A Meditation on Psalm 5

Give ear to my words, O Lord;
consider my groaning.
Give attention to the sound of my cry,
my King and my God,
for to you do I pray.
O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice;
in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch.
For you are not a God who delights in wickedness;
evil may not dwell with you.
The boastful shall not stand before your eyes;
you hate all evildoers.
You destroy those who speak lies;
the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.
But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love,
will enter your house.
I will bow down toward your holy temple
in the fear of you.
Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness
because of my enemies;
make your way straight before me.
For there is no truth in their mouth;
their inmost self is destruction;
their throat is an open grave;
they flatter with their tongue.
Make them bear their guilt, O God;
let them fall by their own counsels;
because of the abundance of their transgressions cast them out,
for they have rebelled against you.
But let all who take refuge in you rejoice;
let them ever sing for joy,
and spread your protection over them,
that those who love your name may exult in you.
For you bless the righteous, O Lord;
you cover him with favor as with a shield.

The fifth psalm, like the two before it, plead for God’s intervention. The psalmist is assaulted by wicked men, so he leans on the Lord in prayer and sacrifice. He focuses this psalm on voices: his voice cries out righteously to God; his enemies’ voices lie.

Is there anything that a voice lifted up in prayer cannot accomplish? The Lord turned the rain off and on like a spigot because of Elijah’s prayers. James, the brother of Jesus, cites the power of those prayers when he encourages us to pray: “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (Jas 5.13-16). Let us never be timid in bringing our requests before the Lord.

In contrast, is there nothing that the perversity of the human tongue cannot ruin? The men who assault the psalmist boast and lie and thus heap up the wrath of God against themselves. The psalmist focuses especially on their lying. “Their inmost self is destruction,” he writes. All that comes out of them is disorder and death; “their throat is an open grave.” In the Ancient Near East, an open grave was considered to be one’s access to the dead. The liar is Sheol on legs. To speak with him is to speak with the dead.

The worst thing the psalmist can imagine happening to these wicked men is their own schemes falling back on them. God has a big enough poetic streak to do just that. Remember Haman.

Most of the psalm focuses on God’s blessings for the psalmist rather than on His curses for the enemies. Whereas the Lord “destroy[s] those who speak lies,” He leads His faithful to His house. If the enemies get death and destruction, the psalmist gets life. He finds that life in the Lord’s house, learning the Lord’s ways, offering prayer and sacrifice.

God protects the spiritual life of His faithful. “Let all who take refuge in you rejoice… spread your protection over them… you cover him with favor as with a shield.” Let us all appeal to the Lord’s favor when the Adversary presses us. May he fall by his own counsels! And may God strengthen our faith when we call on Him in prayer.

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.

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.

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.”

A Meditation on Psalm 1

Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.

The first psalm pulls triple duty: it introduces Book One of the psalms; it introduces the psalter as a whole; and it is a psalm unto itself. We will begin by considering it as its own psalm and will perhaps see in future meditations how this psalm has prepared us to read the rest.

The psalmist takes man as his subject and considers man’s ways. He offers us a simple contrast. There are only two ways: the way of wickedness and the way of righteousness. A man chooses his way by choosing whom to heed. The righteous man delights in the law of the Lord; the wicked man listens to other wicked men.

See how a man progresses deeper and deeper into sin. He starts by walking with wicked men, listening to their advice. He then finds himself no longer walking but standing on the path of sinful men. Finally, he settles fully into sin, reclining with mockers who have no regard for the ways of the Lord. He reclines, but he finds no peace, for he has no root; he is “like chaff that the wind drives away.”

The righteous man, on the other hand, is like a man in love. The psalmist tells us that he delights in the law of the Lord. It is his joy and his happiness, the place where his heart finds rest. As much as he has taken up residence in the law, the law has set up residence in him. It lives in his mind and heart. It is his constant meditation. It is the home that he looks forward to each day.

These two men could not be more different. Whereas the wicked man is rickety and as insubstantial as chaff, the righteous man is weighty and rooted. The wicked man has nothing to sustain him, but the righteous man has the streams of life supplied by the Living God. The wicked man amounts to nothing and produces nothing, but the righteous man grows up like a vigorous tree and produces life-giving fruit.

The first psalm proclaims wisdom in the classical mode. Think the book of Proverbs. Blessings go to the righteous man. The psalmist is none too profuse, but clear nonetheless. The righteous man is blessed, his leaf does not wither, he prospers in all that he does, and the Lord knows his way.

The wicked man, on the other hand, receives curses. Whereas the righteous man does not stand in the way of sinners, the wicked man will not stand with the righteous in the judgment. His case is too flimsy to withstand the judgment, and so he perishes.

As with most classical wisdom, the first psalm keeps things simple. The lines are stark, and the options are few. The cynic would object that the psalm is too simplistic and too rosy about the blessings and the curses going to the right people. “The world doesn’t work that way,” he might say. The psalmist is no stranger to trouble, as we will see. He has seen what the cynic has seen. But the psalmist sees through the eyes of faith. It may be that today that the wicked are able to walk, to stand, and to recline, but it won’t always be that way. And maybe the righteous man seems flimsy in this life, nothing like the tree the psalmist makes him out to be.

The seeds of righteousness and wickedness are sown in this life, and the fruit is collected in the next life. The first psalm challenges you to ask yourself, are you growing into a tree that bears fruit or into a dead weed that breaks into chaff?