The Psalms: Total Dependence

You have rejected us, God, and burst upon us;
    you have been angry – now restore us!
You have shaken the land and torn it open;
    mend its fractures, for it is quaking.
You have shown your people desperate times;
    you have given us wine that makes us stagger.
But for those who fear you, you have raised a banner
    to be unfurled against the bow.

Read more…

Psalm 60

The previous Psalms have rung out with the confident assurance that, in spite of some evidence to the contrary, God was on David’s side. Psalm 60 follows on rather awkwardly. The opening verses are some of the bleakest in the Psalter: God has rejected his people, he is angry with them (v. 1) and as a result his people stagger and are bewildered like victims of an earthquake or drinkers of too much cheap wine (vv. 2, 3).

The middle verses of the Psalm (vv. 5–8) record God’s great promises to his people. They take us back to the time before the Israelites arrived in Canaan and remind them of what God said he would do. Shechem was the largest of the Canaanite cities and Sukkot was on the other side of the Jordan where some of the tribes would settle. Ephraim and Judah were the two main tribes that settled to the west of the Jordan, the images of ‘helmet’ and ‘sceptre’ being symbols of God’s rule. These short verses recall God’s great promises: ‘This land is your land’ in fulfilment of the promises that God had made many years previously to Abraham (Genesis 15).

There is a stark contrast in the description of the Israelite cities and tribes compared to the triad of regions mentioned in v. 8. John Goldingay comments, ‘God had nothing against those peoples. If they just mind their own business, they will get along fine. God has no designs on the territory of Moab and Edom.’ Admittedly, though, the Philistines – who were recent European invaders – were a different proposition.

By David’s time the Israelites were securely in possession of the Promised Land and their enemies had been defeated. However, enemies once defeated don’t always remain defeated and it seems this Psalm was written at a time when the threat level was high and the promise seemed to be in danger of unravelling (Perhaps 2 Samuel 8 and 10 provide some of the background).

The final verses of the Psalm pick up the complaint. ‘You promised you’d give us the victory but we’re not winning and we can’t win without you.’ Sometimes it is in our setbacks that we remember the truth that without God we can do nothing of any permanent worth or value. The same truth is expressed a little later in the Psalter when it says, ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain.’ (Psalm 127:1). In John 15:5, Jesus says, ‘Apart from me you can do nothing.’

When things are going smoothly in our lives, we can overlook that truth and forget how dependent we really are upon God. Sometimes, like in this Psalm, it is the difficulties that we face that expose the inadequacy of our own resources and cause us to depend more deeply upon God. The struggles we face day to day are less likely to be military and more likely illness, advancing years, temptations, despair, depression, destructive habits, our own mortality. To say limited human help is ‘worthless’ (v. 11) may be a bit of poetic licence – there are things we can and should do to help one another – but our ultimate confidence is in God, the God who has already won the victory for us in and through his Son, Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:57).

Pastor’s Thoughts – April 2019

Dear friends, 

When I left school I went to study at college in Portsmouth. Portsmouth is a fine city (and for trivia fans the only UK city on an island) that prides itself on being the home of the Royal Navy (a title that Plymouth also claims). In those days, the flagship of the fleet was not a brand-new aircraft carrier but a 200-year-old man o’ war situated in a dry dock down at the naval dockyard: Nelson’s ship HMS Victory. Portsmouthians were so proud of this great historical connection that just about everything in Portsmouth was named after the Victory. The local radio station was Radio Victory; there’d be Victory Cabs and the Victory Tandoori. You name it and there was something named after the Victory. 

Not many of us feel like we’ve experienced a victory. Some of us may have served in the armed forces but not many of us have experienced victory first-hand. We may have shared in the reflected glory of a sports team or been part of something that has performed well in some artistic endeavour. We may have won a contract or an argument, but few would count this a victory. 

In Roman days victory had a special meaning. To a general who had led the forces to a great victory, a Triumph was awarded. The Triumph was a civil and religious celebration that involved a procession of the army, captives, captured loot and the triumphant general through the streets of Rome. The captives would be executed or enslaved and the general would acquire heroic status. 

