“But God will redeem me from the power of Sheol, for he will take me” – reflection on Psalm 49

Psalm 49 is very much a psalm for our times. It teaches that ‘materialism’, the worldview that places material possessions and wealth at the heart of our lives and the philosophy that arises from this that only material things exist, cannot save us, but that God’s grace can and does save. In this way, verse 20 – “mankind with his assets but without understanding, is like the animals that perish” – contrasts sharply with the position of the pslamist in verse 15: “But God will redeem me from the power of Sheol, for he will take me.” Or, as Paul put it:

But God, who is rich in mercy, beause of his great love that he had for us, made us alive with Christ even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace!

Ephesians 2 verses 4 and 5

So let’s jump into the psalm. It is a message for all peoples of the world (verse 1), and therefore by implication not limited to the chosen people of Israel. It is for all – with or without wealth or status (verse 2). The author has a message of “wisdom” and “understanding” (verse 3) to share with them, a “proverb” but also a “riddle” (verse 4). The book of Proverbs explains to us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1 verse 7), so it is logical to assume that the teaching of verse 3 is godly wisdom. The riddle may well be the fact that this wisdom does not make sense to those on the outside (1 Corinthians 1 verses 18 to 25).

What is this wisdom? That those in God’s covenant, like the author do not need to fear troubles (verse 5). Those outside the covenant care about and trust in wealth and riches (verse 6), but the reality is that these are not enough to cover their sin (verse 7) and avoid eternal death (verse 9). “The price of redeeming him is too costly”, and so “one should forever stop trying” (verse 8). In other words, no amount of riches or wealth compares to the value of your sinful soul. You cannot buy it back for yourself, and earn your way out of this predicament. This is exactly what Jesus taught:

For what will it benefit someone if he gains the whole world yet loses his life? Or what will anyone give in exchange for his life?

Matthew 16 verse 26

Everybody dies – and all their material possessions are divided up (verse 10), and their body returns to the dust (Genesis 3 verse 19). Once your dead, you are dead, and no earthly legacy really matters (verse 11). No wealth of any kind can protect you from the perishing (verse 12). This naturally reminds me of one of Jesus’ parables, which he tells after a man aks Jesus to compel his brother to share their inheritance:

Watch out and be on guard against all greed, because one’s life is not in the abundance of his possessions.

A rich man’s land was very production. He thought to himself, ‘What should I do, since I don’t have anywhere to store my crops? I will do this,’ he said. ‘I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones and store all my grain and my goods there. Then I’ll say to myself, “You have many goods stored up for many years. Take it easy; eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.”‘

But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is demanded of you. And the things you have prepared – whose will they be?’

That’s how it is with the one who stores up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.

Luke 12 verses 15 to 21

Storing up wealth is an arrogant and foolish thing to do – it cannot save you (verse 13). People who are trusting in wealth and material possessions are heading for death (verse 14). By contrast, those who have lived a life trusting in God will receive their reward: life (verses 14 and 15). This psalm is particularly about those who put their trust in material things, but many people put their trust in all sorts of things. For the Samaritan woman, it was romantic relationships (John chapter 4). Ahaz put his trust in foreign allies (Isaiah 7), and detestable idols (2 Kings 16). I struggle not to rely on my own intellectual talents.

This centring of life around other things is sinful, a repression of the truth of who God is (Romans 1). And when all is said and done, we are all sinners (Romans 3). “The wage of sin is death” (Romans 6 verse 23 part 1) – this is what we all deserve. “But the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6 verse 23 part 2) – the price we could never have earned ourself (verse 8) is paid for us in Jesus’ death (Romans 3 verses 24 to 26). And so, as we put our trust in God and in the sacrificial death of his son, we know the redemption that he earned for us, and the life that that brings (verse 15).

And so, when we see other people getting rich and only find ourselves ‘just about managing’, or even getting poorer – the psalmist wants to encourage us hat we do not need to be afraid (verse 16). This is because wealth is not the true measure of a person; faith in God is. So, when we see ourselves getting richer and more comfortable – do we keep trusting in God rather than our riches?

