The Pilgrim’s Playlist

Of the Psalms & Songs of Ascents: understanding the songs & prayers of God’s people

The Songs of Ascents are a collection of psalms within the overall Psalter. In order, therefore, to understand these fifteen psalms, we must first come to a basic knowledge of the Psalms as a whole.

The book of Psalms is a collection of poems within the Bible. Although the book’s arrangement may appear quite random at first, in reality, great structure and order is given to the composition (as is always the case with the works of God). For instance, the Psalms seem to move generally from lamentation to exultation. Hymns of praise are certainly present toward the beginning, just as songs of lament are found near the end. But the overall trajectory seems to go from sorrow of life to joy in God. Furthermore, the Psalms are not one book but five, which some theologians have suggested is for each book to serve as a kind of worship commentary (a soundtrack, perhaps?) to the Pentateuch, the books of Moses.

But what are the psalms themselves, and why are they included in the Bible? Fundamentally, the Psalms are poetry, which means that we must read them with a different mindset than when we read historical narratives or didactical literature. A primary target of Hebrew poetry is to be meditative. The terse wording is carefully selected to incite ponderings. Parallelism (where a thought is repeated in different words) is a common device employed to call our attention toward certain truths. For this reason, many verses are composed of two repetitious lines. Occasionally, the two lines of a verse will express antithetical notions, which is meant to be accented by the surrounding repetitions.

The goal of meditative reading is expressed in the two primary ways that the Psalms have been used throughout the centuries by God’s people: as songs and as prayers. Many are familiar with the Psalms being called the Bible’s hymnal. The word psalm means “a sacred song or poem used in worship” (according to Merriam-Webster). Fittingly, many psalms begin with musical annotations, identifying the tune or instrumentation to be used. The Psalms are meant to be used by God’s people to worship Him. The Apostle Paul affirms this by commanding us to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”, during which the “the word of Christ” will dwell in us richly (Colossians 3:16).

In Diarmaid MacCulloch’s historical opus of the Reformation, he argues that “the metrical psalm was the perfect vehicle for turning the Protestant message into a mass movement capable of embracing the illiterate alongside the literate” (308). He continues to explain how this recovery of Psalm singing was used:

The psalms could be sung in worship or in the market-place; instantly they marked out the singer as a Protestant, and equally instantly united a Protestant crowd in ecstatic companionship just as a football chant does today on the stadium terraces. They were the common property of all, both men and women: women could not preach or rarely even lead prayer, but they could sing alongside their menfolk. To sing a psalm was a liberation—to break away from the mediation of priest or minister and to become a king alongside King David, talking directly to his God. (308)

We today suffer a great loss of continuity with both God in our worship and fellowship with previous generations of brothers and sisters in Christ because we do not regularly sing the Psalms.

Yet the Psalms are not just songs; they are also prayers. Throughout history, God’s people have clung to the Psalter as a prayer book, giving them words to speak to the LORD Most High. Perhaps the greatest example for us is Jesus’ prayer from Psalm 22 while upon the cross.

But how can the Psalms be both our prayers to God and God’s inspired Word? Dietrich Bonhoeffer offers the analogy of a child learning to speak by repeating his father’s words back to him as an explanation (11). By repeating God’s Word back to Him, we learn to pray how God desires for us to pray. The benefit of this is beyond comprehension, especially since true prayer is not simply the process of pouring out one’s heart before God (9). True prayer is centered on Christ.

If we want to read and to pray the prayers of the Bible and especially the Psalms, therefore, we must not ask first 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 then we shall be able to pray them. It does not depend, therefore, on whether the Psalms express adequately that which we feel at a given moment in our heart. If we are to pray aright, perhaps it is quite necessary that we pray contrary to our own heart. Not what we want to pray is important, but what God wants us to pray. If we were dependent entirely on ourselves, we would probably pray only the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer. But God wants it otherwise. The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart.

