Tag: Psalms

Celebrating Christ the Covenant Redeemer (Psalm 103)

by on Feb.02, 2017, under Sermon

On his journey to faith, and even for some time after he became a believer, C. S. Lewis struggled with the Biblical commands to praise God. Was God like the man seeking reassurance of his own virtue or wit; or the woman who requires constant affirmation of her beauty or intelligence? Does God need reminding of his power and might? Or does he just want to make sure his generosity and philanthropy are known by all?

Worst of all was the suggestion of the very silliest Pagan bargaining … More than once the Psalmists seemed to be saying ‘You like praise. Do this for me, and you shall have some.’ … It made one think what one least wanted to think. Gratitude to God, reverence to Him, obedience to Him, I thought I could understand; not this perpetual eulogy.1

Lewis only overcame this difficulty when he realised that it is when we enjoy something that we spontaneously overflow with praise. Lovers praise their beloved and parents their children. We praise athletes, restaurants, musicians, cars, art, food, weather, actors, authors, holiday destinations, coffee, tradesmen… we live in a cacophony of praise! In Lewis’ own words,

I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment… It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed.2

More than that, we avidly invite others to join in that same praise: ‘Wasn’t that awesome? Isn’t she lovely? Does it get any better than this?’

In Psalm 103, we find David delighting in his God, and inviting others to join in doing the same. These invitations echo out in ever-widening circles, starting with his own soul and eventually encompassing the whole of heaven and earth.

1. Praise the LORD for his blessings to you

The first invitation David gives is to his own soul:

Praise the LORD, O my soul;
   all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits—
who forgives all your sins
   and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit
   and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

     – Psalm 103:1–5

Why does David feel the need to summon his soul to praise? In spite of being one of the most prolific praisers in the entire Old Testament, David had his ‘up’ days and his ‘down’ days much like we do. No doubt, some days he sprang from his bed with a song on his lips;((e.g. Ps. 56:16; 92:2.)) other mornings, however, saw him hard pressed, on the run and fearing for his life.3

Perhaps that is your experience as well? Perhaps you woke up this morning eager to meet with God’s people and proclaim together his greatness, goodness, glory and grace. But maybe your enthusiasm was muted, crowded out by sickness, sorrow or sin. Even at Christmas time, traditionally a time of great joy and praise to God, there will be some who find it difficult to rejoice, as they contemplate the empty place at the dinner table or the uncertainty of the year ahead.

Whatever your starting point, David models for us a right response: praise the LORD! In inviting us to praise, he is neither naive, nor unsympathetic. After all, David himself endured great trials throughout his life: he lived on the run from Saul and, later, his own son, Absalom; several of his children died before he did; and the psalms are full of his desperate prayers for deliverance from his enemies. Yet in this psalm, he invites his soul to consider his blessings rather than his trials. He does not ask for anything but focuses on benefits already received.

Chief among these benefits is the one he mentions first: God has revealed himself (v. 1). Wherever you see LORD in all uppercase, this represents God’s covenant name, the name by which he chose to reveal himself to Moses and hence to Israel. This is the ‘holy name’ which David’s ‘inmost being’ must praise. David uses this name nine times in this psalm.4 There can be no mistake about which God David praises: ‘Praise Yahweh, O my soul… Praise Yahweh, O my soul… Praise Yahweh, you his angels… Praise Yahweh, all his heavenly hosts…. Praise Yahweh, all his works… Praise Yahweh, O my soul’.

By revealing his name to Israel, God placed himself in a special relationship with them, what we call a ‘covenant’ relationship. And this relationship carried with it many benefits. David wrote elsewhere, ‘For the sake of your name, O LORD [Yahweh], forgive my iniquity, though it is great.’ (Psa 25:11). Centuries later, the prophet Ezekiel would write, ‘You will know that I am the LORD [Yahweh], when I deal with you for my name’s sake and not according to your evil ways’ (Ezek 20:44). Note the close connection between the name of the LORD, Yahweh, and forgiveness.

