Psalm 117 – Singing Signposts

Psalm 117


Praise the Lord, all you nations;
    extol him, all you peoples.
For great is his love towards us,
    and the faithfulness of the Lord endures for ever.

Praise the Lord.


 

Psalm 117 is the shortest Psalm in the Bible. In fact it is the shortest chapter also, (narrowly beating three other Psalms, 131, 133, and 134, and Esther 10, all with three verses). Yet in just these two verses there is wonderful truth staring us in the face that might be easy to miss. To help unpack that truth I’m going to take these verses in reverse order.

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History’s final outcome

Today’s readings are Isa 66, and Rev 19:1-10.

The the book of the prophet Isaiah, and the Revelation of John can both be a bit hard to understand at times, because they are written as apocalypses. An apocalypse is a specific type of prophecy, written to warn or comfort readers in a time of crisis, by retelling a vision  the author has had from God, in which God’s provides His heavenly perspective on current events in the light of history’s final outcome. So both the readings today talk of the “end times” when Jesus will return, yet both books also speak to the events of their own times as well.

In the final chapter of Isaiah (66) we continue to see the contrast between those who reject God and do not repent of their own sin, and those who humble themselves before God. We are reminded of God’s contempt for ceremonial services in the absence of moral righteousness. Our attempts to meet God through building a temple are ludicrous in the light of Him using the earth He created as a footstool. In contrast there is rejoicing with “the servants” who will inherit the New Jerusalem where God will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream.

Beyond God’s deliverance of Israel from Babylon, we also see the culmination of God’s plan to save all who turn to Jesus who will declare God’s glory to all the world.

and the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory,  and I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands far away, that have not heard my fame or seen my glory. And they shall declare my glory among the nations. And they shall bring all your brothers from all the nations as an offering to the Lord.

Since John borrowed heavily from the language of the old testament prophets, you’ll notice obvious parallels between our Isaiah 66 and Revelation 19 readings. John has just finished describing the fall of Babylon in chapter 18, which is actually code for the Roman Empire to his first century readers, but more broadly for later readers represents all kingdoms of this world that  require allegiance to them rather than God. Now he moves on to describing rejoicing in heaven, much like rejoicing with Jerusalem in Isaiah.

And just like Isaiah describes God’s calling to himself people from all nations and tongues to witness and declare his Glory, so John describes The Marriage Supper of the Lamb where the bride, who we know is the church, has made herself ready.

The final part of Revelation 19 describes the judgement of the Lord. The Word of God riding at the head of an army in white. Notice that even before the battle, his robe is dipped in blood. His own sacrificial blood, by which He has saved those who ride with him, and by which He ultimately conquers the world. And it is from the mouth of the Word of God that justice will come.

From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.

And yes we read something like this earlier in Isaiah 66

For by fire will the Lord enter into judgement,
    and by his sword, with all flesh;
    and those slain by the Lord shall be many.

Both our passages today talk of the judgement of the Lord for the wicked, and the proud who rebel against God and insist on their own power, but also of His salvation of those who are the servants (Isaiah) who have humbled themselves, and the Bride (Revelation) who has made herself ready.

As you read these passages today, do you stand among the proud or among the servants? Are you fulfilling God’s plan as one of the multitude called to Himself to both witness and proclaim His glory to the world?

Why not take a moment to think about the plans for your day, your week, your year, in the light of history’s final outcome, and consider whether it moves you to rethink them. When you have, why not tell God about your conclusions in prayer.

Blessings,

James

Living in the Now but not Yet

Todays readings are Isaiah 35 and Acts 23:23-35.

What a stark contrast as we turn from the page from Isaiah 34 over to chapter 35. Death and destruction gives way to life and salvation. We read words of hope that “[God] will come and save you”. And when he does,

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.

Perhaps like me this reminded you of Matthew 11:2-6

Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see:the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

It’s not hard to see Jesus in Isaiah’s prophecies. They speak both of Judah’s geopolitical context at the time, reminding the people of God’s covenant with them, and also about God’s plan to save all nations through a coming messiah. The highway referred to in verse 8 as the Way of Holiness reminds me that Jesus said He was the Way to the father.

Yet while God’s messiah has come, and He has come to save us, it doesn’t seem that we are living in the full realisation of verse 10.

