avoid people, especially gathering with God’s people. But that’s what you need. Go against your feelings and force yourself to gather with God’s people to seek Him. There is something about corporate worship that cannot be experienced in individual worship.

Conclusion

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in his solid book, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure ([Eerdmans], pp. 20-21), comments,

Have you not realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them, but they start talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you. Now this man’s treatment was this; instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself....

The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: ‘Why art thou cast down’--what business have you to be disquieted? You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself: ‘Hope thou in God’--instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way. And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, Who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do. Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil and the whole world, and say with this man: “I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance, who is also the health of my countenance and my God”.

Is God Himself “your exceeding joy” today (43:4)? If not, don’t rest until it is true. Your need is not happiness; your need is not relief from your pain; your need is God! Thirst after God! Rouse yourself to seek Him as your only source of hope and help, no matter how despairing your circumstances. Hope in God! You shall again praise Him, the help of your countenance and your God!

Discussion Questions

  1. Will going against your feelings create long-term psychological damage? Support your answer with Scripture.
  2. Should Christians take medication for depression? Does this differ from taking aspirin for a headache?
  3. Is there a difference between God “allowing” trials and “sending” them? What Scriptures show that He sends them? Do any verses support the view that Satan sends trials?
  4. Is there any biblical support that a depressed person needs to build his self-esteem? How should a depressed person view himself?

Copyright 1993, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Psalm 46: Our Sufficient God

As you probably know, one of the most heated debates in Christian circles right now concerns the role of psychology in the Christian life. At the heart of that debate is the question of whether the Bible and the resources it points us to--a personal relationship with God, forgiveness of sins, the promise of eternal life, our riches in Christ, the fellowship of the church, etc.--are sufficient to deal with the complicated problems people face, or whether we must supplement these things with the insights of modern psychology.

Pastor John MacArthur (interview in “Servant,” 9/91) tells about being on a Christian talk show where he said to the host, “Don’t you believe that the Holy Spirit, the Word of God and the living Christ are fully sufficient for our sanctification? Psychology is only a hundred years old, people have been being sanctified a lot longer than that.” She said that some people can’t get into the position to be sanctified until therapy helps them deal with some psychological issues. MacArthur comments, “That God can’t do His work in you until a good therapist gets it started is a frightening concept.”

In his book, Our Sufficiency in Christ [Word, 1991], MacArthur tells about his church being sued over a counseling case. During the trial, a number of “experts” were called on to give testimony. He says (p. 57), “Most surprising to me were the so-called Christian psychologists and psychiatrists who testified that the Bible alone does not contain sufficient help to meet people’s deepest personal and emotional needs. These men were actually arguing before a secular court that God’s Word is not an adequate resource for counseling people about their spiritual problems!”

In the same book, in referring to so-called “Christian” psychology, he states (p. 31), “The clear message is that simply pointing Christians to their spiritual sufficiency in Christ is inane and maybe even dangerous. But on the contrary, it is inane and dangerous to believe that any problem is beyond the scope of Scripture or unmet by our spiritual riches in Christ.” Please be clear: At issue is not whether Christians need counseling. The question is, do they need the counsel of the ungodly, or is Scripture sufficient?

I agree with MacArthur and so does the author of Psalm 46! Scholars are not unanimous, but I agree with John Calvin who relates this psalm to the time when King Hezekiah of Judah was surrounded by the army of Sennacherib, King of Assyria. Forty‑six towns and villages in Judah had been sacked. Over 200,000 residents had been taken captive, along with much spoil. At least 185,000 troops surrounded Jerusalem, and it looked like only a matter of time before the city fell.

But proud Sennacherib did not reckon with the fact that Hezekiah’s God is the living God who will not be mocked. Hezekiah prayed, God spoke, and in one night the angel of the Lord defeated Sennacherib by killing 185,000 of his soldiers (2 Kings 18‑19; 2 Chronicles 32; Isaiah 36‑37).

Whether out of that situation or some other, Psalm 46 was written out of the crucible of extreme adversity from which God had provided deliverance. It relates to anyone who is in a time of trouble, or to anyone who will face trouble, no matter how extreme, in the future. It tells us that

When trouble strikes, God is sufficient to get you through.

No problem, whether emotional, physical, or spiritual, is too big for our God. If we will learn to take refuge in Him and lean on Him alone for strength, then with the psalmist we can face the most extreme crises with quiet confidence, because God is with us and He is sufficient. But we would be in error if we thought that God insulates us from problems. The psalm makes it clear that ...

1. Trouble will strike the godly.

The fact that God is our refuge and strength does not mean that we are immune from troubles and problems. The abundant life is not a trouble‑free life. We need to be clear on this because many false teachers today claim that it is God’s will for every person to enjoy prosperity and perfect health. They teach that since Jesus has promised to answer the prayer of faith, all that stands between you and material prosperity and physical health is your lack of faith. Confess it as yours by faith, and it’s yours, according to this heresy.

But the Bible teaches no such thing. It teaches that God is our help in trouble, not that He will exempt us from trouble. The psalm mentions catastrophic trouble: global changes (46:2), severe earthquakes and storms (46:2‑3), and wars (46:6, 9). Hebrews 11:35-38 mentions all sorts of terrible trials which faithful believers have had to face: being homeless, without proper clothing and food, mockings, torture, beatings, imprisonment, and various forms of cruel execution.

God does not protect Christians from this sort of thing. When a plane goes down, God does not make sure that there are no Christians aboard. When war ravages a country, God does not preserve the believers from its effects. God does not allow cancer to strike only those who have lived a life of sin. No, trouble will strike the godly as well as the ungodly. The question is, when trouble strikes, do you want to face it with God as your refuge and strength or do you want to find help elsewhere? Psalm 46 shows that when trouble strikes,

2. God is sufficient to get you through.

Let’s look first at the God who is sufficient and then at how we can lay hold of His sufficiency in our troubles.

A. The God who is sufficient.

The psalm falls into three sections:

46:1‑3: God, the refuge against the raging of nature.

46:4‑7: God, the resource against the raging of nations.

46:8‑11: God, the ruler over the rebels of earth.

(1) God, the refuge against the raging of nature (46:1‑3). The psalmist pictures one of the most frightening and catastrophic natural disasters imaginable: an earthquake so severe that the mountains slip into the heart of the sea. In California, we who lived in the mountains used to joke about how, after “the Big One” hit, we would have beachfront property. But the psalmist is picturing a quake so big that the mountains get swallowed up by the sea! He is saying that in the worst disaster we can imagine, God is sufficient as our refuge and strength so that we need not be terrified.

As our refuge, we can flee to God and find relief and comfort. As our strength, we discover that His strength is made perfect in our weakness as we trust in Him (2 Cor. 12:9). And, God’s protection and strength are immediately available (“a very present help”) the instant we turn to Him. While He may delay delivering us to show us our absolute need for Him or for reasons we can’t understand, we can always have immediate comfort and calm when we flee to God for refuge and strength.

During an earthquake a few years ago, the inhabitants of a small village were alarmed by the quake, but also surprised at the calmness and apparent joy of an old woman whom they all knew. At length one of them asked her, “Are you not afraid?” “No,” she replied, “I rejoice to know that I have a God who can shake the world.”

Whatever personal catastrophe you face--a major health problem, the death of a loved one, the loss of your job, emotional problems, relational conflicts, or whatever--God is bigger than your problems. He is readily available to help if you will take refuge in Him and trust in His strength.

(2) God, the resource against the raging of nations (46:4‑7). “There is a river ....” Jerusalem is one of the few ancient cities not built on a river. Ancient cities needed water close at hand, especially during a siege. When Sennacherib attacked Jerusalem, he was sure that their lack of water would ultimately drive them to surrender. But unknown to Sennacherib, Jerusalem had a source of water. Wise King Hezekiah had built an underground tunnel which secretly brought water 1,777 feet through solid rock from the spring of Gihon to the pool of Siloam. That little stream supplied all of their needs during the siege.

That river is a picture of the greater spiritual resource of the Lord Himself: “God is in the midst of her, she will not be moved” (46:5). He is the living water who alone can quench our spiritual thirst. He is the God who is powerful enough to quell the uproar of the nations by simply raising His voice (46:6).

Jesus told the woman at the well: “Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life” (John 4:14). Jesus also said, “If any man is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water’“ (John 7:37‑38). He was referring to the Holy Spirit, who is given to every believer.

Whatever problems rage against us, God’s Spirit is the ever‑flowing river who sustains us and gives us gladness even while we’re under siege (Ps. 46:4)! If Christians would learn to drink from the abundant river of God’s Spirit, why would they ever turn to the supposed wisdom of godless men like Freud, Jung, Rogers, and company? God is our refuge and resource in times of trouble.

(3) God, the ruler over the rebels of earth (46:8‑11). Nations may rage and proud men may rebel, but God’s sovereign purpose will be fulfilled. He sets up kings and removes them as He wills. He is God; He alone will be exalted in the earth (46:10). When Christ returns, He will crush all opposition to His reign. The mightiest armies on earth are no match for His sovereign power.

Do you think that this God, who rules over His creation, who speaks the word and an entire army drops dead, is sufficient for your problems? When trouble strikes, we need to focus on our God who is sufficient: He is our refuge, He is our resource, He is our ruler. We need to lay hold of His sufficiency. But how?

B. How to avail yourself of His sufficiency:

(1) Depend on Him as your refuge. On Him! It is God Himself who is our refuge and strength‑‑not our armies, not our fortresses, but God. It’s so easy to build up our own defenses against trouble and to put our trust in them instead of in God. We trust in our bank accounts, our insurance policies, our schemes and plans for the future. There is nothing wrong with these things‑‑the Bible, in fact, urges us to be prudent in planning for the future. But those things can become wrong if we allow them to shift our trust from God alone.

How can you learn to depend on Him alone? Get to know who He is as revealed in His Word. Trust springs out of knowledge. A person who has little knowledge of flying will be greatly afraid in flying through rough weather. An experienced pilot, who knows flying and knows his aircraft will not be afraid. Because he has greater knowledge, he has greater trust.

The refrain (46:7, 11) suggests two areas in which you need to know God:

(a) Know Him as the Lord of hosts. “Hosts” refers both to the heavenly bodies (the universe) and to the angels. Our God spoke this vast universe into existence and rules over the billions of stars and planets. He is the Lord of all of the armies of heaven. With short, crashing phrases that hit like hammer blows, the psalmist shows us the might of our God: “The nations made an uproar, the kingdoms tottered; He raised His voice, the earth melted. The Lord of hosts is with us” (46:6). God is not some feeble, senile old man with a long white beard, sitting in heaven worried about the rebellion of man. He is mighty! If such a God is for us, who can be against us (see 2 Kings 6:8‑23)? If you know God as the Lord of hosts, you will depend on Him.

(b) Know Him as the God of Jacob. Why not refer to Him as the God of Abraham, the great man of faith? Or why not at least refer to Him as the God of Israel, the name given to Jacob after he strived with God and prevailed? Jacob means “supplanter” or “deceiver.” Jacob was a conniving schemer. Why refer to the God of Jacob as our stronghold?

This points to God’s sovereign grace. God chose conniving Jacob over nice guy Esau so that everyone could see that He saves us on the basis of His choice, not because of our good works (Rom. 9:11). One of the errors psychology has brought into the church is to try to build people’s self-esteem by telling them, “Christ died for you because you were worthy.” Not so! He died for you while you were an unworthy sinner (Rom. 5:8). But the good news is, if He chose you apart from your worthiness, He will keep you and enable you to persevere unto the day of Christ because He is the God of Jacob.

So you can depend on Him, even if you’ve failed, if you know Him as the God of Jacob. His help in a time of trouble is not conditioned on your great strength, but on His great grace. When you are insufficient (which is always), depend on the Lord of Hosts and the God of Jacob as your refuge.

(2) Draw on Him as your resource. If you know Christ as your Savior, then you have His life within you. His Holy Spirit is that river of life, sufficient for your every need. He is that “river whose streams make glad the city of God” (Ps. 46:4). Draw on Him. How?

(a) Drink from Him daily. You have the Holy Spirit of God dwelling in you! You are “a holy dwelling place of the Most High” God (46:4)! You are privileged to be able to draw upon His strength daily. He refreshes. He brings gladness and joy. Do you drink from Him daily? Do you have a time when you meet alone with Him in the Word and in prayer? Do you walk each day in conscious dependence upon Him, confessing your sin and yielding to His way? The river is there, but you’ve got to drink daily or you’ll dry up spiritually.

(b) Meet with His people regularly. Jerusalem was the “city of God” where God dwelled with His people in a special sense (46:4-5). The temple was there; it was the center for worship. Today God lives in every believer individually, but there is a special sense in which He dwells with His people corporately. God never intended of us to live the Christian life or to face trials in isolation.

We need one another in the Body of Christ: to encourage one another, to bear one another’s burdens, to stimulate one another to love and good deeds. For this to happen, you’ve got to be involved with the Lord’s people beyond our Sunday worship service. The Lord is the river, but believers are the streams. To drink fully from the river, you’ve got to be in connection with the streams. You drink of the Lord through His people.

Thus to lay hold of His sufficiency: Depend on Him as your refuge; draw on Him as your resource.

(3) Defer to Him as your ruler. God desires that you submit to Him voluntarily. If you do not do it voluntarily now, a day is coming when you will do it under force: Every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:10-11).

There are two things to be said with reference to deferring to Him as your ruler:

(a) Behold His works (46:8). In the context the psalmist is referring to God’s miraculous deliverance of Jerusalem in destroying the Assyrian army. But we can apply it as an invitation to review God’s works down through the centuries. See how He has delivered His people time after time, both in the Scripture and in church history. The God of Abraham, Moses, David, Hezekiah, Peter, and Paul; the God of Luther, Calvin, Edwards, and Spurgeon, is your God. Behold His works and you will submit to Him as your ruler when you face a crisis.

(b) Bow to His ways (46:10). He is God. The command to cease striving is God speaking to the nations who are fighting against His people and His purpose. “You won’t win, so quit while you can!” But we can also apply it to ourselves. When trouble hits, don’t strive against God. Know that He is the sovereign God, even over your crisis. As God, He will be exalted and glorified in the earth. He wants you to exalt Him by submitting joyfully to Him through your trouble. The chief end of man is not to live a happy, trouble‑free life. The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. We glorify Him when we defer to Him as our ruler in times of trouble.

Conclusion

Psalm 46 inspired the great reformer, Martin Luther, to write his triumphant hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” Luther faced numerous dangers and threats on his life from the pope and his forces. At one point he spent 11 months in hiding in Wartburg Castle. In the face of opposition, excommunication, and pressure from every side to back down, he stood firmly for the truth of salvation by grace through faith alone. When he had occasion to fear or grow discouraged, he would say to his friend and co‑worker, Philip Melanchthon, “Come Philip, let us sing the forty‑sixth Psalm,” and they would lift their voices:

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.

Our helper He, amid the flood, Of mortal ills prevailing.

Luther wrote, “We sing this Psalm to the praise of God, because God is with us, and powerfully and miraculously preserves and defends His church and His word, against all fanatical spirits, against the gates of hell, against the implacable hatred of the devil, and against all the assaults of the world, the flesh, and sin” (in The Treasury of David [Baker], by C. H. Spurgeon, II:384).

For you to experience God’s sufficiency in a crisis, you must be learning to experience it each day. If you aren’t learning to depend on Him as your refuge, to draw on Him as your resource, and to defer to Him as your ruler when things are going smoothly, you won’t know how when trouble strikes. A crisis does not make a person; a crisis reveals a person. In a time of trial, you turn to what you trust. An alcoholic turns to the bottle. An addict turns to drugs. A worldly person turns to the world’s wisdom. A Christian should turn to the Lord. When trouble strikes, He is sufficient to get you through.

Discussion Questions

  1. Some say, “All truth is God’s truth; thus we can use the truth of psychology.” Why is this fallacious?
  2. Some argue, “We use modern medicine; why not modern psychology.” Why is this fallacious?
  3. How do we find the balance between “raw” trust in God and the proper use of means or methods?

Copyright 1993, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Psalm 48: The City of the Great King

I commonly hear people, both in the church and out of it, say something like, “We’re planning to move out of town. We’re tired of the crowds and the congestion. We bought acreage out in the country where we’ll be a long ways from all these people.” That seems to be a part of the American dream: get away from the city!

Has it ever occurred to you that God describes heaven as a city? Heaven is the New Jerusalem. So if you want to spend eternity in heaven, you’d better get used to city living! I know, at least your neighbors in heaven will be perfect, but you will have neighbors!

In the Bible, cities are the desirable place to live. To live away from the city is to be unprotected from bandits, invading enemies, and predatory wild animals. It is to battle the elements. It is to cut yourself off from commerce, social relationships, and community support. The biblical mindset is, “Why in the world would anyone want to move out of the city into the wilderness?”

In America, there is also a cultural tendency towards individualism. We prize the rugged individualist. When we relate to one another, we tend to compete rather than to cooperate. As American Christians, we rightly emphasize having a personal relationship with Christ, but sometimes we neglect to emphasize that the Christian life is more than just you and Christ. It necessarily makes you a part of His body, the church. You become a fellow citizen with the saints, a member of God’s household (Eph. 2:19). Or, to put it another way, you become a citizen of God’s city.

Psalm 48 sings the praises of Zion, the city of our God, the city of the great King (48:1, 2). It is a companion to Psalms 46 and 47, which also proclaim God’s victory over His enemies. Psalm 46:4 also refers to “the city of God, the dwelling places of the Most High.” Commenting on the Old Testament theology of Zion, Willem VanGemeren writes (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 5:355),

The psalmist affirms that God’s beneficent rule belongs only to the godly, the residents of Zion.

Mount Zion stands for the vision of God’s kingship. God’s kingdom is greater than Jerusalem but receives its visible expression in the temple and palace of Jerusalem….

Yahweh has chosen to establish his kingdom and delights in those who submit themselves to his rule: “For the Lord has chosen Zion, he has desired it for his dwelling” (132:13). The Zion theology-eschatology inspires God’s people with adoration, joy, hope, and commitment to the Great King…. The godly are those who live and act in anticipation of the vision of Zion. This hope was the basis for ethics, praise, and evangelism (48:8-14).

But this vision of Zion as God’s city and dwelling place is not just for the Jews. The New Testament applies this Old Testament vision to the church. In Galatians 4:26, Paul says, “But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother.” In Ephesians 2, Paul goes to great lengths (2:11-22) to show that the Gentiles now have become partakers with the Jews of the covenants of promise. He concludes (2:19-22), “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.”

The author of Hebrews contrasts the terrifying fear of those who received the Law at Mount Sinai with the reverent awe of those who have received the New Covenant. He says (Heb. 12:22-24), “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant….”

The apostle John writes (Rev. 21:1-3), “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I hear a loud voice from the throne, saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them’….” In verses 9 & 10, he specifically identifies this new Jerusalem as the wife of the Lamb.

So while Psalm 48 is about the Jewish vision of Zion as God’s city and dwelling place, in light of the New Testament, we may legitimately apply it to the church, which has been grafted in to believing Israel (Rom. 11:17-24). Just as God promises to establish Zion forever (Ps. 48:8), so Jesus promised to establish His church forever (Matt. 16:18). We are God’s temple, His dwelling place (1 Cor. 3:16). So Psalm 48 has direct application to us.

Psalms 46 and 48 both seem to have been written in response to some stupendous deliverance of Jerusalem from powerful enemies that threatened to annihilate it. While scholars differ and we cannot be dogmatic, I am inclined to view it as the deliverance under King Hezekiah from Sennacherib’s powerful army (described in 2 Kings 18:17-19:37; 2 Chronicles 32; & Isa. 36-37). This army had been unstoppable, and now it surrounded Jerusalem. It looked doomed. But in response to Hezekiah’s and Isaiah’s prayers, the angel of the Lord went out and killed 185,000 of Sennacherib’s troops in one night. He returned defeated to Ninevah and was murdered by his sons as he worshiped in his idol temple.

But whatever the historical situation, the psalm joyously proclaims God’s greatness as seen in the splendor of His city, which He miraculously delivered. While parts of the psalm would almost lead you to think that it is praising the beauty of Zion, the first and last verses serve to show that it is actually a psalm about the greatness of God as seen through His city. The idea is:

God’s city is to proclaim the praise of His salvation to all the earth and to succeeding generations.

The psalm falls into three segments: verses 1-3 show that God’s city is to proclaim His greatness, holiness, joy, and power. Verses 4-8 show God miraculously saving His city from powerful enemies. Verses 9-14 show that God’s city should praise Him for His great salvation and spread His praise to the ends of the earth and to the next generation.

1. God’s city is to proclaim His greatness, holiness, joy, and power (48:1-3).

A. God’s city is to proclaim His greatness (48:1).

“Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, in the city of our God….” How can we ever praise God in proportion to His infinite greatness? It’s impossible! Maybe the heavenly chorus will come the closest, when the millions and millions of saints and angels join together to sing God’s praise. But even that will fall short, because His greatness is far beyond the highest heaven! But here below, we should not give up just because it is impossible. We should worship Him with all our being. When visitors come into our midst, they should conclude, “These people must be worshiping a great God, because they are so caught up in wonder, love, and praise!” Join me in praying that as a church we will give our great God the great praise that He deserves!

B. God’s city is to proclaim the beauty of His holiness (48:1b-2).

The psalmist describes God’s city as “His holy mountain” and adds that it is beautiful in elevation. Jerusalem, of course, is at an elevation of 2,500 feet above sea level, so that writers talk about “going up” to Jerusalem (Ps. 122:4). But the theological sense of “beautiful in elevation” is well expressed by A. A. Anderson (cited by VanGemeren, ibid., 5:363), “It is here that, in a sense, heaven and earth meet.” The city’s holiness and beauty, not to mention its strength, are due to the fact that God dwells there with His people.

The world probably thinks of holiness as being rather drab or boring, but in the Bible God, who is holy, is beautiful (Ps. 27:4; Isa. 33:17). Psalm 96:6 declares, “Splendor and majesty are before Him, strength and beauty are in His sanctuary.” Thus God’s people, who are to be holy as He is holy (Lev. 11:44), are to display the Lord’s beauty. Psalm 50:2 states, “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God has shone forth.” Sin is always ugly in its final form; holiness is beautiful or attractive. As God’s people, we are to display His holiness to a sinful and ugly world. It is vital that we judge our sin and labor to make the church a holy people (Titus 2:11-14).

C. God’s city is to proclaim the joy of being His people (48:2).

The psalmist calls God’s city “the joy of the whole earth.” Again, the world does not think of holiness and joy in the same breath, unless to contrast them as opposites! But they always go together in the Bible. Some try to limit this to the joy of the whole land, meaning, the land of Israel, because there never has been a time when Jerusalem has been the joy of the whole earth. But I agree with those who take this to be a prophetic vision of the future, when Jesus shall reign over all the earth (see Isa. 2:2-4).

The most difficult phrase to interpret in the psalm is that Mount Zion is “in the far north.” The NIV transliterates the Hebrew word for “north” as Zaphon, which was a pagan mountain north of Ugarit where Baal was worshipped. This line of interpretation argues that Israel borrowed from Canaanite and other pagan religions the idea that the supreme place where the gods reigned was a mountain in the north. But the Jews contended that the living and true God reigned in the north, on Mount Zion. This view claims for support Isaiah 14:13, where the king of Babylon arrogantly claims, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God, and I will sit on the mount of assembly in the recesses of the north.” Derek Kidner understands “the far north” (48:2) to use this imagery to connect the earthly Mount Zion with the heavenly one (Psalms 1-72 [IVP], p. 179).

But other commentators (Franz Delitzsch, J. A. Alexander, J. J. S. Perowne) argue that the Jews would never have used this pagan mythological idea to describe God’s dwelling in Zion. These writers take the phrase to refer to some geographic aspect of Mount Zion, although it is not clear exactly how this fits. So I do not know how to explain it.

But don’t let the difficulty cause you to miss the point, that as the city of the great King, we are to extend God’s joy to the whole earth. To proclaim His joy, we must be experiencing it as we rejoice daily in His great salvation. Thus, God’s city should proclaim His greatness, His holiness, and His joy.

D. God’s city is to proclaim His power (48:3).

“God, in her palaces, has made Himself known as a stronghold.” The next few verses go on to portray a coalition of powerful kings coming up to conquer the city, but they aren’t able to raise a hand against it. When they see it, they tremble, panic, and flee. The cause of their terror is not just the impressive walls and towers of the city, but the God who dwells in the city. As J. J. S. Perowne puts it (The Book of Psalms [Zondervan], p. 389), “It is the Glory of His Presence which makes her glorious: the strength of His Presence which makes her safe.” The people of God’s city should know Him in a very practical way as their stronghold when they face trouble (Nahum 1:7).

This point is related to the earlier point about holiness. As we rely on God’s Spirit to live holy lives in this corrupt world, we display His power. It is an utter tragedy when those that claim to know God are exposed for living a secret life of sin. May it never be said of us!

Thus the first section of the psalm makes the point that God’s city is to proclaim His greatness, holiness, joy and power. His power is especially displayed in the second section:

2. God saves His city and will establish her forever (48:4-8).

There are two points here:

A. God saves His city from powerful foes that unite to destroy it (48:4-7).

Verse 4 pictures these kings joining together and passing by the city to size it up. Before they actually see it, they are proud and confident. But then (v. 5) they saw it, they were amazed, terrified, and they fled in alarm. In Hebrew, there are four terse verbs in close succession here. It reminded Calvin of Caesar’s famous boast, “I came, I saw, I conquered” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on Ps. 48:4, p. 223). But here, they came, they saw, and they fled in panic. The psalm uses two metaphors to describe their fear. First, they were in anguish as of a woman in childbirth (48:6). Second, they were like ships on the Mediterranean Sea, broken up by an east wind (48:7). The ships of Tarshish represent the strongest and largest ships (see 1 Kings 10:22). But when God raises a powerful wind, these ships are like matchsticks, tossed and broken up by the sea (see, also, Ezek. 27:25-27; Rev. 18:17-20).

Calvin (ibid.) applies these verses by pointing out that the church can expect to be assailed by powerful enemies. God uses such assaults to humble us and to demonstrate His own great power. Then he adds, “At the same time, let us remember that a nod alone on the part of God is sufficient to deliver us….” Thus we should look to God alone and not to human help.

B. God’s salvation of His city changes hearsay into experience (48:8).

“As we have heard, so have we seen in the city of the Lord of hosts, in the city of our God; God will establish her forever.” Israel had heard stories of how God in the past had delivered His people from annihilation, but now they had seen it firsthand. This should be the testimony of every true child of God. You have heard of how God has saved others, but now He has saved you. You can add your story to that of others, that the Lord of hosts has rescued you from Satan’s destructive grasp. He has placed you in His city, which He will establish forever. This brings us to the final section:

3. God’s city should praise Him for His great salvation and spread His praise to the ends of the earth and to the next generation (48:9-14).

There are five thoughts here that I can only touch upon:

A. Our experience of God’s salvation should deepen our thoughts of His love (48:9).

“We have thought upon Your lovingkindness, O God, in the midst of Your temple.” Specifically, they were thinking of how God had demonstrated His love in saving them from destruction. Paul writes (Rom. 5:8), “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” We should think on that often, especially as we gather in His temple.

B. Our experience of God’s salvation should go from us to the ends of the earth (48:10).

“As is Your name, O God, so is Your praise to the ends of the earth; Your right hand is full of righteousness.” As the story of how God delivered Jerusalem spread, so did His praise. His righteousness refers to His righteous judgment on the wicked kings who sought to destroy God’s people. As many Scriptures make clear, if we have experienced God’s salvation, then we are to spread God’s praise and glory to the ends of the earth. And when we proclaim the gospel, we must not neglect to tell of God’s righteousness (see Acts 24:25). People need a Savior precisely because they will face a God whose right hand is full of righteousness.

C. Our experience of God’s salvation should cause us to rejoice in His righteous judgments (48:11).

“Let Mount Zion be glad, let the daughters of Judah rejoice because of Your judgments.” The “daughters of Judah” refers to the smaller towns surrounding Jerusalem. The cause of their joy, if this refers to Sennacherib’s invasion, was 185,000 dead bodies of the Assyrian army. Many today that purport to believe in Christ at the same time are repulsed by the biblical view of God’s righteous judgment. Many others tolerate His judgment, but they don’t like it. But the Bible portrays God’s saints as rejoicing when He pronounces judgment on wicked Babylon (Rev. 18:20). Maybe we have been tainted too much by our tolerant culture and need to re-think this one! If we’re saved, we should rejoice in His judgments.

D. Our further meditation on God’s salvation should impel us to tell it to the next generation (48:12-13).

The residents of Jerusalem had been cooped up within the walls of the city because of Sennacherib’s troops outside. But now the troops are dead and so the psalmist invites the people of God to take a stroll around the city. Count her towers—they’re all standing intact, with no damage from battering rams. Consider her ramparts—they’re unscathed. Go through her palaces—they’re still magnificent. Then tell the next generation, who weren’t yet alive to see this firsthand, what the Lord did to save His people. These verses are not encouraging God’s people to put their trust in Jerusalem’s towers and ramparts. Rather, to see them still standing is a testimony of God’s faithfulness towards His people. That is worth handing off to the next generation!

E. God’s salvation means that we will praise Him forever (48:14).

Verse 14 ties the end of the psalm back into verse 1: God is great and greatly to be praised. This God is “our God forever and ever; He will guide us even unto death.” Some versions read, “He will guide us forever,” but the sense is essentially the same. We can trust and follow and praise this God because He is faithful to deliver His people. Not even the most powerfully evil rulers in this world can thwart His loving purposes for those who dwell in His city. They have His protection, even if they die (Luke 21:16-19)!

Conclusion

In 1956, five young missionaries were speared to death by the Auca Indians as they sought to take the gospel to that primitive tribe. One of those men was Roger Youderian. His wife, Barbara, wrote in her journal, “Tonight the Captain told us of his finding four bodies in the river. One had tee-shirt and blue-jeans. Roj was the only one who wore them…. God gave me this verse two days ago, Psalm 48:14, ‘For this God is our God for ever and ever; He will be our Guide even unto death.’ As I came face to face with the news of Roj’s death, my heart was filled with praise. He was worthy of his homegoing. Help me, Lord, to be both mummy and daddy. ‘To know wisdom and instruction…’” (Elisabeth Elliot, Through Gates of Splendor [Spire Books], p. 191).

This psalm teaches us that the history and destiny of God’s people is inextricably linked with God Himself. Knowing that this God is our God gives us a sense of peace when we’re under attack. It gives us a sense of purpose to serve His great cause of spreading His glory to every people. It gives us a sense of belonging to be a part of the city of this great King.

Don’t despise the church! Don’t be a Lone Ranger Christian! Don’t move to the country, away from God’s people! God’s purpose is bound up with a city. Move into His city and join together with the citizens of Zion in proclaiming the praise of His salvation to all the earth and to succeeding generations. Make sure you’re a citizen of the great city of the great King!

Application Questions

  1. Many withdraw from the church because they’ve been burned. Is this a good reason to pull out? Why not?
  2. What can we as a church do to proclaim God’s greatness more effectively in this city?
  3. Is the urge to flee from the city ever justified? If so, when?
  4. What are some implications of heaven being called “the new Jerusalem”? Why would God use this imagery?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2009, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Psalm 49: A Psalm for the Recession

Marla and I will always remember a November night in 1980. After being awake most of the night cleaning up the vomit from both of our little girls and their bedding, we were awakened at 4 a.m. by a phone call from a neighbor. Her husband was a volunteer fireman. She called to warn us that the fire department would be forcing us to evacuate our house at 7 a.m. because of the danger of the nearby Panorama Fire.

We had three hours to go through everything that we owned and decide what to take with us, realizing that whatever we left behind could go up in smoke. Our only car was a 1968 Mustang, which did not have much cargo space. And my office was at home, so what we took included some of my books and files, which went on the top rack.

We were out of our home for three days. Thankfully, the fire did not reach our house. But the experience was an unforgettable lesson in clarifying what is really important in terms of material possessions. What really matters and what could we live without?

It is my prayer that the current recession would be a life-changing, unforgettable lesson in values clarification for all American Christians. Perhaps God will use it to pry us loose from our love of the things that so easily tempt us. Maybe we will begin to identify with the vast majority of people around the world for whom life is a perpetual recession. Maybe we will grow in our understanding of what it means truly to seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness. Maybe we will be more faithful to lay up treasures in heaven, where recessions never affect our investments. Maybe in light of the shortness of life, we will shift our focus from storing up treasures on earth and instead focus on being rich toward God.

Psalm 49 is a psalm for the recession. Its theme is the futility of living for this world’s possessions, status, and fame, in light of the certainty of death. It is a “wisdom” psalm, similar in theme to Psalms 37 and 73. Rather than focusing directly on praise to God, the psalm gives instruction that—if we heed it—will ultimately result in praise to God. It gives us the understanding that we need to live rightly in light of eternity, so that one day we can present to God a heart of wisdom (Ps. 90:12). The message is:

Because we all will die, our focus should not be on riches and fame in this life, but on eternity with God.

Several commentators observe that Jesus probably based the parable of the rich fool on this psalm (Luke 12:16-21). He prefaced the story with a warning (12:15), “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.” Then He told the story of the man who was very successful. His barns were full, so he decided to build bigger barns. He congratulated himself by thinking (12:19), “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.” But God told him (12:20): “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?” Jesus’ conclusion is (12:21), “So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

Psalm 49 falls into four sections. In verses 1-4, we have the psalmist’s call to all people from every culture and stratum of life. Everyone needs to hear his counsel. In verses 5-12, we have the psalmist’s counsel, that we should not fear when those who trust in their wealth increase, because their wealth cannot buy them an escape from death. In verses 13-15, we have the psalmist’s contrast, as he sets the foolish, who ignore eternity and trust in their wealth, against the godly, who look to God to redeem and receive them. The conclusion (verses 16-20) gives us the psalmist’s repeated counsel, that we should not fear when the wealthy increase, because they will soon die like unreasoning animals.

1. The psalmist’s call: Every person from every country and every walk of life should hear this counsel (49:1-4).

The psalmist is not just a poet, but also a preacher. He is preaching not just to the people of God, the Jews, but to all peoples, to all the inhabitants of the world. The social nobodies may be tempted to shrug off his message as applying only to those who are high on the social ladder, but the psalmist includes both low and high. The poor may think that a sermon in song about trusting in material possessions only applies to the rich, but the psalmist addresses rich and poor together. The poor can be just as materialistic as the rich, because materialism is a desire of the heart, not just a matter of owning things. So you can’t shrug off the psalmist’s message by thinking, “I am too poor to worry about living for possessions.” His message applies to all people in every culture.

Furthermore, the psalmist claims that he is going to speak wisdom and give us understanding (49:3). Wisdom comes from a Hebrew word meaning “skill.” It was used of the skill of the craftsmen who constructed the beautiful tabernacle (Exod. 36:1-2). It refers to the necessary skill to live in such a manner as to produce a beautiful life in God’s sight.

Proverbs 2:6 tells us, “For the Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding.” So the psalmist is not giving us the wisdom and understanding of a sage, who has assimilated man’s wisdom. Rather, he is passing on to us wisdom that he has gained by inclining his ear to God. The proverb that he is going to give us (49:4) is in verse 12 and repeated again with a slight variation in verse 20, “Man in his pomp, yet without understanding, is like the beasts that perish.”

The psalmist also says that he is going to open up (lit.) to us a riddle on the harp. The word riddle is used of Samson’s riddle of the lion and the honey (Judges 14:12-15) and of the difficult questions that the Queen of Sheba brought to Solomon (1 Kings 10:1). In our psalm, the riddle seems to be the age-old question, why are evil people rich and comfortable, while the godly are often poor and oppressed? The psalmist’s answer to the riddle is that no amount of money can buy a person an escape from death and judgment. We all must stand before God, who will either condemn us because we lived for this world (49:14) or redeem and receive us because we lived wisely in light of eternity (49:15).

Some have pointed out that the psalmist’s message, on one level, does not seem all that profound. Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on Psalm 49, p. 235), for example, comments that even worldly philosophers have pointed out the shortness of human life and the vanity of putting your confidence in things. But Calvin says that the real scope of the psalm is to comfort God’s people who are exposed to suffering by teaching us to trust God to right all wrongs at the judgment. And the psalm urges us to be patient when it seems that God is not governing the world, realizing that He will rectify all wrongs in His good time.

It also seems to me that while the message of the psalm is very basic, something that every Christian knows, it is at the same time a message that we need to hear and think about often. Although I know intellectually that even when one has an abundance, life does not consist of possessions, it’s easy for me to forget this and be tempted by greed. On our recent trip, we drove by many casinos, none of which seemed to be hurting for business. Even Christians can be tempted to gamble, especially when times are tough, thinking that if we just hit the jackpot, we would be happy. Because we’re all susceptible to this (or the Bible wouldn’t warn us against it), we all need to ponder the message of Psalm 49.

2. The psalmist’s counsel: Do not fear when those who trust in their wealth prosper, because their wealth cannot buy them an escape from death (49:5-12).

This section falls into two subsections:

A. The prosperity of the wealthy wicked is brief at best and useless when it comes to staving off death (49:5-9).

The theme of fear pops up in verse 5 and again in verse 16. Why is the psalmist prone to fear because of the wealthy? The answer is that often, the wealthy oppress and take advantage of the poor. The psalmist describes himself as surrounded by “supplanters” or “deceivers” (49:5; it’s the Hebrew word for “Jacob”). So he is not talking about all of the rich, as if to be rich is to be sinful. Rather, he specifically mentions “those who trust in their wealth and boast in the abundance of their riches” (49:6). He’s talking about the arrogant rich who do not trust in God.

Power and influence often go along with wealth, so that the wealthy have close ties with those in political power or they use their wealth to gain such offices for themselves. You see this often in countries where power is by clans or by connections, not by law. Those in power ignore the law, so it is fearful when the wicked rich come to power. Even in our own country, bribery and influence peddling among the rich and powerful can threaten the poor.

The psalmist reflects on the obvious (which isn’t always so obvious!), that no one can use money to redeem his brother or to give God a ransom for him, so as to prolong his life (49:7-9). In other words, you can’t bribe God with a payoff to buy yourself or anyone else a few more years, much less to escape from death so as to live forever. I thought about this when Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis succumbed to cancer at a relatively young age. Her fabulous wealth could get her the best doctors in the world, but they could not extend her life. God holds the trump card of death and no amount of money or fame will keep Him from playing it!

So the psalmist’s first answer to the riddle of the prosperity of the rich and their oppression of the poor is that their success is brief at best and useless in staving off death.

B. The failure of wealth is certain and total (49:10-12).

The psalmist goes on to point out that it is absurd to trust in riches in light of the certainty of death. The odds that you will beat death are not very good! Since death is 100 percent certain and no one will be taking any of it with him, you’d think that everyone would be living in view of eternity. The psalmist observes (49:10) that the wise and the stupid both perish and leave their wealth to others. They think that their houses will endure forever (49:11). (A transposition of Hebrew letters makes the verse read that their graves are their houses [NIV].) They name their lands after themselves. But they die and are soon forgotten. The psalmist’s grim conclusion is (49:12), “But man in his pomp will not endure; he is like the beasts that perish.”

The Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, has a story, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” It’s about a man who keeps longing for more and more land. Finally, he strikes a bargain that for 1,000 rubles, he can have all the land that he can walk around in one day. But the catch is, he must be back at the starting point before sundown or he loses his money and the land. So he starts off early. As the day goes on, his greed drives him to keep going a bit farther and just to go around that nice piece of land over there.

Finally, he realizes that the sun is getting low, so he turns toward the starting point and picks up his pace. As the sun drops lower in the sky, the man starts running. He is sweating profusely; his heart is pounding. Just as the sun is setting, he sees the finish line. He gives it everything he’s got. He sprints up the hill and across the line just as the sun sets. He falls to the ground and blood spurts out of his mouth. He is dead. His servant digs a grave, just long enough for him to lie in, and buries him. Tolstoy concludes, “Six feet from his head to his heels was all that he needed.”

So the psalmist’s counsel is, do not fear when those who trust in their wealth increase in power. Their wealth can’t buy them an escape from death. At death they will lose everything. As they say, you never see a hearse pulling a U-Haul!

3. The psalmist’s contrast: The foolish ignore eternity and trust in their wealth, whereas the godly look to God to redeem and receive them (49:13-15).

In verse 13, the psalmist adds a new thought to his theme. He points out that the foolish ignore the transitory nature of riches and the certainty of death, but he adds, “And of those after them who approve their words.” In other words, even though others watch the rich accumulate their wealth only to die and leave it all behind, they don’t learn the lesson. They still want to get rich. As James Boice puts it (Psalms [Baker], 2:412), “You do not have to have wealth to perish because of wealth. You can perish equally well merely by making money your goal and forgetting spiritual things.”

Then, concerning both those that trust in their wealth and those that envy the rich (49:13), the psalmist adds (49:14), “As sheep they are appointed for Sheol; death shall be their shepherd; and the upright shall rule over them in the morning, and their form shall be for Sheol to consume so that they have no habitation.” The metaphor of sheep suggests those who mindlessly follow the shepherd. But in this case, the Lord is not their shepherd; rather, death is! While the wealthy may live in mansions now, when they die, they will have no habitation, except for Sheol, the grave.

Up to this point, the psalmist has focused exclusively on the foolishness of those who trust in their riches and glory in their fame and ignore the inevitability of death. But now he introduces a contrast between them and those who trust in God, which he will further develop in verse 15. In verse 14 he says, “And the upright shall rule over them in the morning.”

That phrase, “in the morning,” is a word of hope for those who are currently oppressed by the ruthless rich. It points to a new day, when God will right all wrongs. It implies a day beyond this life, because in this life, it is not always the case that the upright will rule over the wicked who have oppressed them. So verse 14 anticipates the day of resurrection and reward for the righteous, as well as judgment for the wicked.

Then (49:15) the psalmist breaks in with a great “But God,” which Derek Kidner calls “one of the mountain-tops of Old Testament hope” (Psalms 1-72 [IVP], p. 182): “But God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol, for He will receive me.” Some contend that the Old Testament does not have a clear doctrine of life after death, but this is one verse among many others that refute that idea. H. C. Leupold (Exposition of Psalms [Baker], p. 386) observes, “The offhand way in which this deep and comforting truth is mentioned surprises us. Why the writer does not dwell on this matter longer is difficult to determine. It must be that the hope of life with God was more real in Old Testament days than many commentators would allow for.”

Also, when the psalmist says that God will “receive me,” it is the same Hebrew verb used of God’s taking Enoch to heaven directly without dying (Gen. 5:24). It is also used in Psalm 73:24, “With Your counsel You will guide me, and afterward receive me to glory.” Both of these verses show that the saints in the Old Testament had a hope of life with God beyond the grave. Granted, that hope became clearer when Jesus came and explained things more plainly. But it is here in the Old Testament as well.

But, why is it that those who trust in their riches will be consumed in Sheol, whereas those who are upright (49:14) will be welcomed into heaven by God? The difference is that God will redeem their souls (which often means, “life”) from the power of the grave. To redeem means to buy back or buy something or someone out of the marketplace. In spiritual terms, it refers to God’s buying us out of the marketplace of sin and setting us free.

While the psalmist probably did not understand the doctrine of redemption as clearly as it would be revealed in the New Testament, we now know that Jesus Christ paid the price that our sin deserved. The wages of our sin is death, eternal separation from God. Jesus died to pay that price so that we may go free by faith in Him. If you have trusted in Jesus’ shed blood, you have hope beyond the grave, that God will receive or welcome you into heaven! So, as one commentator observes, “We leave the world either with God or with nothing” (Murdoch Campbell, cited by Boice, p. 414).

Thus we have the psalmist’s call to all to listen; his counsel, not to fear when the wicked wealthy increase; and his contrast between the final destiny of the wicked and the righteous. Finally,

4. The psalmist’s repeated counsel: Do not fear when the wicked wealthy prosper, because soon they will die like unreasoning animals (49:16-20).

The psalmist repeats for emphasis and review his earlier counsel (49:5-12). Don’t worry when a man becomes rich and famous, because when he dies, he leaves with the same amount as everyone else: Nothing! In verse 18, the psalmist first states the general truth, that rich men congratulate themselves on their success (like the rich fool, Luke 12:19). But then, in the second half of the verse, he changes from the third person to the second person. He addresses the rich directly to get their attention. Both clauses drive home the same lesson, that no matter how much worldly success you attain, you’re going to die and you can’t take it with you.

Then the psalmist ends by repeating the theme or proverb of verse 12, but with a slight change. In verse 12, the phrase “will not endure” literally means, “does not pass the night.” As Dr. Boice explains (p. 412), “It suggests that in view of death a person’s position in life is not as secure even as a traveler who turns into an inn for the evening. In our case, life is so short that we do not even make it to the morning.” But in verse 20, the psalmist adds, “Man in his pomp, yet without understanding, is like the beasts that perish.”

The point of the psalm is to gain that understanding so that you do not perish! To die without understanding the need to be right with God is to die like an unreasoning beast. Don’t do that! Learn from the psalmist: Because you will die, your focus should not be on accumulating more and more stuff in this life, but rather on spending eternity with God.

Conclusion

As a young man, Jonathan Edwards wrote down 70 resolutions to govern his life. Number 9 was, “Resolved, To think much, on all occasions, of my dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death” (The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth, 1:xx). That resolution may strike you as excessively morbid, especially for a 19-year-old. Maybe when we’re in our seventies we will think often of our own death, but certainly not in our twenties! But Edwards was really just applying the message of Psalm 49: Because we all will die (and we don’t know when), our focus should not be on riches in this life, but on eternity with God.

This psalm for the recession tells us, “Don’t lay up treasures on earth. Everything that you invest in this world will soon be gone. Invest in God’s kingdom! Be rich toward God!” If you have trusted in Him to redeem you through Jesus Christ, then you have the hope that He will receive you into heaven when you die. No recession can touch that!

