Yesterday I produced a short video for our church as we entered into this new season of not meeting as a church and self-isolation. Maybe this would be helpful as a resource for you.
As we live the Christian life, or as we seek to help others live the Christian life, we will constantly battle with the overpowering magnitude of the visible realm. Life comes at us with trials, temptations, struggles, complexities, problems, and more. And it doesn’t help to simply preach nice thoughts to ourselves or to others. When life is overwhelming, then what we need is more than information, we need the transformation that can come from being mentored by Scripture. Let me give an example.
In Psalm 57 we are told that David was on the run from Saul, in the cave. Perhaps this was the cave of Adullam at the start of 1 Samuel 22, which comes after the loneliest chapter of David’s life. Or perhaps it is the cave where Saul came close in 1 Samuel 24. Either way, David has been anointed, has achieved notoriety by defeating Goliath, but is now on the run with an increasingly mad Saul pursuing him to kill him. I have never been anointed the king of Israel, and I imagine you haven’t either. Actually, I’ve never had to hide in a cave or had a mad king trying to end my life. However, this three thousand year old Psalm resonates with me and with many of us.
We do know what it is to have an enemy of our souls who comes only to steal, and kill, and destroy. We do know what it is like to have humans opposing us and making life difficult at work, or at church, or even at home. We do know what is like to feel discouraged, downhearted and even depressed in the face of various trials. So we are not where David was, but in a way, we feel like it.
That is the beauty of the Psalms. Even though our circumstances are so different, often we will find the Psalm writer putting his words right on top of our feelings. In the case of Psalm 57 we have the actual historical situation that David was in. More often the Psalms keep their specific historical situation in the shadows, allowing their words and images to resonate directly with our struggles in life.
So whether you are spending some time in the Psalm yourself, or preparing to preach it to others, think about these 11 verses as a mentoring experience. In effect through God’s Word we get to time travel three thousand years to sit in a cave with Dave and hear him processing his frightening situation.
In the first half of the Psalm he cries out to God in light of his situation:
Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by.
I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfils his purpose for He will send from heaven and save me; he will put to shame him who tramples me. Selah.
God will send out his steadfast love and his faithfulness!
My soul is in the midst of lions; I lie down amid fiery beasts – the children of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords. (vv1-4)
Then comes a refrain he will repeat later:
Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth! (v5)
Let’s notice a few details here, lessons for us from David in distress.
1. In distress he cried out to God. That seems obvious, but how often we don’t cry out! How easily troubles prompt me to get my head down and press on through the day. How easily I try to get resourceful and seek to handle the difficulties of life. Not David, he lifts up his head and cries out to God with specific requests and transparent awareness of his plight.
2. David knew that God’s purpose for his life meant there was hope in this time of trial. Yes, he was anointed to be king, so there was a sense of a guaranteed future. And I have not been anointed to be a king. However, if God has a plan and purpose for my life and for yours, which He does, then the current trial will not wipe us out before our time. We can have confidence for deliverance because until God’s plan for us is complete, then our life here isn’t. That doesn’t lead to arrogance or over-confidence. It does lead to prayers like this one in the midst of trials.
3. David knew that God would participate in his situation. Specifically, he declared that great theme of the Old Testament – that God is a God of steadfast love and faithfulness. God is a God who makes promises and keeps them. He is a God whose loyal love is toward his people in a loyal way. Does that sound repetitive? That’s because it is. God’s steadfast loyal love is reinforced with the word for his faithfulness. God’s loyal love is loyal to you and to me!
4. The bottom line of David’s cry for help is faith-filled. You might naturally expect a “So save me!” or “Bottom line, Lord, defeat my enemy!” But instead his bottom line is totally different – he wants God to be exalted and his glory to shine forth everywhere!
In the second half of the Psalm, David moves from crying for help to singing in praise:
They set a net for my steps; my soul was bowed down. They dug a pit in my way, but they have fallen into it themselves. Selah
My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast! I will sing and make melody!
Awake my glory! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn!
I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations.
