The “Not Yet” of the Psalms

The concluding verses of Psalm 72, sung to the rousing African tune SIYAHAMBA, are a favorite doxology in the congregation I attend at college. This royal psalm describes the blessings all the nations will enjoy as a result of the Messiah’s kingship:

May he live, and gold from Sheba’s realm
Then be given as a gift to him.
May the people always pray for him,
May they bless his name throughout the day.
In all regions—and upon the hilltops—
O may there be abundant crops of grain!
Being fruitful—Lebanon with cedars—
O may the city thrive like grassy fields!

The Book of Psalms for Worship, selection 72E

As joyous as it is to sing about the bounteous results of Christ’s reign, Psalm 72 often leaves me confused. I understand that its original context is probably a prayer of David or Solomon for Solomon’s kingship, as evidenced by the inscription and v. 20. But many of the blessings invoked in Psalm 72 clearly transcend an individual or even a national focus: “May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth!” “May people be blessed in him, all nations call him blessed!” (vv. 8, 17 ESV). Such prayers seem to look forward to the coming of a Messiah whose worldwide reign will bring ultimate peace and prosperity. We Christians confess that the Messiah has come and has begun his reign—and yet the blessings of Psalm 72 seem to remain unfulfilled.

Will there come a day on this earth when all nations acknowledge Christ as King? Will we see a time when “the righteous flourish, and peace abound[s], till the moon be no more” (v. 7)? If so, why do the circumstances of the world seem to be growing worse rather than better?

Jesus on Every Page by David MurrayLately I’ve been reading David Murray’s recent book Jesus on Every Page: Ten Simple Ways to Seek and Find Christ in the Old Testament. His chapter on the Psalms and the Song of Solomon, entitled “Christ’s Poets,” held a groundbreaking insight for my understanding of such passages.

Dr. Murray asks some questions that cut to the heart of our understanding of the psalms: “[D]id the original composers and singers understand what we can with the benefit of New Testament hindsight? Did they see the Messiah in the Psalms to the extent that the New Testament writers did?” He answers that while Old Testament believers could not enjoy the “extraordinary light” we have been granted as a result of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, they did trust in a future Messiah, and they knew his message of salvation would be much clearer to future generations. Yes, Dr. Murray would say, Psalm 72 was written with the person and work of Jesus Christ as its preeminent focus.

But what Dr. Murray said next instantly clarified my confusion concerning Psalm 72:

In some ways, we are in a similar position to these first psalm singers when we think ahead to the second coming of Jesus. Many passages in the Old and New Testaments—including the Psalms—predict Jesus’ coming again in great glory to end this world and create a new environment for a renewed people. But while we get the overall outline of what lies ahead, only when these events unfold in detail will we fully understand these scriptures. In the meantime, we look ahead with optimistic faith and sing psalms such as Psalm 72 and 98 with the same inquiring faith that the Old Testament prophets also experienced with reference to the first coming of Jesus [I Peter 1:10-12].

In other words, we may not fully understand all the promises of Psalm 72 and other forward-looking scriptures. But that’s okay. Although Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection, and ascension perfectly fulfilled the messianic promises of the Old Testament, the final consummation of his kingdom according to the Bible’s prophecies is yet to come. The author of Hebrews explains this distinction wonderfully in reference to Psalm 8: “At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9).

So it’s okay for the promises of Psalm 72 to puzzle us. It’s all right to wonder how God will bring about the consummation of the Messiah’s kingdom. As humble, awed worshippers, we need not doubt; rather, we can look forward to the certain fulfillment of this and every other unclear passage. And when we sing, “May his name endure forevermore; may it grow as under shining sun,” we can do so not only in praise but also in anticipatory excitement. Nothing can stop the fact that Jesus is coming again!

