Wednesday, September 30, 2015

My God, Why Have you Forsaken Me?: Learning to Pray Psalm 22 (vv. 12-18)

The plight of the psalmist reaches its pinnacle in verses 12–18 and his faith is never more steady than in verses 19–21. 

12 Many bulls surround me;
    strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
13 Roaring lions that tear their prey
    open their mouths wide against me.
14 I am poured out like water,
    and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
    it has melted within me.
15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
    and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
    you lay me in the dust of death.
16 Dogs surround me,
    a pack of villains encircles me;
    they pierce my hands and my feet.
17 All my bones are on display;
    people stare and gloat over me.
18 They divide my clothes among them
    and cast lots for my garment.
19 But you, Lord, do not be far from me.
    You are my strength; come quickly to help me.
20 Deliver me from the sword,
    my precious life from the power of the dogs.
21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
    save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

The intensity of lament boils in these verses (vv. 12-13). There appears to be no way out for the psalmist. He metaphorically views his enemies as wild and ravenous beasts seeking his life. Close your eyes and picture yourself surrounded by any of the following: a herd of angry bulls, a pride hungry lions, or a pack a wild dogs. Terrifying. This is how the psalmist feels. His body responds physically to the terror and pain (vv. 14–15).

Verses 12–18 connect directly with Jesus’ last hours on the cross. He cried out in thirst, opponents surrounded him, and the soldiers responsible for his execution gambled for his clothing.
These verses are meant to sound extreme because suffering is devastating and shocking. We’ve all experienced it in some form. Whether its the loss of a loved one, the suffering caused by illness (our own or of a loved one), the loneliness and grief of a broken relationship or marriage, or the sheer, or aftermath of some other trauma, the words of Psalm 22 give us vocabulary and phrases and serve to model prayer for moments of authentic desperation. Jesus looked to this psalm. So can we.

If verses 12–18 function as the psalmist’s words as he reaches the bottom of the pit, it is profound to remember and recognize that God is still present. This is one of the most vital resources for the faithful. We may literally reach the end of our rope, exhausted all of our resources, and have no one on earth to help us, but our future is not depended on any part of creation. The psalmist continues to hope in God and in verses 19–21 offers a final impassioned cry and pray for help. Read the psalmist’s words in these verses again. Note how they connect with his description of his plight.

When we pray to God, we do not have to sugar coat our words. The promise of the Gospel is that God already knows our needs (Matt 6:8). So why hide our true feelings and deepest desires? The psalmist is surrounded on all sides by enemies who seem like famished beasts. So what does he pray for? The psalmists asks specifically for deliverance and rescue from dogs, lions, and wild oxen. Notice that these are in the reverse sequence of their appearance in vv. 12–18 where the order was bulls, lions, and dogs.

The psalmist prays for God’s presence and help (v. 19). This is the key to prayer. The psalmist recognizes that God is present, able, willing, and powerful enough to save. Sometimes we mistakenly believe that it is the amount of our faith that activates God’s actions. It’s not. Faith is only as powerful as its object. Our God is able to hear our prayers and bring deliverance. Jesus prayed Psalm 22. This did not alleviate his suffering immediately, but we know that resurrection occurred on the other side of suffering and death. The psalmist in Ps 22 experienced deliverance and answer to his prayers. He will tell us this story in the concluding verses of the psalm (vv. 22–31).

How do verses 12–21 teach us to pray in the midst of our suffering?

What role does faith play in our prayers for help?

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

My God, My God, Why have You Forsaken Me: Learning to Pray Psalm 22:1-11

Let us hear the memorable words of Psalm 22:1-11

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from saving me,
    so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
    by night, but I find no rest.
Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
    you are the one Israel praises.
In you our ancestors put their trust;
    they trusted and you delivered them.
To you they cried out and were saved;
    in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
But I am a worm and not a man,
    scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
    they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
    “let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
    since he delights in him.”
Yet you brought me out of the womb;
    you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
10 From birth I was cast on you;
    from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
11 Do not be far from me,
    for trouble is near
    and there is no one to help.

Psalm 22 begins in desperation “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We likely know these words best because Jesus uttered them from the cross (Matt 27:46, Mark 15:34). Christ followers have long read Psalm 22 in light of Jesus’ death because the Gospels invite us to do this. The description of the suffering of the psalmist in Psalm 22 connects powerfully and specifically with the abuse and trauma that Jesus experienced during his crucifixion.

As we read and study Psalm 22, it is important to see the connections between both Jesus’ death (22:1–21) and resurrection (Ps 22–31). But it is also crucial for us to hear Psalm 22 as a psalm that reflects deeply on suffering and thanksgiving as we may experience it. Here is another way to say this. Psalm 22 does point to Jesus’ death and resurrection, but Jesus chose the to speak the words of Psalm 22 because Jesus wants each of us to understand, know, and feel deep inside of our beings that God truly identifies with us in our suffering and will lift us up to victory through our pain. This is good news.

