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.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Psalm 101 - Dedication

In this psalm David expresses his determination to serve God as King of his people. Obviously this was an important role that he had to fulfil. He realised that he had to live a holy life before he could exercise a holy rule. If he tried to do the latter without the former, he would only be a hypocrite.

He begins the psalm by revealing how much he loves the mercy and justice of God. David knew that he was a sinner, yet he also had discovered that God could pardon him and simultaneously uphold justice. This is a reminder that the Lord is gracious, that he does not treat us in the way our sins deserve. Instead he punishes a substitute. And our substitute was Jesus on the cross. David, who looked ahead to the coming of the Saviour, praised the Lord for his mercy.

David’s longing was for fellowship with God (v. 2). In order for that to happen, David realised that he had to have certain attitudes. His home life had to be of a high standard (v. 2), his interests had to be on important matters (v. 3a), he had to hate sin (v. 3b), and he had to separate himself from all that is wrong (v. 4).

In verses 5-8, he describes his rule. He will bring down those guilty of slander and pride (v. 5). He would enact laws that would encourage the faithful because he knew that such were a benefit to society (v. 6); indeed he would choose his counsellors from among them (v. 6). As king, he would never have deceivers in his home (v. 7) and he would consistently aim to rid the land of evil people (v. 8).

David here is a picture or type of the Lord Jesus whose universal rule is marked by holiness. He is also a picture of a true ruler, of one who fears God as he rules over his subjects. When we have rulers who run their homes and their public lives according to God’s Word great blessing can come on a people.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Psalm 100 - Singing with Gratitude

The metrical version of this psalm is one of the best known psalms in the Psalter. It has been a common song of worship in the Christian church from its beginning – it was often used for morning prayer in the early church.

 The psalm is classified as a thanksgiving psalm (v. 4) and some have speculated that it may have been sung when the thank offering was made. It begins with a call to worship in which the singers anticipate worldwide participation (v. 1). Obviously we can use this desire in a greater sense than Israel could because the Christian church is now found throughout the church. It is beneficial to our hearts to remind ourselves of the Lord’s universal power.

The psalmist is addressing the people as they are about to enter the temple courts. He reminds them that the appropriate way of appearing before God is with joy and gladness, and these outlooks are expressed by singing (v. 2). He is the faithful Creator who looks after them as the heavenly Shepherd who provides for their needs and protects them from their enemies (v. 3).

 So whenever they join together in worship, they are to be thankful. At the same time, they should be optimistic about the future. Their God will always be good to them, will always love them, and will extend his faithfulness to every generation of his people.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Psalm 99 - Praising the King

The psalmist is describing an occasion of worship when his people were gathered to praise him at the temple. What ideas does the psalmist bring to our attention about the Lord that will help us to worship him as well?

The first theme that the psalmist mentions is the kingship of God and he does so by focusing on his throne. Where is his throne? According to verse 1, he sits enthroned upon the cherubim, which may cause us to think about a location in heaven. After all, the cherubim are a group of angelic beings. Yet it is more likely that the psalmist is thinking about the mercy seat on the ark of the covenant on which were placed models of the cherubim.

If that is the case, then we can see in what way the psalmist thought the Lord was great. The mercy seat was where the blood of the annual sacrifice on the Day of Atonement was sprinkled in order for the sins of Israel to be covered for a year. This is the distinctive feature of God. His mercy is what makes him great in the eyes of sinners because it reveals aspects of his wisdom, power and love that could not be known otherwise. Thankfully, the sacrifice of Jesus is not an annual event. Instead his sacrifice completely atoned for the sins of his people for ever and will not be repeated.

It was because of his mercy that the Lord had redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land; it was because of his mercy that the Lord had protected them from powerful opponents and given great victories over them. Therefore the people of God praised the Lord for his sovereignty which had been so gracious to them. They realised that he was superb and marked by splendour. The biblical term for this is holiness, which does not merely mean that he is detached from what is wrong. It also means that he is elevated in perfection above everything and everyone else. We know so much more about God than Israel ever did, so we should have far higher concepts of his holiness (v. 5).

At the same time, the psalmist realised that the King ruled in justice (v. 3). He requires his subjects to imitate him and react fairly to one another. Obviously, justice includes matters such as punishing wrongdoers and preventing sinful actions. Yet it involves more. To act fairly in a Christian sense is not to give to others what they deserve; instead it is to give to them what they need. Acting fairly and justly will mean that the poor will be provided for, that the hungry will be fed, and the lonely will be visited. After all, these are the criteria that Jesus will use when judging the world at the end of this age (Matt. 25:31-46).

The next theme to note is that the Lord delights to forgive (vv. 6-8). Even the great in Israel needed forgiveness and the psalmist recalls three leaders in particular: Moses, Aaron and Samuel. They served him at the tabernacle; there they had fellowship with God and received from him answers to prayer as well as divine instructions. Yet they were not perfect and not always wise. Sadly they committed sins that God chastised them for. Nevertheless he freely forgave them. As we gather in worship it is good for us to think about those we know whom God has forgiven all their sins. He has done so in a manner that has not compromised his holiness. Indeed, because he is a pardoning God, he is exalted greatly.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Psalm 98 - Praising the God of Salvation

In this psalm the author celebrates a great deliverance given to Israel by the Lord. The deliverance was accomplished by him without help from anyone else. This rescue was the consequence of his faithfulness to his promises about delivering his people and it was done in such a way that all other nations could see it (vv. 1-3). An historical event that fulfils these details is the deliverance of Israel from Babylon (although another suitable event would be their rescue from Egypt at the Exodus). God had promised to deliver his people from their bondage, and here the psalmist praises the Lord for doing so.

Of course, we can think of a far greater event to which these details should now apply. The rescue accomplished by Jesus on the cross was the outcome of divine promises contained in the Old Testament and also made before the universe was created. They resulted in a saving work that is made known today throughout the world.

In verses 4-6, the psalmist calls on the nations to join Israel and worship the Lord at his temple in Jerusalem (the references to musical instruments point to the temple liturgy). Since several decades passed before the temple was rebuilt by the restored nation, it may be that this psalm was composed during or after the ministries of Haggai and Zechariah. Or the psalm could be a call, given as a prophecy, to the nations to come there once the temple was rebuilt.

In a similar but grander way, the Christian church invites the nations to join her in celebrating the Lord Jesus’ victory achieved by his work on the cross and subsequent resurrection and ascension. In doing so, she gladly confesses that Jesus is her King as well as being the universal Ruler of all things.

The victory given to God’s people causes the psalmist to turn his focus on to an even greater occasion when the Lord’s power will be revealed when he appears in the future as the universal judge (vv. 7-9). Perhaps the psalmist saw in the judgement of Israel’s enemies a foretaste of God’s judgement on all his enemies. His role on that day will be appreciated even by the inanimate creation and the psalmist depicts the seas, rivers and hills rejoicing when it happens. He even includes the inhabitants of the seas, which could be a reference to those living on far-off islands.

The Christian church knows that the One who will function as the future judge is Jesus. Believers also know that his coming then will bring about the deliverance of his creation from bondage. But it is their desire that those currently living in the world would be prepared for that occasion when the world will be judged. Their express their desire by telling others that the only way of escape is by depending on Jesus and his work on the cross two thousand years ago.

As we sing this psalm, we should be reminded of our obligation to call others to join us in worshipping the Lord. We should also sing joyfully as we reflect on our current experience of salvation and as we anticipate our future participation in God’s ultimate deliverance of his people.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Psalm 97 - The Lord Reigns

The psalm begins by stressing a most wonderful reality, a reality which is also the basis of great confidence. This reality is that the Lord reigns in an active manner. Because he rules with complete sovereignty over everything, it means that everyone can be glad. If others had such power, it would be a cause for trepidation because they would use it for other reasons than God’s glory.