–MRK

–quotes from Jesus on Every Page are from pp. 190, 191

A Look at Liturgy: The Benediction

Pews

Today’s post brings us to the conclusion of URC Psalmody’s series on the liturgy of the Dutch Reformed tradition. We’ve examined the historical background of our churches’ worship structure, and we’ve progressed through some notable aspects of a typical Sunday morning service, like the votum and the reading of the decalogue. After the call to worship, confession, prayer, preaching, singing, and responses, one distinctive element remains: the benediction or parting blessing.

Meetings of many kinds end with a note of farewell, and almost any Christian church would ordinarily conclude its worship service with some kind of dismissal. But you may notice that the benediction in the Reformed worship service seems to bear some kind of added significance. In fact, if you pay very close attention, you’ll notice that only ordained ministers—not elders or seminarians—are permitted to administer the parting blessing with outstretched hands. Why are our churches so particular? What does the benediction actually represent?

The Psalter Hymnal Supplement comments, “In Reformation liturgies, the dismissal is more proclamatory than petitionary—more of a means of grace than a prayer” (113). We believe the dismissal carries the full weight of a direct promise of God. “The apostolic blessing is the proclamation of God’s gracious intention: it is rooted in the Gospel promise and, therefore, in God’s desire to give grace to His people” (114).

The benediction often takes the form of the Aaronic blessing of Numbers 6: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace” (vv. 24-26 ESV). But whether the minister uses these words or others, he is not just expressing a wish or a prayer. He doesn’t qualify the blessing with “ifs,” soften it with “mays,” or generalize it by replacing “you” with “us.” In delivering the parting blessing the minister speaks with the authority of God himself, declaring the Lord’s lasting favor on those he has reconciled to himself. God’s blessing is not something we have to repeatedly beg for or anxiously await; it is guaranteed us as his people. The benediction assures us that God’s good favor will rest upon us through the coming week until we gather to worship him again.

The Liturgical Committee notes, “[T]he customary gesture of the arms stretched and palms down, carries the ancient symbolism of an endowed blessing. The minister does not conclude the service by wishing his parishioners well. He concludes by summoning them to receive the parting promises of God’s mercy and peace” (114).

This, in a nutshell, expresses the beautiful pattern of Reformed, Biblical worship. We could summarize it in the glorious terms of Psalm 118: God has opened to us the gates of righteousness, that we may enter through them and give him thanks. He has answered us and become our salvation. Christ, the stone that the builders rejected, has become the cornerstone of the temple he is building for himself—the church. We stand in awe at the Lord’s doing, marvelous in our eyes. And we go forth from his courts believing and rejoicing that “the LORD is God, and he has made his light to shine upon us” (v. 27).

What cause for celebration!

–MRK

Note: Several churches in the United Reformed Churches in North America have created explanations of their particular liturgies and worship practices. Here are a few helpful summaries:

A Look at Liturgy: The Decalogue

The Decalogue

Over the past few weeks we’ve been looking at some characteristic elements of the Reformed worship service. Today’s post brings us to perhaps the most distinctive feature of Dutch Reformed liturgy: the reading of the Ten Commandments (decalogue, “ten words”) in the service.

In theory, there is a basic theological rationale for the use of the decalogue in worship: “it testifies to the Calvinist respect for the unity of the covenant” (Report of Liturgical Committee, Psalter Hymnal Supplement 100)—though even Calvinists do not always agree on the nature of the covenant. In practice, however, this justification leaves some questions unanswered. For instance, why do the Ten Commandments not appear in the worship of other Protestant churches that uphold the unity of the covenant of grace?

The answer to this question is mostly one of history and tradition. It was John Calvin who “planted the decalogue in the liturgy” without leaving much explanation why, and it had come to be a fixture in Dutch Reformed worship by the time of Abraham Kuyper in the 19th century. “By that time,” the Liturgical Committee comments, “the law seemed liturgically inexpendable, and liturgically undefined.”

