Olive tree, Psalm 52

Image from Wikimedia commons

Looking back on this past year, do you find it depressing to think about the tough times? Try focusing on how God got you through them.

David knew persecution. He was God’s anointed, the appointed successor to Saul. But he was continually on the run for his life.

One of the most tragic episodes during his years of flight is recorded in 1 Samuel 21 & 22, When Doeg, the Edomite, reported David’s location to Saul and killed 85 priests at Saul’s command. Saul also ordered the destruction of an entire city–men, women, children, and infants, as well as livestock were killed with the sword.

Knowing this background information increases our understanding of Psalm 52, written after Doeg’s report to Saul, and presumably after the deaths of the priests and people.

How can one make sense of such a tragedy? David begins by acknowledging that although the evil man may boast, God’s steadfast love still endures.

Why do you boast of evil, O mighty man?
    The steadfast love of God endures all the day.
Your tongue plots destruction,
    like a sharp razor, you worker of deceit.
You love evil more than good,
    and lying more than speaking what is right. Selah
You love all words that devour,
    O deceitful tongue (Psalm 52:1-4, ESV).

Evil people plot destruction and love deceit. Yet God will not permit evil to triumph in the end (5-7, ESV):

But God will break you down forever;
    he will snatch and tear you from your tent;
    he will uproot you from the land of the living. Selah
The righteous shall see and fear,
    and shall laugh at him, saying,
“See the man who would not make
    God his refuge,
but trusted in the abundance of his riches
    and sought refuge in his own destruction!”

David excels at descriptive language. He follows these vivid depictions of the evil man and God’s judgment against him with a beautiful image.

But I am like a green olive tree
    in the house of God.
I trust in the steadfast love of God
    forever and ever.
I will thank you forever,
    because you have done it.
I will wait for your name, for it is good,
    in the presence of the godly (8-9, ESV).

The one who trusts God, even in what appears to be senseless destruction, is like a verdant olive tree. Believers firmly rooted in God’s love worship together. In the face of great adversity, they are able to live in thankful patience. They trust that God is good and he will manifest his love in his perfect time.

We’ve all had struggles during this past year, but God’s steadfast love sustains his children through every trial and tragedy. Trust him to be with you in the new year.

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Numbering Days, Psalm 90

A bit over two years ago, I blogged on Psalm 90 under the title “Our Dwelling Place” (you can read that post here). Because Psalm 90 seems particularly appropriate for the last day of the year, I decided to break from my regular schedule and blog on it again. But before I wrote today’s entry, I began my day with Bible Gateway’s Book of Common Prayer reading plan. The Bible Gateway site implements a host of helpful features, including a variety of daily scripture reading plans. And I’ve truly been enjoying the Book of Common Prayer reading plan.

Guess what scripture passage the plan listed first for today? You guessed it: Psalm 90.

The English Standard Version (ESV) identifies Psalm 90 as a prayer of Moses, the man of God, under the heading “From Everlasting to Everlasting.” This heading immediately primes our minds to receive the truth of God’s infinity.

Moses begins by creating the metaphor of God as our dwelling place:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
    in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
    or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
    from everlasting to everlasting you are God (Psalm 90:1-2, ESV).

He then compares God’s infinity to man’s transience.

You return man to dust
    and say, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight
    are but as yesterday when it is past,
    or as a watch in the night.

You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream,
    like grass that is renewed in the morning:
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
    in the evening it fades and withers (3-6, ESV).

On this last day of the year, don’t you feel the fleeting quality of life? How quickly has this past year gone? Have you accomplished all the goals you set out last year at this time? Isn’t it true that this past year initially flourished with hope and promise that has quickly faded and withered?

Some of that fading and withering resulted from our own sins:

For we are brought to an end by your anger;
    by your wrath we are dismayed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
    our secret sins in the light of your presence (7-8, ESV).

Certainly the revelation of our secret sins brings consequences that feel like God’s wrath. But feeling as if we’re enduring the wrath of God isn’t always our own fault. We know from Job that the righteous suffer. In fact, I sometimes feel as if life is weighted more heavily toward suffering than joy. Does it seem to you as if life is a series of taking a tiny step forward, only to be forced two large strides backward?

