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.

Friday, 28 February 2014

The Grace of God (Psalm 125)

Obviously the arrangers who placed the psalm among the psalms of ascent regarded it as a suitable psalm for the pilgrims to use as they attended the annual feasts in Jerusalem. Going to these feasts gave them the opportunity to walk around the city and observe the natural defences that the surrounding mountains gave to the city. As they did so, they compared these natural defences to the spiritual protection that they had in God.

The psalmist says in verse 1 that the defining mark of God’s people is that they trust in the Lord. The point that the psalmist is making is that only those who trust in the Lord will experience the blessings of the Lord. God’s people are not only saved by faith, they also live by faith, and in doing so receive great blessings from him.

The first blessing that the psalmist mentions is the permanence of the believer – he or she cannot be removed (v. 1). We can think about the amazing fact that they cannot be removed from membership in the family of God. This position of intimacy and importance is never removed from them.

A second blessing is the Lord’s protecting grace (v. 2). The psalmist was aware that God’s people had many enemies; in fact they were surrounded by them. Yet between them and their enemies was a secure defence, the Lord himself. Just as the city of Jerusalem has a natural defence in the range of mountains around it, so God’s people have a spiritual defence in God against their spiritual enemies.

A third blessing is the Lord’s preventing grace (v. 3). There was a danger that the Israelites would resort to inappropriate ways of obtaining deliverance. We can never make spiritual progress by disobeying the Bible. How glad we should be that the Lord often prevents such responses from occurring.

In verse 4, he psalmist turns from speaking about God to speaking to God. There is great energy in this prayer. He is an example of the Saviour’s words in Matthew 11:12, that the violent take the kingdom of heaven by force. He prays that those who are upright in heart, who are trusting the Lord and exercising patience as they wait for him, will enjoy his good things. What a range of spiritual benefits is found in that small word ‘good’! What a variety of blessings we can pray for one another to receive.

Verse 5 reminds us of the providence of God.  If people choose wrong paths or crooked ways, the Lord will shepherd them as well, except he will lead them into the paths of destruction. This is a reminder that sinners cannot oppose God and get away with it. When his enemies fail to repent and instead persist in opposing his people, the Lord eventually intervenes and removes those who have been attacking his kingdom.

In the same verse, the psalmist mentions another divine blessing, that of peace. We should note the certainty of it and the comprehensiveness of it. Peace will be ours wherever we are and it will be ours at all times. It is not surprising that the Lord is called the God of all grace (1 Pet. 5:10).

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Song of Deliverance (Psalm 124)

This psalm was written by David to celebrate a communal deliverance rather than a personal one. There are several lessons that can be taken from this psalm as we consider the state of God’s cause today.

Firstly, we should realise the fierceness of the enemies of God’s people. David gives vivid descriptions of his foes: wild animals, overwhelming storms, raging torrents. These descriptions illustrate what these enemies want – the utter destruction of the church. We are not facing enemies that are going to show compassion because we are weak. This is a reminder of the reality of spiritual warfare. God has given us armour to wear for our protection (Eph. 6:11-20), and if we don’t have it on, we will be wounded.

Secondly, we should not judge a situation by appearances. It is common for us to hear and say that the church is weak today, with the impression being given that in the past it was not weak. But the church has always been weak; the difference between the church of the past and the church of today is that God came and delivered his church in the past and he has not yet come and delivered today’s church. As we look at the situation today, we are to view it in the light of God’s character, particularly his promises to bless sinners, and of his power.

Thirdly, the psalm shows that deliverance from God may not come until we are at our wit’s end. The Israelites were facing imminent destruction in the face; they had no way of escape. Today in our country the church is facing a struggle for existence. Yet there is little evidence of desperation among Christians, a desperation that would cause them to wrestle with God to come and give prosperity to his church.  It is a healthy spiritual sign when believers are at their wit’s end because then they will be forced to their knees.