The reason I’m writing about this is because this month we celebrate victory and it is a victory in which we are involved. In 2 Corinthians 2:14-15 Paul says:

But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 

We have been taken captive, but the victory is ours. We are like trophies in Jesus’ triumphal procession. We have become captives of Jesus but amazingly God does not wish to enslave us, he wishes to set us free – really free. Free to live life in all its fullness. Jesus’ victory on the cross has bought us, paid the debt that we owe for our sin and failure, and now, even more amazingly, he has adopted us as his children. 

At the time of writing it’s not very easy to know what will happen in our nation over the coming weeks. It’s not very easy to predict what will happen in our lives over the coming weeks. We’d be forgiven for either being very afraid of what is to come, being very excited about what is to come, or living in a state of denial. The truth is that, whatever the future holds, we can have peace about it because we belong to Christ and we are kept by him for eternity. Through good and bad, he will lead us. 

This is why we celebrate the cross. This is why we celebrate the resurrection. This is why Easter is the most important season of the year, because it is about life. Life that we have been given even though we don’t deserve it. Life that we have been given to experience God’s love and to channel it to others.

…God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 

2 Corinthians 5:19

A very Happy Easter to you all.

In Christ,
John 

The Psalms: Fortress

Deliver me from my enemies, O God;
    be my fortress against those who are attacking me.
Deliver me from evildoers
    and save me from those who are after my blood.
See how they lie in wait for me!
    Fierce men conspire against me
    for no offence or sin of mine, Lord.
I have done no wrong, yet they are ready to attack me.
    Arise to help me; look on my plight!
You, Lord God Almighty,
    you who are the God of Israel,
rouse yourself to punish all the nations;
    show no mercy to wicked traitors.

Read more…

Psalm 59

In my classroom there is a poster with a quotation from a London headteacher. The gist of it is that the purpose of education is to make children more human. The context is that the headteacher was a survivor of the Nazi death camps. He points out that the gas chambers were built by educated architects, the deadly chemicals created by trained scientists. It is a reminder that good gifts such as intelligence can be badly misused.

All gifts can be misused, not just intelligence. Humour can bring a smile to our face and help us to cope in difficult circumstances but humour can also be used to wound and humiliate, to crush and destroy. In Psalm 59 the abused gift is that of power. Power is simply the ability to get something done. When wielded well it can help all to flourish but throughout human history it has often been abused.

The theme of the abuse of power crops up time and time again in the Psalms. According to the heading of the Psalm it recalls the time when Saul sent men to watch David’s house in order to kill him, an incident recorded in 1 Samuel 19.

Twice David compares his would-be assassins to wild dogs that snarl and prowl about the city streets (vv. 6, 14). As well as the physical danger that they represent they also damage David’s reputation (vv. 10, 12), words spew from their mouths (v. 7). Their assassination of David’s character may be designed as a precursor to the real thing. The twentieth century shows how words can be weaponised to strip people of their humanity and can eventually lead to mass murder and to genocide. The Bible reminds us to be careful with our words (James 3:3–10).

Twice also there is a refrain that God is the Psalmist’s strength and fortress, the one on whom he can rely (vv. 9, 10, 17). Trouble doesn’t always disappear forever – just like the villain in the film who you think is over and done with and drowned in the bath, but suddenly they return, alive and kicking and threatening all sorts of mayhem. We are easily intimidated by the evils around us, but God laughs at the forces who oppose him (v. 8, see also Psalm 2:4). The reality is we cannot escape trouble in this life but with God as our refuge and our strong tower we, like David, can raise our voices above the whinging and howling to sing of the God who loves us.

The Psalms: ‘Do Not Destroy’

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 skilful the enchanter may be.

Read more…

Psalm 58

One of the features of Presbyterian worship in Scotland was the use of the metrical Psalms. For those who are not aware of this particular tradition, this involved setting the whole Psalter to a set of limited but great hymn tunes.  

If you like lots of variety then singing several Psalms to the same tune might not be seem so great, but it has its benefits – not least that it would have helped ordinary folk to memorise these Psalms more easily and be able to benefit from them.

Psalm 58, intriguingly, follows on from and is followed by Psalms which apparently were to be sung to the same tune, ‘Do not destroy’. Of course, no-one knows what that tune sounded like… I envisage heavy metal or punk, but I could well be wrong.

The name of the tune is, to say the least ironic, ‘Do not destroy’, yet for much of the Psalm that is precisely what the Psalmist wants God to do to his enemies!

He calls on God to smash their teeth (v. 6), to vaporise them (v. 7), to dissolve them like a salted slug (v. 8).

