Lectio Divina: Psalms 130

CC BY, The U.S. Army, Flickr

“More than those who watch for the morning.”        CC BY, The U.S. Army, Flickr

Psalm 130 is one of the fifteen “Songs of Ascent” and its author is unknown. This psalm is the deeply anguished and moving prayer to God of one wrestling with sinful guilt. Yet the writer’s focus does not linger there; instead, the forgiveness of God is the subject. Notice how honest he speaks and how lucidly he contrasts his guilt with the Lord’s mercy. There is no person who cannot discover him- or herself in these words. (You may wish to follow along in your Bible.) Continue reading

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Word Study: Hosanna

CC BY, UmmZ, Flickr

CC BY, UmmZ, Flickr

We know the term “hosanna” from the New Testament when it was shouted in acclamation of Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on the colt. The people were quoting Psalm 118:25-26 (ESV): “Save us, we pray, O Lord! O Lord, we pray, give us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! We bless you from the house of the Lord.”

Hosanna properly means to save, or to be saved or delivered (hosan-), beseechingly or now (-na). It is a prayer for rescue. With time, however, the word changed from a strong plea for help to praise for its arrival—and this is the context in which it is made of Jesus, the Messiah, entering Jerusalem.

Implications of Hosanna

We all understand the basic meaning of this expression because we cry out for God’s help regularly. Life gets tough, Satan is deviously wicked, and we are frail individuals. We call to him because he is El Elyon, the Most High God, the strongest One of all.

But there are two other connotations of hosanna, one already mentioned: hosanna as an ovation for long-awaited deliverance.

It is the difference between “God, help!” and “Look! God is moving!” Don’t you love it when you notice God acting on your behalf or rescuing someone you love?

Still, in this same subtext, there is a deeper acknowledgement: God is the only one able to save. It’s worshipful—“God, you’ve got the power. If this thing is to be done, you will do it.” Often God has to prove to us that he is far bigger than what we’ve made him out to be.

Job said, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (42:5)—or we knew of God’s great power to deliver in other’s lives but had never experienced it for ourselves, not until he allowed us to be wedged in just to prove he could pull us out. Thus, we cry, “Hosanna!”

I Need Thee

The final connotation of hosanna is implied: our essential need for God. C.S. Lewis correctly observes:

“God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He himself is the fuel our spirits burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there” (from Mere Christianity).

I really need God and I’m thankful I comprehend this because many people don’t, including some Christians. Our creature comforts, social connections, and money can make us less dependent on him.

Ecclesiastes 12 is also worth pointing out. “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth before the days of trouble come…” (v. 1). Our need for God is deeper than mere rescue; nevertheless, it is best to know him well before we ever need it. No one learns CPR in the moment of crisis.

Our need for God acknowledges that he knows what’s best for us.

Keep hosanna in mind when you pray and when you praise. Keep it at the heart of you.

Cries of the Heart

CC BY, sylvain.collet, Flickr

CC BY, sylvain.collet, Flickr

“In my alarm I said, ‘I am cut off from your sight!’” (Psalm 31:22)

The psalmists confess what many of us won’t: that we don’t have it all together.

Have you ever read Psalms—I mean really read it? It has to be the most relatable book in the Bible. I am floored by the range of emotions we see from these God-fearers, their intimacy and sincerity, their indignation and rage.

And I love it. It makes me feel a little more normal when I’m stressed or tempted or miffed with God.

Peering Into Our Hearts

The tones of cheer and praise in Psalms are as obvious for the dark and gloomy ones that ensue. In Psalm 42, for instance, we detect signs of the speaker’s depression and frustrated search for God: “I say to God my Rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me?’” (v. 9). I love the nuances and implications that often arise from a text because they add color and depth to a scene and teach us by training our eyes on the unapparent. One thing I learn from Psalms is to really understand myself, how I respond to circumstance, how to feel and manage my emotions, how to submit them to God.

It’s important because what we can fail to notice is how impacted our emotions are by events and circumstances, the stress of them, although they may not be critical at all. You see, it’s the emotional aspect of our lives that often waylays us. Situations can be handled—we pray to God for as much—but we, the caretakers of our souls, are slow to anticipate and prepare ourselves for the emotional toll that can follow.

We never thought our circumstance would cause us to make rash decisions or to become temperamental. We didn’t expect to be crept upon by a sneaky depression. We surprised ourselves with our excesses, blinded by pleasure and glee.

