Psalm 23: The Lord Is My Shepherd

A brief new series of mine: Psalm 23. It’s just a little devotional series, designed to be used precisely as that: a devotional. In particular, this shall be a weekly one, taking the psalm one line at a time.

The Lord is my shepherd

Psalm 23 starts off with a familiar and beloved beginning. God, Yahweh, is my shepherd. Such a lovely and peaceful image.

Mostly, that is. There is more to God as shepherd than meets the eye. In Bible times, shepherds were not imagined as young boys playing with sheep. Instead, they were, well, like David. The sheep were huge financial investments, and very vulnerable ones. So the shepherds had to work in the elements to physically protect the sheep at all costs. It was not a coincidence that David the shepherd boy was already in great shape to be a warrior when he joined the army, for his duties had previously involved killing a lion and a bear with his bare hands to protect the sheep.

In fact, this that part is the main Biblical meaning to shepherding. The shepherd protects his sheep from all the terrifying and violent dangers which would kill them. He even uses violence himself to do so. The shepherd fights for the flock, even to the point of death.

This is, of course, exactly what God has done as our shepherd. He has fought and continues to fight for us. “He protects the lives of His godly ones; He rescues them from the power of the wicked”1, and “You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen2. Just as the shepherds like David did, God is our valiant protector. He even gave us His life to protect us, as Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”3.

And this is the beauty of it. Our Shepherd died for us, and now lives again, to never cease protecting us. With God as our shepherd, we never need to fear, for, as Paul says:

If God is for us, who is against us? He did not even spare His own Son but offered Him up for us all; how will He not also with Him grant us everything? Who can bring an accusation against God’s elect? God is the One who justifies. Who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is the One who died, but even more, has been raised; He also is at the right hand of God and intercedes for us. Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction or anguish or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: Because of You we are being put to death all day long; we are counted as sheep to be slaughtered. No, in all these things we are more than victorious through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that not even death or life, angels or rulers, things present or things to come, hostile powers, height or depth, or any other created thing will have the power to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord!

Romans 8:31b-39

Psalm 23: The Lord Is My Shepherd

Using Psalms: Psalm 2 and the Sovereign Son

Why do the nations rebel and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth take their stand, and the rulers conspire together against the LORD and His Anointed One:
“Let us tear off their chains and free ourselves from their restraints.”
The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord ridicules them.
Then He speaks to them in His anger and terrifies them in His wrath:
“I have consecrated My King on Zion, My holy mountain.”
I will declare the LORD’s decree: He said to Me, “You are My Son; today I have become Your Father.
Ask of Me, and I will make the nations Your inheritance and the ends of the earth Your possession.
You will break them with a rod of iron; You will shatter them like pottery.”
So now, kings, be wise; receive instruction, you judges of the earth.
Serve the LORD with reverential awe and rejoice with trembling.
Pay homage to the Son or He will be angry and you will perish in your rebellion, for His anger may ignite at any moment. All those who take refuge in Him are happy.

Psalm 2

Psalm 2 is relatively well-known, and I think it will be very fun to go over, because it has some cool layers. So let’s get right into it.

The first question I want to look at is: “Who is this psalm about?” Historically, this psalm was written about the king of Israel, which is specified most clearly in verse 6. There is a temptation to assume, based on terms like “son,” that this psalm was written about Jesus, but this is unlikely. There are no obvious reasons to assume the author (presumably David or a member of David’s court) had a prophetic vision about Christ, and everything the psalm says is understandable in the language of divinely chosen kings. Kings were considered “anointed” (v. 2) by God1, and the imagery of the king as God’s “son” was also common2.

So this psalm was written about the king of Israel (probably David), possibly to celebrate his coronation. It starts off with a challenge to the surrounding pagan world. They are fighting and striving, especially against Israel and its king (and thus also against its God!), but it is vain. God laughs at them because they cannot succeed against Him and His anointed king.

