God’s Multifaceted Word: reflecting on Psalm 119

In my own daily times of Scripture reading and prayer, I’ve been meditating on Psalm 119. Psalm 119 is the longest of the Psalms by far with 176 verses. This psalm is an extended reflection on the delight and power of God’s word, structured as an acrostic poem with one stanza for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

The psalm offers an expansive catalog of the diverse characteristics of God’s word that is impressive. When I read through Psalm 119, I feel like I am getting a multifaceted look at the word of God that is enlightening, stretching, and encouraging.

This past weekend at Eastbrook, I preached on Ephesians 6:10-24 in a message entitled “A Crash Course in Spiritual Conflict.” In this well-known passage, we encounter Paul delineating the armor of God. The only offensive piece of that armor comes last: “and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17b). The Word of God is powerful and a vital piece of our armor in the spiritual conflict we face daily as God’s people. As the writer of Hebrews says, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

Here is a brief list of some of the facets of God’s word outlined within Psalm 119. I’d encourage you to read through the list and, when one statement jumps out at you, to open your Bible to Psalm 119, read that verse, and then meditate on those words for the day. There is so much here in each verse to grow and deepen us with God.

God’s word is:

  • to be fully obeyed (4)
  • righteous (7, 61, 106, 123, 137, 144, 164, 172)
  • a guide for purity of life (9)
  • a way to keep from sin (11)
  • from the Lord’s mouth (13, 88)
  • full of wonderful things (18)
  • a delight (24, 35, 70, 77, 143, 162, 174)
  • a counselor (24)
  • a revelation of God’s wonderful deeds (27)
  • a picture of the way of faithfulness (30)
  • good (39, 68)
  • a revelation of God’s salvation promises (41)
  • a bringer of freedom (45)
  • a promise to preserve our life (50)
  • ancient (52)
  • a comforter (52)
  • precious (72)
  • a pathway away from shame (80)
  • completely trustworthy (86, 138)
  • eternal (89, 152, 160)
  • firm in the heavens (89)
  • boundless in its perfection (90)
  • what makes us wiser than our enemies and our teachers (98, 99, 100)
  • sweet like honey (103)
  • a lamp and light for our path (105, 130)
  • the joy of our heart (111)
  • wonderful (129)
  • thoroughly tested (140)
  • true (142, 151, 160)
  • a bringer of peace (165)
  • sustenance (175)

When Blessing Atrophies [Psalm 1, part 5]

Psalm 1

While the first three verses of Psalm 1 provide us with a description of God’s blessing, the last three verses offer an alternative vision that is distressing.

4 Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff
that the wind blows away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

6 For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

Chaff is that part of the harvest that is separated out in the process of winnowing or threshing. There is no vitality in the chaff. It has no significance, other than to be blown away from the fruits of the harvest and burned.

Apart from God’s blessing and grace, the psalmist tells us, human beings are “like chaff.” This means, on the one hand, the wicked have lost life. The blessing that God intends for human life found in Him, His instruction, and godly relationships does not exist in the wicked and so their life is no longer life at all.  On the other hand, this means the wicked have no weight or substance. They are insubstantial in their lives, regardless of appearances, and the afternoon winds of life will quickly blow them away, let alone the hurricane winds of trouble that may come down upon us.

At the end of time, the psalmist says, the wicked will not be able to stand in God’s judgment. In the present time, the wicked will find it hard to stand in the presence of righteous people who walk with God.

There is a clear distinction between two ways of life and the blessing of God: one leads toward growth in blessing and the other leads toward atrophy of blessing. May God strengthen us to walk toward the fullness of His blessing in our lives.

What stands out to you about the description of the wicked here at the end of Psalm 1?

In what areas of your life might atrophy be taking root?

What would it look like to be a messenger of God’s blessing to those experiencing atrophy today?

[This is the fifth in a series of posts on Psalm 1, which began here.]

The Full Blessing of God [Psalm 1, part 4]

Psalm 1

Now look with me at Psalm 1, verse 3, we encounter the results of growth toward the full blessing of God. When our choose to walk into the way of God’s blessing, when we take steps with our environment for growth – our relationships and choices, and when we take in the essential food for growth – the Scripture, something beautiful happens. This is verse 3:

That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
    whatever they do prospers.

