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.

Advertisements

Psalm 121

Lift up mine eyes…
How?
They are so easily drawn
    to the things near by.
Created shapes and forms
    scream and cry
    for my attention,
    for my affection.
Zion is too distant
    to be real,
so I wrestle desperately
    to maintain zeal
    for that holy mount,
    for the blessed fount.
Lift up mine eyes, O LORD
for I cannot of my own accord.

Psalm 120

Oh Lord, deliver me
from mouths that promise salvation.
They offer balm for comforting,
but in their heart lies deception.

Exiled, I am stranded here
a castaway, lost at sea.
From Meshech far to Kedar near,
my soul yearns for Your reprieve.

Peaceable I ever am;
their longing is only war.
Rescue with Your mighty hand;
Draw me to Your blessed shore!

Deliver Me, O LORD | Psalm 120

In my distress I called to the LORD,
and he answered me.
Deliver me, O LORD,
from lying lips,
from a deceitful tongue.

 What shall be given to you,
and what more shall be done to you,
you deceitful tongue?
A warrior’s sharp arrows,
with glowing coals of the broom tree!

Woe to me, that I sojourn in Meshech,
that I dwell among the tents of Kedar!
Too long have I had my dwelling
among those who hate peace.
I am for peace,
but when I speak, they are for war!

Psalm 120 ESV

 

God rarely chooses to do what we expect or want. Fittingly, the Songs of Ascents do not begin with the easily remembered words of Psalm 121:1-2, “I lift my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” Instead, they begin with Psalm 120, a lament. Although lamentations are often abnormal for us today, we will discover by studying this psalm its important place as the first of the Pilgrim Songs.

LAMENTATION: A HOLY DISCONTENTMENT

Lamentations are songs of sorrow, prayers of anguish, to God. Such psalms comprise the largest genre within the Psalter. One out of every three psalms are laments. The Bible expects us to be familiar with laments because life is full of lamentable things. Psalm 120 is one such psalm, so the first question for us to ask should be: why is the psalmist lamenting?

He is crying for God to deliver him from the people around him. The description is twofold. They are deceitful and violent. The similar language of other psalms helps us understand what’s happening.

Psalm 109:1–3 | Be not silent, O God of my praise! For wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me, speaking against me with lying tongues. They encircle me with words of hate, and attack me without cause.

Psalm 140:1-3 | Deliver me, O Lord, from evil men; preserve me from violent men, who plan evil things in their heart and stir up wars continually. They make their tongue sharp as a serpent’s, and under their lips is the venom of asps.

The psalmist finds himself among people who are opposed to God and His truth and peace; instead, they delight in causing strife and spewing slander. The Slanderer and Accuser is their father, for they are like him in nature (John 8:44-45). They willfully reject the peace and truth of God.

And the psalmist is distressed. Regardless of how the actual events unfolded, he felt as though he was a sheep in the midst of wolves. That’s one great point of poetry, after all, to capture the emotions of the writer. He feels lost and abandoned by God, left to wander in the wilderness alone.

While the psalmist probably lived in Israel, he claims that he was dwelling and sojourning in two lands: Meshech and Kedar. The first was in present day Turkey, while the second was in Arabia. These locations must then be symbolic. Meshech might represent the liars, those who serve false gods rather than the LORD, and Kedar may be the violent since they were Ishmaelites who regularly came into conflict with the Hebrews. More broadly, however, they seem to represent the Gentile world as a whole, the lands of the godless. If he lived in Israel, this would become a forceful rebuke that many of God’s own people have rejected God’s ways. Biologically, they were Israelites, but they were Gentiles at heart. Alongside David, he cries: “Save, O Lord, for the godly one is gone; for the faithful have vanished from among the children of man. Everyone utters lies to his neighbor; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak” (Psalm 12:1-2).

