Posts Tagged 'Bible'



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

Lord’s Day 44: Only a Small Beginning

Catechism and Psalter

The Heidelberg Catechism expounds upon the Ten Commandments uniquely by demonstrating how they encompass every area of moral living.  Even the tenth commandment, which we’ll study today, relates to the whole law by stating “that not even the slightest thought or desire contrary to any one of God’s commandments should ever arise in my heart.”  Such an interpretation is devastating because it condemns every one of us.  But Lord’s Day 44 digs deeper than the mere prohibition of this commandment by asking and answering a difficult question: Why do the Ten Commandments still matter if we can’t obey them perfectly?  As always, the answer points to the glory of our gracious God.

113 Q.  What is God’s will for us in the tenth commandment?

A.  That not even the slightest thought or desire
contrary to any one of God’s commandments
should ever arise in my heart.

Rather, with all my heart
I should always hate sin
and take pleasure in whatever is right.

114 Q.  But can those converted to God obey these commandments perfectly?

A.  No.
In this life even the holiest
have only a small beginning of this obedience.

Nevertheless, with all seriousness of purpose,
they do begin to live
according to all, not only some,
of God’s commandments.

115 Q.  No one in this life can obey the Ten Commandments perfectly: why then does God want them preached so pointedly?

A.  First, so that the longer we live
the more we may come to know our sinfulness
and the more eagerly look to Christ
for forgiveness of sins and righteousness.

Second, so that,
while praying to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit,
we may never stop striving
to be renewed more and more after God’s image,
until after this lie we reach our goal:
perfection.

Suggested Songs

237, “How Shall the Young Direct Their Way” (Psalm 119)

(Sung by Grace URC in Dunnville, ON, and by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

“Not even the slightest thought or desire contrary to any one of God’s commandments should ever arise in my heart.”  Like the apostle Paul, we realize that the law condemns us without exception.  “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (Romans 7:18 ESV).  But like Paul, we as Christians also “delight in the law of God” in our inner being (v. 23), and attest that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12 ESV).  We gladly echo the words of the psalmist in Psalm 119:9-16, as versified in the blue Psalter Hymnal:

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.

248, “How I Love Thy Law, O Lord” (Psalm 119)

“With all my heart I should always hate sin and take pleasure in whatever is right.”  Psalm 119:97-104 expresses the joy of those who make God’s law their delight:

While my heart Thy Word obeys,
I am kept from evil ways;
From Thy law, with Thee to guide,
I have never turned aside.
Sweeter are Thy words to me
Than all other good can be;
Safe I walk, Thy truth my light,
Hating falsehood, loving right.

152, “Remember Not, O God” (Psalm 79)

(Sung by Trinity URC in St. Catharines, ON, and by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

“In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience.”  Let’s be honest: the Catechism’s analysis of the Ten Commandments can be profoundly disturbing.  Can anyone fulfill the expectations of God’s law?  Even as we understand that we are saved by grace, not by works, what kind of obedience does Christ expect of us?

Thankfully, the answer the Catechism provides rests in God, not in us.  The Ten Commandments, it says, are to be preached so pointedly “so that the longer we live the more we may come to know our sinfulness and the more eagerly look to Christ for forgiveness of sins and righteousness.”  And, as the end of Psalm 79 reminds us, God will not remember those sins against us.

Remember not, O God,
The sins of long ago;
In tender mercy visit us,
Distressed and humbled low.

O Lord, our Savior, help,
And glorify Thy Name;
Deliver us from all our sins
And take away our shame.

Then, safe within Thy fold,
We will exalt Thy Name;
Our thankful hearts with songs of joy
Thy goodness will proclaim.

272, “Out of the Depths of Sadness” (Psalm 130)

(Sung by Grace URC in Dunnville, ON)

The Ten Commandments bring us face-to-face with the spiritual battle each of us must fight.  Our sinful natures have been conquered, but they have not yet been annihilated.  The Christian life is a constant struggle against vicious enemies on every side, including our own fallen flesh.  But we serve a gracious Savior who “will redeem Israel from all his iniquities,” as Psalm 130 teaches.  “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Cor. 15:56, 57).

