Archive for December, 2016

Psalm 132: A Lamp for My Anointed

christmassidebarThe following is a guest post from Rev. Peter Holtvlüwer of the Spring Creek Canadian Reformed Church in Tintern, Ontario. Rev. Holtvlüwer graciously offered to share this meditation on “Christmas in the Psalms,” which originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Clarion magazine and is reprinted with permission. Enjoy!

A Lamp for My Anointed

(Christmas in the Psalms)

Did you know that we can sing about Christmas from the Psalms? Christmas is the celebration of Christ’s birth and we usually turn to the Gospels to read about it. But the Savior’s birth was something the saints of the Old Testament eagerly waited for. The inspired writers anticipated it, hoped for it and often wrote of it. In the Psalms they sang of it too. Their words help to fill in the picture of who the Christ child is and what he came for. Take a stroll with me through Psalm 132 and see for yourself!

A Prayer for the Anointed

A look at the whole shows that the psalm has two basic parts: a prayer to the Lord (vv. 1-10) and the Lord’s response (vv. 11-18).  The unknown author is deeply concerned about the king of Israel as he starts out in v. 1, “Remember, O Lord, in David’s favor, all the hardships he endured.” Why is he so concerned for the king? As an Israelite, he knew that his personal fortunes and that of the nation were tied up in the success of the king. If the king was blessed and thrived, the people would be blessed and thrive.

Clearly, something is amiss with the king and that has the psalmist worried. The prayer for God to “remember” means much more than “bring to mind.” It’s a call for the Lord to intervene, to act on the king’s behalf. The king needs help. That comes out again in v. 10, “For the sake of your servant David, do not turn away the face of your anointed one.”

All kings in Israel were anointed with God’s holy oil into their office. It was God’s way of signaling to everyone that this particular man was chosen by the Lord to rule over his covenant people. The anointed one would rule, judge and protect the Lord’s people in the Lord’s Name, seeking to do them good. Only now it seems as if the Lord is no longer paying attention to the anointed one. The anointed king is struggling, and the nation struggles with him. It may even be that the anointed is under threat, and the people are alarmed.

The Anointed’s Determination

Whatever the specific crisis, the poet urges the Lord to remember what David had done in his service and make a move now to rescue the kingship. What could touch God’s heart more than David’s zealous oath to build, “a dwelling place for the Mighty One of Jacob” (v. 5)? We know from other Scriptures that this desire pleased the Lord (II Chronicles 6:8). David, the first anointed one who truly was “after God’s own heart,” greatly desired that God would have a permanent home among his people and was moved when the ark was “rediscovered” in the “fields of Jaar” (v. 6). He even leapt and danced with joy when the Lord allowed him to bring the ark of his presence into Zion (II Samuel 6). The author recalls the pious determination of David to ask that the Lord give help to the current anointed king, one of David’s sons.

King & Temple

The twin concerns of the inspired poet are the anointed one and the Lord’s dwelling place, the king and the temple. The king is in trouble which means the temple is under threat too. If the anointed one cannot defend Zion, there is no security for the temple. Destroy the anointed and you’ve destroyed God’s dwelling place. But protect the anointed, and you protect the Lord’s home among His people. At stake here is the heart and soul of life in the covenant: in the temple is where God met with His people and through the sacrifices on the altar offered them the forgiveness of their sins, peace and fellowship with Himself!

The Anointed of Christmas

It’s in the Lord’s answer that we start to see the connection to Christmas. The first thing the Lord does in v.11 is to remind the poet of his own oath to David. David had sworn an oath to Yahweh (v. 2), but Yahweh had sworn a better and grander oath, “One of the sons of your body I will set on your throne. If your sons keep my covenant and my testimonies that I shall teach them, their sons also forever shall sit on your throne.” The Lord reassures his people that he had in no way forgotten his promise, much less abandoned his people.

But why, then, was the king in trouble? Why the great concern for the future of the king, temple and Israel? Because those sons of David had not kept the Lord’s testimonies! The whole history of David’s line shows anointed one after anointed one going astray from the covenant, chasing other gods and often ruling harshly over God’s people. According to the terms of the covenant, the Lord warned and punished these kings and the nation which followed their lead, but still no son of David could be found to be that faithful anointed one!

