Waiting for Relief

Waiting—just waiting—can prove painfully difficult, especially when the anxieties of life pressure and surround us. Many can appreciate the stress of waiting for a doctor’s call following a test. Is it cancer? My heart? Or nothing that big at all? In the midst of a struggle, after bad news has come in wave after wave, a feeling of helplessness sets in, weighing heavily on the heart and encouraging doubt, so that the acceptance of dire circumstances begins to cause hope to waver. Such weariness had taken hold when Psalm 74 was penned, beginning with the cry, “O God, why have You cast us off forever? Why does Your anger smoke against the sheep of Your pasture?” (Psa. 74:1).

The nature of the circumstances described within this psalm speaks of no event during the lifetime of David and Asaph. Even the cry itself looks back in time (Psa. 74:2). But more than this, the situation speaks of “perpetual desolations” and damage to “the sanctuary” (Psa. 74:3) caused by enemies who raised their flag in Israel’s capital (Psa. 74:3-4), destroying the beauty of the temple (Psa. 74:5-7) and attempting to obliterate Israel’s memory of God altogether (Psa. 74:8). The ascribed authorship therefore must refer to the singers who followed Asaph, perhaps descended from him, and called themselves by his name, writing following the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians. As such, they had turned against all that God had said and no longer enjoyed His guidance and protection (Psa. 74:9). Is it then any wonder that they cried out in pain, “O God, how long will the adversary reproach? Will the enemy blaspheme Your name forever?” (Psa. 74:10). They finally realized that God had withdrawn from them, and realized just how much they needed Him (Psa. 74:11).

But here the psalm turns, growing more personal and reflective. Finally, after losing the kingdom, the psalmist realizes that God is his rightful King, and has been all along (Psa. 74:12). He proved it when He accomplished His salvation in parting the Red Sea, accomplishing in fact what other gods only claimed (Psa. 74:13-15). He proved it by His power over nature (Psa. 74:16-17). Thus, the psalmist recalls the great deliverance of the LORD and longs for a return of such feats (Psa. 74:18-19). However, rather than assume their right to His care, rather than presume their special character as His people, the psalmist appeals to the covenant the LORD made with them (Psa. 74:20), to their promise of returning their allegiance and love to Him and Him alone (Psa. 74:21), and to the cause of justice against an ungodly people (Psa. 74:22-23).

The exact circumstances of this psalm may seem remote to most people today; however, this is because we see this situation only from a physical rather than a spiritual standpoint. We identify too much with our country and not enough with our God. Therefore, we should re-read the psalm with a spiritual heart and consider the ramifications of spiritual captivity, living in a world that is openly hostile to Christ’s kingdom. When we see Satan on the march in the decisions made in government, when we see the destruction of morality in the direction of society, and when we see the cornerstones of spiritual freedom mocked, torn down, and burned one after another by a people declaring their moral, ethical, and sometimes even religious superiority, surely we can identify with the plea of the psalmist! How long must we wait until God is once more respected and acknowledged? How long must we wait to restore respect for God’s Word as truth? How long must we wait while enduring the scorn of the ungodly? How long indeed! The psalmist did not know the answer, and neither do we. But the enduring answer remains the same. We must come to our senses as a people, give ourselves wholly to our God, and let Him handle the timing while we devote ourselves to faithfulness. This was the answer for the Jews in Babylonian captivity, and it is the answer for God’s people today.

Then I Understood

Understanding the suffering of the righteous and the comfort of the wicked has perplexed people at least since the time of Job. This problem has led some to blame God, some to blame themselves, and some to blame anyone and everyone. Doctrinal confusion does not help. Those who confuse God’s sovereignty with absolute interference in everything unnecessarily create a contradiction, effectively treating even evil as God’s will. However, for most the problem is personal. They do not stop and contemplate doctrinal implications in the midst of a crisis; they simply want an explanation, just as Job did. Asaph, a chief singer appointed by David after he brought the ark to Jerusalem (1 Chr. 16:5), had such concerns and wrote what he learned from the experience in what we know as Psalm 73.