Then the psalm moves on to God’s support and exaltation of His chosen king. God announces that He has set up His king in Jerusalem, and even says of him, “You are my son; today I have become your father.” This was, as I’ve mentioned, not unusual language for the relationship between God and His appointed king, the king being imagined as adopted into the royal divine family to share in an inheritance of power and blessing. In verses 8-9, God blesses His king and promises Him power, dominion, and victory over enemies.

Finally, in 10-12 God issues a warning to all of Israel’s enemies: submit to God and His king, or else you will be in danger of judgment. But those who trust in God will be protected.

Several important themes can be seen here, some working in the background and some in the foreground. One important concept is the role of the king to Israel and to God. To Israel, the king represents God. He stands in God’s place of authority and must be obeyed in order to obey God. Yet to God, the king represents Israel. He stands in the place of His people before God and must be held responsible for the entire nation. This double-sided representation makes the king function as a unique mediator-like figure.

Understanding this representative layer helps see some of the broader ideas in this psalm. God’s choosing of His king in Israel parallels His choosing of the nation Israel within the world. God’s promises to bless and protect His king, exalting him above his enemies, also parallel His promises to Israel as a whole3. The fate of Israel is bound up with the fate of the king, and the fate of the king is bound up with the fate of Israel, and God has by electing them both bound His own name and purposes up with their fate. God’s glory is now to be achieved not by itself, but by exalting and blessing His elected people and king.

Of course, we know what happens after this psalm. God did indeed grant these prayers, exalting King David and the whole nation of Israel under his reign. He gave military victory and great glory to His people, and by this means made quite a name for Himself as well. But soon things changed. David was not an entirely faithful king, and introduced a break between Israel and their God. Soon he was judged, and indeed the entire nation was split in half two generations later because of his sin. David failed, and the promise appeared to be voided.

Yet God is relentlessly faithful. Years later, a descendant, an heir, of King David was born. He had a rightful claim to His ancestor’s throne, and unlike David remained faithful unto death. He was Himself the representative of Israel, and as their representative suffered but was raised and vindicated. He has been given authority over all nations, and the ends of the earth are His possession. God is putting and has put all of His enemies under His feet. Jesus Christ, the King of Israel, now reigns on high in fulfillment of this promise. Being unswervingly faithful Himself, the promise will never lapse again, but will expand and work until fulfilled completely.

Moreover, even we Gentiles now can share in this blessing, because we “take refuge in” and “pay homage to” Jesus, the King of Israel and Son of God. The blessings promised to Israel are now for all who believe in Him, whether Jew or Greek. Jesus has replaced David as the hope of God’s people, and represents God to His people in a way that David never could, for He is the image of the invisible God, the exact expression of His nature.

This now for us reorients the psalm. If we pray this or sing this, Jesus is the King whom we exalt. The world around us still rages and plots in vain to overthrow Him, but God has pledged to vidicate and bless Jesus and His people no matter what, up to and including raising us from the dead! Therefore we need have no fear, for we are secure if we trust in the King Jesus. But the world must be told to repent and submit to the Son, if they wish to escape the judgment coming on His enemies. Therefore let us pray this psalm in honor of King Jesus, confident in God’s promise that no matter what our enemies do and say, He will vindicate and resurrect us just like He has done to His Anointed One.

Using Psalms: Psalm 2 and the Sovereign Son

Using Psalms: Psalm 84 and Jesus as Our Temple

Time for the second entry in my Using Psalms series. If you missed the first, you can find it here. Today I’ll be looking at Psalm 84, a psalm probably meant to be sung during pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem. I wanted to look at it to highlight a certain interesting theme involving Jesus and the Temple. So here’s the text:

How I love your Temple, Lord Almighty!
    How I want to be there!
    I long to be in the Lord‘s Temple.
With my whole being I sing for joy
    to the living God.
Even the sparrows have built a nest,
    and the swallows have their own home;
they keep their young near your altars,
    Lord Almighty, my king and my God.
How happy are those who live in your Temple,
    always singing praise to you.

How happy are those whose strength comes from you,
    who are eager to make the pilgrimage to Mount Zion.
As they pass through the dry valley of Baca,
    it becomes a place of springs;
    the autumn rain fills it with pools.
They grow stronger as they go;
    they will see the God of gods on Zion.