Riches cannot save us from death, and we cannot take them with us (verse 17). They may give great comfort and status to us in life (verse 18), but they cannot fix the sinful state of our hearts (verse 19). If we trust in riches – if we trust in anything other than God – our doom is certain: eternal death (verse 20).

This psalm is a stark warning: material wealth cannot save you, only God can. So – trust in God.

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“Like your name, God, so your praise reaches to the ends of the earth; your right hand is filled with justice” – reflection on Psalm 48

On the surface, Psalm 48 may seem to be about Zion, the holy mountain in Jerusalem, and the greatness and faithfulness of God. Scratch a little deeper, however, and the reality of what Zion is only reflects on the greatness and faithfulness of God. The chosen heading for this song of the sons of Korah in the translation I am using is “Zion exalted”, but it seems to me it would be better to say “God exalted in Zion”.

This is exactly what we see in verse 1: “The Lord is great and highly praised in the city of our God.” The rest of verse 1 and the whole of verse 2 give a beautiful poetic description, describing Zion as “the joy of the whole earth”. But the root for the wonderfulness of the mountain and the wider city of Jerusalem is that it is “the city of the great King” (verse 2). That is to say, the great thing about Zion is the great God who has chosen to be present with his people there.

Indeed – Zion isn’t really that impressive a mountain. It’s not like Zaphon, say (verse 2), where the Canaanites held that Baal resided, or even Mount Olympus, home to the Greek pantheon. The difference is that these ‘deities’ never actually existed, and were only believed to hold sway over swathes of the earth or spheres of nature. The God who had chosen to take up residence amongst his chosen, covenantal people in Zion, by contrast, is the God who rules over all the earth and has dominion over all the created order – both material and spiritual. The choice of meek old Zion shows that God has always used a position of seeming weakness in the world to show his strength most perfectly, as Paul discovered in the New Testament:

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness.”

2 Corinthians 12 verse 9

But God’s use of weakness to show strength may seem utterly bizarre to those on the outside. Elsewhere, Paul writes that God’s wisdom appears like utter foolishness to the world outside (1 Corinthians 1 verses 18 to 25). This is why the psalmist writes that the people living in the holy city, the covenant people gathered there, can trust in God as their stronghold (verse 3). By human standards, they know only weakness, but they have God on their side.

The same goes for Christians today. We may know weaknesses of many kinds in this world, but God works through them and shows his power most perfectly in them. As such, knowing the grace of God expressed through the strength given in our weaknesses is a source of great joy for us:

So I take pleasure in weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and in difficulties, for the sake of Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12 verse 10

[Helpful book on this topic]

Verses 4 to 8 sketch out something of this for us. We see a humanly impossible situation facing God’s covenant people, and his action on their behalf. Verse 4 talks of a large group of opposed kings and armies advancing on Jerusalem. But as they approached, they were overcome with fear and agony before they had the chance to get close (verses 5 to 6). These armies were broken up and destroyed like a fleet caught in a devastating storm (verse 7). God had acted on their behalf to establish and protect his people from the enemies against them (verse 8). They had heard of God’s saving activity – presumably through their familiarity with the Exodus narrative and on; now they have seen him acting on their behalf. Think also of the great triumphant entry into the Promised Land, as God brought Jericho’s walls down for his people.

We have an even greater deliverance to behold at the Cross of Christ. Though we were dead in our sins, Jesus died on our behalf and “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8 verse 1). And as such, just like these Israelites living through God’s deliverance in this military situation, we can continue to trust that God will continue working according to his grace. That is, that he will continue to work his strength in our weakness.

Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?

[…]

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rules, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8 verses 35, and 37 to 39.

And so, reflecting on God’s great love (verse 9), the psalmist is amazed at this God who rules the earth and works his justice (verse 10). For this reason, the people can be glad and rejoice in who God is and what he has done for them (verse 11).

Finally, the psalmist charges the people to continue proclaiming the goodness, love and salvation of God (verses 12 to 14). God is the source of life and strength, so continuing to trust in him is essential. The same is true for us. We should never stop preaching the gospel we have heard to one another, continuing to encourage and challenge one another in our walk with God. Because “This God, our God forever and ever – he will always lead us” (verse 14).

