Is God Asleep? – Psalms of Ascent #5

Does it often seem like God is asleep at the wheel?  Like He is not relevant to the real problems we face in the world?  Today we continue on the Psalms of Ascent, a liturgy used in ancient Israel to prepare for worship at the annual festivals in Jerusalem.  While not part of the Ascent, Psalm 119 precedes it, praising the law of God in the longest chapter of the Bible, and the Ascent begins in Psalm 120 with God’s people living in a world that remains broken even with a perfect law.  In the last post of this series, I wrote that Psalm 121 “asks us to take our eyes off of the world around us and look upward for our hope.”  Verses 1 and 2 say:

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
            From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
            who made heaven and earth.

As these pilgrims looked to the hills, what did they want to find?  Did they expect to find a better group of people?  No, they brought their community with them on the long journey, along with all their baggage.  Did they travel in search of a better law?  No, they had the law God had given them.  Did they travel to Jerusalem to give penance for not keeping the law?  No, they came to find real help for real problems that exist within themselves and in their communities. This help could only come from the LORD.

Then verses 3 and 4 say:

He will not let your foot be moved;
            he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
            will neither slumber nor sleep.

Why does the Psalmist need to say this?  Because even God’s people can doubt that He is interested and cares about tangible problems.  When we focus on our circumstances, on the people around us, or even on God’s holy law, we can miss the power of God.  It can seem like God is asleep.  Like He is not relevant.  The Old Testament prophet Elijah mocked the powerlessness of the Canaanite storm god Baal in 1 Kings 18:27 – “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”  We don’t say this out loud, but sometimes we wonder where our own God is.  If we don’t take the time to intentionally look for Him, it’s easy to think He is asleep.

In these Psalms, God calls us to worship in a central place as a reminder that no matter what the world looks like, He is awake and at work in the midst of very real problems.  In ancient Israel, sacrifices were offered at the temple as a sign of Jesus’ future sacrifice, which provided reconciliation with a God who requires justice, which is our deepest need.  After making the perfect sacrifice, Jesus rose again to give us power to love our neighbor, meeting their needs.

Pilgrims didn’t go to Jerusalem to pay God a visit, then leave him behind when they went home.  They went because God provided a way to remind them that He was always with them in the places they came from, but if they don’t take the time to be reminded, they remain discouraged in their circumstances.  Likewise, on our Sabbath day of rest, we remind ourselves that He is never sleeping, but has been working for the salvation of His people since the very beginning of creation.  His people are the very people we congregate with.  People who are not saved by Psalm 119 and find themselves participating in a Psalm 120 world.  People whose circumstances tell them God is asleep, and who need help with their Monday to Saturday problems.

Here we come to perhaps the most difficult point. Elijah’s mocking is also echoed in criticism of the church today, both from those inside the church and outside.  Where is God in the midst of real problems?  What does God offer above laws and rituals that cannot perfect us?  The pilgrims also could have criticized the other pilgrims.  Those arriving in Jerusalem certainly had among them people who thought the law was the answer.  There were also those who went to practice their religious rituals, check the box, then get on with their lives as they saw fit.  Sometimes the church looks little different than the circumstances we find ourselves in where we live, but that’s nothing new.

The LORD calls us to Him and gave these Psalms to let us know that He is not asleep, no matter what it may look like to us.  The world will more clearly see God as their help when His people lift their eyes up to the hills, go to Him in public worship, and bring back His help to their communities.  This is how they will know He is not asleep.

Therefore, the liturgy of the Psalms of Ascent points us beyond all laws, doctrines, traditions, and institutions, to the help that comes to us from the sacrifice of Jesus, foreshadowed at the temple in Jerusalem:

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
            From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
            who made heaven and earth.

This post continues a series on the Psalms of Ascent. To start at the beginning, click here, and for the next post click here.

