Who are we?

In this blog, there will be a variety of material: thoughts on Bible books, book reviews, historical characters, aspects of Scottish church history and other things.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Psalm 119:89-96 - The Permanence of God's Word

There are many things in life that change. We are reminded of that reality whenever a year comes to a close and a new one begins. Nothing remains the same as far as we are concerned. Yet it is different with God and the psalmist reflects on that great reality.

He begins by telling God that his word is firmly fixed in the heavens (v. 89). Why does he tell this to the Lord, especially since it is obvious to anyone who reads God’s Word, whether in the shorter version that the psalmist had or in the complete version that we have? The answer is that such details must compose the praise we offer. When we praise God, we must use the information that he has revealed about himself rather than using our own ideas. It is not vain repetition to say to God what he has said about himself.

The psalmist realises that God rules over the starry hosts (v. 89). The planets and stars follow the map laid out for them by the Lord. The same is true of the earth; it is as fixed today as it was when the psalmist walked on it, and will remain so until God decides to fold it all up at the second coming of Jesus. The stability of the universe speaks loudly about the faithfulness of God, and we should listen to it every day and night (vv. 90-91).

Why did the psalmist need to hear this reminder every day? The reason was that he lived in circumstances in which many were against him (v. 95). This is the experience of those who want to serve God even as the psalmist did. The reason why they were against him is because he wanted to serve the Lord, to read, to reflect on and to obey his Word.

Unlike the planets, the consideration given by the psalmist to God’s Word was voluntary and intelligent. He mentions several spiritual benefits that he received from listening to it. First, it helped him cope with troubles (v. 92). The Bible does this by reminding us that God will take us through dark times and even use them for our own spiritual benefit.

Second, God’s Word gave him life (v.93); its contents, whether in the form of promises, or of guidance, or of commands, or whatever form of instruction it contains, come with divine power because they are conveyed into the believer’s soul by the Holy Spirit and so give life to him.

Third, God’s Word informed the psalmist of the relationship he had with the Lord – he belonged to God (v. 94). Because that was the case, he could pray for ongoing deliverance. The proof that he was the Lord’s was displayed clearly in a determination to search for God’s will. A true believer is never content with his attainments and makes an improvement in every area of life his goal, no matter what his opponents do to him (v. 95).

The psalmist observed that all good things in life have their limitations except for God’s Word. There is not a situation in life which it does not cover, sometimes by a direct statement, at other times by a correct deduction or a clear general principle. This too is proof of the permanence of God’s Word. We cannot find ourselves in a situation about which the Bible is silent.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Psalm 119:81-88 - Keeping Going

Here, the author responds to intense opposition. He longs to be delivered by God (v. 81). Divine salvation does not always refer to soul salvation – sometimes it can refer to rescue from physical problems. The psalmist knows that God has given promises of divine help and wants him to give personal consolation (v. 82).

Delays in such deliverance can have adverse effects on one’s physical state (in verse 83, the psalmist likens himself to a wineskin that has become wrinkled by smoke). In such circumstances, there will be a temptation to give up or to run and hide. To give in to such a temptation would be sinful and silly because the world despises runaway Christians even more than it does dedicated Christians. The psalmist was aware of the necessity of keeping going in God’s ways (v. 83).

In verses 84-87, the psalmist tells God about the activities of his opponents. He does not do so because he imagines God is ignorant about what is taking place. Instead the content of his prayer reveals that the psalmist has grasped that speaking to God should be practised in all circumstances, and that our words in prayer should describe our perspective of what is going on. In other words, our prayers should be thoughtful and honest.

His prayer is not cold and clinical. Instead it is full of feeling and earnest desire. Prayers without feelings are a contradiction because prayer is always an expression of longing for God to do something about a situation. The psalmist wants his enemies removed because they are fighting against God and his laws and have almost managed to bring about the demise of the psalmist, despite his commitment to God’s ways. Therefore his prayer is both devout and desperate.

The last verse of the section (v. 88) shows the psalmist’s priorities. He wants his faithful and loving God to give life (spiritual energy) in order that his laws may be obeyed by his servant, no matter the circumstances. That, of course, is how to live the Christian life.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Psalm 119:73-80 - Knowing God's Touch

In this section of the psalm, the author begins by appealing to the fact that God is his Creator: ‘Your hands have made and fashioned me’ (v. 73). The image that the psalmist uses of the Lord is of a potter, which is a reminder of the gentle way in which the Lord deals with his people. Because he knows that the Lord is gentle, the psalmist can ask for more divine dealings, so he prays, give me understanding that I may learn your commandments.’ This petition is not about memorising what the commandments are; rather, it concerns practising them.

When that happens, the psalmist knows he will influence other believers in a good way: ‘Those who fear you shall see me and rejoice, because I have hoped in your word’ (v. 74). The devotion of one believer is always an encouragement to other dedicated believers.

Sometimes a believer has to be chastised and in verse 75 the psalmist describes his own experience: ‘I know, O Lord, that your rules are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me.’ Chastisement is not the same as justice. Instead chastisement is God’s fatherly response to the waywardness of his children and they will always look back on such treatment as a blessing.

The psalmist knows that he can expect more than chastisement from the Lord. Even although he knows that he has failures, the psalmist can pray with expectation: ‘Let your steadfast love comfort me according to your promise to your servant’ (v. 76). God’s promises can be used in any situation because he is the Father of his people.

Sometimes we regard God’s mercy only with hindsight. In verse 77, the psalmist takes a different approach and uses that divine attribute to describe his future blessings from God: ‘Let your mercy come to me, that I may live; for your law is my delight.’ The psalmist is fully aware that he will never merit anything from the Lord. All divine blessings flow from his mercy.

The psalmist is resolved not to be sidetracked by opposition. Instead he leaves his opponents with the Lord for him to deal with: ‘Let the insolent be put to shame, because they have wronged me with falsehood’ (v. 78). Often such opposition leads believers to adjust their priorities, but the psalmist does not fall into that error. No matter what his opponents say about him, he is determined to meditate on God’s precepts.