Hear my prayer, Lord God Almighty.
    Listen, O God of Jacob!
Bless our king, O God,
    the king you have chosen.

One day spent in your Temple
    is better than a thousand anywhere else;
I would rather stand at the gate of the house of my God
    than live in the homes of the wicked.
The Lord is our protector and glorious king,
    blessing us with kindness and honor.
He does not refuse any good thing
    to those who do what is right.
Lord Almighty, how happy are those who trust in you!

Psalm 84

These psalm, as I just mentioned, was probably a pilgrim song. Israelites would sing it on their way to Jerusalem for the major festivals such as Passover. They all knew they were going to the Temple of their God, where they could be in His presence. Rejoicing like this was only to be expected.

The psalm begins with the psalmist wishing he could be in God’s Temple (other translations will use through the psalm “house” or “dwelling place”). He is ready to praise His God, and wants to be in God’s house to do so. Then he notes with some envy that there are even birds who make nests near the Temple and get to live there. He fantasizes about how great life is for the priests and Levites who serve in the Temple daily. If only, the psalmist feels, he could also be in God’s presence so often!

Then he moves on to celebrating the pilgrimage. After all, even though he isn’t in the Temple already, the people are all going there! Every step brings them closer to their God, which is cause for more and more celebration. He even describes their joy and blessedness poetically as refreshing the lands the pilgrims pass through. He then offers a brief prayer on behalf of the king, who represents Israel as a whole by virtue of being their leader. 

Finally, the psalmist concludes with a final praise of God and His Temple, telling of how much better it is to be in Yahweh’s presence than anywhere else on earth, because of how great He is. He is the protector, king, and refuge to all who trust in Him. Amen!

So how does this all become relevant to us? We, after all, no longer have a Temple. We do not make pilgrimages to Jerusalem to worship God, and instead find His presence through the Holy Spirit everywhere on earth. How then do we offer a pilgrim song like this to God in this era?

The key is to realize where the Temple has moved. The Temple building in Jerusalem played two major functions for Israel: it was where God’s glory and personal presence could be found, and where their covenant provided for them forgiveness of sins and atonement. If you wanted to find or worship God, you had to go to the Temple. If you wanted cleansing from sin, you had to go to the Temple. So where do we find these things now? Where does God dwell and forgive sins?

For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ, and through him God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross.

Colossian 1:19-20

Jesus Himself is the replacement and fulfillment of the Temple. In Him alone can the glory of God be found (John 1:14, Col. 1:15, Heb. 1:3). In Him alone is there forgiveness of sins (Eph. 1:7, 4:32, Col. 1:14, 2:13). Jesus has taken over the role of the Temple for us, and therefore if we are to apply psalms about the “house of the Lord,” they must be applied to Christ.

So what do we now see for us in this psalm? I like this idea so much that I think I will simply paraphrase several verses with Jesus in mind.

How I love your Son Jesus, Lord Almighty!
    How I want to see Him!
    I long to abide in the Lord.
With my whole being I sing for joy
    to the living God…
How happy are those who are in Christ,
    always singing praise to you.

How happy are those whose strength comes from you,
    who are eager to follow the narrow road of Christ.
As they pass through the valley of the shadow of death,
    it becomes a place of springs;
    the Spirit rains down and fills it with pools.
They grow stronger as they go;
    they will see the God of gods on in His Son.

Hear my prayer, Lord God Almighty.
    Listen, O God of Jacob!
Bless our Messiah, O God,
    the Lord you have chosen.

One day spent in Christ
    is better than a thousand without Him…
The Lord is our protector and glorious king,
    blessing us with kindness and honor.
He does not refuse any good thing
    to those who have been made right in Christ.
Lord Almighty, how happy are those who trust in your Son!

Using Psalms: Psalm 84 and Jesus as Our Temple

Using Psalms: Psalm 132 and God’s Promise in Christ

This is the first post in a new, ongoing series of mine, Using Psalms. The psalms have been given to us as a way of prayer and worship from God. Jesus Himself prayed, sang, and memorized these songs growing up as a Jew. They were part of God’s means of preparing Israel to give birth to its Messiah. And now they form a major component of Jesus’ own worship He offered to God in faith on our behalf.