For your steadfast love is great to the heavens, Your faithfulness to the clouds. (vv6-10)
And then the refrain once again:
Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth! (v11)
Let me add one more lesson to learn from David here before we leave him in the cave.
5. David changes the order of experience. So often we assume that our problem leads to our prayer, which leads to God’s provision and then we will praise. But David inverts this order slightly. Yes, our problem can and should lead us to pray. But then David praises in anticipation of future provision of deliverance. That is a big difference. Do we only praise with hindsight? Do we only worship God when we have seen Him do something special? Honestly, how is that a life of faith? David leads the way for us in this. Our prayer to God is an inclination of our hearts in trust toward Him. As our hearts look to God, we can know that He is bigger than the biggest trial we face, and therefore we can also praise by faith … before we see any answer to our prayer.
This Psalm, like many others, is filled with this lesson for us. Our God is bigger than every problem and challenge we face. So by faith we incline our hearts to God in prayer. And, by faith we can incline our hearts to God in gratitude, in praise, in song … before we see how He will answer. That is the life that Dave in the cave invites us into as he mentors us through this Psalm. And honestly, it is a life I want to live in the coming year. A life with my heart inclined toward the great God of steadfast love and faithfulness, a life where my prayer points my heart to a God whose character and greatness stir my heart to trust, to gratitude, to praise and to song. God is to be exalted! We want his glory to be over all the earth!
I recently had the joy of meeting Chris Castaldo and his family in Naperville, IL. I also preached in his church, Naperville New Covenant Church. It was a really enjoyable day. After visiting, Chris asked me for a blog interview for his blog: ChrisCastaldo.com (which is well worth checking out, along with his books). This is the link to the original interview, and the text is below:
1. Peter, what would you say is your driving passion in ministry?
I think the consistent thread in the ministries I’ve been involved in has been the desire to help people enjoy the Bible, and then from that, to enjoy relationship with Christ and spill that love to others. So, if I am preaching a sermon, or teaching in a seminar, or training preachers, I always want to help people catch that delight in God’s Word. I am convinced that God is a great communicator, and we just need to help people to see that.
2. That sounds great, but isn’t that what every Christian wants?
Maybe, but it doesn’t always appear to be the case. There certainly are many people whose ministry passion overlaps and complements what I have described. Sometimes people have a passion for a particular doctrine, or for a particular ministry or people group. But I have seen that in some circles the God that is preached is a scaled down version of the real God, and what results from that is effectively a thin gospel.
3. You mentioned the idea of a “thin gospel” in conversation before; can you say more on that?
Sure, when I refer to a “thin gospel” I am referring to a presentation of the good news of Jesus that may be technically true, but substantially lacking at the same time. Sometimes the gospel sounds like a 2-dimensional statement of truths, when it should be a 3-dimensional presentation of a person. The truths are true, but the person is largely missing. Or perhaps the truths are true, but several truths are missing.
For instance, I’ve often heard the gospel presented as being essentially a matter of sins forgiven because of what Christ did on the cross. True. And the rest? Don’t hear me wrong, if having our sins forgiven was the entire gospel then it would be reason enough to worship God for eternity with utter amazement – we do not deserve to have our sins forgiven through what Christ did at Calvary. However, the New Covenant promises we read about in the Old Testament, and repeatedly in the New Testament (New Covenant), are not restricted to having sins forgiven. God also promised to do a work in our hearts – living hearts replacing dead hearts, the law written on our hearts … a new affection for God and for good. And the Holy Spirit is given to each one of us, giving us eternal life as we experience genuine union with Christ and therefore fellowship with the Father. The New Covenant that we are brought into is not simply a matter of having our sins forgiven, it also involves the beginning of our transformation from the inside-out, all wrapped up in our fellowship with the Trinity. When that gets stripped back, then we end up with a thin gospel.
4. As well as preaching and offering seminars for believers, you also do a lot of training with preachers – what would you want to teach preachers in terms of countering this “thin gospel” concern?
