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.”

Continue reading “Honoring the Hoary Head”

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?

Continue reading “You Won’t Believe This One Thing the Rich Ruler Still Lacks”

A Meditation on Psalm 2

Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”
I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

The second psalm is one of my favorites. Like all of the Old Testament, it uses its immediate context to foreshadow and foretell the coming of God’s Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 4.24-28; 13.32-33). It gives us an image of Christ as a conquering King who will establish His just rule over the earth and crush the rebels who foolishly oppose Him. Our Lord is so powerful that He treats all of earth’s rebellious kings with contempt. In an age dominated by softness and sentimentality about the character of the Father and the Son, it is refreshing to read Scriptures that remind us of God’s firmness, justice, and certain victory.

The second psalm was not first received as a Messianic psalm, though. Our English translations encourage us to read it only as a Messianic psalm by capitalizing the right words, like “Son” and “Anointed.” In its immediate context, though, the psalm speaks of the King of Israel. The nations are the heathen surrounding Israel. This reading of the second psalm is a little more prosaic, a little more literal than the Messianic reading, but it contains a powerful message that we miss if we think that the psalm is only about Jesus. It reminds us that God’s people have a special place in history. Israel was God’s chosen people under the Law of Moses, a signal of hope and of justice to their heathen neighbors. Notice how often, for example, we see Daniel shining his light to King Nebuchadnezzar and King Darius. In the covenant of Christ, the Church is God’s chosen people. We are the light that shows the world God’s salvation and His judgment. We are on the Victor’s side.

Seen in its immediate context, the message of Psalm 2 is similar to that of Rom 13.1-7 and 1 Pet 2.13-17. The government is God’s government; God anoints the king (1 Sam 16.1-3). Just as the heathen kings of David’s day should have looked on him in wonder and terror, so too should we reverence our leaders and pray for their success. This is far from saying that our leaders are perfect or holy or even acceptable in their personal lives–have you ever looked at the life of King David? We revere our leaders not because they deserve it personally but because the Lord demands it from us.

Whether we look at the psalm as it was received or as we understand it now in the light of Christ, it makes universal claims on us. “Serve the Lord with fear,” the psalmist tells us, “rejoice with trembling.” There is a certain tension in our reverence for the Lord; we are comfortably at home with Him and in terror of Him all at once. It is the tension we always feel under the benevolent care of someone dangerous, perhaps best understood when we call the Lord “Father.” If we are His sons, though, then we can rest assured, for “Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”

“If Someone Should Rise from the Dead”

Today, I want us to consider a couple of texts and what they share. The first text is the conclusion to the parable, The Rich Man and Lazarus, in Luke 16: “And he [the rich man] said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him [Lazarus] to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead’” (Luke 16.27-31).

The second is from John 11, right after Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead: “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him, but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, ‘What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation’” (John 11.45-48).

The texts share something important, more than just a man named Lazarus. Both show us faithless reactions to resurrection. In fact, it is almost as if Jesus’ parable in Luke foretells the reaction of the Pharisees in John 11. Abraham tells the rich man that the resurrected Lazarus will not sway men who ignore the Law and the Prophets, and, lo and behold, the resurrected Lazarus does not sway the Pharisees.

I want us to balance this point against the way we sometimes treat the Resurrection of Christ. Paul writes of the Resurrection, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (1 Cor 15.3-8). Paul presents the Resurrection not only as a central confession of the Faith but also as an historical event with hundreds of witnesses.

This statement, that “he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time,” piques our modern interests, because we seek empirical proof above all else in matters of belief. Empiricism, the legacy of David Hume and John Locke, demands that something must be observable and repeatable to be believed. Modern men place their trust in scientific facts which can be seen and felt, over and against religion based on faith. (The dichotomy between science and faith is false, but that is outside the scope of this essay.)

We see so many turning away from the Faith because of empiricism, so we are tempted to conduct our apologetics by the rules of empiricism. We like Paul’s telling us that there were hundreds of witnesses to the Resurrection, because it gives us empirically acceptable proof that Jesus rose from the dead and is thus the Son of God. With this kind of proof, we should be able to convert all the atheists to Christianity easily, right?

The gospels warned us that men would reject the Resurrection, because it has been happening since before the Resurrection. The Resurrection is not, first and foremost, an apologetic trump card. Before everything else, it is a key part of the Good News about Jesus. Paul opens his argument about the Resurrection this way: “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain” (1 Cor 15.1-2).

The Resurrection is a critical part of the Gospel. It is not about proving that we’re right and everyone else is wrong. It is about providing hope and direction to God’s people. It is about showing us the extraordinary love of God. Jesus raised Lazarus to show God’s glory, but also out of His love. He loved Lazarus. He loved Martha and Mary. His love overcame death.

The Resurrection is the promise of the Faith. Mary and Martha were faithful, confessing to the Lord that “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Their faith got them their brother back (Heb 11.35a). Our God keeps His promises, and He has promised us eternal life with Him in glory. That promise comes through the Resurrection of Christ, “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15.20). May our faith in the Resurrection of Jesus bear fruit a hundredfold.