The name of the LORD is also closely associated with healing. Yahweh spoke to David’s son, Solomon, and promised that ‘if my people, who are called by my name [Yahweh], will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.’ (2 Chr 7:14). Similarly, the prophet Malachi promised, ‘But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings’ (Mal 4:2). Is it any wonder that David praises Yahweh for healing and forgiveness received in his name?

In verse 3, David mentions Yahweh ‘redeeming [his] life from the pit’. Perhaps he has in mind a literal pit, such as that in which Joseph’s brothers tossed him, and from which he was ‘redeemed’ for the price of twenty shekels, or like when the Israelites under Saul hid in caves and pits and cisterns to escape the Philistine army (1 Sam. 13:6). Elsewhere in the psalms, however, this same language is used to describe death itself.5 Either way, what is certain is that the pit is not a good place to be… and that Yahweh redeems his people from it. Praise the LORD!

In place of whatever destruction is to be found in the pit, David says he has been ‘crowned’ with ‘love and compassion’. Rather than death, he received not only life but life lived in the love and favour of God: he overcame his enemies, he was raised king (literally crowned!) over all Israel, he married and had children, and he lived to see his son crowned king after him.

2. Praise the LORD for his patience with his people

Then, from verse 6, David starts to consider the blessings of God to his people. Yahweh revealed himself not just to Moses but to the people of Israel (v. 7). Yet Israel consistently disappointed him. Repeatedly through their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, they demonstrated the disobedience, idolatry, and lack of faith in Yahweh’s provision. Moses warned them of the consequences that would follow if they kept on like this in his final sermon before they entered the Promised Land, saying,

See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse— the blessing if you obey the commands of the LORD your God that I am giving you today; the curse if you disobey the commands of the LORD your God and turn from the way that I command you today by following other gods, which you have not known.
   – Deut. 11:26–28

You see covenants are not all about blessings; they also come with obligations, and failure to meet those obligations results in curse rather than blessing. Yet, in spite of this warning, Israel continued in their disobedience, earning the curse6 of the LORD many times over. David himself had committed adultery and murder. They all stood accused and under God’s wrath. Yet, astonishingly, David can write,

The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.
   – Psalm 103:8–10

David himself was witness to this in a very graphic way. He once ordered that a census be taken of his fighting men (2 Sam 24), though was later conscience-stricken saying, ‘”I have sinned greatly in what I have done. Now, O LORD, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant.”‘ (v. 10). God gave him a choice of punishments: three years of famine; three months of fleeing his enemies; or three days of plague. David chose the plague, saying, ‘”Let us fall into the hands of the LORD, for his mercy is great; but do not let me fall into the hands of men.”‘ (v. 14). Indeed, Yahweh demonstrated his mercy by relenting before the destruction of Jerusalem was complete (v. 16).

Are we not in the same boat? If God were to repay us according to what we have done, who of us would escape judgment? Yet God is patient with us. How can this be so? Why does God refrain from pouring out the curses promised by Moses for those who are disobedient?

David attributes this mercy to Yahweh’s love for his people.

3. Praise the LORD for he loves those who fear him

David describes this love using a series of analogies:

For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
   so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
   so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion on his children,
   so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;

     – Psalm 103:11–13

In Hebrew thought, heaven is unimaginably far above the earth; so it is with Yahweh’s love. Can anything be further from the east than the west? Yahweh removes transgressions that far from us. Is there a greater compassion than a parent’s for a child? That is the compassion Yahweh has for those who fear him.

What is even more astounding, Yahweh offers an eternal love to those who are only temporary. Usually our love is in proportion to the amount of time we spend with someone: casual acquaintances get only a little love, whereas our family gets a lot. From Yahweh’s vantage point as eternal God, the years that I spend on earth are like bumping into a stranger on a train. Yet in that relative instant, he pours out his love upon me, upon you, upon us, upon our children and upon our children’s children!

