Psalm 23 contains some of the most familiar words in the Bible. They are timeless words, true and comforting in all situations, especially hard situations. Psalm 23 reminds me that God surrounds me in even the hardest circumstances.
God, the Good Shepherd, is front of me, leading the way:
He leads me beside quiet waters… He guides me along the right paths
Middle Eastern shepherds do not drive their sheep from behind as one does with cattle. Shepherds lead from the front, constantly talking and singing so their sheep can follow their voice. Jesus invites me to know his voice well so that I follow where he leads.
God, the Good Shepherd, is also beside me:
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me…
Sometimes I’m tempted to think that God will join me after I get through a hard time, as though he’s waiting to see whether I’ll pass or fail before deciding whether to reward me with his presence. But that’s a lie. The truth is that Jesus is with me through hard circumstances, closer to me than I can imagine.
God, the Good Shepherd, is also behind me:
Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life…
Just as he leads from the front, God also comes up from behind. The Hebrew word for follow can also be translated as pursue. God is not passively, distantly trailing behind; instead he is right on my heals. Jesus loves for me know that nothing can get between him and me – there’s just not enough space.
In Christ, I’m surrounded. For some that might sound threatening. I’m growing in discovering there’s no better position in which to be.
These words of Jesus spoken on the cross must be some of the most gut-wrenching words in the entire Bible. They are so shockingly different than most anything else we hear Jesus speak during his ministry. Spoken by a man in unimaginable, excruciating pain, they reveal the agony Jesus is experiencing.
And indeed, Jesus has been forsaken. He has been forsaken by the religious and political systems of his day. He has been forsaken by his closest friends. And, as he bears the sin of humanity, he is, for the first time ever, forsaken by his Father. Jesus has become sin on our behalf. Because sin can never come into God’s presence, the One bearing sin is forsaken by God.
When Jesus utters these words, people mistake them as a cry to the prophet Elijah. Jewish custom suggests that Elijah might return to earth in a crisis to help those who are righteous. So the people hear Jesus calling for help. The irony is that not only do the people misunderstand Jesus’ words as referring to Elijah, they do not see that they are the ones needing help. And the One dying on the cross is doing so to help, to rescue the unsuspecting people around him.
Did you notice that while all this is happening, an eerie darkness has fallen over the land for three hours? It’s as though creation itself cannot bear to watch. The literal darkness parallels the darkness of the forsakenness being experienced on the cross.
But, digging deeper, it turns out that forsakenness is not the end of the story. Yes, Easter is coming in the next chapter, but there is a glimmer of hope already in Jesus’ words on the cross. The words Jesus says do not just come off the cuff. Jesus is quoting Psalm 22. It’s a psalm of lament, a psalm expressing pain over things going terribly wrong. So terribly wrong that the poet feels like he has been forsaken by God. However, like most psalms of lament, Psalm 22 moves from expressions of pain to declarations of confidence in God’s deliverance. If Jesus could have, I think he would have recited the entire psalm. By quoting its opening line, yes, he describes his pain, but he is also referencing the entire psalm which also includes these lines:
…He has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help… All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him.
In a surprising way, the words of Psalm 22 on the lips of Jesus on the cross offer us hope. They help us see beyond the unjust suffering Jesus is experiencing to hear instead an expression of faith in the God who listens to cries for help and comes to rescue. That means forsakenness is not the last word in Psalm 22 nor for Jesus.
The Gospel records that Jesus speaks these words during the third hour of darkness. That means he speaks them as the darkness is beginning to break and the sky is lighting up again. The growing light reflects how Jesus’ faith in God is not misplaced. Like the darkness, the forsakenness has an ending, and God’s glory and grace will be revealed through the death and resurrection of his Son.
In the face of brokenness in the world and brokenness in my own life, my faith in God is also not misplaced. I find hope in knowing and experiencing the deep love of the Father for us, vast beyond all measure, that he should give his only Son to make a wretch – you and me – his treasure.
Last Wednesday evening, the church gathered to pray. Not a specific congregation, but a good number of the people of God from the Rock Valley area. And we prayed for Ukraine and Russia. For me personally (and as was echoed in the prayer I offered on Wednesday), a psalm and a song give me words for the situation in eastern Europe. I’d like to share them with you here.
Psalm 54 (NIV)
Can you hear God’s people in Ukraine praying these words? Can you pray these words in solidarity with them?
Save me, O God, by your name; vindicate me by your might. Hear my prayer, O God; listen to the words of my mouth. Arrogant foes are attacking me; ruthless people are trying to kill me— people without regard for God. Surely God is my help; the Lord is the one who sustains me. Let evil recoil on those who slander me; in your faithfulness destroy them. I will sacrifice a freewill offering to you; I will praise your name, Lord, for it is good. You have delivered me from all my troubles, and my eyes have looked in triumph on my foes.
