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Judgment, Justification, and a Witness against Us

“Listen to me, my people, and I will speak — Israel, and I will witness against you; I am God, your God.”

(Psalm 50:7)

The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 8:33: “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?” Indeed! Who can do so? Only God himself! And this is exactly what we find God doing here. His people have been disobedient in their actions and with their words and God is bringing them to task within this psalm. In particular, the verses that follow will chastise the people for bringing offerings out of habit and routine rather than out of a desire to offer thanksgiving. Secondly, God will chastise them for using the words of liturgy without submitting to their authority. These things God hates.

How often churches fall into habits and patterns of going through the motions and doing things just because that is the way people always remember doing them (of course, memories are always fallible). How often spiritual disciplines become routine and are not done from a spirit of thanksgiving to our God. How regularly God’s people do not know (or really care to know) the God they profess to worship. How often the people of God read the Scriptures but never apply those scriptures to themselves or seek understanding therein. Woe to the church today, for the condemnation that God brings in this psalm is as applicable to the church today as it was to ancient Israel in the days of David.

And thus God comes in judgment…and he has the right to stand in judgment over his people. Why? Because He is God and he has elected his people for himself. One might ask, if the people were not part of the covenant, would they not be under God’s judgment? The answer is no, for God is the creator of all that is and the standard of all that is good, thus He is the judge of all creation. Further, we don’t get a say in the matter. God has chosen us; we did not choose him. It doesn’t matter what we think we might want, God elected a people for himself from before the foundations of the earth and he will effectively bring his people to himself through his Son, Jesus Christ. And he will do so if he has to bring us to faith kicking and screaming. He is God; He has the right to do so. Praise the Lord that in the process, he changes our hearts so that we can see the wonder and beauty of his Son. Yet, when we rebel against the Covenant that God has graciously brought us into, he stands over us in judgment, which is a frightful thing.

And so, where are we left? As believers we are left with the rest of Romans 8:33. Yes, none but God can bring charges against God’s elect, but Paul also tells us why this is the case. “It is God who justifies.” Because of the completed work of Christ, God declares us to be righteous as to the Law, not because we have done it, but because Jesus has done it on our behalf, redeeming us from our condemnation. Does that mean we can live however we like? No, most certainly not! What it means is that we have been delivered from the morass of sin by the sacrificial and substitutionary work of Jesus and praise be to God, we are called to live like it. 

Our God is a Consuming Fire

“Our God comes; he is not deaf! Fire devours that which is before him. All around him there is a mighty whirlwind.”

(Psalm 50:3)

What you read here are words of power and might — words that are designed to instill awe in us and to inspire us to worship. How often worship is self-centered and based on what God has done for the individual; here, while the individual is in sight, it primarily revolves around the person of our God. And no, this mighty God is not deaf. He hears our prayers and he hears our praises.

Some translations will render this second phrase, “He is not silent,” presumably connecting this with the second clause and not so much with the first. Yet, this psalm is centered around the fact that God hears our prayers and praises and responds accordingly. How much more appropriate then, it is that we have translated it as we find here — no, our God is not deaf, and thus our prayers and praises are important to Him. Indeed, the prayer of a righteous man has great power (James 5:16). Why does it have such power? It is because God hears those prayers.

What follows is a statement about the might of God that would be demonstrated in person years later with the prophet Elijah. There, upon the Mountain, Elijah had the privilege of an encounter with God — yet God was not in the fire or the wind, but in the “still small voice.” Nevertheless, God surrounds himself with works of power as was witnessed by Elijah — fire is before him and the whirlwind is around him. Did not God appear in the whirlwind to Job (Job 38:1)? Is he not also an all-consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24; Hebrews 12:29)? Indeed, the psalmist is celebrating the great truth that our God is mighty and not timid and there is none who can stand in his way. He is a great God, worthy of our praise. Who can stand before a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 9:3; Isaiah 33:14)? No, not one.

Worship and Wrath: Are they mutually exclusive?

As a child, I grew up singing old hymns of the faith — Isaac Watts, Fanny Crosby, Charles Wesley, and the like. Even today, many of these hymns are deeply ingrained in me. Then, somewhere in my early twenties, praise music became all the rage in the church I attended. And so, I was introduced to essentially a newer and more contemporary body of hymnody — largely written to be accompanied with a guitar than with an organ. And, as with some of the hymns that I grew up singing, some of these “old school” praise songs still can elicit a powerful emotional response.

As I’ve grown older and arguably more mature in my faith, I freely confess that I am drawn more to singing the psalms. This is not a dig against those who are writing hymnody so much as it is a reflection on the fact that I am paying more attention to the words I am singing and desire that those words be as Biblically and theologically accurate as possible. In many cases, when I sing hymns and praise songs, I end up singing with my guard up — something I don’t want to have to do. And so there is a natural gravitation toward the psalms and other Canonical songs.

What has struck me, though, is how different the tone of Canonical singing is than that of the hymnody and praise music with which I am familiar. Namely, I can’t think of too many hymns or praise songs that praise God for his wrath and for the destruction of his enemies. Sure, there is “Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war…,” but that’s not really about God’s wrath, its a call to evangelism and spiritual battle. Truly this is an appropriate theme to sing, but it not so much sing praise for God’s work of destroying his enemies in judgment. And I am not saying this because I wake up in the morning thinking, “Oh my, I want to sing of God’s wrath!” But then again, sometimes I do. 

What has struck me about the Biblical songs of worship is that they do not just cover the happy parts of the Christian life. They sing of the feelings of abandonment, the struggle with loss, and the righteous anger the Christian ought to feel when facing the abominations of the wicked. And they sing praise to God for his wrath against the wicked. 

The reality of this proved striking to me this weekend as I opened our worship. I have been using the songs of praise from Revelation as the language of our calls to worship this year and I arrived on Sunday at chapter 19:1-3, where the multitude in heaven are praising God for judging the great prostitute. That was clear enough, but the words that closed these verses sing praise to God that her “smoke goes up forever!” Indeed! Here are the saints in heaven glorifying God that the destruction of the prostitute, Babylon, is so great that she will burn in hell forever. The language of judgment certainly fills the pages of Revelation, but this passage truly stood out to me. 

To be honest, I can’t say that I ever remember singing a hymn or a praise song that contained language like that. Wesley, Toplady, Newton, Watts, etc…, I don’t think I have run into a hymn from one of them that is structured like that. And, if these authors did write hymns praising God for his wrath upon the unbelieving world, they I don’t think they have made their way into any of the hymnals that I have used. Yet, they are in the psalters. Why? Because they are in the psalms.

One of the main errors of the church in America today is that it is theologically unbalanced. Preaching on the Law and on Sin is de-emphasized and preaching on grace is emphasized to such a degree that it dominates the conversation of the Christian. This has created an imbalanced theology in much of America. And, this imbalanced theology has created a culture that don’t think that sin is that bad and they embrace a form of universalism that implies that everyone gets to go to heaven so long as they ask. 

Could there be a connection between the way we think and what we sing? I think that there is. Songs have long been one of the most effective ways to teach ideas to people (young and old). This is why we memorize our alphabet using the ABC Song. In seminary, we had to be able to recite the 66 books of the Bible in order — I cannot even begin to say just how many of my peers memorized the books of the Bible as a song. Funny. Music has a way of bypassing many of our intellectual filters and therein lies the danger. When we are singing things outside of the Canon of Scripture, we open ourselves up to the errors of those who wrote the hymn or even to an imbalanced view of God based on the choices made by the one selecting the hymns to sing. 

