Right Fear. Right Understanding. (Psalm 118:4)

Oh let those who fear the LORD say,
“His lovingkindness is everlasting.”

Psalm 118:4

The psalmist here binds together two things that are often discussed in the psalms: the fear of the LORD and God’s lovingkindness.

First off, the fear of the LORD is often given a bad rap. People hear about fearing God and get this idea of some all-powerful bully looming over us and ready to annihilate us at the first available opportunity. The reality is more in keeping with the parent-child dynamic. I’ve written about it before, but I can use the reminder that most people who grew up in homes with healthy parent-child relationships were, to some extent, afraid of their parents. When we followed our parents rules, we were not afraid. There is no fear in obedience and we none of us was afraid of our parents while we followed the rules. However, when we broke the rules and even when we considered breaking the rules, the fear of our parents came into play. That is an illustration of what the fear of God looks like. Obviously, the relationship with parents matures and changes and love of our parents and a desire to make them proud of us replaces the fear and the same — or something extremely similar — should happen in our relationship with God, I think.

Now couple that notion of fear with what the believer is supposed to say. The word translated say here can also mean say in one’s heart or think. This makes it seem that the verb carries more in it than merely uttering words, but implies a conviction of the truth of the words. I do not merely say that God’s lovingkindness (goodness, kindness, faithfulness) goes on and on without end, but that I say it in my heart and think that it is so. The exhortation to the believer is to begin with a healthy and right fear of God and from there to progress to the understanding that God’s goodness; kindness; faithfulness endures from eternity past to eternity future. I cannot exhaust it. I cannot reach a point where it ends. Wherever and whenever I am, the goodness; kindness; faithfulness of God is. In short, though I am to fear God, I am also to have a right understanding of Who He is (my Father in Heaven) and how He wants to relate to me (good, kind, faithful).

Let me be properly afraid of my Father in Heaven and do so with a right understanding that His goodness; kindness; faithfulness is without end or limit.

Not to Us (Psalm 115:1)

Not to us, O LORD, not to us,
But to Your name give glory
Because of Your lovingkindness, because of Your truth.

Psalm 115:1

There are times when we receive glory. Perhaps we have done something amazing or have completed some arduous task. Perhaps we’ve done nothing more than behave in the manner which God prescribes. Regardless of what we may have done, God is worthy of praise and glory at all times, and the psalmist starts off his song with that thought.

Two things jump out at me here.

One, the psalmist begins his song with the request that God’s Name receive the glory. I’ve encountered some truly phenomenal musicians over the years and there has always been one part of their skill that is challenging: How can they efface themselves and put God in the fore? It is not a thing to which I have an answer, I only notice when it is not being done. And that is one of the hallmarks of a praise leader successfully leading God’s people into praising God: we don’t notice the leader’s skill (or lack thereof). I do not lead praise in a church — I am in the lack of skill camp — but I am, sometimes, given opportunity to teach. And the same request uttered by the psalmist is uttered by me: not to me, but to Your Name be the glory. As John the Baptist said: He must increase and I must decrease.

Second, the psalmist gives just a couple reasons God is worthy of receiving glory: lovingkindness and truth. These words could be rendered mercy and faithfulness, respectively, and still be true to the original words used. God’s lovingkindness — His mercy is without peer or equal. No other alleged mercy comes anywhere near the mercy of God. As for truth, Jesus says in John 14 that He is the Truth. No one is more truthful than Truth Himself. And these are just a couple of the attributes of God that are worthy of my praise; worthy of receiving glory.

Let me, with a right heart, glorify God for Who and what He is and as He is magnified, I will dwindle into obscurity before Him. Which is exactly as it should be. To everyone else, only God need be visible. To God, I will remain as visible and precious to Him as I have always been. Let me magnify God, that everyone else looks at Him and let me seek to have only His eyes on me.

Study (Psalm 111:2)

Great are the works of the LORD;
[They are] studied by all who delight in them.

