Taking Worship Personally

For many Christians, worshipping God has turned into a bland routine, a burdensome chore, and a senseless enterprise because they have lost touch with the heart of God and the grandeur of His character. Through a spiraling series, people lose sight of the focus of their ardor and so cease to love God as they once did. They assemble with the saints out of habit but not out of conviction. They worship in physical form but not with spiritual force. They exude some shell of Christendom but not Christ. In reality, they have lost touch with God as He truly is and exchanged Him for the diminished caricature promoted by the hollow version of Christianity so popular among general American society and yet so lacking in spiritual depth—so much so that God Himself has become only a vague apparition in thought even among those who lay claim to Him in faith. Years of watering down doctrine and seeking acceptability through generic appeals have not only left people wanting spiritually but also stripped away reverence and awe for God.

Israel regularly fell into such a trap as this, ignoring Yahweh and toying with idolatry from practically the moment they crossed the Jordan. The LORD had sent them to destroy a wicked and pagan people, but they ultimately became wicked and pagan themselves, first integrating pagan practices into Judaism, then adding idols into an expanding pantheon, and finally turning to Baal and Molech in a crescendo of spiritual decadence. However, the melancholy reality of this history gives the message of Psalm 135 greater depth as a hymn of praise delivered under consideration of lessons learned the hard way. After living through the confusion of idolatry and witnessing its full decadence in a foreign land, the contrasting power, richness, and splendor of Yahweh in who He is and what He has done became not only a motivation for national worship but also a conviction for personal devotion.

Praising the LORD springs from a heart overwhelmed with the LORD’s greatness with a desire to worship Him and let all others know that He is indeed there and there for us, that His record is impeccable (Psa. 135:1), that He is more than worthy of all the attention we can give (Psa. 135:2), and that He is good to us in every way (Psa. 135:3-4). Thus, the grace that makes it possible to belong to Him beckons the heart not only to praise but to appreciate, and not only to worship but to adore. Moreover, we need not imagine ancient deeds and create myths to justify our confidence in the LORD, for the LORD Himself has done more than enough to demonstrate His power, His might, and His will. When the LORD separated Israel from among all other nations, He put His distinctiveness on display. He proved He had power over nature that the pagans can only attempt to assign to their gods (Psa. 135:5-7). In the ten plagues through which he delivered Israel from Egypt, He displayed signs and wonders that defied the imagination (Psa. 135:8-9). He defeated nations considered invincible (Psa. 135:10-11) and gave a land that belonged to entrenched nations to a people who had no training in combat (Psa. 135:12). Therefore, the LORD has earned His reputation and has every right to judge, yet He is also compassionate by nature as well (Psa. 135:13-14). This personal history presents a contrast well worth remembering. Idols are made; Yahweh is the Maker (Psa. 135:15). Idols are crafted with human features, but God alone sees and speaks, listens and lives (Psa. 135:16-17). The LORD alone can offer life to man because He alone is living (Psa. 135:18).

The psalmist opened with a call to praise, a picturesque word expressing the radiant glory of God—with the accompanying imagery of Moses’ face shining from having been in the LORD’s presence. But now at the close, the psalmist employs another word, bless, which offers the picture of kneeing before God. Praise is thus for the benefit of others in drawing attention to the LORD’s character, but to bless is to acknowledge Him for all that He has done for you personally and how everyone should want to serve and worship such a God. Consider what He has done for His people (Psa. 135:18)! Consider what it means for the priests of old to enter His presence (Psa. 135:19)! Consider the privilege the Levites had to serve so close to Him (Psa. 135:20)! Consider how wonderful it is for all who acknowledge Yahweh as God to worship Him (Psa. 135:20)! Consider the access the LORD has given to His people today and how He wants to be among them! O that all would know what the LORD has done, how great He truly is, and what it means to be His people (Psa. 135:21)!

