When Brothers Dwell in Unity | Psalm 133

Behold, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers dwell in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down on the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down on the collar of his robes!
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the LORD has commanded the blessing,
life forevermore.

Psalm 133 ESV

 

Within this penultimate psalm, the Songs of Ascents prepare to conclude. Psalm 132 called us to meditate upon Jerusalem and its king and people. Particularly, it focused upon the beauty of God choosing to dwell among His followers. Psalm 133 now turns our attention toward that God-inhabited community, reminding us of the beauty of being a unified people for God.

THE GOODNESS OF UNITY

This psalm is a poetic meditation upon the sweetness of brotherly unity. It is a psalm of David, who certainly understood from personal experience the damages that strife within a family could cause. Verse 2 is an image of the pleasantness of unity by describing the anointing ceremony of Aaron as the high priest. The anointing oil was meant to represent the Holy Spirit coming upon the person to empower them for their task. The second imagery in verse 3 is of dew from Mount Hermon descending upon the mountains of Zion. The first analogy exemplifies the holiness that must both mark and empower God’s people in unity, while the second emphasizes our dependence on God for our unity. Theses are, therefore, the basic ideas of the psalm; let us now apply them toward the brotherhood that we share in Christ.

We must begin by noting that the New Testament affirms the goodness and pleasantness of God’s people being unified. In the high priestly prayer of John 17, Jesus asked the Father to unify His disciples even as He and the Father are one. Paul similarly upholds the importance of unity within his letters. In Philippians 2:2, he states, “Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” To the Ephesians, he claims that walking in a manner worthy of our calling means being “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:3). In the following verse, the Apostle roots our unity in our worship of one God, by one Spirit, into one body, through one faith, in one baptism, for one Lord. To the Colossians, he wrote, “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (3:14). To the Corinthians, he appealed, “that you may agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1:10). Peter, likewise, urged that “all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8).

Still, the New Testament’s warnings against disunity are just as numerous.

“As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3:10-11).

“I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (Romans 16:17).

“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21).

It is worth noting that the list of the flesh’s works in Galatians is presented as the opposite of the fruits of the Spirit. While Paul lists fifteen sins, eight of them are sins which directly threaten the unity of the church. Obviously, therefore, the New Testament places a significant importance upon the unity of the church. But why is unity so highly emphasized in the first place?

The unity of the church reflects the power of the gospel to the world. Paul spends a significant time in Ephesians addressing how the gospel destroyed the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles. Indeed, the gospel alone was mighty enough to bridge the gap between those peoples. Similarly, whenever we stand firmly together without anything to link us but Christ, the strength of the gospel is made visible. And given that the gospel message is actively undoing the effects of Babel in the world, we should pray that its power spreads all the more.

Furthermore, unity is an indicator of holiness. God’s people are holy because we belong and imitate our holy God. Those, then, whose lives are marked by God’s grace will be happy givers of grace as well. Those who have been embraced by the Father will be glad to embrace others as well. Those upon whom the peace of God dwells will be peacemakers. When we strive for unity, we image God; we live as His holy people.

This is especially critical because the world cannot duplicate the unifying effects of the gospel. Skim through today’s media, and you will be met with the ideas of diversity and tolerance being held out as some of the supreme dogmas of the day. Yet in practice, uniformity appears to be the actual goal, which is made evident when differing viewpoints are demonized in place of being understood.

Christianity, on the other hand, should be the exemplar of diversity and tolerance. What, after all, could be more tolerant than loving those who hate you and praying for those who persecute you? What could be more tolerant than Jesus healing lepers and demonic mad men in the first century? Yet Christianity exemplifies these ideas precisely by not making them primary. We hold to Jesus alone as supreme, and, because of that joyous truth, we are then able to love others like He did.

Hear this, brothers and sisters, nothing is more unifying than the gospel. The reasoning is twofold.

First, the gospel beings by reminding us that we are all equally damned before God. Ephesians 2 says that before Christ we were dead in our sin. Are there different levels of deadness? Is the one who died five minutes ago less dead than the he who died 500 years ago? No, dead is dead. Likewise, sin condemns. Each sin is an offense against the holy, good, and eternal God, and each one, therefore, earns us a just and eternal punishment.