On the other hand, Yahweh’s love is not indiscriminate. It is offered to those ‘who fear him’ (vv. 11, 13, 17), ‘who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts’ (v. 18). And this presents a problem because, as we have already seen, Israel was notoriously bad at doing any of these things. How can Yahweh’s love be said to be ‘everlasting’ if it is only for those who ‘fear’, ‘keep’ and ‘remember’ – as Israel often did not? What if we can’t meet the covenant obligations and so incur – again! – the covenant curses?

This problem is answered by Jesus Christ. Jesus was the only one who ever feared Yahweh perfectly throughout all of his life, who remembered Yahweh’s covenant and obeyed his commands. You see, Yahweh was so determined to demonstrate his faithfulness in delivering the rewards of the covenant that he took upon himself the requirements of the covenant also. According to Paul,

[N]o matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. (2 Cor 1:20)

The promises of Yahweh to his people are ultimately and fully given to Christ as the fulfiller of the covenant. All that remains for us is to speak the ‘Amen’ – ‘I agree’, or ‘let it be so’ – to the glory of God.

When we realise that, the language of this psalm becomes even more significant. ‘As far as the heavens are above the earth’, that’s how far Jesus came to demonstrate the love of Yahweh. The Father withheld compassion from his one and only Son – in Gethsemane and on the cross – in order to show compassion to us. Jesus took away our sins, not just from east to west, but all the way down into death. Yahweh treated Jesus as our sins deserved, repaid him according to our iniquities. No longer does Yahweh accuse, because the curse has fallen on Jesus instead of on us. It is not our faithfulness to the covenant but Jesus’ that guarantees the covenant blessings. Paul would later write that,

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” (Gal 3:13)

The curse fell on Jesus and we are redeemed from the pit.

4. Praise the LORD for his kingdom is over all

But there is another fundamental problem: how can we who are not descended from Abraham and so not part of this covenant in the first place lay claim to these promises?

Once again, the tension is resolved in Jesus. The very next verse from Galatians 3 reads,

He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (Gal 3:14)

Christ met the requirements of the covenant, endured the covenant curse on behalf of we who could not… and offers us the covenant blessings that are his by right. In fact, he proclaims a new covenant, one in which the only covenant obligation is to repent of our sins and trust in Jesus himself to work in and through us by his Holy Spirit.

And this new covenant is guaranteed. In ancient times, a covenant lasted only as long as the king who made it, and only within the borders of his realm. But this king, King Jesus, rules a kingdom that is ‘established… in heaven’, and that ‘rules over all’ (v. 19) and so his covenant is not bound by race or place. Nor is it a covenant limited by time, for this king has risen from the grave, and lives for eternity past, present and future! Jesus is able to guarantee the covenant blessings for us because he is sovereign over all time and space.

As a personal aside, the fact that Jesus both fulfils the covenant obligations and guarantees the covenant blessings is tremendously encouraging to me. Earlier this year my Gran passed away, and this psalm was one of the readings she selected for her funeral. My Gran was one of the godliest women that I have ever known. Yet if my hope of seeing her again in eternity rested upon her ability to fulfil the obligations of the covenant – let alone my own poor ability to do the same – it would be a slender hope indeed. But the glory of the gospel is that it does not depend on her, or me. It depends on Christ, and is therefore a sure and certain hope.

There is only one covenant requirement: repent of your sin and put your trust in Jesus. As you do, you gain access to blessings seen only in shadow in the earlier covenant. Everyone who believes in Jesus receives eternal life (John 3:16), and his love remains on them literally ‘from everlasting to everlasting’ (v. 17). Friend, I beg you to receive it as the good news that it is and respond: turn away from your sins and turn to Jesus. He will bestow his many blessings upon you according to his goodness, mercy and wisdom. He will be patient with you, for he himself knows what it is like to live in a wicked world, to be tempted, and to feel weakness (Heb 4:15).