His power is seen in the natural world. It is difficult to know if the psalmist is alluding back to the giving of the law on Mount Sinai in verses 2-6 or if he is describing a terrifying storm. It would seem to be the latter because its effects are visible to other nations (v. 6). At the very least, the psalmist’s example here challenges us to think of God’s attributes when we find ourselves in the middle of events we cannot control. God could use the storm to destroy his enemies (v. 3), an action which only those who know him could recognise as coming from his sense of justice (v. 2). In the storm, he controls everything – the lightning is his lighting (v. 4). Compared to God’s display of power, the usually impressive mountains seem weak (v. 5). The psalmist uses these phenomena in an evangelistic sense as he reminds people that in fact they are seeing God’s glory during the storm. So a challenge comes to us: what aspects of God do we think about when a storm comes along? After all, God has sent it so that we can think about him.

The psalmist contrasts the idols of the nations with the Lord. These idols cannot even cause a ripple whereas the Lord can disturb the whole world. There is no point in worshipping an idol that can do nothing. It is actually dehumanising to worship an idol, or as the psalmist says, it is a shameful thing to do. Those who worship transient things are boasting in useless items. Instead they should worship the Lord (v. 7).

In contrast to such pagan ideas, the people of God rejoice when God reveals himself. His actions in the storm, by which he dealt with his enemies, brought deliverance to his people, and they praised him for remembering them. Both the capital city (Zion) and the rural villages (daughters of Judah) participated in the praise (v. 8).

In verse 9, the psalmist gladly confesses that the Lord is the only sovereign. This awareness has consequences for his people. They should love him for preserving and delivering them (v. 10), and an important aspect of loving God is to hate evil. Indeed the more that they love God the more they will hate sin. From God’s good dealings with them they can deduce that prosperity and joy will come to them (v. 11). So even now they can rejoice as they anticipate by faith the good things that he will provide for them in the future and so continue to be thankful to him in the present (v.12). 

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Psalm 96 - Sing a New Song

Why did the psalmist stress that his song was new? Was he referring merely to the possibility that it had never been sung before? Or was it new in the sense that it was new to those who were singing it for the first time, although others may have sung it before them? I suspect the second option is correct: the psalmist wants people from all over the earth to begin singing (for them) a new song about God’s salvation (v. 1).

This new song is to be sung every day (v. 2) and is a means of telling others about the great things God has done. Such an activity has been called doxological evangelism. It also indicates that spreading the gospel should be a happy activity, that it is suitable for singing about to others.

The psalmist also reveals how to understand the glory of God (v. 3). Glory is what makes a person great, and salvation is the greatest activity that God could have engaged in. Salvation is far greater than his work of creation and if the Lord had limited himself to the work of creation we would not have seen the fullness of his glory. But in the work of salvation we see God’s highest expressions of love, wisdom, delight and power.

Because he is the God of salvation, the nations are called to leave their non-existent idols and praise him instead. Their praising of such idols is pointless because they are not able to do anything. They cannot even do things gradually whereas the Lord began his activities by making the universe (vv. 4-5).

Such a God is surrounded by splendour and majesty. Thinking about him leads us into an appreciation of his power and his beauty, even although we cannot see him. His power and beauty are seen specifically in his sanctuary, which is a reference to the Holy of Holies in the temple, and in that sanctuary all that could be seen were symbols of the pardoning nature of God (v. 6). All the earth is called by the psalmist to come there to worship the Lord, a reminder that Israel had been intended by God to function as a missionary nation to the world (vv. 7-8).

The thought of the splendour of the sovereign God leads the psalmist to reflect on the occasion in the future when his righteousness will be clearly seen – the Day of Judgement (vv. 9-13). His coming in judgement is depicted as an occasion of great joy for the inanimate creation, an Old Testament allusion to Paul’s statement in Romans 8 that the whole creation is longing for the day when the sons of God will be revealed.

The message we bring to the nations is that our God reigns today, and his rule is supremely seen at present in the stability of the earth. We should be reminded by the regularity of the earth’s cycles that God is ruling, and at the same time we should tell others that he will yet judge them. The fact is, we know that Jesus will gather all humans into his presence and pronounce his divine verdict on their eternal destiny.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Psalm 95 - Worshipping God

Although this psalm has no title indicating authorship, the writer of Hebrews says that it was written by David (Heb. 4:7). The psalm is a call to worship God for his greatness and for his grace, but it also contains a warning for any who refuse to worship him.

In verses 1 and 2, David mentions an important feature of true worship – it includes communal joyful singing of psalms from grateful hearts. He also reminds us where such worship is offered – in the presence of God himself. In Old Testament times in Israel, the place where God’s presence was known was in the tabernacle or later in the temple. Today we are in his presence in a similar way when we gather in public worship.

David also says why we should worship God (vv. 1, 4-5). The psalmist provides two reasons: first, the Lord is the rock of our salvation and, second, he is the Creator of the world. In calling God a rock, David wants us to think of a high rock which people would ascend in order to be safe from their enemies. We too have spiritual enemies, but if we trust in the Lord we are safe from their attacks.

The world around us should also cause us to worship God because it tells us about his control over all places, his power to govern the sea, and his creative skill in forming the dry land. One of the stupidest of sins is the failure to see God in his creation.

In the second section of the psalm, David begins by indicating that bodily posture is involved in the worship of God. In verse 6, he mentions bowing and kneeling, actions which reveal that the worshipper realises he is in the presence of a King. We should not despise any who use this bodily posture in public worship, although it is not the only one mentioned in the Bible. The obvious aspect is that our posture often indicates what we think of God, and others take note of it.

The reason for submissive worship is that God’s kingly rule is like that of a shepherd (v. 7). Rulers liked to be thought of as shepherds of their subjects, although some of them were more like wolves. The Lord, however, is always acting like a shepherd when he deals with his people. His rule is designed for their benefit in a wide variety of ways, whether it is in what he does in providence for them or in what he reveals to them about his requirements and promises in his Word.

Strangely, those for whom he does the most can refuse to worship him (vv. 8-11). The children of Israel, who had experienced God’s mighty deliverance from Egypt and supernatural provision in the desert, hardened their hearts and persisted in rebelling against him. They paid a terrible price because that generation did not enter the Promised Land. Their failure to worship him with thankful hearts led to divine judgement.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Psalm 94 - God is the Avenger

The psalmist begins by calling on God to punish wicked people (vv. 1-3). One of the common responses of people is the desire to take revenge on those who have been cruel to them. Yet as far as the psalmist was concerned, it is better to wait until God rises up to punish rather than anyone taking personal vengeance on them. The attitude of the believer regarding his hatred of the presence of evil is important because it is evidence that he is longing for a better world.

In verses 4-6, the psalmist mentions several cruel features in the lives of his opponents. They expressed this cruelty in their words and in their actions towards the weak in society such as the widows, refugees and fatherless. In the process they dismissed the possibility that God would do anything about it (v. 7).

Indeed they may have assumed that somehow they were doing God’s will. It is surprising how often God today is brought into a discussion of what to do with refugees. Usually it is stated that they don’t accept the Christian religion, as if the residents themselves were all Christians. But God often warned his people that he would judge those who were cruel to aliens, widows and orphans.

The psalmist rejects as foolish the notion that God does not know what is going on. After all, he is the Creator who formed our hearing, seeing and understanding (vv. 8-11). In a sense, the author is telling these foolish people to consider that although they are made in God’s image they are still fragile. In contrast to those who ignore God, the psalmist asks to be taught personally from his Word; and if God does so, the psalmist knows he will experience a life marked by contentment (vv. 12-13).

The psalmist also knows that, contrary to appearances, the Lord will not abandon his people. Instead he will restore to them a society in which they will be able to live righteously (vv. 14-15). The ultimate fulfilment of this promise is heaven, although the Lord often gives foretastes of it.

The situation of existing cruelty bothered the psalmist and he wondered who would help him against the evildoers. His experience had been that only God would help him. Even when he thought his life was in danger, he had discovered that the Lord’s help was real and that his love was strong. The psalmist discovered that even in the midst of his many cares he could be comforted by the Lord (vv. 16-19).

