The Way of the Righteous: Psalm 1

In 2011, I wrote a short series on selected Psalms for Disciple Magazine. A few of these are now showing back up here with slight updates.

My goal in writing and teaching on Scripture is usually explore it expositionally with an eye toward application. That is, opening the Bible, and seeing what the text in its context has to say about our belief and practice as Christians. This is in contrast to what I’ll call exploring the Word prescriptively—approaching selected texts in answer to a question or problem. Both expositional and topical Bible studies can be valuable in shaping our understanding the Word, but I try to stick to exposition to keep myself grounded.

Why Psalms?
Expositing the Psalms is not as clear-cut as studying the more logically structured, largely straightforward style of a New Testament epistle or a book of history. This is a book of songs and poetry meant to stir the people of God to worship and contemplation of the Lord and His Law, not necessarily of narrative or instruction. It does not lend itself easily to a verse-by-verse study; in fact, to break it down that far often distracts from the important themes and imagery the Psalmists develop through poetic structure and musical cadence.

These difficulties, however, should not discourage us from studying the Psalms. Rather, they should draw us in and guide our approach to the book. Here are a few suggested “ground rules” for interpreting and applying these hymns of worship.

1) Psalms are lyrical, not always literal. This does not mean that the poetry here is somehow exempt from inerrancy, but that it is filled with word pictures and illustrations that should be read as such. Over-analyzing the wording in a metaphor (instead of its message) misses its power to move us to worship and repentance, and will almost certainly lead to an interpretation that ventures far afield from what the author intended.

2) Most Psalms focus primarily on God’s character and our response to Him. In short, they’re about worship. When we approach the Psalms for insights into God’s character, man’s sinfulness, and what a repentant and righteous heart looks like, we find a treasure-trove. Specific commands, specific behaviors, specific prophecies, and specific history, though present, make up far less of the content here. They are more often implied and alluded to than explicitly stated.

3) Psalms (like all Scripture) need to be studied in context. To read the Psalms without ever having read the history of Creation, the people of Israel, and their covenantal relationship with God (i.e. the rest of the Old Testament) will breed confusion and frustration. Sometimes, even specific Psalms cannot be fully understood without a background of their specific history (such as Ps. 51 in light of the narrative of 2 Sam. 11-12). Even though they are rooted in the old sacrificial system and a world before Christ, the Psalms teach us about the unchanging character of God. There is a reason He has preserved them for us today, and the truths He reveals through these songs are not for one time and one people only. 
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To the Ends of the Earth, or Bust

A little musing from a couple of years ago. 

There are billions of people around the world in thousands of unreached people groups with little or no hope of hearing the Gospel in their lifetime. What are you prepared to do?

This sort of appeal to the immensity of the Church’s task in fulfilling the Great Commission has become the stock-in-trade of the global missions movement in the past few years. The scope of the demand is true, of course. We shouldn’t lose sight of Christ’s promise that “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations” (Matt. 24:14) or the faithful and courageous efforts of missionaries and organizations working in every corner of the world.

Often, however, this appeal has the opposite effect—the call is so great, so all-encompassing, so abstracted in the minds of most Christians, that they end up doing nothing (or very little) because they cannot do everything. There is a growing body of research from the psychological realm that points to the simple fact that we have trouble feeling responsible to do things we feel we are powerless to accomplish.

How does this square with clear commands of Scripture? Surely God would not call us to do that which He knows we are incapable of…or would He? Actually, He does that all the time, calling dead men to live. The trick is that God gives the life He asks for. Our making disciples is entirely contingent on His Spirit bringing both us and those we reach to life. The power for the action of our obedience and the results of that obedience come from Him. He is the one who makes possible the impossible (Mark 10:27).

If you think about it, how much more unattainable must the Great Commission have seemed to the first disciples, still digesting Christ’s words as He hurtled into the Judean sky? For us, it starts with millions of faithful believers in multiple countries and cultures, billions of dollars in resources, the Scripture in thousands of languages—all incredible advantages. The apostles had obstacles to the goal we could never imagine. There were 11 of them (12 when Paul was “recruited”) and an entire world of unregenerate souls. And yet they obeyed, the truth prevailed, and caused the dry bones of sinful men to become as flesh.

The temptation to give in to the apathy of the overwhelmed, I would submit, comes because we have forgotten the truth of God’s power embedded in the Scriptures—not just when taken as a whole, but in the very passages that call us to the task.

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age’(Matt. 28:19-20).

For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16).

Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:18-20).

This Gospel is the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24), and He who made the world and all that is in it will accomplish His task. Our participation at whatever place He leads us is part of His plan. We obey, but the work is His, the results are His, and the glory is His. Ours is not to change the hearts of men, but only to tell them of the One who will. Reaching the nations begins with reaching your neighbor. In any good-sized Western city, reaching your neighbors often is reaching the nations—with people from many tribes, tongues, and nations moving in to seek a better life for their families.