Am I arguing for exclusive psalmody? Not entirely, though it probably would not take much to convince me of the value of exclusive Canonical singing. There are also hymns that are essentially composed of sections of scripture that have been strung together. These can open the door to the potential for using a passage out of its context to make the hymn author’s point, but they are in the realm of what I am growing toward. Recognizing that even exclusive psalm singers are at the mercy of those who translate and versify the psalms, there is no bullet-proof solution. What I am advocating though, is more intentional choices when it comes to the selection of music for worship. Not only ought the music we sing be scriptural, but it also must reflect the breadth of the language with which the people of God are to use as we worship God. In other words, let us not just sing about the wonderful grace and mercy of God, but also of the wrath and judgment he wields over sin. 

The Church is not a Circus

Okay, I need to confess something up front…I never much cared for the circus as a kid. It just wasn’t my schtick. Sorry. And if you are a lover of the circus, more power to you, though it seems that there are fewer and fewer traveling circuses going around. But, never mind you that…if you are desperate for the circus to come around, there are plenty of churches that are trying to fill the bill and put on the “greatest show on earth” all for your viewing enjoyment. 

Am I being sarcastic? Yes. And then, in a sense, no. Churches, especially the big ones, do some pretty loony things to get people to come in the door. For example, over the years, I have seen stories where the staff dressed up as professional wrestlers and ran around, well, doing what those folks do. I have read accounts where churches have hired designers from Disney to create interactive kids’ spaces and programs. Many use sound and lights and pyrotechnics and I have witnessed churches bringing in strong-men to “bend bars for Jesus.” Shall we mention the old, let’s throw a pie in the face of the preacher to increase attendance model? Gimmicks. 

And, while all of these are extremes, sometime the residual effect is that people in our congregations want to grasp a little of that excitement. For example, while I have no objection to contemporary hymnody and “praise songs” being used in church (at least those that are scripturally sound), I do have a problem with the “praise team” putting on a rock-n-roll concert as part of the service. In doing so, they draw attention to themselves and not toward Christ. The same can be said for the “cool” pastors who give a basic moralistic, feel-good message that is theologically and exegetically shallow. We worship an infinite God who has revealed himself in his word, shall we not expect that word to go deeper than we ever imagined? If we are mature, do we really need the pastor to hold our hand on personal application? Would it not be better for him to focus on digging out new treasures from the depths of this Word that help us appreciate the character of our God even more?

And that gets me to my point. What do you come to worship expecting it to be? If you expect entertainment, you are in the wrong place. True, there ought to be much about worship that should be enjoyable to you, but you are there to draw near to God by carefully attending to His word. The sermon should not tickle your ears, but should instruct you on the character of God and exhort you to repent of your sins and live in a way that honors that character. My grandfather (a Methodist minister) used to say, “If you have not stepped on toes in the sermon you have not preached.” There is great truth to that. Entertainment tends to leave you as you are — just perhaps more at ease from the stresses of life. The worship of God’s people is designed to be a tool to conform you into the image of Christ.

Yet, I look at the landscape of the “church” around us and I scratch my head. Exhortation and instruction seem to be only secondary and occasional byproducts of their approach. I see those praise bands practicing for hours to get their “set” down pat. I know of many pastors who practice their sermons with an audience repeatedly during the week to make it come across just so when it is delivered. In fact, many of them purchase sermon outlines that are pre-prepared. All they have to do is to personalize them and adapt them to their context — their job then largely is that of an actor performing a role and not as the shepherd-teacher of Christ’s church. Of course, many of these places have long ceased trying to be Christ’s church in anything but name and have imbibed of health-wealth and word-faith heresies to tickle those itching ears.

Pastors, you are teachers and exhorters, not performers. We need to be prepared but not polished. And we need to do our grunt-work in the Text of God’s word. It needs to work on us and get into our souls before we can ever expect that it will get into the souls of our people. Musicians, like the pastor, be prepared for what it is that you will play on Sunday morning; you are leading God’s people in worship. That said, it is not a performance and errors will be forgiven by Christians who have any sort of spiritual maturity. 

And folks in the pews — parishioners as some denominations would refer to you  — do not sit passively expecting to be entertained. You are not there to be entertained. You are there to actively engage in the worship of the King of the Universe, Jesus Christ. That does not mean that you need to put on a show…in fact, just the opposite. But it does mean you must participate. You must sing with the people of God — do not just stand there reading the words out of the hymnal and praying that the hymn is done soon — and do not bawl over the people around you as to draw attention to yourself. Sing with the people of God in their worship.

In times of corporate prayer, pray with the one leading the prayer. Ask yourself, “Do I really agree with the petitions of this prayer and if I don’t, in what ought I repent?” In times when the scripture is being read, ask yourself, “Do I understand what has been read and what can I learn about God and my relationship to him, from these words?” And when the sermon is being preached, pay careful attention. If you tend to get lost, take notes and think of questions that you might ask the pastor afterwards. And, before you come to worship, read over the passage your pastor will be preaching from, pray for him (and you), and again, formulate questions that you would like to have answers to from the passage — there is a good chance that he will address many if not most of these things…listen for them. And if he does not answer all of your questions, ask him afterwards, he will find it a thrill and a joy to engage in this kind of dialogue.

Oh, and if I have a pet peeve, it can be found in one of two complaints…either: “I am not being fed in worship” or “everything the pastor says goes over my head.” First of all, it is only the small children at the table that need to be fed; older children and adults feed themselves — Christians should strive to do that when the table has been set in the pastor’s sermon. Second of all, while that is typically meant as a complaint against the pastor, it speaks far more about the character of the one who is complaining…clearly they have not prepared themselves for worship nor have they actively engaged in worship during the service. In other words, those who say such things have imbibed some bad ideas about what worship is to be somewhere along the lines and unless they are open to correction, we will see them drift toward those who will tickle their ears instead of convicting their hearts. Sad.

Easter, the Resurrection, and Worship

Folks that know me well, know that I don’t much like the choice of the word, “Easter,” that is used in English speaking and German speaking congregations. The term originates from the name of a pagan goddess of the woodlands and is just one more reminder of syncretism that is found in the Christian world. Much like with Christmas, we seem to have created two parallel holidays: Easter with its chocolate and bunnies as a celebration of the coming of spring and Resurrection Sunday to venerate Jesus’ rising from the tomb (for my satirical reflection on Christmas and X-Mass in honor of C.S. Lewis, click here…).

Don’t misunderstand these musings… Theologically, I do affirm that we gather every Sunday to celebrate the Resurrection and to bless God’s name. Yet, with others, I agree that there is a pragmatic value attached to setting apart a time during the calendar year to focusing especially on the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and reminding ourselves of its foundational importance to Christianity. In addition, Easter (think spring and new life here) and the tendency of people to come out to church, lends itself to being a time where a greater emphasis should be placed on evangelism and again the resurrection. 

But can we talk honestly about church practices at Easter for a minute? How oftentimes, the tendency is to make this service bigger and fuller than other services during the year, save perhaps on Christmas Eve? The logic flows somewhat like this: 1) more people will come out, 2) if we make more of a production, then perhaps people will appreciate it enough to come out again the following Sunday. 

But wait a minute? Is worship meant to be a production? Productions are about what we are doing and are about an outward performance. Is that really what should be present in the life of the church? I would say, no, it is not. Worship is about our drawing close to God according to His Word, they are about blessing God’s name and submitting ourselves to the instructions found in His Word. It’s not about us. It never was and never will be. The moment you make worship into a production is the moment you cease to be practicing something that is Biblical an you begin practicing idolatry. Further, the logic of the argument mentioned above fails as soon as those visitors, impressed by the production, come out any other Sunday morning of the year. Then, they see the hypocrisy of those putting on the production and what does that say about genuine Christianity?