This isn’t the first time – nor will it be the last time – we meet such violence in the Psalms. Many of us find such expressions of anger unsettling and disquieting. We quite like a line of the Psalms here or there during a time of worship, but it’s difficult to imagine these words being read out between a couple of praise songs. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would find it uncomfortable sitting next to someone who is looking forward to bathing their feet in the blood of their enemies.

The Psalms are not nice. But while they may not be pretty, they are honest. Anger is as much a part of human life as the fear of the previous Psalm. It’s no use denying our anger or bottling it up, but it is worth taking it to God.

The anger expressed here is that of the victim, the one who is desperate and who has been systematically beaten down and degraded by those who are in power and who have been corrupted by evil (vv. 1–3). These oppressors have lost their humanity and have become like deadly animals, like the cobra and the lion (vv. 4, 6). There are sadly millions of people today around the world, made in God’s image and beloved by him, who find themselves beaten down and in some living hell because of the wickedness of others. At the very least the Psalm shakes us from comfortable complacency, reminds us that not all is well with the world and serves as a challenge to pray and to act on behalf of those who are in anguish.

The Psalm is a plea for justice, for evil to be defeated and for the right to be triumphant. When it comes to dealing with enemies, the Psalmist leaves that to God – there is no thought that it is something he or we should take into our own hands (v. 6). 

David’s description of the wicked (v. 3) reminds us of something he said about himself in a previous Psalm when he had abused his power with horrific results (Psalm 51:5). As well as being an encouragement to voice our own anger, to pray and act for the oppressed, the Psalm is also a mirror and a warning to anyone with any degree of power. What about us? How have we treated those around us?

The Psalms: Relentless Love

Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me,
    for in you I take refuge.
I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings
    until the disaster has passed.
I cry out to God Most High,
    to God, who vindicates me.
He sends from heaven and saves me,
    rebuking those who hotly pursue me –
    God sends forth his love and his faithfulness.

Read more…

Psalm 57

David is in a dark place, literally. According to the title of this Psalm he has fled into a cave trying to escape from those who were seeking to kill him. The heading reflects the story in 1 Samuel 22–24 where there are a couple of references to David hiding in a cave to avoid his pursuers.

Hopefully no-one reading this will be hunted down like David but it is a reminder that we have brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world for whom persecution is a reality.

We may not face the danger that David faced but some of us are familiar with caves, cold dark places of depression in our own lives, untouched and unlit by the warm rays of the sun.

In his time of crisis David turns to God. The cave is cold, hard and unfeeling, but by contrast the imagery used of God is warm and tender, under the shelter of his wings we find shelter (v. 1). David’s confidence is in God’s steadfast love. That love is not something that God switches on and off like a tap, but is constant. Our love is like the moon that wanders up and down, but God’s love is like the sun, for ever constant and true (apologies to Robert Burns!).

When we think of our troubles or look around us at the troubles in the world our emotions can spin all over the place. We’re happy one moment, fearful the next, but it is as we focus on the everlasting love of God that we find strength and stability.

To reflect on that steadfast, relentless love of God that we find in Christ Jesus cannot leave us the same, cannot but change us and bring us hope. To reflect on that steadfast, relentless love of God that we find in Christ Jesus is to lead us from singing the blues to bursting into songs of praise. 

David was in a dark place physically and he was in a dark place emotionally, but reflecting on God’s steadfast love brings about a new perspective. ‘I can’t change the world / but I can change the world in me if I rejoice’ (U2).

The Psalms call us to be honest, not to pretend to God or ourselves or others but not to give in to despair either. Yes, reality can seem like a long dark cave, but even there God is with us and our confidence is that his light that shines in the darkness will one day shine gloriously over the whole earth.

The Psalms: Fear

Be merciful to me, my God,
    for my enemies are in hot pursuit;
    all day long they press their attack.
My adversaries pursue me all day long;
    in their pride many are attacking me.
When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.
    In God, whose word I praise –
in God I trust and am not afraid.
    What can mere mortals do to me?

Read more…

Psalm 56

Fear is a common human emotion. It is not a bad thing either. There are plenty of times when a good dose of fear is a very healthy and appropriate reaction. At the time of writing there was a brutal attack on a train where a passenger was knifed to death in a random attack. With the killer on the loose, fear was a perfectly healthy and reasonable reaction as people in the vicinity acted with far greater caution than normal.