Because of all this, when we engage the Psalms we can participate in the life Jesus lived for us, and share in His justifying faith. When we make the Psalms part of our devotions, we find ourselves miraculously joining in through the Holy Spirit with the devotions Jesus did in His earthly life. Since this is such a grand privilege, I wanted to start this series to look at how we can best read the Psalms and apply them to our own life and worship.

So for this first post, I’m doing Psalm 132. Here’s the text in the HCSB:

Lord, remember David
and all the hardships he endured,
and how he swore an oath to the Lord,
making a vow to the Mighty One of Jacob:
“I will not enter my house
or get into my bed,
I will not allow my eyes to sleep
or my eyelids to slumber
until I find a place for the Lord,
a dwelling for the Mighty One of Jacob.”

We heard of the ark in Ephrathah;
we found it in the fields of Jaar.
Let us go to His dwelling place;
let us worship at His footstool.
Rise up, Lord, come to Your resting place,
You and Your powerful ark.
May Your priests be clothed with righteousness,
and may Your godly people shout for joy.
Because of Your servant David,
do not reject Your anointed one.

The Lord swore an oath to David,
a promise He will not abandon:
“I will set one of your descendants
on your throne.
If your sons keep My covenant
and My decrees that I will teach them,
their sons will also sit on your throne forever.”

For the Lord has chosen Zion;
He has desired it for His home:
“This is My resting place forever;
I will make My home here
because I have desired it.
I will abundantly bless its food;
I will satisfy its needy with bread.
I will clothe its priests with salvation,
and its godly people will shout for joy.
There I will make a horn grow for David;
I have prepared a lamp for My anointed one.
I will clothe his enemies with shame,
but the crown he wears will be glorious.”

How can we best understand and apply this song? Let’s take a look. I see two important themes: God’s election of David as king and Israel as His people. Verse 11 recalls God’s promise to David and his royal descendants, and verse 13 starts telling of God’s plan for His chosen people, Israel. Both of these pick up what verses 1-10 were already assuming.

The basic aim of this psalm is prayer and hope. Israel is calling upon her God to remember His promises to vindicate and prosper them. The vision here is eschatological: they are awaiting the great Day when God will finally place all of Israel and the king’s enemies under their feet and give His people eternal glory.

Of course, we live in the AD, the year old our Lord. We’ve seen God’s final act for us accomplished in Jesus, the one to whom all of the Old Testament hopes and prophecies, including what we find here, were pointing1. So how does He affect this text?

First we find that in Christ God’s promise to David for an eternal kingdom is fulfilled. Jesus was descended from David according to the flesh2, and crowned the Son of God in power3. He reigns forever! Yet this promise of God to David said “if your sons keep My covenant.” So to truly keep His word God did not only enthrone the Son of David, but in fact He Himself descended into David’s line and became the heir who would keep God’s covenant and decrees, and so earn an eternal kingdom.

We also find that in Christ the desire and promise for God’s presence was fulfilled. In this psalm David sought to build a temple for Yahweh, and the people rejoiced in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant. Yet now Jesus Himself has become the Temple4, the place where “the entire fullness of God’s nature dwells bodily”5. Those looking for the Father no longer should seek an Ark or a building; He is visible in the human Jesus of Nazareth6 and, secondarily, in His church who through His Spirit is His body7.

This all means that the day the psalmist was looking for, the Day of Yahweh, has actually already begun, dawning in the life of Jesus. The Davidic King has been enthroned forever, and God’s presence has come to His people in Christ. This psalm of prayer can be for us a psalm of praise. Glory to God!

But, the sun hasn’t quite set on God’s day. God’s permanent restoration and victory for Israel is still hidden. Jesus has recreated Israel around Himself through faith by the Spirit, uniting Jew and Gentile alike in His church. But this Israel remains, like the Israel of old, constantly attacked by foes both spiritual and physical, not to mention the flesh of us all. We long for the day when Christ returns to “clothe His enemies with shame” and clothe us “with salvation.”