Out of the depths of sadness,
O LORD, I cried to Thee;
Thou who canst fill with gladness,
Lend now Thine ear to me.
O Fount of consolation,
Attend unto my cry,
Hear Thou my supplication
And to my help draw nigh.

If Thou shouldst mark transgression,
O Lord, who then could stand?
For evil and oppression
Are found on every hand.
But Thou dost pardon fully
All our iniquity,
That we may serve Thee truly
And fear Thy majesty.

I wait for God to hide me;
My soul, with longing stirred,
Shall hope, whate’er betide me,
In His unfailing word.
My soul waits for Jehovah
With more intense desire
Than watchers for the morning
To dawn of day aspire.

Hope in the Lord, O nation!
For with Him there is grace
And plenteous salvation
For all who seek His face.
He shall redeem His people,
His chosen Israel,
From all their sin and evil,
And all their gloom dispel.

–MRK

Sing a New Song, Chapter 5: The Psalms and Their Tuning Fork

Jewish temple worship?  Non-inspired Old Testament songs?  New Testament hymn fragments?  If you’ve ever been confronted with arguments about these elements when discussing corporate worship, you need look no further than Chapter 5 of Sing a New Song for a thorough, well-measured treatment of such tricky topics.  Rowland S. Ward’s essay on “Psalm Singing and Scripture” forms the fifth chapter in this book, which we’ve been systematically reviewing here on URC Psalmody since the beginning of September.

JDO: I guess the first thing I learned from this chapter was that singing has only been an official part of worship since the time of David.  Before that, singing was of course a common practice (think of Moses and Miriam’s “sing-off” on the shores of the Red Sea), but it was really in David’s time, when worship was formally organized in Jerusalem, that singing became a central component.  Ward’s point is that “the songs of worship in the temple were not considered matter for mere human prescription.”  David was clearly aware of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in his psalms (cf. II Sam. 23:2), so it makes sense that the Israelites would use those songs in the corporate worship of their holy God.  While they may have written and sung their own personal songs in other contexts, in the official worship service it seems clear that they stuck to the psalms.

MRK: One of Ward’s most lucent paragraphs explains something we emphasize again and again here on URC Psalmody: that all the psalms point to Christ in some way.  Our view of “Christ-centered psalms” is often too simplistic—we think only of the ones which speak specifically of the Messiah, like Psalms 2, 22, 72, and 110.  But as we’ve said before, Christ is the key to all the psalms.  Or, using Ward’s analogy:

In brief, Jesus Christ is the tuning fork by which we pitch the Psalms correctly.  We will find Him in them in various ways, not just in a few psalms, but in all the psalms.  The believer’s union with Christ, the true David, is the key to unlocking the treasures of the Psalter.  It is also the reason that these songs have a special place in the New Testament church and are so frequently quoted.

(p. 83)

Because Christ used the Psalter throughout his life and ministry, it is not “pre-Christian” or “sub-Christian.”  Rather, as the early church recognized, “the Psalter was full of Christ” (p. 84).

JDO: Ah, Michael, you’ve hit on one of my pet peeves.  I’ve heard arguments against exclusive psalmody that run like this: “Now that Christ has come, we need songs that are explicitly about him.  The Psalms may hint at him, but in light of his coming we need new songs.”  That is patently false and shows a great misunderstanding of the book of Psalms, which Christ himself would oppose (cf. Lk. 24:44).

MRK: For me, this chapter actually brought up a lot of mixed feelings.  I found myself actually fighting against Ward in some places in this chapter.  My main complaint was, “Yes, but what about hymns?  Where do they come in?  After all, we’re not exclusive psalmists…are we?”

What I discovered was that my hymn-based musical background was coming back to haunt me.  Hymns had always been the “norm” in the churches I had visited, the discussions I had had, and the books I had read.  Despite my months of loving, studying, and blogging on the Psalms, the rug had never been pulled out from me so suddenly before.  Honestly, Ward’s excellent biblical analysis was like a bucket of cold water in the face.  It dawned on me as never before that the Psalms—not hymns—are the origin, the pattern, the very basis of congregational singing.  What a change in perspective!