In West Sayville’s liturgy the Ten Commandments fall under the heading of “God’s Will for Our Lives,” and occasionally they are replaced in the worship service with another Scripture reading that urges us onward in “the dying-away of the old self, and the coming-to-life of the new” (Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 33, Q&A 88). Following the reading of the decalogue or an alternate passage, our pastor offers a prayer of confession and reads another text as the “Assurance of Pardon,” and then the congregation sings a penitential psalm or hymn. Presented as God’s will for his people, the reading of the decalogue prompts us to confess how drastically we fall short of its perfection, but also to recognize Christ’s fulfillment of the law and go forth in grateful obedience to him.

This use of the Ten Commandments in worship, which I have to assume is fairly typical in United Reformed churches, reflects all three of the functions of the law listed in the Liturgical Committee’s report:

  1. “It could serve as a catalyst to confession.…It is the holy finger of God pointing to ‘me’ as the one who fails in his life to reflect the character of God.”
  2. “It could serve as a summons to the life of gratitude.”
  3. “It could also serve as a reading from Scripture…[that] consistently stresses instruction in the obligations of the Christian.”

While it is important to pinpoint the purpose of the decalogue in worship, the Liturgical Committee also provides an important qualification: “[W]e must remember, of course, that the Lord is free to use His law, at any moment, to achieve whatever purpose He wishes. If He wills to use His law of a given Sunday morning to convict one worshipper of sin, summon another to obedience, and at the same time inspire another to a grateful hallelujah, no liturgical definition of the law’s function will inhibit him.”

So should Reformed churches keep the decalogue in their worship services? In my experience, at least, the weekly reading of the Ten Commandments helps to anchor our worship in the blazing light of God’s holiness. If it is to have this effect, however, the decalogue must never be separated from the message of the gospel. Apart from confessing our sin, rejoicing in Christ’s salvation, and filling our lives with grateful obedience, the Ten Commandments become a highway to moralism and works-righteousness. Treat the decalogue as a checklist or one of those ubiquitous online quizzes (“I scored 8/10 this past week!”), and your life in Christ will wither. But respond to God’s law by confessing your natural misery and taking refuge in the finished work of Jesus Christ, and the Ten Commandments will spur on what the Catechism so beautifully describes as “wholehearted joy in God through Christ and a delight to do every kind of good as God wants us to” (Q&A 90).

O blessed Lord, teach me Thy law,
Thy righteous judgments I declare;
Thy testimonies make me glad,
For they are wealth beyond compare.
Upon Thy precepts and Thy ways
My heart will meditate with awe;
Thy Word shall be my chief delight,
And I will not forget Thy law.

–MRK

–quotes from the Psalter Hymnal Supplement are from pp. 100, 101

A Look at Liturgy: The Votum

Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth

“Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”

If you attend a United Reformed church, it’s likely you hear these words from Psalm 124 every week at the opening of morning worship. Although this is a common way to begin worship in our churches, it’s actually fairly unique to the Dutch Reformed tradition. What are the origins of this statement (often called the “votum”), and what does it mean?

In the Psalter Hymnal Supplement the Liturgical Committee of the Christian Reformed Church comments on the term “votum,” “No one is quite sure how this awkward Latin word crept into and managed to stay in a Reformed liturgy that otherwise kept itself clean of Romanist vocabulary.…The word itself seems to mean a ‘wish’ or ‘desire’ and so, perhaps, is roughly similar to an invocation.”

What makes the story of the votum even more unusual is its history. According to the Liturgical Committee, this verse (Psalm 124:8) was originally recited whispered privately by the priest during the Roman Catholic mass. “Thus, it was not the beginning of the people’s worship; it was part of the priest’s private preparation for worship. The words were taken over by Calvin to begin the morning worship for all the people. He did not tell us why he used the words; our liturgical rationale is, in a sense, after the fact.” And today Reformed churches differ widely with regard to the votum; many replace or combine it with a “call to worship” or an “invocation.” In West Sayville our morning service opens with a call to worship from an appropriate passage of Scripture, followed by a song of praise, then the votum and God’s greeting.

