- Dominic: Mummy look!
- Sam: I see! Who's a big boy in a big boy shirt?
- Dominic: Meee!
- Maia: Dominic go put on yu pants!
A good article by Tim Challies that I can appreciate even though I don’t and have never owned a smartphone. I do however use computers all the time, so I’m often absorbed in a larger screen. Are phones - and computers - helping us to stay close to those who are closest to us or do they take us away from them?
A friend of mine recently asked me for my thoughts on Psalm 88. They grew pretty long pretty fast and I thought it would be worth it to archive them here. So here they are.
1) A part of the purpose of the song is for the writer to express himself - to say how he’s feeling. That in itself is a helpful thing. When we are not able to say how we’re feeling, even when we’re feeling horrible, it can exacerbate our suffering. This is not to suggest in any way that the sons of Korah wrote this and then said “There. I’m feeling much better.” It’s just to recognize that a part of dealing with our suffering is being able to say to others and to God, “This is how I feel.” It’s important to understand this because sometimes in our wanting others to be okay, we deny them the permission to say how they really are doing and feeling. This type of honesty modeled for us here is something we must learn. God’s glory is not diminished or obscured by our honesty.
2) Saints can feel like this. It feels like a horrible thing to say, and it feels at odds with with what looks at a glance like the “accentuate the positive” teaching we find in some places in the NT. Some of the songs we were taught in our youth are well-intentioned lies. I’m not “in-right, out-right, up-right, downright happy all the time”, even though “Jesus Christ came in and cleansed my heart from sin”. “Everyday with Jesus” doesn’t always feel “sweeter than the day before.” Rejoicing in the Lord is sometimes a journey along a path of truth rather than a light-switch type instantaneous decision. Throughout the Psalms we enter the experience of God’s people at different points along that journey. And it’s important to note that the writer wants to rejoice. That’s why he’s so frustrated by his situation. As depressed as he is, he’s not resigned to depression. He’s crying out to God in his suffering. He doesn’t want to die but he feels like that’s where he’s headed. He wants to see the wonders of God (vs 10, 12), to worship God and experience and declare God’s steadfast love and faithfulness (vs 11).
3) We can learn empathy from psalms like this. That’s one of the benefits of the genre of poetry/songwriting. The art form allows us to enter someone else’s experience and to feel what they are feeling. Even though we often try to use them that way, the Psalms are not trying to state doctrinal truths. They are expressing - singing of - the highs, lows and in betweens of the lives of God’s people. We need to learn to walk with each other through the high, lows and in betweens that come with following Jesus. We need to learn to be better companions than Job’s friends.
4) There are definite pointers to Christ in this Psalm. It shouldn’t surprise us that so many of the Psalms of suffering and lament point prophetically to the ultimate suffering and lament of Jesus. Some of the things said here are surely more true of Jesus than of any man who ever lived, including the author. For example:-
You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a horror to them.
Do you see how this verse points to Jesus being abandoned by his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion? Verse 15 is also interesting, especially in light of the danger Jesus was in from the time he was an infant, with his escaping Herod’s jealous murder attempt through Joseph being warned to flee to Egypt through a dream. The biggest clue about the prophetic nature of this Psalm though, is the theme of the Psalmist experiencing God’s wrath. Verses 7 and 16 bring this into view. Many a saint while going through suffering would have cause to wonder whether what they are experiencing is God’s wrath - God’s just and deliberately directed anger at sin. But in Jesus’ case it’s not just wondering. I’m convinced based passages like Isa 53 (among others) that Jesus experienced the wrath of God on our behalf on the cross. He was made sin for us (2 Cor 5:21). “… the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief” (Isa 53:10 - NASB). And that is a source of hope for us even when we go through suffering. He already faced that on our behalf so whatever we’re facing, it is not that. And even if death should come, our hope and his love is stronger than the grave. The New Testament helps us to have a clearer vision of our experience of suffering than the psalmist had access to. We shouldn’t forget what we’ve been given in Christ and how the Old Testament saints couldn’t have known what has been revealed to us. We know that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:35-39). We know that the real target of enemy of our souls is our faith (Luke 22: 31-32). We know that God works for our good in all circumstances and uses suffering to purify and discipline us (Rom 8:18, 28-30; Heb 12:3-11). And we know that in Christ we are not destined for wrath.