I think one of the tensions that preachers should be feeling is the tension between the big idea and the big story. That is, the big idea is all about understanding the text you are preaching and making sure that you communicate what the text is actually saying. The big story is the whole Bible redemptive plan of God that every individual text is serving in some way. The tension preachers should be feeling is how can I make the good news of Jesus clear without abandoning my commitment to showing the right meaning of this particular text that I am preaching. Too often we start in a text, handle it fairly well, but then abandon that project to switch over to some gospel statements in order to make sure we have done that part of our job too. Often the gospel that gets tacked on is very thin. Sometimes we may even get creative to make a link that really isn’t there – thus undermining trust in our handling of the text for the sake of proving our gospel-integrity.
One of the things I like to teach is that preachers not only can preach both the big idea and the big story with integrity, but that they should do both well. It’s back to that initial thought that God is a good communicator and we get to show that to people! I want to help preachers understand and show how the text they are preaching offers genuine redemptive hope to their listeners, and to do so in a way that stirs their listeners not only to enjoy their Bibles, but to really enjoy Christ!
5. If a reader is interested in finding out more about your ministry, where should they go?
Thank you. If anyone wants to receive our family and ministry updates, then they can sign up via this link – http://eepurl.com/bpH9b My blog may be helpful: www.BiblicalPreaching.net and my books should be easy to find on your book retail website of choice – look for Pleased to Dwell, Lost in Wonder, Foundations, as well as two devotional guides to Galatians and John’s Letters.
A Gallery Guide – When you are preaching biblical poetry it may be helpful to think of yourself as a guide in an art gallery. You might be thinking that you don’t enjoy art galleries so perhaps you should skip this point, but hang in there. Poetry is powerful. Through stirring imagery and crafted structure, listeners are moved in a way that prose could never achieve. When biblical poetry does its work, it can really work in the heart and mind of a listener. So what is the preacher to do? Are we supposed to strip out those poetic features and coldly present the results of our analysis of an ancient poem? Or are we supposed to preach that poem in words that help the listeners to appreciate the depth of feeling and thought that was stirring in the artist’s heart and life as he wrote the poem? A good preacher of poetry does for listeners what a gallery guide might do for me: lead me beyond first impressions, cause me to slow down and start to feel with the artist as he or she begins to plumb the depths of the piece before me. When the preacher does that, he allows the text to do what the text was inspired and designed to do. There is more to preaching poetry than that, but there shouldn’t be less.
Next time we will add one more metaphor. Feel free to make up your own in the comments … I might even develop it as a post (giving you credit, of course).
Maybe your new year Bible resolutions have already started to fade? What we really need this year is not a renewed habit. What we really need is to unleash God’s Word into our lives and experience all that God wants to do in us.
If our experience of interacting with God in our Bible times is going to really count for anything, then it has to be in the context of real-life struggles that the Bible has something to offer us.
Psalm 143 is a great passage to ponder as we think about our Bible experience this year. It starts where life is at its toughest, then goes on to describe David’s experience in such an illuminating way for us. Actually, Psalm 143 is not one of those passages that speaks directly about the Scriptures. What it does is speak of David’s experience, which can also be our experience as we engage with God through the Scriptures.
In the first four verses David is crying out for God to answer his prayer, but to do so in faithfulness and mercy. He doesn’t want God to be acting as judge, otherwise he, like all of us, would be in real trouble. David is troubled by his own sin, and also by opposition from the enemy (see v3). Verse 4 describes a wiped out David – a man with nothing left to give. Sometimes that is where we find ourselves: either through our own sin, or the opposition of the enemy, we feel like we have had the stuffing knocked out of us and our spirit faints within. David writes that his heart is devastated, or laid bare. He feels like he has nothing left to give.
And so what do we do when life hits us like that? Where do we turn? Do we look within, or turn to a philosophy, or throw ourselves into a career or hobby, or perhaps just numb the pain with a substance? The world really has nothing to offer us. Of course, as we all know, we should turn to God. And so from verse 5 David’s experience is described in such a way that it can reflect what our experience could be as we engage with God through the Bible.
I want to share five things that unleashing God’s Word into our lives might bring this year. Before I do, a comment about Bible character envy. Perhaps you struggle with this envy at times. It goes like this: if I had David’s experience of defeating Goliath, or heard God’s voice on the mountain as Moses did, or met with the LORD as Abram did, then I would not struggle in my spiritual life today. Really?