So what justifies the use of the votum in opening public worship? This explanation comes from the Agenda for Synod 1920 of the Christian Reformed Church: “This ‘Votum’ is not meant to be a prayer for divine aid, but rather a solemn declaration that God is in the midst of His people with His saving grace.”

The scriptural context of the votum sheds some light on its application to Christian worship. Psalm 124 is a song of Israel’s deliverance, opening with a vivid picture of the fate that would have befallen them “if it had not been the LORD who was on our side”:

then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us;
then the flood would have swept us away,
the torrent would have gone over us;
then over us would have gone
the raging waters.

–vv. 3-5 ESV

Instead of leaving them to their destruction, the Lord mightily delivered his people, freeing them from their bondage in Egypt. With joy and relief they could exclaim, “We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped!” (v. 7)—proceeding to state their continued dependence on the Lord in the words that have become our votum.

We, too, lay in bondage in a spiritual Egypt of sin and death. We deserved the torrent of God’s righteous judgment to sweep us away and the punishment of sin to overwhelm us. But he delivered us, even more mightily than he delivered the Israelites, by the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. The Lord was on our side, and he deserves all our praise!

For the church of Christ, stating that “our help is in the name of the LORD” acknowledges our profound need and complete dependence on our heavenly Father. We do not come into his presence in our own strength or because of our own merit, but because of his saving grace and only with his sustaining help. We are gathered not as the righteous, but as the sinners the Son of Man came to call to repentance. Yet despite our unworthiness, we appear in God’s courts with confidence. He has no need of our worship, but he delights in it. The almighty Creator of the universe is present wherever his people gather in his name—and thus we can say, not only in acknowledgment of our need but also in joyful assurance, “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”

And that, perhaps above anything else, is reason enough to keep the votum in Reformed worship.

–MRK

–quotes from the Psalter Hymnal Supplement are from p. 92

Psalm 34: Taste and See

Fire Island Lighthouse

I sought the Lord, and he answered me
and delivered me from all my fears.

–Psalm 34:5 ESV

When I returned from my college choir’s three-week international tour at the beginning of June, I was already anticipating fatigue, jetlag, and the general malaise that accompanies any experience of such magnitude. However, I was not prepared for a strange set of lingering psychological side effects from the anti-malarial medicine that had been administered to the choir members for our trip. For several weeks I experienced lightheadedness, confusion, sleeplessness, bouts of depression, and sometimes even hallucinations. Investigating these side effects revealed that they are indeed known to occur when taking this particular medication, and the only remedy is to wait; the drug takes weeks or even months to dissipate out of one’s system.

I share this affliction not to elicit pity—I’m already feeling much better—but because this experience opened my eyes at least in a small way to the daily battles faced by those who struggle with depression or other psychological ailments. Depression is a strange animal that appears in a variety of ugly manifestations, but it is perhaps most palpable simply as a dark cloud hanging over one’s head. Going about everyday activities becomes as difficult as trying to breathe through a wet towel. Thought patterns become tangled up in irrational knots of anxiety, guilt, or despair. Life looks bleak. I knew this from the accounts of others, but never before had I experienced it myself.

As humans, our coping mechanisms for mental ailments aren’t that good. We try to bury our affliction under gaudy layers of distractions and amusements, we try to coach ourselves to feel better, or we resort to that disgusting cliché, “It’s all in your head.” The statement is true, of course; mental illness is “all in your head” just as much as a broken arm is “all in your arm” or blindness is “all in your eyes.” But if you can’t command your arm to heal itself or your eyesight to return, you shouldn’t expect success in telling your brain to fix itself either. And so dealing with the problem of depression degenerates into a downward spiral of futility, marked chiefly by a desperate and often hopeless longing to once again be in control of one’s thoughts and emotions.

