The king passes in front of the soldiers.
They stand strong and silent.
The people strain to see.
Power excites and enthralls and enchants.
I walked on the sidewalk in front of the cathedral.
I looked up at the giant ornate doors.
I stepped backwards and tried to see the full length of the tallest decorative spire.
I noticed the cell phone antennae.
What motivates the design and building of a cathedral?
What sort of awe quickens the heart and brightens the imagination?
Am I going through life without the Big Deal?
Have I missed my chance to be truly inspired, truly overcome by awe?
Where are my fellow worshipers, who can join me in designing our cathedral?
When do we come together to fall on our knees and chant, “Holy! Holy! Holy!”
Yahweh passes in front of us.
We avoid stepping on the old chewing gum on the sidewalk.
We check our cell phone.
The “punch line” of Ecclesiastes is contained in the last two verses of the book: The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 ESV)
only God matters …
The entire Old Testament is summarized in those last two verses: (a) The law (“keep His commandments”); the prophets (“bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil”); and wisdom (“Fear God,” which according to Proverbs 9:10 is the beginning of all wisdom).
The last two verses of the book also point to the New Testament. As a precondition to becoming a follower of Christ, it is necessary that a person have a large, even fearful, understanding of God-the-all-knowing-all-seeing-Judge. Only then does it make sense for that person to realize that he or she cannot possibly rise to God’s standard of perfect holiness, and only then does our desperate need for a Savior become clear. On the other hand, a follower of Christ, that is, one who loves Jesus Christ and relies upon Him, expresses and acts out his or her love for Jesus Christ be keeping His commandments (John 14:18-21).
… or else life is just a meaningless mist
The theme of the book of Ecclesiastes is that life without God is hebel [H1892], that is, a transient, meaningless vapor or breath or mist. Life for humans, from this perspective, is hardly different than that of a goldfish swimming in a bowl.
We are hardwired to find meaning in life somehow and somewhere. People who do not find their meaning and identity in God, often try to find it somewhere else: status, work, career, family, reputation, contribution to history, timeline on facebook.com, pleasure, etc.
This is frustrating, because it does not work. When we try to find meaning in these ways, we become exhausted and disappointed. Worse, the more adept we feel we have become on our own (“under the sun,” that is, without God), the more sinful and corrupt we tend to become. Indeed, the Bible describes atheism as both foolish and corrupting (see Psalm 14:1-3 and Psalm 53:1).
Which is why denial of God, or separation from God, is itself a form of hell (see Matthew 27:45-46).
Audio MP3 Discussion of this post is available here.
Some Observations about the Text
Life is Short: So What? Wisdom literature, from Hippocrates, to Confucius, to any number of other thinkers and authors, often includes warnings about the shortness of life. Psychologists consider an orientation to short-term pleasure-seeking to be counter-productive in the quest for happiness. Many old clocks include the words Tempus Fugit on their faces.
However, the “So What?” question is seldom asked and almost never answered. (Hopefully the So What question is not fully answered by Caribou Coffee‘s marketing slogan, “Life is short. Stay awake for it”).
Biblical Warnings about the Brevity of Life. When the Bible address the matter of life’s transience, it usually does so in specific contexts. In other words, the “So What?” question is answered. You can see this by doing a word study of hebel, translated two out of three times in Psalm 39 as “breath” and once as “nothing” [ESV]. Blow some bubbles and watch them pop … hebel describes the resulting “nothingness” of a disappearing breath.
Here are some examples of contexts in which the Bible points to the transience of life:
- Life is short … so consider the sovereignty and eternal existence of our Creator. Psalm 90.
- Life is short … so call out to God, who is enthroned forever and who is remembered throughout all generations. Psalm 120.
- Life is short … so pay careful attention to God’s Word, which stands forever. Isaiah 40 (also quoted in 1 Peter 1:22-25).
- Life is short … so don’t bother boasting about your future plans. James 4.
- Life is short … so focus on laying up treasures according to God’s riches not earthly riches. Luke 12:13-21.
