Something to Ponder

The book of Psalms tends to become a favourite for people who have faced some challenges in life. Perhaps you have experienced grief over the loss of a loved one, discouragement during a dark season of life, or any other challenges that set the Psalms into vivid colour in our hearts. Once we know of the soul food kept in that storehouse, we tend to find ourselves returning again and again.

Sometimes the Psalm writer has found words for the ache in my heart. Other times the psalmist points my heart to where it needs to be looking. The book of Psalms is a real treasure – a refreshing spring for the weary times we all have to endure.

The book of Psalms sits at the centre of our Bibles for the times we are just reading through. Maybe there is no experienced crisis that leads us to this vast collection of Hebrew poetry. Sometimes, we will find ourselves reading it simply because it comes next in our Bible reading. It can be a great experience to read it through with fresh eyes and notice the uniqueness of each Psalm and the recurring themes.

Let’s look at the first Psalm of book five – Psalm 107. This Psalm sets the tone for the section that will follow. It begins as you might expect, with a call to thank our good God for his enduring, steadfast love. This call goes out to all who have been redeemed and rescued by God (v1-3).

Then we find ourselves walking through four examples of challenging circumstances from which God rescues his people:

First, we read of the weary wilderness wanderers failing to find a place of sanctuary (v4-9). They cried to the LORD, and he delivered them. (Those words will come up again.) So, with stomachs full and souls satisfied, the psalmist encourages them to thank the LORD for his steadfast love. 

Second, we read of the helpless prisoners, tired and broken by hard labour (v10-16). They cried to the LORD, and he delivered them. With their bonds broken and bodies set free, they are called to thank the LORD for his steadfast love.

Third, we read of the afflicted starving to death, suffering for their sin and facing their demise (v17-22). They cried to the LORD, and he delivered them. With healed bodies and joyful hearts, they are invited to thank the LORD for his steadfast love.

Fourth, we read of the fear-filled seafarers, tossed to and fro by the raging seas, despairing and at their wit’s end (v23-32). This example gives more vivid detail, but again, they cried to the LORD, and he delivered them (see v 6, 13, 19 and 28). With the storm stilled and safely brought back to the fellowship of humans on shore, they are encouraged to thank the LORD for his steadfast love (see v8, 15, 21, 31)

The final section of the Psalm underlines some of the points made throughout. God is in charge. Just as he can bring about change in nature (v33-38), he can reverse his people’s fortunes (v39-42). And so, the final verse ensures we have not missed the point. If we are wise, we will ponder what this Psalm says. Indeed, if we are wise, we will ponder, contemplate, consider and meditate on the steadfast love of the LORD (v43).

The Psalm begins and ends with the spotlight on the steadfast love of God. The Psalm invites us to consider four examples of people in dire straits who called out to God and discovered why they should thank God for that steadfast love.

Perhaps Psalm 107 is the food for thought that we need. It could be that we feel like we are close to death or tossed in every direction and despairing of life itself. Or it could be that we are calmly moving through the second half of 2022, thankful for God’s blessing and a season of tranquillity and peace. Whatever may be going on around us, Psalm 107 suggests what should be happening inside us. We should be considering the steadfast love of God. Honestly, it is hard to think of a wiser thing to do.

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Walking Through the Psalms

During 2022 I have been enjoying a slow walk through the book of Psalms. I have been working through the book one Psalm at a time. I have shared the journey via YouTube and sought to convey a detail and a point of application from each Psalm to help others enjoy reading the Psalm. I will attach the playlist below this post.

As we are now at the halfway point in the year, I thought I would pull together some reflections:

  1. Slowing down and pondering a Psalm allows you to appreciate the artistic crafting contained within a Psalm. For instance, if I look at the short five verses of Psalm 70, I notice the key terms repeated in the first and last verses: haste, O God, deliver me; O LORD, help me. Actually, while I knew that Psalms can give a sense of completion by using similar terminology at the beginning and end, I have been surprised by how often that occurs. And the use of inclusio, or “bookends”, is only one of many types of artistry to be found in the Psalms.
  2. Scribbling on the text of a Psalm allows you to notice the flow of thought more easily. Again, sticking with Psalm 70 as a simple example, there are two movements within the body of the Psalm. In verses 2-3, the repetition of “Let them…” shows David’s concern regarding those opposing him. He wants God to deal with them. Then verse 4 has the repetition of “May…”, which points to the positive request and anticipation. David knows that seeking God leads to good for his people. Judgment of them; the blessing for us.
  3. Study intensity does not preclude devotional impact. I remember Gordon Fee writing about the need for exegesis and devotion. He noted that just as a church does not need an exegetically precise pastor who is lacking in devotional warmth as he studies his Bible in sermon preparation, the people in the pew should not be devotionally warm while being exegetically imprecise in their personal Bible times. Sometimes we fall into the trap of separating technical study from devotional reading. But when I scribble on a printout of a Psalm, note the structure, the parallelisms, the imagery, and even when I turn to a technical commentary to probe a specific issue, none of this precludes the devotional impact of the Psalm. The end goal should be that the Psalm speaks to my heart, affects my life, and potentially gets shared as an encouragement to someone else.
  4. Simplicity in Psalm study is sometimes where we find the treasure. Some of us set the bar very high for our Bible engagement. We think we have to plumb the depths and find high-level technical insights in every study. But in Psalm 70, the bottom line is straightforward. David starts the final verse with an extra line before returning to the terms that bring the Psalm full circle as they repeat the opening ideas from verse 1. What is the additional line? “But I am poor and needy.” The enemies of David need to be judged. God’s people have reason to rejoice in God. David is poor and needy. So, hasten, O God, deliver and help me. The bottom line that we can take away? “I need God.” It is not high-level original thought, and I will not get a PhD for noticing it, but it might be just the thought I need as I walk with God today.
  5. Short Psalms do not have to mean brief study. Psalm 70 is just five verses long. It is essentially a repetition of the final verses of Psalm 40. So, with it being brief and recently studied, does that make it a quick cursory study? It does not have to mean that at all! God’s Word can always be a fruitful chew! I understand the benefits of a quick read and simple study – we all need those too. But there is nothing to say that a brief Psalm must not linger longer than a few minutes in our minds and hearts. Meditate on God’s Word, day and night – that even sounds like a healthy Psalms idea!
  6. Some Psalms point overtly to Jesus; every Psalm points to God’s character. Some Psalms clearly point beyond themselves to the coming greater son of David. In other Psalms, the connection to the coming Messiah is less overt. But every Psalm points to God’s character, which is an excellent focus for your heart. It is never too big a step from God’s goodness, grace, mercy, and blessing to the fulfilment of God’s great plan in the coming of Jesus. You don’t have to force a detail to make the link explicit. But do make sure you are enjoying the God who is revealing himself through this beautiful book.
  7. Say what you see – the Psalms ask to be prayed or sung. As you read through Psalms, you may find a tune already in your mind. For example, Psalm 34 and Psalm 68 seem to strike up several songs because of songs sung in my church growing up or today. Other Psalms may feel very unfamiliar in their wording. Yet, often they offer the very words my heart wants to be praying to God. That feeling of profound contemporary relevance is not rare when spending time in Psalms. So let the words work in your heart and then let the words work on your lips, whether you are singing God’s praise or crying out to God in prayer.
  8. Share what you see – the Psalms are asking to be passed along. There is something incredibly transferable about the blessing of Psalms. The simplicity of application, the power of the imagery, the brevity of the written context – it all means you have something to share with others in conversation or with friends via text message. Psalms is a book that joins you in the most secret place of suffering or struggle, and yet it is a book that can spill out to others in the everyday activities of life. Share what you are blessed to see.

What do you appreciate about the book of Psalms? What have I missed?

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Neil Todman on Psalms and Grief

This Friday we will be releasing an interview with Neil Todman, pastor of Headley Park Church in Bristol. Neil’s first wife, Elaine, died a few years ago and in the full interview Neil tells the story of those years, of God’s faithfulness, and of navigating such challenging years as a pastor. Along the way he also talks about the book of Psalms including the challenges and blessings of preaching from Psalms every year. In this post I want to give you a taste of the interview by sharing two clips with you.

The full interview will be available from Friday afternoon for everyone on the Cor Deo Online mailing list (we send typically one email per month with exclusive free resources). Here is the link to join the mailing list.

And one more clip for you. Neil talks about how to help someone who is grieving – such helpful pastoral insight:

Journey in the Dark

darkness2God 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!

Psalms: A Disconnect and a Nudge

Point 1. At a recent preaching seminar the organiser admitted that he had only ever chosen to preach from the Psalms once.  He asked everyone present how much they choose to preach from the Psalms when they have the choice on what to preach.  The general consensus was almost never.

