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How to Pray the Songs of Ascents

Having concluded the Songs of Ascents, I will provide one final thought regarding them as a collection and how I have benefitted from praying through them as such. I have included a diagram to help visualize the connectivity of these fifteen psalms.

As I have stated, the Songs of Ascents were psalms that were sung by Jewish pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem for the yearly feasts and festivals. Since our final destination is dwell forever with God in New Jerusalem, these psalms obviously have much to say about life as a disciple of Christ, which is itself a pilgrimage. For the Christian, being indwelt by the Holy Spirit means that we are each temples of God. We are each miniature Jerusalems. Yet we are also awaiting the coming physical reality of New Jerusalem when Christ returns. And sandwiched between these two manifestations of Zion, each local gathering of Christians to worship God is also form of Jerusalem, a return to Eden, where heaven and earth meet, and God walks with man again. Hebrews 12:18-24 calls us to meditate upon the how these realities are presently real to us in Christ:

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

By the blood of Jesus, the heavenly Jerusalem is a present reality for us, even though we still wait for its physical manifestation. I urge you, therefore, to pray through the Songs of Ascents with these layers of meaning in mind. Use them to prepare yourself for and to reflect upon Sunday gatherings. Use them to stir your longing for Christ’s return and the material reality of the kingdom of God. Use them to pray for heavenly eyes, even as you dwell in Meshech and Kedar.

Songs of Ascents Diagram

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Come, Bless the LORD | Psalm 134

Come, bless the LORD, all you servants of the LORD,
who stand by night in the house of the LORD!
Lift up your hands to the holy place
and bless the LORD!

May the LORD bless you from Zion
he who made heaven and earth!

Psalm 134 ESV

 

The fact that this final psalm of the ascents is an invitation should cause us to pause for reflection. Come? Hasn’t the point of these songs been that we are already traveling?

Since the psalm seems to be addressed to the Levitical priests who watched over the temple by day and night, it would appear that this psalm is a form of benediction following a worship ceremony. This interpretation fits with the final trilogy of psalms as being a meditation on the pilgrim’s end of journey. Psalm 132 fixed our eyes upon the glories of worshipping God in Jerusalem, where He dwells with His people. Psalm 133 then meditated upon the beauties of that gathered group of worshippers being united as brothers. Now we receive the closing benediction and prepare to return to our homes, to Meshech and Kedar.

BLESS THE LORD // VERSES 1-2

Verses 1-2 are calling the Levitical order to continue their worship before God on behalf of His people. To show why this is important, we would do well to remember that the Old Testament had three main offices of leadership over Israel: kings, prophets, and priests. Kings exercised governing and ruling authority on God’s behalf. Prophets delivered the messages of God to His people. Priests brought the prayers of the people before God. Kings were God’s stewards, while prophets spoke for God to the people and priests spoke to God for the people.

The Levites were priests. God set their tribe apart, as holy, for the express purpose of being mediators between Himself and the people of Israel. This was a tremendously generous grace of God upon Israel. As the Creator almighty who dwells in unapproachable light, He owes no one the privilege of hearing their prayers, let alone forgiving their sins! Yet that is exactly what He did! He established a system by which the Israelites had assured access to their God. May we never forget the graciousness of God in establishing the Mosaic Law with Israel!

According to this system, the psalmist is calling the priests to continue offering the people’s worship before the LORD through the night. His is calling them to keep their hand lifted toward the holy place, a sign of devotion to the Holy One of Israel.

What then do we do with these verses?

In Christ, the Levitical priesthood has been dissolved. Although it was truly a grace of God, it was an imperfect system. One flaw was that the priests were themselves sinful men who were tasked with offering sacrifices for both themselves and other sinners. Another crucial flaw was the insufficiency of animal blood to cleanse human sin. Since animals were created to be under the dominion of humanity, they are of lesser value than human life. As such, they simply could never cover the eternal debt that our sins accumulate. The system relieved symptoms but was powerless against the actual disease.

Jesus, however, has abolished the Levitical priesthood, replacing it with a superior order. Hebrews spends a lengthy amount of time explaining how Jesus is now our great high priest, after the order of Melchizedek, and why exactly that is so important. The flaws of the Levitical system have been overthrown by Jesus’ perfect fulfillment. He is both a better priest and a better sacrifice.

As our high priest, Christ sits at the Father’s right hand, ready to intercede for us at all times. As a man, He sympathizes with our weaknesses, and as God, He is able to look upon God’s face and live since the Son is coequal with the Father. He is the only one truly qualified to be the mediator between God and man. Jesus is our great high priest.

But He is also the better sacrifice for our sins. Hebrews 9:22 says, “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” While the blood of animals was not sufficient to purchase the forgiveness of sins, Jesus’ blood is. Under the Mosaic Law, animals were continuously slaughtered only for the guilt of sin to still remain. Yet Jesus offered His blood as a sacrifice once of all. His is the perfect sacrifice, who is also our high priest.

Yet under Jesus’ New Covenant, the priesthood has not been entirely dissolved. Indeed, God’s plan for Israel as a nation is now being fulfilled by the church among all the nations of the earth: that God’s people would be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). Peter makes this explicit: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (2:9).

So who are the priests, the servants of God standing by night in the house of the LORD?

We are.

We are the priests to God, and His house is now in us, as we discussed from Psalm 132. As living temples of God, our very lives are now temple worship. This is why Paul urges us to do everything for God’s glory and to use both our words and our deeds for the honor of His name. Worship must become the very fabric of our lives. By day and by night, with other believers and in solitude, we worship.

But how then are we to understand the commands of these verses toward us today?

First, remember that we experience a form of, or a taste of, our heavenly Jerusalem, whenever we gather together each week. So the first application I will give is to keep worshipping tonight… and tomorrow… and the next day. Don’t let worship be only when we gather together. Instead, use this gathering of other disciples of Jesus to strengthen your worship for the week ahead of you. Keep the spirit of worship with you and seek to do all things for God’s glory. In other words, keep your eyes upon and hands lifted toward the holy place. Keep God’s kingdom and throne as first importance in your life. Seek His kingdom above all things in all that you do.

Second, remember your priesthood. As disciples of Christ with the indwelling Spirit, we are Jesus’ physical presence on earth. We are God’s instruments for His work of the kingdom. We are, therefore, called to stand as messengers of heaven on earth. As lesser priests of God, we are tasked with pointing those around us to the great high priest. We are called to show Jesus to the world around us or, as Jesus said it, to make disciples of all nations.

By both worshipping God and calling upon others to worship Him, we bless God. This isn’t to say that we add anything to His holiness or greatness; instead, we bless God by giving Him the honor He rightly deserves. It is much like praying for God’s name to be made holy. God’s name is already holy; we are simply praying for that reality to be seen by throughout all creation.

MAY THE LORD BLESS YOU FROM ZION // VERSE 3

Verse 3 closes the psalm by reversing the imagery. The psalmist is no longer calling God’s people to bless the LORD; instead, he is praying for the LORD’s blessing upon His people. This is a powerfully fitting verse for the Songs of Ascents to conclude with. It is a prayer for the Creator of heaven and earth to bless individuals, to show favor toward His creatures. How flippantly we often invoke the blessings of God upon others, rarely pausing to consider the weight of that action. Too often we assume or even demand God’s blessing, when He sits in the heavens and does whatever He pleases. The blessing of God is no light matter. It is the very manna of heaven for our souls.

Yet also notice the place of the blessing: from Zion. May God bless you from the place of His gathered people, the place of His presence. Dear brothers and sisters, come to church expecting and anticipating God’s blessing and look for it among God’s people. More than that, come ready to bless, to be that very blessing for others. This gathering is a taste of the Zion to come, while also empowering and encouraging us to be miniature Zions to the world around us. As we return to Meshech and Kedar, to our exile in Babylon, we take Jerusalem with us. We carry God’s blessing as His priests, the living breathing kingdom of God, coming to earth. And we remember and long for the day when all other kingdoms fade away, when the glory of the LORD becomes our light, and when we form the glorified New Jerusalem upon the new earth as the collective people of God.