Yet the psalmist does not want to live in isolation: ‘Let those who fear you turn to me, that they may know your testimonies’ (v. 79). But his fellow-believers will only profit from his company because he is determined to put God first. Therefore he prays, May my heart be blameless in your statutes, that I may not be put to shame!’ (v. 80).

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Psalm 119:65-72 - Gratitude for God's Faithfulness

The ninth section of the psalm focuses on the faithfulness of God. In verse 65, the psalmist acknowledges that the Lord has ‘dealt well with your servant,... according to your word.’ Of course, every believer should be able to say the same, but they are not able to say it until they spend some time thinking and recalling the ways in which God has done so. Merely repeating the words of the psalmist is not the same as realising personally what God has done for us.

One essential aspect of God’s faithfulness is his ongoing instruction of his people (vv. 66, 68). Today, we limit instruction to the mind or to what people learn about a particular detail or task. In the Bible, divine teaching affected the whole of live simultaneously. If a person was taught to love the Lord, he revealed what he had learned by thinking about God, by speaking about him (or to him), and by obeying his commandments (v. 70). The prayer petitions of the psalmist reveal he was divinely instructed. He asked to be taught how to obey.

The psalmist had undergone a time of affliction (vv. 67, 71). He does not say what the affliction was (perhaps it was derision, v. 69), but he does say that it was profitable for him because through it he learned what God wanted. Sometimes the only way in which God is able to instruct us is to bring something into our lives in which we have to focus on him and his requirements. They may be painful times, but we will soon appreciate that they are also profitable for our souls.

What is the outcome of divine teaching? In addition to practising God’s will, we will realise that God’s Word (its stories, its instructions, its promises, and its warnings) is more useful than all the riches of the world (v. 72). Ask yourself honestly, ‘Would you rather have a Bible or one million pounds?’ Your answer will tell you what your real interests are.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Psalm 119:57-64 - Dedication

The psalmist begins this section with a statement of strong assurance: ‘The Lord is my portion.’ He has been saved from his sins and forgiven by God. Yet his confidence does not lead to laziness. Assurance is always accompanied by gratitude, and the way the psalmist shows his appreciation is by dedicating himself to obey God’s requirements (v. 57).

Accompanying his dedication is earnest prayer: ‘I entreat your favour with all my heart; be gracious to me according to your promise’ (v. 58). True prayer is never offered in a casual manner. Instead it is expressed in a sincere way. At the same time, sincere prayer is expectant, not because of the petitioner’s commitment, but because of God’s promises.

How does dedication show itself? The psalmist describes several aspects in the remaining verses of the section. First, he thinks about what he is doing: ‘When I think on my ways, I turn my feet to your testimonies’ (v. 59). Dedication for a Christian is never mindless. Instead it involves an awareness of what God has instructed his people to do.

Second, dedication includes prompt obedience: ‘I hasten and do not delay to keep your commandments’ (v. 60). One can never be too quick in obeying God’s law. The best time to practice them is right away. A true understanding of God’s Word stimulates immediate conformity to its demands.

Third, dedication involves persistence when the going gets tough: ‘Though the cords of the wicked ensnare me, I do not forget your law’ (v. 61). These cords may be temptations or they may be threats. Whatever they are, a dedicated disciple will resolve to obey God, no matter the situation.

Fourth, dedication is marked by a delight in praising God for his goodness in providing such clear information about the kind of lives that his people should live. Here the psalmist says that he is so pleased with God’s grace that he will not sleep without spending some time in praising the Lord: ‘At midnight I rise to praise you, because of your righteous rules’ (v. 62). Or perhaps he means that he will find a time for praise when he cannot be disturbed by others, and midnight is such a time.

Fifth, dedication to God is marked by delight in his people: ‘I am a companion of all who fear you, of those who keep your precepts’ (v. 63). It is important to note that he befriends all of God’s people. The psalmist reminds us that the way to show that we fear God is by living in obedience to his laws. Brotherly love depends on obedience to the Lord.

Sixth, those who are dedicated to God discover that his grace is everywhere: ‘The earth, O Lord, is full of your steadfast love’ (v. 64). Whether he looks at the sky or on the fields, at the mountains or at the seas, he observes the abundance of what God faithfully provides. In light of all that goodness, he can only pray, ‘Teach me your statutes!’

Friday, 26 December 2014

Psalm 119:49-56 - Thankfulness for God's Law

The psalmist is in a difficult situation in which he is being derided by his opponents (v. 51). This is a common circumstance in which believers can find themselves. What should we do when this happens? The psalmist shows us in this section.

First, he asked the Lord to ‘remember your word to your servant, in which you have made me hope.’ It is not clear which kind of word the psalmist is referring to? He could mean a passage from the Old Testament or he could mean a message he received from God through another individual, such as a priest at the temple. However it came to him, the message from God gave him hope for the future. We too can have a word from God, mainly through the Bible and sometimes in a sermon, when he provides us with comfort from himself (v. 50). When that happens, we sense spiritual recovery taking place within us.

Second, the psalmist retained his appreciation for God’s law (v. 51). The derision of his opponents was connected to his desire to keep God’s commandments. It would have been easy for him to reduce his commitment. Instead he became angry because God’s law was being ignored (v. 53). Opposition increased his zeal for God’s ways.

Third, the psalmist realised the permanency of God’s law. It had been given long before the psalmist was born (v. 52). The law has survived all attempts to get rid of it, and it will survive all contemporary moves to sideline it. People today in our society may reject it, but people in the future will keep it, and will find comfort from it when they do. Merely because the majority today want to ignore it is no reason for us to imitate them.

Fifth, the psalmist discovered that God’s law made him happy: ‘Your statutes have been my songs in the house of my sojourning’ (v. 54). They enabled him to live like a temporary resident in this world, and also enabled him to enjoy samples of the joy of his spiritual homeland. Obedience from the heart to God’s requirements brings great joy into one’s life.

