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Prayers and Praises to God: An Introduction to the book of Psalms
Psalm 1 – Godly Wisdom
Psalm 2 – An Appeal for God’s Power
Psalm 3 – An Appeal for God’s Safety
Psalm 4 - An Appeal for God’s Relief
Psalm 5 - An Appeal for God’s Help
Psalm 6 - An Appeal for God’s Mercy
Psalm 7 - An Appeal for God’s Justice
Psalm 8 – The Majesty of God
Early in the 20th century, Robert Frost wrote a poem called “The Road Not Taken.” Many know its famous last line – “two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” This is often quoted to reference how we should make decisions in life that, although difficult and unpopular, will end positively. Ironically, earlier in the poem Frost notes that both paths are essentially the same. He looks back on his decision to take a certain road with a sigh and seems to realize that they really both would have led to good outcomes. I wonder, is this true in life? Will we end up in the same place no matter how we live? And does it actually matter what choices we make?
God’s Word makes it clear that it does matter how we live our day-to-day lives. This is spelled out in Psalm 1 where two “roads,” or “ways,” are described. One is the “way of sinners” (v. 1) and the other is the “way of the righteous” (v. 6). These are not physical paths, but spiritual ones that reflect our life choices. These ways do not end in the same place, or with the same outcome.
Verse one states that “blessed” is the person who does not order his/her life around the advice and lifestyle of wicked. The “wicked,” also referred to as “sinners” and “scoffers,” are continually doing evil, ridiculing God, and rejecting him. However, they will not prosper in the end, as they will be blown away by the wind (v. 4), and unable to withstand God’s judgment (v. 5).
On the other hand, the righteous person orders their lives around God’s commands and will. They take delight in God’s law and they meditate on it day and night (v. 2). Therefore, they will be fruitful and prosper in God’s kingdom and by his blessings (v. 3).
We will often face choices in life that test our devotion to God. Some choices may look very attractive, but if they are not in accordance with his commands, they will lead to nothing but heartache and destruction. Others may look difficult, but if they are honoring to God, they will lead to joy and life. Faithful followers of Jesus always walk down roads that delight in his Word!
The Nations Your Inheritance
The psalms are Hebrew poetry written for a variety of reasons. Some are to offer thanksgiving, some lament, some are hymns or songs of praise, and some comment on the royal figures of Israel’s history. Psalm 2 fits within the latter genre.
While there is no mention of David or one of his specific sons, the psalm is steeped in language which reflects the Davidic covenant (2 Sam 7; 1 Chron 17)—the subjection of the king’s enemies (vv. 2-3), identification with Zion as the capital city (v. 6), a reference to divine “sonship” (v. 7). This royal psalm paints a picture of nations that rebel against the authority of God’s anointed king, failing to realize God himself is behind his enthronement and he is going to give the nations of the world to the king as his inheritance. Thus, if the nations want to be wise and blessed, they will make allegiance with the king and take refuge in him.
By the time of the New Testament, we see Jesus as the true Son of God—not just in the political sense, but in the theological as well. But the nations rejected him, including the religious leaders of Israel. For Jesus’s followers then, we will stand in the tension of proclaiming good news to all nations while being rejected by many of them. One day, however, God’s kingdom will be represented by every tribe, every tongue, every nation (Rev 7:9), all to the glory of the Father and of his Lamb.
Psalm 2 is sometimes considered the second half of Psalm 1—the first begins with a beatitude (“Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked”) and the second ends with one (“Blessed are all who take refuge in him”). Together, they teach us not to follow the ways of the wicked who reject God, but instead to submit ourselves to God’s authority and to live under the reign of his righteous King. May it be so, throughout all generations.
“Lie Down in Safety”
Sleep is important. In fact, it is essential to your life and health. Experts say that adults should average at least seven hours of sleep per night. Yet, if you are like me, you probably struggle sometimes to reach that number each night. We have too much going on in our lives and too much on our minds, so it is not always easy to lie down with peace of mind. Despite this, most of us would probably agree that we at least can lie down in our own beds in safety. We are not in danger for our lives, or constantly on the run. Yet, can you imagine if you were? It would be very hard to sleep unless you had some sort of assurance that you would be safe.
The author of Psalm 3 was facing great adversity from his enemies. In fact, his enemies were increasing in number and were threatening his life (v. 2). They were also taunting him by saying that God would not deliver him and save him from the dangers that he faced (v. 3). This probably made the author quite afraid and on edge.