“Sing praise to God, sing praise; sing praise to our king, sing praise!” – reflection on Psalm 47

Way back when in the Bible story, God called Abraham – well, it was so way back when that at this point he was called Abram – to leave his homeland and his family (Genesis 12 verse 1). In exchange, he was promised four things from God. Firstly, a new land (Genesis 12 verse 1); then the blessing of a great nation of descendents (verse 2); as well as protection in blessings and curses (verse 3); and also a plan for this promise to reach out into the whole world, beyond the bounds of Abram’s own family (verse 3).

Psalm 47 was written by the sons of Korah considerably after this call to Abram. By this point in time, Abraham’s descendents, Israel, had indeed become a great nation and were in posession of the land promised on oath (Genesis 15) to Abraham. The protection and blessing promised to Abram continued applying to them, and they had a law to help them live in line with God’s covenant. But we are still a long way away from the end of Genesis 12 verse 3 – “all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Psalm 47 recognises this fact, and amidst a jubilant call for the people of Israel to worship their God, we find a future projection of peoples from all nations coming to worship the living God. Let’s dive right in.

Verse 1 is a great call to worship God. And why is he worth worshipping? Verse 2 – he is the “Most High, awe-inspiring, a great King over the whole earth”. God is supremely majestic and glorious. Nothing and no one in the whole universe comes close to comparing with his great and perfect power. And yet, in verses 3 and 4, this all-powerful God has an intimate relationship with a people – not only that, but he works sovereignly in their favour, overcoming their foes.

Often, we can be encouraged to look too far in one direction here. God is all-powerful, so why would he care about a little human like me? Or alternatively, God is all-loving, but when push comes to shove, is he strong enough to help me with my need now? The God we meet throughout the Bible – the God described in verses 2 to 4 – has both characteristics. Power beyond anything we could imagine, and love beyond any other.

He is the mighty warrior (Isaiah 40 verse 10) and the gentle shepherd (Isaiah 40 verse 11). He is the one who controls the winds and waves through the storm (Matthew 8 verses 23 to 27), and who lovingly holds fast to his friend amidst the waves (Matthew 14 verses 22 to 32).

And more than that, God’s love for his people in verse 4 is the impetus for his blessing them with a choice inheritance (verse 4), and protecting them through their trials (verse 3). It is also, indeed the reason that they come before him in praise (verse 1). And the same is true for us too. This is how Paul puts it in his letter to the Ephesians:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will – to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us.

Ephesians 1 verses 3 to 8 (NIV-UK)

In God’s love, we were chosen as his special people and redeemed by the death of Christ Jesus. At this point, the psalmist writes a selah, and it is appropriate that we pause to reflect on God’s great love for us expressed in the sacrifical death of his Son.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.

1 Peter 1 verses 3 to 6 (NIV-US)

And so we jump back into the teaching of Psalm 47 itself. Verses 5 to 9 earnestly encourage us to praise God. On the surface, verse 5 is probably the most confusing of the verses in the psalm, since it talks about God “ascending”, something that doesn’t really make literal sense under the old covenant. It is possible that this psalm was used in worship in association with the Ark of the Covenant, and this verse could therefore be referring to a literal ascension of the Ark through the jubilant people towards the Tabernacle on a specific occasion.

This is a wonderful thought – the Ark was the focal point of Old Testament worship, since it not only housed the covenant tablets, but was the “mercy seat” on which the glory of God dwelt amongst – but separated from – the people. A doubly clear reminder that God promises to be for his faithful people, and also that he promises to be with his faithful people. In view of this, there is no alternative but to sing God’s praise (verses 6 and 7).

But God isn’t just the king of Israel, he is the king of the whole world (verses 8 and 9), and he has promised to bless the whole world through Abraham (Genesis 12 verse 3) and thus the people of Israel. We see that on a small scale as “nobles of the peoples have assembled” for some occasion in Israel (verse 9), but the great and mysterious fulfilment of this promise was yet to come.

