Meditation on Psalm 140

Rescue me, Lord, from evildoers;
    protect me from the violent,
who devise evil plans in their hearts
    and stir up war every day.
They make their tongues as sharp as a serpent’s;
    the poison of vipers is on their lips.[b]
Keep me safe, Lord, from the hands of the wicked;
    protect me from the violent,
    who devise ways to trip my feet.
The arrogant have hidden a snare for me;
    they have spread out the cords of their net
    and have set traps for me along my path.

 

 

This psalm, like many others, is the prayer of a warrior.

There is not a general agreement that David actually wrote this one, but it is attributed to him in the heading and its theme and expression are quite consistent with what we know of David from our study of the Old Testament.  Here the writer finds himself compassed about by enemies – violent and evil men who are determined to undo him.  The psalmist spends some ink describing what low-down creatures his enemies are and then cries to God for deliverance, asking that his enemies be drastically and violently punished.

How is it that people – people like me – have continued to find value and inspiration in this poem when most of us are not warriors?  Most of us are not military men – soldiers on an active battlefield.  Most of us don’t have evil men plotting to take our lives.  How is this poem anything to us?

Because, soldier or not, military career or not, active battlefield or not, all of us are at war.  Well, maybe not all of us are at war.  Some of us may be so oblivious to it that we can’t really be seen as participants.  But there is a war raging that affects us all.  If we give any credence to the New Testament, then we know that there is a spiritual battle being fought right here and in our time between good and evil.  The Bible tells us that the players in this conflict are not mere mortals:

Ephesians 6:12  English Standard Version

12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

I’ve spent some time lately here on this blog taking about these “rulers, authorities and cosmic powers” that Paul refers to more than once. (see Colossians 2:8 and Galatians 4:9)  These passages have always intrigued me because they seemed to point to beings or forces that are not directly identified elsewhere in the scriptures.  Kind of spooky in a Stephen King sort of way.  I have never seen any Christian writer say much about them until I read Andy Crouch’s excellent book, Playing God.  He suggests that they are

“shadowy [and supernatural] powers that lurked behind human institutions and indeed the whole natural world”   They “are at the root of . . . cultural patterns . . . that have enslaved God’s image bearers, cutting them off from sight and life.”

All of that is pretty dramatic.  I don’t doubt it for a minute, but I wrote this post for the purpose of suggesting that most of us normal, non-super-hero type people do have some experience with this kind of thing.  How many times have we, perhaps after years of frustrated effort, said something like “There is just something in that [here insert personal preference: school, town, country, company] that will not let me loose, or that will not let me succeed.”

I wonder if this complaint is truer that we even suspect!   And if it is, how necessary for you and I to recognize what we are up against and to align ourselves with Christ, before whom such powers tremble and flee.

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Meditation on Psalm 139

But Wait . . . There’s More!

If I say, “The dark will screen me,

Night will hide me in its curtains,”

Yet darkness is not dark to thee

The night is as clear as the daylight.

Psalm 139: 11-12 (Moffatt)

I’ve been writing about self-deception in my last few posts.  In sum, I’ve said that self-deception is pervasive and that it is often very deep and complicated.  We concoct deceptions to cover up for hurts and failures that we don’t want others to see and don’t particularly want to look at or admit ourselves.  Once a scheme of deception is put into play it can grow and become so established that we may not even recognize it for the lie that it is, even though we made it up ourselves.  It may even be part of our purpose to make ourselves believe it.  That might be handy for a while and it might allow us to cope temporarily, but in the long run such things are dangerous.  They can impede personal growth.  They can prevent us from entering onto deep and satisfying relationships.  I cited the example of Elizabeth Bennett’s self-deception about Mr. Darcy.  He snubbed her, at first, and her pride was hurt.  So, a part of her coping mechanism – self-protection – was to imagine, based on evidence from questionable sources, that Mr. Darcy was the worst of men and that any relationship with him was not to be desired.  So, she allowed herself to think, nothing lost.

If you know the story of the novel Pride and Prejudice, you of course will know that much was lost – or would have been lost – had not Elizabeth been shaken out of her delusions by a determined and articulate Mr. Darcy.  If Lizzy had been allowed to persist in her self-deception, she would have lost her destiny – her happy marriage to Mr. Darcy and her accordant share in his status and wealth.