Application Questions

  1. As American Christians, how can we determine an appropriate level of consumption in light of the world’s glaring poverty? How much stuff is too much?
  2. How can a conscientious Christian determine the appropriate amount to set aside for retirement?
  3. Jonathan Edwards resolved, as a young man, to think often about his own death. Is this overly morbid or biblically wise?
  4. A Christian friend confides that he (she) likes to gamble. He (she) shrugs it off as innocent fun. How would you counsel? What Scriptures would you use (besides this psalm)?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2009, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Psalm 50: Ritual or Reality?

In recent years, many have left evangelical churches to join the Roman Catholic or the Orthodox Church. One reason often cited is that they love the ancient rituals, which were absent in evangelical churches. Some from evangelical backgrounds have gone into old cathedrals and had a moving spiritual experience as they marveled at the architecture, art, or religious ceremonies. Even among the so-called emergent churches (which are hardly traditional!), there is an emphasis on religious rituals.

Some may shrug and say, “Well, if it helps them feel close to God, what harm is there in it?” Isn’t it just a different religious preference? Some like worship to be casual and some like it more formal. Does it really matter?

The Bible says, yes, it matters greatly! The gospels show us clearly where religious ritualism leads. They repeatedly show Jesus clashing with the religious ritualists. For example, in Mark 7, the Pharisees and scribes asked Jesus why His disciples did not go through the ritualistic hand washing that the Pharisees’ traditions prescribed. Jesus answered (Mark 7:6-8):

“Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’ Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.”

There is a similar confrontation in Luke 11:37-52. In that text, Jesus pronounces six woes on the religious leaders because their religion was outward, but not from the heart (see my sermon, “Why Jesus Hates Legalism,” April 11, 1999). They performed all their rituals flawlessly, but it was they—the ritualists, not the tax collectors and sinners—that ultimately crucified Jesus. The problem was, their hearts were not right before God.

In Psalm 50, Asaph presents a heavenly courtroom drama. God, the awesome Judge, calls His witnesses and the defendants and takes His seat. He levels two felony charges against the defendants: they have fallen into religious ritualism rather than worshiping God from the heart; and, some of them are openly rebellious religious hypocrites. They still followed the religious rituals, but they lived in flagrant disobedience. The psalm ends by calling on both groups to turn to God and worship Him from the heart.

The psalm is permeated with imagery from the story of God giving the Ten Commandments to Moses. On that occasion, we read (Exod. 19:18), “Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked violently.” Then God gave Moses the two tables of the law, prescribing how God’s people must relate to Him and to one another.

In our psalm, the setting is not Mount Sinai, but rather Zion, or Jerusalem. But when God appears (Ps. 50:3), “fire devours before Him and it is very tempestuous around Him,” reminding us of Sinai. In verse 6, the phrase “the heavens declare His righteousness,” also reflects the thunder and lightning imagery of Mount Sinai. The first section of the psalm deals with the first table of the law, how we are to worship God. The second section deals with the second table of the law, specifically citing the seventh, eighth, and ninth commandments against adultery, theft, and false speech. Also, the Ten Commandments begin with, “I am the Lord your God” (Exod. 20:2). In Psalm 50:7, God says, “I am God, your God.” The overall message of Psalm 50 is:

When we stand before God, what will matter is not that we’ve performed religious rituals, but that we have worshiped and obeyed God from the heart.

In verses 1-6, God, the mighty Judge of all, enters the courtroom and summons the heavens and earth to His tribunal. In verses 7-15, He calls the first defendant: His covenant people who have exalted their sacrifices above a close relationship with Him. In verses 16-21, God calls the second defendant: those that profess to belong to His covenant people, but are hypocrites. They violate God’s commandments and think that He is okay with them! Finally (50:22-23), God speaks to both groups. He warns the hypocrites that they are in danger of God tearing them to pieces. He instructs the ritualists and the hypocrites that the true sacrifice is a thankful heart that honors Him and an obedient life.

1. We all will stand before God for judgment (50:1-6).

Verse 1 doesn’t mess around! It brings us face to face with Almighty God: “The Mighty One, God, the Lord has spoken, and summoned the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.” In Hebrew, the three names for God here are “El,” “Elohim,” and “Yahweh” (see Josh. 22:22). “El” points to God as mighty. “Elohim” points to Him as the Almighty Creator and Sovereign of the universe. “Yahweh” is His name as the eternally existent covenant God. The three names are piled together to impress us with the solemnity and fear of standing before God as the judge (see v. 6).

The only times that I have been summoned to court is for jury duty. But if you were accused of a serious crime, it would be a fearful experience. The bailiff commands, “Please rise!” The judge enters in his black gown. All is silent until he bangs the gavel and pronounces, “The court is now in session. We will hear the case of Steven J. Cole against the Court of Heaven.” Yikes! And this is no human judge—this is “the Mighty One, God, the Lord”!

The psalmist sets the courtroom (50:2) in “Zion, the perfection of beauty,” where “God has shone forth.” Zion is the perfection of beauty because of the temple that was there. God shone forth at the temple through His shekinah glory. So the perfect beauty of Zion is the beauty of God in His holiness.

At the opening (50:2), God summons the whole earth and then repeats the summons (50:4) to “the heavens above, and the earth.” Up to this point, God’s covenant people may be thinking, “Finally, God is going to judge all those wicked pagans! It’s about time!” After all, the prayer of verse 3 is, “May our God come and not keep silence.”

But then (50:4b) the psalmist surprises us. He reveals that God has summoned all of heaven and earth to be witnesses in the courtroom as He judges His people! He calls them His “godly ones” (50:5) “to remind them of what they ought to be in consistency with their calling” (John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on Ps. 50, p. 263). So He is going to judge them according to what they are supposed to be, namely, His godly ones who have made a covenant with Him. And the psalmist reminds them (50:6) that the standard for judgment is the very righteousness of God Himself.

Do you think often about the fact that one day soon, you will stand before the judgment seat of Christ? Some, even some of those who have served Christ (may it not be any of us!) will hear the awful words (Matt. 7:23), “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.” They will be thrown into outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 25:30). Others will watch in horror as everything that they labored for goes up in smoke. They themselves will be saved, but as through fire (1 Cor. 3:12-13). Still others (may you and I be among them) will hear the Lord say (Matt. 25:21), “Well done, good and faithful slave…. Enter into the joy of your master.” The Bible repeatedly warns us about the coming judgment so that we will live daily in view of it.

2. When we stand before God for judgment, what will matter is not that we have performed religious rituals, but that we have worshiped God from the heart (50:7-15).

God first speaks to His people who had kept the prescribed sacrifices, but they had drifted from the reality of worshiping God in spirit and in truth. God had no complaint with their outward compliance to the sacrifices and burnt offerings (50:8), but their hearts were not right before Him. They weren’t thankful to God, acknowledging His blessings. And, they weren’t connecting their religious rituals with their daily lives. When they were in trouble, they weren’t calling to God in dependence and faith. Perhaps they presumed on the fact that they had offered sacrifices. They thought that God should deliver them because of their sacrifices. And so they didn’t honor Him when He rescued them. Rather, they congratulated themselves for keeping the rituals. Note three things:

A. There is a human tendency to fall into ritualism rather than to maintain a close relationship with God.

Because of the fall, we all are prone to perform the religious rituals, while our hearts are far from God. But then we soothe our guilty consciences by thinking, “I did the ritual this week!” Protestants often point the finger at Roman Catholics, who go to Mass and Confession and do penance, but they don’t live the rest of the week in a close relationship with God.

And yet we Protestants also fall into our own forms of ritualism. We feel that things are okay between God and us because we’ve been regular in church attendance. Or, we took communion. Or, we feel especially spiritual because we had our quiet time every day this week. Or, we put our tithe in the offering. We serve on a church committee or we even teach Sunday School. So things must be right between us and God! But at the same time, we tolerate all sorts of sin in our thoughts, words, and deeds. Even preachers fall into this trap, as we’ve seen when it comes out in the news that well-known preachers have been living a double life. So fight against your own tendency to fall into ritualism rather than to maintain a close relationship with God.

B. Ritualism gives the ritualist a sense of pride, whereas heartfelt worship humbles us before God.

These Hebrews were priding themselves for their generosity in offering their bulls and their goats, but God pointedly reminds them that He owns it all! When they offer something to Him, it is only because He first gave it to them. And He doesn’t need their offerings to sustain Himself, as if He were hungry! He owns the world and all it contains (50:12). Idolaters think that when they offer food to their idols, it’s to appease their hunger. It may have been that the Hebrews were falling into this superstition. But that insults God, to say the least! He needs absolutely nothing from His creation. He existed in eternity just fine without any of us and without anything that we can give Him.

If we find ourselves taking pride because we follow the biblical form of worship or because we tithe our income or because we haven’t missed a church service in years, then we’re guilty of ritualism. Certainly, we should seek to be biblical in our forms of worship. We should give generously to God, while remembering that everything we have belongs to Him. We should be faithful in gathering each week with the saints. But we should do it out of a grateful heart for all of God’s gracious blessings. We recognize that He owes us nothing but judgment, but He showed us mercy. True worship humbles us before God.

Some may wonder, “What if we perform religious rituals from the heart? Isn’t that okay?” After all, God isn’t condemning sacrifices here. He instituted the sacrificial system. Rather, He’s condemning sacrifices when their hearts were not right before Him. So what if a person performs various religious rituals, but does so from the heart? Isn’t that proper?

The answer is, it’s proper if these rituals are prescribed in the New Testament. The New Testament does not, for example, command us to pray the rosary or the stations of the cross or to cross ourselves or to light candles for the dead. It does command us to be baptized, observe communion, read the Bible, pray, and sing, both in private and public worship. It’s easy to allow these things to become empty rituals, which is sin. The solution is not to stop doing them, but to fight against doing them ritualistically and instead do them from the heart with gratitude to God.

C. Heartfelt worship involves thanksgiving, faithfulness, and dependence on God.

Asaph gives the remedy for empty ritualism (50:14-15), “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving and pay your vows to the Most High; call upon Me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honor Me.”

The psalmist sets thanksgiving and prayer over against ritualism as a summary of all true worship (Calvin, p. 269). Thanksgiving acknowledges that God has given us every blessing by His grace. You cannot genuinely thank God unless you’re in submission to Him and trusting Him, especially if you’re thanking Him in the midst of trials. Nor can you thank Him or call out to Him in prayer in a time of need if you’re harboring sin in your heart. So genuine thanksgiving and prayer presuppose holiness on the heart level. Calvin (p. 270) points out that praise and prayer are set in opposition to ceremonies and rituals to teach us that the worship of God is spiritual. Praise is mentioned first, he says (ibid.), because, “An ascription to God of the honor due unto his name lies at the foundation of all prayer, and application to him as the fountain of goodness is the most elementary exercise of faith.”

The psalmist also says, “pay your vows to the Most High.” There is no command in Scripture to make vows to God, but if we do make them, we need to be faithful to keep them. The most important vows that we make are baptism and (if we’re married) the marriage vows. Not all would agree with me, but I don’t recommend making many other vows, because doing so tends to put you on a legal basis with God, rather than a grace basis. But if you do make a vow to God, be faithful to keep it.

So the court has now finished with the first defendant for the time being. Next, God summons the second defendant:

3. When we stand before God for judgment, what will matter is not that we have performed religious rituals, but that we have obeyed God from the heart (50:16-21).

God next calls “the wicked” (50:16). These are hypocrites, who can quote God’s statutes and who claim to be His covenant people, but they’re tolerating sin in their lives. The ritualists needed to remember that God must be worshiped in spirit and truth. The hypocrites need to be reminded that God is holy and those who worship Him must come with obedient hearts.

H. C. Leupold notes that there is some overlap and progression between the two groups. He says (Exposition of Psalms [Baker], p. 395), “Formalism cannot be cultivated with impunity; progressive degeneracy is the outcome.” In other words, the danger of continuing in heartless ritualism is that you drift into disobedient thinking and living. But to keep up appearances, you continue the rituals. This was the hypocrisy of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. They didn’t want to defile themselves by going into Pilate’s courtyard, while at the same time they crucified the innocent Son of God (John 18:28)! Note three things here:

A. It is possible for religious people to cast God’s Word behind them.

God charges (50:17), “For you hate discipline, and you cast My words behind you.” Discipline is used often in Proverbs in the sense of instruction, or disciplining the mind through wisdom. It refers to correction through instruction. It implies that we need to change, which is always threatening and difficult. It means that when we read God’s Word or hear it preached, we don’t shrug it off or apply it to others. Rather, we take it to heart and correct whatever is wrong in our thinking, words, relationships, or behavior. We all have blind spots. The Bible is like a mirror to show us where we need to clean up. Make sure that you use it often!

B. Tolerance of sin in others is not much different than engaging in sin yourself.

“When you see a thief, you are pleased with him, and you associate with adulterers” (50:18). Perhaps these religious hypocrites did not engage in thievery or adultery themselves, but they were pleased to have such people as their friends. They were proud of their tolerance. They were not judgmental! They were open-minded! But God knew that in their hearts, they secretly enjoyed hearing stories of greed or sexual sin. In our day, this would include watching movies with graphic sex scenes.

These hypocrites also engaged in deception and slander, even against close family members (50:19-20). I am often amazed at how professing Christians engage in these sins of the tongue without a twinge of conscience! They’re familiar with the many portions of Scripture that forbid deception, slander, and gossip, and yet they never give it a thought as they keep on doing these things!

C. We are prone to invent God in our own image so that we don’t have to deal with our sins.

God says (50:21), “These things you have done and I kept silence; you thought that I was just like you.” They mistook God’s patience for His approval of their evil deeds. So they also mistakenly thought that God was “a good ol’ boy,” just like them! Since He hadn’t judged them, He must not mind a dirty joke or two. He understands that we all have to tell lies once in a while. Since their “god” was just like they were, they could go on living in sin, just as they had been doing. It’s safe to say that if your “god” is just like you are, then he isn’t the God of the Bible!

Then God gives a final appeal to both groups:

4. If we live in view of the coming judgment, we will not forget God and we will worship and obey Him from the heart (50:22-23).

God begins with the disobedient hypocrites (50:22): “Now consider this, you who forget God, or I will tear you in pieces, and there will be none to deliver.” God hits these hypocrites hard, because otherwise they will deride all correction. But His direct confrontation is at the same time “a remarkable proof” of His grace “in extending the hope of mercy” to such corrupt sinners (Calvin, p. 279). But they need to respond quickly because the door of mercy may not always stand open. Like a fierce lion, the Lord may tear them to pieces and it will be too late.

To those that repent, God shows the way to live (50:23), “He who offers a sacrifice of thanksgiving honors Me; and to him who orders his way aright I shall show the salvation of God.” Or, as the NIV translates, “He who sacrifices thank offerings honors me, and he prepares the way so that I may show him the salvation of God.” In other words, by sincerely offering thank offerings, we honor God and prepare the way to experience further instances of God’s salvation or deliverance.

The problem with the rebellious hypocrites was that they forgot God (50:22). But the ritualists were not much different, in that they did not acknowledge God’s many blessings by offering Him a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Calvin (p. 280) applies verse 23 by saying, “We do not assign that importance to the duty of praise which it deserves. We are apt to neglect it as something trivial, and altogether commonplace; whereas it constitutes the chief exercise of godliness, in which God would have us to be engaged during the whole of our life.” He adds (pp. 280-281), “There must be an experience of the goodness of the Lord before our mouths can be opened to praise him for it, and this goodness can only be experienced by faith.”

Conclusion

An American newspaper asked William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, what he regarded as the chief dangers ahead for the twentieth century. He replied tersely, “Religion without the Holy Ghost, Christianity without Christ, forgiveness without repentance, salvation without regeneration, politics without God and heaven without hell” (The War Cry, Jan. 5, 1901, p. 7, cited by Iain Murray, The Old Evangelicalism [Banner of Truth], p. xi). Booth succinctly described religion (or ritual) without reality. Psalm 50 warns, make sure that this doesn’t describe you! When we stand before God, what will matter is not that we’ve performed religious rituals, but that we have worshiped and obeyed God from the heart.

Application Questions

  1. What are some “Protestant rituals” that we’re prone to? How can we keep our hearts right before God in these matters?
  2. Is it hypocrisy or ritualism to obey God when we don’t feel like it? Why/Why not? How can we get our feelings right?
  3. Do you agree that we should avoid making many vows to God? Why/why not? When are vows legitimate?
  4. Since we’re prone to dodge the hard commandments of God’s Word, how can we avoid this?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2009, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Psalm 57: Singing In The Cave

Elizabeth Elliot lost her first husband, Jim Elliot, when he and four other men were martyred as they tried to take the gospel to the hostile Auca tribe. She lost her second husband, Addison Leitch, to cancer.

In an address to the Urbana Missions Conference (December, 1976) she told of being in Wales and watching a shepherd and his dog. The dog would herd the sheep up a ramp and into a tank of antiseptic in which they had to be bathed to protect them from parasites. As soon as they would come up out of the tank, the shepherd would grab the rams by the horns and fling them back into the tank and hold them under the antiseptic for a few more seconds. Mrs. Elliot asked the shepherd’s wife if the sheep understood what was happening. “They haven’t got a clue,” she said.

Mrs. Elliot said, “I’ve had some experiences in my life that have made me feel very sympathetic to those poor rams‑‑I couldn’t figure out any reason for the treatment I was getting from the Shepherd I trusted. And He didn’t give a hint of explanation.”

If you’ve been a Christian for very long, you’ve been there. The Shepherd you trusted threw you into some circumstances that were quite unpleasant and you didn’t have a clue as to why He was doing it. David had been there. In fact he wrote Psalm 57 out of the depths of just such an experience. When he was a teenager, David had been anointed as king to replace the disobedient King Saul. Then he slew the giant Goliath and was thrust into instant national fame. But King Saul’s jealous rage sent David running for his life. He spent the better part of his twenties dodging Saul’s repeated attempts on his life.

The title tells us that he wrote this psalm “when he fled from Saul, in the cave.” Caves are interesting places to visit once in a while. The lights show all the beautiful formations. But David didn’t have electric lights. He was hiding, so he probably didn’t even keep his torches burning.

Even with lights, I wouldn’t want to live in a cave, especially if there was a hostile army outside seeking to kill me! If I were holed up in a cave, hiding from a madman and his army, and if God had promised me something that didn’t seem to be coming true, about the last thing I would be doing would be writing praise songs. Yet, here is David, singing in the cave! And he’s not singing the blues! He’s exalting the Lord! He has something to teach us about how we are to think and act in those times when we’re holed up in a cave, when God’s promises don’t seem true.

David must have wondered, “God, why are You allowing this to happen to me? You anointed me as king; I didn’t choose the job. Why don’t You remove Saul and put me in office?” But Psalm 57 shows us that David understood something deeper. Although, he may not have realized why God was allowing him to suffer, he did understand what God wanted from him in his suffering. David understood that to ask the question “Why?” in the midst of suffering is to ask the wrong question. The proper question to ask is, “God, what do You want from my life in the midst of this trial and as a result of this trial?” The answer is, “God wants to be glorified.” That’s the theme of Psalm 57 (note the refrain, verses 5 & 11):

God’s glory should be our aim at all times, but especially in a time of trial.

What does it mean to glorify God? The Hebrew word (kabod) has the idea of weight, heaviness, worthiness, reputation, honor. It was used of men to describe a man of substance or weight. We use it in a similar way when we say, “He’s a heavyweight in his field.” We mean, “This guy has substance; he must be reckoned with.” When kabod was applied to God, it referred to His intrinsic worth. It means that God is worthy of all honor because of who He is, a God who is perfect in all of His attributes and ways. Thus to glorify God is to ascribe honor and praise to God for who He is and for what He has done. It means to show forth His excellencies, to exalt Him. In more crude language, to glorify God means to make Him look good as He really is through my life.

The apostle Paul said, “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). He meant, “Let the promotion of God’s glory or honor be your aim in all that you do. Strive in everything to act in such a way that others may praise and honor the God whom you profess to serve because they have seen His attributes shining through your life.” That should be our aim at all times, but especially in a time of trial. How do we do that? David shows us two ways:

1. God is glorified as we trust Him in our trials (57:1‑6).

Although the word “trust” doesn’t occur in verses 1‑6, it is the main idea. Trusting in the Lord has come to be viewed as a bit of nice, but totally useless, advice for someone who is in a trial. But it is not useless; it is some of the most practical and sound counsel we can follow when we’re in a difficult situation. So we need to understand what it means to trust the Lord.

A. Trust involves relying upon God alone (57:1).

David describes his trust as taking refuge in God. He uses the picture of baby chicks which take refuge under their mother’s wings when a predator threatens them. They are entrusting their lives to their mother’s protection. During the 1950’s, when the cold war with Russia was at its peak and the threat of nuclear war seemed imminent, a number of Americans built bomb shelters in their backyards. Taking refuge in such a shelter implies complete trust on the part of the person going into it. He is entrusting his very life to those walls to protect him from death. In the same way, we are to take refuge in God. We are to entrust ourselves to Him, depending upon Him to protect us.

Relying upon God alone means that we consciously do not rely upon two things:

(1) We do not rely on human merit. “Be gracious to me, O God, be gracious to me.” God’s grace or mercy refers to His undeserved favor. It’s one of the most difficult concepts for our proud hearts to grasp. I find that many who profess to know Christ do not understand the concept of God’s grace. This is reflected in the fact that they try to come to God on the basis of their own goodness: “God, I’ve been extra good lately. I’ve read my Bible and gone to church and I even tithed this month. Now, here’s what I want You to do ....” Or they ask, “Why this trial, God, when I’ve been so good?” They think God owes them something. That’s not trusting in God alone. That’s trusting in human merit. The only way to approach God is through grace.

(2) We do not rely on human means. Here David is, hiding in a cave. But he didn’t see the cave as his refuge, but God. He saw beyond the cave to the Lord. The point is, David hid in the cave, but he didn’t trust in the cave, but in the Lord.

You may think I’m quibbling over minutiae, but I contend that as American Christians, we are too heavily oriented toward methods. Hardly a week goes by without my receiving a flyer in the mail urging me to attend some seminar that is guaranteed to build my church. Some of the methods taught at these seminars are okay, while others are just slick business techniques applied to the church. As long as our methods are in harmony with Scripture, we are generally free to use them. But--and here is the crucial issue--we must be very careful not to trust in any method, but to rely on the Lord so that He gets the glory.

Also it needs to be pointed out that there are times when it is wrong to use any method, where we just need to wait on God to act on our behalf. On one occasion when David was being pursued by Saul, David and his men were in the inner part of a cave when Saul, not knowing they were in there, went in the cave to “cover his feet” (i.e., sit on the toilet). David’s men said, “David, the Lord has delivered your enemy into your hand. Go kill him!” David crept up and quietly cut a small piece off Saul’s robe. Even at that his conscience bothered him. His men thought he was crazy. “Why didn’t you kill him? God delivered him into your hands and you just cut off a piece of his robe!”

But David said, “Far be it from me because of the Lord that I should do this thing to my lord, the Lord’s anointed ...” (1 Sam. 24:6). David trusted that the Lord would remove Saul without David’s help (Ps. 57:2‑3). It would have been wrong in that situation for David to help God out by killing Saul, even though David knew that it was God’s will to depose Saul and give the throne to David.

When is it okay to use human means and when is it wrong? Search the Scriptures for examples. It is always wrong to rely on human means, and sometimes it is wrong even to use human means. Perhaps the real issue is, Who will get the glory if I use these human means? I would rather err on the side of going light on methods and heavy on trusting God. Then God gets the glory.

B. Trust involves going to God in prayer (57:1‑2).

Prayer is the language of trust. This psalm is primarily a prayer. Prayer is an acknowledgment that our need is not partial, but total. Prayer says to God and to anyone else around, “I am a dependent person. I am not self‑sufficient. I cannot handle this situation in my own strength, but only in Your strength, Lord!”

I heard Chuck Miller, a pastor, tell of an incident that happened while he was ministering in the Baltimore area. He had the opportunity to speak to the Orioles baseball team while they were in the playoffs against the Twins. He wanted to give the players a copy of a book he had written, but he didn’t have enough copies with him. One of the players who was a Christian told Chuck to drop the books off at the team office and he would see that the players received them.

By the time Chuck took the books to the office, the Orioles were in the World Series. Chuck prayed, “Lord, it would sure be great to get some World Series tickets for my boys.” So he said to the secretary, “There wouldn’t happen to be any series tickets available, would there?” She did some checking and managed to come up with three box seats, one for Chuck and each of his two boys.

At the dinner table that night, Chuck easily could have gotten the glory for himself: “Guess what your Dad managed to do today, kids?” Or, he could have given the glory to luck: “Wow, was I lucky today!” But instead, he wanted to teach his boys something about prayer, and so God got the glory. He said, “I was praying that God would provide some World Series tickets, and He did!” Trust means going to God in prayer and that way God gets the glory.

C. Trust involves seeing God as greater than my problems (57:4-6).

David describes his situation in poetic language here. It’s as though he is surrounded by lions or fire-breathing dragons or those whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords. They’re out to get David, he’s outnumbered, and it just seems like a matter of time until he is caught in their net.

But right in the midst of enumerating his problems, you hit verse 5. It seems out of place. It would have fit at the end of verse 6 to close the stanza, after David’s realization that his enemy’s schemes would come back on them. But the verse jars you where it is. Why is it there?

I think that in the midst of his problems, David suddenly realizes that God is bigger than his problems! Trust is only as good as its object, and a trustworthy object inspires trust. But sometimes it takes intense trials to get us to look to the Lord and discover how trustworthy He is.

We see this illustrated in the history of Israel. When God brought them out of Egypt, Israel saw their problems as bigger than their God. God had just delivered them from Egypt by performing a series of stupendous miracles, culminating in the parting of the Red Sea. The next thing you read is that they went three days into the wilderness and found no water (Exod. 15:22). As you read that, you’re inclined to say, “So what? The God who has done all these miracles can provide water!” But what did Israel do? They grumbled and complained, because they saw their problems as bigger than their God.

Later, when Moses sent the spies into the land, the majority report was, “It’s a nice land, but there are giants there. We can’t conquer it.” And the people again complained and started looking for a leader to take them back to Egypt. They still saw their problems as bigger than their God. But Joshua and Caleb saw their God as bigger than their problems. They said, “Sure, there are giants; but the Lord is bigger than the giants. He will give us the land as He promised” (Num. 14:9).

The bigger your problem, the more opportunity there is for God to be glorified as you trust Him with the problem. Can you think of anything too difficult for the Lord? If you see God as bigger than your problems, then you can trust Him and He will get the glory. God is glorified as we trust Him in our trials. Trust involves relying on God alone; going to Him in prayer; and, seeing Him as bigger than our problems. But David shows us a second way God can be glorified in our trials:

2. God is glorified as we praise Him in our trials (57:7-11).

So far as we can tell, David is still in the cave. Saul is still the king, still after David. David’s circumstances haven’t changed much, if at all. And yet instead of self-pity and complaining, David breaks forth in praise to God. He teaches us two things about praise:

A. Praise is a matter of deliberate focus (57:7-9).

Praise is not our natural response in a time of trial. Our natural response is to complain and get angry at God, or to get depressed. But even though David’s enemy had fixed a net to catch him (57:6), David had fixed his heart (57:7, same Hebrew root) to praise God. The repeated affirmations show that it was a matter of deliberate choice: “I will sing, yes, I will sing praises!”

Sometimes you need to praise God when you don’t feel like it. You may think, “Isn’t that hypocrisy?” No, it’s obedience. Hypocrisy doesn’t mean doing things you don’t feel like doing. If that’s what hypocrisy is, I’m a hypocrite every morning, because I get out of bed even though I don’t feel like it! Hypocrisy is trying to present a false impression to others so that you look better than you are. But praising God is a matter of obedience, and the test of obedience isn’t when you feel like obeying, but when you don’t.

The next time you’re going through a difficult trial and you’re depressed or overwhelmed, follow David’s lead and set your heart to praise God. Get out a hymn book or put on a praise tape and focus on the Lord by singing to Him.

B. Praise is a matter of testifying to others of God’s goodness (57:9-10).

David wants the nations (those who don’t know God) to hear his praise. Even though he’s going through extreme difficulty, he wants to sing about how good God is, so that others will hear and glorify God. David specifies two aspects of God’s goodness (which often occur together in other psalms): His lovingkindness and His truth, or faithfulness (57:3, 10).

“Lovingkindness” comes from the Hebrew word related to the stork. The Hebrews saw the loyal love of the stork for its young and said, “God’s love is like that, only greater.” He cares for and nurtures us with never-ending love.

“Truth” points to God’s faithfulness. He is consistent and trustworthy. He never fails His children. He may bring us into severe situations and sometimes even to premature death. But there is not a person in history who has trusted in the living God and been disappointed. Even those who have suffered greatly have testified to God’s abundant love and faithfulness which has sustained them. Paul’s desire as he was in prison, facing possible execution, should be ours, that “Christ shall even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death” (Phil. 1:20).

It is important that you focus your praise on God’s loyal love and faithfulness in a time of trial, because it is precisely those qualities which Satan tempts you to doubt at such a time. You will be tempted to think, “If God loves me, why is this happening to me?” But David’s voice comes singing from the cave, “God, Your lovingkindness is great to the heavens and Your truth to the clouds! Be exalted above the heavens, O God; let Your glory be above all the earth.”

Conclusion

It’s important not just that our individual worship, but also that our corporate worship be a vigorous testimony of God’s glory. If someone who doesn’t know God comes into our midst, he should be able to tell from our praise that we worship a great God who is loving and faithful.

Pastor John MacArthur (The Ultimate Priority [Moody Press], p. 156) tells about a Jewish woman who went to a synagogue near MacArthur’s church for counsel because her marriage was breaking up. She was told that they couldn’t counsel her until she had paid her dues. She was upset by this. It was on a Sunday, and as she drove away, she got caught in the crowd going to Grace Community Church and ended up in the service. She was so overwhelmed with the atmosphere of worship that she trusted Christ as her Savior and was baptized a few weeks later. She later told MacArthur that she didn’t remember much about his sermon, but she was absolutely in awe of the joy and peace and love that exuded from the people as they worshiped. She had never seen anything like it. Their praise led her to salvation.

What is your focus or aim in life, especially in a time of trial? If your aim is your own happiness, to escape as quickly as you can from your pain, you are living for the wrong thing. That’s what those in the world live for. If your aim is to glorify and exalt God by trusting and praising Him even in the midst of trials, you’ve found God’s purpose for your life. The Puritans had it right: Our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. If you’ll focus on that purpose, He will give you a song even from the cave!

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some practical ramifications if our focus shifts from God’s glory to human happiness?
  2. How can we know where to draw the line between using effective methods and “raw” faith?
  3. Is praising God when you don’t feel like it hypocrisy or a matter of obedience?
  4. A Christian who has just lost a child bitterly asks, “How can a good God allow this?” What would you say?

Copyright 1993, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Psalm 62: God Only

In 1777, Dr. William Dodd, a London clergyman, was condemned to be hanged for forgery. When his last sermon, delivered in prison, was published, a friend commented to Samuel Johnson that the effort was far better than he had thought the man capable of. Dr. Johnson replied, “Depend upon it, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

The difficulty with applying Psalm 62 is that very few of us have ever been in the desperate straits that David was in and so we cannot truly relate to what he says here. Evil men were threatening David’s life and scheming how, not only to topple him as king, but also how to kill him.

A few times in the past 32 years, people have tried to get me fired. But I’ve always joked to Marla, “At least they’re only after my job. So far no one has threatened my life!” But they were trying to murder David. They were saying, “He’s like a leaning wall or tottering fence. Just push and he’ll go down!” Under that real threat of death, David’s mind was wonderfully concentrated to write this psalm. The message is:

In life’s most threatening times, you will be at peace if God alone is your salvation and refuge.

The main theme of the psalm is the right and wrong objects of faith. If we trust in God, we’re secure. If we trust in men or in things, we’re depending on that which is lighter than breath (62:9). Interestingly, even though David was in a life-threatening situation, the psalm contains no prayer. H. C. Leupold writes (Exposition of Psalms [Baker], p. 459), “There is scarcely another psalm that reveals such an absolute and undisturbed peace, in which confidence in God is so completely unshaken, and in which assurance is so strong that not even one single petition is voiced throughout the psalm.” Of course, David experienced this peace through prayer, and he exhorts God’s people to pour out their hearts before Him (62:8). All of us want to have this same peace that David had in this crisis. At the heart of his peace is his confident trust in God alone.

The word only, which translates a little Hebrew particle, is also a recurring theme in this psalm. It occurs six times, four in reference to God (62:1, 2, 5, 6; also in 4, 9). Each time it begins the sentence for emphasis. The word itself conveys emphasis and may be translated in different ways, depending on the context (Theological Word Book of the Old Testament, by R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke [Moody Press], 1:39). Sometimes it is translated “but.” Calvin here prefers “nevertheless” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on Ps. 62, pp. 417-418). It sometimes means “surely” or “certainly.”

But the most authoritative Hebrew lexicon and most modern translations translate it in Psalm 62 as “only” or “alone” (A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, by Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs [Oxford, 1977], p. 36). Thus by repetition, David hammers home the concept that we will enjoy God’s peace in the midst of life’s most threatening moments when God only—God alone—is our salvation and refuge. Since we all struggle to get to that place—and as we’ll see in the psalm, David himself struggled to remain there—I’ll try to focus on how to come to that place of complete trust in God.

The psalm falls into three stanzas, the first two ending with “Selah.” The first section (62:1-4) we may label “Composure in threatening times.” The second section (62:5-8) is “Composure reaffirmed.” The final section (62:9-12) is “Contrast,” where David shows us what not to trust in and whom to trust in.

1. Composure: In threatening times, you can be at peace if God is your salvation and refuge (62:1-4).

While David begins with his calm waiting on God (62:1-2), it’s helpful to work our way back by looking first at the fierce enemies that were threatening him:

A. You will face times when you’re under attack (62:3-4).

Some think that David wrote this psalm in the context of Absalom’s rebellion, but we can’t know for sure. The attacks seem to have been prolonged, as seen by David’s cry, “How long?” The New King James Version translates verse 3b, “You shall be slain, all of you, like a leaning wall and a tottering fence,” making it David’s words against his enemies. But the ancient versions and most modern versions take it as David’s enemies’ words against him (Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72 [IVP], p. 221). They were counseling together how to thrust him down from his role as king by assassinating him. They were spreading falsehoods and using flattery, telling him that he was a great king, while inwardly cursing him.

Hopefully you’ll never have anyone plotting to kill you! But if you’re in any kind of leadership position, whether in the church or in business, you will have times when you’re under attack. You’ll be criticized and slandered. I’ve known pastors that left the ministry because they couldn’t handle the criticism that inevitably goes with the job. But the Bible never promises exemption from such attacks. Rather, it shows us what to do when you’re under attack.

B. When you’re under attack, make God alone your salvation and refuge (62:1-2).

David begins (61:1a), “My soul waits in silence for God only.” Calvin (p. 418) helpfully explains what David means by “silence”: “The silence intended is, in short, that composed submission of the believer, in the exercise of which he acquiesces in the promises of God, gives place to his word, bows to his sovereignty, and suppresses every inward murmur of dissatisfaction.”

The key word there is submission. When difficult things happen to us, we can either angrily complain to God, “I don’t deserve such treatment!” Or, we can submit to Him, agreeing with His promises, giving supremacy to His Word, bowing before His sovereignty, and suppressing our tendency to grumble. I can’t think of a more remarkable demonstration of this than that of Job. When God inexplicably took his possessions, his ten children, and his health, Job humbly proclaimed (Job 1:21b), “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” While the rest of the book of Job shows how he wrestled through his pain and his complaints against God, by the end of the book we find Job again in a posture of worship, bowing before God’s sovereign hand (Job 40:4-5; 42:1-6). So, humbling yourself “under the mighty hand of God” (1 Pet. 5:6) is a key element in experiencing God’s peace when you’re under attack.

David adds (62:1b-2), “from Him is my salvation. He only is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold; I shall not be greatly shaken.” In this context, salvation refers to God’s deliverance from David’s enemies. And yet we’re not amiss if, with C. H. Spurgeon, we apply this to God being the only source of our salvation from sin and judgment. He preached two sermons on this psalm. In one (“God Alone the Salvation of His People,” Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 2:210) he writes, “If anyone should ask us what we would choose for our motto, as preachers of the gospel, we think we should reply, ‘God only is our salvation.’” He goes on to say that this sentence is the sum and substance of Calvinism (which he held to, as do I), to say that salvation is of the Lord. Then he adds,

I cannot find in Scripture any other doctrine than this. It is the essence of the Bible…. Tell me anything that departs from this and it will be a heresy; tell me a heresy, and I shall find its essence here, that it has departed from this great, this fundamental, this rocky truth, “God is my rock and my salvation.”

I said at the outset that most of us cannot relate to this psalm because we’ve never been in the desperate situation David was in, where fierce enemies threatened our lives. While that’s true physically, it’s not true spiritually. The Bible teaches that we all were born spiritually dead into Satan’s domain of darkness (Eph. 2:1). We were in danger of eternal separation from God if we should die in that condition. Well then, how did this change? Paul explains (Eph. 2:8-9), “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

My point is this: If God alone is your salvation from eternal death, if He raised you from death to life and gave you the faith to believe in Jesus Christ, then you also can take refuge in Him from less threatening trials. As Paul puts it in Romans 8:31-32, “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” So if you know God as your only source of salvation from sin, then when problems hit, submit yourself to His sovereign hand and trust God alone as your salvation and refuge from the problems.

2. Composure reaffirmed: When God is your only source of salvation, you can rest secure in Him (62:5-8).

In verses 5-7, David repeats what he already said in verses 1-2, with a few variations. Why does he do this? In verses 3 & 4, he has been thinking about his enemies and the extreme threat that they represented. So, he may have been a little bit shaken (not, greatly shaken, v. 2). Calvin (p. 422) explains, “Here it is to be remembered, that our minds can never be expected to reach such perfect composure as shall preclude every inward feeling of disquietude, but are, at the best, as the sea before a light breeze, fluctuating sensibly, though not swollen into billows.” In other words, we never reach a place of perfect composure, where severe trials don’t affect us. And so we have to fight to regain our peace in God. But how?

A. Repeat these truths as often as you waver due to the attacks of the enemy (62:5-7).

First, David talks to himself (“My soul”). They say that talking to yourself is a sign of senility, but the Bible often tells us to do this very thing. In Psalms 42 & 43, the psalmist repeats (42:5, 11; 43:5) the refrain (43:5), “Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why are you disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God.” The opening chapter of Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ wonderful book, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure [Eerdmans], is on Psalm 42. He asks (p. 20), “Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself?” He goes on to explain that rather than just going along with the thoughts that come to you in the morning, which bring back all of the problems of yesterday, you’ve got to take yourself in hand, preach to yourself, and question yourself. You ask yourself, “Why are you cast down?” Then you exhort yourself to hope in God. Lloyd-Jones continues (p. 21),

And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, Who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do. Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil and the whole world, and say with this man: “I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance, who is also the health of my countenance and my God.”

That’s exactly what David does in Psalm 62. He piles up description after description of who God is. After telling himself to wait in silence for God only (62:5), he adds (62:5b-6), “for my hope is from Him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold; I shall not be moved.” This time he does not say, “I shall not be greatly shaken” (62:2), but he advances to, “I shall not be moved” at all! Then he goes over it again (62:7), “On God my salvation and my glory rest; the rock of my strength, my refuge is in God.”

Don’t miss the pronoun my (9 times in vv. 5-7!). Also, God is either directly named or referred to with the pronouns Him or He five times in these verses. David knew God personally as his hope, his rock, his salvation, his stronghold, his strength, and his refuge. If we want His peace in severe trials, we must know God personally and experientially as our God and remind ourselves of who He is.

So the point is, David is fighting here, while under these life-threatening attacks, to put these comforting truths front and center in his mind. Calvin astutely notes (p. 424),

One expression is here heaped upon another, and this apparently because he wished to rein that infirmity of disposition which makes us so prone to slide into wrong exercise. We may throw out a passing and occasional acknowledgment, that our only help is to be found in God, and yet shortly display our distrust in him by busying ourselves in all directions to supplement what we consider defective in his aid.

Isn’t that so true! We say we’re trusting in God alone, but then we quickly scheme how to deliver ourselves, rather than waiting on Him! It’s not that it’s wrong to think about how to get out of a difficult trial, or to use methods to do so. In fact, more often than not we should use plans and methods in dependence on Him. But it’s wrong to give God a token nod of trust and then set Him aside while really we trust in our schemes and methods. Rather, with David we must fight to make God our only source of deliverance: “He only is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold.” Then, “I shall not be shaken” (62:6). If we trust in plans and methods we’ll fail. But if God only is our rock, we will stand firm.

B. Use your peace through trials to encourage others to trust in God alone as their refuge (62:8).

David can’t contain the joy of knowing God as his salvation, so he writes (62:8), “Trust in Him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before Him; God is a refuge for us.” What a wonderful verse! Sadly, I’ve heard supposedly Christian psychologists say that it is useless, pat advice to tell hurting people to trust in God. I don’t know what Bible they were reading! David isn’t giving out pat, useless advice! He’s telling us how he endured this terrible attack on his life by these fierce, cunning enemies. He trusted in God; he poured out his heart to God; he took refuge in God. He’s telling us to do the same. What God was to David in his extreme trial, He can be to you in your crisis.

How does pouring out your heart to God (62:8) fit with waiting silently for Him (62:1, 5)? Obviously, they’re not contradictory. Waiting silently for God only, as we’ve seen, is to put our hearts in submission to His sovereign love in the face of trials that seem to contradict either His sovereignty or His love. It’s an attitude of trustful submission. Pouring out our hearts is to unburden ourselves in prayer, where we empty all of our anxieties and confusion and pain onto the Lord, while still remaining in submission to His sovereign love. As 1 Peter 5:7 puts it, “casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.”

Calvin (p. 425) points out how prone we all are to keep our troubles pent up in our hearts until we’re driven to despair. We show much anxiety and ingenuity in seeking to escape our troubles without God. But in so doing, he says, we only get ourselves into “a labyrinth of difficulties.” The answer is to pour out our hearts before Him, taking refuge in Him, because He cares for us.

David has shown us that we can be composed or at peace if God alone is our salvation and refuge. He has reaffirmed it, showing that it is usually a battle to get to this place and remain there in the face of difficult trials. He concludes with a contrast, showing us what not to trust and repeating again who to trust:

3. Contrast: Do not trust in men, in crime, or in riches, but rather trust in the God of power and love (62:9-12).

In the first stanza, David looked at his enemies primarily in relation to himself, so that he was acutely aware of the danger that he was in. He was like a leaning wall. Here, he looks at them in relation to the powerful, loving God, who is his stronghold. By comparison, these supposedly dangerous men are “lighter than breath” (insights from James Boice, Psalms 42-106 [Baker], p. 513).

A. Do not trust in men, in crime, or in riches (62:9-10).

“Men of low degree are only vanity, and men of rank are a lie; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than breath” (62:9). Derek Kidner (p. 223) says that the point here “is not so much that we have nothing to fear from man (as in 27:1ff.), as that we have nothing to hope from him.” So, by implication, don’t trust in men, whether in men of low degree (thugs who can knock off your enemies) or high degree (men of influence or power), because you’re putting your hope in thin air!

Also, David goes on to say that we should not put our trust in oppression or vainly hope in robbery. Even if you gain riches through legitimate means, he adds (62:10b), “do not set your heart upon them.” Kidner (ibid.) astutely observes that “absorption with riches counts as no less perilous than a life of crime.” Most of us probably aren’t tempted to use oppression or robbery to get out of our trials, but we may be tempted to trust in money. But (Prov. 11:4), “Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death.”

B. Rather, trust in the God of power and love, knowing that He will render justice to all (62:11-12).

“Once God has spoken; twice I have heard this: that power belongs to God; and lovingkindness is Yours, O Lord, for You recompense a man according to his work.” The “once, twice language is a common Hebrew poetic device. Here it probably means that God repeated the answer or impressed it upon David more than once to drive the point home. Matthew Henry (Matthew Henry’s Commentary [Revell], 3:467) says, “To some God speaks twice and they will not hear once; but to others he speaks but once, and they hear twice.” Make sure that you hear twice God’s answer for how to deal with threatening problems: First, God is powerful; second, He is loving. Therefore, He will justly judge all of our enemies. If anyone opposes God’s power and resists His love, he will know His justice.

Satan always attacks either or both of these truths when we face trials. He tempts you with the thought that if God is all-powerful, He could have prevented these trials. So, He must not love you. This is where by faith we have to join Joseph, who told his brothers who had sold him into slavery (Gen. 50:20), “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good….” By faith, affirm both God’s power and His love.

Conclusion

Years ago, we knew a young family in Dallas with two children and a third on the way. At seven months along, the wife became deathly ill. The doctors finally decided that they would deliver the premature baby by C-section and then attempt to save the mother’s life. Thankfully, everything came out well. The baby and the mother both survived. But during the height of the crisis, the wife’s parents, who were not believers, thought that their son-in-law must not really love their daughter, because he was so calm. He explained to them that he loved her dearly, but he was trusting in the Lord, who gives His peace to those who trust Him.

The main reason that we should “fight” for God’s peace in threatening times is not so that we will be at peace, but so that God will be glorified and others will be drawn to Him through us. God’s peace comes to us in life’s threatening times when He alone is our salvation and refuge.