Fourthly, the psalm tells us that during the onslaught we have to remain at our posts and not run away. David and his men lined up for the battle even although the enemy looked more powerful than they. The same is required of us. We have to make it clear that we are on the Lord’s side.

Fifthly, when deliverance comes, God should get all the glory. In the psalm, he is praised for setting the people free. It was not David’s military skills that brought it about (although the Lord may have used him in the process of deliverance), and he is careful to say that the glory should be given to God. The Lord alone is their help and in his name is all their confidence.

Sixthly, when God delivers, he often delivers completely. This is depicted in the illustration of the bird escaping from a trap. Their release was one that both showed their weakness and the Lord’s power. They were unable to contribute anything to their rescue, it was all the Lord’s doing. But it was an effective deliverance. They were given total freedom from these enemies. 

Until that happens, we should imitate these pilgrims and continue to gather in our Jerusalem. We should not dishonour the church of Christ just because it seems to be weak. Nor should we dishonour the God who has the power and wisdom to being about miraculous change.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Prayer for Divine Help (Psalm 123)

Verse 1 of this psalm is spoken by an individual and the other three verses are spoken by a group. This points to the psalm being used in a response setting, with a leader singing the first verse and the congregation responding with verses 2–4. The psalm is basically two prayers – the prayer of the individual and the prayer of the group.

Verses 3 and 4 are clear that the psalm was composed during a time when God’s people were enduring strong derision. This was not a pleasant experience and the people of God were not expected to cope with it in a stoical manner. Instead they were to take their distress to God. A stoical attitude is often an expression of confidence in one’s own ability to cope with a difficult situation and is not a commendable response as far as spiritual matters are concerned.

Verse 1 is the declaration of an individual that he is looking away from the mockings and turning his eyes towards God. In the liturgy of the Jewish worship, this verse may have been sung by a priest or Levite; when he sung it, the other verses would be sung as a response by the congregation or other priests and Levites.

This leader showed he was entirely dependent on God. I think we can see his total reliance in the image that he uses, which is that both his eyes were focussed on God. A false leader would have both eyes fixed on some form of earthly help; a fickle leader would have one eye on God and the other eye on another possible source of help; but a true leader looks only to God.

Not only was the leader in verse 1 entirely dependent on God, he also reminded the people that God was on the throne, that he was the sovereign God. It is useful to remind a weak group of believers that God still loves them, but it is important to stress that he is strong, that he is in complete control of a hostile situation. The taunting opponents may seem strong, but in reality they are pygmies in comparison to God. Weak believers are encouraged when they are reminded that they have a strong, sovereign God.

In verse 2, the people copy the example of the leader in verse 1 and each of them sets both their eyes on their great God. Using the imagery of a master and slaves they confess his sovereignty.

This picture of master and slaves reminds us of the humility of these believers. The sovereignty of God does not only mean that he is in charge of all that takes place; it also requires every believer to live under his authority continually, in a way similar to how an ancient slave responded to his master.

The imagery points us to the hand of God. The male and female slaves in a household would stand in a room with their eyes permanently on their owner’s hand. It was usual for the owner to beckon commands rather than to vocalise them, therefore it was very important for their hands to be observed.

The author takes this imagery and says that what the humble slaves of God want is mercy. It is not so much mercy for their sins, although believers often ask for mercy in this sense. Rather they want mercy to be shown by the removal of the sources of contempt.

Those believers had holy resolution. They were not going to stop praying until God delivered them. Their prayers were simultaneously persistent and patient. This is how we show we are putting God first – we bring the matter to him and plead humbly and expectantly with him until he answers. The Lord is full of pity towards us and he will listen sympathetically to such a cry. Eventually he will answer if we persist in our prayers.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Arrival in a Peaceful City (Psalm 122)

As we noted when looking at Psalms 120 and 121, the collection of psalms running from 120–134 were grouped together after the return from the Babylonian exile. It is agreed that the purpose of the collection was for use by pilgrims travelling to the annual feasts in Jerusalem. No doubt, they would see a big difference between the beautiful city that existed before the exile and the smaller city that existed after it. One function of Psalm 122 was to remind the pilgrims that it was not the size of the city that was the main issue. Instead they were to rejoice in what existed in Jerusalem (the beneficial rule of God) and what took place there (the worship of God).