May God bless us, His people, from Zion.

May these Songs of Ascents keep our hearts tuned toward our heavenly home, even as we wander as pilgrims throughout this life.

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The LORD Has Chosen Zion | Psalm 132

Remember, O LORD, in David’s favor,
all the hardships he endured,
how he swore to the LORD
and vowed to the Mighty One of Jacob,
“I will not enter my house
or get into my bed,
I will not give sleep to my eyes
or slumber to my eyelids,
until I find a place for the LORD,
a dwelling place for the Mighty One of Jacob.” 

Behold, we heard of it in Ephrathah;
we found it in the fields of Jaar.
“Let us go to his dwelling place;
let us worship at his footstool!” 

Arise, O LORD, and go to your resting place,
you and the ark of your might.
Let your priests be clothed with righteousness,
and let your saints shout for joy.
For the sake of your servant David,
do not turn away the face of your anointed one.

 The LORD swore to David a sure oath
from which he will not turn back:
“One of the sons of your body
I will set on your throne.
If your sons keep my covenant
and my testimonies that I shall teach them,
their sons also forever
shall sit on your throne.” 

For the LORD has chosen Zion;
he has desired it for his dwelling place:
“This is my resting place forever;
here I will dwell, for I have desired it.
I will abundantly bless her provisions;
I will satisfy her poor with bread.
Her priests I will clothe with salvation,
and her saints will shout with joy.
There I will make a horn to sprout for David;
I have prepared a lamp for my anointed.
His enemies I will clothe with shame,
but on him his crown will shine.

Psalm 132 ESV

 

Psalm 132 begins the concluding trilogy of psalms within the Songs of Ascents. Much like Psalms 120-122 seemed to provide meditations for beginning our pilgrimage to Jerusalem these psalms seem designed to urge us toward our journey’s end. Furthermore, Psalms 122 and 132 are similar in their intent to fix our eyes upon Jerusalem and God’s presence therein.

Psalm 132 can roughly be divided into two parts, verses 1-12 and 13-18. Verses 1-12 recollect God’s covenant with David with a declaration of worship and prayer to the LORD dividing the recollection into two parts. Verses 13-18 conclude the psalm by reflecting upon the promised blessings upon Zion as the dwelling place of God.

RECOUNTING THE COVENANT // VERSES 1-12

Verses 1-5 and 11-12 serve as a poetic retelling of the Davidic Covenant, which can be read in 2 Samuel 7. After establishing Jerusalem as the new capital of Israel, David realized that the ark of the LORD was still being held in a tent, whereas he dwelt in the palace of a king. Therefore, David made a vow to God to build a house for the ark. Even though God forbade David from building the temple himself, the LORD blessed his desire to serve Him by making a covenantal promise to David and all of his descendants.

Verses 11-12 then recount God’s pledge to David. Within this stanza of the psalm, we are given God’s response to David’s vow from verses 3-5. The LORD’s oath to David has come to be called the Davidic Covenant. In this covenant, God promised to build a house, a lineage, for David, giving to his descendants an everlasting kingdom.

Sandwiched between the retelling of the Davidic Covenant come verses 6-10. Within verses 6-7, we are given a description of the worshipper’s longing to find the presence of God. Verse 6 recalls the ark’s sojourning in the house of Abinadab. Ephrathah was the general region, and Jaar was the city where it resided. Therefore, the ark’s presence was rumored to be in Ephrathah, and they ultimately found it in Jaar. Verse 7 then is a cry to all of God’s people to travel to the ark to worship at the LORD’s feet.

Verses 8-10 then form a series of three petitions to the LORD. The first petition is for God and the ark of His might to enter His resting place. We might certainly imagine this verse being prayed as priests brought the ark into the temple under the reign of Solomon, although it also could refer to Josiah’s return of the ark to the temple. The second petition asks the LORD to clothe His priests with righteousness and to let His saints shout for joy. The third petition asks God not to turn His face from His anointed one for David’s sake. Each of these petitions will be answered by God in verses 13-18.

THE LORD HAS CHOSEN ZION // VERSES 13-15

Now that we have surveyed the first section of the psalm, we will explore how the main ideas from those verses are brought together within these final ones. Having meditated upon God covenant with David and being resolved to worship the LORD at His resting place, he concludes by reminding us that God has chosen Zion for His home among His people. The LORD declares in verses 14-18 five promises.

First, He declares Zion to be His eternal resting place. This promise still stands today, but Jesus has rebuilt the temple and the city. Today, through the sacrificial death of Jesus, God’s presence is now no longer manifested in the ark or within any temple made by men. Instead, the people of the LORD have become His temple. Upon Christ’s death, the curtain that sealed the Holy of Holies was torn in two. Since we have been purified in Christ alone, God no longer dwells with His people; He dwells in them. This is true from the least to the greatest, and it is the spiritual guarantee of what will one day be made a physical reality: that communion with God has been restored. The gospel, therefore, is not simply good news that we are forgiven of our sins; rather, it proclaims that the dwelling place of God is with man. God now dwells within His people. We are God’s temple. The church, God’s people, are now the spiritual Zion, which is why I believe that New Jerusalem in Revelation is symbolic for our glorified state with Christ.

But even though God now dwells within His people, worship is still no less communal. Jesus promised to be in the midst of His gathered disciples. We, therefore, believe that, while worship encompasses the entire life of a Christian, something special happens when we gather together. Mike Cosper says it like this:

It’s no small thing to realize that when a Christian shows up, God shows up. “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16).

So when the church gathers, it gathers as a collection of people in whom God dwells. God inhabits the gathered church because these scattered worshipers are all temples, who together make a greater temple. (Rhythms, 79)

God is present in the gathering of His people. While it is sufficiently stunning to consider God inhabiting His people, the LORD also says that He desired it. Yet it is a joy that we often neglect.

The neglect of the ark was a dark season for Israel. The LORD graced them with a physical representation of His presence, yet they squandered it. For about twenty years, it remained in the house of Abinadab, until David brought it into Jerusalem, back to the heart of God’s people. How easy is it for us to do the same? Should we not be in eager anticipation of meeting the LORD? Shouldn’t we urge one another to come gather with us to worship God? Too often, I fear that we encourage each other to gather on Sunday out of necessity, obligation, or even guilt. What if, instead, we longed to encounter God in the midst of His people and, from the overflow of that zeal for God’s glory, joyfully invited others to join us?

May we guard ourselves from ever similarly neglecting the supreme importance of worship. May we never place God upon the outskirts of our lives; instead, let us enthrone Him upon the very center of our heart that everything we do would flow from our life of worship.

Second, He promises to abundantly bless the provisions of Zion and to satisfy her poor with bread. Once again, we see that this promise is fulfilled for Christ’s followers today. Even if we might persecution and poverty in this life, God has granted us everything that we need in Jesus Christ. Like Paul, we know the secret of being content with much or little because we have found Christ who is all in all. Even if we hunger for physical food, Jesus is Himself the Bread of Life, and if we thirst, He is the Living Water.

Unfortunately, our sluggish desire for worship often stems from our perceived lack of need. Michael Horton gives an example of this:

When the plague spread across England between 1348 and 1350, the Church of England called for periods of intense prayer and fasting. But in the 1990s, in response to the HIV/AIDS crisis, the Church of England called for more government funding for medical research. We tend to think that shifts like this derive merely from explicit intellectual attacks on a “Judeo-Christian worldview,” but even those of us who do affirm orthodox Christianity divide inwardly between praying for our daily bread and knowing that it’s always there at the grocery store. It’s not merely that our beliefs have changed, but that our way of believing has shifted away from assuming a world “with devils filled” but where God is our “mighty fortress.” Now we must become masters of our own destiny, keeping dangers at bay by our own collective and calculative reasoning. Even if God plays a role, it is a supporting one, helping us to achieve “our best life now” (23-24).