Sixth, the psalmist resolved to keep God’s law, even when others could not see what he was doing (v. 55). The night, because of the darkness, gave opportunity for many to disobey God. In contrast, the psalmist meditated on God’s name, and thinking about God led him to obey God. It is what we do when others don’t see us that will indicate who we really are.

Seventh, the psalmist realised that his desire to keep God’s ways was in itself a great blessing (v. 56). It is a blessing because it reveals a changed life, it is a blessing because it leads to fellowship with God, and it is a blessing because it opens the way to receive further blessings from him. Of course, the fact that his obedience was a blessing to him is a reminder that it is all of grace. The Lord gives blessings to the obedient, but it is only through his grace that they are ever obedient.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Psalm 119:41-48 - Speaking about God's Law

The psalmist is longing for a personal experience of the Lord’s faithful love. He knows that he can ask for this blessing because the Lord has promised it (v. 41). The psalmist needs this encouragement because he is being taunted by an opponent. In such a circumstance, the best thing for a believer to do is rest on what God has promised in his word (v. 42).

It is clear from verse 43 that the psalmist loved to speak about God’s word. Although he prayed that the Lord would not take it away, the psalmist was also sure that the Lord would help him. As he prayed he anticipated what life is like for those who obey God: such ‘shall walk in a wide place’. Many imagine that the Lord’s commands constrain people whereas the opposite is the case. Obedience to God opens up a life full of his choicest blessings.

The psalmist was so sure of God’s rules that he was ready to announce them to mortals (kings) who imagined that they made the rules that matter. Obviously rulers make laws, but often they don’t know if they will be of any benefit. In contrast, the psalmist knew that God’s ways were best and even rulers should know about them (v. 46). It is statements like this that has led some to suggest that Daniel wrote the psalm. It was certainly the case with him that he loved God’s commandments and spoke about them to powerful rulers (v. 47).

In addition to speaking about God publicly, the psalmist was determined to meditate on them privately. He would do so in an attitude of worship (as he raised his hands), which is the best and only way to meditate on God’s law. Speak to God about his Word and then we will speak to others about it as well.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Psalm 119:33-40 - A Prayer for Spiritual Understanding

In this fifth section of the psalm, the author asks for personal Bible instruction: ‘Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes.’ The psalmist knows that such divine teaching involves more than mere knowledge. In addition the Teacher enables the student to practise what he is taught. Therefore the psalmist can say with confidence: ‘I will keep it to the end.’ This is not presumption. If he had said anything else, it would be an expression of unbelief.

In verse 34, the psalmist admits his need of understanding. If he does not know why he is doing God’s law, then his obedience would only be external. True obedience involves inner commitment of both mind and affections. The best way for this to happen is for the Lord to be present, leading his pupil in the right way (v. 35). As Spurgeon said, ‘This is the cry of a child that longs to walk, but is too feeble; of a pilgrim who is exhausted, yet pants to be on the march; of a lame man who pines to be able to run.’ God’s instructions are given to such intimately and not from a distance. This understanding is the benefit he gives to those who delight in his law.

The big danger to such devotion is selfish gain (v. 36). Such things in reality are worthless (v. 37), although we need divine illumination to realise it. The psalmist knows the danger of attempting to go in God’s ways without having spiritual life. Therefore he speaks to God about his concern because he knows that the Lord has promised to give spiritual help to his people (v. 38).

For some reason, the psalmist fears reproach (v. 39). He does not specify what the reproach is – it could be that a failure by him to obey God would cause his opponents to deride him, or it could be that he was apprehensive of persecution from those who would be against his commitment to God’s will. Yet God’s laws remain good whatever happens to the psalmist – that is, good in essence and good to experience.

Since that is the case, the psalmist longs to obey God (v. 40). It would be unjust of the Lord to deny more life to one who wants to obey him. ‘Here past fruits of grace are made the plea for further blessing’ (Spurgeon). The psalmist is asking the One who began the good work in him to continue it. That is the best way to respond to the Teacher.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Psalm 119:25-32 - Using the Bible in Times of Sadness

The psalmist is downcast: ‘My soul clings to the dust’ (v. 25) and ‘My soul melts away for sorrow’ (v. 28). He does not say why he is in this state. Perhaps it was the sins of the nation of Israel or it may have been because of his own inner resistance to God’s ways. Whatever the case, he knew that he need reviving, therefore he prayed, ‘Give me life according to your word!’ (v. 25).
Having made this prayer, he sensed that the Lord had answered it (v. 26). The psalmist knew this was the case because of the prayer requests he was now making, which concerned receiving further instruction into God’s Word. He likened himself to a scholar with the best Teacher. After all, the person most capable of saying what a book means is its author.
A second sign of his spiritual restoration was his desire to meditate on God’s works. Those works are summarised in our catechism as his works of creation and providence. How can we meditate on them? The psalmist tells us that we can only do so once we have understood God’s precepts (v. 27). God’s Word gives light on everything else.
Another blessing that comes from reading the Bible is spiritual strength (v. 28). The usual means of consciously receiving such strength is by reflecting on God’s promises and taking note of his instructions. Spiritual strength is needed in order to obey God in a sinful society, therefore the psalmist prays for such directions from God. He knows his liability to be deceived by false detours and therefore prays that God would separate them from him (v. 29).
The psalmist uses his determination to obey God as an argument in prayer. He reminds the Lord that he wants to live a righteous life and has resolved never to let go the instructions of God’s Word. It is inconceivable that the Lord would ignore such a request (vv. 30-31). But the psalmist knows that his obedience will be better each time the Lord provides him with spiritual energy (v. 32).
If we are not running in the way of God’s commandments, it indicates that our prayer petitions have the wrong focus. It suggests that we have not asked him for spiritual recovery and revitalisation.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Psalm 119:17-24 - Prayer for True Understanding of God's Word

The third section of Psalm 119 opens with a prayer for God's help: 'Deal bountifully with your servant, that I may live and keep your word.' In this petition, the psalmist reveals his desire and his dedication, and both of these features are found in genuine prayer. It is an insult to ask God to help us if we have no intention to serve him. The psalmist must have been facing a life-threatening situation. But he realised that should his life be spared the only valid response would be a life of discipleship marked by obedience to God's Word. Obedience to God's Word  'should be the rule, the object, and the joy of our life' (Spurgeon).

