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Praying the Psalms

Praying With A Sincere Heart – Psalm 17:1-5

Wesley Study BibleThe Wesley Study Bible contains this little overview of the themes of Psalm 17:

Has anyone ever said to you, “Life is not fair,” and you thought, “Well, it should be!”? Life is filled with ups and downs, times when what seems fair to you is not fair to another. Psalm 17 begins with “Listen to what’s right, LORD; pay attention to my cry!” (17:1a). This is a prayer for deliverance from the wicked and for the freedom to live in God’s righteousness. While life is not fair all the time, it is right at all times to pray to God for deliverance from wrongdoing and for justice for all the children of God.

The Psalmist (David, we are told) begins by declaring his own faithfulness. Why would God want to listen to those who are not faithful to God’s purposes? Why would God listen to the deceitful? Surely God hears the prayers of the repentant and remorseful, but sincerity of heart is always a precondition of effective prayer. (more…)

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It Matters What God You Trust – Psalm 115:8, 9.

psalmsThere is a progression of thought in Psalm 115 that is easy to follow. The thoughts move forward in a series of steps. Here’s how it has gone thus far:

  • Step one: Glory belongs to God and not to the nation (v. 1). (See: No Glory to Us and Glory to God’s Name.)
  • Step two: Why should the nations say ‘Where is there God?’ (v.2).
  • Step three: What Israel’s God is Like (v. 3). (See: The God Who Can’t Be Manipulated.)
  • Step four: What the nations’ gods are like (vv. 4-8).
  • Step five: A call for Israel to renew its trust in Yahweh (vv. 9-11).

So, now the Psalm turns from reflections on whatever misfortune has come upon them, to an affirmation of renewed hope in their God. (more…)

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The God Who Cannot Be Manipulated – Psalm 115:2-8

Hebrew_bible_4I believe Psalm 115 was written in the light of the memories of the nation’s defeat and exile. It may be that this was a Psalm that was part of the worship of the Second Temple, after Israel was restored as a nation. Of course, I have no way of knowing this. But, it appears to me from the language and sentiments of this Psalm, that this arises from a nation that has known defeat.

Israel was brought low. They knew themselves to be God’s people, but they now know that their status of being the “favored of God” was no guarantee against failure and defeat and suffering. Their connection with God did not save them from misfortune. They broke the covenant and they were brought low. (more…)

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Glory to God’s Name – Psalm 115:1

hebrew-scrollI’ve previously mentioned one of the things that makes Psalm 115:1 so interesting to me. It reflects something I see in the Old Testament generally: these writings were not written to glorify Israel or glorify its heroes and leaders and prophets. They were written to glorify God — and are surprisingly honest about the faults and failings of the nation and of the people. Salvation’s glory goes to God alone.

And, that is quite an amazing thing: this was the national literature of the people of Israel. These were the writings that were carefully copied and recopied and handed down so that the descendants of Israel could discover and rediscover their identity.

לֹא לָנוּ יְהוָה לֹא לָנוּ כִּי־לְשִׁמְךָ תֵּן כָּבוֹד עַל־חַסְדְּךָ עַל־אֲמִתֶּךָ
“Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness.” (NRSV)

As I think about it, this single verse is so remarkable to me. Don’t misunderstand. It’s not that it’s unique, out-of-place, or unusual in any way. No. It fits well with the over-all perspectives of the Hebrew Bible. It is remarkable for stating so simply — and so briefly — some of the unique characteristics of the Old Testament. (more…)

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Keeping Justice & Righteousness – Psalm 106:3

Hebrew-MS-PsalmsIt is characteristic of Hebrew poetry to rhyme (so to speak) thoughts rather than sounds. This is called “Hebrew Parallelism.” To oversimplify: it is the practice of repeating the thought of the first line in the second. Thus, the writer expresses the same thought in different words.

This is very common in the Psalms.

Thus, one line of a poem will often comment on another: expanding or clarifying the meaning.

אַשְׁרֵי שֹׁמְרֵי מִשְׁפָּט עֹשֵׂה צְדָקָה בְכָל־עֵת

“How blessed are those who keep justice,
Who practice righteousness at all times!”
(NASB)

Again, the Psalms are pointing us to the Way of Blessedness. Psalm 1 has tipped us off that this is the major theme of the whole book of Psalms. This is not conceived in the typically popular-religion terms of Salvation: where the whole point of faith is just meeting the terms of Eternal Life. This is about living in the realm of present blessing. This is about the life of faith.