The challenge for God’s people lies in developing an eternal perspective while living in a temporal world. This is the key to appreciating the goodness of God and maintaining personal purity, especially when the world uses temporary circumstances to try to create doubt (Psa. 73:1-2). Now more than ever, we become aware of the wealth, power, and pleasures many in the world enjoy (Psa. 73:3-5) due to the interconnectedness of society through various media. Thus, people who would otherwise be content find new reasons to envy, sometimes just through a simple post on Facebook or Twitter. However, while the material wealth of the wicked may have an appeal, we too easily forget about the character many have used to procure it (Psa. 73:6-9). Christians marvel at their worldly friends who seem to have everything they could possibly desire. It would be easy, if divorced from eternity, to fall into the trap of accepting their philosophy and worldview in justification (Psa. 73:10-11). Such a snare, dependent upon a short-term view of man’s existence, has great spiritual consequences. When people concentrate solely on the material (Psa. 73:12), they also cease to appreciate the spiritual (Psa. 73:13), including the rebuke that God offers to such self-absorption (Psa. 73:14). It is thus this realization of the true consequences of worldliness and separation from the godly that provides a needed course correction to our thinking (Psa. 73:15). However, as Asaph found, the recognition of this conflict can be difficult, even after the decision to remain faithful to God (Psa. 73:16). But his next statement powerfully points all who follow back to righteousness: “Until I went into the sanctuary of God; Then I understood their end” (Psa. 73:17). Bowing down before God, bringing eternity into view, and listening to His Word brought all the perspective and answers he needed. God will judge the wicked (Psa. 73:18) and their wealth and power has an end (Psa. 73:19-20). The world presents itself as permanent, when it is the most temporary of all. Therefore, it is essential to remind ourselves daily of the value of the soul, the value of forgiveness, and the value of eternal life.  These have lasting value with which material benefit cannot compare.

It is easy to fall under the spell of materialism and worldliness, and coming to your senses to see their folly can be a humbling experience (Psa. 73:21-22). But this can produce great growth as well, because we learn to trust the wisdom of God as the only sure Guide into eternity (Psa. 73:23-24). From this we learn true devotion and the true nature of this world (Psa. 73:25-27). And from this we gain a purpose that transcends the physical universe (Psa. 73:28). God does not condone wickedness, nor does He ignore it. He allows it today, and it tests us in the present. But the key is following God’s revealed will regardless, so that the eternal is what we follow into eternity.

Potential

The transition of power from the reign of David to Solomon, his son, had proven challenging, but through the diligence of Bathsheba and Nathan, Solomon took his place on the throne, ultimately reigning for forty years (1 Kings 1:1-53; 11:42-43). Shortly after the responsibilities of sovereignty fell upon him, Solomon sacrificed at Gibeon, and the LORD offered to grant him a request. Solomon’s choice of an understanding heart with which to rule stands as one of the great decisions in antiquity (1 Kings 3:1-15), but the psalm he wrote at this time reveals the greatest aspirations of kingly leadership, far beyond simply ruling well.In Psalm 72 the newly crowned King Solomon expressed the necessity of God’s will as the foundation for every good judgment for all mankind for all time (Psa. 72:1). Whether caring for the poor (Psa. 72:2) or ensuring the protection of others (Psa. 72:3), the right kind of ruler seeks justice for those who have no one else to help (Psa. 72:4), and he is worthy of everyone’s respect for having done so (Psa. 72:5). The ruler’s care, properly given, blesses the people (Psa. 72:6) and makes righteousness available throughout his kingdom (Psa. 72:7). Such a ruler has great authority (Psa. 72:8), earning great respect through his victories (Psa. 72:9). His fame and glory will be known and honored throughout the world (Psa. 72:10-11) because of the character of his rule (Psa. 72:12-13). He receives honor because he values the people he rules (Psa. 72:14). He is worthy of great praise (Psa. 72:15), and his people will be blessed beyond measure (Psa. 72:16). He will never be forgotten. To the contrary, his rule brings blessings so rich that he will acknowledged throughout all the world (Psa. 72:17). But this recognition goes far beyond human praise, because the glory and the honor belong to the LORD. He alone could provide such marvelous care to the people, and thus He deserves all the praise (Psa. 72:18-19).