The next verse develops his prayer: 'Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.' Here we have expressed the best attitude towards the contents of the Bible -- it is full of wonders. These wonders are connected to God's gracious actions on behalf of those who trust in him. Some of them have already occurred (such as what Jesus did when here on earth) and others will take place in the future. When we pick up the Bible to read it, we should anticipate being astonished.

The psalmist uses his spiritual status (a sojourner or pilgrim) as a reason why the Lord should answer his prayer (v. 19). After all, it was the Lord who had brought about the change in his life. As a sojourner, the psalmist was homesick and reveals his homesickness by his desire to live according to the rules of heaven. He did not wish to be absorbed by what was practiced by those around him. Further, he knew that there was always the danger his circumstances could hide God's ways from him. Therefore he prayed that he would be enabled to live as a citizen of heaven.

This request was not a casual expression. Instead it came from a heart 'consumed with longing for your rules at all times' (v. 20). 'Longing is the soul of praying, and when the soul longs till it breaks, it cannot be long before the blessing will be granted' (Spurgeon). It is essential for us to have a heart focus in our praying. Half-hearted prayers are ignored by God.

In verses 21-24 the psalmist mentions his opponents. He indicates that they were powerful princes who treated him with disdain. Yet he knew that in the past the Lord had rebuked other rulers who had departed from his commandments. He also knew that the Lord could protect him from powerful enemies. Therefore he resolved to remain faithful to God by continuing to centre his life on God's Word. The test of devotion is always our conformity to God's requirements.

The first way to respond to opposition is prayer. If we attempt to deal with something without prayer we will not achieve a happy outcome. Then we should meditate on God's Word and it will give us a true perspective on our situations. Prayer to the Lord and glad meditation on what he promises in his Word will keep us loyal to him in the most difficult of circumstances.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Psalm 119:9-16 - Using the Bible

Verse 9 suggests that the author of the psalm is a young person concerned about how to live a pure life. (Of course, the author could be an older person giving advice to a younger person.)

It is good to have this concern, but merely having the concern is insufficient and pointless. In addition there has to be action, and the activity required is familiarity with the Word of God. The author likens the Bible to protective information. Some people treat the Bible similar to how passengers ignore the information given by airline staff regarding what to do in an emergency. I have sometimes wondered what the passengers would do if there was a situation in which they had to use the life-jackets. It would be very serious for them if through their own choice they had failed to read about or listen to what to do. And in a far higher sense, we need to know what the Bible says.

There is not an issue we can face in life that the Bible does not speak about. Yet the information is not dropped into our minds from the sky. Instead we have to do what the psalmist did in verse 11: ‘I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.’ As Spurgeon says about this practice: ‘He laid it up in the place of love and life, and it filled the chamber with sweetness and light.’ Promises, principles and warnings in the Bible have to be read and thought about before we will know what to do with them.

What kind of person will treat the Bible in this way? We are told what he is like in verse 10: ‘With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments!’ That statement says at least two things: first, the individual is focussed on getting to know God; second, the person is afraid of departing from God through not remaining close to him. Therefore he prays about it, which is what marks a person who takes seriously the requirement to know God’s Word.

In verse 12 the psalmist expresses his gratitude to the Lord for teaching him about the Bible, especially about how to live a holy life. Yet he also knows that he is obligated to pass it on to others: ‘With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth’ (v. 13). Since we have discovered the best way to live (obedience to God’s commandments), it is our responsibility to tell others about it.

The psalmist tells us what the effect of heart obedience to the Bible is – delight (vv. 14, 16). Are you a happy Christian? If not, the reason most likely is that you are not reading and meditating on the Bible. You cannot expect God’s blessing if you ignore his word and don’t feed your soul on what it says. In order for this to happen there has to be determination (verse 15: ‘I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways’) and recollection (verse 16: ‘I will not forget your word’).

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Psalm 119:1-8 - The Necessity of Obedience

Psalm 119 is divided into twenty-two sections, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, with each verse of a section beginning with the letter connected to the section. The psalm is about God’s law or Word and the blessing connected to living by it. In the psalm the author uses eight words to describe God’s Word: law (torah), word, laws, statutes, commandments, decrees, precepts, and promise. Charles Simeon observed that ‘It is impossible to read the psalm and not see that true religion is altogether of a practical nature.’ Together they remind the reader that the Lord is sovereign, that he reveals his will, and that he wants a relationship with his creatures.

Verses 1-8 are linked to the Hebrew letter Aleph. The section is in two parts. Verses 1-4 describe those whom God blessed and verses 5-8 are the responses of the psalmist to the description.

Why are they blessed? They are so because they put God’s demands above everything else. The psalmist does not suggest that they are sinless, although his description of them means they live in such a way that no-one can accuse them of disobedience. Verse 1 describes their outward behaviour (‘Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord!’) and verse 2 describes their inner desire (‘Blessed are those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with their whole heart’). The Bible will keep those who obey it from sinful practices (v. 3). As it used to be said, ‘Sin will keep you from the Word or the Word will keep you from sin.’

Of course, God does not want a mere outward conformity to his law; instead he wants careful obedience of all his requirements from the heart and mind (v. 4). Alexander Maclaren commented: ‘To keep God’s testimonies is at once the consequence and the proof of seeking Him with wholehearted devotion and determination.’

The description of such a life and the connected blessing causes the psalmist in verse 5 to pray for such a lifestyle (‘Oh that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes!’). Such a prayer is always answered by God. ‘Divine commands should direct us in the subject of our prayers’ (Spurgeon).

