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Summaries, Psalms 141-145

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Psalm 141 asks God to help the psalmist remain faithful.  It opens with a request to God to attend to the psalmist prayer the way He does to the offerings made at the tabernacle/temple.  The psalmist then asks God to help him keep his speech, thoughts, and friendships from evil.  It’s better to be rebuked by the righteous than to be favored by the wicked!  Indeed, the psalmist hates the wicked and anticipates that the powerful people who help them will be destroyed. 

Nonetheless, at the present time, the psalmist has been left without protection, close to death.  In his trouble, he looks to God and trusts in His protection.

Psalm 142 also looks to God for help in trouble.  The psalmist expresses his sorrow to God because he knows God sees the way forward for him.  This is important because the psalmist’s enemies have set traps for him and his friends have abandoned him.  In these dire circumstances, the psalmist has no choice but to cry to God.  Only God can rescue him from persecution and prison, and if He does, the psalmist will give thanks to Him.

Psalm 143 has similar content.  The verses to our hymn “I Close My Eyes” are taken from Psalm 143:1, 10, and 8.  In the psalm, the psalmist asks for God to hear and answer him rather than judging him for his sins.  The psalmist’s enemies have oppressed him, and he is distressed.  In these circumstances, he thinks about what God has done before and longs for Him.  He pours out his soul before God and hopes that He will answer him and lead him to safety.  Ultimately, the psalmist is confident that God will answer him.

Psalm 144 is a martial psalm.  It begins with David expressing his gratitude to God for helping him fight and protecting him.  He marvels that God would expend such care on him.  Next, he invites God to help him in battle.  If God does, he will praise Him.  The psalm concludes by asking for several blessings:  rescue from enemies, many children, agricultural prosperity, and peace.

Psalm 145 rejoices in God’s goodness and power.  The psalmist begins by promising to praise God forever because of His greatness.  God is so great that His praise will continue through all successive generations.  In addition to being great, He also is kind and compassionate.  His people will continue to praise Him because His kingdom will last forever.  God protects and provides for everyone, loves the righteous, hears their prayers, and judges rightly between them and the wicked.  Therefore, He should be praised forever.

Both/and Sins and Modesty

Friday, December 20, 2019

Several weeks ago, I stumbled across one of those online debates on modesty that have become drearily familiar since the advent of social media.  On the one hand, you have the don’t-dress-like-a-hussy folks who claim that women who dress in revealing clothing make men lust after them.  On the other hand, you have the I-can-dress-however-I-want people who retort that those nasty men need to keep their eyes and their thoughts to themselves.  On and on it goes, with both sides talking at rather than talking to each other.

The problem is that the whole conversation reflects an ethical blind spot.  For some reason, we want to pin the blame on either the scantily-clad woman or the lustful man without acknowledging that in that scenario, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

First of all, it’s undeniably true that women (and men, though all the New-Testament modesty passages are addressed specifically to women) need to dress modestly, in a way that draws attention to their virtues rather than their assets.  This is true whether those assets are wealth (as is the case in 1 Timothy 2) or a healthy young body.  Any woman of God who dresses (whether intentionally or unintentionally) in a way that attracts notice to her outside rather than her inside is doing wrong.

The same is true of the man who looks with lust on a woman (or anybody who looks with lust on anybody else).  As per Matthew 5:28, that’s committing adultery in your heart.  It’s black-letter sin.

Both of these things are true regardless of what anybody else does.  A woman who dresses inappropriately has still done wrong even if all the men in her vicinity are godly and take up an examination of the ceiling tiles rather than her costume.  On the other side of the coin, a man who chooses to lust after women who are modestly attired still has done wrong too.

Neither party becomes less culpable simply because someone else also is behaving badly.  Yes, O immodestly dressed woman, that icky gross man needs to quit fantasizing about you, but you need to start taking your fashion cues from the Lord, not the world.  Yes, O lustful man (or indignant female relative of lustful man), she shouldn’t be dressing like that, but even if every woman on the planet starts parading around stark naked, their choices do not justify your lust!