Application Questions

  1. Are some more bio-chemically disposed to anxiety than others are? How does this psalm apply to them? Is it wrong to take medication to control the anxiety?
  2. Why is it important to keep in mind that the goal is not our peace, but God’s glory?
  3. How do we explain those that trusted in God and yet were martyred? How does their experience fit with this psalm?
  4. Where is the proper balance between trusting in God alone versus using plans and methods for deliverance?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2009, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Psalm 63: Seeking After God

If you had to pick a single word to describe our society, perhaps the most accurate word would be pressure. We live in a day marked by pressure in almost every area of life. At five years old we are thrust into school where there is pressure to perform and to compete for grades. We join athletic teams where there is more pressure to excel. We face the pressure of getting into college and once we’re there, of making it through. Then there is the pressure of getting a good job and, once we get it, of doing well enough to keep it and be promoted.

There are family pressures: finding the right mate and building a solid marriage in a culture where divorce is easy and accepted. There are the pressures of raising godly children in our pagan society. World problems, economic problems, personal problems, and the problems of friends and loved ones all press upon us.

In the midst of such pressures, there is one thing that will determine the course of your life: your priorities. Everyone has a set of priorities. If your priorities are not clearly defined, you will be swept downstream in life by various pressures, the seeming victim of your circumstances. But if your priorities are clear, then you can respond to your pressures by making choices in line with your priorities, and thereby give direction to your life.

Thus it is crucial that you have the right priorities. Your priorities determine how you spend your time, with whom you spend your time, and how you make decisions. Your priorities keep you from being battered around by the waves of pressure and help you to steer a clear course toward the proper destination. Priorities—godly priorities—are crucial!

King David was a man who knew what it meant to live under pressure. As the king of Israel, he knew the pressures of leadership. The higher and more responsible the leadership position, the greater are the pressures. And David knew the pressure of problems. During his reign, his son, Absalom, led a rebellion against him. David and his loyal followers had to flee for their lives. During that time David spent a short while in the northeastern portion of the wilderness of Judah before he crossed over the Jordan River. In that barren land, fleeing for his life from his own son, feeling disgraced and rejected, with an uncertain future, David penned Psalm 63.

It is one of the most well-loved psalms. John Chrysostom (347-407) wrote “that it was decreed and ordained by the primitive [church] fathers, that no day should pass without the public singing of this Psalm.” He also observed that “the spirit and soul of the whole Book of Psalms is contracted into this Psalm” (cited by J. J. Stewart Perowne, The Book of Psalms, [Zondervan], p. 486). In fact, the ancient church had the practice of beginning the singing of the Psalms at each Sunday service with Psalm 63, called “the morning hymn” (Commentary on the Old Testament, C. F. Keil & Franz Delitzsch, [Eerdmans], p. 212).

Psalm 63 shows us the priority of this man of God under pressure. If you or I were under the kinds of pressure David faced at this point in his life, I doubt if we would be writing songs. If we did, the song would probably contain a lot of urgent requests: “Help, God! Get me out of here!” David did write a song like that (Psalm 3). But it is interesting that Psalm 63 contains no petition (Perowne, p. 487). David expresses longing for God’s presence, praise, joy, fellowship with God, confidence in God’s salvation. But there is not one word of asking for temporal or even spiritual blessings. Derek Kidner (Psalms 1-72 [IVP], pp. 224-226) nicely outlines it as “God my desire” (1-4); “God my delight” (5-8); and, “God my defense” (9-11). The psalm shows us that David’s priority was to seek the Lord.

Seeking after God should be our most important priority.

No matter what pressures come into your life, you will be able to handle them properly if you maintain this one priority above all else: Earnestly seek after God! I want to answer from Psalm 63 three questions about seeking after God:

  1. What does it mean to seek after God?
  2. What does the person look like who seeks after God?
  3. How does a person seek after God?

1. What does it mean to seek after God?

Psalm 63 allows us to peer into the heart of this man after God’s own heart. It’s an emotional psalm, coming out of the depths of David’s life, and it would be an injustice to pick the psalm apart while missing the feeling that it conveys. But while keeping the depth of feeling in mind, it is helpful to separate out three strands of what it means to seek after God:

A. To seek after God means to have an intimate personal relationship with God (63:1).

“O God, You are my God.” David knew God in an intimate, personal way. There is a vast difference between knowing about a person and actually knowing that person. You can learn a lot about President Obama. You can read news articles and books on his life. You can learn all about his personality, his personal habits, and his family life. But it is still not the same as knowing him personally.

To know the President personally would require an introduction or occasion to meet, and then spending hours with him over a long period of time in many situations. As the relationship developed you would begin to discover more and more about the man, not from an academic standpoint, but as a close friend.

That’s how it must be with God, if you want to seek Him. There must have been a time when you met Him personally through Jesus Christ. Jesus said (John 17:3), “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent.” Your introduction to God comes when you turn from your sin to God and trust in Jesus Christ and His death on your behalf. He gives you eternal life as His free gift.

And then you must develop your relationship by spending time with your new Friend through the weeks and months and years in a variety of situations. “Seeking after God” means that you are seeking to develop an intimate relationship with the God whom you have met personally through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

B. To seek after God means always to desire more of Him (63:1).

David said, “I shall seek you earnestly; my soul thirsts for You; my flesh yearns for You....” Didn’t David have the Lord? Yes, because he calls Him “my God.” But he wanted more. He wanted to go deeper. He was satisfied (63:5), but he wasn’t satisfied. He knew that there was more and his whole being craved it as a thirsty man in the desert craves for water.

The word translated “seek earnestly” is related etymologically to the word for “dawn,” and thus some translations have “seek early.” But most commentators agree that the word means earnestly, ardently, or diligently. It was used of wild donkeys looking eagerly for food. The point is, to seek after God means to go after God with an intense desire.

A young man ran after Socrates, calling, “Socrates, Socrates, can I be your disciple?” Socrates ignored him and walked out into the water. The man followed him and repeated the question. Socrates turned and without a word grabbed the young man and dunked him under the water and held him down until he knew that he couldn’t take it any longer. The man came up gasping for air. Socrates replied, “When you desire the truth as much as you seek air, you can be my disciple.”

How much do you desire to know God? A. W. Tozer, in his devotional classic, The Pursuit of God ([Christian Publications], pp. 15, 17), wrote,

Come near to the holy men and women of the past and you will soon feel the heat of their desire after God. They mourned for Him, they prayed and wrestled and sought for Him day and night, in season and out, and when they had found Him, the finding was all the sweeter for the long seeking…. Complacency is a deadly foe of all spiritual growth.

To seek after God means that there is always more, because God is an infinite person. If you figure that you’ve reached a level of maturity in your Christian life where you can put it in neutral and coast, you’re in trouble! David had walked with God for years, but he thirsted for more.

C. To seek after God means to pursue God alone to fill the vacuum in your life.

Many of us remember the day President Nixon resigned over the Watergate scandal. One day he was the leader of the most powerful nation on earth. The next day, he flew off into oblivion and disgrace. Even if we thought he deserved what happened to him, we could still identify with the emptiness, the shame, the wave of depression which must have enveloped Mr. Nixon.

David was there. He has fled from the throne. He left his possessions and his wives behind him. His own son whom he loved was attempting to kill him. And yet in all of this, David wasn’t seeking for any of those things to fill the vacuum in his life. He wasn’t praying, “O God, give me my wives back. Give me my palace back. Give me my kingdom back.” But rather, he prayed, “I shall seek You”; “my soul thirsts for You”; “my flesh yearns for You”; “Your love is better than life.” What amazing statements!

The fact is, it’s easy to fill your life with things other than God. They may be good things, but they are not God, and God alone can satisfy your soul. For example, many people fill their lives with family and friends. On Sunday, they usually give God an hour, but He isn’t the center of their lives; people are. People are good, and human relationships are a blessing from God. But we should not try to fill the vacuum in our lives with people, but with God.

Others try to fill their lives with possessions or with a successful and satisfying career. Again, those things have their place, but they are not meant to satisfy your soul. God alone can do that. To seek Him means to pursue Him alone to fill that God-shaped vacuum in your life.

Thus seeking after God means to have an intimate personal relationship with Him; always to desire more of Him; and, to pursue God alone to fill the vacuum in your life.

2. What does the person look like who seeks after God?

I only want to touch lightly on this question so that I can concentrate on the third question. But I want you to see that a person who seeks after God is not a religious mystic who is out of touch with reality. Putting God in the center of your life gives you balance and perspective in the crises of life. Notice, briefly four things which characterize the person who seeks the Lord:

A. The person who seeks after God has inner satisfaction (63:5).

“My soul is satisfied as with marrow and fatness….” He is never complacent, but satisfied. David’s soul was at rest. Even in the middle of a calamity such as this rebellion, which would push many to fall apart emotionally, David had inner peace and calm. Just as you feel physically after eating a delicious prime rib dinner, so David felt spiritually after feasting on the Lord. He was satisfied in God.

B. The person who seeks after God has inner joy (63:5, 7, 11).

“My mouth offers praises with joyful lips” (63:5b). “In the shadow of Your wings I sing for joy” (63:7b). “But the king will rejoice in God… (63:11). David had a joy not based on circumstances. His whole world was falling apart, but he had the Lord and His loyal love, and so he could sing and rejoice in God. You can’t explain that apart from God!

C. The person who seeks after God has inner stability and strength in crisis (63:7-8).

“For You have been my help, and in the shadow of Your wings I sing for joy. My soul clings to You; Your right hand upholds me.” God was David’s help. David hid under God’s wing as a baby chick hides for protection under the mother hen’s wing. God’s powerful hand upheld and sustained David. He stayed steady in the storm because he had the inner resource of God’s strength.

D. The person who seeks after God has inner perspective and balance (63:9-11).

“But those who seek my life to destroy it, will go into the depths of the earth. They will be delivered over to the power of the sword; they will be a prey for jackals [lit.]. But the king will rejoice in God; everyone who swears by Him will glory, for the mouths of those who speak lies will be stopped.”

David wasn’t consumed with thoughts of getting even. As he considered his circumstances, he realized that God is just; God would judge fairly. The wicked would not prevail in the long run. Thus David could commit the situation to the Lord and act with the right perspective and balance: He would make it his business to rejoice in God, and let God deal with his enemies and vindicate him. He knew his calling (“king,” 63:11) and that God would not fail to accomplish all that concerned him (Ps. 57:2).

The point is, the person who seeks after God will be a person of strength and stability, a person with inner resources to meet every crisis in life. Now for the crucial question:

3. How does a person seek after God?

I’m assuming that you already know God personally through Christ. As I already mentioned, you begin a relationship with God when you realize that you have sinned against the holy God and when you flee for refuge to the provision God has made for your sin, the cross of Christ. No one seeks for God unless God first seeks after them (John 6:44; Rom. 3:11). Thus no one can boast; we have only received God’s undeserved gift. But once you’ve received it, how do you go on seeking after God? Three things:

A. You seek God by putting love for God at the center of your relationship with Him.

God’s lovingkindness (63:3) was better to David than life itself. Therefore, David says, “My soul clings to You; Your right hand upholds me” (63:8). What a beautiful balance! David clings to God, but underneath it all, God’s powerful hand is under David.

The Hebrew word translated “clings” points to loyalty related to affection. It’s the same word used in Genesis 2:24, where it says that a man will “cleave” to his wife. It is used to describe Ruth clinging to her mother-in-law (Ruth 1:14). She didn’t want to part from her (see also, 1 Kings 11:2; Gen. 34:3; 2 Sam. 20:2). The idea is loyalty related to strong feelings of affection.

Your relationship with the Lord is comparable to a marriage relationship. Marriage is a relationship where intense feelings of passion and a lifelong commitment are intertwined. When a couple falls in love, there are strong feelings, and there is nothing wrong with that. But a marriage cannot be built on feelings alone, but on commitment. The commitment carries you through the hard times when the feelings may fade. Sometimes you have to work at the romance (which sounds contradictory, but it’s not). But if there are never any feelings of love, your marriage is in trouble.

Seeking after God means keeping your passion for God alive. Christianity is not just a matter of the head, but of the heart. As you think on what God has done for you in Christ, it ought to move you emotionally. As you reflect on His great love and faithfulness toward you over the years, in spite of your failures, you ought to feel love for Him.

In your marriage, keeping your passion alive means saying no to some things in order to say yes to your wife. Your job, outside interests, time with other friends, and even your church involvement—these are all good things in their place. But they shouldn’t come before your marriage. In the same way, nothing, not even your marriage and family life, should come before your love relationship with God. That leads to the second thing:

B. You seek God by spending consistent time alone with Him.

David was under intense pressure as he fled from Absalom. He had to think about how all of his loyal followers who fled with him were going to get food and water in this barren wilderness. He had to be thinking constantly about their safety. And yet he did not neglect earnestly seeking God in this trying situation. There is a determination here: “I shall seek you earnestly” (63:1b). “My lips will praise You” (63:3b). “So I will bless You as long as I live; I will lift up my hands in Your name” (63:4). “My soul clings to You” (63:8a). David made it a priority to spend time alone with God.

We all make time to do what we really want to do. Exhibit A: A young man in college who is working and carrying a full load of classes. His schedule seems packed. Then he meets the woman of his dreams. Suddenly he finds time to spend with her! It’s not a duty; it’s a delight! He will cut corners elsewhere if he has to, but he will not miss his time with this beautiful creature.

If you love God, you’ll make time to spend with Him because you delight to do so. This includes time in His Word, renewing your mind so that you can please Him. It includes time in prayer, bringing your needs and others’ needs before Him. It includes time in praise and worship, expressing your love for Him.

C. You seek God by integrating Him into every area of your life.

God isn’t just a spoke in the wheel; He’s the hub. God isn’t just a slice of life, who rounds out your other pursuits. Rather, God permeates every area of your life. He’s at the center of every decision you make. He’s the Lord of every relationship you have. You manage your money by considering what His Word says about it. There is no area of your life, be it your business, your family, your education, or whatever, where God is not an integral part. There is no division between sacred and secular; all of life is related to God.

Here is David, his kingdom in disarray, running for his life, seeking to protect his men. It would be understandable if God were temporarily squeezed out of the picture. But David is “following hard after God,” as the old King James Version puts verse 8. God was at the center of David’s present and his future. No area was off limits to God.

Conclusion

How is it with you and God? Perhaps you say, “I’m actively involved in serving Him!” That’s fine, but that’s not what I’m asking. You can be in full time ministry and lose sight of seeking God Himself. I once heard the late godly pastor and author, Alan Redpath, speak. He told how he faced a time in his life when the opportunities for ministry were the greatest he had ever seen. God seemed to be blessing his preaching. It was the kind of thing every pastor prays and longs for.

And then, right in the middle of it, Redpath was laid up with a stroke. As he lay in his hospital bed, he asked, “Lord, why? Why now, when the opportunities to serve You are so great?” I’ll never forget what he said next. He said that the Lord quietly impressed upon him, “Alan, you’ve gotten your work ahead of your worship.” Ouch!

Review your past week or month and ask yourself, “Did my schedule reflect that seeking God was my number one priority?” You say, “Well, that’s my priority, but I’ve been under a lot of pressure!” Pressure is what reveals your true priorities. When the pressure is on, everything but the essential gets set aside. The Holy Spirit is telling us through David, “Seeking God is essential!” If it’s not essential for you, then you’ve got to join David, the man after God’s heart, in making it so.

Application Questions

  1. How can we make time alone with God a priority and yet avoid a legalistic approach to it?
  2. How can a Christian who has lost the passion for God regain it?
  3. How does a person who lacks self-discipline go about getting it?
  4. What is the difference between having God as a slice of life versus having God permeate every part of life? How does one go about making the change?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2009, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Psalm 66: Make His Praise Glorious

I begin this message with the words that traumatize every college student: “We’re going to have a pop quiz!” For this quiz, please listen carefully as I read Psalm 66:1-4 and then I’m going to ask you a question:

Shout joyfully to God, all the earth;

Sing the glory of His name.

Make His praise glorious.

Say to God, “How awesome are Your works!

Because of the greatness of Your power Your enemies will give feigned obedience to You.

All the earth will worship You,

And will sing praises to You;

They will sing praises to Your name.”

The question is: To what extent did those verses describe your life this past week? Don’t answer out loud, but on a scale of 1-10, would you rate a ten? Seven? Five? Three? Zero? If your score is somewhere in the bottom half of the scale, then you definitely need to hear this message! If it’s a nine or ten, maybe you should be preaching it! I confess that I’ve got a lot of room to improve in keeping the command of verse 2, “Make His praise glorious.”

We don’t know the author or the historical situation behind this praise psalm. H. C. Leupold (Exposition of Psalms [Baker], pp. 478-479 thinks that King Hezekiah wrote it after God delivered Israel from Sennacherib’s invasion and then delivered Hezekiah from an early death. These two events are reflected in the two halves of the psalm: Verses 1-12 have a corporate focus and mention a time of severe trial, when God refined His people (66:10-12). The second half (66:13-20) is individual, where the psalmist praises God for some personal answer to prayer. But it’s only speculation to say that this was the situation, since the psalm does not say so.

Psalm 66 is the second of four psalms that all call upon the whole earth to praise God (Ps. 65:2, 5, 8; 66:1-4, 7-8; 67:2-5; 68:32). Although at this point in history, God was especially the God of Israel, He is at all times the Sovereign Creator and Lord of all the earth. Therefore, all the earth should praise Him. His chosen people—Israel in that day and now the church—have the privilege and responsibility of spreading His praise to every corner of the earth. The message of Psalm 66 is:

Both corporately and individually we should make God’s praise glorious.

Last week, Marla and I watched the Disney film, “Earth.” It has some spectacular photography of the earth and its creatures, from whales and great white sharks to land mammals to birds and insects. How anyone can watch it and believe that it all happened by random chance is beyond me. It should cause every person that sees it to exclaim, “Praise God for His amazing creation!” And yet few that watch it will have that response, because few have bowed their hearts in submission to the Sovereign Lord of creation.

1. We should make God’s praise glorious corporately (66:1-12).

This corporate section of the psalm has three stanzas:

A. We make God’s praise glorious corporately when we praise Him exuberantly and extend His praise worldwide (66:1-4).

Except for having “Yahweh” instead of “God,” Psalm 100:1 is identical to Psalm 66:1: “Shout joyfully to God, all the earth.” The dominant theme of verses 1-4 is that of exuberant praise to God because of what He has done (His awesome works, 66:2) and who He is (His “name,” 66:2, 4). In case you need it spelled out, exuberant praise is the opposite of apathetic, heartless mouthing of words while you look out the window as you think about what you’re going to do after church. Rather, it is joyous praise that comes from the heart as you realize who God is and what He has done. The psalmist is not satisfied with our declaring God’s praises moderately. Rather, he insists that we celebrate God’s goodness in some measure proportionate to His excellence (paraphrase of John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on Ps. 66, p. 467).

John Piper argues (Let the Nations be Glad! [Baker Academic], p. 226, italics his) “that the essential, vital, indispensable, defining heart of worship is the experience of being satisfied with God in Christ.” He points out that the New Testament has “a stunning indifference to the outward forms and places of worship” (p. 222). Rather, the emphasis is on this (p. 227) “inner spiritual treasuring of the character and the ways of God in Christ. It is a cherishing of Christ, a being satisfied with all that God is for us in Christ.” Thus, shouting joyfully to God, singing the glory of His name, and making His praise glorious (Ps. 66:1-2) does not mean getting pumped up by group enthusiasm or by music that has a catchy beat. Rather, it is the overflow of our hearts when we are captivated by God’s all-satisfying glory in Christ (Piper, p. 227, note 19).

The psalmist acknowledges (66:3) that some of God’s enemies will not give Him this heartfelt worship. Rather, literally, they will lie to Him. Outwardly, they may go along with the crowd in singing to God, but inwardly their hearts are not right with Him. They’re faking it, pretending to obey. The psalmist mentions this to show that true worship is a matter of the heart and also to warn us, who have tasted God’s kindness, not to fall into this kind of hypocrisy (Calvin, p. 467). The antidote, as Calvin observes (as cited by J. J. S. Perowne, The Book of Psalms [Zondervan], p. 506) is, “Nothing so compels us to a due reverence towards God, as when we place ourselves before His face.”

In verse 4, the psalmist sets forth a prophecy or hope that is often repeated in the Old Testament: “All the earth will worship You, and will sing praises to You; they will sing praises to Your name.” The message of God’s awesome works and glorious name will spread beyond the Jews to all the nations. This is also the theme of Psalm 67. It refers to the nations sincerely worshiping God, stemming from hearts made right with Him through the transforming power of the gospel. Here are a few other texts:

Psalm 22:27: “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will worship before You.”

Psalm 86:9: “All nations whom You have made shall come and worship before You, O Lord, and they shall glorify Your name.”

Psalm 102:15: “So the nations will fear the name of the Lord and all the kings of the earth Your glory.”

John Piper lists over four pages of similar quotes just from the Psalms and Isaiah (Let the Nations be Glad! pp. 170-174). I think that they point to a future time when Christ will reign on earth and some from every tribe and tongue and people and nation will join together in singing His praise (Rev. 5:9). We now have the privilege of beginning that praise in our corporate worship and of extending the worship through our world mission efforts.

B. We make God’s praise glorious corporately when we contemplate His awesome works in redeeming His people and in ruling the nations (66:5-7).

Psalm 66:5-7: “Come and see the works of God, who is awesome in His deeds toward the sons of men. He turned the sea into dry land; they passed through the river on foot; there let us rejoice in Him! He rules by His might forever; His eyes keep watch on the nations; let not the rebellious exalt themselves.”

Calvin (p. 469) observes, “An indirect censure is here passed upon that almost universal thoughtlessness which leads men to neglect the praises of God. Why is it that they so blindly overlook the operations of his hand, but just because they never direct their attention seriously to them?” Specifically, the psalmist invites us to contemplate God’s awesome power as seen in the parting of the Red Sea in the exodus and His parting the Jordan River forty years later when the nation crossed into the Promised Land. These were stupendous miracles, which all the surrounding nations heard about (Josh. 2:10). But with the exception of Rahab the harlot, they did not repent of their sins and humble themselves before the Lord.

Throughout the Old Testament, the exodus is extolled as showing God’s mighty power in redeeming His people according to His great power. The armies of Pharaoh, the most powerful king on the earth at that time, were not a problem for God. But, as Perowne (P. 507) points out, “That ancient story is not the record merely of a bygone age, but is daily new, daily repeats itself to those who have eyes open to see and hearts open to perceive.” Thus the psalmist says (66:6b), “There let us rejoice in Him.” It was there, at the Red Sea and the Jordan River, that God “showed himself to be the everlasting Savior of his people; so that it proved a common source of joy to all the righteous” (Calvin, p. 470).

The application for us is that our corporate worship should be centered on the New Testament fulfillment of God’s redemption of His people, namely, on the cross of Jesus Christ. The message of the cross, that Jesus Christ, the sinless Son of God gave Himself to redeem us from our sins, that He was raised from the dead, ascended on high, and is returning in power and glory to judge the earth, is our only hope. Though it may seem that the rebellious nations are not under His sovereign control, that is not true. He “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11). And so, “Let not the rebellious exalt themselves” (Ps. 66:7). Our God “is coming to judge the earth” (Ps. 98:9). His redeeming love and His sovereignty over the nations should be the focus of our praise.

C. We make God’s praise glorious corporately when we see His providential goodness in using trials for our ultimate good (66:8-12).

The psalmist continues (66:8) by inviting all peoples (the Gentiles) to “bless our God,” and “sound His praise abroad, who keeps us in life and does not allow our feet to slip.” The world should be able to see how God has preserved His people in spite of their weakness and praise God for it. As His people, we should recognize that the very fact that we are alive and that we have not fallen away from Him is due completely to His grace.

Then (66:10-12) the psalmist directly addresses God, rehearsing how God has tried His people and refined them as silver is refined. He brought them into the net and laid an oppressive burden on their loins. He made men ride over their heads. They went through fire and through water. But the end of this terrible time of testing was (66:12b), “Yet You brought us out into a place of abundance.” The last word is used one other time in the Old Testament, in Psalm 23:5, where David says, “My cup overflows.”

Note several things here. First, the psalmist emphasizes that God inflicted these trials on His people. He repeated says, “You have tried us,” “You have refined us,” “You brought us into the net,” ”You laid an oppressive burden” on us, “You made men ride over our heads.” These difficult experiences did not happen by accident or bad luck. God didn’t just permit them. Rather, He did these things to them.

Second, although God does these things through evil people whom He will judge for their sin, He is not responsible for the evil. Centuries before, Job knew this truth. When Satan afflicted Job by wiping out his possessions, killing his children, and afflicting him with boils, Job attributed everything to the Lord: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away” (Job 1:21b). The Sabeans, whom Satan used to slaughter Job’s servants and steal his livestock, were responsible for their terrible crimes. God was not responsible for any evil in the whole proceeding. Yet He is rightly said to be the one who did it! Even so here, the Lord used a pagan army to ride roughshod over His people for the purpose of refining them. The pagans were sinning and will be judged for it. Yet God did it without sinning and used it for His sovereign purpose.

Third, God brings these difficult trials on us through sinful people for our good. His final purpose is to bring us into a place of abundance. Hebrews 12:11 puts it this way, “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” It is important for us, as we go through difficult trials, to submit to God’s dealings with us. We do that by not regarding lightly His discipline and not fainting when He reproves us (Heb. 12:5). And, by faith we must remember that He disciplines us for our good, because He loves us as a Father (Heb. 12:6, 10). So even in our trials, we can make God’s praise glorious as we trust Him.

So the first section of the psalm exhorts us to make God’s praise glorious in our corporate worship.

2. We should make God’s praise glorious individually (66:13-20).

Derek Kidner (Psalms 1-72 [IVP], p. 235) has a helpful comment here: “If this is a strange climax, to have the nation’s thanksgiving capped by a single worshipper’s, it is a strangeness not unlike the paradox of God’s ways, which leave room for the few and the small, who matter to Him as much as the many, and who find themselves, not lose themselves, in His great congregation.” There are two stanzas in this final section:

A. You make God’s praise glorious individually by coming into God’s house with the sacrifice of total dedication to Him (66:13-15).

When the psalmist was in dire straits, he vowed to offer sacrifices to God if He would deliver him. Now, God has delivered him, so he follows through. I agree with Spurgeon (A Treasury of David [Eerdmans], 3:187), that “we should be slow in making vows, but prompt in paying them.”

Normally, thank offerings consisted of a portion that was burned on the altar and other portions that were shared by the worshiper and his friends. These sacrifices emphasized the joy of fellowship, along with thanksgiving to God for the blessing that prompted the thank offerings. But the sacrifices mentioned here are totally God-ward. Everything was consumed on the altar. So they spoke of total dedication to God, suggesting, as Kidner puts it (ibid.) “a mood of chastened rather than exuberant gratitude, as if to reflect the gravity of the threat that has now been lifted, and the depth of the offerer’s debt. The lavishness of the gifts in these verses underlines the point, saying in poetic fashion that the whole gamut of sacrificial beasts would scarcely do the occasion justice.”

In New Testament terms, Jesus Christ is our God-ordained, acceptable sacrifice. His body, offered on the cross, is the once and for all sacrifice for sins that we need (Heb. 10:4-10). We can only approach God through Him. We can only worship God in spirit and truth after we have trusted in the shed blood of Christ.

But then we have another sacrifice of worship that we must offer. Paul describes it in Romans 12:1, “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” In other words, God’s great mercy towards us in Christ should move us to present our bodies to God as a worshipful sacrifice. As Paul goes on to say, this involves not being conformed to this world, but being transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we work out in our experience God’s good, acceptable, and perfect will. He means that true worship flows out of first giving yourself totally to God. You rightfully belong to Him because of what Jesus did for you on the cross. You cannot make God’s praise glorious on an individual basis until you first trust in Christ and then give yourself totally to Him.

B. You make God’s praise glorious individually by telling other believers what He has done for your soul (66:16-20).

In the final stanza, the psalmist is not addressing the nations (as in 66:5), but rather “all who fear God” (66:16). He invites us to “come and hear” as he tells what God “has done for my soul.” He cried to the Lord with his mouth and extolled Him with his tongue (66:17). And the Lord graciously answered (66:20). Calvin (p. 477) observes that answers to prayer serve to illustrate God’s goodness to us and confirm our faith in it. Also, he says that the word extol suggests “that we cannot honor God more in our worship, than by looking upwards to him for deliverance.” So when we pray and He answers, our faith is strengthened. And, we are to tell other believers what God did for us, so that they, too, will trust Him.

In the middle of this, the psalmist interjects an important principle for proper prayer (66:18), “If I regard wickedness in my heart, the Lord will not hear.” Hypocrites can offer prayers that impress those that hear, but God looks on the heart. We can’t play games with Him. This does not mean that we must be perfect before we can pray, but it does mean that we truly fear God and desire to be holy, so that we judge our sin on the heart level. We confess it openly before Him who sees it all. Then, cleansed by the blood of Christ, we can bring our requests to the Father and expect to be heard.

Although I reject the late Normal Vincent Peale’s theology as heresy, I read a story from his life that illustrates this text. As a boy, he found a big, black cigar, slipped into an alley, and lit up. It didn’t taste good, but it made him feel very grown up—until he saw his father coming! Quickly he put the cigar behind his back and tried to be casual. Desperate to divert his dad’s attention, he pointed to a billboard advertising the circus. “Can I go, Dad? Please, let’s go when it comes to town.”

His father’s reply taught Norman a lesson he never forgot. “Son,” he answered quietly but firmly, “never make a petition while at the same time trying to hide a smoldering disobedience.” (In Leadership Journal, Fall, 1983, p. 87.)

If we want God to answer our prayers, we must not regard (the Hebrew verb means “to look at with favor,” A Hebrew Lexicon of the Old Testament, by Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles Briggs [Oxford ], p. 907) sin in our hearts. The fact that God did hear the psalmist leads him to end the psalm by blessing God for His lovingkindness (66:20). Kidner (p. 236) observes on this final verse of praise that the psalmist’s “gratitude is not for the answered request alone, but for what it signifies: an unbroken relationship with God, which is pledged …, personal, and—since it might deservedly have been removed—ever a gift of grace.”

Conclusion

I conclude with four applications that sum up this psalm:

*Don’t neglect public singing. Sometimes we tend to view the time of corporate singing as filler to let latecomers arrive before the main event (the sermon). Some stand outside and chat with others, slipping in just in time to hear the sermon. Others read the bulletin rather than engaging wholeheartedly in the songs. While I hope that the sermon is a time of genuine worship, we should not neglect the command (66:2), “Sing the glory of His name.” We must make His praise glorious by our public singing.

*Don’t neglect private worship. Our public worship should be the overflow of hearts that have been worshiping God all week long. Take time each day to spend alone with Him.

*Don’t neglect frequent heart cleansing. Since God looks on our hearts, we must deal with sin on the heart level. As many times a day as we yield to pride, lust, greed, selfishness, and other sins, we should bring it to the Lord for cleansing.

*Don’t neglect prayer, even if the answers are delayed. Don’t forget that Israel had prayed for deliverance from Egypt for 400 years before God answered. In the situation described in verses 10-12, God’s people did not get instant relief from this terrible enemy. God’s timing is not our timing! But if we seek Him in prayer, eventually He will bring us out into a place of abundance. When He does, give it your all to make His praise glorious!

Application Questions

  1. How can we worship God exuberantly if we don’t feel like it? Should we “work up” our feelings? If not, how do we get the right affections?
  2. In a personal email, a well-known Christian leader told me that he winced when he read my comment, that “God took Francis Schaeffer and James Boice” (they both died of cancer). Was I wrong or was he? Does it make any practical difference?
  3. Why is it important to acknowledge that every trial is from God, rather than just being impersonal, chance circumstances?
  4. Is genuine praise related to our personality-type? Can a person prone to depression become a person of praise? What would this look like? How can it happen?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2009, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Psalm 67: Why Seek God’s Blessing?

I’ve never met anyone who has answered “no” to the question, “Do you want God’s blessing on your life?” Maybe some hard core atheists would be daring enough to say no. But I’d guess that deep inside, they would feel uneasy, even if they kept up a calm front. You’d better be very sure that God does not exist before you brazenly say, “I don’t want His blessing”!

Since we all want God’s blessing, you may find the title of this message to be rather strange: “Why Seek God’s Blessing?” Isn’t it obvious why we should seek God’s blessing? We want to be happy! We want to enjoy life! We want things to go well with us and our children! But without adding something, those are not adequate reasons why we should ask for God’s blessing. Psalm 67 tells us,

We should seek God’s blessing so that our gladness in God will spread to all the nations.

Although this is a short psalm, it is an important one. Those who wrote the liturgy for the Church of England appointed this psalm to be read in every worship service (Charles Simeon, Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible [Zondervan], 5:490; original published in 1819-1820). The psalm reflects the blessing that the Aaronic priests were to pronounce on Israel (Num. 6:24-26), “The Lord bless you, and keep you; the Lord make His face shine on you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His countenance on you, and give you peace.”

But also this psalm is rooted in God’s covenant promise to Abraham (Gen. 12:2-3), “And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

Psalm 67 is also the Old Testament expression of Jesus’ instruction to us, that we are to pray (Matt. 6:10), “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Although Paul does not specifically cite Psalm 67, he cites other similar Scriptures to justify his calling to preach to the Gentiles (Rom. 15:9-12). So the theme of the psalm is a major theme of the Bible: We should seek God’s blessing so that our gladness in God will spread to all the nations.

As you know (if you’ve come here for any length of time), our church puts a priority on world missions. We can rightly say, missions is not a program in the church. Rather, it is the program of the church. But it is important to keep in mind what John Piper has stated so clearly. He begins Let the Nations be Glad! ([Baker Academic], second edition, p. 17), “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man.” He adds (ibid.), “The goal of missions is the gladness of the peoples in the greatness of God.” Also, he points out (p. 20), “All of history is moving toward one great goal, the white-hot worship of God and his Son among all the peoples of the earth.”

Psalm 67 has a chiastic structure, where verses 1 & 2 are parallel to verses 6 & 7. The opening two verses are a prayer for God’s blessing. The conclusion is a prophetic fulfillment of that prayer. Verses 3 & 5 are identical prayers for all the peoples to praise God. Verse 4, the hinge verse, is a prayer for the gladness of the nations in God as they submit to His righteous rule and sovereign guidance. But rather than following this structure, I built this message around three practical points:

1. We should seek God’s blessing.

While we all would quickly say that we want God’s blessing, it is not automatic. We must diligently seek it. The Bible is abundantly clear that God is ready to pour out His blessing on His people, but only when we order our lives rightly before Him and seek God Himself as the supreme blessing. Note four things:

A. God’s blessing is rooted in His grace.

“God be gracious to us and bless us” (67:1a). Do you pray that often for yourself, your marriage, your children, and for this church? We all desperately need God’s grace and His blessing. God’s grace is one of the most basic concepts to grasp if you want to experience His blessing, and yet it is not easy to grasp in practice because it runs contrary to our sense of fairness and justice. All of life programs us to work hard to earn what we get. Also, our pride tells us that we deserve to be rewarded because we worked hard. It’s only fair.

But God’s grace humbles our pride, saying, “You deserve My judgment, but I’m going to give you My favor.” Jesus illustrated this in the parable of the man who went into the marketplace early in the morning and hired workers to go into his vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16). He agreed to pay them a denarius for their day’s labor. Mid-morning, he hired more workers and promised to pay them what was right. He did the same thing at noon and mid-afternoon. Finally, an hour before sundown, he hired more workers.

When the day’s work was over, the men lined up for their pay. The owner began with the last group and gave them all a denarius for their hour of work. When the men came who had worked all day, they expected to get more, but each of them also received one denarius. They grumbled at the landowner and accused him of not being fair. But he told them that he had given them what they had agreed on. If he wanted to be generous with his money towards the others, what was that to them?

Grace means that we get blessings that we do not deserve. We can’t earn grace or it becomes a wage, not grace (Rom. 4:4-5). We deserve God’s judgment for our sins, but He gives us a free pardon and eternal life through Jesus Christ who paid our debt. The Christian life from beginning to end depends on God’s grace. We received Christ because of God’s grace; we walk in God’s grace (Col. 2:6). We enjoy all of God’s blessings because of His grace that He ordained for us in Christ (Eph. 1:3-6).

But grace is not easy to receive because our pride makes us think that we earned or deserved it. To receive God’s grace, you must humble yourself and acknowledge that you are a sinner, deserving His judgment. You admit your helplessness. You ask God for something you can never earn—His grace and His blessing.

B. God’s blessing means that we enjoy His favorable presence.

The psalmist continues, “and cause His face to shine upon us” (67:1b), literally, “among us.” This comes out of the Aaronic blessing and is a theme in several other Psalms (31:16; 80:3, 7, 19; 119:135). To have God’s face shining on us is the opposite of a scowling or angry face. To have His face shining towards us is the opposite of having Him turn His face away from us with indifference or disgust (these observations from James Boice, Psalms Volume 2 [Baker], p. 546). It means to have His smile or favor upon us.

An old Jewish comment interprets God’s face to be that of Messiah (Arno C. Gaebelein, The Psalms [Loizeaux Brothers, p. 264). Thus Charles Simeon (ibid.) interprets the prayer of Psalm 67:1 to be for the advent of Messiah to His people and His manifestation to all the world. God’s face would shine on His people in the person of Christ, who is the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person.

At the end of Psalm 67, which ties back into the beginning, the psalmist repeats the name of God three times in connection with His blessing: “God, our God, blesses us. God blesses us….” This emphasizes that we cannot separate God’s blessing from God Himself. He is the blessing, to have Him as our God. You can have everything that the world counts as blessings, but if you don’t have God, you are not truly blessed. And, you may not have anything that the world counts as blessings, but if you have God and His smiling face in Christ, you are still truly blessed.

C. God’s blessing is not just individual, but corporate.

The blessings prayed for here are “to us.” The pronouns are plural. The prayer is for God’s chosen people to be blessed. The aim of God’s blessing (which we will look at in a moment), that His way and salvation would be known among all nations, cannot be accomplished by individuals working independently, but only by His people together.

I often encounter American Christians, who think that they don’t need the church. Often they’ve been hurt or disappointed by the church. They’re afraid that if they get involved closely with other Christians, they’ll get hurt again. So at best they attend church like they attend the theater, coming and going without getting to know anyone very well. Or, at worst, they avoid the church altogether and get the teaching they need from the Internet or radio. But the Bible is clear that we cannot experience God’s full blessing if we isolate ourselves from His people. And His blessing will not go from us to the nations unless we are strong as a church. And if God’s blessing does not go to the nations through us, we are not helping fulfill His purpose of being glorified among every people group.

Thus, God’s blessing is rooted in His grace. His blessing means that we enjoy His favorable presence, not just individually, but corporately.

D. We will experience God’s blessing when we align ourselves with His purpose for the nations.

John Piper explains this well
  (http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/Sermons/ByDate/1993/853_Let_the_Nations_ Be_Glad/):

There is another point implied in this main one: if God blesses his people for the sake of the nations; then God is most likely to bless us when we are planning and longing and praying to bless the nations. If God wants his goods to get to the nations, then he will fill the truck that’s driving toward the nations. He will bless the church that’s pouring itself out for unreached peoples of the world. And this blessing is not payment for a service rendered; it’s power and joy for a mission to accomplish. When we move toward the unreached peoples, we are not earning God’s blessings, we are leaping into the river of blessings that is already flowing to the nations.

So we must never limit seeking God’s blessing to selfish requests: “God, bless me with a wife and children and a house and a better car and a good job, so that I will be happy.” Those things may be legitimate requests, but the prayer should be that God would bless you with those things so that you and your family and all of your belongings may be used to further God’s glory among the nations. It’s the principle that Jesus stated (Matt. 6:33), “But seek first His kingdom and righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Seek God’s blessing for the sake of the nations.

2. When we have God’s blessing, we will be glad in Him.

True gladness and joy is found in God. Gladness in stuff is futile, because stuff can be taken from you in an instant (Matt. 6:19). But gladness in God is eternal; it cannot be taken from you. The prayer of this psalm is all about praise and gladness and singing for joy in the Lord (67:3-5). Note two things:

A. We cannot export gladness in God to the nations if we are not glad in God.

John Piper (ibid.) puts it like this, “If we are not real and deep and fervent in our worship of God, we will not commend him among the peoples with genuineness. How can you say to the nations, ‘Be glad in God!’ if you are not glad in God?” We can’t honestly pray (67:3, 5), “Let the peoples praise You, O God,” if we are not people of praise. So (as I said in a recent message on Psalm 36), join George Muller, who made it the first business of every morning to secure happiness in God through time in God’s Word and prayer. To repeat what A. T. Pierson said of Muller (George Muller of Bristol [Revell], p. 257), “He taught that God alone is the one all-satisfying portion of the soul, and that we must determine to possess and enjoy Him as such.”

B. We cannot expect the nations to be glad in God if they do not know Him.

The psalmist prays (67:2), “that Your way may be known on the earth, Your salvation among all nations.” If people worship gods of their own making or imagination, then the One True God will not be praised. To sing His praises, people must know Him as He is revealed in His Word. They must know His ways and His salvation. And, as Paul asks (Rom. 10:14-15a), “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent?” And, as Paul also says (2 Cor. 4:4-6), they will not be able to understand the good news about Christ unless God opens their eyes.

So, pray for God to raise up workers for the harvest (Matt. 9:37-38). Pray for faithful people to send them through generous support and prayer. And pray for God to break through the spiritual darkness with His light, opening blind eyes to see the glory of the Savior whom He sent.

Note, also, in this regard that a major cause of the gladness and joy of the nations is (67:4), “For You will judge the peoples with uprightness and guide the nations on the earth.”  At first glance, those sound like reasons for the nations to cringe in fear, not to be glad and sing for joy! But, the psalmist is assuming that the nations have come to know God’s salvation. When you know God and His salvation, His righteous judgment and His sovereign guidance of the nations is a cause for joy, not for fear or alarm.

God’s judging the nations with uprightness means that He will right every wrong and punish all that have ruthlessly oppressed innocent people. The evil dictators down through history will stand before the Judge of the universe and receive just punishment for their crimes. All that have known God’s salvation and have been persecuted for it will be vindicated and spend eternity in indescribable joy in God’s presence.

God’s sovereign guidance of the nations is also a source of joy and comfort for those that know His salvation. If we did not have the repeated assurances of God’s Word, we might conclude that the nations are spinning out of control in their evil ways. Christians are slaughtered, imprisoned, or displaced from their homes in many countries. We might be tempted to wonder, “Is God really guiding these evil nations?”

But Scripture is clear that even if God gives a nation over to the consequences of its evil ways (Acts 14:26; Rom. 1:18-32), it is still under His sovereign control, because He “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11). Paul said that God determined the nations’ “appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation” (Acts 17:26). God “changes the times and epochs; He removes kings and establishes kings” (Dan. 2:21). “He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’” (Dan. 4:35).

The proud, rebellious nations may think that they are sovereign, but the Bible is clear that God alone is sovereign. And when the nations come to know God’s sovereignty and His righteous judgment, it is a source of great gladness and joy. And when we, as His people, have the blessing of knowing His ways and His salvation, we will be glad in Him. Finally,

3. When we are glad in God, we will want to spread that gladness to all nations.

The psalm begins with the prayer that God will be gracious to us and bless us so that the nations might know His salvation, so that they will praise Him and be glad in Him. Then it ends with the same prayer, now fulfilled by faith (67:7), “God blesses us, that all the ends of the earth may fear Him.” This implies…

A. Satisfaction in God overflows towards others.

Praise by its very nature begs to be expressed and shared. If you see a spectacular sunset at the Grand Canyon, you want to tell others about it. Your enjoyment of it spontaneously overflows into praise. And if you enjoy God and the blessings of His salvation, you want to share the joy (which is the ultimate joy!) with others, so that they can enjoy Him too. Even if it costs us financially or costs the pain of being separated from our loved ones or even if it costs our lives, it increases our joy and God’s glory to take the gospel to the unreached nations.

In November, 1858, John Paton and his new bride Mary landed in the New Hebrides Islands, home to fierce cannibals. Three months later she gave birth to a son. But three weeks after that, she died of complications from childbirth and then the baby died also. Paton was devastated, but said that fellowship with Jesus sustained him through his intense loneliness (John G. Paton Autobiography [Banner of Truth], pp. 79-80).

Mary’s last words were, “Oh that my dear mother were here! She is a good woman, my mother, a jewel of a woman.” As she spoke, she did not realize that a fellow missionary had heard her. When she saw him she said, “You must not think that I regret coming here, and leaving my mother. If I had the same thing to do over again, I would do it with far more pleasure, yes, with all my heart” (ibid., pp. 84-85). Today, due largely to the lifelong efforts of Paton and other faithful missionaries, those islands (now called Vanuatu) are approximately 75 percent Protestant Christians (Operation World, 21st Century Edition, by Patrick Johnstone and Jason Mandryk [WEC International], p. 669). Needless to say, there are no more cannibals there! Paton’s parents, by the way, were joyous to see their son go, although they knew they probably would never see him again in this life (p. 57).

B. God blesses us materially so that we can bless others spiritually.

“The earth has yielded its produce” (67:6) means that God had blessed Israel materially. The reason is given (67:7), “God blesses us, that all the ends of the earth may fear Him.” Israel’s material blessings translated into spiritual blessings on the nations. When God blesses us materially, it’s not so that we can squander it on selfish living. Rather, we should use God’s material blessings to bless the nations by sending and supporting those that take the message of His salvation to those who have yet to hear. To invest in the gospel for the nations is to invest in eternal joy for them and for yourself. It is to glorify God by spreading your joy in Him to all the earth.

Conclusion

I conclude by asking three questions to help you apply this:

         Are you seeking God’s blessing for yourself, your family, and this church?

You should be! It is only when you experience the blessings of God’s gracious salvation that you will be glad and sing for joy in Him. And it is the overflow of that joy that will bless the nations. So take the time daily to rejoice in the Lord through His Word. Examine your heart and judge all known sin. Ask God to bless you spiritually and materially so that you can bless the nations.

         Are you asking God to instill in your heart and in the hearts of your children a burning desire for the nations to be glad in Him?