The psalmist explains in verse 6 that God will give comfort to those whose lives are marked by comprehensive obedience of all his commandments. The comfort is that the devout psalmist will never be ashamed either in this life or on the Day of Judgement (‘Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all your commandments’). The sure way to miss out on divine blessing is to practise selective obedience, to decide that we don’t need to keep one or more of his commandments.

The outcome of prayer and realised security is dedication (vv. 7-8): ‘I will praise you with an upright heart, when I learn your righteous rules. I will keep your statutes; do not utterly forsake me!’ Yet the psalmist expresses his fear, which is that God will forsake him. Why does he have that fear at a time of dedication? The answer is that he knows that even his best is not good enough. It is when a Christian is most dedicated that he realises his imperfections. Therefore true dedication is always accompanied by prayer for God’s gracious help and presence.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Psalm 118 - Praising the God who Saves

This psalm is one of thanksgiving. It is last of the Hallel psalms and was probably the Psalm that Jesus and his disciples sang when they left the upper room after the first Lord’s Supper had taken place (Matt. 26:30).

So grateful does the author feel towards God that he calls on his people Israel (v. 2), the workers in the temple (v. 3) and all who fear God everywhere (v. 3) to praise him for his covenant faithfulness (or steadfast love). The psalmist’s expression is a reminder that we should not keep details of experienced divine help to ourselves. Instead we should let others know that the Lord has helped us, so that they can praise him with us (v. 15). After all, we are told to rejoice with those that rejoice (Rom. 12:15). It is not humility that causes us to be silent about God’s goodness.

The psalmist had been in a situation in which he was surrounded by powerful foreign opponents (v. 10). Further the leaders (the princes) of his own people had not helped him (v. 9). Yet he discovered that when all had abandoned him, and when he sensed that he was about to fall before his opponents (v. 13), the Lord at that moment was there to help him. At the fiercest moment of the onslaught (vv. 11-12), he experienced the Lord’s help and protection. Indeed so great was the Lord’s grace, there was no human experience that could compare with it (vv. 8-9).

The deliverance that God provided was not one that could be described as merely making it and no more. Instead it was complete and the psalmist’s opponents were routed (v. 12). He discovered that it was when he was weak in himself that he was strong in the Lord. Further he also discovered that experiencing the Lord’s strength and singing from the heart to him go together (v. 14). If we have no song, it may be that we are depending on our own strength and abilities, which is often done by Christians who should know better.

The psalmist resolved to go to the place of public worship (probably, the temple) and lead the other worshippers into it (vv. 17, 19-20). Although he had been through a very difficult experience he recognised that it was actually an expression of divine fatherly discipline (v. 18). This was an important ingredient in his gratitude. After all, resentment at his providence does not soften one’s heart in God’s presence.

When they reached the temple, they were reminded that the cornerstone of the temple had initially been rejected by the builders (v. 22). Yet the builders eventually discovered its suitability and were grateful to God for providing it. This verse is applied to Jesus several times in the New Testament (cf. Matt. 21:42; Acts 4:11; 1 Pet. 2:7). Although he was rejected by the Jews, he has become cornerstone of the church (Eph. 2:20). If the psalmist could wonder what God did with a literal stone (v. 22), surely we should be full of wonder at what God has done with the spiritual Stone whom he has exalted to the highest place as head over all things for the benefit of his church. Because this is the case we can use the prayer in verse 25 (‘Save us, we pray, O Lord! Lord, we pray, give us success!’) in a far more extensive way that the psalmist did initially.

At the temple, the psalmist and his friends rejoiced to see the worship taking place led by the priest who would take the sacrifice they had purchased and offer it to God (vv. 26-27). They knew that this was God’s chosen way of doing things at that time. We have something far superior because we don’t come into God’s presence through a ritual. Instead we come in the name of Jesus. But as we do, we can sing verses 28 and 29 with New Testament understanding: ‘You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God; I will extol you. Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures for ever!’

Martin Luther said of this psalm, ‘This is my Psalm, my chosen Psalm. I love them all; I love all holy Scripture, which is my consolation and my life. But this Psalm is nearest my heart, and I have a peculiar right to call it mine. It has saved me from many a pressing danger, from which nor emperor, nor kings, nor sages, nor saints, could have saved me. It is my friend; dearer to me than all the honours and power of the earth.’ Many others can say the same.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Psalm 117 - The Lord is Faithful

This psalm is the shortest in the Psalter. David Dickson, the Scottish Covenanting author of a commentary on the Psalms, reminds us that ‘In God’s worship it is not always necessary to be long; few words sometimes say what is sufficient, as this short Psalm giveth us to understand.’

Although the Psalm is so short, it concerns a great subject – the faithfulness of God, and focuses on one aspect of it – the ingathering of the nations into God’s kingdom. Given that the ingathering takes place after the ascension of Jesus, it means that the psalm is describing what takes place today throughout the world. In fact, if we did not know otherwise, we might have assumed that it was composed by a New Testament writer.

Philip Henry, the father of Matthew Henry the commentator, was a famous preacher. It was his custom to sing this psalm every Sunday after the first sermon of the day. He did so because he believed it was the fullest form of thanksgiving.

Why does the writer want the nations to bless God? He tells us in the first clause in verse 2 where he mentions the steadfast love of the Lord. How was that steadfast love shown? It was displayed in all the ways that the Lord had dealt with Israel (Israel is the ‘us’ mentioned in that clause). The fact that he had been faithful to them was proof that he would keep his promise to bless the world.

The apostle Paul quotes this psalm in Romans 15:11, a section in which he explains to the Romans that it was always God’s intention to bring spiritual blessings to all the nations.

The psalmist reminds God’s people that his love is great. It is great in its extent (John 3:16), it is great in its length (from eternity to eternity), it is great in its mercy (sent his Son to pay the penalty for our sins), it is great in its gifts (membership of God’s family), it is great in its consolation (forgiveness when we fall), and it is great in its prospects (the new heavens and new earth). All that, and much more, comes from the great love of God.