JDO: Once our perspective on worship becomes God-centered rather than self-centered, the Psalms will naturally come to the forefront.  It’s only when I started studying the theology of worship in earnest that I began to love the Psalms.  I’ve come to the point where I’d rather argue against singing too many hymns than ever try to convince someone not to be an exclusive psalmist.  But it took me a long time to get there—precisely because I had been brought up singing so many hymns and loving the emotionality of them.

MRK: How I pray that hymns would cease to dominate the music of the Church and that we would return to the Psalter as the foundation for corporate song!  Only then can hymns and non-inspired songs assume their proper place.

JDO: And the more similar our hymns are to the psalms, the better off we’ll be.

MRK: Having shared that personal epiphany, we now turn to Ward’s next section, in which he analyzes the practice of singing in the New Testament.  His discussion is divided into three areas: (1) specific references to singing in the New Testament, (2) actual songs present in the text, and (3) hymn fragments embedded in the text.

Firstly, Ward shows that each of the New Testament’s specific references to singing gives precedence (if not exclusive use) to the psalms.  Some of the most direct commands about worship are found in I Corinthians 14:26,27:

What then, brothers?  When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.  Let all things be done for building up.  If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret.

Now Ward goes on to make a potentially ambiguous statement in regard to this passage: “If we take ‘a psalm…a doctrine…a revelation’ as aspects of prophetic utterance, as seems probable in the context, then we have a Spirit-inspired composition but perhaps not necessarily a composition from the Psalter, although such is inspired.”  What does he mean by this?

JDO: The context of I Corinthians 12-14 deals with prophecy and speaking in tongues.  This was a time in redemptive history where actual Spirit-inspiration was still happening.  Thus, someone could have a new song, prophecy, or tongue under the same inspiration as that of David or Isaiah or Paul.  After the age of the Apostles, such events ceased.  So what Ward is saying is that even though special inspiration does not happen today, the principle of singing Spirit-inspired songs is still in effect.  For us, that means the 150 inspired Psalms.

More broadly, Ward uses I Corinthians 14 to point out that all our worship, including music, must satisfy the criteria of “intelligibility, edification, and decent order.”  Notice that “emotional stimulation” is not one of them—the emotions should arise from the truth of the text, not from our own sentimentality.

MRK: Certainly.  And I thank God that “intelligibility, edification, and decent order” are some of the primary tenets of the Reformed principle of worship.

Ward’s next references are possibly the most-quoted musical passages in the entire New Testament: Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, which both command the churches to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”  He makes four well-measured observations regarding these passages.

  1. “The meaning of the three terms cannot be distinguished in actual usage” (p. 86)—that is, psalms, hymns, and songs are not really different categories.  “Psalms are about the Father, hymns about the Son, and songs about the Spirit”—this and similar interpretations are simply not viable, either logically or linguistically.  It’s most likely that Paul is directing the church to sing these Psalms, or at least songs like them.
  2. On the other hand, these three terms cannot be limited with absolute certainty to the Psalter; Ward admits that “the terms may be general in nature.”  While all three terms seem to refer to the Psalms, the argument that they refer only to the psalms is flawed.  Of course, the practical application doesn’t change: the Psalms should have the principal place in worship.
  3. The adjective “spiritual” modifies all three terms, that is, “spiritual psalms, spiritual hymns, and spiritual songs.”  Ward interprets the term “spiritual” to mean either strictly “Spirit-inspired” or loosely “Spirit-prompted.”  The former reading would limit church music to the text of Scripture; the latter would allow for non-inspired songs based upon the Bible.
  4. Ward clarifies that the setting of these passages is communal and may not apply to private worship in the same way.

JDO: Regarding the last point—Christians can feel free to sing whatever they want at home (with wisdom and discernment), since these passages and arguments for psalmody refer mainly to corporate worship.

MRK: What comes to mind first is a negative implication of this principle: The entire church suffers when attempts are made to drag private devotional practices into corporate worship.

JDO: That’s the problem of self-centered worship again.  Let’s say that I am personally blessed by listening to Latin masses written by Haydn while burning incense.  What if I were to say, “Since it blesses me, I should bring it into church”?  We’d be back in Rome!

