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We Should Sing More Psalms

Thursday, February 07, 2019

 

Recently, I spent a weekend down in Texas working on a project called Timeless.  It is a modern-day psalter—an adaptation of all 150 psalms into lyrical and musical forms suitable for use in a-cappella congregational worship.  Though I was happy to help, Timeless certainly isn’t my brainchild.  Indeed, it had been pursuing this goal for a dozen years before I ever encountered it.

However, the more I think about it, the better I like the idea of singing more psalms.  Anybody who pays attention to my writing on worship knows that there are two main lyrical issues that concern me:  better Biblical content and greater emotional range.  Singing more of Psalms, and especially singing paraphrases that are representative of the content of Psalms, addresses both of those concerns.

Now, it’s true that we have some psalm content in our repertoire already.  Nearly every Christian knows the likes of “Hallelujah!  Praise Jehovah!” and “The Lord’s My Shepherd”.  However, those upbeat hymns of praise and assurance give us a distorted picture of what the Psalms are like.  Most of the 150 are not upbeat and happy.  To the contrary, most psalms are laments, filled with sorrow and the struggle to find God in difficult times. 

Even our song texts that come from psalms of lamentation often manage to miss the point.  Take, for instance, the praise song “Shield About Me”.  We sing it frequently at Jackson Heights, and I like it, though the high-flying tenor line is kind of a strain for my baritone voice.  The lyrics are quoted from Psalm 3:3. 

That’s fine, as far as it goes.  I’m all about praising God as my shield, my glory, and the lifter of my head.  However, Psalm 3:3 isn’t its own proverb.  It’s in the context of Psalm 3:1-2, which reads, “O Lord, how many are my foes!  Many are rising against me; many are saying of my soul, ‘There is no salvation for him in God.’”

We would never glean it from “Shield About Me”, but Psalm 3 is another one of those psalms of lamentation.  The ascription tells us that David wrote it when he was on the run from Absalom.  These are the words of a man whose own son is trying to kill him!  The idea of God as our shield and glory and head-lifter is powerful on its own, but when it is contrasted with human faithlessness and evil, it becomes sublime.  Even if our loved ones betray us, God is still on our side!

We need to be singing things like that, though they undeniably make many Christians uncomfortable.  You know what, though?  That unpleasant emotion that makes you uncomfortable may be exactly the emotion that a brother or sister in Christ is feeling and desperately, desperately needs to sing about.  Don’t think a psalm about betrayal by a family member could be relevant?  Talk to a Christian whose spouse has cheated on them.

We live in a culture that insists on authenticity, but too often our song worship is inauthentic.  We sing as though every problem a Christian has can be solved with a pasted-on smile and a snappy two-pager.  Is it any wonder that so many Christians seem emotionally detached from our singing?  Maybe, just maybe, it would help if we invited them to sing what they were truly feeling.  Maybe it would help if we invited them to sing from the Psalms.

Psalm Summaries, Psalms 11-15

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

 

Psalm 11 is David’s appeal to God in a time when he fears that God has abandoned him.  He feels that even if he flees like a bird to the mountain of God (which is where the hymn “Flee as a Bird” comes from), the wicked will shoot him down.  He is helpless and powerless. 

However, despite his powerlessness, he still trusts in the ultimate justice of God.  He appeals to God to punish his wicked enemies according to their wickedness.  He concludes by expressing the contrasting hope that the Lord will reward the righteous in His presence.

Psalm 12 sets out the spiritual struggle of David with people who are lying about him.  In vs.1-2, he sets out the problem:  flattering and double-tongued people who trust in the power of their lies.  Vs. 3-4 appeal to God to judge those who sin with the tongue.  In vs. 5-6, David predicts God’s rescue of the poor and needy from the liars who oppress them.  He also contrasts the lies of the wicked with the pure speech of God.  The psalm concludes in vs. 7-8 with an expression of hope in the protection of God and a condemnation of the wicked whose continuing presence makes God’s help necessary.

Psalm 13 is another psalm of lamentation from David in a time when God seems absent and his enemies are all too present.  He wonders is God is going to forget and abandon him forever, giving glory to David’s enemies by default.  David predicts that if things keep going in the same direction, his enemies will kill him and boast in his death.  However, in the conclusion of the psalm, he remembers the graciousness of God’s past dealings and expresses the confidence that God will give him reason to rejoice this time too.

Psalm 14, also by David, presents a pessimistic perspective on the foolishness and wickedness of humankind.  People everywhere doubt God’s existence and give themselves over to sin.  God looks down from heaven, searching for one righteous man, but He can’t find even one.  It’s enough to make one wonder if David was writing this in 2019!

However, David points out a problem with the wicked.  In their oppression of the poor, they aren’t reckoning with God, who protects the poor.  Sooner or later, God is going to make things right.  The final verse of the psalm expresses the hope that He will do so soon.

Psalm 15 presents David’s take on a much more optimistic subject:  what it takes to dwell in the presence of God.  He tells us that God favors those who a) live righteous lives, b) are honest with themselves, c) don’t betray others, d) love the righteous and despise the wicked, e) keep their word under all circumstances, and f) don’t oppress the poor.  Do these things, and God will sustain you.

