Posts Tagged 'Salvation'

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.

Called to Sing (Part 1)

PewRack

(The following is adapted from a Sunday school class I led at the Orthodox Presbyterian Church of Franklin Square, NY, on May 24, 2015.)

The thoughts I’d like to share with you today don’t arise from academic degrees or decades of experience in church music. They merely arise from watching, listening to, and participating in Reformed worship over the past several years. I’d simply like to encourage you through this class to think more deeply about why the church sings and how it can sing better.

Right from the beginning I want to encourage you not to raise the objection, “We’re just not a musical church.” True, many factors may help one church sing much better than another—a big congregation, good acoustics, a large number of musicians, and so on. My home church doesn’t enjoy many of these blessings; maybe yours doesn’t either. But that’s okay.

As an example, I want to point you to the congregational singing of churches in the Reformed Presbyterian denomination, one of which I attend at college. Every Sunday these Christians gather together and sing psalms a cappella as a congregation, and the heartiness and quality of their singing would put most of our churches to shame. Yet they probably have no more musicians in their congregation than we do. The difference is that they have developed a church culture that fosters a love for strong congregational singing: they teach their children psalm-singing from their youngest Sunday school classes, they encourage even non-musical people to learn to sing in four-part harmony, and they let the words of the psalms they sing penetrate their lives outside of worship as well. The results are truly impressive, and I believe denominations like ours can strive for that goal as well—but we need to start now. While I don’t know of many churches that can sing like this, I know of no reason why any church can’t sing like this.

That’s my encouragement for you. Of course, there is a challenge as well: to think about why you sing in the first place. As a little diagnostic, ask yourself what you think about while you’re singing on a typical Sunday morning. I know I’m often disgustingly distracted: the pastor’s tie is crooked, the pianist is playing too slow or too fast, or some other thought is floating through my head preventing me from honestly engaging in worship. Occasionally this distraction is caused by circumstances outside our control. But more often, our attitude towards corporate singing reveals a deeper apathy in our hearts.

To correct this perspective we need to return to Paul’s command to the churches in Ephesus and Colossi to “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Yet for the Christian, singing is more fundamental than a command. Throughout Scripture, we see singing as a natural reaction of gratitude in response to God’s work of deliverance. One of the earliest examples of this pattern is found in Exodus 15, where Moses composes a song for the people of Israel to sing after the Lord brings them through the Red Sea. We see numerous other songs of deliverance throughout the Old Testament, sung by Miriam, Deborah, Barak, Hannah, David, Hezekiah, and others.

In the New Testament, the pattern continues with the songs of Zechariah, Mary, and Simeon. And in Revelation 15 we are told that the multitude standing by the sea of glass “sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb” (v. 4). I’ve often wondered what it means that these saints sing the song of Moses and of the Lamb. I’m no theologian, but I’m starting to wonder if the point of this verse is that the two songs are one and the same. The story of salvation sung about by Moses at the beginning of Scripture is the same theme taken up by the glorified believers around the throne of God in Revelation!

As those who have been redeemed by Jesus from sin and death, we too have a part in this eternal song. Singing is a natural reaction to God’s work, and if “we are his workmanship” singing should be fundamental to the Christian’s identity as well. If this is the case, how dare I stand there on a Sunday morning before the living God who has redeemed me from my misery and called me into his presence to receive my worship—and I’m thinking about the pastor’s tie?! Such hardheartedness is ludicrous, and yet I have to be reminded of it daily. Christians, we should need no command to sing. It should already be on the tips of our tongues!

Incidentally, not only is singing fundamental to the Christian’s identity, I want to suggest to you that it also distinguishes the church from the world. What other institution exists whose members (musical and non-musical alike) sing regularly and heartily? Maybe two or three generations ago, this would not have been such an uncommon spectacle. But today, as the church becomes more and more countercultural (or as the culture becomes more and more counter-church), its singing becomes more remarkable as well. We sing in response to the work of God in a way that the world cannot. That realization should be awe-inspiring!

(To be continued.)

–MRK

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

Forget Not

Yesterday Twitter dropped a little note in my email inbox that mentioned “Thanksgiving–the day we express gratitude for family, food and football. (But mostly football.)” After rolling my eyes and muttering something about how Thanksgiving has become a symbol of America’s cultural decline, I tossed the email without further thought.

College Hill RPC CornucopiaReflecting a little more deeply, though, what are we called to be thankful for, and how do we show it? We Christians may be quick to protest that Thanksgiving Day isn’t mostly about football, but is it really about family or food either? My pastor made a convicting point this morning: American Christians gladly accept the state’s invitation to participate in a nationwide day of giving thanks. But what we should really want is to invite people everywhere to participate with us, not in a day of thanksgiving, but in a life of thanksgiving. And thanksgiving for what? For all of God’s benefits, as the psalmist teaches us in Psalm 103—forgiving, healing, redeeming, crowning, satisfying, and renewing us. We thank God for his righteousness and justice, his mercy and grace, his “steadfast love toward those who fear him,” his compassion to his children, and his throne established in the heavens. Not only are we to exert our utmost effort in blessing the LORD, we are to call people everywhere to do the same.

Psalm 95 sheds more light on the believer’s motives for giving thanks. Our gratitude is framed not in vague terms of “family, food and football” but rather in the salvation wrought for us by our God (v. 1). We praise him for his sovereignty (v. 3) and his creation (vv. 4,5), acknowledging that we belong only to him. “He is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand” (v. 7 ESV). Throughout Psalm 95 we find concrete reasons and exhortations for giving thanks to the Lord.

But the second half of Psalm 95 strikes even closer to home. “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts,” warns v. 7. In the middle of this passage the voice shifts from the psalmist to that of God himself, who reminds the worshipers of “when your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work” (v. 8). This section of the psalm is so ominous, we may even be tempted to skip over it. But the implication is clear: giving thanks isn’t an option, it’s a command. Thanksgiving arises from hearts that recognize God’s blessings, and the absence of thanksgiving is a telling sign of spiritual hardness, of “a people who go astray in their heart” (v. 10). It’s no wonder that the Lord swears in his wrath that such people—people who respond to his manifold mercies with a shameless shrug—“shall not enter my rest” (v. 11).

The key question is not how much God has blessed us (the answer, of course, is “abundantly”), but how much we acknowledge it. Will your Thanksgiving Day be filled with joyful kneeling before your Maker, or merely loading up on turkey and getting ready to hit the stores tomorrow? It’s sad enough that the unbelieving world can’t even finish a day of gratitude without the encroachment of gluttony and greed. But are we Christians, in our living, working, and worshiping (and yes, feasting) proclaiming the glory of “the rock of our salvation” to everyone around us?

Thanksgiving Day is many things to many people—family, food, and football considered. For the Christian it is so much more. To a people whose natural inclination is always to forget, Thanksgiving Day offers an opportunity to “forget not.” Today we can hear his voice, sing his praise, and remember all his benefits.

–MRK

A Look at Liturgy: The Benediction

Pews

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

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

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

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

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

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

What cause for celebration!

–MRK

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


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