With hindsight, we now know that it was God’s plan to continue fulfiling this promise by grace; that his intention was to graft gentiles into the true Israel (Romans 11 verse 17). In fact, the New Testament is clear – being a mere physical descendant of Abraham is not enough: it is faith in Jesus that counts (John 8 verses 31 to 47; Galatians 3 verses 7 to 9 and 27 to 29; Galatians 4 verses 21 to 26/31).

And this is where we stand today. We have a fuller view of the goodness, power and love of God, because we have seen the unveiling of the great mystery of the Cross. Abraham and ancient Israel knew the sketch of the gospel – we have the full atoning artwork to behold. So if the instruction to the people of Israel is to praise and worship their God – this instruction remains for us today. Sing his praise!

“The Lord of Armies is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold” – reflection on Psalm 46

I’m one of those people – at least, I assume there are many of us – who is regularly quite dehydrated. I just accidentally end up mostly drinking drinks that don’t actually hydrate. Which must actually be quite easy here in Britain, where most people’s liquid intake is 90% composed of tea. Fortunately, today I have managed to drink a sensible amount of water, and so I’m not in my usual dehydrated state, which feels a bit odd.

Anyway, Psalm 46 refers to two types of water, and it’s quite obvious which one the author – the sons of Korah – considers better. This isn’t actually the point of the psalm, which highlights God’s almighty strength and reliable presence with his people, and encourages us to therefore trust him.

Verse 1 sets out the worldview that should characterise God’s people, and therefore shape our response to difficulties and fears we encounter in life: God is with us and helps us. It’s hard to read this and not be reminded of Jesus’ words to his disciples:

Therefore I tell you: Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothing? Consider the birds of the sky: They don’t sow or reap or gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth more than they?

Matthew 6 verses 25 and 26

Jesus instructs his followers not to worry about anything because God cares for them. This is the same point made here in the psalm: do not be afraid of anything, because God is your refuge. Knowing that God is their refuge (verse 1), the psalmist can move on to affirm their lack of fear (verse 2 and 3). Even if great natural disasters should afflict them and cause them to lose everything, they will not be afraid – because they know who God is and what he is for his people.

At this point, the author of the psalm inserts a selah. We don’t know exactly what this term means, but evidently it involves some sort of pause in the flow of the words, because the focus has shifted slightly when we get into verse 4. We’ll join them there in a moment – but first, let’s remember who the God the psalmist is trusting in is:

The Lord – The Lord is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love and truth, mainting faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin. But he will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the fathers’ iniquity on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation.

Exodus 34 verses 6 and 7

This is the faithful God that the psalmist trusts in, that we can trust in. The great, all-creating King of the universe makes a covenant with lowly people and promises to be present with them.

And so, we’ve seen the waters of difficulty that we do not need to be afraid of. In the next section, the psalmist focuses on peaceful waters: “there is a river” (verse 4). This water brings delight to God’s people in his city with its Temple. Again, we are told in verse 5 that the defining and strength-giving feature of this city is that God is present within it and gives it his help.

Who cares what the nations and peoples opposed to God in the world do? Why should we be afraid? The reality is that he is more powerful, and is in complete control of everything (verse 6). And so we are led into the key statement of the psalmist’s faith: God is with his people and protects them (verse 7).

Originally, the reference to God’s presence (in verses 4, 5 and 7) must have been understood as referring to the Temple in Jerusalem. But this doesn’t really make sense, because there wasn’t a river in the Temple. There has to be a bigger interpretation – and we get hints of this elsewhere in the Bible. Ezekiel is given a vision of a great river flowing from the Temple (Ezekiel 47), and John also has a strikingly similar vision:

Then he showed me the river of the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the city’s main street. The tree of life was on each side of the river, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree are for healing the nations, and there will no longer be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. Night will be no more; people will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, because the Lord God will give them light, and they will reign forever and ever.