It is fitting that Solomon ended the psalm by noting the death of his father, and so the end of the many praises he offered to God in psalm (Psa. 72:20). However, it is even more fitting when we remember that Solomon’s reign did not fit this description in character—despite his great wealth and wisdom. As noted in 1 Kings 12:9-11, Solomon had placed burdens on the poor—not eased them. Therefore, however much potential Solomon had as a king to serve the people and make righteousness reign, he failed miserably. Moreover, David’s reign was filled with war—not peace. Nevertheless, there is a King for whom all these things are true: Jesus, the Messiah. For in expressing the possibilities of the king’s son, he was in fact describing the reality of the reign of God’s own Son. For in His reign righteousness does indeed prevail, blessings are bountiful, and God is glorified. So many people sadly look for an earthly reign filled with earthly blessings. When we come to appreciate ourselves as the poor and needy in sin, we will also appreciate the depth of the wealth made possible by the reign of our King (Col. 2:3), and we will begin to understand the depth of the wisdom of God’s plan for Jesus, the King, from the very beginning.

No Limits

Airplanes have always fascinated me. Perhaps this has its roots in the model airplanes my Grandpa, a former naval aviator, built and kept around his house. It might have come from my early reading of books about the Wright Brothers. It is even possible that it grew out of watching James Stewart star as Charles Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis or any number of war pictures I watched as a youth. Or maybe the sheer amazement of watching a large, heavy object overcome the power of gravity always stayed with me. But the account I love the most may be America’s early efforts in exploring the power of the jet engine and pushing its capabilities to the limit. In the time immediately after World War II, they produced jets capable of reaching just below the sound barrier. But even in this term we see the challenge they faced. Flying faster than the speed of sound was considered impossible by some, but all thought of it as a real barrier—a physical blockade preventing anyone from passing. However, on October 14, 1947, Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 and forever changed the world of aviation. Having proven the people’s prior assumptions about the sound barrier, design changes quickly made it possible for planes to fly many times faster than the speed of sound.

Not unsurprisingly, we often create artificial barriers to our own forgiveness, spiritual growth, blessings, faithfulness, happiness, and even greatness because we do not really trust God to do what He said He will do. And the reality is: so many people have played games with what God said in His Word that they have created a barrier for the real peace only God can provide. In Psalm 71 the psalmist combines a variety of problems that we can allow to keep us from trusting God: shame, doubt, failing strength, troubles, old age. You will note that all of these refer to human weakness, but when we look at God through the lens of these weaknesses it can cause us to see God as weak. And here the psalmist provides three metaphors to counter such foolishness: “Be my strong refuge, To which I may resort continually; You have given the commandment to save me, For You are my rock and my fortress” (Psa. 71:3). God is our refuge. God is our rock. God is our fortress. God is the one place we can go for safety when we think all hope is gone. God provides a place of safety in the midst of a world of unruliness and unrest. God can put us in a position of strength and protect us from the advancement of any and every foe.

We can place ourselves in a very foolish position sometimes because we act like we are the strong ones and God needs our help. But it is only when we realize how helpless we are in our sin and even in life, and then see how strong God is and how willing He is to help, that we are ready to trust Him with our hearts, with our lives, and with our souls. How sad that we—the creation—would have trouble handing ourselves over to the One who made us, treating the omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient God as if HE is the one suffering from so many limitations. However, when we stop arguing with God and start trusting God, then and only then, will we realize the depth of blessings and care He is capable of bestowing. Worldly people concerned about worldly things think of God in worldly terms, and so they limit what God could do for them. But when we see the world in spiritual terms, embrace spiritual things, and appreciate God for what He can offer us spiritually in eternity, we realize how small the world has tried to make God and how big He truly is. “My mouth shall tell of Your righteousness And Your salvation all the day, For I do not know their limits” (Psa. 71:15).

