Posts Tagged 'Christmas'

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

christmas6

Christmas Psalms: Psalm 98

Noel! Noel! Noel! Noel!
Born is the King of Israel!

As often as it appears in cards, plaques, and Christmas carols, the little word “Noel” evades precise definition. The old English Christmas shout “Nowell” can be traced back to the French form “Noel,” and from there the etymological road splits. On one hand, “Noel” could be derived from the Latin natalis, meaning “born”—thus, “He is born!” The second possibility, however, and the one that intrigues me more, links “Noel” with the French word nouvelle, meaning “news.” Rather than the direct statement “He is born,” then, “Noel” takes on a broader meaning: “Good news!”

Fire Island Lighthouse

Fire Island Lighthouse

This year, “good news” has become a recurring theme in many of my experiences. From enjoying the robust psalm-singing of the Reformed Presbyterian Church I attend at college, to singing with The Genevans Choir first in Ohio and then in southeast Asia, to hosting Geneva’s small vocal ensemble New Song at my home church, to participating in a TASC (Teens Actively Serving Christ) trip on Long Island, to preparing organ and choir music for The Genevans’ Christmas concerts this fall, the year 2014 left me both with a deeper understanding of what that “good news” means and with a more vigorous joy to proclaim it.

The good news, of course, is that God has provided a way for sinners to be reconciled to himself, through the birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of his Son Jesus Christ. But the ramifications of that statement—on either an individual or a global level—are hard to process for minds and hearts as thick as mine.

Heinz Chapel

Heinz Chapel

Just before the end of the spring semester, The Genevans sang for a wedding in the architecturally overwhelming Heinz Chapel in Pittsburgh. Three weeks later, we were visiting a chapel in rural Mindanao with one wall and a dirt floor. I got to sing psalms in locations as disparate as the summit of 13,435-foot Mount Kinabalu and the cavernous tower of a Long Island lighthouse. The choir’s Christmas concerts drew a full house at Beaver Falls’s magnificent First Presbyterian Church, but our audiences in the Philippines sometimes consisted only of a few villagers and a dog. Yet almost anywhere we visited, there were signs that the good news of the gospel had been there.

In places like Heinz Chapel, the gospel has become so commonplace—so un-extraordinary—that the colossal building may represent nothing but a shell of once-vibrant faith. In other places, the physical amenities may be meager, but the good news has brought true hope and real transformation, incorporating new “living stones” into the spiritual edifice of the Church universal (I Peter 2:5). For me, some of the most powerful evidence of the gospel’s work emerged from the fellowship I enjoyed with Christian brothers and sisters in the congregations we visited, whether stateside or around the globe. What a wonder it is to belong to “one body and one Spirit” (Ephesians 4)!

Psalm 98 expresses the joy of these “glad tidings” better than any human tongue can:

Oh sing to the LORD a new song,
for he has done marvelous things!
His right hand and his holy arm
have worked salvation for him.
The LORD has made known his salvation;
he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations. . . .

All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.

–Psalm 98:1,3 (ESV)

Perhaps the psalmist penned these words with ardent longing for the day when God’s salvation would be revealed to the nations as never before, when his “steadfast love and faithfulness” to his people would be remembered and the earth’s ends would see his redeeming work. That would be good news indeed—but it would be long in coming.

The angels’ first words to the shepherds in Luke 2—“Fear not . . . I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people . . .”—marked the beginning of the best announcement this tired world could hope to see. Christ has come! He has come, as he promised through Isaiah,

to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.

–Isaiah 61:1-3

In the last few weeks of the fall semester I put together the following video (with footage from several of the sites we visited this year and audio from Geneva’s campus chimes and the First Presbyterian Church pipe organ) in an attempt to connect as many of these themes as possible—“The First Noel,” the good news of Christ’s coming, and the spread of the gospel to the ends of the earth.

[youtube http://youtu.be/5c2u1Q9d5rM]

May this season offer you the opportunity to see the Lord’s salvation, to rejoice in his righteousness, to know his steadfast love, and to “sing to the Lord a new song.” Truly he has done marvelous things.

–MRK

Lord’s Day 14: In All Things Like Us

Catechism and Psalter

Today we return to our series on the Heidelberg Catechism with Lord’s Day 14, which explains the benefits of Christ’s holy conception and birth.

35 Q.  What does it mean that he ‘was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary’?

A.  That the eternal Son of God,
who is and remains
true and eternal God,
took to himself,
through the working of the Holy Spirit,
from the flesh and blood of the virgin Mary,
a truly human nature
so that he might become David’s true descendant,
in all things like us his brothers
except for sin.