Conclusion: Praise Jesus because he is the LORD

Let’s close by considering the movement of the psalm: David starts with the individual, then Israel as a chosen people, and finally climaxing in the proclamation that, ‘The LORD has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all.’ (Psa 103:19) As Christians we recognise that climax in the distinctive work of Jesus Christ on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. It is an accomplished fact, a completed work. Yet we must also remember Jesus’ parting words to his disciples that echo so closely what David is doing in this psalm: ‘you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). As followers of Christ we have the responsibility to declare Jesus Christ throughout the whole world, starting with our own heart. As Lewis wrote, that praise not only expresses but completes the enjoyment; and that joy naturally overflows into an invitation to others to share it with us.

David knew the LORD -Yahweh, which means ‘I-am-who-I-am’, or ‘I-will-be-who-I-will-be’ – and he couldn’t help but praise him and call his nation and, indeed, all creation to praise him. As we approach this Christmas season, let us remember that we know our Lord by another name – Jesus, Yeshua, ‘Yahweh saves’, Immanuel, ‘God with us’ – and let’s proclaim him in our praise!

Please pray with me:

We praise you Lord Jesus, for you are the Lord over all creation. As high as the heavens are above the earth, that’s how far you came to demonstrate your love, not just to those who fear you but on your enemies (Rom. 5:8)! Though eternally crowned with the love and compassion of your Father, you set aside that crown and were born as a human child to a humble family.

Lord, we delight in your name. Before your birth Isaiah prophesied your coming, saying that ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel’ (Isa 7:14), which means ‘God with us’. He also named you, ‘Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’ (Isa 9:6). The angel who appeared to Joseph instructed him to name you Jesus – ‘Yahweh saves’ – because you would ‘save [your] people from their sins’ (Matt 1:21).

And having lived a perfect life you did exactly that – saved us, your people, from our sins. You redeemed our life from the pit by going there in our place, and so you ensure that we no longer stand accused because our sins are blotted out forever. By rising to new life you proclaim that your sacrifice on our behalf has been found acceptable and is ‘from everlasting to everlasting’. And we know that God has exalted you to the highest place, and given you the name that is above every other name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:9-11).

Therefore we delight to bear the name of ‘Christian’ – those who belong to Christ. As the Apostle Peter declared, ‘Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12).

Praise the Lord Jesus, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name!

Amen.

Bibliography

Lewis, C. S. Selected Books. London: HarperCollins, 2002.


Endnotes

  1. C. S. Lewis, Selected Books (London: HarperCollins, 2002), 358-59.
  2. ibid, 360.
  3. e.g. Ps. 73:14; 88:13.
  4. Ps 103:1, 2, 6, 8, 17, 19, 20, 21, 22.
  5. Pss. 28:1; 30:3; 88:4, 6; 143:7.
  6. Consider the strong ‘curse’ language of Deut. 27-30, especially Deut. 27:26; 28:15.
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Pleasing God: Fear and Hope (Psalm 147)

by on Jun.01, 2007, under Uncategorized

When I was little, few things could make me happier than to bring a smile to my parents’ face. I used to love Fathers’ and Mothers’ days, because they meant that I could get a present and enjoy watching them unwrap it, and could bring them breakfast in bed then crawl in beside them and enjoy their company. Whether it was because of something I said or did, just knowing that I had brought them joy, that they were rejoicing in their love for me brought me great pleasure. Which is not to say, of course, that this was always foremost in my mind. Plenty of times I made them sad, angry or disappointed too, and that generally wasn’t so fun.

Nowadays, I particularly enjoy delighting and surprising my wife, Katrie. I love to surprise her, to express my love for her in as many different ways as I can think of – I might cook a special meal, or plan a special night out or organise some time when we can just do something entirely random. Once or twice I’ve even bought her flowers, but I tend to save that up for really special occasions!

I remember when we were dating, we used to leave notes for one another in innocuous places – in books, on the computer, in the microwave – just for the knowledge that it would be appreciated by the other person. I once heard of a couple who did the same thing, and she unrolled an entire roll of toilet paper so that she could write him a note on the last square. I just hope he wasn’t in too much of a hurry to appreciate it!

The Bible describes this kind of pleasure using the word ‘delight’, and tells us that God responds that way to us. We are his children and we delight him. True, sometimes we make him sad, angry or disappointed, but the fact remains that he loves us, and we bring him great joy – he delights in us, rejoices in us, cherishes us as his precious, precious children.