This is Mother’s Day. The greatest thing mothers and fathers can do for their children is to model for them and instill in them God’s purpose to be glorified among the nations. Read them missionary stories. Read the Global Prayer Digest. Pray for the nations.

         Are you being a good steward of God’s material blessings, so that you can use them to bless the nations?

Get out of debt. Live simply. Give joyously and generously to the Lord’s work. Your gladness in God will spread to all the nations for His glory and their joy!

Application Questions

  1. Seeking God’s blessing could result in selfishness, where we squander those blessings on ourselves. How can we avoid this?
  2. John Piper says (Let the Nations Be Glad! p. 227, italics his), “The pursuit of joy in God is not optional. It is our highest duty.” Agree? Why/why not?
  3. Should we wait to give to missions until we feel that we have experienced God’s blessing, or is giving one way to experience His blessing?
  4. In America, with all of our material blessings, how can we determine how much to give to missions? What principles apply?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2009, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Psalm 71: Growing Old God’s Way

There is something which everybody wants and yet almost everyone fears: growing old. Old age has many frightening aspects: an aging body which is more susceptible to illness; declining strength; feelings of uselessness (especially after retirement); the loss of friends and loved ones through death; the reality of one’s own death drawing nearer; loneliness; feelings of alienation from one’s children and grandchildren, who are busy with other interests and pursuits; and, very often, financial concerns due to dwindling income.

Sadly, our American culture does not esteem the elderly. We are a self-centered, utilitarian society. The younger generation often views the elderly as a financial burden and, if they require our care, as an interference in the pursuit of pleasure and success. This was most outrageously stated a few years ago by then-Colorado governor, Richard Lamm. In a discussion of spiraling health care costs, he said that terminally ill elderly people have “a duty to die and get out of the way.” Most would be more polite, but the underlying attitudes are there. Dr. Kevorkian is helping Governor Lamm’s wish come true, by assisting the terminally ill in suicide.

It is interesting, by the way, that in China old age is still viewed as the most respected stage of life. In Shanghai, one of the five largest cities in the world, in the late 1970’s there was only one home for the aged. Most of the elderly there are cared for in the family context.

But as you and I face the prospects of growing old in America, we need to ask ourselves, “What should I be doing now, however old I am, to prepare for old age?” The fact is, you will be then what you are becoming now. If you are not becoming a person of faith now, you will not be a person of faith then. If you are a negative, grumpy person now, you will not be a positive, cheerful person then. If you aren’t developing a walk with God now, you won’t have one then.

Psalm 71 is the psalm of an old man. He is an old man with many trials and problems, but he is obviously a joyful man who is able to put his focus on the Lord in the midst of these trials. The psalm shows us, to put it simply, that

God’s way to grow old is to develop a walk with Him now.

The reason that the psalmist could handle his problems so well as an old man was that he had developed a walk with God in the years leading up to this time. He had a proven resource in the Lord which enabled him to be strong inside, even though his body was growing weaker and his enemies were powerful.

We don’t know for sure who wrote Psalm 71. Some scholars think it was the prophet Jeremiah. But I agree with those who think that David wrote this psalm at the time of Absalom’s rebellion, perhaps as he was quartered across the Jordan, awaiting the outcome of the battle. The psalm pieces together a number of elements from other Davidic psalms (22, 31, 35, 40, 109). The reference to praising God on the harp and lyre (71:22) sounds like David, and the reference to having his greatness increased (71:21) could refer to David’s being restored to the throne. The circumstances in which the psalmist finds himself fit David at the time of Absalom’s rebellion: “shame” (71:1); oppressed by evil men (71:4); enemies speaking against him and seeking to kill him (71:10, 11, 13, 24); a life of many troubles (71:7a, 20); he had trusted God from his youth (71:5, 17); now he was old and gray (71:9, 18). (David was in his early 60’s; he died at 70.)

At any rate, there were three aspects of his walk with God which the author had developed over the years which stood him in good stead at this time of trial in his old age, which we need to develop:

1. We need to develop a deep knowledge of God.

The psalm is permeated with a deep personal understanding and practical knowledge of the Lord God. He had been taught of God even from his youth (71:17). The man knew God as his refuge (71:1; “strong refuge,” 71:7) and his righteous Savior (71:2). John Calvin (Commentary, pp. 632, 633) argues that God’s righteousness, frequently mentioned here (71:2, 15, 16, 19, 24), refers to His faithfulness to His own people in keeping His promises. He calls God his rock of habitation, his rock and fortress (71:3); his hope and confidence (71:5).

He talks of God’s mighty deeds (71:16), His strength and power (71:18), and the great things He has done (71:19). He realized that it was God who brought him into trouble and God who delivered and restored him (71:20). God was his source of comfort in this trial (71:21). God had redeemed his soul (71:23). As he exclaims, “O God, who is like You?” (71:19). He could testify that his mouth was filled with God’s praise and glory and righteousness all day long (71:8, 22, 23, 24).

This man knew his God! It is obvious that he had known Him for years and had proved God’s faithfulness in a number of previous difficult situations. So in this instance when he needs to trust in God, it is not a matter of, “God, if You exist, whoever You are, if You’re out there I need your help!” He didn’t need to take a blind leap of faith because he knew his God in a personal, practical, proven way.

May I ask: Do you know God like that? Are you growing in the process of developing such knowledge through His Word and through applying His Word to your experience? One of the most important things that each one of us can do to prepare for whatever crises we may have to face in the future is to be spending time now in God’s Word, getting to know God. As you read His Word ask yourself, “What does this passage teach me about my God?” And then seek to apply it to your daily problems.

A number of years ago, our neighbor’s two daughters, who were in grade school and junior high at the time, came running out of their house in a panic. Smoke came billowing out the door behind them. I discovered that there was a grease fire in their oven and their parents were not home. I ran into the kitchen and assumed that they must not have a fire extinguisher or they would have used it, so I tried to smother the fire with flour. That didn’t work. Finally, in desperation, I asked, “Do you have a fire extinguisher by any chance?” It turned out that they had three of them! One of the girls gave me one and I had the fire out in seconds.

The fire extinguisher was an adequate resource for that crisis, but the girls didn’t know how to use it or had no experience in using it, so it didn’t do them any good. To benefit from the extinguisher, I needed to know what it could do and how to use it in that emergency. In the same way, we need to know our God and what He can do so that we can lay hold of the tremendous resources that belong to us as His children. If we’re learning that now, then we will know Him as our confidence when the crises of old age come upon us.

2. We need to develop the godly habits of trust, praise, and hope.

A habit is developed by frequent repetition over a period of time. Once it’s in place, a habit becomes almost involuntary. Our attitudes, how we respond mentally and emotionally to life’s problems, tend to become habitual responses. Some people become habitual worriers; some become habitual complainers; some become habitually negative, pessimistic, and angry. Others become habitually cheerful and positive. The habits we develop in our younger years tend to take us further in that direction as we grow older.

A little Hebrew word repeated in verses 3, 6, and 14, translated “continually” (NASB; “always,” “ever,” NIV) tips us off to the habits the psalmist had developed. They are not habits we pick up naturally. They must be deliberately cultivated (“But as for me,” 71:14, points to firm resolve). In fact, they stem from his knowledge of God. They are the habits of trust (71:3); praise (71:6); and hope (71:14).

A. The habit of trust (71:3).

The whole psalm is an affirmation of the psalmist’s trust in the Lord. Spurgeon calls it “the utterance of struggling, but unstaggering, faith” (Treasury of David, [Baker], 3:294). He was struggling because he was in difficult circumstances, with many seeking his life; but he was unstaggering in his faith because he knew whom he believed.

Such faith stems from a knowledge of God. True knowledge dispels doubt and fear. We fear and mistrust that which we do not know, whereas we are more inclined to trust that which we know well, assuming it is trustworthy. When I was in the Coast Guard, we had to go out on a search and rescue mission in a gale. The waves were twenty to thirty feet high. We were taking green water over the bridge of our 81-foot boat. I was afraid that we would capsize and drown. But the skipper, while not relaxed, at least wasn’t afraid. He had taken this boat through other such storms and he knew what it could handle. His knowledge dispelled his fear.

Because the psalmist knew God, he had learned to trust God through some other tough times (71:20), and he knew therefore that God would see him through this time.

Are you developing a habit of trusting God in the difficult times of your life? Or are you frequently filled with worry and doubt and fear? If you have trouble trusting, concentrate on getting to know God. Also, review what God has already done for you. There is a tremendous emphasis in the psalm on what God has done (71:5, 6, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 23, 24). That strengthens faith! Has God ever preserved your life? Has He saved you from your sins? Has He sustained you this far? Then you can trust Him for your present problems and for any which arise in the future.

B. The habit of praise (71:6).

Praise is not a natural habit, at least not for me. I am a grumbler and complainer by nature. But God wants us to be people of praise. Even when difficult times come, God wants us to learn to praise Him. The psalmist had deliberately developed that habit. (See also, 71:8, 14, 22-24).

How can we learn to praise God when trials come? The answer is, “Learn to trust Him.” Because just as trust stems from knowing God, so praise stems from trusting God.

This is true on the human plane as well as on the divine. You can’t praise a person you don’t trust. If you feel that there is something about a person that you can’t trust, you won’t sing his praises to others. It’s the same way with God. If deep-down inside you doubt God’s goodness or faithfulness for allowing some trial to come your way, then you don’t trust Him. And not trusting Him, you cannot honestly praise Him.

If you are a complainer and have trouble developing a habit of praise, I would suggest the same two steps I mentioned under trust: First, concentrate on getting to know God and His ways. This psalm emphasizes God’s righteousness (71:2, 15, 16, 19, 24) because the psalmist was fearing unjust treatment at the hands of unrighteous men, and he wanted to affirm the righteousness of the God he trusted. He is good and faithful, even when He brings troubles and distresses (71:20) into our lives.

Second, review what God has already done for you. “Count your many blessings, name them one by one.” We tend to forget His many benefits on our behalf (all undeserved), and thus we fail in praise.

C. The habit of hope (71:14).

The psalmist had not only developed habits of trust and praise, but also of hope. We need to understand that there is a big difference between secular hope and biblical hope. Both forms of hope contain the idea of future expectations. But secular hope is uncertain because its object is uncertain, whereas biblical hope is sure because God is its object (71:5). When I say, “I hope that my investment will earn 10 percent,” there is uncertainty because the object of my hope (the stock market) is unstable. But when I say, “I hope that Jesus Christ will return bodily,” I’m expressing something certain, but not yet realized. Thus biblical hope is built upon trust in God and His faithfulness.

Believers should be people who have a habit of hope built on the promises of God. The great missionary pioneer, Adoniram Judson, was suffering from fever in a wretched prison in Burma. A friend sent him a letter, asking, “Judson, how’s the outlook?” Judson replied, “The outlook is as bright as the promises of God.” Unfortunately, many Christians have picked up the negative, hopeless spirit of the world because they focus on the problems instead of God and His promises. If you’re developing that habit, it will make you bitter, not better, as you grow older. God’s people should be people who hope in God.

Thus the psalmist was in good stead in his old age because he had developed a deep knowledge of God and he had developed the godly habits of trust, praise, and hope.

3. He had developed a lifestyle of ministry for God.

Although the psalmist was old (71:9, 18) and could have kicked back and said, “I deserve some rest,” he did not. He still had a concern for ministry, for testifying to others of God’s faithfulness and power (71:8, 15-18, 24). As long as he had breath, he wanted to keep telling people about God’s greatness and glory.

A worldly attitude has infiltrated the church. It goes like this: “I work all week, so my weekends are my free time to spend as I please.” If we give God a couple of hours by going to church on Sunday, we feel like we’ve paid our dues. We don’t want to be tied down with any kind of Christian service that would hinder us from taking off for the weekend when we feel like it.

I’m going to make a radical statement that might step on some toes. But check it out in the Bible to see if I’m right: If you’re not involved in some kind of Christian service, you’re too self-centered. I know that there are times in life when we’re busier with family and job than at other times. But if all you’re doing is coming to church to take in, if your focus is, “What can I get out of the church?” rather than “How can I serve the Lord through His church?” you’re out of balance. There should be no such thing as a non-serving member of the body.

With regard to old age, I think we need to challenge the American idea of retirement. We tend to go with the cultural view that retirement is a time in life when we can do what we want to do. But as Christians, we never earn the right to do what we want to do with our time! We never have the right to live selfishly. All of life must be lived under the lordship of Christ. And where in the Bible do we find the magic number 65? If you’re freed up from your job at 65 and you’re healthy, why not view it as an opportunity to serve the Lord full time? I’d like to see more retired people going back to Bible college for some training and then heading out to serve on the mission field. If you live to be 80, you could have more than a decade of self-supported ministry!

The point is, the psalmist didn’t want to be delivered from his problems so that he could play golf and go fishing every day. He wanted to be delivered so that he could proclaim God’s power to the next generation (71:18). He had a vision to hand off the baton to the younger generation. He saw a longer life as an opportunity for extended ministry. And his ministry was built on his knowledge of God and his habits of trust, praise, and hope, so he had something worth handing off! How about you? Are you developing a lifestyle of ministry now, built on your personal walk with God? It makes for a meaningful old age.

Conclusion

Bishop John Reed of Sydney, Australia, was preaching in Christ Church Cathedral one Sunday when a 75-year-old woman named Ethel Hatfield got saved. Mrs. Hatfield had attended that Anglican church for decades, but the message had never gotten through to her until that day. The following day she came to see Bishop Reed and said, “I could hardly sleep last night I was so excited about what happened. I want to do something to serve God with the few years I have left. I was wondering if I could teach Sunday School.”

Bishop Reed looked at this 75-year-old, white-haired lady and just couldn’t picture her controlling the rambunctious third or fourth grade kids. So he said, “I’m sorry, but we don’t have an opening in our Sunday School.” Her face fell. Bishop Reed said, “You mean business, don’t you? I don’t know what kind of service God may have for you, but let’s pray.” So they prayed for God to reveal His will for her.

The next day Mrs. Hatfield was out in her yard tending her roses when a Chinese student from Taiwan walked by. He stopped and complimented her on her roses and they began to talk. She thought, “He seems like a decent chap; I’ll invite him in for a spot of tea.” So she did and she told him her testimony. He found it an interesting story, so when he had to leave he asked if he could come back and talk further. She said, “Yes, and please bring a friend.”

He came back and brought a friend and she again shared how she had come to put her faith in Jesus Christ after all these years and how Christ had forgiven her sin and given her eternal life. These students came back and brought more friends, who brought even more. Within two weeks, Mrs. Hatfield was leading a weekly Bible study with 70 Chinese students in attendance! She led many of them to personal faith in Jesus Christ. That which seemed a hindrance to Mrs. Hatfield’s serving the Lord--her age--God turned into the key to reaching a group of people who respect old age!

The September, 1993, “Global Prayer Digest” tells the story of Jonah, a 73-year-old Chinese evangelist, who, since 1976, has traveled around the People’s Republic spreading the good news about Jesus Christ. “His days are full, and his energy unflagging. In one weekend Jonah may bicycle nine hours, spend 40 hours on a hard railway seat and eight hours on a bumpy bus just to bring the message of Jesus Christ to people in remote villages, or to urban churches with 5,000 members, or to young soldiers .... The schedule is grueling, but 73-year-old Jonah says, ‘Rest is for the next world.’”

God’s way for us to grow old is for us to develop a walk with Him now--a walk that involves a deep personal, experimental knowledge of God, a walk that includes the habits of trust, praise, and hope, and a walk that involves a lifestyle of ministry for God. Then, as long as we have life and breath, we can show and tell and sing of the greatness of our God to the next generation. What a way to go!

Discussion Questions

  1. The psalmist had served God all his life and now, in old age, was beset with problems. Didn’t he deserve better treatment? Why wasn’t he bitter?
  2. In what ways have we Americans developed a worldly view of retirement?
  3. Agree/disagree: A non-ministering Christian is too self-centered.
  4. How can we develop genuine praise when we face overwhelming problems? Is praise a feeling or an act of obedience?

Copyright 1993, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

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Psalm 73a: “God, It’s Not Fair!”

I began to appreciate Psalm 73 back in the early 1970’s. I was single, living two blocks from the beach in Seal Beach, California. Most of my friends had gotten married. I had been rejected several times in my quest to get married and I was very lonely.

Living next door to me was a guy with blond hair down to his back. I was told that he made his living dealing drugs. His live-in girlfriend was stunningly gorgeous. I would be sitting out in the yard reading my Bible as she came out in her bikini and hopped on her bike to ride down to the beach. And I would cry out with Asaph (Ps. 73:13-14), “Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and washed my hands in innocence; for I have been stricken all day long and chastened every morning.” I could relate very much to his honest confession that his feet came close to stumbling because he envied the wicked (73:2-3)!

At such times we’re all tempted to cry out, “God, it’s not fair! Why do You allow the wicked to prosper, while the godly suffer? Why do evil scoundrels live long and happy lives, while Your saints suffer? It’s just not fair!”

Psalm 73 tackles this problem, not from the ivory tower of philosophic ideas, but from the trenches of painful experience. The Psalms are refreshingly honest. They do not give the false view that if you’re a believer, life will be trouble-free and you’ll go around saying, “Praise the Lord!” all the time. True, the Psalms are full of praise to God and they teach us that we should be people of praise. But they are very realistic in showing that such praise does not come without a struggle. The psalmist here admits that he almost slipped (73:2). But he shows us how he worked through his problem of questioning God’s fairness in light of the prosperity of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous.

The psalm falls into two halves: in 73:1-14, Asaph shows that there are times when it seems that life isn’t fair, because the wicked prosper and the godly suffer. Then (73:15-28) he shows from his own hard-won victory that the way out of the “life isn’t fair” pity party is to gain God’s eternal perspective on these matters. In two of the most wonderful verses in the Bible, he exclaims (73:25-26), “Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

There is far more excellent teaching on this psalm than I can present in one message. C. H. Spurgeon preached five sermons on it, as did Charles Simeon. Martyn Lloyd-Jones preached eleven very helpful messages on it, which are now the second half of Faith Tried & Triumphant [Baker]. Jonathan Edwards has a wonderful sermon, “God the Best Portion of the Christian” (The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth], 2:104-107). So if you want more in-depth treatment, I refer you to these men of God.

To sum up Asaph’s insight on the problem of the prosperity of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous…

The prosperity of the wicked is short-lived and their doom is eternal, but the blessings of the godly are eternal, whereas their trials are short-lived.

1. There are many times when it seems that life isn’t fair, because the wicked prosper and the godly suffer (73:1-14).

The psalmist begins with his solution (73:1), “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart!” But then he contrasts this with his own near fall (73:2-3), “But as for me, my feet came close to stumbling, my steps had almost slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant as I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” Then (73:4-12), he goes on to describe the wicked, who seem to prosper in spite of their arrogance and blasphemous defiance of God. His conclusion at this point was that he was wasting his time trying to live a godly life, because all he experienced was trouble (73:13-14). I offer five observations:

A. The problem of the wicked prospering and the godly suffering is a heart-matter.

The psalmist says (73:1), “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart!” The first phrase centers on God’s covenant people, Israel, whereas the second phrase zeroes in on those within Israel whose hearts were right before God. In modern terms, there is a difference between being a member of a church and having a personal, heart-relationship with God. God knows our hearts and it is on the heart level that we must deal with Him. We can’t hide struggles or doubts from God. We’ve got to battle through until our hearts are pure before Him.

The struggles that the psalmist shares were not those of a skeptic or unbeliever. He was seeking to be pure in heart before God (73:13). His struggles resulted in his being embittered in heart (73:21). When he finally breaks into the light, he can confidently say, “God is the strength of my heart” (73:26).

So the point is, don’t be satisfied with putting on a happy face and saying that all is well between you and God when you’re doubting or embittered in your heart. Admit your heart-struggle and work things through so that with the psalmist, you finally can say truthfully, “God is the strength of my heart.”

B. Envy is at the root of this kind of struggle.

“For I was envious of the arrogant as I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (73:3). Asaph looked at his own lack of material goods and at his own troubles, compared himself with the rich and powerful that he saw around him, and thought, “I want what they’ve got!” His desires were wrong. He desired to get rich, thinking that money would solve his problems (see 1 Tim. 6:9-10).

The first thing he mentions about the wicked is (73:4), “For there are no pains in their death.” Hebrew scholars debate the correct translation of this phrase. Some divide the Hebrew words so that the verse reads (NIV), “They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong.” But the Hebrew text probably means that the psalmist saw the ungodly dying peaceably. They don’t fear judgment, because Satan has lulled them into thinking that God will overlook their faults and reward their virtues. So “they glide into eternity without a struggle” (C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David [Baker], 3:340).

The reference to having a “fat” body (73:4, 7) in that culture was a positive thing. They didn’t know about heart disease and the risk of diabetes for the overweight. For them, the wealthy were fat because they had all the food they could eat.

Also, the wicked wear pride as their necklace and violence as their garment (73:6). Because they’re successful, they proudly attribute it all to their own hard work and ingenuity. If they were interviewed on Oprah, they would say, “I got to where I’m at because I believe in myself!” Sure, they had to step on a few people to get there (73:6, 8), but that’s life! They’re even arrogant enough to speak out against God (“the heavens,” 73:9): they didn’t need His help. They succeeded on their own. This description reminds me of Donald Trump, who reeks of arrogance and self-confidence. He gloats that he has the power to say, “You’re fired!”

Verse 10 is difficult to interpret, but it probably refers to the followers of the wicked, who “acclaim them, approve of them, flatter and follow them” (H. C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms [Baker], p. 526). The followers get to drink “waters of abundance” because of their association with the rich and powerful. Their attitude toward God, if they think of Him at all, is, (73:11), “How does God know? And is there knowledge with the Most High?” He hasn’t interfered with their climb to success thus far, so He must not know or He doesn’t care.

I don’t think that the psalmist envied the arrogance and ruthlessness of the rich and powerful, but he did envy their easy lifestyle and fact that they had plenty of money to enjoy the finer things of life (73:12).

C. At stake in the “life isn’t fair” complaint are God’s goodness and His sovereignty in governing the world.

Asaph finally came back to affirm that God is good (73:1), but while he was envying the wicked, he was really questioning whether God is good and whether He is in control of the world. If He is both good and powerful, then why do good people suffer and wicked people prosper?

Satan attacked God’s goodness when he suggested to Eve that God was withholding something good by commanding them not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Satan has used that same ploy down through the centuries. When you begin to doubt either God’s goodness or His sovereignty over bad things that happen, you’re on the slippery slope toward doubt and sin.

D. When we think that God isn’t fair, it leads us to question the benefits of following God.

Asaph lamented that he had followed the Lord in vain, because in spite of his efforts to keep both his inner and outer life pure (his heart and his hands), all he had experienced was trouble (73:13-14). At this point, he wasn’t viewing his trouble by faith in God’s loving discipline (Heb. 12:5-11), but rather by sight in comparison with the “good life” of the wealthy wicked. As Spurgeon remarks (ibid., 3:342), “Poor Asaph! He questions the value of holiness when its wages are paid in the coin of affliction.” We have to join Joseph, who viewed all of the bad things that came upon him as good from the hand of God for a higher purpose (Gen. 50:20). And, with Paul (Rom. 8:28-36), we must affirm both God’s sovereignty and His love, believing that He works all things together for our good. So by faith, resist the temptation to doubt the blessings of following God.

E. Self-focus and self-pity are at the root of questioning God’s fairness.

Asaph finally came to see that the problem was not that God is unfair or that the wicked prosper. His problem was his own self-focus and self-pity. He had become “senseless and ignorant,” like a beast before God (73:22). His focus was on himself. “What did I get out of being pure? Nothing but trouble! Poor me!” But, as Derek Kidner observes (Psalms 73-150 [IVP], p. 261), “the very formulating of the thought has shocked the writer into a better frame of mind, which he now describes.”

2. The way out of the “life isn’t fair” pity party is to gain God’s eternal perspective on these matters (73:15-28).

When we grapple with a difficult problem like this, we must begin by remembering God’s words (Isa. 55:8), “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ declares the Lord.” For one thing, we are necessarily time-bound. For us, a few years seem like eternity. But for God, a thousand years are like a day (2 Pet. 3:8). God’s ways are often mysterious to us. To understand His ways, we must study His Word in dependence on His Spirit (1 Cor. 2:6-13). There are five action points that the psalmist took to get out of his distress over the seeming unfairness of God:

A. Face your responsibility as a believer to others (73:15).

“If I had said, ‘I will speak thus,’ behold, I would have betrayed the generation of Your children.” He means, if he had stopped at verse 14 and had gone around telling everyone what he had been thinking about the prosperity of the wicked and the trials of the godly, without giving the solution that he came to, he would have betrayed God’s children. So, he turned from his self-centered focus (73:3, 13) and faced up to his responsibility as a believer to his fellow believers.

We are responsible, not only to God, but also to one another. What we say can impact our families or those in the family of God or those who are still outside the family of God for good or for evil. If we grumble and impugn God’s goodness in the hearing of our children, we may turn them against following the Lord. It’s a sobering thought to me that as a pastor, if I were to fall into sin, it would damage many of God’s children who look to me as an example! Although you may not be in a leadership position, there are those around you who look at your example. So before you spout off your complaint against God, stop and face your responsibility as a believer to others.

B. Take time to think biblically about matters before you act (73:16).

The psalmist says that he “pondered to understand this.” The answers did not come to him immediately, because he adds that it was troublesome in his sight. The full answer would come after he went into the sanctuary of God (73:17), as we’ll see. But the point is, he took time to ponder to understand things.

If people would only do this consistently, they would avoid so many problems! For example, no one would get drunk or use illegal drugs to “feel good” if they stopped to think about what they are doing, especially if they think about it in light of Scripture. But just from a rational point of view, why use drugs or get drunk? It may give immediate relief from pain or problems, but it will destroy you, impoverish you, and enslave you. The same may be said of any number of sins. If you take time to think biblically about where this sin will take you, you’d avoid it.

C. Take time to meet with God and His people (73:17).

The psalmist did not get things sorted out until he went into the sanctuary of God. Then he perceived the end of the wicked, that God will bring them into certain judgment. The sanctuary refers to the tabernacle (later the temple), where God manifested His holy presence. Asaph doesn’t tell us what happened there to jar him into the right perspective, but as he will go on to spell out, he got his muddled thinking cleared up by meeting with God.

Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on Ps. 73:16, p. 142) interpreted the sanctuary as referring to God’s Word, since the book of the law was laid up at the sanctuary. Whether that is the meaning here or not, it is certainly true that we need God’s Word to get His perspective on how to deal with trials and with the difficult issues of life. We need private time in the Word and in prayer, asking the Spirit to give us understanding in these things. And, we need the teaching of gifted men to help us as well. Take time to meet with God in His holy place.

But God’s sanctuary is also the place where His people gathered for worship. The implication is that the psalmist had been avoiding gathering with God’s children at His sanctuary. Isolation feeds self-pity. Coming into the sanctuary, he saw others who believed in God and walked with God, in spite of their trials. Perhaps he was able to talk with some of them about his problem and gain a fresh perspective. Don’t keep to yourself if you’re struggling with doubt or some other problem. Get to the sanctuary!

D. Gain God’s eternal perspective on death and judgment (73:18-22, 27).

When Asaph went into the sanctuary, he perceived the end of the wicked (73:17). He says (73:18-20), “Surely You set them in slippery places; You cast them down to destruction. How they are destroyed in a moment! They are utterly swept away by sudden terrors! Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when aroused, You will despise their form.” He sums this up again in verse 27, “For, behold, those who are far from You will perish; You have destroyed all those who are unfaithful to You.”

These proud, defiant, powerful sinners thought that they were invincible. But in God’s sovereign time, He sets them in slippery places. Like people who step on a patch of ice and go down, these proud men were strutting along with no problems. The next second, they crashed to the ground, mortally wounded. It may seem to the godly and ungodly alike that God is now sleeping. But when He is aroused, these wicked will be “destroyed in a moment,” “utterly swept away by sudden terrors” (73:19). Verse 20 shows “how utterly inconsequential the lives of such men really are” (Leupold, 529). They thought that they were all-important, but God brushes them aside like a dream.

It is important that we always remember that God holds the trump cards of death and judgment. If the Bible makes anything clear, it is the fact that no one will escape death and judgment. If we do not live in light of this eternal perspective, we are like senseless beasts that live and die without any thought of eternity (73:22).

So, to get out of the “life isn’t fair” pity-party, face your responsibility as a believer. Take time to think biblically about what really matters before you act. Meet with God and His people. Gain God’s eternal perspective on death and judgment. Finally,

E. Recognize that God is your chief treasure for time and eternity (73:23-28).

When the psalmist recovered his perspective, that God is truly good to His people, he realized that God had been with him through the whole ordeal, holding on to his hand (73:23). The fact that he got through it was not due to his strong grip on God, but to God’s strong grip on him. He also acknowledges that God will counsel and guide him, and afterward receive him to glory (73:24). The same Hebrew word translated “receive” is used of God’s taking Enoch and Elijah to heaven (Gen. 5:24; 2 Kings 2:3, 5, 9, 10; also, Ps. 49:15). So I understand the “glory” here to be the eternal glory of being with God (Kidner defends this view, p. 263).

Time and words fail me to do justice to the wonderful truth of verses 25 & 26, that God is our chief treasure, both on earth and forever in heaven. I don’t know how many of us can honestly say, “Besides You, I desire nothing on earth,” but as Martyn Lloyd-Jones states (p. 194), this “is the highest level to which we can ever attain. Indeed, in these two verses we see the goal of salvation.”

Earlier, the psalmist’s trouble stemmed from the fact that he was following God for what He could give him. When he saw that the wicked had more good things than he did, he became disillusioned and thought that he had followed God in vain. But now he comes to see that God Himself is enough. God is the treasure. Yes, He gives us many blessings, but He is the main blessing. If you have Him as the strength of your heart and your portion forever, you have it all. As Asaph sums up (73:28), “the nearness of God is my good.” Can you say that?

Conclusion

In his sermon on these verses, Jonathan Edwards applies the truth by asking five questions (p. 106). I can only cite a couple of them. First, “What is it which chiefly makes you desire to go to heaven when you die? … Is the main reason, that you may be with God, have communion with him, and be conformed to him?” Second, “If you might live here in earthly prosperity to all eternity, but destitute of the presence of God and communion with him … would you choose this rather than to leave the world, in order to dwell in heaven, as children of God, there to enjoy the glorious privileges of children, in a holy and perfect love to God, and enjoyment of him to all eternity?” Chew on those questions!

If you’re struggling with God not being fair, it may be because He is not your chief treasure above earthly prosperity. Asaph wants us to know that the prosperity of the wicked is short-lived and their doom is eternal. But the blessings of the godly are eternal, whereas our trials are short-lived. The main blessing is to know God Himself as the strength of your heart and your portion forever!

Application Questions

  1. Is it a sin to struggle with doubt? How can we be honest about our doubts without sinning?
  2. In what ways are you tempted to envy the wicked? How can you be on guard against these wrongful desires?
  3. A skeptic asks, “How can a good and all-powerful God let little children suffer terrible trials?” Your response?
  4. How do we come to the place where we can honestly say, “Besides You, God, I desire nothing on earth”?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2009, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Psalm 73b: Treasuring God Above All Else

Psalm 73:21-28

People go to great lengths and expense to search for buried treasures. The September, 1988, Reader’s Digest (pp. 90-95) told the story of over 200 years of attempts to find a buried treasure on Oak Island in Nova Scotia. A company had invested $10 million to sink a shaft 20 stories deep to try to find this supposed treasure. I did a web search and found out that the hunt is still going on! An entire tour industry has sprung up around the hunt!

What do you treasure most of all in life? What do you spend your time and effort working for? Presumably, we exert the most effort to try to get whatever we think will bring us the most happiness. It would be a great tragedy to spend your life looking for a hidden treasure, only to find it and discover that it did not bring the happiness that you were hoping for!

Asaph, the author of Psalm 73, has honestly shared with us how he almost slipped and fell from his relationship with God because he had been envious of the wicked (73:2). He wanted their treasures. He observed their prosperity, compared it with his own many troubles since he had begun to follow the Lord, and almost concluded that he was wasting his time to pursue God.

Then he went into the sanctuary of God and perceived the end of the wicked, how God will sweep them away in sudden judgment. He realized that he was envying a supposed treasure that would crumble in his hands if he ever held it. And so he reset his focus on the only treasure that can satisfy both for time and eternity, namely, God. In 73:21-28 he gives us the vital lesson that…

We should treasure God above all else.

In the first half of the psalm, Asaph went astray because the Lord had not given him the things that he wanted. He wanted enough money to enjoy the good life that he saw the wicked enjoying. He couldn’t understand why all that he had gotten since he had begun to keep his heart pure was pain and trouble. But in the second half of the psalm, he reveals how he came to discover that God Himself is the treasure that we are to seek. Earthly treasures will be taken in a second at the moment of death, and then we face judgment. But God alone is enough to satisfy the longings of our hearts, both in this life and in eternity.

Many seek God for the blessings that they want to receive. I must confess that one reason I began to follow the Lord as a teenager was that I knew a young pastor with a happy family life. I thought, “If God can give me a happy family life, then it’s worth it to follow Him.” Thankfully, the Lord took me in spite of my selfish focus and began to bring me to a more mature perspective! Maybe you came to Christ for the blessings that you thought He would give you. You thought that He would take away your troubles, but your troubles have only increased! He wants you to see that He is the treasure! He is sufficient to satisfy the thirsty soul! He is far better than any earthly treasure or blessing!

In this wonderful conclusion to the psalm, Asaph gives us three reasons why we should treasure God above all else: Because He is faithful to us in our failures (73:21-24); because He is the only One who can satisfy and sustain us both in time and for eternity (73:25-26); and, because He has rescued us from judgment so that we can take refuge in Him and tell of all His works (73:27-28).

1. We should treasure God above all else because He is faithful to us in our failures (73:21-24).

“When my heart was embittered and I was pierced within, then I was senseless and ignorant; I was like a beast before You. Nevertheless I am continually with You; You have taken hold of my right hand. With Your counsel You will guide me, and afterward receive me to glory.”

Before we look at some lessons from these verses, note how the psalmist repeatedly speaks of “I” and “You.” He is dealing personally and directly with God. As we saw last week, he dealt with God on the heart level. In verse 21, his heart was embittered, but by verse 26, God is the strength of his heart. Even so, you and I must deal with God personally and directly, on the heart level. These verses reveal three lessons of how God uses our failures:

A. God uses our failures to give us a deeper understanding of our total need for Him (73:21-22).

We all inherently have too high a view of ourselves and of our ability to live the Christian life in our own strength. And so the Lord graciously permits us to fail to teach us our absolute need for Him. About the time that you start thinking, “I’ll never fall into that sin again!” look out! “Let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).

This principle is illustrated in many places in the Bible (see Psalm 107, for example), but perhaps nowhere more clearly than with Peter’s denials of Christ. The Lord could have prevented Peter’s failure. Satan had demanded permission to sift Peter like wheat (Luke 22:31). God did not have to grant Satan’s demand. He could have said, “Satan, be gone!” and Satan would have had to flee. But God granted Satan’s request to teach Peter (and us) a painful, but necessary, lesson: Peter was not as strong as he thought he was. He had protested that even if all others fell away, he would stand firm (Mark 14:29). But he had to fail to learn not to trust in himself. The Christian life is a process of getting knocked off our feet so that we learn not to trust in ourselves, but totally in the Lord.

But Peter learned something else through his failure, and Asaph learned the same wonderful lesson:

B. God uses our failures to give us a deeper understanding of His faithful love for us (73:23).

Asaph came to see that in his envy of the wicked, he was “senseless and ignorant,” “like a beast” before God (73:22). In modern terms, “What an idiot I was!” That is correct! Part of repentance is seeing how stupid our sin really is. But as he is kicking himself for being such a dumb brute, we read the wonderful word, nevertheless: “Nevertheless I am continually with You; You have taken hold of my right hand” (73:23). He realized that God had not abandoned him in spite of his senseless, ignorant behavior! He sees that even though he almost slipped, God was still holding firmly to his hand.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones has an entire chapter titled, “Nevertheless” (Faith Tried & Triumphant [Baker], pp. 167-178). He writes (p. 168), “A very good way of testing whether we are truly Christian or not is just to ask ourselves whether we can say this ‘nevertheless.’ Do we know this blessed ‘but’? Do we go on, or do we stop where we were at the end of verse 22?”

He means that to become a Christian, you must come to the place of seeing how terrible your sin is before God. You must see yourself as a senseless beast before Him. But, the instant that God opens your eyes to see also the good news that “Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15), you understand this glorious word, nevertheless! Paul describes this same thing in Ephesians 2. He begins (vv. 1-3) describing how we all were dead in our sins, living in disobedience to God, and that we all were children of wrath. Then he writes, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)” (Eph. 2:4-5).

So you begin the Christian life by seeing God’s grace and love in spite of your sin. And as you try to live the Christian life, you will fail God, like the psalmist and like Peter. When you do and you come to your senses again, you will realize in a fresh and deeper way His faithful love in spite of your sin.

C. God uses our failures to give us a deeper understanding of our need for His Word and His Spirit to counsel and guide us safely to heaven (73:24).

Not only did God have hold of Asaph’s hand through his struggle, but also he was sure that the Lord would counsel and guide him until he was safely home in glory. Would he stumble again? Probably. But God would still have hold of his hand? Certainly! With David (Ps. 37:23-24), he could affirm, “The steps of a man are established by the Lord, and He delights in his way. When he falls, he will not be hurled headlong, because the Lord is the One who holds his hand.”

This is the great doctrine of the final perseverance of the saints (Lloyd-Jones, p. 181). It means that though Christians may stumble and fall, if the Lord has redeemed them, He will keep them. In John, after stating that He came down from heaven to do the will of the One who sent Him, (6:38), Jesus clarified (6:39), “This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me, I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day.” If any of those whom the Father gave to Jesus are lost, then Jesus failed to accomplish the Father’s will! This should assure our hearts!

The Lord counsels and guides us to bring us to glory through His Word and His Spirit. As we study and meditate on God’s Word, He uses it to teach us how we should live to please Him. We must interpret the Word properly in its context, using Scripture to interpret Scripture. And to interpret and apply it properly, we also need to ask the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom and understanding. Subjective feelings that contradict Scripture are not the Spirit’s guidance! He guides us through the proper interpretation and application of Scripture. The Spirit never guides us to disobey the Word!

So the first reason that we should treasure God above all else is because He is faithful to us in our failures.

2. We should treasure God above all else because He is the only One who can satisfy and sustain us both in time and for eternity (73:25-26).

After thinking about God’s grace in sustaining him through his time of doubt, the psalmist exclaims (73:25-26), “Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” Here he has moved from following God for what God may give him to treasuring God for who He is. For sake of time, I can only point out three lessons here:

A. While we should thank God for His blessings, we should treasure God Himself as the chief blessing.

While God’s blessings are innumerable and precious, we would err greatly if we treasured the blessings above God Himself. That would be like the college student who called home only when he needed more money. He should call home because he loves his father. In the context of that loving relationship, the dad is pleased to meet his son’s needs (within limits, of course, for the good of the son). But if the son is only interested in the money, but not in the father, something is seriously wrong.

But verse 25 presents us with a difficulty: Who can honestly say, “Besides You, I desire nothing on earth”? That’s a radical claim! Should I not desire my wife? Should I not desire a relationship with my children and grandchildren? Is it wrong to desire a comfortable lifestyle? Is it wrong to desire good food?

In terms of relationships, the Bible commands us to love our families. But, as Jesus pointed out, we must love Him more than our families and even more than our own lives (Luke 14:26). In terms of things, Paul gives the proper perspective (1 Tim. 6:17-19), “Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed.” So we can thankfully enjoy God’s blessings, but we should treasure Him above all else.

B. We should be growing in our desire for God and in our heart’s satisfaction in God.

This is a matter of the desires of the heart, what Jonathan Edwards described as the “religious affections.” Obviously, the heart’s desire for God expressed in these verses is a lifelong process of growth. Part of that process is that you begin to see the shortness of life. You begin to see other people whose heart and flesh has failed them. You watch friends and family members die. As you get older, you begin to realize that your heart and flesh are going to fail. The signs become more painfully evident as the years go on! You ask yourself, “What am I living for? When this short life ends, what will I have left?”

The psalmist would rephrase it: “Whom will I have left?” “Whom have I in heaven but You?” God must be the personal possession of our souls, so that when life itself comes to an end, we still have Him. He is our strength. He is our portion forever. In Numbers 18:20, the Lord told Aaron, “You shall have no inheritance in their land nor own any portion among them; I am your portion and your inheritance among the sons of Israel.” Did the priests go, “What! No land! What a crummy deal! All we get is the Lord?” They didn’t say that if they understood what Asaph here is saying. God is our portion, and He satisfies more than any piece of land ever could. We should be growing to understand that truth.

C. We should be growing in the awareness of our own insufficiency and God’s all-sufficiency.

Asaph contrasts his failing flesh and heart with God as the strength of his heart and his portion forever. Some commentators understand the psalmist’s reference to his failing flesh and heart to refer back to the failures described earlier in the psalm. Calvin, for instance, applies it (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on Ps. 73:26, p. 156), “for no man will cast himself wholly upon God, but he who feels himself in a fainting condition, and who despairs of the sufficiency of his own powers. We will seek nothing from God but what we are conscious of wanting in ourselves.” This relates to the lesson we saw earlier, that our own failures should help us see our own weakness and our desperate need for His strength.

But the psalmist may also be looking ahead, to the certainty that his flesh and heart will fail when he dies. His description of God as his portion forever shows, as Calvin says (ibid.), that God “alone is abundantly sufficient for us, and [that] in him the perfection of our happiness consists.” Growing as a Christian involves growing to see your own insufficiency and God’s all-sufficiency.

Thus we should treasure God above all else because He is faithful to us in our failures and because He is the only One who can satisfy and sustain us both in time and for eternity.

3. We should treasure God above all else because He has rescued us from judgment so that we can take refuge in Him and tell of all His works (73:27-28).

Asaph ends the psalm with a summary (73:27-28), “For, behold, those who are far from You will perish; You have destroyed all those who are unfaithful to You. But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all Your works.” I can only touch on four lessons:

A. We should treasure God above all else because He has rescued us from judgment (73:27).

In verse 27, Asaph thinks back to his earlier envy of the wicked. In light of the fact that they are going to perish and be destroyed, why envy them? As the 17th century commentator, John Trapp, put it (source unknown) “To prosper in sin is the greatest tragedy that can befall a man this side of hell. Envy not such a one his pomp any more than you would a corpse his flowers.”

When the Bible talks about God destroying the wicked, it does not mean that He annihilates them so that they cease to exist. In Matthew 25:46, Jesus says that the wicked “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” The same word, eternal, is used of both. If eternal life is forever, then eternal punishment is forever.

But here’s the point: We once were far from God. We once were unfaithful to Him (the Hebrew means to play the whore). We once were headed for eternal punishment. But God in His mercy reached down to us with the love of Christ and rescued us from His judgment. Shouldn’t we now treasure Him above all else?

B. We should treasure God above all else, because being near to Him is our good (73:28).

In sharp contrast to those who are far from God and thus will perish, Asaph writes, “But as for me, the nearness of God is my good.” James 4:8 tells us how to be near to God: “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” Those who treasure their sin are not comfortable in the bright light of His holy presence (John 3:20). But those who have been cleansed through faith in Jesus’ blood enjoy the nearness of God. They are dismayed when He seems distant.

C. We should treasure God above all else, because He is our refuge in trouble (73:28).

“I have made the Lord God my refuge.” When you’re under attack and the enemy is pressing in, the most valuable place to be is in a place of refuge. The enemy’s arrows can’t hit you there. You’re protected there. You can rest there. A good place of refuge is a life-saving treasure. God is that refuge for us. So we should treasure Him above all else. Why take refuge in anything the world has to offer when you can make the Lord God your refuge?

D. If we treasure God above all else, we will tell of all His works (73:28).

The result of Asaph’s treasuring God and making Him his refuge was, “that I may tell of all Your works.” In other words, as he experienced God’s blessings of deliverance and as he enjoyed God as the satisfaction of his soul, it would spill over into praise and glory to God. Jonathan Edwards put it (The End for Which God Created the World, in John Piper, God’s Passion for His Glory [Crossway Books], p. 158), “The happiness of the creature consists in rejoicing in God, by which also God is magnified and exalted.” As John Piper frequently says, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.”

Conclusion

Matthew Henry wrote (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible [Revell], 2:1096, commenting on Neh. 8:10), “The joy of the Lord will arm us against the assaults of our spiritual enemies, and put our mouths out of taste for those pleasures with which the tempter baits his hooks.” The psalmist learned that lesson. When he came to treasure God above all else, he no longer envied the prosperity of the wicked.

Join the psalmist in putting to death all envy of the prosperity of the wicked by treasuring God above all else. Then, with John Newton, you can sing (“Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken”),

Fading is the world’s best pleasure,

All its boasted pomp and show;

Solid joys and lasting treasure

None but Zion’s children know.

Application Questions

  1. If we say that God is faithful to us in all our failures, someone will object that this promotes loose living. Your answer?
  2. Is there anything in your life that you knowingly treasure more than God? How can you get rid of it?
  3. A new Christian tells you that he was happier as a pagan than he is now as a Christian. What would you say?
  4. What has helped you most to treasure God above all else? What has hindered you the most in this quest?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2009, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Psalm 80: Praying for Revival

Del Fehsenfeld Jr., founder of Life Action Ministries, used to ask this convicting question: “If revival in this land depended on your prayers, your faith, your obedience, would we ever experience revival?” (Spirit of Revival [Feb., 1999], p. 11) I confess that while I do pray for revival, it is not with the faithfulness or fervor that I should pray. If you also fall short in this area, then Psalm 80 has a message for you:

We should pray earnestly for revival among God’s people.