Second, the gospel makes us children of God by the exact same work. Christians are able to be unified because there is no hierarchy within the body of Christ. The substitutional death of Jesus bought forgiveness for each of us. We, therefore, have no grounds for boasting; our works were worthless. We each have different roles and functions, but we still form just piece of the whole. And we’ve been grafted into the body because of the Christ and Christ alone. We have all been made Christians by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, nothing more, nothing less.

Too often we can begin to believe that being a good theologian makes us a good Christian. We can believe that knowing theology will bring us into a higher form of Christianity. Ben Myers aptly writes against this mentality by revealing the true benefit of a greater theological understanding:

“’All things are yours,’ says Paul: ‘all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God’ (1 Cor 3:21-23). We are not beggars hoping for scraps. We are like people who have inherited a vast estate: we have more than we can take in at a single glance. In the same way, it takes considerable time and effort to begin to comprehend all that we have received in Christ. Theological thinking does not add a thing to what we have received. The inheritance remains the same whether we grasp its magnitude or not. But the better we grasp it, the happier we are. (The Apostles’ Creed, xv-xvi)

Therefore, arguing degrees of sin or righteousness is utterly nonsensical. Gloating that someone is more sinful than you is like being on a sinking ship and rejoicing that someone else went into the water first. Likewise, boasting in your own righteousness is like a man bragging that he has more paperclips than his coworkers. All of our sins, big or small, condemned us to hell, and our good deeds, however great or numerous, were powerless to save us. We are all in the same boat, and that is fertile ground for unity. The gospel is the only solid foundation for true unity. It is the gift of God that He alone rains down upon His people through the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ our Lord.

UNITY AT WHAT COST?

But if unity is such a good thing, we must then ask when is (or even whether there is) a proper time for severing that unity? The unity described is between brothers, so at what point does a person who claims Christianity remove themselves from the brotherhood? How can we discern between a true brother with whom we may sharply disagree and someone who has ventured into heresy, leaving behind sound doctrine and abandoning the faith?

These are the kinds of questions that particularly shape how we view ecumenical efforts. Ecumenism is typically understood as attempting to unite the various branches of Christianity together. Sometimes it is used as uniting all religions, which is really just religious pluralism, so we would obviously reject that understanding. But unifying all of Christianity, isn’t that a worthwhile endeavor? Should we pursue ecumenism?

First, we must remember that unity is not maintained at the expense of sound doctrine. A departure from the essential beliefs of Christianity is a denial of Christianity itself. Then, of course, comes the question: what are the essential beliefs of Christianity? We might rightly begin with the sort of proto-creed in 1 Corinthians 15: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” Since Paul calls this statement of first importance, we should conclude that a denial of the atoning death of Jesus and His bodily resurrection is a denial of Christianity.

But still, most Christian groups affirm those verses. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and even Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses claim to believe in the death and resurrection of Christ. Should we, then, all unite under this truth? Very early into church history, Christians began to declare a series of core truths during baptism which revolved around affirming the Trinity. This baptismal confession came to be called the Apostles’ Creed. Although it was not written by the Apostles themselves, Christians readily affirmed it as a summary of the Apostles’ teachings. This creed would go on to form the basis of the more detailed Nicene Creed, which clarified the divinity of Christ. If we hold to the truths expressed within those creeds, Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses are both removed from the stream of orthodoxy.

What about Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox? Both fall into conflict with Protestantism’s declaration of salvation by faith alone. While I have no doubt that there are genuine disciples of Christ within these branches of Christianity, I do not believe that the beliefs themselves align with the truths of Scripture. Our understanding of the gospel is so different that unity under the gospel is virtually impossible. This is especially true of Catholicism, which in the Councils of Trent declared anathema (or eternally damned) everyone who believes salvation by faith alone. By this still standing official doctrine, we cannot be united with Roman Catholicism.

What do we do then with fellow Protestants? We must begin by recognizing the differences between convictions and essentials. This is crucial because a person who denies an essential doctrine of Christianity is a heretic, which means that they are not of the faith, they are not in Christ, and they are still in their sins and under the wrath of God. That is the reality of being a heretic. O brothers and sisters, may we never pronounce that word upon others flippantly. We must remember that God holds unnecessarily dividing His church as a form of heresy in and of itself. To cause divisions within the church over personal convictions is the self-condemning action of a warped and sinful person. We must, therefore, guard ourselves against the extremes of both liberalism and fundamentalism. Liberalism seeks to place all essentials into the realm of conviction, while fundamentalists want to make their convictions into essentials. Both, though in different ways, undermine the essential doctrines of the faith.

