Psalms — Week 1

Continuing in the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament, we’re going to spend some time in the hymnal of our faith—the Book of Psalms. Here we find poetry, worship, praise and lament. In Psalms we experience the full range of human emotions. The reading and singing of Psalms are central to Jewish and Christian worship and has been for centuries. Here we find God and here we find ourselves.

 

Monday, September 3

Read: Psalm 1:1-6

Consider: Those of us who grew up attending Sunday School and church can quote certain biblical passages verbatim, either because we heard them repeatedly or because we were encouraged to intentionally commit them to memory. John 3:16, the twenty-third Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer quickly come to mind. But the first passage I memorized is the first Psalm.

Of course, this was the 1960s, so I memorized it from the King James Version of the Bible. I didn’t understand “the seat of the scornful” or “the chaff which the wind driveth away,” but I loved that psalm. As I grew older, I increasingly understood the wisdom of it, which is much like the language of Proverbs which contrasts the humble seeker with the arrogant “mockers” (1:1).

The language of delighting in God’s law and meditating on it day and night (1:2) may seem strange. Remember, this is poetry, so don’t read it literally as if the “law” was simply a reference to God’s commandments. The psalmist is taking us to a much broader place. God’s “law” is his sovereignty—his creation, his greatness, his love, his compassion, his closeness, his tenderness, his presence. As we learn to dwell in his presence, we delight in what this life brings to us, for it brings us his life. God incarnated himself so that this physical existence is our gateway to knowing God. God’s creation is not an obstacle to knowing him. It is his plan that we know him intimately today, while we live in the flesh.

This way of living—an increasing awareness of God’s presence day and night—nurtures us, strengthens us and helps us become all that God wants us to be. It is as if we are constantly refreshed like “a tree planted by streams of water” (1:3).

Pray: “Lord, help me to learn how to meditate on your goodness day and night. I know this is not an intellectual exercise, but that it is living with a sense of your presence that goes beyond what I can grasp in my brain. Lord, I ask for it as a gift, but I also ask you to help me nurture my awareness of your presence.”

 

Tuesday, September 4

Read: Psalm 8:1-9

Consider: One of my most vivid memories or worship—of God-encounter—took place as I stood on the shore of Lake Superior. For you non-Michiganders, Lake Superior is the biggest, the deepest, the coldest body of fresh water in the world. It doesn’t feel like a large lake. It feels more like a freshwater ocean. Its size is overwhelming, its waves are overpowering, and it is breathtakingly beautiful.

As I stood on the shore, I felt incredibly small. But, to my surprise, my “smallness” did not feel like insignificance. In fact, the opposite was true. Somehow, the grandeur of God’s creation enveloped me with the sense of God’s love for me—with an awareness of how important I was to God.

I think this is what David was trying to covey, when he sang…

“Lord, our Lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!
When I consider your heavens,
    the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
    which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you care for them?”
(8:1, 3-4)

The Christian mystics discovered something that most of us buck up against throughout our lives. Most people are trying to stand out—trying to be something special. We want to do something great that will make us different from the rest of the world. We want to be the best at something, so that we can convince ourselves that we are not ordinary. But these can simply be ways of trying to prove our worth. The irony is that we don’t find our significance by standing apart from our fellow humans or from God’s creation. We find our worth in our unity with God and all that he is, which includes all that he created.

David was expressing his awe at creation (even though he never made it to Lake Superior), and his surprise at his place in God’s creation. The grandeur of smallness!

Pray: “Lord, the greatness of your creation humbles me, and the greatness of your love overwhelms me. There is no contradiction in you. There is no dividing line between great and small. ‘O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!’

 

Wednesday, September 5

Read: Psalm 13:1-6

Consider: Some historians believe that the Book of Psalms is the first instance of literature written in the first person. We don’t realize how revolutionary David’s poetry is because we are used to writing and reading about how “me” and how “I” feel. But that wasn’t the case when David wrote his songs. They were much different from what people had previously heard. David stood emotionally and spiritually naked before God—and before his readers—when he unmasked his emotions. He didn’t write about how humans felt. He wrote about how David felt.

And it wasn’t always pretty. Sometimes his anger flares in the Psalms and he says hateful things. Sometimes we find David in a state of despair. And, very often, his feelings betray a fear that God has forsaken him.

“How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (13:1)

So, what is his point? Remember, this is poetry, so David is not espousing a doctrine about how God treats his people. To try to pull that kind of information out of the Psalms is a misuse of them. So, again, what is the point?

I think David would say, “The point is, this is what I’m feeling right now. Life stinks and it sure doesn’t feel like God is helping me with this. I keep praying, but I feel like I’m all alone. Where is God?”

Now, many times David will change direction throughout the course of a psalm. He’ll end on a different note. Other times, he doesn’t. Those psalms are simply songs of lament, which are important because there are times when we should mourn. Today’s Psalm simply ends with a decision to hope — “I trust in your unfailing love” (13:5).

Don’t judge your feelings. Sometimes they are good and sometimes they’re soul-crushing. Sometimes our emotions strengthen us and sometimes we feel like they’re killing us. These are not a judgment of our worth or our morality. Feelings are feelings. The ability to feel is a gift from God, though sometimes it feels like a curse.

Pray: Whatever you are feeling today, take a cue from David and say to the Lord, “I trust in your unfailing love.” Now, if you are going through such a dark time that you can’t muster that kind of trust, be kind to yourself. Don’t spend any time punishing yourself because trust is so difficult to find. Instead, ask God to gift you with that trust for this day. And know that you are his, no matter what you feel.