Perhaps we could reverse the situation. Imagine we could travel through time and organise a conference for all the Bible characters to attend. Imagine we could tell them that after their time, in the future the Messiah would come, and then his followers would write more books, and then all the books from the Law, the Prophets, the Writings, and the apostles, would all be gathered together and freely available in many languages. I suspect that would be a room full of Patriarchs and Kings and Prophets who would be jealous of us!
So what does unleashing the Bible into our lives offer us?
1. We are rooted in the reality of God’s greater story. In verse 5, David speaks of memory, meditation and musing on God’s past activity. He had his own story, and he had the stories passed down from his ancestors. And as we read our Bibles we will be lifted out of the one square metre of our own experience and struggles. We will be reminded that we are part of a much bigger story that stretches across all centuries and all continents, from eternity past to eternity future, a story that is being written by God himself. We need that because life has a habit of sucking us into the vortex of our own struggles.
2. We are reminded that our greatest need is God. In verse 6, David describes his awareness of his own great need. His soul was like a parched land desperately thirsty for God. Even in our greatest struggles, we have an innate ability to assume we are just being unlucky. If God would just give us that promotion, or a lucky lottery ticket, or a perfect spouse, or a new spouse, or a new job, or whatever … if we could just get a fair set of circumstances then we would be able to succeed in life. Really? When we spend time in God’s Word we are reminded that actually what we need is not financial or circumstantial, it is profoundly spiritual. We need God. Desperately.
3. Our responsiveness to God is stirred by His steadfast love. In the beginning of verse 8 David refers to God’s steadfast love – perhaps the key theme of the Old Testament. You can find references to this proactive, selfless, loyal love on page after page of the Psalms. And as we read the Bible we are stirred to respond to that love as we see God’s faithfulness to his people, God’s self-giving for those he loves. We cannot work up faith within ourselves, but as we glimpse God’s steadfast love, then a response of trust is stirred within us.
4. We are redirected to live our lives by God’s good Spirit. The second half of verse 8 speaks of being shown the way to go. In verse 10 David asks for God to teach him to do God’s will, and for God’s good Spirit to lead him on level ground. When we are convinced of God’s favour toward us then the next step is not only trust, but also obedience. It may be that unleashing God’s Word in your life this year will mean God takes you to levels of obedience you never thought possible. Maybe areas of your life that you have tried and failed to fix, and now are ingrained in your rhythms of life, and you feel defeated and resigned to living with the secret shame…maybe that is where the light of God’s Word might shine in the coming days! Trust Him, and be willing to obey.
5. We are revived by our encounter with God. In the final two verses, David is clearly concerned about his life. So the request is translated as “preserve my life” in verse 11. Essentially the “preserve” is supplied by the context, but what he asks for is life. Whether asking for preserved life or revived life, God is the right person to be asking. As we engage with God in His Word, the deep cry of our parched souls for life can be answered because God is a God of steadfast love toward us.
Don’t make this another year of Bible reading as an attempted habit. Make it a year in which you unleash God’s Word into your life and you encounter God in the Bible as never before!
The first days of the year are typically days of anticipation and planning. All around us people will be making their resolutions. Even in the world of Christian ministry it is easy to get caught up the annual cycle of planning and scheming, often with unchecked values driving fine-sounding aspirations. This year I want to be fitter, better informed, more productive. This year I want to start a book, finish a book, see the church grow, etc. All good things, but potentially all reflections of a set of values that may be dressed up in Christian language, but deep down are very much in line with the competitive culture of this world.
How about something a bit different? This year I want to think about Jesus so much that I become more like him. That would be a leadership resolution worthy of our investment!
Just in case you like the idea, let’s kick start the year with a few verses from Isaiah 42. This is the first of the so-called “Servant Songs” – four songs that are clearly speaking of the Messiah himself, and not the nation of Israel as a whole. This first song speaks of Jesus as a leader.
42 Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his law.