I also said that a man or woman can concoct their own deceptions – their own false view of the world – but that same man or woman cannot, of their own power, undo the spell that they have cast over themselves.  I said that we are dependent on God for our own repentance – our change in thinking.  I said that God is the initiator and aggressor in His relationship with us and it is through His grace that we may come to see the errors of our ways.  This is at least part of what John Henry Newman had in mind when he wrote these lines from his famous hymn:

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear

And grace my fears relieved

I quoted from Francis Thompson’s poem, “The Hound of Heaven.”  That’s a pretty good source, but I missed a better one.  The very Psalm that had been the inspiration for the whole self-deception thread contains some verses that are right on point here.  This Psalm is famous for its opening and closing lines:

“Oh, Lord, thou hast searched me and known me. . .”

“Search me, O God, and know my heart

Try me and know my thoughts. . .”

So, there it is; the idea that it is God who brings us out of our web of deception.  What I had not seen though are the indications in the Psalm that the writer was perhaps engaged in his own self-deception.  He was deliberately hiding from God.  I’d read the Psalm in several traditional translations but only yesterday I read it again in James Moffatt’s translation.  Look at his rendering of verse eleven:

If I say, “The dark will screen me,

Night will hide me in its curtains,”

Yet darkness is not dark to thee,

The night is clear at daylight.

So rendered, this verse implies or suggests that the Psalmist is not merely praising God for His powers of perception – for His omniscience – but is reporting that he cannot hide from God, even though he tried.  I didn’t get that from the traditional translations.  This one verse, in Moffatt’s translation, gives a different color or flavor to much of the rest of the psalm.  The verses in wonder of God’s power to see are not abstract, general, or theoretical.  They are the result of personal experience.  The writer has tried to hide from God, but found it impossible.

What is the writer’s conclusion?  What does he say after being searched and found out by God?  His final prayer in the poem is for God to search him and know him again!  What God’s light has led to is freedom!  Freedom from one’s own delusion!

And this is the beginning of new life, full and free.

God As Initiator

Oh Lord, thou hast searched me and known me . . .

Psalm 139: 1

I’ve been posting lately about self-deception, how it obstructs our relationship with God, our knowledge of God.  And I have emphasized how deep and involved these deceptions often are and I have at last said that our way out of these prisons we make for ourselves does not lie in ourselves.  That is to say, once we make our own trap, we can’t get out of it by ourselves.

Then this morning, in my devotional reading, I ran across this old poem that says the same thing.  The poet, Francis Thompson, says it much better than I have.  But, it is comforting to me to see the same theme expressed by a great writer.  Makes me more confident that what I am saying is true.  Here is the quote from the poem “The Hound of Heaven:”

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;

I fled Him down the arches of the years;

I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways

Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears

I hid from Him

Getting Ready for Love

 

Philippians 2: 12-13 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,  for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

 

This is my same old coat
And my same old shoes
I was the same old me
With the same old blues
Then you touched my life
Just by holding my hand
Now I look in the mirror
And see a brand new girl
I got a brand new walk
A brand new smile
Since I met you baby
I got a brand new style
“Brand New Me” by Kenneth Gamble, Theresa Bell, and Jerry Butler

 

 

When I thought more about my last post – the whole business about our relationship with God depending on our own honesty, our willingness to recognize and let go of the delusions that we’ve created to protect our own egos – I thought maybe I had made things appear like “Okay, you’re saved, but I’m not having any more to do with you until you get it all cleaned up here.  No more light and no more word from Me until you get your act together.”  I didn’t really say that in the post, but, nonetheless, today I want to actively disabuse any reader of any such notion.

The honesty on our part that is essential to a growing relationship with God is not some bar that God wants to see us jump over before He rewards us with His presence.  Rather, our dishonesty – our false face – is at bottom a withholding of our true self.  This, of course, is a profound impediment to any real relationship.  But even here, God initiates, provides and empowers.  This taking off the mask and the drawing out of our true, vulnerable self is also the work of God.  He will not override our personality and our coming clean involves the exercise of our own will, but God provides the means and the energy.

As I thought this over, I remembered a passage in Rod Dreher’s wonderful book How Dante Can Save Your Life.   What I remembered, unaided by a review of the book or my notes from the book, was his recounting of his years of living according to the sexual morays of the modern, secular world.  In other words, of his being promiscuous.

When he began his relationship with God, he started to understand that what he’d been doing was wrong and he embraced – though not perfectly, at first – the discipline of chastity.  It’s a beautiful story, all in all, and he tells how this resolution – this effort – wrought changes in his life and outlook that prepared him to meet and then wed the love of his life.  His “coming clean” prepared him for a relationship – made entering in to that rewarding and fulfilling relationship possible for him.