Your Family is More Important Than Your Furniture – Psalms of Ascent #4

A prominent feature of the culture I live in is the demand that everyone must respect the “individualism” of everyone else.  Pressure to affirm whatever anyone else wants affirmed about them has ballooned all over the news, social media, corporate policy, and even in churches.  There’s an assumption built into this, which is that the sincere ability to love someone can be the result of someone else threatening us to do it.  Exert enough legal, social, cultural, or even physical pressure and someone’s fundamental nature can be changed by coercion.  The coal turns into a diamond.

Tomorrow is Sunday, so today we return to the Psalms of Ascent, a liturgy used in ancient Israel to prepare for worship at the annual festivals in Jerusalem.  What does this have to do with the last paragraph?  In Psalm 120, the first Psalm of Ascent, we read (post here) that no matter where we live, or where we come from, no matter our genealogy, we live among people with “lying lips” who can’t get along with each other.  In Psalm 121, we are encouraged to find the answer outside of our current place:

A Song of Ascents.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
            From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
            who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
            he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
            will neither slumber nor sleep.

The LORD is your keeper;
            the LORD is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
            nor the moon by night.

The LORD will keep you from all evil;
            he will keep your life.
The LORD will keep
            your going out and your coming in
            from this time forth and forevermore.

The Psalm asks us to take our eyes off of the world around us and look upward for our hope.  Not just talk about the idea of it, but to actually do it.  To turn off the outside world and its circumstances and seek God’s help.  It takes effort because the idea that we can solve our own problems is so powerful.  The fall of Adam and Eve was driven by a curiosity that there may be a better system than the one they already had.  In a literally perfect society, they wanted something else.  If we aren’t intentional about avoiding this trap, it’s easy to not realize we are in it.

We’re All Messed Up
I’ve written much about Tyler Joseph, the songwriter of the band twenty øne piløts, and his campaign to create music and stories that help people deal with mental illness.  In an interview years ago, the interviewer criticized Tyler for calling himself “messed up.”  Was Tyler being too hard on himself?  This was Tyler’s response:

“I know I’m messed up. I think to myself I should be able to control myself.  I look at a lamp and I decide that I’m going to stand up and not hit that lamp. Why can’t I make decisions like that about everything in life. I’m not going to get angry at my brother. I want to be the best brother. Why can’t I do what I want to do? That’s messed up. Something is broken in the way we live. It’s proof that something is not right.”

Tyler is explaining Romans 7:13-21, especially verses 15 and 21, but in a way that’s as plain as day to anyone being honest with themselves.  Romans 7:15 and 21 say: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”  And “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.”

What if the problem with every person individually is that they are unable, no matter how much external pressure is put on them, to treat other individuals the way they should be treated? If true, it puts the first paragraph into an entirely different light.

In this exact moment as I write this, I’m being very careful not to spill my drink on my laptop.  I have no desire to do anything violent to the couch I’m sitting on but just to enjoy having a place to sit.  If I stop writing to check something on my phone, I make sure I put it down gently in a spot where it won’t fall off and hit the floor.  But at the same time, I know I don’t always treat people with the same respect.  I know if I’m interrupted in the middle of what I think is a great thought or phrase I could get irritated and rude.  Not always, but I could.  I know I could be a better son, husband, father, employee, and friend.  So why don’t I?

Why do we treat our furniture better than our family, even in a culture that increasingly demands with all its strength that we prioritize every individual?  Because we are broken in a way that no political or economic system, no culture or tradition, can fix.  One may be better or worse than another, but none of them has the power to solve the real problem that we can’t consistently love people more than we love our furniture.  We have to go somewhere else to find the answer.

Therefore,
“I lift up my eyes to the hills.
            From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
            who made heaven and earth.”

As pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem, the Israelites were telling a story by making the effort to move.  A story that the towns they leave behind – no matter where they are coming from – don’t have the answer to their most important problems.  On the long journey, they travelled in large groups and slowly, sometimes by foot.  They probably had constant reminders of their own inability to treat the family they traveled with better than whatever furniture or baggage they brought along for the trip. While togetherness is sometimes uncomfortable, together we must lift up our eyes and look for the answer outside of everything we know.