Revelation 22 verses 1 to 5

The great wonder of who God is and what he does for his people (verse 7), even in the face of great calamities like those of verses 2 and 3, leads the author into writing another selah into the psalm. And so we reflect again on who this great God is:

See, the Lord God comes with strength, and his power establishes his rule. His wages are with him, and his reward accompanies him. He protects his flock like a shepherd; he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them in the fold of his garment. He gently leads those that are nursing.

Isaiah 40 verses 10 and 11

So far in the psalm, we have been encouraged not to be afraid because we can trust in God (verses 1 to 3), and to take comfort in his presence with us (verses 4 to 7). Now, in the final section, we are invited to come to God and trust in him (verses 8 to 11).

This starts, in verse 8, with a call to “Come, see the works of the Lord”. The people of Israel and Judah had received a great number of blessings through God’s grace – since the promises were given to their ancestor Abraham (Genesis 12 verses 1 to 3), through the Exodus and wanderings, into the Promised Land, through the provision of judges and the establishment and upholding of the monarchy(ies), God had worked many mighty acts of salvation. The psalmists are not short of great deliverances to remember and encourage people to trust God for.

But today, we have an even greater sign of salvation to look to:

On the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark. She saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she went running to Simon Peter and to the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said to them, “They’ve taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him!”

At that, Peter and the other disciple went out, heading for the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outrain Peter and got to the tomb first. Stooping down, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but did not go in. Then, following him, Simon Peter also came. He entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. The wrapping that had been on his head was not lying with the linen cloths but was folded up in a separate place by itself. The other disciple, who had read the tomb first, then also went in, saw, and believed.

John 20 verses 1 to 8

The resurrection of Jesus guarantees that his sacfricial death completely atoned for our sins and made us righteous with God. Therefore, we can trust that God works for our favour in all things (Romans 8 verses 31 to 35).

The remainder of verses 8 to 10 unveil more of the almighty power of God. He is in control of the forces of nature (verse 8), and ordains the path of all events and people (verses 9 and 10). And so it is that the author of this psalm returns to their refrain: God is present with us and protects us. And so we encounter one last selah, and pause one final time to reflect on the majesty and love of God:

Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments and untraceable his ways!

“For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? And who has even given to God, that he should be repaid?”

For form him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.

Romans 11 verses 33 to 36

“Your throne, God, is forever and ever; the sceptre of your kingdom is a sceptre of justice” – reflection on Psalm 45

Psalm 45 is another ‘maskil’ of the sons of Korah, and it is described as a ‘love song’. The purpose of maskils seems to have been instructional in some way, so the big question today is how does a love song about a king and his bride teach us about God? In essence, Psalm 45 teaches us that God’s Messiah is King of Kings, and we should submit to him as Lord.

Verse 1 sets the psalm up nicely for us – it is a “noble theme”, verses recited to the king. Presumably, this psalm was written for a specific royal occasion, and one of the most likely events we see in scripture that this may refer to is the wedding of Solomon to Pharaoh’s daughter (1 Kings 3 verse 1). But it also bears witness to one greater than Solomon or any other king in the whole history of the world (Luke 11 verse 31), as becomes exceptionally clear as we move through the psalm.

Verse 2 introduces the love song’s main character, the king, who sounds like a delightfully attractive chap. The only thing is – “God has blessed you forever”, and we know that Solomon (and almost every other king in history) has definitely died, so any eternal blessing is clearly yet to be revealed in this case. The main thrust of verses 3 to 5 is describing this king as a great warrior – great by any human standards, yet impossibly perfect as we read this list.

Verses 6 and 7 step things up a notch: we go right from talking about the king, keep our second person pronoun, and start talking about God. I t seems very odd to us to hear of the king almost being deified in a psalm. But in one sense, the king is one of God’s chief representatives on earth, providing a picture of his majesty to his people and so, in a way, it isn’t impossible to see a clear link between them. In another sense, it points to the true fulfilment of Godly kingship.