Thus if the Bible also contains a prayerbook, we learn from this that not only that Word which he has to say to us belongs to the Word of God, but also that word which he wants to hear from us, because it is the word of his beloved Son. This is pure grace, that God tells us how we can speak with him and have fellowship with him. We can do it by praying in the name of Jesus Christ. The Psalms are given to us to this end, that we may learn to pray them in the name of Jesus Christ. (14-15)

A common objection is that praying from the Bible cannot capture our emotions. Brothers and sisters, know that praying the Psalms does not negate and suppress our emotions; instead, they provide them with the proper and reverential language to speak to our Creator. The full range of human emotions is masterfully on display in the Psalms. This is because Jesus, as the author of the Psalms, lived the life of a man, “who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus knows the joys and sorrows of life; He experienced them personally. But He never once sinned. He cried to the Father in lament of being forsaken by Him, and His lamentation was godly, holy, and righteous.

Would you ever have the boldness to pray Psalm 44: 23 to the High King of Heaven: “Awake! Why are you sleep, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!”? Might I suggest that praying these words apart from the guidance of God’s Word could easily be a sinful rant against the LORD. Yet whenever we pray them from the Scriptures, we are repeating God’s Word back to Him, holding Him to His promises, and expressing our faith that He will not abandon us forever. The boldness of bringing our complaint to God from the Psalms is an act of faith, while simply complaining against God is an act of foolish disrespect to the one before whom our words ought to be few (Ecclesiastes 5:3). Psalm 44, after all, begins by praising God as King (v. 4) and declaring, “In God we have boasted continually, and we will give thanks to your name forever” (v. 8). The Psalms, therefore, balance our emotions, giving us the confidence of great boldness before God, while also reminding us of God’s inapproachable glory.

Like the rest of the Psalms, the Songs of Ascents are both songs and prayers. What differentiates this mini collection from the others is their specific function. While there are many suggestions as to purpose of collecting these psalms together as the Songs of Ascents, two are most common. The first suggestion is that these were psalms to be sung by the Levitical priests as they were ascending the steps of the Temple to perform their priestly duties. The other offers that these were prayed and sung by Jewish pilgrims while traveling to Jerusalem to worship at the annual festivals. Either way, we can safely assume that these poems were most likely written individually and grouped together at a later date.

I believe that the second thought is the more likely of the two, which has been the predominate view throughout history as well. Because they are believed to be sung during pilgrimages to Jerusalem, they have often been called the Pilgrim Songs. Such a view makes them eminently practical for Christians today.

The Christian life, in fact, is a pilgrimage, and we too are traveling toward Jerusalem. We are sojourners and exiles in this world (1 Peter 2:11), but our destination city is not of this world. We march toward New Jerusalem (see Revelation 21), which is our eternal home with the LORD.

John Bunyan powerfully captured this biblical metaphor in his allegorical fantasy story, The Pilgrim’s Progress. In that book, the main character, Christian, encounters many tests and trials as he leaves his home in the City of Destruction to reach the Celestial City. The story’s goal is to conceptualize the life of a Christian as a great journey down the straight and narrow path toward that heavenly city.

And it’s all true. We are pilgrims. Wanderers and foreigners traveling a vast and perilous journey toward our home. Our love of adventure and fantasy stories, tales with action, suspense, and peril, comes from God designing our lives for this quest.

The Christian life only becomes dull whenever we forget this truth. The straight and narrow path is long, arduous, and full of danger. In the end, few will traverse it. A broader road exists too. It’s way is easy, and the risk is kept to a minimum. The path of ease is always tempting, but destruction is its destination. So we choose the hard road. Come what may. We walk forward, ever onward, ready to endure to the end.

Music is often tied to journeys and their stories. Tolkien filled The Lord of the Rings with songs because they enhanced the depth of Middle-Earth. The spirituals sang by slaves gave voice to their oppression and eventually gave birth to blues and jazz. Even the stereotypical ideal of a roadtrip is not complete without fitting tunes to accompany the mileage.