In short, when it comes to modesty and lust, all of us need to stop worrying so much about what others are doing and start worrying about what we ourselves are doing.  The decisions of others may make it harder for us to be righteous, but they cannot make it less imperative.  We need to make sure that our clothing reveals Christ instead of ourselves, and we also must make sure that He reigns in our hearts instead of sin.  Looking to excuse our sin because of the sin of others will get us nowhere.

David, Goliath, and Spiritual Gifts

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Recently, one of the brethren at Jackson Heights preached a sermon on David and Goliath.  Though this is a familiar topic, he began it in an unusual way.  He prefaced his discussion of the events of 1 Samuel 17 by reading 1 Samuel 16:13.  He noted that from the time of his anointing, David was a spiritually gifted young man.

I think it’s likely that David’s giftedness had a far greater impact on his encounter with Goliath than we normally credit.  Perhaps the problem is that we limit our awareness of spiritual gifts to the named gifts of the New Testament:  tongues, prophecy, and so forth.  David certainly was a prophet, but that didn’t help him a whole lot with his giant problem!

However, the Old Testament reveals that spiritual gifts could have physical dimensions.  Most notably, Samson was a man who was able to do great feats of strength through the Spirit of the Lord.  Similarly, in 1 Kings 18, Elijah is able to outrun Ahab in his chariot because “the hand of the Lord” was upon him.

David makes similarly impressive claims about his own divinely bestowed abilities in the Psalms.  In Psalm 18:29, he claims the ability to charge and defeat large groups of enemies and to leap over walls.  Vs. 33-34 claim that he has received the gifts of surefootedness, battle training, and superhuman strength from God.  Claims like these appear in other Davidic psalms.

Traditionally, I’ve read these things as poetic license, hyperbole.  Perhaps not.  In fact, in light of David’s resume claims in 1 Samuel 17:34-37, probably not.  There, David discusses his ability to fight and kill multiple lions and bears in defense of his father’s flock. 

On our recent family vacation out West, I saw two bears.  I saw them from a great distance, and I was quite happy about that.  Bears are big, fast, tough, and designed by God to kill animals about the size of a human being.  I have no interest in fighting a bear with anything less than a large-caliber firearm.  Ditto for lions.

David, on the other hand, as a kid, is challenging, fighting, and killing lions and bears up-close and personal.  He is grabbing the lion and the bear under the chin with one hand and hitting it over the head until it dies with the other.  He’s not doing this with a sword or an axe.  He’s doing it with a stick.

That ain’t natural, folks. 

In short, it seems likely that David was already a supernaturally enhanced warrior by the time of his trip to the valley of Elah, and he knew it.  What’s more, all the Israelites who heard his story and believed him knew it too.  They were a lot savvier about what was and was not possible in hand-to-hand combat than we are. 

For that matter, despite the fame of David’s use of the sling, I doubt things would have gone a whole lot differently if David had closed with Goliath instead.  A bear can probably take as much punishment as an economy-sized armored human, and both the lion and the bear are faster.  Goliath taunted David for treating him like a dog, but David likely would have beaten him like a dog.

All of this puts a different spin on the narrative of David’s faith in this story.  Certainly David spoke and acted as a young man of faith.  However, his faith was neither foolish nor unfounded.  He knew that God could help him to do things no other man could do, he had experienced God’s help, and he was confident that God would help him again. 

Today, God calls us to a faith that is similarly well reasoned.  If we rush blindly into X, confident that God will help us to do X even though He has given no indication of it, we probably will get what we deserve.  However, if we study His work and His promises and act accordingly, like David, we will find that He will not fall short of what He has promised.

Stepping Up in Discipleship

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

A few weeks ago, I preached a 20,000-foot view sermon on 2 Timothy, in which I spent a lot of time reading and a little time highlighting main themes.  The brethren here seemed pleased with that, so this evening, I’d like to return to the concept.  Let’s see what Philippians can teach us about stepping up in discipleship.