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The Focus of Worship

After a potentially long, arduous trek, Jews returning to Jerusalem to participate in a great feast would make their final ascent to Jerusalem, enter a gate of the city, and ultimately approach the temple in order to worship. Climbing the stone stairs to the temple mount, they would sing psalms and focus their minds on the purpose of their journey. The Songs of Ascent chronicled their pilgrimage and helped shape their perspective as they left their homes to appear before the LORD. Beginning with a desire to return to Jerusalem for the feast (Psalm 120), the Jews would request safety for their travels (Psalm 121), building their anticipation for the day that they would arrive (Psalm 122). The hazards of their journey reminded them of the challenging nature of the world (Psalm 123), but to this they would add the constant trust that God was with them (Psalm 124), protecting them from their enemies (Psalm 125). The thought alone that He would do so sparked yet another series of reflections. If God values His people enough to protect them, we should value what it is to be God’s people (Psalm 126) and therefore prepare the next generation of God’s people accordingly (Psalm 127). Indeed, to be God’s people is to be a blessed people (Psalm 128), and the preservation of Israel through all their trials not only shows God’s interest but implies a significant purpose (Psalm 129). That implied significance receives voice in the very next psalm as it reflects on the meaning and means of atonement (Psalm 130). Indeed, atonement provides the foundation for contentment while living in a world filled with moral challenges (Psalm 131), and that full atonement would ultimately come through David’s Successor, promised by God and anointed by God (Psalm 132). This hope, this perspective, and this mindset brought Jews back from foreign lands to Jerusalem in the spirit of unity reflected in the growing chorus of voices singing as they arrived in their homeland’s capital (Psalm 133). 

Thus, Psalm 134 serves as the culmination of all their anticipation. Ascending the steps to the temple in the final stage of a passage begun far away, the people take in the scene as they join the ranks of those present to worship the LORD and enter the temple to see God’s servants, the Levites, standing ready in the temple even at night (1 Chr. 9:33) to perform their duty on behalf of the people (Psalm 134:1; cf. 1 Chr. 23:25-30). As the people therefore approached the sanctuary of the temple bringing their own gifts and sacrifices, they could then enjoin the priests to worship with outstretched arms—not in the meaningless waving so commonly assumed by some today, but in the manner prescribed for the wave offering as they came before God on behalf of the pilgrims (Psalm 134:2). Then the psalm closes, with the rhetorical response of the priests pronouncing God’s blessing on those who came to worship in accordance with His will (Psalm 134:3).

From the moment the preparation for the journey began, worshipping God remained the focus, and so should it be for us today. Worshipping God provides the motivation to go, for He deserves our full attention. Worshipping God offers sufficient reason to show determination and dedication. Worshipping God focuses on following God’s will and therefore on offering what God promises to receive instead of entertaining ourselves and our worldly sensibilities. Worshipping God focuses on what God has done for us—not on what we have done for Him—because He has proven Himself worthy as our Creator and Benefactor. As Jesus would later explain to the woman of Samaria, true worship requires true worshippers (John 4:23-24). The Jews of old correctly journeyed to Jerusalem to worship at the temple and sang this song  as the final part of their sojourn. As such, it points to a principle worthy of imitation. The highlight of the journey was bowing before God. It provided the motivation for beginning and the culmination at the end. This remains true today—not only in assembling to worship together as God’s people on the first day of the week, but also in ultimately bowing together before God in heaven. 

Reflections on Unity

Unity remains so elusive in today’s world and, sadly, in today’s church. Most all call for it. But few truly long for it—at least not the type of unity God offers. In actuality, the very people who often speak of unity act in ways completely contrary to it. Somehow, even among those who recognize the beauty unity offers allow their selfish desires to demand unity their way instead of reaching for unity God’s way. Therefore, we must devote ourselves to understanding godly unity in its beauty and purity rather than following a pattern that only offers a temporary truce where people agree to disagree instead of uniting in agreement with God. The beautiful imagery of Psalm 133, ascribed to David, pictures the possibilities of unity within the context of ancient Israel, but its principles resound even to the church today.