It is important to remember that God never gets involved in coalitions involving evil (v. 20). Instead he will judge and punish the wicked (v. 23). At the same time he will remain the place of refuge for his people, the fortress in which they are always safe. He will remain the stronghold as long as there are wicked people. Those who despise him will eventually be punished by him.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Psalm 93 - God is King

This is the first in a set of psalms (93–100) that focus on the Kingship of God. In the main, the psalm highlights his role as King of creation, with him depicted as having total control of the stormy seas. Even if the storm is a hurricane which moves everything in its path, the Lord’s throne does not shake for even a second of time.

The psalmist highlights two features of God’s rule over creation: his attire and his domain. His attire is not ornate clothes which are lifeless things. Instead his attire is his invincible power which is never threatened even although it is often opposed. Unlike earthly kings who could not wear their robes all the time, the Lord always has on his garment of power.

His domain is the earth and it is the main location where he displays his power. Of course, he rules over the whole universe, but there is a sense in which the earth is the location where he reveals his power in dramatic ways. The earth will never be removed by the mighty seas. Perhaps there is an allusion here to the effects that the waters had on the earth at the time of the Flood. If that allusion is intended, then we can regard the psalmist’s statement that the earth being established as connected to God’s promise to Noah never to use the waters again to destroy the earth (Gen. 9:11).

The rule of God had no beginning. Unlike earthly kings whose rule must have a commencement, the Lord’s throne is eternal. On earth, subjects can overthrow their kings, but with regard to God everything and everyone is subject to him. He brings everything into existence, and he does so as a powerful monarch.

In verse 5, the psalmist moves to another area under God’s control and that is the temple where his rule was acknowledged. The temple was the location where the people received instruction in the things of God. It is obvious that the psalmist has been taught God’s decrees and has found by experience that he is reliable. The psalmist probably has in mind the promises of God which he keeps exactly. Or he may have in mind the commandments of God because they are liberating concerning those who obey them.

Since the temple was a place marked as the dwelling place of God, it is not surprising that holiness is the divine attribute that comes to the psalmist’s mind (v. 5). There is a reminder here that holiness occurs as long as God’s truth is accepted. The temple was the place where worshippers saw and heard real truth, real because it was connected to who God is and what he plans to do. To the degree that a person or church departs from God’s truth they also reduce the reality of holiness in their thinking about God and in their service of him.

In saying that God’s holiness should mark his dwelling place for ever, the psalmist is highlighting the enduring power of the King. The robes of earthly monarchs fade (a picture of their inability to remain in power) whereas the heavenly King’s power retains its lustre forever. Ahead for his people are observation of and participation in awesome occasions of the kingly power of Jesus.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Psalm 92 - Reasons for Singing on the Lord's Day

The heading of the psalm, which indicates it was to be used on the Sabbath, is an instruction for the Levites who sung in the temple. A specific psalm was sung each day: (1) 24; (2) 48; (3) 82; (4) 94; (5) 81; (6) 93 and (7) 92. The probable reason why Psalm 92 was chosen as especially suitable for use on the Sabbath is that it describes a person who celebrates God’s works (vv. 4-5), which was what God himself did on the first Sabbath after his work of creation (Gen. 2:1-3).

In verse 1, the psalmist states that it is good to express our thankfulness by singing praises to God. Such an activity is good for several reasons: it indicates a godly character in the grateful person; it encourages others who share his outlook; and it pleases God. Verses 2 and 3 indicate when and where the praise was offered. The reference to morning and evening points to the morning and evening sacrifices and the reference to musical instruments would also point to temple activities. So here we have another aspect of activity of the Sabbath – joining together with God’s people for family worship.

Worship should be marked by gladness in what the Lord has done (vv. 4-5). The psalmist could rejoice in God’s work of creation and in what he had done for Israel. When we worship, we not only focus on God as our Creator, we also think about him as our Saviour and rejoice in Jesus and what he has done. Our worship should also be marked by an increasing sense of wonder at the Lord’s achievements.

In contrast, those who ignore God cannot understand this (v. 6) and imagine that they are right because they seem to have the majority on their side (v. 7). The psalmist realises that the support of a majority cannot make a stupid decision into a wise one. It will do the wicked no good at all to perish with the majority. The psalmist meditates on the fact that in the future God will have total victory over his enemies (vv. 8-9). And that is another suitable activity for the Sabbath – to consider what will happen to the ungodly on the Day of Judgement.

Even in this life, the Lord works in providence on behalf of his people and the psalmist records his personal experience of divine deliverance in verses 10 and 11. He had been in a difficult situation. Yet he had received total deliverance and divine refreshment from the Lord, a reminder that often God’s people receive help and comfort at the same time from him. As the psalmist did, so on the Sabbath we should think about God’s personal dealings with us.

As the psalmist participated in the worship of God he looked around and saw many mature believers in a healthy spiritual state (vv. 12-14). They had gone through life’s experiences and because of God’s grace they were dignified (palm tree), strong (cedars can withstand storms), vibrant (sap) and consistent (ever green). The reason why they had become such people was because their spiritual roots were connected to the worship of God. A lifetime of participating in regular public worship will bring its visible reward. A good thing to do on the Sabbath is to consider the spiritual stature of those who have been devoted to God throughout their lives and to remind ourselves that what he has done for them he will do for all who are devoted to him.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Psalm 91 - Living Close to God

This psalm describes the experience of one who finds his refuge in God. It looks as if verse 2 is a response to verse 1, and that verses 3-13 are then a response to the speaker in verse 2. Perhaps verse 1 was spoken by a priest or religious official at the temple inviting people to draw near to God for safety. Verse 2 is then the response of the psalmist in which he states his resolve to trust in the Lord. Then in verses 3-13, the priest details the benefits that will come to the psalmist as he trusts in God. It is clear that the Lord speaks in verses 14-16, and these verses are his confirmation of what has been said in verses 1 and 3-13. So we could say that this psalm contains an example of two kinds of assurance: the first is the comfort conveyed through another believer who uses God’s Word (vv. 3-13) and the second is God speaking personally to the worshipper (vv. 14-16).

The place of safety (v. 1). Here we have an Old Testament description of what it means to live near to God, to enjoy fellowship with him. The believer who does so will make God his home and spend his time experiencing divine favour. How should we respond when we read such a description? Perhaps we will say that it is too high to attain. If that is our initial reply to this spiritual possibility, we should note how the psalmist responds in verse 2.

The affirmation of faith (v. 2). Upon hearing the description in verse 1, the psalmist states his resolve which is to go and speak to God and say that he is aware of the security he has received from his covenant-keeping Lord. Although these blessings are available for all of God’s people, the psalmist wants to state his personal trust to God. No doubt, he wants to do so out of gratitude.

The security magnified (vv. 3-13). In these verses, the original speaker explains how safe the psalmist is. The speaker takes several deadly situations from real life and uses them as illustrations of the security God gives. No-one could guarantee safety from a trapper or during a plague or from an invading army or from wild animals, except God. These illustrations depict the security of the individual who trusts in God. The Lord will ensure that they have heavenly protection (vv. 11-12).

The intervention of God (vv. 14-16). God then reveals why such a believer is so favoured. The reason is that he loves God and understands his character (v. 14), and this has been achieved by spending time with the Lord. God reveals that such a devoted servant will have answered prayer (v. 15), divine company (v. 15), divine deliverance and reward (v. 15) as well as satisfaction throughout life (v. 16). Who would not want to trust in such a God?

The devil quoted verses 11 and 12 to Jesus when he was tempted in the wilderness. Perhaps the Saviour was meditating on this psalm and the devil tried to distort its meaning. Or maybe the devil realised that this psalm was describing one who could not be harmed by any danger, in other words, a sinless person, and therefore tried to get Jesus to sin. No doubt, Jesus fulfils in the highest sense the spiritual experiences detailed in this psalm. He always lived close to his Father, he was protected throughout his life from danger (apart from the cross), and he was given a great reward by his Father at the ascension.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Psalm 90 - A Song for Today from Long Ago

As far as we know, this is the oldest psalm in the Book of Psalms. It was written by Moses, although we don’t know at what stage in his life it was composed by him. He begins by asserting that God is always the dwelling place of his people (v. 1). Moses looks back various generations; he thinks of his parents, his grandfather Levi, and his forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Each of them had different experiences and resided in different countries, yet they each discovered that their safest and most comfortable home was God.