Pessimism and the Future of the Church

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

 

On my recent week-plus swing through Texas, I shared a number of meals with and otherwise talked to a number of old friends.  One of the themes of those conversations was pessimism about the future of the Lord’s church, at least in the United States. 

Admittedly, reasons for such a bleak outlook seem abundant.  Day by day, our nation appears to be growing more wicked and less tolerant of genuine Christianity.  A greater percentage than ever before of children “raised in the church” are leaving it.  Attendance is declining nationwide.  Et cetera, et cetera.

Despite all the gloomy statistics, though, I’m not convinced that the gloom is warranted.  First of all, human beings are rotten at predicting the future.  Whatever you think the world is going to be like 20 years from now, you’re almost certainly going to be wrong.  In the past 20 years, which is not all that much time as history goes, the United States has had to endure 9-11, the War on Terror, the Great Recession, and the celebrity of the Kardashians. 

The 20 years to come will hold just as many surprises, both bad and good, and anybody who tries to predict the future by extrapolating current trends is foolish.  Where will that leave the church?  Who knows!

Second, if we think the world is going to wrack and ruin, we have lots of company among God’s people in the Bible.  Some of the godly gloom-and-doomers are obvious:  Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and a host of other prophets.  Some, though, are less so.  In Psalm 12:1, David writes, “Help, Lord, for the godly man ceases to be, for the faithful disappear from among the sons of men!”  Yes, that David—the one who was about to lead Israel to the pinnacle of its righteousness and historical attainments.

Similarly, Paul has to argue in Romans 9:6, “It is not as though the word of God has failed.”  Why?  Precisely because it appeared that the word of God had failed!  Paul had seen the people of God—the Jews—reject the Anointed of God en masse.  We think of the first century as a time of tremendous success, but that’s not how it looked to the Jewish brethren alive then.  To them, it seemed as if God’s great purpose had been defeated.  Only the Holy Spirit could reveal that all along, God had been aiming at another purpose altogether.

So too today.  It may be that our purposes—for our country, for our churches, for our families—are being defeated.  However, God’s purpose is not being defeated.  I believe that He is as active in history as He ever has been, but His work today is unknowable. 

Perhaps we are on the cusp of a spiritual renaissance in this country, and God will be glorified in that.  Perhaps He is using our riches to establish first-century Christianity across the globe, and He will be glorified in that.  Perhaps He is waiting until the iniquity of the American has become full to come in judgment against us, and yes, He will be glorified in that too. 

The future is uncertain.  The victory of God is not.  We don’t have to worry about what tomorrow will bring because He’s got it under control.  Literally. 

Instead, our place is to work, not grow weary, and not lose heart.  Whatever God’s purposes may be, we know that they will always provide a place for those who hold fast to Him.

Understanding Bible Translations

Monday, February 04, 2019

 

The last time I took the pulpit here, I preached on how to step up in our Bible reading.  Much to my surprise, the part of it that attracted the most discussion afterwards was a brief comment about the translations I recommended for reading.  Lauren said there were a bunch of folks furiously scribbling down acronyms, and I had several conversations afterward about it.  One of those conversations was with Dr. Clifford, who encouraged me to preach on translations, so here I am!

Even though this sermon is not going to be about any particular Biblical text, it’s still going to be about the Bible.  After all, our faith is founded on the premise that we can read and understand the word of God for ourselves.  However, few if any of us can read the Scriptures in the original languages, so we have to rely on translations for spiritual understanding..  How reliable are they?  This evening, then, let’s see what we need to know about understanding Bible translations.

First, let’s ask WHAT A TRANSLATION IS.  This might surprise some, but I’ve seen a lot of confusion in this area from brethren, and it begins with the difference between a translation and a paraphrase.  A translation is taken from the original languages, but a paraphrase begins with an English Bible. 

Also, translation or paraphrase has nothing to do with perceived faithfulness to the text.  Let me give you an example.  Some years ago, I preached a sermon out of the NIV, and after the sermon, one of the elders of the congregation came up to me and commented on my use of a paraphrase in the pulpit.  I told him, “That’s not true.  The NIV is a translation,” which it is.  However, he still didn’t take the point.

This is important because even though there are paraphrases on the market—things like The Living Bible and the Message—most of the options we’re presented with are translations.  With the exception of a few that were translated by people with an agenda, they are good-faith efforts to make the word of God available to people who only read English.  We don’t have any perfect translations of the Bible, and some translations are better than others, but just about all of them can teach us the truth.

Despite this, there are people who try to stir up strife about translations, and most of them are people who believe that only the King James Version is the word of God.  They’re very active on social media, and they use memes like this one to cast doubt on other translations.  The NIV leaves out verses??? That must be pretty bad, right?

Actually, no.  This isn’t evidence of some subversive plot by atheists.  Instead, it’s about the manuscript evidence on which translation is based.  There weren’t as many good manuscripts available when the KJV was translated, so the translators concluded from limited evidence that those passages belonged in the Bible.  However, by the time the NIV was translated, many more manuscripts had been discovered, and its translators decided from better evidence that those passages should be excluded.  In my opinion, the NIV is right to leave those verses out!