So we find a future hope and prayer left for us in this psalm. We can ask God to remember what His Son has done, “all the hardships He endured,” in His faithful human life. He was a temple, and built us up as one, too. Now God has fulfilled His promise and exalted His Son as King of Israel and Lord of all. Now we wait patiently for Him to unveil Jesus again before the entire world, so that He can both judge and give us the salvation and vindication we hope for. Israel and David, God’s gracious election, will be utterly fulfilled for all the world in Jesus. Perhaps, in light of all this, an accompanying prayer of application is in order.

Heavenly Father, exalt Your name. Glorify Your Son with the glory He had before the world began, and with the glory of His kingdom that He won by His faithfulness to You. You have glorified it, and You promised to glorify it again. We wait for that Day, and for Your salvation. Come, Lord Jesus, and bring us safely home. Amen!

Using Psalms: Psalm 132 and God’s Promise in Christ

I Feel Robbed of the Psalms

The heavens declare the glory of God;
 the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
 night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
 no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
 their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
 It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
 like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
It rises at one end of the heavens
 and makes its circuit to the other;
 nothing is deprived of its warmth.

Psalm 19:1-6

As you’ve just read, the psalms are amazing. Truly, out of all the history of world literature, there is no collection of poems so impressive. Besides merely its size, impressive as that is, the psalms record for us hundreds of years of praise, lament, and prayer inspired by the Spirit and written by the people of Israel to their God, who is our God, now known to us in Jesus.

Yet I feel robbed of them.

What do I mean? I recently read a book by Tom Wright called The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential. In this book he discusses the tragic neglect of the psalms in the life and worship of much of the modern Church.

I have to agree, and at the end of his book I felt like I had been missing out for years. Wright, an Anglican, grew up praying and singing the psalms in the Anglican churches he attended. They’ve always been in his life, sustaining him like breakfast and shaping his prayer and worship life. But I, along with many others who grew up in American evangelical churches, do not share that story. While we certainly include the psalms in our Bible reading, we do not generally make use of them as a prayerbook and hymnbook the way some other Christian traditions (and Jesus Himself!) have.

We don’t use the psalms, at least not like Jesus and the early Christians.

This really saddens me. Jesus grew up, as every good Jew did, reading, singing, and praying the psalms in both His private life and public worship. So did the early Christians. And it made a profound impact on them. A quick glance at the New Testament shows dozens and dozens of quotes, references, and allusions to the psalms. In depth study reveals even more of these. So the psalms even greatly influenced our uniquely Christian Scriptures in an incomparable way.

What’s my point? My issue is that we don’t use the psalms, at least not like this. Sure, we’ll have our AWANA kids memorize a few verses, and we have a handful of hymns and Chris Tomlin songs based on them, but overall they get little attention. Yet the psalms are magical. The Holy Spirit brought them to life when they were first written and continues to do so today. They are filled with all the emotions and reflections that all people, especially all of God’s people, live with every day. They are equally filled with God’s hope, promises, and majesty. 

All this means we need the psalms to function in our lives like they were originally written to function for the people of Israel. We need them to lead our prayers and worship, both in corporate life, in the middle of our actual church services on Sunday mornings as a congregation, and in personal life, in our closets and bedrooms as we spend time in fellowship with God.

Like I said, I feel robbed when I hear of Tom Wright’s story, in which he grew up around the psalms used this way. They are written in his heart and mind now, affecting the way he prays, worships, hopes, and sees the world (including his approach to Christianity overall). That’s not my story. The psalms were always just a peripheral part of Scripture, some nice poems that we might include verses of in memorization or stick into a reading plan. We were never taught to pray them, or to sing them, or to really even understand them. At any of the churches I’ve been to (mostly Baptist, but also some Pentecostal and nondenominational, not counting the Episcopal church I went to a Christmas service at), this has been the same. I feel let down by evangelical American churches.

If I could go back in time, I would read, pray, and sing the psalms more.