For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.1 Thessalonians 5:9-11 (ESV)
5) Finally, we can learn from the psalmist’s example how to go through suffering. Cry out to God! The ESV divides this psalm into 4 sections - an intro (vs 1-2) and 3 stanzas of similar length. The intro establishes a dominant theme of the psalm. The fact that the psalm starts that way is not arbitrary or coincidental. The psalmist announces his crying out to the “God of [his] salvation” from the very beginning of his lament. He returns to it again in vs 9, midway through that stanza and again at the beginning of the final stanza in vs 13. This time he says “But I, Oh Lord, cry to you.” That “but” is not a turning point. Many Psalms of lament have turning points. That “but” is the embodiment of the “good fight of faith” (1 Tim 6:12). Despite God putting me through this I cry out to God. Verse 13 is the cry of a man who is holding on to God even when it seems God is against him. Sometimes that is exactly what faith looks like. Sometimes that’s all faith can do - express its trust by crying out to the God of our salvation in the midst of horrible circumstances that we know God to be sovereign over. We don’t help our case in suffering by choosing to doubt whether God rules over the details of our lives. That’s not the example we’re given here or elsewhere in the scriptures. The same man who says “You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep” (vs 6), and “You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me” (vs 18), also says “But I, O LORD, cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you.” These things are deeply uncomfortable for us but truth is to be valued over comfort.
See now that I, even I, am he,
and there is no god beside me;
I kill and I make alive;
I wound and I heal;
and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.
Deuteronomy 32:39 (ESV)
Our hope for deliverance is strengthened rather than defeated by God’s sovereignty. So we must learn that we bring glory to the sovereign God of the universe, who determines all things, by crying out to him in our suffering. Even Jesus, who knew exactly what God was doing and why he was suffering, cried out to God! When we suffer, we must cry out to God too. In the morning. Every day. Day and night to the God of our salvation.
Stephen Miller writes on how our outward posture in worship should express an inward reality.
- Maia: Daddy, why are you taking your Bible?
- Me: Because we're going to church.
- Maia: Are you going to preach?
- Me: No.
- Maia: Then why are you taking your Bible?
- Me: ...because my Kindle isn't charged.
This may strike some as a strange observation from Leviticus chapters 4 and 5, but animals are valuable. That might seem counter-intuitive on first thought, since the Levitical system instructed the killing of animals for many reasons, in response to various sins, in order for the Israelites to maintain relationship with God. Doesn’t that mean that they were being taught not to value animals? I’m convinced that is not the case.
The fact is, animals were valuable to the Israelites. They provided food in various ways - milk, cheese and meat - and also clothing was made from their skins. Flocks and herds needed to be maintained through reproduction - so a nation living in the desert wouldn’t be knocking off healthy animals on a whim. In the near Eastern culture of the day wealth was measured by the number of animals owned (think of Job or Abraham) and in several parts of the world this is still the case.
So surely when God demands animals, pure animals, first-born animals, there is a significant economic cost attached to maintaining relationship with him. That’s an important thing to recognize. Sin is costly. The death of animals makes sense not because they are not important but precisely because they are important. But God is much more important than any of his creatures. God is holy and atonement is therefore costly and this is right.