36 Q.  How does the holy conception and birth of Christ benefit you?

A.  He is our mediator,
and with his innocence and perfect holiness
he removes from God’s sight
my sin—mine since I was conceived.

Suggested Songs

172, “My Mouth Shall Sing for Aye” (Psalm 89)

“The eternal Son of God…took to himself…a truly human nature so that he might become David’s true descendant.”  The Catechism emphasizes that in order to fulfil the prophecies of the Old Testament, Christ had to be actually descended from King David.  The accounts of Matthew and Luke demonstrate that in God’s incomprehensible plan, David was Christ’s ancestor through the family lines of both Mary and Joseph.  This fulfilled the promises God made to David back in the time of his own kingship, some of which are recounted for us in Psalm 89.

‘With My own chosen one, e’en David,’ God affirmed,
‘I’ve made a covenant, with sacred oath confirmed;
I’ve sworn in truth to him, My servant: “I will surely
Build up thy lustrous throne through every age securely;
Forever will thy seed, in spite of degradation,
Endure upon thy throne through every generation.”’

331, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

“He is our mediator.”  This statement is central to the Catechism, as well as to this old Christmas carol.  Through a variety of images, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” points again and again to the work of Jesus Christ as our Mediator.

O come, Thou Branch of Jesse’s stem
Unto Thine own, and rescue them!
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory o’er the grave.

O come, Thou Lord of David’s key!
The gate of heaven unfolds to Thee;
Make safe for us the heavenward road,
And bar the way to death’s abode.

Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

333, “Blest Be the God of Israel” (The Song of Zacharias)

“With his innocence and perfect holiness he removes from God’s sight my sin—mine since I was conceived.”  The Song of Zacharias, recorded for us in Luke 1:67-79, captures all of the nuances of this Lord’s Day—Christ’s descent from David’s line, his fulfillment of prophecy, and above all, his work of salvation for his people.  I’ll end this post with the entirety of Dewey Westra’s paraphrase.

Blest be the God of Israel,
The Lord who visited His own;
Who by His gracious providence
Redemption unto us made known.
Within His servant David’s tent
Has He to us, His people, sent
A horn of full salvation;
E’en as He spoke by holy men of old,
Who unto Israel foretold
How He to them His mercy would unfold.

He promised us that He would save
From all who for our ruin wait,
And from the hands of them that rave
Against us with a warring hate,
To show the mercy once foretold
Unto our fathers, and uphold
His holy covenant with us,
That He would still remember in His care
The oath which He to Abram sware,
To benefit His seed from heir to heir.

He spoke that He would strength command,
And grant to us when foemen near,
That we, delivered from their hand,
Might worship Him without a fear,
And walk before Him faithfully
In righteousness and sanctity,
While life to us is given.
And thou, O child, so shall they say of thee,
“The prophet of the Lord is he,”
For thou shalt go before Christ’s majesty.

Yea, thou shalt make salvation known,
That we may be revived again,
Receiving favor as His own,
In free remission of our sin,
Through God’s compassion and His love
Whereby the Dayspring from above
Has visited His people;
To lighten them that in the darkness hide,
And in the shade of death abide;
Our feet into the way of peace to guide.

–MRK

Christmas Psalms: Psalm 40

In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted,
but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt offering and sin offering
you have not required.
Then I said, “Behold, I have come;
in the scroll of the book it is written of me:
I delight to do your will, O my God;
your law is within my heart.”

–Psalm 40:6-8 (ESV)

A URC Psalmody ChristmasWhen the author of the letter to the Hebrews sought to explain Christ’s coming into the world, he could have simply retold Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus.  He might have quoted any of the Old Testament prophets—passages like Isaiah 9, Isaiah 61, or Malachi 4.  But rather than any of these familiar Christmas-y texts, the apostle chose as his reference a psalm: Psalm 40.