  “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is For brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psa. 133:1). The sentiment here expressed beckons to its hearers not only to accept its heart but to engage its spirit. Unity, fully appreciated and dearly loved, finds expression in the practical exercise of regular spiritual life—not the pretense typically presented citing general doctrinal agreement that belies the division apparent to all in practice. However, the words here reflect a society bound together by quality interaction (good), an enjoyable environment (pleasant), a family feel (brethren), enduring relationships (dwell), and close proximity rooted in thought that is expressed in behavior (together). Moreover, men did not bring about such harmony but God Himself, as the simile following demonstrates. “It is like the precious oil upon the head, Running down on the beard, The beard of Aaron, Running down on the edge of his garments” (Psa. 133:2). Harkening back to the anointing of Aaron as high priest (Lev. 9:12), the psalm evokes memories of how God sought a people who would please Him, belong to Him, serve Him, and be holy for Him, having been forgiven and consecrated by Him (Ex. 28:32; 29:7, 21; 30:23). As that original anointing oil, designed and purposed by God, ran down Aaron’s beard to the collar of his ephod and upon the breastplate bearing the stones representative of all Israel, so God recognized His people as one coming before Him, even as the psalm considers the procession of Israel from all over the land coming together to worship as one and enjoy the blessings God promised. Indeed, the second simile builds upon this thought further. “It is like the dew of Hermon, Descending upon the mountains of Zion; For there the LORD commanded the blessing— Life forevermore” (Psa. 133:3). Mount Hermon in the north, known for its abundance of dew which, whether through rains or the Jordan, brought its benefits to Jerusalem, here adds a third “running down.” And yet all of these picture the people themselves descending upon Jerusalem to worship as one, as God has requested and as God has designed. The combined figures of the high priest and the return for a feast provide the context for God’s people as a whole gathering, most likely for the Day of Atonement, when the high priest would enter the holy place on their behalf to offer a sacrifice that would ensure their forgiveness, their relationship with God, and thereby life forevermore. 

The beauty of this kind of unity depends upon embracing the sacrifice that makes unity possible, for Jesus has now entered the holiest place of all, as High Priest, to make atonement possible and eternal life obtainable (Heb. 7:26-27; 9:26-28). However, like the Jews of old, people today must make the journey to have unity. Too many wish to stand apart and stay in their own land, stand firm in their own opinions and doctrines, wallow still in their own problems, and defend their own sin rather than letting go of these barriers to unity so that they can approach God with all those who have abandoned self for their love of the Lord. 

The beauty of unity has not changed. The blessings of unity have not been altered. But neither has its principle in practice. If we truly want unity, we will not only preach unity; we will also practice unity. We will not simply come together in person; we will come together in spirit. But these demand more of us than a temporary commitment to the emotion of the moment; they require a perpetual commitment to the truth in practice. To desire unity while practicing diversity is spiritual mockery. To proclaim unity depends upon our first practicing it—in worship, in doctrine, in salvation, in everything. If you really want unity, let go of selfish practices and embrace biblical practices. Properly done, this will lead only to one place—God’s church doing God’s things in God’s way. 

A Lamp for My Anointed

The Babylonian captivity had shaken Judah to the very bone. After years of moral decadence and spiritual indifference, the harsh realities created by the destruction of the temple and their relocation outside of their homeland challenged their arrogant assumptions of having the LORD on their side and forced them to evaluate their relationship with the Almighty. Consequently, following their captivity and the rebuilding of the temple, Israel still wondered whether they had been forgiven and whether their former rebellion would negate the promises made to David. Therefore, reflecting on the events that led to the ark of the covenant and the temple coming to Jerusalem originally, the psalmist then offered divine reassurance that the LORD’s promises remained true and His purpose intact. Thus, as a song of ascent, when generations to come approached Jerusalem—some along the same path that the ark itself followed—this psalm provided a reminder of why they came to Jerusalem and that God’s promises still stood.