But even when we agree on the essentials, we may have deep convictions that make it difficult to be unified. Some of these convictions will certainly run so deep that we are not able to gather together within the same local church each week.[1] Navigating through strong convictions is perhaps made easier if both parties can agree upon the authority of the Scriptures, which is a foundational belief since Paul grounded the death and resurrection of Christ as being “in accordance with the Scriptures.” If we can both agree that Scripture is our final authority, we should at least be able to understand one another’s reasoning. Without the Bible as our authority, we will each appeal to various traditions, philosophies, arguments, and viewpoints, yet if it is, our discussions should have a fairly fixed reference point.

GUARDING UNITY

But how exactly do we fight for unity within the church? Peter said it well: by possessing sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Unity is impossible without these qualities.

Sympathy urges us to seek mutual understanding. Perhaps this is the quality most sorely missing in today’s climate. Too often, even within the church, we tend to presume guilt by default instead of actively giving others the benefit of the doubt. Do you actively seek to understand others’ viewpoints? Do you assume the best about your brothers and sisters with whom you disagree?

Brotherly love, then, makes us genuinely seek each other’s good. When you disagree, especially with a fellow Christian, do you seek to win the argument or to build them up in the faith?

A tender heart keeps us sensitive to the needs and weaknesses of others. Consider how a tender heart may be necessary for loving and shepherding someone who is leaving heretical spin on Christianity, such as Mormonism. The indoctrination of those groups is so powerful that a significant length of time might be necessary to help them see the true teachings of Scripture. To label this person who is laboring to leave heretical teachings a heretic could inflict a much deeper wound upon the already wounded. A tender heart, however, keeps us ready to care for the weaker sheep among us.

A humble mind keeps us willing and ready to admit our errors or faults. Note that true humility is ready to concede when necessary. Too often, I am fine with the abstract concept of admitting an error, yet I prove to be unyielding when the time comes. The prideful holding of ground can cause splinters within God’s people, but humility nourishes a church’s unity.

Given that we will continue to wrestle against sin throughout this life, we will need to possess these qualities in abundance. Our unity depends upon them.

Yet ultimately, our unity is reliant upon God. Like dew from Hermon falling upon the mountains of Zion, God must give us the power to remain unified. We must be led and guarded by the Holy Spirit in order to bear with one another in love.

Indeed, whenever unity is present, true and biblical unity, the blessing of God is surely to be found. A people cannot be united by the Living Water and not themselves become fountains of that same Water. A church that is unified both in spirit and in truth becomes a conduit for God’s blessing. We glimpse the glories and goodness of eternal life with God whenever we participate in the blessing of the communion of the saints here.

Unity, indeed, is pleasant. Have you savored it yet?

May we, therefore, strive for unity with one another.

May we earnestly seek unity through sympathy, brotherly love, tender hearts, and humble minds.

May we keep the gospel front and center of our lives, knowing that only it can destroy the walls of hostility caused by our sins.

May Jesus both unify and glorify His church.


[1] Although, I believe, we should balance this thought with the realities of church life within the New Testament. For example, Jesus told the church of Sardis that they were a dead church with nothing more than a reputation for being alive. For the believers in Sardis, there was no other church for them to move to. They were forced to face the reality that Jesus was speaking to and of them. Their collective repentance would also need to be done as individuals.

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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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

Unless the LORD Builds the House | Psalm 127

Unless the LORD builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.

Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the children of one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
who fills his quiver with them!
He shall not be put to shame
when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.

Psalm 127 ESV

 

Being the eighth of fifteen psalms, we are now midway through the Songs of Ascents. Establishing that these psalms can generally be divided into five groups of three, we discussed previously that these center three psalms are concerned with how our pilgrimage to New Jerusalem will shape and transform our ordinary day-to-day lives, and within Psalm 127, Solomon provides us with a thought-provoking song about work and family. The psalm is clearly divided into two main sections (verses 1-2 and 3-5), so we will address each separately before attempting to connect them together at the end.