This psalm has traditionally been attributed to King David because of his son Absalom. Before this, there had been a conspiracy in the kingdom and many were turning to follow Absalom, who wanted to take over royal control of the land (2 Sam. 15:1-12). David, thinking that his son would come into town striking everyone down with the sword (16:14), fled the city and traveled towards the Jordan River to cross over into the wilderness.
The Psalm is therefore an appeal for God’s safety and deliverance. King David likely felt threatened and in danger, with people telling him not to trust in God, a God who might have seemed to have rejected and abandoned him. Yet David responds with hope and trust. He says that in spite the danger, the LORD (YHWH) is the shield that is protecting him, his glory, and the One who gives him true victory (v. 3). In fact, when David cries out to God, he is confident that he hears him and answers him (v. 4). David beautifully proclaims that he can lie down, sleep, and wake up again, because the LORD sustains him (v. 5). Therefore, David has no fear, even of tens of thousands of enemies who might rise up against him (v. 6).
The Psalm ends with a final cry for God to deliver him, with the trust that God has already dealt with David’s enemies (v.7). For with the LORD there is sure deliverance and blessing (vs. 8).
When life gets hard and scary, you might have trouble sleeping. Yet, this Psalm reminds us that although we may face many dangers, God will hear us and answer us when we call. He will deliver us and sustain us because he is our shield. Therefore, we can cry out to him in trust, and sleep in peace, knowing that he is in control, and he is our salvation!
In the Nighttime, the Peace of God
The word “peace” in Hebrew (shalom) is much more diverse than it is in English. While it can mean “the absence of conflict” or “the cessation from war,” as it does in our language, it can also mean “health,” “wholeness,” “quietness,” or “friendship” in the Hebrew Scriptures. Thus, to wish someone “peace” is to desire the completeness of their world—whether in body, mind, spirit, or relationships. Likewise, if anyone is ill, distracted, has enemies, or is lacking in any way, they need God’s shalom.
While there are many things in the daytime that can interrupt our shalom, it is when our rest is disturbed through the night that we ultimately realize how incomplete we are. This is when our minds rehearse the day’s troubles, our bodies can find no relief, our ghosts materialize to torment us. This is when we most question God’s nearness, his goodness, his ability to deliver us.
Psalm 3 and Psalm 4 are connected by the phrase, “I lie down and sleep” (3:5; 4:8). The monastics of old made Psalm 3 a morning psalm/prayer, because it says, “I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the YHWH sustains me.” Psalm 4, then, became the evening psalm/prayer, because it concludes, “I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O YHWH, make me dwell in safety.” Both acknowledge God’s role in providing us with what we need—he causes us to wake each morning and gets us through the day, he causes us to lie down and rest and gets us through the dark trials of the night. Together, then, these two psalms form the ultimate reminder that we are always dependent upon God, and only in him will we ever find true “peace.”
So, the peace of God be with you, all the day long and even in the nighttime.
A Straight Way Before Me
The ancients used the term “upright” or “straight” not just in the physical sense, but also in the moral. When something remained “unbent” or “un-crooked,” it followed the design which the Creator God had given it. The problem for humanity then was that we continually followed a winding path instead of a straight one, and all of us have become warped by this disordered world in which we live.
Often the psalmists present things in black and white terms—there are the righteous and the wicked and everyone falls distinctly into one category or the other. The problem we have realized in our own day is that righteous people can act wickedly and wicked people can act righteously; there is no clear delineation. But we must not confuse what the psalmist is saying. In Psalm 5, though he recognizes that God does not “take pleasure in evil” (v. 4) and hates “all who do wrong” (v. 5), he also acknowledges that he himself is a sinner—it is only by God’s “great mercy” that he is allowed to come into God’s house (v. 7). That is the goal for the psalmist (and for us), to dwell in the house of the Lord forever. In order to do so, God is the only one who can lay a straight path before us, which is why the center (or heart) of the psalm is verse 8, “Lead me, O YHWH, in your righteousness because of my enemies—make straight your way before me.”
To find our way in this world and to model our heavenly Father, we must walk the straight way he has laid out in his word. We must fix our eyes on Jesus, who walked the straight way of the cross in order to lead us back to God. And we must resist the temptations of this world which try to lead us down crooked paths and warp our souls.