The opening words of the psalm provide context for David’s motivations when he sought to bring the ark up from Kirjath-Jearim to Jerusalem after finally unifying the kingdom. Rather than a political statement of his ascendancy and dominance, this proved his heart to be sincere and humble, giving diligence and his complete focus to bringing attention to the Lord’s glory rather than his own (Psa. 132:1-5). Skipping over the unfortunate episode of Uzzah, the psalmist concentrates on David’s desire to bring the ark close to his home so that he might freely, regularly, and openly worship his God (Psa. 132:6-7) and the ultimate fulfillment of David’s hopes when Solomon dedicated the temple, quoting from his closing words on that day (Psa. 132:8-10; 2 Chr. 6:41-42) though with a far more poignant context. They had abandoned all of this in chasing after idols, and now they sought renewal in reestablishing worship in the second temple during the time of Ezra. Thus, the reassurance of what follows served as a reminder for that generation and the generation that followed of the character of their God—merciful, forgiving, and true to His word. 

The reflection upon the original hope begun in the heyday of Israel’s faithfulness serves as an important foundation for the subsequent reflection on the power of God’s promises and their implications for Israel’s future as they returned from the humiliation of captivity to restore worship and reverence in imitation of David’s heart and purpose. Therefore, despite the way Judah’s kings had been forced from the throne by Babylon, God stood by His promise to David that his dynasty would never end (Psa. 132:11-12). How this would come about, particularly during an era when no king ruled, remained a mystery, but the power of the promise stood firm and thus provided reassurance of Israel’s purpose. Moreover, despite the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, the LORD still had a plan for Zion. Neither Judah’s rebellion nor Babylon’s destruction changed that (Psa. 132:13-15); therefore, the LORD would fulfill once more the hope of providing salvation and joy (Psa. 132:16), just as in the days of Solomon (Psa. 132:9). But this hope would not be realized in the immediate aftermath of the return, nor in the people as a whole, but in God’s Anointed One, the Messiah, whom God still promised to send. He would rule with authority and wisdom. He would conquer His enemies. He would be crowned as Priest and King and so enjoy a reign filled with blessings for all His subjects (Psa. 132:17-18).

For centuries the Jews would sing this psalm as they made their way to the temple during the great feasts, anticipating the day that David’s Descendant would ascend to the throne. Jesus Himself likely sang it as He went to Jerusalem, first with His family and then with His disciples. And yet, all the while, it pointed to Him. God was indeed true to His Word in sustaining the lineage of David until He could send His Son to be King, in renewing Zion’s place as the place of salvation and joy through the preaching of the gospel at Pentecost, and in giving Jesus all authority (Matt. 28:18) as the rightful Heir of the throne and crowning Him as King of His Kingdom after He ascended on high (Psa. 68:18; Eph. 4:8-10). The Jews of the second temple period could only rejoice in anticipation of the promise; Christians can rejoice in its fulfillment. 

Personal Peace in an Age of Discontent

No one is happy anymore, and that includes those who profess Christianity. On various social media outlets, complaining has risen to an art-form as people who previously had little or no voice now find a reason to speak about anything and everything, and mostly things of which they know little. As a people, we have reached the summit of grumbling, finding fault with everyone and everything while having no solutions to offer. We see it most in the realm of politics, where the common citizen feels qualified to complain—as his right—about anything negative that occurs and to place blame as his or her own personal preferences dictate. In the church, members treat their leaders as the complaint department, as if they exist solely to absorb the negativity of others and bow to individual whims. We are living in an age of discontent. The simple has become unsatisfying. The moral has become unmoving. The profound has become unpopular. Today, everyone is a movie critic, everyone is a food critic, and everyone is a critic’s critic. The democratization of information made possible by Google, Wikipedia, and various digital assistants have built an illusion in our hearts that we know more than we do, that we are wiser than our years, experience, and decisions indicate, and that everyone needs to hear our opinion on everything. The pseudo-celebrity afforded us by social media has bled into daily life because we have allowed it to retrain our hearts. And because we have numbed ourselves to deeper thought in exchange for the gratification of instant information, we fail to feel the ominous undercurrent of social and spiritual danger lurking beneath the surface.