Point 2. Speak to any Christian who has been walking with the Lord for more than a few years.  Ask them what book of the Bible has been dear to them during the most challenging times in their experience.  Times of hurt, of doubt, of grief, of loss, of fear, of insecurity, of loneliness, of pain, of betrayal . . . the times when life was as life often is. The answer, time and again, will be the book of Psalms.

The Disconnect. People come to church in the midst of life in all its colour and complexity.  People are hurting, doubting, experiencing, struggling, suffering.  A significant proportion of people in our churches every Sunday are dealing with a significant level of life’s complexity.  Yet as preachers many of us seldom if ever choose to preach from the book that countless Christians have grown to love precisely because it does engage with the harsh realities of life in a way that we can identify with.  This is a disconnect.  (Not to mention the fact that when some do preach the Psalms, they have a habit of dissecting into theology-sized chunks that feel like an epistle in presentation – that’s something I’ve written about in other posts!)

The Nudge. Why not preach from the Psalms sometime?

Single Verse Sermons

The site received this comment from Peter D:

I have been studying Charles Spurgeon’s sermons. He would often take one scripture and expound on it from every direction he could, would that be thin blooded? I’m preparing a message for later this month and want to focus on one verse within Psalm 63 – it sticks out to me and brings the whole psalm to life, for me at least. In your opinion is it best when dealing with psalms to preach the whole psalm in it’s entirety or can focusing on one part bring it to life for the members?

This is a good question.  Regarding the Psalms I would suggest it is always important to study a Psalm in its entirety, but it may be effective to focus on one part if that seems appropriate for the situation (i.e. when covering the full text in a longer psalm would prove overwhelming or unachievable). 

But what about single verse sermons? Certainly in the past there were many more preachers who preached on single texts, often going from those texts to a sometimes comprehensive canon-wide presentation of the pertinent doctrines suggested (or sometime not suggested) in that text.  Sadly there are many who try to copy the approach of a Spurgeon without achieving a comparable level of personal spirituality and biblical maturity.  There is certainly a place for doctrinal preaching, as well as better and worse ways to do it.  Perhaps there should be a post on that subject sometime . . .

But what can we say about single-verse sermons?

1. If a single verse is a complete unit of thought, great!  For instance, many proverbs stand alone as a complete unit of thought and can be profitably preached as such.

2. If a single verse conveys the main idea of the unit of thought, great!  In some passages there is a single thought that encapsulates the main idea of the passage and it might be effective to preach the verse, while choosing how much of the context to refer to at the same time (depending on situation of sermon, listeners, etc.)

3. If a single verse conveys a significant proportion of the main idea of the text, this might be effective.  As above, the surrounding context will need to be brought into the message in some way or other, but appearing to preach a single verse may work well.  In Peter’s comment above, I noticed how he still tied the single verse to the message of the Psalm as a whole, which makes me think it might be very effective.

4. In a topical message, a single verse may act as sectional manager for that section of the message, but that manager must not act autonomously from the influence of the full unit of thought.  That is, the verse must be understood in its context.

5. If a single verse is used without awareness of context, or to preach a point it wouldn’t give if understood in context, or if preached without studying the context . . . well, please don’t.

Natural Born Series

Some preachers plan series in a relatively simple manner.  They select a book of the Bible and then preach, unit by unit, through the book, or through a section.  Others select a topic and select appropriate passages to organize a topical series.  I am not critiquing either approach, but want to offer another option too.

Just as we are in danger of reading the Bible to look for a message, so we can fall into reading the Bible to look for a series.  One way this manifests itself is in the sections we dismiss, as much as those we select.  For instance, what if we were looking in the Psalms and were drawn to a section like the Psalms of Ascent?  Well, fifteen weeks might be too long for a series, so we are tempted to look elsewhere.

As often as possible we should simply soak in the text.  Like taking a leisurely bath rather than a quick shower, we should take every opportunity to be saturated by a section.  Something happens once it gets into you.  Let’s push the analogy and say that the skin of our soul becomes wrinkly . . . even when you step out the evidence remains.

So for example, I was preparing a synopsis of a longer study on Psalms 107-118 (the section before the Ascent Psalms).  A dozen psalms that present a unified and powerful message.  If I had been looking for a series, I would have gone elsewhere because 12 weeks is probably too long.  (Or settled for the more obvious Egyptian Hallel of 113-118, missing the blessing of the first part of the sequence.)  But after soaking in this text for a while, I can’t help but find myself thinking of creative ways to present the message of this section.  Combining psalms, summarizing a block of three with a focus on one, perhaps even preaching a message that traces the flow through all twelve.