We would do well to remember the Beatitudes of Jesus, particular as they are listed in Luke 6. The poor are blessed because the kingdom of God is theirs. The hungry will be satisfied, and the weeping will laugh. But the rich, the full, and those laughing receive woes from Christ. Such statements aren’t unfair on Jesus’ part; they’re simply truthful. If you currently possess your best life now, then it’s only downhill from here. But if you yearn for more than this world can provide, you will find in the face of Jesus Christ for all eternity.

Third, Zion’s priests will be clothed in salvation and her saints with shouts for joy. In Christ, we are now both priests and saints. We are a kingdom of priests who have each been clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ as our salvation. We are saints because God has set us apart as His holy people for His own possession.

Indeed, our salvation is our joy. We have been rescued from the just penalty of our sins by the very one whom we offended. God has delivered us from death by the death of His Son, and we are now His people. As the priests of God, we are also now called to invite others to enter into Christ’s kingdom.

Fourth, a horn will sprout for David. One primary theme of this psalm is God’s favor toward David, which begs us to take a few moments to explore. The psalm begins by asking God to remember His favor toward David. He pleads for David’s sake for the LORD to keep His face upon the anointed one. And, of course, the whole structure of the psalm is recounting God’s oath to David.

Throughout the Scriptures, David is presented to us as a model servant of the LORD. Like Abraham, Moses, and the others, David was far from perfect, yet the Bible repeatedly appeals to God’s favor upon David and his lineage. This psalm is no different. Although we cannot say for certain when it was written, we can clearly conclude that it was composed after the lifetime of David. Whether the psalmist wrote it in light of Solomon dedicating the temple, during the restoration of Jerusalem after the exile, or at another point in Israel’s history, the psalmist is calling upon the LORD to continue showing his favor toward David and his nation even in the present day.

Why did God show so much favor upon David?

As we see in these verses, David desired God’s glory above his own. The psalmist recites David’s vow to find a dwelling place for the LORD before he ate, slept, or returned to his own house. Zeal for the glory of God marked the entire life of the shepherd-king. When facing Goliath, David confidently trusts that the LORD would grant him victory over the one who defied the armies of the Most High. When Saul chased David into exile, David was given multiple opportunities to kill Saul, but he allowed the LORD to undo His anointed one. Perhaps the zeal for God’s glory is what made him a man after God’s own heart, since God Himself is zealous for the exaltation of His name.

Before we continue further, we must pause and consider: are you like David? If you have not repented of sin and believed the good news of Jesus Christ, I pray that today you would be like Abraham, who when he saw the LORD passing by, begged Him to stay. Like David, do not eat or rest until you have become a dwelling place for the Creator of all things.

Yet for all the favor of David, Jesus is this anointed one, which is the meaning of the title, Christ, after all. He is the horn of David. Peter confirms this during his sermon in Acts 2:

Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. (Acts 2:29-32)

Ultimately, David was only a type and shadow of Jesus. Christ is the better David. Like Moses, God showed favor toward David as a servant, but Jesus has the favor of being God’s only begotten Son, as the author of Hebrews says:

Therefore, holy brothers, you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, who was faithful to him who appointed him, just as Moses also was faithful in all God’s house. For Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses—as much more glory as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself. (For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.) Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house, if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope. (Hebrews 3:1–6)

Like Moses and David, we are being built into the household of God, and Jesus is the builder of the house. His glory is far greater than David’s glory, and yet Christ is not ashamed to call us His brothers, to make us co-heirs with Him. If, therefore, the psalmist boldly prayed for God’s promises to be fulfilled for David’s sake, how much more are we able to petition God’s throne for Jesus’ sake.

Fifth, the enemies of David’s descendant will be shamed while His crown shines. This verse encapsulates the end of all things. One day every enemy of Jesus Christ will be put to open shame, even as His crown shines with His glory that gives life to the remade cosmos. Christ will reign supreme as king over all creation, and we shall be His people.

The purpose of these final promises and of the psalm as a whole is to meditate upon the goodness of God as He dwells with His people in Jerusalem. Now, under the kingship of Jesus, God is shaping us into that heavenly city, or as Paul said, “In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:22). God has chosen to dwell among His people. He has desired it, and we respond with shouts of joy. For the sake of Jesus, the Son of David, let us worship God both individually and corporately as Zion, His resting place forever.

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O LORD, My Heart Is Not Lifted Up | Psalm 131

O LORD, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me. 

O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time forth and forevermore.

Psalm 131 ESV

 

The penultimate trilogy of psalms within the Songs of Ascents finds its conclusion in Psalm 131. After lamenting over outside affliction in Psalm 129 and repenting of sin in Psalm 130, we now arrive at this Davidic psalm of hope, patience, and trust in the LORD.

O LORD, MY HEART IS NOT LIFTED UP

Charles Spurgeon offers an excellent introduction to this psalm:

Comparing all the Psalms to gems, we should liken this to a pearl: how beautifully it will adorn the neck of patience. It is one of the shortest Psalms to read, but one of the longest to learn. It speaks of a young child, but it contains the experience of a man in Christ.

The nearly inexpressible profundity of this psalm is evident at a glance, and the truth of Spurgeon’s words is felt within one’s bones, if you but linger over the text for a moment. No exposition of Scripture is ever capable of fully capturing the vastness of a particular passage, but this psalm feels to me particularly elusive. It is “deep, very deep; who can find it out? (Ecclesiastes 7:24). I urge you, therefore, to dwell and meditate over this psalm before the LORD. Doing so will prove a marvelous blessing, while neglecting it is to pass by an unlocked storage of gold. If I can but give you a glimpse of the glories upon the foothills of this psalm’s mountain, the LORD will have answered my prayer.

The obvious theme of verses 1-2 is humility and patience. But what is the psalm’s most probable context?

We will never know in what stage of his life that David penned this psalm, but we do know that the Psalms’ compiler made it the 131st psalm for a reason. The settings of Psalms 129 and 130, therefore, are fertile grounds for envisioning this one.

First, let us consider how this psalm can spring from Psalm 129. In that psalm, the author began by lamenting Israel’s affliction and ended by praying for God’s judgment upon the persecutors. Affliction of any variety is a difficult pill to swallow, and it certainly does come in a wide variety. We may be afflicted internally or externally, physically or spiritually, verbally or bodily, subtly or overtly. Regardless of the type, affliction is painful, and from that pain, it can be natural to cry out of God with questions. If You are sovereign, why are you letting this happen? If I am Your child, then why am I suffering while those who deny You prosper? Such questions form the heart of laments, and the Bible encourages us to bring these cries before the LORD.

Yet the Scriptures also counsel us not to linger there. Instead, many of the Bible’s laments end in confident expressions of hope in God’s coming deliverance. Even the book of Lamentations, which seems to end with a desperate cry to the LORD, has at its center a confident hope in God’s salvation. Likewise, our present psalm can easily be viewed as a similar expression of hope. After the tears and questions of affliction have been poured out to the LORD in lament, we remember the steadfast love, mercy, and sovereignty of our God and calm and quiet our souls. We step away from the throes of anguish and enter into the shelter of trusting God.

From this place, we content ourselves with God’s plan and will. We remind ourselves that God has a reason and a purpose behind everything that happens and that understanding why He ordains and permits certain things is too great and marvelous for us. As God spoke through Isaiah:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)

But this psalm could also quite naturally flow from the psalm of repentance that we previously studied. The psalmist of Psalm 130 made his cry for the LORD’s mercy and forgiveness from the pit of despair, the depths into which his sin pulled him. After affirming God’s readiness to forgive, the psalmist concluded that he would wait upon the LORD for salvation. Psalm 131 can easily be seen as what such waiting looks like.