At other times fear can be an unreasonable and unhealthy response. There are people who are so fearful that they cannot get out the door – agoraphobia is a serious and debilitating condition.  

Fear is a key theme of this Psalm and David seems to say two things which might, on face value, seem to contradict one another. 

In v. 3 David says that when he is afraid, he will put his trust in God. In v. 4, however, he says that he will not be afraid. Perhaps he is just referring to different occasions: there are times when he is fearful and so he turns to God and no longer feels afraid, that is one possibility. Another possibility is that David was both afraid and unafraid at the same time. Maybe David was internally fearful, anxious about what might happen, but he did not let those feelings prevent him from acting. That’s what courage is. Courage is not feeling unafraid – at times a lack of fear can just be recklessness or stupidity, not adequately understanding the danger of the situation and there is absolutely nothing praiseworthy in that. Courage is feeling the fear, realising the danger and yet still going ahead and doing the right thing, even if it is scary.

Our model for this is Jesus in Gethsemane. Luke tells us that Jesus was in anguish as he prayed to his Heavenly Father (Luke 22:44). The Greek word for anguish is ‘agonia’ and it was characteristically used to describe the feelings of gladiators as they waited to step into the arena. Like the gladiator, Jesus was engaged in mortal combat, offering his life to defeat the powers of death and darkness. And Jesus was scared, fearful of the physical pain that he would be put through because only an idiot would not be.   Jesus was scared of the emotional pain, the howling grief of his mother, the heartbreak of his disciples who did not and could not understand what was going on. And Jesus was scared because of the spiritual pain: he had always walked so closely to the one he called ‘Abba, Father’, but in the darkness of Golgotha that intimacy would be challenged like never before.

Yet Jesus prayed, ‘Not my will but yours be done’ and he showed courage as he actively did his Father’s will, laying down his life that we might live. 1 John 4:18 says perfect love drives out all fear and that’s a good text to meditate upon when we feel anxious. It doesn’t necessarily mean that every feeling of apprehension will disappear but it does mean that fear need no longer paralyse us from doing what is right.

Twice in the Psalm David asks, ‘What can mere mortals do to me?’ (vv. 4, 11). The answer is, ‘Quite a lot,’ but beyond the fear there is the assurance that God knows what we’re going through. And the God who records our tears (v. 8) is the one who will deliver us from death that we might walk before him in the light of life (v. 13).

Pastor’s Thoughts – March 2019

Dear friends, 

Lent is a time when many Christians prepare for Easter by remembering Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness near the beginning of his ministry. In our tradition we’re not always big on celebrating the ecclesiastical calendar but there does seem some sense in using some time to focus. Over the next few weeks we are going to be focussing on prayer. There is nothing more natural, more important or more challenging than prayer. We find it essential and we often find it difficult. 

As we looked at ways to mark our 200th anniversary, prayer seemed to be an obvious place to begin. We have so much to give thanks for, and so much to look forward to in the years ahead. Prayer is a vital part of every good thing that has happened and will be essential to enable future growth and blessing. No good thing comes without prayer. 

So we want to encourage everyone to be standing together in prayer. Our weekly ministries need prayer. Our brothers and sisters need prayer. The Bridge needs prayer. Our leaders need prayer. Every part of what we do needs to be soaked in prayer. Our nation and our world desperately need prayer. As a church we have long sensed that we need to pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on our nation and on our town. 

So when we decided to pursue this as the opening theme of our bicentenary year we turned to 40 Days of Prayer. We have been blessed by using the Saddleback 40 Days campaigns in the past and have seen great fruit from them. Rick Warren has a way of encouraging people to grow in their relationship with Christ that is very helpful. His approach to prayer is equally helpful and he wants to help us to get to grips with what the Lord intends for our prayer lives. 

If you have not yet joined a Life Group then please do so as this will enable you to get the most from the series. 

There are handbooks available and we have some that are free if you’d really like one but it doesn’t fit into your budget. Please don’t be shy about asking, we’re family and we want to make sure everyone can have one if they’d like. 

The call to us is to hear the word of the Lord to Israel in 2 Chronicles 7:14:

If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. 

I want to leave you with Isaiah’s prayer in Isaiah 64:1-4. It seems to me to be the kind of prayer that I want to be praying for our nation: 

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.