Ps 22:1–2 are the words of a person desperate to hear from God. We do not know the precise specifics of the psalmist’s plight, but he is in a difficult setting and he feels far from God. It is a time when prayers seem to go unanswered and sleep is no where to be found despite our weariness. This is lament to the core. When Jesus spoke these words, he did not literally mean that God had left him. Rather he identifies with human suffering and the feeling in the moment of utter abandonment. When we pray to God out of our desperation, remember that Jesus understands precisely how it feels to be in such a condition.

Remember also that extreme despair is no indication of our faith commitments. Notice in verses 1-11 that the psalmist alternates between desperate lament (vv. 1–2 and 6–8) and passionate praise (vv. 3–5 and 9–11). Some of the most beautiful lyrics of worship are here. Verses 3–5 recognize God’s power and prestige as the “Holy One.” God can be trusted and generations of believers have testified to this truth. They prayed to the LORD and found deliverance. This faith is the grounds for the psalmist’s prayer to God. The psalmist wants to experience the same deliverance to which others have witnessed.

But in the present, the psalmist is in crisis. Verses 6-8 return us to the psalmist’s reality. These words remind us of the forsakenness of Jesus on the cross and mocking of the crowds as he died. The mocking includes cynical remarks about the futility of the sufferer’s faith.

Yet the psalmist again returns to praise in vv. 9–11. The praise is now more personal. The psalmist remembers God’s previous work in his own life. God has guided him from birth. This is reason for hope in the suffering. In verse 11, the psalmist affirms his belief that only God can help him.

When our times in your life that you identified with the psalmist’s sense of forsakenness?

What is the relationship between prayers of help and our words of praise?

How does Jesus’ identification with our suffering shape how we understand and experience times of trial?

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Mission as the Center: Reminders from Jesus' Great Commission

Jesus' Great Commission remains a vital text for understanding God's mission. Here are some reflections that seek to draw out its key components.

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (NIV)

1) Cross centered. The backdrop of Matthew’s view of discipleship is the death of Jesus on the Cross. The Cross is paradigmatic for the life of discipleship (Matt 10:38; 16:24). The cruciform life defines the essence of following Jesus Christ. Jesus’ death on the cross is the ground of salvation. Matthew does not provide a detail discussion of the “how” of atonement, but instead simply states its reality (e.g., Matt 1:21; 8:17 [cf Isa 53:4]; 26:28). Modern Christ followers must resist any pragmatic or theologically driven attempts to whitewash or marginalize the centrality of the Cross. Jesus’ call to “deny oneself and take up the cross” is a counter-cultural and revolutionary. It envisions a movement of Christ followers who live as dead (wo)men walking–persons who have died up front to self so that they can follow Jesus into the world to bring the Gospel to those who desperately need it. Mission assumes that Jesus' life, death, and resurrection is the defining reality for our world.
2) A Sent Church. Jesus modeled movement during his earthly ministry. Following his resurrection this movement is expanded to encompass all nations. Communities of faith that follow Jesus must engage the world by going. As my friend, Alex McManus says, "Christ followers must either be sending or being sent." Jesus did not wait for persons to come to him. He moved around the countryside modeling a ministry that actively seeks out lost persons so that they may be found and welcomed into the movement.
3) All hands on deck. Matt 28:18-20 contains the marching orders for all Christ followers. It is not merely a call to overseas mission work or the game plan for an evangelism committee. It is the modus operandi for all who follow Jesus. Making disciples requires each follower to deploy his/her gifts for the sake of the community and the world. It assumes that each follower exerts kingdom influence in the world. Sociologists have learned that each person has the opportunity to influence 10,000 people during their lifetime. What would happen if all Christ followers used their lives to influence even a fraction of these 10,000 with the Gospel?
4) Shaped by Scripture. The third leg of making disciples involves teaching everything that I commanded you. Disciples are mandated to instruct and shape the ethos of the community to reflect the teachings of Jesus. Disciples access the teachings of and about Jesus through the Scriptures. This is a point where serious reflection and reformation is needed today. Scripture is to be transformative, but too often the study of Scripture become merely a transfer of information or facts about the Bible. The mark of a mature Christian is how much a person knows about the Bible apart from how well a person’s life reflects the Scriptures. Ironically, this has led some leaders to de-emphasize the study of Scripture in some cases or in others to base the interpretation of Scripture on the personal experiences of the reader. Neither of these options is faithful to the message of Matt 28.
The way forward here is to read the Scriptures in light of God’s mission. Matthew 28 offers the mission of making disciples of all nations as the centerpiece of the Christ following movement. It is vital then that the disciples learn to read the text missionally.
For a primer on a missional reading follow this link: A Short Primer on Reading the Bible Missionally
5) Conversion and Personal Transformation. Making disciples means the transformation of lives. The core of Jesus’ message was (Re)Align with the new reality that God is bringing about in our day (matt 4:17). Matthew’s Gospel is not about easy believism. It assumes that the Gospel changes lives and shapes persons to reflect the character of God. The Gospel is inherently counter-cultural. It challenges both the ideological/theological systems of the world as well as those of cultural Christianity. It invites persons to participate in God’s mission to save the world. This means that we ourselves must be saved and transformed into the sort of persons that can follow Jesus into the darkest places on earth because we have become persons of the light.
 © 2007 Brian D. Russell (revised 9/2015)

Friday, September 25, 2015

Who is the King of Glory?: Learning to Pray Psalm 24

Psalm 24 is a powerful declaration of the LORD’s kingship. It flows through three movements: vv. 1–2 declare God’s credentials as Creator, vv. 3–6 describe the character of his followers, and vv. 7–10 welcome God’s arrival by announcing his victory. This psalm probably was originally used in temple services that celebrated the LORD as King of Creation. We can read it profitably as a prayer of praise to our LORD and a call to holiness as we seek to reflect his character to the world.