Walk in the Spirit, Beloved of God, and may God himself walk with us.
“Lord Have Mercy”
Have you ever heard someone say “Lord have mercy”? Although it might not be as popular of a phrase as it used to be, I remember hearing it from people growing up who had just experienced something that distressed them. It was either a simple declaration that a situation was much less than ideal, or a real cry for God to show up and help. It is the latter one that I want to focus on.
We are often faced with circumstances in life that try our patience, trust, and faith in God. These tough circumstances can include the loss of a job, the loss of a loved-one, physical or mental illness, financial troubles, or marital and family problems. During these trials we can come to end of our rope. We want to know where God is, and we want to know how long we will have to suffer.
These are legit questions and concerns that, left without answers and relief, can bring us to our knees. Yet that might be the point. When we realize that we cannot do anything on our own and that we do not have anywhere else on this earth to turn, we are forced to look to God for help. That is what we find many of the biblical characters doing during their darkest moments.
In Psalm 6, the author (traditionally attributed to King David) expresses great anguish physically, psychologically, and spiritually. It seems that this may have come from a sin in his life that he knows he is guilty of, because he asks the LORD not to rebuke him in anger and discipline him in wrath (v. 1). He then asks the LORD to instead be gracious to him and heal him, because his body, mind, and soul are greatly dismayed (vs. 2-3). In his distress he asks, “how long?” He wants to know from God how long he must suffer.
Therefore, in verse 4-5 he asks God to return to him, because it seems like he has been cast from God’s presence. He pleads for God to rescue him according to his great love (v. 4), because he cannot praise God if he perishes (v. 5). Then comes the author’s final desperate cry to God concerning his pain and troubles. This includes the taunting and persecution from his enemies (vs. 6-7). Despite all of this, the Psalm does not end is despair.
The author ultimately trusts that God has heard and received his crying, supplications, and prayers (vs. 8-9). In fact, he is confident that all of his enemies who ridicule him (cf. Psalm 3:2), will be great dismayed and suddenly ashamed (v. 10). Why? Because the LORD is gracious, compassionate, loving, and merciful (v. 4, cf. Psalm 116:5; 145:8).
When we find ourselves in great distress, whether due to our own mistakes or the problems of the world, we can only turn to one source for grace and mercy. We cry out to a God who always hears us, and we trust that he is sovereign and in control of all things.
“God Will Give Me Justice”
Every upright person desires justice. They want the truth to prevail and someone to judge fairly between what is right and what is wrong. They do not want people and systems that are corrupt, and they do not want the guilty to go free, all while the innocent are condemned. Unfortunately, we live in a world where true justice is often lacking and many are hurt, abused, and taken advantage of. So, where do we turn when this happens? The author of Psalm 7 turns to the LORD his God and calls on the righteous to do the same.
The superscription of Psalm 7 informs the reader that this psalm was traditionally attributed to King David concerning the words spoken against him by a Benjamite man. Although it is not certain as to which historical event this psalm references, it does deal with matters of injustice against an innocent person. It is therefore an appeal to the LORD for justice against the unrighteous and wicked people who are the author’s adversaries.
Verse 1 grounds the author’s petition for deliverance in the fact that the LORD is his refuge. Verse 2 then contends that if the LORD is not his deliverer, then there is no hope and his enemy will tear him to pieces. In verses 3-4 come his appeal that he is innocent of any injustice and evil against his enemy, to the point that he will allow himself to be destroyed if he is in the wrong. With this confidence, he now fervently requests that God arise in his anger, judge his enemies, and vindicate him (vs. 6-9). He also exclaims with confidence that God will bring judgment upon wicked, who are full of mischief, falsehood, and violence (vs. 12-16).
Although in deep distress and experiencing great unfairness, the author trusts that God is his shield and the righteous judge who has indignation every day against the injustices of the world (vs. 10-11). In light of this, he sings praises to the LORD because of his righteousness (v. 17).
This psalm has a lot to teach us. It acknowledges that there are grave injustices in the world and that the innocent are sometimes ridiculed, taunted, and persecuted. It teaches us that when this happens, we appeal not to an earthly judge or judicial system, but to an almighty, holy, and just God. It is he who hears our cries for help, he who judges every thought and action, and he who will ultimately save the upright in heart (vs. 9-10). Therefore, we should give thanks and praise his holy name (v. 17).
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