The Levitical sacrificial system is not simply about the loss of something valuable though. The part that I often forget until I return to passages like this is how violent atonement was. The animal is not just given up. It’s not just a loss of value. The animal is to be killed. It is not to be killed gently. It is not to be killed in private. Based on Leviticus 4 it seems that in several cases, the person guilty of the sin is often the one who must kill the animal, after laying his hand on its head. So atoning for sin was deliberate, costly and personal. The sinner would be intimate with the process of atonement rather than distant from it. In chapter 5 verse 8, in the case of a pigeon or a turtledove being offered as a sin offering, the priest is instructed to wring the bird’s head from its neck but not to sever it completely, sprinkle some of the blood on the side of the altar and drain out the rest of the blood at the base of the altar. Several things strike me about this (apart from a fleeting thought about Ozzy Ozbourne).
For one, I’m sympathetic to the fact that all this seems so barbaric to our “modern” ears and imaginations. A part of that is most of us are not involved in the killing of animals for any purpose at all, even though many of us benefit from their deaths when we eat our meals. It’s not that we’re against the killing of animals for our own benefit. It’s just that we’d rather not be near the process or even imagine it.
For two, I’m struck by the clear and graphic description of how the birds are to be killed. I can picture someone reaching carefully, maybe even gently, into a cage to remove a bird, and that bird being passed from one pair of hands to another, perhaps each person carefully cupping their hands to hold the wings so that the bird wouldn’t escape. I can picture the birds being brought to the priest who would carefully receive one from the person bringing the sacrifice. I can imagine the priest adjusting his grip to hold the still live bird firmly by its head and neck with one hand and its body with another, and then applying his strength to wring the bird’s head from it’s neck. Can you imagine holding a pigeon and doing that?
Sin is serious. If Leviticus was a song that would surely be a refrain in it, though not the main theme. The chorus would be “God is holy!”. Or perhaps echoing the angels in Isaiah’s vision, it would be “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty!” He is separate and transcendent. He is not like us and we are not like him. This is why sin is serious - because it’s treason against a holy God. That is why the sacrificial system that God instituted is expensive and intimate, violent and bloody. Nothing else begins to express the value of God. Nothing else begins to express the seriousness of sin, even the unintentional sins that were in view in Leviticus 4 and 5. Nothing else ensures that we never forget the connection between sin and death.
An Israelite would walk to the tabernacle with his sacrifice knowing that because I sinned, this animal must die. Sin results in death. And that Israelite would realize that he is the one who should be dying, but God had made a way for him to live through the death of another. This expensive, brutal, bloody process was mercy.
And here is where I lose my composure and I am overwhelmed. The whole Levitical system is a picture - a shadow of the reality which was Jesus’ death on the cross. The death of thousands upon thousands of animals over hundreds of years was an expensive illustration of an infinitely more expensive and valuable sacrifice - Jesus laying his life down for us, for me, on the cross. Sin results in death. And I realize that I am the one who should be dying, but God made a way for me to live through the death of another. Jesus’ expensive, brutal, bloody sacrifice was mercy. And since, by God’s grace I have trusted in Jesus and his work on my behalf, and have run (and daily run) away from any attempt to commend myself to God by my own efforts or goodness, I have been forgiven and made right with God, and will be saved from the wrath of God - the punishment that is rightfully coming from God - through him. What could I possibly say in response to all that? Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift! (2 Corinthians 9:15 ESV)
Weightlifting is hard work. At least three different times in my life I’ve tried weightlifting regimes for an extended period. My mentality towards it was always the same. I couldn’t help but think of weightlifting when I read Peter’s question to Jesus in Matt 18:21. “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” That’s exactly how I thought about weightlifting. How much do I have to do? How much bench-pressing? How much weight? How many repetitions? The outcome was desirable but I wasn’t looking to work any harder than I had to get to that outcome.