Solomon, and any other king can meet many of the great characteristics attributed to the king here, but they can never reach the majesty of verse 6. There is only one king like that. Hebrews 1 proclaims that Jesus, the Son of God “is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of his nature” (verse 3), and then goes on to clarify that God’s word expresses “to the Son – Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the sceptre of your kingdom is a sceptre of justice…” (verse 8). The author of Hebrews applies verse 6 and 7 of Psalm 45 to Jesus the Messiah. John is given a kingly vision of this Christ, in victorious kingship:

Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse. Its rider is called Faithful and True, and he judges and makes war with justice. His eyes were like a fiery flame, and many crowns were on his head. He has a name written that no one knows except himself. He wore a robe dipped in blood and his name is called the Word of God. The armies that were iin heaven followed him on white horses, wearing pure white linen. A sharp sword came from his mouth, so that he might strike the nations with it. He will rule them with an iron rod. He will also trample the winepress of the fierce anger of God, the Almighty. And he has a name written on his robe and on his thigh: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.

Revelation 19 verses 11 to 16

The true king is God himself incarnate: Jesus of Nazareth. And whilst verses 6 and 7 teach us that the true king is God, verses 8 and 9 teach an entirely different truth: that Christ the King is also Christ the Bridegroom.

Recall that we are reading a love song. Recall that we have been reading a description of a king that turned superlative and can only possibly really refer to Jesus. Recall that the probable occasion of writing the love song was the king’s marriage. So who do we expect to read about next? The king’s bride!

And this is who we are, indeed, introduced to in verses 10 to 15. The queen-to-be is advised to forsake her former life (verse 10), and to submit to the lordship of her husband (verse 11). And blessing is promised to the queen if she does so (verse 12). But more than that – she comes into the presence and has an intimate relationship with her king (verses 13 to 15). This is obviously fine if we are talking about the marriage between a king and his queen, but what does it mean if we are still reading this psalm as talking about the Messiah, the king who is God?

The New Testament is not shy of calling the Church the bride of Christ. And the experience of the bride in the psalm is the experience of the church too. We have been united into Christ, giving us a great status and the right to enter into God’s presence through his righteousness, restoring the intimate relationship we had forfeited by sin. Our lives now are to reflect this reality by submission to Christ’s lordship over us. But there is also a beautiful future culmination of this bridehood of ours:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.

[…]

Then one of the seven angels…came and spoke with me: “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” He then carried me awy in the Spirit to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, arrayed with God’s glory. Her radiance was like a precious jewel, like a jasper stone, clear as crystal.

Revelation 21 verses 1 to 2 and 9 to 11

And this isn’t just New Testament imagery. The life and prophecy of Hosea work as an extended metaphor of how God’s people had treated him by rejecting his lordship and prostituting themselves to other, false gods. They ought to be faithful to him as a bride to her husband. But they were not.

Psalm 45 teaches us that the way to the presence of God, into an intimate relationship with him, is through submitting to the rule of his chosen king, “bowing down to him, for he is your lord” (verse 11). The astonishing thing in this relationship is how this king “has inaugurated for us a new and living way through the curtain” (Hebrews 10 verse 20). Our relationship with God, our ability to enter into his presence comes through his death: “we have boldness to enter the sanctuary through the blood of Jesus” (Hebrews 10 verse 19).

And so the sons of Korah end their psalm with a joyful prediction that the king would have heirs and children, and that his name would be remembered for ever (verses 16 and 17). The great kings like Solomon and David continue to be remembered even to this day, yes, but ultimately the royal line led to the great king who lives and reigns forever, and whose name is greater and above all other names. So even here the psalm groans with the echoes of a better fulfilment to come after the king it was written about.

Just in case you are worried that I might be going a bit Da Vinci Code here, and am about to spout some nonsense about Jesus’ royal line continuing to this day, fear not. But our king Jesus does have a great many sons and heirs through his name: “through faith you are all sons of God in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3 verse 26). And we have been promised a great inheritance in him (Ephesians 1).

“Rise up! Help us! Redeem us because of your faithful love!” – reflection on Psalm 44

Psalm 44, the third in a grouping of psalms by the sons of Korah, is a very interesting prayer. It holds the absolute faithfulness and trustworthiness of God in tension with a dreadful situation in which he does not seem to be acting. The writer teaches us that we can rely on God even when our situations seem impossibly big to handle. God’s reliability is firmly established in his covenant; this is why the very last line (verse 26) ends with the prayer that God would “redeem us because of your faithful love!”