Psalm 130:6 described waiting as marked by readiness. Just as the watchmen waits for morning to be off duty, so we wait longingly for the LORD to deliver us presently and finally from our sin. Psalm 131 guards against allowing our yearning to become impatience. Even as we pray fervently for God’s kingdom to come fully with the return of Christ, Psalm 131 calls us to keep Peter’s words in our mind:

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. (2 Peter 3:8-9)

And of course, the psalm could also be read, sang, and prayed as independently of the other two. From this context, we can read this psalm as a general antidote to pride and impatience (which, by the way, are far more connected than we are often comfortable with admitting). Even without outside affliction or an internal war on sin, we establish ourselves as having sovereign control over our own lives, often by default. Because of the Fall, we occupy ourselves with things too great and marvelous for us on a daily basis. Let us observe a few arenas where this propensity toward pride is most common.

First, it can be broadly seen in our incessant belief that we alone understand what is best for us. The flaws with this nearly baseline assumption are plentiful. We could focus solely upon the complexities of identity. Throughout life, we should be continuously discovering new aspects of ourselves, especially since our personalities are constantly shifting. While those shifts may be subtle, we still become different people as each passing experience shapes us a little more. If we are honest, this makes truly knowing ourselves fully a virtual impossibility, which would also leave open the possibility that we may not know what we really want.

Unfortunately, we tend not to stop with simply becoming captains of our own fate; rather, we, at least within our own minds, often believe our ways and ideas to be superior to those of others. We give advice not really as a suggestion but as a prescription. We nonchalantly consider how we might have handled the situations and circumstances of others better than they did, while not realizing that we cannot hope to fully comprehend the intricacies of even one event in another person’s life without actually being that person. Furthermore, how can we ever think we fully know another person at all if we cannot even know ourselves?

We could then, of course, move into the societal structures. It is not uncommon to presume that we could form a better government, a better system, a better business, a better church. This is especially true in the political sphere from both sides of party line. From the left comes the increasingly postmodern mindset that seeks to replace fixed truths with fluid ones. From the right come defenders of fixed truths that too often haven’t taken the time to understand those very truths.

Suggesting, even leading and guiding, organizational changes certainly isn’t sinful. In fact, because no structure is perfect, such change is necessary, but we should do so with humility. It is the prideful arrogance that we know best that is sinful. Likewise, giving advice about matters not explicitly directed by Scripture can be quite beneficial, but we can fall into sinful presumption whenever we come begin to believe that we could live another person’s life better than they are. Finally, returning to the realm of self, we should delight in doing things that we enjoy, but we are entrenched in pride whenever we believe that we can guide ourselves into sustained joy.

Once again, to think that cannot have any level of understanding or do anything good is false humility. True humility neither exalts nor debases more than deserved. When we are humble, we recognize and embrace our limitations, as the psalmist does here. Humility keeps us from lifting our hearts and eyes into realms that only God can inhabit. In humility, we gladly accept things that are too great and marvelous for us and, therefore, that we are not great and marvelous.

Such humility should find its expression in verse 2. Whether trusting in God’s sovereignty over suffering, His patience toward sinners, or simply that He is beyond us, our humbled view of self and exalted view of God should lead us to a calm and quiet soul. After all, how can we not possess a peaceful soul when the sovereign Creator is also our Father?

Perhaps this is why the Bible warns us not to be anxious. An anxious soul displays a lack of confidence in God’s control and love; whereas faith in those very things creates a peace that surpasses understanding. This battle between the two must be fought continuously. Indeed, notice that verse 2 says, “I have calmed and quieted my soul”, which implies that previously his soul was neither calm nor quiet. The Christian life, the life of faith in Christ, is a constant fight for peace.

The concluding lines of verse 2 provide insight as to how we might battle for that peace: by being like a weaned child for its mother. What does that mean? An infant’s cry is one of desperation, a plea of being in need. Particularly an infant needs its mother’s milk as its sustenance for life. A weaned child no longer depends upon the mother’s milk for its very survival; instead, the child now longs to be with its mother simply for her comforting presence. This is the psalmist’s attitude with God. Although he once cried to God for answers and comfort like an infant for milk, now he has contented himself with God’s very presence. He may never understand why God has orchestrated events to unfold as they have happened, but he is satisfied with knowing that God is in control and that His steadfast love endures forever.

As Christians, this means keeping the cross always before our eyes. Upon those intersecting planks of wood, we are given the most brilliant display of God’s sovereign love for us. Forever we are able to cling to the fact that the Author of life died for us. The crucifixion of Christ, therefore, is our anchor of peace within the storms around us. With the hymn we rightfully affirm: “this is all my hope and peace, nothing but the blood of Jesus.”

Of course, the great irony of looking to the cross is that while it requires the utmost humility there is also no place higher that we can set our eyes. Nothing is more marvelous or glorious than the splendor of Jesus Christ, so long as we maintain a proper view of self, we are invited to behold the glory of all glories. After all, the humble will be exalted, and the exalted will be humbled. The last will be first, and the first will be last. In losing our lives, we find them, but if we value our lives, they will surely be lost. Such is the upside-down nature of God’s kingdom. Avert your eyes, therefore, from things too great and marvelous for you, and prepare to be shown wonders unspeakable.

O ISRAEL, HOPE IN THE LORD

With this final verse, David turns from praying to God to calling upon God’s people to hope in the LORD. I believe this verse essentially serves as the call to put verses 1-2 into action. Indeed, hope is intimately connected to humility and patience. The biblical conception of hope could be understood as faith in the future tense. Just as faith is the confident assurance of unseen realities now, hope is the confident assurance of things to come. For instance, the return of Christ is called by Paul “the blessed hope” of His followers. Hope, therefore, necessarily involves patience. In fact, we could argue that patience is the fruit of hope, and impatience signifies a lack of hope. And hope also requires humility because hope implies our inability to do something. To hope is to admit that we cannot fix everything so we wait upon the God who will. For these reasons, David’s appeal to hope in the LORD is an appeal for us to lower our hearts and eyes and to calm and quiet our souls before God.

Church, are you hoping in the LORD?

Perhaps you feel afflicted by the circumstances of life. By all means, cry out to the LORD in lament. He is ready and willing to hear our broken-hearted prayers for relief. Yet when the tears run dry, come to this psalm. Do not remain forever in a place of lamentation. Come before God’s throne in humility and patience, trusting the plan of the Maker of heaven and earth.

Or maybe you have lost yet another battle against sin, and your heart cannot help asking why God has not given you deliverance from that temptation. Maybe the thought of never being fully free in this life from the evilness within you is bringing you to the brink of despair. Remember again the forgiveness of our great God and fear Him. Even a lifetime of wrestling with the same stubborn sickness will barely be visible from the heights of eternity with the One who is our joy and treasure. Calm and quiet your soul before God and content yourself with His presence.

Or possibly you are in the throes of anxiety. For reasons that you might not even be able to form into words, your soul is everything but calm and quiet. Turn your eyes to the cross. Although immediately speaking of death, the words of Henry Lyte’s hymn are nonetheless a helpful prayer: “Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.” We must look to the cross where He who feeds the sparrows and adorns the flowers has shown that He will much more feed and clothe us. A calm and quiet soul does not happen by accident; it comes through fixing our eyes upon Jesus.

Or perhaps you don’t fall into those categories; instead, you view God as an advisor rather than Lord. Your eyes and heart are lifted above their capacity, you have become your own hope, and life is anything but peaceful. If you are a follower of Christ, come once again in repentance to Him. Having tasted and seen that the LORD is good, believe again that He knows best for you and submit to Him in humility. If you are not a Christian, believe in the sovereign love of God toward you and embrace the death and resurrection of Christ as your only hope. Surely, you know how you continue to fail at making yourself truly happy. Come and submit your life to the Maker of heaven and earth and find true joy in being made His child.

Hope in the LORD, brothers and sisters, who made heaven and earth and rescued you from your sin.

The Pilgrim’s Playlist

Out of the Depths I Cry to You, O LORD | Psalm 130

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD!
O Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my pleas for mercy!

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
that you may be feared.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.