(more…)

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No Glory to Us! – Psalm 115:1

One of the remarkable things about the Bible is it’s willingness to expose the weaknesses, errors, and sins of its major characters. One of the especially endearing features of the Old Testament is its openness about its heroes flaws   — and of the flaws and failures of the nation as a whole. This is a poor piece of propaganda for the nation — we see its sins and its errors and its flaws. It is not propaganda. It is not an apology for the nation at all. It is not a glorification of its heroes. We see them as deeply flawed. It is a glorification of God’s character and grace.

לֹא לָנוּ יְהוָה לֹא לָנוּ כִּי־לְשִׁמְךָ תֵּן כָּבוֹד עַל־חַסְדְּךָ עַל־אֲמִתֶּךָ
“Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness.” (NRSV)

Adam Clarke (1760–1832)

Adam Clarke (1760–1832)

Adam Clarke paraphrases the first part of this verse this way:

We take no merit to ourselves; as thine is the kingdom, and the power in that kingdom, so is thy glory.

In the Old Testament, even the official religion and ritual of the people comes under heavy criticism:

“Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation — I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:10-17 NRSV) (more…)

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Remembrance Inspires Praise – Psalm 135:13-21

Hebrew-MS-PsalmsThis is essentially a Psalm of praise. We are called into praise from the very opening “Hallelujah” (praise Yah). So, it is a song of worship and it calls us into an attitude of worship. As Adam Clarke says: “It is an exhortation addressed to the priests and Levites, and to all Israel, to publish the praises of the Lord.”

The opening verses are an exhortation to worship.

Verses 3-5, and 6, 7 extol God’s greatness.

Verses 8-12 remind the people of Israel of God’s saving acts in their history: their deliverance from Egypt and the defeat of legendary kings. Then, they are called again to praise.

Remembrance has a significance for our faith. it is good to recount for ourselves the answered prayers we have experienced — and the unexpected blessing of God on our lives. The Bible is a book of remembrance: recounting the deeds of the Lord God in times past, as a way of illuminating our lives in the present. We know God through what God has done. For Christians, it is the story of Jesus — before any other — that calls forth our praise.

And, so it is that in this psalm, the remembrance of God’s deliverance in the past, calls forth praise. (more…)

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The Power of the Redeemer God – Psalm 135:8-12

Psalm 135 begins with praise to God. God is described in His role as Creator — who has power over everything. But, now, in verses 8-12, attention turns to the particular grace shown to the nation of Israel. The great God of Creation has shown particular favor on the nation of Israel.

hebrew-scrollThis is part of the essential message of the Bible: God has made God’s very self known to us through a particular people — through particular events in history — and especially through Jesus Christ. Theologians sometimes refer to the scandal of particularity in the incarnation of Jesus Christ — that a particular person at a particular place and time has become the hope and salvation for all people. (more…)

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The Power of the Creator God – Psalm 135:6,7

If we are to follow God, if we are to trust God, we must have some assurance about God’s character. It is only natural that Bible often spends time with this issue. If we are to trust in God we need some assurance also of God’s power. Is God able to uphold us through the difficulties of life? To me, these are the issues addressed in Psalm 135:7,8.

lightening-and-rainWhich brings me back to the circumstances that made Psalm 135 so vivid to me in the first place. I started reading and meditating on this psalm on a stormy morning. There was a thunderstorm raging outside. And, it is clear that the Psalmist saw the power of God in the thunderstorm. It was not an unruly, threatening natural event — somehow the thunderstorm was also under the sovereign power of God.

So there is no need to ultimately fear what would otherwise seem powerful, unruly or chaotic — all the powers of this world are under God’s overruling power. They reflect the power of God — for God is the Creator of all that is. (more…)

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What God Do You Worship? – Psalm 135:5

psalmsAs so often in the Psalms, the words of Psalm 135:5 are a call to worship.

כִּי אֲנִי יָדַעְתִּי כִּי־גָדוֹל יְהוָה וַאֲדֹנֵינוּ מִכָּל־אֱלֹהִים
“For I know that the Lord is great; our Lord is above all gods.”

In this verse both the personal name of God (יְהוָה) Yahweh and the term “Lord” (אָדוֹן) adon appear. In the original language the words lie side by side: as if to emphasize that it is Yahweh and none other who is Lord above all other powers.

As I understand it, the word “worship” comes from the old English term worth-ship. Worship recognizes the worthiness and power of the God we know through Jesus Christ.