Although we cannot be certain when Psalm 44 was written, many details in it point to a serious national calamity in Israel/Judah. Verses 11 and 12 in particular seem to point to the Babylonian captivity of Judah, and it could well be this psalm is a lament for the situation the faithful remnant of God’s people find themselves in, not yet understanding the true purpose of God in sending them into exile and questioning whether they would return to the Promised Land. It may help to bear the deep anguish these people must have had in mind as we go through their prayer.

In verses 1 to 8, we see a people who remember. In the first place (verses 1 to 3), they remember their ancestors and the witness of salvation history (verse 1). In particular, this is the story of the taking of the Promised Land (verse 2), recorded in Joshua, although salvation history does stretch all the way back to the covering of Adam and Eve’s shame in Genesis 3 (verse 21, bearing in mind the context, verses 7 and 10 in particular), and after the writing of this psalm continued straight on through the death and resurrection of Jesus – and the wonderful daily miracles seen when the Holy Spirit works in such a way as to turn a sinner to repentance ever since. Verse 3 reminds us that this salvation history does not depend on the work of humans, but entirely on the initiative and action of God on behalf of his people.

The next few verses show us the logical position of someone who knows this: knowing who he is and what he does for his people, they accept God as their king (verse 4). All other sources of strength and security are comparatively useless; God alone is worth trusting (verses 5 to 8). That’s very much a lesson I need to hear. Sure, I don’t go up against enemies on the field of battle. But I do regularly face down significant deadlines with my work. And nine times out of ten, if not more, I rely entirely on my own effort to get me over the line. I put in the extra time and collapse on the other side. That, or I procrastinate extra hard and end up getting a report to my manager 4 months late. It may seem to the outside observer that my life is very much under Christ’s lordship – but my work habits tell a different, truer story: one of miserable self-reliance.

So the very first thing this psalm teaches us is to remember salvation history, and therefore to trust God. This is followed by a selah, which is a term frequently repeated in the psalms. It seems to indicate a sort of interlude, and is frequently followed by a change in theme. This is exactly what happens here.

In verses 9 to 16, we see a people who are suffering. We’ve just heard that the people know to trust God. Yet they find that he rejects them and that they are without their strength (verse 9). The nation faced a geo-political struggle, but without their God it was hopeless, and they were defeated (verse 10). They have been abandoned and exiled by God (verse 11), and it seems as if his special people were worthless to him (verse 12). This is definitely how the rest of the world sees them (verses 13 to 16). Yet the psalmist picks up that God is behind all this; I count 16 verbs in these 8 verses in the translation I am using, and 11 of these refer to God. [I haven’t checked this thoroughly]

The point is – the psalmist recognises that the defeat, just like victory, has been given by God. But the psalmist does not understand why this has happened. In verses 17 to 22, we see a people who still remember. The people have not forgotten or betrayed God (verses 17 and 18), and yet they are being severely punished by him (verse 19). How do these fit together?

Maybe the claim of verses 17 and 18 is too strong – if the author is claiming sinlessness, he is plainly mistaken. But this is the strongest reading, and it is more likely that these verses are a general claim to covenant allegiance. To adopt (and adapt) an English idiom, it is a claim that they live by the spirit of the law, not necessarily a claim that they live by the letter of the law. It’s a bit like saying, ‘Lord – we know living for you means we have obligations, and we do our best to keep them.’

In a way, this psalm throws up the age-old question of why ‘good’ people suffer. Whilst the Bible does point to some clear answers (especially in the books of Job, John and Hebrews), it does ultimately remain a mystery. But we also know that the faithful remnant lived through the exile alongside the people who had fully rejected God, and maybe this reality informs this prayer – those who are faithful are confused to face God’s wrath knowing that they themselves don’t deserve to face it in the same way that the others, and other nations, did.

