The Pilgrim’s Playlist

The LORD Surrounds His People | Psalm 125

Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion,
Which cannot be moved, but abides forever.
As the mountains surround Jerusalem,
so the Lord surrounds his people,
from this time forth and forevermore.
For the scepter of wickedness shall not rest
on the land allotted to the righteous,
lest the righteous stretch out
their hands to do wrong.
Do good, O Lord, to those who are good,
and to those who are upright in their hearts!
But those who turn aside to their crooked ways
the Lord will lead away with evildoers!
Peace be upon Israel!

Psalm 125 ESV

 

As noted previously, the Songs of Ascents appear to fall into five groupings of three loosely-connected psalms. Psalms 120-122 serve as songs for beginning the journey as they focused on discontentment with present conditions, expressing trust in God’s safekeeping, and a longing to be in Jerusalem. Psalms 123-125 then revolve around the themes of God’s mercy, deliverance, and protection. The progression is natural: first, crying to God for mercy (123); second, rejoicing in God’s deliverance (124); and finally, expressing confidence in God’s continual protection of His people (125).

THE LORD SURROUNDS HIS PEOPLE

Within the first two verses, we are presented with the glorious promise of this psalm: God’s protection of His people. The psalmist expresses this truth through two comparisons to Jerusalem.

First, he states that those who place their trust in God are like Mount Zion, which is both immovable and eternal. While there is something to be noted of the physical steadfastness of a mountain, Zion is so much more than set location within space and time. Instead, Zion is also both a concept and a promise. As a concept, Jerusalem represents the collective gathering of God’s people for worship. As a promise, Jerusalem represents the gathering that will one day occur, when people “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9) worship together in God’s presence for all eternity. Therefore, the immovability and eternality of Zion are rooted in the faithfulness of God, not the presence of that physical hill. Indeed, for those reasons, I would argue that Revelation 21 reveals that we are not simply like Mount Zion but in Christ we are Mount Zion. I believe that the New Jerusalem being described is the glorified people of God, Christ’s church, Israel.

The second comparison made is to the mountains surrounding Jerusalem. Having recently visited Bogota, I was reminded again of why cities are often founded in valleys. The surrounding mountains make the city feel as though it is secured within a natural fortress.

Living within the United States today makes the importance of these features appear less significant. Of course, there are always wars and rumors of wars happening, but those threats are still about what another country might do. Pease still hangs by a delicate thread, but I have never worried whether the people of Sherman, TX (a city about 30 miles away) will decide to invade Durant. Yet other than in Solomon’s and the latter part of David’s reigns, the people of Jerusalem would have faced that very concern.

Mountains, however, only provide a certain degree of security. Yet the safety that they appear to give God actually provides for His people. He surrounds His people, forming an impenetrable wall. Perhaps Martin Luther summarizes it best by declaring, “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.”

THE SCEPTER OF WICKEDNESS

The following verses then set their eyes upon how the LORD protects His people. Verse 3 expresses the confidence that the rule of the wicked will not rest upon the land of the righteous. Pay attention to the language used here. The scepter of wickedness implies the reign of evildoers. Therefore, the promise is not that the wicked will not dwell within the land of the righteous but that they will not rule it. Also, the psalmist does not promise that the scepter of wickedness will never fall upon the land of the righteous, only that it will not rest there.

These are crucial caveats to make. Throughout Israel’s time as God’s kingdom, the prophets repeatedly warned what Paul would later summarize: “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Romans 9:6). Even in the Old Testament, salvation never happened by proximity. Furthermore, many of the kings who ruled over the Israelites very much wielded the scepter of wickedness.

Unfortunately, these things are still true within the church age. Although through church membership we seek to affirm one another’s salvation, the sorrowful reality is that there will always be those who never truly followed Christ. They are “those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” (Hebrews 6:4-5), yet for all their immersion within the community of believers, ultimately came to show that they never truly believed at all. And this warning is not merely for church members. Just as Israel fell under the leadership of many wicked kings, so too churches will endure wicked leadership.