The psalmist also reminds us that God’s faithfulness is eternal. Nothing in the future can separate us from the love of God. As Paul says in Romans 8:38-39: ‘For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ We have many reasons for singing this psalm.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Psalm 116 - Song of Gratitude

Psalm 116 has often been sung in Scotland when the Lord’s Supper is celebrated. It is also one of the Psalms of Hallel which were sung in Israel at Passover time. Of course, the psalm could have been sung at any time by an Israelite because it concerns gratitude to God for personal deliverance from a threatening situation. Similarly we can sing it whenever we wish.

The psalmist says that he had been praying earnestly for divine help and had been heard by the Lord. One effect of receiving an answer was an increase in his affections; his love for God was enlarged (v.1). Spurgeon comments that ‘the sweetest of all graces and the surest of all evidences of salvation is love’. This response is the opposite of forgetfulness and reveals the gratitude that David felt towards the Lord. Gratitude is the fuel that leads to obedience.

Answered prayer has another effect as well and it is ongoing prayer. A believer prays continually because he depends on God and receives help from him. If a person does not pray for divine help frequently (many times a day), he or she is not a true believer. Such prayers may only be short petitions, but a believer loves to speak to God about what is happening.

David reveals that he was in a dark situation in which death seemed a real possibility (vv. 3-4). He may have had a serious illness or he may have been in dangerous circumstances when others were threatening his life (v. 11). He was in deep distress (vv. 8, 10). Whatever his circumstances were, he was beyond the help of man, but not beyond the help of God.

Answered prayer reminded David about the character of his God (v. 5). The psalmist mentions three divine attributes: gracious, righteous and merciful. God always deals with his people by expressing those aspects of his character. We are undeserving, but the Lord always reveals his goodness, his fulfilment of his promises (righteousness) and his pardon. David had experienced this trilogy countless times in his life. They are revealed each time the Lord answers prayer. It is not surprising that David concluded that the Lord had dealt with him bountifully (v. 8).

David describes believers as ‘simple’ (v. 6). He does not mean that they are unintelligent. Instead he means that they depend on God and do not resort to ingenious attempts of self-rescue. The simpler we are in the Christian life the better for us. It is best to take the Lord at his Word, and when we do many of our concerns are dealt with.

Sometimes when a believer is praying to God he also addresses himself and David does so in verse 7 when he urges himself to return to his rest. The word translated ‘rest’ is plural, so indicating the degree of spiritual comfort that the Lord can provide for those of his people who have been through difficult situations. He can provide great amounts of peace and assurance after a time of spiritual difficulty, and we should use our faith to focus on what God has promised.

In verse 9 David dedicates himself to serving the Lord. He looks forward to participating in one of the religious feasts of Israel (vv. 13-14, 17-19). The cup of salvation was likely a drink offering that accompanied one of the sacrifices. He also determined to renew his vows of service in a public manner. It is not enough to express gratitude in secret; the Lord wants us to express our gratitude publicly, especially in the presence of his people.

David’s experience also reminded him that death would come eventually. Although he had once more been delivered, he had also realised that when death would come it would be precious in the eyes of the Lord (v. 15). Why will it be precious? One reason is that the believer would move into the immediate presence of God and it is important to know that the Lord himself is looking forward to that moment. David’s words are also a reminder that when the moment of death comes for a believer the Lord pays particular and loving attention to what is taking place.

One intriguing detail of the psalm is that David tells us about the faith of his mother (v. 16). Sometimes we think of our parents at unexpected times. Perhaps David thought of her at this moment because she had been the first to show to him how simple a believer’s faith in God should be. No doubt, he thought of her with gratitude. One of the highest blessings is to be the child of godly parents.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Psalm 115 - God's Gracious Presence

The psalmist is aware that humans can give glory to two possible objects. They can either praise the true God or they can praise idols. We are not surprised at the existence of these options. But we might be surprised at a different set of options which the psalmist mentions in verse 1. This second set is the options God has and he has two. He can give glory to his people or he can give glory to his own name. Yet if he gives the credit for success to his people, he would not be telling the truth because they are only his instruments. Therefore the psalmist realises that the only One who should receive glory from God is the Lord himself.

The psalmist gives reasons as to why God should give honour to himself and they are his steadfast love and faithfulness. He never changes, so he always is marked by those features. In contrast, Israel often showed that they were not marked by steadfast love and faithfulness, and therefore did not deserve glory. The psalmist here is reminding his fellow Israelites that, no matter their spiritual and other attainments, God alone should have all honour.

What about the nations? At that time they worshipped dumb idols which could not do a thing for their worshippers (vv. 2-7). Some might have looked nice, although all the idols I have seen in museums look ugly. Whatever their looks, they were totally useless. Yet the presence of those non-existent idols had an effect on those who worshipped them – they became like their idols (v. 8). In the ancient world, idols were given cruel and immoral links and their worshippers became cruel and immoral. We become like what or who we worship. If we live for the world, we will become worldly. If we live for God, we will become godly.

The psalmist exhorts the Israelites to trust in the Lord because he is their help and shield. He includes the professionals (‘the sons of Aaron who served in the temple’) in his exhortation because they too can forget to trust in God. Because the Lord remembered his people in the past, they can be assured that he will bless them in the future. That is why it is good to recall his dealings. His blessings extend to the high and the low, as long as they fear the Lord, and this blessing will be experienced by subsequent generations as long as they remain faithful to him (vv. 9-14).

The Lord is able to do this because he is the Creator of all things. He gave the earth to humans so that they could enjoy his goodness. They should be thankful to him for all his many blessings. Earthly enjoyment of such blessings will cease at death, but until then we should dedicate ourselves to praise him. Of course, the psalmist was aware that praise continues after death for those who have trusted in the Lord, but such praise is offered in heaven and not on earth (vv. 15-18)

Monday, 15 December 2014

Psalm 114 - God's Gracious Presence

The psalmist looks back to the first days of Israel as a liberated people in order to get encouragement for his present circumstances. He does not say what his situation is, but his method is one that we should all adopt because we are usually in need of divine encouragement many times a day. And one way to find encouragement is to meditate on some of God’s great victories, whether those recorded in the Bible or those we read about in church history. So what did the psalmist note about the Exodus?

