Two new books launched

DSCN4962What a fun Friday! A radio interview and book signing doubled the fun during my local launch of two new books. Between 10:15 and 10:45 yesterday (December 19), Patricia interviewed me on the local Christian radio station, KCWN 99.9. After that, I signed books during the station’s Christmas open house until 1:00. I want to thank General Manager, Bev De Vries, and DJ Patricia for their gracious hospitality. The station’s facility is decorated beautifully, and entering it feels like stepping into a welcoming home.

Patricia made the interview completely painless. In fact, it was a lot of fun. Growing up as the middle child in a pastor’s family, she felt a lot of affinity for my book-boy Matthew. Talking about him and the problems he faces in Matthew Muddles Through was a hoot. She shared her enthusiasm for the story with listeners.

Bev De Vries took this picture through the production room window while Patricia and I were on the air.
Bev De Vries took this picture through the production room window while Patricia and I were on the air.

We then discussed my other new release, Discovering Delight: 31 Meditations on Loving God’s Law. She described it as going “deep” and we talked about the writing style, which Aimee Byrd called “a commendable style of commentary meets personal devotion.” Patricia and I also spoke briefly about Little One Lost: Living with Early Infant Loss and A Month of Sundays: 31 Meditations on Loving God’s Law. Before I went off the air, I had the opportunity to share my excitement about my current memoir collaboration project with Uriah Courtney, who was recently exonerated after more than eight years of wrongful incarceration.

booksBook signings are always enjoyable. It’s great to meet new friends and experience the support of existing ones. The best kind of book signings are when a steady stream of people comes in and I have time to speak to each person individually. And this was one of those signings with wonderful opportunities to talk to individuals, including some people I hadn’t seen for years.

I’m thankful for the doors God opens and I grateful he equips me to walk through them. books-2

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The Truth of Psalm 119, Taw

The final letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Taw or Tav, represents the final section of Psalm 119. Looking closely at each section has generated a new appreciation for the longest psalm that has lifted it in my mind from the mundane to the sublime.

Academy BJE states that Taw symbolizes perfection and “alludes to the three essential services of the soul: teshuvah (repentance), tefillah (prayer) and Torah,” which is God’s law. The letter represents truth. It begins the word tikkun (redemption) and refers to the concept of teshuvah (a returning to the Source for forgiveness).

These meanings of the Hebrew letter seem to summarize the truths we’ve seen repeatedly in our Psalm 119 meditation marathon. Although no one can obtain perfection until heaven, we ought to strive continually for a more sanctified life of repentance and prayer, based on the truth of God’s law. Redemption is possible only when we turn to Christ for forgiveness. 

We’ve seen repeated praise for God’s word in this psalm. Editors of The Literary Study Bible, ESV (Leland Ryken and Philip Graham Ryken) note that Psalm 119 uses eight key synonyms for God’s word, which are translated in the English by words such as “law, word, rules, statutes, testimonies, commandments, precepts, and so forth. These eight synonyms appear 178 times in 176 verses and are present in some form in all but five verses” (p. 887). 

As we look at this last section of the psalm, we see that pattern repeated in a prayer of confession and repentance.

The first two verses parallel each other as the psalmist cries out to God:

Let my cry come before you, O LORD;
    give me understanding according to your word!
Let my plea come before you;
    deliver me according to your word (169-170, ESV).

The psalmist pleads with the Lord to hear his cry in order that he may first have understanding, and then be delivered, both according to God’s word.

The next two verses seem to parallel each other as well:

My lips will pour forth praise,
   for you teach me your statutes.
My tongue will sing of your word,
   for all your commandments are right (171-172, ESV).

Because God teaches us his word and because all his commandments are right, we are called to praise him and his word in speech and song.

Although not as obvious as the first two verses, or even the second two verses of this section, the next two verses share parallels:

Let your hand be ready to help me,
   for I have chosen your precepts.
I long for your salvation, O LORD,
   and your law is my delight (173-174, ESV).