MRK: That’s an excellent observation.  Interestingly, though, the reverse is actually beneficial: a solid psalm-singing tradition has great benefits in the home as well as in the church.  So we must be aware of this distinction, and be sure we understand and appreciate God’s regulations for corporate worship.

JDO: Ward concludes this section by stating that regardless of one’s interpretation of “spiritual,” the hymns and songs that stick closest to God’s Word that are the most beneficial for our worship.

Naturally, the wisest course here is also to keep closely to the meaning of Scripture, if not its very words.  Thus the new songs, though not formally canonical, can be regarded as accurately conveying the truth of God and thus of devotional value and spiritual profit along with material directly in the text of Scripture.

(p. 88)

MRK: Ward moves on to briefly consider the songs present in the New Testament text.  Of the songs of Mary and Zacharias he comments, “I have always found it surprising that one should argue for their regular use in public worship given that it is so obvious that they are unique songs for unique personal situations” (p. 89).  How does this line up with the old Dutch Reformed tradition of singing the songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon in public worship (Psalter Hymnal numbers 332-334)?

JDO: I actually agree with his statement: it is kind of weird to sing their songs, because they are very personal.  But what’s neat is that all of these songs are almost entirely quotes from various psalms—so, in the end, these New Testament songs just prove the vitality of the Psalms in the life of these saints.

MRK: Ward also examines the songs present in Revelation, and while his arguments get a little complicated, the main point is the same: Even in heaven, the saints’ songs to God draw heavily from the Psalms—testifying yet again to their enduring quality and relevance to Old Testament and New Testament alike.

Devoting less than one page to the final section of his survey of New Testament music, Ward concisely summarizes the oft-mentioned issue of “hymn fragments” in texts like Ephesians 5:14, Philippians 2:6-11, Colossians 1:15-20, and I Timothy 3:16.  His twofold response to this argument is direct but insightful.

  1. “It is not clear what is established even if these are hymn fragments” (p. 90).  In more colloquial English, “So what?”  These passages do nothing to prove or disprove the existence of non-Scriptural hymnody in New Testament worship.
  2. “Is it not possible to mistake memorable passages of great eloquence for hymns?”  Nothing in the Greek text suggests that these passages were based on any discernible poetic structure.

Ward concludes that the “identification of hymn fragments is hypothetical and of limited validity.”  Instead he points us once again to the Psalter.

JDO: The book of Psalms is the most-quoted book in the New Testament.  Ward says, “About forty psalms are directly quoted in the New Testament, and 100 to 110 in all are quoted or alluded to.”  The point is this: it’s clear, from direct and indirect evidence, that the Psalms were a foundational part of Christian life in the New Testament church.  Whether sung exclusively or just predominantly, “that the Psalter was known, loved, and extensively used is crystal clear.”

In summary, Ward’s chapter is both fair and complete.  While he doesn’t necessarily argue for exclusive psalmody, he makes a clear case that “if we lose sight of the norm of praise in the Psalter, we are likely to drift very seriously.  By the same token, the hymns that tend to endure are those that stay most closely to Scripture themes and language” (p. 91).

MRK: Right.  Just as we’ve emphasized time and time again on URC Psalmody, the Christian church can never sing too many psalms.  The central question is not, “Should we sing only the psalms?” but “Should we sing the psalms?”  And the answer is a resounding YES!  The sole factor in evaluating the music of the Christian church should not be servitude to human preferences but grateful obedience to God’s commands.

[W]e should not forget that God has always been very jealous of His worship.  He has the right to fix its nature, and our response can only be one of obedience in the context of His gracious covenant.

(pp. 88, 89)

When we return to Sing a New Song, we’ll look at Chapter 6 by Michael LeFebvre, entitled “The Hymns of Christ: The Old Testament Formation of the New Testament Hymnal.”

Until then,

–JDO/MRK

Psalm 51: Salvation in Song

Adultery.  Deceit.  Murder.  Who would want to even begin a song about such egregious wickedness?

David, king of Israel, had just committed adultery with the wife of another man, then hatched a complicated plot to bring about the death of her husband.  The prophet Nathan had come to the king with a pronouncement of God’s fierce wrath against this sin (II Samuel 11:1-12:15).  Thus far, as Biblical stories go, we find no surprises.  All throughout the Old Testament we see individuals, groups, and even nations blatantly disobeying God and suffering the just consequences for their misdeeds.