O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is plentiful redemption.
And he will redeem Israel
from all his iniquities.

Psalm 130 ESV

 

If Psalm 129 addressed the distress of facing outside hostilities, Psalm 130 focuses upon our inward ones. As a penitential psalm (others include Psalms 6, 25, 32, 38, 51, and 148), repentance of sin is the primary theme. Given that repentance is crucial to our life as Christ’s disciples, we would do well to familiarize ourselves with how the Bible itself teaches us to repent through psalms like this one.

O LORD HEAR MY VOICE // VERSES 1-2

The psalm begins on a thunderous note. A tension between a deep sense of urgency and expectant patience in God’s omnipotence is found throughout the psalm, but the psalmist’s desperation is felt right from the start. He was within the depths, the pit of despair, from which he cried out the LORD for mercy. We must take note of a few things from these initial verses.

First, sin sinks us into the depths, whether we realize it or not. Sin is not a simple defect, a blemish to be healed with a little bit of balm and time. Sin is a chasm, ready to swallow alive all who venture to look over its edge. Sin is death. Without this understanding, the very concept of repentance becomes nonsensical, but if we see sin for what it truly is, it may lead us to call upon the LORD.

It should also be said that guilt over sin is of no use unless it leads us to actually calling upon the LORD for salvation. When guilt becomes condemnation, we are given a tour of the depths of our sin, but we are given no hope of rescue. This is equally as damning as never realizing sin’s sinfulness at all. We must have a brutally honest detestation of our sin, but we must then turn toward God. Only then can we be saved.

Second, repentance must include crying out to the LORD. Like a child for his mother, we must cry out to God for His mercy. An infant cries because it is utterly helpless. It possesses no strength on its own to feed itself, clothe itself, or comfort itself. It is entirely dependent upon its mother. Its cry, therefore, is one for mercy. Mercy for relief from hunger, from fear. So must our cries be to the LORD, a cry of absolute inability.

WITH YOU THERE IS FORGIVENESS // VERSES 3-4

After calling to the LORD for mercy from the depths, the psalmist now turns his attention toward God’s forgiveness of sin. Verse 3 places verse 4 in its proper perspective. Our God is a God of forgiveness, but He is also both holy and righteous. If God were to count each of our sins against us, who could stand in His presence? No one. None is sufficiently presentable. Even our best righteous deeds are filthy rags before Him. His readiness to hear our cries for mercy (let alone respond to them!) is a pure grace from His hand. And yet He gives to us that very grace. With Him there is forgiveness.

Of course, as Christians, we now understand the true price of that forgiveness. By God’s design, He could not simply erase away our sins as if they had never occurred. If, after all, He swept our sins under the metaphorical rug of heaven, He would not be entirely just. Justice demands a payment for sin, for each and every sin.

Our sin against God is no different. Sin can, therefore, only be forgiven whenever retribution has been made. Yet because of God’s eternality, our sin against Him bears an eternal consequence. Such is the beauty of Christ’s sacrifice for us. As the eternal God, Jesus was able to pay our debt in full. This is the means of our forgiveness: God dying in our place. The LORD willingly ventured into the depths in order to rescue us from the depths of our sin.

Because of such an amazing grace, we learn all the more to fear God. Does that statement seem correct to you? I would imagine that seeing the logic of verse 4 is a bit difficult. How exactly does God’s forgiveness lead to a greater fear of Him? The connection of the two is crucial because grace that does not lead to fear is what Bonhoeffer called cheap grace. This is the kind of grace that many believe in today. It costs nothing of God, and it requires nothing of us. Under this grace, God becomes our sponsor, not our savior. He funds our hopes and dreams as we pursue them endlessly. When we fail, He is always ready to forgive, as long as we do so sincerely. According to cheap grace, sin is an inconvenience, a mistake that the wise will overlook. The logic of atonement is, thereby, shifted. God’s punishment of sin is no longer just. In fact, we place the burden upon Him. We come to believe that a refusal to pardon sin is an unjust action. Grace and forgiveness become cheap because they are assumed to be intrinsic rights. The fear of God cannot coexist with this kind of grace.

Yet cheap grace is a counterfeit. God’s grace is not cheap. It cost the blood of Jesus, which is worth more than all creation combined. This grace is priceless and, being invaluable, being invaluable must be received with fear and trembling. Like holding a delicate artifact worth more than several lifetimes of wages, we should hold onto the grace that we have been given in awe. God’s forgiveness, therefore, must increase, not decrease, our fear of Him.

MY SOUL WAITS // VERSES 5-6

Having cried out to the LORD and expressed his confidence in the LORD’s forgiveness, the psalmist now turns toward his current plan of action: waiting. This isn’t what most of us would expect. We would rather do something, anything, to try to display our changed ways. But the psalmist simply waits. Such waiting upon the LORD is an expression of faith, evidence of our hope in God’s coming deliverance. Waiting reminds us that God alone can truly save. We cannot make God’s forgiveness of our sins “worth it” by merely doing better. That’s retroactively attempting to atone for our own sins. Instead, we wait in hope for God’s deliverance.

In the psalmist’s context, he awaited the forgiveness of his sins in Christ. In that sense, we are no longer waiting. The Savior has come, and we are saved. Yet we still feel this hopeful longing in at least two ways. First, although God’s forgiveness comes now without delay upon repentance, God may not immediately or even at all deliver us from sin’s consequences in this life. Second, even as we are reminded of our forgiveness in Christ, we still await to be fully freed from sin. Paul went so far as to call this our blessed hope. Each time we repent of sin, we would do well to cry out for this kind of rescue as well.

Do you long to be free from sin? Like watchmen are ready for morning, are you ready to be done with your wrestling against the flesh?

O ISRAEL, HOPE IN THE LORD // VERSES 7-8

Our psalm now ends with a theme which occurs in other penitential psalms as well: proclamation of the LORD’s graciousness to others. Psalm 25 ends by saying, “Redeem Israel, O God, out of all his troubles” (v. 22). Psalm 32 concludes by calling the righteous to “be glad in the LORD” and “shout for joy” (v. 11). Psalm 51, the most well-known of the penitentials, sees David pleading for the LORD to open his lips for praise, for God to do good to Zion, and the pledge that he will teach fellow sinners the ways of the LORD. Why is this theme so present within the repentance psalms?

These psalmists understood the nature of God’s salvation. Yes, God rescues each individual from their own sins, and without their own personal faith in Christ’s atoning work, no one is saved. And yet we are each saved for more than just ourselves. We are delivered from sin in order to then act as messengers of God’s redemption to others. While there are obviously evangelistic implications here, notice that the psalmist is particularly calling out of God’s people, Israel. Why is this? The repentance of individuals is meant to be a communal reminder that God still saves. Even though every sin is forgiven in Christ, we each continue to sin and, therefore, have continual need of repentance. The repentant praise of our brothers and sisters remind us that God’s mercy is still great, that our hope is still secure in Him.

May we, as God’s church, repent alongside this psalmist. May we see the depths of our sin and cry out to the LORD for mercy.

May we have faith in His forgiveness, even as He teaches us to fear His name.

May we wait with unwavering hope upon our deliverance from sin both here and to come.

In our repentance, may we declare to one another that “with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption.”

O church, hope in the LORD!

The Pilgrim’s Playlist

Restore Our Fortunes, O LORD | Psalm 126

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
            we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
            and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
            “The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us;
we are glad.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like streams in the Negeb!
Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
He who goes out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing his sheaves with him.

Psalm 126 ESV

 

Psalm 126 officially begins the center three psalms within the Songs of Ascents. Having thus far set our eyes and meditations upon Jerusalem and expressed our confidence in God’s power to safely bring us there, we now set our sights on what our journey will most likely look like.