As we look to the Lord for our salvation and lean on him more and more during life’s trials, we grow to love and obey his word with joy. The obedient and repentant believer can pray with confidence:

Let my soul live and praise you,
   and let your rules help me.
I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant,
   for I do not forget your commandments (175-176, ESV).

Since we’ve seen a lot of railing against wicked persecutors in this long psalm, it’s interesting that it ends with confession of personal sin. This says volumes about what our attitude should be when others hurt us. Our prayers for God’s justice against the wicked ought always to be accompanied by prayer for God’s mercy to us.

This repentant confession of personal sin occurs in the context of shepherding imagery. We are all sinners who stray from the flock and need the Good Shepherd to find us and return us to the fold. 

We all need to keep God’s commandments firmly fixed before us. And as we’ve seen time and time again in this psalm, it’s not enough simply to know God’s word; we must also obey it.

God’s word is truth. No passage of scripture praises the truth of God’s word more than Psalm 119. May we all love and live God’s law!

The Shalom of Psalm 119, Shin

As I’ve worked my way through Psalm 119, I’ve been amazed how each section–although they all share many similarities–seems especially appropriate for that particular day.

Some linguistic information from the Academy BJE website (which is the Board of Jewish Education for New South Wales) may be helpful. The site states that Shin represents divine powers since it is the initial letter of two names of God (one of which is Shaddai, which is usually translated as “Almighty”). The letter appears in two forms, each representing the two kinds of divine wisdom: revealed and concealed. Shin alludes to Shabbat, the seventh day of Creation and the day of rest filled with peace and tranquility. It also stands for shalom, which denotes peace and perfection.

The meanings of the letter Shin make this penultimate section of Psalm 119 come alive for me in a new way:

Princes persecute me without cause,
   but my heart stands in awe of your words.
I rejoice at your word
   like one who finds great spoil.
I hate and abhor falsehood,
   but I love your law.
Seven times a day I praise you
   for your righteous rules.
Great peace have those who love your law;
    nothing can make them stumble.
I hope for your salvation, O LORD,
   and I do your commandments.
My soul keeps your testimonies;
   I love them exceedingly.
I keep your precepts and testimonies,
    for all my ways are before you (Psalm 119:161-168, ESV).

This Shin section repeats many themes we’ve already seen and continues to contrast the wicked’s persecution of the innocent with the true believer’s love for God’s law.

Even though princes persecute without cause, the heart of the righteous can stand firm in God’s awesome word (verse 161). Our joy in God’s word can be as exultant as the soldier in battle who finds a beautiful golden goblet encrusted with priceless gems (verse 162). Although others revel in lies, we are called to hate all falsehood, but love the truth of God’s word (verse 163). We shouldn’t restrict our prayers to formal times of devotion at meals, morning, or evening. Rather we should cultivate a prayerful attitude that praises God multiple times each day for his righteous rules (verse 164). When trials press and affliction weakens us, we can have great peace through loving God’s law; nothing can make us stumble (verse 165). If we obey God’s commandments, we can hope for earthly rescue as well as eternal security (verse 166). Our love for God’s word will always be evident in our obedient faith (verse 167). True believers keep God’s commands in public and in private; God sees all our actions and knows every inclination of our heart. No sin can be hid from him (verse 168).

The Almighty God, Shaddai, reveals his will according to his perfect plan. We don’t know what he is doing behind the frightening or depressing scenes in our lives, but sometimes he reveals his concealed will in amazing ways. May this Shin section of Psalm 119 fill your heart with Shalom as we pray for the peace of the church in our local congregations and throughout the world!

Intelligent wickedness in Psalm 119, Resh

Every verse of this twentieth section of Psalm 119 begins with the Hebrew letter Resh, symbolizing “wickedness as well as higher conciousness” (BJE.org). Resh relates to the word rosh, which means “head” and is the source of intellect. Jewish oral tradition equates resh with rashah, a wicked person.