It may be that our nation is not waiting for him, but it certainly needs him. This is where we have to stand in the gap for our fellow citizens and lift up holy hands and cover them with prayer. 

Yours in Christ,
John

The Psalms: The Power of Words

Listen to my prayer, O God,
    do not ignore my plea;
    hear me and answer me.
My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught
    because of what my enemy is saying,
    because of the threats of the wicked;
for they bring down suffering on me
    and assail me in their anger.

Read more…

Psalm 55

One of the reasons for the ongoing popularity of the Psalms is their searing honesty. The composers of the Psalms don’t tell us how we ought to feel, they tell us how we actually do feel! In Psalm 55 the writer’s emotions are raw.

Once again, the Psalmist is troubled and, in his troubles, he turns to God. The exact cause of his distress becomes clear a little later on. He is the victim of what others have said. At the very least words have the power to destroy our social status and reputation, and at worst words can lead to false accusation and even to death (I am writing shortly after Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi was released from jail following accusations that were made against her: for a biblical example see 1 Kings 21). We do not always get things right and need to be open to learn from the criticism of others, even when those criticisms are expressed clumsily or woundingly. We also need to be careful about what we say and how we say it and that our intention is always to build up others (1 Thessalonians 5:11).

What is worse in this case is that this hateful slander originates from someone who David once considered to be a friend (vv. 13, 14). It is always so much more painful when those close to us attack us without reason and when they criticise us in public and seek to turn others against us. Not surprisingly in this situation the pressure builds up (vv. 4,5) and David longs for escape (vv. 6–8). The modern equivalent to ‘the wings of a dove’ might be a plane out of here jetting us away from all our troubles and taking us far, far away. Jesus words though sum up the reality of life, ‘In this world you will have trouble’ (John 16:33). That’s the bad news – the good news is that immediately beforehand Jesus promised that ‘in me you may have peace’ (John 16:33). 

Sometimes that peace may be found because Jesus comes and calm the storms of life (Mark 4:35–41), at other times the storm is still raging but he comes to us in the midst of it (Matt 14:27–31).

The Psalmist encourages us to cast our cares on the LORD (v. 22) and that call is picked up in the New Testament when Peter invites us to ‘Cast all our anxiety on him because he cares for us’ (1 Peter 5:7). What do we do with our cares, our worries, our anxiety? Taking them to the Lord rather than carrying them alone still seems like a good option.

The Psalms: Encouragement When the Journey is Tough

Save me, O God, by your name;
    vindicate me by your might.
 Hear my prayer, O God;
    listen to the words of my mouth.

Arrogant foes are attacking me;
    ruthless people are trying to kill me—
    people without regard for God.

Read more…

Psalm 54

Psalms 52–54 all come from the earliest period in David’s life when he was a fugitive, on the run and hiding from Saul who was trying to track him down. Here, the reference in the title is to events recorded in 1 Samuel 23:14–28 where the Ziphites, among whom David was hiding, were happy to betray him and hand him over to his enemies.

In all of this (unlike Psalm 51!) David was not at fault, yet it didn’t prevent him from being threatened and his life being at risk. We can only begin to imagine what it felt like to be the innocent victim and yet to be hunted down as a criminal. 

No wonder David cries out to God to save him (v. 1). 1 Samuel tells us that Saul’s son Jonathan helped David to find strength in God and maybe verse 4 is the result of that. We need others to encourage us when the path on the journey of faith is rough and steep and we can be an encouragement to others when life is tough going.

Part of that encouragement is the reminder that evil is ultimately self-destructive – it loops back on those who commit it (v. 5). 

David wishes that those who slander him might be blown away. Although interestingly when David has the opportunity to do just that he shows the better way of mercy and spares Saul’s life (1 Samuel 24, Matthew 5:7, 44).

David anticipates that God will rescue him from danger and David’s response will be one of praising God in his words and his deeds. In verse 7 that anticipation is fulfilled.

The Psalm is a yet another reminder that to follow David’s God does not guarantee any immunity from suffering or hardship. When we are facing difficulties, we – like David – can bring them to God. In Christ we have the confidence that God is with us, that he can help us, that ultimately the powers of evil are defeated and that he will save us from our enemies of death and destruction.

Pastor’s Thoughts – February 2019

Dear friends, 

So we have begun to celebrate 200 years of God’s faithfulness to us here at BSBC. In 1819 the church was planted by three men and a married couple who had moved here from Sawbridgeworth with that intention. The foundation stone of the new chapel was laid on 30 November. 