Am I saying that we ought never do anything special on Resurrection Sunday? Of course not. But I am saying that those kinds of special things must never cross the line and become a performance. I am also saying that if you would not include said special music on any other Sunday of the year, you ought not include it on Resurrection Sunday, lest you fall into the trap of performance. Of course for some churches, performance is a way of life and that in itself is a conversation to be had another time.

So, where do I fall on this matter in terms of practice? I confess, it is easy to fall to the temptation of doing something big on Resurrection Sunday morning. The Resurrection of Christ is the great triumphant benediction of all of history, so indeed, that makes sense. But at the same time, I have become over the years much more sensitive to not making the morning a production. That defeats the purpose of why we gather and presents a false picture of Sunday worship to visitors. So, the order of service and elements that are present are the same as is found the rest of the calendar year. The only difference is that my preaching tends to be a little more evangelistic in nature than would be found on any other given Sunday. Other Sundays I focus a little more heavily on the discipleship of the body. What I don’t do is to make Resurrection Sunday or more commonly, “Easter Sunday,” into what one pastor I know calls “Superbowl Sunday for the Church.” That, I think is wrong. 

This is something that I am still chewing on, what are your thoughts?

Christian Leadership

“And so, as Gideon heard the account of the dream and its interpretation, he bowed in worship. And he returned to the camp of Israel and said, ‘Arise! For Yahweh has given the camp of Midian into your hands!’”

(Judges 7:15)

If you have not yet taken notice, one of the hallmarks of Gideon (at least early in his career as a Judge) is that his actions are prefaced by worship. Here he has snuck up on one of the Midian sentry posts, overheard the telling of a dream that God has designed to encourage Gideon’s faith and confidence, and now, before he retreats back to safety, Gideon bows before the Lord and worships. It is probably not long, simply a reverential prayer of gratitude, but it is worship. And as we have noted before, that is exactly the mindset that every Christian ought to have as we go through life. For the believer, action begins with worship.

There is an interesting Hebrew idiom that is employed here when it comes to the interpretation of the dream. Literally the text reads: ‘As Gideon heard the account of the dream and its cracking open.’ The word in question is rRbRv (shever) and ordinarily it is used to refer to breaking or shattering something with force. Applied to the dream in question, the figure of speech is obvious. And though this is not a common use of the Hebrew term, it does seem to establish a bit of a play on words with what follows. For, just as the dream has been “cracked open,” so too will the clay jars that Gideon and his men carry be “cracked open” (same word). And all of this to crack open and destroy the Midianite camp like an old clay vessel. Such are the ways of God.

One more piece about Gideon…notice that as he rallies the troops, he gives them ownership in the victory. He does not say, “God has given Midian into my hands.” He does not say, “God has given Midian into our hands.” He uses the second-person plural — your. Gideon is the one called to lead this battle and God is bringing the victory, but the three hundred men of Gideon are the ones whose hands will seize the day. How important it is for leaders to remember this great truth. Worship God and give your people ownership in the victory. How easy it is for leaders (and pastors even!) to take all the credit for things wrought by those serving under or alongside of them. And, when that happens, how misplaced the credit really is.

Cleaning House

“And it was in the night that Yahweh said to him, ‘Take the ox which is your father’s and a bull, the second one being seven-years old. And destroy the altar to Ba’al which is your father’s and the cut down the Asherah which is beside it. Then build an altar to Yahweh on the top of that row of stones. Take the second bull and make a burnt offering go up with the wood of the Asherah which you cut down.”

(Judges 6:25-26)

Following worship comes the cleaning of house. Interestingly, it seems that his own father is the one to whom the altar to Ba’al belongs, suggesting that perhaps his father was functioning as a priest to the people of his village. Given that Joash (Gideon’s father) was of the Tribe of Manasseh, not a Levite, once again it seems that man is doing what man wants to do, not what God has determined to be right — such seems to be the story of mankind.

In the end, though, God will not share his glory with anyone or anything and he will not have that glory confused with the worship of worldly and pagan things. Thus, before God works through Gideon, God requires Gideon to purge his father’s household, and by extension, his community, of the pagan altars and to establish right worship for those who would follow Him.

As I look around the churches in our culture today I am largely convinced that before God will do a work of reformation and revival in our world, a lot of altars to Ba’al and Asherahs need to be brought down and destroyed. Worship that is man-centered and celebrity centered needs to be turned into rubble. Worship that is idolatrous needs to be burned along with the songs that have more in common with humanistic worldviews than with Biblical teachings. And we need to turn all of our thoughts toward God as directed by His Word. Then, when the church is in humble repentance at the fire of man-made things, man-made priorities, and man-made ideas about God, then, I believe we will see the hand of God begin to work in our nation.

Worship

“And Gideon built an altar to Yahweh there and he called it, ‘Yahweh-Shalom.’ Even unto this day, it is still in Ophrah of the father of the Ezrites.”

(Judges 6:24)

Now, given that the Angel of Yahweh has moved on, Gideon begins his work as a Judge over Israel with worship. He builds a formal altar at that place (one which still exists when this book is being written) and worships there, naming the place, “Yahweh is Peace.” The title of the place anticipates God’s call on Gideon’s life, for “peace,” in its Biblical context, does not so much deal with the cessation of war as it deals with the removal of those things that hinder your worship — deliverance from the effects of sin. Thus, as Gideon overthrew the Midianite oppressors, peace was established (sadly, only for a short season!).

What is most significant about this event is the prominence given to worship. As God’s people, all of our lives should be marked by worship. And, while we no longer make blood sacrifices on altars, we do establish special places in our lives where God has worked mightily. These become witnesses to the community and reminders to us for days of trial that God is yet enthroned in the heavens and no amount of evil, nor Satan’s greatest attacks, can ever change that reality.

And so, we bow before the Lord and worship before any work is done. And no matter how busy our days nor great our responsibilities, all things fall as a distant second to our worship of the Almighty God, our King. How sad it is that so many professing Christians have mistaken this reality. How sad it is that sports or income or hobbies or simple sloth have gotten in the way of this great and wonderful calling which we have been given. So, let us cast these worldly things to the side and worship…daily in our private places of prayer and with our families and weekly with the household of God.

Regulative Principles and Worship

“So Gideon went and prepared a kid goat and an ephah of unleavened flour. The flesh he put in a basket and the broth he put in a pot. And he went to him under the Terebinth and presented it to him. And the Angel of God said to him, ‘Take the flesh and the unleavened cakes and rest them on the rock — this one. Then pour on the broth.’ And he made it so.”

(Judges 6:19-20)

Gideon, thus, gathers a form of grain and meat offering before God. This is essentially the same offering as well later be provided by Manoah when he encounters the Angel of Yahweh (Judges 13:19). While the formulae of the offering does not fit any of the prescribed sacrifices for sin or peace, the context, though demands that this is a form of offering, not just as food for the road, as some commentators would suggest. Note the language above about a sacrifice and about Gideon seeking a sign.