This meaning fits with the section’s content as it contrasts the righteous with the wicked. As we’ve seen repeatedly in the Psalm, the prayer for deliverance from affliction is coupled with confession.

Look on my affliction and deliver me,
   for I do not forget your law (153, ESV).

And as we’ve also seen before, the psalmist equates deliverance with life (154, ESV):

Plead my cause and redeem me;
    give me life according to your promise!

That salvation is not near the wicked:

Salvation is far from the wicked,
    for they do not seek your statutes (155, ESV).

But God’s mercy to the faithful is great:

Great is your mercy, O LORD;
    give me life according to your rules (156, ESV).

Surrounded by persecutors, the psalmist remains committed to God’s word:

Many are my persecutors and my adversaries,
   but I do not swerve from your testimonies (157, ESV).

His disgust for the faithless is because they break God’s law:

I look at the faithless with disgust,
   because they do not keep your commands (158, ESV).

The psalmist loves God’s word:

Consider how I love your precepts!
    Give me life according to your steadfast love (159, ESV).

Believers love God and God loves believers. In his great love, he promises life-giving deliverance from adversity now and perfect life for eternity. God’s promises are true.

 The sum of your word is truth,
   and every one of your righteous rules endures forever (160, ESV).

The whole of scripture comprises truth. We should not pick and choose verses to suit our particular whims. The Bible is a cohesive unit of which every word endures forever.

This post began by commenting on the association of the letter resh with wicked intelligence. But there is another aspect of the letter’s meaning. Its shape indicates a bowed head. This represents the humble believer who submits to God’s word and will.

May the sum of God’s truth click in your mind as you confront the intelligent wicked wrecking havoc in your life! Take heart! Christ has overcome the world!

The Night Cries of Psalm 119, Qoph

“With chronic pain, it’s always three o’clock in the morning.”

That memorable line jumps off page 7 of Pain Patients: Traits and Treatments by Richard A. Sternbach.

Time stands still during the dead night when suffering eclipses slumber.  Darkness fills the mind as well as the room. Loneliness chokes the heart.

Job, who epitomizes suffering in our collective consciousness, verbalized these feelings:

so I am allotted months of emptiness,
    and nights of misery are apportioned to me.
When I lie down I say, ‘When shall I arise?’
   But the night is long,
   and I am full of tossing till the dawn (Job 7:3-4, ESV).

Darkness plagues the psalmist in the Qoph section of Psalm 119, but he is not alone. In his suffering, he cries to God:

With my whole heart I cry; answer me, O LORD!
   I will keep your statutes.
I call to you; save me,
   that I may observe your testimonies (145-146, ESV).

The psalmist couples his cry for mercy with a commitment to obey. Instead of tossing and turning in growing frustration when he wakes in the wee hours of the morning, he fills his mind with peace by calmly meditating on God’s promises.

I rise before dawn and cry for help;
   I hope in your words.
My eyes are awake before the watches of the night,
   that I may meditate on your promise (147-148, ESV).

He begs for God’s response, not because he feels he deserves it, but to demonstrate God’s love and justice:

Hear my voice according to your steadfast love;
   O LORD, according to your justice give me life (149, ESV).

Those who persecute with evil purpose are far from God’s law, but God is near the true believer:

They draw near who persecute me with evil purpose;
   they are far from your law.
But you are near, O LORD,
   and all your commandments are true (150-151, ESV).

These night cries conclude with a confession of longstanding belief in God’s eternal word:

Long have I known from your testimonies
   that you have founded them forever (152, ESV).

The shimmering illusion of far-off day will eventually dawn. Light will dispel darkness. Hope replaces despair. God is closer to you than any persecutors with evil purpose.

May his eternal and true word sustain you through the dark watches of your nights!

The Zealous Humility of Psalm 119, Tsadhe

Does this letter of the Hebrew alphabet look a bit like a kneeling person with upraised arms? In my mind, that reflects the meaning of Tsadhe (or Tzade).