It is easy to think of all the things that have changed over 200 years. 

In 1819 steam locomotives were still being developed and it would be 10 years until the first public railway opened. It would be 44 years until the Underground opened. Gas lighting had not long been invented and electric lighting would not come for another 50 years. The telephone arrived about the same time. 

That doesn’t even scratch the surface of everything that is different – they are easy to see. But what about those things that are the same? What hasn’t changed? Actually, as it turns out, the things that haven’t changed are the things that really matter. 

The church was planted so that Jesus Christ could be proclaimed as our Lord and King; so that God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the Triune God – could be worshipped; so that people could respond to Christ in believer’s baptism. 

Worship, prayer and preaching may take different forms today but they were as fundamental to our forebears as they are to us. So it’s important that as we begin our celebrations we do so not with a fancy event (those will follow) but with prayer. In fact 40 Days of Prayer, which begins on 3 March. 

40 Days of Prayer is a campaign that comes from our friends at Saddleback Community Church in California. We have used 40 Days campaigns before and they have been a source of great blessing. So now we want to invite you to take part in this campaign as well. The importance of prayer cannot be overestimated. There is nothing more important than prayer in growing in our relationship with God. 

As Rick Warren says: God created us to pray. Prayer is so simple a child can do it. So why is it that as adults we sometimes struggle to know how to pray? 40 Days of Prayer helps us to think about these issues and to grow in our prayer lives. 

Over the course we will look at the following: 

  • The Purpose of Prayer 
  • How to Pray with Confidence 
  • The Pattern for Prayer 
  • Praying for a Breakthrough 
  • How to Pray in a Crisis 

As before with these campaigns we will have teaching on the subject on Sunday mornings, small group materials to follow in our Life Groups and individual ways to grow in prayer. 

We need you to do two things to get the most out of this experience: 

  • Join a Life Group 
  • Get a Handbook 

If you can’t find a Life Group to join speak to Richard Lake about starting one! Saddleback started 600 new groups when they began this campaign. We should be able to manage a few as well! 

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:6-7

Yours in Christ,
John

The Psalms: Seriously, Don’t Be a Fool

The fool says in his heart,
    “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, and their ways are vile;
    there is no one who does good.

God looks down from heaven
    on all mankind
to see if there are any who understand,
    any who seek God.
Everyone has turned away, all have become corrupt;
    there is no one who does good,
    not even one.

Read more…

Psalm 53

By the time you’ve read Psalm 53 you might well have a feeling of déjà vu, a feeling of ‘Haven’t I heard this before?’ And you’d be right because Psalm 53 is almost identical to Psalm 14.

There is a slight variation in the title where Psalm 53 adds ‘according to mahalath’ and describes the Psalm as a ‘maskil’ of David. The exact meaning of both of these Hebrew words is less than clear although Old Testament scholar Derek Kidner suggests that ‘mahalath’ maybe the name of a tune or even an instrument.

The other minor difference is that Psalm 53 uses the word God (Elohim) rather than the LORD (YHWH).

A greater difference occurs in verse 5 where the wording is somewhat different to Psalm 14:5, 6. There may be a slight shift in emphasis from the deliverance of the righteous poor (14:5, 6) to the fate of their oppressors (53:5), but any such shift is marginal.

At this point we may be left wondering why in the oversight of the Holy Spirit a Psalm that is, to all extent and purposes exactly the same, is repeated. Perhaps it is simply because the theme is so important.

The temptation of ‘practical atheism’ is ever present. The fool does not necessarily visibly reject belief in God but does so in practice, in their heart (v. 1). When the fool has discounted the existence of God everything is up for grabs, morality lets loose of its moorings and is all at sea or as the great Russian author Dostoyevsky wrote, ‘If God does not exist, everything is permitted.’

Let’s face it – many atheists are incredibly moral people. But that may be in spite of their beliefs rather than because of them. One of the practical consequences of rejecting God is that it can lead to the exploitation of others, fellow human beings are no longer unique and precious individuals made in the image of God but are simply there to be used for my satisfaction (v. 4).

