The Use of the Old Testament in the Psalms (Part 7)

I am looking through another old seminary textbook this morning, Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor, by William P. Brown.  In chapter 2, Brown discusses the metaphor of “pathway”.  I found a reference to one of the historical psalms, Psalm 77, which I identified a month ago in my first post.

Brown indicates that God’s “way” is used in two slightly different senses.  The Psalmist expresses, “I will reflect upon all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds.  Your way (derek), O God, is holy.  What god is so great as our God? . . . Your way (derek) was through the sea, your path, through the many waters; yet your footprints left no trace.  You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron” (Ps. 77:12-13, 19-20).

Brown states, “As an encompassing metaphor, God’s ‘way’ collectively refers to God’s mighty acts in history (vv. 12-13), concretized in the exodus, the paradigmatic event or ‘root experience’ of divine deliverance.  Here, God’s ‘way,’ moreover, is unlike any other mode of activity.  It reflects YHWH’s incomparability as High God, unsurpassable in strength and unwavering in concern for a people: God’s path is traceless amid the ‘many waters,’ yet tangibly embodied in the leadership exercised by God’s earthly representatives, Moses and Aaron” (p. 43).

I appreciate Brown’s observation that God’s way shows His “incomparability”, and that He is “unsurpassable in strength” and “unwavering” in concern for His people.  His ways are so much higher than ours.  Isaiah states, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:9).  I also like that Brown points out that God used His servants Moses and Aaron to lead His people.  This illustrates the partnership between God’s presence and man’s work that I call “Immanuel labor”.  Both God and His faithful servants are working together to lead God’s people through the Red Sea.

As I look at the context of Psalm 77, the psalmist is crying out to God for help (v. 1).  He is bemoaning his distressed condition (vv. 2-4).  The “former days” were filled with songs (vv. 5-6).  Now, he is feeling rejected by the Lord (v. 7).  He does not see God’s unfailing love and wonders if He is no longer keeping His promises (v. 8).  The only thing that brings the psalmist comfort is when he chooses to reflect on “the years of the right hand of the Most High”, the “deeds of the Lord”, and “your miracles of long ago” (vv. 10-11).  He remembers these things that God did for His people in the past, which gives him hope for the present and the future.

I see a more distinct contrast than Brown does between how God’s “way” is described in verses 13 and 19.  In v. 13, when the psalmist interjects, “Your ways, O God, are holy”, he appears to be referring more to God’s greatness of character in general, rather than specific acts of deliverance.  Admittedly, though, it is often hard to separate them; God’s attributes are displayed in His performance (v. 14).  When the psalmist refers to God’s way again in v. 19, “Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters”, it is being used in a more specific sense.  God showed the Israelites the exact route they needed to go through the Red Sea.

The psalmist ends this psalm with a focus on God’s leadership.  God had led His chosen people as a shepherd leads his flock (v. 20).  In verses 15 and following where the psalmist rehashed the exodus, we can clearly see God’s mighty power and His covenant faithfulness.  If this same God is still God, then the psalmist can rest in the fact that He is able to deliver, redeem, and lead once again, no matter what he is going through now.

This discussion shows the value of the psalms that take us back to the past.  The path we find ourselves on may not be clear.  We may wonder where God is taking us.  We can easily forget what He has done for His people collectively and for us personally.  When we actively call to mind the many times where God clearly intervened on our behalf and infiltrated our lives with His presence and power, we can courageously face an uncertain future, knowing full well that He is still in control and will lead us beside the still waters (Ps. 23:2).

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The Use of the Old Testament in the Psalms (Part 6)

In Interpreting the Psalms: Issues and Approaches, I found a couple of new observations that shed some light on how the Psalms use the history of the Israelites to motivate them to be faithful to Yahweh.

In a chapter entitled “The Ethics of the Psalms”, Gordon Wenham explores how the “the law in general (see Pss. 1; 19; 119) and individual laws in particular are so important in the Psalter” (p. 179).  However, he remarks, “it is surprising how rarely the law-giving at Sinai is mentioned.  In fact, in the long psalms reciting Israel’s history it is usually omitted” (p. 179).  He indicates that Sinai is only mentioned in Ps. 68:8, 17.