No one knows for sure when this psalm was written, but many scholars think that it was around 722 B.C. when the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians. (Thus the author would be a descendant of the Asaph of David’s time, a member of the worship guild that he had founded.) The nation had divided over 200 years before under Rehoboam, the son of Solomon. Jeroboam, the first king of the Northern Kingdom, had set up an idolatrous form of worship in a deliberate attempt to keep his people from going to Jerusalem to worship (1 Kings 12:26-33). None of his successors had heeded the warnings of the godly prophets to remove this idolatrous worship. Finally, the Northern Kingdom fell to the Assyrians, who deported many of the survivors and imported foreigners to mingle with those left in the land (2 Kings 17).

Psalm 80 may have been penned by a poet in the south who had witnessed the destruction of the north and was concerned that the same enemies not conquer the south. He no doubt saw the same unfaithfulness in the south that had led to the demise of the north. And so he earnestly entreats God to send revival. His prayer, repeated three times (80:3, 7, 19), “O God, restore us and cause Your face to shine upon us, and we will be saved,” is probably a prayer both for those in the north and those in the south. Those in the north needed to be restored to God and to the land. Those in the south needed to be restored to God before they experienced the same defeat and deportation that had happened in the north.

The psalm falls into four sections: (1) In 80:1-3, the psalmist prays for God, the Shepherd of Israel, to restore and save His flock. (2) In 80:4-7, he asks God how long He will be angry and allow Israel’s enemies to taunt them. (3) In 80:8-13, the psalmist gives a short history that pictures Israel as a vine that God transplanted from Egypt to Canaan. At first it flourished and grew (8-11), but now it is neglected and overrun by those that plunder it. (4) This leads to the final impassioned prayer (80:14-19) for God to take care of His devastated people by restoring and saving them.

Rather than follow the order of the psalm, I want to look at it from the practical perspective of how we can develop greater faithfulness and fervency to pray for revival. By “revival,” I’m not referring to the popular image of setting up a tent or putting a sign out in front of the church, “Revival Here This Week! 7 p.m.” A sweaty evangelist preaches hellfire and damnation sermons, urging people to walk the aisle and decide for Jesus. Such “revivals” are manipulative human attempts to produce what only God can produce.

Rather, genuine revivals begin when through the preaching of the Word, the Holy Spirit convicts people of their spiritual apathy and sin. At the same time, He opens their eyes to get a new glimpse of the holiness of God and of His wrath against sin. As they come under conviction, they realize that their sin has separated them from God. This is the cause of the difficulties that they have been experiencing. The troubles may be on a personal or on a national level. But people begin to see their desperate condition. They realize that they are helpless to do anything about it, unless God powerfully remedies the situation. They also realize that their faithless, disobedient lives have dishonored His holy name. And so they repent and ask God to be glorified in their midst.

Such revivals are a sovereign work of God that affect many at the same time. Often in history they have spread around the globe. Christians repent of sins that they have been practicing. Churchgoers who were not truly saved get saved. Many outsiders are drawn to the Lord for salvation as they witness the changed lives of God’s people. Such revivals have literally changed the course of history. Many believe that 18th century England was spared from revolution because of the revival under the Wesley’s and George Whitefield. In light of the past 40 years of increasing degeneracy in our nation, we desperately need genuine, Spirit-sent revival. Psalm 80 reveals three things that will help us pray more earnestly for it:

1. We will pray more earnestly for revival when we sense our desperate need.

God sometimes puts His people in difficult places so that they will see their desperate need and cry out to Him. Psalm 80 oozes with the urgency of the psalmist’s appeal, stemming from his realization of the desperate situation. God’s people have been fed the bread of tears (80:5). They have drunk “tears by the bowlful” (80:5, NIV). Their neighbors contend against them and laugh them to scorn (80:6). They are being plundered by all that pass by (80:12). They are like a vine burned with fire and cut down (80:16). So they desperately need God to restore and save them. We can apply this by noting two reasons that we desperately need revival:

A. We need revival because of the powerful enemies that seek to destroy us.

In Israel’s case, their need for restoration and salvation were both physical and spiritual. They needed physical safety from enemy nations that threatened to annihilate them. But they also needed to turn from idolatry and religious syncretism back to the worship of the one true God.

In terms of physical enemies, the north had either just fallen or was on the verge of falling to the brutal Assyrian army. They later surrounded Jerusalem and were on the verge of conquering the south before God destroyed their entire army in response to Hezekiah’s prayer.

Scholars do not agree on the reasons why the psalmist asks God to stir up His power “before Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh” (80:2). Joseph and Benjamin were the only sons of Rachel; Ephraim and Manasseh were Joseph’s sons. They were the dominant tribes of the ten tribes of the north, but Benjamin was united with Judah and was spared in the Assyrian deportation. Perhaps Benjamin is mentioned here because Ephraim and Manasseh in the north had already fallen and Benjamin was geographic buffer between the north and the south. Whatever the explanation, God’s people always were threatened by powerful enemies that sought to wipe them out.

In a similar manner, the church has always been threatened by the powers of darkness that seek to annihilate her. Sometimes the enemy has exterminated the church in entire regions, such as Turkey and North Africa. First Peter 5:8 warns us, “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” If we kept in mind our vulnerability to this powerful enemy, we would pray more earnestly for God to stir up His power to revive us.

B. We need revival because of the powerful sins that often entangle us.

The psalmist mentions (80:4) that God was even angry with the prayers of His people! The Hebrew literally says that He was smoked with them! There is only one reason that God would be angry with His people’s prayers, namely, that they were tolerating sin in their lives at the same time that they were asking Him to deliver them from these enemies. God promised that if they humbled themselves, turned from their wicked ways and prayed, He would heal their land (2 Chron. 7:14). He hadn’t gone back on His promise. The problem was, the people had not humbled themselves and turned from their wicked ways. God’s vineyard had only produced worthless grapes (Isa. 5:1-7). They needed revival to bring them to genuine repentance for their many sins.

One mark of genuine revival is that God’s people awaken to a new and deeper sense of their sinfulness before Him. Through the Word, the Holy Spirit convicts them of sins that they have been brushing off as no big deal. Maybe they’ve excused their sins by saying, “We’re under grace!” Or they’ve minimized their sins by comparing themselves with those who are worse sinners. In his excellent book, Revival ([Crossway Books], p. 41 [see, also, pp. 101, 156-157, 231]), Martyn Lloyd-Jones says,

When you have a revival you see men and women groaning, agonising under the conviction of sin. They are so conscious of their unworthiness, and their vileness, that they feel that they cannot live. They do not know what to do with themselves. They cannot sleep. They are in an agony of soul.

We also need to note that although we now may enjoy God’s blessing, that does not guarantee the future. Israel had once experienced God’s blessing. The psalmist rehearses (80:8) how God had brought them out of Egypt, drove out the nations, and planted them in the Promised Land. For a while, under David and Solomon, they flourished and spread out even as far as the Euphrates River (80:11). But from that glorious past, they had now fallen into the grim description we read here (80:12, 13, 16). They needed revival because they had become entangled in the sins of the pagan nations around them.

That describes the church in America! Once the church had a powerful influence in this country. Although many of the founding fathers were not born-again Christians, they were greatly influenced by the Bible. They incorporated biblical truth into the founding documents. George Washington said, “Religion [he meant Christianity] and Morality are the essential pillars of civil society” (cited by Iain Murray, Revival & Revivalism [Banner of Truth], p. 114).

But in the past forty or fifty years, the church’s influence in America has been decimated. We are laughed at as hypocrites (which is often the truth!) or castigated as intolerant and ignorant. Much of this has come upon us because we are not much different than the pagans around us. We need revival because we’ve become entangled in sin. Without revival, we will perish at the rebuke of God’s holy countenance (80:16). The church’s desperate need should motivate us to pray more earnestly for genuine revival.

2. We will pray more earnestly for revival when we realize that only God can produce genuine revival.

A. Humanly orchestrated “revivals” are not genuine or lasting in their effects.

It’s possible to get people to walk the aisle and make decisions for Christ through various techniques: emotional music; stories that touch people’s feelings; and powerful closing appeals linked with counselors streaming towards the front. Charles Finney popularized these sorts of gimmicks in the 1830’s. He believed that if you used proper methods, revival would follow (see Murray, ibid., p. 247). But Finney believed that conversion was merely a matter of people deciding to change, not of God changing their hearts. His seriously defective views on conversion and revival, along with his manipulative methods, are still with us today.

B. When God restores us and shines His face upon us, we will be truly saved.

H. C. Leupold (Exposition of Psalms [Baker], p. 581) comments on the psalmist’s repeated refrain for God to shine His face on us, “So potent is God’s good pleasure that, as soon as it becomes operative, deliverance sets in.” There will be at least four results:

(1). Sinners will be saved.

In the Old Testament, salvation often refers to physical deliverance from enemies. But there is also a spiritual element, in that the reason the nation was in danger from its enemies was that they had turned from the Lord. They knew the Jewish rituals and customs and practiced them religiously, but their hearts were far from God. So the psalmist’s cry for God to save them was at least in part a cry for Him to save the people from sin and judgment.

Even so today when God sends genuine revival, people who have attended church for years get saved. Maybe they grew up in the church. Perhaps they are church members who can recite John 3:16 and who say that they believe in Christ. But they have never been born again. God has never changed their hearts. But when the Spirit sends genuine revival, they see their need of Christ, repent of their sins, and are genuinely saved.

(2). God will raise the church from the ashes.

John Calvin certainly saw God revive the church from the deadness of medieval Catholicism in amazing ways. He points out (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on Ps. 80:16, p. 306) that even though the church is seemingly hopeless, smoldering in ashes because of God’s judgment on her sin, when we repent, He can enrich and bless us with His unparalleled mercy. Even though the church in America seems hopeless, God is able to work if we entreat Him to shine His countenance on us again.

(3). We will not turn back from the Lord (80:18a).

In other words, when God works by shining His countenance on us, it is effectual and lasting. It is not based on emotional decisions, but on a real change of heart.

(4). We will call upon His name (80:18b).

“Revive us” means, “give us life” (ESV). When God gives us new life, then we call upon Him, not just to get us out of a difficult trial, but as a way of life to express our dependence on Him.

So we will pray more earnestly for revival when we see our great need and when we realize that we cannot produce revival. Only God can send it as we cry out to Him for mercy.

3. We will pray more earnestly for revival when we desire for God to be glorified.

The psalm begins (80:1), “Oh, give ear, Shepherd of Israel, You who lead Joseph like a flock; You who are enthroned above the cherubim, shine forth!” The cherubim hovered over the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle. God’s glory shone forth from there. But now, because of the nation’s sin, God’s glory has not been seen. Instead, the pagan nations laugh Israel and her God to scorn (80:6). So the psalmist cries out to God to shine forth with His glory. As the Good Shepherd of His people, the Lord has brought them into a desperate situation so that they will obey the words of Psalm 50:15, “Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honor Me.” There are at least five ways that God is glorified when we pray earnestly for revival:

A. God is glorified in revival when He shows His mighty power to save.

We’ve seen this, but three times (80:3, 7, 19) the psalmist cries out for God to restore them and cause His face to shine upon them so that they will be saved. As I said, this no doubt referred to deliverance from their enemies. But it also has the spiritual dimension, because sin and idolatry were at the root of Israel’s problems. They needed for God to save them spiritually.

We need to understand that salvation is not a human thing, where a person of his own free will decides to ask Jesus into his heart. Salvation is when God imparts new life to dead sinners. He changes their hearts so that they believe and obey. Many that have “asked Jesus into their hearts” are not saved. “Salvation is from the Lord” (Jonah 2:9). Because it requires God’s resurrection power (not just a human decision), it glorifies Him.

B. God is glorified in revival when His people obey Him.

God is called the Shepherd of Israel (80:1). Shepherds lead their sheep and the sheep follow, trusting the shepherd to lead them into a place of safety and abundance. Stray sheep get eaten by predators. Once Marla and I were descending from Wetterhorn Peak in Colorado. We were in the trees when we heard an unusual commotion. Suddenly we encountered over 2,000 sheep being led to their summer pasture above tree line. But as we got down almost to the trailhead, we encountered one stray sheep. He ran from us into the wilderness and I said, “That one’s a goner!”

Jesus said (John 10:27-28), “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand.” God is glorified when Jesus’ sheep follow Him.

C. God is glorified in revival when His people are fruitful.

The analogy of Israel as God’s vine implies that they were to bear fruit for Him. In Isaiah 5:1-7, God complains that Israel as His vine has only produced worthless grapes. So He says that He is going to remove its hedge and let it be consumed and trampled on. Jesus used the vine analogy, saying that He is the true vine and we are the branches. We are to bear fruit for Him. If we do not bear fruit, we will be cut off and thrown into the fire. But, Jesus adds (John 15:8), “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.” When true revival comes, God’s people bear fruit for Him.

D. God is glorified in revival when there is genuine unity among His people.

This psalm most likely represents the prayer of a man in the Southern Kingdom for his alienated brothers in the north. He sets aside tribal rivalries and prays earnestly for God to take care of those who are perishing because of the enemy. When revival comes, God’s people set aside petty differences and love one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. We do not set aside the essentials of the gospel, such as justification by faith alone in Christ alone. But we set aside our pride over being right on minor points of doctrine and practice. Genuine unity glorifies God.

E. God is glorified in revival when His people come to know Him more deeply.

Did you notice that in the refrain, God is addressed in a progressively deeper way? First (80:3), it is, “O God.” Then (80:7), it is, “O God of hosts.” Finally (80:19), it is, “O Lord God of hosts.” Revival opens our eyes to see more deeply who God really is. He is the only true God. Further, He is the God who commands the angelic hosts. Further yet, He is the Lord God, before whom every knee shall bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth (Phil. 2:10). When God revives us, we glorify Him by coming to know Him more deeply.

Conclusion

So let’s pray for genuine, Holy Spirit-sent revival! I must point out that there is a sense in which this prayer was not answered, at least not in the history of Israel. The Northern Kingdom never was restored. The Southern Kingdom saw periods of revival under Hezekiah and Josiah, but it finally went into captivity in Babylon.

But there is a note of hope here. The psalmist asks God (80:15) to take care of the shoot (lit., son) which His right hand has planted, even the son whom He has strengthened. He again (80:17) asks that God’s hand be on the man of His right hand, upon the son of man whom He has made strong for Himself.

Who is this? In the context, it is probably the nation, or the king of the nation (Hezekiah). But many Jewish commentators saw it as a reference to Messiah. In light of Jesus’ frequent reference to Himself as the Son of Man, it is reasonable to see it as a prayer for God to send and strengthen Jesus the Messiah. He is the one who brings true and lasting revival to His people. Like the psalmist, we may or may not see revival in our day. But we should still pray earnestly. The ultimate fulfillment of our prayers for revival will be when Jesus comes in power and glory to reign.

Here is a practical opportunity: On July 5th, 6th, and 7th we’re going to have three evenings of prayer (7-8 p.m.). Put it on your calendar and make it a priority to come and cry out to our Good Shepherd (80:18b-19), “Revive us, and we will call upon Your name. O Lord God of hosts, restore us and cause Your face to shine upon us, and we will be saved.”

Application Questions

  1. In a revival, how can we tell the genuine from the false? (Hint: read Jonathan Edwards’ Treatise on Religious Affections.)
  2. Why can’t genuine revival be organized or planned? If it is a sovereign work of God, is there anything we can do to bring it about?
  3. Why is there a difference between going forward (or making a decision for Christ) and being born again? What is the difference?
  4. Why are obedience and fruitfulness better tests of genuine revival than emotionalism or “being slain in the Spirit”?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2009, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Psalm 81: What Might Have Been

“For of all sad words of tongue or pen,

The saddest are these: ‘It might have been.’”

(John Greenleaf Whittier, in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations [Little, Brown and Company, 13th ed.], p. 527.)

I am a saver and I hate to see waste. Once when I was in the Coast Guard, we had steaks for dinner, which was great. The sad thing was, someone had ordered too many steaks. The mess crew was piling three or four steaks on each man’s plate, trying to get rid of them. Since you couldn’t take food from the mess hall, the trash cans were full of wasted steaks. There were many poor kids less than two miles from the base who had probably never even tasted a steak. It was sad.

But worse than wasted steaks are wasted lives. Think of the tremendous potential God puts in every life! Each life can count for God’s purpose. Because of that fact, it is especially sad to see a wasted life.

God is in the business of recycling wasted lives. When a person trusts in Jesus Christ as Savior, there is new hope: sins are washed away, there is a new creature in Jesus Christ, and as the person lives under the Lordship of Christ, God’s potential is unfolded.

The person could become like the Apostle Paul, transformed from a life of hatred and violence into the greatest missionary and leader in the early church. He could become like Augustine, saved from a life of moral impurity to become the man who had the greatest influence in the first 1,500 years of the church, apart from the Lord Himself and the authors of Scripture. He could become like John Newton, the debauched slave-trader who was transformed into a godly pastor and hymn writer, author of “Amazing Grace.”

Or, that potential can be wasted. History is strewn with the wreckage of those who made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ, but then made shipwreck of their faith (1 Tim. 1:19). I hear all the time of pastors who are out of the ministry due to moral failure. I hear of Christians who once were zealous for the Lord who have cooled off and are living for the things of the world. Their lives are wasted, as far as the kingdom of God is concerned. As you examine the wreckage, you can’t help but think about what might have been.

You may say, “It doesn’t do any good to lament over what might have been. That’s like crying over spilled milk.” But the Bible shows us that even God sometimes laments over what might have been. It’s instructive for us to pause at times to examine the wreckage of the wasted lives of God’s people so that we avoid their mistakes.

In Psalm 81, God laments over what might have been. As He ponders the history of Israel, His chosen people, God mourns over what He could have done for them and through them, if only they had obeyed Him. It’s an inscrutable mystery that while God is all-powerful and nothing can thwart His sovereign purpose, at the same time He limits His power and blessing to the obedience of His people. As we join the Lord in observing the wreckage of these wasted lives, the message to us is:

The way to avoid a wasted life is to walk in obedience to the Lord.

Background:

To understand this psalm, we need to understand the setting. The psalm was to be sung at a feast day (81:3), which most scholars think was the Feast of Tabernacles. The seventh month was ushered in with the blowing of the ram’s horn (Num. 29:1). On the tenth day was the Day of Atonement, and on the fifteenth day, at the full moon (81:3), began the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths.

The Feast of Tabernacles was celebrated for seven days. The people made little booths and lived in them. The focus of the celebration was to remind Israel of their redemption from Egypt and of God’s protection and sustenance in the wilderness when they did not live in homes. It was also a time for giving thanks for the harvest which had just ended. Following upon the Day of Atonement as it did, the feast was a time of celebrating the joy of forgiveness and reconciliation with God and His bountiful provisions for His people. It was the most joyous of the Jewish feasts. The rabbis used to say that one who had not witnessed the celebration of this feast did not know what joy was (J. J. Stewart Perowne, The Book of Psalms [Zondervan], II:96).

If you’re tracking with me, you may be wondering, “Why did this fellow, Asaph, write a psalm like this to be sung at a festival like that? Was he some sort of spoilsport? When everybody is having a joyous time celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles, why have them sing a song that focuses on the dismal record of disobedience of God’s people?”

It seems to me that the answer is that the psalmist realized that it is possible for God’s people to go through the motions of religion outwardly, and yet inwardly to have hearts that are stubborn, self-willed, and disobedient to the Lord God. The psalmist is saying, “Yes, come, rejoice and celebrate the feast. But in your rejoicing, remember the past. Remember what might have been, if only God’s people had obeyed. And let that remembrance strike a solemn note in your rejoicing, so that you do not repeat their mistake.”

As we examine the psalm, we need to keep this historical setting before us. It’s possible for any of us to come and sing praises to God and go through all the outward motions of religion, and yet to be living in disobedience to our God. The psalmist is saying, “Beware! The way to avoid a wasted life is to walk in obedience to God.”

1. Wasted potential is the result of disobedience to God.

A. Religious people can disobey God.

Even though Israel was God’s chosen people and He had miraculously delivered them from Egypt, they continually sinned against Him (81:11). On two occasions, one early and one late in their journey from Egypt to Canaan, the Israelites quarreled with Moses because there was no water (Exod. 17:7; Num. 20:13). Those two places were named “Meribah,” which means “quarrel.” But their real quarrel was not with Moses, but with God who had led them into these places. After He had done the greatest miracle in delivering them from Egypt, couldn’t they trust Him to do the lesser miracle in providing for their needs in the wilderness?

But we do the same thing when we grumble about our trials. God has done the greatest thing for us in saving us from bondage to sin. Can’t we trust that He will provide for our other needs as well? All grumbling is really against the sovereign God. Instead of affirming His goodness toward us in Christ, it attributes evil neglect to Him.

Israel was also guilty of idolatry (81:9). Although the commandment of God was clear, the people made the golden calf and bowed before it. Later, they adopted many of the false gods of the land. Although our idolatries may be more subtle, in that few American Christians make statues to bow down to or pray to, idolatry is no less rampant among us. Christians put self, pleasure, money, power, and a host of other gods before the living and true God. It is shocking to me that studies have shown that there is virtually no difference between Christians and non-Christians in either the amount (about 21 hours per week) or content of their TV viewing habits. And yet, most American Christians would protest if you told them that they worshiped idols!

Furthermore, God laments that His people did not listen to Him with a view to obedience (81:8, 11, 13). God told them how to live, but they ignored Him and lived as they wanted to (“walk in their own devices,” 81:12) or as the pagans around them lived. In our day, God has spoken clearly to His people through His Word. It tells us how to live in this evil world so as to please God and avoid the things which would destroy us. But when Christians spend perhaps no more than one hour a week reading their Bibles and 21 hours watching TV, is it any wonder that our lives look more like those we see on TV than like those prescribed in God’s Word?

What is the result when people disobey God?

B. The result of disobedience is wasted potential.

God says, “I gave them over to the stubbornness of their heart to walk in their own devices” (81:12). These are chilling words! Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries, [Associated Publishers & Authors], 2:727) says, “Nothing ... is more to be dreaded ....” Spurgeon comments, “No punishment is more just or more severe than this.... It were better to be given up to lions than to our hearts’ lust” (Treasury of David, [Baker], IV:30). It reminds us of Romans 1, where Paul shows how God gave wicked people over to their own lusts (Rom.

God did what parents sometimes must do. When your children insist on having their own way and in going against your commands, there comes a point where finally you say, “O.K. Go ahead and do it, but you will pay the consequences.” You know that it’s not for their good, but sometimes there is no other choice. God knew that they would not experience His blessings in the land of promise, but finally He said, “Have it your way!” That stubborn generation died in the wilderness.

At this point we need to ask an important question: Why did Israel want to disobey God? Why does anyone want to disobey God? If disobedience results in wasted lives, why do it? The answer is:

C. Religious people disobey God because it seems like disobedience will get them where they want to go.

Sin deceives us into thinking that we can get what we want apart from God. What did Israel want? The comforts of life. It was a bad goal, but a common one among fallen, self-centered sinners. God’s Word is clear that we should seek first His kingdom and righteousness, and He will take care of our comfort needs. But we often get it backwards and seek first our own fulfillment.

Israel had been slaves in Egypt, so they called out to God for deliverance (81:7). God answered and miraculously brought them out of Egypt. Then they went into the wilderness and ran out of water. God was testing them (81:7) to see whether they would obey Him. He had done the big thing; could they trust Him for this lesser thing?

Obedience is often initially more difficult but it results in God’s blessing in the long run. Disobedience usually looks like a quick fix to get what we want, but leads to ruin. At every point Israel was inclined to take the easy route back to slavery rather than to endure the discomforts of going God’s way which ultimately would lead them to His promised land. They were deceived into thinking that their disobedience would get them where they wanted to go.

There is a principle in God’s Word that goes like this: When you disobey God, you don’t get where you want to go, and you pay the fare. It won’t seem so at first. At first everything seems great. But disobedience is deceptive, because ultimately it does not get you where you want to go, and you pay the fare anyway!

We see this in the life of Jonah. God told Jonah, “Go to Ninevah and cry against it.” Jonah reasoned, “The Assyrians are the enemies of Israel. If I go and preach to them, they might repent. If they repent, God probably will forgive them. I don’t want that to happen to our enemies, so I’m going to Tarshish.” We read, “So he went down to Joppa, found a ship which was going to Tarshish, paid the fare, and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3).

You know the rest of the story. He paid the fare and thought it would get him where he wanted to go, but it didn’t. He wound up in the belly of the fish and was vomited up back on the beach in Israel. (You can’t keep a good man down!) When you disobey God, you don’t get where you want to go and you pay the fare.

But that’s not the end of the story. The next verse says, “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time ...” (Jonah 3:1). The second time! God is the God of the second chance! When we sin, it doesn’t get us where we want to go, and we pay the fare. If we keep disobeying, we will waste our lives. But God is abundantly gracious. He disciplines us by letting us pay the consequences of our sin. But His purpose is not to discard us, but to restore and bless us. And thus we read, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.”

And, in our psalm, we read of God’s discipline in giving His people over to the stubbornness of their hearts (81:12). But we also read of His abundant grace in the verses that follow (81:13-16). These verses show that ...

2. Fulfilled potential comes through walking in obedience to God.

God is waiting to pour out His richest blessings if we will obey Him. We need to feel the longing of God’s heart in these verses. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but would rather that he should turn from his ways and live (Ezek. 18:23). Like any loving father, it pains God to discipline His children. But His love will not let those who are truly His children continue in sin without chastening them (Heb. 12:5-11).

One reason we have trouble with obedience is because we have a faulty concept of God. Satan tempted Eve by getting her to think that God is not really good. “He’s withholding that which you need to be really happy!” We often buy his same line, that God is harsh, austere, and unloving. Satan whispers, “God doesn’t want you to enjoy yourself.” But our psalm shows us that ...

A. The goodness of God is the motive for obedience (81:6-10).

The psalmist reviews how God delivered Israel from bondage to Egypt. They were in trouble and called out, and He answered them (81:7). Then he goes on to list the requirement that the people listen to and worship God alone. At the climax of the section, when you expect to hear the rest of the Ten Commandments, you hear instead, “Open your mouth wide and I will fill it” (81:10).

There’s the goodness and grace of our God! He saved us from bondage to sin and has commanded us to walk in His ways. Why? To take away our fun? No! So that He can fill us with His blessings! Moses told Israel that God commanded these things “for our good always and for our survival” (Deut. 6:24). God’s commandments are like the traffic laws. They are not designed to take away your fun, although you may sometimes think so. They’re designed to protect you and everyone on the road from danger and death. If everyone obeyed those laws, there would be no fatal accidents. We violate them to our own peril. God’s laws stem from His goodness. He wants to bless us. That should motivate us to obey Him.

B. The blessings of God are the result of obedience (81:10, 14-16).

If we will obey God, He will bless us. As Matthew Henry puts it, “There is enough in God to fill our treasures (Prov. 8:21), to replenish every hungry soul (Jer. 31:25), to supply all our wants, to answer all our desires, and to make us completely happy” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary [Revell], 3:549). Note briefly three ways God blesses when we obey:

(1) Satisfied hunger (81:10): “Open your mouth wide and I will fill it.” In California, we had a bird feeder that attracted a baby flicker and its mother. The baby (which looked the same size as the mother) would sit right there in front of the birdseed and squawk with its mouth open. The mother would feed herself for a minute and then she would take a beak-full of seed and stuff it down that open mouth. The young bird would be quiet for a few seconds and then would squawk again. I would have thought that the mother bird would get tired and say, “There’s the food. Feed yourself!” But the baby kept opening his beak and the mother kept filling it.

That’s the picture here. God will fill the open mouth. The problem is, we don’t open our mouths. We think we can operate without the Lord, so we don’t look to Him to fill us. We get self-sufficient and aren’t aware of our total need for God.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6). Are you hungry? Is your mouth open? I affirm from my own walk with God what Spurgeon said: “Are you growing conscious of your own power? If so, pray against it with all your might. A much better thing is to become conscious of your own weakness. You will not open your mouth wide if you do not realize how weak you are. If you feel that you are strong, you will cease to cry to God for strength” (Spurgeon’s Expository Encyclopedia [Baker], 12:377). This verse impressed George Muller as a young man and became one of the foundational promises upon which he saw God build five orphanages and support over 10,000 orphans in response to prayer alone. The same God wants to satisfy your hunger. Is your mouth open toward Him?

(2) Subdued enemies (81:14): I hope that no one is seeking your life physically! But we all battle a number of enemies of the soul that seek to do us in spiritually: pride, envy, lust, anger, anxiety, foul speech, selfishness, greed, and others. God will subdue those enemies as we obey Him. There may be fierce battles; such enemies don’t give up easily. But if we would listen to God, He would turn His hand against these adversaries.

(3) Sweetness in adversity (81:16): If His people will obey, God promises to satisfy them with honey from the rock. Rocks are harsh, unpromising things when it comes to feeding the hungry. The desert where Israel wandered had a lot of rocks and not much else. Who would expect anything satisfying from a rock? But God can bring honey from the rock to satisfy His people. The bees would go into the cracks of the rocks and store their sweet honey which oozed out. It’s a picture of how the Lord can bring sweetness and nourishment for His people even out of adversity. He doesn’t always take away the rocks, but He can make them drip with honey.

Conclusion

The way to avoid a wasted life is to walk in obedience to the Lord. Notice all the occurrences of the word “would” in 81:13-16. It’s a word of desire and contingency. It shows God’s desire to bless, if only His people would obey. It shows what might have been.

But also, it shows what can be. This psalm is here not just to get us to look back and lament. It’s here to get us to look ahead with hope. Even though we may grieve over wasted years in the past when we disobeyed the Lord, if we will turn from our sin and begin to obey Him now, He will feed us with the finest of the wheat. He will satisfy us with honey from the rock. He is gracious and compassionate. He forgives all our sin through Christ when we turn to Him.

Discussion Questions

  1. Some Christians view obedience as “legalism” and put it in opposition to God’s grace. Why is this fallacious?
  2. Is it legalism to obey God when we don’t feel like it?
  3. Spurgeon says that a good test of a person’s spiritual maturity is his own sense of his spiritual poverty. What does he mean? What are the implications of this?

Copyright 1993, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Psalm 84: How Blessed!

One of Satan’s most insidious lies is that the Christian life is void of pleasure, whereas pursuing sin brings real satisfaction. For example, the cynical H. L. Mencken said, “Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy” (cited by Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints [Academie/Zondervan], p. 1). Another cynic said that Puritanism “damages the human soul, renders it hard and gloomy, deprives it of sunshine and happiness” (Langdon Mitchell, ibid.).

Leland Ryken, who cites these quotes, goes on to show how false they are. For example, Puritan Thomas Gataker “wrote that it is the purpose of Satan to persuade us that ‘in the kingdom of God there is nothing but sighing and groaning and fasting and prayer,’ whereas the truth is that ‘in his house there is marrying and giving in marriage, … feasting and rejoicing’” (ibid., p. 2). “William Tyndale described the Christian gospel as ‘good, merry, glad and joyful tidings, that maketh a man’s heart glad, and maketh him sing, and dance, and leap for joy’” (ibid., pp. 2-3).

But we don’t need the citations of the Puritans to refute Satan’s lies. The Bible itself repeatedly proclaims the soul-satisfying joy of knowing God. As we saw, David exults (Ps. 16:11), “In Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever.” The list could go on for pages, but here are a few more:

Psalm 34:8: “O taste and see that the Lord is good; how blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him!”

Psalm 36:7-8: “How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God! And the children of men take refuge in the shadow of Your wings. They drink their fill of the abundance of Your house; and You give them to drink of the river of Your delights.”

Psalm 63:3-5: “Because Your lovingkindness is better than life, my lips will praise You. So I will bless You as long as I live; I will lift up my hands in Your name. My soul is satisfied as with marrow and fatness, and my mouth offers praises with joyful lips.”

Those verses do not sound like a deprived soul who was enduring a life devoid of pleasure! Over and over the Psalms tell us how blessed we are if we follow the Lord. And Psalm 84 is another example. It begins by exclaiming, “How lovely are Your dwelling places, O Lord of hosts!” Then, three times the psalmist exclaims, “How blessed!” In verse 4, “How blessed are those who dwell in Your house! They are ever praising You.” Verse 5: “How blessed is the man whose strength is in You….” And, verse 12, “O Lord of hosts, how blessed is the man who trusts in You!” These repeated exclamations teach us that…

The pleasures that God gives to satisfy our souls should fuel our desire to be in His presence.

In other words, God motivates us to seek Him with the pleasures and satisfaction of being in His presence. And those pleasures are not all delayed until we arrive in heaven. They begin now. As Jesus proclaimed with reference to His sheep (John 10:10b), “I came that they may have life; and have it more abundantly.”

We can’t be sure about the author of Psalm 84 or the historical circumstances in which he wrote it. Some respected commentators (Calvin & Spurgeon) think that David wrote it. I do not agree. The picture of the swallows building their nests in God’s house would point toward Solomon’s temple rather than the tabernacle. Swallows build their nests under the eaves of permanent buildings, but not on tents. So it was written after David’s time.

Also, although some (e.g., James Boice) disagree, most think that the psalmist was not able to be at the temple, although he wanted to be there. Derek Kidner (Psalms 73-150 [IVP], p. 302) writes, “Longing is written all over this psalm. This eager and homesick man is one of the Korahite temple singers, and the mood of the psalm is not unlike that of Psalms 42 and 43, which are a product of the same group.”

J. J. S. Perowne The Book of Psalms [Zondervan], 2:115) suggests that the parallels between those psalms and this one point to the same author. For example, in 84:2, the psalmist says, “My soul longed for and even yearned for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy [or, cry out] to the living God.” In 42:1, 2 we read a similar cry, “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; when shall I come and appear before God?” Psalms 84:2 and 42:2 are the only times in the Psalms that God is referred to as “the living God.” In 84:4, the psalmist says of those who dwell in God’s house, “they are ever praising You.” In 42:5 he cries, “for I shall again praise Him for the help of His presence.” In 84:7, he mentions concerning these pilgrims, “Every one of them appears before God in Zion.” In 42:2 he asks, “when shall I come and appear before God?” In 84:1, he mentions God’s dwelling places. In 43:3, he asks God to send out His light and truth so that they will lead him “to Your dwelling places.”

There are a few differences between Psalms 42-43 and Psalm 84. In the earlier psalms, the psalmist was being taunted by his enemies, whereas in Psalm 84 there is no mention of this. In the earlier psalms, the author was battling depression, whereas here his mood seems to have changed to joy. But in both the earlier psalms and in Psalm 84, the author strongly wants to be at God’s temple, and more, to be in the presence of the living God Himself.

Let’s look at the three blessings, which show us the pleasures that God uses to fuel our desire to be in His presence:

1. The pleasure of being in God’s house should fuel our desire to be in His presence (84:1-4).

The plural, “dwelling places,” may refer to the various parts of the temple where God manifested Himself, or it may just be a poetic form (the plural is also in Ps. 43:3 & 46:4). “How lovely” is an expression of love poetry (Kidner, p. 303), expressing the attractiveness of God’s house. “O Lord of hosts” (see also 84:3, 8, 12) designates God as the Sovereign over all the spiritual forces in the universe, who can easily defend His people.

Verse 2 indicates that the psalmist longs to be at the temple, but is not able to be there. In the context, the verb translated “sing for joy” might better be rendered, “cry out” (Kidner, ibid.). The psalmist’s total being (soul, heart, and flesh) are crying out to the living God that he might join the worshipers at the temple.

In verse 3, he recalls being in the temple and seeing the swallows flitting around the courtyard. They made their nests high on the temple buildings. The psalmist now envies these little birds, because they are at the temple, but he is not. Although they were insignificant creatures who could not rationally worship God, they had found the right place for their nests, there in the temple. Spurgeon preached an entire sermon on verse 3 (“The Sparrow and the Swallow,” Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 53:253-264), developing the idea that just as these little birds found homes for themselves and nests for their young, so Christians find the same in Christ and His church.

After again addressing God as the Lord of hosts (84:3), the psalmist reflects his personal relationship with this Sovereign, “my King and my God.” Although God is the awesome power who commands all the powerful angels of heaven, He is also our personal King and God through Jesus Christ. Then the psalmist exclaims, “How blessed are those who dwell in Your house! They are ever praising You.” Perowne (p. 119, italics his) comments, “The blessedness of God’s house is that there men praise Him. This it was that made that house so precious to the Psalmist. And what Christian man can climb higher than this—to find in the praise of God the greatest joy of his life?”

The Bible reveals that we may enjoy God’s presence individually or corporately, in any location. It may be in a church building or it may be at a beautiful outdoor scene. We may be alone or we may be with a stadium full of believers. As New Testament believers, we need to be clear that there are no longer any sacred buildings. God doesn’t dwell in cathedrals, but rather in His people, who are now His temple, both individually and corporately (1 Cor. 3:16-17; 6:19; Eph. 2:21-22). But the psalmist’s point here is that he longed to gather corporately with God’s people so that he could praise God with them and experience God’s presence together.

Do you share his longing? Do you look forward to gathering with the saints in worship, with the desire to be in God’s presence? I think that we tend to be too laid back about gathering with the church. Do you come really looking for God to show up? We should come eagerly with the prayer that we might encounter the living God in the midst of His people, His temple!

2. The pleasure of experiencing God’s strength in our weakness should fuel our desire to overcome hindrances to get to God’s house (84:5-9).

Instead of putting his “how blessed” at the end of the section (as in 84:4, 12), the psalmist leads with it (84:5-7): “How blessed is the man whose strength is in You, in whose heart are the highways to Zion! Passing through the valley of Baca they make it a spring; the early rain also covers it with blessings. They go from strength to strength, every one of them appears before God in Zion.” These verses make the point that…

A. God gives us His strength in our weakness so that we can overcome hindrances to worship Him in His house.

The psalmist pictures a band of pilgrims making their way towards the temple through difficult terrain. The last phrase of verse 5 is difficult (literally, “in whose heart are the ways”), but in the context it seems to mean that these pilgrims have such a desire to be at God’s temple that they make the rough desert paths into highways (see Isa. 35:8). They pass through the valley of Baca, which probably means, “tears.” It is symbolic for a place of affliction or difficulty. But their anticipated joy at being at the temple turns this desert valley into a place of springs. God sends rain to provide for them as they travel. As a result, they go from strength to strength (God’s strength, not their own), arriving safely to appear before God in Zion. Meeting with God in the company of His people is the joyous goal.

Regarding the blessing of having God as our strength, John Calvin observes (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 358), “To lean with the whole heart upon God, is to attain to no ordinary degree of advancement: and this cannot be attained by any man, unless all his pride is laid prostrate in the dust, and his heart is truly humbled.” In other words, we won’t know God’s strength until we see our own weakness. As long as we proudly think that we can live the Christian life in our own power, we will not know God’s power.

Calvin (pp. 359-362) goes on to apply these verses as a rebuke to those who are too lazy to inconvenience themselves to go to church. In his day, people either had to walk or ride a horse to get to church, often in stormy weather. He might be a bit more forceful in rebuking those today who can drive to church in comfortable cars! I was touched when I was in Nepal and Barney asked the men how long it had taken them to come to the meetings. Some of them had walked for hours and then ridden on their crowded busses for more hours to get there! They sat on the hard floor for hours to listen to the teaching of God’s Word. And yet we often skip church because we don’t want to be inconvenienced to get out of bed and drive across town to sit in our comfortable chairs!

Verses 8 & 9 seem to be a parenthesis in the flow of the psalm: “O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob! Behold our shield, O God, and look upon the face of Your anointed.” But they may fit into the context by showing that…

B. Prayer is the means of laying hold of God’s strength in our weakness.

There seems to be some sort of national crisis behind this psalm (Willem VanGemeren, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 5:545). Some think that the psalmist was the king, praying here for himself. But he just as well could have been a member of the Korahites, unable to get to the temple because of some national crisis. Perhaps a foreign army was threatening the land, so he couldn’t travel. So he cries out to the Lord God of hosts, the God of Jacob, to behold their shield and to look upon the face of His anointed. The shield and the anointed both refer to the king (see Ps. 89:18). The psalmist and his fellow pilgrims needed the king’s protection in order to make their journey to the temple in Jerusalem.

Jesus Christ is God’s supreme Anointed One (Christ means anointed one). He is our Shield and King, through whom we have access to the God of Jacob. Jacob was a weak, undeserving man who wrestled with God and prevailed. Thus the God of Jacob is the God of weak and undeserving people who put their trust in Him. His house (now, His people) should be a house of prayer (Matt. 21:13), where we appropriate His strength for our weakness.

Thus the pleasure of being in God’s house should fuel our desire to be in His presence. The pleasure of experiencing His strength in our weakness should fuel our desire to overcome hindrances to get to God’s house for worship and prayer.

3. The pleasure of enjoying God Himself and His abundant goodness should fuel our desire to be in His house (84:10-12).

The psalmist makes three points in these wonderful verses:

A. The pleasure of being even at the doorstep of God’s house is far better than all the pleasures of sin.

“For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand outside. I would rather stand at the threshold of the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness” (84:10). As Spurgeon puts it (The Treasury of David [Baker], 4:66-67), “The lowest station in connection with the Lord’s house is better than the highest position among the godless…. God’s worst is better than the devil’s best.” H. C. Leupold (Exposition of Psalms [Baker], p. 608) astutely observes: “It may seem to be a strong statement to describe those who are disinclined to worship the Lord as being guilty of wickedness. But that is where the root of all wickedness lies, shunning fellowship with God.”

In a day when Christians frequently skip church to pursue recreation, I wonder how many could honestly say that one day of gathering with God’s people to worship Him is better than a thousand days of other pursuits? Was the psalmist using hyperbole? Maybe, but don’t shrug off his point: His pleasure in enjoying God in the company of God’s people was greater than anything that the world has to offer. If we can’t join him in these feelings, maybe we need to re-examine our values!

B. The pleasure of enjoying God Himself and His abundant goodness is incomparable.

“For the Lord God is a sun and a shield; the Lord gives grace and glory; no good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly” (84:11). There are probably several sermons in this one rich verse (Spurgeon has three!). I can only touch on it:

(1). The Lord God is a sun to us.

This is the only time in the Bible that God is directly referred to as the sun (but see Mal. 4:2; Luke 1:78-79). In Psalm 84, the metaphor is in the context of travelers. There were no lighted streets or cars with headlights. When you were traveling in the wilderness and it got dark, you had to stop. It got cold when the sun went down. Wolves howled in the darkness. So the travelers huddled together and waited for the dawn. The rising sun meant that you could see your way again. It brought warmth and cheer. It brought a new day that would take you closer to God’s lovely dwelling place, the temple.

The sun sustains all life on earth. It is a never-ending source of energy. It cheers our sagging spirits when it breaks through the clouds after a storm. Even so the Lord God is a sun to us.

(2). The Lord God is a shield to us.

The sun gives light and nourishes life, but the shield gives protection from enemies. Without the shield, we would be vulnerable to all sorts of dangers in our pilgrimage to heaven. The sun and the shield balance each other. With the sun only, a band of pilgrims would be more conspicuous to their enemies. So God also is a shield for them, keeping them safe to their journey’s end.

(3). The Lord gives grace to us.

Grace humbles us because God only gives grace to the undeserving. If you earn it or deserve it, it is not grace, but a wage that is due (Rom. 4:4-5). Salvation is entirely due to God’s gracious choice, apart from any foreseen faith or works, which would nullify grace (Rom. 11:6). We receive God’s grace at salvation, but we also need His grace daily in order to walk with Him. God’s abundant grace in Christ motivates us to serve Him (1 Cor. 15:10).

(4). The Lord gives glory to us.

This may refer to the future glory of heaven, but here it probably means (as Calvin explains it, p. 364-365), “that after God has once taken the faithful into his favor, he will advance them to high honor, and never cease to enrich them with his blessings.”

(5). The Lord will not withhold any good thing from us.

Maybe you’re thinking, “No good thing? How about a million dollars, Lord?” But that may not be a good thing for you! “How about good health?” That may not be a good thing, either! We have to interpret this promise in light of the many trials that the Bible shows God’s saints enduring (Heb. 11:35b-39). This is where faith must operate. Although we may not understand God’s purpose for our trials, “we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). In that sense, He does not withhold any good thing from us. But, there is a condition in our text:

C. The requirement for enjoying God and His abundant blessings is to walk uprightly and to trust in Him.

The promise of God’s not withholding any good thing is for those who walk uprightly (84:11). His blessing is on those who trust in Him (84:12). To walk uprightly is to live before God with integrity. It does not imply perfection, but it does mean that you walk openly before God, confessing your sin. You trust in His grace and strength to overcome sin. You seek to please God by obeying His commandments. To such people, the Lord will not withhold any good thing. They will join the psalmist (84:12) in exclaiming, “How blessed is the man who trusts in You!”

Conclusion

In 1714, Matthew Henry, the well-known pastor and Bible commentator, was on his deathbed at age 52. He was relatively young and had not finished his commentary (others finished it from his notes). He had endured the loss of his first wife and of three of his nine children. He could have complained about his hard life. But he said to a friend, “You have been used to take notice of the sayings of dying men. This is mine—that a life spent in the service of God, and communion with Him, is the most comfortable and pleasant life that one can live in the present world” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible [Revell], p. 1:xiv).

Don’t believe Satan’s lie that following God is a drag. Following the Lord is the most blessed life possible. The many pleasures that the Lord gives to satisfy your soul should fuel your desire to be in His presence, both individually and when His people gather to worship Him.

Application Questions

  1. Many professing Christians say that they do not need the church. Is this a dangerous view? Why/why not?
  2. Since in the NT, believers (not buildings) are God’s temple, is it wrong to design church buildings to enhance worship?
  3. Suppose that a Christian admits that he finds more pleasure in recreational pursuits than in church. How should he fix this?
  4. If someone challenged you that verse 11b (“no good thing”) is not true, how would you defend it?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2009, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Psalm 86: A Lesson on Prayer

A man who worked as a messenger for a photo lab got a message on his beeper instructing him to pick up a package at an unfamiliar company with a long, difficult name. He looked skyward and exclaimed, “God, where am I supposed to go?” Just then, his pager came on, this time with the client’s exact address.