Worship acknowledges that I am not at the center of the universe: God is. Worship works against narcissistic self-absorption. It says I have a Creator. It says there is One who is greater than I am. It calls me into relationship with the One who is greater than I am. It calls me into the Presence of the One who is greater than all people — and all the powers of this world. (more…)

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A Hunger for Worship – Psalm 135:1-4

lightening-and-rainI remember the morning (a few years ago) when Psalm 135 became memorable to me. I started reading and meditating on this psalm on a stormy morning. There was a thunderstorm raging outside. And, I slowly read these lines:

“He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth; he makes lightnings for the rain and brings out the wind from his storehouses.” (v.7 NRSV)

So, now, when I read this again, I am reminded of that morning.

But, for now, let’s begin at the beginning. Notice how it starts. (more…)

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A Prayer from the Darkness – Psalms 25:16-18

There are times when God seems absent. It seems that direction and blessing are gone. We have no sense that our prayers are being heard. We may be in a time of stress and trial, where there seems to be no relief in sight. Service that formerly brought us joy becomes dry and unrewarding. And we ask: Why?

candle-tipAt this point, the theological knowledge of God’s Omnipresence doesn’t help. This tells us that God is theoretically present. But, since the evidences of God’s favor seem missing from our life, this theoretical knowledge is no comfort. If God is present, why does God seem to be standing apart from us?

The Psalms often speak of these times. There is no denial here. The reality is that God’s most devoted followers sometimes go through dark times when God seems absent.

I have often reflected on this. It seems strange to me, but it is true: there have been seasons of blessing and seasons of darkness. I don’t know why. There have been times when I seemed to be living under a curse. Then, there have been times of blessing. And, it often doesn’t seem to make sense. I’ve never been able to connect these times of curse with moral faults either — something I notice Job’s companions tried to do for also him — and failed. Times of darkness happen unexpectedly, without warning or underlying reason. (more…)

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A Prosperity Gospel – Psalms 25:13-15

psalmsinhebrewChristian readers need to continually remind themselves: the Old Testament believers had no developed doctrine of the afterlife. Whereas, in much of Christianity the idea of the afterlife — of rewards and punishments in the world to come — dominates the thinking of believers. This has become such a commonplace idea in Christianity, we must consciously remind ourselves that it is missing (for the most part) from the thinking of the Old Testament writers.

It’s not just Christians who may be surprised — or even shocked — by the absence of this theme. There are some observers who have theorized that religion exists as a way of addressing the fear of death. If that were the case, it would be impossible to account for the Jewish religion in Old Testament times (or: the religion of the ancient Greeks at the time of Homer, either. Just read The Iliad sometime.).

Because the believers of Old Testament times had no developed doctrine of the afterlife, they tended to see the issues of right & wrong / rewards & punishments as playing themselves out in this life. You can see this clearly in the book of Proverbs, for example: do right and things will go well for you, do wrong and you will suffer. (more…)

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A Forgiving God – Psalm 25:11, 12

forgivenessForgiveness — the pardon of sins — is a central issue in Christianity. Jesus has made it so — and has taught us to pray: “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

Yet, it is also such a difficult issue. When there is a deep wound, the pain is still there, and the anger still arises. In times like this, we wonder: do the words mean anything? When time and time again, you have to pray “Lord, give me the grace to forgive my enemy” you have to wonder if there is ever hope for you. There have been many times, when I have wondered this about myself.

And, I know I’m not alone in having this problem. Those people who have done things that have caused wounds — especially those who have done it quite deliberately and knowingly — are hard to forgive. There are people I know who have been treated unfairly and unjustly. There are people I know who have been abused. And, the problem with forgiveness is that it seems to say that all that was okay. To let go of the anger and the outrage seems to give in to injustice — to give permission for their abuser to do it again to someone else. (more…)

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The Paths of the Lord – Psalm 25:8-10

psalmsSome people think that if they can just find God’s perfect will then their life would be easier — problems, setbacks, and disappointments would be eliminated.

Really?

I don’t know where such ideas come from — but a moment of thought will dispel them. The great Bible characters did not have lives that were devoid of difficulties or setbacks or griefs or disappointments. If this did not happen with them, how can I reasonably expect it for myself? Jesus grieved over Jerusalem. The apostle Paul knew setbacks and discouragements in his ministry. How can I suppose my life can be free from such things?

The path of the Lord is not easy, it is worthwhile. Those who choose to live as Christ has taught make a positive contribution to life — to their own life and to the lives of others. We move along a difficult path characterized by faith and love and hope. And, by doing so, we bring more faith and hope and love into the world. (more…)

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