One thing that he noticed was the language difference between the Egyptians and the Israelites. Although they had been slaves in Egypt for a long time, the Israelites had not picked up much of the Egyptian language. No doubt, this was arranged by the Lord in his providence in order to ensure that his people retained their distinctiveness and did not become merged with the culture and outlooks of Egypt. There is a lesson here for us. Our speech, and what we speak about, should be different.

Another feature mentioned by the psalmist is the unity that marked God’s people as they travelled together. Israel and Judah were journeying harmoniously and God was with them. There he was worshipped and served. We know that they did not maintain the harmony for long. It is usually the case that new converts have warm brotherly love, and Israel at its beginning illustrate this.

The psalmist records that when God was on the march with his people natural barriers, such as the Red Sea, mountains and the River Jordan, ceased to be a problem. These barriers are depicted as being frightened of the Lord’s presence and trembling before him. We too have divine help against powerful barriers against our spiritual progress.

Lastly, the psalmist recalled that the Lord had provided water for his people in the desert by a miracle. Provision had seemed impossible, yet they discovered that what was impossible for men to do, God could do in a surprising manner. This tells us that we should not imagine that the Lord cannot meet our needs in a difficult situation.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Psalm 113 - The Kindness of God

In this psalm, the servants of the Lord are exhorted to praise him (v. 1). The servants may be those on duty in the temple or they could be his people wherever they are. In both cases they are reminded that praise is a primary and an essential activity of God’s people and the psalmist provides several reasons for doing so.

The psalmist begins by specifying that we should praise God’s name, which is a reminder that praise should be intelligent. Divine names reveal truths about God and these truths guide us in what we should say to and about the Lord. In addition to offering intelligent worship, praising God’s name implies that contemplation has occurred beforehand. It is not correct to rush into God’s presence without spiritual preparation and an important part of preparation is thinking about God.

Verses 2 and 3 detail the longing in the heart of each true worshipper of God. Such want him to be praised (1) all the time and (2) everywhere throughout the earth. At present, such a longing is a prayerful aspiration, but it will yet be answered. The psalmist is confident about the future, and so should we even if things at present in our society are spiritually bleak. But the gospel will flourish and bring about worldwide blessing.

The psalmist rejoices in the wonderful fact that the Lord is completely sovereign over the affairs of our world (vv. 4-6). Indeed he is exalted over the whole universe. His sovereignty is never threatened even when he is opposed by powerful nations and empires. Such is his ability he continually knows what is taking place throughout the earth. This means that he is never taken by surprise.

But what does the Lord do with his power? The psalmist gives examples in verses 6-9 and each example reveals God’s gracious dealings with people in need. He cares for those who cannot help themselves. His actions had a literal meaning in ancient Israel when he promoted people from a low background to positions of prominence and also provided a home and family for women. Such dealings in providence were reasons for praising God.

The activities of God can also be interpreted in a wider spiritual sense. God takes spiritual outcasts and trains them for leadership in his church. It is good to realise that future leaders of his people can come from all kinds of unexpected backgrounds. He also can turn places of spiritual barrenness into situations of fruitfulness. God’s abilities provide many reasons for praising him.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Psalm 112 - The One who Fears God

This psalm is concerned with the blessedness of the righteous person. He is described in verse 1, then several blessings are mentioned in verses 2-9, before the psalm closes in verse 10 with a brief description of the wicked person. In verse one, we have the character of the righteous person, in verses 2-9 we have his comforts, and in verse 10 we have a contrast between him and the wicked person.

According to the psalmist, a person who fears the Lord will greatly delight in God’s commandments (v. 1). Sometimes the impression is given that the fear of God is a dismal attitude accompanied by repression of all forms of joy. The reality is far different. Those who have discovered that the Lord is gracious also find that his commandments are enjoyable and liberating; they are God–given guidelines and requirements for how to live a fulfilled life inwardly and outwardly. Such a person is truly balanced because his outward behaviour flows from his renewed heart.

The psalmist then begins to list some of the blessings enjoyed by a righteous person. It is important for us to remember that the blessings listed are those connected to the Mosaic Covenant between God and Israel and some of them no longer apply in the period of the new covenant. There is no guarantee today that the children of believers will be powerful in a political sense and wealthy in a material sense (vv. 2-3), although such was an indication in Old Testament times of God’s approval. Instead the righteous today are guaranteed spiritual blessings, and they contain greater riches than material things.

Although there is a difference between the some of the blessings enjoyed today and those in Old Testament times, God still expects his people to have a godly character, which is expressed in the psalm as gracious, merciful and righteous. The clearest way in which these features are revealed is through acts of kindness and uprightness (vv. 5, 9) towards others. Such actions, when done for God, will be remembered by him forever and will be rewarded by him at the judgment seat of Christ (vv. 6, 8, 9).

The righteous person is not exempt from bad news (v. 7). What distinguishes him from others is how he reacts to it. When troubles come along, he continues to trust in the Lord. The righteous person has discovered the secret of how not to let outward circumstances affect his faith in God, which is that he continues to depend on the Lord through the trials.

Spurgeon comments on this attitude: ‘His love to God is deep and true, his confidence in God is firm and unmoved; his courage has a firm foundation, and is supported by Omnipotence. He has become settled by experience, and confirmed by years. He is not a rolling stone, but a pillar in the house of the Lord. He shall not be afraid. He is ready to face any adversary – a holy heart gives a brave face. Until he see his desire upon his enemies. All through the conflict, even till he seizes the victory, he is devoid of fear. When the battle wavers, and the result seems doubtful, he nevertheless believes in God, and is a stranger to dismay. Grace makes him desire his enemies’ good: though nature leads him to wish to see justice done to his cause, he does not desire for those who injure him anything by way of private revenge.’