Psalm 111:2

This struck me as having a double meaning and a double application this morning.

First, there is the surface level meaning of the verse. For the psalmist to assert that the works of the LORD are great is no stretch. For the believer, everything around us — sun, moon, and stars, life in all its shapes and forms, the fact that food and drink can be delicious as well as satisfying our needs, as just a few examples — is a work of God. If I stare long enough into the sky in an undeveloped place, I feel like I’m being drawn up into the innumerable stars. There is a vastness to some of God’s works that is great. There is an intricacy to life and an interconnectedness of systems that is great and boggles the mind somewhat. But there is more than the everyday greatness of the LORD. The Bible records miracles without peer — parting the Red Sea so Israel could cross on dry ground, Jesus raising Lazarus and later Himself from the dead. Even a cursory glance at the scriptures leaves me with the impression that God is capable of amazing things. And that leads to the first bit of application. The works of the LORD captured in scripture are studied by all who delight in them. God did not instruct His people to write these things down just so I could look once and think it interesting. God had these things written down that I might study them and look keenly at what was done and for whom and under what circumstances. God had these things written down so that I could study them and learn about Him.

But there is more. There is a second application I see in this. The works of the LORD are all around me. I wrote above about the commonplace works of the LORD — life, the cosmos, pleasure, to name a few — and these should be studied (maybe not pleasure so much, but there’s nothing wrong with appreciating that God took the effort to make food and drink and many other things both utilitarian and enjoyable). Believers have been making good on this verse for centuries, studying life and the universe, what laws govern the physical world and so forth. Believers have become chefs and artists and poets and musicians, adding more enjoyment to necessary things. So should I. If I can add beauty to the world, then I should. If I study the physical universe, it should be with an eye toward the God Who made it. David wrote about looking up and contemplating the stars and that contemplation led him back into contemplation of God. Proper study of God’s works will always bring me back to God.

So, two actions and a guideline for me this morning. Action one: study God’s works in The Bible. Action two: study God’s works all around me and emulate Him where possible. The guideline: All study of God’s works that leads me back to a richer understanding of God is right study of His works. All other study of His works is of dubious profit to me.

Help (Psalm 108:12)

Oh give us help against the adversary,
For deliverance by man is in vain.

Psalm 108:12

Yesterday, I found myself back at the verse that reminds me to seek the LORD and His strength and to seek His face continually. One of the reasons to seek Him is given in this morning’s verse: help.

There are really only two kinds of adversary. There are physical adversaries and spiritual adversaries. David, in this psalm, is asking for help against the physical, but the need extends to the spiritual.

David writes that deliverance by man is in vain. And there is great truth in this. If I go to my fellow men for help, it is often perceived as weakness and invites other men stronger than I am to do much the same thing that I am looking for help with. The principle extends upward from the individual to the group, as well. Cities, counties, states, and nations that look to others for help often find themselves indebted to those who gave them help and subject to whatever terms are imposed on receiving that help. What’s more, the help offered dos not get at the root of the problem. So the problem is addressed in the moment, but reappears because the root was not dealt with. The help that God offers comes with the caveat of obedience. Israel had — and still has, so far I as can tell from scripture — a covenant of service and obedience with God. They would serve and obey Him and He, in turn, would do miraculous things on their behalf. As they obeyed, they loosed the hands of God to work and the OT history books — Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, and so on — are chock full of examples of God doing miraculous things on behalf of His people. From a diminutive shepherd felling a giant with a river rock then decapitating the giant with his own sword to a praise band marching onto a battlefield and coming away victorious. God can and will help in the realm of the physical.