True blessing is a gift from God into our lives. True growth toward that blessing happens by the grace of God in our lives. We simply receive God’s gift and yield to God’s grace in our lives. As this happens, the psalmist points out three things that occur as part of the blessing of God on our lives.

Fruitful
First, we will become fruitful. That is, the result of our daily lives – both individually and together – will bring a crop of delicious fruit from our lives. Have you ever tried to do a project but felt like a lack of fruitfulness is there? There is nothing more frustrating. In our own lives, we cannot control blessing but we can yield to God’s to blessing. We cannot make ourselves grow, but we can surrender to the Holy Spirit’s work of bringing growth. Cultivating the right environment and then taking in the essential food for growth opens the doorways for fruitfulness. What sort of fruitfulness? From the New Testament perspective we can certainly turn to that wonderful passage in Paul’s letter to the Galatian church where he says: “the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). Our lives become truly life-giving to others. Our words restore and build up. Our actions reflect the astounding love and joy of God to the world.

Enduring
Along with fruitfulness, true growth results in endurance. Psalm 1:3 says: “whose leaf does not wither.” The seasons of life in this world can certainly cause us to wither. Like the droughts of certain summers, the trials, tribulations, and difficulties of this world threaten to bend us and break us down. But the person who is truly ‘blessed’ bears up, like Jesus, in the face of difficulty. Why? Because there is a solid, trustworthy grace of God that enters into us to provide strength for what we face. This is reflected in what we read from the prophet Habakkuk 3:17-18:

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.

Prospering
Thirdly, we read here that the results of growth are prosperity: “whatever they do prospers.” We are not talking about something as simple and passing as monetary or material blessing here. Psalm 1 is not the seedbed for the prosperity gospel. Rather, we are talking about God giving us what we most deeply need: a life truly blessed by the joy of God’s presence and lived in an enduring and prosperous world. We all clearly know that material abundance does not in and of itself bring us prosperity in life. Otherwise, wealthy athletes and pop culture stars would not ruin their lives in meaningless ways. True prosperity comes through a life well-lived before God; a blessed life. A life that others look at and say, “I wish I was a person like that.” Of course, we know that such things are only derived from the grace of God.

We are made to grow. When we take steps to grow we begin to experience the fullness of God’s blessing: fruitfulness, endurance, and prosperity.

In what ways are do you want to grow toward fruitfulness, endurance, and prosperity with God’s blessing in your life?

What do you think it might look like to step forward toward the fullness of God’s blessing in this season of your life?

[This is the fourth in a series of posts on Psalm 1, which began here.]

The Key Nutrient of Blessing [Psalm 1, part 3]

Psalm 1

When Kelly and I were newly married we had a knack for killing the house plants we had in our apartment. One day, we saw one of our neighbors, an elderly woman named Elsie, digging a plant we had killed out of the dumpster. We watched as she took it back in her apartment, left to wonder what she would do with the pot or how she might reuse the soil. It was only later that Kelly discovered that Elsie’s apartment was filled with house plants that she had carefully nurtured back to life. Every plant needs healthy nutrients to experience life. Without those required ingredients, it will die.

The same is true in the spiritual life. The first two verses of Psalm 1 set the tone of how God brings blessing – life – into our lives. Pay attention to verse two with me for some insight into the nutrients required.

Blessed is the one
    who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
    or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law day and night.

If the environment for growth is related to our relationships and our activities or choices, then the psalmist shows us that the essential food for growth is the Scripture or, as stated here, ‘the law of the Lord.’

The word here is literally the ‘Torah of Yahweh.’ The Torah could refer literally to the law of Moses, or the first five books of the Bible. It is more likely here, however, that the phrase refers to the instruction God gives to human beings for their guidance and livelihood. It does not seem like too far of a stretch to include the entire Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, as relevant to this Psalm.

The Psalmist tells us that, in contrast to one who takes up wicked and ungodly relationships that slowly drag them down into a life of ruin, the truly ‘blessed’ person – the person who experiences the full joy of God’s plans for humanity – is the one who takes delight in and meditates upon God’s instruction.