Although the wicked are annoyed by the lifestyle of the righteous and dislike it intensely, they will sadly discover that their chosen way of life will produce no long-term benefits (v. 10). This psalm reminds us that the righteous man has much grace in this life and great glory in the next. It also reminds us that in reality the wicked man has very little contentment in this life and nothing from God in the next.  

Friday, 12 December 2014

Psalm 111 - Thinking About God's Faithfulness

The psalm begins with the author’s resolve to take part in the public worship of God. Verse 1 tells that an essential element of true worship is gratitude to God. It also informs us who can worship God – the upright. An upright person is an individual who obeys the Lord from the heart. Ideally, true worship is given by a congregation of grateful persons who delight to obey God’s commandments. Indeed, obedience to God is the always the consequence of true gratitude for his mercy.

In the remainder of the psalm, the author focuses on the works of God. Those works range from what he provides for them daily (provides food) to redeeming them from powerful enemies. In all his activities, be they great or small, the Lord reveals what kind of God he is.

It is important to note the benefits that meditation brings: ‘Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them’ (v. 2). The reason for thinking about them is not primarily to obtain more information but to delight in the God who performs them. The activities of God should bring a response of joy.

‘The hidden wisdom of God is the most marvellous part of his works, and hence those who do not look below the surface miss the best part of what he would teach us. Because the works are great they cannot be seen all at once, but must be looked into with care, and this seeking out is of essential service to us by educating our faculties, and strengthening our spiritual eye gradually to bear the light of the divine glory’ (Spurgeon).

The psalmist stressed that the Lord is righteous. His righteousness is seen in his permanent adhering to his merciful covenant of grace in which he committed himself to ensure that his redeemed people would receive their inheritance. Literally, this commitment was fulfilled in the ways he provided Israel with redemption from Egypt, the land of Canaan to dwell in, and protection from their enemies. His work in those provisions should not have been forgotten; instead his people should have trusted in him.

What was typified in Israel is fulfilled in the church of Christ. They too have redemption, inheritance and protection. Therefore they should delight in thinking about what had been done for them, and when they do so they will come and worship God together with glad hearts.

Such a lifestyle is the meaning of fearing the Lord. Those who do so have discovered the path of wisdom, the path that gives a good life in this world and leads to glory in the next.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Psalm 110:5-7 - Jesus the Judge

The details in this psalm began with the enthronement of the Saviour following his ascension to heaven. What happened then was the focus of verses 1-4. In the remaining verses, the psalmist moves on to what will take place in the future, at the second coming of Jesus. Psalm 110, therefore, is an example of several Old Testament prophecies that combine the first and second comings of Jesus. This feature has been likened to two hills with an unseen valley between them. One hill was the ascension and the second hill is the second coming. From the psalmist’s perspective, there was not a long time gap between them, but we know that there has been almost 2,000 years so far.

In order to explain what will happen when Jesus returns, the psalmist uses the imagery of ancient warfare except that this battle is very different from any that have taken place previously. The battlefield is the whole earth and the enemy is the nations and their leaders who have resisted the rule of Christ from heaven. Jesus will have a complete victory. Even the combined resources of his opponents will prove futile once he comes to judge.

The time of this awesome event is fixed and unknown. It is fixed as far as God is concerned and unknown as far as we are concerned. Yet we should remember that just as God as arranged for other important days, so he has decreed when the Day of Judgement will take place.

The reference in verse 7 to the Messiah ‘drinking from the brook by the way’ illustrates his haste. In ancient times, a general would not have time during a battle to stop for a meal, as it were, but would only take a short drink from a stream before continuing with his fight. It is not a literal prediction of what Jesus will do, but it does remind us that once he begins to judge he will do nothing else until he completes it.

There is a big difference between the first and second comings of Jesus. When he came the first time, he came with the purpose of dying for sinners. The reason for his second coming will be to judge the world. The way to escape the judgement is to depend on what he did during his first coming, when he paid the penalty for sin on the cross of Calvary.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Psalm 110:4 - Jesus, the King Priest

Here, in verse 4, the psalmist takes an important Old Testament ruler called Melchizedek and says that his story is a picture of Jesus. Melchizedek was a king in Salem (which may have been an old name for Jerusalem) who also functioned as the priest in his community. Unlike the Jewish priests, he was also a king and so depicts Jesus who is both a king and a priest.

The Book of Hebrews develops this reference to Melchizedek, especially the lack of a genealogy for him and also the meanings of his name. Usually in Genesis, we are told when a person was born and when he died. The omission of this detail about Melchizedek makes him a picture of the eternal person of the Son of God, who had no beginning and will have no end. Of course, Melchizedek was born and died because he was only a man. Some have speculated whether he was Jesus making an Old Testament appearance, but that is wrong.

With regard to his name, he also illustrates who Jesus is and what he did. His name means ‘king of righteousness’ and his location Salem means he was also king of ‘peace’. Jesus provides both of these blessings for his subjects. Sin had deprived us of both these blessings, but Jesus restores us to a standing marked by both. He has provided a permanent righteousness for those who trust in him and his work on the cross also has made permanent peace between them and God.

When Melchizedek met with Abraham, he brought physical refreshment to the tired patriarch who was returning from a battle in which he had rescued his nephew Lot. In this activity, Melchizedek is also a picture of Jesus who provides spiritual refreshment for his people throughout their time in this world. They will face many difficult situations, but he always knows how to draw near and help them.

On that occasion back in Genesis, Abraham acknowledged the supremacy of Melchizedek by giving to him a tithe. This action by Abraham illustrates that we should acknowledge the pre-eminence of Jesus by gladly giving to him what he commands from us.

The psalmist is aware of an incident that would yet occur in heaven from his perspective. It was revealed to him that the Messiah would yet be invited to take his place on the throne of God, and that the invitation would include this reference to Melchizedek. So even in heaven, when announcements are made, some of them at least refer to incidents recorded in the Word of God. Perhaps people may have wondered what significance there was in referring to this otherwise unknown figure. The reference in Psalm 110 explains his importance. It may be the case that other announcements in heaven will yet highlight the deeper meaning of many biblical passages that currently seem to have little to say.