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Sing with Understanding

“God is King over all of the earth; sing a maskil!”

(Psalm 47:8 {verse 7 in English Translations})

 

Once more, to drive the great Truth home, the psalmist proclaims that God is indeed the sovereign king over all of his creation — and he indeed is not done doing so! Surely it is true that we need to be reminded of this great truth regularly for though our words don’t betray or disbelief; our actions regularly betray that we do not believe this to be true. We act as if we are our own masters and kings, yet God is king and sovereign over all he has made.

There is something curious about the way some translations handle the final word of the psalm. The last term is the Hebrew word lyI…kVcAm (maskiyl). The term itself appears 13 times in the superscripts of the psalms identifying the type of song that a given psalm happens to be. In each of these cases, the term is usually left untranslated. This verse contains the 14th use of the term in the Hebrew Bible, yet here, most of our English Bibles seem to translate it in some way, whether it be rendered “a song of praise” or “sing with understanding,” it is being rendered in a way that it is never rendered any of the other times it is found in the Bible, which seems odd to me — hence here, as in the superscripts, I have left the term untranslated.

Leaving it untranslated, though, does not mean that the term does not communicate any valuable information. It is believed that lyI…kVcAm (maskiyl) is derived from the term lAkDc (sakal), which refers to having insight or understanding in a particular area. Arguably, one could state that these psalms labeled as Maskils are psalms of understanding or Truth (of course, that term can apply to all of the psalms) — and note, that this particular psalm is not listed as a maskil, it is only commanding us to sing a maskil.

I am afraid that one of the things that we have lost in our culture is a deep understanding for theology and for the theology of our hymns. While I do enjoy praise music and we incorporate it into our worship services, there is no question that the lyrics, while not necessarily bad, don’t teach a great deal of theology. Granted, it is true that many of our traditional hymns don’t teach us much either, but that statement cannot be consistently made across the spectrum of our hymnody — much of which is deep in the meaning it contains. In any case, many western believers have fallen into the trap of singing words without reflecting what it is that they are saying — often singing things that are entirely contrary to the way they live:

“I love to tell the story of Jesus and his love…”

“I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold…”

“Take my life and let it be, consecrated Lord to Thee…”

“Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus, just to take him at his word…”

“Righteousness, Righteousness, is what I long for…”

And the list goes on…

My point is not to condemn singing or the songs we sing…not for a moment! My point is that we fail to pay close attention to what it is that we are singing and we fail even more to attend our lives to living out the words of the songs we sing. If we sing words without understanding, is that of any value to us or interest to God? Loved ones, may we take the command of the psalmist to heart and indeed sing songs with our understanding as well as with our voices.

Knowledge Without Understanding

It seems that we have an addiction to knowledge without an interest in understanding. We go to conferences and seminars but we return home and little ever changes. In the church, we hear sermon after sermon exhorting us to live this way or do that and, like a fad diet, we might try out a few suggestions for a day or two and then let it go by the wayside. We have become junkies for academic degrees but tend to divorce what we are learning from life. Game shows glamorize those who have memorized endless strings of facts with absolutely no emphasis placed on being able to apply or to interpret those facts in a way meaningful to life. As the early church father, Tertullian, lamented, “What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?” Or perhaps, to put it in today’s vernacular: “What does real life have to do with book learning?”

In the world of Artificial Intelligence, there is a running debate over the question as to whether it is possible for a computer to “think.” In other words, can a computer ever be designed and built in such a way that it will be able to use inductive logic and make inferences based on new situations. Though the science-fiction community has been toying with the idea of thinking robots for quite some time, science-realty has not been able to produce such a machine. The simple reason is because no matter how fast or sophisticated the computer processor or the algorithms that make up the software, a computer is little more than a processor of information.