The Brevity of Life and Suffering. There are a couple of ways to think about the brevity of life as it relates to suffering. One way is fatalistic: life is short, so the suffering that we endure in life is, in the larger picture of things, short. Of course, no matter how long we life, if much of our life is spent in suffering, we can end up with a frustrating and negative view of life. Or we can adopt the view favored by some Eastern religions, that is, that karmic fatalism ought to simply be accepted and not questioned.
Another way to think about the brevity of life as it relates to suffering, is to focus on the reduction of pain and the maximization of comfort and pleasure. Life is short; make the best of it and leave it at that. This hedonistic view of life does not provide any understanding of or engagement with suffering; it simply seeks to avoid it. There is no meaning or purpose in life except to seek pleasure and avoid pain.
If you think that suffering and evil are human experiences that lead you to ask questions about God and the possibility of creation, you are right. They should. Especially in view of the brevity and transience of life.
The problem that people often have when they consider suffering and evil in light of the possibility of God-as-Creator, is that they superimpose their own rational matrix, their own set of naturalist presuppositions, over the question. They tend to define suffering as evil, for example, when suffering is not necessarily evil (ask any athlete in training). And they tend to define evil by their own terms as well … often without giving due consideration to how the “evil” question could possibly look from an enlarged perspective of time (as in, eternity past and future) and space (as in, the relative size of this tiny dot in the universe call earth). In other words, they attempt to resolve the question of evil-in-view-of-God, from a human/humanist view that does not and cannot take into account God-as-Creator. They loop themselves into a syllogistic lasso that makes it impossible for a rational, reasonable or even intelligible answer to emerge.
Eternal Life and Not-Suffering. The words of Jesus Christ, and indeed, the words and ideas found throughout the Bible, make sense, in part because they are not time-limited. They presume time and space beyond this earth. If God is, and if God is Creator, the universe itself would not contain God (2 Chronicles 6:18). And yet only a God who created all of heaven and earth, could fill heaven and earth … so much so that we could never actually hide from Him (Jeremiah 23:24). The “natural” phenomena of time and space only make sense if we understand that they have a super-natural origin, that is, a spiritual origin. Otherwise known as God (John 4:24).
The Bible also recognizes that we have “eternal” yearnings. The brief, transient human life expectancy leaves us wanting and frustrated. The Bible observes that we are actually wired for this frustration. God — the Creator of time itself — put eternity in the hearts of humans for a reason (Ecclesiastes 3:11). This frustration points us toward God, which is why the great majority of all people who have ever lived, and the great majority of all people who are alive today, gravitate toward some religious or spiritual expression or endeavor. We even hire specialists, called priests in most religions, to work on the project of connecting humans to God.
But there’s only one specialist, one priest, who lives forever. That priest is Jesus Christ, who has a permanent priesthood (Hebrews 7:24). He is the living One who was dead and is alive, and holds the keys to heaven and hell (Revelation 1:18). Having been raised from the dead, Jesus Christ dies no more (Romans 6:9). And He invites us to participate in His eternal life (1 John 5:11-12) by turning to Him in faith (Galatians 3:26-27).
Listen to an Audio MP3 Discussion of this post here.
A Closer Look at the Text
Numbering of the Psalms. The first eleven verses of Psalm 147 are numbered as Psalm 146 in the Septuagint-based Biblical numbering system used by Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions (and the remaining verses of Psalm 147 are designated as Psalm 147 in the Orthodox/Catholic traditions). In the Masoretic-Text based numbering system used in most Protestant translations, all twenty verses are designated Psalm 147. The numbering does not really matter: the numbering of the Psalms is somewhat arbitrary, and in both the Protestant tradition and the Catholic/Orthodox traditions the entire Psalter is present. It’s just the numbering that is different, not the Word of God in the original Hebrew.
