Be a Cloud of Witness – Psalms of Ascent #8

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

The last post on the Psalms of Ascent ended with God’s people dealing with “the scorn of those who are at ease” and “the contempt of the proud” at the end of Psalm 123.  That Psalm emphasized the Lordship of the Lord, who is “enthroned in the heavens.”  Those who follow the kingdoms of the world often have contempt and scorn for those who follow another way, who declare another Lord.  However, Psalm 124 explains that our Lord has not left us alone:

“A Song of Ascents. Of David.

If it had not been the LORD who was on our side—
            let Israel now say—
if it had not been the LORD who was on our side
            when people rose up against us,
then they would have swallowed us up alive,
            when their anger was kindled against us;
then the flood would have swept us away,
            the torrent would have gone over us;
then over us would have gone
            the raging waters.

Blessed be the LORD,
            who has not given us
            as prey to their teeth!
We have escaped like a bird
            from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
            and we have escaped!

Our help is in the name of the LORD,
            who made heaven and earth.” (emphasis mine)

This Psalm speaks of times when we know only the Lord could have saved us, and we’ve learned that, “When all you have is God, He is enough.”  Sometimes life is hard because of circumstances that force us to depend on Him, and we learn to trust Him and Him alone.  The best way to know for ourselves that He is good is to act on our trust in Him, even when it’s hard or doesn’t make sense.  When God works wonders for us, we should keep a record of God’s power and faithfulness in your life, like the memorial stones Israel placed after crossing the Jordan.[1]

The other thing to notice about Psalm 124 is that it is entirely written with plural pronouns.  David, the author, is telling us that the works of God in our lives, especially when there seemed no other way forward, are to be shared with the community of believers.  “Let Israel now say” is something we do together.  The church must be a community of people who share God’s work in their lives, as a contrast to “the proud” and “those who are at ease.”  The One we serve – and the One they ridicule – wants us to testify to His salvation, and not any other hoped-for salvation.

John Calvin notes on the last verse (8): “The contrast between the help of God, and other resources in which the world vainly confides, as we have seen in Psalm 20:7, ‘Some trust in chariots, and some in horses, but we will remember the name of the Lord our God,’ is to be noticed, that the faithful, purged from all false confidence, may betake themselves exclusively to his succor, and depending upon it, may fearlessly despise whatever Satan and the world may plot against them.”

We know what God has done for us, but as a community we amplify the common witness of God being faithful.  Hebrews 11 chronicles the faith of God toward His people in the Bible, in order that we may have a “cloud of witnesses” encouraging us not to “grow weary or fainthearted” as we endure hostility from sinners for serving our Lord.[2]  Psalm 124 is part of a liturgy for ancient Israelites traveling to corporate worship in Jerusalem and can be applied to corporate worship today.  God calls all of His people to join the cloud of witnesses.

Therefore, when you attend worship this week, find a way to join someone else’s cloud of witness.  Tell them what God has done for you, that only He could do.  Then tell someone else.  If you need encouragement yourself, pray that God would meet your need.

Dear fellow travelers: Be a cloud of witness.  Show others your memorial stone.


If you’ve missed the earlier posts in the Psalms of Ascent series, the first post is here, and each post links to the next at the bottom.


Note on the series: This occasional Saturday series will cover Psalms 120 to 134.  These “Psalms of Ascent” form a type of hymnal or liturgy that pilgrims could sing or recite on their way to the three annual feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Booths.  In a modern context, these Psalms are a call to prepare for worship, to rejoice in the Sabbath, and to answer a call to serve God’s church on earth.


[1] See Joshua 4
[2] See Hebrews 12:1-4

Participating in the Psalms

Reading the Psalms is a great devotional habit.  Most years, I read one a day starting January 1 until they’re done and then start again the next year.  However, too often I read through one without it having any effect on me.  Too often I miss that the writers aren’t just trying to teach about God, but they are trying to share their experience of Him with me.  They don’t just want me to know what they know about Him – They want me to feel what they felt about Him, and act as they acted toward Him.  For example, Psalm 96:1-5 reads like instructions:

Oh sing to the LORD a new song;
            sing to the LORD, all the earth!
Sing to the LORD, bless his name;
            tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
            his marvelous works among all the peoples!
For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised;
            he is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols,
            but the LORD made the heavens.

Verse 1 isn’t “listen to me sing a new song” but instead it asks everyone (and everything) to sing a new song to God.  The Psalmist wants us to participate with them in their joy, and even spells out how and why to do this:

  • from day to day” – make it a daily habit
  • among the nations” – don’t pick and choose your audience.  Share publicly and indiscriminately
  • For great is the LORD” – because He deserves it
  • For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols” – because no other is worthy

Not only the Psalms, but all worship, requires participation.