 

Thursday, September 6

Read: Psalm 15:1-5

Consider: I used to stumble over those passages in the Bible that talked about a “blameless” life, as in today’s Psalm that honors the one “whose walk is blameless” (15:2). I took “blameless” to mean “perfect,” and I certainly can’t walk in that manner, no matter how hard I try. But a few years ago, the fifteenth Psalm began to make sense to me when I saw it in the light of Jesus’ teaching.

Matthew 5:8 put it perspective for me. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

When I think of purity of heart, I think of someone who lives authentically. There is no duplicity or guile in that person. I think of people who strive to love, fully knowing that their love will not be perfect. They know they will always need to forgive and be forgiven. In fact, that humility—that knowledge of their deep imperfections—is necessary for a pure heart. It is necessary for authentic living.

So, a blameless walk is an authentic walk. “The one whose walk is blameless…speaks the truth from their heart…utters no slander…does no wrong to a neighbor, and casts no slur on others…” (15:2-3).

Now, we sometimes have the tendency to take these words about dwelling with God as promises for the future only. Many people read Jesus as saying that the pure in heart will see God someday—in the life to come. But Jesus is saying that right now we can see God. When we are willing to be transparent, purity of heart allows us to see God in others, to see God in nature, to see God in circumstances, to see God in beauty, to see God working in our lives.

That is why David concludes this psalm by saying, “Whoever does these things will never be shaken” (15:5).

Pray: “Lord, when I try to manipulate my life and force it to my own wishes on my own terms, I can fall into a selfishness that produces duplicity. Purify my heart. Teach to live an authentic life that ‘will never be shaken.’ I want my motives to be blameless in your sight.”

 

Friday, September 7

Read: Psalm 19:1-14

Consider: Throughout the Book of Psalms we read celebrations of creation. There is an exuberance in today’s psalm that invites us to join the celebration. Through David’s eyes, words and heart, we experience the cosmos declaring, proclaiming, pouring forth speech, and, in every way, voicing the praises and the reality of the Creator.

It’s true. When we open our senses—physically and spiritually—we can hear creation shouting for joy. We can see God’s fingerprints. We can feel the embrace of the “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:6).

Let that sink in. When you walk outside, when you feel the breeze, when the warmth of the sun bears down on your shoulders, remember that God is “over all and through all and in all.” He inhabits his creation, including you and me—that part of creation that is made in the image of the Creator.

In the verses that follow, David’s celebration of creation expands. He not only exults in the physical creation, but he celebrates the way of the Lord, which is “refreshing the soul…making wise the simple…giving joy to the heart…giving light to the eyes” (19:6-8).

Sometimes we chop creation up into little pieces. We separate what we perceive to be the physical world from what we perceive to be the spiritual world. We separate our view of God from a vision of the Spirit that is moving throughout God’s creation. We see ourselves as something completely separated from God, rather than understanding that he is over us, he is through us and he is in us.

I love how the psalmist flows effortlessly from the beautiful skies to the perfect ways of the Lord. Intertwined are God’s accomplished creation and the creating that he is doing right now. The beauty of both is beyond what we can describe with words, so we embrace them with our lives.

It’s been said that we are the only part of creation that is capable of withholding praise from the Creator. So, today, let’s not forget to look, listen, breathe and experience his presence through us and in us.

Pray: Today, let’s pray the prayer of David that concludes today’s psalm.

“Forgive my hidden faults.
 Keep your servant also from willful sins;
    may they not rule over me.
 Then I will be blameless,
    innocent of great transgression.
 May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
    be pleasing in your sight,
    Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.”
(19:12-14)

 

Saturday, September 8

Read: Psalm 37:1-17

Consider: The Psalms have always been central in the worship of the people of Israel. Jesus and his first followers were Jews, so they were well versed in the Psalms. They didn’t have access to them like you and I do, but they heard them read, chanted and sung in the synagogues every Sabbath. Families memorized them and used them at meal times, in the morning and before ending their day.

Because of their importance, we often see them quoted in the New Testament. Jesus quoted the Psalms, as did the New Testament writers. Of course, Jesus wasn’t simply borrowing some great words. Jesus was expanding our understanding as to what those ancient words mean in the reality of Christ’s incarnation. (For example, read Psalm 22 and you’ll see why Jesus quoted from it as he hung on the cross.)

Today we read a psalm that Jesus referenced in his Sermon on the Mount. David wrote that “the meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity” (37:11).

In the Old Testament, the inheriting or possessing of the land was a reference to the Promised Land—Israel. But Jesus was talking about something more when he said, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).

David’s words are wise. He encouraged us not to worry about the arrogance of the powerful. He told us not to envy people who have enriched themselves at the expense of others. They find their value in the wrong places. He warned us about anger because it can destroy us. And he concluded that the meek—the humble ones who trusted God—would be able to live in their land.

But Jesus went much further. He said, those who eschew the values of the powerful and arrogant will inherit the earth. Their prayer — “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” — will be answered.

The patience and meekness that David called for probably didn’t sit well with some people. When Jesus taught that we fight power with meekness, many people thought he was a fool. Still, today, most people don’t buy into this basic teaching that Jesus gave us. They think that might makes right. The way of Christ always runs contrary to the values of the kingdoms of this world.

Pray:

“Show me your ways, Lord,
    teach me your paths.
Guide me in your truth and teach me,
    for you are God my Savior,
    and my hope is in you all day long.”
(Psalm 25:4-5)