As I sought to process this temporary new reality, the Old Testament story of David’s encounter with the king of Gath came to mind. I Samuel 22 relates how David, in flight from Saul, went to the court of Achish (or Abimelech), the king of Gath, and there feigned madness to save his life. I had to wonder how David felt. His situation had little in common with mine, to be sure; medical side effects and pretended insanity are very different things. But surely he too felt that desperate desire to escape from circumstances out of his control that were forcing him to act out of his mind.

One day in the midst of these ponderings I happened to turn to Psalm 34.  As I began to read I was astonished to find this inscription: “Of David, when he changed his behavior before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away.” Here was the answer to the very question I had been asking; David, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, had recorded his thoughts and emotions for me here. With a new sense of awe I read statements like the following:

The LORD is near to the brokenhearted
and saves the crushed in spirit.
Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
but the LORD delivers him out of them all.

–vv. 18, 19

The LORD redeems the life of his servants;
none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

–v. 22

Here was the song of a man whose situation had become so desperate that insanity seemed the only option left to him, and here was his record of how the Lord delivered him. Here was his response to his many afflictions: not a cry of despair, as one might expect, but a song of praise. Here was a proven remedy to broken hearts and crushed spirits!

For one thing, Psalm 34 taught me a lesson in pride and humility. The world tries to comfort the depressed by pointing out what good people they are (think of how Clarence saves the suicidal George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life). The Bible, however, teaches that not a boosted ego but a broken heart obtains God’s favor, and that those who possess it will be blessed. This psalm is addressed to the humble, not the proud (v. 2). And strength or confidence or what we think of as inherent goodness will prove powerless to deliver anyone from the gnawing pain of life and the lurking presence of death. David writes that even “the young lions”—the very symbol of virility and vigor—“suffer want and hunger.” In contrast, “those who seek the LORD lack no good thing” (v. 10). In Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).

Another lesson I gleaned from Psalm 34 was the reminder that suffering for the believer in this fallen world is neither abnormal nor shameful. “Many are the afflictions of the righteous,” writes David in verse 19. Not every evil is a punishment for sin or a symptom of demonic oppression. God in his providence uses the suffering we undergo for many purposes, but the source of it all lies in the curse that was laid on this universe as a result of Adam and Eve’s sin. But there is hope. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, yes. “But the LORD delivers him out of them all” (v. 19). Christ came, the truly Righteous One who “keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken” (v. 20; see Jno. 19:36), and suffered the ultimate penalty to redeem us from the power of sin and death. It is through him that “the LORD redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned” (v. 22).

Finally, Psalm 34 emphasized to me the futility—no, the sheer stupidity—of trying to combat a problem within ourselves with a solution within ourselves. David did not merely acknowledge that there was a problem in his head; he knew there was a problem in his heart—a deep and impenetrable problem that could not be alleviated except by divine intervention. “This poor man cried,” says David, “and the LORD heard him and saved him out of all his troubles” (v. 6). He boasts not in his self-sufficiency but in his utter dependence on God: “My soul makes its boast in the LORD” (v. 2). Navel-gazing can only prove fatal, but “those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed” (v. 5).

Have you experienced the bitter frustration of mental ailments, the biting pain of depression, or simply the dull despair that accompanies living in a fallen world? David would not be surprised. Our minds are stained by sin just as much as our bodies; even the best of us cannot trust our senses or emotions. But Psalm 34 offers the troubled soul one thing it can sense and know with certainty: “Taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” (v. 8).

May you, too, taste and see that the Lord is good, and through all the joys and struggles of life may you be able to confess with the psalmist,

I sought the LORD, and he answered me
and delivered me from all my fears.
Those who look to him are radiant,
and their faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him
and saved him out of all his troubles.

–MRK


Welcome to URC Psalmody

We hope you'll join us as we discuss music, worship, the psalms, the church, and much more here on URC Psalmody. You can learn about the purpose of this blog here. We look forward to to seeing you in the discussions!

Heidelberg Catechism Series

With this feature, just enter your email address and you'll receive notifications of new posts on URC Psalmody by email!

Join 169 other followers

Categories


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 169 other followers