Psalms — Week 5

Monday, October 1

Read: Psalm 127:1-2

Consider: As your relationship with Christ deepens, you discover a constant call to open your hands and let go of what you’ve been clutching. This call to free what is in your fists, is also an invitation to liberate your soul.

One of the things that is most difficult to release is the need for control. We’ve been taught to work hard, be careful, make good decisions, save, and plan for the future. Of course, that is the way we’re supposed to live. The wisdom literature of the Old Testament—particularly the Book of Proverbs—teach that kind of living and call it wisdom. But it’s easy to think that our responsible efforts make a good life. They certainly minimize chaos and pain. But if we’re building our lives on our wisdom alone, we’re headed for disappointment.

In today’s psalm, Solomon is picturing an ancient city. Houses have been built, a wall has been erected that surrounds the city, the gates have been closed, and sentries have taken their places. They pace along the top of the city wall, throughout the day and night. They watch for any kind of threat, from storms, to bandits, to invading armies. The citizens of the city are convinced they can sleep in peace. But…

“Unless the Lord builds the house,
    the builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
    the guards stand watch in vain.”
(127:1)

Our responsible and diligent living bring us peace. But it is a tentative peace. We know that, no matter how much we have saved, we could face tremendous financial hardship. We know that, no matter how well we have taken care of our bodies, we could struggle with illness at any time. We know that if our joy and peace are dependent on our circumstances, we could lose them in a heartbeat. What we build by ourselves is always temporary and vulnerable.

But there is a peace that goes deeper than anything I can manufacture. There is a joy that goes beyond my attempts to secure happiness.

“In vain you rise early
    and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat—
    for he grants sleep to those he loves.”
(127:2)

That’s right. He gives sleep. He gives peace. He gives security.

I’ve spent too much time with my fists clenched around the controls as I try to fly this plane. I’ve white-knuckled it so long that my hands are cramped and it’s difficult to let go. But as God is teaching me to trust him with the controls, I’m finding a renewed relationship with him. And it sets me free.

Pray: “Lord, reveal to me what I have been clutching that is stealing my joy, peace and freedom. Thank you for the gentleness and love with which you release my cramped hands from the controls. Learning to trust you is difficult. Thank you for your patient mentoring as I learn to receive your peace.”

 

Tuesday, October 2

Read: Psalm 139:1-6

Consider: If you regularly read these daily meditations, you know that a constant theme is the presence of God. Repeatedly I remind you that at the center of our spiritual formation is the increasing and continual sense of God’s presence. We want to see God in nature. We want to see God in beauty. We want to see God in pain and suffering. We want to see God in one another. And we want to know—not just with our minds, but with our entire beings—that Christ is in us and we are in Christ (John 14:20).

In one of my favorite passages (Ephesians 4:4-5), Paul taught us that God is “over all and through all and in all.” And just as Paul did, the psalmist used spatial terms to try to describe what is beyond description. He said, “You hem me in behind and before” (139:5).

I remember a specific time in my life when I was confronted with a task that frightened me. Though I could not bring the exact wording to mind, I recalled that the Bible said that God would go before me and that he would stand behind me. As the prophet Isaiah said, God would be my “rear guard” (Isaiah 52:12). I also remembered the image of God flanking me on both sides — “A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you” (Psalm 91:7).

In other words, I was surrounded by God and by God’s protection.

That was a powerful moment for me. Since then, I have engaged difficult assignments by first reminding myself that God goes before me and walks behind me, that he stands on my right side and on my left.

“You hem me in behind and before,
    and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too lofty for me to attain.”
(139:5-6)

I remind you often, because I am trying to learn to live in that reality. And daily I need to be reminded that I don’t have to ask God for his presence. I need to ask him to help me realize his presence.

Pray: “Lord, I fully agree with David that your presence ‘is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.’ But though I cannot comprehend it, I can know it. I want to walk through this day with receptive physical and spiritual senses. Thank you for surrounding me with your presence.”

 

Wednesday, October 3

Read: Psalm 139:7-12

Consider: Yesterday we heard David exclaim that God’s presence was too good to believe — “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain” (139:6). Then, in some of the most beautiful poetry you will ever read, David declares his confidence that God will never forsake him, even in the extremes of human experience.

“Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.”
(139:7-8)

That last phrase has sometimes been translated, “If I make my bed in hell, you are there.” That paints a picture that many of us have seen. Some of our sisters and brothers have journeyed through levels of depression that they could not put into words. They felt as though they were lying, immobilized in hell.

St. John of the Cross, a sixteenth century Spanish mystic, wrote about “the dark night of the soul.” If you’ve never walked through that dark night, no one can explain it to you. If you have walked that way, no one needs to explain what John meant.

And you don’t have to read many of the psalms to discover that David knew those dark nights—those times when he said, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me” (139:11).

David follows those words of despair with hope. But it’s important for us to be realistic about the truth he gives us. David is not doling out a standard response that is designed to make us feel better. He is not asking us to deny the darkness of the night. We can’t feel our way out of the dark night of the soul and we can’t believe our way out of it. The best we can do is to somehow, some way, invite God into our dark, seemingly God-forsaken night.

What David says to God is true — “Even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you” (139:12). But I’m guessing this was easier to write after the fact, when the dawn was beginning to make the light perceptible.

As we saw yesterday, the greatest gift we are given is the awareness of God’s presence. Grasp it in the daytime. Develop it in the light. Then you will believe it through the dark night of the soul.