Our emotions will trip us and Satan…well he watches unguarded doors.

Healing Our Souls

We’ve witnessed too many times of late the tragic consequences of people living life bottled up. It is necessary to acknowledge our feelings and give them healthy expression; it is also important to share our feelings with others.

I reject the triumphalist spirituality that suggests I keep happy and overcoming, or that it’s a sin or faithlessness for me to feel pain or experience sorrow. I also reject those on the opposite end, the hill climbers, whose faith only identifies with plight. They seem to start every conversation with “Hey, bro, what are you struggling with?”

I haven’t quoted a bunch of scriptures here, or said Jesus twenty times, yet this might be the most freeing news for some people, Christians included. We don’t lose our faith because we agonize; we just must not let pain cause us to lose our contentment in God.

“Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” (Ps. 42:11)

Why Do the Wicked Prosper?

CC BY-NC, Steve Corey, Flickr

CC BY-NC, Steve Corey, Flickr

Have you ever been “broke, busted, and disgusted,” wondering where God was, and found yourself despising a well-off person you were certain didn’t care anything about God? Did you sizzle? Rant? Curse? I imagine there are many reasonable Christians who’ve wrestled with these feelings—and taken it out on God. I’ve been there. It’s comforting to know that the scripture writers have, too.

It’s a question asked throughout the Bible, especially in the Prophets, and by do-gooders everywhere: why do the wicked prosper? What is more interesting is God’s answer to the question. But before we get to his response, I need to provoke a discussion. *toothy grin*

This one calls for getting to the heart of why we feel the way we do about the issue. I know what a shoestring budget feels like standing in the grocery line with my bare necessities watching some thug/some white collar highbrow/some self-righteous prude lay all their goodies and spirits on the checkout, me thinking, I’m trying to live for you and I’m just getting by! Judgmental perhaps, but if you’ve been there, can I get an ‘Amen’?

God, You Owe Me!

We have to ask ourselves “Does godliness merit ease and prosperity?” On the one hand we have a God who promises, “All these blessings shall overtake you if…” and on the other he acknowledges, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous…” Might our real problem with the wicked prospering be that we feel God owes us for serving him? That we should be treated better…look like his children, yet the wicked appear more like what his children should be?

Jeremiah in his twelfth chapter and Asaph in Psalm 73 both deal with this topic. Jeremiah laments, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?…You are always on their lips but far from their hearts” (12:1-2). One thing we see from Jeremiah’s complaint was that God’s bounty was in the land but was being circumvented by the powerful and greedy, leaving the rich to grow richer and the poor poorer (v. 4). It’s understandable to be angry about these conditions.

God’s reply to Jeremiah is a noted verse in the book—“If you have raced with people on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses?” (v. 5). God told Jeremiah that his issue was a small and ordinary concern, while the real problem was the moral darkness in the land that was incurring great judgment.

A ‘small and ordinary concern’…

I pause here to be fair. We should not grossly assume that because a person is not devout or is perhaps agnostic or atheist that they are somehow undeserving of good things, and, for that matter, incapable of generosity. The larger point is that wealthy “wicked” people have not necessarily gained their prosperity by being wicked and criminal any more than some Christians have earned a life of poverty by their godliness. Instead, they have worked hard for what they own and deserve any wealth they have. Moreover, honest and diligent work is all of our responsibility, and everyone can be wealthy. This is a clue that, in God’s mind, the issue is not about money.

Matters of the Heart

Asaph shows us the rest of the picture. “Surely God is good to Israel,” he says, “to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost slipped” (73:1-2). What an admission! He rants for half the chapter until despairingly stating the same sentiments I’ve made in the grocery line: “Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure…all day long I have been afflicted and every morning brings new punishments” (vs. 13-14).

But then the dawn of an answer breaks through:

“When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny. Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly they are destroyed, completely swept away by terrors!” (vs. 16-18).

Asaph only alludes to the real discovery, and what he realizes is the same message God was trying to get through to Jeremiah. The issue is not wealth but the condition of the heart. The “slippery ground” Asaph refers to explains it: money allows the desires and inhibitions of our hearts to easily surface.