And the ransomed of the Lord shall return
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain gladness and joy,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Indeed our reading second reading, in Acts 23 describes Paul being transported to the Governor, Felix, under guard. Paul who has been shown how much he must suffer for the name of Jesus. Is this suffering part of the everlasting joy, mentioned above, where all sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

The theological term for this idea that Jesus ushered in the “end times” and God’s kingdom is here but not fully experienced, is Inaugurated Eschatology, but personally I like thinking of it as living in “the now but not yet”.

If we hear Jesus’ words and believe God who sent him, we have eternal life and have already passed from death to life (John 5:24). We are already experiencing resurrection life.   Yet Jesus was also clear that His kingdom is not of this world–to fully experience it and the everlasting joy declared by Isaiah, we will need to wait until we see it.

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” – John 18:36

And it’s in the Now but not Yet that Paul begins years of imprisonment for the sake of the gospel. Years in which he hopes to be able to use his circumstances, before governors and even Caesar to declare that God’s kingdom has come in the form of Jesus – the messiah foretold by Isaiah, who was always part of God’s plan to save not only the people of Israel, but the entire world.

May God bless you today, as you live in the now but not yet, with a taste of his Kingdom that we will one day fully enjoy.

Two great gifts from God

Our readings today are Song of songs 8 and Acts 9:1-31.

If you’ve made it to the end of Song of Songs and are still not sure what to make of it, you’re not alone. It’s interpretation has been discussed over the centuries by scholars and devoted theologians, without really arriving at a generally accepted consensus. Many of the puritan writers considered the book largely allegorical, of Christ and His bride the church. Others have seen only a love poem, or collection of love poems designed to be read together.

I lean more towards it being a description of passionate love, and romantic intimacy as a good gift from God, yet set against a backdrop of God’s love for his people (the constant garden imagery) and Christ’s love for his church.

In this last chapter, that passion culminates after the slow build through this cycle of poems of longing, and declarations of adoration from both the bride and groom. Chapter 8 serves in some way as a conclusion (yet there is no real conclusion as a story – because it’s not a story), so perhaps rather than conclusion we might say a climax. The intensity is clear:

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
    as a seal upon your arm,
for love is strong as death,
    jealousy is fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
    the very flame of the Lord.
Many waters cannot quench love,
    neither can floods drown it.

And here there is a hint that this great gift from God can be all-consuming, and wonderful, but also potentially dangerous.

For me they key to this book is not to try to over analyse it, but enjoy it as poetry, and marvel at the great gifts God has given us in desire for relationship with others, love and marriage, and the gift of sex. All good things for us, when experienced under God as He intended.

Moving from poetry to history, in Acts 9, we come to probably the most significant event outside the resurrection of Christ for non-Jewish, or gentile believers. The conversion of Saul. In the space of only a handful of verses we see the most complete and dramatic turn around in history – the conversion to top all conversions. From still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord to preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. A complete and utter transformation that can only have come from meeting the risen Jesus.

Yes – Jesus grabbed Paul’s attention, with blinding light, a heavenly voice and complete loss of sight. The real transformation though was not on the road to Damascus. Saul has had three days, sitting without sight, contemplating his life, his Damascus road experience, and his future, when we read this exchange between Ananias and God who appeared to him in a vision.

But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened.

The real transformation in Paul’s live was being filled with the Holy Spirit. It is God who works in us to accept Jesus as Lord and be saved. For us, it is not quite as dramatic, yet it is still God who enables us to respond to His offer of salvation.

The thing that really struck me though as I read this, was the Lord’s response to Ananias’ protest of concern for his safety. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.

I don’t know about you, but if I was preparing someone to be the key person in my grand plan to reach the nations of the world, I’m not sure I’d try to motivate them by showing them how much they would suffer because of it. And yet this was exactly God’s master plan and strategy – to save the world through Paul and others after him, who would empty themselves, so that they might be filled with God. You see it in the anxious longing of Paul’s letters and his single-minded purpose of proclaiming the Gospel, knowing nothing other than Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2).

Today, I thank Jesus for Paul, and his single-minded submission to the suffering God showed he would endure. Paul’s radical conversion was the lighting of a fire that burns still, so that the Word of God could reach you and I, that we might know the saving power of the cross of Jesus.