Normally I visualize a kneeling person as bent over with clasped hands and a lowered head. A bowed posture indicates submitting in humility. But the righteous person represented in this eighteenth section of Psalm 119 is zealous as well as humble and submissive. And the hands raised in praise convey that zeal.

After praising God’s righteousness and faithfulness through his word, the psalmist speaks of his consuming zeal:

Righteous are you, O LORD,
   and right are your rules.
You have appointed your testimonies in righteousness
   and in all faithfulness.
My zeal consumes me,
   because my foes forget your words (137-139, ESV).

The psalmist’s consuming zeal is because his foes forget God’s word. This reference ties in with the previous section’s ending, in which the psalmist shed “streams of tears” because people do not keep God’s law.

The concept of consuming zeal sounds like a bad thing to our culture-adapted ears. We are supposed to be well-rounded individuals who do all things in moderation and maintain balance in life.

But obviously being consumed with zeal for God and his word is a good thing, particularly when this all-encompassing zeal is our response to our foes’ failures to remember God’s word.

If we remember God’s word, we know that God never forgets his promises. He is faithful and always fulfills his word.

Your promise is well tried,
   and your servant loves it (140, ESV).

Our only proper response to seeing God’s word continually fulfilled is wholehearted love.

Although I tend to think of a zealous person as being arrogant and self-righteous, this zealous psalmist humbles himself before God.

I am small and despised,
   yet I do not forget your precepts.
Your righteousness is righteous forever,
   and your law is true (141-142, ESV).

We may feel small and despised, but we can cling to God’s promises knowing that his word endures forever. And his every word is true.

God’s word delights even the believer bowed down in trouble and anguish.

Trouble and anguish have found me out,
   but your commandments are my delight.
Your testimonies are righteous forever;
    give me understanding that I may live (143-144, ESV).

Do you try to hide from trouble and anguish, but they inexorably find you like a heat-seeking missile? Even when you bow down from their blasts, you can lift your hands in zealous delight for God’s word. God’s word remains eternally righteous when people act deceptively wicked.

May God give us all understanding that we may live in zealous humility!

The Open Mouth of Psalm 119, Pe

Looking at the letters of the Hebrew alphabet as I reflect on these sections of the acrostic Psalm 119 makes me long to learn Hebrew. I’m sure a Hebrew scholar could point out many connections that my language-deprived brain misses.

Simply knowing the letter’s definition opens new realms of meaning. The seventeenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Pe (or Pey) means “mouth” and implies expression.

That meaning peaks in verse 131:

I open my mouth and pant,
   because I long for your commandments.

What an expression of desire! Do I long for God’s commandments so intensely that desire steals my breath until I open my mouth and pant?

Let’s look at this verse in the context of its “Pe” section:

Your testimonies are wonderful;
   therefore my soul keeps them.
The unfolding of your words gives light;
   it imparts understanding to the simple.
I open my mouth and pant,
   because I long for your commandments (129-131, ESV).

The section begins with praise for God’s wonderful word, closely followed by a covenant-keeping confession. As God commands, the psalmist loves God’s word with all his heart, mind, and his soul. For him, keeping God’s commands isn’t a matter of mere emotion (heart) or sterile doctrine (mind); it is a comprehensive and full-orbed obedience that permeates even the most integral aspect of being: the soul.

Because this covenant keeping begins in the soul, it brings light to the mind and gives wisdom to the simple. And it generates an emotional longing so palpable that the psalmist compares it to hyperventilating.

The next four verses are a series of petitions:

Turn to me and be gracious to me,
   as is your way with those who love your name.
Keep steady my steps according to your promise,
   and let no iniquity get dominion over me.
Redeem me from man’s oppression,
   that I may keep your precepts.
Make your face shine upon your servant,
   and teach me your statutes (132-135, ESV).

Notice the progression of the petitions. The psalmist asks God to turn and be gracious because that’s how God acts toward those who love him. Then he specifically requests that God will keep him from sin, asking God to steady his steps and prohibit sin’s dominion.

