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Praying the Psalms

How Does God Think of Us? – Psalm 25:6,7

How would we want other people to think of you? Wouldn’t you want them to think the best?

For some people it becomes an obsession: wondering what other people think of them. It is a source of anxiety and shame. Most of the time the truth of the matter is: they don’t spend much time thinking about us at all. And, how much does it matter anyway? Should it?

Hebrew_bible_4How do we want God to think of us?

That can be a disturbing line of thought. Many people I know were raised in a hellfire and brimstone religion, where the angry judgement of God was a prominent theme. Human sinfulness & depravity was held up as the basic fact of human nature. We are sinners. And, God is holy. God is offended and angry over our sin. God must condemn us. It is only right.

And, this message, resonates with something deep inside us. We know we are not the people we should be. We are often ashamed of ourselves. And, God must know of flaws and errors that we don’t. We are quick to condemn ourselves. Why wouldn’t God condemn us?

In fact, it is hard for us to imagine that God would think more highly of us than we think of ourselves. Isn’t it?

That is why the message of God’s love is always so hard to believe. If we are sometimes tempted to worry about what other people think of us — how much more worrisome the thought of what God might think of us. (more…)

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Finding the Path – Psalm 25:4,5

candle-tipThere are times when I feel I’ve lost my way. The future seems uncertain and the direction I need to take unclear.

But, there are also times when I feel confident that I know the way — that I know the will of God — at least reasonably well.

Psalm 25:4,5 suggests that I really don’t know the way unless I seek to know it. It further suggests that the process of seeking God’s will may take me some time and effort.

I have been discussing this Psalm as a Psalm for the “Waiting Times” of our lives (here and here and here).

Verses 4 and 5 show us the positive value of these times of waiting: it’s a time to seek God’s will and direction. (more…)

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The Individual and the Community – Psalm 25

I’m still continuing my introduction to Psalm 25. I have commented here and here about the themes I see in Psalm 25, but I haven’t said a word so far about the structure of the Psalm. This hardly seems right. It is a bit like putting the cart before the horse. But, I wanted to give you an idea why I find this Psalm so interesting.

Hebrew AlphabetWell, the structure is interesting too. This is one of those alphabetic psalms. The first verse begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the next verse with the next letter, and so forth. (Other such psalms are 9, 10, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119 and 145.) The last verse is outside this structure. So, verses 1-21 are alphabetic in structure. Verse 22 is like a postscript comment. Commentators are quick to assert that verse 22 comes from a different author, though (of course) that need not be true.

It’s always good to know about this alphabetic structure. Then, we do not expect too much from the Psalm — the constraints of the alphabetic structure limit freedom of expression. Craigie writes (p. 217):

but, inevitably the acrostic pattern imposes certain limitations on the poet, and as a consequence there is not a clearly developed internal sequence of thought within the psalm. The verses alternate between prayers or petitions and expressions of the psalmist’s confidence in God.

But, there is one very interesting feature: verse 22 stands outside the alphabetic structure. (more…)

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Rediscovering Hope – Psalm 25

Hebrew_bible_4I want to make some additional introductory remarks about Psalm 25.

I said last time that Psalm 25 is a psalm for the Waiting Time. I haven’t always seen it that way. I first became aware of the prominence of this “waiting” theme  in this psalm through Peter Craigie’s commentary. But, even without Craigie’s conjectural reading, the theme is of “waiting” is still found in the repeated use of the Hebrew term קָוָה (qāwāh, v. to hope in; to hope for, wait for, look for) in verses 3 and 21. I’ve indicated the appearance of the word by text color below:

גַּם כָּל־קוֶֹיךָ לֹא יֵבֹשׁוּ יֵבֹשׁוּ הַבּוֹגְדִים רֵיקָם
“Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.”

תֹּם־וָיֹשֶׁר יִצְּרוּנִי כִּי קִוִּיתִיךָ
“May integrity and uprightness preserve me, for I wait for you.”

I think it’s worthwhile to take a moment to notice the close relationship between the concepts of “waiting” and “hoping.” (more…)

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The Waiting Time – Psalm 25

“To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.” (Psalms 25:1-3 NRSV)

Hebrew_bible_4Several years ago, I began thinking of Psalm 25 as a Psalm for the waiting times. There are lots of Psalms — and other passages of Scripture — like this, but I hadn’t always seen Psalm 25 this way.

Here is what I mean.