Further, we see the sacrifice placed on a rock (rocks were often used as make-shift altars — 1 Samuel 14:33), designated by the Angel of Yahweh. Further, the meat and items were arranged on the rock as directed by the Angel of Yahweh. So, even though the elements themselves were chosen by Gideon, the presentation of the sacrifice itself is defined by God. Such is a reminder that our worship before God is something that ought always be marked and directed by God himself in the Word. The specifics might vary somewhat from congregation to congregation (some sing psalms, others sing hymns, still others praise songs, and others yet, sing a combination of all three; some preach through books of the Bible but others preach passages of scripture around given themes; some worship for an hour others for significantly, more, etc…), but the elements remain the same as commanded by God (Reading Scripture, Preaching, Corporate Prayer, Singing, Offerings, Sacraments, etc…).

Think on These Things

“The last thing, brothers, is that whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is upright, whatever is holy, whatever is lovely, whatever is praiseworthy, if there is virtue and if there is praise, think on these things.”

(Philippians 4:8)

There is one more aspect of Paul’s counsel to us here that we need to dwell upon…something of which we have spoken repeatedly throughout this letter that Paul writes. Paul writes of these things that are good and holy and praiseworthy and states that we must think on these things. Paul does not speak of how these things might make us feel or of how these things might move us. He says that we are to think on these matters — we are to reason them through and apply our minds in an orderly way to the ideas conveyed within that which is good and holy and praiseworthy.

The word that Paul uses here is logi/zomai (logizomai), and it means to come to a conclusion through a rational process. It refers to the notion of looking at all of the options that vie for our attention in a given area, to ponder them in our minds, and then to come to a reasoned decision about them. This is not a matter of feeling or of good wishes; this is not a matter of what emotions some experience might stir up within me; this is a matter of reasoned thought.

And if there is something that the church has abandoned over the past several decades, it is reason. Often worship services are all about how one feels. Often worship is only understood in the context of those happy songs that might be sung and one neglects that sitting under the instruction of God’s Word is also a vital aspect of worship. One also often forgets, when only the bouncy, happy songs are sung, that the Prophet-King, David, wrote more laments than he did bouncy-happy songs (not a surprise when you think about the fallen world in which we live!).

Even when it comes to doctrine…which simply is taken from the Latin word, doctrina, which means, “teaching,” people fail to use their reason. Every new idea is evaluated on the basis of preference and the feeling that it evokes rather than evaluating ideas as one rigorously reasons through the Word of God. This reasoning about the Word of God was the practice of the wise Bereans when Paul first showed up in their city (Acts 17:10-12). Shall this not be our practice as well? Woe to the church today that only moves only on the basis of their passions. Woe to the church whose feelings and emotions rule over their minds. For God has not called us to feel these things, he has called us to reason about them…to think them through…and to govern our passions with our minds and what we know is right.

There is no doubt that emotions have their place in the Christian life. God has made us with every expression of life that we attribute to the passions. Yet, the place of the passions is to be governed by the mind. The passions must be reminded by the mind what is right and true or the passions will descend into utter despair and irrationality. The mind must also defend the passions against the seduction of feeling, at least in the way feelings are often manipulated by those leading in worship or worse, from those leading into hedonistic error.

Further, the church in the west has dominantly bought the lie that there is a separation between our spiritual life and the life we live in every other context. The lie states that while reason is reserved for non-spiritual matters. Some even fear that they will lose their faith if they reason about what that which they say they believe! “If it makes you content and fulfilled,” the lie of the enemy states, “go on and have your religion, but keep it out of the marketplace.”

Yet, I tell you that Paul says that we ought to reason about our beliefs and further, if we do, it will mature and strengthen the beliefs we have! Further, Paul tells us that our religion belongs in the marketplace — do you not think that while Paul was making tents in Corinth that he was not “reasoning with” those for whom he made tents, to show the Jew that Jesus was the Christ from the scriptures and to show the Greek that Jesus was ultimately the reasonable redeemer whom we all need? Dear ones, do not give up on your minds. Do not “blindly believe” what is taught in church or in the Bible, but believe because you have reasoned them through, guided and instructed by the whole council of God. “Think on these things,” Paul says, and it will help keep you from error.

The True Circumcision

“For we are the circumcision; those who worship in the Spirit of God and who boast in Christ Jesus and who do not trust in the flesh.”

(Philippians 3:3)

Indeed, in Christ’s economy, circumcision is no longer a matter of the flesh, but is a matter of the heart. To take the notion one step further, we should argue that circumcision of the flesh was always meant to be a physical symbol of an inward reality — an inward circumcision. And, as noted above, as the physical symbol changed (circumcision to baptism), the physical cutting is no longer deemed necessary while the inward reality (a circumcised heart) remains the same. Thus not only is Paul of the circumcision (physical and spiritual) the uncircumcised (physically) gentiles who were a part of the church in Philippi are circumcised in the eyes of God (spiritually). If the cutting is done out of ritual or as a sign of works it is an abomination…a mutilation of the flesh; the cutting that takes place in the heart is worked by God and by God alone upon us and is designed to prepare us for glory (as well as to equip us to live out our life in the here and now.

And ultimately, then, what is the visible mark of this inward circumcision? In addition to baptism, it is a life that is lived glorying in Christ and not trusting in the works of the flesh. It is a life marked by worship in the Holy Spirit and not by worshipping in the strength or pattern of the flesh. It is a life that is oriented around serving God (the word in this passage which we translate as “worship,” literally means “to serve in a liturgical or religious manner”).

The question we must set before us is whether or not this is how we live. Is this what we strive for? Do we still take pride in our flesh or is the only thing in which we glory the work of Christ in and over this weak flesh of ours? The former relies on an outward circumcision; the latter relies on an inward. And Paul will shortly remind us that the outward circumcision avails us nothing if we seek to stand upon it. The bottom line is that it is all about Christ, from beginning to end, it is all about Jesus.

My hope is built on nothing less

than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;

I dare not trust the sweetest frame,

But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

— Edward Mote

The Wall Goes Up!

“My eye has been made to see my wall being raised up;

Before me is the one who does evil;

My ear hears.”

(Psalm 92:12 [verse 11 in English])

 

A short survey of English Bible translations will give a vast variety of interpretations of this verse, thus it ought not be surprising that the one I offer above is again rather distinct from some of the others. In fact, about the only thing that each translation can be said to have in common is that it speaks of the eye seeing and the ear hearing something, though that something is debated by translators.

The text literally speaks of seeing “my wall” being raised up. The Hebrew word used there is r…wv (shur), which typically refers to a small wall that might be placed around a well or a fence that might be laid between two people’s property. In context, it seems that God is giving the psalmist the confidence to say that though the enemy is on my borders, I shall not fear because even now I see God erecting a wall to protect me and to protect this covenantal land that God has entrusted to my family.

If we translate the verse in this fashion, then rather than it speaking of the destruction of the psalmist’s enemies, its focus is really on the defense of the psalmist from his enemies…something that lends itself better to the following verses. Remember too, this is a Sabbath psalm, and as such, this is that which the assembled congregation would be singing as they implore God’s protection from the foes all around them.

The notion of the ear hearing things is not so much a notion of the psalmist hearing perhaps the clamor of the enemies outside of the walls, but instead it is covenantal language that speaks of the design of God: “He who has ears, let him hear” is a common Biblical phrase to say, “Listen to the design and wisdom of God.” In other words, while the enemy is before you, listen to God’s plan to preserve you healthy and strong from the onslaught of the wicked…for (as the following verses speak) it will be you who bear fruit in old age.

Thus it is a reminder to us to be confident and sure that God is in the business of strengthening and walling in his own to preserve them from the evil one. And indeed, God is still in the business of preserving his own today which ought not only to give us confidence in doing his work in this world, but it should also drive us to praise for he has done this for us.

Rejoicing in Yahweh’s Divine Actions

“For you make me rejoice constantly, Yahweh, in your divine action; in the works of your hands, I continually exult.”