Once the psalmist has acknowledged God’s gracious dealings with his people and his own propensity toward sin, he begs for redemption from oppression. And as we’ve noted earlier, redemption is always for a purpose: to keep God’s precepts.

The psalmist then seeks the favor of God’s blessing. Notice that this a two-fold request. He first asks God to shine his face upon him, but he joins that with a request to teach him his statutes. We may long for God’s face to shine upon us, but we ought to always link that longing with learning.

This section concludes with a highly visual depiction of the weeping psalmist:

My eyes shed streams of tears,
   because people do not keep your law (136, ESV).

We see the psalmist weep. Streams of tears flow from his eyes because so many people do not keep God’s law.

We live in a broken world. Is your heart broken over your own sin and the sin of others? Do you shed real tears when you see God’s law broken?

May we all open our mouths and pant with longing for God’s word! May we keep that word with all our hearts, minds, and even our souls! May we weep when we see God’s law broken and pray for God’s grace to all of us wretched sinners.

The Climax of Psalm 119, Ayin

Push comes to shove in the sixteenth section of Psalm 119, in which each verse in the original begins with the Hebrew letter Ayin.

In our amble through Psalm 119, we’ve noted that nearly every verse contains a word that is synonymous for God’s word, which is no surprise since the Psalm is well-known as a testimony in praise of God’s law.

But we’ve also discovered that the Psalm secondarily focuses on persecution at the hands of the wicked. And the Ayin section of the Psalm sharpens that focus acutely.

The righteous psalmist begs God for rescue from the wicked:

I have done what is just and right;
   do not leave me to my oppressors.
Give your servant a pledge of good;
   let not the insolent oppress me (121-122, ESV).

As the psalmist begs for deliverance from oppression, he also asks for a “pledge of good” to encourage him. He knows God’s word and longs for its fulfillment in his salvation.

My eyes long for your salvation
   and for the fulfillment of your righteous promise (123, ESV).

Salvation seems to indicate not only the eternal salvation that believers will enjoy after death, but also a temporal salvation from the oppression of the wicked. The psalmist contrasts that oppression with God’s loving kindness:

Deal with your servant according to your steadfast love,
   and teach me your statutes (124, ESV).

How often do we link learning God’s word with his love? God is love. He deals with his people according to his steadfast love while he teaches us his statutes. Love is never divorced from knowledge. And knowledge without love is lifeless.

Our love must be based on an awe-filled reverence for God, which is the beginning of wisdom. So the psalmist humbles himself before God, asking for the ability to comprehend his word (125, ESV):

I am your servant; give me understanding,
   that I may know your testimonies!

In what strikes the reader as an almost demanding tone, the psalmist states:

It is time for the LORD to act,
   for your law has been broken (126, ESV).

This is the climax of Psalm 119. The psalm pinpoints the conflict into sharp focus. God’s law has been broken. The time for God to act is now!

Note it is not time for the Lord to act because I have been hurt. It is not time for the Lord to act because I want to get even. It is time for the Lord to act because his law has been broken.

God protects his people, but he also protects his priceless word and keeps it pure.

Therefore I love your commandments
   above gold, above fine gold (127, ESV).

Because God saves his people now and for eternity, because God loves his people and teaches them his law; because God gives understanding to the humble and protects his word, the psalmist loves God’s righteous word and hates every false way.

Therefore I consider all your precepts to be right;
   I hate every false way (128, ESV).

The psalmist’s reasoning has circled from his confession of doing “what is just and right” to his confession of believing all of God’s precepts “to be right”; two confessions that wonderfully bookend this Ayin section of Psalm 119. 

May God act now to redeem every situation where his law has been broken! And may our love for his word and our knowledge of it enable us to join the psalmist in hating “every false way”!

Our Hiding Place in Psalm 119, Samekh

Deadly tornadoes recently ripped through the Midwest, destroying towns and taking lives, leaving a distressing wake of devastation and despair.