The great reformer, Martin Luther, called music the second greatest gift of God to humanity (the Scriptures being first). It’s not difficult to see why he believed this. More than anything else, music seems to be able to stir up our affections. Music can move us even when nothing else seems to. It captures both the head and the heart.

I’ve titled this series, The Pilgrim’s Playlist, because the Songs of Ascents are the Christian’s God-given soundtrack for our roadtrip through this life. They are hymns for us to sing as we take another step closer to the Celestial City in the distance. Like all good music, they speak to us. They keep the destination in sight even when our physical eyes fail. They remind us of what we have left behind, of what we will surely encounter along the way, and what a mighty hope we cling to. They are the psalms of the desert wanderers, ready for the Promised Land. They are our songs. The songs of the redeemed people of God, the followers of Jesus Christ our Lord. As we sing them on the long, hard road of life, may they also prepare us for the songs of praise that we will sing together in the heavenly city.

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Introduction

You should read books.

Reading is one of the most complex activities we can set our minds to do. It engages your eyes, even as the real work happens when the imagination is sparked within the brain. Kinesthetic learners are able to highlight, underline, and scribble barely legible notes in the margins. Even the auditory ones among us have a home among books thanks to the rise of audiobooks or, you know, just reading out loud.

Indeed, I am convinced that no other medium stimulates the mind like reading a book. This, of course, still does not mean that all books are worth reading. But thankfully there are more books worth the time than we will ever be able to read in a lifetime.

Next week, I will begin a new series that will provide short, quick posts about books that are worth the time it takes to read them.

These are not necessarily book reviews.

Rather than reviewing, I aim to give a few important reasons for why you might give hours of your life to reading a particular book. After all, that’s the primary information that I scan book reviews for anyway. I’ll try to break this down into a few bullet points, such as a summary, a couple of notable quotations, who should read the book, and why they should read it.

I pray that these suggestions are beneficial and wish everyone happy reading.

 

COPYRIGHT© B.C. NEWTON 2016
Good Works | Sound Doctrine

Introduction to Titus

Even though the word is never used in the letter, Titus is all about the church. Paul left Titus on the island of Crete for the purpose of organizing and establishing each city’s church, and his letter to Titus is an encouragement and guide for how that is to be done. Therefore, if we want to truly understand the importance and nature of Titus, we must first understand the value of the church.

In discussing the church, we must first establish a clarification of terminology. Throughout the New Testament, there are two ideas expressed by the word “church.” The first meaning is the universal church (other names used are the catholic church, the invisible church, or simply the Church). The universal church refers to all followers of Christ throughout the world, which is exemplified whenever the church is called the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23; Colossians 1:18). Christians from the United States, Russia, and Botswana are all members of the universal church. Anyone of any country or any denomination is a part of the Church, the body of Christ, simply by becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ.

The second usage of church is the local church. A local church is a particular group of Christians who gather together. Examples of local churches in the New Testament are multitude, such as Thessalonica (Thessalonians 1:1) and the seven churches of Revelation (Revelation 2-3). Local churches provide practical organization to the universal church, allowing Christians to engage in meaning discipleship, prayer, teaching, and evangelism with one another.

As the body of Christ, the church is important. God loves both the local and universal church since they are intrinsically bound to one another. Followers of Christ who reject the church altogether find themselves rejecting Jesus’ bride. Yes, the church is broken because it is composed of broken people, but Jesus loves us broken people. Even if we were to find a perfect church, we would ruin it by attending. Yet the point is not about a church’s effectiveness or spotlessness; rather, a church should simply strive for good works to the glory of Christ, though many stumblings may still occur.

The church is important because people are important, so it is also important then that we consider how to best function as a church. As stated, this is the message of Titus. Paul gives little time to the pragmatics of organizational method, and instead devotes most of the letter to addressing the theology and actions of the church members. At first glance, this may appear to be a misstep for Paul; however, quite the opposite is true. The apostle understood what many church leaders too often forget—that methods and organization mean nothing without the proper motivation of the heart behind them. More than anything else, Paul wants for the churches in Crete to be filled with Christians who are sound in doctrine and rich in good works.