Three times Isaiah refers to the Servant’s great task of bringing justice to the nations (Isa.42:1, 3, 4). This is no mean task. This calls for all the strength, all the power, all the political acumen, and all the gravitas to achieve such a task. Surely the passage is going to speak of the Servant’s power, his presence, his charismatic personality, and so on? Actually, no. Surprisingly it speaks of the Messiah’s relational tenderness.
1. In the first verse, we see the Trinitarian rootedness of the Messiah. Here the Father speaks of his delight in his chosen servant. He speaks of putting His Spirit upon him. It is easy to bypass this introductory image, but we would be theologically poorer if we did bypass it. Actually we should be rejoicing that our God is the Trinity. We should be delighted beyond words that we are not serving a self-serving despot, but instead we get to also serve a God who gives of himself, a God who exists in delightful communion. Later in John 13:3-5(??) we see how Jesus’ rootedness in his relationship with his Father enable him to give sacrificially of himself as he took on the role of the slave at the feet of his disciples. The Christ-like leader will always be one whose life and ministry is planted deep in the soil of fellowship with the Triune God. If God being Trinity does not thrill you, stop whatever else you are doing and lay your heart before God, pursuing the delight that can only be found in fellowship with Him.
2. In the second verse, we see the Messiah in respect to himself. The striking thought here is that he does not boldly announce his arrival. He chooses no fanfare, no elaborate introduction, no impressive biographical details. We exist in a world of self-promoters, and sadly the church offers little respite from this scourge. Maybe it will be through spending time looking at Jesus that we will lose our appetite for self-promotion and impressive introductions. Maybe your leadership is marred by a spectacular obsession with self of which you alone are unaware. Jesus is refreshingly different.
3. In the third verse, we see the Messiah relating to his subjects. Just as there is a subtle tenderness and humility in the preceding verses, so that becomes explicit in how he deals with others. So many in our churches and ministries are bruised reeds and faintly burning wicks. So many are on the edge of collapse in one form or another. So easily we can stamp all over the people around us, leaving a trail of crushed spirits and broken souls. Look past the praise of your strong leadership and ask God for sensitivity toward the weak who you may have trodden on in recent months. Time spent gazing on Christ will result in a radically different manner with people. Perhaps if we spent more time with Jesus we would invest less praise in the shooting star heroes of the faith who leave a burning trail of destruction behind them.
4. In the fourth verse, the Messiah’s tenderness is not seen to be a lack of endurance. His task was great, and yet that did not mean he created casualties. Tenderness is no reason for giving up, nor is endurance an excuse for hurting others. As it says in Hebrews 12, we should fix our gaze on Jesus so that we also will not grow weary and be tempted to give up.
Maybe a good 2018 for you is not to be measured in new projects, increased productivity or amplified praise. Maybe a good 2018 will mean more time spent with Jesus, greater tenderness toward others, and simply pressing on with what God has already given to you. I don’t know what my year looks like, nor even yours, but I know that if our leadership looks Christ-like, then it will be a year well worth living.
1. God spoke vs God speaks
We need both perspectives. We need to know that God has definitively revealed and communicated his very being through the incarnation and the work of the Holy Spirit in revelation that we can access with confidence in our Bibles. That canonized revelation is priceless and people need to be confident that we can stake our life and eternity on what it says in The Book. At the same time we do not have a God who is far away and unengaged. As we engage with the Bible we are engaging with God in the present. Some preachers speak only as if God spoke long ago and far away. Others preach as if God’s voice is heard predominantly today apart from the Bible. Both extremes are problematic. God spoke and through that, God still speaks. Our mission is to offer both to our listeners.
2. My World vs The World
Ever since the Fall we have all fallen inward like human-shaped black holes. We naturally think our world is the whole world, when actually there is a whole lot going on beyond me. As a preacher you address both. You speak God’s Word into a personal sphere that God does, in fact, care deeply about. God’s personal love and concern for each of us is nothing short of astonishing. At the same time we all need to have our horizon expanded beyond the sphere of self to see there is so much more beyond my life, my issues, my concerns, my comfort. The preacher speaks a message that is intensely personal, yet also expansively global in scope.