In verses 2-12, he contrasts God and humans. The Lord is eternal, existing before the universe appeared. The longest period for man is but like a day to God. Further, he removes humans from this earth. Although initially they seem to flourish, they are like a passing thought or blades of grass that do not last for long. The reason why we die is because we have sinned.

It may be that Moses, when he says that our years are seventy or eighty, is referring to the particular judgement that was put on the Israelites when they refused to enter the Promised Land. The judgement included living for forty years in the desert until that generation died out, then the last of the adults would be about seventy when the period came to an end. Moses refers to them going through a particular period of God’s anger, which would fit with the forty years of divine judgement.

While that may be the case, it is also true that seventy or eighty years are the usual upper limits of our lives. No matter what we do, we cannot stop them rapidly passing. Nor can we get out of the various troubles that come our way. Therefore we need divine teaching about how to live during our short time on earth. A wise man prays for divine instruction, a fool does not bother. Both will die, but only the wise will have a happy ending.

In verses 13-17, Moses prays for the return of divine blessing, which again fits in with the possibility that he wrote the psalm during the forty years of divine judgement that the Israelites spent in the desert (v. 14). Perhaps he wrote the psalm as the period was coming to a close and he anticipated the Lord bringing his people into the Promised Land, where they would experience his provision and power. He looked forward to them experiencing God’s blessing in the future. Moses knows that the only way for them to know true satisfaction and experience real joy is through God’s favour.

Spurgeon comments that ‘though God smote Israel, yet they were his people, and he had never disowned them, therefore is he entreated to deal favourably with them. If they might not see the Promised Land, yet he is begged to cheer them on the road with his mercy, and to turn his frown into a smile.’

And Andrew Fuller observed: ‘It is worthy of notice that this prayer was answered. Though the first generation fell in the wilderness, yet the labours of Moses and his companions were blessed to the second. These were the most devoted to God of any generation that Israel ever saw. It was of them that the Lord said, “I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth, the love of thine espousals, when thou wentest after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown. Israel was holiness unto the Lord, and the first fruits of his increase.” It was then that Balaam could not curse, but, though desirous of the wages of unrighteousness, was compelled to forego them, and his curse was turned into a blessing. We are taught by this case, amidst temporal calamities and judgments, in which our earthly hopes may be in a manner extinguished, to seek to have the loss repaired by spiritual blessings. If God’s work does but appear to us, and our posterity after us, we need not be dismayed at the evils which afflict the earth.’

Similarly we have sinned against God and perhaps have caused him to withdraw his blessing from our lives. Instead of becoming used to such circumstances we should pray earnestly that the Lord would restore us, establish us and satisfy us. We should ask that the beauty of the Lord should be upon us. In other words, we should live holy, consecrated lives from now on.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Psalm 89 - A Promise Fulfilled in Jesus Christ

It is clear from the second half of the psalm that Ethan the Ezrahite is perplexed about why God seems to have rejected his people. His perplexity is not caused by the fact that they deserved to be punished for their sin. Instead he is puzzled because it seems that God is not keeping his promises to ensure that there will always be a king on the throne of Israel who will be descended from David.

In verses 1-4, Ethan praises God for making that commitment to David and his seed. This commitment was made after the Lord had done many other great things for his people, especially at the Exodus when he made a path through the Red sea and defeated the power of Egypt (vv. 9-10), and then when he gave to them the Promised Land (v. 12) and protected them from their enemies (vv. 15-18). God had shown himself faithful to his promises when he did those great things for his people and Ethan calls on the angels to join him in praising the Lord for such displays of power (vv. 5-8).

The climax of the Lord’s goodness to Israel was to choose David as their king. Ethan recounts the various promises that God had made to David and his descendants (vv. 19-37). In fact, supreme earthly authority was promised to David (v. 27), and not even the sins of his descendants would prevent the endless nature of his dynasty (vv. 29-37). Yet, as Ethan looked round, he could see no indication that God had kept his promises about David’s royal line. In fact, the opposite seemed to be the case.

Ethan feels deeply the visible demise of God’s kingdom. Yet he knows that the Lord has the power to change the situation and restore his kingdom. So he asks the Lord to answer his prayer for restoration, and to do so within his own lifetime (vv. 46-48). His only hope in his dismal surroundings, made worse by the derision of their enemies, is still the covenant promises that the Lord made to David about his royal line.

What does the theme of the psalm have to do with us who live in the New Testament period? We have more knowledge that Ethan had because we live after the coming of the Messiah. We know that the Lord has kept his promise about the universal and endless reign of the descendants of David – he has given the place of permanent and complete power to Jesus when he ascended to heaven. What Ethan longed to see, we now know has taken place. We can sing this psalm knowing that, in the Lord Jesus, God has kept his promises to David and done so in a manner that has far exceeded the expectations of his harassed servant Ethan.

Since the Father has kept his promise to give an eternal throne to the Descendant of David, we can expect him to keep all the other promises he has made in connection to that kingdom. How delighted we should be that we live under the actual rule of the God-man, Jesus, the ongoing fulfiller of the promises made long ago by his Father to David.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Psalm 88 - Prayer in Time of Difficulty

It is clear from this psalm that its author Heman is in deep soul trouble as well as in physical distress. His bodily troubles are such that he fears he may soon die (vv. 3-5). Of course he lived in a day when medical treatments were very basic and no doubt physical problems that would not concern us today were very threatening to him.

It has been observed that the only comforting words in the psalm are found in the first line when Heman describes the Lord as the God of his salvation. This means that his subsequent words are not those of a doubter or of someone who lacked assurance. Rather they are the words of one who is wrestling through his problems in faith.

The basic expression of his faith is persistent prayer (v. 1). His troubles have not caused him to cease praying; instead they cause him to pray more earnestly and more incessantly. He realises that the primary response to providence, whatever providence may be, is to pray.

When he says in verse 6 that God has caused all the trouble, Heman is not accusing the Lord. Instead he is confessing the sovereignty of God over all things, including the affairs of Heman’s life. For some reason, Heman knows that God is angry with him and has brought him into a situation of isolation, without even any comfort from his friends (vv. 7-8); in verse 16, he calls God’s activities as dreadful assaults.

Yet the only one to whom he can turn is to the God who has brought about the circumstances. But when he speaks to God, Heman tells what he feels in his heart. Honesty is crucial when speaking to God. It is not an indication of irreverence to be straightforward with our words. In any case, the Lord knows what we feel whether we choose to be accurate or not with our words.

Clearly, Heman had strong faith in God. He saw his circumstances as a divinely-given opportunity to pray. We should note that he prayed appropriate to his situation. I once knew a man who had the same prayer each time he was asked to pray. He prayed it so often that I began to know it by heart as well. I have no doubt that he was sincere, and I’m sure that God answered some of his prayers, but I also suspect that he was not always praying according to the particular situations he and others were facing. Heman took his situation to God and asked him whether or not it would be good if he would die (vv. 9-18). The psalmist did not meekly acquiesce in his circumstances; nor did he rebel, but he did argue with God about them.

In verse 15, Heman reveals that he has been praying about this issue from his youth. One of the perplexities of the Christian life can be the length of time God takes to answer a prayer request. Having had this experience, Heman is able to advise us what to do. He tells us, and he was guided by God to do so (after all, his description has been recorded in the Bible), that we should keep on praying.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Psalm 87 - Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken

The composer of this psalm was looking forward to the extension of the city of Jerusalem. It had been founded by God (v. 1) and he had shown special love towards it (v. 2). The special display of love was his decision to locate the temple and its worship within the city. There his people could gather together and worship him and have fellowship with one another. As the psalmist contemplated the city, he was encouraged by thinking about the many prophecies that had been given about its future increase (v. 3).