Such a lamentation is the perfect place to begin the Pilgrim Songs. At the heart of Christ’s followers must be a kind of holy discontentment. Don’t misunderstand me. Improper discontentment is the root of many sins. The discontentment of Adam and Eve (with pride) caused the first sin to be committed. It is proper, therefore, to pursue the contentment of God as Paul did (Philippians 4:11-13). We must learn to eat and drink and enjoy the life that God has graciously given to us (Ecclesiastes 2:24).

But another form of discontentment exists as well, a holy and godly discontentment. This psalm expresses it well. It is a discontentment with the world as it is, broken and marred by sin. It looks forward to something better. It longs for a renewed paradise, a world without evil, sin, and death. It hates the constant rebellion of God’s creatures against the Creator. It especially hates when that very rebellion is found in his own heart. Such discontentment yearns for peace and truth in the midst of a world of war and lies. It cries out for God’s final rescue.

This discontentment with current conditions is in the heart of all pilgrims. The Separatists aboard the Mayflower risked the cruel waves of the Atlantic and the brutal winters of the New World because such a journey was better than staying in England. The Israelites (despite their complaining) continued to wander the wilderness because the hope of Canaan was better than the slavery of Egypt.

The pilgrimage of the Christian life is same. We are in this world, but we are not of it (John 17:14-16). We hate the sin that both surrounds us and indwells us. Our hearts cry out for rescue, for deliverance from this life. Like the Israelites, we have been rescued from slavery but are not yet in the Promised Land. We are sojourners and exiles in the wilderness of this life. We have seen the eternal truth and can no longer be satisfied with the lies of this world. Eugene Peterson captures this discontentment perfectly:

Christian consciousness begins in the painful realization that what we had assumed was the truth is in fact a lie. Prayer is immediate: ‘Deliver me from the liars, God! They smile so sweetly but lie through their teeth.” Rescue me from the lies of advertisers who claim to know that I need and what I desire, from the lies of entertainers who promise a cheap way to joy, from the lies of politicians who pretend to instruct me in power and morality, from the lies of psychologists who offer to shape my behavior and my morals so that I will live long, happily and successfully, from the lies of religionists who ‘heal the wounds  of this people lightly,’ from the lies of moralists who pretend to promote me to the office of captain of my fate, from the lies of pastors who ‘get rid of God’s command so you won’t have be inconvenienced in following the religious fashions!’ (Mk 7:8). Rescue me from the person who tells me of life and omits Christ, who is wise in the ways of the world and ignores the movement of the Spirit.

The lies are impeccably factual. They contain no errors. There are no distortions or falsified data. But they are lies all the same, because they claim to tell us who we are and omit everything about our origin in God and our destiny in God. They talk about the world without telling us that God made it. They tell us about our bodies without telling us that they are temples of the Holy Spirit. They instruct us in love without telling us about the God who loves us and gave himself for us. (27-28)

Christian, do you feel such a discontentment with the world? Is Christ your ultimate treasure?

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t enjoy the gifts of God in this life. By all means, we must! But even as we celebrate those gifts, our hearts must yearn for more, for the delights of which this life can only offer us the slightest taste.

If you are fully satisfied with this world, you will never complete the treacherous journey toward the next one. Do not allow “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word” (Mark 4:19) so that it proves unfruitful.

Do you possess a holy discontentment with this life? Do you cry out to God for an end to your sojourning in Meshech and Kedar? Do desire to be free from the empty lies of this world, to live forever in the truth of God?

AN UNFAILING HOPE

The greatness of sorrow and turmoil within lamentations can sometimes blind us to the hope that is almost always present within them as well. Such hope is evident twice in this psalm.

First, we must not fail to notice that the psalmist grounds his lamentation by remembering his history with God: “In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me.” Before he cast his petition at God’s feet, he recalled God’s faithfulness to answer Him in the past. Such verses are why we need to let the Bible guide the complaints we lay before God’s throne! He felt abandoned by the LORD, but he gently reminded himself that God had yet to fail him.

Second, he surrendered the judgment of his enemies over to God. Verses 3-4 are essentially poetic ways of trusting God to enact vengeance on behalf of His people. As suggested, the broom tree was used in the same function as coals, which provides a vivid imagery of God’s fiery judgment against these violent liars.