IN VAIN YOU STRIVE

Work’s vanity without the LORD is the thesis of our first stanza. Verse 1 gives two paralleling images that form one united truth. Building a house is futile labor unless God Himself is its builder, and a watchman’s vigilant guard is worthless unless God is the city’s true protector. Solomon is clearly emphasizing our dire need for God’s support and protection above all else.

But is that really true?

Surely many homes built long ago by someone with no concern for the LORD endured long years or even still stand today. Although not a home, my wife visited a Buddhist temple in East Asia that was 3000 years old. That shrine to idols was built before this psalm was written and is still standing today. Their labor does not seem to be in vain.

Furthermore, how many wickedly corrupt cities and nations have triumphed brutally over lesser ones throughout history. Why did God allow the terroristic warfare of the Assyrians to spread so wide across the globe? Why did He permit the Christian city of Constantinople to fall to the Turks? Why does He today tolerate the beatings and beheadings of His church in lands that were once predominately Christian?

How are we then to understand this verse? We should first note the careful wording. Solomon does not say that without the LORD’s intervention a house cannot be built nor can a city be guarded. Both are certainly possible. Instead, he is claiming that doing so is in vain, which is a fitting word for Solomon to use when he is traditionally held as the author of Ecclesiastes. Building a house and guarding a city without the LORD is vanity because there is no lasting meaning without God. The truth that Ecclesiastes bombards us with is that even the greatest human achievements are a vapor in the air. In the span of eternity, our supreme efforts are worthless and futile. Of the wonders of the ancient world, only the pyramids of Egypt still stand, and even then, of what use are they? Majestic they may be, but ultimately their grandeur is no more than a requiem to fallen kingdom, a mere reminder of the once-great.

Nevertheless, the episode of Babel is stuck on repeat. We build monuments to our excellence, attempting to prove our independence from God, yet in the end He stoops down to each one, asking, “Is that all?” Even the glories of a 3000-year-old stronghold of demons is a blink of eye in the light of eternity, when only God’s glory will remain.

Yet the fleeting nature of a house or city does not mean that we should forsake building and guarding them. Solomon is not calling us to the monastic lifestyle of striving to live without physical comforts and securities. We are dust animated by God’s own breath. We are of the earth by the Creator’s design; therefore, we need shelter, a place to call home. Further, we need the shelter of each other, so we congregate into cities. We gather as communities for friendship and protection. Building a house is good. Guarding our city, likewise, is good. They cannot, however, be ends unto themselves. Life’s vanity is only transcended by living for and according to God’s design.

How is this so?

Only the works of God can endure forever. As C. T. Studd wrote, “Only one life, twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.” His kingdom alone will stand throughout eternity, while every other monument, temple, and edifice will crumple into dirt. 10 billion years from now the 3000-year demonic rule over a stretch of land will seem to have passed by in the blink of an eye. Jesus’ command to seek God’s kingdom first, therefore, is unabashedly practical. Even as we do such mundane tasks like building a house or looking out for the good of our city, we must submit that very labor to the LORD, for the good of His reign, so that He works through us as we work. As He then supplies the strength for the work, He receives the glory for its completion. And because His kingdom is of first importance, our work will never prove unfruitful (even if it may appear so for a length of time).

Verse 2 then describes how this truth should affect our work in the day-to-day. Anxious toil is not befitting of God’s laborers. Work is good. In Eden, God issued jobs to Adam and Eve. They were to be God’s managers over the earth, cultivating the earth to reflect the garden and multiplying to spread God’s image across the planet. The LORD made us for work; sin has simply corrupted it, making it more difficult. We, therefore, must not shirk labor but, rather, meet it head on. To not work, after all, would be to go against God’s created order.

Yet even in working, we have opportunity to sin. Even though our work is meant to imitate God’s creation further into the world, we often use our very reflection of His character to assert ourselves as the creators, as gods who fashion the world as we see fit. Thus, by the very act for echoing God we aim to rid ourselves of Him. In other words, we frequently tend to be come self-reliant as we work.

Such self-reliance is idolatry, a declaration of self as divinity. Solomon describes the symptoms of this disease: getting up early to work, going to bed late from work, anxious toil becoming one’s daily bread. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with waking up early or going to bed late; the crux is in the reasoning. If we are burning the candle at both ends in a desperate bid to earn our own security, our work has become sinful. We are trusting in the steadfastness of our own hands, not in the faithfulness of the LORD.