Many times in the Hebrew scriptures we are exhorted to “wait on the LORD” — and we are told the advantages of such an approach to life. “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Psalms 27:14 NRSV) “For the wicked shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.” (Psalms 37:9 NRSV) “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope….” (Psalms 130:5 NRSV). (more…)

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Steadfast Love and Faithfulness – Psalm 57:3

יִשְׁלַח מִשָּׁמַיִם וְיוֹשִׁיעֵנִי חֵרֵף שֹׁאֲפִי סֶלָה יִשְׁלַח אֱלֹהִים חַסְדּוֹ וַאֲמִתּוֹ
“He will send from heaven and save me, he will put to shame those who trample on me [Selah] God will send forth his steadfast love and his faithfulness.” (NRSV)

Hebrew_bible_4God’s deliverance is signified here by these two words:

•    steadfast love חֶסֶד
•    faithfulness אֱמֶת

And, what can be said? There is a great depth of meaning here. These words are deep and beautiful because of the meaning they gain through their frequent use in the Scriptures. The nature of God’s deliverance may not be known in detail. It never is. But, we know how God acts. We know something of God’s character. “God will send forth his steadfast love and his faithfulness.” That’s all we need to know. (more…)

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On Having Enemies – Psalm 57:3

יִשְׁלַח מִשָּׁמַיִם וְיוֹשִׁיעֵנִי חֵרֵף שֹׁאֲפִי סֶלָה יִשְׁלַח אֱלֹהִים חַסְדּוֹ וַאֲמִתּוֹ
“He will send from heaven and save me, he will put to shame those who trample on me. Selah. God will send forth his steadfast love and his faithfulness.” (NRSV.)

Hebrew_bible_4Recently I posted some thoughts about the first phrase in this Psalm: “[God] will send from heaven and save me….”

The next phrase (“he will put to shame those who trample on me”) points up one of my long-standing problems with the Psalms.

When I first began to read the Psalms, as a young man, I was put off by the recurrent theme of “enemies.” Praying to God in the midst of confusion and need I could understand. Praying to God in times of distress and suffering I could understand. But, the frequent and recurrent theme of persecution by enemies was something with which I could not connect.

Or, maybe I just didn’t want to connect with it. (more…)

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God Will Send From Heaven – Psalm 57:3

Hebrew-MS-PsalmsHow removed is heaven from us? How far does God have to come to help us?

יִשְׁלַח מִשָּׁמַיִם וְיוֹשִׁיעֵנִי חֵרֵף שֹׁאֲפִי סֶלָה יִשְׁלַח אֱלֹהִים חַסְדּוֹ וַאֲמִתּוֹ
He will send from heaven and save me, he will put to shame those who trample on me. Selah. God will send forth his steadfast love and his faithfulness.” (NRSV)

My first reading of this is: “God will send help from far away.” And, there is some basis for this reading. But, that’s not the whole story.

In the Jenni-Westermann Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament we read:

Heaven often appears as the dwelling place of Yahweh and his hosts…, so that he also acts from heaven (e.g., Deut 4:39; 10:14; 26:15; 1 Kgs 8:23, 30, etc.; Isa 63:15; 66:1; Psa 2:4; 11:4; 20:7; 89:12; 102:20; 115:3, 16; Lam 3:41, etc….).” The Lexicon quickly adds that even Heaven itself is, of course, not adequate to either contain or constrain God. “As God’s resting place, heaven naturally belongs to the cultically pure realm (cf. Exod 24:10; …). Heaven is not able to contain God, however, because he stands beyond any cosmic boundary (1 Kgs 8:27; 2 Chron 2:5; 6:18; cf. Jer 23:24).

(more…)

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God, Who Gets Things Done – Psalm 57:2

There is one other thing I should say about Psalm 57:2 (which, by the way, is verse 3 in the Hebrew text):

אֶקְרָא לֵאלֹהִים עֶלְיוֹן לָאֵל גֹּמֵר עָלָי
“I cry to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me.” (NRSV)

As I said last time: this expresses the intent to pray. The initial cry for help, is followed by a statement of intent: a general statement telling us why the Psalmist cries out to God. It’s not just a momentary thing: it’s a way of life.

But, what I want to point out is the brevity of that final phrase:

לָאֵל גֹּמֵר עָלָי

Hebrew_bible_4It’s longer when translated into English. This phrase illustrates why it’s nice to pray through the Psalms in the original language.

When I was younger I expected the study of Biblical languages to make the Scriptures clearer to me. I thought that knowing the original Greek or Hebrew words, would allow the deeper and clearer meanings to arise. And, yes, sometimes they do. But, more often than not, what they reveal is the ambiguity in the original that has been lost in translation. (more…)

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The Intent to Pray – Psalm 57:2

Hebrew_bible_4Psalm 57 begins with a cry to God for mercy: “God help me!” Human nature being what it is, there is no prayer more basic to our experience. It may not be the ideal prayer. But, it’s the most common one. There isn’t a person living who hasn’t at some time in their life cried out: “God help me” — even if they weren’t certain whether there was Anyone or anything to whom to cry.