Bring Peace to Earth Again
Where armies scourge the countryside, and people flee in fear; where sirens scream through flaming nights, and death is ever near: O God of mercy, hear our prayer: bring peace to earth again!
O God, whose heart compassionate bears every human pain, redeem this violent, wounding world till gentleness shall reign. O God of mercy, hear our prayer: bring peace to earth again!
In a culture that downplays sin, the concept of confession may sound like an outdated relic from the past. Yet I have found confession to be vitally important in any relationship, whether with people or with God. When I confess something, I acknowledge the mess I’ve made, admit I was wrong, and place myself in the best position to experience reconciliation with the one I wronged or hurt.
In the Bible, the psalmist writes of the pain (physical? mental? emotional?) he experienced when he tried to ignore his guilt and then of the relief he felt when he confessed:
When I kept silent, — my bones wasted away — through my groaning all day long… My strength was sapped — as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you — and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess — my transgressions to the Lord.” And you forgave — the guilt of my sin. –– Psalm 32:3‑5
It reminds me of a story told by author Mark Buchanan about Frederick the Great, the king of Prussia in the 1700s. On one occasion he was inspecting the Berlin prison. As he walked through the rows of shackled men, they fell pleading at his feet, protesting their innocence. They claimed to be falsely accused, models of virtuous living, completely innocent of all crime.
Only one man didn’t do this. Frederick called to him, “Prisoner, why are you here?”
The prisoner replied, “I robbed a man, Your Majesty.”
“And are you guilty?” asked the king.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” came the reply.
Frederick called the guard over. Pointing at the man who confessed, he said, “Release this man immediately. I will not have this scoundrel thief kept here where he might corrupt all these other fine, virtuous, and innocent men.”
That’s the lovely irony of confession: The one who actually confesses gets out of prison and goes free.
If the psalms cover all the different emotions I experience in life, chances are good that there’s at least one psalm that expresses what I’m presently feeling. But because there are so many different emotions and corresponding psalms, chances are also good that the particular psalm I read today will not directly connect with what I’m feeling. For example, today’s psalm in my daily psalm reading may be a psalm of lament which does not match my good mood and general optimism at present. Or today’s psalm may be filled with praise even though I may be nearly in tears with frustration.
There are at least two ways to deal with discrepancies between the tone of a particular psalm and how I am presently feeling. One way is to simply skip ahead to another psalm until I find and can pray one that more accurately expresses the state of my heart and mind. The despair in Psalm 22 is followed by the hope of Psalm 23. At least one line in one of those two psalms ought to resonate with me!
But a way to stick with a psalm that doesn’t happen to match my present mood is to consider how it does perfectly match the feelings of others near or far in the faith community. I may not feel like lamenting at the moment, but I can still express the lament in solidarity with sisters and brothers in Christ who are presently experiencing pain. Or if today’s psalm in my daily psalm reading is one filled with praise despite me being in foul mood, I can still read and pray it thinking of others who are having a great day, learning to thank God (and not complain to him!) for their happy circumstances. A suitable prayer to accompany reading a psalm in this way goes something like this: “God, these words do not reflect my present experience or state of mind, but there are others in the world for whom these words fit perfectly. I lift them up before you and pray these words in solidarity with them knowing we are united in Christ.”
Moreover, reading and praying a psalm that doesn’t match how I’m presently feeling may help me better identify with someone who is feeling the emotions the psalm portrays. For example, reading a pain-filled psalm may help me better understand and relate with someone who is presently filled with anguish. When I skip over such a psalm to find a cheerier portion of Scripture, I deny myself the opportunity to grow in empathy by putting myself in someone else’s shoes.
Instead of finding a psalm I can more easily relate to, I hear the Holy Spirit inviting me to read each psalm unselfishly, praying for and identifying with those for whom the words may hit closer to home. The Spirit may even surprise me from time to time by showing me how the words are more applicable to me than I originally presumed.
Years ago the Visine marketing people produced clever commercials saying that no matter what problem your eyes were having, a Visine product offered relief: Red, irritated eyes? There’s a Visine for that. Itchy, allergy eyes? There’s a Visine for that. Irritated by contact lenses? There’s a Visine for that, too.
The same marketing campaign could work for the book of Psalms: Happy with how life is going? There’s a psalm for that. In the depths of depression? There’s a psalm for that. Worried about the injustice in our society? There’s a psalm for that. Angry with God? There’s a psalm for that, too.
It was Martin Luther who made this observation: “The Psalms is the book of all saints, and everyone, in whatever situation he may be, finds in that situation psalms and words that fit his case, that suit him as if they were put there just for his sake, so that he could not put it better himself, or find or wish for anything better.”