None, that is, until the special Anointed whom the Lord sent at what we call “Christmas!” David’s line showed itself incapable of faithfulness, which God knew would happen, and so in v. 17 he promised to do it himself, “There I will make a horn to sprout for David; I have prepared a lamp for my anointed.” This is the announcement of the birth of Christ! In fact, the very word “anointed” is identical in Greek to the word “Christ” – Jesus, son of Joseph, son of David, is the Anointed of the Lord promised in Psalm 132!

Jesus the “Horn to Sprout”

The angel Gabriel announces Jesus’ connection to David and the kingship when he says to Mary, “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:31-33). Just like the Lord promised in Psalm 132:12, there will no end to this Anointed’s kingdom for he will not fail to obey all the terms of God’s covenant!

He will be a “horn to sprout for David” says v. 17. That’s a metaphor for royal power. Bulls were common animals in Israel – big, powerful beasts. And the strength of the bull was seen in his horn(s). Even today, a charging bull is a hundred times more feared if he has horns than if he has none. So the horn came to symbolize power, strength, ability to overcome enemies – all things the king of God’s people needed! And on Christmas, the long-awaited horn sprouted and today he reigns with all the power of Almighty God from heaven, gathering and protecting his people and subduing his enemies under his feet! (I Corinthians 15:24-25). This horn lives to guard and guide also your life!

Jesus the “Lamp” to Shine

The Holy Spirit uses another metaphor to describe the coming one: he will be a “lamp for my anointed” (v. 17). Since this is in parallel with “a horn to sprout for David,” the Lord is promising to provide for David not only a “horn” but also a “lamp.” David himself was called the “lamp of Israel” (2 Sam 22:29) and years after his death, in the time of unfaithful anointed ones, we read “Nevertheless, for David’s sake the Lord his God gave him a lamp in Jerusalem, setting up his son after him, and establishing Jerusalem” (1 Kings 15:4).

The king of God’s people was described as a lamp for David, meaning two things: he would continue the dynasty of David (its light would not flicker out) and at the same time he would be a light for the people. A king who ruled well, who obeyed God’s law and led the people in faithfulness was like a brightly lit lamp, leading the way, showing people the pathway of peace and prosperity. For many centuries, though, the lamp of David’s line was very dim or even not shining at all – until Jesus was born! What does John say of him in the opening of his Gospel? “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it!” (John 1:4-5).

Jesus himself later declared, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). This lamp shines with the good news that all who believe in him will be forgiven their sins. As king, Jesus shines forth the clear teaching of His Father that there is forgiveness and life for all who put their trust in him! He is the Word and as he explains and imprints his Word on our hearts by his Spirit, our way is lighted up before us! In his light, we see how we should walk and serve in gratitude for the Father’s salvation. All this began with the birth of Christ, the lamp of David!

Yahweh’s Dwelling Place

There’s one more Christmas truth embedded in Psalm 132. The kingship of David’s line is forever fixed in the person of Jesus but so is the very dwelling place or temple of the Lord! Verse 13 says, “For the Lord has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his dwelling place; ‘This is my resting place forever; here I will dwell, for I have desired it.’” God had chosen to dwell in Zion’s temple, behind the curtain, with the sacrifices bridging the gap between the holy God and his sinful people. But that temple was destroyed. True, it was rebuilt, but no longer was the ark inside of it. And the people were not free to go behind the curtain. It was an imperfect symbol of God’s presence among His people.

This, too, radically changed at the birth of Jesus! Do you remember what the angel said of his name? “‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means: God with us)” (Matt 1:23) God with us! In the very person of Jesus is not merely a man to sit on David’s throne but he is God Himself! The very name Jesus means, “Yahweh saves.” Jesus is Yahweh in the flesh and with his birth he has made his permanent dwelling place in the human race, among the people he loves! His disciples could go right up to him in person to listen, to converse, to worship and fellowship – and one day we will do the same!

King Immanuel

At Christmas, the Lord fulfills the promises and expectations of Psalm 132. David’s desire to have God dwell among his people is realized in the child called “God with us.” And the people’s desire to have the anointed one protected and equipped by the Lord to forever rule them as loving king is also achieved in the Christ child. Who would have thought that the Anointed One would also be the very temple of God? Who could have predicted that the everlasting king of God’s people would be none other than Yahweh in the flesh?