But even though these things must be present for now, the promise is that they will not ultimately endure. They will not last. The scepter of wickedness may pass over God’s people, but it will not rest upon them. The wicked may be mingled with the righteous, but it will not always be so. One day, God will permanently divide the wheat from the chaff, which is the promise of verse 5. All those who follow their own crooked ways will be led away by the LORD with the rest of the evildoers.

The concept of crooked ways seems much less harmful than the word evildoers. Perhaps this is intentional. Certainly, today there is a growing desire to separate the idea of evil from the Bible’s concept of sin. Let me try to explain. Within the Bible, sin bears the connotation of missing the mark, of failing to hit the bullseye or wandering off the proper path. Sin, therefore, is predicated upon not meeting a standard established by God. If something goes against God’s design, it is sin. Which means that sin can be both an action and inaction. We can commit sin by doing something against God’s pattern, or we can commit sin by refusing to obey a command given by God. This is the biblical definition of evil, to sin and turn away from God’s good and perfect pattern for creation.

But such a view of evil has never been gladly received. Sure, we will gladly call murderers and rapists evildoers, but refusing to care for the orphans and widows isn’t evil, right? It’s just little bit of negligence. Failing to rejoice and give thanks in every circumstance isn’t wickedness; it’s only having a bad day. Neglecting to meet together with God’s people isn’t sinful; it’s simply taking some time to rest or get caught up around the house. Sin delights in hiding its evil behind good intentions. The reality is that those who turn aside to their crooked ways will be led away with evildoers because they are themselves evildoers. Turning aside from God’s path and commands is an act of evil. As uncomfortable as that truth may be, I pray that you will meet it head on. I pray that you will see all failure to obey God (no matter how small) as an act of open rebellion against the Most High God.

Notice also the reason for God’s leading away of the wicked: lest the righteous stretch out their hands to do wrong. The greatest threat upon the righteous is neither oppression nor persecution; it is that the righteous would imitate the wicked. Why is this the primary threat? For a righteous person to commit sin would negate their righteousness. Doing wrong is the characteristic of evildoers, while the righteous, on the other hand, do right. If the righteous become corrupt, then verse 4 becomes unnecessary. How can the LORD do good to those who are good if none exist?

Tragically, such a lamentable circumstance is not hypothetical but reality. As Paul quotes from Psalm 14: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12). Perhaps the bleakness of that passage would be easier to ignore if the refrain of not one didn’t continue to appear. Yet Paul fully leans into that dark reality by commenting a few verses later: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). We deserve not to receive the good from God’s hand but to be led away with fellow evildoers. Such is our lot, the grave that we have dug for ourselves.

From that place the mountains of God’s surrounding presence look more like a prison cell than they do a mighty fortress, an entrapment by one who would limit our freedom. Sin distorts reality, making guardrails look like arbitrary confinements and twisting the commandments of our loving Father into appearing to be the petty rules of a tyrant. Thus, we become alienated from God.

PEACE BE UPON ISRAEL

But that can’t be the end, right? After all, the psalmist is praying and singing this psalm while clearly imagining himself to be among God’s people. But if none are righteous or good, how then does God possess a righteous people who are good with upright hearts?

During the psalmist’s day, all he knew was that through the sacrifices within the temple God forgave sin. He would have known, of course, that the blood of bulls and goats was not sufficient to cover the penalty earned by sin, yet God commanded them. So he would have, by faith, trusted God to blot out his sins… somehow.

What he almost certainly didn’t understand was that God ordained the animal sacrifices to be a shadow of the sacrifice to come, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Yet even though he did not know God’s full plan, Christ was still his only means of salvation. Even in the Old Testament, sin could only be forgiven by the cross of Jesus. Through worshipfully making sacrifices, they placed their faith in God’s mercy and grace upon them, not yet knowing that it would come finally and ultimately through Christ. We have no reason to believe, therefore, that the psalmist would have considered himself truly good and righteous apart from God’s steadfast love upon him.

The peace and security of Israel in the Old Testament, therefore, was the same as the peace and security of the church today. God’s people become God’s people because of God’s steadfast love and mercy upon hellbent sinners. The great joy of this psalm is that through the death and resurrection of Christ we are able to boldly pray for God to do good to those who are good. Not that we ourselves are good or have upright hearts, but that Jesus has granted us His righteous, giving us new and clean hearts in His name.