The answer to our predicament lies in the brevity and simplicity of Psalm 131, a psalm attributed to David, though perhaps more likely written with an appreciation for him, included among the songs of ascents. Its placement in the canon of psalms reflects the personal need to respond to what God has done with a new perspective and, indeed, a new type of life. “Lord, my heart is not haughty, Nor my eyes lofty. Neither do I concern myself with great matters, Nor with things too profound for me. Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul, Like a weaned child with his mother; Like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, hope in the Lord From this time forth and forever” (Psalm 131:1-3).

 In three short verses, this psalm paves the way to personal peace by encouraging humility, contentment, and hope in life within the framework of God’s purpose and will. Humility, according to the psalm, does not consist of underselling yourself but of having a proper understanding of the role you play in God’s plan. See yourself as God sees you, weak and needy (Phil. 2:5-8) rather than exalted and deserving (1 Pet. 5:6). Therefore, aspire to serve—not to be served—just like our Savior (Mk. 10:45). Then, focus on what you can do and can change—not on what you cannot—as Jesus Himself recognized in His own instruction (Matt. 13:3-23). Humility requires that you recognize your limitations (Rom. 12:3-8). The “fake it till you make it” attitude so prevalent in society stands on the shaky pillars of pride and fear. Humility knows its own self and thus appreciates others, and God most of all (Jas. 4:10). The second challenge, finding contentment in the midst of a discontented world, may be difficult to achieve, but it offers great peace in the end because it creates an important distinction between what happens around you and what is happening within you. Therefore, embrace contentment as a worthy goal and you can find your way to greater peace (1 Tim. 6:6). Accept how circumstances change and get past self-pity to embrace the possibilities instead of dwelling on adversity (Phil. 4:11-13). In conjunction with this, move beyond selfishness to service (Phil. 2:4), because a person serving has little time to complain or realize his lack. And, as a child must let go of the safety net his mother’s milk provides, so we must develop a desire to mature and take responsibility ourselves in order to find true peace (2 Pet. 3:18). Finally, the psalm ends with hope—true, meaningful, divine hope. The best thing for a nation, and the best thing for everyone in that nation, regardless of the age, is to turn to God and follow His will. But to do that, you must make your expectations match the Lord’s expectations instead of expecting the world to provide the answers (1 Jn. 2:15-17). Refresh your thinking by retraining yourself to think about life in spiritual terms—no matter what the problem (Col. 3:1-2). And, most of all, see yourself in the broad scope of eternity rather than the immediacy of the moment (2 Cor. 4:16-18). This renewed mindset can bring you peace personally regardless of the age, regardless of the circumstances, and regardless of your station in life, because it comes from God, focuses on God, and leads you back to God.

Full Atonement–Can It Be?

The Jews journeyed to Jerusalem for several feasts every year—each having a special significance. As they traveled and approached the city and especially the temple, their purpose in drawing near grew clearer and clearer. This developed not only from their proximity to their ancient capital but also due to their practice of singing psalms as they approached, songs designed to remind them of their identity, of their need, and of their purpose in coming to worship in the temple on that occasion. While obedience to the Law—especially following their captivity in Babylon—motivated and directed them, the focus and content of the psalms shows that other concerns also drove them. The third feast commanded, the Feast of Ingathering, began on the fifteenth day of the seventh month (Ex. 23:16); however, the LORD designated a solemn Sabbath just five days before this on the tenth (Lev. 16:29-33), Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Reflection on this day and its meaning permeates Psalm 130 thereby giving it a deeper meaning and tone. 