But, the prayer in verse 1 is not just general, it is also very personal and intimate: “…for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge….”

This is followed by a statement of intent. In a sense, this statement implies a rationale for prayer. (more…)

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Lord, Have Mercy! – Psalm 57:0-1

This is one of many of the Psalms that begins with a scribal note.

לַמְנַצֵּחַ אַל־תַּשְׁחֵת לְדָוִד מִכְתָּם בְּבָרְחוֹ מִפְּנֵי־שָׁאוּל בַּמְּעָרָה
To the leader: Do Not Destroy. Of David. A Miktam, when he fled from Saul, in the cave.

Hebrew_bible_4It’s hard to know what to think about the scribal notes at the beginning of the Psalms. I often ignore them. Our modern translations, which set them apart from the rest of the Psalm — printing them in italics or in smaller type — encourage this attitude. And, then, it’s also true that in the English (as distinguished from the Hebrew) text they are not actually numbered with the rest of the Psalm. In English, the scribal note at the beginning is labeled (if anything) verse 0. Easily ignored.

Because I read along in Hebrew (well, let’s not overstate this — I’m using an interlinear text), I often start reading the scribal note before I realize it. In Hebrew, it is verse 1.

And, while I usually skip these — and I don’t really know what to make of them for sure — I can still see three distinct stages in my attitude toward them. (more…)

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Charactorizing the Walk With God – Psalm 15:3-5

integrity_3So, the question Psalm 15 raises for us is this: Lord God, what is it like to be the kind of person who is fit to live in Your Presence from day to day? We are invited into a life in the presence of God. And, by the grace of God we are enabled to live lives pleasing to God. What are we told about this kind of life? It is a life of wholehearted devotion and a life of inner integrity.

I am reminded of a verse from the New Testament: “…if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7 NRSV). Walking with God means continually walking in the light of God. There is a kind of honesty and openness and transparency to it. Our hearts are open to God and to others — insofar as that is possible for us.

Now, notice the qualities of the person who walks with God in this wholehearted devotion. (more…)

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A Perfect Walk – Psalm 15:2

Hebrew_bible_4We are invited into a life in the presence of God. By the grace of God we are enabled to live lives pleasing to God. This is what we read in Psalm 15:1.

Eugene Peterson paraphrases Psalm 15:1 this way:

“GOD, who gets invited to dinner at your place? How do we get on your guest list?”

Or we might state it this way:

Lord God, what is it like to be the kind of person who is fit to live in Your Presence from day to day?

Verse 2 gives us the response to this question: (more…)

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Living in God’s Presence — Psalms 15:1

Don’t miss the invitation just because it comes to us in the form of a question.

We are invited into relationship with God: into the presence of God.

A question is addressed to the God of Israel, using his personal name יְהוָֹה: (which may have been pronounced”Yahweh”) who can live in Your presence?

Psalms 15:1:
יְהוָֹה מִי־יָגוּר בְּאָהֳלֶךָ מִי־יִשְׁכֹּן בְּהַר קָדְשֶׁךָ
“O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?”

Walking-With-God1

That’s the way I interpret this: it is talking about the presence of God. We need to see beyond the place. Yes, it speaks of God’s “tent” or “tabernacle” (pointing to the time of David, before the great Temple of Solomon was built). Yes, it speaks of God’s “holy hill.” But, these places are symbolic of God’s presence. And, I think that’s the real point: the presence of God. (more…)

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A Prayer of Blessing – Psalm 106: 4, 5

There was a time when I thought it was selfish and improper to pray for a blessing on myself. I should pray for others. I should put others first. God would bless as it was deemed appropriate.

jabez-bookI can thank Bruce Wilkerson’s book The Prayer of Jabez for changing my mind about that. Not that I’ve read the (little) book. I never did. I didn’t need to. It was once quite popular — a Christian fad. I used to hear about the book continually. People would quote from it, and summarize it, and refer to it. Other people denounced the book and it’s sudden popularity.

I got curious. So, I looked up the actual prayer of Jabez in the Bible. It’s in 1 Chronicles.

“Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, ‘I gave birth to him in pain.’ Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, ‘Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.’ And God granted his request.” (1 Chronicles 4:9, 10 NIV.)

All right. This may not be the most exemplary prayer in the Bible, but it’s not bad. And, it really is an example of something that was missing in my prayers: both the prayer for God’s blessing and the expectation of God’s blessing. I decided that the whole Prayer of Jabez phenomenon of the time was (on balance) a good thing — and that I needed to make the prayer for and the expectation of God’s blessing a part of my own prayer life. (more…)

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