God’s people are contrasted as receiving sleep as God’s gift. Sleep and rest are necessary components to a proper theology of work precisely because they keep us humble. While ceasing from work, we are forced to face the reality that we are not God. The universe is not upheld by our power, and it will survive our inactivity. Death exemplifies this idea even further. After a loved one passes, we grieve and mourn, but life moves on. For the doctor, it’s another pronouncement. For the funeral home, it’s another client. For the acquaintances, it’s a “he/she will be missed.” Eventually, even for those closest, an altered normal begins. “A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever” (Ecclesiastes 1:4). If the world will survive our final passing, how much more can it bear our rest? As God’s people, we know that we can sleep and rest from our labors because our trust is not upon our own ability but upon God’s. May we, thereby, give glory to God with both our work and our rest.

CHILDREN ARE A REWARD

The blessing of children is the grand theme of verses 3-5. The images are overwhelmingly positive. Children are an inheritance from the LORD. Children are a reward. Children are like arrows for a warrior. Children are a blessing. Children guard us from being shamed by enemies. Why such exuberance over children? They demand your time, energy, and money. You become fully responsible for the life and care of fellow human beings during their most vulnerable stage of life. They drastically cut into your free and alone time. They will defy you, rebel against you, and fight against you, often in the simplest of things. They’re messy and destructive, loud and unpredictable. In less than two weeks, my wife and I will take an anniversary trip without our daughter. A few nights ago, my wife mentioned that we would be able to sleep in during this trip. I almost began to cry. Such is life with children.

Yet despite the difficulties of childrearing, the Scriptures fully regard them as a blessing. To bring children into the world is to fulfill the cultural mandate of God, the First Commission. As a new human is born, God’s image is further seen. Sin, of course, makes it so that “folly is bound up in the heart of a child” (Proverbs 22:15), but that does not negate the goodness of propagating life. God’s image upon mankind may be marred by sin, but we each still bear it. The growth and spreading of humanity are the good designs of the LORD.

Unfortunately, not many believe such things any longer. The increasingly influential Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently said,

There’s scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult, and it does lead, I think young people, to have a legitimate question: is it okay to still have children? And I mean, not just financially, because people are graduating with $20, $30, $100,000 dollars of student loan debt, so they can’t even afford to have children in the house. But also just a basic moral question, what do we do. And even if you don’t have kids, there are still children here in the world, and we have a moral obligation to them. To leave a better world for them.

From people like Ocasio-Cortez who are entertaining childlessness on the grounds of “morality” to the rise of anti-natalism[1] as a philosophical worldview, western society is becoming increasingly anti-children. As Christians, it can become easy to fixate upon certain elements of this ideology (i.e. abortion), yet they are simply individual heads of the hydra. Granted, some of the beast’s heads are deadlier and more grotesque than others (certainly like abortion or pedophilia), but we must never lose sight of the whole monster. The general negative attitude toward the very idea of children, the denigration of childrearing as a primary calling, and the idolatry of comfort provide the well fertilized ground for seeds like abortion to grow.

Even the change in wording, from childrearing to parenting, reflects our “modern” mentality. The linguistic shift reveals the primacy of the parent. Someone might interject with the opinion that children have never been more carefully raised as they are today. Yet the root of much “helicopter parenting” is, I believe, ultimately parent-centered. The notion of childrearing, however, implicitly sets our focus toward the growth[2] of the child.

For all the value that secular humanism claims to place upon humankind, statistics reflect the reality, and as birth rates continue to plummet, anti-natalism increasingly comes to the forefront. The Bible opposed to such thoughts. Yes, our children will require our time, attention, and patience. Yes, they will experience the pain and suffering of life. No, we are not promised that they will not stray from the LORD. Yet even so, the simple reality that children are a blessing still stands.

If nothing else (although there certainly is much more), raising a child helps us understand the character of God better, while also enabling us to better reflect His nature. Every time I begin to lose patience with my daughter I quickly remind myself of God’s endless and fatherly grace toward me. How can I not be loving, even in my discipline, toward her when God is so loving to me? Furthermore, how can we claim the moral high ground for not having children because of pain, suffering, or anything else when God chose to create us, even knowing that we would sin against Him and that He would die to save us? Perhaps there is no greater argument for the blessing of children than this: selflessly pouring out our love upon those who can never pay us back is a blessing because in doing so, we reflect and become like our Father. The gospel should be clearly visible to the world around us through our love for our children.