Life must have seemed something like that to Moses as well (9-11, ESV):

For all our days pass away under your wrath;
    we bring our years to an end like a sigh.
The years of our life are seventy,
    or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
    they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Who considers the power of your anger,
    and your wrath according to the fear of you?

Even if we live to a ripe, old age, most of us are limited to only seventy or eighty productive years. And Moses describes those as full of toil and trouble. They are soon gone, and so are we. How should we view life’s brevity? Do we pause to consider the power of God’s anger and his wrath on those who do not believe in him and revere him?

Believing and revering God should be primary considerations when we take stock of our lives. Trusting in him and calling on him are ways to wisely number our days (12-13, ESV):

So teach us to number our days
    that we may get a heart of wisdom.
Return, O Lord! How long?
    Have pity on your servants!

Moses recommends reflection. He asks God to teach us to number our days. When we suffer or sorrow, it may seem as if God has withheld his mercy and favor for a very long time. But he is always there. He is always with us. And he is always merciful to us, even when we can’t see or feel that mercy. At those times, we can pray like Moses and ask God to have pity on us…if we are among those who serve him.

Generally each year seems to disappear more quickly than the last, but some years are so full of suffering and sorrow that we’re glad to see them end. Moses must have felt the same way at times. He pleads with God to temper evil with joy, to daily fill our hearts and minds with an awareness of his steadfast love.

Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
    that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
    and for as many years as we have seen evil (14-15, ESV).

God knows our finite frailty. He knows that we sometimes need to see evidence of his love. He motivated Moses to conclude this prayer with a request for God to show his favor to generations of believers and to keep their work from being meaningless (16-17, ESV):

Let your work be shown to your servants,
    and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
    and establish the work of our hands upon us;
yes, establish the work of our hands!

We long to see God’s work. We long for our children to see his glorious power. We long for his favor to be upon us. And we long for our work to have meaning. It has meaning when we do it for God. This doesn’t mean we have to be a minister or a missionary; it means that everything we do–whether that’s changing diapers or changing contracts, saving pennies or saving people–should be done not for financial gain or personal glory, but for God’s glory. Missionary C.T. Studd summarized it in a popular and pithy poem: “Only one life, t’will soon be past, Only what’s done for Christ will last.” We work not for our boss, the government, or ourselves. We work for Christ. That’s the work of our hands that we long to be established!

Psalm 90 is a marvelous prayer for this moment in your life, when you stand at the end of one year and are about to step into a new one. May God show you his work. May he show his glorious power to your children. May his favor rest upon you and may he establish the work of your hands.

Won’t you pray this prayer with me?

Steadfast love, Psalm 33

The English Standard Version (ESV) uses a term that I cherish: steadfast love. The King James (KJV) and New King James (NKJV) translate the same phrase as “goodness,” while the American Standard Version (ASV) translates it as “lovingkindness” and the New International Version (NIV84) uses “unfailing love.” Based on what I’ve heard from those who know Hebrew, the original word conveys God’s covenant loyalty, mercy, and love.

The ESV prefaces Psalm 33 with the heading: The Steadfast Love of the Lord. God’s faithful and unchanging love is a wonderful reminder on any Monday morning, but it’s especially meaningful on this particular Monday morning–as a gray day dawns in a bleak time.

Yet these weary circumstances come during the Christmas season, when we celebrate Christ’s first advent and anticipate his second. And that’s a reason to rejoice.

Psalm 33 begins by calling Christians to joy and praise:

Shout for joy in the Lord, O you righteous!
    Praise befits the upright.
Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre;
    make melody to him with the harp of ten strings!
Sing to him a new song;
    play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts 
(1-3, ESV).

The reasons for this rejoicing are God’s upright word and faithful work. These are aspects of his steadfast love:

For the word of the Lord is upright,
    and all his work is done in faithfulness.
He loves righteousness and justice;
    the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord (4-5, ESV).

Our hindered vision may not always see God’s love of righteousness and justice, but they always exist. The earth pulses with these attributes of God. The whole world overflows with his steadfast love.

God created the cosmos and continues to sustain its entire scope by the power of his word:

By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
    and by the breath of his mouth all their host.
He gathers the waters of the sea as a heap;
    he puts the deeps in storehouses (6-7, ESV).

Everyone on earth should stand in awe of our Creator God:

Let all the earth fear the Lord;
    let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him!
For he spoke, and it came to be;
    he commanded, and it stood firm (8-9, ESV).

