Posts Tagged 'Redemptive-Historical Hermeneutic'

Psalm 77: Remember!

The final project for my class on the Psalms this past fall was a research paper on the theme of human and divine remembrance in Psalm 77. The paper was long and unwieldy, not particularly suitable for a blog post. But I did want to extract a few of the key themes from my study of Psalm 77, which constitute the thoughts below. Enjoy!

Claus Westermann writes that the Lord’s saving acts always involve a verbal exchange or dialogue between God and man, including “both the cry of man in distress and the response of praise which the saved make to God.” Nowhere is this dialogue more readily apparent in Scripture than in the Book of Psalms. Lament, supplication, confession, intercession, statements of trust, thanksgiving, and praise each weave their way through the songs of the Psalter, molding the hearts of believers to comprehend and follow the gospel pattern of anticipation and fulfillment. In particular, Psalm 77 is a poignant expression of the tension between the promises of God and man’s seemingly hopeless crises.

At least two primary themes within Psalm 77 should be considered: the effect of the psalmist’s questions and the effect of remembering the Lord’s mighty deeds. When the psalmist asks whether God has “forgotten to be gracious” (v. 9), is he speaking out of despair or out of hope? Interpreters differ on this question. Some take the psalmist’s reflection as despairing, concluding that the present looks even more bleak since God’s promises seem to have ended. Others, however, suggest that the psalmist is more incredulous: Surely God has not forgotten; therefore his mercy will surely return. Some even conclude that Psalm 77 leaves these questions to “hang unanswered” so that they can be carefully considered by each individual reader and singer.

Second, what about the “unseen footprints” referenced in v. 19 among the listing of God’s mighty deeds for his people? Almost certainly the event in view is the crossing of the Red Sea as recounted in Exodus 14, a miraculous occasion to which the people of Israel often turned in times of questioning (cf. Pss. 78, 106, 114). Most simply, the metaphor of unseen footprints may suggest the Israelites’ belief that the Lord went through the sea with them, so that his footprints, like theirs, were covered by the waters when they returned to their normal place. Nevertheless, the comment still seems unexpected here, especially since the evident purpose of the historical recollection has been to call attention to the Lord’s very obvious ways of delivering his people (writhing waters, pouring clouds, audible thunder, visible lightning, and palpable earthquakes). The rhetorical effect of the “unseen footprints” is anticlimactic at best, especially when followed by the pastoral image of the people being led like a flock (v. 20).

Kraus notes based on this phrase that “all the creative miracles of Israel’s God bear the mark of concealment,” again a paradoxical remark given the very revealed character of the natural phenomena just described. But he elaborates: “Being near ‘without footprints’—without the visible proofs of his coming—that is God’s way of dealing with his people.” The Lord’s holiness may be displayed through his mighty acts in view of all the nations, as suggested by vv. 14-18, yet it also takes shape in the mysterious “other-ness” which veils him from human view.

But is it possible that v. 19 delves even deeper in its intent? At least three other interpretations are possible. First, this statement provides a ray of hope that the Lord may indeed be working within his people’s present distress as well, albeit with unseen footprints. His provident protection endures through times of affliction, even when it cannot be perceived as such. Second, the phrase may suggest a sinful forgetfulness on the part of God’s people, one which refuses to take note of his footprints even in miraculous occurrences like the crossing of the Red Sea or the providing of manna. Finally, even for the faithful, the description of the Lord’s deeds as “unseen” acknowledges that the perception of his presence originates in a human vantage point. Although Psalm 77 stops far short of explicitly stating this as such, an undercurrent of hope weaves its way through this section of the psalm: Perhaps the problem lies in the singer’s ability to see rather than in God’s ability to act.

In this sense, the activity of remembering is a corrective exercise which tunes the spiritual eyes to glimpse the Lord’s redemptive work more clearly. Remembering and forgetting thus emerge as dichotomous focal points of Psalm 77 which surprise the reader with their rhetorical implications. While the psalm begins with a complaint that God has forgotten his steadfast love, by its end an unexpected reversal has become apparent: perhaps it is not the Lord but the psalmist that has forgotten. Years of affliction and a national culture of unbelief have dimmed the singer’s spiritual eyesight, leaving him uncertain of the form or presence of Yahweh in his dark situation. But by recounting the mighty deeds of the Lord—a story he has only heard rather than seen—the psalmist is able to restore his confidence that the steadfast love displayed in the exodus from Egypt will continue to be displayed, even if subtly and imperceptibly, into the future. Such a conclusion is possible because God’s faculty of remembering is inextricably bound up in his covenant with Abraham—because he is “not a human being, that he should change his mind” (Numbers 23:19). The psalmist takes comfort: God remembers!

Augustine suggests that the same lack of faith that prevented the Israelites from perceiving God’s footprints through the Red Sea also prevented the disciples from understanding Jesus’ miraculous walking on the water in Matthew 14. At the same time, Christ’s response to Peter’s doubt exhibited above all his immeasurable compassion even toward the forgetful: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matt. 14:31). How comforting it is to imagine Christ speaking the same words to every sincere but doubting believer who, like the psalmist, questions the continuing validity of God’s promises. If the Psalms are any indication, the Lord in fact encourages his people to cry out to him in lament during times of great distress, pleading for him as the great Shepherd to right all of earth’s wrongs.