Like the psalmist, we stand upon the promise that God will one day rescue us from our sojourning. He will pour His wrath and perfect justice upon everyone who rejects His Son, and He will gather His people to dwell with Him forever. Our hope in the wilderness is that God will bring us to our blessed rest in Him. He will preserve us through every trial along the way because He will be faithful to finish the work that He began (Philippians 1:6). In faith, both we and the psalmist sing the words of John Newton: “Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; ‘tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

A PRAYER OF JESUS

While the words of this psalm must be the cry of every Christian, we must remember Bonhoeffer’s council that the Psalms are not primarily about us but about Jesus. With this thought in mind, we can safely claim that no one has more right to pray this psalm than Christ. The world itself was Meshech and Kedar for Him, and we are the violent and the deceitful. We rejected God’s commandments, serving our own passions and desires. We deserved the “warrior’s sharp arrows, with glowing coals of the broom tree” because we actively chased after lies of the world.

With His birth, Jesus entered this fractured and corrupted place. The eternal God left His home and throne to become a pilgrim among us. Jesus “was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:3).

Jesus had more right to pray this prayer than any of us. He had the right to pray down God’s judgment upon us, and yet Jesus absorbed the arrow of God’s judgment in our place by His crucifixion. We can look by faith for God’s rescue because Jesus “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. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:5-6).

Are you a citizen of Meshech and Kedar, separated from the truth and peace of God? Then look to Christ, who has paid the penalty for your sins and now offers you life in His name.

Are you a follower of Christ, placing one foot in front of the other as you traverse the straight and narrow path? “Lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2). Brothers and sisters, “consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:3).

May this song of Christ be an expression of our hope as we journey ever closer to our heavenly home. May we cry in our distress to the LORD, who has answered us by the blood of His Son.

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.

A Dialogue

God: I gave you my very Word. Why did you not meditate on it day and night (Psalm 1:2)?

Man: I definitely would have, but you see, I was far too busy.

God: Yet you most days watched multiple hours of television. You gave 9 years of your life to it.

Man: Perhaps, but that was my leisure time. I was so weary and exhausted from life. I think I deserved some rest.

God: You sought rest in vain. Did I not tell you where to find true rest (Matthew 11:28)?

Birthdays & Death(days)

 So teach us to number our days
  that we may get a heart of wisdom.
Psalm 90:12 ESV

I really hope death is like sleep.

The Bible often uses sleep as a symbolic way of speaking about death, so I really hope that they more similar than we realize.

Wouldn’t it be nice to know that God caused us to need sleep each day as a way preparing us for death?

Maybe it’s a lesson for how we should live our lives. After a hard day of fruitful working, sleep feels like heaven, but after lazy and unproductive days, going to bed is like pulling teeth.

Maybe if we live our lives well and without regrets, death will be as restful as sleep.

But I feel like I’ve gotten ahead of myself.

Let’s start again.

Today is my 27th birthday.

Supposedly, 27 isn’t one of the BIG ones.

It’s not like 25, when you realize that if you do make it to 75, you’ve already lived one-third of your life. It isn’t like 30, when your fourth decade of life begins. It’s definitely not 50, when you try not to think too hard about your age being half a century.

Each of those birthdays has the stigma for reminding us of our mortality. They remind us of what we strive desperately to ignore: that regardless of what we do, time continues its downward spiral.

But still, on this normal birthday (and for the past couple of weeks), I am pondering my mortality, considering my inevitable death.

It may seem dreary, and in some ways, it is. But I think it’s also both wise and necessary.

I’ve heard that when Roman generals returned to Rome after a successful campaign, parades would be held in their honor. They would ride through the streets of Rome in a chariot, basking in the city’s celebration of their glory.

Sounds great, right?

But in the midst of their triumph, a slave would remain behind the general, whispering, “Memento mori”, which is Latin for remember that you will die. Despite all of his momentary glory, a victorious general will die just like the most dishonored beggar on the street dies.