Where were the future inhabitants going to come from? The surprising answer to this question is that many of them would come from nations that had been traditional enemies of Israel. Egypt, here called Rahab, and Babylon had enslaved their forefathers. The Philistines had been a constant thorn in Israel’s experience down the centuries. Tyre had proved a fickle friend: under Hiram there had been friendly relations with David and Solomon, but those days were long in the past. Cush was a threat from the south.

An amazing feature of the ingathering of citizens of Zion was that each one of them would be born in her (vv. 4-5). Yet they experienced this without leaving their place of residence. The explanation of this aspect is that Zion progressed from being an earthly city to become a spiritual domain accessible from every place on earth. Zion would no longer be limited to a few square miles in the Middle East; instead it would become a heavenly entity, large enough to absorb millions of inhabitants. This is what happened with the coming of Jesus.

The Lord would establish the city by giving her many inhabitants. He himself functions as the registrar of the city, personally recording the names of the inhabitants when each of them enters it. Unlike earthly cities, there is not a record of those who leave it because none of them ever do. They are totally satisfied with what it provides (v. 7). The heavenly city is depicted as a place of joy, with singers and dancers all delighting to say that the source of their joy is the Lord who dwells in the heavenly Zion.

The message of the psalm is very encouraging. It reminds us that God rejoices to convert his enemies, then records them among his people, and provides them endlessly with spiritual blessings from his abundant resources.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Psalm 86 - A Prayer for Deliverance

David is in a difficult situation in which his life is being threatened (v. 2). He describes his opponents in verse 14 (a band of ruthless men seeks his life) and the only One who can deliver him is the Lord.

In verses 1 and 2, we see the psalmist’s self-perception: he recognises that he is poor and needy, without any spiritual resources in himself; nevertheless he mentions that he is also godly, an indication that he recognises the changes that have occurred in his life because of the Lord’s grace. At the same time, his self-assessment reveals that his level of godliness was not as high as he wanted it to be.

Further the psalmist is a man of prayer: he prays all day (v. 3), and describes his prayer as a plea (v. 6). He comes to God empty-handed, which is a good state to be in because it means he can get more from God.

As he prays, he is reminded of the great grace of God. The Lord forgives those who pray to him (v. 5) and gives them help in trouble (v. 7). Since he is capable of bringing all the nations to worship him (v. 9), it is not difficult for him to help one petitioner like David. Such a deduction is not merely a mental consequence for the psalmist; it is also a powerful argument in his prayer because he wants the Lord to do what only God can do (v. 10), which is to deliver him. When that happens, he will know the joy of the Lord (v. 4).

The psalmist knows that he needs to be taught by the Lord. He requires instruction in what the Lord is doing in providence. When he will realise God’s purpose, then he will walk in ways that please the Lord. The psalmist admits that there is part of him that does not want to obey God, so he asks the Lord to unite his heart. When that petition is answered, the psalmist will have a thankful spirit (v. 12). So there is a process described here: instruction by God leads to grateful implementation of his will.

As he prays, David recalls previous divine deliverances (v. 13), and this recollection gives him confidence regarding his current situation. In his prayer he specifies his situation (v. 14). The characters of his enemies are terrible, but the best remedy for that assessment is to consider the character of God, which the psalmist does (v. 15), and then confesses that the Lord is marked by mercy, grace, patience, and loyalty towards his people.

In verse 16, David uses as an argument in prayer the fact that his mother was a believer when he asks the Lord to ‘save the son of your maidservant’. As Spurgeon observed, David ‘gloried in being the son of a woman who herself belonged to the Lord’. The psalmist recognises that the Lord recalls all his people, including the ones of previous generations, and answers their prayers even after they are gone. David’s mother would have prayed for him many times – that was how she expressed that she was God’s maidservant.

Then David asks God for a token for good (v. 17). His words could mean that he wants to be a token of good that others will see and note that God has answered his prayer and helped him. Or it could mean that he was asking for a sample of the full deliverance he longed for, with that sample being a joyful sense of the presence of God (in response to his request for joy in verse 4).

Friday, 14 November 2014

Psalm 85 - A Prayer for Revival

The author of this psalm was living in a time when things were low in a spiritual sense. Yet he was aware that such a state of affairs had existed before and that the Lord had restored his people previously. Therefore he prays that the Lord would restore them again. The psalmist makes it clear that spiritual deprivation is a judgement from the Lord against the sins of his people, Israel. He had been angry with them and punished them; still he loved them and wanted to restore them, which he did by forgiving their sins and hiding them from his sight (vv. 1-4).

We may wonder how sins can be hidden from an all-knowing God. They are hidden in the sense that they are covered through a provision of which God approves. The only adequate covering is the merits of the sacrifice of Jesus; through his atoning death, we can be forgiven, and then we are accepted by God.

The knowledge that God had been gracious in the past did not depress the psalmist regarding the present. He did not assume that all possibility of knowing God’s blessing had gone. Instead he used those past restorations as an argument for God to do it again. After all, God’s character had not changed. This was the case with regard to his response to their sin (he punished them), and the fact that he had acted in this way led the psalmist to expect that restoration could also be given to them. Therefore he prayed for another restoration.

God does not resent such a petition. Indeed it is a petition that he delights in because it focuses on his mercy. It is worth imitating the arguments that the psalmist uses in his prayer. He suggests that prolonged anger does not exalt the mercy of God. Nor does living in such a state produce joy in the Lord among his people. Therefore in order for his people to praise him, he must reveal his loving care for them and deliver them (vv. 4-7).

The psalmist knows the words that a restoring God will say – he will speak words of peace, assuring his restored people that they are forgiven. At the same time, he will warn them about the foolishness of departing from him again (v. 8).

What is such restoration like? The psalmist explains it in verses 9-13. He begins by observing that a sense of nearness and intimacy with God characterises those who have been restored. Spurgeon, in commenting on verse 9, says that ‘Faith knows that a saving God is always near at hand, but only (for such is the true rendering) to those who fear the Lord, and worship him with holy awe.’ What greater glory can there be than to have God as one’s closest companion! And when a church or a community experience restoration together, they enjoy something that can only be described as glorious.

In verses 10 and 11, the psalmist depicts four attributes of God happily working together to bless the restored Christian. Previously, when under judgement, God’s attributes seemed very threatening to his people. Now having been restored, they see that all of God is working on their behalf. That is what salvation is.

Because they have been restored, they can anticipate further supplies of divine blessing (vv. 12-13). Everywhere they go the outworkings of grace will be there in abundance. The Lord will lead them in the paths of righteousness as the Good Shepherd. What marvellous grace to restored backsliders!

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Psalm 84 - The Benefits of Public Worship

Psalm 84, according to its heading, was connected to the sons of Korah. Korah belonged to the tribe of Levi, but he was punished by God for rebelling against the leadership of Moses. Although Korah was slain, his family was spared, and his descendants later served God: first at the tabernacle and then at the temple in Jerusalem.

The psalm has three divisions: in verses 1-4, the author, although he is away from it, is thinking of the public worship taking place in the Lord’s house; in verses 5-8, he thinks about those who are travelling to worship in the temple; and in verses 9-12 he focuses on the God who was worshipped there.

As he begins, the psalmist states that the temple is God’s dwelling place (v. 1). The psalmist has in mind that, in a symbolic way, the Lord dwelt on the mercy-seat within the Holy of Holies (the innermost section of the temple). It was this aspect of mercy that made the place attractive in the psalmist’s estimation. He knew that there were others there who shared his outlook and as he thought of the worship of God he could only describe it as lovely. As Spurgeon commented on verse 1: ‘Lovely to the memory, to the mind, to the heart, to the eye, to the whole soul, are the assemblies of the saints. Earth contains no sight so refreshing to us as the gathering of believers for worship. Those are sorry saints who see nothing amiable in the services of the Lord’s house.’

