A Meditation on Psalm 4

Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness!
You have given me relief when I was in distress.
Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!
O men, how long shall my honor be turned into shame?
How long will you love vain words and seek after lies? Selah
But know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself;
the Lord hears when I call to him.
Be angry, and do not sin;
ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah
Offer right sacrifices,
and put your trust in the Lord.
There are many who say, “Who will show us some good?
Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord!”
You have put more joy in my heart
than they have when their grain and wine abound.
In peace I will both lie down and sleep;
for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.

The opening cry of this psalm may seem presumptuous to us. “Answer me when I call” is something I say to my children when they’re ignoring me, and I would never use those words in that way with the Almighty God of heaven. We understand that the psalmist is using the language of the Covenant, but even invoking the Covenant this way makes us uncomfortable. We feel as if we’re trying to put God under obligation to hear us and do as we say. We know that no man puts God under obligation—He does as He wills—so we hesitate to call on the Lord the way the psalmist does here. Our hesitation fundamentally misunderstands the beauty of the Covenant: man has not put God under obligation; God freely obligated Himself when He made His Covenant with man.

In the Old Testament, God advertises His election of Israel early and often. He did so in the Law of Moses: “The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Dtr 7.6). The Lord’s election of Israel continues even into the exile and after it: “My cities shall again overflow with prosperity, and the Lord will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem” (Zech 1.17). The Lord likewise chose the Church through Christ: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph 1.3-4).

Men of faith mirror God’s covenant language when they appeal to His name. Daniel prays, “Open your eyes and see our desolations, and the city that is called by your name. For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy…. Delay not, for your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people are called by your name” (Dan 9.18-19). Daniel isn’t presuming when he tells God to open His eyes and to hustle. He’s declaring his love for and faith in God.

Psalm 4 is steeped in this covenant language. The psalmist does not chide God as a toddler. Quite the opposite! The psalmist is the toddler crying out to his Father. He knows that God will hear him because God has “given me relief when I was in distress” in the past. He knows that God will hear him because “the Lord has set apart the godly for himself.”

Are we faithful enough to call on the God of the Covenant like the psalmist does here? If we doubt that we can call on God like this, we’re not doubting ourselves—we’re doubting the faithfulness of God! I urge you, lean on the God who has called you by His name, because He will surely honor His namesake (Jas 2.7; Rev 3.12).

The psalmist recognizes that the Covenant is a two-way street, so he urges faithfulness to the Covenant: “Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord.” Note, by the way, that the psalmist does not say, “Offer right sacrifices so you can put your trust in the Lord.” The Lord is trustworthy even though we are not. Nevertheless, in joining God’s Covenant, we put ourselves under obligation just as the Lord did to Himself. We should honor our God by living faithfully.

The Covenant gives us joy and peace. The psalmist trusts in these blessings. Does your faith in God allow you to enjoy these covenant blessings? If you are struggling in your walk with doubts about yourself and about your relationship with God, spend some time with Psalm 4. The psalm doesn’t ask you to have greater faith in yourself but to have greater faith in the God of the Covenant. Lean on Him. Cry out to Him. Enjoy His blessings.

May the peace of God be with you.

The Prophetic Voice

Since we are delving into the prophets for a couple of months, I think it good to remind ourselves of the prophets’ mission and methods. Understanding the writings of the prophets will also give us a greater appreciation for what Jesus was doing in His ministry and what the apostles were doing in theirs.

“Prophet” is a loaded word in English vernacular. We most commonly use it to mean “a person who tells the future.” This definition reduces prophecy to predictions and fortune-telling. A meteorologist is a “prophet” in this sense. We are not surprised, then, that the Bible means something different by the word “prophet.”

A biblical prophet is a spokesman for God. Consider the introductions to each of the prophets we’ll study this quarter: “In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet…” (Hag 1.1a); “In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah…” (Zech 1.1a); “The oracle of the word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi” (Mal 1.1). Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi begin their writings the same way all the prophets do: by invoking the word of the Lord. The prophet’s mission is to speak God’s words to His people.

In this sense, Moses is Israel’s original prophet. The Law is a prophecy, i.e., the word of the Lord. Therefore Moses says, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers” (Dtr 18.15, emphasis mine). Moses’ last words to Israel are a prophetic warning: “Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess” (Dtr 32.46-47).