A man nearby witnessed this scene. Raising his arms to the heavens, he cried, “Why don’t you ever answer me?” (Adapted from Reader’s Digest [April, 1991], p. 127.)

Do you ever wish that prayer worked like that? You pray and instantly a voice gives you the answer you’re looking for! Sign me up! But I find prayer to be a much more difficult process. I need all the help I can get on how to pray more effectively.

Psalm 86 gives us a helpful lesson on prayer. It is the only psalm in Book 3 of the Psalter labeled as written by David. In many ways, it is not a very original psalm. It’s like a mosaic, piecing together verses and phrases from other psalms and Scriptures. That has led some to think that David himself did not write it in this form. But it seems to me that David easily could have taken things he had already written and used them in this prayer. We don’t need originality in our prayers, but rather, reality with God. And Psalm 86 is the earnest, heartfelt cry of a man of God in a desperate situation laying hold of the God whom he knew well.

The psalm is peppered with 15 requests, some of them repetitive, fired at God with a strong sense of urgency. It falls into four sections: In 86:1-7, David cries out in great need for God to hear and act on his behalf. Then (86:8-10), in a deliberate statement of praise, David extols God as the only true God, the Lord of the nations. The praise is deliberate, says Derek Kidner Psalms 73-150 [IVP], p. 311), “because the final verses reveal no abatement of the pressure, and no sign, as yet, of an answer.” In 86:11-13, David asks God to teach him His way and to unite his heart to fear God’s name, so that he will glorify His name forever. Finally (86:14-17), in light of his fierce enemies, David again appeals to God’s mercy and grace to deliver him.

Although there are many lessons on prayer in this psalm, which could comprise a sermon series, the main lesson is simple:

Our great needs should drive us to pray to the great God, who alone can deliver us.

I want to explore four questions: Why should we pray? To whom should we pray? How should we pray? And, what should we pray for?

1. Why should we pray? We should pray because we have great needs.

David begins (86:1), “Incline Your ear, O Lord, and answer me; for I am afflicted and needy.” The fact that he cries out for God to save him (86:2, 16) shows that David knew that he could not save himself. In 86:7 he mentions that he is in “the day of trouble.” In 86:14, he specifically mentions the band of arrogant, violent men that were seeking his life. David was deeply aware of his great need, which drove him to earnest prayer.

It sounds obvious to say that we have great needs that should drive us to prayer. But the truth is, our pride blinds us to how needy we really are, so that we rely on ourselves or on other people or on some godless method to get us out of our troubles. Finally, when nothing else has worked, we say, “We’ve done all that we can do. The only thing left is to pray!” It’s our last resort. But, as John Bunyan said (source unknown), “You can do more than pray, after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed.” Prayer should be our first resort!

The main reason that people do not cry out to God to save them from their sins is that they do not see their great need as sinners before the holy God. They see themselves as basically good. Sure, they know they’re not perfect, but they aren’t evil sinners! They compare themselves with terrorists and child molesters and think, “I’m doing okay.” Not seeing their desperate need, they don’t cry out to God to save them.

But, even once we are saved, we fall into this same trap. We’re oblivious to the power of the enemy, who prowls about as a roaring lion, seeking to devour us (1 Pet. 5:8). We overlook the strong appeal of indwelling sin that lurks within us (Gal. 5:17). We don’t recognize our own selfishness, which undermines our relationships in the family and in the church. And so, we don’t pray. So perhaps our first prayer should be, “God, show me my great needs that only You can meet.”

2. To whom should we pray? We should pray to the only true God, great in power, love, grace, and mercy.

This psalm shows that David knew the God to whom he was praying. Knowing God’s attributes and His promises gives us hope and endurance in prayer. To approach God’s holy throne, we must know that He is good, ready to forgive, and abundant in lovingkindness to all who call upon Him (86:5). We must know that He is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness and truth” (86:15). In this prayer, David basically pits who God is against his enemies and leaves the outcome to God.

A. God is the only true God, great in power.

David exclaims (86:8-10), “There is no one like You among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like Yours. All nations whom You have made shall come and worship before You, O Lord, and they shall glorify Your name. For you are great and do wondrous deeds; You alone are God.”

Seven times in this psalm, David uses the name, Adonai, or Lord (3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 12, 15). It emphasizes God’s lordship and sovereignty. He made the nations. He has ordained that they will all come and worship before Him. He is great and does wondrous deeds. The Lord alone is God.

By referring to “the gods,” David means the idols or demons that the heathen worship. Satan is called the god of this world (or, “age,” 2 Cor. 4:4; John 12:31). The whole world lies in his power (1 John 5:19). Paul, referring to the demons, says that there are many gods and many lords in heaven and on earth (1 Cor. 8:5; 10:20). These demons are spirit-beings, organized under Satan, with great power over individuals and entire nations (2 Thess. 2:9; Acts 19:13-16; Dan. 10:13, 20).

But, at the time which God determines, He will bring fire down from heaven to destroy His enemies. Satan and all of the demons will be thrown into the lake of fire, where they will be tormented forever and ever (Rev. 20:9-10). And even now, before that time, we are assured (1 John 4:4), “greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.”

This should give us great confidence to pray. Although the forces of darkness are powerful, none of them can compare to God. Because God has willed that all the nations whom He has made will worship Him, we can pray for the lost peoples of the world, knowing that God will bless our missionary efforts. There may be temporary setbacks, as there often have been in church history. But ultimately and finally, God will prevail. We can pray to Him as the only true God, great in power.

B. God is great in love, grace, and mercy.

Twice (86:3, 16), David entreats God to be gracious to him. Twice again (86:5, 15), he cites Exodus 34:6-7, where God revealed Himself to Moses. Here is how God disclosed Himself: “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished….”

This great self-revelation of God is one of the most frequently quoted texts in the Old Testament. It is referred to in Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalms 103:8 & 145:8; Joel 2:13; and Jonah 4:2. Here, in 86:5, David uses it to appeal to God to answer his prayer: “For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive, and abundant in lovingkindness to all who call upon You.” Again (86:15), David prays, “But You, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness and truth.”

Since this is God’s repeated revelation of Himself to us, it provides us with a sure basis to approach His throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace to help in our times of need (Heb. 4:16). If you have never come to God through Jesus and His shed blood to receive forgiveness for your sins, He invites you to come and ask. You will receive His abundant mercy and grace.

If, as a Christian, you have failed God by sinning, He invites you to come for forgiveness, mercy, and grace. When David asks God to preserve his soul and adds (86:2), “for I am a godly man,” he does not mean that he deserves for God to answer based on David’s godliness. David sinned often, sometimes in major ways, as you know. Rather, the word godly stems from the Hebrew word (hesed) for lovingkindness, or God’s loyal covenant love. It means that David is a loyal follower of the Lord (H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms [Baker], p. 618). David is not being self-righteous, but simply stating the fact that he was committed to the Lord.

If you’re following the Lord, but you’re struggling with overwhelming problems beyond your ability to handle, He invites you to come as you are to His throne of grace to receive mercy and grace to help in your time of need. And in case you’re worried that your problems are too great or that you’ve bugged Him once too often, He repeatedly reminds you that His lovingkindness is abundant! You can’t exhaust His love!

God’s abundant love, grace, and mercy should motivate us to come to Him in prayer with all our needs, whether great or small. Suppose that you were poor and a superrich billionaire said to you, “I’ve got more money than I can ever spend. Any time you have a need, just ask and I’ll meet your need.” Wouldn’t you ask often? Maybe you’d feel like you were imposing on his time, but God is not bound by time. It’s not like signing up for welfare: There is no application to fill out to justify your need. There are no lines to wait in to present your case. Just come to the gracious, loving Father with your needs. If you’ve sinned, He’s ready to forgive. If you feel you don’t deserve His blessing, grace is for the undeserving. He is abundant in lovingkindness to all who call upon Him. Just call!

So, we should pray because we have great needs. We pray to the God who is great in power, love, and mercy.

3. How should we pray? We should pray earnestly, continually, thankfully, in humility, and in faith.

David’s close relationship with God permeates the entire prayer. He knew God intimately and personally. So he felt free to pour out his heart as he does here.

A. Pray earnestly.

David’s earnestness and intensity oozes out of the entire prayer. It stems from his awareness of his great need. If God doesn’t answer, David knows that he is doomed. So he cries out from his heart for God to save him from these powerful enemies.

The point is, he wasn’t mumbling through a formal liturgy. He wasn’t just going mindlessly down a prayer list. Like a starving beggar, he was entreating God to give him food. John Bunyan (“On Praying in the Spirit,” The Works of John Bunyan [Baker], 1:633) pictures two beggars that come to your door. One is poor, lame, wounded, and almost starving. The other is healthy and robust. They both use the same words in asking for food. They both say that they’re starving. But the first man speaks out of his misery and pain, whereas the second more calmly sets forth his need. You will be more inclined to give to the first man, not to the second. Even so, Bunyan says, it is with God. Those who come to Him out of custom and formality, going through the motions of prayer, are less likely to be heard than those who earnestly pray out of the anguish of their souls.

B. Pray continually.

David says (86:3), “For unto You I cry all day long.” Again, his continual prayers were driven by his intense awareness of his great need. Paul tells us (1 Thess. 5:17), “pray without ceasing.” He does not mean that we should pray non-stop, which would be impossible. Rather, the word was used of a hacking cough and of repeated military assaults. The idea is, keep coming back to prayer over and over again, all throughout the day.

C. Pray thankfully.

David writes (86:12), “I will give thanks to You, O Lord my God, with all my heart.” Similarly, right after telling us to pray without ceasing, Paul says (1 Thess. 5:18), “in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” We cannot give thanks to God from the heart unless we are submissive to His sovereign hand in our circumstances and we believe that He is working even our trials together for our ultimate good.

D. Pray in humility.

David’s prayer is permeated with humility. He doesn’t angrily demand better treatment in light of the fact that he is God’s chosen king. He doesn’t complain, “After the way that I’ve served You all these years, I deserve better than this!” Rather, he prays for God to be gracious to him (86:3, 16). He refers to himself as God’s servant, the son of His handmaid (86:2, 4, 16). He admits that he is afflicted and needy. He admits his weakness by asking God to grant him strength (86:16).

These were not “cool” things for a king to put in print for everyone to read! Kings have an image to maintain. Kings need to convey that they’re in control of the situation. Kings want everyone to think that they know how to solve problems. But David humbly acknowledges his weakness and his need for God’s strength. Even so, prayer is not asking God to give us a little boost. Rather, it is acknowledging to Him and anyone who is listening that our need is total, not partial.

E. Pray in faith.

David affirms his trust in God (86:2). He knows that God will answer him (86:7). His affirmation (86:13), that God has delivered his soul from the depths of Sheol, may be referring to a past deliverance, or it may also be a statement of faith about his present need for deliverance, viewing the future as if it is already accomplished (Kidner, p. 313). His request that God would show him a sign for good (86:17), does not stem from doubt. David is not saying, “Lord, if you give me a token for good, then I’ll trust in You.” Rather, David has been in this trial for some time now, without any hint of God’s deliverance. His enemies are gloating, “Ha! He trusted in God, but God hasn’t delivered him!” So David asks for an encouraging sign that God is going to answer him and shame his enemies, who were really mocking God Himself.

Faith is not a matter of closing your eyes to reality and leaping into the dark. Rather, faith rests on God’s revealed character and on the many revealed instances of how He has answered prayer in the past. Faith does not presume to command God, as many modern, irreverent preachers claim to do. Even Jesus prayed, “yet not My will, but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42). But faith rests on God’s power and abundant love. Faith knows that if something is for our good and God’s glory, He will do it.

So why should we pray? Because we have great needs. To whom should we pray? To the only true God, great in power, love, and mercy. How should we pray? Pray earnestly, continually, thankfully, in humility and in faith. Finally,

4. What should we pray for? Pray for salvation; for joy in trials; for a teachable, obedient, single-minded, reverent heart; and for God’s glory and supremacy over all.

That’s enough for another sermon, but briefly…

A. Pray for salvation.

David asks God to save him (86:2, 16), which in the context obviously refers to being delivered from his enemies. But in New Testament terms, pray for God to save you from His judgment. Jesus came as the Savior (Matt. 1:21; Luke 19:10). He didn’t come to save decent people who just need a boost in their self-esteem! He came to save sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). If you’ve never cried out to God for salvation, that is your main need!

B. Pray for joy in trials.

David asks (86:4), “Make glad the soul of Your servant.” That was a bold request at a time like this (Kidner, p. 313). C. H. Spurgeon said (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 34:630), “We ought either to be rejoicing in the Lord, or pining after him! Ask God to make you miserable, unless his conscious presence makes you happy.”

C. Pray for a teachable, obedient, single-minded, reverent heart.

Here I’m focusing on the wonderful request of verse 11, “Teach me Your way, O Lord; I will walk in Your truth; unite my heart to fear Your name.” In any trial, a teachable heart is essential. Ask God what you should be learning about Him and about yourself in the difficult situation. Most of us instinctively pray for quick deliverance, but David prays that he will learn God’s ways so that he will walk in obedience to God’s truth. He prays that his loyalty will not be scattered or divided, but rather be united or single-minded. He wants to be wholly devoted to God. And the end result is that he will fear or reverence God’s name.

So often in trials, people who professed faith in Christ when things were going well, quickly turn to whatever they think will get them out of the trial. They aren’t interested in learning more about Christ and His sufferings (Phil. 3:10). They don’t want to hear about walking in His truth. Their hearts are grabbing for anything, even false gods, that will give them relief. Rather than submitting reverently to God, they rail angrily at Him for allowing their suffering. But these reactions are indicative of the seed sown on the rocky soil. Not having any roots, it withers under trials.

D. Pray for God’s glory and supremacy over all.

David prophesies that all nations will worship before God and glorify His name (86:9). He also affirms that he will glorify God’s name forever (86:12). One reason that God brings trials into our lives is so that we will call upon Him and then glorify Him when He rescues us (Ps. 50:15). So in all of our troubles, we should be looking for ways to magnify the Lord, so that others will be drawn to Him. In the midst of life-threatening situations, such as David was in, we can still affirm (86:5), “For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive, and abundant in lovingkindness to all who call upon You.”

Conclusion

President Lincoln came to know Christ personally through the burdens that he faced during the Civil War. He later said, “I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had absolutely no other place to go.” (Cited by Ray Stedman, Jesus Teaches on Prayer [Word], p. 51.)

We live in a time where our city and our nation desperately need God’s salvation! This weekend, our city has flaunted degradation with the “Pride in the Pines” festival, celebrating what God calls shameful. President Obama proclaimed June as “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month.” He lauded what he called the determination and dedication of the LGBT movement.

But what might God do if we pray for His mercy to be poured out on this evil country? We certainly have great needs. But He is great in power, love, and mercy. Let’s come before Him and ask Him to pour out His Spirit on the churches and on this land, so that sinners will come and worship before Him, glorifying Him for His great mercy!

Application Questions

  1. To what extent is our prayerlessness due to our not seeing our great needs? How can we be more aware of our true needs?
  2. How does your view of God stack up with Psalm 86:5, 15? How would believing this biblical view change your prayer life?
  3. How can we develop true joy and thankfulness in the midst of trials? Are we supposed to fake it when we don’t feel it?
  4. Why is a teachable heart essential when we’re going through trials? How does a defiant heart block God’s mercy and love?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2009, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Psalm 90: Eternal God, Ephemeral Man

In the barren Mojave desert of California rests a monument to futility. A single man, “Burro” Schmidt, spent over 40 years digging a tunnel more than 2,000 feet long through solid granite, using only hand tools. Schmidt was a gold prospector who had settled on the north side of Copper Mountain. Gold had been discovered on the south side. Thinking that he might strike it rich and that he would need a route for sending his ore to the other side, he began his tunnel.

In 1910, with his tunnel half finished, the Southern Pacific Railroad completed a line through the area which rendered Schmidt’s tunnel useless. But by then the tunnel had become his obsession. He kept digging for another 28 years until he broke through into daylight. He operated the tunnel as a tourist attraction until his death in 1954. Over 40 years to build a useless tunnel through a barren, out-of-the-way desert mountain--what a waste!

But who is to say that Schmidt’s tunnel was a waste of his life? A person might conquer the world, only to die in his thirties, like Alexander the Great. So what? A person might become a famous doctor, discovering the cure for cancer. So he helps people survive a few more years, only to die of something else. He, too, will soon go to his grave. So what?

Are you ever overwhelmed with the feeling that life is futile? You can amass a great fortune, only to be cut down in the prime of life. You can’t take it with you. You can work all your life looking forward to retirement, only to die and never enjoy it. Almost anything you choose to put your hopes and your efforts in can suddenly be brought to nothing through that great common leveler: death. As George Bernard Shaw wryly observed, “The statistics on death are quite impressive: One out of one people die.”

We avoid thinking about death in our culture. We’re uncomfortable talking about it. We would rather just brush it aside with a nervous laugh and change the subject. But we can’t brush it aside for too long, because we and everyone we know will die. As you think about death, whether it be the death of others or your own death, you have to wrestle with the question, “How can my fleeting life have purpose or value?” “What makes life significant and worthwhile?”

It seems to me that there are only two possible answers. One is the philosophy of the hedonist, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” That view is flawed if there is a resurrection of the dead. The other view, which takes this fact into account, is the view of the Bible, that we must be linked vitally to the eternal God if we want our fleeting lives to have significance.

Moses was a man surrounded by death. He led Israel out of bondage in Egypt to take them to the promised land. But because of their disobedience, God determined that that generation should not enter the land, but die in the wilderness. Even Moses died; only Joshua and Caleb lived to enter the promised land. If God’s judgment applied to everyone 20 and older when they came out of Egypt, over 1.2 million men and women died during the 40 years in the wilderness (Num. 1:45-46). There were a lot of graves in the desert!

As Moses saw these people whom he knew and had worked with over the years dropping like flies, he reflected deeply upon the question, “How can this fleeting life have meaning and value?” Instead of being driven to despair and cynicism, as many are who reflect on this question, Moses, being a man of God, was driven to worship and prayer. The result is the majestic Psalm 90, the oldest of the psalms, the only one in the psalter known to have been written by Moses. (He wrote other poetry; see, “The Song of Moses,” Deut. 32:1-43.) Moses’ inspired answer to the question of how this ephemeral (= lasting only a short while) life can have value is,

Our fleeting lives can have value only if we live wisely before the eternal God.

The psalm falls into four stanzas:

  1. (90:1-2)--The eternal nature of God.
  2. (90:3-6)--The ephemeral nature of man.
  3. (90:7-11)--God’s wrath over man’s sin as the cause of man’s ephemerality.
  4. (90:12-17)--A prayer for God’s mercy and grace in spite of man’s sin.

First I want to look at the second and third stanzas, which reveal two things which make life futile apart from God; then we will look at the first and fourth stanzas, which show how life can have meaning and value; then, I’ll conclude with some practical lessons.

1. Life is futile apart from God because of its shortness and uncertainty and because of God’s wrath on our sin.

A. Life’s shortness and uncertainty make it futile apart from God (90:3-6).

When he talks of God bringing man back to the dust, Moses goes back to the fall and the curse which God imposed (Gen 2:17; 3:17-19). When he refers to “a thousand years,” he may be recalling the life span of those before the flood, who lived almost that long. He is saying, “Even if a person lives to be a thousand years old, it is nothing to God. It’s like a day to Him, or like a watch in the night, which passes by almost instantly while we sleep.”

Think of that! Think of all of the history that has occurred in the past 1,000 years! America is a mere babe of 217. Columbus discovered America 501 years ago, just half way to 1,000! A 1,000-year-old man would have been half way through life when the Renaissance and Reformation came on the scene! To God, that’s only a little blip on the horizon of time. We average 70 or 80 years, some a few more, some less, and we think we’re so great! But none of us has the certainty of waking up tomorrow.

Moses describes our helplessness in the face of death as being swept away by a flash flood that suddenly bursts upon us and takes everything in its path (90:5a). We’re like the grass of the field (90:5b-6), which sprouts in the morning and looks promising. But after a day in the blistering desert sun, it lies withered. How soon the promise of youth is gone and life fades away!

It may be uncomfortable to think about, but it’s true. Think of how short and uncertain our feeble life is. A number of years ago, I mentioned in a sermon the fact that we are not guaranteed tomorrow. That very day, a dear couple who had moved from our town, but who were back for a visit that Sunday, were driving home when a man high on drugs crossed the center line and hit them head on. The wife was killed instantly; the husband was crippled.

It just isn’t all that difficult to die! We heard of a man who went with his wife for a weekend away in Palm Springs. As he was getting out of the jacuzzi, he felt dizzy, lost his balance, and hit his head as he fell. He died a few days later. Who would have thought that climbing into a jacuzzi would lead to death! I once did the funeral for an 11-year-old girl who had a headache, went and lay down and died, of a brain aneurysm. None of us knows how long we have to live. I want you to feel the anxiety Moses intends us to feel by his words. Life is short and uncertain. Apart from being rightly related to God, it is futile.

B. God’s wrath on our sin makes life futile apart from God (90:7-11).

Moses had “exhibit A” before his eyes: People were dying like crazy. For 1.2 million people to die in 40 years, 30,000 were dying every year (if evenly spaced). That’s about 82 per day! It didn’t happen that way, because on some days thousands were killed because of their rebellion and sin (Num. 16:49; 25:9). But Moses saw a lot of corpses!

He is making the point that death is the result of God’s wrath on our sin. People say that death is just a natural part of the life cycle, that all living things die, so we should just accept it as normal. But that’s a humanistic lie that minimizes the horror of death and disregards the clear teaching of the Bible, that death entered this world as God’s direct judgment on the sin of the human race (Gen. 2:17; 3:19). The reality of death ought to make people face the reality of their sin and the fact that they will shortly stand before a holy God.

In our day we tend to minimize the horror of God’s wrath. It embarrasses us in our sophisticated, scientific day to suggest that the AIDS epidemic could be God’s wrath on the immorality of our land. We’d rather see it as a medical problem which science will solve in a few years. But as Moses contemplated the plagues which God had brought about on Israel, he exclaims (90:11), “Who understands the power of Your anger, and Your fury, according to the fear that is due to You?”

I first read Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” for a college philosophy class years ago. The professor castigated Edwards as a cruel sadist who took great pleasure in scaring ignorant people with the supposed horrors of hell. But I rather think that Spurgeon was correct when he said that no poet or prophet could ever go too far in describing the terrors of hell. Rather, he said, “The wrath to come has its horrors rather diminished than enhanced in description by the dark lines of human fancy; it baffles words, it leaves imagination far behind” (The Treasury of David [Baker], IV:203).

If you struggle with how a good and loving God can also be a God of wrath, I suggest that you read Edwards’ sermon, “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners” (The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth], 1:668-679). He shows that our problem with hell stems from the fact that we think too lowly of God and too highly of ourselves, and thus we look upon God as having little right to do as He pleases, and upon ourselves as having great rights (p. 679). Edwards exonerates God and leaves you lying in the dust, examining your heart to make sure that you are not under God’s condemnation!

Moses’ point is that the fact of death, which we see all around us (remember, “one out of one people dies”!) should make us aware that the wrath of the eternal God is upon the sinful human race. If we do not truly know this eternal God as our personal dwelling place, life is futile.

If you have put your trust in Jesus Christ, then He has saved you from the wrath of God (1 Thess. 1:10). Though we will die physically (unless Christ returns in our lifetime), we will not face the second death, which is to be forever separated from God in hell (Rev. 20:14-15). But if you are apart from Christ, you are under God’s condemnation and life is futile. Thus in stanzas two and three, Moses shows that apart from God, life is futile because of its shortness and uncertainty and because of God’s wrath on our sin, as seen in the fact of death.

But the psalm does not leave us in despair. The first and fourth stanzas show how our fleeting lives can have meaning and value:

2. Life has meaning and value if we have a relationship with the eternal God and if we have God’s blessing upon our life and work.

A. A relationship with the eternal God gives life meaning and value (90:1-2).

Moses, in a few deft strokes, paints a picture of the eternality of God. He works his way back, from the previous generations, to the formation of the mountains, to the creation of the earth, and to eternity past (“from everlasting”) and then moves swiftly forward to eternity future (“to everlasting”). Verse two might better be translated, “Even from everlasting to everlasting, you are, O God.” The point is, God is eternal.

In and of itself, that truth can be rather unsettling and awesome. But Moses makes it clear that it is altogether possible (and was, in fact, the case) that we, the finite creature, can have a relationship with this eternal God. The personal pronoun “our” occurs in relation to God both in verses 1 and 17. The eternal God is our God. He is our dwelling place. We live in Him through Christ!

There is nothing that can give meaning and value to life like the reality of a personal relationship with the eternal God of the universe. As Augustine put it, “Thou hast created us for Thyself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” To know that in spite of our finiteness and sin, we can know the infinite holy God in a personal way provides a sense of stability and substance to life that cannot be found in any earthly thing or relationship. But, also,

B. God’s blessing upon our life and work gives life meaning and value (90:12-17).

In the last stanza of the psalm, Moses prays for a reversal of what has gone before. Whereas God has said to man, “Return” (to dust, v. 3), now Moses says to God, “Return” (to forgive and bless, vv. 13 ff.). God’s “repentance” (90:13), a frequent phrase in Scripture, looks at God from the human perspective: He appears to us to change. Moses prays, “May the favor (delightfulness, pleasantness, beauty) of the Lord our God be upon us” (90:17).

The blessings of the world are so fleeting and fickle! You can gain fame and fortune, but you can’t take them with you and in the end, they never satisfy. Witness the unhappiness and emptiness of so many famous and wealthy people, especially in Hollywood. But God’s blessings do satisfy. There has never been a person who has walked with God who has reached old age and looked back on life, no matter how filled with trials, and said, “I wish I hadn’t lived this way. I’ve wasted my life!” Impossible! A person who has known God’s joy and peace is a satisfied person!

Not only does Moses pray that God’s blessing would be upon His people, but also that God would confirm the work of their hands (90:17). He doesn’t just mean “spiritual” work, such as the priests did, but all the work that they did--farming, business, and family life (see Deut. 14:29; 16:15; 24:19; 28:12; 30:9). When you have the eternal God as your dwelling place, all of life becomes sacred. So whether your work is to be a pastor or missionary or garbage truck driver, you can do it all to the glory of God!

Chuck Swindoll tells of ministering at a family camp where the entire week was spent emphasizing the importance of God’s hand in every calling and profession. He encouraged each Christian to realize that his or her vocation was ordained of God. At the end of the week, a man came up to share how much the week had meant to him and his family. The camp director asked him what he did for a living. He answered, “My work? I’m an ordained plumber!”

If God is your dwelling place and His hand of blessing is on your life, then whatever you do you can do to His glory. Even the mundane takes on significance when you belong to the Lord. Our fleeting lives can have value if we live wisely before the eternal God.

Conclusion

I conclude with three practical lessons from this psalm:

1. Live in light of eternity. Moses prays (90:12), “So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom.” One day you will present something to God. He has entrusted certain gifts and abilities to you and you are to manage them for Him in such a way as to make a profit for His kingdom. The Hebrew verb in verse 12 is the same word used in Genesis 4:3-4 to refer to the offerings of Cain and Abel. What will you offer to God when He calls for an account? Remember, it was the fellow with only one talent who buried it and was upbraided by his master. Not having the greatest abili-ties is no excuse for not using them.

I read an interview with Jerry Falwell a number of years ago when he was the head of Moral Majority, the president of Liberty University, and the pastor of a church with over 15,000 members and a national TV audience. The interviewer asked him what he wanted to be remembered for. His stock went up in my ratings when he answered, “A godly husband, father, and pastor, in that order.” He wasn’t carried away with worldly acclaim. He was living in light of standing before Christ some day. I try to conduct everything I do in my life and ministry in light of the goal of one day hearing Jesus say to me, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

2. Labor for the lasting, not the passing. There is so much that we work for that doesn’t remain! I know, we need a certain amount of worldly things to live comfortably and to function efficiently in our modern world. But never forget that “the world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:17).

The only things God is going to reclaim off this planet are His Word and people. And yet so often we value things above God’s Word and above our relationships with people. Remember what Paul wrote in light of the truth of the resurrection: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58). The work of the Lord involves His Word and people. Put your efforts there and you will not be disappointed.

3. Avoid the waste that comes from sinful living. This was our theme from Psalm 81, but it bears repeating. Israel was consumed by God’s anger (90:7-10) because of their disobedience. Sinful, self-willed living always results in waste. While those who are in Christ need not fear God’s condemnation (Rom. 8:1), we do need to fear the Lord and avoid sinning. The law of sowing and reaping (Gal. 6:7-8) applies even under grace. Don’t be deceived: Sin always has adverse consequences in your life. Obedience always results in God’s blessing. Israel’s experience in the wilderness was written for our instruction, so that we don’t repeat their mistakes.

I read of a young man who, in 1981, was flown into the remote Alaskan wilderness to photograph the natural beauty of the tundra. He had photo equipment, 500 rolls of film, several firearms, and 1,400 pounds of provisions. As the months passed, the entries in his diary, which at first detailed the wonder and fascination with the wildlife around him, turned into a pathetic record of a nightmare. In August he wrote, “I think I should have used more foresight about arranging my departure. I’ll soon find out.”

He waited and waited, but no one came to his rescue. In November he died in a nameless valley, by a nameless lake, 225 miles northeast of Fairbanks. An investigation revealed that he had carefully mapped out his venture, but he had made no provision to be flown out of the area.

That was a bit shortsighted of him, wasn’t it? And yet, how many people live their lives without making any plans for their departure to face eternity? You know you will be departing (the statistics on death are quite impressive!). The only way for your fleeting life to have value is to live it wisely before the eternal God and to avoid His wrath against your sin by taking refuge in the mercy He offers in the cross of Jesus Christ.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you think we give proper biblical emphasis to hell and its horrors? How can we do this in our secular culture?
  2. Should we use the shortness of life and hell in witnessing? How? Biblically, which receives more emphasis in evangelism: Fear of judgment or the love of God?
  3. How can we think profitably about the shortness of life without becoming morbid and depressed?
  4. Does God get angry with Christians or is His wrath limited to unbelievers? Give biblical evidence.

Copyright 1993, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Psalm 92: It is Good to Give Thanks to the Lord

Bruce and Jan Benson are Bible translators, serving in Peru. Several years ago, they were driving down an Andean road with their 14 year-old son when they came around a switchback and came bumper to bumper with a truckload of people. Suddenly, these people brandished rifles at the Bensons, who realized that they had encountered the brutal terrorist organization, Shining Path. Jan thought, “This is it! This is the end of our lives!”

The terrorists forced them out of their car and transported them to a nearby town. On the way, fearful and bewildered, Jan felt the need to pray and even to sing praises to God. Jan described it,

It began as a trickle. A presence that said, “The Lord inhabits the praises of His people.” “But Lord, I don’t know how to praise you right now.” “Sing,” came the thought. “At least you can sing.” The words were there as I needed them: “You are my hiding place. You always fill my heart with songs of deliverance. Whenever I am afraid I will trust in you… Trust and obey… Jesus, name above all names… Emmanuel, God is with us…”

Suddenly I felt as though I was the only person alive on earth, just me and God. The others were simply part of an unreal puppet play, dangling from the strings of the Enemy… I felt an all-encompassing love. God reassured me that He was in control, that nothing could remove me from His loving presence—not even death itself.

That night the terrorists unexpectedly released the Bensons—but not without first confiscating their car, their portable projection equipment and film reels of the “New Media Bible,” which is based on the book of Luke (the same film material that makes up the “Jesus” film).

One year passed. The Bensons had moved to the capital for safety and to take on administrative roles. Jan received a phone call. One of their captors had become a Christian and wanted to meet with them. Face-to-face he told them he was an experienced killer, and that he and the others had planned on killing them all. But, for some reason they just could not do it and instead released them.

He told Bruce and Jan that soon after arriving at their base, the rebels set up the projector and watched the film, eventually many times. At one viewing, several hundred terrorist rebels were watching! The Word of God in the film, understood in their own language, reached into the men’s hardened hearts. Many were so moved that they wanted to lay down their arms right there and leave “The Shining Path.” Now, standing before them as a fellow believer, their former enemy asked forgiveness for what he had done to them that day. Eventually, Bruce and Jan were able to go back into the mountains to do a final “read through” of the entire New Testament in the Huamalies Quechua language, the last key step before it went to press (told by Roy Peterson, Wycliffe Bible Translators newsletter, 11/27/2001).

Sometimes it is very difficult to praise the Lord. Sometimes you just don’t feel like it. Probably none of us have ever been in the kind of frightening, life-threatening situation the Benson’s were in. But even in the most difficult of situations, the psalmist would still tell us (Ps. 92:1), “It is good to give thanks to the Lord and to sing praises to Your name, O Most High.” You may wonder, “Why is it good to give thanks to the Lord when you face difficult trials? Why is it good to sing praises to His name when evil people seem to be prospering?” The psalmist here gives us three reasons:

It is good to give thanks to the Lord because of who He is and what He has done; because He will triumph over the wicked; and, because He causes the righteous to flourish.

He makes the first point in verses 1-5; the second point in verses 6-9; and, the third point in verses 10-15. We don’t know the author of the psalm. Many think that it was David. Others think that it was written after the exile, when the Jews returned to the land. It is titled, “A Psalm, A Song for the Sabbath day.” I’m not sure why this psalm was better suited for the Sabbath than many other psalms, but the rabbis designated it to be sung especially on that day when the Jews gathered for worship. Derek Kidner observes (Psalms 73-150 [IVP], p. 334), “This Song for the Sabbath is proof enough, if such were needed, that the Old Testament sabbath was a day not only for rest but for corporate worship … and intended to be a delight rather than a burden.” John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on Psalm 92, p. 493) says, “The Psalmist would teach us that the right observance of the Sabbath does not consist in idleness, as some absurdly imagine, but in the celebration of the Divine name.”

The psalm addresses the problem of the prosperity of the wicked, a frequent theme in the Psalms (37, 49, 73). But here, rather than being troubled by it (as was the author of Ps. 73), the psalmist confidently portrays the wicked as growing up like grass, flourishing briefly, and then being destroyed forever. But the righteous will flourish into old age to declare God’s praise. The solution is the same as in Psalm 73. There the author was troubled by the prosperity of the wicked, until he came into the sanctuary of God, where he perceived their end of destruction. Here, the author is in the temple already, praising God from the vantage point that the earlier psalmist had to struggle to attain.

1. It is good to give thanks and praise to the Lord because of who He is and what He has done (92:1-5).

Good seems like too weak of a word for giving thanks and praise to the Most High God. In what sense is it good? It’s good in the sense of Psalm 147:1, “Praise the Lord! For it is good to sing praises to our God; for it is pleasant and praise is becoming.” Or, Psalm 33:1 exclaims, “Sing for joy in the Lord, O you righteous ones; praise is becoming to the upright.” C. H. Spurgeon said (The Treasury of David [Eerdmans], 4:263), “It is good ethically, for it is the Lord’s right; it is good emotionally, for it is pleasant to the heart; it is good practically, for it leads others to render the same homage.” J. J. S. Perowne (The Book of Psalms [Zondervan], 2:178-179) said, “It is a good thing, i.e. a delightful thing, not merely acceptable to God, but a real joy to the heart.” The psalmist gives us five ways that it is good to give thanks and praise to the Lord:

A. It is good to give thanks and praise to the Lord because He rightly deserves it.

God is Yahweh, the covenant-keeping Lord. Yahweh is used seven times in this psalm for the seventh day. He is also the Most High, which translates the Hebrew, El Elyon, a name frequently attributed to God. Melchizedek, the mysterious king who blessed Abram, was a priest of “God Most High, the Possessor [or, Creator] of heaven and earth” (Gen. 14:18-19). Psalm 97:9 proclaims, “For You are the Lord Most High over all the earth; You are exalted far above all gods” (“gods” refers to idols or demons).

This leads me to ask, “Is the Lord God your Most High?” Is He the highest, most important, most central and controlling Being in your life? If not, why not? He is the one who spoke the universe into existence. It all belongs to Him. He is over every created thing. If you do not thank and praise Him as your Lord Most High, you are guilty of horrible ingratitude! He alone rightly deserves all praise and glory because He is the Lord Most High.

B. It is good to give thanks and praise to the Lord at all times.

“To declare Your lovingkindness in the morning and Your faithfulness by night” (92:2). That is a poetic way of saying that it is good to declare God’s praise at all times. Calvin (p. 494) notes that we never lack matter for praising God, unless we’re too lazy to see it, because His goodness and faithfulness are incessant. Begin your day by declaring God’s loyal love to you as the thought to govern your day. End your day by thanking Him for His faithfulness as He showed it to you by getting you through the day.

C. It is good to give thanks and praise to the Lord for His lovingkindness and faithfulness.

God’s lovingkindness (His loyal covenant love) and His faithfulness are frequently mentioned together in the Psalms as reasons to praise Him. There are many others, but note just three:

Psalm 36:5, “Your lovingkindness, O Lord, extends to the heavens; Your faithfulness reaches to the skies.”

Psalm 57:10: “For Your lovingkindness is great to the heavens and Your truth [same Hebrew word as faithfulness] to the clouds.”

Psalm 89:1: “I will sing of the lovingkindness of the Lord forever; to all generations I will make known Your faithfulness with my mouth.”

If you think daily about the Lord’s loyal love and His faithfulness towards you, you will have abundant reasons to praise Him.

D. It is good to give thanks and praise to the Lord musically, with instruments and voice.

Verses 1 & 4 mention singing with our voices and verse 3 mentions different instruments: “With the ten-stringed lute and with the harp, with resounding music upon the lyre.” Somewhat strangely (in my opinion), both Calvin and Spurgeon opposed the use of instruments to accompany congregational singing. That tradition goes back as far as the middle of the fourth century, as reported by the church historian Eusebius (Spurgeon, 4:271). Matthew Henry expresses his view that while there may be accompaniment, it should not be too upbeat (his word was gay), but had to be solemn and grave (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible [Revell], 3:591)! But I agree with James Boice (Psalms, Volume 2 [Baker], p. 757) that these men were simply expressing a preference, not a biblical mandate. Psalm 150 pulls out the stops and commands praising God with every conceivable instrument! But the instruments should not drown out the words, which should express the truth about God’s greatness and love.

E. It is good to give thanks and praise to the Lord because His great works have made us glad.

“For You, O Lord, have made me glad by what You have done, I will sing for joy at the works of Your hands. How great are Your works, O Lord! Your thoughts are very deep” (92:4, 5). Note three things:

(1). God’s great works include creation, salvation, and providence.

The title of the psalm hints at the work of creation, since it was on the seventh day of creation that God rested from His works. Even unbelievers should marvel as they study the intricate design and beauty of God’s creation, since it displays His invisible attributes, eternal power and divine nature (Rom. 1:20). God’s work of salvation or redemption is implied by His lovingkindness, His loyal covenant love towards His people. And His work of providence is seen in how He destroys evildoers (92:7, 9, 11), while causing His people to flourish (92:10, 12-14). Contemplating God’s great works in creation, salvation, and His providential care for you should make you sing for joy and be glad.

(2). God’s great works stem from His deep thoughts.

“Your thoughts are very deep” (92:5b). As Isaiah 55:8-9 says, “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ says the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.” Or, as Paul exclaims (Rom. 11:33), “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!”

Here the psalmist is especially referring to the way that God allows the wicked to flourish for a time, while the righteous suffer. We would not govern the world in this way. If God would only let us be in charge, we’d fix this injustice! Why doesn’t He listen to us? But the psalmist says that if we think that way, we are senseless and stupid, because we are forgetting that the wicked only sprout up and flourish for a short time, only to be destroyed forever. And, we’re forgetting that God reigns on high forever (92:6-9).

(3). God’s great works make us glad.

This is the bottom line: When we think about God’s great works in creation, salvation, and providence, and we contemplate His unsearchable judgments and unfathomable ways, it makes us glad, so that we sing for joy (92:4). Thus the psalmist’s first point is that it is good to give thanks and praise to God because of who He is and what He has done.

2. It is good to give thanks and praise to the Lord because He will triumph over the wicked (92:6-9).

These verses make two points, that the wicked will perish and that they in no way threaten the Lord, who reigns on high.

A. The senseless wicked, who will shortly perish, do not understand God’s ways (92:6-7, 9).

“A senseless man has no knowledge, nor does a stupid man understand this: that when the wicked sprouted up like grass and all who did iniquity flourished, it was only that they might be destroyed forevermore” (92:6-7). “For, behold, Your enemies, O Lord, for, behold, Your enemies will perish; all who do iniquity will be scattered” (92:9).

Although the wicked often seem to flourish, we need to keep the eternal perspective. They flourish for a brief moment, but their misery will be forever. The destruction of the wicked does not mean that they will be annihilated and cease to exist. Jesus makes it clear that they will go into eternal punishment, whereas the righteous go into eternal life (Matt. 25:46). He uses the same word to describe both states. If eternal life is eternal, then so is eternal punishment. It is senseless and stupid to forget eternity and live in rebellion against God for a few fleeting years of pleasure in sin!

B. God on high is not thwarted in any way by the wicked (92:8).

Verse 8 is a single line that serves as the hinge verse of the psalm and the central fact on which the entire psalm rests: “But You, O Lord, are on high forever.” Perowne points this out and then adds, “This is the great pillar of the universe and of our faith” (p. 179). God is the Most High. He is on high, not worried about the schemes of the wicked. As the humbled Nebuchadnezzar declares (Dan. 4:35), “All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’”

Thus, it is good to give thanks and praise to the Lord because of who He is and what He has done (92:1-5). It is good to give thanks and praise to the Lord because He will triumph over the wicked (92:6-9). Finally,

3. It is good to give thanks and praise to the Lord because He causes the righteous to flourish (92:10-15).

The theme of these final verses is that God will cause the righteous to flourish, not for a short time like the wicked, but for many years. Note four ways that the righteous flourish:

A. God grants the righteous strength and refreshing renewal (92:10).

“But You have exalted my horn like that of the wild ox; I have been anointed with fresh oil.” The horn was a symbol of strength. It was also used as a container to pour out the oil of anointing. This anointing oil was used to consecrate the priests for service and to anoint the king to office. It was also a picture of soothing refreshment and joy (Ps. 23:5; 45:7; 133:2). If you know the Lord as your Shepherd, then you have experienced His strength and renewal when you have been weary and oppressed.

B. God grants the righteous victory over his enemies (92:11).

The psalmist rejoices, “And my eye has looked exultantly upon my foes, my ears hear of the evildoers who rise up against me.” God did not protect the psalmist from having any enemies. Rather, after some unspecified period of trial, he could now say that God had vanquished his enemies. As believers in Christ, we are not guaranteed a peaceful existence in the sense of not having to fight against the evil forces of darkness. Rather, we are promised victory in the battle as we put on God’s armor and trust in Him.

C. God grants the righteous stability, growth, and spiritual fruitfulness (92:12-14).

Kidner explains (p. 337), “The palm tree is the embodiment of graceful erectness; the cedar, of strength and dignity.” Both are evergreens, picturing year-round stability. Both are planted in the house or courts of the Lord. The houses in Israel were often built in a square, with an open courtyard in the middle. Trees planted there were protected from harsh winds and freezing temperatures. They provided shade from the summer heat. The psalmist adds (92:14) that these trees “will still yield fruit in old age; they shall be full of sap and very green.”

Spurgeon has an entire sermon on these verses, but I must limit myself to saying that the overall picture is that God causes the righteous to flourish, even into old age. I would encourage those of you who are younger in the Lord to sit in the shade and get to know some of the older “palm trees and cedars” who have been planted in the courts of the Lord’s house and are still bearing fruit for Him. You will be blessed!

D. God grants the righteous the joy of declaring His praise (92:15).

These old, flourishing trees in God’s house “declare that the Lord is upright; He is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in Him.” Declare is the same word used in verse 2, thus forming an inclusion, bringing the psalm full cycle. The testimony of God’s being upright, with no unrighteousness in Him, is in light of the momentary flourishing of the wicked. They do not detract from God’s absolute righteousness, in that they will show forth His perfect justice in their damnation. Those who have walked with God for years will declare that He is their rock, the firm foundation that has enabled them to stand firm through many trials. And as they pass through the waters of death, with Hopeful (in Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan [Spire Books], p. 141) they will cry out, “Be of good cheer, my brother; I feel the bottom, and it is good.”

Conclusion

Years ago, there was a Scottish Presbyterian minister who was orthodox in his theology, but very reserved in the pulpit. God blessed him with one woman in his congregation who was exceptionally warmhearted and full of love for the Savior. She was in the habit of exclaiming, “praise the Lord,” or “hallelujah,” when she was blessed by something in his sermon.

This bothered the pastor, so one New Year’s Day he went to her and said, “Betty, I’ll make you a promise. If you will stop saying “praise the Lord” and “hallelujah” during my sermons this year, I’ll give you the two woolen blankets that I hear you’ve been wanting.” Betty was poor and the offer sounded so good she promised to try. Sunday after Sunday she kept quiet.

But one Sunday the pastor had a guest preacher fill in. This man was bubbling over with zeal for the Lord. As he spoke on the forgiveness of sins and the blessings of salvation, Betty’s joy grew brighter and brighter and her vision of the blankets began to fade. At last she could stand it no longer. She leaped to her feet and cried, “Blankets or no blankets, Hallelujah!” (From “Our Daily Bread,” 10/77.)

As we gather on the Lord’s Day, the psalmist wants us to know (92:1), “It is good to give thanks to the Lord and to sing praises to Your name, O Most High.” It is good because of who God is and what He has done. It is good because He will triumph over the wicked. And, it is good because He causes the righteous to flourish in His courts.