Peace is, therefore, upon us. We have been redeemed, and the God of all creation is no longer against us. Instead, He now surrounds us like the mountains about Jerusalem, like a mighty fortress. No greater security exists. As Paul testifies in Romans 8:31-39:

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

If Christ (God incarnate) loved us enough to die for us, not even our own death can separate us from Him. He who died for His people will also secure His people.

Is this your hope?

Is this your security?

Do you have the peace of being counted among the people of God?

The mountains of the LORD will either be your judgment or your security.

Choose this day to repent of sin and lay hold of the righteous of Jesus Christ, that God’s peace may be upon you.

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a thought on repentance, obedience, & the Law

I’ve wrestled with this question a lot.

Though I was saved at an early age, I didn’t fully understand the gospel (especially the eternal security of believers) until I was in college.

As a kid, I truly wanted to live a Christ-like life, I knew I was a sinner, and I believed that Christ died for my sin. I struggled, though, with the notion of what Jesus’ forgiveness looked like.

It seemed both logical and desirable to repent regularly, both of known and unknown sins. Yet for several years, the need to ask for forgiveness consumed me.

Each night I would fall asleep praying for forgiveness over and over again. I was terrified that if I died in my sleep, God would send me to hell because my last thought might be a sinful one.

My young mind essentially created its own penitential system for dealing with sin. Instead of trusting God to forgive all of my sins by grace through faith, I established a means of working off my sins through the constant and repetitive asking of forgiveness. I was heaping up empty phrases, hoping to be heard for my many words (Matt. 6:7). It was an attempt to barter for grace instead of receiving grace through faith.

Once For All

A trip to New Mexico one summer changed everything.

I don’t remember who preached or what text they preached, but after worship service, I sat on a pew and understood (for the first time) the significance of Christ dying once. As common sense as it might seem, I never truly considered that Christ’s death paid for ALL of my sins– past, present, and future.

And it was the future sins that really got me.

On that cross, all of my sins were future sins, but He died for them. This meant that He knew them, even the ones that will come decades from now. None of my sins came as a surprise to Him, and because of that once-for-all sacrifice, I could be truly certain of my forgiveness and salvation.

But that isn’t to say that we should stop repenting of sin.

In many ways, repentance is the great mark of a true Christian.

We are called to repent of sin continually, not just initially (Matt. 3:8).

However, laying my cards on the table, the question “Must I repent after each sin?” is a loaded one. The word must implies an obligation, a requirement, or even a coercion to do something, but as followers of Christ, we get to repent of our sins, knowing that God is faithful and just to forgive us. It is a joy to ask our Father for forgiveness and strength to turn from sin because we already know what His answer will be.

Outward Obedience

While studying to preach on Christ’s relationship to the Old Testament Law, I finally came to understand why Paul calls us captives under the Law before Christ came (Gal. 3:23).¹

Laws are necessary, but by nature, they merely rein in our sin. A law’s power is equal to the consequence for breaking it, and those punishments leverage our sinful nature for the benefit of society. For instance, if the consequence is severe enough, most people will not risk stealing. Or we could ask, how many killings are prevented simply because the fear of punishment hinders an act of blind rage?

Laws confine sinful behavior by establishing a punishment as a reason to refrain from sin.

Because of this, obeying a law does not make me a inwardly moral person; it only means that I am outwardly behaving according to the law.

Outward obedience does not necessarily correlate with an internal godly morality.

This is why Jesus’ teachings so angered the Pharisees. They nearly perfected outward obedience, but Jesus called their bluff. He knew their hearts didn’t line up with their actions, so He called them what they were: hypocrites (Matt. 23:25).

Inward Obedience

Fortunately, Jesus had a better answer to the problem of sin than the Law could provide.

Jeremiah describes Jesus’ followers as having the law written on their hearts (Jer. 31:33). This means that they would no longer be compelled to obey God’s law out of fear of punishment; instead, they would actually want to obey.

Our captivity to the law is broken on two fronts.