This week and next week, we’re going to look at some of the things that the Bible tells us delight God.

Psalm 147 – The Lord Delights in those…

1 Praise the LORD.

How good it is to sing praises to our God,
how pleasant and fitting to praise him!

2 The LORD builds up Jerusalem;
he gathers the exiles of Israel.

3 He heals the brokenhearted
and binds up their wounds.

4 He determines the number of the stars
and calls them each by name.

5 Great is our Lord and mighty in power;
his understanding has no limit.

6 The LORD sustains the humble
but casts the wicked to the ground.

7 Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving;
make music to our God on the harp.

8 He covers the sky with clouds;
he supplies the earth with rain
and makes grass grow on the hills.

9 He provides food for the cattle
and for the young ravens when they call.

10 His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his delight in the legs of a man;

11 the LORD delights in those who fear him,
who put their hope in his unfailing love.

12 Extol the LORD, O Jerusalem;
praise your God, O Zion,

13 for he strengthens the bars of your gates
and blesses your people within you.

14 He grants peace to your borders
and satisfies you with the finest of wheat.

15 He sends his command to the earth;
his word runs swiftly.

16 He spreads the snow like wool
and scatters the frost like ashes.

17 He hurls down his hail like pebbles.
Who can withstand his icy blast?

18 He sends his word and melts them;
he stirs up his breezes, and the waters flow.

19 He has revealed his word to Jacob,
his laws and decrees to Israel.

20 He has done this for no other nation;
they do not know his laws.

Praise the LORD.

- Psalm 147

Psalm 147 is a psalm of praise to God, the creator and Lord over all – possibly written for the dedication of the rebuilt walls of Jerusalem1. It is a psalm that touches on the ways God has blessed Israel, building it up, gathering exiles, healing the brokenhearted and binding their wounds. God is revealed as a God of great wonder, great power and great mercy.

Yet the key to understanding this psalm, the very heart of it, lies not in his power, his wonder or his mercy but in his delight.

11 the LORD delights in those who fear him,
who put their hope in his unfailing love.

In verse 11 we are told how we should respond to all the other stuff in the psalm. If we want to please the LORD, we need to fear him. If we want to delight him, we must put [our] hope in his unfailing love.

But what does this mean?

God, because of his love for us, desires relationship with us. What’s more, he loves it when we seek him out, when we turn to him and pursue relationship with him in turn. He loves it.

Jesus gives us the beginnings of insight into God’s delight when he tells the parable of the Lost (or Prodigal) Son2. Picture for a moment the son, finally returning after being all but given up for dead, being embraced by the father who, “filled with compassion for him” (20) orders that a massive party be thrown in his honour – how’s that for delight? As he later explains to his other son, “‘We had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'” (32). The son was not loved because of his actions – after all, by asking for his inheritance he effectively said to his father, “I wish you were dead” – but because of who he was and because of the relationship between them.

I’m fairly certain that my parents’ delight when I brought them presents was not directly because of the presents that I gave. Let’s face it, a $2 piece of slice wrapped in cellophane and all but destroyed by that peculiar mode of transport we call the school bag cannot have been all that appealing!

I remember that one time I decided to make breakfast in bed for both Mum and Dad. The only trouble was that I had never made either tea or coffee before… but how hard could it be? Now Dad used to drink instant coffee, but Mum used to have tea leaves. I knew that the strainer came into the whole thing somewhere, but wasn’t quite sure where… and so I put the coffee in to the strainer and poured hot water through it, and put the tea leaves in the bottom of a cup and poured boiling water in on top. Needless to say, Dad ended up drinking what was, to all intents and purposes, hot water, whilst Mum’s hot water had floaties in it! They both smiled, though, however crookedly, and thanked me profusely, heaping me with praise for my kind actions – you see, they were interested not so much in the gift as they were in the heart of the giver. They knew that my gifts were merely a token of the love that I bear for them, and the I was expressing that love the best way I knew how.