I read Psalm 96 a few days ago, and to be honest, I wasn’t “feeling it.”  I didn’t give up.  I took some notes so I wouldn’t lose the idea, but more importantly I struggled with it and prayed that God would show me an opportunity to participate in this Psalm.  Shortly after, I saw the memory of breaking my collarbone in Facebook, which I shared there but also expanded into a post here, praising God for His healing.

I’ve written that: “’A new song’ suggests something that’s creative, offered in praise…Perhaps you are not a ‘creative’ person.  You might be a tax collector or a soldier[1].  You might be a clerk, accountant, lawyer, politician, engineer, housewife or anything else.  It doesn’t matter.  It’s about knowing who you are and dedicating that to the Lord and to others.”

Your situation is not mine.  Few people have blogs, and God doesn’t always deliver answers to prayer in the same way, but in whatever way we can, He wants us to participate in the praise of the Psalms, sharing Him every day, to all people, because He deserves it.

This day and every day, what can you do to “Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name”?  Take a moment and ask Him how you might participate in the Psalms.


[1] See Luke 3:12-14

The Joy, Unity, and Peace to Come – Psalms of Ascent #6

Finally, we return to a series on the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134), used as a liturgy for ancient Israelites travelling to Jerusalem for annual worship festivals.  Today’s post focuses on Psalm 122, where David writes of the joy found in the destination – the house of the LORD in Jerusalem.  When first written, this house would be the tabernacle, since the temple was built under David’s son Solomon, but when the Psalm was organized into its present order, this house would be the temple.  After the pilgrims look up from their circumstances in Psalm 121 to find their help in the LORD, in Psalm 122 they reflect on what they will find at the end of their journey.

This short, 9-verse Psalm has three sections: an expectation of joy, a path to unity, and a prayer for peace.  I’ll summarize each as we go.

First, expectant joy.  Verses 1 and 2 of the Psalm say:
I was glad when they said to me,
            ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’
Our feet have been standing
            within your gates, O Jerusalem!

David was glad to attend corporate worship, and this joy would be an encouragement to other when worship required a lot of travel, large crowds, and disruption of daily routines.  In the following sections, David explains where his joy comes from: that worshipping with others reminds him of what only God can truly provide: Unity and Peace.  David doesn’t expect everyone arriving in Jerusalem to get along and have a perfect experience, but it doesn’t ruin his joy because God promised these things to those who worship Him.  While perfect is unattainable in this imperfect world, corporate worship acknowledges that this world is not all there is, and that God’s people will worship perfectly in eternity.

Second, a path to unity.  In verses 3 to 5 David writes:
Jerusalem—built as a city
            that is bound firmly together,
to which the tribes go up,
            the tribes of the LORD,
as was decreed for Israel,
            to give thanks to the name of the LORD.
There thrones for judgment were set,
            the thrones of the house of David.

Corporate worship is a physical, visible reminder of our membership in a tribe that is not of this world.  From all the tribes of the world, God calls His people and promises to make a perfect unity out of vast diversity.  However, unity only exists when differences are resolved through either forgiveness or judgment.  Worship should remind us that every injustice ever committed will be judged.  Every offense to God’s laws of love will be paid for by either the sinner, or by Christ on the cross, and we can be thankful for both.  We do not experience perfect unity or justice yet, but we know that the price has been paid for God’s people to be perfectly unified in eternity.  Jesus ultimately sits on the throne David established; therefore Jesus’ authority in mercy and in judgment provides a hopeful expectation that overcomes the current, inevitable conflict that exists among God’s people, and between God’s people and the world.  He remains “glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’”

Lastly, peace.  The final verses of the Psalm say:
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!
            “May they be secure who love you!
Peace be within your walls
            and security within your towers!”
For my brothers and companions’ sake
            I will say, “Peace be within you!”
For the sake of the house of the LORD our God,
            I will seek your good.

The Holman Bible Commentary notes that these prayers for peace are “a reference to divine protection from hostile nations. They needed an indivisible unity and impregnable safety that can come only from God. Where God finds unity, he commands his blessing there.”  While Christians do not take pilgrimages to Jerusalem, in Matthew 18:20 Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”  God does not promise absence of trial and persecution to His people, but He asks that in worship we do all we can to promote joy and unity within His church, wherever His people congregate.  Peace can, and should, exist within the church even if peace is absent outside the church, since God’s peace is not dependent on circumstance.

David found joy in expectation of worshiping with God’s people, based on God’s promises.  This week, pray for joy, unity and peace as God’s people gather locally, but also globally.  While we remain yet unperfected by His grace, we hold fast to His promises and to His call to ascend to His sanctuary for worship.

Amen.

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.

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.