Application Questions

  1. Is it hypocrisy to praise the Lord when you don’t feel like it? How can God command it if, in part, it’s a feeling?
  2. How can a person who is prone to depression develop a habit of praising God? What practical steps should he take?
  3. Does praising God for His triumph over the wicked mean that we gloat when the wicked are judged? What does it mean?
  4. How can a non-musical person praise the Lord in song and with instruments? What practical advice would you offer?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2009, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Psalm 95: Worship—or Else!

Most of us do not like ultimatums because they force us to make difficult decisions, usually under pressure. The late Jack Benny had a running joke about his stinginess. He used to do a gag where a robber stuck a gun in his face and said, “Your money or your life!” There was a long pause. The gunman snarled, “Well?” Jack said, “Don’t rush me! I’m thinking about it.”

I would guess that few of us think about worshiping God as an ultimatum. We’re pretty casual about it. If it happens, that’s nice. If it doesn’t happen, no big deal. Maybe we’ll catch it next time around. We don’t see it as eternally significant. In academic circles, professors know the term, “publish or perish.” If you don’t publish articles in academic journals, you may lose your job. But God says to us, “Worship or perish!” And He isn’t talking about losing our jobs, but our souls! The abrupt ultimatum of Psalm 95 is,

We can either worship God with great joy or harden our hearts and perish.

Worship—or else! The psalm falls into two halves. The first half (1-7a) is an invitation to worship the Lord, who is a great God, King, and Creator. Then, rather abruptly (7b-11), the psalmist warns us to hear God’s voice and not harden our hearts, as Israel did in the wilderness. It ends suddenly with God’s frightening warning (95:11), “Therefore I swore in My anger, truly they shall not enter into My rest.” Period! End of song! The ultimatum is: Worship God or else you will perish!

But maybe you’re thinking, “Yes, but this was in the Old Testament. We live in the New Testament era. We’re not under law, but under grace.” But before you shrug off the warning of Psalm 95, you might want to recall that the author of Hebrews cites the entirety of the warning section (7b-11) in Hebrews 3:7-11. He again quotes verse 11 in Hebrews 4:3, and verse 7b in Hebrews 4:7. Derek Kidner (Psalms 73-150 [IVP], p. 343) observes that the Hebrews quote “forbids us to confine its thrust to Israel.” He adds, “The ‘Today’ of which it speaks is this very moment; the ‘you’ is none other than ourselves, and the promised ‘rest’ is not Canaan but salvation.” Thus we dare not shrug off the serious ultimatum of this psalm! Worship—or perish!

Also, note that the first half of the psalm emphasizes God’s absolute sovereignty. He is the great God and a great King above all supposed gods. He created the entire earth, and so He owns it. Further, He is our maker. He owns us and is over us just as a shepherd governs his flock.

But, before we erroneously conclude that since God is sovereign, there isn’t much that we can do, the second half of the psalm emphasizes our responsibility. The psalmist pointedly appeals to us not to harden our hearts against the sovereign Lord. John Calvin expresses the balance this way (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on Ps. 95, p. 41), “The will of man, through natural corruption, is wholly bent to evil; or, to speak more properly, is carried headlong into the commission of it. And yet every man, who disobeys God therein, hardens himself; for the blame of his wrong rests with none but himself.” In other words, we can’t blame anyone but ourselves if we disregard God’s warning here. God’s sovereignty does not absolve us of responsibility to worship Him with tender hearts.

And so Psalm 95 presents us with two ways to live. We can become people of joyful praise to God (1-7a), or people who grumble and harden our hearts toward God, in spite of His many blessings (7b-11). In the words of Hebrews 3:12, after citing Psalm 95:7b-11, “Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God.”

1. The invitation: Worship God with rejoicing, reality, reverence, and relationship (95:1-7a).

Soft hearts are worshiping hearts. Soft hearts submit to God’s rightful lordship over all. Soft hearts submit to God’s discipline. They trust Him for His care as the Good Shepherd.

A. Worship God with rejoicing (95:1-2).

Note the exuberance of verses 1 & 2: “O come, let us sing for joy to the Lord, let us shout joyfully to the rock of our salvation. Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving, let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms.” Does that describe your heart as you come daily into God’s presence and as you gather with the saints on the Lord’s Day? There is no room in those verses for apathetically mumbling through a few songs while your mind is elsewhere! As Kidner says (p. 344), “The full-throated cries urged in the verbs of verses 1 and 2 suggest an acclamation fit for a king who is the savior of his people.”

Note that in the context of shouting joyfully to God, the psalmist calls Him, “the rock of our salvation.” In this psalm, which refers to Israel in the wilderness, the rock that literally saved the nation was the rock that Moses struck, which then flowed with water (Exod. 17:1-7). Paul tells us that that rock was Christ (1 Cor. 10:4). If Christ is the rock of your salvation, who has given you living water for your soul, shouldn’t you come before Him with great joy and thanksgiving?

B. Worship God in the reality of His presence and His person (95:2-5).

(1). Worship God in the reality of His presence (95:2).

“Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving” (95:2a). God is present everywhere, of course, but He is especially present when His people gather to worship Him. After the incident with the golden calf, Moses told the Lord (Exod. 33:15), “If Your presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here.” He knew how vital it was to have God’s real presence with him because the task of leading two million people through a barren wilderness was humanly impossible. Although we are fewer in number, we would still be attempting the impossible and wasting our time if we meet each week and God were not present with us.

(2). Worship God in the reality of His person (95:3-5).

Verse 3 begins with the word “for,” giving the reason why we should worship God so exuberantly. He mentions three things: The Lord is a great God; He is a great King above all gods; and, He is the great Creator.

         He is a great God.

As Psalm 113:3-5 exclaims, “From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the Lord is to be praised. The Lord is high above all nations; His glory is above the heavens. Who is like the Lord our God, who is enthroned on high?” Or, Psalm 145:3, “Great is the Lord, and highly to be praised, and His greatness is unsearchable.”

         He is a great King above all gods.

The psalmist is not suggesting that any of the gods of the nations are real. They are only manmade idols, who have no life in them. Or, if it refers to the demons behind the idols, the Lord is still a great King above all the host of heaven. He rules the entire universe (Ps. 103:19).

         He is the great Creator.

“In whose hand are the depths of the earth, the peaks of the mountains are His also. The sea is His, for it was He who made it, and His hands formed the dry land” (95:4-5). You can dig down to the earth’s molten core, and it’s all in God’s hand. The oil is His. Mount Everest belongs to Him. He made the sea and every creature in it. He formed the dry land. The point is, unlike the idols of the pagans, who were localized gods—the god of the mountains, the god of the sea—the Lord made it all and owns it all. And even more, He also made us: He is our Maker (95:6). Thus we should worship Him in the reality of His presence and His person.

C. Worship God with reverence.

“Come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker” (95:6). The verb translated “worship” means to prostrate yourself. Thus all three verbs in verse six are “concerned with getting low before God” (Kidner, p. 345). So while our worship should be exuberant and joyful, it must also be reverent. We are worshiping our Maker!

D. Worship God in relationship.

“For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand” (95:7). Kidner again puts it aptly (p. 345), “The familiar metaphors of verse 7 express His commitment, which is constant (our God), and His care, which is all-sufficing (his pasture) and personal (his hand). He is no hireling.” Jesus is the Good Shepherd, who knows His sheep and His sheep know Him (John 10:14). We worship Him in close relationship to Him, as His people.

So the appealing invitation is, “Come, worship our God with rejoicing, in the reality of His presence and person, with reverence, and in relationship to Him as our Good Shepherd. But, what if we don’t worship Him? Do we shrug our shoulders and go, “Whatever! No big deal”? No, the Lord gives us an ultimatum:

2. The ultimatum: Harden your heart against the Lord and perish (95:7b-11).

The command is given in 7b-8a: “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.” The rest of the psalm is an illustration of Israel in the wilderness as a people who hardened their hearts against God. When they sided with the ten spies who thought that the giants in the land of Canaan were too hard to conquer and they wanted to return to Egypt, they said (Num. 14:2), “would that we had died in this wilderness!” Because they disbelieved God’s promise to give them the land, He determined that according to their word, they all would perish in the wilderness. Of those who were twenty years old and upward, who had seen God’s miraculous deliverance from Egypt, only Joshua and Caleb would enter the land (Num. 14:28-32).

Both in Psalm 95 and in Hebrews 3, where it is cited, the warning is directed to those who were associated with God’s people, but their hearts were not right before Him. Those in Israel had seen God do stupendous miracles in the plagues against Egypt, while protecting them. They watched God part the Red Sea and take them across on dry land. They watched Him bring the sea back on the Egyptian army. Then they went three days into the wilderness and found no water. After witnessing all of those miracles, you would think that they would have said, “God, You didn’t bring us this far to have us die of thirst. You can provide water for us and our children. Please bring us to some water.” But instead, they grumbled. God directed Moses to throw a tree into some bitter water and it became sweet (Exod. 15:22-26).

But then they went further into the wilderness and grumbled because they didn’t have the meat and bread that they had enjoyed in Egypt. In response, God sent them manna each day (Exod. 16:1-21). But in spite of all these evidences of God’s power and His care for them, the next time they ran out of water, they grumbled again. It was there that God told Moses to strike the rock and water gushed forth. But it became known as Massah (“test”) and Meribah (“quarrel”), because they tested the Lord and quarreled with Him there (Exod. 17:1-7).

Later, God supplied them with quail (Num. 11:31-32). But they were perpetual grumblers. The text describes them (Num. 11:1), “Now the people became like those who complain of adversity in the hearing of the Lord.” Although they had been miraculously delivered from Egypt and miraculously sustained in the wilderness, they still grumbled against God because of the hardships that they had to endure. And so God was not pleased with them and laid them low in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:5).

The Hebrews in the New Testament were in danger of doing the same thing. They had come out of Judaism, professing faith in Christ. But now they were suffering persecution and other hardships. Some had defected from the faith back to Judaism. They were like the seed on the stony ground. At first, it sprung up and seemed to be doing well. But when the sun of adversity beat down on it, it withered, because it had no root (Mark 4:16-17).

The point is, it is possible to be associated with the people of God and yet to harden your heart against God when trials come. He’s meeting your needs, but He’s not doing it in the way that you want Him to do it. You want a trial-free life. You don’t like His discipline, which is for your ultimate good. So you complain against Him or, even worse, turn back to the world. Be careful! Great privileges do not guarantee responsive hearts.

So the ultimatum or warning against hardening your heart is written to professing believers who are prone to grumble when trials hit. The danger is that if you keep grumbling against God and don’t worship Him with a thankful heart, it may reveal that you’re not a genuine believer. You may be in danger of incurring His anger and not entering into the eternal rest of His salvation.

Note five things about this ultimatum:

A. The ultimatum is time-sensitive: “Today” (95:7b)!

Today emphasizes the urgency of the appeal. You may not have tomorrow. As Thomas Fuller put it, “You cannot repent too soon, because you do not know how soon it may be too late.” Or, Francis Quarles said, “He that hath promised pardon on our repentance hath not promised to preserve our lives till we repent” (both cited by C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David [Eerdmans], 4:328). Don’t think that you’ve got years to wait. Today is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:2)!

B. The ultimatum requires sensitive ears: “If you would hear His voice” (95:7b).

God has spoken to us through His Son (Heb. 1:2) and that message is recorded in His written Word. The author of Hebrews introduces the quote from Psalm 95 by saying, “just as the Holy Spirit says” (Heb. 3:7). In other words, God inspired the psalmist. The Holy Spirit used human authors (David may have written Psalm 95, or “in David” [Heb. 4:7] may mean, “in the Psalms”). But God used those authors to record His message in such a way “that what they said God said” (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology [Eerdmans], 1:154).

But, as Jesus often said to the crowds who heard Him, “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:23). He warned of those who “while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Matt. 13:13). Thus He said (Luke 8:18), “Take care how you listen.” When we read God’s Word, we must ask Him for understanding. We must think about how to apply it to our lives. Otherwise, we will not be doers of the word, but hearers who delude themselves (James 1:22).

C. The ultimatum is heart-related: “Do not harden your hearts” (95:8a).

Also (95:10), “they are a people who err in their heart.” Israel’s wilderness wanderings were due to their heart wanderings. In the Bible, the heart refers to our total inner being—the mind, the emotions, and the will. Proverbs 4:23 warns, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.”

Do you guard your heart? Jesus taught (Mark 7:21-22), “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness.” He leveled against the Pharisees God’s complaint through Isaiah (Mark 7:6-7), “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” Outwardly, they spoke nicely about God, but He saw their hearts, which were far from Him. Outwardly, they worshiped God, but in vain, because they were following manmade rules rather than submitting to His Word. So, again, in the words of Hebrews 3:12, “Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God.”

D. The ultimatum is historically illustrated: Do not be like Israel in the wilderness (95:8-10).

Do you read the Old Testament? I’m amazed at how many Christians do not read the Old Testament! Paul tells us that these things happened as examples for our instruction, so that we would not fall into the same sins (1 Cor. 10:5, 11).

The Lord says that Israel in the wilderness tested Him (95:9) and that they did not know His ways (95:10). God’s ways are His method of accomplishing His purpose in our lives. His ways include His loving discipline, so that we might share His holiness (Heb. 12:5-11). God could have sent a plague to wipe out the Canaanites. Israel then could have moved into the land with no battles (and, no need to trust in God!). Instead, He led them through the wilderness (I call it, “the scenic route to the Promised Land”) because He knew that they were not ready to go into the land (Exod. 13:17). But in spite of the hardships of the wilderness, He always cared for them. He protected them with the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. He gave them food and water in the barren desert. But they grumbled and tested Him.

We test God when we do not submit to His ways with us, but rather complain and accuse Him of not caring. Rather than rejoicing in His salvation, we wish that we were back in the world, where we didn’t have all the trials that we now face. Submitting to God’s ways does not mean that it is wrong to pray for deliverance or to seek legitimate means to relieve the trial, such as medical help. But it does mean that if God prolongs the trial, we don’t grumble and shake our fist at Him or turn back to the world. Rather, we see how much He has cared for us in the past and in the present and we worship Him for His ways, even if they are difficult.

E. The ultimatum is dreadfully enforced and eternally final: “I swore in My anger, ‘Truly they shall not enter into My rest’” (95:11).

God’s anger by itself sounds pretty frightening! I don’t want Him to be angry with me. But to have Him swear in His anger sounds utterly dreadful! It means that the curse He is about to pronounce is irrevocable. Israel crossed the line of no return when they grumbled at the report of the spies. At that point, God swore in His anger, “Truly, they shall not enter into My rest.” It meant that they would never enter the Promised Land.

But as the author of Hebrews applies it to us, not entering God’s rest means that we will not be saved. We remain under His wrath (see Heb. 3:10, 11, 17, 18; 4:3). Because of unbelief, expressed through grumbling about our trials, we do not experience the “rest” that comes through trusting Christ for eternal life. Although we may be associated with God’s people (as the grumblers were a part of Israel), we remain under God’s judgment because of evil, unbelieving, hardened hearts that come short of God’s true rest, which is eternal life. (See my sermon, “Cultural Religion Versus Saving Faith,” on Heb. 4:1-11, 2/29/2004, on FCF web site.)

Conclusion

Whenever I read this psalm, I’m always caught up short by the ending. I want to add a happy ending verse 11. But there’s no happy ending. God leaves us with the urgent ultimatum: Worship—or else!” It’s not, “Your money or your life!” It’s, “Worship or perish!” Sing for joy to the Rock of your salvation or grumble about your trials with an evil, unbelieving heart and incur God’s wrath. Those are the only options. If you go with the first option, you will enjoy God’s rest, both now and for eternity. If you harden your heart, God swears in His anger, “You shall not enter into My rest!” And don’t be like Jack Benny and wait to think about it. Today is the day of salvation!

Application Questions

  1. What should we do if we don’t feel like worshiping God? Is it hypocritical to do it without feeling it?
  2. It is possible to work up feelings apart from God. How can we have genuine feelings of adoration from the heart?
  3. Why is a proper view of the doctrine of creation essential to worship? Can a theistic evolutionist really worship God?
  4. The psalmists sometimes complain to the Lord. Is all complaining wrong? When would it be okay?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2009, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Psalm 96: Worshiping, Witnessing, Waiting

A couple had just moved into a new apartment and they were besieged by salesmen for every kind of product and service. This was back in the days when dairies still made home deliveries. So one busy day a dairyman came to the door. “No,” said the woman firmly, “My husband and I don’t drink milk.”

“Be glad to deliver a quart every morning for cooking.”

“That’s more than I need,” she replied, starting to close the door.

“Well, ma’am, how about some cream? Berries comin’ in now, and …”

“No,” she said curtly, “we never use cream.”

The dairyman retreated slowly, while the woman congratulated herself on her sales resistance. The truth was that she had already ordered from another dairy, and this seemed to her to be the easiest way out.

The following morning, however, the same dairyman appeared at the door. In one hand he held a bowl of dewy strawberries and in the other a half-pint bottle of cream.

“Lady,” he said, as he poured the cream over the berries and handed them to her, “I got to thinkin’—you sure have missed a lot!” The woman changed dairies. (Reader’s Digest [May, 1982].)

The best salesmen are always those who love their product. They are convinced that you cannot really enjoy life unless you have what they are selling. And while sales and evangelism are not completely analogous, the most effective witnesses are those who are obviously captivated by the greatness of God and His salvation.

When I spoke on Psalm 67 a few months ago, I cited John Piper, who begins Let the Nations be Glad! ([Baker Academic], 2nd ed., p. 17) by saying, “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man.” He adds (ibid.), “The goal of missions is the gladness of the peoples in the greatness of God.”

He is right that worship is the goal of missions. But it’s also true that worship is the basis for missions. If we are not fervent worshipers of God, we have nothing to tell the nations. If we do not exude joy in God and His wonderful salvation, why should lost people be interested in what we have to say? So worship is both the goal of missions and the foundation for missions. If we’re not worshipers, we will be lousy witnesses.

Psalm 96 is a call to tell the nations about God’s glory and His great salvation. It follows on Psalm 95, which describes the stubborn hard-heartedness of Israel in the wilderness, in spite of God’s goodness towards them (C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David [Eerdmans], 4:336). It was the same hardhearted nation that later rejected her Messiah, leading to the gospel going out to the Gentiles (Matt. 21:43; Acts 13:46). So Psalms 95 & 96 form a pair, showing Israel’s rejection of the gospel and the subsequent missionary task of proclaiming the gospel to the Gentiles.

There is debate about the author and date of this psalm. Probably it was originally written by David as a part of a longer psalm that was used when he brought the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. (It appears in 1 Chron. 16:23-33 as part of a longer psalm containing Psalms 105:1-15 and 106:1, 47-48. Psalm 96 also contains many common themes with Isaiah 40-66.) The Septuagint (Greek OT) adds the superscription, “When the house was built after the exile. A song of David.” So perhaps a later scribe took the original composition by David and modified it into the version that we have here for the celebration of the second temple.

Psalm 96 describes a growing crescendo of worship. First, God’s people are called to sing His praises, not just among themselves, but also to tell of His glory among the nations (96:3). Then the nations are called on to ascribe to the Lord the glory of His name (96:7-8). Finally (96:11-12), the inanimate creation is brought into the swelling chorus. The reason for the praise of all creation is the prophecy that the Lord is coming to judge the world in righteousness (96:13). So there are the three themes: worship, witness, and waiting expectantly for the day when the Lord comes to right all wrongs. We can sum up the message:

Because the Lord is the only great and glorious God, we should worship Him, witness of Him, and wait expectantly for His coming to judge the world.

There are two “worship and witness” sections (1-6, 7-10) followed by the final “waiting expectantly” section (11-13).

1. Worship and witness (cycle 1): All the earth should worship God and witness of His salvation because He is the only great and glorious God (96:1-6).

Verses 1-3 are a call to worship and witness; verses 4-6 give the reasons why we should worship and witness.

A. The call to worship and witness: All people should joyfully worship God and witness of His salvation among the nations (96:1-3).

The psalmist repeats his theme, “Sing to the Lord,” three times. The first time, he tells us to sing to the Lord “a new song.” This does not necessarily mean a newly composed song, although that may be included. But it refers to a song that celebrates the mercies of God, which are new every morning (Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150 [IVP], p. 347).

The second exhortation to sing to the Lord is directed to “all the earth.” The last part of the psalm will tie back into this by calling all creation to praise the Lord. It shows that the scope of God’s praise is as wide as all the earth, which He has created.

The third call to sing to the Lord is followed by three imperatives (bless, proclaim, tell, 96:2-3): “bless His name; proclaim good tidings of His salvation from day to day. Tell of His glory among the nations, His wonderful deeds among all the peoples.” To bless God’s name means that we should praise and thank Him for all that He is, or His glorious attributes. “Day to day” shows that the good news of His salvation must go forth continually, until the whole earth has heard.

Lest Israel think (as they were always prone to do) that “all the earth” meant, “all the Jews,” the psalmist specifically states that he means the Gentile nations (96:3): “Tell of His glory among the nations, His wonderful deeds among all the peoples.” God’s glory and His wonderful deeds here (96:3) are poetic parallels to His salvation (96:2). God’s salvation displays His glory and His wonderful deeds. Paul refers to “the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4). When God broke into his darkness with the gospel, he says that He (2 Cor. 4:6) “has shone into our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”

So the order of the psalm is, first worship God joyfully. Sing, sing, sing! Then, bear witness of His glorious salvation to the nations who have never heard. Since under the Old Testament era the nations were specifically excluded from Israel’s worship (remember the wall of partition that kept the Gentiles out of the Jewish section of the temple), this psalm prophetically looks ahead to the New Testament era, when all the families of the earth are blessed through Abraham’s seed, Jesus Christ.

B. Why worship and witness: Because the Lord is the only great and glorious God (96:4-6).

Why should we get excited about worshiping God and go to all the trouble of telling the nations about His salvation? “For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; He is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the Lord made the heavens. Splendor and majesty are before Him, strength and beauty are in His sanctuary” (96:4-6).

The pagan world is marked by their fear of the spirit world. They try to placate their gods by putting out offerings of food and drink. They observe superstitious rituals so as not to offend the gods. But the psalmist here says that the only one we should fear is the Lord, who made the heavens (96:5). When he says (96:5), “For all the gods of the people are idols,” the Hebrew word for idols is elilim. It means nothings or nonentities and is a play on words with the Hebrew word for the true God, elohim.

The true God is the creator of the universe, which is so vast that even powerful telescopes, such as the Hubbell, cannot find the edge of it. I was listening recently to the Star Date program on NPR, and they said that the giant star Arcturus, which dwarfs our sun, could have already exploded. But if the explosion happened 500 years ago, we still wouldn’t know about it for another 100 years, because the light takes 600 years to get from there to us!

So, don’t fear manmade idols, which are nothing. Rather, as Psalm 33:6, 8-9 declares and commands, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of His mouth all their host…. Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him. For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast.” Fear the Lord, who alone is great and greatly to be praised!

After this first cycle of worship and witness, the psalmist takes us through a second cycle (96:7-10). First, he calls on the nations to worship God because of His glory and strength and then he again calls on God’s people to bear witness to the nations of God’s rule.

2. Worship and witness (cycle 2): All the earth should worship God and witness of His salvation because He is the only great and glorious God (96:7-10).

A. The nations should worship God because of His glory and strength (96:7-9).

“Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory of His name; bring an offering and come into His courts. Worship the Lord in holy attire; tremble before Him, all the earth” (96:7-9).

The threefold “ascribe” parallels the threefold “sing” that opened the psalm. Ascribe is literally give. It does not imply that we can give God something that He is lacking. Rather, the idea is that we are to offer God worship that is commensurate with His infinite majesty and glory. Edward Payson observed (cited by Spurgeon, 4:346),

How immeasurably great then is the debt which our world has contracted, and under the burden of which it now groans! During every day and every hour which has elapsed since the apostasy of man, this debt has been increasing; for every day and every hour all men ought to have given unto Jehovah the glory which is due to his name. But no man has ever done this fully. And a vast proportion of our race have never done it at all. Now the difference between the tribute which men ought to have paid to God and that which they actually have paid constitutes the debt of which we are speaking. How vast, then how incalculable is it!

Since the cross, when Christ offered the perfect and final sacrifice for our sins, the only sacrifices that we can bring into His courts are praise, thanksgiving, and good deeds (Heb. 13:15-16). To “worship the Lord in holy attire” (96:9) may refer to the holy garments that the priests wore, in which case it means that we should come before God clothed with holy lives. Or, it may mean, “worship the Lord in the splendor of His holiness” (Kidner, Psalms 1-72 [IVP], pp. 125-126). Then it would refer to the fear that Isaiah experienced when he saw the Lord, with the seraphim proclaiming, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory” (Isa. 6:3). This latter meaning would be reinforced with the last line of Psalm 96:9, “Tremble before Him, all the earth.”

In other words, if we got just a glimpse of how great God is in His glory, strength, and holiness, we would quickly join Isaiah on our faces, exclaiming (Isa. 6:5), “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” While Isaiah’s vision of God was probably unique in human history, to the extent that God opens our eyes to see His greatness and majesty, to that same extent we will give to Him the glory that is due to His holy name.

The reason that I read and frequently quote men like John Calvin, John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones is that these men lift God up like few others. Calvin often spoke of God reverently as “The Majesty.” The first time I read his Institutes, he had me worshiping God within a few pages. I encourage you to read men like these (the Puritans could be added to the list) who knew God and stood in awe of His splendor and majesty.

And, as Isaiah spontaneously experienced, you cannot get a glorious vision of God without at the same time getting a greater understanding of your own sin and depravity. You immediately sense that God isn’t your good buddy in the sky! He is altogether separate from you. You shrink into nothingness in comparison with Him. What is your strength compared to the One who spoke the heavens into existence? What is your puny existence of a few short years compared with the One who is eternal? What are your attempts at holy living compared with His infinite purity?

But, as soon as Isaiah lamented his own impurity, the Lord immediately sent an angel to purify him and tell him that his sins were forgiven (Isa. 6:6-7). As Psalm 130:3, 4, 7 declares, “If You, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared…. O Israel, hope in the Lord; for with the Lord there is lovingkindness, and with Him is abundant redemption.” A bigger understanding of God and a deeper view of your own sin leads to a greater experience of His abundant grace, resulting in more worship.

As in the first cycle, worship is followed by witness:

B. God’s people should witness to the nations about His sovereign rule (96:10).

“Say among the nations, ‘The Lord reigns; indeed, the world is firmly established, it will not be moved; He will judge the peoples with equity.’” Even though at present God permits the nations to rage against His Messiah (Ps. 2:1-3), He still reigns. Verse 10 reminds us of Isaiah 52:7, “How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who announces peace and brings good news of happiness, who announces salvation, and says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” Although at present, Jesus’ enemies are not all under His feet (1 Cor. 15:25-28), He is coming again in power and glory, to rule the nations with a rod of iron (Rev. 19:11-16). He came the first time as the humble Savior, to die for our sins. But He will come again to rule and judge.

We do not proclaim the gospel adequately if we only present Jesus as meek and mild, gently knocking on your heart’s door, wishing that you would open up to Him. He is the risen, sovereign, righteous King of kings and Lord of lords, who is coming with all the armies of heaven, with His sword coming out of His mouth to strike down the nations. “He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty” (Rev. 19:15). Sinners can either bow willingly before Him now, or they will bow forcedly when He comes. Don’t give lost people the idea that Jesus is a wimpy weakling! He is the sovereign Judge! That leads to the last section:

3. Waiting in hope: All creation will worship God when He comes to judge the world (96:11-13).

The thought of God judging the peoples with equity (96:10) leads the psalmist to call the inanimate creation to break forth in praise (96:11-13): “Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all it contains; let the field exult, and all that is in it. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy before the Lord, for He is coming, for He is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in His faithfulness.”

These verses remind us of Paul’s comments in Romans 8:19-22, that the creation presently groans under the curse, waiting for the day of redemption when it will be restored. The Lord’s coming to judge the earth refers to the coming of Messiah, who is God.

Three terms describe this future judgment: equity, righteousness, and faithfulness (96:10, 13). Equity means that God’s judgment will be fair. No one will be judged unfairly. Everyone who does not receive mercy will receive perfect justice. Righteousness refers to God’s perfect standard, which is Himself. He has revealed His righteousness in His Word. He will not judge on the curve of human goodness, but according to the absolute standards of His own righteous nature. Faithfulness can also be translated as truth. It means that He will not be arbitrary or whimsical in His judgment. He will judge each person faithfully and truthfully.

God’s righteous judgment will either be a source of great terror or great joy. For those who have not received salvation and forgiveness through the Savior whom God has sent, it will be a day of stark terror. They will cry out to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb” (Rev. 6:16). But for those who by faith in the shed blood of that Lamb have been clothed with His righteousness, the day of judgment will be a time of great joy (Rev. 18:20). They will sing (Rev. 19:6b-7), “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give glory to Him….” I cannot urge you strongly enough to make sure that your faith is in the risen Savior, so that you look forward to that great day with joy, not with terror!

Conclusion

To sum up the message of Psalm 96 and apply it to us, three things should be true of us:

         If the glorious God is our Savior, we will be a worshiping people.

Our voices will often break forth in singing His praises. Our thoughts will often be on how great and mighty God is. Our hearts will often bow in reverence before His holiness. We will look forward with delight to each Lord’s Day when we can join with the saints in singing His praises. To give God the glory of His name you must be growing through His Word to know how great He really is.

         If the glorious God is our Savior, we will be a witnessing people, both here and abroad.

Witness is the overflow of worship. If you are captivated by a beautiful mountain scene, you can’t help but tell others about it. If you are captivated by the majesty and splendor of the glorious God, you’ll want to tell others about Him. And, as long as there are peoples around the world with no witness of the Savior, you will want to give generously to support missionaries to go and tell them. You may even sense the Lord calling you to go.

         If the glorious God is our Savior, we will be a watchful people as we wait for Christ’s coming to judge the world in righteousness.

Jesus warned us of the danger of getting distracted with all of the activities and cares of this world and forgetting that He is coming. While there are many details of Bible prophecy that are difficult to understand, you can’t miss the Lord’s bottom line (Mark 13:35-37): “Therefore, be on the alert—for you do not know when the master of the house is coming, whether in the evening, at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning—in case he should come suddenly and find you asleep. What I say to you I say to all, ‘Be on the alert!’”

Test yourself by this psalm: Are you worshiping the glorious God? Are you witnessing to the nations? Are you watching expectantly for the Lord to come in judgment?

Application Questions

  1. How is evangelism similar to sales? How is it different? What can we learn from these differences?
  2. Why must worship be the basis for witness? What are the implications of this?
  3. Since getting a deeper view of God’s greatness is foundational for worship, how can we grow in this understanding?
  4. Does the future judgment bring you fear or hope? Should Christians have any anxiety about the judgment?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2009, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Psalm 97: The Lord Reigns

At first glance, Psalm 97:1 seems easy enough: “The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice.” We read it and move on without much thought. But a moment’s thought raises all sorts of difficulties.

Does the Lord reign over terrorists who blow up innocent victims? Does He reign over the atrocities of war? Does He reign over floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters that claim thousands of lives each year? Does the Lord reign over famine, starvation, and deadly diseases? Does the Lord reign over the loss of jobs and homes due to a bad economy? Does He reign over the prolonged disease or untimely death of a loved one? Does He reign over the tensions in your marriage or the struggle and heartache of dealing with a rebellious child? Does He reign over the relatively minor frustrating circumstances that you faced last week?

This gets rather practical, doesn’t it? And it gets even more practical when you consider the psalmist’s application, that the Lord’s reign should be a cause for rejoicing.  He does not say, “The Lord reigns; grit your teeth and grudgingly submit.” He certainly does not say, “The Lord reigns; shake your fist at Him and let Him know how angry you are because of your trials.” No, he clearly says, “The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice.” The Lord’s sovereignty should cause all people to be glad.

But the psalm also reveals that many people do not rejoice because of God’s reign. Some are His adversaries (97:3), whom God will destroy by His righteous judgment. Some, represented poetically as mountains, will melt like wax at the presence of the Lord (97:5). Those who serve idols will be ashamed or confounded when the Lord displays His glory (97:6-7). Some of the wicked attack God’s people (97:10), but they will not ultimately succeed. So the message of Psalm 97 is,

Because the Lord reigns over all, His saints should rejoice, but sinners should fear His coming judgment.

We don’t know who wrote Psalm 97. Some attribute it to David. Others say that it was written after the exiles returned to Jerusalem from Babylon. It occurs in a group of psalms (93-100) that joyfully emphasize God’s kingship. “The Lord reigns” occurs in 93:1; 96:10; here; and, 99:1 (plus in 47:8; 146:10). Psalm 97:1 pieces together two verses from Psalm 96, verse 10, “the Lord reigns,” and verse 11, “let the earth rejoice.”

Several different outlines for the psalm have been suggested. I am following the three-paragraph breakdown of the NASB. The theme of the Lord’s reign is stated at the outset and is implicit throughout the psalm. Each of the three paragraphs emphasizes the theme of joy: (1) The Lord reigns: Let the earth rejoice and bow in fear because of His coming judgment (97:1-6). (2) The Lord reigns: Let idolaters be ashamed, but let His people rejoice (97:7-9). (3) The Lord reigns: Let those who love Him hate evil and be glad in Him (97:10-12).

1. The Lord reigns: Let the earth rejoice and bow in fear because of His coming judgment (97:1-6).

A. The theme stated: The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice (97:1).

In the second line, “let the many islands be glad,” the islands represent “the remote, innumerable outposts of mankind” (Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150 [IVP], p. 350). The psalmist is showing that the Lord’s reign is not limited to Israel. It extends to the far corners of the earth. There is an implicit prophecy here, because those who dwell in these remote outposts cannot possibly be glad in the Lord’s reign unless they hear the good news of His salvation. The same extension of the gospel to all is implicit in verse 6, which says, “all the peoples have seen His glory.” As we saw last week, the gospel displays the glory of Christ. Also, explicit in the gospel is the message of Christ’s lordship. People cannot be saved if they do not willingly submit to the reign of Jesus Christ in their hearts.

In fact, the Lord’s reign can only be a source of joy to you when you submit to Him. Atheists challenge God’s reign and accuse Him of being the author of evil: “If the Lord reigns over war and natural disasters and disease, then He is not only the author of evil, but He is evil Himself.” These blatant blasphemies have been the subject of several best-sellers in the past few years. For example, Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion [Houghton Mifflin, 2006], accuses the God of the Old Testament as being “arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction.” I won’t cite all of his blasphemous name-calling, but he rants about this God being a “megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully” (p. 31). This is the same man who, with a straight face, tells Ben Stein (in the movie “Expelled”) that life on this planet may have begun when aliens from outer space came here!

But taking God out of the picture does not solve the problem of evil. In a world without God, little kids would still get blown up by terrorists and swept away by floods and die by disease. If you eliminate God, all you do is eliminate hope and justice. You turn the world into a very bleak place. If you’re lucky enough to be born in America, you might survive longer than the kid born in Afghanistan, unless you’re so unlucky as to contract a fatal disease. You live a few years and then you die. There’s no hope!

Jesus addressed the problem of innocent people suffering from evil tyrants and from natural disasters. In Luke 13, He talked about a group of Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. He also brought up a situation where 18 people had died when a tower in Siloam fell on them. His application was, “Do you suppose that these people were somehow worse sinners than others because they suffered this fate?” His answer, repeated twice, was (Luke 13:3, 5), “I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” In other words, we’re all going to die. God is sovereign over the timing of our death. The key question is, have you repented of your sin and trusted Christ before you die?

But in spite of the fact that God’s sovereignty is clearly taught in the Bible, many professing Christians object to it. They either argue (along with the atheist), that it makes God the author of evil; or they say that if God controls all that happens, it destroys our free will. Asahel Nettleton (1783-1843), an American evangelist, has an insightful sermon on Psalm 97:1 where he addresses these issues. He argues that God “exercises absolute control over both the natural and moral world … and that no event, great or small, ever takes place which is not included in His eternal purpose, and which is not made to subserve His ultimate designs” (Asahel Nettleton, Life and Labours, by Bennet Tyler & Andrew Bonar [Banner of Truth], p. 199). He supports this with Ephesians 1:11, that God “works all things after the counsel of His will.”

He goes on to argue that if this doctrine is not true, then there is no point in praying. Why pray that God would save your loved ones, if God cannot operate on their hearts? Why pray that God would restrain the wicked, if by doing so He would destroy their freedom? And he argues that it is a cause for great joy to believers that God actually does govern all of His creation, including wicked men and devils. It would be a gloomy world beyond description if God has made creatures whom He cannot govern.

Let me apply this to the difficult circumstances that you may be facing right now. They may be major, such as a life-threatening disease, or they may be relatively minor, such as car trouble. If you will stop long enough to acknowledge that the Lord reigns over these problems, and you submit to His rightful rule, it will bring you great joy. You will know that these things did not happen by accident, but rather by the loving care of the God who will work these things together for your good to conform you to the image of His Son (Rom. 8:28-29). But if you don’t stop to acknowledge that the Lord reigns over these problems, you will become depressed or anxious or angry. So the truth that the Lord reigns is a cause for rejoicing if you submit to His sovereignty.

B. The flip side of the theme: Those that are not subject to the Lord should fear His coming in judgment (97:2-6).

The picture suddenly shifts from rejoicing and gladness to a rather frightening encounter with God’s presence (97:2-6):

Clouds and thick darkness surround Him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne. Fire goes before Him and burns up His adversaries round about. His lightnings lit up the world; the earth saw and trembled. The mountains melted like wax at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the Lord of the whole earth. The heavens declare His righteousness, and all the peoples have seen His glory.

This picture comes largely from God’s appearance at Mount Sinai, when Israel was in the wilderness (Exod. 19:16-19):

So it came about on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunder and lightning flashes and a thick cloud upon the mountain and a very loud trumpet sound, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace and the whole mountain quaked violently. When the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and God answered him with thunder.

The same phenomena occurred on another occasion when God spoke to Moses (Exod. 34:5) and later when Israel routed their enemy under Deborah (Judges 5:4-5). Many prophets had similar frightening visions of God involving smoke, lightning, fire, thunder, and earthquakes (Isa. 6:1-4; Ezek. 1:4-28; Dan. 7:9-14; Micah 1:3-4; Hab. 3:3-15; see, also Ps. 18:7-15; 50:3; Heb. 12:18-21, 29). These were all men and women who were God’s servants. If they feared God’s presence, how much more should those who will face His judgment when He comes! Clearly, the God of the whole earth is not one to be taken lightly or casually!

James Boice (Psalms [Baker], 2:791) observes that God is not some great heavenly buddy or pal. He adds, “In fact, the common lightness of many in approaching God is not a sign of their close acquaintance with him, as they probably suppose, but of the fact that they hardly know God at all.” I once heard John MacArthur tell of a pastor friend of his who told him that Jesus often appeared to him when he was shaving. John incredulously asked, “And you keep shaving?” If the risen, glorious Lord Jesus really appeared to us, we’d either be struck to the ground as Paul was, or fall on our faces like dead men, as John did. It would be a traumatic experience!

Derek Kidner (p. 350) succinctly explains the symbolism of our text: “Clouds and thick darkness warn of His unapproachable holiness and hiddenness to presumptuous man …, while the fire and lightnings reveal a holiness that is also devouring and irresistible (cf. Heb. 12:29). There is no escape. To speak of mountains melting is to see the most immemorial landmarks disappear, the most solid of refuges dissolve.” Because of God’s power, none of His enemies will escape when He comes in judgment. He will judge the world in righteousness and defeat all His enemies. The beast and the false prophet and all that followed them will be thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 19:11-21).

Let me underscore the important lesson in our text: God’s absolute sovereignty over everything—whether our salvation or evil people or difficult trials—should be a source of great joy, not a cause of stumbling. I know of Christians who dodge the doctrine of God’s sovereignty because it’s difficult to understand. I know of pastors who will not preach on it, because it’s controversial. But it occurs repeatedly in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. God didn’t put it there to cause you to stumble, but to cause you to rejoice. In fact, the only time in the Bible when Jesus greatly rejoiced was over God’s sovereignty in hiding His truth from some, but revealing it to others (Luke 10:21-24). And, the only way you will rejoice in the truth of God’s sovereignty is not when you can logically understand it, but when you submit to God as the one who can do as He pleases with His creation (Rom. 9:11-24).

2. The Lord reigns: Let idolaters be ashamed, but let His people rejoice (97:7-9).

A. The Lord reigns: Let idolaters be ashamed (97:7).

“Let all those be ashamed who serve graven images, who boast themselves of idols; worship Him all you gods.” The reason for their shame is that they have put their trust in and served manmade objects that are nothings or nonentities.

There is debate about the phrase, “worship Him all you gods.” The LXX translates gods with the word angels. The author of Hebrews (1:6) either cites this verse or Deuteronomy 32:43 (LXX) when he writes, “‘And let all the angels of God worship Him.’” While gods in Psalm 97:7 could be a reference to angels (or demons), it seems to me that in the context, it is a synonym for graven images and idols. By commanding the idols to worship the true God, the psalmist is using sarcasm, saying, “Your so-called gods, if they have any real being at all, must worship the only true God.” Even if the idolaters were consciously worshiping demons, those demons are subject to the Sovereign God.

The fact is, everyone who is not in submission to the Sovereign Lord is serving idols of some kind. They may not set up actual statues to pray to, but they serve the idol of self or money or sexual pleasure or fame or power. As Jesus pointed out, you either serve God or money, but not both (Luke 16:13). If we boast in anything other than the Lord as our help and deliverer, we are boasting in stupid idols.

B. The Lord reigns: Let His people rejoice (97:8-9).

“Zion heard this and was glad, and the daughters of Judah have rejoiced, because of Your judgments, O Lord. For You are the Lord Most High over all the earth; You are exalted far above all gods.” These verses may be celebrating some unnamed victory that God granted Israel over her enemies. But the final fulfillment awaits the second coming of Jesus Christ, who (as we saw in Ps. (96:13) is coming to “judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in His faithfulness.” Then the entire world will realize (many too late!) that the risen Lord Jesus is “the Lord Most High over all the earth.” He is exalted “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come” (Eph. 1:21). Thus His people should rejoice.

Thus the Lord reigns: Let the earth rejoice and bow in fear before Him (97:1-6). The Lord reigns: Let idolaters be ashamed, but let His people rejoice (97:7-9).

3. The Lord reigns: Let those who love Him hate evil and be glad in Him (97:10-12).

First, there is a command (10a); then, the psalmist lists three blessings for those who obey the command (10b-11); finally, he gives a summary command (12).

A. The command: Hate evil, you who love the Lord (97:10a).

That command is obvious and perfectly logical, and yet it jars you. It is obvious and logical in that you cannot love the Lord who is absolutely holy and at the same time love the sin that is antithetical to His entire being.  You are inconsistent if you say, “I love Jesus,” and yet you love the sin that put Him on the cross.

And yet that command jars us, in that we don’t think of God in terms of hating anything. As American Christians, we’ve overemphasized His love to the point that we’ve set aside His holiness and His judgment of all sin. Yet the Bible plainly states of God (Ps. 5:5-6), “You hate all who do iniquity. You destroy those who speak falsehood; the Lord abhors the man of bloodshed and deceit.”

If you know Christ as Savior, you must be growing to hate evil, beginning with your own sin. Granted, as long as they are in this body, even the most godly of saints will experience a perverse attraction to certain sins. But at the same time, we must hate it and fight against it. If we don’t, we don’t love the Lord.

B. The blessings promised for those who hate evil and love the Lord: preservation, light, and gladness (97:10b-11).

God “preserves the souls of His godly ones; He delivers them from the hand of the wicked” (97:10b). This implies that hating evil may be costly (Kidner, p. 351). It creates enemies. While I was preparing this message, I got a phone call from my good friend in Nepal who said that he had received a phone call earlier in the day from a militant Hindu group, threatening his life and the lives of his family because they are Christians. They also threatened to bomb his church this week when they gather to worship.

When I told him that I was preparing this sermon on Psalm 97, he said that he had read Psalm 97 to his family in their devotions that evening. I’m preaching the psalm, but they’re living it in a life or death situation! The promise of deliverance may be through death, as the martyrs in the Bible testify (Heb. 11:37). But even if evil enemies kill our bodies, they cannot separate us from the infinite love of God for us in Christ (Rom. 8:32-39).

The Lord not only gives preservation, but also light. The picture of God sowing light implies that it increases gradually and over time. It also implies that we will have enough light from God for each step of our pilgrimage. That light comes from His Word, which is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Ps. 119:105).

The Lord also promises “gladness for the upright in heart.” Upright in heart is a synonym for godly ones (97:10b) and the righteous (97:11a). It shows us that genuine godliness is a matter of the heart. If our hearts (thoughts) are not right before God, our “righteousness” is just a hypocritical veneer (Mark 7:6-7, 21-23). If our hearts are upright before the Lord, we will be experiencing His joy.

C. Final summary command: Be glad in the Lord you righteous ones and give thanks to His holy name (97:12).

Even though gladness is promised in verse 11, it is still commanded in verse 12. It’s not automatic. As John Piper writes, we have to fight for joy. Don’t miss that our gladness is “in the Lord.” He is the source of our joy. And that joy is only for the righteous, those who walk in obedience to Him. The last phrase is literally, “give thanks for the memory of His holiness.” (The same phrase occurs in Ps. 30:4, which refers to Exod. 3:15.) When we think on the Lord, the thing that should come to mind is His holiness. That would cause us to shrink back, except for the fact that we find acceptance in His holy presence through the blood of His Son Jesus.