Yep.  I was going to talk about all of that.  But when I went back to Rod’s book, and particularly to my kindle notes and highlights, I was a bit overwhelmed.  It’s not that there is something here or there in the book about opening ourselves to God.  The whole book is about that very thing.  I said earlier, quoting Donald Miller, that everyone has a story to tell and it’s not the one they’re telling.  But in Rod Dreher’s case – in this book at any rate – he’s coming very close, I think, to telling his true story.  Close enough to make the book a captivating and worthwhile read.

Waiting For The Lord

Psalm 130:6
my soul waits for the Lord
    more than watchmen for the morning,
    more than watchmen for the morning.

Waiting implies a relationship with a person.

If we are dealing with the internet – with robots and artificial intelligence – we – if things are working right – don’t have to wait.  We ask Siri how many years Babe Ruth played for the Boston Red Sox and the answer is instantaneous  – six.

But dealing with a human being is not like that.  And dealing with God is even less like that.  It’s true that God loves us, but He knows us better than we know ourselves and He knows what we need and even what we desire better than we know ourselves.  We lie to ourselves, deceive ourselves, for many reasons: to cover up for wrongs and failures we don’t want to face up to; to keep up appearances, even to ourselves.  Our self-deceptions are epic in both width and breadth.  It takes work to undo them.  It takes effort to see these deceptions or what they are – to remember why we concocted them in the first place and to at least get to the point where we might honestly assess what the truth might actually have been.

Donald Miller, who makes his living giving counsel to writers, says that everyone has a story and it is not the story that they are telling.  When we talk with another – even with our closest confidant and even in the strictest confidence and even about the matters that our deepest in our soul – we don’t tell the whole truth.  God wants the whole truth.  Not because He wants to embarrass or punish us or to prove to us that, in spite of our protests, life was fair; He wants the truth – wants us to get to the bottom of things and tell ourselves the truth about ourselves – because this is the only way to get the ship righted.  He doesn’t want to let us go on wandering down this dead-end road we’ve created for ourselves.

Jane Austen gives us a dramatic example of this process of “coming clean” in her great novel, Pride and Prejudice.  Elizabeth Bennett receives a letter from Mr. Darcy that contains enough information to convince her that the “reality” or “truth” that she has constructed for herself – that she made her decisions, big decisions, based on – was completely, utterly false.  Here is Elizabeth’s confession:

How despicably I have acted!” she cried; “I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable mistrust! How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind! But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.”

If that is our natural tendency and bent – and it is – then our relationship with God won’t be one of instant gratification, but, rather, one of long and deep searching and confession.  Thus, “waiting on the Lord” as we hear about it in the Bible and as we think about it may really be more God waiting on us!  That is, waiting on us to “come clean” so that the conversation will be meaningful and not just some feel-good rambling about the person we pretend to be and the wants and needs that we have half-convinced ourselves that we have.

I am not for a minute saying that God will have no help for us until we’ve gotten it all together.  Nope.  I am right there with the Reformers and Protestant tradition in saying and believing that God initiates.  That is, He comes to us – saves us, accepts us – “just as we are,” self-deceptions and all.  What I am trying to say is that the relationship that follows is one that depends on honesty and, given the fact that this is such a task for us – letting go of our precious smoke screens and delusions – there is some waiting involved; maybe a lot.

Meditation on Psalm 57

 

He shall send from heaven, and save me from the reproach of him that would swallow me up.

One cannot study long the songs of David without being deeply impressed that, for David, life was a battle.   His poetry is shot through with complaints about unfair treatment, about enemies who laid traps for him and who slandered his name.  Here is verse four:

My soul is among lions: and I lie even among them that are set on fire, even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword.

So often we look to the Psalms to see the profound expressions of trust in God.  That’s great, but these are brought on by the crises David faced, day by day and year by year.  Should reading the Psalms remind us – even convince us – that life is a battle?  That we are not spending our days sailing, unopposed and in the favor of some kind wind.

I wonder if faith is even possible if we do not see the enemy, if we do not understand the stakes.  David’s foes, although deadly, were at least clearly defined.  He knew who opposed him.  They were flesh and blood.  Men of a rival nation who wanted to defeat Israel.  In our time the enemy, as Bob Dylan reminds us, is “subtle:”

The enemy is subtle

Howbeit we’re deceived

When the truth’s in our hearts

And we still don’t believe.

Bob Dylan, “Precious Angel”

Here is Paul, writing to the church at Ephesus:

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

I wonder if we can really know God experientially; have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, if we don’t recognize that there is a war going on and that we are in it; if we do not recognize that we face opposition – even opposition other than our own divided hearts?