It’s useful to think of the prophets as preachers of the Law. The prophets don’t come up with new rules or new standards. Instead, they direct Israel’s attention to the words that God has already spoken through Moses. The creative work of the prophet is to show the people of his time how they have broken faith with God.

The prophet’s mission might include foretelling, but the predictions serve the message and not the other way around. The biblical prophet doesn’t perform parlor tricks or give a ten-day weather forecast. He preaches the Law to Israel then tells what will befall them if they disobey. Even in this point, the prophet’s message depends on the Law, because the Law lays out the blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience (Dtr 28).

The prophets speak truth to power. Haggai addresses Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the high priest. Malachi addresses the priests. The older prophets addressed the kings of Israel and Judah. The prophets preach from the top down, because the rulers of the people have an enormous impact on the faith of the people. Malachi upbraids the priests for causing the people to stumble: “For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way. You have caused many to stumble by your instruction. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you do not keep my ways but show partiality in your instruction” (Mal 2.7-9).

We might also think of prophecy as reducing the Law to its essential features. They make things simple to make them applicable. Consider again the words of Malachi: “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts” (Mal 3.5). What does it mean to be faithful to the covenant? Malachi takes a host of laws and boils them down to true religion, sexual purity, civil justice, and social justice.

Prophecy did not cease with the Old Testament. The people we encounter in the New Testament anticipate that God’s Messiah will bring them the word of the Lord. Jesus picks up the mantle of prophet in His ministry, and He passes that mantle on to His apostles and disciples (1 Cor 12.1-11). What exactly that looked like is a matter for another week, so I want to close with some questions for self-examination. The Church exists to deliver the words of God to the world. Have you submitted yourself to God’s word? Can it be said of your message, “Thus saith the Lord,” or is it merely your own devising? Are you willing to speak truth to power on behalf of the powerless? Will you witness against impurity and ritualism in the Church? May God bless us all with pure faith worthy of our calling.

A Meditation on Psalm 3

O Lord, how many are my foes!

Many are rising against me;

many are saying of my soul,

“There is no salvation for him in God.” Selah

But you, O Lord, are a shield about me,

my glory, and the lifter of my head.

I cried aloud to the Lord,

and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah

I lay down and slept;

I woke again, for the Lord sustained me.

I will not be afraid of many thousands of people

who have set themselves against me all around.

Arise, O Lord!

Save me, O my God!

For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;

you break the teeth of the wicked.

Salvation belongs to the Lord;

your blessing be on your people! Selah

The third psalm is the first lament of the psalter. It is telling that it appears so early and immediately after such a strong profession of faith in God’s sovereignty. “Man born of woman is few of days and full of trouble,” and the example of the psalter invites us to cast our troubles on the Father. He is the God who answers cries: the cries of Abel’s blood coming up from the ground (Gen 4), the cries of barren Rachel (Gen 30.22-23) the cries of captive Israel enslaved in Egypt (Exd 2.24), the cries of Jonah in the fish’s gut (Jonah 2), the cries of Daniel confessing the sins of Israel from Babylon (Dan 9.23), the cries of Zechariah and Elizabeth asking for a son (Luke 1.13), the cries of Cornelius the righteous centurion (Acts 10.1-8), and the cries of all the martyrs (Rev 6.9-10; 19.1-2). Cast your cares on Him day to day, for He hears your cries.

I say that the psalm is a lament, but it is hard to categorize. Is it truly a lament? It clearly seems to be up until the first Selah, but there is no more lamentation in the remainder of the psalm. In fact, the lamentation itself comes to rest on the psalmist’s concern for God’s glory: “Many are saying of my soul, ‘There is no salvation for him in God.’” The psalmist fears for his life, but he fears more for what his death will do for the reputation of God. Oh, that we should have such faith!

The psalmist’s enemies may doubt the salvation of God, but the psalmist does not. The remainder of the psalm professes confidence that the Lord can save and that He will save. In fact, the psalmist sees the salvation of God proleptically, as if it has already happened: “I cried out to the Lord, and He answered me from His holy hill.”

The psalmist sprinkles this profession of faith with an imprecation against his enemies: “For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; / you break the teeth of the wicked.” What is most striking about the imprecation is its object. The superscription before the psalm tells us that David composed this psalm as he fled his son, Absalom, so we are to read Absalom into David’s description of God slapping cheeks and breaking teeth.