STRANGERS AND EXILES

Imagine that you used to live in Jerusalem. A little more than one hundred years before, the northern kingdom of Israel (your fellow Hebrews) was virtually annihilated by the Assyrians. The Babylonians soon conquered the Assyrians and have been brooding storm upon the horizon for Judah (the southern kingdom) ever since. Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, had already squashed one rebellion ten years ago; after which, many captives of nobility were taken away to Babylon (including Daniel and his three friends). But recently a siege upon Jerusalem was ended by Judah’s new king, Jehoiachin, surrendering himself after only reigning for three months. Upon his surrender, Nebuchadnezzar ordered that the temple be stripped of its gold and took 10,000 people as captives to Babylon (mostly the craftsman and warriors). You, along with Ezekiel, are one of those exiles now forced to live in Babylon, the enemy’s capital, in order to use your skills to strengthen its expanding empire. Less than ten years later, the new king of Judah, Zedekiah, would attempt rebelling against Babylon, and Jerusalem with its people, walls, and temple would be decimated.

But for now, you are living in Babylon, strengthening your conqueror by your work, helping him prepare for the greater destruction of your people that you know is coming sooner rather than later. As you are forcibly taught your new language and surrounded by the ever-present worship of false gods, you pray to the LORD, the God of Israel, for a rescue, a message, anything, some sort of hope upon the horizon.

Then Jeremiah’s letter arrives. Jeremiah was the great prophet who was ever mocked and ridiculed by the Israelites as he warned them of their impending judgment from God by the hand of the Babylonians. Now his words were coming to pass. What message of hope could this man of God possibly have for the exiles in Babylon?

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord.

For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jeremiah 29:4-14)

Wait a minute, what? What do you mean God sent us into exile? Seek the welfare of the city? But they’re the bad guys, the villains who oppress nations and give glory to false deities! Seventy years? That’s a whole generation! So God is just going to leave us in Babylon to fend for ourselves?

The exiled Jews came to be known as the Diaspora, those of the dispersion, foreigners among the nations and exiles from their home. Peter purposely used these same names for the Christian readers of his first letter. He wanted his letter to be modeled after Jeremiah’s letter. The Christian life is one of exile, after all. Our home is the New Jerusalem that will descend from the heavens one day upon the new earth, but for now, we are pilgrims here, in Babylon. We’ve been studying that idea throughout the Songs of Ascents, yet within these center three psalms, we find another principle at work. Andrew Walls calls it the Indigenous Principle, and it tugs in tension against the Pilgrim Principle. John Piper summarizes these two ideas well:

In other words, the gospel can and must become indigenous in every (fallen!) culture in the world. It can and must find a home in the culture. It must fit in. That’s the indigenous impulse. But at the same time, and just as powerful, the gospel produces a pilgrim mindset. It loosens people from their culture. It criticizes and corrects culture. It turns people into pilgrims and aliens and exiles in their own culture. When Paul says, “Do not conformed to this world,” and “I became all things to all people,” he is not confused; he is calling for a critical balance of two crucial biblical impulses.

If we are truly in Christ, we should feel that tug. We are in the world but not of the world. We are pilgrims with eyes fixed on our heavenly home, yet we are called to seek the welfare of our temporary home here. We are called to both reject and transform the culture around us. Honor the emperor, but pledge ultimate loyalty to King Jesus. Build a home and plant a garden, but be ready to forsake everything to go where Christ leads. Such is the tension of the Christian life, and it is the tension addressed within these psalms. Our pilgrimage toward the Celestial City will often occur through the ordinary events of life. Thankfully, throughout the Scriptures we are reminded again and again that God delights to work through the ordinary facets of life.

RESTORE OUR FORTUNES, O LORD

We can’t be sure when Psalms 126 and 128 were written. Psalm 127 was written by Solomon. Spurgeon thought 126 was most likely penned before the Babylonian Exile, while Calvin considered it highly likely to come from that era. Whichever came first, the Spirit obviously intended for them to connect thematically. In fact, the phrase in verses 1 and 4 about restored fortunes could also be translated as returning the captives.

The main idea of this psalm focuses upon God’s restoration of His people. The structure, therefore, is as follows: joyfully recalling a previous restoration work of God (vv. 1-3), prayerfully petitioning for the LORD to do so again (v. 4), and joyfully hoping in the coming restoration (vv. 5-6).

Regardless of when this psalm was written, there were times of divine rescue for the Israelites to recount, as the psalmist does within the first three verses. Their slavery in Egypt is probably the largest example. Even though the patriarchs were nomads, they still possessed great wealth and status (particularly under Joseph’s rule in Egypt). Nevertheless, they were enslaved to the Egyptians for four hundred years before God rescued by the hand of Moses and brought them into the Promised Land by the leadership of Joshua.

The entire book of Judges follows a similar pattern. The Israelites are dominated by enemies, but God raises up a new champion to deliver them. Exile and captivity followed by restoration. David’s life, furthermore, contains two distinct periods of exile, first when he was on the run from Saul and the other when Absalom usurped his throne.

Yet each of these events ultimately mirrors the great deliverance from captivity that occurs in the New Testament, in which God sent the ultimate Champion to rescue His people from their true mortal enemy, sin. That deliverer was, of course, Jesus.

The Exodus and even the Babylonian Exile are nothing compared to the exile that all of humanity is under because of sin. Genesis 1-2 describe the paradise that God created for mankind as typified in the Garden of Eden, but in Genesis 3, Adam and Eve are exiled out of the Eden due to their rebellion against God. Each of us are born after those events and are, therefore, ingrained in that story. Every minute of our lives has been spent while in exile from paradise with God. Whether we are able to articulate it or not, we all feel that something has gone wrong (both collectively and individually). We are not what we should be nor is the world as it should be. An honest evaluation of the eternity that God has placed within our hearts will reveal that we, almost instinctively, feel like exiles from a home that we can’t quite remember, the paradise with God for which we were made.

Jesus came to rescue us from that exile, our banishment from the presence of God. As Christians, therefore, we can easily remember when God returned us from captivity and when He restored our fortunes. It was the moment that we became alive in Christ. He saved us from our sin and from God’s justified wrath against it. Then as we found peace with God, our mouths were filled with laughter and our tongues with shouts of joy. We rejoiced to find a love so vast as the love given to us by the almighty Creator. Fredrick Lehman’s word are found to be gloriously true:

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
and were the skies of parchment made;
were every stalk on earth a quill,
and everyone a scribe by trade;
to write the love of God above
would drain the ocean dry;
nor could the scroll contain the whole,
though stretched from sky to sky.

Furthermore, the people around us began to notice the shift in character. Some may have scoffed at the change, but some concluded that God had done great things for us. Such is the nature of conversion. Our freedom from sin and union with Christ brings about a change that cannot easily be ignored.

It is worth noting that your salvation experience may not have been a 180 degree turn that can be pinpointed to one day. For many of us, the decision to follow Christ is more of a process, but this in no way diminishes the reality of salvation. The proof of conversion is not in a one-time decision, but in a lifetime of fruit produced by that conversion. Thus, one of the great purposes of church membership is to affirm the evidence of that fruit in one another. Even still we should long and pray for God to transform us to such a degree that the world around us cannot help but notice what great things the LORD has done for us.

If as Christians today we can pray and meditate from verses 1-3 by thinking about our conversion to the faith, what then are we to do with verse 4? Is it a prayer for a second salvation? Is it a prayer to be restored after having fallen away? First of all, there is no such thing as a second conversion. Christ died once for all of our sins, and, therefore, His blood cleanses away our sins once. Yes, we must continually repent of sin, but we do this to return to our Father and prove that we are His children. We are not justified again. Restored, yes, but justification only occurs once. If a second justification were required, Jesus’ blood would not be sufficient once for all. Indeed, a second act of justification would be like trying to crucify Christ again!

We can, however, as Christians experience seasons of exile. By this, I mean times of spiritual dryness (fittingly, Negeb is a dry, desert region of Israel) and melancholy. Although we may understand theologically that God does not abandon His people, times arise when we must battle to believe that truth against the felt reality around us. These are times when we simply feel isolated from the LORD. David’s cry echoes in our hearts: “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1).