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,
    the world, and all who live in it;
for he founded it on the seas
    and established it on the waters.
Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?
    Who may stand in his holy place?
The one who has clean hands and a pure heart,
    who does not trust in an idol
    or swear by a false god.[a]
They will receive blessing from the Lord
    and vindication from God their Savior.
Such is the generation of those who seek him,
    who seek your face, God of Jacob.[b][c]
Lift up your heads, you gates;
    be lifted up, you ancient doors,
    that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
    The Lord strong and mighty,
    the Lord mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, you gates;
    lift them up, you ancient doors,
    that the King of glory may come in.
10 Who is he, this King of glory?
    The Lord Almighty—
    he is the King of glory.

Vv. 1–2 identify the LORD as the creator and ruler of the earth. This is an important declaration in the ancient world. It is the means by which a god demonstrates his superiority over all others. Since the LORD can secure the earth and make it a safe place for life, then this proves that the LORD is truly lord of all. The opening verses invite us to recognize God as king and to dethrone any “little” kings in our lives that may diminish our capacity to serve and trust the King.

Vv. 3–6 turn to the worshipers who have gathered to celebrate the LORD as king. Verse 3 asks a question of credentials: Who is able to gather in the temple to await the coming the victorious creator and king? Verses 4–6 answer this question by focusing on character rather than social status or accomplishments. Verse 4 focuses our attention to our inner motives. The language is “clean/innocent hands and a pure heart.” Heart is the intellectual and decision making center of a person. In other words, God’s people are to be whole persons whose inner motivations are in line with the mission and will of God. This proper alignment of our intentions with God’s will then flows into our actions that we take with our hands, feet, and mouths. The key to living from a purity of heart is trust. In our world, there are gods screaming out for our devotion and trust: wealth, security, sex, family, and status are a few examples. Those who turn from these little gods to trust fully in Jesus and walk faithfully in following his way will find their way to the gathering of them that await the victorious LORD.

Verses 7–10 narrate the arrival of the victorious king of the world. In each these verses, God bears the title “the King of glory.” This is a statement of God’s awesomeness or incomparability. There is no one like the LORD. The King of glory is the LORD Almighty. As Christians, we read this psalm as a celebration of the crucified and rise Lord Jesus. Paul writes in Philippians 2:10-11” at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord….” The LORD Jesus has secured our future and our world. We give him our worship and adoration as we await his return to usher in the New Creation.

How does Psalm 24 provide a foundation for true security?

What is the link between character and worship in Psalm 24?

What is the basis for worshiping the LORD?

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Giving Thanks for God's Deliverance of the Messiah: Learning to Pray Psalm 18 (Part 3)

This is the final post on Psalm 18. Read Part one (18:1-6) and Part two (18:7-19).
Let us hear the rest of the psalmist's prayer:

20 The Lord has dealt with me according to my righteousness;
    according to the cleanness of my hands he has rewarded me.
21 For I have kept the ways of the Lord;
    I am not guilty of turning from my God.
22 All his laws are before me;
    I have not turned away from his decrees.
23 I have been blameless before him
    and have kept myself from sin.
24 The Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness,
    according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.
25 To the faithful you show yourself faithful,
    to the blameless you show yourself blameless,
26 to the pure you show yourself pure,
    but to the devious you show yourself shrewd.
27 You save the humble
    but bring low those whose eyes are haughty.
28 You, Lord, keep my lamp burning;
    my God turns my darkness into light.
29 With your help I can advance against a troop;
    with my God I can scale a wall.
30 As for God, his way is perfect:
    The Lord’s word is flawless;
    he shields all who take refuge in him.
31 For who is God besides the Lord?
    And who is the Rock except our God?
32 It is God who arms me with strength
    and keeps my way secure.
33 He makes my feet like the feet of a deer;
    he causes me to stand on the heights.
34 He trains my hands for battle;
    my arms can bend a bow of bronze.
35 You make your saving help my shield,
    and your right hand sustains me;
    your help has made me great.
36 You provide a broad path for my feet,
    so that my ankles do not give way.
37 I pursued my enemies and overtook them;
    I did not turn back till they were destroyed.
38 I crushed them so that they could not rise;
    they fell beneath my feet.
39 You armed me with strength for battle;
    you humbled my adversaries before me.
40 You made my enemies turn their backs in flight,
    and I destroyed my foes.
41 They cried for help, but there was no one to save them—
    to the Lord, but he did not answer.
42 I beat them as fine as windblown dust;
    I trampled them like mud in the streets.
43 You have delivered me from the attacks of the people;
    you have made me the head of nations.
People I did not know now serve me,
44     foreigners cower before me;
    as soon as they hear of me, they obey me.
45 They all lose heart;
    they come trembling from their strongholds.
46 The Lord lives! Praise be to my Rock!
    Exalted be God my Savior!
47 He is the God who avenges me,
    who subdues nations under me,
48     who saves me from my enemies.
You exalted me above my foes;
    from a violent man you rescued me.
49 Therefore I will praise you, Lord, among the nations;
    I will sing the praises of your name.
50 He gives his king great victories;
    he shows unfailing love to his anointed,
    to David and to his descendants forever.