As the great equalizer, remembering our inevitable death helps to keep us from delusions of grandeur or, as the Bible calls it, pride.

Jonathan Edwards’ resolutions are fairly well-known to many Christians. He wrote 70 of them and read them to himself each week. When reading over them, it becomes clear that Edwards kept his death frequently in mind. Consider a few of them:

Resolution 7 // Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if it were the last hour of my life.

Resolution 9 // Resolved, to think much on all occasions of my own dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death.

Resolution 17 // Resolved, that I will live so as I shall wish I had done when I come to die.

Resolution 19 // Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if I expected it would not be above an hour, before I should hear the last trump.

Edwards sought to live his life in such a way that he would have no regrets on his deathbed, but in order to do this, he needed to think often about his death.

Many of us like the idea of living like we’re dying, but we don’t want to actually think about dying. For all the death that is before us on the news and in video games, films, and television, we tend to shun any real thought about death.

It’s certainly understandable. The Bible tells us that death was not a piece of God’s original design for creation. Genesis 3 shows death entering the world as a result of our sin. God created us to live forever as His image-bearers, but we rebelled because we wanted to be God, not be like Him. We desired to possess the fullness of God’s eternality, and God answered by reminding us that are merely men via death.

Furthermore, when Paul talks about our resurrection with Christ, he states that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Cor. 15:26)

Death is an enemy of humanity, and Christ will one day defeat it for good.

No wonder we hate death.

No wonder we revolt against it.

No wonder we feel cheated by the deaths of loved ones, even when we know that it comes to all.

No wonder we live our lives in denial of death, even though all of history and every funeral begs us to take a long, hard look into its eyes.

No one wants to face their own mortality, but in Psalm 90, Moses teaches us that wisdom comes from understanding both our finiteness and God’s eternality.

Here’s verses 1-12:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You return man to dust
and say, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.
You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning:
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.
For we are brought to an end by your anger;
by your wrath we are dismayed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence.
For all our days pass away under your wrath;
we bring our years to an end like a sigh.
The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Who considers the power of your anger,
and your wrath according to the fear of you?
So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.

The Psalm repeatedly contrasts God’s infiniteness with our finiteness.

God views a thousand years just like we view yesterday.

He is from everlasting to everlasting; we, on the other hand, typically have around seventy-to-eighty years.

Therefore, Moses prays for God to teach us to count our days that we may have a heart of wisdom. He prays for the strength to face his own death that he might become wise. Wisdom is connected to understanding our mortality.

We know this to be true.

Without a healthy fear of death, people tend to behave foolishly. If a person rides a skateboard off the roof of their house, they likely do so because they have not fully considered the fragility of their existence. And we call that type of behavior foolish.

The realization of our mortality tends to keep us focused on the most important things in life. Living life with our deathbed in mind helps us to stop wasting time on frivolous or sinful things. After all, how many of us joyfully anticipate learning from God just how much time we spent watching television, scrolling through Facebook, or binge-watching Netflix? Few consider those essential activities for living a regret-free life.

On the other hand, what if we truly understood that our days are numbered and that we are not guaranteed tomorrow? Would that not change the way we love our spouse or children? Would it not cause the priorities of today to shift?

The heart of wisdom does not ignore or deny death.

Wise men and women somberly, but boldly, look death in the face, praying for God’s grace to keep them from wasting their limited time here on earth.

The final verses of Psalm 90 remind us that considering death is not a joyless task. In fact, Moses speaks of being satisfied by God and being glad and joyful all our days.

Yes, thinking about our own death is a solemn activity, but solemnity does not negate joy.

Yes, death must be faced with seriousness and gravity, but seriousness and gladness are not mutually exclusive.

This life is a gift, and death reminds us that we do not have it for long.

Only when we regularly number our days, will we find the true hope that leads to eternal life. Only in facing, can we find surpassing joy, even in the midst of sorrow, and continue praying with Moses for God to satisfy us and make our days glad:

Return, O LORD! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be shown to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands upon us;
yes, establish the work of our hands!