Poor and Needy

Investigating the background of various psalms to give them greater context can provide quite a challenge at times. While some offer a descriptive heading to the reader, most do not. Moreover, since the psalms represent a collection written by a number of poets spanning generations, with many unattributed, this only complicates the problem. Then, occasionally one psalm will borrow from another earlier psalm, so that some part of one of David’s psalms finds new life and new application in another generation, though the psalm may still bear that great king’s name. The case of Psalm 70 is more interesting yet. With just a few minor changes in the verbs used and the changes from Yahweh to Elohim, the entirety of the seventieth psalm comes from Psalm 40:13-17. The theme matches well the subject of the surrounding psalms, trusting in God for deliverance, and may explain its reuse here as a prayer for similar occasions.
The cry for immediate help and the need to hurry found in verses one and five suggests a desperate hour in David’s life, most likely during Absalom’s rebellion, but this simplification of the wording and the emphasis on Elohim—The Mighty One—intentionally focuses on the contrast between the power of God and the weakness of man. Thus, the weakness of man highlights the power of God, who alone is able to deliver, as verses one and five make evident. This reality then brackets a series of exhortations highlighted by the third person hortatory (Let…) expressing his wishes concerning first those who are attacking him (Psa. 70:2-3), then concerning those who trust God (Psa. 70:4), and finally, as placed in the mouths of those who trust God, concerning God Himself (Psa. 70:4). This sequence creates a crescendo effect within the context of God’s power addressing man’s need, moving rapidly from the reversal of fortune required against the attacker, the joy that the godly feel in such circumstances, and the ultimate outcome desired of God’s glorification. Thus, what began as part of a personal psalm tied to a specific moment of desperation became a prayer appropriate for any righteous man who should find himself the object of scorn, ridicule, and woe at the hand of the unrighteous.
While the origin of the psalm is interesting and the structure compelling, the basic message of the psalm can easily get lost in its brevity and simplicity. When fully retreating from the context of Psalm 40, this psalm points to the bigger picture of serving God despite opposition and turmoil. In fact, seen spiritually, the power of the message becomes even clearer. Each and every day, Satan and his allies pursue God’s people, trying desperately to take life back from us, hurling hurt toward us in every way imaginable, and taking glee in every misstep we may make along the way. Nevertheless, as the righteous stand faithfully and seek deliverance from God without compromise, the godly rejoice and glorify God who has made such an impact. Is this some great victory that we have achieved by listening, obeying, and being faithful to our Lord? Not at all. We are but poor and needy. The victory is His. And waiting on that moment can seem like an eternity. But it is because of eternity and our faith in God that we can endure.

Zeal for Your House

Of all the words used to describe faithfulness, commitment, conviction, and dedication to the Lord, one rarely used today is zeal. Oddly enough, in the current environment of postmodern fervor and emotional excess—both of which have affected people’s religious views—few would describe themselves, or anyone else, as zealous spiritually. Perhaps this reflects a mere shift in vocabulary—a preference for transcendental terminology (I am a spiritual person) or even popular wording (You can call me a fanatic)—but such changes in wording usually reflect an underlying change in thinking too.

Zeal refers to far more than emotional fervor. Its Hebrew root refers not to some outward display of emotion that feeds the shallowness of soul, allowing a person to substitute his own opinion for divine mandate. To the contrary, it points to the depth of ardent attachment that so identifies with another so as to take any wrong against another quite personally. Indeed, the Greek equivalent also bears this out with its background of “passionate rivalry.” Taken together, these paint a picture of zeal quite different from what people often imagine. Zeal is not a surface emotion but an emotional heart so deep that it reveals itself through commitment in action even during the most difficult of circumstances. Zeal causes a person to identify so strongly with God that social conventions and other false barriers do not prevent godly conviction and righteous action. Zeal boils up inside due to the imbibing of God’s Word until it overflows in a life characterized by God’s expressed will.