In verses 25–45 the psalmist returns to his report of the victory that God won on his behalf. There is a mix of praise for the LORD and narrative about the salvation of the psalmist. Unlike verses 7–19, the language of vv. 25–45 focuses on the psalmist’s experience rather than on the creational imagery that the psalmist had used to cast God’s actions into cosmic focus.

How does the psalmist describe his experience of salvation? 

First, in vv. 25–27 he recognizes that God does indeed save those who are faithful and \ depend fully on God to make it through the world. Those who are deviant or arrogant will not be able to stand at the end of the day.

Second, God is the source of the psalmist’s strength (vv. 28–32). God empowers the psalmist with the strength and energy to complete the mission of God. This is important. God will deliver us, but as we struggle through the challenges, God will sustain us. As Paul will write centuries later to the Corinthians about God’s empowerment in times of weakness, “My grace is sufficient” (2 Cor 12:9).

Third, the messiah is able to win an extraordinary victory because of the power and loyalty of the LORD (vv. 33–45). As you read these lines, they are militaristic and contain violent images. It is vital to recognize that it is the LORD who wins the victory. The king is merely the agent through whom God acts. These words do not justify violent acts by us or by any person of faith. They assume that the LORD’s messiah is under heavy assault from the enemies of God. In the ancient world, Israel was a tiny and insignificant nation from a military perspective. If it was successful in war, it was only because of God’s protection and not because of their own power or the superiority of their weapons and tactics. Most importantly, it is vital to remember that this psalm finds its most poignant fulfillment in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. In Jesus, God won his salvation securing victory by refusing to counter human power with any power other than love. Jesus conquered the grave because God raised his dead body from the grave to demonstrate true power and victory.

Psalm 18 reaches its climax in vv. 46–50 with a final flurry of praise. Again the language is extravagant and audacious. Review the opening three verses and observe the similarities of the praise at the beginning and end of the psalm. The messiah models the mission of God. He praises God for his powerful acts of salvation. He is grateful for the deliverance that he’s experienced. V. 49 also keeps God’s mission to bless the nations in view. Yes, God has rescued his messiah from the hand of enemies, but this deliverance shifts to be a word of witness to the world including those who had acted against the king. The LORD is for God’s people, but this is so that God’s people can serve as his hands, feet, and mouthpieces for the world that does not yet know and sing God’s praises.

How do verses 25–50 teach us praise God?

What is the connection between salvation and mission?

Who in your life needs to hear your testimony of what God has done in your life?

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Giving Thanks for God's Deliverance of the Messiah: Learning to Pray Ps 18 (Part two)

 Yesterday, we examined Psalm 18:1-6. Now we move to the middle portion of the psalm. In verses 7–19, the psalmist uses creational and mythic imagery to describe the victory of God. This part of the psalm helps us to understand the victory that God manifested for the messiah was a cosmic and world shaping action. It was not merely about rescue of the messiah. God actions secured the very creation and future for the messiah and for the people of God.

This section of the psalm is difficult to understand because it uses language that belongs to the ancient world and its belief system. When the ancients talked about creation, their focus was not on the beginnings of the universe (this is a modern conversation) but on how the gods fought for supremacy and secured the earth against the forces that threated the destruction of the world. In this part of the psalm, the psalmist, God’s messiah, is giving thanks to the LORD for saving him. The LORD has the power to save because the LORD is the Creator of the cosmos. 

The earth trembled and quaked,
    and the foundations of the mountains shook;
    they trembled because he was angry.
Smoke rose from his nostrils;
    consuming fire came from his mouth,
    burning coals blazed out of it.
He parted the heavens and came down;
    dark clouds were under his feet.
10 He mounted the cherubim and flew;
    he soared on the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him—
    the dark rain clouds of the sky.
12 Out of the brightness of his presence clouds advanced,
    with hailstones and bolts of lightning.
13 The Lord thundered from heaven;
    the voice of the Most High resounded.
14 He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy,
    with great bolts of lightning he routed them.
15 The valleys of the sea were exposed
    and the foundations of the earth laid bare
at your rebuke, Lord,
    at the blast of breath from your nostrils.

16 He reached down from on high and took hold of me;
    he drew me out of deep waters.
17 He rescued me from my powerful enemy,
    from my foes, who were too strong for me.
18 They confronted me in the day of my disaster,
    but the Lord was my support.
19 He brought me out into a spacious place;
    he rescued me because he delighted in me.