There are some who come to the Bible with a sense of weariness day by day. Surely, there are times when it is hard work and discipline to get focused on reading the Bible, but the writer’s description here is quite different.

The psalmist says this reader of God’s instruction finds delight in it daily.  Because the Scripture is the powerful and truthful instruction of God, it is not just something we have to read but it is actually a source of deep joy and life for us. It is the place where blessing is found. If we really believe that the Bible contains the instruction of God, we will soon be able to exclaim words similar to those found in Psalm 119:

I rejoice in following your statues as one rejoices in great riches….I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word. (Psalm 119:14, 16)

Secondly, we come to the Scripture to meditate upon it. Meditation doesn’t mean that we hit some gongs and sit in the lotus position. What it means is that we consider it deeply. We do not simply read it and pass on, but we take time to mull it over. We read it and chew on it, as one author says, like a dog chewing on a bone or like a child who could read the same short book over and over again. We allow our minds to be deeply shaped by the instruction of God instead of by the foolishness of the wicked, or sinners, or mockers mentioned in verse 1.

When we take delight in and meditate upon the Scripture it becomes the food by which we grow in experiencing the blessed life with God. It becomes the source by which, as Paul writes in Romans 12:2, we are transformed by the renewing of our minds.

Like a plant, we were made to grow. But we need to have the essential food for growth or we will not grow at all.

Would you say you are getting the right nutrients for blessing in reading Scripture regularly?

What hinders you most from finding delight in reading God’s word?

What might it look like to take a step forward in reading Scripture regularly?

[This is the third in a series of posts on Psalm 1, which began here.]

The Environment of Blessing [Psalm 1, part 2]

Psalm 1

Let’s read the first verse of Psalm 1 again:

Blessed is the one
    who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
    or sit in the company of mockers.

There is an environment in which blessing takes root and the psalmist draws our attention to it with these three parallel phrases.

Now, Hebrew poetry consists of a wide variety of parallelism and here we have an example of synthetic or additive parallelism, which means that these three phrases convey similar yet expanding meaning.

We have the development of thought along these lines:

  • Walking in step with the wicked – which means that a person orders their life with the ways of wicked people
  • Standing in the way of sinners – which means that they come to station themselves with those for whom sin is a habitual activity
  • Sitting in the company of mockers – which means that they have settled into a community of defiance to or ridicule of God

There is a progression of relationship and activity here that the psalmist serves as a contrast with the life that is ‘blessed.’ These two elements – relationships and activities – form the environment in which blessing takes root.

I grew up in the agricultural heartland of the Midwest, near the headquarters of John Deere. Everyone knew about the cycle of plowing the soil, planting the fields, nurturing their growth, and then preparing for harvest. In summer, the corn’s growth was measured as on-target if it was “knee-high by the Fourth of July.” In late summer and early Fall, you could hear the whisper of corn growth blowing in the prairie winds. In Fall, if all the conditions of the environment were right, the harvest would happen. The right elements and conditions within the environment were critical to life springing up.

In like manner, if we want to grow toward life – toward blessing – the right elements and conditions are important. If we want to live into blessing, we must pay attention to the environment that we establish for growth.

Psalm 1 first of all tells us to pay attention to the relationships we establish for our lives. The psalmist is not urging his listeners toward some strange sort of separationist faith, here, but is highlighting the importance of our relational environment for blessing. We need to pay attention to the relationships that we have which most deeply feed and nurture our lives. Are the most critical and life-shaping relationships that we have with the sort of people who will fuel or hinder our growth with God?

Secondly, Psalm 1 calls us to give attention to our choices and activities in life. It is not only relationships that are part of our environment for blessing in life, but also the things we do and pursue, and the manner in which we engage in our relationships. Here, in Psalm 1, the movement tracks how we transition from walking to standing to sitting with negative relationships. The people who we establish our most critical, life-shaping relationships with will have great influence upon our lives. But we have a choice on how we engage with those relationships. We all need people at the center of our lives who we walk, stand, and sit with who are life-giving and help us grow with God.