The Psalm offers a counterbalance. In spite of what might look to be the case, there is a God who created the world and cares for that world, and God is still sovereign and reigns from his throne (v. 2). The Psalm celebrates an occasion that God dealt with the arrogant and the entitled who think they can terrify others and not suffer the consequences (v. 5). Sometimes we have to live in the gap between the promise of deliverance and its fulfilment, but, as we wait, we do so in the knowledge that Christ has defeated sin and death and is even now working all things for good (Romans 8:28).

The Psalms: Pity for Evildoers

Why do you boast of evil, you mighty hero?
    Why do you boast all day long,
    you who are a disgrace in the eyes of God?
You who practice deceit,
    your tongue plots destruction;
    it is like a sharpened razor.
You love evil rather than good,
    falsehood rather than speaking the truth.
You love every harmful word,
    you deceitful tongue!

Read more…

Psalm 52

The problem in the previous Psalm is the pervasive and deep rooted nature of sin. Psalm 51 deals with my sin, my failure to live up to God’s expectations and to be the person that God created me to be, a person in his image full of his love, his joy, his peace. Psalm 52 is also about sin but this time it is about other people’s sin. 

The other major difference is that in Psalm 51 David recognises and ‘owns’ his sin: he realises (albeit with quite a lot of help from Nathan) that he is without excuse for his actions and he takes responsibility for the evil that he has done. For the evildoer of Psalm 52 there is no awareness of wrongdoing and no recognition of the need to repent. The evildoer of Psalm 52 has become set in his ways. Unlike the penitent David of the previous Psalm this is someone who boasts of evil, not just occasionally in moments of weakness but all day long (v. 1), who has grown to love evil rather than good (v. 3).

This is the person who has no fear of God, they think they can act with impunity. Such people clearly existed in David’s time and they exist in our own. They may be infamous on a worldwide or national scale, they may just be local bullies, their activity may be criminal or their activity might be quite lawful. 

When we see people act in such a way, we are not to envy them but to pity them knowing that they will have to give account to God for their actions (v. 5).

God is often described in the Psalms as a rock. He is our ultimate security and safety, but also the immovable force upon which evil will be broken. In Hebrews 9:27 the author writes that people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgement. We may have questions about the nature of that judgement and how that interacts that with God’s love but as Paul wrote ‘Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked.’ (Galatians 6:7). We ended Psalm 51 with the English rapper Stormzy, so we’ll leave Johnny Cash with the last word on Psalm 52.

Well, you may throw your rock and hide your hand
Workin’ in the dark against your fellow man
But as sure as God made black and white
What’s down in the dark will be brought to the light
You can run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down

Johnny Cash, ‘God’s Gonna Cut You Down’

The Psalms: Blinded by Grace

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.

Read more…

– Psalm 51

David was the great King of the Old Testament. Yet he had feet of clay. His shield adorns the flag of the modern-day state of Israel yet he was an adulterer and an accessory to cold-blooded murder (2 Samuel 11:1–25). Even the best of us are sinners.

There may not have been times when we have been guilty of acting as savagely as David or when our decisions have resulted in such devastating consequences. Yet there is probably something within us that recognises that moment when we realise that we have no excuses for our actions and when we realise the damage that we have done.

There was not a lot David could do to sort out the mess he had made. Uriah lay dead and he had already taken Bathsheba as his wife (2 Samuel 11:26–27). When we can make up for the things we have done wrong, we should attempt to do so. If we have hurt someone, we should apologise. But it is not always possible. David was left having to make the best out of a bad situation that he alone had created. The rest of David’s story is how he had to deal with the consequences, and it is messy.

David expresses a profound sense of guilt and throws himself on God’s mercy. He appeals to God’s ‘unfailing love’ and to his ‘great compassion’ (v. 1). David’s first need is forgiveness for his wrongdoing (v. 2) but the problem is more deep rooted than absolving him for a one-off misdemeanour. David’s problem and ours is we are mired in sin. While we have to take responsibility for our individual actions there is also a sense that we couldn’t help it – we are human beings, we sin, we hurt others, we hurt ourselves, it’s just what we do. Yet it was never God’s wish. God’s desire is that we are ‘faithful’ (v. 6): faithful to him and faithful to being his image-bearers on Earth.

As well as the need for forgiveness (vv. 7, 9) the Psalm expresses the need for renewal (v. 10). At the time of writing it is the second day of a new year, already countless resolutions have been broken and in the next few weeks they’ll be joined by many more. As human beings we’re just not very good at self-improvement. If we are to be healed, it will be the work of God to create in us a clean heart and a steadfast spirit.