Have you experienced such a season? You know you shouldn’t put too much stock in how you feel, but you just can’t stop feeling like one of the Israelites wandering the desert, exiled from the Promised Land. Maybe its just a general, indescribable rut, or maybe it’s a piling up of afflictions. Regardless of the cause, the fact remains that God’s people will still have the need for praying, “restore our fortunes, O LORD.”

Yet notice that the prayer for restoration is literally surrounded by hope and joy. In seasons of spiritual exile, we must first remember again the grand miracle of our salvation. When we remember that Christ died to cleanse of our sins, we can then reassure ourselves of His plan for us in the present. If we feel abandoned by God, we can cling to our union with Christ, the indwelling of the Spirit, and our status as the Father’s children. If we feel overwhelmed by the sorrows of this life, we remind ourselves that God allows nothing to befall us that will not ultimately result in His glory and our good. Consider the utter confidence of this thought being expressed in verses 5-6! God never once promises that His people will be spared from tears and weeping. If anything, the Scriptures warn us to be ready to endure great suffering in this life. Yet our hope is that that suffering will be turned to shouts of joy in the end.

Unfortunately, the confidence of reaping shouts of joy from sowing seeds of tears and weeping does not necessarily come in this life. God owes us nothing, and every good thing we have is a gracious (aka undeserved) gift from Him. He, therefore, is not obligated to remove our affliction or our down-heartedness. God told the exiles in Babylon that seventy years would pass before they could return to Jerusalem. How many, therefore, died without seeing God’s restoration come to pass? And remember, God was the very one who put them in exile. Similarly, our ultimate hope must never be simply for an improvement of this life. Such a hope should earn us the justly dealt pity of the world (1 Corinthians 15:19). Instead, our great hope must be in the life to come, in the resurrection of our bodies into eternal life with Christ. That is the joy that is guaranteed by the Holy Spirit within us (Ephesians 1:14). That joy is a treasure which no thief can steal, and no moth can destroy (Luke 12:33). Only from that joy could the psalmist declare, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes” (Psalm 119:71). Spurgeon, who suffered greatly throughout his life (both physically and mentally), found that same joy, so that he could claim, “Affliction is the best bit of furniture in my house. It is the best book in a minister’s library” (21 Servants, 761).

My appeal, therefore, is threefold. First, if you have never been rescued from your captivity to sin, cry out to Christ today. Pray for Him to restore your fortunes, the great treasure of God Himself, to you. Call upon the name of the LORD and be saved. Turn from the deceitfulness of sin, and follow Christ as your Lord, wherever He may lead.

Second, if you are in a spiritual drought and exile, pray to the LORD for restoration. If the cause is your own sin, repent before God and pray like David for the joy of your salvation to be renewed (Psalm 51:12). If the cause is not sin, call upon the LORD for deliverance, while trusting that even this time is meant for growth in His grace.

For all of us, this psalm calls us to hope in God, to await the fulfillment of our joy in Him. In our walk with the LORD, whether we currently feel that we are standing upon a mountaintop, within a valley, or just in the middle of a plain, we must recognize that this entire life is one of exile, meaning that we’re not home yet. Although the citizens of Babylon around us are experiencing their best life now, for we who long for Jerusalem and the God of that city, the best is yet to come.

The Pilgrim’s Playlist

Blessed Is Everyone Who Fears the LORD | Psalm 128

Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD,
who walks in his ways!
You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands;
            you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you.

Your wife will be like a fruitful vine
within your house;
your children will be like olive shoots
around your table.
Behold, thus shall the man be blessed
who fears the LORD.

The Lord bless you from Zion!
May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem
all the days of your life!
May you see your children’s children!
Peace be upon Israel!  

Psalm 128

 

As we continue our journey through the Songs of Ascents, we now arrive at the conclusion of the center “trilogy” within the collection. Although these Pilgrim Songs largely meditate upon the pilgrimage of life, these psalms explore how everyday life is a part of that journey.

YOU SHALL BE BLESSED

The predominate theme of Psalm 128 is the promise of being blessed. The word itself occurs four times within these six verses, and the verses that do not contain it (verses 3 and 6) describe the condition of being blessed. It would seem, therefore, most fitting for us to begin by defining what it means to be blessed.

Defining Blessedness

It’s not hard to find people who are blessed. The secular world is obsessed with blessedness, as evidenced by the popularity of #blessed. Within these circumstances, the word takes on malleable connotation that seems to indicate an overall feeling of happiness. Date night with my spouse: #blessed. Kid pooped in the toilet: #blessed. One cookie with two fortunes: #blessed. The Bible can even seem to support this impression. The NASB, KJV, NKJV, CSB, and RSV all translate blessed in verse 2 as happy. But is the feeling of happiness what the Bible means by being blessed?

Happiness is certainly a crucial element of being blessed, yet blessedness is not identical to happiness. I can be quite glad that the latest Marvel movie is finally on Netflix, but that doesn’t mean that I am blessed in the biblical sense of the word. Instead, the Bible’s concept of being blessed is a joyful gladness that stems from experiencing God’s favor. We are blessed because God looks upon us with grace and kindness. He freely establishes us as His people, becoming our God. The God who made heaven and earth unites Himself to us, intending to promote our welfare. What can be more blessed than that?

Verses 2-3 and 6 provide practical implications of this, which form a natural continuity with Psalm 127. You will enjoy the benefits of your work. Your wife will flourish like a vine that bears a lot of grapes, and you will have many children sitting around your table.

These blessings certainly fit with the overall picture in the rest of the Old Testament as well. When God made a covenant with Abraham, He promised to bless him. An integral piece of that blessing was the birth of Abraham’s son, Isaac (not to mention his descendants who would number like the stars in the sky). Even though he lived a nomadic life, the peoples near Abraham viewed his material wealth as sign that he was blessed by God.

Furthermore, when God made a covenant with Israel through Moses, He spells out the blessings for keeping the covenant and the curses for disobedience in Deuteronomy 28. In verse 11, God promises: “And the LORD will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your livestock and in the fruit of your ground, within the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to give you.” Sounds familiar, right? God promises fruit of the ground and livestock (work) and of the womb (children) as their blessings.

Jesus’ disciples also presumed that material prosperity signaled the LORD’s favor. In Mark 10, Jesus encountered a rich, young man who was seeking eternal life. After Jesus lists out some of the ten commandments, the young ruler claims to have obeyed them all. Jesus then tells him to give away all his possessions to the poor and follow Him, but the young man cannot. He walks away in sorrow, and Jesus comments to His disciples how difficult it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of heaven. They respond with a telling question: “Then who can be saved?” (v. 26). They assumed that the rich had more favor with God, making salvation easier for them. Jesus declares wealth to be an obstacle in the path to eternal life, which was obviously a startling concept.

Does the Old Testament in general and this psalm in particular disagree with Jesus? Should we again to prosperity as the barometer for measuring our position with God? In a word, no (to both questions). If you look within the account of Abraham, we find that God blesses Abraham, so that Abraham’s lineage would become a blessing to the entire world. In Deuteronomy 28:10, God speaks these words: “And all the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the LORD, and they shall be afraid of you.” Their physical blessings were a sign to the rest of the nations that their God was the one true God. Their prosperity was a witness of God’s glory to the world, God’s light shining in the darkness.

The LORD has by no means deviated from this principle under the New Covenant, but its appearance does shift. When Jesus entered humanity as the God-man to solve the problem of sin with His life, death, and resurrection, He brought to us blessedness in its purest form. He delivered to us the supreme blessing of peace with God, of our adoption by God. He paid once for all the debt of our sins and signed over the account of His righteous into our name. We are made co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17). We have “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). Indeed, we are blessed “with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3).

Yet this superior blessing comes with a caveat:

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:16-17)

Our blessedness in Christ requires our willingness to suffer with Christ. Don’t miss the importance of that particular wording. To say that we must suffer for Christ is not inaccurate, yet here Paul states that our suffering must be with Christ. He suffered for us; now we must suffer with Him. Soon, though, we will be glorified with Him, but even now, we are blessed when we suffer with Christ. Jesus said so Himself (Matthew 5:10-12).