I soaked and now the wrinkly skin of my soul is looking for an opportunity to preach the section . . . in one message, in three, in five.  I suppose, like a leisurely bath, there is probably a fragrance that lingers from this kind of study, too.

Sometimes we have to plan very pragmatically.  Let’s be sure we also create space for soaking, slow, text-saturated, natural born series.

The Bible, Expository & Consecutive Preaching – Part 4

Daniel Goepfrich wrote a substantial interaction with this blog over on his site – here – this post is specifically addressing the examples of poetry and prophets given in paragraphs 10 & 11.

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Regarding Poetry, again I don’t insist that we preach through a book – that is not what I teach (thanks for correcting your post on that).  However, it would be a shame to miss the importance of written context for any biblical passage.  Proverbs seems to be the most randomly organized, until you read Bruce Waltke or someone like that and start to see the structuring of apparently random collections of proverbs.  Whether or not that can or should be communicated in preaching is another issue.   Ecclesiastes and Job are not random collections.  Psalms, I would suggest, is not as random as our contemporary hymn books (ordered alphabetically).  It contains collections, and increasingly scholars are recognizing structure and ordering throughout the collection.  My Hebrew prof did his OT PhD on the evidence of structure and order in Psalms 107-118.  His mentor, Gerald Wilson, has demonstrated that Psalms is anything but a mere hymn book.  Again, it would be a shame to have a superficial view of this part of the canon and miss some of the richness contained in the structure and sequencing of the book.  That does not require preaching straight through, but it does urge us to have a real awareness of the literary context in our studies.

You mention prophets, and likewise, I agree that we don’t have to preach straight through.  Again, though, I suggest that even if two oracles were given at different times, or in a different order, the way they are in the Bible now is the inspired text.  Our task is neither to dismiss ordering of texts and treat them as random collections, nor is it to “reconstruct” an original and better order.  Our task, in part, is to understand the inspired text as it stands.  Whether you preach straight through or not is up to you – I do both.  However, I would suggest that not studying a passage in context will seriously undermine your ability to understand the text (and why should you study in context if it’s just random?)

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My final segment of response will come tomorrow.  Thanks.

Getting to Grips with the Genres: Poetry (2)

Yesterday’s post was concerned with how poetry works.  Now let’s consider the implications for our preaching.

Implications for Preaching Poetry

-If preaching narrative connects listeners to plot and discourse connects listeners to ideas, then poetry connects listeners to feelings attached to ideas.

-This means that preaching poetry is slow. It’s less like going on a run than it is like sitting before a painting in an art gallery. The preacher is to draw out colors, themes, nuance, and ideas, line by line, in a way that gives time and space for listeners to connect not just cognitively but affectively to the poem.

-Consider using music, paintings, pictures, movie clips, etc., to draw-out an idea.

-Consider allowing for testimony that affirms the points in poetry. Consider attaching biblical narrative to the points too.

-Poetry speaks to truths and feelings that we have felt, will feel, and need to feel. They are not fiction but fact. We need to be shaped by them. Allow your preaching of poetry the time, space, tone, posture, and space to accomplish this. It’s worth it!

Getting to Grips with the Genres: Poetry (1)

Poetry is different from narrative and it is very different from discourse. How though is our preaching of poetry different from our preaching of narrative and discourse? To answer this question, today we will consider how poetry works and functions. Then tomorrow we’ll consider some implications for preaching poetry.

How Poetry Works – Besides employing literary devices such as imagery, metaphor, allegory, simile, wordplay, irony, hyperbole, etc., the prevalent literary device in Hebrew poetry is parallelism. There are many ways to describe parallelism. One common way is to discern between four kinds of parallelism – antithetical parallelism, synonymous parallelism, synthetic parallelism, and emblematic parallelism. In antithetical parallelism, the first line of a sentence is in contrast to the second line (Ps 34:19). In synonymous parallelism, the first line of a sentence is similar to the second line (Ps 49:3). In synthetic parallelism, the second line of a sentence builds upon the idea of the first line (Ps. 49:5). In emblematic parallelism, the two parts of a sentence connect through simile or metaphor (Ps 49:20).

How Poetry Functions – Parallelism insists that the reader slow down, mull over, and consider how each sentence functions. More than that, because each sentence is laced with metaphor, allegory, simile, wordplay, irony, hyperbole, etc., poetry insists that its content be felt. Rhetorically, poetry connects affect to ideas.