I suspect this at least partly explains the popularity of the Psalms: Read long enough and I read myself – I read words I could have written at this very moment of my day and of my life. But more than reflections written in a journal, each psalm is inspired Scripture filled with words the Holy Spirit invites me to pray. Through the psalms, instead of bottling up what I’m feeling, I express back to God the joy or angst of my heart. I’m not left to process it on my own but to and even with the One who gave me my emotions in the first place and loves me more than words can describe.
Reading a psalm a day has been a habit of mine since before that Visine ad campaign. Try it for a while and let me know what you think of the practice. –
I don’t think I’ve ever associated Psalm 2 with Christmas before. It’s the one where God, enthroned in heaven, scoffs at sinful humanity’s futile attempts to dethrone Him.
This time of year we celebrate the arrival of King Jesus, a King greater than the Herod of His day or any other power or authority back then or since. Countless monarchs and empires have come and gone; things I have enthroned in my heart instead of Jesus have crumbled (or will crumble) into the dust. However, as God’s Son, one with Father, Jesus’ Kingship is secure. He is the ultimate fulfillment of the promise God makes in Psalm 2 to install His King on earth.
A poem I read this week in a book of Advent meditations reminds me of all this. Attributed to Daithi Mac Iomaire, it’s simply titled “The Infant King.” It leads me to worship the newborn King – the true King of kings and Lord of lords – this Christmas season.
And in the corridors of power and in the palaces of hate, the despot and his lords conspire this holy threat to liquidate; yet all the kings that e’re there were and all the princes of this earth with all their wealth beyond compare could not eclipse this infant’s birth. A million monarchs since have reigned, but vanquished now their empires vain; two thousand years, and still we bring our tributes to the Infant King. –
Years ago I memorized Psalm 1. It begins with three things people avoid if they love God. In his e-devotions the other day Dale Vander Veen offered three corresponding positives to put in place of the things Psalm 1 tells me to avoid. Dale graciously welcomed me to share them with you here.
::– –::– –::
Psalm 1:1 tells me that I must “not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers.” The “walk … stand … sit” reminded me of Chinese Christian Watchman Nee’s little book Sit, Walk, Stand.
Basing his thoughts on Ephesians, Nee turns the negatives of Psalm 1 into three positives, explaining that I sit with Christ in heavenly realms, that I am to walk with Christ in love, and that I can stand in Christ against evil. The psalmist and the apostle agree.
Blessing pours into my life and flows out of my life to others when I sit with majesty, not mockery; when I walk in love, not wickedness; and when I stand in holiness, not sinfulness.
“The Christian life consists of sitting with Christ, walking by him and standing in him. We begin by resting in the finished work of the Lord Jesus. That rest is the source of our strength for a consistent and unfaltering walk in the world. And at the end of a grueling warfare with the hosts of darkness we are found standing with him at last in triumphant possession of the field.” – – – from Sit, Walk, Stand by Watchman Nee –
My current Bible reading plan includes reading a psalm each day. The other day I was up to Psalm 41, the end of which marks the division between Book I and Book II of the Psalter.
It occurs to me that Book I (Psalms 1-41) opens and ends on a similar note, one of blessing. Psalm 1 begins with a blessing for the one who delights in the Lord and His will:
Blessed is the one who — does not walk in step with the wicked — or stand in the way that sinners take — or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the LORD, — and who meditates on his law day and night.
In short, the book of Psalms opens with a call to love the Lord our God and His ways.
It turns out that Psalm 41, the last psalm of Book I, also opens with the word “Blessed.” This time the blessing is for those who defend the powerless:
Blessedare those who have regard for the weak; — the LORD delivers them in times of trouble.
Here at the end of Book I we have a call to love the weak or, as the ESV translates it, the poor. Deliverance comes to those who love their neighbor as themselves.
“The most important [command],”
answered Jesus, “is this: — ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. — Love the Lord your God with all your heart — and with all your soul — and with all your mind — and with all your strength.’
The second is this: — ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
There is no commandment greater than these.”
Together Psalms 1 & 41 reveal the secret to a blessed life, a life marked with joy and meaning: It’s an other-focused life. Instead of focusing on myself and pursuing my own happiness, I’m called to focus on God and focus on others. Loving and serving God together with loving and serving others – that’s where I (together with God’s people for millennia) have found the blessed life. –
From time to time I need someone to whom I can confide my deepest thoughts. It is a great blessing to have such a person (wife, family member, friend, co-worker) in my life. It is an equally great blessing when someone confides in me, sharing their secret joys, dreams, disappointments, hurts.
Confiding (com + fidere = with faith) at its heart is a matter of trust. I open my heart only with those I trust. Misunderstanding, rejection, indiscretion are always the risks of confiding. David writes, “The Lord confides in those who fear him.” Solomon writes, “The Lord takes the upright into his confidence.”