The Philosopher, John Searle, developed a useful analogy to help understand the limitations of computers. He described a man placed in a room that contained nothing but two books written in Chinese. There was also a slot where pages could be put in and a slot where pages could be sent back out. Imagine, he continued, that a man were put into the room that had never studied or even heard the Chinese language. The process would look something like this. A page of paper would be put in through the first slot that contained Chinese characters. The person in the room would then compare the characters on the paper to the characters in the first book. When he found the matching character, that book sent him to a page in the second book and then the man would write down the characters he found in the second book on a page of paper and send it back out the second slot.

Over time, one might expect that the man in the Chinese room would become proficient at his task and thus become both very swift and very accurate in his writing of the symbols. In fact, the man might become so proficient that he would no longer need to use the books as references. Yet, at no point will the man ever learn Chinese. The symbols themselves only carry meaning in terms of which symbol he is to write and not with the thing or idea that the symbol represents. And essentially, a computer chip is little more than a man in a Chinese box (just much smaller!).

Yet, as computer engineers seek to develop a computer that “thinks” more like a human thinks, humans are becoming conditioned to think more like computers…essentially as repositories of vast quantities of information but never applying that information to life. We gorge ourselves on information, but never slow down and reflect enough to incorporate all of the data we ingest into a unified system of thought and life.

The reality is that technology surrounds us and has become a part of our daily lives. While we can control our obsession with information, we cannot step away from the reality that information is a part of the DNA of our times. What we can do, though, is to better filter that information through a mature and unified worldview…one based upon the Scriptures of the Bible. All the while, always discerning how new ideas fit into the whole. If ideas are consistent with the fabric of the Bible then they should naturally fit into ones system of though; if not, it should be held in suspect while seeking to understand the Biblical ramifications of the new view. Is it corrective or destructive to the whole system? The one direction that we cannot afford to go, though, is the direction we are traveling…that of holding many contradictory ideas in tension, never unifying them in a system, but affirming any bit of information as equally valid and considering that knowledge of many things is more valuable than the understanding that comes from being able to apply those things to the whole.

Love God with All (Mark 12:30)

“And you will love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and with all of your life, and with all of your understanding, and with all of your strength.”

(Mark 12:30)

 

Jesus continues the passage with an explanation of what it means to be committed to God as Wnyheloa/ (Elohinu), or “our God.”  And Jesus says that the way we live this out is by fully committing ourselves to God’s adoration and service.  The first section of this passage is a direct quote of the LXX, the Greek Translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, yet, it would seem, at the initial onset, that Jesus has added to the text as we move to the latter half of what Jesus is teaching, but we will address that as we get to that section.

Jesus begins with the command from Deuteronomy 6:5 to love the Lord our God with all of our heart.  In the modern, Greek, mindset (remembering that our way of thinking is predominantly influenced by Greek thought, not Hebrew thought), the heart is the seat of the emotions or passions.  Thus, when many of us read this line initially, we immediately assume Jesus to be commanding us to love Yahweh with all of our passion.  While Jesus certainly does command us to love Yahweh with our passions, that is not what he means by heart.  In the Hebrew mindset, the heart was the seat of one’s personality and reason.  If a Hebrew person wanted to speak of one’s passions alone, he would talk about something as being from our bowels (I can’t figure out why Hallmark hasn’t picked up on that idea—I can just see the Valentine’s Day cards now; I love you with all of my bowels, dear…).  Thus, the command that is being given is that everything that makes you a reasoning human being—the whole of your personality, if you will—is to be dedicated to the love of God.  This would include, then, not only your reason and intellect, but also those little quirks that make you who you are.  Beloved, have you ever considered the fact that you are to love God with your idiosyncrasies?   They are part of your very makeup, thus, they are designed to be used by you to the glory of God!