We’re broken and can’t fix ourselves, but “The LORD will keep you from all evil; He will keep your life.”  Take some time out of your week and each day to look up to the hills and seek Him.  To set aside everything else.  To focus on the LORD, because He alone loves us in the way we need to be loved and can help us love others the way they need to be loved.  He won’t seek to break you to make you do it, but He Himself was broken to provide us a way.


This post continues a series on the Psalms of Ascent. To start at the beginning, click here, and for the next post click here

There’s a Place for Us – Psalms of Ascent #3

Fellow travelers,

Today we come back to a weekly series on the Psalms of Ascent, a group of 15 Psalms used as a liturgy for Jews in ancient Israel traveling to Jerusalem for feasts.  Last week I wrote: “To today’s Christian, the Psalms of Ascent remind us not only of our need for salvation apart from law, but they prepare us to regularly contemplate His provision to accomplish that salvation.”  Psalm 119 praises God’s law, but the following Psalms let us know that the law cannot deliver salvation.

The first Psalm of Ascent, Psalm 120, picks up from verse 136 of Psalm 119: “My eyes shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law,” but it also starts where the pilgrimage starts geographically.  The full Psalm 120 is:

“A Song of Ascents.

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

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

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

Each person traveling to Jerusalem came from a different place.  Meshech was in the far north; Kedar in the far southeast.  The Psalmist does not live in both places, but picture is that the same problems exist everywhere.  Everyone lives among people with lying lips, a deceitful tongue, and who hate peace.  Each of us in our own way are such people.  In verse 3 the Psalmist is frustrated about what to do about this: “what more shall be done to you, you deceitful tongue?”  The next verse says that force or coercion won’t solve the problem.  It must be solved internally because mankind is fundamentally broken.  Society isn’t the cause of the problem, but an outcome of the problem, and we are frustrated with it.

However, those following the familiar liturgy of these Psalms would know that this frustration is only the beginning of their preparation to worship in Jerusalem.  The place we all live – this entire creation – is groaning for a solution, a way out, and struggling to find it.  All of mankind is in this boat together, but we’re “gonna need a bigger boat.”  The pilgrimage begins with knowing we have a need that we can’t satisfy ourselves.

On their days- or weeks-long journeys to Jerusalem these pilgrims had to bring the baggage from their home lives with them – literally and figuratively.  They certainly lied to and fought with each other on the way.  The trip lasted too long for them to pretend.  Their baggage was visible to all, and they couldn’t make the trip without it.  But they went.  In today’s church, do we go to a place that is full of “good” people, however we define that?  No, we go to a place with people just like us.  We begin as sinners among sinners, from Meshech to Kedar, but we long for a better place.

If you are in distress, call out to the LORD for a place of peace, not just for eternity but for your journey to it.  The church is “called out” to both places.  The journey is worth it.

Coda
The title of this post, if you haven’t already guessed, comes from the musical West Side Story.  The song is about the love between Tony and Maria, members of rival ethnic groups that insist on fighting even though they aren’t sure why.  Therefore, Tony and Maria long for a place where the world’s hate doesn’t tear them apart.

In more ways than one, the sentiments of the song echo the last verses of today’s Psalm:

“Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace.
I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war!”

Here is the song from the 1961 West Side Story film:


This post continues a series on the Psalms of Ascent. To start at the beginning, click here, and for the next post click here.

Rules Aren’t Enough (No Matter What You Call Them) – Psalms of Ascent #2

Fellow travelers,

Last week I introduced a weekly series on the “Psalms of Ascent”, grouped together from 120-134 and used as a liturgy for pilgrims going to Jerusalem for annual festivals.  Before jumping into Psalm 120 next week, today we consider what it might mean that Psalm 119 precedes it.  Was this order intentional (as the grouping of Psalms 120-134 was) and for what reason?