This tango between theology and action is scattered throughout the New Testament, but Paul makes it his goal in Titus. Because humans tend to gravitate toward extremes, many Christians find themselves either fixated upon theology (to the detriment of good works) or upon good works (while lacking in theology), but the Bible is clear that Christians must have both. Sound doctrine must always lead to good works. In fact, godly living is the proper expression of a true understanding theology.

Thus, in our study of Titus, we will seek to better know and apply the marriage of doctrine and deeds for the benefit of better serving the church to the glory of God.

Week 5 | Introduction

SUGGESTED VERSES FOR MEMORIZATION & MEDITATION

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ. (Titus 2:11-13 ESV)

He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.  (Revelation 22:20-21 ESV)

OPENING THOUGHT

Jesus’ first advent dramatically changed the world. Since humanity first fell into sin, God promised the Messiah, a savior who would crush the serpent’s head, defeating sin, evil, and death. For millennia and generations upon generations, people waited faithfully for the King to come and reign. Last week, we glimpsed how Matthew aimed to prove that Jesus was indeed the descendent of David that would sit upon an eternal throne.

In this week’s readings, we will view the culmination of the first coming of Christ, His death and resurrection, and then we will turn our eyes toward Jesus’ second advent. After ascending into heaven, Jesus gave us the promise that He would return again to permanently defeat death and sin for all to see. This hope in Christ’ second coming is what Paul calls “our blessed hope (Tit. 2:13).” As we conclude this season of remembering Jesus’ first coming, let us also hopefully encourage one another to anticipate the second advent.

Week 3 | Introduction

SUGGESTED VERSES FOR MEMORIZATION & MEDITATION

But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5 ESV)

Therefore the LORD himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14 ESV)

OPENING THOUGHT

The Messiah, or Serpent-Crusher, was promised within the first moments of humanity’s fall into sin and death; however, thousands of years passed and hundreds of generations died without His arrival.

But God did not leave humanity without signs.

He promised to Abraham, Judah, and David that the Messiah would be their offspring, and that He would be an eternal prophet, priest, and king.

After the deaths of David and his son, Solomon, Israel split into two kingdoms under the rule of Rehoboam. For the next several hundred years, God sent prophets to speak to the people of Israel and Judah, rebuking the wickedness of their kings and the idolatry of the people.

In the midst of the pleas of these prophets, the LORD speaks through them many new promises of the coming Messiah.

This week’s readings then will be a sampling of some of the most significant prophecies concerning the promised Serpent-Crusher. Throughout the several hundred years of Israel’s two kingdoms, God continued to prophesy through the prophets about the Savior who would defeat evil, sin, and death finally.

A Brief Case for Theology (Introduction to Genesis 1-11)

Before beginning our study through the first part of Genesis, I will give reason and explanation for the subtitle. Hopefully, seeing the first book of the Bible as an introduction to the Bible should not require much clarification; however, viewing it as an introduction to theology just might be another story. The first eleven chapters, often called “primeval history”, serve easily as a biblical introduction because nearly every major theme is first presented in them. Likewise, almost all primary doctrines of the Christian faith find their beginning in part one of Genesis. The scale and time covered by these brief chapters is so massive and so epic that there is clearly no individual human to serve as the primary protagonist. In fact, the estimated time covered in these chapters is much greater than the time covered throughout the remainder of the Bible (from Genesis 12 to the writing of Revelation). Because of this, we are forced to focus upon the ultimate protagonist of the entire Bible: God. After all, since God stood preeminent and eternally existent before anything was created, it is right that our study, and our very lives, would revolve entirely around Him.