Depression and despair, regular themes in the psalms, take on greater gravity when placed in a spiritual context. Guilt—properly felt due to sin—is serious cause indeed. And experienced fully, it produces a separation and loneliness like no other (Isa. 59:1-2), making the opening cry of the psalm even more forlorn: “Out of the depths I have cried to You, O LORD” (Psa. 130:1). Sinful man needs a holy God—desperately. It is essential that man knows it, realizes it, feels it. Sadly, many feel their guilt and ignore it, feel their guilt and dismiss it, or feel their guilt and misinterpret it. But those who recognize it as the offspring of sin, turn to the LORD as He desires and seek pardon for it (Psa. 130:2). The Lord knows our sins—every one. But He is also longsuffering and does not act on them immediately due to His loving forbearance (Psa. 130:3). The LORD wants to forgive; He longs to forgive. Therefore, He has created a plan to forgive. And this should produce a deep reverence in all who realize the extent to which He is willing to go to have a relationship with us (Psa. 130:4). He does not need us as slaves or anything else, but He still wants us as His children. What a marvelous thought! “For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father’” (Rom. 8:15). The relationship God desires is personal, spiritual, and character driven. He has given His Word and offered promises to create hope in those who read and gain faith with the design that the message within will create a spiritual longing for the LORD in return (Psa. 130:5). However, spiritual longing for the LORD should surpass some casual interest but turn into a grand expectation rooted in the full consideration of His character and thus building a confident expectation that assures all of the certainty of the fulfillment of every promise (Psa. 130:6). Having then gained full assurance of the great extent of the LORD’s desire to forgive, the psalmist called on all of Israel to adopt the same confidence. The answer to all matters of guilt and the sin that created it depend on an understanding and expectation of the depth of mercy bestowed upon man by the Yahweh (Psa. 130:7). Because He has reached out His hand in mercy rather than striking out in anger, He has placed His character and love on display, supplying the purchase price necessary to provide redemption in the face of despair. In doing so, He does not address only a fraction of trespasses practiced or remove a portion of sins committed but the whole, addressing and redeeming Israel from “all his iniquities” (Psa. 130:8).

Spiritually-minded people seeking God’s forgiveness today should marvel still at His longsuffering (2 Pet. 3:9) and be drawn to turn their hearts back to God in faith (Rom. 10:17; Heb. 11:6). However, God’s plan today, rooted in the atonement made possible through the sacrifice of His Son (1 Jn. 2:1-2; Heb. 7:26-27), demands more than simple prayer but rather convicted repentance (Acts 17:30), confessed allegiance (Matt. 10:32-33), and committed obedience (Acts 22:16; Heb. 5:8-9), thus calling on the name of the LORD (Acts 2:16-38). We must never take forgiveness lightly, for what it cost God or what it requires of us. But once received, we should sing about it often, with words similar to the psalmist’s.

Survival

We tend to make people heroes for all kinds of reasons. With reverence we celebrate those who are willing to sacrifice their own lives  in order to protect others. We marvel at those who find courage in the moment to rise to the challenge and force their determination to override their fear. On a lesser note, we make heroes out of sports figures because of their athletic prowess. Some even treat actors as heroes because of the roles they play. And somewhere along the line we forgot to recognize and honor another type of heroic trait that manifests itself in a variety of ways all around us—perseverance. The inspired psalmist, however, did not forget. To the contrary, when writing in Psalm 129, he reflected on Israel’s history and, rather than recounting the exploits of Israel’s heroes, he recalled their collective perseverance due to the LORD’s provision. Israel survived. Overcoming all odds through history, Israel still stood, and they did so because of God.

From their origin in Egypt, Israel had faced oppression and subjugation (Psa. 129:1), but this never defined them because they endured it and survived it (Psa. 129:2). They had suffered much, but the righteousness of God delivered them (Psa. 129:3-4), and so they survived. In the history that followed, they faced opposition from the Midianites, the Amalekites, and the Philistines in their early days, overcoming them with God’s help only to then fall into conflict with the larger nations of Egypt, Syria, Assyria, and then Babylon. And yet they survived. Their oppressors treated them with contempt, but while those empires withered away, giving ground to those that followed and suffering their own humiliation in the process, Israel survived (Psa. 129:5-7). Therefore, knowing this, no one should compromise principle and honor those who oppose God but rather accept the hardship of the moment knowing by faith that, with God’s help, righteousness will endure (Psa. 129:8). 