But what David says afterwards is a surprise.  He doesn’t try to justify himself, accuse his new wife, or distance himself further from God.  He says simply, “I have sinned against the Lord.”  It is this bald confession of guilt from II Samuel 12:13 that forms the basis for Psalm 51.

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.

–Psalm 51:1-4 (ESV)

In four simple verses, David conveys all of the following ideas:

  • I have sinned.
  • I have sinned firstly against God.
  • God is just.
  • God is also merciful.
  • God alone can blot out my sins.

Here we see a marvelous blend of guilt and grace, despair and hope, sin and salvation, which continues throughout the rest of the psalm.  David goes on to declare man’s total depravity, as compared to God’s perfect righteousness:

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

–Psalm 51:5-6

Despite his realization of utter helplessness, the psalmist is not without hope.  He goes on to express his confidence in God as his only Savior:

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.

–Psalm 51:7-12

Only by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit could David present this stunning picture of regeneration.  Though living in the time of the Old Testament laws and sacrificial worship, he understood that God demanded a clean heart—not just a clean façade.  He saw that it was the Holy Spirit who preserved his relationship with God, and that true joy could only come from total reliance on his Savior.  This revelation is marvelous enough, but David does not stop here.  Instead, he goes on to express his reaction to the saving grace of God:

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.

–Psalm 51:13-15

Here we see a clear display of gospel evangelism—in the Old Testament!  Expectant of forgiveness, David overflows with praise for God’s righteousness and promises to tell others what his Savior has done for him.  As we study the Old Testament, we might ask why David doesn’t first provide the thank offerings prescribed by the ceremonial law.  As if he anticipated this question, the psalmist writes:

For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

–Psalm 51:16, 17

Echoing the theme of Psalm 50, David perceives that God has never desired only superficial obedience to his commandments.  Instead he requires a pure heart.  Because all of us are corrupted by sin, however, only God can give us this new spirit.  Through Psalm 51 we can obtain a glimpse of the true nature of the triune God as the “founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12).

With this context, the final verses of Psalm 51 almost seem misplaced:

Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
build up the walls of Jerusalem;
then will you delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.

–Psalm 51:18, 19

I’ve often struggled with the meaning of these last few lines.  The reference to Jerusalem appears to be practically irrelevant in light of the pointedly individual theme of Psalm 51.  The statements about “burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings” seem almost contradictory compared to v. 16, which declares that God has no pleasure in such sacrifices.  This passage only makes sense when viewed from the perspective of the complete story of salvation.

You might be familiar with the series “Sin, Salvation, Service” or “Guilt, Grace, Gratitude” as summaries of the content of the Heidelberg Catechism.  Interestingly, I believe this progression is the key to completing the message of Psalm 51. In the first twelve verses, David focuses on guilt and grace.  But in v. 13 and following, we see David’s joyful reaction to God’s salvation, in which he pours forth his gratitude.  So what are the sacrifices in v. 19?  Could it be that David is referring not to specific ceremonies, but to heartfelt deeds of service in gratitude to God?  Certainly this is how we as Christians should react to the salvation of Jesus Christ.  And what is Jerusalem?  In the New Testament, Zion is consistently understood to refer to the church of God.  Thus, Psalm 51 seems to indicate that the proper response to God’s mercy should include a desire to unite with the body of believers.  What a glorious completion!

After studying this text, I have to challenge the common notion that Psalm 51 is merely a song of confession to be utilized only in times of deepest guilt and repentance.  Rather, how rich our Christian walks would be if we lived out every day in the assurance David describes!  Every believer would do well to hold this psalm in constant remembrance, for without a doubt, Psalm 51 is one of the clearest Old Testament pictures of God’s ultimate plan of salvation—from guilt to grace to gratitude, and from the grave to glory.

Sinners then shall learn from me
And return, O God, to Thee;
Savior, all my guilt remove,
And my tongue shall sing Thy love;
Touch my silent lips, O Lord,
And my mouth shall praise accord!

–MRK


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