Verse 7 picks some of the most awe-inspiring parts of nature: the earth itself and the foundations of the highest mountains. We feel puny in comparision to these. Yet they trembled, quaked, and shook before the LORD due to God’s anger at the injustice experienced by God’s messiah.

The LORD’s anger in verses 7–14 is described in terms of a raging story. This is the language of creation. God’s messiah is trapped by the waters of chaos and death (vv. 4–5). The LORD roars out of heaven in the form of a thunderstorm. All creation quakes as God approaches with lightning, thunder, and hail. The LORD is so powerful that he uses the most fearsome parts of Creation as a tool to bring about the deliverance of the King.

As we saw in vv. 4–5, the waters of chaos and death had pulled the king under. He was trapped and helpless. The future looked bleak. God’s mission seemed lost. But the LORD of Creation cannot be defeated by any power no matter how insurrmountable it may be to mere humans. This psalm reminds us that there is nothing in our lives beyond the capacity of God to redeem. Vv. 15–19 detail the LORD’s salvation of the messiah. Just as God delivered God’s people from Egypt by splitting the Red Sea and guiding God’s people to safefy, the LORD exposed the foundations of the world and the depths of the waters of death and chaos (vv. 15–16 cf. Exod 15:8). The LORD rescued the Messiah and restored him to abundance.

After telling the story of God’s dramatic and cosmic deliverance, the Messiah declares his life of faithfulness as a model to be followed. The Messiah practiced justice and obedience to the LORD. He was faithful to act rightly in all of his relationships (this is the meaning of “righteousness”). Jesus fulfilled this role perfectly as long-awaited Messaih. Through his faithfulness, God accomplished his victory over injustice, sin, and death. But there is more here. Stay tuned.

How does Psalm 18 help us understand the power of the LORD to save?

How does Psalm 18 connect the Messiah’s righteousness with the salvation of the LORD?

What challenges in your life seem overwhelming? How do the words of Ps 18 bring you comfort?

Monday, September 21, 2015

Giving Thanks for God's Deliverance of the Messiah: Learning to Pray Ps 18 (Part 1)

Psalm 18 is the third longest psalm after Pss 78 and 119. Psalm 18 focuses on the victory that God gives to Israel’s king. Like Psalm 2, it is a royal psalm. This means that it was originally written as a psalm for use in the celebration of David or one of his descendants. Royal psalms offer a tangible this worldly focus for the security that God’s people desire as they seek to walk faithfully through the world. From our previous reading of Ps 2 and Ps 146, we know that the book of Psalms makes two related moves regarding human kingship.

First, the book of Psalms was organized for worship after Israel’s exile to Babylon and return to the land. Historically, this meant that Israel did not have its own king. Post-exile, the Persians, Greeks, and Romans ruled over God’s people from 538 BC onwards. The only exception was the brief period following the Maccabean revolt (142 BC–63 BC) where God’s people enjoyed self–rule. Thus, when Israel prayed and sang the royal psalms, they were asking the LORD to restore the Davidic king. These psalms served as longings for the coming of God’s messiah who would renew God’s kingdom and guide God’s people in faithfulness.

Second, the psalms offered a critique of human leadership. We saw in our reading of Psalm 146 that it warned against trusting in any human leader. The LORD was the true king.

As Christians, these two elements—a longing for the messiah and distrust of human leaders— found a powerful resolution in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. Jesus is the long–awaited son of David, and he is also God. Thus, as followers of Jesus, we read Israel’s royal psalms as prayers and praises to God for the victory over sin, injustice, oppression, and evil that he offers to all who trust and follow Jesus.

In verses 1–19, the king gives thanks to the LORD for leading him to victory. We’ll focus on vv. 1–6 for today’s lesson.

I love you, Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;
    my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge,
    my shield[b] and the horn[c] of my salvation, my stronghold.
I called to the Lord, who is worthy of praise,
    and I have been saved from my enemies.
The cords of death entangled me;
    the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me.
The cords of the grave coiled around me;
    the snares of death confronted me.
In my distress I called to the Lord;
    I cried to my God for help.
From his temple he heard my voice;
    my cry came before him, into his ears.

Verses 1–3 praise the LORD with rich and dynamic language. These lines have inspired countless hymns and contemporary praise songs that God’s people use to this day. The previous two psalms (Pss 16–17) focused on God as a refuge. These verses give us words to describe what this means. The LORD is a rock, a fortress, a shield, a deliverer, and the horn of salvation. The LORD is worthy to be praised because the psalmist has experienced the power of God’s salvation. This is not a lament; this is the testimony of answered prayer. The LORD is a refuge because he is the God who saves.

Vv. 4–6 describe the psalmist’s previous condition as truly desperate. He was trapped in death. The waters of the underworld ensnarred him. When we think of this psalm as ultimately a praise for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we can read vv. 1–6 as a declaration of the victory that the LORD rendered through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus died on the cross, but God vindicated him by raising him triumphantly from the grave. This is the true ground for our security.