In the same way, God is more interested in our attitude as we approach him than in our actions. Some Christians have conceived this idea of God as being like some elderly relative who, so long as you say the right things, suffer your cheeks to be pinched and write a nice thank-you note for them to show to their friends, will give you presents (at least) twice a year. But God is not like that at all. If I’m singing half-hearted praise to him, if I pray with my lips but not with my heart, if I insist on trying to conform God into my own image and plans then that is abhorrent to him. God will not tolerate people who seek him out trusting in their own righteousness, nor will he put up with braggarts or boasters. The Lord sustains the humble but casts the wicked to the ground (6).

Instead, the psalmist spells out the attitude that we are to have when we come into God’s presence – one of fear, and of hope.

… who fear him

Fear is a word commonly used in the Bible, particularly in relation to God. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom”3 we are told. It usually has one of two meanings: terror; or awe.

Terror is the kind of fear we are most familiar with. We’re afraid of many things: snakes, spiders, sharks; heights, depths, small spaces, large spaces, empty spaces; separation, commitment, rejection. In fact, I looked up phobias on the internet and found a site4 where they are listed from ablutophobia (the fear of washing or bathing) all the way through to zoophobia (the fear of animals) – some 530+ in all! Indeed, we make and watch entire movies whose sole purpose is to scare the wits out of us!

Psalm 147 alludes to many things of which we might rightly be afraid: a God of piercing knowledge, able to count the stars and call them by name (4, 5) surely knows all of our secrets, the ones we’d rather stayed buried; a God who can cover the sky with clouds and supply the earth with rain, who makes the grass grow on the hills and provides food for the cattle(8,9), well, what happens if he decides to stop doing those things? Who can withstand his icy blast? (17)

Is it God’s desire then that we should cower in fear whenever we are in his presence?

We’ve already established that he is a God of love, that he rushes to meet us when we return to him. Indeed Psalm 147 gives more evidence (as if we needed any) of God’s unfailing love for us… he builds up Jerusalem’ he gathers the exiles of Israel. He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. (2, 3), and He grants peace to your borders and satisfies you with the finest of wheat. (14). No, this is not the picture of a God bent on intimidating us into cowering submission and incoherent terror!

Instead, it is God’s intention that we should approach him with awe and respect.

Imagine for a moment that you were presented with the opportunity to meet with your greatest hero, or someone who you respect above all others. What would you do to prepare yourself? Who here would rock up drunk to a meeting with the Queen? Or would go to a wedding or a funeral wearing stubbies and thongs? Even if you did, you would know it was wrong, right? Why? Because there are certain people and certain events that demand our respect.

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In certain people, both of these aspects get mixed. For example, when pulled over by a police officer, most of us are able to respect that he or she is doing their job. At the same time, however, we know that the officer has the power to take away our licence, impound our vehicle or even to imprison us – and this leads us to fear that they might do so. Similarly, imagine yourself in front of a judge, who has the power to fine you, imprison you or even (in some places) condemn you to death. Even an innocent person might be afraid in such a setting, because what if the judge got it wrong?

But if there was ever a person for whom fear and respect were in order, it is Jesus. When the time comes, and all the peoples of the earth stand before him, Jesus himself tells us that “‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God'”5. Note what it doesn’t say. It doesn’t say “some knees”, or “most knees”. It doesn’t even say “every Christian knee”. No, when Jesus comes again, and is revealed in his glory as the Judge of all the Earth, everyone will acknowledge him as their Lord. I assure you that, when that happens, both kinds of fear we have talked about will be present to some extent or another in every mind. Who can doubt that we will be in awe of Jesus, who “will come like a thief in the night”6 and yet will be undisguisable in the same way that “lightning that comes from the east is visible in the west”7? Who can even imagine standing before Jesus and not harbouring the tiniest amount of fear – even an innocent man standing before a judge has his doubts and fears, how much more should we who are far from innocent and standing before the One who knows everything we ever did?

There will be a difference, however, between those whose uppermost thought is one of fear and those who are overcome with awe. That difference will be where they have placed their hope.