Reading the demise Asaph describes for the wicked is nothing to rejoice about. It is very sad. He shows us a person who has gotten carried away by his or her desires. If the test of struggle is to survive the dearth, then the test of plenty is also to survive by not being drowned by fortune—or drowned in covetousness, pride and greed, power and control, vice and criminality.

Money doesn’t have a heart; people do—and people create crime and unfairness and the imbalance of justice. Thus, why the wicked prosper is manifold, from industriousness to unlawful dealings, but this is not the real issue. What we should hate is not the wicked with money but their state and be very sad about it and the judgment and sorrow their actions work to bring down upon them and a people.

Also on this blog regarding this topic: The Perils of Covetousness, Living with Simplicity, and The Disciple Who Never Was.

Lectio Divina: Psalms 126

"Jews in Exile" by Eduard Bendemann Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne CC BY-NC, Magdeburg, Flickr

“Jews in Exile” by Eduard Bendemann
Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne
CC BY-NC, Magdeburg, Flickr

Encouraging articles about persevering through tough times are plentiful; there is nothing wrong with them. But I want to share with you an inspiring coming-out scenario lifted directly from scripture. Since we all are in process and will encounter tough times, it would do us well to keep this text handy. It offers a glimpse of God’s rescue.

Psalm 126

Psalm 126 is one of 15 psalms (120-134) called “Songs of Degrees” or “Songs of Ascent.” Four of them are attributed to David (122, 124, 131, 133), one to Solomon (127), and the remainder have unknown authors.

The origin of the name—Degrees, Ascent—is uncertain. It is often thought that they were purposed for pilgrimages to Jerusalem or sung by the Hebrews upon their return from captivity. There is also the notion that there may be a thought progression in them. The truth, however, is that the categorization is not understood. The circumstances of their composition or the occasion for which they were used granted them a certain unity and distinction by the editor of Psalms. Still, the title would have been fully understood by Hebrew readers.

Psalm 126 is one of only two (the other: Ch. 122) that could possibly have anything to do with a Babylonian return; and it appears that the return of exiles may very well be the subject here. The psalm is a first-person testimony of exiles recalling their release from captivity.

VERSE 1(ESV)

“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion…”

Have you ever been in hardship so severe that it seemed that you would never get out of it? Pain and suffering has the tendency to make us feel isolated and locked in circumstance. Sometimes we forget faith and cast off hope (Isa. 49:15). But this verse reveals a God who always knows where we are and how to free us.

Some Bible versions are worded more aligned to the New King James (NKJV)—“When the Lord brought back the captivity of Zion…”—the word “captivity” meaning “return,” referring to the captives themselves. The notion is the Lord’s deliverance and by not only bringing us out of misery, but also freeing everything connected to us. It is a recovery or recompense in ways we may have resolved would never happen.

You see, God has the power to free us, our goods, and our ability to prosper. He doesn’t just release the captives; he establishes them and gives them livelihood. “He will beautify the humble with salvation” (Ps. 149:4). The word “fortunes” used by some versions is good.

“…we were like those who dream.”

Our burdens were so monumental that, once delivered, we could hardly believe it. It was surreal. Too often we’ve watched news stories of a man wrongly imprisoned for 10, 15, 25 years, only to be set free immediately after conclusive evidence proved his innocence; certainly it takes time for him to understand his new reality.

It is the great disparity between our dire situation and unexpected relief that shocks the senses and may even cause us to fear that our new state isn’t lasting. For instance, people who have starved have to learn not to hide food when they finally have enough to eat. They fear that satisfaction won’t last and that they’ll starve again.

VERSE 2

“Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy…”

These people were exiles—prisoners—for years. Now they were free, and it came without expectation and with ecstatic joy. What we’re witnessing in these two verses is a reversal of what we understand of the Kubler-Ross model, or five stages of grief. The first two stages are denial and anger. Denial encompasses shock at a great sadness, just as shock and denial, seen here, was the initial response of the exiles’ great joy. Now, the shock wearing off, they cannot contain their giddiness.

They’re so full with excitement that all they can do is laugh with incredulity. I imagine it to be like a person on the verge of bankruptcy suddenly inheriting millions of dollars. The NKJV expresses the latter clause as “our tongue with singing.” Music often expresses what mere sentences cannot.

“…then they said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’”

The “they” here are non-Israelites, or heathen (KJV), those that don’t know the Lord—they testify to his mighty deeds! It reminds me of Nebuchadnezzar, after seeing the fourth man in the fire, standing back in amazement and acknowledging the reality of the Hebrew God.