The psalmist realised that mercy from God led to fellowship with God (v. 2). This thought created two responses within him and at first they may seem unconnected. One effect was that he sensed his separation from God’s special presence in his house and the other was that he sang for joy because he knew the Lord’s general presence at that moment. We should have these two responses whenever we are away from public worship of God.

On a previous occasion, he must have observed birds making nests nearby the altars and realised that they were a picture of how God defends his people and looks after them as their King (v. 3). Public worship should give us a sense of divine security, expressed in suitable, ongoing praise (v. 4).

In the second section of the psalm, the author thinks about fellow-travellers to God’s public worship. Wherever they are on their journeys, they need divine strength (v.5) and it is always given (v. 7). What makes the journey pleasant is the destination, and even when they find the going tough (the valley of Baca), the One whom they are travelling to meet gives them spiritual refreshment (v. 6). The psalmist thinks of the other travellers because he is making the same journey himself, and what he prays for himself he also prays for them. As far as the psalmist and other travellers were concerned, they only went to the temple on special occasions to take part in public worship. We are travelling to public worship throughout each week and we reach our destination each Lord’s Day. Are we conscious of our fellow-travellers during the week and pray about the refreshment they may need in the daily situations that are influencing how they travel?

The third section (vv. 9-12) contains several reflections of the psalmist about what happens at the temple. There his people receive assurance of his protection as they pray for their king (the anointed) (v. 9). A day there is better than many days elsewhere because of what the Lord gives them (vv. 10-11): he provides life and spiritual warmth (sun) as well as defence (shield); he gives them access to his presence (favour and honour) and does not deny any spiritual blessing from those who serve him. It is not surprising that the psalmist was willing to be a doorkeeper there. As far as we are concerned, we should have the same high estimation of public worship because that is where the Lord is most likely to meet our spiritual needs and give us intimate fellowship with himself.

The psalmist concludes with the thought that the Lord who is surrounded by hosts as they worship will bless them individually as each one trusts in him.

For a long time, this psalm was a favourite in Scotland. One very touching connection that was recalled for decades, and it was a very powerful moment when it happened, was the knowledge that this psalm was sung to the tune Martyrs by Isabel Allison and Marion Harvie when they were on the scaffold in Edinburgh in 1661 – their crime was attending services of the Covenanters and refusing to acknowledge the monarch as the head of Christ’s church. Marion was only twenty and Isabel was twenty-seven. But they showed that they valued public worship.

On his deathbed, Thomas Halyburton asked his friends to read Psalm 84 and sing the closing verses. After joining in the singing, he said, ‘I had always a mistuned voice, a bad ear; but, which is worst of all, a mistuned heart; but shortly, when I join the temple-service above, there shall not be, world without end, one string of the affections out of tune.’

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Psalm 83 - Prayer for Deliverance

This psalm was written in response to a threatened invasion of Israel by an alliance of several nations (vv. 4-8). Why were they united in this evil covenant? The psalmist gives the answer in verse 2: they hate God, and since they cannot touch him they are prepared to attack his people and destroy them. The situation was one which required prayer, and this is what the psalmist did. But how did he pray in such a threatening situation?

First, although the nation faced attack by powerful enemies, the psalmist realised that was not the biggest danger facing his people. More threatening was the possibility that God would remain silent and ignore their prayers (vv. 1-2). Therefore he implores the Lord to take action. The psalmist could not be content with a silent God! Can we?

Second, he reminded the Lord about his relationships with Israel – she was his people and his treasured ones (v. 3). God had initiated the relationship; indeed had valued it so highly that he had delivered them from captivity in Egypt in order that they would be his people. Of course, the good thing is that, whatever happens, the Lord will lose none of his treasured people.

Third, he went into precise detail about who constituted God’s enemies. In verses 5-8 he specifically mentions the names of the threatening nations. He is not doing this to inform God; after all, the Lord knew more about the opponents than the Psalmist did. Instead he is naming the various enemies because he wants all of them to be dealt with individually by God. Similarly, we should inform God about particular difficulties or problems that we are facing.

Fourth, the psalmist used his knowledge of history in prayer (vv. 9-12). He referred God back to incidents recorded in the Book of Judges that described his victory over his opponents (Judg. 4—8). In doing this, the psalmist is saying to the Lord, ‘Do it again.’ One of the best stimulus for effective prayer is knowing what God is capable of doing. The best area for discovering this is to read about what he did in the past. When we read about God’s actions in spiritual revivals of the past, we will say to him, ‘Do it again!’ One of the saddest of people is an individual who is aware of what God has done in the past but who does not ask him, ‘Do it again.’

Fifth, he likens God to the most powerful physical phenomena he knows about – whirlwind, fire and a hurricane (vv. 13-15). The psalmist wants God to display his power in a dramatic manner and overwhelm the enemy armies. Yet the reason why he wants this divine display is not only for Israel’s deliverance; he also wants his enemies to start seeking the Lord (v. 16).
Asaph wants sufficient display of divine power that would cause his enemies to start seeking the Lord. They were Asaph’s enemies, but he was not their enemy. He wanted their spiritual good.

Sixth, above all he wants the name of God to be magnified (vv. 17-20). If his enemies would not seek the Lord, the only option is divine judgement. Asaph was realistic when he prayed. He knew that a person was either for the Lord or against him. Therefore, he prayed that God would do what is right in order that his name would be exalted.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Psalm 82 - Rulers on Trial

This psalm gives advice to those who ruled in Israel. It begins by reminding them that God is the ultimate sovereign who rules over human judges and they are reminded that they are accountable to him. As Spurgeon observed about such judges: ‘Their harsh decisions and strange judgments are made in the presence of him who will surely visit them for every unseemly act, for he has no respect unto the person of any, and is the champion of the poor and needy. A higher authority will criticise the decision of petty sessions, and even the judgments of our most impartial judges will be revised by the High Court of heaven.’

These rulers are here addressed as ‘gods’ because they have a prominent position; Jesus says in John 10:34-36 that the people addressed here were men, not supernatural beings. They are accused by God of acting unjustly and showing partiality to the wicked (vv. 1-4).

An essential priority of human rulers is detailed in verses 3-4 – they are to ensure that the weak and fatherless are protected from exploitation by wicked masters and employers. David Dickson, a Scottish commentator on the psalms, affirmed: ‘The touchstone [acid test] of magistrates’ justice is in the causes and cases of the poor, fatherless, afflicted, and needy, who are not able to attend long their suits of law, have no friends nor money to deal for them; to whom, therefore, the mighty should be eyes to direct them, and a staff to their weakness, to support and help them in their right.’

The Lord had given instructions to those judges as to how they were to govern his people. Therefore the judges could not claim ignorance regarding their responsibilities. Consequently, to show partiality against his needy creatures was, and is, a great sin against God.

Nevertheless they were ignorant of God’s demands because they had not considered them (v. 5). The outcome was that the foundations of society had been shaken. When rulers of a country with a Christian heritage ignore the requirements of God, then that country will be shaken at its very core. We are seeing that today. For decades now, God’s laws have been ignored, even contradicted, by our rulers and the outcome is that the foundations of our national life are tottering.

The judges of Israel are reminded in verses 6 and 7 that they are mortal. Although they had risen to prominence and obtained great titles (‘gods’ and ‘children of the Most High’), they would die and lose power. In our society, they usually lose power before they die. If we live long enough, we will see many rise and then decline. No human ruler lasts for ever.

What is the psalmist’s hope since he cannot look to human judges for help? His hope is that the Lord would rise in judgement on the earth (8a). After all, he is the only Ruler that will always have an inheritance (the nations) to govern. Therefore Asaph prayed specifically for divine action to be taken against unjust rulers.

Several thousand years later, we know that the divine response has developed. It began a new stage when the Judge was born in a society where an unjust ruler governed (Herod) and where the poor and needy had no defenders (a poor pregnant woman was refused help in Bethlehem). Thirty years later the Judge himself experienced injustice and callousness when he was on trial for his life. But he is now on the throne of God, overseeing the affairs of nations.