God controls all the plans of people (10-12, ESV):

The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing;
    he frustrates the plans of the peoples.
The counsel of the Lord stands forever,
    the plans of his heart to all generations.
Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord,
    the people whom he has chosen as his heritage!

Even when evil seems to win, God is frustrating it. His counsel and the plans of his heart stand firm to all generations. God blesses people and nations who trust in him. He considers them as his own heritage.

God sees the hearts of all people. He sees their vain efforts to trust in worldly wisdom and personal powers:

The Lord looks down from heaven;
    he sees all the children of man;
from where he sits enthroned he looks out
    on all the inhabitants of the earth,
he who fashions the hearts of them all
    and observes all their deeds.
The king is not saved by his great army;
    a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.
The war horse is a false hope for salvation,
    and by its great might it cannot rescue (13-17, ESV).

The Lord knows every heart and he sees every deed. His eye never leaves those who trust and hope in his steadfast love:

Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him,
    on those who hope in his steadfast love,
that he may deliver their soul from death
    and keep them alive in famine (18-19, ESV).

But God does more than merely keep an eye on his people, he delivers their souls from death and preserves their bodies during life. He promises to keep us alive, even during the times that seem like famines from his presence.

Because we trust God’s promises, we can wait patiently for him to act:

Our soul waits for the Lord;
    he is our help and our shield.
For our heart is glad in him,
    because we trust in his holy name.
Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us,
    even as we hope in you (20-22, ESV).

God will provide and protect. Our hearts can be glad in him when we trust in his holy name. Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you!

His steadfast love endures forever, Psalm 136

No question about what title to choose for Psalm 136! The first line of every verses praises God for his wonderful works, while each second line in this antiphonal psalm proclaims, “for his steadfast love endures forever.”

We’ve used this psalm in the past as a litany at Thanksgiving gatherings. The leader reads initial lines and participants repeat “for his steadfast love endures forever.”

The first three verses set the tone by calling believers to offer thanksgiving to the Most High God (Psalm 136:1-3, ESV): 

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of gods,
   for his steadfast love endures forever.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords,
   for his steadfast love endures forever; 

Now that God’s supremacy has been established, the psalmist links God’s steadfast love with his creative power (4-9, ESV):

to him who alone does great wonders,
   for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who by understanding made the heavens,
   for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who spread out the earth above the waters,
   for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who made the great lights,
   for his steadfast love endures forever;
the sun to rule over the day,
   for his steadfast love endures forever;
the moon and stars to rule over the night,
   for his steadfast love endures forever;

That Creator God delivered his people from Egypt with a series of miraculous wonders (10-16, ESV):

to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt,
   for his steadfast love endures forever;
and brought Israel out from among them,
   for his steadfast love endures forever;
with a strong hand and an outstretched arm,
   for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who divided the Red Sea in two,
   for his steadfast love endures forever;
and made Israel pass through the midst of it,
   for his steadfast love endures forever;
but overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea,
   for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who led his people through the wilderness,
   for his steadfast love endures forever;

God fought for his people against powerful nations and established them in a land of their own (17-22, ESV):

to him who struck down great kings,
   for his steadfast love endures forever;
and killed mighty kings,
   for his steadfast love endures forever;
Sihon, king of the Amorites,
   for his steadfast love endures forever;
and Og, king of Bashan,
   for his steadfast love endures forever;
and gave their land as a heritage,
   for his steadfast love endures forever;
a heritage to Israel his servant,
   for his steadfast love endures forever.

Just as God delivered Israel from bondage in Egypt, he delivered us from slavery to sin. He rescues us from our enemies and provides daily sustenance (23-25, ESV):

It is he who remembered us in our low estate,
   for his steadfast love endures forever;
and rescued us from our foes,
   for his steadfast love endures forever;
he who gives food to all flesh,
   for his steadfast love endures forever.

God is sovereign. He created all things. He delivered his people from bondage and gave them a place of their own. He remembers us in our low estate and rescues us from our foes. He provides our daily needs. In all these ways, God demonstrates that his steadfast love endures forever.

How can we not give thanks to the God of heaven? He alone loves us with an everlasting love that will never fail (26, ESV):

Give thanks to the God of heaven,
   for his steadfast love endures forever.