Jesus continues with the command that we are to love God with all of our life.  This is the Greek term yuch/ (psuche), which is the word from which our English word “psyche” comes.  Many of our English translations will translate this word as “soul,” but I have opted to translate this as “life” out of deference to the Hebrew word that yuch/ (psuche) is being used to translate in this case.  The Hebrew term is the word vp,n< (nephesh), which refers to all that which gives life to and animates the body.  It is variously translated as life, breath, and even soul, but it is distinct from the word x;Wr (ruach), which means “spirit.”  In modern English, we don’t normally distinguish between the idea of a soul and of a spirit, so to preserve the Hebrew distinction, I have opted to translate this as life.  In Hebrew, the spirit is understood much in the same way as we understand a spirit today, but the soul was intimately bound to giving your physical body life, and hence our translation.  Thus, the idea being communicated in this first half of Jesus’ statement is not a dichotomy between the passions of man and the soul of man, but a united image of how we are to love God with our personality and with all that gives us life and breath in this world.  We are to be wholly committed to Yahweh, our God.

Now, as we look back to Deuteronomy 6:5, from which Jesus is quoting, we find a peculiar difference.  The Hebrew concludes with a third command, that we are to love God with all of our daom. (meod), or, literally, all of our “veriness.”  The idea expressed, by making the adverb “very” into a noun, is that of applying all of your abundance, all of your blessings, and all of the external things that God has put into your life toward the worship of God.  All of the rich blessings that have come to you in this world, as they have come from God, are to be used and applied toward the love of God.  That raises an important question for all of us—how are we using those blessings?  How do we use our vacation time; how do we use our savings; how do we use the finances that we have been afforded; and how do we use the retirements that God has given to us?  Beloved, we are often guilty of applying these things—these things that make up our “veriness”—toward our own ends and not for the love of God.  How we need to regularly look at our lives and see just how we are using the blessings that God has afforded us.

Yet, Jesus does not use this language, nor is he quoting from the Greek LXX, which reads, all of our du/namiß (dunamis)—or might (dunamis is the word from which we get the English word, “dynamite”).  Instead, Jesus breaks this final command into two separate parts: dia/noia (dianoia) or understanding and ijscuß (ischus) or strength.  My initial response was that maybe Jesus was breaking up the language of vp,n< (nephesh), or life, as yuch/ (psuche) and dia/noia (dianoia) and replacing du/namiß (dunamis) with ijscuß (ischus).  Thus, the idea of life would be expressed by both life and mind or soul and mind and power would be changed to reflect the idea of strength.  The problem with this interpretation is two-fold.  First of all, it seems odd that Jesus would add the word dia/noia (dianoia) to yuch/ (psuche) when yuch/ (psuche) is a direct quote of the Greek LXX.  Secondly, given that Matthew does not record Jesus as saying ijscuß (ischus) at all, but ends with dia/noia (dianoia).  Matthew, being a good Jew, would have been intimately familiar with the text and importance of Deuteronomy 6:5 and it would have been very unlikely that he would neglect to record an element therein.

That leads us with one other reasonable alterative, and that is to understand Jesus as expanding on the idea of our loving God with all of our daom. (meod), or veriness.  Instead of using the LXX translation, then, we see Jesus giving his own translation of daom. (meod) into Greek by using two terms: dia/noia (dianoia) and ijscuß (ischus).  In other words, Jesus is saying that for us to worship God with all of our abundance, or veriness, requires us to do so with our mental capacity, or dia/noia (dianoia), and our physical capacity, or ijscuß (ischus).  In other words, all of the energy we might expend, to accomplish all that we do in this life, we are called upon to use to love God.  We are to think about God, reason about God, meditate about God, and then the work of our hands—as mighty as that work may be, must too be done for the glory and love of God.  Indeed, this translation would capture the idea of the abundance that God has given us (as that abundance so often comes through the labors of our hands and/or our minds).