We must remember that he is the One who removes unjust rulers from their seats of power, whatever may be the secondary reasons for their demise. If we use our memories, we will recall that Jesus removed several in this past year, and if we investigated them we may find that one feature of their rule was indifference concerning justice for the poor and needy. This will be the case until he returns and judges personally each of the human race – including its rulers.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Psalm 81 - The Importance of Listening to God

The psalm begins by calling on the people of Israel to worship God. It had been composed for use on one of Israel’s feast days (v. 3). In verse 2, there is an example of how public worship was practised in Israel (singing and music) during the Old Testament period; and verse 1 informs us what kind of singing was required – God’s praise should be loud and joyful.

Why should they have praised God in this way and for what were they to praise him? God himself had intimated what they should do and what they should say (v. 4). Israel was to praise him for his mighty liberation of them at the time of the Exodus. They had been rescued from the terrible bondage of slavery (vv. 5-6). In that deliverance the Lord displayed his great power on their behalf.

Yet their devotion at that time was very fickle. They would not listen to God’s clear requirements regarding idolatry (vv. 8-9). Despite the fact that he had delivered them from Egypt and despite the fact that he promised to give them great amount of blessings (v. 10), they refused to listen to him (v. 11). The outcome was that God let them have what they wanted (v. 12), but they discovered that their own wisdom was not sufficient to guide them and protect them.

The lessons for us from this historical event are many. One is that we will not enjoy the Lord’s provision and protection if we refuse to listen to his commandments. In making such a choice, we would be choosing dross instead of gold, although we may enjoy the dross for a while.

Another lesson is that God can give overflowing blessings to his loyal people. This is pictured in the illustration of an open mouth in verse 10. He does not say, ‘Half open your mouth and I will half fill it’; that would mean half of their mouths were filled with things of which he disapproved. But if they made available all their mouths, then he would fill them with his blessings. Christian commitment is always 100 per cent; and when we are dedicated to him he will bless us. Such commitment is not perfect, but it is wholehearted.

The Lord regretted the backsliding choices that his people made (v. 13). He listed what they missed out on because they refused to walk in his ways. They deprived themselves of victories over enemies (vv. 14-15) and of satisfying provision (v. 16). What was true literally of Israel will be true of us if we don’t walk in God’s paths. Backsliders in heart suffer ongoing defeats in the Christian life and their souls are starved because they are not given heavenly sustenance.

It was appropriate for the Israelites to think about divinely-given victories and sustenance on their feast days, and also to repent of their folly if they had turned away from the Lord. Similarly, on our feast days, and we have one every week on the Lord’s Day, we can meditate on what the Lord has done for his cause and on the many promises he has made to us. And when we discover features of backsliding, of not listening to his voice, we should repent of our sins and then say to him, ‘Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.’

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Psalm 80 - A Prayer for Restoration

The author of the psalm prays to God for deliverance. In the first two verses, he describes God as the shepherd of his people, who leads them forward. At the same time, he recognises that God is sovereign ruler of his people (his throne was the mercy seat inside the holy of holies in the temple). The psalmist then calls Israel by the names of the sons who came from Rachel: he mentions her children (Joseph and Benjamin) and her grandchildren (Ephraim and Manasseh). Perhaps he mentions them because great promises were made about their descendants in Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33:12-17. Jacob had said that Joseph would become a fruitful vine (Gen. 49:22), and the imagery of Israel as a vine is mentioned in this psalm. In any case, Asaph appeals to the sovereign Shepherd to come and deliver them.

The psalmist states their current spiritual difficulty, which is that the Lord does not seem to be listening to their prayers. Indeed the psalmist suspects that God is angry with them. They have prayed for deliverance and have received the opposite, with the result that their enemies treat them with contempt (vv. 3-7). Nevertheless, all he can do is continue praying to the silent God and keep on asking him to turn his face towards them, because when that happens, they will be delivered.

The psalmist knows how to argue with God, and he mentions four details in the psalm. He begins by reminding the Lord of what he had done for his people in the past when he delivered them from Egypt and brought them into the Promised Land (vv. 8-10). Eventually they had spread, in the days of Solomon, from the Mediterranean Sea to the River Euphrates (v. 11). In making these historical references, the psalmist is giving us an example of an argument we should use when praying for God to deliver us. We should remind him of the great things he has done in the past.

Secondly, the author admits that things are now different, although he does not deduce from what is happening that somehow God has lost his power. Instead the psalmist confesses that the Lord has arranged for their troubles to happen, which can be a perspective that is very difficult to accept. Yet such an outlook is essential when praying for restoration (vv. 12-14).

Thirdly, the psalmist asks God to look closely at what has happened to his cause. He is not suggesting that God is ignorant of what has happened; instead the psalmist knows that there is more than one way to ‘see’ a situation. We can see a situation intellectually or we can see it emotionally; we can see it indifferently or we can see it compassionately. The knowledge we have is the same, yet we ‘see’ the circumstances differently. It is similar with regard to God. The psalmist is asking the Lord to see his people from the perspective of his plans for them, plans that commenced when he delivered them from Egypt. He is asking the Lord to see his people as they have been crushed by their enemies. Such a request, of asking God to ‘see’, is very appropriate when praying for restoration (vv. 14-16).

The fourth detail in his prayer for restoration concerns the king (called here ‘the man of God’s right hand’ and ‘the son of man’). We don’t know which Israelite king is mentioned here, but we can see that he is a picture of the real King. Jesus is the Son of Man who sits at God’s right hand. Our prayer is that his kingdom will be extended (v. 17).

The psalmist knows that when restoration comes, God’s people will be loyal to him. The thought of this prospect causes him to pray intensely for it (vv. 18-19). This is sanctified imagination being used to stimulate spiritual longings. Such an outlook helps us to pray for spiritual restoration.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Psalm 79 - Where is Your God?

The contents of the psalm indicate that it concerns the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians (v. 1). It is obvious from the psalm that, in addition to the place of God’s worship being destroyed (the temple was defiled), his servants were slain and their dead bodies treated with contempt and not given a burial (vv. 2-3). The surrounding nations, such as Moab and Edom, derided God’s people and mocked them because of what had happened (v. 4).

God’s people have often identified themselves with the situation depicted in this psalm. During the time of the Huguenots in France, ten Protestants sang this psalm as they went to their martyrdoms in 1556, and they sang it until the fires silenced their tongues.

The destruction of the city and the slaughter of its inhabitants required a response from God’s people who survived the onslaught. And this psalm is the response of those who led God’s praise. Michael Travers summarises the psalm by saying in it ‘Asaph extends empty hands to Yahweh and asks for help.’ James Boice, when describing a similar situation in Psalm 74, likens it to Asaph walking God through the ruins of the city and pointing out the different places where the enemy performed particular atrocities. This is what prayer is – speaking precisely to God about specific situations. Addressing God in such a manner reveals where a person’s heart concerns are. General petitions often hide an unconcerned heart.

Asaph’s response included the recognition that God was angry with his people. It is interesting how Asaph reacted to the expression of God’s anger. The psalmist did not suggest it was inappropriate for God to be angry. Instead he considered two other aspects: first, he asked God how long his anger would last (v. 5); second, he asked God to be angry with those who did not serve him and had destroyed his people (vv. 6-7). We can see that Asaph was prepared to argue with God in prayer, which is something that we should do as well.

What can we say about the psalmist’s request that God punish those who had destroyed Jacob (the people of God)? This kind of request is found in several psalms and they are called ‘imprecatory psalms’. First, we can see that the psalmist did not take vengeance into his own hands but left it with God, which is what Paul says God’s people should do (Rom. 12:19-20). Second, the psalmist’s desire was for a world in which everyone will worship God and in which cruel behaviour will be unknown. Asaph knows that before that world will arrive the Day of Judgement will take place and at that Judgement the cruel nations that afflicted Israel would be dealt with by God. We should keep both these responses in mind when we see cruel activities taking place against God’s church in different parts of the world.