(Psalm 92:5 [verse 4 in English])

 

The question that we must raise is whether or not we can really say, with the psalmist that we rejoice and exult in the works of God. On the surface level, our first response is probably to say that we do rejoice in God’s works, but in saying that we need to take a closer look at what we are suggesting. Indeed, it is easy to rejoice in the blessings that God brings into our lives, but what of the trials? What of those times when everything is falling apart and we just cannot figure out which end is up in life? Is it not harder to rejoice in God and exult in his works when such things take place? Yet this, too, is in sight of what the Psalmist is saying.

Sometimes the hardest thing to do, when things fall apart in our lives, is to praise God in the midst of such things. Yet, in times of distress like this, such is what our soul most needs. We need that communion and worship and we need to affirm that God’s work is continually a good thing in my life because it is used to conform me into the image of his Son, Jesus.

One of the great reminders of this principle is the setting aside of the Sabbath day. A day where we join with the body of Christ and worship together — where we even lift one another up in worship, standing in the gap for the brother and sister who is broken and cannot stand (spiritually) on their own feet to do so. That joined with the promise that if we count the Sabbath a delight, God will raise us up from our depths and give us a taste of his glory (Isaiah 58:13-14).

God’s Faithfulness

“To declare your chesed in the morning;

And of your trustworthiness in the night;

Upon the ten strings and upon the harp;

With the sound of the zither.”

(Psalm 92:3-4 [verses 2-3 in English])

 

Again we find an emphasis on singing praise accompanied by the sound of instruments. The reference to the “ten strings” in Hebrew is unique to the book of psalms (33:2, 92:4, 144:9) and is likely a reference not simply to a small personal shoulder harp (which might have had 5 or 7 strings), but to a larger harp requiring more skill to play. Granted, depending on the dating of this psalm, much larger harps would have been familiar items; the ancient Egyptians had 22 strings on their full-sized arched-harp. Arguably this is one more reminder that this psalm has its focus the gathered worship of God’s people where skilled musicians (levitical or otherwise) would have been present, not simply to private worship.

The additional reference to the zither seems to reinforce both the corporate setting (as multiple instruments are being mentioned) and to skillful musicians required to play it. Often this word is translated as lyre, which shouldn’t surprise us as the lyre has its origins in the zither. Again, the emphasis of music in Sabbath worship.

Yet, what is more important is not the instruments used but for what God is being praised. Here, it is his “chesed” and his trustworthiness. The word chesed I have simply left untranslated as there is not a simple word-for-word equivalent of this idea. Ultimately it refers to God’s covenant faithfulness to his people (that’s us!) despite the covenant unfaithfulness of his people (sadly, that’s us too…). This we do not deserve, but this God graciously gives to his own to his own glory and praise. As the Apostle Paul wrote, salvation is by grace, not works, lest any man should boast (Ephesians 2:8-9). Indeed, it is worth praising our God for his faithfulness and for his chesed.

And it is for this faithfulness (amongst other things) that we praise God when we gather together on the Sabbath. The sad thing is that all-too-often, the lyrics of our praises are focused heavily on the individual, not on the God who saves the individual. Loved ones, remember, it is not our goodness or our works that brings about God’s faithfulness…God is faithful despite our lack of goodness and our failures…that is the essence of Grace. As the old Fanny Crosby hymn went… “To God be the glory, great things he has done!”

And you shall remember—for you were a slave in the land of Egypt and Yahweh, your God, redeemed you.  Because of this, I command this thing of you today.

(Deuteronomy 15:15)

A Song for the Sabbath

“A Psalm: A Song for the Day of the Sabbath”

(Psalm 92:1 [superscript in English])

 

That which we identify as Psalm 92 begins with a clear statement of its purpose. It is written for use on the Sabbath day. And, presuming that superscripts are given to us as indicators of purpose and groupings of psalms, it follows that this introduces Psalms 92-97 as a grouping of psalms (given no superscripts until psalm 98) that are all designed for worship on the Sabbath day.

Sadly, in the western world, we have largely lost any sense of the Sabbath’s significance. Stores are open for business (even stores that purport to be Christian stores!), it is often the busiest day of the week for restaurants, amusement parks are open for business, athletic teams are practicing, and there is no abatement in the worldly junk that passes for television entertainment. We fill our lives with so much activity that we are beyond busy and then we buy into the lie that if we just rob ourselves of the Sabbath day and make that day busy as well, then we will find the satisfaction and fulfillment that we crave. Yet, falling into this pattern is a downhill race to self-destruction.

Probably even sadder is that teaching on the Sabbath in our culture is often ignored or avoided because of fears of stepping on toes. Yet, the scriptures have no hesitation about speaking of the Sabbath Day. The other challenge in our culture is that teaching on the Sabbath only tends to be received in terms of negatives and not in terms of positives. People hear “DON’T” and then they shut their minds off and never hear the “DO.” Yet, the scriptures place far more emphasis on the “DO” and the blessing of the Sabbath day. We don’t seem to have a problem hearing the words: “You shall no Murder” or “You shall not commit adultery” but when people hear the Sabbath spoken of, they seem to shut down and miss the blessing of the teaching.

While there are entire books and treatises written on the Sabbath, for the devotions that will follow, we will let this psalm guide our thoughts and hopefully challenge our practices. Though the day of the Sabbath has changed from Saturday to Sunday, the principle behind the Sabbath day remains the same; may the Spirit move our hearts as we reflect and meditate on these words.

“Remember the Day of the Sabbath and continually consecrate it.”

(Exodus 20:8)

No King but Caesar

“Again, they continued screaming, ‘Take him up! Take him up! Crucify him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ And the chief priests answered, ‘We do not have a King except for Ceasar!’”

(John 19:15)

 

Those final words, “we have no king but Ceasar,” would be scandalous were individuals had spoken them during Jesus’ day, but it is not just individuals making this statement…in fact, it is not even the mob that continues to shout for Jesus’ death. It is the High Priests, those in spiritual leadership amongst the people, who are crying out — people whose only allegiance was to be pledged to God above, not to the men below who ruled over them. It was not to be given to Herod and certainly not to the Roman Emperor, Tiberius Caesar.

During Jesus’ lifetime, the Jewish aristocracy held Tiberius in relatively high esteem, even to the point of venerating him. Though Tiberius refused to be worshipped as a god, he did permit a temple to be built in his honor in Smyrna and Herod Antipas (the Herod of this account) built a city on the Sea of Galilee in Tiberius’ honor — a city that Herod would make his Capitol. Yet, the common people still resented Roman rule and the priests should have known better. Nevertheless, in the context of a mob, reason is never a highly esteemed virtue.

The language of “take him up!” should conjure up several images. The first is that of the insult paid by the young boys to Elisha (2 Kings 2:23-25). In a sense, the boys were saying to Elisha, “your master went up to God and out of our lives, you go too!” God judged those boys (and by extension the village) harshly for their sin. But the lifting that the people here had in mind was the lifting of Jesus’ body upon the cross. Yet, that too should conjure up the image of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:1-15) and how Jesus stated that he would be “lifted up” just as the bronze serpent was lifted up on the cross in the wilderness (Numbers 21:4-9).

We may not be in a mob context at the moment (I hope that is not the case!), but this should give us a moment to pause to ask ourselves to whom we are loyal. By our actions; by the way we invest our money; by the way we use our time; and by the fashion that we apply our energies…to whom are we loyal? Is it to an institution (even the church!)? Is it to a political party? Is it to a person? Is it to a corporation? Is it to Christ? If your loyalty is to anybody or anything other than to Christ Jesus, you stand convicted as do these chief priests…one cannot serve two masters (Matthew 6:24).