We may want to throw in the towel (or, on the other hand, attempt own the task and own some of the glory), but our desire for success and significance beyond obedience is in vain. As T. S. Eliot wrote in his Four Quartets:

“These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.”

Photo: Boys on Horseback, Department Nord Est, Haiti, April 2008.

A Prayer from Paralysis

To bear the image is a fearful thing;
No small, simple responsibility.
What we do with it, for it, to it will
Make or break us now and eternally.
O Lord, fashion us eyes to see the sin
With which we break the mold you’ve given us.
Each one as wretched as the next in line,
Each one as precious to Thy holy heart,
Each one weighed and wanting in the extreme,
Each one weighed and filled with crushing glory.
Innocence and guilt are measured by Thee,
And not in a moment decided here.
To bear the image is a fearful thing.

O LORD, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you ‘Violence!’
 and you will not save?
Why do you make me see iniquity,
and why do you idly look at wrong?

Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law is paralyzed,
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
so justice goes forth perverted
(Hab. 1:2-4).

Crying_Stone_Luba_Zukowa_Poznan copy

Because I Said So: Hard Truths as Signs of the Covenant

Follow me” has always been God’s call, from Adam to Noah to Abraham to us. It’s not always worded so simply as Christ put it, but the meaning is the same. We are each of us prodded to go “out, not knowing where [we are] going…looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:8, 10). Leaving the comfort of the familiar was not our idea, both the destination and the journey are wholly in His hands.

We can almost get behind such faith sheerly for the adventure of it all. We follow God and He promises to bless us. You don’t have to read too much farther, though, before the stakes grow higher: “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between me and you” (Gen. 17:10-11). “Sure, Lord, I’ll follow you anywhere! Wait, you want me to do what?”

Abram obeyed (even at age 99!), but we now look back on the terms of that covenant as mysterious, more than a bit grotesque, and mercifully a part of the ceremonial law which no longer binds us: “But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter…” (Rom. 2:29).

The fact remains, though, that the Lord often attached apparently “strange” conditions to His dealings with His people. In His grace, we can see through Scripture how obedience to those conditions was God’s plan to show His power. Joshua at Jericho and Gideon against Midian  must have struggled mightily with God’s conditions for their “military strategy,” but the beauty of the Lord’s powerful victory rises like incense from the pages of these accounts.

Likewise, under the new covenant, we are given things to obey from God that stand in sharp contrast to the world (baptism and communion, for instance) and may or may not make sense from any earthly perspective. There is great purpose in them, but from our finite vantage, it may be that the only purpose we can see is for us to obey in full faith, even when we don’t understand. These things become for us, in the language of Genesis, “sign[s] of the Covenant,” showing our calling through obedience to the distinctive and otherworldly commands of our Lord.

To those standing outside of the household of faith, large swaths of God’s truth simply don’t add up. There are always passages in Scripture (at times more, at times less) that make the obedience of believers stand out like bats at noonday amid the prevailing culture. These things are good and right, designed by God for much more than disagreeableness, but we will always be pressured to downplay their significance, nurturing quiet hope that theologians will conjure a convincing path to ignoring them altogether.

Contrary winds now buffet us in standing up for many things which we as Christians take for granted (that marriage is sacred or that God made men & women different from one another). Rest assured, though, that if we give in to the culture on their current full-court press, they will merely begin to push on another. Practically all of God’s utterance is under attack somewhere or other—even the merest suggestion that there is a God or that a reality exists and can be known is enough to get you thrown out of most “respectable” institutions and associations.

In all of this, of course, God is not toying with us but trying us, fitting us for His kingdom. Without opposition, we grow comfortable, and the cultures most stultifying to the Gospel are those which provide the least incentive for Christians to distinguish themselves as such. When we endure shame on His behalf, we should be stirred to boldness for the core things of the Gospel, camping out upon the stumbling block.

We are called to believe things that will never make sense to a sinful world—God makes it that way to keep us humble and honest, but also because such things are so. A “Follow me” from Christ may sound to our friends and neighbors instead like a voice commanding us to “Be weird”. We proclaim a slain and risen lamb, a virgin birth, a sinless savior, the high priest who is our sacrifice; if we hide in shame from God’s subordinate truths, how can we proclaim His excellencies in full?

Holding on to the hard truths is in its way a sign of His covenant with us. We must trust Him when doing so is made difficult by sin and circumstance just as surely as we do when Scripture makes our hearts sing. “Because I said so” is not a sophisticated rationale for obedience but the refrain of a Father who loves His children. Without an obedient trust willing to accept that call as sufficient, how will we get to the truly hard things that come of following Christ: loving our enemies, giving beyond our means, and taking the Gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth?

Even the world itself exists merely because He said so.