Chiasm. The literary structure of the Psalm is chiastic, that is, the first half builds to a climactic center-point, and the second half follows on from that climactic center-point. As part of the center-point, the Psalm acknowledges at verse 11 that God takes pleasure in those who fear Him and in those who hope in His steadfast love.
What Motivates our Praise of God? Gratitude for grace, including answered, prayer are certainly two reasons that we praise God. Spurgeon calls praise of God a duty that is the ultimatum of our faith: “Excuse me that I continue to say to you, ‘Praise ye the Lord,’ for, often as I say it, you will not praise him too much; and we need to have our hearts stirred up to this duty of praising God, which is so much neglected. After all, it is the praise of God that is the ultimatum of our religion. Prayer does but sow; praise is the harvest. Praying is the end of preaching, and praising is the end of praying. May we bring to God much of the very essence of true religion, and that will be the inward praise of the heart!”
Fear. Why does God take pleasure in our fear? Because fear of the Lord is the beginning point for a proper posture toward an awesome and almighty God-the-Creator (Proverbs 1:7). It is fear that makes it possible for us set aside everything in life in order to learn about and appreciate the Gospel, and God’s love and hope (in a sense this is a “pedagogical” fear) (Psalm 25:11-15). Only fear prepares our heart to follow God, enables (relationship with God) and leads to hope (2 Corinthians 7:1). This requires a sincere sense of helplessness before God, something that the Bible calls “fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). It helps us understand that we are not in a position to “negotiate” with a holy and fearsome God; instead, we are left to trust entirely in Jesus Christ.
In other words, once we have a proper fear of the Lord, it becomes possible for us to read and listen properly to His Word (i.e. a pedagogical fear) and to be in friendship with Him (Psalm 25:11-15). As we do, we can grow in love and fellowship with Him … all the while retaining at least some ongoing (slightly fearful) sense of His holiness and greatness (2 Corinthians 7:1).
Being Brokenhearted. “Brokenhearted” as we use the term can have a fairly broad application. We usually use the term in reference to a loss of relationship, or of dreams, or of hope, or of promise. Sometimes we experience deep loss when we are victimized by crime, or by the devastation of a storm or flood or fire.
The two words that make up the term broken-hearted (shabar leb) are used in the Bible less casually than we tend to use the term, and more narrowly. In the Bible, being brokenhearted means that our heart, our soul, and our very being is smashed and crushed and demolished. It means that we are dust, that we are completely undone.
Psalm 69:16-20 uses the term “brokenhearted” in connection with being ashamed. Shame, as used in the Bible, has to do with seeking to hide from the eyes of God (just as Adam and Eve were ashamed of their sign tried to hide from God, Genesis 3:7-8). Brokenhearted includes a senses of spiritual, not just emotional, devastation. Biblical broken
Similarly, Psalm 51:17 speaks of a broken-and-contrite heart, that is, a heart that is properly sorrowful about offending God. This condition is the same as described at Isaiah 57:15 and Psalm 34:17-18, except that these two verses point more directly to the spiritual aspects. A broken heart includes a sense of spiritual need as well as emotional need. This holistic need can only addressed, assuaged and satisfied by the good news of the Gospel, as observed at Isaiah 61:1.
Philosophical naturalism is a particular form of atheism or agnosticism that denies that there is a spiritual reality outside of the material reality that can be accessed and verified through the scientific method. There is no spiritual dimension, no soul, no God, no miracles and no paranormal. When two people fall in love and declare that they are “soul mates,” this is nonsense to the philosophical naturalist. When someone suffers a serious loss in their life and uses terms like “spiritual crisis” or “crisis of faith,” again, nonsense. This type of language is seen by the naturalist as merely describing emotions, which they view as physiological only. No eternal soul, no spirit, only physical chemistry and body fluids. That’s it.
Philosophical naturalism makes for interesting intellectual discussions, but it’s not what most people experience. We experience love and shame and loneliness and dread from the depths of our being. From our soul. And when we are truly brokenhearted, it’s not just an emotional swing. It’s spiritual. We know that … from the depths of our soul.