Let’s begin by reading PHILIPPIANS 1.  Here, Paul teaches us to see the world through Christ’s eyes.  Paul could have been depressed about his situation.  He was imprisoned, and his enemies were cynically using the gospel to make him look bad.  However, because he had learned Jesus’ perspective, he was able to see good in both of those things and even rejoice in them.

Next up is PHILIPPIANS 2.  This text calls us to show Christ’s humility in the way we treat one another.  It’s so easy for worldliness and selfishness to slip into the thinking of even mature Christians.  Let’s say, for instance, that the coming auditorium remodel doesn’t turn out exactly to our taste.  Are we going to be upset that we didn’t get our way, or are we going to rejoice because others in the church got theirs? 

PHILIPPIANS 3 offers us another valuable spiritual lesson.  It tells us to be willing to sacrifice anything for Jesus.  As a Jew, Paul had it all, and he gave it all up for Christ.  What’s more, it was a trade he was glad to make.  All of us are called to give up things in our lives too.  Usually, these things are minor in comparison to what Paul gave up.  Do we cling jealously to them anyway, or, like Paul, do we gladly forfeit them for Christ’s sake?

The epistle concludes with PHILIPPIANS 4.  This chapter calls us to find the solution to our problems in Christ.  If we are anxious, we can find peace in Christ.  If we are tempted, we can find strength by meditating on the things of Christ.  If we are suffering, we can find contentment in Christ.  If our hearts are set on Him, there is nothing we cannot overcome!

Summaries, Psalms 136-140

Monday, December 16, 2019

Psalm 136 is famous for being the most repetitive psalm in the entire book.  It is built around the phrase “for [God’s] steadfast love endures forever.”  “Steadfast love” (also translated as “lovingkindness”, “mercy”, and “faithful love”) is a translation of the Hebrew hesed, a word which has no English equivalent.  It combines the concepts of love and faithfulness to a covenant.  For instance, a husband who displays hesed loves his wife because of the mingling of affection and commitment.

Psalm 136 explains the work of God as the expression of His everlasting hesed.  All that He has ever done in time and space is the result of His love for and His promises to His people.  This includes His work in creation, in delivering the Israelites from bondage, in giving them the land, and in protecting them in the land.  Because He is constant in His love, He is worthy of praise.

Psalm 137 comes from the time of the Babylonian Captivity.  It describes the misery of the captives in Babylon.  The Babylonians are forcing them to sing the songs of Jerusalem even though the Jews are miserable because of Jerusalem’s destruction.  The psalm concludes with a famously raw plea to God to take vengeance on the Edomites, who cooperated with the Babylonians in destroying Jerusalem.  It expresses the wish that someone might do to the children of the Edomites as the Edomites had done to the children of the Jews—cruelly bashing their heads against rocks to kill them. 

Psalm 138 is a song of thanksgiving to God.  It praises His love and faithfulness because He answered the prayers of the psalmist.  The psalmist predicts that even the kings of the nations will praise Him because of what they have seen of His works.  Even though the psalmist’s life is troubled, God continues to protect him from his enemies.  The psalm concludes with a prayer to God to sustain His protection.

Psalm 139 praises the omniscience and omnipresence of God.  The psalmist states that God knows not only his actions, but also his thoughts.  He knows what the psalmist is going to say before the psalmist does!  Everywhere the psalmist might go, God is there with him, and nothing can conceal him from God’s eyes.  Indeed, God even knew him in his mother’s womb and watched as he was being formed there.

As a result, the psalmist values God and thinks about him all the time.  He asks God to protect him from his enemies and justifies this by pointing out his own faithfulness.  He concludes the psalm by asking God to search his heart and lead him in the paths of eternity.

Psalm 140 is another plea for God’s help in trouble.  The psalmist’s enemies are causing trouble and setting traps for him.  In such a time, the psalmist asks God to hear his prayers while not giving the wicked what they want.  In fact, he asks God to punish them instead.  He concludes the psalm by expressing confidence in God’s justice.

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