The apostle Paul wrote that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). The hope provided by Psalm 77 is that the Lord both knows and lovingly responds to our forgetfulness. What a mercy it is that despite this spiritual amnesia, he gently and lovingly guides us by his Word to places where we can pause and reflect on his steadfast love. In the various situations of human life, forgetting is all too possible. The danger is twofold: forgetting past mercies in light of present affliction, or forgetting past afflictions in light of present mercies. Yet in the dark valleys of life’s path, in the times when we fail to see Christ’s footprints, Psalm 77 remains a gentle and wise guide, teaching us slowly but surely to remember the unfailing love of the Lord, so that when deliverance comes we may be sure to “forget not all his benefits” (Psalm 103:2).

–MRK

For bibliographic references, see the full paper.

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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This Brief Journey (Review)

ThisBriefJourneyAs a busy college student, I never budget enough time for studying God’s Word—and I imagine the same is true for many readers of this blog. This means I need to continually discipline myself to read the Bible and pray more diligently and more consistently. But it also means I’m on the lookout for short, manageable devotional aids that can help me accomplish these goals. One such resource is Rhett Dodson’s This Brief Journey: Loving and Living the Psalms of Ascents (128 pp., DayOne, 2012). (A later companion volume exists, To Be a Pilgrim, but I haven’t yet read it.)

Dodson, a PCA minister with a PhD in Old Testament, considers the first eight psalms of ascents (Psalms 120-127) in this short book. Perhaps because they grew from sermons delivered to his congregation, Dodson’s meditations are imbued with brevity, clarity, and pastoral warmth. Each chapter carefully expounds on the original context of the psalm, the imagery used by the psalmist, the structure of the text, the personal application for today, and—best of all—the various ways in which Christ is foreshadowed. Dodson’s concluding thougths on Psalm 127 are an excellent example:

[Y]our home will be empty unless you fill it with Christ. Fill your home with his Word. Fill it with prayer. Cultivate family worship. But don’t just go through the motions. Seek to develop with your children a hunger for God himself. Ask the Lord to incline your heart to him, so that family worship nurtures a spiritual frame of mind.

A day is coming when the Lord Jesus will return. Our work will be over; our families will be swallowed up in the family of God that is heaven. What will matter on that great day is that we find everything in Christ. Your life at work and your life at home should lead you to seek the Savior. Empty labor and a full quiver—both should drive you to God. (pp. 123, 124)

All in all, I’ve found This Brief Journey to be an accessible and edifying introduction to the psalms of ascents. It has driven me to better understand the lives of Old Testament believers, Christ’s life as the ultimate Singer of the psalms, and my own life in light of God’s redemptive plan. May it do the same for you as well!

–MRK

SparkNotes for the Old Testament

A few weeks ago I found myself at a bonfire in the wilds of western Pennsylvania that featured food, fellowship, and (best of all?) singing from the blue Psalter Hymnal. Far removed from the possibility of any musical accompaniment other than ukulele, we sang a cappella and, to some extent, in four-part harmony. A handful of favorites were requested—378, “I Know Not Why God’s Wondrous Grace”; 317, “Come, Thou Almighty King”; 301, “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah.” Then someone requested number 211.

“Which verses?”

“All of them.”

Everyone groaned.

With its intimidating 23 stanzas, Number 211 holds claim to the dubious honor of being the longest song in the blue Psalter Hymnal. It’s a rather paraphrase-ish versification of Psalm 106, which is itself one of the more substantial entries in the Book of Psalms. In fact, although coming up with a precise number is difficult, my quick study of Psalm 106 identifies at least eight verses throughout the psalm that are not represented here in the Psalter Hymnal. In other words, this selection could have been even longer!

Why cram the entire text of this psalm into one musical arrangement? Why not, as the blue Psalter Hymnal often does, break the text into bite-size hymn-like chunks? Maybe, I often thought, it was just a compromise to keep the blue book’s number of psalm selections down. Maybe the editors just assumed no one would sing all 23 verses anyway.

But at this bonfire, one of the men identified a more fundamental purpose for this long song. He said, “Look! It’s a story!” And so it is.

Psalm 106 is one of only a few psalms categorized as “historical psalms.” Its purpose is to trace the history of God’s plan of redemption for his covenant people. And this psalm covers a huge swath of Old Testament history, beginning with Israel’s captivity in Egypt (v. 7), continuing through their arrival in Canaan (v. 34), and ending in the midst of their exile among the nations (v. 47). In my generation’s terms, it’s SparkNotes for the entire Old Testament. (In that case, 23 verses doesn’t sound quite so long anymore!)

The question remains, however: Why should we sing about Israel’s history? Simply put, because it is so closely interwoven with ours. In some ways, it is ours. In Israel’s wilderness wanderings, countless sacrifices, and recurring rebellions, we see echoes of our own stubborn disobedience and the need for a way to atone for man’s sin. But throughout this narrative we can also trace the character of a God whose “steadfast love endures forever” (v. 1), who promised to reconcile his people to himself, remaining faithful amidst our unfaithfulness. That promise is fulfilled, of course, in the death of Jesus Christ—“God, their Savior” made flesh (v. 22). Now we too, looking toward our eternal home, can sing,

Save us, O Lord, our gracious God,
From alien lands reclaim,
That we may triumph in Thy praise
And bless Thy holy Name.

As we stood around the fire that night, plodding away through all 23 verses of Psalter Hymnal number 211, I realized that I was enjoying this psalm more than I ever had before. Because Psalm 106 isn’t just any story—it’s our story.

Blessed be the Lord our covenant God,
All praise to Him accord;
Let all the people say, Amen.
Praise ye, praise ye the Lord.

–MRK


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