For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near.  Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins?  But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year.  For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

‘Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,
“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body have you prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings
you have taken no pleasure.
Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God,
as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’”’

When he said above, ‘You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings’ (these are offered according to the law), then he added, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will.’  He does away with the first in order to establish the second.  And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

–Hebrews 10:1-10

The glory of Christ’s birth is found in the fact that he willingly took on himself the form of a servant to redeem us.  Charles Spurgeon comments on Psalm 40:7 thus:

O blessed ‘then said I.’  Lord, ever give us to hear and feed on such living words as these, so peculiarly and personally thine own.  ‘Lo, I come.’  Behold, O heavens, and thou earth, and ye places under the earth!  Here is something worthy of your intensest gaze.  Sit ye down and watch with earnestness, for the invisible God comes in the likeness of sinful flesh, and as an infant the Infinite hangs at a virgin’s breast!  Immanuel did not send but come; he came in his own personality, in all that constituted his essential self he came forth from the ivory palaces to the abodes of misery; he came promptly at the destined hour; he came with sacred alacrity as one freely offering himself.…What a privilege to find our names written in the book of life, and what an honour, since the name of Jesus heads the page!

This Christmas, let us refuse to limit our focus to the baby Jesus in the manger, the shepherds in the fields, the angels in the sky, or the Wise Men from the east.  Rather, Psalm 40 teaches us to look with awe at the whole scope of God’s eternal salvation plan.  We need only remember the significance of that baby’s name, Immanuel—God with us!  The Belgic Confession (Article 18) explains the true meaning of Christmas this way:

We confess, therefore, that God has fulfilled the promise which He made to the fathers by the mouth of His holy prophets, when He sent into the world, at the time appointed by Him, His own only-begotten and eternal Son, who took upon Him the form of a servant and became like unto man, really assuming the true human nature with all its infirmities, sin excepted; being conceived in the womb of the blessed virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit without the means of man; and did not only assume human nature as to the body, but also a true human soul, that He might be a real man.  For since the soul was lost as well as the body, it was necessary that He should take both upon Him, to save both.

Readers, may your Christmas be radiant with the light that comes only through the saving work of Jesus Christ.

–MRK

Here are some recordings from Cornerstone URC of the Psalter Hymnal’s versifications of Psalm 40:

71, “I Waited for the Lord Most High”

72, “Before Thy People I Confess”

Singing Luke’s Christmas Carols

A URC Psalmody ChristmasYesterday I introduced the three “Lukan canticles”—the songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon—and reflected on their appropriateness for Christian worship.  Today I’d like to approach these same songs from a practical and musical perspective by considering their versifications in the Psalter Hymnal.

THE SONG OF MARY – 332, “My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord”

The text of Mary’s song can be found in Luke 1:46-55.  The Psalter Hymnal’s adaptation by Dewey Westra is exceptionally literal and accurate, without sacrificing poetic integrity.  My only quibble—and it is indeed a tiny one—is that the term “my Savior” is not used in the versification of v. 47.  Other than that, this text is pristine, and its accompanying tune, PENTECOST, is quite solid as well.

THE SONG OF ZACHARIAS – 333, “Blest Be the God of Israel”

“Blest Be the God of Israel” is another Dewey Westra gem.  The text (Luke 1:68-79) is amplified just a bit to fill this setting’s four irregular stanzas, but it is absolutely solid in beauty and Scriptural accuracy.  Its tune goes by various names, including BENEDICTUS and AN WASSERFLÜSSEN BABYLON.  Composed in the 16th century separately from the Genevan Psalter project, this is the traditional tune for the Song of Zacharias (as far as I know).  A different version is found in the 1987 gray Psalter Hymnal, but both settings are grand and fitting, even if they seem a bit difficult at first.  The structure of BENEDICTUS seems to demand strong rhythmic accompaniment; in my head I can imagine a piano and organ duet rendering this tune very nicely.  Below is a remarkable Dutch improvisation.

THE SONG OF SIMEON – 334, “Now May Thy Servant, Lord”

The text of “Now May Thy Servant, Lord” (also by Westra) isn’t quite as literal as the previous two selections; nevertheless, I believe it renders Simeon’s song in Luke 2:29-32 adequately and faithfully.  The tune, NUNC DIMITTIS, comes straight out of the Genevan Psalter, even including Claude Goudimel’s original 1564 harmonization.  Although it might be unfamiliar, the melody is quite straightforward, and with adequate accompaniment, it should be singable by just about any congregation.

I’ve heard that “Now May Thy Servant, Lord” has traditionally been used as a closing song in Dutch Reformed churches.  Honestly, this puzzles me, since Simeon’s song uses the term “depart” to refer to death (cf. Luke 2:26)—not the close of a worship service.  Still, the doxology of the second stanza is worth singing at any time, so I wouldn’t be too hasty to strike Simeon’s song from the Psalter Hymnal.  The best route, as always, is simply to sing it with conviction and understanding.

A Dutch version of the Song of Simeon is embedded below.

–MRK


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