If you live in the Midwest, you know there is only one thing to do if a tornado threatens: take shelter. That is why most homes are constructed with a basement. When the tornado sirens wail, we hide out in our basements until the all clear sounds.

Do you feel as if tornado sirens are screaming in your life? Do troubles and trials cause you to cower in your emotional cellar?

Take heart! Believers need not tremble in fear of earthly storms or wicked attacks. God is our shelter and shield.

This fifteenth section of Psalm 119 repeatedly contrasts the deceitful wicked (who will be destroyed) with the faithful righteous (who will be upheld). The Hebrew letter “Samekh” is a symbol of support and protection, concepts implied in this section’s initial verses: 

I hate the double-minded,
   but I love your law.
You are my hiding place and my shield;
   I hope in your word (113-114, ESV).

The believer who loves God’s law can rightly hate those who claim to love his law, but do evil. God is the true believer’s hiding place and shield. Our hope is in his word.

Our longing for freedom from attack has a purpose:

Depart from me, you evildoers,
   that I may keep the commandments of my God (115, ESV).

The desired peace provides opportunity to serve God with an obedient life. The believer who hopes in God’s word will not be shamed and will be kept safe (verses 116-117, ESV):

Uphold me according to your promise, that I may live,
   and let me not be put to shame in my hope!
Hold me up, that I may be safe
   and have regard for your statutes continually!

The believer does not desire rescue for his or her own glory, but all for God’s. God is glorified when we continually obey in every area of our lives.

Although it may appear that the wicked triumph over the righteous, God will not allow the deceitful person to genuinely succeed. God will destroy the wicked.

You spurn all who go astray from your statutes,
   for their cunning is in vain.
All the wicked of the earth you discard like dross,
   therefore I love your testimonies (118-119, ESV).

God spurns those who stray from his statutes. He causes their cunning devices to disappear like the brilliant flashes of showy fireworks that fade into smokey trails. As God refines believers in the fire of affliction, he discards the wicked like dull dross. This knowledge increases our love for God and his word!

The final verse of this section about God’s support and protection reminds us not to fear those who can kill the body, but to fear only him who can destroy the soul (Matthew 10:28).

My flesh trembles for fear of you,
   and I am afraid of your judgments (120, ESV).

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10). Fearing him does not mean shaking in worry and concern about your life, but trembling in awe and reverence before his majestic holiness.

Do not worry about the judgments of men; take comfort that Christ has redeemed your life and your eternal future is secure. God is our hiding place and our shield!

The Lamp of Psalm 119, Nun

Although the previous section of Psalm 119 contained two well-known verses, this section shines with the radiance of another well-known verse:

 Your word is a lamp to my feet
   and a light to my path (105, ESV).

God’s word is the lantern that illuminates our walk through this dark world. We must clutch his word and always hold it before  us.

Like the psalmist, we need to make a conscious decision to obey.

I have sworn an oath and confirmed it,
   to keep your righteous rules (106, ESV).

Even in severe affliction, we can cling to God’s life-giving word and praise God.

I am severely afflicted;
    give me life, O LORD, according to your word!
Accept my freewill offerings of praise, O LORD,
   and teach me your rules (107-108, ESV).

The psalmist praises and prays as his life ebbs away. He feels as if he holds life by his fingertips and his grip slips.

I hold my life in my hand continually,
   but I do not forget your law (109, ESV).

In spite of this tenuous hold on life, he still remembers God’s law. And despite traps and temptations, he does not stray from God’s commands.

The wicked have laid a snare for me,
   but I do not stray from your precepts (110, ESV).

God’s word is his heritage and joy; he determines to remain faithfully obedient for the rest of his life, whenever God in his inscrutable wisdom calls him home.

Your testimonies are my heritage forever,
   for they are the joy of my heart.
I incline my heart to perform your statutes
   forever, to the end (111-112, ESV).

Are you walking in a dark place? Do you feel as if your grip is about to slip? Are traps being laid for you? Hold onto God’s word! Let it light the way before you.