There is plenty more that we could say regarding the blessedness of children, yet for the sake of time, I will simply ask this question: Do you believe it?

BUILDING A HOME IN BABYLON

Before diving into Psalm 126, we spent time reading Jeremiah’s letter to the Babylonian exiles and considering how we too are living as exiles. We then discussed how the Indigenous Principle is at tension with the Pilgrim Principle in the life of Christ’s followers. As we now briefly attempt to view this psalm as whole, I want us to return to that very conversation.

In Jeremiah’s letter, God told the exiles to spend their time in Babylon building houses, planting gardens, and having children. In the midst of these things, He told them to seek the welfare of the city. He commanded them to live their lives and do good to the Babylonians around them. Through these ordinary actions, God would bless them and use them to bless those around them. This is God’s normal mode of operations. Many look for God to work through burning bushes, fire falling from heaven, and treatises nailed to doors, but those are the exceptions, not the rule.

Consider Rome’s view on infanticide. Rome’s founder, Romulus, issued the generous law that no child under three could be killed unless he was deformed. So the practice of leaving unwanted infants to die of exposure in trash heaps became a common fixture of Roman life. The advent of Christianity, however, inserted a wrench into infanticide’s wheels, and within a few centuries, the practice was virtually eliminated in the western world.

How did Christians achieve such a feat, such a dramatic shifting of cultural norms? They did it by regularly visiting garbage dumps to rescue and adopt abandoned babies. Yet that practice cost more than just having another mouth to feed. Tertullian wrote against a pervasive rumor that Christians were “accused of observing a holy rite in which we kill a little child and then eat it” (Apology, 7.1). The spread of this conspiracy theory gave a further degree of credibility to the official waves of persecution.

Yet one baby, one family, one generation at a time, the early Christians methodically created a culture of life that swallowed up the culture of death. For more than a millennium, we have walked in the fruit of their labors, fruit that we now watch being burned. Like our brothers and sisters before us, it is not enough for us to be anti-abortion or even pro-life; we must fundamentally be pro-children. We must not merely defend the abstract concept of life; we must spread it.

As alluded to in both sections, this psalm is in many ways a poetic meditation upon the First Commission. Work and have children. That was the cultural mandate given to Adam and Eve. By doing so, they would act as God’s steward over the earth, cultivating the earth and filling it with His image. As Christians, we’ve been given another commission, to make disciples of all the nations. The Great Commission is the cultural mandate of the new creation, of the God’s kingdom. As we make disciples, we cultivate the earth into the kingdom of heaven by filling the earth with God’s children, followers of Christ.

Even still, the Great Commission does not negate the First Commission. Not everyone will have children for various reasons, and not everyone will be physically able to work. Nevertheless, the cultural mandate still stands. Often, both commissions will be filled together. We win the inhabitants of Babylon for Christ, one child, one family, one generation at a time.

Of course, this isn’t to say that missions into unreached lands is not important. It absolutely is! Yet still, the goal of these mission endeavors is still to establish local churches made up of believing households that reach other households with the gospel and plant more churches.

If we view ourselves as the protagonist in our walk with Christ, we will easily become disheartened that we cannot do enough for God’s kingdom. If, however, we place ourselves within the scope of God’s unfolding hand in history, we quickly understand that we are standing upon the shoulders of the millions and millions of brothers and sisters who have gone before us, and by God’s grace, we will help prepare the way for those who will follow after us. Collectively, His kingdom advances further than any one of us can do alone, and it advances primarily through the ordinary and daily faithfulness of His followers.

May we, therefore, build houses and do good to the Babylon around us, praying for the LORD to advance His kingdom through our work and rest.

May we have children and not decrease, both physical and spiritual, discipling the nations by first discipling our households.

May the LORD bless the ordinary work of our hands and use it for the extraordinary proclamation of the name of Jesus Christ to the glory of God the Father.


[1] Anti-natalism is essentially an extension of hedonism that believes the greatest path to avoiding pain would be to simply stop having children altogether. David Benatar’s book, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, is an introduction to this philosophy.

[2] Not primarily the protection of and provision for the child. It seems that there also exists a lack of intentionality in modern-day parenting as expressed through a failure to continuously shepherd a child toward adulthood.