Laws, Precepts, Statutes, Rules, and More
Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible, with 22 sections, or stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  In it, the Psalmist poetically praises God’s moral law, using 8 different words to describe it, and including at least 6 of these in every stanza.[1]  It seems repetitive, but by approaching it from so many angles, the Psalmist is saying “no matter how you look at it, everyone is better off if they know and follow this law.”  For example, verse 105 – “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” – says that not knowing the law is like walking in darkness, but that following the law keeps you on the right path.  Verse 98 – “Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me” says the law is a reliable source of wisdom, and better than the rules of God’s enemies.  There are many such examples in the 176 verses.

But, while declaring that following the right moral law is good for us, Psalm 119 also declares that none keep it regularly.  The Psalmist says “My eyes shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law” in verse 136, and also that “I have gone astray like a lost sheep” in verse 176.  God’s word may be a lamp to our feet, but our feet go elsewhere anyway.  Therefore, we mourn sin – that of us and that of others – because we are all guilty and we all suffer the consequences[2].  We take no joy in other’s misfortune because we are not immune.  Any moral law – including a perfect one from God – always shows us how far short we fall.  Rules cannot make us perfect; they can only define perfection.

Christ Crucified
Therefore, there is another part of God’s law – the ceremonial law – which is never mentioned in Psalm 119 unless you want to include the “freewill offerings of praise” mentioned in verse 108.  The Psalms of Ascent follow a Psalm praising God’s moral law because, although His law is good, it is not enough.  Only by going to the temple regularly could God’s people see what sacrifices God prescribed to compensate for their failures and satisfy His justice.  While these ceremonial sacrifices were insufficient, they always pointed forward to the ultimate, perfect sacrifice of Christ which would fully cover our sin, empower us to grow in obedience to His good moral law over time, but also make the temple sacrifices irrelevant and unnecessary from that time forward.

To today’s Christian, the Psalms of Ascent remind us not only of our need for salvation apart from law, but they prepare us to regularly contemplate His provision to accomplish that salvation.  As these Psalms provided instruction on what Israelites should have been thinking about along the way to the temple in Jerusalem, we can benefit from them also as we travel to congregate with other sinners seeking our only hope together.  God’s people didn’t just arrive in Jerusalem and become magically transformed by ceremonies.  The Psalms of Ascent encouraged them to prepare and participate.


This post continues a series on the Psalms of Ascent. To start at the beginning, click here, and for the next post click here.


[1] As noted in the Reformation Study Bible.
[2] See this blog’s series on “Blessed are those who mourn,” which starts here.

Worship Does Not Come Naturally: Intro to the “Psalms of Ascent”

Today begins a weekly, Sunday-only series on the “Psalms of Ascent.”  But what are they and why write about them?

Each Psalm from 120 to 134 is titled as a “Psalm of Ascent,” referring to pilgrimages to the three annual feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Booths, where every male (often bringing their extended families) was required to “ascend” up to Jerusalem.  Together, these Psalms form a type of hymnal or liturgy that these groups could sing or recite on their way to these festivals from the sometimes-distant areas where they lived.

These were reminders that their well-being depended on God’s blessing, that even though they were living in the “Promised Land” they were still pilgrims in this world, and that in spite of affliction and persecution they could rely on God to deliver them, if they worshiped Him faithfully.

Driving Toward Morning is a place to “set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2), and also about encouragement “to stir up one another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24).  Local churches are the ideal place to do the same and discussing these Psalms here will hopefully prepare pilgrims everywhere for their weekly (and daily) worship and fellowship.

Just like the travelers in ancient Judah and Israel, who could not just show up at the temple in Jerusalem and expect God to magically transform them, the church today does not benefit from merely physically showing up to church.  The three annual pilgrimages were time-consuming, costly, and deliberate.  They provide us a model for intentional preparation for group worship.

In the words of early 20th century evangelist Billy Sunday: “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car”


This post is the beginning of a series on the Psalms of Ascent. The next post in the series can be found here.