He heals the brokenhearted. He binds up their wounds. Psalm 147:3.
3Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness. 4Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. 5Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.. (Psalm 37:3-5 ESV)
A Closer Look at the Text
Don’t Fret it. This is much more than simply “don’t sweat it.” Psalm 37 begins with the words “Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers! For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb.” In the original Hebrew, the word “fret” (charah, H2734) refers to a seething burning with anger. In this Psalm David reminds us that we aren’t wearing God’s wristwatch. In due time … in God’s time … even the most “successful” evildoers will fade away like the grass clippings of a recently mowed lawn. We are following Jesus Christ, and we need not trouble ourselves about what we see as injustice in a world where many of the wealthiest are actually world-class criminals.
Trust. The Psalmist instructs us in the next verse to “Trust in the LORD, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness” (Psalm 37:3-4). Here the word “trust” (batach, H982) speaks to an active and bold confidence-that-enables, not a passive reliance that results in inaction or laziness. Our trust in the Lord points us in the direction of actively dwelling in the land, actively befriending faithfulness, and actively doing good.
Delight. Next we are told to “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” This is not merely a promise; it is a command. Our delight (`anag, H6062) flows from and flows out of our trust. When we trust God, our universe is in order, and we can flourish in ways that would never be available to us if we did not trust God. There is an exquisite, if sublime, gladness, a peace that surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7), with which we are graced as a result of our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. David command us to pay attention to this exquisite gladness.
Commit. The next command is to “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday.” The word “commit” (galal, H1556) is a Hebrew word that literally means “roll.” To commit our way to the LORD as used here literally means to “Roll with God.” Our journey is God’s journey, and we “roll” with Him.
Rest. Finally, we are instructed to “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.” Being still (damam, H1826) has as much to do with our thoughts and our speech as it has to do with our body. Daman means to be quite or mute. In the progression of commands, David invites us to trust in God, delight in Him, be committed to him … and then be silent before him. Allow Him, through His Word and His Holy Spirit, to inspire our thinking and to direct our path.
Some Observations about the Text
Trust. What does it actually mean to trust God? “In God we Trust” is on many of our coins and on much of our currency. We like to say, “In God we Trust,” and then, as if that were not quite enough, we like to add, “United We Stand.” This certainly makes for great patriotism, but questionable theology. We either trust God or we don’t. If we do trust God, we don’t have to “override” Him by: rushing into action without first seeking His will in prayer and in His word; borrowing money to make purchases that He has not seen fit to put within our financial reach; cheating or stealing or lying or finding ways to earn a living or support ourselves when those means of support do not glorify Him (in fact, quite the opposite); or permitting ourselves to be dishonest, immoral, impure, disobedient, or sinful in some way because we some “have no choice” even though we claim to trust Him. We can “under-trust” God by acting in self-serving ways that do not glorify Him; we can also “over-trust” God by taking unwise risks, ignoring our responsibilities, being lazy, or otherwise expecting God to solve problems that He has allowed us to face and to take on in ways that would honor Him and reflect our relationship with Him.
Commit. The interesting use of the word “roll” to express the idea of “commit” reminds me of the Myth of Sisyphus, a Greek myth that was made famous in the mid-1950′s by the atheist existentialist Albert Camus. For Camus (and the early Greek storytellers), life amounts to nothing more than pushing a rock up a hill, only to have it roll back down. But the Gospel is the good news that life does indeed have meaning, and to “roll with God” means to trust Jesus Christ to be in charge of rock-rolling. It might not even be too trivial to declare, “I roll with God; He rocks!” Or something like that. Sorry.
It is impossible to get through life without trusting something. To purchase a loaf of bread at the grocery store, is to trust an entire agro-economy of farming, harvesting, processing, distribution, and retailing … all the while trusting that the loaf of bread is “probably” not contaminated or toxic. To have any relationship with any other person is to trust; and the betrayal of that trust by a friend or loved one hurts deeply. We call people who can’t trust anyone under any circumstances, who are hyper-skeptical of everyone and everything, paranoid. Or insane. They might as well be insane, because their life is non-functional without a certain degree of trust.