This takes us to a discussion of TRANSLATION PHILOSOPHY.  I think if you asked most Christians what they want in a Bible translation, they would say something like, “I want a Bible that says what the original manuscripts say.”  The problem is that it’s not that easy.  Translation isn’t like solving a mathematical equation.  There is not a single right answer in every instance. 

The first way that translators have tackled the problem of saying what the text says is with word-for-word translation.  If there’s a word in Greek, the translator chooses the best English word available to represent it.  This approach tends to appeal to brethren, but there’s a problem. The languages of the Bible, like all languages, are idiomatic.  They use figures of speech.  Most of the time, if you translate an idiom literally, the result is confusion rather than enlightenment. 

Let me give you an example.  In 1 Thessalonians 4:4, Paul talks about knowing “how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor”.  I realize that I’m speaking to an audience of hardcore Bible students.  Many of you probably recall studying this text and drawing your own conclusion about the meaning of “vessel”.

However, imagine that you’re coming to the text for the first time.  Possessing one’s own vessel is a Greek idiom, but it isn’t an English one.  I would guess that if you grabbed somebody off the street and asked them to interpret 1 Thessalonians 4:4, they would probably think you were talking about a jar!

As a result, all Bible translations will, to varying degrees, also use a thought-for-thought approach.  They will tell you what they think the text means rather than what it says.  For instance, in 1 Thessalonians 4:4, the ESV takes a thought-for-thought approach and says “control his own body”, which makes a whole lot more sense to the average English speaker.  The danger, of course, is that the translators will be wrong about the meaning of the text, and the more this approach is employed, the more likely they are to be wrong.

With this in mind, let’s consider some DIFFERENT TRANSLATIONS.  When it comes to translations with which brethren are most familiar, the KJV, NKJV, NASB, and ESV are more toward the word-for-word part of the spectrum, the NLT is over toward the thought-for-thought side, and the CSB and the NIV are tweeners.

Once again, there are no wrong answers here, but of those translations, I prefer three of them:  the NKJV, the ESV, and the CSB.  Much of this has to do with publisher support.  I trust Crossway, which publishes the ESV, and Holman, which publishes the NKJV and CSB, to put out a quality product.

However, there are also things that I like about each translation too.  Let’s start with the oddball, the CSB.  Because of its translation philosophy, it reads much differently than what we’re used to.  For instance, look at the way the CSB renders Romans 8:6.  I really like this.  Rather than forcing a Greek idiom into English, it uses an English idiom to explain the Greek.  However, I decided not to adopt the CSB because it’s too different.  If I used it from the pulpit, everyone following along in their NASB’s, KJV’s, and NKJV’s would constantly be doing doubletakes.

At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got the NKJV, which is, unsurprisingly, a lot like the old KJV.  Here’s the NKJV rendering of Romans 8:6 by way of comparison.  I like the NKJV, and I’ve used it as a preaching Bible before.  However, it has the same limited textual basis as the old KJV and, like the old KJV, it includes a number of verses that I don’t think should be in the Bible.  That’s not a huge deal; it doesn’t materially affect the meaning.  However, it’s enough to lead me to look elsewhere.

That leads me to my weapon of choice, the ESV.  Here is the ESV take on Romans 8:6.  I use the ESV because it’s such a good all-rounder.  Its translators used all the best manuscripts, it reads more smoothly than the NASB, and it’s better for precise study than the NIV.  Like every translation, it has renderings that I don’t like, but all in all, I think it’s a strong contender for a Christian’s go-to Bible.

The Son of Man in Psalm 8

Friday, February 01, 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unlike many of its neighbors in the early part of Psalms, Psalm 8 is an apparently straightforward song of praise to God.  In vs. 1-2, it points out His power, revealed both in the glories of creation and in His exaltation of the lowly over the wicked.

The key question of the psalm appears in vs. 3-4.  Given that God is so great, why does He have any regard for mankind ("the son of man" in v. 4), which is much less important than He is?  The rest of the psalm points out that God's regard is evident in His blessings.  He has made mankind the most exalted of the earthly beings, crowning us with glory and honor, and given us dominion over all other earthly creatures.

Makes sense, right?  However, in Hebrews 2, the writer reveals that the psalm has a hidden meaning.  It isn't only about the lower-case-s son of man, us.  It's about the capital-s Son of Man, Jesus.  Even though Jesus was not originally lower than the angels, He was made to be so.  

Like us, He tasted mortality, but after His death, He was crowned with glory and honor and given dominion not only over the creatures of the earth, but over all of God's creation.  However, we still await the time when everything will be put under His feet.  Death has yet to be subjected to Him.

All of this might seem like a subversion of Psalm 8's original point, but in truth it confirms it.  It is ultimately Jesus' death on our behalf, not our earthly preeminence, that proves how much God cares for us.  In Hebrews 2:10, the writer observes that Jesus brought many sons to glory.  Our salvation is the greatest way that God crowns us with glory and honor, all by causing His Son to become one of us and die for us.

In response to this, we can only echo Psalm 8's closing thoughts:  "O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth!"

 

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