Jesus Christ is the powerful horn against whom no enemy can stand and under whom we are invincibly protected. He is also the bright lamp who shows us the way of life by his Word and Spirit. Son of David, Son of God. He is your God and your King – rejoice in Him! A blessed Christmas to you from Psalm 132!

–Rev. Peter Holtvlüwer

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Let the Reader Understand (Review)

This fall I had the privilege of taking an independent-study course on the Psalms with Geneva College’s Old Testament professor Dr. Byron Curtis. My first reading assignment was Dan McCartney and Charles Clayton’s Let the Reader Understand (P&R, 2002). This helpful book defined the categories for some of the interpretive problems that arise when considering the Psalms or any other book of Scripture. The review below is a course paper I wrote to summarize the book and connect it to the study of the Psalms.

prpbooks2fimages2fcovers2fmd2f9780875525167One of the most persistent problems in biblical hermeneutics, at least from a layman’s perspective, is positing that a problem exists. Many Christians are content to consider the question of scriptural interpretation only in regard to particularly difficult books such as Daniel or Revelation, while leaving the more “obvious” passages of the Bible to the interpretation that comes most naturally, whether obtained from private study, homiletic application, or current Christian literature. Dan McCartney and Charles Clayton begin their book Let the Reader Understand: A Guide to Interpreting and Applying the Bible (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Pub. Co., 2002) by establishing the central problem of hermeneutics: “Does the Bible teach something in particular, or is the meaning of a text simply ‘what I get out of it’?” (p. 1). How can we be sure our interpretation is accurate? How can we affirm with certainty what God’s revealed will for us is? “If we regard the Bible as the fountainhead of our faith, it is crucial that we resolve this problem. If we are to obey God, we must first understand what he said. If we are to believe, there must be something there for us to believe” (p. 2).

McCartney and Clayton begin with a study of presuppositions, which immediately challenges schools of “higher criticism” of the Bible. The most basic of the Bible’s presuppositions is “that submission to the God who speaks in his Word is the first step in understanding him” (p. 9). This is true not just because of sin, which darkens our perception of the ways of God, but simply because of our finite capacity of understanding. The fact that this Word is expressed in ordinary human language denies us access (for now) to a comprehensive, absolute knowledge of God. Yet the Scriptures do indeed contain all that is necessary for life and godliness, and the authors make the case that the ambiguity of human language is the Bible’s asset rather than its deficiency: “[I]f language were totally unambiguous, precise, and exhaustive, then words about God would be sufficiently inadequate to make them idolatrous. The flexibility of the elements of language is what enables sentences to be perfectly, though not exhaustively, true” (p. 20). The Bible’s nature as both the inspired Word of God and a book in ordinary human language should drive us to place ourselves under its authority while also exercising every effort to understand its true meaning.

Central to McCartney and Clayton’s presentation of hermeneutics is the role of the Holy Spirit, who “convicts and assures us of the truthfulness and trustworthiness [of the Bible] as we find it in Scripture” (p. 74). Not only did the Holy Spirit inspire the original authors of the text, he also continues to illumine the hearts of believers as they seek to understand the will of God. While there is “an accomplished, objective, definitive, and unrepeatable dimension,” through the Spirit “the Word is also applied continuously to individuals, who subjectively experience it coming alive to them, meeting their needs in special situations” (p. 75). Reinforcing the authors’ earlier presupposition about ultimate submission to the Word of God, interpreters of the Bible must recognize that it is only the Holy Spirit who can confront us with the divine authority of its texts.

From this starting point, the authors proceed to explain the history of biblical interpretation through the church, beginning with the early interpretations of Justin Martyr and Irenaeus and continuing through the influence of Derrida’s poststructuralism in contemporary scholarship. McCartney and Clayton then introduce the grammatical-historical method, which places the words and phrases of Scripture into a linguistic and cultural framework in order to reveal the authors’ original meaning. Building on this foundation, the authors introduce four principles to derive a present meaning from grammatical-historical analysis: the meaning must be organically related to the human author’s meaning; the meaning must be consistent with the total revelation in the Bible; the meaning must point to God’s redemption; and the interpretation must remain subject to the Holy Spirit’s directing of the church (pp. 173, 174). Putting these principles into practice, McCartney and Clayton outline a plan for studying God’s Word: preparing spiritually, consulting multiple Bible translations, considering discourses rather than just words and sentences, and discovering the historical and cultural background of the text. In closing, Let the Reader Understand discusses the various literary genres within the Bible and suggests how proper exegesis should shape Christian worship and witness.