Conclusion

C. H. Spurgeon (The Treasury of David [Baker], 4:360) cites the story of a man named Whitelock, who was Oliver Cromwell’s envoy to Sweden in 1653. One night as he was waiting to sail, he was so distracted by the troubles of the nation that he could not sleep. His assistant, in an adjacent bed, finally said to him, “Sir, may I ask you a question?” “Of course,” said Whitelock.

“Sir, do you think God governed the world very well before you came into it?”

“Undoubtedly.”

“And sir, do you think that He will govern it quite as well when you are gone out of it?”

“Certainly.”

“Then, sir, excuse me, but do you not think you may trust him to govern it quite as well while you are living?”

Whitelock had no answer to this question, but he rolled over and soon went to sleep.

Do you believe that the Lord reigns, not only over the world, but also in your life? If so, rejoice and be glad in Him!

Application Questions

  1. How would you answer a mother who asked, “Was God reigning when my child died?” (Or, “was molested?”)
  2. How would you answer someone who said, “If God is sovereign over evil, then He is responsible for it?”
  3. Does the fact that God is sovereign cause you to rejoice or does it make you stumble? Why? If the latter, how can it be turned into rejoicing?
  4. How can we grow to hate more the evil within ourselves?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2009, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Psalm 99: Holy is He!

There is probably no attribute of God which needs to be taught and recognized more in our day than His holiness. David Wells emphasized this in God in the Wasteland [Eerdmans, 1994], his analysis of how the modern culture has infected the church. He observes (p. 114),

We have turned to a God that we can use rather than to a God we must obey; we have turned to a God who will fulfill all our needs rather than to a God before whom we must surrender our rights to ourselves. He is a God for us, for our satisfaction—not because we have learned to think of him this way through Christ but because we have learned to think of him this way through the marketplace. In the marketplace, everything is for us, for our pleasure, for our satisfaction, and we have come to assume that it must be so in the church as well. And so we transform the God of mercy into a God who is at our mercy.

He goes on to argue that the modern church is infatuated with the love of God and embarrassed at his holiness. We are more enamored with the therapeutic and psychological “uses” of God to provide us with inner peace, than we are with the fact that He is holy and therefore, we must be holy. And if we do not revere God as holy, then He rests lightly on us. We take Him or leave Him to the degree that we find Him useful. Wells later writes (p. 136), “Holiness is what defines God’s character most fundamentally, and a vision of this holiness should inspire his people and evoke their worship, sustain their character, fuel their passion for truth, and encourage persistence in efforts to do his will and call on his name in petitionary prayer.”

Psalm 99 calls us reverently to worship God because He is holy. There is an obvious contrast with Psalm 97:1, “The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice.” Here (Ps. 99:1) it is, “The Lord reigns, let the peoples tremble.” Derek Kidner (Psalms 73-150 [IVP], pp. 353-354) describes the difference between Psalms 98 (emphasizing joy and singing) and 99 as “between high festivity and a chastened awe—for God is all that stirs us and all that shames us. Here, after the carefree delight of Psalm 98, we recollect how exalted and holy He is, and how profound is the reverence we owe Him.”

Psalm 99 falls into three sections, the first two (1-3, 4-5) ending with the refrain, “Holy is He,” and the third (6-9) with, “Holy is the Lord our God.” This threefold repetition of God’s holiness reminds us of the angelic refrain in Isaiah’s vision of God (Isa. 6:3), “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory.” In Isaiah, the foundations of the thresholds trembled; here (Ps. 99:1b), the earth shakes. In Isaiah, the temple filled with smoke. Here (99:7), God speaks to His servants out of the pillar of cloud. In Isaiah, the angel flew to him with a burning coal and touched his lips, assuring him that his sin was forgiven. Here (99:8), we are told that God forgives the sins of His people, but also is an avenger of their evil deeds.

The mood of Psalm 99 is one of reverence and yet intimacy: He is the Lord our God (5, 8, 9 [2 times]). And, the awesomeness and holiness of God implies that we must bow in submission and obedience before Him. So we can sum up the psalm by saying,

Because the Lord is holy, worship Him in reverent intimacy, with a submissive heart.

1. The Lord reigns in holiness—worship Him in reverence (99:1-3).

“The Lord reigns, let the peoples tremble; He is enthroned above the cherubim, let the earth shake! The Lord is great in Zion, and He is exalted above all the peoples. Let them praise Your great and awesome name; holy is He.”

A. The Lord reigns—worship Him in reverence.

We considered the meaning of “the Lord reigns” in our study of Psalm 97:1 last week, so I won’t belabor the point now. But we would be remiss to brush over it without any comment, because it has such profound implications. Adam Clarke (Clarke’s Commentary [Abingdon-Cokesbury Press], 3:528, italics his) comments,

Here is a simple proposition, which is a self-evident axiom, and requires no proof: Jehovah is infinite and eternal; is possessed of unlimited power and unerring wisdom; as he is the Maker, so he must be the Governor, of all things. His authority is absolute, and his government therefore universal. In all places, on all occasions, and in all times, Jehovah reigns.

Even though the Lord, for His own inscrutable purposes, has allowed fallen angels and sinful people to rebel against Him, He still reigns over them, and yet is in no way stained by their sin. The Bible promises that the day is coming when Satan and his forces and all that have followed him will be cast into the lake of fire forever and ever. God’s saints will then be in a state of eternal sinlessness. Then, as John heard the voices from heaven proclaim (Rev. 11:15), “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever.”

Or, again John heard the voices of a great multitude in heaven proclaim (Rev. 19:6b-7), “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready.” Until that glorious day of consummation, we should take great comfort in the fact that “the Lord reigns.”

“The peoples” refers to the Gentiles. Their response to the fact that the Lord reigns should be, first fear and then praise. They should tremble as even the earth shakes at the Lord’s reign. As they recognize that the Lord is exalted over them, they should praise His great and awesome name (99:3).

The Lord is pictured as “enthroned above the cherubim” (99:1b; see also, 1 Sam. 4:4; 2 Sam. 6:2; 2 Kings 19:15; 1 Chron. 13:6; Ps. 80:1; Isa. 37:16). The cherubim are a rank of angelic beings. There are several debates concerning them, but everyone agrees that they are impressive creatures (Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. by Merrill Tenney [Zondervan, 1975], 1:788-790). The picture here comes from the Ark of the Covenant. God instructed Moses to make a mercy seat of pure gold, with two cherubim at both ends, facing one another, with their wings covering the mercy seat. God told Moses that He would meet with him there, from above the mercy seat between the two cherubim (Exod. 25:17-22).

The only one who could enter the Holy of Holies without dying was the high priest, and he could only go in there on the annual Day of Atonement. The cloud of God’s shekinah glory would fill that sacred place. They tied a rope around the high priest so that if he died, they could drag him out of there without anyone else dying! So the picture of God being enthroned or sitting above the cherubim is primarily one of His awesome holiness. That’s why the earth should shake.

And yet at the same time, the picture of God enthroned above the cherubim was a picture of His mercy towards sinners. It was on the mercy seat that the high priest sprinkled the blood of atonement, securing forgiveness of the sins of the nation. This looked ahead to the blood of Jesus, God’s final sacrifice for sins (see Hebrews 9 & 10). And so these verses have a prophetic focus, pointing to the reign of the risen Lord Jesus, whose blood sprinkled God’s mercy seat to atone for sinners. His sovereign reign, coupled with His great mercy, should cause us to worship Him with holy reverence.

B. The Lord reigns in holiness—worship Him in reverence.

The first section ends, as the second and third do, by stating, “Holy is He.” This is a fundamental attribute of God that we need to understand. The word means, primarily, “to be separate.” Theologian Louis Berkhof (Systematic Theology [Eerdmans], p. 73, italics his) explains that in this sense,

[God] is absolutely distinct from all His creatures, and is exalted above them in infinite majesty. … It is quite evident, however, that holiness in this sense of the word is not really a moral attribute, which can be co-ordinated with the others, such as love, grace and mercy, but is rather something that is co-extensive with, and applicable to, everything that can be predicated of God. He is holy in everything that reveals Him, in His goodness and grace as well as in His justice and wrath.

But the holiness of God also refers to His absolute moral purity. He is completely without sin and apart from it. “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5; see also, Job 34:10; Hab. 1:13). This moral purity is not only negative, but also positive, in that God is morally or ethically perfect (Berkhof, ibid.).

Stephen Charnock (The Existence and Attributes of God [Baker], 2:110) writes,

The holiness of God is his glory, as his grace is his riches: holiness is his crown, and his mercy is his treasure. This is the blessedness and nobleness of his nature; it renders him glorious in himself, and glorious to his creatures, that understand any thing of this lovely perfection.

He points out that God is called holy more often than any other title. Further (2:112), there is no other attribute of God repeated three times in the praise of it. We never read of the angels crying out, “Eternal, eternal, eternal,” or “Faithful, faithful, faithful,” or “Love, love, love.” Charnock adds (2:113), “Power is his hand and arm; omniscience, his eye; mercy, his bowels; eternity, his duration; his holiness is his beauty….” He points out (ibid.) how God’s holiness relates to all of His perfections:

His justice is a holy justice; his wisdom a holy wisdom; his arm of power a holy arm (Ps. 98:1); his truth or promise a holy promise (Ps. 105:42). Holy and true go hand in hand (Rev. 6:10). His name, which signifies all his attributes in conjunction, is holy (Ps. 103:1); yea, he is “righteous in all his ways, and holy in all his works: (Ps. 145:17): it is the rule of all his acts, the source of all his punishments.

If we get even a glimpse of God as holy, our only response can be to worship Him with reverence, examining ourselves to make sure that we are growing in personal holiness. Peter put it this way (1 Pet. 1:14-19),

As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” If you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay on earth; knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ.

Last year I read about a professor at a Christian college who mentioned the fear of God in his classroom and was stunned when all of his students argued with him that we should not fear God, because it is opposed to His love! But Peter says to conduct yourself in fear. Paul sums up his discourse on the depravity of the human race by saying (Rom. 3:18), “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” It is safe to say that if you do not fear God, you do not know Him. Knowing that He is holy should lead us to worship Him with reverent fear.

2. The Lord reigns in justice and righteousness—worship Him with a submissive heart (99:4-5).

“The strength of the King loves justice; You have established equity; You have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob. Exalt the Lord our God and worship at His footstool; holy is He.”

A strong king who lacks a passion for justice will be a tyrant, as we know well from history. God is strong, but He also loves justice. He rules with equity (fairness), justice, and righteousness. His power never runs amok, because it is perfectly balanced with His justice and righteousness. His omniscience means that He will always judge fairly, because He knows not only all outward circumstances, but also every motive of the hearts of those He judges. The psalmist’s use of “Jacob” in reference to the nation is a common designation, and so may not have any significance here. But as you know, Jacob was known as a deceiver and schemer. But by way of contrast, God has “executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.”

Knowing that one day we all will stand before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account of ourselves to God (Rom. 14:10-12; 2 Cor. 5:10) should motivate us to live to please Him. It is possible to go through the outward motions of “worship” without submitting our hearts to God (Mark 7:6-7). The antidote is to “exalt the Lord our God and worship at His footstool” (Ps. 99:5), recognizing that He is holy. His footstool refers to the Ark of the Covenant (1 Chron. 28:2), or by association, to the temple, where God dwelled among His people. But footstool pictures bowing before the throne of a monarch, in total submission to him. Because our King is the righteous Judge of all, we must submit our hearts completely to Him, so that we worship Him in sincerity and truth.

3. The Lord reigns in faithfulness, mercy, and righteousness—worship Him with reverent intimacy (99:6-9).

A. The Lord reigns in faithfulness, mercy, and righteousness (99:6-8).

“Moses and Aaron were among His priests, and Samuel was among those who called on His name; they called upon the Lord and He answered them. He spoke to them in the pillar of cloud; they kept His testimonies and the statute that He gave them. O Lord our God, You answered them; You were a forgiving God to them, and yet an avenger of their evil deeds.”

The psalmist rehearses the history of God’s dealings with Israel through three of their prominent leaders. Moses and Aaron led the nation out of Egypt and established national worship through the tabernacle. Samuel came later, as the last of Israel’s judges who anointed the first king, Saul, and later, David.

All three men had their faults, but they were men of prayer and faith. God’s speaking to them in the pillar of cloud refers only to Moses and Aaron, not to Samuel. But God answered the prayers of all three men (see 1 Sam. 7:5-11). Moses and Aaron stood in the gap and intervened more than once to save the rebellious nation from God’s wiping them out (Num. 16:41-50). Aaron notoriously failed in the incident with the golden calf. Moses failed by striking the rock, when God had told him to speak to it. Samuel failed in that his sons did not follow the Lord. So they were men of flesh, and yet they cried out to God and He graciously answered them, while at the same time inflicting consequences when they sinned. But overall it may be said that they “kept [the Lord’s] testimonies and the statute that He gave them” (99:7).

Many commentators understand the pronouns in verse 8 to extend beyond these men to the nation. In other words, through their intercession, God’s forgiveness extended to the nation, although the Lord still imposed penalties for national disobedience. But however you apply verse 8, it shows the balance between God’s faithfulness in answering prayer, His mercy in forgiving sin, and His righteousness in imposing punishment for sin, so that we do not take His mercy lightly. We must never sin with the thought that we can always expect grace and forgiveness. Our sin always has severe consequences in damaging people and in tarnishing the Lord’s glory. And yet when we have sinned, we can come to Him and plead for His mercy.

David’s sin with Bathsheba illustrates this as well as any story in the Bible. David appealed to God for forgiveness and mercy, and it was granted. And yet, while assuring David that God had forgiven his sin, Nathan the prophet spelled out the dire consequences that God would impose. David’s son conceived in adultery with Bathsheba would die. The sword would not depart from David’s house. God would raise up evil against David from his own house and even give David’s wives to his son Absalom, who would lie with them in broad daylight (2 Sam. 12:9-14). God was sovereign in ordaining these events, and yet Absalom and the others who would sin were responsible. God’s holiness is not compromised when He uses evil people to accomplish His sovereign purposes. He reigns in faithfulness, mercy, and righteousness. This should lead us to deeper worship:

B. Exalt the Lord and worship Him with reverent intimacy, because He is holy (99:9).

The psalmist repeats the refrain (99:3, 5) with some slight variations: “Exalt the Lord our God and worship at His holy hill, for holy is the Lord our God” (99:9). Instead of “worship at His footstool” (99:5), he says, “worship at His holy hill,” which refers to the temple mount. Instead of “holy is He,” he gives a more intimate appeal, “for holy is the Lord our God.” Derek Kidner (p. 355) puts it, “The majesty is undiminished, but the last word is now given to intimacy. He is holy; He is also, against all our deserving, not ashamed to be called ours. Well may we worship.”

Or, in the words of Hebrews 12:22-24, which contrast the experience of Israel at Mount Sinai with our privileges,

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.

Jumping to his bottom line (12:28-29), “Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”

We can worship God intimately through Jesus our Mediator, but always with reverence and awe.

Conclusion

Let me apply this message with four directives:

First, aim at getting a bigger view of God in His majesty and holiness. As you read the Bible, like Moses (Exod. 33:18), ask God to show you His glory. Moses had already seen God’s majesty and power at Mount Sinai. He had communed with God for forty days and nights on that mountain. He had repeatedly seen the Shekinah glory. Wasn’t that enough? No, Moses wanted to see more! In addition to the Bible, read authors who exalt God. No one has helped me more on this than John Calvin. If you prefer more modern authors, read Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Piper, and R. C. Sproul, especially his The Holiness of God [Tyndale, 1985].

Second, aim at getting a more biblically accurate view of yourself in God’s holy presence. This will follow the first aim almost spontaneously, as it did with Isaiah. Seeing God in His majesty and holiness will cause you to see yourself as a needy recipient of His grace.

Third, aim at increasing personal holiness on the heart level. Judge and cut off every sinful thought the instant it pops into your mind. Don’t tolerate so-called little sins as if they don’t matter. Don’t justify yourself with the consolation that everyone does it. Don’t expose yourself to TV shows or movies that defile you. If you wouldn’t be comfortable watching it with the Lord, don’t watch it.

Fourth, aim at meeting alone with God every day to exalt Him and worship at His footstool. The point of your quiet time is not just to read through the Bible in a year, although that’s a good thing to do. The point is to meet with God. See Him as revealed in His Word. Humble your heart before Him. Call upon Him in prayer. And remember, “Holy is the Lord our God.”

Application Questions

  1. Where is the proper biblical balance between fearing God and being close to Him? How can we know the boundaries?
  2. If you applied the question, “Will this help me to grow in holiness?” how would your usual activities change?
  3. Should Christians fear God’s judgment? Consider 2 Corinthians 5:10-11 and Romans 14:10-12 in your answer.
  4. What has helped you most to grow in your understanding of God’s holiness? What goals could help you move in that direction this year?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2009, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Psalm 100: Bad Press for a Good God

In these days of modern media, every President knows that he needs a good spin doctor to put a positive spin on the news, so that the President looks good. I read an article recently on the late President Kennedy that told about the many serious health problems that he suffered from throughout his life. He had a serious kidney disease, along with several other maladies that caused severe chronic pain. He took pain medication and received multiple steroid injections every day. But in spite of his precarious health, he managed to convey to the public that he was young, energetic, and physically fit. He had some good spin doctors!

Politicians know that bad press can ruin their reputation and result in defeat at the polls. Sadly, most politicians don’t focus on truthful, upright behavior, but rather on how to convey the image of being truthful and upright, even if they aren’t. They want good press, but not always stemming from good character.

From day one, Satan has been on a campaign to smear the truth about God’s goodness so that people will not follow Him. When he tempted Eve in the Garden, his main ploy was to get Eve to doubt that God intended good for her by forbidding her and Adam from eating the fruit. Satan told her (Gen. 3:5), “For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The slander was, “God is trying to keep you from a good thing.” And the extension of that thought is, “God is not really good.”

The devil has used this falsehood in varying forms to keep people from following the Lord. Satan promotes the lie, “If you follow God, you’ll have to stop doing the things you enjoy and start doing things that you hate. God wants you to get rid of your ice cream and eat spinach for dessert! Isn’t it fun to be a Christian!”

Unfortunately, many Christians have played into the devil’s scheme by conveying that being a Christian is a glum, grim way of life. I heard once of an American Christian drama group that played in a church in Scotland. The routine they did on that occasion was supposed to be very funny, but no one laughed. They thought that they had failed until one team member overhead a man from the congregation say to another man, “They were so funny that I almost had to laugh in church!” I’m not endorsing comedy or drama in the church, but surely our churches, our homes, and our individual lives as Christians should reflect joy and gladness in the Lord! If not, our good God gets bad press from those professing to be His people.

First Peter 2:9 says that God has made us to be a people for His own possession “so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” Or, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism begins, “What is the chief end of man?” Answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.” Or, as John Piper has improved on it, we glorify God by enjoying Him forever (Desiring God [Multnomah Publishers, 1996], p. 15). As Piper often says, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.”

And so our job as believers is to give good press to our good God, not by spinning or bending the truth, but by conveying by our demeanor and words how excellent He truly is. And that is the message of the well-loved Psalm 100:

Because the Lord is good, we who belong to Him should be people of joy, submission, and praise.

Psalm 100 is the only psalm with the title, “A Psalm of Thanksgiving.” The Hebrew word for thanksgiving literally means, confession (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. by R. Laird Harris [Moody Press], 1:365). In this case, it means to confess God’s character and His works. Psalm 100 is the “unclouded summit” (Psalms 73-150, by Derek Kidner [IVP], p. 355) that closes Psalms 93-100, which proclaim God as King. It overflows with the exuberant joy of those who know themselves to be God’s people.

There are several approaches to outlining the psalm. Some point out that there are two verses of exhortation followed by verse 3, which is explanation; then the cycle is repeated: verse 4 is exhortation and verse 5 is explanation. John Piper (sermon on his web site, www.desiringgod.org) labels verses 1 & 2 and verse 4 as exultation, with verses 3 & 5 as education. Another way of looking at it is to note that there are four verses of exhortation followed by one verse giving the reason for the exhortations. There are seven commands: Shout joyfully (v. 1); Serve (v. 2a); Come before Him (v. 2b); Know (v. 3); Enter (v. 4a); Give thanks (v. 4b); and, Bless (v. 4c). Then verse 5 gives the reason behind the commands. I’m going to begin with the reason and then move to the commands.

1. The Lord is good (100:5).

“The Lord is good.” It’s easy to say that, but do you really believe it? Some of you have gone through very difficult trials. You may be in difficult trials right now. Do you believe that God is good and that He is using these trials to work together for your good, so that you will be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:28-29)? The psalmist wrote (Ps. 119:67), “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word.” The very next verse is (119:68), “You are good and do good; teach me Your statutes.” A few verses later he writes (119:71), “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes.” Even in our afflictions (especially in our afflictions!), we must submit to God and affirm His goodness by faith.

Satan knows that if he can get you to doubt God’s goodness, you won’t trust Him. And if you don’t trust Him, you won’t obey Him. Why trust and obey a mean God who is trying to make you miserable?

Some of you had mean fathers. Maybe your dad claimed to be a Christian, but he was difficult to be around. He’d come home from work grumpy and mad at life. He didn’t want to be bothered by a bunch of hyperactive kids. So as he retreated behind his newspaper or settled down in front of the tube, the only words you heard out of his mouth were, “Can you guys keep it down? Stop fighting! Do your homework! If I have to tell you guys to be quiet one more time, you’re really going to get it!” As you grew up, you assumed that the heavenly Father must be sort of like that—mean, grumpy, barking commands, and not wanting you to enjoy life.

So it’s essential that you derive your understanding of God from the Bible. And at the root of who God is, you must affirm that He is good. This means that He “deals well and bountifully with His creatures” (Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God [Baker], 2:219). A. W. Tozer (The Knowledge of the Holy [Harper & Row], p. 88) put it, “The goodness of God is that which disposes Him to be kind, cordial, benevolent, and full of good will toward men.” The Bible attests to God’s goodness in His creation (Gen. 1:31); in His salvation and deliverance of His people (Exod. 18:9; Num. 10:29, 32); in His provision for His people (Neh. 9:25); and, in His Word, which instructs us in how to live so as to be blessed (Ps. 25:8; Deut. 30:15-16), even in affliction (Gen. 50:20).

But the psalmist mentions two facets of God’s goodness, which frequently occur together in the Psalms: His lovingkindness (see 106:1; 107:1); and, His faithfulness (see 89:1, 2).

A. God’s lovingkindness is everlasting.

This is the Hebrew word hesed, which we’ve noted in previous studies. It comes from their word for stork. The Hebrews noticed how storks had an uncommon love for and protection of their young. They built their nests securely in the high trees (Ps. 104:17). And so they said, “God’s love for His own is like that!” He nurtures us and protects us from all enemies. He cares for us and feeds us. His love does not depend on us, but on His eternal nature, which is good.

B. God’s faithfulness is to all generations.

That is just another way of saying that it is everlasting. God is not fickle. He is not moody, where one day He acts one way towards us and the next day He’s different. He is true to His eternal attributes. He is faithful to His covenant promises. He is true to all His revealed purposes. The Bible contains the record of His faithfulness to His people in the past. It also shows how He will be true to His promises to glorify His people in the future. And so we can rely on His faithfulness to us in the present, no matter what kind of trial we’re going through. As Psalm 119:75-76 affirms, “I know, O Lord, that Your judgments are righteous, and that in faithfulness You have afflicted me. O may Your lovingkindness comfort me, according to Your word to Your servant.”

So we must affirm at all times in all situations, “Lord, You are good to me! Your lovingkindness and Your faithfulness are always with me. You will never leave me or forsake me (Heb. 13:5).” The first four verses of Psalm 100 show how the truth of God’s goodness should affect us:

2. We who belong to God should be people of joy, submission, and praise (100:1-4).

A. We who belong to God should be people of joy (100:1-2).

“Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth. Serve the Lord with gladness; come before Him with joyful singing.” Is that your image of the Christian life? There’s no allowance there for grumpiness! Nothing about snapping at your wife or kids! No room there for complaining about your trials! The psalmist is telling us four things:

(1). Joy in the Lord should be exuberant.

“Shout joyfully!” This word refers to the spontaneous shout of victory that greeted a king returning from battle. The messenger would run from the battlefield with the good news, “Our king has won the victory! The king and the army will march into the city tomorrow!” The excited people would line the streets, waiting for the glorious moment. When the king rode through the city gate in triumph, the crowd would roar with applause and cheers.

That’s how our joy in the Lord should overflow at times. The Bible does not suggest that it should be that way always, of course. We all go through high points and low points. We are to rejoice with those that rejoice and weep with those that weep (Rom. 12:15). The shortest verse in the Greek New Testament is, “Rejoice always” (1 Thess. 5:16). In English, it is, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). So there’s a balance. But, if God has worked a victory in your life, whoop it up! If He has answered your prayer, shout for joy!

But maybe you’re thinking, “That’s just not my personality. I’m a rather calm, reserved person.” But, notice,

(2). Exuberant joy in the Lord is commanded for all.

The psalmist does not say, “Shout joyfully to the Lord, all of you who have exuberant personalities!” He says, “Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth.” There’s a missionary focus to the verse. For all the earth to shout joyfully to the Lord, they must know who He is. And one way that they should know that He’s worth shouting about is that they see joyful Christians. Are you giving God bad press or good press as the pagan world observes your life?

The only time I’ve ever gone to a professional football game was in Dallas when a medical doctor who went to our church invited Marla and I to watch the Rams (then from our home town, Los Angeles) play the Cowboys. We learned that Texans take their football seriously! When the referee would make a penalty call against the Cowboys, this otherwise reserved, professional doctor would leap to his feet, shake his fist threateningly at the official, and yell, “Boo!” As he sat down, he would mutter some nasty comments about the man. When the Cowboys made a good play, this dignified church elder would leap spontaneously to his feet, scream at the top of his lungs, and even hug whoever was close by!

But I never saw him or anyone else do that in church. Why do we get so excited about our games and not about our God?

(3). Joy in the Lord should permeate our service for Him.

“Serve the Lord with gladness.” There are two parts to the command: “Serve the Lord; and, do it with gladness.” Do you serve the Lord? Do you do it with gladness for all that He’s done for you?

People (even Christians!) serve sports, recreation, computer games, movies, music, business, possessions, the stock market, and many things other than the Lord. The Lord threatened Israel with some frightening consequences if they did not serve Him gladly (Deut. 28:47-48), “Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and a glad heart, for the abundance of all things; therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you….” As Bob Dylan sings, “You gotta serve somebody.” Make sure you serve the Lord with gladness!

(4). Joy in the Lord should be expressed in singing.

“Come before Him with joyful singing.” Don’t miss the first part of that command, that in coming to sing, you are to come before Him. We gather in His presence. If our singing is lackluster, my hunch is that we’ve forgotten that we’re offering it to Him. Does the way that we sing as a church give our good God good press or bad press? “Come before Him with joyful singing.” We who belong to God should be people of joy.

B. We who belong to God should be people of submission (100:3).

You won’t find the word submission in this verse, but it’s written all over it: “Know that the Lord Himself is God; it is He who has made us and not we ourselves; we are His people and the sheep of His pasture.” Why does the psalmist insert this verse in a psalm dealing with joy and thanksgiving? What does the fact that the Lord is God and that He made us and that we are His people and His sheep have to do with thanksgiving?

A lot! Verse 3 describes a relationship of submission to God and submission is directly related to thankfulness. If you’re grumbling or griping about your circumstances, you’re not subject to God’s sovereign hand in your life. You’re implying that you could do a better job than God at running your life if He’d just give you the chance. It’s not until you willingly submit to God as God that you can also say, “Thank You, Lord, that You are good and that You will work this trial together for my good.” Verse 3 gives us four reasons why we should submit to the Lord:

(1). We should submit to the Lord because He is God.

The psalmist says, “Know that the Lord Himself is God.” That means, “You’re not God!” Even when we don’t understand why something is happening to us, we need to acknowledge, “Lord, You’re the only true and living God. I submit to You.”

(2). We should submit to the Lord because He is our Creator.

“It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves.” A marginal reading in the Hebrew text says, “and we are His.” But whichever is original, the clear implication is that since God made us, we must bow before Him. Evolution has gained such a large following, not because there is scientific evidence for it, but because it eliminates the need for proud man to submit to God. If God created us, then we must be in submission to Him!

(3). We should submit to the Lord because He is our Redeemer.

“We are His people.” Israel once was not God’s people, but He chose them and called them to follow Him. He redeemed them from bondage in Egypt. We, in the church, once were not His people, but He chose us and called us to follow Him, redeeming us from bondage to sin (1 Pet. 2:9-10). Because He is our Redeemer and we are His people, we must submit to Him.

(4). We should submit to the Lord because He is our Shepherd.

“We are … the sheep of His pasture.” This reminds us of Psalm 23 and of John 10, where Jesus claims to be the good shepherd, who lays down His life for His sheep. His sheep know His voice and follow Him as He leads them to abundant pasture.

Because God is good, full of lovingkindness and faithfulness, we should be people of joy. Because He is good, as the only true God, as our Creator, Redeemer and Shepherd, we should submit to Him. Finally,

C. We who belong to God should be people of praise (100:4).

“Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise. Give thanks to Him, bless His name.” Dozens of times in the Bible we are commanded to praise the Lord, which implies that we are to do it whether we feel like it or not. If we never feel like praising the Lord, something serious is wrong with our Christian life! But there are times when you must begin praising God because He commands it. The feelings will follow. As we grow to know Him better and to experience His love and faithfulness more deeply, we will praise Him more and more. Heaven will be filled with praise because we will see God in all His majesty and splendor. You can’t see such a glorious God without praise welling up in your heart.

While we should praise and thank God in our private devotions, this verse focuses on worshiping Him corporately. “His gates” and “His courts” refers to the Tabernacle or Temple, where God’s people came together to worship. To enter those gates with thanksgiving and praise implies preparing your heart beforehand and coming with the deliberate purpose of offering praise to God. I encourage you to take a few minutes on Saturday night to prepare your heart for Sunday morning. Pray for the worship time, that it will honor the Lord. On Sunday morning, get up early enough to spend some time before the Lord, reading His Word and praying for your heart and the hearts of others to be right before Him. If you’re feeling down on Sunday morning, come anyway and hopefully you’ll be encouraged. But most of us should come ready to praise our gracious God and loving Savior.

Our praise should focus on what God has done and on who He is. We give thanks for what He has done, especially, that He has saved us from our sins through the blood of His own dear Son. Blessing God’s name means to praise Him for who He is, as revealed in His Word and through His Son. He has blessed us with His great gift of salvation. We return the blessing by praising Him.

Conclusion

Does your life give God good press or bad press? If you’re doubting His goodness and grumbling about your trials, you’re giving Him bad press. Those around you who don’t know God will think, “I’m not so sure I want to know his God.” But if those around you see your joy, your glad submission to Him, and your thankful spirit, they may be drawn to the God who is so good.

Before his conversion, John Wesley was deeply impressed by a conversation he had with the porter of his college. Wesley discovered that the man had only one coat and that he had not eaten that day because he was so poor. Yet the man was overflowing with gratitude toward God. Wesley said, “You thank God when you have nothing to wear, nothing to eat, and no bed to lie upon! What else do you thank Him for?”

“I thank Him, answered the porter, “that He has given me my life and being, and a heart to love Him, and a desire to serve Him.” (A. Skevington Wood, The Inextinguishable Blaze [Eerdmans], p. 100.)

That poor man gave his good God good press and it was one factor that God used to bring John Wesley to saving faith. Because God is good, we who belong to Him should give Him good press by being people of exuberant joy, glad submission, and thankful praise.

Application Questions

  1. A person has experienced many difficult trials and doubts that God is truly good. How would you counsel him?
  2. What should a Christian do who has lost the joy of serving the Lord? Should he quit until he regains his joy?
  3. How should a person who does not have a bubbly personality express genuine joy in the Lord? Does he have to change his personality?
  4. Is it hypocrisy to praise God when you don’t feel like it? How can we overcome such feelings?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2009, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Psalm 103: Heartfelt Worship

A Christian man heard a message on the end times and decided to make all he could before the economy collapsed. He took his entire savings, went to the race track, and prayed for wisdom on how to bet. He watched the first race without betting. He noticed that a Catholic priest came out, sprinkled some water, waved his arms and made some signs over a horse. The horse won by seven lengths. The same thing happened on the second, third and fourth races. The man waited one more race just to make sure. Same thing--the horse that the priest blessed won. So on the sixth race he waited until the priest did his thing. Then he ran off and placed his entire savings on that horse.

The race began. The horse ran 50 feet and dropped dead. The man was horrified! He ran down to the priest and said, “Priest, I have to talk to you!” “Yes, what is it, my son?” “Priest, I watched you in each race and in every race the horse you blessed won. So I went and bet everything I had on this horse. What happened?”

The priest said, “You must be a Protestant.” “Why do you say that?” asked the man. “Because you don’t know the difference between a blessing and the last rites.”

I wonder, could an outsider coming into a typical Sunday morning worship service tell whether we came here to bless God or to conduct His funeral? Would a person who doesn’t know God be able to look at your life and tell whether you have been blessed by God? Or would they conclude that the last rites must already have been pronounced upon you? Are you a person marked by heartfelt worship, whose life overflows with thanksgiving to God for His abundant blessings on your behalf?

God is seeking people who worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:23). True worship means worshiping God in spirit, that is, in reality. Our inner being (spirit) must be right with God so that the outer motions of worship flow from the inside out. He doesn’t want us just to go through the motions, but to have hearts that overflow with love for Him. That’s what it means to worship God in spirit. Worship is similar to love: It is not based on feelings, but if it’s genuine, feelings normally will be involved.

But also we are to worship God in truth. Worship must have content. It must be based on the true revelation God has given of Himself in His Word. For that reason, you cannot properly worship until you understand something of who God is and what He has done.

As I have studied worship in Scripture, I have concluded that there are two key elements that normally come together to spark worship in spirit and truth: An understanding of who God is; and, an understanding of who I am. As you come to realize who God really is, you cannot help but become painfully aware of who you are in His holy presence. So I define worship as “an inner attitude and feeling of awe, reverence, gratitude, and/or love resulting from a realization of who God is and who we are.” I also like John MacArthur’s definition: Worship is “our innermost being responding with praise for all that God is, through our attitudes, actions, thoughts, and words, based on the truth of God as He has revealed Himself” (The Ultimate Priority [Moody Press], p. 127).

The Bible is clear that God is seeking worshipers. We cannot be His children without seeking to grow as true worshipers of God. I believe the reason God called David a man after God’s heart is that David worshiped God in spirit and truth. He knew who God is, and he also knew who he was in relation to God. And he expressed this with awe, reverence, gratitude and love for God in many psalms. Psalm 103 is a psalm of pure worship. Unlike most of David’s psalms, there are no petitions for help or cries for deliverance. David just focuses on the Lord and His great blessings and overflows in worship. The main idea which I would like to develop is that

God’s great goodness and our great need should cause us to respond in heartfelt worship.

The major theme of the psalm is that ...

1. God’s goodness is great.

David is focusing on the abundant goodness of God: “forget none of His benefits” (v. 2). David invites us to join him in recalling God’s many tender mercies. It’s human nature to forget God’s benefits. Focusing on God’s blessings must be a deliberate choice.

When I do premarital counseling, I ask couples to list at least five faults of their prospective mate. I find it humorous that often they cannot fill in all five blanks, and the one or two minor flaws they list are usually brushed aside. All they can think about is, “He is so wonderful, so kind and considerate!” “She is so beautiful! She has such a sweet disposition!” But after a few years of living together, they come into my office saying, “He doesn’t care about anybody but himself!” “She is such a nag! She complains about everything!” Their focus has changed!

It’s easy to fall into the same trap spiritually. In the Garden of Eden, God had blessed Adam and Eve with so many good things. It was a perfect, beautiful environment. But there was one negative: “Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” What did Satan get Eve to focus on? That one negative! He used it to cast doubt on the goodness of God: “God is trying to keep something good from you. If He really loved you, He’d let you eat from that tree. Go ahead!” She did and the human race fell into sin.

Satan found a strategy that worked and he’s been using it ever since! He uses the trials that come upon us because of our sin and the sin of this fallen creation to get us to doubt the goodness of God. He promotes the idea that God’s commandments are harsh and that God is out to deprive us of pleasure. If we believe that lie, we’re sitting ducks for temptation. We need to resist Satan’s lie and focus on God’s great goodness toward us. David shows that ...

A. God’s goodness stems from His nature.

“Bless His holy name” (v. 1). God’s name refers to the totality of His attributes, to who God is as a person. Since all of God’s actions stem from His attributes, God’s name refers to all that God is and all that He has done for us as His children. Note some of the attributes of God that David emphasizes in this psalm:

(1) God is gracious (vv. 7-17). David accentuates God’s grace by mentioning Moses and the sons of Israel (v. 7). As Derek Kidner puts it, “No story surpasses the Exodus for a record of human unworthiness: of grace abounding and ‘benefits forgot’” (Psalms [IVP], p. 365). Verse 8 comes from God’s revelation of Himself to Moses (Exod. 34:6) and reveals the fundamental nature of God. As Kidner again puts it (in “Tabletalk,” 9/91, p. 29), “There is room for anger in [God’s love] (vv. 8b, 9b), yet while human wrath is quick to rise and slow to fade, His is quite the opposite. He has much to rebuke, but not to harp on (v. 9); He sees much to punish, but all the more to forgive (v. 10); and this, not for our deserving.”

(2) God is loving (“lovingkindness,” vv. 4, 11, 17). This is the familiar Hebrew word, hesed, coming from their word “stork,” which pictures the loyal love of God as that love which the parent storks show for their young. God crowns you with His loyal love (v. 4)! He is abounding in it (v. 8). And, it is eternal (v. 17)! This last verse is the same phrase Moses used in Psalm 90:2 of God’s eternality. Before the foundation of the world God chose you in Christ (Eph. 1:4). And in the future, we will reign with Christ forever and ever (Rev. 22:5)!

(3) God is compassionate (vv. 4, 8, 13 [twice]). The Hebrew word comes from the word “womb,” and refers to deep, tender love rooted in some natural bond (R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament [Moody Press], 2:841). David uses the analogy of a father’s compassion toward his little ones. God understands how we are made (v. 14, “dust,” recalls the fall, Gen. 3:19), and relates to us with gentleness, not according to our sins (v. 10). Aren’t you glad for that!

(4) God is forgiving (vv. 3, 12). You can know freedom from all your guilt and complete forgiveness for all your sins through the Lord Jesus Christ! The sacrificial system in David’s day pointed ahead to the complete and final sacrifice for sins that Jesus secured on the cross. The only way that a holy God (v. 1) can accept sinful people is through the satisfaction of His holy law. Jesus paid the penalty we deserve, so that God’s justice was satisfied and His mercy can flow freely to all who flee to the cross.

(5) God is sovereign (v. 19). God’s sovereignty should be a source of comfort to us, because it guarantees that nothing or no one can thwart His plans to bless His people. What He has promised, He will bring to pass. Either God is a liar or else all the good things He has promised to us will be fulfilled.

B. God’s goodness means that His people receive abundant benefits from His hand.

(1) Healing (v. 3b). I’ve just mentioned forgiveness (v. 3a). David goes on to mention the healing of all our diseases. In the context, this points to every aspect of healing--spiritual, emotional, and physical. He is not promising instant, miraculous deliverance from all your problems. Neither David nor anyone else in the Bible experienced that. Nor is David saying that God will heal you of every physical ailment or that it is His will to heal everyone. There is no such promise in the Bible. Indeed, the Bible shows that God often uses physical trials to bring about our spiritual and emotional healing by deepening our dependence on God. And yet, since sin often takes a physical toll on us, when God cleanses our sin, there is often an accompanying physical healing.

Verse 3 affirms that when healing takes place, through whatever means, it comes from God. Thus in everything, we must learn to depend totally upon God. It’s right to use medical science, but God should get the praise when we are healed, even if the healing comes through medical science.

(2) Deliverance from death: “Who redeems your life from the pit” (v. 4a). The pit means the grave. Because we have sinned, we are subject to death, “for the wages of sin, is death.” To redeem means to pay the price of release. God paid the ransom for our sin through the death of Jesus Christ so that we might be released from sin’s power and penalty. The sting of death is taken away by the fact that the moment you trust in Jesus as your sin bearer, God gives you eternal life. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.

(3) A good life now: “Who satisfies your years with good things, so that your youth is renewed like the eagle” (v. 5). God gives us many material blessings. He also gives inner renewal, even as our outer body grows weaker (2 Cor. 4:16). Eagles are a picture of strength, soaring effortlessly in the sky, even in their old age. Even so, those who wait on the Lord will mount up with wings as eagles, renewed with strength in the Lord (Isa. 40:31).

All of these blessings are ours at no cost to us, although at great cost to God. We deserved His wrath, but He has given us His love. Do you ever take the time to let the immensity of God’s goodness as seen in His many blessings overwhelm you like a flood? That’s one reason the Lord’s Supper is so important--it’s a time to contemplate what God did for you at the cross. With David we should often exclaim, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget none of His benefits!”

So David is saying that we need to focus on who God is and how He has blessed us if we want to be people who worship Him from the heart. Focusing on His goodness will cause your heart to well up with thanksgiving and praise. But you can’t focus on God without also realizing something about who you are.

2. Our need is great.

Psalm 103’s primary focus is on God, not man. But there is the minor theme that we are desperately needy: sinful, sick, and short-lived. If we don’t acknowledge our true condition, we won’t cry out to God for mercy; thus we won’t receive His many blessings.

A. We are sinful (103:3, 4, 8-10, 12).

We can’t come to God until we admit our sin to Him. And then, even though He removes our sin and guilt and imputes to us the righteousness of Christ, we still are sinners saved by grace, daily in need of that grace to overcome the sin that still indwells us. There is a popular teaching going around that says that Christians are not to see themselves as sinners, but only as saints. That is unbiblical and damaging. The closer we draw to God who is light, the more we see the sinfulness of our hearts, which makes us cling all the more to His grace and love Him more who forgave us so much.

B. We are sick (103:3b).

We’re subject to disease. We’re vulnerable and frail, in spite of the advances of modern medicine. A strong, robust man in the prime of life can be cut down by an invisible virus. A healthy person can be struck down by cancer without warning. Our physical frailty should show us that we’re needy!

C. We are short-lived (103:15-16).

As Moses did in Psalm 90, David here compares man to the grass or to the flowers of the field--here today, gone tomorrow. No one is guaranteed a long life. Even a long life is short compared to eternity. Our fleeting lives show us our need for God.

The problem is, we often don’t see ourselves as needy, so we don’t cast ourselves completely on the grace of God. Remember, grace is not for worthy people; it’s for the unworthy. This is one reason why it is against Scripture to work at building our self-esteem and self-confidence. If we think we’re worthy, we won’t come to God for His grace. If we think we’re competent, we won’t rely on the Lord.

We need the attitude of Paul who said, “Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant ...” (2 Cor. 3:5-6). God humbled Paul with a thorn in the flesh so that he would learn that he was weak and needy. But then he trusted fully in God and His grace, so that he could say, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).

When we see God’s goodness and our own need,

3. Our response should be heartfelt worship.

David ends the psalm like a conductor ends a great symphony, calling in all of the instruments for a great climax of praise. After affirming the absolute sovereignty of God (v. 19), he calls in the angels to bless the Lord (v. 20). Next, he calls in all the hosts (probably referring to the angels as God’s army) to praise God. Note that they all do God’s bidding and obey Him. Then he extends the call to all of God’s works (v. 22). But then, lest the individual get lost in the grandeur of it all, he crisply closes by bringing it back down to where he started, to that little speck on planet earth: “Bless the Lord, O my soul.”

There are three elements of worship in this psalm:

A. Worship is a response of praise (vv. 1, 2, 20-22).

That’s what it means to bless God: to respond to God’s blessings in your life with heartfelt praise. When my kids were small and used to buy me a Christmas present, where did they get the money? From me! But when they gave back to me what I gave them, they were blessing me. We are to give back to God a sacrifice of praise, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name (Heb. 13:15), which flows from His abundant goodness to us.

Like David, our hearts may grow cold and we may have to rouse ourselves to praise God. He is talking to himself in the psalm (“O my soul”), stirring himself to worship. He is deliberately remembering God’s blessings. The opposite of praise is forgetfulness (v. 2). Stop and count your blessings. Remember God’s goodness to you in spite of your self-centeredness and sin. And stir yourself to praise Him.

B. Worship is a response of fear (vv. 11, 13, 17).

To fear God means to live with the awareness that all you think, say, and do is open to His scrutiny (Heb. 4:13) and that one day you will give an account to Him. The fear of God takes away silliness and trifling with the things of God. We shouldn’t goof around when we worship the Lord. We can have fun, but it must be tempered with reverence.

C. Worship is a response of obedience (v. 18).

“The fear of the Lord is to hate evil” (Prov. 8:13). God isn’t impressed with our worship if we are not obedient to His Word. If you sing God’s praises on Sunday but are living in known disobedience to Him throughout the week, you are like King Saul, whom God rejected (1 Sam. 15:22).

Conclusion

Worship is an intelligent response to God: a response of praise, reverence, and obedience which stems from an understanding of who God is and who we are. God’s great goodness and our great need should cause us to respond to Him in heartfelt worship.

Some years ago, before computers, the Reuben Donnelly Company, handled magazine subscriptions for a number of publications. They had a machine that sent out the notices to people whose subscriptions had expired. One day the machine broke and a rancher in Powder Bluff, Colorado, received 9,734 notices that his subscription to National Geographic had expired. He drove the ten miles to the post office, sent his money and wrote, “Send me the magazine! I give up!”

God has flooded your life with far more than 9,734 notices of His love and blessing. He wants you to respond by giving up your self-seeking, stubborn ways and by giving in to His great goodness toward you in Christ. He wants you to be filled with heartfelt worship every day as you think about God’s great goodness and your great need.

Discussion Questions

  1. How can a person who has been through terrible tragedy bel