First, Jesus’ death decisively eliminates the eternal punishment of sin, allowing us to live in the joy of knowing that we will never suffer the wrath of God, only His loving discipline.

Second, we have a joy from obeying the law because Christ has now written it within our hearts. We, therefore, no longer feel obligated to obey God; instead, we joyfully obey Him with thanksgiving!

Jesus has erased the must, the obligation, from obedience and from repentance.

Conclusion

So, in answer to the original question, if a Christian dies immediately after sinning, they are still in Christ because God already justified them once for all. The lack of time to repent of a particular sin will NOT override God’s grace.

But of course, given time, Christians will naturally desire to repent.

Repentance is what we do.

And that desire will come from gratitude to God, not requirement or mere necessity.

My younger self’s brokenness over sin and desire for obedience was certainly a good sign of truly following Christ, but I’m immeasurably thankful for the grace of knowing the gospel’s truth and assurance more fully.

Does repenting of sin ever become a requirement in your heart instead of being a desire, delight, and grace?


 

1) Charles Leiter’s The Law of Christ has helped me tremendously to understand our New Covenant relationship to the Old Testament laws. Hopefully, the brief discussion of the topics in this post will encourage you to study them more deeply in Leiter’s book.

a thought on eternal security & saltless salt

In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, He boldly proclaims that His followers are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. These are tremendous claims, but I want to focus for the moment upon Jesus’ warning about salt losing its taste. Christ warns that if salt is no longer salty then it is only good for being thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. It’s a terrifying warning because it emphasizes the utter worthlessness of a “Christian” that doesn’t display Christ.

This ought to beg us then to ask a very important question: Can a Christian lose their salvation?

For the sake of our present text, let’s look at the issue using the salt metaphor, asking whether salt can lose its saltiness.

The first interpretation states that it is impossible for a believer to lose their salvation. Scientifically, we know that sodium chloride is a stable compound, which means that it will not naturally cease to be salt. Salt cannot lose its saltiness. Likewise, this view argues that a Christian will never fall away from grace. If we are saved by grace alone, why would our continued salvation be the result of anything but the grace of God? We are not saved by works, and neither can we lose our salvation by our works.

The second interpretation goes in the opposite direction, positing that we are able to lose our salvation. The commentators and theologians that support this view argue that salt in Jesus’ day was rarely pure salt. Instead, most salt was mixed with other minerals, and over time, the actual salt would dilute, leaving behind something that resembled salt without its taste. In this way, salt could lose its saltiness. Holders of this view suggest that Jesus had this in mind; therefore, Christians are able to fall away from grace.

I am more in favor of a third view, which acknowledges truth in both of the previous two. Can a Christian lose his or her salvation? I think not. Salt is salt, and a Christian is in Christ. Saved by grace, raised to life from being dead in sin, partaking in the second birth, given a new heart and new life, each of these biblical means of describing salvation do NOT point to something that is reversible.

However, there is still a valuable lesson to learn from the “salt” of the second interpretation. Though the lump of minerals may have tasted salty for a time, it lost its saltiness because in truth it was not actually salt. Though it contained a portion of salt, it’s impurity ultimately revealed its true nature.

It’s important that we keep both lessons. The Bible clearly speaks of the eternal security for believers. We rightfully should take great comfort in knowing that God alone can keep us from falling away.

However, we also cannot ignore that Jesus spoke of saltless salt for a reason, not as an empty hypothetical warning. In the end, there will be many who presumed to follow Christ but are ultimately denied entrance into His kingdom. (Matt. 7:21-23)

This interpretation is not so much in line with the phrase “once saved, always saved”; rather, it is more like, “if saved, always saved.”

A healthy fear of being saltless is good, and it’s proper to ask ourselves regularly whether our lives truly reflect Christ or not.

Am I truly a follower of Christ, or do I simply have the appearance and taste of one?


Below are related Scriptures for further reflection of this important issue.

Philippians 2:12-13 | Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

2 Peter 1:10-11 | Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Matthew 7:21-23 | Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

Jude 24 | Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy.

John 10:28-29 | I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.

Romans 8:30,38-39 | And those whom he predestined he also called and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified… For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.