People around us often know details about our lives. It is not possible to hide everything about ourselves (and who really cares to expend a great deal of energy trying?) And non-Christian people on our jobs, in our social organizations, our peers and neighbors will see us, the Christians, go through trial. Some will mock for the seeming lack of regard our so-called God shows toward us. But we should be encouraged. Not only is pain working a reward within us and for us, it is also working toward a testimony of the greatness of God.

In the end God will prove himself and no one will be able to deny that it is his doing. Some struggles are so monumental that only God can change them, but we must be convinced—like the Hebrew boys—that God is able even if he doesn’t answer. He just might shock us all with his goodness!

And isn’t that the point? The glory of God is a testimony of his affection, that he is for us and his nature is goodness itself. He is eager to show us kindness.

VERSE 3

“The Lord has done great things for us!”

This is the reply of the Israelites—“Absolutely!” “Indeed!” And there’s also an element of “You cannot possibly understand.” We see people, perhaps smiling on the outside or getting on with their lives, but never have a clue about the depth of pain, lack, or suffering they’re dealing with. If they told us stories about the ins-and-outs of their daily lives…the number of jobs and the type of schedule they manage just to put food on their tables or the domino effect of trouble that fell upon them—we might be stunned.

So when God delivers people like this, we can rejoice with them; yet there is an intimacy about the whole thing that only they can share with their Deliverer. Only he knows how their hearts hurt, how situations tried their souls, the things they lost, and the lessons they learned.

“…we are glad.”

Our souls are satisfied. Others can be happy for us, but only we can be satisfied. If the Lord permits us to go through pain, he knew what the pain would accomplish. But when he brings us out, the true reward is not the mere reversal of fortune; instead it is the satisfaction of seeing the full scope of his purpose. It takes a really “seasoned saint” to acknowledge on the coming-out end, “It was good that I went through my affliction” (Isa. 53:10-12).  The experience may have been hell itself, but the work of God within us and through us makes it all worth it.

VERSE 4

“Restore our fortunes, O Lord…”

This verse implies that the restoration wasn’t complete and was most likely in progress. So the psalmist implores the Lord that full deliverance would be manifested. It very well could have been a prayer that all of his Israelite compatriots be freed from exile since we know that the exiles returned in stages over several years.

This is a good place for us to stop and ask the Lord to finish his work within us, using that great Pauline verse, Philippians 1:6: “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

Lord, we thank you that our lives are hidden in you. You have ordered our every step along this path of life. Where we must face trial, teach us patience and help us to trust your providence. You will deliver us; you will satisfy us. You will make your name great to all who see. Complete your work in us. Cause us to one day acknowledge that when you tested the good in us, it was a good thing indeed. In Jesus’s name, Amen.

“…like streams in the Negeb!”

Restore our fortunes like the dry desert streams that are restored and swollen by the autumn and winter rains.

VERSE 5

“Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!”

Isn’t this wonderfully poetic? Agriculture is obviously a readily used illustration tool and a worthy one. But what I like about this verse is the oblivious thing happening with the subject. No one views suffering as valuable; pain is visceral—you feel it, spurn it, run away from it. God allows the yoke to come upon us and we ask why. It all seems so needless.

The psalmist images tears as seed. All of our misery is borne in our tears, yet our tears, in God’s eyes, are rudiments of renewal and reward. Suffering people might never be convinced that their grief is a spiritual act of sowing, but the scriptures assure us of this concept in many places.

God’s promise comes through resoundingly in this verse: “I will repay your trouble.” And to anyone experiencing hardship, you should know that God has not forgotten your pain. He has seen every tear you’ve cried. You’re gonna get through this. The harvest sprouting for you is going to make you shout with joy.

VERSE 6

“He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing…”

The concept continues. Picture that person ambling along dejected and softly weeping.

“…shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.”

I like the assurance of the NKJV here: “shall doubtless come again…” The allusion to the sower remains, but the reward is imaged here: a sheaf. A sheaf is a bundle of grain produced from a harvest.

Need I say more? The one who trod the earth lamenting his or her lack and loss and without a clue that their own tears were working toward the answer of their prayers will “doubtless come again” leaping and laughing and falling over in disbelief that the Lord has favored them with more than they could have ever imagined.

More: Lectio Divina: Psalm 130