… who put their hope in his unfailing love.

Now we’ve come to the heart of the matter.

Picture, if you will, the scene in the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy and friends finally reach the Emerald City. As they are escorted through the city, drinking in the wonders of a horse of many colours and the grandeur of the great city, their trepidation steadily builds, climaxing as they are ushered into the vast chamber of the Wizard himself. As the Wizard’s voice booms out, all of them are afraid, not least the cowardly Lion whose knees are almost visibly knocking together. And yet they don’t turn tail and run. Why? They have heard the tales of a Wizard who is good, who is able to help them out of their various predicaments. They have come in hope that he will do so, and their hope overcomes their fear.

One guy describes it like this:

There is a beautiful relation between hope and fear… They are like the cork in a fisherman’s net, which keeps it from sinking, and the lead, which prevents it from floating.8

Together our fear and our hope keep us with a proper attitude towards God. Psalm 147 is drenched in this balance: on the one hand you have the LORD, counter of stars, mighty in power, with limitless understanding (4,5), who hurls down his hail like pebbles (17) and is, above all others, worthy of fear; on the other hand stands the LORD whose lovingkindness for Israel stretches across generations, whose provision brings prosperity (8,9), who has revealed his word to Jacob, his laws and decrees to Israel (19) as a sign of his covenant with them, his special promise that he will be their God, and they will be his people – cause for hope above all others.

Let’s take a moment to consider what kind of hope we’re talking about here. Hope as the world would describe it is something of chance. “I hope I win the lottery,” “I hope you have a nice day,” or “Hopefully it won’t rain.” We are expressing a desire that something will (or won’t) come about. Usually it is something we have no control over. And usually we have some sort of backup plan in case it doesn’t happen.

That’s not the kind of hope Psalm 147 talks about. Listen again to verses 10 and 11:

His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his delight in the legs of a man;
the LORD delights in those who fear him,
who put their hope in his unfailing love.

Horses and the legs of men represent cavalry and infantry, the armies of ancient times. The psalmist is deliberately setting up a contrast between those who rely upon their own strength rather than God’s mercy and love. This is particularly poignant if, as is speculated, this psalm was written for the occasion when the returned exiles had just finished rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. In that light, God is saying through the psalmist, “Even though you now have walls, even though you have kings for friends (for the moment), don’t rely on them. Rely on me.”

This is a reminder for us as a nation. How much do we Australians rely on our strength, easy-going natures, tolerance and our relatively peaceful and democratic society? We define ourselves by who we are friends with, we go to war overseas to prevent war coming to us. We feel safe because of our physical distance from other nations. Let me ask you, is our hope in our horses and men, or is it in God’s unfailing love? When the chips are down, do we turn to God? Or to the Americans? When we consider our world in chaos, climate change out of control, floods, cyclones, fires, hail storms, tsunamis – where is our hope in these things? In God’s love? Or in our own efforts?

More than just a message to our nation, though, I believe that Psalm 147 challenges us to consider our own attitude towards God. Let’s play a game. In your head, I want you to finish each of these sentences:

  • When things are hard, I am encouraged because…
  • When things go wrong, and not according to plan, it’s OK because…
  • When I screw up, when I let myself and everyone around me down, I tell myself that…
  • When the chips are down, when all other hopes have disappeared, the one that will remain is that…

How’d you go? What kinds of things came to mind? Here are some of mine: I have an education; I have a job; I am resourceful, and will find a way through somehow; I have friends and family who love me; I’m an Australian. Perhaps you came up with some others: I’m a good person; I’m attractive; I’m healthy (or perhaps I have the right doctors); I know the right people; I have the right girlfriend/boyfriend; I come from the right family; I’m financially secure; I’ve done this before. Some of you might even have “spiritual” answers: I go to church; I pray; I read the Bible.

