Psalm 119 is the longest Psalm in the book, and the longest chapter in the Bible. Even in its structure it is a piece of art. It is divided into twenty-two sections, corresponding to the twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet. That’s what those strange letters and words are in the headings of each section (aleph, beth, gimmel etc.) Each section has eight verses and each verse begins with a word that starts with the letter of that section.
The Psalm is devoted to praise for the Word of God, His written word. I know it is written because of the abundance of terms used to describe it – laws, statutes, decrees. It’s those same terms that indicate the importance of the Word: it provides boundaries and direction for our lives.
God’s word is supremely that guide. So much so that when, ages later, Isaiah confronted various and often conflicting views of God and His will, Isaiah replied: “To the law and to the testimony. If they do not agree with me (or you), then my (and your) words have no light of dawn.
The Psalmist will list the blessings that come form God’s word. But why are those blessings so often absent from our lives? Has the word failed?
It is not that the way of the Lord has been tried and found wanting. It is simply the way of God has not been tried. If you doubt that, just think about what a challenge it has been to stick with the daily Bible readings.
Psalm 113 is a call to praise God, and if that were all, it would be enough. But the psalm is more than that. It reveals to us the concerns of God, part of His value system, and finding reason for rejoicing there, it calls on us to imitate God.
God does not approve of people who can do better feeding off their neighbors. God does not countenance letting justice slide because a criminal is poor or otherwise disadvantaged. But on the other hand, God has a special regard for those who cannot help themselves.
God’s great position is presented in the first five verses but in verse 6 there is a change. This great God “stoops down” to look at the heavens and the earth. And of all He could notice, what he does notice are the poor and needy, and those anguished of heart.
The old saying, “God helps those who help themselves” is wrong. He helps those who cannot help themselves. So should all who call on His name and praise the Lord.
Sometimes, New Testament writers place new meanings on Old Testament texts. Isaiah 7 speaks of a young woman giving birth to a child, but the New Testament gives another meaning: the young woman is a virgin. Both meanings are correct in their respective contexts. But sometimes, Old Testament passages are given a specific New Testament meaning and the Old Testament passage could not have meant anything else.
This is the case with Psalm 110. It is cited or alluded to eighteen times in the New Testament and all of the uses refer to Jesus.
Psalm 110 says it was written about David. At first glance, it appears to be a general prayer for the king, but closer examination reveals it is more than that. David, the king, speaks of his Lord who sits at the right hand of God. Additionally, this lord/king is also a priest in the Melchizedek order. And yet, in the Old Testament, kings were not priests, and there is nothing about the Melchizedek order in the Old Testament.
The easiest explanation of the Psalm is that God has revealed to David something of Jesus, and David has passed it along in this Psalm, exalting the coming of an unstoppable king who also serves as a priest. This is the interpretation Jesus places on it in Matthew 22:44, an interpretation seemingly accepted by Jewish leaders in his own day.
What did David know about Jesus? Probably not what we know, but God had revealed something of him to David. Interesting, is it not, the notion that the coming of Jesus was such a wonderful treat in the mind of God that here and there in the Old Testament, He gives us glimpses into Christ’s coming.
The final eight verses of Psalms 108 and 60 are the same. They differ only in the beginning and in their titles (no historical information is offered for Psalm 108). The first five verses of Psalm 108 are the same as the last five verses of Psalm 57. This shows us some of the eclectic nature of the Psalms. Some are composed as unique pieces. Others are cobbled together from other Psalms, perhaps for different occasions.
So what, then, would be the occasion for this psalm?
The writer is aware of the love of God for His people. He is likewise aware of the promises of God to His people. And yet, once again, the writer feels abandoned by God.
Perhaps, however, the abandonment is not quite as severe as in Psalm 60, for here, the writer begins with worship and praises the faithfulness of God.
What a tremendous example of faith!