Imagine that! When I fear the Lord and live uprightly, he is willing to tell me some (though certainly not all) of his secrets. He risks misunderstanding, rejection, indiscretion on my part.
What does the Lord want to confide to me? The parallel second half of the quote from David above is: “He makes his covenant known to them.” When God makes his covenant known to Abraham, he tells him twosecrets: “I will … be your God” and “I will bless you … and you will be a blessing.” Two secrets that Abraham was not to keep to himself, but spread around to others!
Perhaps God’s greatest risk in confiding in me is not that I’ll spill the beans, but that I’ll hoard them!
In Psalm 87, it’s nothing short of astonishing to read who will all be welcome in Zion, God’s holy city. The psalmist looks forward to the day when the people of Egypt (referred to as Rahab), Babylon, Philistia, Tyre, and Cush will all be counted as part of God’s people. Throughout the Bible these nations are regularly antagonistic toward Israel – distrusting and fighting one another. Yet Psalm 87 promises that it will not always be that way.
If you were to update that list of surprising people entering God’s presence with 21st century language, I suspect you might come up with the welcome statement Monica & I read at Custer Lutheran Fellowship when we worshiped there during our Black Hills getaway a few months ago. Some of the individuals or groups listed may raise an eyebrow or two – but probably not any more so than the Egyptians or Babylonians of the psalmist’s day.
This welcome statement with its specificity reminds me that the Holy Spirit seeks out and is at work in way more individuals and groups than I often give Him credit for. I’m sometimes quick to think that the problems and sins of other people are worse than my own. And so this welcome statement challenges me to reconsider whether there are people I’ve labeled as beyond God’s reach and therefore not truly welcome to worship at Trinity CRC…
— We want it to be of public record that those of different colored skin and heritage are welcome here. — We want it to be known that those who suffer from addiction to drugs and alcohol (whether recovering or not), and their families are welcome here. — We want it to be known that women and children are welcome here and that they will not be harassed or abused here. — We want it to be public record that in this congregation you can bring children to worship and even if they cry during the entire service, they are welcome. — We want it to be known that those who are single by choice, by divorce, or through death of a spouse, are welcome here. — We want it to be known that if you are promiscuous, have had an abortion, or have fathered children and taken no responsibility for them, you are welcome here. — We want it to be known that gossips, cheats, liars, and their families are welcome here. — We want it to be known that those who are disobedient to their parents and who have family problems are welcome here. — We want it to be of public record that gays and lesbians and members of their families are welcome here. — The young and old, the rich the poor, all of the broken are welcome here. — Let it be public knowledge that we at Custer Lutheran Fellowship take seriously that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. — We want it to be public knowledge that we are justified by the grace of God, which is a gift through the redemption, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. — We offer welcome here because we believe that while we were yet sinners Christ died for the ungodly. That’s us. Christ did not die for us after we showed signs of “getting it all together.” Christ loved and still shows love to us while we are yet sinners. — Sinners are welcome here – sinners like you and me, and like our neighbors. Let us not condemn the world, but let us proclaim to a broken and hurting world, God’s forgiveness and grace. — We want it to be of public record that since we are a sinful people that we will not always be as quick to welcome as we should. Let us be quick to admit our sin and seek forgiveness. — May God give us the grace to welcome and forgive one another as Christ has welcomed and forgiven us.
– (Custer Lutheran Fellowship’s welcome statement was written by their former pastor, Chuck Hazlett. I reflected on Psalm 87 back in 2013, too.) –
I learned a lot about anger while reading Glittering Vices by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung. She points out how anger is actually connected to love as it can reveal what I really care about. Anger can also provide the motivation I need to make right something that is wrong. As Prof. DeYoung writes:
Anger, when it is a holy emotion, has justice as its object and love as its root. Both love and justice are focused on the good of others… Motivated by good anger, we hunger and thirst for righteousness, an appetite that depends on justice for its object, but on love for its right expression. Anger in these cases adds energy and passion to the execution of justice. The love that underlies it, however, keeps it in check, for love does not seek to destroy the other, but to set things right. (p. 130)
Vicious, sinful anger, on the other hand, Prof. DeYoung continues, is rooted in selfishness and harms others. Here’s my favorite line in her description of when this emotion gets misdirected:
Unhinged from justice, bad anger aims at another’s injury, rather than another’s good. (p. 130)
Put less poetically, sinful anger causes more harm than good. How I need discernment to know when my anger is righteous and when it is making a hurt-filled situation worse!
Thinking about anger reminds me of this part of Psalm 103:
The LORD is merciful and gracious, – – slow to anger and abounding in love.
God’s anger is perfect, yet He is slow to get angry. My anger is imperfect. I suspect it would most often be best if I were even slower to get angry than God!