3. Past vs Future
People live in the bubble of their present concerns. Preachers point outside of that bubble. We point back to the world of the Bible and God’s definitive invasion in the person of His Son. The incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection and the ascension are all definitive points in past history. At the same time we point through preaching into the future to the historical moment when Christ will again enter into our world. Past events, future events, all shaping our present lives. Preachers point backwards and forwards and listeners need us to do both.
4. Under The Sun vs Under The Throne
We live our lives in light of what we can see, but there is more. The preacher points to both. As well as offering divine commentary and insight into the visible world around us, the preacher also pulls back the veil and shows the reality above. Stephen lived, preached and died in a terrifying whir of political tensions and angry voices, but above the sky there was a reality that he got to glimpse before his death – the Son of Man standing at the right hand of the throne on high. Daniel 7 is such an important passage – while we live in the raging foment of kingdoms rising and falling, terrifying the saints and waging war against them, all the while there is a higher throne, God is on it, and judgment is given into the hands of a human who is there at the side of the throne. We can live our lives and die our deaths in light of that reality … but preachers need to help people to see what is unseen.
5. Me vs Him
This may be the ultimate perspective issue in preaching. People naturally focus on themselves and yet do not see clearly. The preacher shines a light on the true self, and yet aims to draw the gaze of listeners away from self and to Christ.
In all of these ways preachers influence perspective through preaching. Does your preaching lean one way and not the other in any of these categories? Is there some perspective shift needed in you so that your preaching can bring about that good in others?
Perhaps the hardest thing to know is what you don’t know. One of the huge benefits of formal education is that it tends to open your eyes to what you don’t know. However, most of the time most of us remain blissfully unaware of riches with which we have not yet engaged. This post may be attempting the impossible, but I want to suggest some areas for further study that might be just what your ministry needs to develop to another level. I will not spell out everything, but rather offer some signposts that may nudge you in a healthy direction. Obviously, you may already know more than me about some of these, but that is beside the point. I believe these are fruitful avenues for prayerful study for any of us:
- The Fall. I believe the Fall in Genesis 3 had a far more profound effect on us than we have ever realized. Too many Christians think of sin as being a list of sins. But what about the “non-sin” sins such as self-righteousness and autonomy? Too many Christians think of sin as something they did before salvation with the odd slip up now and again since. But the gravitational pull of fallenness is exerting a huge effect on us all the time. I believe we would benefit as preachers to prayerfully pursue a full biblical answer to the question, “what is sin?”
- “In Christ.” Far too many Christians, and dare I say it, preachers, see salvation as being essentially only about guilt and forgiveness. The good news that is offered in too many pulpits is entirely too thin in comparison with the richness of what is actually offered in the New Testament – that is, in the New Covenant. The context in which our sins are forgiven, and our shame is removed, and our deadness is transformed, and our enmity is reconciled, and so on, is the context of our union with Christ. Lloyd-Jones referred to this as the “ultimate doctrine” and I suspect none of us have been able to exhaust the richness of what it means to be “in Christ” – many perhaps have barely begun!
- The Spirit. Many churches fall into one extreme or another on the Holy Spirit. For some, He is an end in himself, a source of power and a sensational goal to pursue. For others, He is a reality that deserves a tip of the hat and then is generally ignored (all the while affirming his existence and importance). Have we really grasped why and how the Spirit is so Christ-focused? Have we really grasped why and how the Spirit is so concerned with communication and relationship? Have we wrestled with the Spirit’s role in the Trinity? Is he just another member of a divine committee of three, or is he uniquely involved in the union of the Father and Son? And what is that to us?
And since my self-imposed word count is more than used up, here is just one more bonus:
Covenant. What kind of covenants does the Bible describe God to establish with us? Are they the same as contracts, really?
Feel free to let any of these stir a chase in the Bible and in your study. I suspect any chasing you might do on these subjects will not be wasted, but will only enrich and deepen your preaching ministry!
God delights to transform lives. There are many ways to depict this journey of transformation, but let’s focus on one example from the Old Testament. In Psalms 130 and 131 we have a three-picture portrayal of a life transformed by God’s goodness. In this progression of pictures we can find a helpful perspective as we care for the souls of others, and as we take stock of our own spiritual state too.