What distinguishes Let the Reader Understand from many contemporary works on biblical exegesis, both popular and scholarly, is the humility with which it approaches the Word of God. The author’s statement that “genuine understanding occurs to the degree that our basic presuppositions and operating assumptions are in line with those of the Bible” (p. 289) roots hermeneutics in a realization of the authority of the Word of God, not an arrogant demand for the Bible to prove its worth. Related to this perspective is an acknowledgment of both the perspicuity (clarity or simplicity) of Scripture and its unfathomable depths. A solid exegesis of many Bible passages can begin with a very simple, literal interpretation, which accumulates significance in the “hermeneutical spiral” of contextual and historical analysis (p. 40). In this way, Let the Reader Understand encourages careful study of the Scriptures while undermining critical scholarship’s claims to self-sufficiency.

Let the Reader Understand is a uniquely valuable introduction to hermeneutics, deftly explaining difficult philosophical concepts and navigating complex interpretive arguments while remaining readable. One of the book’s notable features its extensive crossover to questions of philosophy and communication, some of which seem unrelated at first to Biblical interpretation. For example, Chapter 4 delves into the ideas of F. de Saussure, C. Levi-Strauss, and J. Derrida, while Appendix A provides a ten-page discussion of the question “Where is meaning?” However, such conversations are key to appreciating the rest of the book—not only because of their relevance to communication studies, but because they interact with the philosophies that have consciously or unconsciously shaped much of the debate over biblical interpretation in recent years.

This review would be incomplete without mentioning the special value of Let the Reader Understand for a study of the Book of Psalms. Although it may not be debated as hotly as prophetic or apocalyptic literature, the genre of biblical poetry can present significant problems of interpretation for the thoughtful Christian. While popular views of the Psalms may treat them as collections of inspirational sayings for a faith-based life, the organization of this collection (Why five books? How are the Psalms laid out?) and their historical nature as the songbook of ancient Israel challenge us to reconsider this common perception. The Psalms have often fallen victim to hermeneutical crimes like quoting Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God,” without recognizing the object of this command (the warring nations on earth) or the context of the surrounding Psalm. In addition, the difficult themes of lament and imprecation throughout the Book of Psalms present a challenge to any modern reader. How are Christians to understand vindictive statements such as “May they be…like a stillborn child that never sees the sun” (Psalm 58:8 NIV) or “May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow” (Psalm 109:8)?

Let the Reader Understand offers a way toward greater understanding of the Psalms by affirming their divine inspiration, not just their historical or cultural value. The authors describe several modern theories of interpretation such as the autonomous text theory, the reader-response theory, and the sociolinguistic-community theory (p. 24). Yet all of these drain the psalms of the spiritual value that makes them much more than interesting artifacts of ancient Israel. Studying how the Psalms are referenced by New Testament authors, recognizing the redemptive-historical context of these songs of the saints, and understanding the genre of poetry are a few of the applications that can be made from this book to a study of the Psalms, each of which will yield rich rewards in individual or corporate hermeneutical efforts.

Of course, to return to the central message of Let the Reader Understand, the most important factor in understanding the Book of Psalms is the recognition that these songs, like the rest of Scripture, point to the salvation accomplished by Jesus Christ. McCartney and Clayton quote the church father Irenaeus in regard to the New Testament fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy: “And therefore when the Law is read by Jews at the present time, it is like a myth; for they do not have the explanation of everything, which is the coming of the Son of God as man. But when it is read by Christians, it is a treasure, hidden in the field but revealed by the cross of Christ” (qtd. p. 85). Without the aid of the Holy Spirit, the Book of Psalms will be just another record of the worship practices of an ancient nation. But with the Holy Spirit’s help, this collection of songs will inspire us with newfound praise when we discover in them “the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow” (I Peter 1:11).

–MRK


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