Most people will never receive a Congressional Medal of Honor. Few people have the skill to play professional sports at all, and only a handful are recognizable superstars. But everyone can persevere.  Few people have gone through life with everything handed to them. In fact, most people have endured far more than you would ever realize at first glance. Some have lost all of their possessions. Some have battled disease. Some live with sorrow daily from the loss of someone close to them. These occurrences happen so frequently that we forget just how significant enduring them truly is. To survive hardship and to endure adversity offers us opportunity to build character in ways that luxury and ease can never do. Difficulties remind us of our weakness and of our need; they should remind us how much we need God.

However, there is another aspect of survival that deserves attention because it matters even more—spiritual survival. Satan uses hardship, stress, and loss to try to weaken and destroy faith. He employs adversity with pinpoint precision, probing for weakness and instilling doubt. He pushes us to the limit of human endurance, working to break our faith. Sometimes he uses others who ridicule our convictions and challenge our commitment. He persecutes in subtle ways and with multiple waves, wearing us down physically and emotionally in order to get to us spiritually. But in this ongoing battle, we do not have to be a hero, because we already have a Hero, Jesus Christ. Therefore, in order to emerge victorious from battle, we do not have to take new ground; we just have to survive. In the early days of World War II, when Nazi Germany was at its peak and before the United States entered the war, Hitler unleashed the Luftwaffe on London with constant attacks—all in an effort to break Britain’s will. But they endured; they stood strong; they survived. They showed others it could be done, and this changed the course of the war. Do not underestimate the significance of survival. When your faith survives all that Satan throws against it, you are a hero.

Back to Basics

The pursuit of happiness. Those words—inscribed in the founding document of the United States—describe so much of people’s focus in life. Of course, those were also not the original words. The committee of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson originally borrowed John Locke’s group of three: life, liberty, and property. However, due to political and economic considerations, they changed it. This itself has some interesting historical implications, but what I find most interesting is how people usually connect these two without even thinking about it. For most, the pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of property—the accumulation of things. Today, some have become so disenchanted with this—usually because they do not have many things—that they have come to celebrate living without things. While this has much to recommend it, the fact remains that property of some sort does enter much of life in some way, and therefore it becomes an argument about degree. However, we need not lose our possessions to learn this lesson because God has shown it throughout the scriptures.

Following the Jews return from Babylonian captivity, they began to show greater respect for keeping the Law of Moses, especially in regard to some of the ceremonial aspects clearly laid out in scripture. This included the requirement to journey to Jerusalem for various feast days, such as the Feast of Harvest and Feast of Ingathering (Ex. 32:16), both associated with God’s blessing them with sufficient food to sustain them and maintain their health. As they traveled, they would sing songs written with this in mind, and Psalm 128 was one such song that served that function. Upon their return to the land, they had little wealth but found themselves dependent in practically every way. While certainly a difficult time, somewhat analogous to America’s Great Depression, it helped them focus on what truly mattered, and in the process they discovered that possessions stood much lower on the list than they previously assumed. 

Blessedness, notes the psalmist, has roots in characteristics far more important and enduring than the fleeting trappings of opulence—or even comfort. The best life is the blessed life, and that life is grounded in reverence for God and living according to His precepts (Psa. 128:1). More than that, the psalmist notes the joy and satisfaction of working and thus being able to provide for yourself and, by what follows, others (Psa. 128:2), a practice begun in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15) and enjoined in every covenant (2 Thess. 3:10). God makes happiness available to man through what He commands man to do. Thus, in calling on people to marry, be monogamous, and have children, He did not create some oppressive situation for the wife and children but rather the very best environment for all involved, for everyone’s provision, joy, and well-being (Psa. 128:3). So many people today reject God’s plan for the home and only later discover His wisdom after much self-inflicted pain. But those who respect God will respect His wisdom for their lives as well and reap the benefits and blessings of a happy home for many years (Psa. 128:4). However, God did not create families for isolation but for society too—more specifically, spiritual society. Therefore, when families together embraced the spiritual in returning to Jerusalem to honor God and to follow His will, they brought blessings upon themselves far greater than they probably could have imagined (Psa. 128:5). By coming before God they joined in the greater chorus of families determined to do His will and formed a bond of fellowship extended to heaven and thus provided the foundation for a godly society that would bless their families and the nation for years to come (Psa. 128:6). 