The spiritual application is still more apropos. See, man cannot deliver me from a spiritual foe. Certainly, there are programs and steps that are meant to help people address sins like drunkenness and so on, but these are not always successful and not always permanent. While a sin like drunkenness has obvious physical riders, there are other sins that are just as destructive to us spiritually and have no obvious physical evidences. Man can help me with my sins and spiritual battles to a point, but that point is not far in nor near the root of my problem. Only God can cleanse me of my sin, thus dealing with the concern of the present moment, but also get at the root of my sin, dealing with the problem of eternity. If I only seek treatment for the symptom, the disease remains. If I seek to be cured of the disease, then both symptom and disease are addressed. If I seek the help of man, who can only help with physical things, then I seek treatment for the symptoms. If I seek the help of God, then I find the cure for the disease itself. One once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” While the original quote may have been a bit of tree-hugging hippy propoganda, we’ll set that aside and focus on the truth contained therein. We often think of spiritual warfare and get hung up on the world system and the devil — both more than our match on any given day — but forget the enemy within our gates; the traitor in our own skins. My old nature remains within this skin and is the traitor in my gates. While the world system and the devil will attack from without, it is the traitor within my gates who keeps suggesting I throw the gates wide and let the other two in. To defeat myself, I need help. And that help must live in the same place as the problem. So I go to God for help, because He lives within me and can deal with the traitor in my gates — God, also, is within my gates. The conclusion: I am not ashamed to need help against a foe I cannot master from a Master Who conquers every foe.

Lord, be Master within the gates of my heart and mind today. Be Master of my passions and Master over the traitor who seeks to undermine all that You wish to do in and through me. Please master me and be my help, for all other help is vain.

Seek (Psalm 105:4)

Seek the LORD and His strength;
Seek His face continually.

Psalm 105:4

Some time ago — precisely how long, I do not know — I read through the psalms and wrote verses that impacted me on Post-Its. I stuck those notes all over the place — little reminders of God’s Word everywhere. This is one of those verses. It was stuck to the dash of my car until the sun bleached the ink out and the only remnant of the verse was the impressions left by the pressure of the pen.

In recent times, obedience to God has been more difficult for me than usual; my failures more frequent than I would like. In truth, I would like no failures at all, but the fallen body I truck around in is still here and still fallen and the little things — like neighbors smoking outside and the smoke wafting into my apartment (happening as I type) — seem rather more aggravating than they have any right to be. What is the deal?

This verse came back to me this morning with the voice of Yoda behind it saying, “And that is why you fail.” Why have things been so rough? Why have I been so failure-ridden? Why do I want to go hose-down my smoking neighbors? All of it comes back to this verse.

I need to seek the LORD and His strength. Paul, when writing a bit on the strength of God, noted that God told him (Paul) that His (God’s) strength is perfected in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). To seek the strength of God is to be brought to the place of my weakness. This is rough on me. I am a human male, which makes for a double-whammy. Human beings do not like being weak. Weakness means dependence and dependence means a departure from self-reliance. And we have written books on the topic of self-reliance. Add into that mix the whole male gestalt and it is a recipe for a person who does not want to have to rely on anyone else ever. And I don’t. I do not like relying on others. I prefer to just get done what needs getting done in the way I want it done. If it goes right, awesome. If it goes wrong, I have no one to blame but me and I can go be angry at myself while I fix it. That is not how God’s strength works. God’s strength can begin at the same place mine begins, but just keeps on going long after my own has vanished in the rear view. If I rely on God from the outset, His strength starts there. And it keeps on going. Rudyard Kipling once wrote that If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew / To serve your turn long after they are gone, / And so hold on when there is nothing in you / Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’ … you’ll be a Man, my son! With all due respect to Mr. Kipling, if you can do what he is suggesting you do, then you are very likely dipping into God’s strength. In point of fact, Kipling’s advice never quite made sense until I framed it in light of Paul’s insight that God’s strength is perfected in weakness. It is precisely when I have nothing in me except God’s Will propelling me forward that I have begun to understand God’s strength.