Absalom’s rebellion comes at the tail end of a series of sordid events. The trouble begins in 2 Sam 13 when Absalom’s half-brother, Amnon, rapes Absalom’s sister, Tamar. Tamar gives ample proof of the misdeed, but David refuses to act against the crown prince. This leads Absalom to put Amnon to death himself and eventually take the throne from his father, whom he sees as a failed judge.

David doesn’t mention his own culpability for Absalom’s betrayal in Psalm 3. Reading the story in 2 Samuel, one is unsure if David is even aware that his passivity drove Absalom to kill Amnon and attempt a coup. How many of us are aware of all our shortcomings and sins? Psalm 3 teaches us to call upon the Lord regardless. We do not have to be perfect to entreat the Lord, only faithful.

It is not a light thing that David asks of the Lord. The Lord indeed saves David from the hand of Absalom, but it is a pyrrhic victory. Twenty thousand men of Israel perish in the battle. Worse, in David’s estimation, is Absalom’s death at the hands of Joab, despite David’s command to spare him. “The king was deeply moved and went up to the chamber over the gate and wept…. So the victory that day was turned into mourning for all the people” (2 Sam 18-19).

David was faithful to ask God to save him, and God was faithful to do so, but sin will out in a man’s life. “You break the teeth of the wicked” is a true but fearful thing to pray, for it turns against us as much as it turns against our enemies. Let us turn our hearts to the Lord, and may the Lord’s blessing be on His people.

Honoring the Hoary Head

Most biblically literate people know that the Law of Moses commands, “Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old man, and fear thy God: I am the LORD” (Lev 19.32, KJV). I want to consider this week why the Law commands us to respect the elderly, because I think that it will inform the way we follow the commandment out.

My impression growing up was that the elderly merited respect because of the wisdom and status gained from long, fruitful years. This sentiment is consistent with the Proverbs: “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life” (Pro 16.31, ESV); “The glory of young men is their strength, but the splendor of old men is their gray hair” (Pro 20.29). The idea is that men and women age like wine.

The sentiment strikes us as unusual, though, when we consider that the Law of Moses was Israel’s statutory law which God implemented for the governing of the nation. One generally does not write laws against things that people aren’t doing, which is why the Law of Moses doesn’t explicitly prohibit one from chopping off one’s own head. It follows that the Israelites tended not to respect the aged, and there must have been a reason for their not doing so.

The commandment also strikes us as odd when we consider that the Law doesn’t ask Israel to respect the wealthy or the powerful. It doesn’t even explicitly ask Israel to honor the priests, though it may be implied in Exo 28.2, 40. In short, nowhere does the Law tell Israel to honor people because they have merited respect according to worldly standards.

The Law does command Israel to honor certain people based on their status. It explicitly commands Israel, “Honor your father and your mother,” because they are father and mother. It implicitly commands Israel to honor the Lord because He is the Lord. It also implicitly commands Israel to honor another set of people for an entirely different set of reasons: the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner.

Consider the context of Leviticus 19, which is the only place in the Law that commands respect for the aged. “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God” (Lev 19.9-10). “Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the LORD” (Lev 19.14). Most importantly, consider the commandment immediately following the commandment about respecting the aged: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God” (Lev 19.33-34). In Leviticus 19, “Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head” isn’t about honoring someone who is especially wise or high-status; it’s about protecting someone who is relatively helpless and potentially a target for abuse.

We look for people to age like wine; the Law recognizes that most people age like milk. To the world, gray hair means frailty and senility. It means becoming a burden. To the unscrupulous in the world, advanced age sounds like the “ka-ching” of a cash register.

I invite you to read Rachel Aviv’s article, “How the Elderly Lose Their Rights.” Aviv describes a system of court-sanctioned private “guardians” who can force seniors out of their homes, sell their assets, control their lives—and charge their estates for the privilege. Be sure to sit down when you read it, because it will make your blood boil.

The system of guardianship in this country is abhorrent, but it’s nothing new. It is not uncommon for Americans to abandon an aged parent to a nursing home, and it is not uncommon to see videos of nursing home staff abusing their wards. In the ancient world, the elderly were just another mouth to feed. Like young children, they couldn’t produce anything to make up for the effort of looking after them. Ancient Near Eastern law codes offered them no protections. Then, as now, the world often saw the aged as human refuse. God calls us to better things.