For all the writer’s suffering, he begins not in criticism nor in appeal, but in worship, the place where we are reminded, and remind one another, of God’s enduring commitment to His people. A delivering relationship with God does not begin “when you’re down and troubled and you need a helping hand.” If you don’t have it before then, it’s not likely to be there. It begins instead in the assembly of the redeemed, the household of God, gathered for worship. Those who commit themselves regularly to this worship will find themselves able to confidently call on the Lord with the greatest expectation of salvation when all about them is but chaos and defeat and the result will be a message even the nations will want to hear.
In at least the New International Version, the proper name for the God of Israel (as opposed to “god” in general or the gods of other peoples) is translated Lord (a combination of large and smaller capitals). The reader is supposed to pick up on this.
Psalm 104 is a call to worship Israel’s God, a reminder to the Psalmist and to the reader that they should do this.
The Lord should be worshiped because He is great, evidenced by His creation. Some Christians have bought into the notion that when it comes to the matter of origins, one may legitimately believe our world and life within it came about as a result of chance, a matter of random unguided events. But this isn’t true. While Christians are under no obligation to believe what the Bible doesn’t say (it doesn’t say, for example, that the world is only 5000 years old, or give the age of the earth at all), Christians are under obligation to believe that God did create the heavens and the earth – and they would not be here otherwise.
Verses 1-9 call to mind the greatness of creation. Verses 10-23, in more detail, demonstrate how God provided for the good of His creation. Verses 24-33 remind us that because God created all things, we are dependent on Him. Then we end with a call to worship the Lord.
Because of creation, our God is worthy of praise.
There are seven Psalms that are specifically known for their entreaty for forgiveness (called “penitential psalms”). Psalm 102 is the fifth in the list (see also Psalms 6,32,38,51,130,143). It begins as do four other Psalms with a call to God to “hear my prayer” (see also Psalms 4, 17, 143).
The Psalmist is ill, and has been for some time. The illness, the Psalmist feels, is his own fault for his sins. He does not protest that he does not deserve his punishment. He only asks that God not take his life.
What I find most significant about all this is the focus of his prayer. Yes, it is certainly for himself. But more than that, it is for his nation, for the people of God. Jerusalem is reduced to rubble. That too for the sins of her inhabitants.
The illness of the writer then is a figure for the illness and distress of his people. Yet in his distress, his cry is for restoration – not of himself, but of his nation. He writes in anticipation of the day when someone will read his poem and take note that the Lord answered the man’s prayer for the restoration of Israel.
Please don’t make the mistake of confusing the nation of Israel with your own. God’s people are not of a particular national background. They are the Church. It would seem to me that the Church could stand a lot of prayer. Perhaps if we care enough about the Church to recognize its failings, we might pray change that, and ask God to restore to His people the glory it had in the beginning.
The Cherubim of Psalm 99 are mentioned 89 times in the Bible. They do not appear to be technically angels, but wherever God is, so are they. They are a permanent reminder of the majesty of God, attended by (think of them as body guards for someone who doesn’t need them) heavenly winged creatures. Because God is great, the nations should take note.
This is a reminder: Israel’s God was not just Israel’s God. The Lord is God of all and has every right to expect the nations to yield to his authority. This is one of the great thorny problems with the separation of Church and State – or, shall we say, religion and State. The State is confused as to which God it should yield, and finds yielding anyway a politically distasteful task. To yield to one God over all the rest causes unrest among the constituency – some of whom want to be egalitarian, and others who want to be without a recognition of God at all. Among those who would like to see our political leaders be more cognizant of God in their deliberations, there is fear of the enforcement of religion.
However, regardless of one’s political bent, God remains enthroned and in charge. Wise leaders will recognize that. It’s interesting that the one sign of a recognition of God in the political sphere in this poem is “equity,” fairness for all. It should be one of government’s goals, for the Lord is watching.
As you read the call to worship in Psalm 96, don’t overlook the following points:
First, it is a call to worship.