Throughout history, Christians have known and displayed this truth. They have displayed to the world a vast blessedness that cannot be contained in this life, a blessedness of which the world is not worthy. Tertullian affirms this with his beloved declaration to the Romans:

The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed. Many of your writers exhort to the courageous bearing of pain and death, as Cicero in the Tusculans, as Seneca in his Chances, as Diogenes, Pyrrhus, Callinicus; and yet their words do not find so many disciples as Christians do, teachers not by words, but by their deeds. That very obstinacy you rail against is the preceptress. For who that contemplates it, is not excited to inquire what is at the bottom of it? Who, after inquiry, does not embrace our doctrines? And when he has embraced them, desires not to suffer that he may become partaker of the fullness of God’s grace, that he may obtain from God complete forgiveness, by giving in exchange his blood?

I recently came across this quotation: “no assessment of the early days and subsequent success of Christianity can ignore the fact that in their own ways the rise and persistence of both Judaism and Islam are equally remarkable and equally ‘miraculous’” (Introducing Jesus, loc. 553). First, as Christians, we certainly assert the statements validity with Judaism, to which we are necessarily attached. But Islam did not experience an equally remarkable and miraculous growth. Muhammed preached peace until he was able to assemble an army. Islam spread by force of the sword; Christianity conquered even when killed by the sword. Tertullian’s assessment still stands today. The blood of Christian martyrs is seed because it displays to the world our blessed hope. As they rejoice in a hope beyond this world, their faith becomes visible evidence of that eternal life.

None of this, however, is to discount how the LORD may still use physical blessings to give evidence of His love. We simply no longer stake of primary hope in them. In Christ, we can still be blessed, even if the fruit of our labor is taken from us. In Christ, we can still be blessed, even when barrenness strikes our family. The physical blessings of this psalm are shadows of Christ’s reality, and our blessedness in Jesus is meant to serve as a beacon of hope for those walking toward the gate of destruction.

Fear the LORD

If now we have a better conception of blessedness, how it achieved? The psalmist declares that those who fear the LORD are blessed. How then does the fear of God relate to our blessedness in Christ? If God has adopted us as His children in Christ, is there no longer any need to fear Him?

The fatherhood of God and fear of God do not stand in opposition to one another. If anything, our adoption in Christ gives greater clarity to how we are called to fear Him. In a healthy relationship, a child ought to have a healthy fear of his or her father because the father is always prepared to use corrective discipline. The child fears the father’s rod of correction. Yet (once again in a healthy relationship), the father also leaves the child without any doubt of his love toward them. Indeed, fatherly love must include discipline. If I do not correct my toddler’s tantrums now, they will lead to greater “tantrums” in the future that will be destructive to herself and those around her. If I do not force her to sleep in some kind of schedule, she quickly becomes fatigued, which thrusts chaos upon herself and those around her. Both are acts of discipline. She is rarely pleased with either. Announcing bed time can even cause her to run from me. But I discipline her for her own good.

The fatherhood of God is so much better than my own. He is perfectly right in all His ways, and His discipline is never too hard or soft. Even still, we are right to fear His hand. We are right to fear His correction, even though in Christ we need not question His love. If we do not know this fear of God, we do not know God at all. To use the psalm’s language, we are not blessed. C. S. Lewis’s poignant observation still rings true:

We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves’, and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all’. Not many people, I admit, would formulate theology in precisely those terms: but a conception not very different lurks at the back of many minds. I do not claim to be an exception: I should very much like to live in a universe which was governed on such lines. But since it is abundantly clear that I don’t, and since I have reason to believe, nevertheless, that God is Love, I conclude that my conception of love needs correction. (Problem of Pain, 31-32)

God is both love and to be feared. Any theology that cannot cling to both realities is false. True blessedness comes from knowing that God is God, fearing Him, and being loved by Him. Such an understanding can only lead us, then, to walk in His ways. A failure to obey God proves that we do not love nor fear Him. Such a claim isn’t legalism. After all, Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). A stubborn refusal to walk in God’s ways and obey His commands is evidence of failing to love Christ. It is also a rejection of blessedness. Our refusal to fear and obey God separates us from Himself, the Source of all blessings. We choose, like Satan in Paradise Lost, to attempt reigning in hell rather than serving in heaven. Trying to be gods, we flee from the only God. To sin, therefore, is to forsake blessedness.

Is that how you view your sin? Do you see it as luring you away from God’s presence and the blessings therein?

Or perhaps even more basic: is your concept of blessedness fundamentally connected to God, or do you look for other streams of blessings?

THE LORD BLESS YOU FROM ZION

Verses 5-6 add another crucial detail to our understanding of blessedness: community is an essential aspect of God’s blessing. Verse 5 both prays that our blessing would come from Zion and that we would be so blessed as to see the thriving of Jerusalem all our days. As we have noted previously, Jerusalem and Zion are often symbolic for the gathered people of God for worship, and the Bible assumes that those who fear God will long to worship with God’s people.

Interestingly, the prayer for the LORD to bless from Zion, therefore, indicates Zion as an instrument for God’s blessings. And why would God’s gathered people not be a channel for receiving the blessedness of the LORD?

Is that how you view church? Do you eagerly anticipate gathering with other brothers and sisters in Christ, believing that the LORD’s blessing will be found there? It is tragic how gathering together on Sunday is increasingly viewed as a chore rather than a blessing, as a work instead of a grace. The author of Hebrews, after all, teaches that our gathering for worship should be a time of encouraging “one another to love and good works” (10:24), which is another way of saying to walk in the LORD’s ways. We bless one another by encouraging each other to continue walking in God’s blessedness. If we neglect to meet together, we essentially forsake the LORD’s blessing from Zion, while also denying how God might have used us as instrument of His blessing to others. As the body of Christ, we are meant to build one another up in the LORD. We are members of one another. We are Jerusalem, God’s dwelling place. Therefore, the prosperity and blessedness of Jerusalem is our prosperity and blessedness. The peace of Israel is our peace. The maturity of the church is our maturity.

Returning a final time to Jeremiah 29, God commanded the captives to seek the welfare (which in Hebrew is a variant of the word for peace) of their new city, Babylon, and through that action they would find their own welfare. Since we’ve discussed that Babylon is often used to represent the unbelieving world, our welfare is secured as we seek the welfare, the peace, of the world around us. According to Merriam-Webster, a blessing can be defined “a thing conducive to happiness or welfare.” We are blessed whenever we seek to bless those around us.

Yet Psalm 128 is longing for the blessing of Jerusalem, not Babylon. How then do these ideas connect? The greatest peace, the greatest welfare, the greatest blessing that could come upon those who do not follow Christ would be for them to start following Christ. Even as we live in Babylon, we are still exiled citizens of Jerusalem, and we long to take citizens of Babylon with us as we return. Our blessedness must a sign and beacon, a testament to the goodness of Jesus Christ. Fortunately, Jesus told His disciples how the world come to recognize this in them: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). A love for God’s people reveals our love for God Himself. As we experience the blessings of this holy community together, we fervently invite those around us to pull up a seat at the family meal and join us.

This isn’t, of course, to say that a church should be primarily inward focused. We must be outward focused, seeking to care for the orphans, widows, and other vulnerable members. Yet we can never forget that our love for one another that provide solid ground for our missions and evangelism.

Have you experienced the blessedness of Christ? If not, come to Him today.

More specifically, have you experienced the blessedness of Christ’s people? Poor, sinful, and broken as we are, the church is Christ’s body and His bride.

May we long to see the prosperity of Jerusalem, to see the flourishing of God’s kingdom as it advances.

May we see our children’s children, the generational fruit of our discipleship as we obey the Great Commission.

May peace, welfare, and blessedness be upon God’s people.