People who do not have faith in God, actually do place their faith somewhere else. To a large extent, such folks’ faith is often in rationalism and their own ability to reason. Of course, we all make enough mistakes in life that we ought to realize that our own ability to reason is helpful but ultimately flawed to some degree.
Others place their faith in science (thank you, weapons of mass destruction). Or education (is it necessary to comment on this one?). Or evolution (which means that our lives necessarily have no meaning because we are here by random chance). Or money (tell me again about the world class criminals). Or family (which is great until they separate from us, disappoint us, annoy us, or die …). Or government (now THAT’s a good plan … not).
People seem to instinctively know that they need to trust something or someone. This is a real need. Clifford Williams calls it an existential need.
And so when the Psalmist instructs his reader to “Trust in the LORD,” he’s not suggesting that we trust God because we aren’t trusting anyone or anything else. He’s suggesting that we trust God instead of everyone and everything else. Only when we we do, will we find exquisite, sublime delight.
Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). To trust God, is to take Jesus Christ up on his Word.
Audio MP3 Discussion of this post is available here.
17The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:17 ESV)
A Closer Look at the Text
We are all sinners. God’s Word tells us that if we claim to be without sin we are deceiving and deluding ourselves about ourselves (1 John 1:8). We all sin, and we do so consistently and religiously. That’s what the Bible tells us. The Bible also tells us that if we deny this, we are calling God a liar (1 John 1:10).
So the question is not whether we sin, and not even how much or how greatly we sent, but what do we do about it.
King David sinned when he allowed his eyes to rest upon Bathsheba while she was bathing, and he sinned in multiple ways after he allowed his lust to override his love for God and God’s law. Psalm 51 is his prayer of confession and repentance.
David does not pray, “Have mercy on me because you’re a good God and I’m a pretty good guy.” He knows better. God not just “good.” God is perfect and holy and just, and so God can only provide forgiveness according to His steadfast love and according to His abundant mercy (Psalm 51:1). And David is not “pretty good.” He cannot escape his sin. He is constantly aware of it (Psalm 51:3), and he can do nothing to fix his sin problem. Only God can blot out his transgressions (Psalm 51:1). Only God can wash them thoroughly from his iniquity and cleanse him from his sin (Psalm 51:2).
When David considers his recent sins involving Bathsheba (including, as narrated at 2 Samuel 11, his adultery with her and his murder of her husband), he realizes that those sins are only the most recent evidences of his depravity. His entire life is characterized by and tainted with his ongoing rebellion in his heart against the same God whom he loves. This is not just a sporadic pattern of behavior; it is who David is and who he has been from the moment of his birth. It is part of his identity. It is his identity. His sinfulness is so chronic and so thorough that it must have been genetic (Psalm 51:5).
Only God can forgive our sins. David’s plight is not hopeless though. He knows that God is fully capable of purging him from his sin, cleansing him, and washing him so that his heart is as pure as a fresh snowfall (Psalm 51:7). In fact God can create in him a clean heart and can renew his spiritual condition (Psalm 51:10). A fresh start, with a clean heart, would make it possible for David to be restored to the joy of his salvation (Psalm 51:12). It would make it possible for David to once again sing about, and even joyfully teach about, God’s ways and God’s law (Psalm 51:13-15).
Some Observations about the Text
I’m sorry. What does it mean to be sorry for our sins? Must we be sorry in order to have our sins forgiven? What if we don’t “feel” sorry at a given time about a particular sin?
A beautiful prayer within the Catholic tradition, known as the Act of Contrition, reads in part as follows: “Oh my God I am heartily sorry for having offended thee and I detest all of my sins because of thy just punishment but most of all because they offend thee my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love.” This prayer picks up much of the content and many of the sentiments of Psalm 51, and includes the notion of being “heartily” sorry. That is, there is an element of an honest emotion of contrition that is included as part of the penitent’s acknowledgment of his or her sinfulness in the presence of a holy and perfect God.