I need to seek [God’s] face continually. I’ve never really understood the notion of seeking someone’s face. It could be a by-product of living and growing in American society. Regardless, I have begun to understand the notion a little with regard to my wife and daughter. It is not so much that I seek their faces per se, but that I seek to bring a particular expression to their faces. This may be a wrong understanding and God will absolutely correct my error, but it is a serviceable understanding for the moment. Seeking to bring a particular expression to the face of my daughter or my wife or my God means that I look to behave in a certain way; to do certain things. If that is what it means to seek God’s face, then I have failed.

If I put these together, then I begin to see a picture forming. I take them in reverse order. I seek God’s face; seek to do the things that will please Him. When I seek to do so, I find my weakness in the way. But in the place of my weakness is also the place of God’s strength being made perfect; complete. As I seek to please God, it is His strength that will enable me to do so. To find His strength, I must find my weakness. To find my weakness, I must seek His face.

Forgiveness and Compassion (Psalm 103:12-14)

As far as the east is from the west,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us.
Just as a father has compassion on children,
So the LORD has compassion on those who fear Him.
For He Himself knows our frame;
He is mindful that we are dust.

Psalm 103:12-14

I was having trouble deciding whether I felt more strongly to consider verse twelve or verse fourteen, Since I wrestled over it enough, I decided to think on both and include verse thirteen in the consideration.

The opening thought is how far God has removed our transgressions from us. I am comforted by the psalmist’s choice of the word transgressions, as it is a willful disobedience to a known rule rather than an unintentional crossing of a line. God is not only willing to forgive my unwitting wrongdoing, but my willful rebellion as well. In fact, He is so willing to forgive it that He removes it from me [as] far as the east is from the west. And that is a long way. I could begin to travel east this morning and never reach a point where the compass flipped around and told me I was now traveling west. The same cannot be said for north and south. If I travel either direction long enough, I will eventually reach a place where the needle flips; I will reach one of the poles. There are no east or west poles. So God takes my transgression and removes it from me … and keeps removing it from me ad infinitum.

The next thought is about compassion. Being a new father, I am beginning to understand how this concept works. As a man, I could conceptualize it and could nod in agreement thinking, “I’ll probably have compassion for my children if-when I have children.” Now that I am a father, I can simply nod in agreement. There is something about my child being in pain or distress that calls to the gentler side of me. My child’s fits provoke my ire, but my child’s pain prompts my compassion. God, being abundantly more fatherly than the most fatherly father ever to father a child (I had to do it), is prompted to still more compassion than I will ever be able to muster. His compassion is increased, I suspect, by the knowledge that we are dust. He knows that dust is not able to do much and cannot bear much of a load. He knows that we are not made of sterner stuff. When my child exhibits a weakness with which I am all too familiar, it tempers my ire if she is being unruly and augments my compassion if she is in pain.

There is the idea of fearing God — a notion that makes some believers squirm and others get slippery — tucked into these verses. There is a context to consider. The most recent context given is that of a parent. When I was a boy, I was afraid of my parents. They were the ones in control of the things I wanted. My toys, my time, my leisure were all at their disposal. If they decided that the family was going somewhere I did not want to go, then I was out of luck. If they caught me transgressing one of their rules, I was disciplined. We believers get squirrelly and squirmy, I think, because we forget that children in a healthy and normal family environment have a healthy and normal fear of their parents. The relationship between God, the Father, and us is described in terms of the parent-child dynamic. There should be a healthy and perfectly normal fear involved. As I grew, my fear transitioned from being afraid of the discipline to being afraid of having disappointed my parents. Likewise, my relationship with God must grow. Proverbs says that the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom (emphasis mine). John would later write that perfect love casts out fear. Should we fear God? Absolutely. Should we grow in our relationship with Him from fear to love? Better believe it. As an adult, I no longer fear my parents and I am far less concerned that I will disappoint them, though the thought does cross my mind from time to time. The love has grown and matured — perfected, if you will — to a place where the fear is gone.