If I could go back in time, I would read the psalms more. I would pray them and relate them to my own life and our world. I would find music to use so I could sing them. And I believe they would transform the way I think and feel about God, people, and everything else. As it is, I can’t go back and try again, so I’m trying to start doing these things now. I’m only 20, so I guess I still have time (Lord willing!) to be molded like this, but I still feel like I’ve missed out on a lot.

Does anyone agree with or relate to me on this? If so, leave a comment or even email me. I might want to start posting some thoughts on individual psalms and relating them to our lives and prayers, maybe even finding good song versions. Who knows? Well, God does, and to Him be the glory!

I Feel Robbed of the Psalms

Smite Mine Enemies: Applying Violent Psalms

The Bible is loaded with violence. I mean, seriously, if the entire Bible were made into movies, quite a number of them would be rated R for violence alone. Now, most of the violence is Scripture isn’t something that we must concern ourselves with, as it is simply a historical description of stuff that happened. Some is more difficult and scary, but I’ll leave the most significant concerns for another piece. For now, I want to consider the violent psalms (also known as “imprecatory psalms”). We love the book of Psalms. They’re great poetry, inspiring and comforting, touching every part of the human experience. But then we have psalms like this one (I’m quoting it in full to make the point):

Do you rulers indeed speak justly?
Do you judge people with equity?
No, in your heart you devise injustice,
and your hands mete out violence on the earth.

Even from birth the wicked go astray;
from the womb they are wayward, spreading lies.
Their venom is like the venom of a snake,
like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears,
that will not heed the tune of the charmer,
however skillful the enchanter may be.

Break the teeth in their mouths, O God;
Lord, tear out the fangs of those lions!
Let them vanish like water that flows away;
when they draw the bow, let their arrows fall short.
May they be like a slug that melts away as it moves along,
like a stillborn child that never sees the sun.

Before your pots can feel the heat of the thorns—
whether they be green or dry—the wicked will be swept away.
The righteous will be glad when they are avenged,
when they dip their feet in the blood of the wicked.
Then people will say,
“Surely the righteous still are rewarded;
surely there is a God who judges the earth.”

Psalm 58

Whoa. Pretty harsh. The righteous will be glad when we dip our feet in the blood of the wicked? Okay…

I could write all day on why these violent psalms are written, and why they are Scripture, and how they are compatible with God’s love and the command to love our enemies, but I have no need to, because many others have already done so better than I could ever do. I would simply sum this part up with a quote from C. S. Lewis (though despite my appreciation for this statement I disagree with most of what he said from the context in which he wrote this): “The ferocious parts of the Psalms serve as a reminder that there is in the world such a thing as wickedness and that it…is hateful to God.”

What I’d rather address is how we can actually make use of these violent psalms today. If we understand them, can we pray them as well? Should we ask God to smite our those who do wrong to us, those who treat us badly and hurt us? No, we have a direct command from Jesus to love our enemies and pray for them (that doesn’t mean for their destruction, by the way). So what do we do with these psalms? Well, three things come to mind.

  1. Pray for the triumph of righteousness and justice. These psalms were directed against enemies who fought against Israel and God, nations who would interrupt the world’s redemption. The psalmists wanted to see God vindicated and the evildoers stopped. Likewise, we ought to pray that God will stop those who do evil today, and that instead justice and mercy will fill our world.
  2. Heed the implicit warnings. If you read these psalms, you should conclude one thing: God hates sin and will do terrible destruction to sinners. So if you don’t want to be judged like that, if you don’t want people to be happy if your babies are dashed against the rocks (Ps. 137:9), live rightly and obey God’s commands.
  3. Pray for the destruction of our true enemies. Paul tells us that we aren’t struggling against flesh and blood, but against spiritual powers and demonic forces. They assault God’s people every day and try to thwart the Kingdom of God, just like Israel’s enemies back in the day. The world, the flesh, and the devil are constantly assailing us, and God hates them for it. We ought to, as well, so let us pray for God’s conquest and victory to be ushered in speedily against these foes.
Smite Mine Enemies: Applying Violent Psalms