Second, it is a call to all people to worship, not just a call to Israel. Note the call to “all the earth,” “nations,” “all peoples,” “families of nations,” “the world.”
Third, it is a call not to worship god in general, as we might interpret it to be a call to be religious, but it is specifically a call to worship Israel’s God. He is greater than all other gods. You will find a word-play in verse 5. “All the gods (eloheim) of the nations are idols (elilim – probably better translated as “nothing” or “worthless”).
Fourth, God is owed worship because of His power, His mighty works (which he does not just among His people, but among all people – vs. 3), but especially because He is the judge of all the earth and he is coming to judge.
The tendency of Christianity in our culture to assume that all religions are equally viable is simply wrong. The reluctance of Christians to call their neighbors to come to the one true God – to say among the nations our God reigns – is a reluctance to engage in the work God has commanded us to do. The resulting dishonor of God will subject not only those we have not reached to the judgment of God, but ourselves as well.
Psalm 91 is not addressed to God. It is, rather, an instructive or “wisdom” psalm intended to direct the life of the reader. It is grounded in the promises of God Himself (quoted in verses 14 – 16).
Life is full of sickness, traps, and the oppression of forces intent on control. But he who makes God his refuge, need not fear these things. He has given His angel the command to protect and preserve.
Perhaps a word is in order about “testing.” Just because God says “you will tread upon the lion and the cobra” doesn’t mean that one should court disaster by picking up snakes or befriending the king of beasts. This is, in essence, what the devil was tempting Jesus to do when he cited this psalm to get Jesus to try and prove his sonship (Matthew 4:6). Jesus’ reply was: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Finally, what if God doesn’t protect us, if we become ensnared by the traps of the world? Does it mean God has rejected us? Perhaps. There are all kinds of reasons for misfortune, but the sufferer should ask himself if it is true, that he has lived making God his refuge, trusting in Him.
Might misfortune mean God has failed in His promise? It will certainly seem that way.
But this psalm, as a piece of wisdom, is not offering an iron clad guarantee, only that the secure life can be counted on by the one who loves the Lord. Is there security for the one who does not?
Simply, no. This then is the only way that makes sense.
Derek Kidner writes: “Only Isaiah 40 can compare with [Psalm 90] for its presentation of God’s grandeur and eternity over against the frailty of man.” Walter Brueggemann calls it “one of the most magisterial of the psalms.” This is the only Psalm attributed in the book to Moses but it is perhaps fitting that his psalm begin book four since he is mentioned by name in four psalms of this section and most often in the final one, Psalm 106.
What prompted this prayer?
It is certainly, in the mind of Moses, the sins of Israel.
The poem begins with an exaltation of God and a comparison with the frailty of mankind (vss. 1-6). Their deplorable situation is due to the direct and disciplining hand of God (vss. 7-12) and here, Moses makes the first of three requests: Teach us to use our time wisely that our hearts might become wise. He requests this before he ever asks God to loose their punishments. Moses has no idea how long they will go on, but he wants God to use his power to make sure His people learn something about their condition and what caused it, that they might not repeat it.
The final section makes two more requests: First, that God will relent. “How much longer?” he asks, a recurring theme in the psalms (see 6:3; 13:1; 35:17 and especially 74:9), followed by the request for compassion, underscored by a reference to God’s “unfailing love.” If God doesn’t respond, Moses seems to be saying, it won’t square well with God’s reputed nature. The second request is that God will “establish the work of their hands.” I love the way John Goldingay puts it: “Grant that all the hard work we do in sowing and plowing, in building and planting, pays off rather than be a waste of time.” Whatever else they may be suffering, the menial and redundant tasks of day to day living must continue. The husband whose house has burned to the ground can’t spend his time sifting through the ashes. He must find clean clothes and go to work, coning home to ruin day after day until the home is rebuilt. Moses asks that God will at least make those times productive so that all is not lost. He’s not asking for great blessing. He’s just asking for normalcy.