Society has wandered so far from God in seeking prosperity that it has lost sight of the foundation that makes society a pleasant environment in the first place. When we once more give attention to godliness and morality, build strong and committed marriages, and train our children to do the same, we will  accomplish far more good for society than the greatest economic plan in history. The strength of any society lies not in its government or its economy but in the character and godliness of its people, beginning in the home. And that is why we need to get back to basics in America today.

 

A Heritage from the Lord

Though familiar to the reader and often quoted by the preacher, the meaning of Psalm 127 plumbs greater depths than today’s casual acquaintance typically assumes. While the uninspired inscription assigns this Song of Ascents to Solomon, it could just as easily imply an attempt to mimic his style due to an affiliation with his circumstances when the Jews returned from captivity to rebuild the temple, the city of Jerusalem, and the people of God. In fact, this latter formulation fits well the content of the psalm far better than a reference to the third and final king of the United Kingdom. Regardless of the time of the writing, the content itself challenges modern sensibilities as much as those in ancient Israel. 

The opening verse establishes the theme. “Unless the LORD builds the house, They labor in vain who build it; Unless the LORD guards the city, The watchman stays awake in vain” (Psa. 127:1). No matter how desperately we may seek security in life—by building a house or trusting in the protection of the government—only the LORD can truly and consistently deliver. No matter how much effort you may put into it yourself—even working yourself to the bone—the comfort of putting your head down at night and sleeping peacefully depends upon the LORD (Psa. 127:2). And while the next section of the psalm appears so different on its face that some have suggested it as a separate and distinct poem, in truth it builds upon the theme of security by contrasting the typical ways men seek it—in building structures and creating alliances—and instead shows how God provides us with security in a way we seldom consider. “Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, The fruit of the womb is a reward” (Psa. 127:3). Rather than changing topics, the author provides a different perspective about security. As he previously emphasized that all efforts are vain unless the LORD provides it, here he draws attention to what the LORD has provided—children as a heritage. That security remains the focus becomes clear by the descriptions that follow. “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, So are the children of one’s youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them; They shall not be ashamed, But shall speak with their enemies in the gate” (Psa. 127:4-5). Arrows in the hand of a warrior most certainly imply a means of protection from enemies. More than that, he also refers to “enemies in the gate” with whom those same children speak. Since the gate of the city was the place where the ancient Jews made important decisions and conducted negotiations, he places the children in leadership positions in the community and perhaps even nation as another means of protection.

All of this may seem rather disconcerting considering how people generally use this passage. However, in the flow of the context, the psalm points out that as a man grows older, nothing can protect his interest, his livelihood, and his person like his own offspring, who out of love, relationship, and bond will consider his interests as their own while moving into the ranks of the army and leadership of the community. In New Testament terms, children have the role of taking care of their parents as they age (1 Tim. 5:8) from the depth of appreciation they have for their upbringing, from their respect for what they have provided them in life, and from a love that continues to grow as the children progress from the needy to the needed (Eph. 6:2-3). 

Parents, as we raise our children, everything we do should be designed around the type of adults our children will become. And the type of adults we should most want them to be are those who are a true heritage from the LORD, people who place their faith in God, grow to become productive citizens, and love their parents deeply—enough to care for them, protect them, and provide for them if need be. We have come to trust in retirement, social security, and all kinds of programs to take care of us as we age. As a society, we should begin by raising children who are more than willing to care for us, because no security is better than the love of your children built on faith in God.

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