I thought you might like to conclude your reflection by listening to this song by Brenton Brown about Jesus, the faithful Word of God, whom Paul proclaimed as a great gift from God to the Gentiles.

Certainty in spite of circumstances

Psalm 89 is listed as a A Maskil of Ethan the Ezrahite. Curious, I thought I’d search online for what a Maskil is. I am not much wiser for the experience, as it seems the scholars are not certain either.

maskil (Mas´kil)

A Hebrew word of uncertain significance that appears in the headings of some thirteen psalms, (Ps 32, Ps 42, Ps 44, Ps 45, Ps 52, Ps 53, Ps 54, Ps 55, Ps 74, Ps 78, Ps 88, Ps 89, and Ps 142). Some current versions of the Bible leave the word untranslated, while others, in accordance with its apparent root meaning of “understand” or “ponder,” translate it as “instruction” or the like. Scholars have suggested that maskil is possibly a technical term relating to the manner of a psalm’s performance or a class of composition. The latter hypothesis is supported by the Psalter’s use of other apparent class names in parallel fashion as well as by the appearance of the word in (Amos 5:13), where it may designate such a class.

Of Ethan the Ezrahite we know only a little more. He was of the tribe of Levi, and reputed to be wise, and in fact used as a benchmark to describe how wise King Solomon was, (he was wiser than all other men, wiser than Ethan the Ezrahite –1 kings 4:31)

Whoever he was, this is the only Psalm directly attributed to him*

What can we learn from wise Ethan’s Psalm?

This Psalm begins with extolling the steadfast love of the Lord.

I will sing of the steadfast love of the Lord, for ever;
    with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness to all generations.

For many verses Ethan talks about how unfailing God is, recounting God’s promises to David, as if to remind God that He made them, and declaring that God is faithful in keeping them.

Verse 30 is where we first begin to see that perhaps not everything is rosy for Ethan as he speaks of God’s blessing to David’s descendants in verse 29, but of consequences if they should stray from God.

29 I will establish his offspring for ever
    and his throne as the days of the heavens.
30 If his children forsake my law
    and do not walk according to my rules,
31 if they violate my statutes
    and do not keep my commandments,
32 then I will punish their transgression with the rod
    and their iniquity with stripes,
33 but I will not remove from him my steadfast love
    or be false to my faithfulness.

 

Then verses 33-37 affirm yet again God’s faithfulness and steadfastness and declaration to keep His promises.

So it is like a visceral blow when verse 38–45 cry out to God declaring God’s abandonment, perhaps of Ethan or perhaps of the current king or leader of Israel.

His grievance declared before God, he now pleads with the Lord in verses 46-48, reminding God that man’s days are short, and that he does not want to wait until he dies to feel the Lord’s steadfast love again.

Ethan’s plea goes right up to the second last verse and then in stark contrast or perhaps poignant climax, he abruptly concludes with Blessed be the Lord for ever! Amen and Amen.

As I read this Psalm I was struck by the contrast of Ethan’s certainty of how steadfast God’s love is, and yet the anguish of how distant God seems to Ethan the Ezrahite. But Ethan, in spite of his circumstances begins and ends this Psalm with bold, determined declarations. “I will sing of the steadfast love of the Lord, for ever” and “Blessed be the Lord for ever!”

Perhaps the events of the last few days have you identifying just a little with Ethan’s pain in verses 50-51:

50 Remember, O Lord, how your servants are mocked,
    and how I bear in my heart the insults of all the many nations,
51 with which your enemies mock, O Lord,
    with which they mock the footsteps of your anointed.

 

The enemies of God still mock his people today, as has been abundantly clear in the nastiness spewed forth even in victory of the “yes” campaign in the postal survey about changing what marriage means. Yet God’s love is just as steadfast today, and when we feel mockery and apparent triumph of a world that hates God, we would do well to remember to boldly follow Ethan’s example of absolute confidence and boldness:

I will sing of the steadfast love of the Lord, for ever;
    with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness to all generations.

 

How can I make God’s faithfulness known today?

*There is a possibility Ethan the Ezrahite might also be known as Jeduthun in which case there are two other psalms, 62 and 77.