David isn’t quite there yet but he knows that his ultimate joy is found in being restored to the God of unfailing love who made him in the first place (v. 12).

The Psalm speaks to all of us who feel broken because of the stupid and selfish things that we have done. It does not offer us a ‘Get out of jail free’ card as we, like David, still have to deal with the consequences of our actions (although we no longer do so alone but conscious of God’s presence).

In the New Testament we see the dynamic of salvation more clearly. Through Christ we have forgiveness for sin, the slate has been wiped clean, ‘there is no condemnation’ (Romans 8:1) and the Holy Spirit is at work in us to restore the broken image, to recreate us in our Father’s image, full of love, and joy and peace (Galatians 5:22).

The last word remains with one who, like David, was a singer and songwriter. One of the biggest hits of 2017 was Blinded by Your Grace, Pt. 2 by grime artist, Stormzy. Reflecting on his own experiences growing up he sings, ‘Lord, I’ve been broken / Although I’m not worthy / You fixed me, I’m blinded / By your grace’.

In an interview with The Guardian he explained, ‘One of the things that I’m most impressed by, in God, is the grace that he has. No matter what we do, there’s always this, “OK, it’s fine. I understand.” That’s not to say I can go out and do something bad… But just that knowing that someone’s got you throughout anything, and they’re not going to judge you, they’re just going to understand your situation. That’s grace.’

The Psalms: God’s Turn to Speak

The Mighty One, God, the Lord,
    speaks and summons the earth
    from the rising of the sun to where it sets.
From Zion, perfect in beauty,
    God shines forth.
Our God comes
    and will not be silent;
a fire devours before him,
    and around him a tempest rages.
He summons the heavens above,
    and the earth, that he may judge his people:
‘Gather to me this consecrated people,
    who made a covenant with me by sacrifice.’
And the heavens proclaim his righteousness,
    for he is a God of justice.

Read more…

– Psalm 50

One of the reasons that the Psalms are so loved and cherished is that they give voice to authentic human experience. Sometimes the writer is saying ‘God, you are great!’ or ‘I trust you,’ other times there’s just an urgent cry for deliverance, ‘help!’ or when the prayer has been answered, ‘thanks.’

In this Psalm though, the human voice is absent and it is God’s turn to speak.

The opening verses depict God thundering out from Jerusalem to call his people to account. The judgment begins with those God calls ‘my people’, the people that he loves, who he has chosen and who have committed themselves to him. Sobering words for those of us who claim to follow this God and who are often better are spotting motes of dust in other people’s eyes than the plank of wood in our own.

The first thing God says to them is ‘Listen’ (v. 7). In a world of constant noise and chatter that’s one of the most difficult things to do, we are so easily distracted and the ubiquity of the mobile phone doesn’t help. To be quiet and to listen is one of the hardest things to do but it’s one of the most important. Peter once asked Jesus, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life’ (John 6:68). The words of God are life giving. The problem is we’re not always listening.

One of the ways we don’t listen is by thinking we’re doing God some sort of favour by following him. But God is not a needy God, God is not lacking in anything, the whole world is his, the whole universe is his and because he doesn’t need anything he isn’t open to bribery or flattery or manipulation (vv. 8–13).

Another way we don’t listen to God is by failing to turn to him when we’re in trouble. Obviously there are things that we should do to stop us getting into trouble in the first place and God doesn’t guarantee he will always wave a wand and magic all our troubles away but there are times when we find ourselves in too deep a mess and all the self-help books in the world can’t help us out of the pit. One of those pits is dug out of our sin and guilt, another one is marked death and dying. There’s no way out in our own strength but God promises that when we call on him, he will come to our rescue (vv. 14–15).

Another way we don’t listen is when we think God is more bothered by religious show than by our relationship with others.  The ‘wicked’ (v. 16) are those who happily perform religious acts and spout religious words but whose actions deny their faith. Calvin said that our minds are like idol factories and our biggest mistake is to think that God is like we are, self-seeking, indifferent to the needs of others and writing off those who cannot help us in some way, such a way cannot lead to abundant life (v. 22).

There is, however, an alternative: to live in deep gratitude (note the reference to ‘thank offerings’ in verses 14 and 23), to realise that none of us are self-made men or women and that everything that we have comes from God’s hand and because of his goodness. In the New Testament we call that ‘grace’.