The Noblemen Gather the People to God

“The noblemen of the people gather the people of the God of Abraham for to God are the shields of the earth. He is to be greatly exalted!”

(Psalm 47:10 {verse 9 in English translations})

 

The close of this psalm begins with an interesting visual picture. First of all, the term that we render as “noblemen” is the word byIdÎn (nadib) speaks of one who distributes or provides for those in his care. Thus, the idea conveyed by the term is not so much one of rank, but of activity. Similarly, the language of gathering is a farming analogy — the psalmist speaks one of gathering together the people like one would harvest grain or corn. Essentially what is being conveyed is that those who are leaders of men — responsible for providing for those under them — have a spiritual obligation to gather their people together — not just with a common vision or for work, but to exalt the God of creation.

How the nobles of our world have fallen short in their tasks. How often even those who are tasked with leadership in the church fall short of their task. So much time gets spent on managing money and wealth that often the point behind the wealth is missed entirely. For even the wealth with which we have been entrusted is to be used to the glory of God. If, once everything has been said and done, people are not gathered to worship our risen King, then leadership has missed its greatest aim and purpose. Paul writes to Timothy telling him that the people are to be in prayer for their civil leaders…why? So that they may live peaceful and godly lives (1 Timothy 2:1-2) — a life that can only be had when worship is your first and highest goal.

What follows the phrase about the people being gathered to God is the language of shields. What does it mean that the shields of the earth are to God? There are several ways in which this phrase could be understood. The word N´gDm (magen), or “shield,” can be understood literally as a piece of armor that would be used in warfare. Indeed, the armies of the earth — even the pagan armies — belong to God and will be used and disposed of to bring about his good and sovereign will. Yet, this term can also be used figuratively, which seems a better interpretation in the context of this psalm. Princes over the people provide protection for their charges — in fact, on an earthly level, that is one of the most significant tasks a prince must do. Thus, in a couplet, we find the Prince’s duties joined together in one — in terms of eternal priorities, he must bring his people to God and in terms of earthly priorities, he must protect them — something that can only be done effectively when the people find their refuge in the God of Israel.

And thus people from, all across the earth — Jew and Gentile — are brought before the throne of God — brought together as one flock. Indeed, that is something that is promised to take place fully and completely at one time — some to glory and some to eternal judgment. And God is to be greatly exalted for his work. May we all be found as wheat in the great mill press of God.

Therefore, God has exalted him and has graciously given him the name that is above all names, in order that in the name of Jesus every knee should bend in heavenly places, earthly places, and places under the earth, and that every tongue would admit that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

(Philippians 2:9-11)

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.

“All the peoples must strike their hand!

Cry aloud with a voice of jubilation!”

(Psalm 47:2 {verse 1 in English Translations})

 

And the psalm of celebration begins! First of all, notice to whom this command is being uttered. It is not just to the people around the throne of God nor is it just uttered to the people of Israel. It is uttered to “all the peoples”! People from every race and language and nation are being called by the psalmists to give God praise and to exalt before him. Throughout the Old Testament there is this reoccurring promise that God will bring peoples from the nations into Israel and into Jerusalem — a promise of the Gospel going to the gentiles — and passages like this anticipate that great and glorious time when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

That being said, with a call to rejoicing comes an implicit warning — it is Yahweh that is to be feared (see the following verses) and those people who do not submit and come worship him will find themselves subdued under the feet of God and his people. Indeed, there will be a day when every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, but of those God has not called to himself in faith — those that continue to reject the Gospel — they will find themselves kneeling and confessing to their great consternation and humiliation as an utterly defeated foe.

One curious element is the phrase that is typically translated as “clap your hands” in our English Bibles. In Hebrew there are four different verbs used to describe the clapping of one’s hands and these verbs carry with them a variety of connotations. What I found most interesting is that the verb used here is better translated as “strike” or “give a blow” and the word for hand is actually singular, thus producing the translation above: “strike your hand.” Interestingly, in most of the instances where what we would describe as “clapping” are found, the term for hand is found in the singular, yet we translate it into the plural. There seems little explanation for this choice of terms apart from the visual idea of clapping where one hand is held still (as one would hold a small drum) and the other is in motion. Thus, when we envision the clapping being called for, it should not be seen as the thunderous applause that we often call for in our western culture, but a more rhythmic clapping that would produce more or less a drum beat (the stationary hand being the drum). The design, of course, being to draw people into the worship and praise of our God.

I could raise the question about one’s boldness of witness — is your witness one that boldly calls all of the peoples to Christ? Or do you do the very American thing and say that one’s religious preferences are one’s own business? The Bible knows nothing of this latter model. Yet, the question I would rather leave you with is that of the contagiousness of your worship. Does your worship draw others around you into worship? That doesn’t mean we need loud rhythmic clapping and dancing in the aisles, a humble and heart-felt worship that is gentle and quiet can have an even more powerful effect on others than the loud boisterous style. But do the people around you get drawn into the worship of God because of the way you worship in life? When in church, does your worship draw other believers into worship in a positive way — sometimes that guy who has had a bad week really needs the spirit of other believers around him to help draw him into that spirit of worship. Beloved, examine your witness, but also examine your worship. Is it contagious — the worship of these sons of Korah is.

Bowed Low in Worship

“The man bowed low and worshipped Yahweh.”

(Genesis 24:26)

 

The right and appropriate response of one who has seen God’s hand at work in his life is worship. Can one say much more than that other than that we are woefully deficient in our response? How often our focus is merely to say “thanks” to God as if his providences are but mere trinkets in our lives. How often our prayers sound more like wish lists given by eager children to Santa Claus than of humble petitions given by those redeemed by grace to the God of that redemption. How often our hearts are ungrateful for the things that God has seen fit to teach us through the difficulties of life. How often we approach the public gathering of worship only in terms of what I might receive rather than what I might give to a God who has already given me far more than I deserve in my own right. How often we simply fail to worship with a whole heart — how often we simply fail to worship; lifting up self above God. Beloved, at the words of this simple verse, how we need to repent and turn to pouring our our hearts in worship before the throne of our almighty God. Eliezer sets the model for us — bow low and give God praise.

Submission

“And Abraham said to the young men, ‘Keep yourselves here with the donkey and I and the boy will go up there. We will worship then we will return to you.”

(Genesis 22:5)

 

At times, we are tempted to gloss over the language of this passage, but it is crucial to understanding the faith of Abraham as he is going up to the place of sacrifice with Isaac. After commanding the servants to stay with the donkey, he tells them that “we will go to worship” and “we will return.” In both cases, Abraham uses the plural form of the verb. It is clear that Abraham has every expectation that it will be both he and Isaac that come down from the mountain. Either God will provide a substitute or God will raise Isaac from the dead — either way, both will return down from the place of sacrifice. He has confidence in the fulfillment of God’s promises even if he does not fully understand how that promise will be fulfilled.

The confidence in God’s provision is a lesson that each of us could stand to be reminded up and learn from. How often do we take things into our own hands and seek our own ways and means of providing for our needs. God is gracious and he is gracious all of the time, yet somehow we forget and we worry and we wonder whether God will provide for our needs and preserve us in a given event even when God has been faithful in the past. How short our memories are when it comes to God’s grace. How often we are more like the unthankful steward who, having been forgiven 10,000 talents, neglects to forgive 100 denarii. How shameful we can be as those who carry the greatest treasure the world has ever known in our lives and who hold the key of truth in our arms.