How do the opening six verses teach us to give thanks and praise to the LORD?

What are some areas in your life for which you can give thanks to God today?

How does this psalm help us to praise God for the death and resurrection of Jesus?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Help LORD, I'm Innocent Yet Suffering: Learning to Pray Psalm 17

Living faithfully and practicing justice does not guarantee an easy pathway through life. Psalm 17 is a prayer for those times when we’ve done the right thing and still find ourselves neck deep in trouble. The psalmist pleas for help from the LORD by stating his innocence (vv. 1–5), appealing for God to act (vv. 6–12), and making a final request for vindication (vv. 13–15).

Hear me, Lord, my plea is just;
    listen to my cry.
Hear my prayer—
    it does not rise from deceitful lips.
Let my vindication come from you;
    may your eyes see what is right.
Though you probe my heart,
    though you examine me at night and test me,
you will find that I have planned no evil;
    my mouth has not transgressed.
Though people tried to bribe me,
    I have kept myself from the ways of the violent
    through what your lips have commanded.
My steps have held to your paths;
    my feet have not stumbled.
I call on you, my God, for you will answer me;
    turn your ear to me and hear my prayer.
Show me the wonders of your great love,
    you who save by your right hand
    those who take refuge in you from their foes.
Keep me as the apple of your eye;
    hide me in the shadow of your wings
from the wicked who are out to destroy me,
    from my mortal enemies who surround me.
10 They close up their callous hearts,
    and their mouths speak with arrogance.
11 They have tracked me down, they now surround me,
    with eyes alert, to throw me to the ground.
12 They are like a lion hungry for prey,
    like a fierce lion crouching in cover.
13 Rise up, Lord, confront them, bring them down;
    with your sword rescue me from the wicked.
14 By your hand save me from such people, Lord,
    from those of this world whose reward is in this life.
May what you have stored up for the wicked fill their bellies;
    may their children gorge themselves on it,
    and may there be leftovers for their little ones.
15 As for me, I will be vindicated and will see your face;
    when I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness. (NIV)

The psalmist is adamant about his innocence and need for God’s help in v. 1. The psalmist is bold in his language. We often hesitate to put forward our own innocence, but the psalmist has no qualms. He knows that he has acted justly and rightly; he also believes that he is being treated unjustly. In verses 2–5, he invites the LORD to examine his life and then make the bad situation right for him. The psalmist denies that he has intended or planned any evil. He’s avoided talk or speech that injured others. He refused to take bribes. Instead, the psalmist has walked in God’s ways. He has kept the LORD’s commandments. Recall the words of Psalm 1 and its exhortation to avoid evil through a steady and consistent diet of the LORD’s instruction. The psalmist has done this.

In the psalmist’s mind, there is only one obvious outcome: God must act. As we work through this text, allow God to show you your own heart. What kind of a person do you need to become to pray this kind of prayer with integrity?

Having demonstrated his innocence, the psalmist makes specific appeals to the LORD to act (vv. 6–12). He repeats his opening call for God to listen (v. 6). Then the psalmist asks God to put his wondrous steadfast and loyal love into action (v. 7). Love is a core attribute of the LORD (Exod 34:6). This love is directly at the heart of the relationship between the LORD and his people. It is a loyal and faithful commitment. The psalmist appeals to God’s love because the psalmist steadfastly believes that he has held up his end of the relationship. The psalmist is desperate for God to use his saving powers to protect him from the enemies who afflict him.   

In verse 8, we discover that the psalmist is either in the temple or visualizing it. To hide in the “shadow of your wings” is temple image of a pray-er bowing before the wings of the golden cherubim who sit on the edges of the ark of the covenant in the holiest part of the temple. The glory of the LORD dwelled between them. In other words, the psalmist seeks refuge in the presence of God. Only God can save the psalmist due to the overwhelming danger of the psalmist’s foes (vv. 9–12).

The psalmist ends his prayer with a final plea for help (vv. 13–14) and a statement of trust and belief that God will indeed answer him.

How does Psalm 17 challenge you to live so that you may be able to assert your blamelessness as the psalmist does in Ps 17?

What practices do you keep that help you to live a life of faithfulness?

Monday, September 14, 2015

Longing for Security in the Midst of Insecurity: Learning to Pray Psalm 16

We long for security. It’s part of our humanity. God created us to live in harmony with our Creator, with creation, and with one another (Genesis 1–2). But human sin and disobedience has disrupted God’s creation and sin manifests itself in broken relationships, violence, greed, and injustice. All of these lead to insecurity in our world. News organizations report a constant flow of natural disasters, financial crises, and conflicts.  Yet in the midst of this, as God’s people, we seek to represent hope and serve as agents of blessing for the sake of God’s mission to the nations. Psalm 16 helps us to pray when we experience insecurity. Its words are important as they remind God’s people that true security is found only in the LORD. Others may promise it, but only the LORD delivers.