Peter’s question reveals the paradox of how a religious heart thinks about forgiveness. You see, Peter likes what forgiveness can do for him - commend him to God has a “good person” or at least keep him in God’s good books - but he dislikes forgiving. That’s why he want to know how much of this stuff is required of him. He doesn’t want to fall short of a standard but he wants to know how soon he can stop. Peter thinks of forgiveness as hard work - but hard work that shows his moral strength and character. The way he asked the question is designed to impress - apparently in the Jewish society of the day, the willingness to forgive three times demonstrated that one was a forgiving person. So when Peter asked “As many as seven times?”, he was probably seeking to show his high standards to Jesus while hoping at the same time that Jesus would lower the bar for him.
Over and over again it comes out in the gospels that Jesus does not think like us. He’s on a completely different wavelength; operating on a different plane altogether. The words that God said to Isaiah rightly apply here -
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.(Isaiah 55:8-9 ESV)
Jesus not only multiplies the standard mathematically, demonstrating the insufficiency of Peter’s attempts at righteousness but he takes forgiveness to an entirely different plane - like the heavens compared to the earth.
Jesus tells him a story of a servant who was forgiven a large debt by his king after pleading for his life and then turns around immediately and turns around and throws a fellow servant in jail for not being able to pay a small debt. The king hears what the first servant did and is, of course, livid. The king then throws the wicked, ungrateful servant in jail.
The financial details of the parable are meant to hit us hard. It’s worth the trouble to feel their weight. They are obscured by our not being able to relate to the currency of the day. The servant’s debt to the king was about US$6 billion (based on a pay rate of US$15 per hour). Perhaps the zeros would help. US$6,000,000,000. Based on recent US to Jamaican dollar exchange rates that is five hundred thirty-one billion seven hundred eighty million Jamaican dollars. $531,780,000,000. I don’t know about you, but figures like that never feel real to me.
And how much was this servant owed by his fellow servant? US$12,000. JA$1,063,560. That’s a real debt, isn’t it? But it’s nothing compared to the debt that the king forgave him. It’s 0.0002% of what he was forgiven.
But Jesus is not done yet. He says “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” From your heart. If he had not said that perhaps we could have contemplated an approach to forgiveness that tries to do it almost unconsciously and dismissively, seeking not to feel the pain of the offense but just to “do what we have to do”. If he had not said that we could be justified in thinking of forgiveness as a decision - an act of the will that may or may not be heartfelt, but shows our determination to do what’s right even when we feel like doing the opposite. But “from your heart” robs us of those options. This constantly extended forgiveness must be heartfelt. I’m going to have to want to forgive, not just respond to the fact that I should. From the deepest part of me I must freely release others of their debt.
So how do we forgive over and over again from the heart?
Here’s where the grace of God given to us in Christ, the grace that comes to us in the gospel, saves us from ourselves and trains us to live like God (Titus 2:11-14). If our hearts are overwhelmed over and over again, day after day by the forgiveness we have been extended in Christ; if we constantly see the seriousness of sin against God, shown by Jesus’ suffering on our behalf; if we recognize that when people do wrong to us, their sin is primarily against God, our attitude to forgiving others will change. We will stop seeing ourselves as the righteous ones who are suffering and remember that the Righteous One already suffered in our place, because of us and our rebellion and sin, so that we could be forgiven and restored to right relationship with God. The thought of alienating someone who has sinned against us through unforgiveness and malice will begin to horrify us - knowing that we were once alienated from God but have been reconciled with Him in Christ. We will stop trying to ensure that people get what they deserve since we’ve been shown such extraordinary mercy. Mercy will triumph over judgment in our hearts (James 2:13).
If we think we ought to have been forgiven by God we won’t be forgiving people. If we think that the offense we were forgiven for was a small offense we’re likely to be unwilling to, or at the very least, slow to forgive the “serious” offenses we suffer at the hands of others.
Our strength will fail. Our tolerance will fail. But the grace which grows from the overflowing grace of God displayed to us in Christ is inexhaustible. When we feel like it is drying up that is a sign that we are too far from the cross - too far from remembering the mercy which was shown to us. It is that remembering which shapes our hearts into hearts which can genuinely forgive - over and over again.