Abraham and Isaac thus part company with the young men and head to worship God. An interesting point to note is the language for worship that is chosen here. The Hebrew word in question is the verb hÎwDj (chawah), which in itself is not overly remarkable. What is remarkable is that it is found in a rare verbal stem known as Hishtaphel. Technically, this stem is reflexive (the action is directed back at the one performing the action) and in the middle tense (the actor is performing the action upon himself). On the surface, that also may seem unremarkable. We might also add that in Hebrew, this is the only verb found in the Hishtafel construct, which in itself again is not overly remarkable given ancient verbal forms in the Old Testament.

What is remarkable is when you put all of these pieces together in the context of the event that we have before us. How can an act of worship be reflexive — that is turned back at oneself? How also can this verb be used in blessings over God’s people, suggesting that the nations will “worship” or “prostrate themselves” before God’s own (see Genesis 27:29)? The answer is found in the realization that the Hebrew language contains numerous words to communicate the idea of worship and that in this case, the aspect of worship that is in sight is that of one’s submission to another who is greater (as is the case with the nations to Jacob’s line in Genesis 27:29). Abraham understands that the act of worship he will be performing is one that is primarily focused on his own submission to God.

Our submission to God, though an act that honors our creator, is an act that we predominantly apply to ourselves (reflexive and middle). Our nature is to do our own thing; God’s demand on us is that we submit our will to his divine will. And in our submission we worship. How often we come into worship with no submission whatsoever. We say the words and go through the actions, but we withhold the one element that God yet demands from our being: our whole person. Believer, do not hold back from God, but give yourself in faith to His call and to His demand on your life. We may mouth the words of truth, but until our life is submitted to that truth, our worship is shallow at best. Abraham’s worship on this mountain will be far from perfect (for he is fallen), but he is offering everything he has in submission to God’s call; will you offer the same?

The Festal Horns (Psalm 118:26-27)

“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of Yahweh!

We bless you from the house of Yahweh.

Yahweh is God and he has given us light—bind up the festival in thickets!

As far as the horns of the altar!”

(Psalm 118:26-27)

 

            While it may seem that these two verses are rather disparate at first glance, they are actually linked together by a common theme upon closer inspection.  Verse 26 begins with a wonderfully Messianic statement: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of Yahweh!”  This statement, of course, will later be used by the crowds as they come to greet Jesus at his triumphal entry into Jerusalem just prior to his crucifixion.  It is a statement that has a clear hope toward the Messiah, and in the context of the “hosannas” that precede it, it is looking toward the Messiah’s kingly office and saving work.  Notice, though, the singular use of the Hebrew participle:  “blessed is the one…”  This should not be seen as an error or as a generalization, but should be recognized as a very individualistic statement.  Blessed is the one, the person, the individual, who comes in Yahweh’s name, representing him to the people of Israel.  All hail the king who comes—all hail Yahweh’s anointed one!

            As we move on in the psalm, though, there is a shift in verse 26 to the plural that continues through verse 27.  The psalmist, being a good southerner (southern Israel, that is…) says, “We bless y’all from the house of Yahweh.”  Sometimes in English, we miss the plural use of the second-person verb, but here we have the transition.  The rest of this passage is not so much focused on the “one” coming in, but all of the believers—all of the faithful—coming in to God’s house to worship—all faithfully hoping and praying for the coming Messiah.  How these festivals looked toward the fulfillment of this ancient promise; how sad it is that when the one who fulfilled that promise came, the Jewish leaders rejected him and put him to death.  How narrow-sighted we can become when we are more concerned with our own agenda and tradition than with the truth.

            So how does verse 27 tie into this picture.  The first thing we must note is the very general principle that the festivals of ancient Israel all revolved around various sacrifices for sin and guilt.  In and of themselves, the sacrifices had no power; it is the sacrifice of Christ, once and for all times, that gave efficacy to the older animal sacrifices.  The sacrifices of the animals served two important functions: first, they were meant to show the horrific nature of sin that would require such a bloody sacrifice and second, they were designed to point toward Christ’s sacrifice to come.  And because there is surety in the promises of God, these sacrifices could be performed earlier with effectiveness because of the absolute certainty that Christ was coming to fulfill what the earlier sacrifices only symbolized—a substitutionary and propitiatory atonement for sins through the blood of Jesus.  Thus, the people looked forward to and celebrated these times as they represented forgiveness from sin, which separated them from a holy and righteous God.

            Secondly, notice the language of this verse as we have translated it: “Bind up the festival in thickets!”  Usually, this is translated in terms of binding up the festival sacrifice in cords, but that is not what the text says precisely.  First of all, the term gx; (chag) refers to the festival as a whole, not the specific sacrifice on the altar.  One could make the assertion that the heart of the festival as a whole is the sacrifice, making the language idiomatic (using language that reflects the whole to speak of the central sacrifice).  I think that this misses what the psalmist is seeking to emphasize.  The language that speaks of the whole being used in the context of the central sacrifice can also be used to make the point that all that is done in the festival is sacrifice.  Given that this is a Hallel Psalm, it seems quite reasonable to see this whole psalm as a sacrifice of praise to our God—that indeed, all that is done, from the streaming down of the people into Jerusalem, to the sacrifices on the altar, to the rejoicing on the trip home—all of that was connected to this festival was a sacrifice of praise to our God.

            We need to park here for a few minutes and remind ourselves of the evangelistic nature of so many of these Hallel Psalms.  One thing that most believers forget is that they are being watched by an unbelieving world.  One of the methods by which we witness the gospel is the way by which we live our daily life.  Sure, we may witness to them by sharing our testimony, gospel tracts, and offering short Bible studies, but what impact will that witness have if they see us dragging our feet Sunday mornings on the way to church?  If they see you grumbling all of the time, what will attract them to the kind of life you are living?  Beloved, do not forget that part of your witness is the joy and peace that the watching world observes as you live out your faith day to day, and imagine the power of your witness if your unbelieving neighbors see you excited about going to church on Sunday mornings! 

            What then about the language of the “thicket”?  The word that is used (and is often translated as “cords”) is the term tAb[‘ (avoth).  Literally, this term refers to branches of trees or bushes, like a thicket in the woods.  The idea of the sacrifice being bound in a thicket had significant theological connotations for the Jewish people, for Abraham, when taking his son up on the mountain for sacrifice, found a ram caught in the thicket to be sacrificed instead of his son (see Genesis 22).  The idea of a sacrificial animal caught in a thicket, then is connected to the idea of God’s providing of a sacrifice (certainly and ultimately fulfilled in the sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ, the Messiah).  In the context of the festivals, indeed the provision of sacrifice was a provision that was seen as divine mercy and providence, not one of human works.  Thus, the sacrifice of praise, from beginning to end, was taken to the horns of the altar, from entry to sacrifice to exit—a sacrifice to the Lord. 

One final note about the language of the “horns of the altar.” While we don’t know the origin of the tradition, it seems that in Ancient Israel, people held the belief that clinging to the horns of the altar would provide them sanctuary and refuge from their oppressors.  In 1 Kings 1:49-53, we find Adonijah, in fear of Solomon, running and clinging to the horns of the altar for protection.  Soon afterward, as recorded in 1 Kings 2:28-35), we also find Joab doing the same.  It seems that Solomon puts an end to this tradition, for while he pardons Adonijah, he has Joab slain while still clinging to the altar’s horns. In a similar vein, though this is a negative example, when God speaks through the prophet Amos, commanding him to speak of the judgment that is coming upon the people, one thing he states is that he will “cut off” the horns of the altar at the time of said judgment, implying that the presence of the horns on the altar was at least symbolic of God’s protection for his people—that in this judgment that is coming, there will be no place of refuge for the people to go (see Amos 3:14).  True refuge is in the arms of the redeemer. 