Thus, when David prays for deliverance during a time of great adversity  when facing physical danger, he intentionally appeals to God’s knowledge of his behavior to judge if he is worthy of such ill treatment (Psa. 69:1-5). The descriptions that follow all imply his innocence, because he prays for courage to bear the injustice forced upon him, to handle the rejection with dignity, and to accept reproach for a righteous cause (Psa. 69:6-12). Since he identifies with God’s will so strongly, he appeals for its fulfillment no matter what. He appeals to the Lord’s character as sovereign. He appeals based upon his own innocence, and thus appeals to divine pity and divine justice (Psa. 69:13-28). He does not simply stand up for himself; he stands up for God, which is why he also prays for God to be glorified through the care of the needy, the declaring of God’s greatness, the character adopted by His people, and by all the blessings deliverance makes possible (Psa. 69:29-36). All of this supports and explains the declaration found in Psalm 69:9: “Because zeal for Your house has eaten me up, And the reproaches of those who reproach You have fallen on me.” David had a heart for God that caused him to identify with God’s people, God’s Word, and God’s cause with such zeal that it stirred him up to defend righteousness and accept reproach in His name. However, as John 2:17 makes clear, David’s heart, as great as it was, was a mere shadow of the Messiah’s zeal to do the same in a more perfect way.

Christians should do more than simply show up on Sunday. Their faithfulness should extend far beyond basic morality and doctrinal purity. Rather, God’s people should be “zealous of good works” (Titus 2:14), filling their hearts with God (Matt. 22:37-40) and their lives with Christ (Gal. 2:20) to such an extent that their identity is bound up in doing God’s will, defending God’s Word, and taking Christ to others. We do not need more people in order to be effective; we need more zeal.

Captivity Captive

David regularly wrote psalms during the challenging times of his life. His heart provoked him to reflect on his relationship with God when running from Saul. The king cried out in anguish after realizing the depth of his sin with Bathsheba. He expressed a quiet grief throughout the rebellion of Absalom. Therefore, when one of his psalms rejoices in an occasion, it holds the reader’s attention in growing appreciation for the joy expressed in a moment of exultation.

After David’s seven years ruling from Hebron, he finally brought the kingdom together and moved the capital to Jerusalem. However, to a man of God, moving the ark of the covenant, and the tabernacle in which it dwelled, to the capital city was just as important, if not more so. Unfortunately, David originally failed to consult scripture and attempted to transport the ark on a cart, a decision that proved fatal to Uzzah. Nevertheless, once David finally realized and corrected his error, priests carried the ark forward with David and many others leading the way, rejoicing in noting God’s approval. Thus, having reaching the site in Jerusalem where the ark would rest, the tabernacle would be set up, and the temple would ultimately be built, David had an opportunity for joyous spiritual reflection and wrote Psalm 68.

The tenor of the psalm echoes the Song of Deborah, an interesting point of reference considering the timing. However, David envisions the whole of God’s efforts throughout his interaction with Israel culminating in this moment where He sees God’s throne coming home to Jerusalem so that God can then reign over His people. It is therefore a time of victory (Psa. 68:1-2) and a time to praise God (Psa. 68:3-4) for His care for His subjects (Psa. 68:5-6). From the time the ark was constructed before Sinai, throughout Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, and even during the time of the Judges, God came to their aid and provided deliverance (Psa. 68:7-10). Israel’s victories were Yahweh’s victories (Psa. 68:11-14). Yet, despite the grandeur and majesty of various peaks throughout the conquered nation, the LORD chose to place the sanctuary and the ark on a small hill in Jerusalem (Psa. 68:15-16) from which He would give His will (Psa. 68:17) and pour out gifts to men (Psa. 68:18), blessing mankind with blessing upon blessing, but especially with salvation (Psa. 68:19). He alone can provide an escape from death (Psa. 68:20), for He alone can provide true victory (Psa. 68:21-23). As David paints the picture of the processional, (Psa. 68:24-27), he reminds the people that God has provided their land, their safety, and their plenty (Psa. 68:28). The LORD provided wealth for His people and brought the nations around them under tribute (Psa. 68:29-31) so that they too recognize the majesty of God (Psa. 68:32-35).

Such a powerful flood of emotion expressed at a high point in Israel’s spiritual history speaks to the heart of the king to which all others would be compared. However, when we realize that this moment was but a foretaste of the victory, the blessings, the gifts, and the privilege available through the Messiah a millennium later, the message of praise sung by David should be but a prelude to the praise Christians offer to what our God has made possible for us every day.