Is contrition a requirement, though, for forgiveness, or is contrition a blessing that accompanies forgiveness? Must I be “heartily sorry” in order to be forgiven? There are two biblical reasons why I believe that contrition is more of a gift than a requirement:
First, the prerequisites to forgiveness of sin never include an emotional outpouring of sorrow. One of the most succinct passages about forgiveness is sandwiched between the two verses from 1 John 1 referred to above: 1 John 1:9 tells us that “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The “He” referred to is Jesus Christ. The essential prerequisites of forgiveness of sin, then, is faith in Christ plus confession.
Second, the pattern and flow of Psalm 51 shows contrition as more of a consequence of forgiveness than a requirement. David clearly acknowledges that forgiveness of sin cannot be earned or secured by anything David can do, say or feel. Only at the end of the Psalm, when David considers the joy of redemption and forgiveness, does he mention contrition. In fact, he mentions contrition along with teaching, singing, and declaring God’s praise. A forgiven heart and a renewed spirit expresses itself in song and praise and the joyful declaration of God’s love and mercy … along with humility and contrition. If anything, humility and contrition are gifts from God that help David to stay “on program” with God and, in the closing words of the Act of Contrition, “avoid the near occasion of sin.”
Forgiveness. Jesus the Messiah (Jesus the Christ, or Jesus Christ, or, in the Hebrew transliteration, Yeshua Ha-Mashiach), declared that “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). The good news (Gospel) assures us that salvation is possible through Jesus Christ (Romans 5:9) and only through Jesus Christ (John 14:6). This is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Unfortunately, when you consider folks who claim to be Christians, you can’t always tell whether they are true followers of Christ. We do have some helpful signals. We do know that the fruit of the Spirit is love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). A sense of gratitude is also a helpful signal (Colossians 3:12-17). As is a deep and evident sorrow for sin (Psalm 51:17).
So for the follower of Christ, contrition, like humility and the gifts of the Spirit, reflects a change of heart granted by God.
What about the person who is not a follower of Christ? Many nonbelievers do have remorse about wrongdoing, but most nonbelievers whom I have met seem more inclined to deny that sin exists than to acknowledge sin or have remorse. In fact, many nonbelievers would bristle at the notion that specific behaviors identified in the Bible as sin (such as the list at Revelation 21:8 and the list at Galatians 5:19-21) are actually morally wrong. They often prefer to pick and choose which behaviors they would consider wrong (such as, perhaps, murder) and which behaviors they would consider morally neutral if not laudable (such as, as is often the case, homosexuality or sexual intimacy outside of marriage).
It takes, well, God’s intervention to change the heart of a non-believer so completely that Psalm 51 actually makes perfect sense. This is called repentance. And for the non-believer, contrition is actually an element of repentance. In order to change from a life of unforgiven sin, to a life of following Christ (the only pathway to forgiveness), there must be contrition-that-leads-to-salvation. As explained at 2 Corinthians 7:9-10, there is a godly grief, a grief-unto-repentance, that is spiritually efficacious and that accompanies the turning of the heart toward God and away from self.
Not quite sorry enough. By contrast, there is contrition-that-leads-to-human-resolve. This is sorrow for sin that involves our stolid determination to do a better job of avoiding sin, on our own and through our own self-discipline. No matter how emotional or heartfelt this contrition might be, it doesn’t impress God. God knows, and the Bible lets us know, that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:22-24). Contrition that leads to human resolve is worthless contrition. It is worldly grief that actually produces death (2 Corinthians 7:10) even if it is really, really, really heartfelt.
It is only by way of the forgiveness that comes through trust in Jesus Christ that we can have a broken and contrite heart that is not despised by God.
Good thing, or I might be really, really sorry for my sins … but not be quite sorry enough.
Audio MP3 Discussion of this post is available here.