Lastly, we would be remiss if we did not make mention of the language of God having given his people light.  This, of course, carries with it a double reference.  First, it looks back to the creation account where on the very first day of creation, God said, “Be light!” and it was.  Indeed, even before the sun or the stars were brought into being, God revealed the light of his glory, shining forth upon creation.  In addition, light is a major Biblical theme that is connected with truth.  From what other place do God’s people gain truth?  It is found in God’s word and in God’s word alone.  Yes, we may glean some things from the natural world around us, but unless they are interpreted through the light of God’s word, what is learned is shadowy and incomplete light indeed.  It is God alone who dispenses truth and wisdom, and God has revealed that within his wonderful and glorious Word—indeed, the Word, the Bible, which points to the one who is the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, the revelation of the glory of God.  Beloved, let every moment of our worship reflect the joy we have in Jesus Christ in such a way that when the unbelieving world sees us, they see something in us that they don’t have, but want—and are drawn to Christ as a result.  Rejoice, loved ones, rejoice in your Savior, that others may want to do so as well!

We praise thee, O God! For thy Spirit of light,

Who has shown us our Savior and scattered our night.

Hallelujah! Thine the glory,

Hallelujah! We sing;

Hallelujah!  Thine the glory,

Our praise now we bring.

-William Mackay

The Contagiousness of Worship! (New Song, part 11)

“The Contagiousness of Worship”

 

            Worship, when it is filled with the Holy Spirit, is contagious.  I expect that this is part of the reason that the scriptures emphasize that believers are to live within a covenant community.  Not only can we support one another, but in our joined worship, we enable each other and lift each other up.  I don’t expect that this principle could be displayed any more graphically than it is displayed here at the end of Revelation, chapter 5.  As soon as the twelve elders finish their song (which we have been looking at), they are joined by the four living creatures, the four cherubim, that are around the throne.  Then they are joined by “myriads of myriads” of angels.

            If you are interested in mathematics, a myriad is 10,000.  Thus, a myriad of myriads, would be 10,000 times 10,000, or 100,000,000.  And John describes “myriads of myriads,” both being plural.  Thus, if we take this number literally, there are hundreds of millions of angels around the throne singing praise (this would require a choir loft that was 10 miles long and 10 miles deep!).  Regardless of whether you take this number literally or figuratively as an uncountable number, it is one heck of a large chorus!

            I had the blessing a number of years ago to participate in a evening worship service at a youth retreat where there were an estimated 90,000 youth and adults—all lifting their praises to heaven.  It was a beautiful thing to behold.  In Exodus 15, we are told that when the Israelites had crossed over the Red Sea safely, they sang praise to God—the men being led by Moses and the women by Miriam.  We can safely assume that there were at least a million people present at this event.  The sound of their voices must have shook the earth!  Now multiply that and imagine for a moment hundreds of millions of angelic voices lifted up in perfect harmony to our Lord and God!  What an amazing thing that must have been for John to witness! 

            And if that wasn’t enough, all of creation lifted its voice to join the heavenly song!  True worship is contagious, oh believer, what joy you have to look forward to!  This chapter closes appropriately, indeed.  Once this amazing chorus finishes it’s last verse, the four cherubim around the throne, say, “Amen!”  And the elders fall on their faces and worship.  Loved ones, this is what God has planned for you.  Don’t be too busy worrying about the individual blessings that are promised in scripture—in comparison to this—they are nickels and dimes.

O For a thousand tongues to sing

my great Redeemer’s praise,

the glories of my God and King,

the triumphs of his grace.

 

Hear him, ye deaf; his praise ye dumb,

your loosen’d tongues employ;

ye blind, behold your Savior come;

and leap, ye lame, for joy.

-Charles Wesley

The Ransom Paid! (New Song, part 5)

“The Ransom Paid”

 

            We must be careful when we talk about the ransom to be paid, or the debit owed, because we must be absolutely clear as to whom that ransom was paid to.  Through the history of the church, some have argued that Jesus’ death was a ransom paid to the Devil for sin, to redeem his people from the clutches of the enemy.  Loved ones, this theology is wrong, for God owes no one, especially not the devil, anything at all.  Scripture tells us that God chose the elect even before he began creating, which means that he chose the elect before there was sin in the world and before there was any need for a ransom.

            Yet, there is a debit that is owed, and that is a debit that we owe to God.  In ancient days, when countries were at war with each other, if one country was loosing badly and wanted to bring an end to the warfare, they would sue for peace.  They would pay a large sum of money to the other nation, and the war would be considered over.

            In a way, that is the same with us.  We, in our sin, have been rebels against God for hundreds of generations.  Our sin is an affront to a Holy and Righteous God, and there is a just penalty—a price—that is owed to God as a result.  The promise is that no matter what we do, and no matter how good we are, we can never hope to repay that debit.  Not even someone like Mother Theresa or William Carey could do it.  Yet, Jesus chose to do it on behalf of those who put their faith in him as Lord and Savior—the elect.  And, oh how grateful we should be!

            John tells us that Jesus is the propitiation for our sin (1 John 2:2).  Propitiation is different from atonement.  Atonement is the making of peace between two parties.  Propitiation is the act that brings atonement.  We stand convicted and guilty of sin.  Jesus acknowledges that and he acknowledges the price we owe as a result.  And Jesus paid the price, beloved; he paid it all.

For nothing good have I

whereby your grace to claim—

I’ll wash my garments white

in the blood of Calvary’s Lamb.

Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe;

sin had left a crimson stain,

he washed me white as snow.

-Elvina Hall

Jesus Was Slain! (New Song, part 4)

“Jesus Was Slain”

 

            To those who would deny the crucifixion, this song affirms even this gruesome detail of Jesus’ ministry.  Without the shedding of blood, there can be no forgiveness of sins (Hebrews 9:22); each year, the priest, on the day of atonement, would slay a lamb for the forgiveness of the people’s sins (Exodus 30:10), and Jesus has become that lamb for all of the elect (Matthew 26:28), and as Jesus’ sacrifice is perfect and effective, it is a sacrifice that never needs repeating (Hebrews 9:25-26).

            In addition, it is a reminder to the historicity of the crucifixion.  So many liberals would simply say that there was no real Jesus of history, and if there really was, he wasn’t anything like the Jesus we find in the Bible.  Friends, ignore their lies.  This song, as does all of scripture, affirms the historical sacrifice of Jesus.

            Friends, Jesus was willing to pay a gruesome price for the redemption of believers.  If you are a believer, born again by the Spirit in Jesus Christ, then he paid a terrible price for your eternal redemption.  Yet, This is something that Jesus gladly did.  Don’t take it for granted.  It is too easy to relegate the words of scripture to a list of abstract concepts.  There was nothing abstract about Jesus.  He lived and he died, living in this world as you and I.  He was slain for the sins of you and me.  Yet, he arose, and therein lies our hope, for he has promised that if we put our faith in him as our Lord and Savior, then he will raise us as well on the last day.

Death cannot keep his prey—

Jesus, my Savior,

he tore the bars away—

Jesus, my Lord.

Up from the grave he arose,

with a mighty triumph o’er his foes.

He arose a victor from the dark domain,

and he lives forever with his saints to reign.

He arose!  He arose!

Hallelujah!  Christ arose!

-Robert Lowry