Wenham teaches, “though the law-giving may not be mentioned at the most appropriate place in the historical sequence, it clearly is presupposed” (p. 179).  For example, he shows that Psalm 105 ends with a focus on law:  “And he gave them the lands of the nations, and they took possession of the fruit of the peoples’ toil, that they might keep his statues and observe his laws” (vv. 44-45) (ESV, italics mine).

To me, the implication is that the God of the past is the God of the present.  This Psalm reminds the readers that God gave their ancestors the land He promised to give them in His covenant with the expectation that they would obey His laws.  They have inherited these blessings, and need to keep God’s statutes as well.

Later, Wenham shares: “These reviews of Israel’s past are thus designed to produce a sense of gratitude and therefore willingness to observe the law (Ps. 105), or to highlight Israel’s treachery in failing to keep it (Ps. 78)” (p. 180).  This the first time I have read where a commentator has pointed out that the goal of reciting God’s faithful acts of deliverance throughout Israel’s history in the Psalms was to produce in God’s people gratitude or regret, or both, which should lead to a greater commitment to obey.  This is a major point worth reflecting on.

Lastly, Wenham brings up another history psalm, one that I had listed in my first post.  In verse 10 of Ps. 81, the writer directly quotes the beginning of the Ten Commandments found in Ex. 20:2, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”  I did not realize that it was a direct quote when I read it initially.  I also did not recall that this prologue to the Decalogue starts with a reminder of the exodus, which is significant.  Before giving the Israelites these basic requirements that they need to do for Him, God reminds them of what He had already done for them.  Right in the midst of law, we see evidence of God’s grace.

As I reflect on what has been shared above, I am reminded that God has always been the one to act on my behalf by His grace.  I have not been given a literal promised land.  However, He has delivered me from bondage through the cross and has brought me into an abundant life in Christ.  This fills me with gratitude for all He has done, which motivates me to respond in faithful obedience by the power of His Spirit.

The Use of the Old Testament in the Psalms (Part 5)

Last week I opened up another one of my seminary textbooks to find more theological gems on this topic.

In Interpreting the Psalms: Issues and Approaches, edited by Philip S. Johnston and David G. Firth, I came across some new observations.  In chapter 3, entitled, “The Psalms and Distress”, Philip S. Johnston reminds us, “Distress is one of the most common themes of the Psalter.  Particularly in the first half of the book, psalm after psalm portrays distress and anguish in eloquent description and graphic metaphor.  The writers feel besieged, constricted, burdened, bogged down, submerged and drowning.  They are frequently helpless and occasionally hopeless.  Surrounded by enemies, suffering physically, punished by God, they cry out to him for relief and deliverance. . . The psalms portray situations of outward difficulty and inner turmoil with which readers easily identify” (p. 63).

All of this makes sense, but what does it have to do with how the psalmists take us back to earlier portions of the Old Testament?

After Johnston describes how distress is portrayed in the Psalms and what causes it, he discusses various responses to distress.  He begins with “petition”, stating, “The first and most obvious response to distress is to appeal to God” (p. 78).  Johnston then points out something that ties directly to our discussion.  “Communal laments often cite God’s past deeds and promises to the nation” (p. 78).  What a great observation!  Johnston provides Ps. 44:1 to illustrate.  I had overlooked this in my cursory overview before.  It reads, “We have heard with our ears, O God; our fathers have told us what you did in their days, in days long ago.”

I need to pause for a moment to capture the significance of what I am seeing here.

In most of the other Psalms I discussed earlier, it seems that the psalmist’s main purpose in taking the reader back to remind God’s people of His mighty deeds to motivate them to do the right thing.  However, in Ps. 44, it is God’s suffering people who seem to be reminding God of what He did in the past to motivate Him to act on their behalf once again.  At the end of the psalm, they beg God to “rise up and help us; redeem us because of your unfailing love” (v. 26), appealing to His covenant hesed, or lovingkindness.