All well and good, but I must apply it. First, let me be as forgiving toward others as God is to me. If I am going to forgive at all, let it be as far as east is from west. Let me remove the thought of the wrong so far from the person who did it that the two are never again connected in my mind. Second, let me be as compassionate toward others as God is toward me. He is mindful that I am dust. Let me extend the same forbearance to my fellow dirt bags. We are all of us shadows and dust animated by a breath of God. Let me keep that before my mind’s eye and I am far more likely to be compassionate and forgiving in the way I ought to be. Finally, I should regularly check in on my relationship with God to see that the fear that accompanies my young relationship with Him grows; matures; perfects. The fear should be replaced by love and that love should motivate my obedience to Him as the fear once did. Forgiveness. Compassion. Love. They must be lived.

It Is He Who Has Made Us (Psalm 100:3)

Know that the LORD Himself is God;
It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves;
His people and the sheep of His pasture.

Psalm 100:3

I love the thoughts in this verse.

The first is a reminder to know that the LORD Himself is God. This verse exhorts me to remember Who God is, as if I needed a reminder that the LORD is God. But the verb carries some meaning in the original (which I had to look up in concordance) that are important to note. First, the verb is in the imperative, which means that it is a command. This is not optional for me. I must know. The other part is the nuance to it that the English word know has lost over time. The psalmist is not commanding me to give mental assent that the LORD is God, but to find out by experience that He is; to look long and hard at Him and His claims and to come to the conclusion that He is; to mull over the available evidence in my mind and determine that He is. I am, essentially, commanded to mull over the idea that the LORD is God; to weigh things out in my mind. It is one thing for me to say that the LORD is God. It is quite another for me to ruminate on the idea. And, apart from the implied seated position of rumination, mulling over; pondering; thinking deeply on the truth that the LORD is God is what is commanded. One last piece of this puzzle. The words used for LORD and God are, I think, significant. LORD is the tetragrammaton — YHWH — and is often rendered simply LORD because we do not have anything analogous in meaning (and we’re not entirely sure what we’re trying to find an analog to). God is “elohim,” and is a plural singular (like moose … sort of, but not exactly). I need to think deeply on the reality that the LORD (singular) is God (plural). This could be a reference to the trinity and, at the very least, invites consideration of that concept.

The second is that God made me. I learned some time ago that Hebrew has multiple verbs that are translated into the English “to make.” One of the verbs means “to make from nothing” while another means “to form from something else” and I’ve completely lost the third. The verb used here, “asah,” means “to form from something else.” This jives perfectly with the Genesis account of our creation as it says that God formed man out of clay. But there is more. The verb can also mean “to prepare, to put in order, to observe, to celebrate, to use.” Each and every one of these potential meanings is true. It is God Who prepares me for the things He has in mind for me to do. It is God Who puts me in order, putting my wrongs right and straightening my paths. It is God Who observes me, watching over me as a shepherd watches over his sheep. It is He Who celebrates me, rejoicing over me as His masterpiece (Ephesians 2:10). It is He Who uses me, putting me to work in those good works mentioned in Ephesians 2:10 that He prepared in advance for me. All of these meanings can be supported by God’s actions toward me. The verb can also mean “to acquire.” And God, in the person of Jesus Christ, has most certainly acquired me. The psalmist may very well have had this multiplicity of meaning in mind. If not, it is fair certain that God did.

The final thought in this verse is that what God has done for me I did not do myself. I did not make myself; I am not a self-made man. Whatever success I have is from the hand of God. I do not prepare myself for God’s work, though I do what little I can. Paul wrote that it is God Who is at work in me both to will and to do of His good pleasure. Even what little preparation for God’s work I find myself motivated to do came from God giving me the will to do what He wants me to. I can keep going, but the idea is rather clear, I think.

Application? Well, I am commanded to ponder that the LORD is God. I can think on that in simpler terms of making certain that I have no other gods in my mind and heart or I can think on that in more complex terms of the pluralness of a single being. In my consideration of God, let me also recall that it is He Who has made me (and all that entails) and not I myself. Every good and perfect gift comes from above; from the Father of Light in Whom there is no shadow nor change.