This is why we must study theology. We do not study it for the sake of earning a degree in higher education. We do not even need to be concerned about being formally educated in theology at all. Our only concern should be that we accurately and biblically study theology to the best of our ability because theology is the study of God. The persistent lifelong, generation-spanning quest to know more of God is the heart of theology. It is a contradiction for a Christian to hate theology since that would mean the hatred of learning more of God. Likewise, it is impossible for a true Christian to never be theological as every topic concerning God falls within the realm of theology. If I speak of obsessive-compulsive disorder, I am talking about an aspect of psychology. Moreover, since I am speaking about psychology, the only question to ask is whether I know anything about psychology or not. The same is true with theology. Any conversation about God is theological by nature. The only question left to be asked is whether we are being orthodox or heretical.

Therefore, in order to conclusively define orthodox theology, we turn to the Bible, the revealed Word of God to humanity. The Bible is primarily theological in nature because, at its core, God is the hero, thesis, and goal of all Scripture. It is true that the Bible contains many differing styles of literature that can serve a variety of purposes. Wisdom literature like Proverbs can practically guide one to living a much more satisfying life. The poetry of the Psalms and the prose of Jonah and Esther can be endlessly studied by students of literature. Books like Joshua and Samuel give robust history of the nation of Israel. Even deep philosophical ponderings are present in books like Job and Ecclesiastes! However, though the Bible covers a myriad of topics and subjects, God eclipses them all. Though containing history and literature, it is not primarily a book of history or literature, but rather it is the book of God. And since the Bible is the inspired Word of God, it is the only definitive means by which we can come to know God more. Thus, we can go nowhere else to properly get to know God.

These first eleven chapters of Genesis, therefore, serve as the perfect introduction to both the Bible and to theology. As such, the central aim of this study will be to know more of God through the studying of Scripture. We will see how many of God’s attributes are first introduced to humanity, and how God intended humans to behave and relate to Himself, each other, and the world around us. Four monumental events that shaped all of human existence (Creation, Fall, Flood, and Babel) will be the primary focus, as God’s power, justice, love, wrath, and grace are displayed. My prayer, however, is that none of this will become mere knowledge for the sake of knowing, but rather that in knowing more of the character and attributes of God, we will be led to a deeper and more intimate love for Him. After all, this must always be our goal in studying Scripture: to know God more so that we may love Him all the more.

The Man of Faith

Introduction to Abraham: the Man of Faith

Genesis is a big book. It contains fifty chapters, which would take a significant amount of time to work straight through. Fortunately, Genesis is composed of two major parts. The first part is found in chapters 1-11. This is called the primeval history, and it covers four gigantic, earth-shaping events: Creation, the Fall, the Flood, and the tower of Babel. Each of those events made the world into what it is today; therefore, those first eleven chapters are massively epic in scope. The second part of Genesis (chapters 12-50) takes a decidedly different focus. Instead of focusing upon large-scale events, beginning in chapter 12, Genesis narrows in on the life of one man, Abraham, and his family. Though the overall themes of blessings and curses continue, the latter portion of Genesis hones in on the family of Abraham and God’s blessings to them. However, even as we focus specifically upon the life of Abraham in chapters 12-24, we will notice another important theme coming into play in Abraham’s life: faith.

What Is Faith?

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”[1] The book of Hebrews’ definition of faith rings out to us today (two thousand years after it was written) proclaiming that faith is an assurance and conviction. Faith is trust or confidence being placed in what is not seen by the naked eye. Because we serve an unseen God, faith plays a crucial role in our relationship with God. In fact, Hebrews informs us “without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”[2] This makes sense. In order to please God, we must first believe that He exists, and believing in the existence of God requires faith. By believing in His existence, we are placing our conviction on things not seen. Therefore, belief in God is predicated upon faith.