The question in verses 20 and 21, and the related statement in verse 22, imples this to me – the suffering the psalmist goes through (verse 22) is framed against a backdrop of their obedience to God (verse 20) in the knowledge of who God is and the power that he has (verse 21). Isn’t this tension so real in our lives today, too? We try to live for God, and everything just falls apart. Nothing ever seems to go the way it should when we do mange to trust in him, not ourselves. We feel weak and powerless against a world that is out to get us.

And so we live between a rock and a hard place. We look one way and all we can see is the suffering we are going through, and in the other direction and only find evidence that suggests that God has abandoned us. Even so, in verses 23 to 26, we see the people’s desperate prayer.

The prayer is, quite simply, that God would act in some way to save them from a situation that can lead only to death. This is partially true in the sense that the enemies and suffering they are going through ultimately ends up there, but even more true in what it means to be separated from God, the source of all life. If our creator no longer sustains us – there is only death. It is so poignant that the psalmist can feel only as though they are rejected by God – and yet has the confidence to pray for God to act in a way that will bring them redemption (verse 26).

And this redemption rests in God’s faithful love; in the expression of his covenant. The land and the people had been promised on oath to Abraham many years ago by God, and as the writer of Hebrews explains:

When God made ap romise to Abraham, since he had no one greater to swear by, he swore by himself: “I will indeed bless you, and I will greatly multiply you.” And so, after waiting patiently, Abraham obtained the promise. For people swear by something greater than themselves, and for them a confirming oath ends every dispute. Because God wanted to show his unchangeable purpose even more clearly to the heirs of the promise, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that through two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to seize the hope set before us. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain. Jesus has entered there on our behalf as a forerunner, because he has become a high priest forever according to the oder of Melchizedek.

Hebrews 6 verses 13 to 20, quoting Genesis 22 verse 17

God guarantees his commitment to upholding his promises through the formal establishment of a covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15), with the whole people of Israel (Exodus 24), and above all through the shedding of Christ’s blood on the cross (e.g. 1 Peter 1 verse 2).

Some changes

After a book (and a bit) of the Psalms, it is good to reflect a little more on how this blog is complementing my devotional times and helping me to properly think through God’s word for myself.

My intention in the first few months of 2019 has been to read all of the psalms at a rather quick pace. And so far, I have mostly kept to that intention. But, to be honest, it has been brutal. I am very busy, with a job that requires long hours, a busy schedule of voluntary church activities, and many other events (relating to work, church, and my wider social life) on every day.

In recent weeks, I have been averaging about two hours spent each day on reading through two psalms and writing and organising my thoughts and notes into a coherent format. Mostly, this has worked surprisngly well, but it has had two profound effects. Firstly, I have been getting progressively more exhausted from more or less only having sleep time as rest time. Secondly, I have ended up shoe-horning psalms together in ways that they really shouldn’t have been, or even basically ignoring one of the Psalms scheduled for that day out of convenience. This has also meant that even on occasions where the psalms do go together well – such as Psalms 42 & 43 – the result has been rushed and less clear.

Obviously, I am still involved in teaching psalms at a summer camp later this year, and I am keen to keep my commitment to going through the whole psalter and keeping up this blog. I have found it helpful in making me think through what the intended teaching of these Psalms have been, and to see the theological points that the author makes.

As a result, starting tomorrow, I am going to be changing the format and frequency of my blogs. The most immediate change is that, from now on, I will typically be reading one psalm per day. Only where space and theme permit will I expand to two psalms. The other change is that, with less intensity, I will take fewer breaks than I had planned; most obviously, I will now be posting on Sundays. My initial plan was to finish the second book of psalms on the 19th of February and continue with the third book from the 25th of February, as I have an important church event over that weekend. I no longer expect to have reached that point by that time, however I will still be taking that weekend (22nd-24th) off due to the busyness.

It is now, therefore, likely that I will finish this endeavour at the end of April or beginning of May. I will take a couple of days break when I get to the end of the second book, Psalm 72 on the 6th of March. I will use this time to think more carefully about how I get through the second half of the Psalms in the remaining three books.

The reflection on Psalm 44 will follow later this evening.