Starting The New Year

 

The message of the book of Revelation is not “The world is coming to an immediate end,” but, rather, “The world is not coming to an immediate end, so you must learn to cope.”

 

 

We’ve been away from our study of Revelation for a couple of weeks now and so as we pick up the thread and start a new year of study together, let’s take a minute to review.

We’re looking particularly at chapter thirteen and the wild images of the beasts we see there.  We’ve already spent some time talking about the first beast – the sea beast – and we have followed the lead of our commentators and are persuaded that the similarities between the description of the sea beast here in the New Testament and the beasts described in the seventh chapter of Daniel are very hard to ignore.

While much of the book of Revelation may be mysterious, there are aspects of the book that are very clear.    We can be sure of who wrote the book; we can be sure of whom it was written to; and we can be sure what kind of world the original audience lived in and what kind of resistance they were to face.  All of these facts are expressed in the book itself.

This book was written by the Apostle John while he was in exile late in the first century on the Island of Patmos just off of the east coast of Asia Minor.  The book is expressly addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor:  real, historical churches in real, historical cities.  And there can be little doubt that these churches were caught in the throes of governmental persecution.  Rome, in that day, demanded that its subjects actually worship the Emperor as a deity.  This the Christian could not do.

John wrote the book to prepare these churches for what they were about to face.  It may have been that many Christians in that early day believed that Jesus would return any moment and set up perfect justice and that life would be paradisiacal when that occurred.   Any sober reading of the book of Revelation will correct that error.  Thus, it has been said that the message of the book of Revelation is not “The world is coming to an immediate end,” but, rather, “The world is not coming to an immediate end, so you must learn to cope.”

This has everything to say about how you and I, here in the twenty-first century, should approach the book.  The book is written and is intended to encourage Christians in the face of life’s struggles.  Despite its sometimes mysterious form and language, it is practical advice.  And that’s how you and I should read it.  We don’t read it to gain some esoteric or secret knowledge about when and how the world will end.  (This, of course, has been the mistake of so many in our time.)  Rather, we should read the book with an eye to what it tells us about what we will face, here and now.  It depicts the dynamics of human life and history and it tells us something about the nature of evil.

All of that being said, we also are told that John would have written to the churches in Asia Minor well knowing that they – these churches – were well-versed in the scriptures – what you and I would call the Old Testament.  This, then, was their common culture; their common vernacular.  Thus, when we consider the impressive similarities between the sea beast in Revelation and the beasts described in Daniel chapter seven it is very easy to accept the notion that John was making a conscious reference to that Old Testament passage.

If we accept what the commentators tell us about that, several things happen.  First, we gain some idea of how deliberate John’s composition is here.  A single, superficial reading of the book might lead us to believe that it was written in a fit of ecstasy and that John himself might not even have known the significance of what he “saw” and what he wrote down.  If, on the other hand, we accept the idea that John, in setting up this image of the sea beast, was referring directly to ancient writings that he and his intended audience were familiar with, then we see that John’s composition was calculated, conscious and purposeful.

With this background, we also come to see that the image in Chapter 13 is not the kind of thing we should try to get a realistic picture of.  No, this is intended to be viewed as a symbol, not a literal beast.  Thus, we think not in terms of what Steven Spielberg might do with this image – how horrible and frightening he might make it look in a movie.  Rather, we should view the image more as we would look at pictorial symbol a political cartoon.

Moreover, we then understand that the sea beast in Revelation is an image or symbol of governmental power.  The beasts in Daniel are images or symbols of kingdoms.  How do we know that?  Daniel comes right out and tells us:

 

17 These great beasts, which are four, are four kings, which shall arise out of the earth.

And

23 Thus he said, The fourth beast shall be the fourth kingdom upon earth, which shall be diverse from all kingdoms, and shall devour the whole earth, and shall tread it down, and break it in pieces.

24 And the ten horns out of this kingdom are ten kings that shall arise: and another shall rise after them; and he shall be diverse from the first, and he shall subdue three kings.

 

Thus, we come to understand that the beast out of the sea represents governmental power that is corrupted by Satan and that may act against and injure God’s saints.

 

So much for review.  As we take up our study again on Sunday morning, January first, we’ll begin an examination of the second beast, this one from the land.  To prepare for this week’s lesson, then, take a look at the verses describing the land beast.  Do you see characteristics of this beast that might have scriptural or other antecedents in the culture of that day?  How does the land beast differ from the beast from the sea?  What are its powers?  And what is the relationship between the land beast and the sea beast?