Your answers to each of those questions reveal where your hope lies. And unless your first word in finishing each one was “God”, your hope is in yourself – your qualities, your possessions, your relationships, your actions. But what happens when those things are taken away? What will you do for hope then? Compare this with placing your hope in God’s unfailing love, a love that will not ever be taken away, a love backed by the power to transform your life, a God who makes “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future”9, both in this life and the next. God loves us. Unfailingly. He preserves our inheritance for us in heaven, and he shields us until the time comes for us to receive it10.

I was reminded recently of the story of Jairus and his daughter11. Jairus, a “ruler of the synagogue” (41), was an important man whose job would have included reading the scriptures in the synagogue and perhaps preaching from them; he would have prayed with and for the sick; he would also have been responsible for protecting the people under his care from ‘false Messiahs’, of whom he no doubt considered Jesus to be one. When “his only daughter, a girl of about twelve, was dying,” (42) he would certainly have prayed for her – after all that was his job. But that didn’t work. I can imagine him there on his knees, pleading with God: “I have served you all these years, I have studied your word, I have cared for your people – haven’t I earned the right to have you heal my daughter? Whatever I have to do, I’ll do it! Just, please, please, save her.” All of his hopes had been stripped away. None of them were any good now. Can you imagine his confusion when God’s response was, “You need Jesus” ? Can you imagine the mixed feelings as he “fell at Jesus’ feet, pleading with him to come to his house” (41)? How about the emotional yo-yo as Jesus first says he will come, then stops half-way there for some seemingly trivial matter of someone touching him, the arrival of messengers to inform Jairus that his daughter is dead? And then come Jesus’ words, “‘Don’t be afraid; just believe and she will be healed.'” (50) How would you be after a day like that? I suspect strong drink might be involved!

In the end, Jairus had to believe Jesus and take him at his word. What choice did he have? But believe he did, for he went in with Jesus and witnessed his daughter being healed, indeed being raised from the dead.

Here’s the point: Jesus didn’t come because Jairus was a good man, although he probably was; he didn’t heal the girl because Jairus was well respected, or well educated, or popular, or pious, although he was probably all of those things; Jesus acted because Jairus had chosen to rely upon his love and his power, he had chosen to acknowledge that he was helpless in himself and was utterly reliant upon God’s unfailing love to be sufficient for him and for his daughter.

How about it? Is that the kind of hope that you need, the kind that can bring the dead to life, the blind to see, the captive to freedom? Are you ready to give up the uncertain hope found in your own power, privilege, position, performance and piousness? Do you hear God’s voice saying to you, “You need Jesus”? The good news is that God loves you, and his love for you is unfailing. He invites you to put your hope in his love. [Possibly pray some sort of sinner’s prayer here, explaining that it is not the words themselves that are special, but rather the attitude – a mixture of fear and hope.] The choice is yours. If you have made that choice tonight, I would love to hear from you, to pray with you and encourage you to take hold of the hope that God is offering to you.

One final note. Our hope in God’s unfailing love is for now – he loves us now, he cares for and tends his flock now. But that is not all. The hope we have now is like the promise of the time just before dawn: light appears in the east, and we know that the darkness is on the way out, even before the sun is revealed in all of its glory. But it is the Son that we are hoping for, who is the answer to and completion of all our hopes. It is the Son who will chase away the darkness and imperfections of this world, who will judge the world according to true justice. It is God’s Son who is our hope, who is the gift of God out of his unfailing love.

Our hope is anchored in the past: Jesus rose! Our hope remains in the present: Jesus lives! Our hope is completed in the future: Jesus is coming!12


Endnotes

  1. See Ne 12:27-43
  2. Luke 15:11-32
  3. Proverbs 1:7
  4. http://phobialist.com
  5. Romans 14:11, quoting Isaiah 45:23; cf. Philippians 2:10-11
  6. 1 Thessalonians 5:2
  7. Matt 24:27
  8. George Seaton Bowes, In Prospect of Sunday, quoted in C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David (Hendrickson) Vol. 3, p. 430.
  9. Jer 29:11
  10. 1 Pet 1:4-5
  11. Luke 8:41-56
  12. Clowney, The Message of 1 Peter, IVD, p. 46.
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