Thus, Jesus, in quoting Moses here, leaves no stone unturned when being asked the question of how we are to express our love and adoration for God on high—every inch of our life is to be devoted to God’s glory regardless of our career, trade, or background.  Does this mean that all should be preachers and missionaries?  Certainly not!  Yet, this does mean that whatever you do, whether hobby, curiosity, or career, should be done to the glory of God.  Dear friends, I wonder, can we say this about our own lives?  Can we say that the way we have ordered our career or the way we have spent our leisure time is designed to glorify God?  Oh, beloved, how we should look deeply at our hearts, our lives, and our efforts and ask ourselves, “how is God glorified in this.”  And then, when an answer is shown, work diligently to change how we live our days so as to submit ourselves to the challenge of Jesus’ words.  May our lives be lived all for the glory and honor of God alone.

A Proverb in Song: part 15

“Man is in his splendor, yet he does not understand;

he has become the same as beasts which are silenced.”

(Psalm 49:21 {Psalm 49:20 in English Bibles})

 

  The psalmist brings this parable in song to a close with these words.  Man in all his splendor—his creations, his art, his architecture, his music, his culture, etc…–will pass into dust—will be silenced by the grave.  There is no amount of accolades that will ever begin to impress God, nor any praise of men that will mitigate the pains of hell—apart from a relationship with Christ, all is forever lost.  To the believer, this is a truth that we know all too well.  To the unbeliever, this is a riddle.  They cannot understand why God would not simply welcome all kind and good people into his eternal abode, and that is because they do not understand sin and the enmity that sin creates in the heart of man toward a righteous and holy God.  They do not understand that they cannot impress God by their actions, for their actions are corrupt and tainted by sin.  They do not understand that apart from the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit, they are decayed and wretched corpses, hideous in the sight of God.  They do not understand the price paid by Christ to redeem a people to himself and that the only way to the Father is through the Son.  Oh, to them this is a mystery.  How they need to hear parables like this.  Why, beloved, do we stand assured even in the face of adversity?  Because we know to whom we belong, and eternity has a place in it for us that has been reserved since before time began.  A mystery to the unbeliever, perhaps, but to those of us who have been saved—it is the power of God that has given us life!

Like the beasts of the field, in death, the mouths of the pompous will be silenced.  As dirt is piled over their corpse, their souls will be bragging no more, for they will then understand the awful truth which they chose to ignore in this life—Christ is King and judge and as such will crush his enemies and cast them into eternal torment as the just and righteous punishment for their sin.  What a contrast there is indeed!  Eternal glory or eternal agony—there is no middle ground.  Yet, how often do we listen to those who speak to their own doom in terms of God, yet fail to take a stand for the truth?  Beloved, take the advice of this psalmist and share the mystery of salvation with them.  If they reject it, neither of you are any worse off—you have not lost your salvation and they remain on the pathway to damnation.  But if they hear and listen, then you have gained a brother and sister—sit back and watch what God will do in their lives as he breathes new life into them.  What a blessed work we have been given to do—how sad it is that we are seldom zealous to do it.

Beloved, never lose sight of your purpose in life—to glorify God with the aim of enjoying him forever.  The question that I ask you is whether you are enjoying him now?  If God is worth enjoying for eternity, he is worth enjoying now in this life, yet how often do our lifestyles communicate to those around us that we are truly enjoying God.  Many in the world look upon us and see us as gloomy, depressed people, burdened by laws and obligations.  They do not understand that the reason we grieve sin is because it separates us from that which we love the most.  They do not understand that the law is a blessing to us that teaches how we may enjoy our God better.  All they see are long faces and people who often live a life that is inconsistent with what we profess.  They do not see our joy that finds its source in God.  Beloved, I ask you again, if your aim is to enjoy God forever, how does your life communicate to others that you are enjoying him now?  Does your life convey to a watching world that Jesus is sweeter and more precious to you than all of the riches of this world, or does your lifestyle suggest to the world that religion is a burden to be avoided?

I think of my blessed Redeemer,

I think of him all the day long;

I sing, for I cannot be silent;

His love is the theme of my song.

Redeemed, redeemed, redeemed by the blood of the Lamb.

Redeemed through his infinite mercy,

His child, and forever, I am.

-Fanny Crosby