In contrast, Johnston indicates that there are distinctions between individual and communal psalms of lament.  Individual laments “almost never cite his past activity on behalf of the nation” (p. 79).  He indicates that Ps. 66, which has elements of both kinds of lament, does refer to the exodus (p. 79).  The psalmist exhorts, “Come and see what God has done, how awesome his works in man’s behalf!  He turned the sea into dry land, they passed through the waters on foot – come, let us rejoice in him” (vv. 5-6).

These two psalms present two categories of psalms of remembrance, which I had not considered.  Some psalms, like Ps. 66, call God’s people to remember His mighty deeds.  This type seems to be more common.  Others, like Ps. 44, appeal to God to remember His works from long ago (as if He could forget).  Being aware of this dual-purpose will cause me to read more carefully as I pursue this study to see if there are others like them.

The Loving Labor of Mothers

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On this Mother’s Day, I thought it would be appropriate to share some excerpts on mothers from my recently published book, Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work.

Incidentally, this is the 100th post on this blog.

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In line with a biblical theology of work, it is clear to me that motherhood is indeed a high calling. God equips mothers with wisdom and strength. He uses them and their sacrificial love, commitment, and hard work to create, sustain, and nurture human life in order to expand His kingdom and bless His entire creation with His presence. Mothers are an amazing breed.

This “Wife of Noble Character,” as my NIV titles this section, provides a role model for all workers to emulate. Stevens points out several things this busy mother does.

  • She works for the benefit of others, including her husband (Proverbs 31:12, 23), her children (Proverbs 31:13), and the needy (Proverbs 31: 20).
  • She is entrepreneurial. She conducts business outside the home (Proverbs 31:16).
  • She is hard-working. She puts in long hours, making good use of her time (Proverbs 31: 18, 27).
  • Amazingly, she exudes joy in her work (Proverbs 31:13).[1]

Stevens instructs, “There are multiple joys in work—the joy of simply being able to work, the joy of using gifts and talents, and the joy of simply knowing that others will benefit from our work. However, the ultimate joy in work, here hinted at in the reference to our ideal woman being ‘a woman who fears the Lord’ (Proverbs 31:30), is to work gladly in God’s name and for God’s sake.”[2] What a woman! She is a role model not just for women but also for all workers.

As I reflect on the few women in my life who exemplify the kind of character, spirit, and beauty demonstrated by the proverbial Proverbs 31 woman, I could not help but think of my own mother, who has been gone over ten years now. She was bright enough in college to have been a research scientist. However, when she became a mother, she dedicated her life to raising my three siblings and me. I remember her helping me learn my multiplication tables while I helped her weed the garden. That was fifty years ago. She cooked delicious homemade meals and knitted us scarves. She took care of Dad and kept the house nice. She volunteered at our schools and led both Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts troops. She persistently kept pestering me to finish all my requirements to earn the coveted Eagle Scout rank. I am so thankful for her work.

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Then there is my wife. She did all of those things for our three children that my mother did for hers and then some. Our children are now independent, responsible, and compassionate adults largely because of her work as a mother. She is one of the hardest workers I have ever known.

On top of being a mother of three, she was a military spouse for more than twenty years, which gave her plenty of opportunities to lean on the Lord and His Word. As a soldier, I was required to be gone due to training exercises in the field or attending army schools for weeks or sometimes months. Twice, we were separated for a whole year while I was far away in Korea. We had to move seven times and even once overseas. She had to hold down the fort and serve as both mother and father without much help from others. I have seen her overcome every single unique situation that has come her way, sacrificially taking care of infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and kids on through elementary school, junior high, high school, and college. She has had to learn to say goodbye to each one of them as they got their respective driver’s licenses, went off to college, and got married, which is universally heart-wrenching for a mother (and a father too).

Today she enthusiastically embraces her role as a loving “Nana” to two grandsons.