Asaph also realised that the reason God was angry with his people was because of their sins (v. 8). Yet he knows that the Lord can show them mercy very quickly (because atonement could be made for their sins), and therefore he asks that God would deliver them from their very low spiritual state (v. 9). We can learn from Asaph what to do when living in days of divine judgement, which we are in at present. God could easily expand his church, but instead it is decreasing. Why? It has sinned in various ways. What should be the response of the church? It should pray for restoration based on the atoning work of Jesus. And it should pray for a restoration that would be God-glorifying, that would shut the mouths of those who treat his cause with contempt, and that would deliver his people from bondage (vv. 10-12).

The outcome initially in the psalm would be expressions of gratitude from the restored community (v. 13). They would praise God once he had restored them to their pastureland (Canaan) and where future generations would experience his provision for them. The return from the captivity in Babylon was a great display of divine power, but is nothing in comparison to the deliverance we can know from the power of sin at conversion and from the power of spiritual stagnation in which the church is in Britain at present. Therefore we should pray that God would cease to be angry.

Where is your God, the enemy asked? The answer to their question is, ‘He is listening to our prayers.’ But what are we praying about?

Friday, 7 November 2014

Psalm 78 - Tell Your Children About God

Asaph begins by reminding his readers of the important duty that is placed on parents, which is to pass on to their children the account of the wonderful deeds of God (vv. 3-4). As far as Israel was concerned, the highest requirement was that parents should teach their children about the Ten Commandments, not merely in the sense of a set of rules, but rather how they could show their gratitude to God on a daily basis. If one set of parents did not do this, they were unfaithful to what their own parents passed on to them, and they were also depriving their children and subsequent generations of spiritual knowledge. I wonder how many grandparents of those currently living in Inverness failed to pass on the knowledge of God to their families when they were young. We are seeing the consequences now.

The accounts that God wants us to pass on are not only the stories that describe how persons served God faithfully. Asaph also refers to people who were unfaithful, such as the Ephraimites (vv. 9-11). What was so wrong with them that they became cowards in the day of battle? They had not kept God’s law because they had forgotten about the great events he had performed at the Exodus.

What had they forgotten? They forgot the miracles in Egypt, the deliverance at the Red Sea, and the provision given to their ancestors in the desert. Instead these ancestors had turned against God despite the miraculous way he had fed them with quail and manna. Yet the occasions when he rebuked them were ignored and they persisted in their rebellion and even attempted to deceive God. Still he often showed his compassion and did not deal with them as their sins deserved.

Instead, the Lord who had defeated Egypt brought his people to Canaan. Yet there the children of Israel turned away again from God and this time adopted pagan worship practices. The outcome was that God judged them severely and gave them into the hands of their enemies, particularly the Philistines. None of the levels in society were spared from the slaughter. It all looked as if God was asleep, indifferent to them.

Then suddenly the Lord became involved and defeated his opponents. He chose David as king and arranged for him to build a sanctuary. Further, as the shepherd of his people he cared for them and taught them the right way to live.

The lesson to be handed on from one generation to another is that the Lord will take sin seriously and punish it. Yet he will also suddenly show mercy and deliver them by leading them to repentance.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Psalm 77 - From Sadness to Security

The psalmist had gone through a time of trouble that had been so stressful it prevented him from sleeping (v. 4). Day and night he was calling upon God (vv. 1-2) and refused to take any other kind of comfort. Yet whenever he thought about God he found it hard to concentrate on him (v. 3).

Even when he looked back to the way the Lord had dealt with his people in the past the psalmist found no comfort (v. 5) because he was tormented by questions connected to the consistency of God (vv. 6-9). It is true that he had helped others in the past. His help had been given because he loved them. But what if he was now angry with his people?

How did the psalmist deal with this dilemma? He went right back to the basis of his people’s relationship with God, right back to the time when God had shown his power when he redeemed his people from Egypt (vv. 10-20). The power he had shown then was unique, such as when he divided the Red Sea (vv. 16-18). No-one could see God, yet it was obvious that he was there, committed to his people. That occasion was terrifying to God’s enemies (the Egyptians who drowned), but he led his people safely through Moses and Aaron.

The lesson for us is obvious. We will often find ourselves in circumstances of great difficulty and will wonder if God cares about us. There may not be any clear evidence in our providences that he does. When that occurs, we must go back to where our hope in him began, at the cross of Jesus. It is impossible to look at the cross and conclude that God does not care about us.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Psalm 76 - What Happens When God's Anger is Roused

This psalm was composed to celebrate a divine deliverance of Israel from invasion by foreign armies. The deliverance was so comprehensive than the enemy was totally defeated (vv. 4-6). Yet the victory was won without any participation by the Israelites. It is not surprising therefore that the Scottish Reformer Robert Bruce gave out this psalm to be sung at the Market Cross in Edinburgh in 1588 when news came through of the divine destruction of the Spanish Armada. On that occasion, too, the Lord’s cause was in great danger, yet he intervened and overthrew the invading army.

The defeat of the enemy took place very near to God’s dwelling-place in Jerusalem (vv. 1-3). Perhaps the enemy had imagined that the closer they got to the city the nearer they were to victory. Yet the opposite was the case. The closer they got to God’s location the nearer they were to total defeat. This is a reminder that we cannot judge a situation by how near the opponents of Christianity seem to be to defeating the Lord’s cause. It took Israel’s enemies weeks of preparation to advance close to the city; it took the Lord one moment to destroy them. The lesson for us is obvious. God defends his cause and defeats his opponents at the moment of his choosing.

The reality is that when God’s anger is roused he will defeat all who are attacking his cause (vv. 7-9). Sometimes we can give the impression that we are facing more powerful spiritual enemies than our forefathers. I doubt if that is the case. The problem we have is coping with a God who does not seem to be rousing himself to deal with the situation. One activity by his people which often causes the Lord to act is earnest prayer.

The attitude that should mark us is fear of God (vv. 10-12). There will be such fear once he acts in judgement. But we should reverence him at all times, even when he seems to be doing nothing about a situation. We show reverence by keeping the commitments we have made to him and by bringing to him our gifts (another word for tithes).

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Psalm 75 - God is in Control

In this psalm Asaph praises God for his sovereign control of circumstances. His words in verse 1 indicate that God’s people have had a recent deliverance and have gathered together to give thanks to him for performing a marvellous deed on their behalf.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Lord responds in verses 2-5. He probably spoke directly through Asaph as he was composing the psalm. We can see in these verses that the first person singular is used throughout them. Further, the words are arranged in such a way that the users of the psalm are encouraged to stop and ponder what has just been said (the use of Selah at the end of verse 3 requires this careful and thoughtful response).

What are they to think about? They are to reflect on two divine realities. First, the sovereign God has fixed times for judgement and will always deal justly with people. They will only receive what they deserve. Second, the Lord remains in control even although everyone thinks the world is collapsing as he judges individuals and nations for their opposition to him (this is an important perspective to have on the various crises that affect our world today). If people take these realities seriously, then they will heed the warning to the proud in verses 4 and 5. Of course, only the proud will ignore the fact that God will judge them.

In verses 6-10, Asaph draws several conclusions from the Lord’s personal description of his actions. First, he acknowledges that God is the One who promotes and demotes human rulers (vv. 6-7). They may think that there are other reasons for the changes, but behind all such secondary reasons God is at work. This perspective of the psalmist is one that is seldom recognised today, but those who worship God should always have it in mind. For example, when we watch the news and hear about someone becoming powerful or hear about someone losing power, we should say, ‘God is at work in that situation.’

Second, Asaph uses a graphic picture of a cup full of foaming wine to depict the extent of divine judgement that can come on a society. The cup is in God’s hand and when he decides to pour it out he will compel the wicked to drink all of it, even the dregs (v. 8). This is a reminder that divine judgement will be very thorough.

Third, Asaph resolves to praise God because he acts in history to judge those who deserve it (v. 9). Unlike those who praise earthly power, the psalmist knows that he can praise God for ever because he will never lose his throne. Further the psalmist resolves to do what he can to further the cause of righteousness (v. 10). He realises that praise and practice should go hand in hand.