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.

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.

The Weight of Lent

Earlier this week, I was reading the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, chapters 34 and 35, which together have an interesting contrast.  In chapter 34, with Jerusalem under siege by the Babylonians, King Zedekiah ordered the people to release all of their Hebrew slaves, seemingly with the motivation of appeasing God.  However, soon the people were returned to slavery.[1]  In chapter 35, this behavior is contrasted with the Rechabites, who, for about 200 years, had obeyed their ancestors’ vow to not drink wine, or build houses, but to live in tents.  God tells Jeremiah to call some Rechabites together, pour them some wine, and offer it to them.  But they refused to drink, citing their ancestral vow.[2]  The two stories together illustrate that this family could obey a stricter code than God’s, from a lesser authority (their human ancestor), and on less-important issues.  The Rechabites are an admirable example to the rest of God’s people, and a testament to what the covenant faithfulness of God to us looks like.

What does this story have to do with Lent?  This metaphor from the Apostle Paul provides some help:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.  Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.  So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air.” – 1 Corinthians 9:24-26

Paul says discipline and self-control are valuable in the same way that training is valuable to an athlete – they bring us closer to obtaining an objective that is valuable to us.  To those who love God, being a disciple will require discipline, and vows are a form of discipline.

Lent is celebrated many different ways by many different people but is generally seen as a time to practice spiritual discipline as a way to greater awareness of, gratefulness toward, and/or obedience to, God.  Often something is given up for the 40 days of Lent, which makes it in some ways similar to the vows of the Rechabites, or the Nazirite vow taken by Samson (or by his parents) in the book of Judges[3].

However, if we do not value the prize – God Himself – nothing we give up for Lent will make us – or God Himself – happy.  Lent will not help us love Him, or our neighbors, more.  Like the Israelites who flip-flopped on slavery, treating it as a bargaining chip with God and not as an act of faithfulness to Him, wrong motivations can lead to cycles of disappointment.  But, for those in Christ, the prize is worth every ounce of effort we can put into it.  Discipline during Lent can be like lifting weights for an athlete, strengthening them, and enabling them to better compete in their sport, but discipline during Lent for the sake of self-denial or for trying to impress God is to aim too low.  True religion to God is not a trade – He has already given us everything in Christ Jesus and we can’t earn more.  “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” – Matthew 5:5

I’ll close with this long quote C.S. Lewis’ sermon, The Weight of Glory:

“The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”[4]

[Note: Today’s post idea came to me this morning, based on the beginning of Lent and tying together a couple of things I’ve recently read.  While not really part of the Beatitudes series, this post seemed fitting.  However, with Return To Office beginning, Lent has already begun by the time I could write this!]

[1] Jeremiah 34:8-11
[2] Jeremiah 35:1-10
[3] Judges 13:7
[4] Lewis, C.S.  The Weight of Glory (1949).  P. 25-26.

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.

Announcement: New Sunday Series on the “Psalms of Ascent”

Prodded by a couple of different sources, I’ve decided to create a Sunday-only series on the “Psalms of Ascent”.  This refers to Psalms 120-134, which were sung or recited by Jews while journeying to the Temple for annual festivals.  There are 15 of them, but there will be more than 15 posts as I want to limit each one to only one idea.

In a modern context, I see these Psalms as a call to prepare for worship, to rejoice in the Sabbath, and to answer a call to serve God’s church on earth.  Regular church attendance has sometimes been a struggle for me and my family, and there are many out there who have been hurt by the organized church and therefore Sundays can be a painful reminder.  This pain was real even to King David, who in Psalm 133:1 wrote: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” while his own children warred among themselves.  God calls us to gather anyway.

But don’t worry, I’m not abandoning Monday-Saturday.  The Beatitudes series will continue, along with some other ideas.  However, I found out that many things I’ve had on my list to write about are in this series of Psalms.

I pray that this series will encourage myself and others to approach Sunday worship not as a box to check, but as a joyful sacrifice to the God who loves us and as a way to connect with His family.

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