Psalm 16 divides into two parts: vv. 1–6 and vv. 7–11. Part one opens with a plea and a commitment. The psalmist exclaims his desire to take refuge in the LORD and asks God to provide security.
Verses 2–6 put flesh to the pslamist vow of commitment. The psalmist is not hedging his bet by pursuing simulataneously multiple security options. This is often our tactic in the modern world. We opt for God and [fill in the blank] as the key to making it through the world. For the psalmist, the LORD is the only lord and only source of true goodness (v. 2). In other words, the psalmist is “all in” in terms of commitment. 

In verses 3–6 the psalmist describes his commitment to God as his lord by aligning himself with God’s people (v. 3), proclaiming the futility of trusting in other gods (v. 4), and the already experienced blessing of his relationship with the LORD (vv. 5–6).

The second half of the psalm turns to praise. These verses contain some of the most hopeful and confident statement in the psalter. Verses 7–9 speak of the psalmist’s intention to worship and sing praises to the LORD. The psalmist does this continually and remains in a vital moment–by–moment walk. This is the source of the psalmist’s security. He does not merely turn to God when he encounters trouble. He remains in communion with God and listens attentively.

Peter quotes verses 8–11 during his sermon on the Day of Pentecost as an Old Testament witness to Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 2:25–28). The psalmist’s confidence in God runs so deep that he lives in the security that even death will not prevail over God’s ability to sustain him. This is a faith that we ought to desire for ourselves. The psalmist has his mind made up and has aligned himself fully with the LORD for now and all eternity. This provides him with the strength, hope, and witness to live a life of passionate praise and faithfulness before a watching world. Do you have this security in your life?

How would you live differently if you had the confidence of the psalmist?

What challenges in your life bring you insecurity?

How does this psalm teach you to abide in the LORD’s security?

Thursday, September 10, 2015

What Kind of Person Do I need to Become to Abide in the LORD?: Learning to Pray Psalm 15

In the previous blog posts,  we’ve explore two psalms of trust (Pss 11 and 14) and two laments (Pss 12–13). All four psalms explored the struggle of living for the LORD in a world that does not acknowledge God’s kingdom. God’s people can face oppression and injustice by persons who live by their own rules rather than embodying justice and righteousness.

These psalms testify to an unwavering trust in the LORD. Despite hardships, these prayers witness to a dogged and rich faith that can guide us on our journey as God’s missional people. Yet there is a subtle temptation when the wicked appear to prevail in the present. The temptation is lower our standards, maybe just a little, to perhaps lessen the cost of a life of faithfulness. Enter Psalm 15. Psalm 15 instructs God’s people in the habits of those committed to holy living in an unholy world.
Psalm 15 served originally as a liturgy for entering into the temple in Jerusalem. It connects love for God with love for neighbor. If the journey of faith ends in the praise and adoration of the LORD and his victory (Pss 146–150), this psalm reminds us of the importance of personal holiness and character as we live in anticipation of God’s future abundance.

Psalm 15 unpacks as a general question (verse 1) followed by a detailed answer (verses 2–5b). Verse 5b concludes with powerful promise.

Verse 1 opens the psalm by asking the LORD for the characteristics of a person who may enter into God’s presence. Psalm 15 does not set admissions requirements for a relationship with God. It is describing the lifestyle of a person who have received God’s grace. Psalm 15 invites us to answer a similar question today: What kind of person do I need to become in light of the grace and kindness that I’ve received from God in Jesus Christ?

The LORD’s answer to this question may seem surprising as it lacks any religious acts. For example, there are no references to sabbath or sacrifices. Instead, verses 2–5a focus on how we relate and treat others. In other words, it suggests that our love for God must manifest in our relationships with all people and especially with God’s people. Observe that there are ten lines of instruction in these verses. This is intentional. Just as there are Ten Commandments from Sinai (Exod 20:2–17 cf. Deut 5:6–21), Psalm 15 offers ten lines of ethical instruction to guide the godly in their walk with the

These verses focus on practicing faithfulness in our relationships with others. This is the meaning of a blameless walk and right action. This involves speaking truthfully and not using our speech to injure others (2b–3). The holy life also means honoring God’s people rather than giving special privileges to those who reject God (4a). People also honor God by keeping their word (4b). The blameless life also is exemplified by blessing the poor with no interest loans and refusing bribes against someone who is innocent. Note that some of these practices may be costly in terms of money, loss of prestige in the eyes of the world, or crossing someone powerful.

God calls us to live this way counter-culturally as an abiding witness to God’s mission and kingdom. Verse 5b promises that faithfulness has its reward: security for all eternity.

What kind of person does this psalm invite you to become?

What is the most difficult challenging part of this psalm for you to live out?

What role does faithful service to your neighbors and to the poor play in your life as a follower of Jesus?

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

What about the fool?: Learning to Pray Psalm 14

Psalm 14 is a powerful testimony to the chaos of our world when the LORD is not at the center of humanity’s intentions. The core of Israel’s ethic is the love of God and neighbor. God transforms God’s people to embody this love in community for the sake of that surrounding nations and for the glory of the LORD.

The fool says in his heart,
    “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, their deeds are vile;
    there is no one who does good.