We are to honor not just the “shiny-looking” elderly, the ones who have accomplished great things, who are enjoying a luxurious retirement, who are still “setting the world on fire” in their life’s winter—the ones the world is proud to show off. The Law commands us to honor the feeble, the frail, the senile—the “useless” according to the world. Not just care for them but honor them by doing things like standing in their presence.

Some of the first to recognize the glory of the newborn Messiah were an elderly man and an elderly widow (Luke 2.25-38). The Gospels honor and bless the elderly along with the poor, the widow, and the foreigner. In the spirit of the Gospels, look to “rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old man.”

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You Won’t Believe This One Thing the Rich Ruler Still Lacks

One can hardly escape the infectious Bible school song, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, / And a wee little man was he” (I’m sorry if it’s stuck in your head now). Likewise, I don’t think I have gone more than a year without hearing a (sometimes clickbaity) sermon or short talk about the “one thing you still lack,” referring to the downcast departure of the rich ruler. These two stories share much more than being ingrained in Christian pop culture.

Luke juxtaposes these episodes in his account of the Gospel. We read about the encounter with the rich ruler in Luke 18.18-30 and about the encounter with Zacchaeus in 19.1-10. Their subjects are the same: wealthy rulers who meet Jesus and respond to Him. Comparing these two rulers will help us understand them both.

Both stories are concerned with the hereafter. The rich ruler of Luke 18 approaches Jesus to ask Him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The Zacchaeus story ends with Jesus saying, “Today salvation has come to this house.” These eternal concerns bookend the stories.

Jesus’ response to the rich ruler seems brusque and perhaps too aggressive, like the man who demands “Did you die for that church?!” when you have the temerity to identify a congregation as “my church.” “Why do you call me ‘good’?” Jesus asks. “No one is good except God alone.” What does this have to do with the rich ruler’s question? Why treat a seeker so roughly? A close reading of this text alongside the Zacchaeus text will show us why.

Both rulers are superficially measured by their obedience to the Law. Jesus’ first substantive answer to the rich ruler’s question is, “You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” In his own estimation, the rich ruler has passed this part of the test with flying colors: “All these I have kept from my youth.” This kind of faithfulness (or rather the illusion of it) inclines us favorably toward the rich ruler. Again, we ask, “Why has Jesus been so hard on him?” The answer will present itself.

Zacchaeus does not fare so well by this standard. The people of Jericho object to Jesus entering his house, as Luke tells us, “And when they saw it, they all grumbled, ‘He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.’”

In neither case does this superficial measuring against the Law have as much bearing as the people around Jesus seem to think it should. I say “superficial” because it becomes apparent by the end of both stories which of the two men is the more faithful.

This leads us to perhaps the most obvious contrast between the two: their treatment of their wealth. Jesus directs the rich ruler to sell his goods for the poor; the rich ruler is unwilling. Zacchaeus, on the other hand, has voluntarily sold half of everything that he owns on behalf of the poor—far more than the tithe that the Law demands of him. “And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold,” he says; the Law only requires double (Exd 22.4, 7-9).

In this regard, Zacchaeus has been faithful to the spirit of the Law, whereas the rich ruler has only been pretending. I think this explains Jesus calling the rich ruler out on his “Good Teacher”; not that Jesus is not good but that the rich ruler is too flippant in calling people “good”—most importantly himself. Jesus invites him to consider the true standard of the Law: the character of God, who is Good.

The greatest contrast comes at the end of both stories, when Jesus reacts to both men. “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God,” Jesus says of the rich ruler, “For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” Despite thinking he had passed, the rich ruler failed. Zacchaeus, on the other hand, receives Jesus’ blessing, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Jesus’ judgment is consistent with a final, subtle difference between these two men. The Law often decrees that a criminal be “cut off” from the congregation of Israel. Our modern practice of excommunication preserves only part of what is meant by it. More than being condemned and shunned, the guilty party was forgotten. A man who died without heirs shared this fate, which is why children and land were so important in Israel. Boaz spells it out when he explains his decision to marry Ruth: “Also Ruth the Moabite, the widow of Mahlon, I have bought to be my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brothers and from the gate of his native place” (Ruth 4.10). As a sign of his eternal condemnation, the man who was cut off from Israel had no name.

Who are these stories about again?

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