The psalm is a reminder of several benefits that come through gathering with God’s people. Verses 1 and 2 highlight the wonderful reality of sharing public worship with those whom God has rescued from spiritual danger. When the pilgrims stepped within the city gates they found themselves within a secure environment. The city was surrounded with walls, which gave protection to the inhabitants. Similarly, public worship is a reminder of the security of God’s people, that they have been delivered from their sins and are no longer under the judgement of God. We should look round the gathered congregation and note those whom God has set free – they are visible signs of his delivering power.

Moreover, entering Jerusalem gave to the pilgrims the opportunity of observing the various buildings of the city (v. 3). The psalm indicates that it was a well-designed city. When we gather in public worship, we enter a city full of interesting sites. I once heard a sermon in which the preacher imagined a tour of this city and he took us to the museum (where our history can be observed), to the town hall (where our names are written on the city register), to the hospital (where our spiritual wounds are cured), to the council chamber (where we have access to the Ruler of the city), etc.

In verse 4, the psalm mentions the unity of God’s people. Whatever their background, social level, intellectual abilities, age, they were together. When we apply this to the visible church in New Testament times, we can see the importance of unity in the professing people of God as it is displayed on a weekly basis by a local congregation.

Also in verse 4, the psalmist draws attention to the twofold purpose of gathering in Jerusalem. One was to listen at Israel’s testimony (the place where the priests instructed the people about God and his purposes) and the other was to give thanks to God. This is a reminder that public worship is a two-way event, an interaction between God and those who worship. There has to be instruction by those whom God has gifted for this role and there has to be a response from the congregation, that of thanksgiving to God for his faithfulness.

The importance of corporate prayer is mentioned in verses 6 and 7. Prayer is to be made for two details: peace and prosperity. It is impossible for spiritual prosperity to be known if there is no desire for peace.

In the closing verses the psalmist highlights the need of personal dedication (vv. 8-9). He devotes himself to saying and doing only the things that make for peace. As far as his fellow-worshippers are concerned, his speech will focus on peaceful words, with the aim of giving to them a spirit of contentment and concord. Similarly, his actions would always have the aim of the prosperity of God’s kingdom.

Why this emphasis on peace? Because Jerusalem (Salem) is ‘the city of peace’ where the Prince of peace reigns, where the peace of God rules in the hearts of the inhabitants because they are reconciled to him. That is what going to church should be like. 

Monday, 24 February 2014

Travelling to Zion (Psalm 121)

Psalm 121 is the second of the fifteen songs of ascent or degrees (120–134) that were put together to help the pilgrims as they travelled to Jerusalem to keep the annual feasts. Psalm 120 presents the pilgrim’s everyday location by using the names of Meshech and Kedar, two countries that were far away from Jerusalem; Psalm 121 describes the journey from there to Jerusalem; Psalm 122 details the welcome they received as they entered Jerusalem. The remaining psalms in the collection focus on various features found in the religious life of God’s people as they kept the annual feasts.

Psalm 121 has two kinds of speaker. Verses 1 and 2 are in the first person singular and verses 3 to 8 are in the third person. We should picture a group of pilgrims making their way along the road and looking up to the hills. One pilgrim sings or says the words of verses 1 and 2, and then the others with him respond with the words of verses 3 to 8. The obvious lesson from this dialogue is the necessity of fellowship. This psalm does not depict a traveller going by himself to keep the feast; instead he was journeying with those who shared his faith and sympathised with his concerns.