The Lord looks down from heaven
    on all mankind
to see if there are any who understand,
    any who seek God.
All have turned away, all have become corrupt;
    there is no one who does good,
    not even one.

Do all these evildoers know nothing?
They devour my people as though eating bread;
    they never call on the Lord.
But there they are, overwhelmed with dread,
    for God is present in the company of the righteous.
You evildoers frustrate the plans of the poor,
    but the Lord is their refuge.

Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion!
    When the Lord restores his people,
    let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad!

Scripture intimately links love for God and neighbor. One cannot love God and practice injustice to others. Justice and love for humanity and creation flows out of our love for the LORD. This reality is the problem presented in Psalm 14. It opens memorably, “The fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God’” (v. 1). In the Bible, the fool is the opposite of a wise person who trusts God and walks in God’s ways. The fool in Psalm 14 is not an atheist. To say, “there is no God” is a denial that the LORD acts in our world or cares about how we live. The focus is on the motives and intention of the fool. The fool’s motivation arises from his heart or will. The fool by acting as if there is no God active in the puts his own cares, desires, and wants above God’s vision of justice. Thus, the psalmist summarizes his life as one who is vile and not able to act for the good.

Verses 2–6 describe the LORD’s response to those who live their lives as if God is incapable or unwilling to act. Verses 2–4 summarize the general lostness of humanity apart from the ways of the LORD. These verses paint a pessimistic but important portrait of our world apart from God’s grace. We do not have to look far to see the brokeness and pain that human decisions cause. The apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans (3:10–12) quotes from Ps 14:2–3 in his argument that culminates in the declaration, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,…”.

In the midst of this, it is important to note that the LORD is seeking persons who will turn to him (v. 2b). God desires to see justice and abundance prevail over all the earth. Verse 4a suggests that the choice of evil is irrational. How can humanity not know the living God? God seems surprised. Why choose to act in ways contrary to the beautiful designs that God has for his world and people?

Yet, much of humanity does choose to live in opposition to God’s reign. Verses 4b–6 describe this in terms of the foolish and wicked oppressing God’s people. Here God’s people find themselves among the poor and marginalized. However, Psalm 14 affirms that God is with the marginalized and serves as their protector and refuge.

Verse 7 proclaims the LORD’s salvation. The psalmist in a statement of trust calls for God’s people to rejoice in anticipation of the LORD’s full restoration of justice and righteousness.

What does it mean to be a fool according to this psalm?

How does Psalm 14 teach us to trust God more deeply?

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Has the LORD Forgotten Me?: Learning to Pray Psalm 13

Psalm 13 serves as a model lament in terms of its directness and simplicity. It’s six verses divide neatly into three parts: vv. 1–2 complaint, vv. 3–4 petition, and vv. 5–6 statement of faith. Psalm 13 is the prayer of an individual who desperately needs God to act.

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

But I trust in your unfailing love;
    my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
    for he has been good to me.

In verses 1–2, the question “How long?” repeats four times. This heightens the desperation of the psalmist’s prayer and emphasizes his dire need for the LORD to act. It is clear that the psalmist is suffering deep anguish due to a perceived separation from God and an unspecified action by an enemy.     

Our psalm assumes a deep relationship between the psalmist and the LORD. The psalmist does not understand the absence of God when he needs him the most. How can the God whom he serves faithfully not show up? Sometimes the very faith that we profess can make a difficult trial worse because we can suffer a crisis of faith in addition to having to deal with the trauma of the moment. The psalmist aches internally in the silence of God’s inaction while also feeling humiliated at the hands of his enemy.

What do we do in such situations? The temptation may be to change course and seek help in another person or philosophy. But not the psalmist. Instead, the psalmist turns up the volume of his prayer.

Vv. 3–4 puts all of the psalmist’s future hope in the hands of the LORD. Hardships and trials challenge our faith. They cut through our shallow sayings and call us to a renewed and vigorous faith. The psalmist lays out his situation and calls the LORD to act. He addresses God as “O LORD my God.” He may feel as though God is not paying attention to him or that God has withdrawn favor, but the LORD remains his God. He prays in light of this relational certainty. Notice that verses 3–4 contain the same core issues of complaint from vv. 1–2: the perceived absence of God and the threat of an external enemy. The psalmist directly addresses both. He needs God to act in the present or he will die and his adversary will gloat in victory.

The tone of the psalm changes dramatically for vv. 5–6. The psalmist has shared his heart. His needs and frustrations are in the open. Now the psalmist is ready to live again. We don’t know the final outcome of the prayers, but the psalmist moves forward in renewed hope and purpose. Verse 5 affirms the psalmist’s faith. He prays emphatically: I trust in God’s steadfast/loyal love and rejoice in God’s ability to deliver. Come what may I will live in this truth. Verse six closes the prayer with a vow. The psalmist anticipates God’s answer and affirms his intention to sing to the LORD for the good outcome that the psalmist will enjoy.

How does this psalm teach us to pray when it seems as though God is not listening to us?

What can we learn about faith in the face of adversity from this psalm?