Pray: “Lord, when I can’t see, you can. When I’m still feeling my way through the dark, you see the light. That’s because you are the light. Sometimes it’s difficult to trust you. But I know that even faith is a gift from you. So, I ask you to help me trust that you are with me and that you always will be. Whether I feel it today or not, I thank you for your presence.”

 

Thursday, October 4

Read: Psalm 139:13-18 (It may be good to read verses 1–12 to keep the beauty of these words alive as you get to 13–18.)

Consider: As we’ve seen over the past two days, David used spatial terms (in front, behind, in the heights and in the depths) to give us images of God’s presence. Then this amazing poem continues on to say that God’s presence does not only transcend space, but it also transcends time.

Before ultrasounds and 3-D images of our unborn children, David brought us the beauty and mystery of the womb—the “secret place” where God “knit me together.” David helped us see that this is not simply a matter of biology, as amazing as that is. He said that God “created my inmost being”—my soul, the image of God in me. To show the cosmic nature of our existence, he reminded us that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made…woven together in the depths of the earth.”

And time wasn’t even an issue, for “all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (139:16).

David wasn’t being precise, he was communicating through poetry. But this poetry is truth. In this work of art there is mystery and there is clarity—mystery about our origins and clarity about our Originator. There is pre-science mystery about “my unformed body” while there is spiritual clarity about “my inmost being.”

And God was there. And God is there. And God will be there.

“How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them,
    they would outnumber the grains of sand—
    when I awake, I am still with you.”
(139:17-18)

Pray: Take some time today to be still and allow your “inmost being” to commune with the One who is in you. Pray without words. Simply allow your spirit to be aware of the presence of God. Don’t place any goals on this prayer time. Don’t worry about how long or short it is. If you can’t still your mind, then simply re-route your thoughts by thanking God for his presence.

 

Friday, October 5

Read: Psalm 139:23-24

Consider: As we look at the last two verses of this amazing poem, you may want to go back and read the entire psalm. If you do, you’ll see a strange parenthesis in verses 19–22. It seems out of character with the rest of the poem. As David beautifully celebrates God’s presence, he seems to get off track with a mini-rant against his enemies. You see this in many of the psalms and there are various explanations. But for today, let’s look at the prayer that follows his expression of anger.

“Search me…test me…see if there is any offensive way in me…lead me…”

I’ll be honest, I do more ranting than I should. I’ve got some pretty strong opinions on theology, politics and football. Also, it’s easy to rant when someone has said or written hurtful things about me. But, if you listen to people rant or listen to your own rants, you’ll smell a whiff of arrogance. And that’s why we need to pray, “Search me, God…”

I have found that this prayer of humility is also a prayer of liberation. Motives are hard to read in others, but sometimes it’s even more difficult to understand our own motives.

I remember a time, many years ago, when a person hurt me deeply with his words and actions. I was trying hard not to hold this person in contempt, but my emotions were all over the place. I was trying to figure out if I was embittered and hateful, or if I was just wounded. As I was trying to take inventory of my motives, I remembered that there was someone I could consult. He knows me better than I know myself.

So, I knelt and prayed this great prayer of David, asking God to do the searching, for he can see me better than I can see myself. And I asked God to do the leading, because I didn’t want to respond in a manner that I would regret. And I walked away with a huge load lifted from my shoulders. I knew I could trust his guidance when I couldn’t trust my own reactions.

To ask God to search your heart is not scary. It is comforting, for no one loves you like he does.

Pray: “Lord, when I don’t feel good about myself, I want to hide my emotions and my motives. But if I allow you to enlighten me and guide me, you set me free. Thank you that you never reject me. You simply lead me when I allow you to lead. Thank you for your grace.”

 

Saturday, October 6

Read: Psalm 103:1-14

Consider: You often hear people differentiate between the Old Testament and the New Testament by contrasting law with grace. It’s true that the Old Testament is filled with laws that we no longer observe. And the reason we don’t live by the legal standards of the first testament is because of what Jesus taught us about the purpose and essence of the law. He said that “All the Law and the Prophets”—the entire Old Testament—is summed up in two commands: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-40).

But let’s not miss the grace in the Old Testament. God made a covenant with his people, Israel. And, though Israel repeatedly broke covenant with God, God kept bringing them back. The covenant-keeping God forgave and forgave and kept on forgiving. That’s not to say that Israel didn’t suffer the consequences of their stupid actions. But our God is a forgiving God — “He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities” (103:10).

For many people who have been raised with a distorted God-concept, God’s forgiveness is difficult to receive. That’s because we think in terms of deserving forgiveness. That’s human nature. It’s easier to forgive the lesser sins committed against us than the crimes that devastate our lives. We consider some people worthy of forgiveness because of their weaknesses, but others undeserving because of the pain they inflicted. And it’s easy to carry our ways over to God. Some people never ask for God’s forgiveness because they feel that they don’t deserve it.

Another distortion is that after God forgives us, he puts us on probation. We must earn our full forgiveness after the fact. We live as if God is holding something over our heads in case he needs to blackmail us.

But God doesn’t forgive like we do. God’s ability to forgive is not determined by the magnitude of our sin. And when God forgives, he forgives. There’s no partial forgiveness and no probation.

David stated it brilliantly when he said, “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (103:12).

Our problem is not that God withholds forgiveness. We often struggle with forgiving ourselves. We doubt our worthiness, thinking we don’t deserve to be forgiven. We may withhold forgiveness, but God doesn’t.

Pray: “Lord, thank you for the freedom that comes from the knowledge that my sins are forgiven. Help me to grasp the meaning of your grace. Help me today to live as though I’m forgiven, because I am.”