However, the importance of faith does not stop at belief in God’s existence. In the first two chapters of Romans, Paul states that God has revealed Himself to everyone by at least two means. First, God reveals Himself through His creation.[3] By observing the creation around us (including ourselves), we understand that creation necessitates a creator. Therefore, we know that God is Creator and powerful enough to form all that exists. Second, God reveals Himself through innate morality.[4] God gave the internal moral compass, known as our conscience, to us. He did this so that we would know that God is Lawgiver. He has rules and commands, and He demands obedience to them. We know this because we inherently feel guilt whenever we violate our conscience. Thus, because God reveals Himself as Creator and Lawgiver, we are able to look upon our lives with realization that we have violated the Creator’s laws.

Offending the omnipotent Creator leaves us in quite a bind. We deserve the full wrath of God, and because God is eternal, our wrongdoings cause Him eternal offense. Our punishment, therefore, must be eternal as well. There is also no means by which we can bribe God. If we are guilty of even the smallest of sins, it is because God demands perfection from our lives. Sin irrevocably breaks innocence. A perfect life is no longer attainable with even one sin present. How then are we to pay the penalty of our sin? We cannot strive harder for a perfect life. Living the rest of our lives without sin is simply doing what we were meant to do in the first place. We cannot offer to God as extra something that He already demanded as minimum. The only solution is to spend an eternity in punishment for breaking the Creator’s law. What hope is there for us then?

Saved Through Faith

Fortunately, faith is the assurance of things hoped for. We hoped that God would provide an alternative route, a means of absorbing the punishment for our sins so that we do not have to do so for eternity. God did this in Christ. Jesus was born of a virgin, deity incarnate, fully God and fully human. By living a sinless life, He lived the life we were supposed to live. Though without sin, He died upon a cross, dying the death we were supposed to die. When God lived a sinless life as a man and died an undeserved death, He did so in our place. He died that death for us. Because Jesus was of eternal value, His physical death paid the eternal price of our sin. Therefore, after paying for our sins, Christ offers to us forgiveness for our sins. This is called grace. We do not deserve to be forgiven or for Christ to pay our debt, but He did. The Apostle Paul emphatically declares of us: “by grace you have been saved through faith.”[5] Notice the apostle’s wording. We have been saved by grace, by the undeserved gift of Christ’s substitution, and we have been saved through faith. We are saved through faith because by faith, we place our complete confidence in the work of Christ. Only through the lens of faith do we realize that salvation “is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”[6] It requires great faith to trust in the merit of another to be applied on our behalf. We are saved by grace through faith. Grace is the means, and faith is the mode.

The Significance of Abraham

Faith, therefore, is at the very center of our… well, our faith. Of all the men in the Bible, there is none that exemplifies faith quite like Abraham. Galatians even goes so far as to call Abraham “the man of faith”, which gives us our series subtitle by the way.[7] Indeed, Abraham is incredibly significant in the Bible. He was the first Hebrew, the father of Israel. Because of this, many Israelites would claim to be God’s chosen people by their blood relation to Abraham; however, Paul emphasizes that those who have faith in God are the sons of Abraham. In fact, with so much of the Bible presuming an understanding of Abraham’s story, it is crucial that we know the significance of this forerunner of Christ.

Because of the stated importance of Abraham, one can easily create a mental image of him as being a sort of superhuman follower of God. However, we will notice as we study Abraham’s story that he was not always faithful. In his story, we read moments of Abraham’s wavering faith. Thus, we quickly realize that Abraham’s faithfulness is not nearly so important as God’s faithfulness toward him. Through every high and low, God never gives up on Abraham, and Abraham responses by walking in faith with God.

It is my prayer that as we study the story of Abraham we would be challenged to grow in our faith. May we be children of Abraham who trust God to walk wherever He leads us. May we be willing to wait upon the promised blessings of the LORD, knowing that His wisdom never fails. May we be will to sacrifice all that would stand between us and our greatest treasure, Jesus Christ.

[1] Hebrews 11:1

[2] Hebrews 11:6

[3] Romans 1:19-20

[4] Romans 2:12-16

[5] Ephesians 2:8

[6] Ephesians 2:8-9

[7] Galatians 3:9