The first speaker
He begins by referring to the hills. When he looked at the hills, he was not admiring the scenery. Instead he was concerned about two common details of life as he made his way along the road. The first detail was his sense of danger because the hills were the hiding place of bandits and robbers; the second detail was his observance of pagan temples and statues because they were built on high places. There should be a question mark after ‘help’ in verse 1: ‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help?’ The hills were permanent reminders of (1) his need of God’s protection and (2) his worship of the true God. Therefore, he says to his fellow pilgrims in verse 2: ‘My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.’

The others
His companions on the journey now contribute to the conversation and continue speaking about the way God helps his people as they journey through life, throughout each stage of it. They remind their friend that God will be his personal shepherd for the entire journey.

First, they remind him that God will be his guardian. He will function in this way both when the pilgrim is on the move and when he is at rest. As he moves, making his way to Zion, God will watch over each step that he takes. We can imagine a traveller having to avoid holes in the road or rocks left by landslides. There would always be occasions of danger, of falling. God guards every step to make sure that we cannot be tripped up. We, too, as we journey are always facing situations where we might fall into temptation or into sin. It is wonderful to know that the Lord is so concerned about us that he takes note of where our next step will be.

God, the guardian of his people, does not sleep. The allusion here is to the practice of travellers placing guards round the encampment during the hours of darkness. Even if they chose the best guards, there was always the concern that they might fall asleep and allow robbers or wild animals into the camp. There could never be a sense of total security. How different it is with the Lord! Each of his people can rest secure, knowing that God is in charge of their protection.

Second, they remind him that God will be with him as his refreshing protector. This is the point of him being described as a shade from the heat of the sun or from the cold of the clear, moonlit skies at night. Travellers had to take rest at noon from the strength of the sun; they needed shade at night to keep warm. God does not merely provide a shade, he is the shade. What a wonderful reality that is! The heavenly Shepherd provides his pilgrim people with rest of soul by reminding them of who he is and what he has done and of the joys that are ahead of them.

Third, they remind their friend that God will be his permanent protector and his comprehensive protector (vv. 7-8). There will never be a time when God will not be protecting them (their going out and their coming in) and there will never be a situation in which God cannot help them. From what enemies will they be safe? Paul provides a list 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.’

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Longing for Something Better (Psalm 120)

The set of psalms from 120 to 134 are called the Psalms of Ascent. Although composed at different times, they were put together after the exile to help pilgrims who travelled to Jerusalem to keep the annual Jewish feasts.

Psalm 120 describes the situations in which those devout pilgrims normally lived and how they responded to their environment. The psalmist mentions two places – Meshech and Kedar. It was impossible to live in both places simultaneously in a physical sense because Meshech is in modern-day Turkey and Kedar is probably in Saudi Arabia. They picture life far away from the things of God and how a true believer is different from those among whom he lives. He was a stranger in a strange land.

What were the prominent features of his life? First, he prayed about his circumstances and the things that distressed him (vv. 1-2). His prayer reveals that the sins of others affected him, that they were not matters about which he could be indifferent.

Second, he committed his opponents into the hands of God (vv. 3-4). Perhaps he had been tempted to take revenge on his opponents. In a sense, such a response was pointless because his opponents were too powerful for him. But there was a more important reason for not taking revenge, which was not to invade into an area that God has reserved for himself. As Paul puts it in Romans 12:19: ‘Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”’

Third, he expressed his desire to be with the people of God (v. 5). The psalmist used these far-off countries to depict his separation from God’s people, his sense of isolation, his sense of not belonging. He was among people who did not share his desires. How he longed to be with the inhabitants of Jerusalem rather than with the citizens of this world! He wanted to be with those who would value God’s redemption, provision and promises.

Fourth, he expressed his desire to experience peace, the shalom of God (vv. 6-7). He had told his acquaintances about the peace that his God could give, but they did not want to know about it. That can be an experience for believers today as they spread the message of peace – they often discover intense opposition to the gospel. The psalmist knew where he would experience peace – in Jerusalem. That is why he wanted to go there for the feast.

These four marks of grace – love of prayer, committing everything into God’s hands, love of his people and desire for peace – clearly reveal whose side we are on.