A 2008 study of the ways in which people grow spiritually revealed that two of the four most important influencers for spiritual growth are related to the relationships we have with others, whether through activities within the church or activities happening outside of the church. The study showed that spiritual friendships, spiritual mentoring, and small groups all factor largely in the start-up and continuation of spiritual growth in people’s lives.[1]

We are not meant to do life alone, we need others and we need to actively engage with some core, life-giving relationships that will help us enter into God’s best blessing for us.

While different in many ways, we are like plants in this characteristic: we were made to grow and we need the right sort of environment for growth to happen.

How could you step forward into God’s blessed life today?

What relationships do you have that help or hinder this?

What changes might you need to make with God’s help?

[This is the second in a series of posts on Psalm 1, which began here.]

 


[1] Greg L. Hawkins and Cally Parkinson, Follow Me (Barrington, IL: Willow Creek Resources, 2008).

 

Comprehensive Praise: some reflections on worship from Psalm 150

sunshine-dust-motesThe psalms are the prayerbook of the Bible, prayer-songs that were often used within the corporate and private worship of the people of Israel. They are also one of our strongest biblical resources for shaping our life of worship today within the Christian church. The entire psalter concludes with a summary psalm of worship, Psalm 150, and I would like to share some thoughts that leap out to me about worship from this psalm.

Worship is God-Centered
The beginning word of Psalm 150 is simple: Hallelujah, which means, “praise the Lord.” The theme and tone of this psalm, something which sums up the entire book of psalms, is God-directed praise. This word, hallelujah, sets our spiritual compass to true north in God. Here at the beginning of this psalm, yet at the end of the entire psalter, we remember that God is the center-point of attention for our worship and rooted anchor for our lives. An oft-repeated phrase about worship is: “its’ not about me.” Hallelujah is the personal and communal exclamation of that reality. When we conclude the final word in the psalms with an introductory word, “praise the Lord,” we are forced to remember that worship and life is not about me but about God.

The Intersection of the Mundane and the Holy
In the next verses of Psalm 150, we find location in worship within God’s sanctuary or tabernacle even as our imagination stretches up to the heavens or the firmament of the sky. The psalmist reminds us that worship simultaneously draws us near to God in a Read More »

Bonhoeffer on Praying the Psalms

Bonhoeffer.jpg

It’s no secret that one of my favorite theologians is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, author of Discipleship and Life Together. I encountered his writing very early in my faith and while in high school picked up a slim book by him that I found while browsing a bookstore entitled The Prayerbook of the Bible. That book transformed my reading and praying of the Psalms. I wanted to share a few of Bonhoeffer’s introductory remarks on the psalms and prayer.

Praying certainly does not mean simply pouring out one’s heart. It means, rather, finding the way to and speaking with God, whether the heart is full or empty. No one can do that on one’s own. For that one needs Jesus Christ….

If we want to pray with assurance and joy, then the word of Holy Scripture must be the firm foundation of our prayer. Here we know that Jesus Christ, the Word of God, teaches us to pray. The words that come from God will be the steps on which we find our way to God.

Now there is in the Holy Scriptures one book that differs from all other books of the Bible in that it contains only prayers. That book is the Psalms. At first it is something very astonishing that there is a prayerbook in the Bible. The Holy Scriptures are, to be sure, God’s Word to us. But prayers are human words….

In Jesus’ mouth the human word becomes God’s Word. When we pray along with the prayer of Christ, God’s Word becomes again a human word. Thus all prayers of the Bible are such prayer, which we pray together with Jesus Christ, prayers in which Christ includes us, and through which Christ brings us before the face of God. Otherwise there are no true prayers, for only in and with Jesus Christ can we truly pray.

If we want to read and to pray the prayers of the Bible, and especially the Psalms, we must not, therefore, first ask what they have to do with us, but what they have to do with Jesus Christ. We must ask how we can understand the Psalms as God’s Word, and only then can we pray them with Jesus Christ….

The Psalms have been given to us precisely so that we can learn to pray them in the name of Jesus Christ….

Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure is lost to the Christian church. With its recovery will come unexpected power.

[Quotations from “Introduction” of The Prayerbook of the Bible, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 5, pages 155-162.]