These Psalms come in the collection known as the Psalms of Ascent (120-134). These were probably a collection of songs used by the Israelites as they journeyed up to Jerusalem three times each year for the pilgrim feasts. When we think of pilgrimage we tend to think of a difficult journey with a spiritual goal – typically the idea that there is some merit in taking the journey and therefore some benefit. However, the Jewish feasts were actually celebrations of a salvation to which they had contributed nothing. It was not about earning anything, but about celebrating God’s goodness.
When we focus in on Psalms 130 and 131 we can notice a repeated phrase introducing the conclusion in each Psalm, “O Israel, hope in the LORD!” Intriguingly this phrase is only found here in the whole book of Psalms. This at least opens up the possibility that these two Psalms work together in some way. Then recognition of the progression of imagery underlines the idea that thesecan be read together. So let’s look at these three images and what they show us:
1. Our desperation for the forgiveness God gives. In Psalm 130 the writer begins with the terrifying image of being swallowed up by the sea. He describes the cry of desperation from someone as they sink below the waves of the sea into the darkness of the depths below. This isn’t a literal situation (unless you are Jonah, of course), but it is a description of what it feels like to realize your guilt before God. It is a cry for mercy that reaches upwards.
Most people don’t live constantly aware of the gravity of their situation. Nonetheless, without God’s mercy, all are sinners living in anticipation of horrifying judgment. Sometimes a glimpse will peak through and the fear will grip them before they distract themselves again. Without God’s mercy things may not feel bad, but the reality is there nevertheless. If God were to watch out for our sins in order to keep track of them, if He marked iniquities, then nobody could stand before Him. But there is great news for the sinner – God forgives.
God forgives sinners, the first step in bringing great peace to the guilty. He forgives fully, finally, freely and forever. And when the wonder of God’s forgiveness grips us, we live wide-eyed in awe of God’s remarkable kindness toward the undeserving. Fully forgiven, forever, really?
2. Our hope is in God himself. The second half of Psalm 130, from verse 5 onwards paints a second picture. No longer is it the overwhelming darkness and terror of judgment, but it is the darkness of night that is portrayed. Having been gripped by God’s forgiveness, the next stage in the transformation of the believer is to discover that we are given so much more than an offer of forgiveness (amazing as that would be). God gives us His Word (v5), He is a God who makes promises and keeps them. God gives us Himself (v6). And with God comes not only forgiveness (v4), but also steadfast love (v7) – the committed self-giving love of God that is ever and always loyal to the undeserving. He loves us for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, etc. And with God comes plentiful redemption (v7). This is forgiveness-plus!
As we grow in relationship with God we discover that He forgives, and He gives so much more – ultimately He gives us Himself. So we still live in a dark world, but we are like watchmen who have learned over the years to watch for the light of dawn. Morning always comes. We live in darkness, but we live with hope. And our hope is God Himself.
3. Our growth to find peace in the presence of God now. As the believer matures in the transformation that God’s love brings, we come to the final picture in Psalm 131. The mature believer is not caught up in their own significance, or in their own ability to make sense of everything. Almost strangely the image pictures the believer as a child. How can this be the picture of greatest maturity?
Well this is a weaned child (v2). That is, a child that no longer screams and grabs for the sustenance they need. Rather, it is a child that is at peace in the arms of their mother. We’ve all seen a child who leaves the pile of toys to go and peak in the other room to make sure mother is still there. We’ve seen a child who wants a story read not so much for the thrill of the tale, but for the security of the embrace. A weaned child can be in the dark, but all is well, because the mother is there holding them.
A mature believer grows to not only hope for deliverance in the future, but also to enjoy the peace that is found in God’s presence now. Not self-focused and grasping for things, but content to know that they are safe in God’s embrace.
From the terrifying darkness of despair, to the hope-filled darkness of anticipation, to the contented peace in the midst of darkness – this is the progress of God’s transformation work in our hearts. God gives great peace to the guilty, because God gives Himself to us!