I wrote her full name in the margin of my Bible right next to Proverbs 31:25, which says, “She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come. She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue. She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness. He children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: ‘Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.’”

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I trust that these words will bring some encouragement to hard-working moms.

[1] Stevens, Work Matters, 98–100.

[2] Stevens, Work Matters, 100.

My First Book Signing

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So, I had my first book signing today.  It was definitely a step of faith.  It worked out better than I expected in many ways.  I was grateful for the opportunity.

This took place at our local Christian bookstore.  In the three hours I was there, I sold three books to friends.  A fourth set of friends (husband, wife, and three boys) came up to support us, but they already had a copy.

The first couple that came were our next-door neighbors for many years.  We have connected with them off and on for several years, but I think our friendship is becoming deeper.  My sister in Christ asked me to tell her about my book, which I did, with some help from my wife who was there with me.  After she had decided to buy the book, she asked, “So, would you be interesting in teaching your book to some homeschooled high school boys who will graduate next year?”  Holy cow!  Would I?  Absolutely!  We discussed how we would want do it.  I think we may do this in September.

Here are several lessons learned from this experience:

1) Sustain: I made a nice poster for the bookstore to post. Improve: Leave off the address if it is only posted at the store.

2) Sustain: I made a nice flyer with “About the Book” on one side and “About the Author” on the other.  Improve: The font is huge.  I think I should have made it fit on one sheet, top and bottom.

3) Sustain: I successfully posted a Facebook event several weeks out and sent invites to local friends.  The bookstore also posted it on their Facebook page.  I shared the event a couple of times as it got closer and the bookstore re-posted it the morning of.  Twenty said they were interested, five said they would come, and seven came (including my wife).  I wish that more people had come, but it was a gorgeous spring day, and grass needed to be cut.

4) Sustain: My son reminded me that this marketing of my book is a necessary part of the publishing process to get people to read the book’s life-changing message.  It is work that I am called to do.  As such, God is present with me as I do it.

5) Sustain: I came prepared with some props to help me explain how the book was developed, in case someone asked.  I brought my two-hour PowerPoint presentation binder from my independent study I did in 2015 that was the basis of my 282-page book.  I brought my Bible to discuss the solid biblical foundation of my theology of work and the many connections between God’s presence and human work.  I also brought my top five favorite books on the subject that I quoted extensively.  I did pull one out to show our neighbors the book that first got my attention in 1989, Your Work Matters to God, by Sherman and Hendricks.

It was not a huge commercial success, but that is not why I did it.  It broke the ice.  I have done a book signing.  I would do another one again.  Maybe here.  Maybe somewhere else.  Any suggestions?

The Use of the Old Testament in the Psalms (Part 4)

RingsI found some more commentary that supported my observation that the Psalms often reflect on God’s mighty deeds in the past.  Longman and Dillard highlight several of the common themes that make up the theological message of the Psalms.  They mention “History” as one of them.

They indicate, “History plays a key role in biblical covenants.  The relationship between God and his people has a background that is recited at times of covenant formation and renewal (Ex. 20:2; Deut. 1:6-4:49; Josh. 24:2-13; 1 Sam. 12:8-15).  Historical memory is significant in the Psalms as well.  God’s past acts of deliverance and love toward his people are constantly called to mind by the psalmist.  The people of God find occasion in them for joy (Ps. 98:1-3).  They also call his merciful acts to mind as they are in the midst of trouble and distress (Ps. 77).  While many psalms have a historical component, a select number of psalms (described above as psalms of remembrance) have as their principle aim the recounting of God’s historical works (Pss. 78, 105, 106, 136). . . The psalmist finds frequent occasions to extol God’s work in space and time (p. 258).

We as God’s people so often forget all of the blessings He has graciously given us.  When we see or hear about His blessings again, it motivates us to be loyal to that relationship and make extra efforts in the strength of His might to seek, worship, and obey God more faithfully.  This is why God boldly stated as He was about to give the Ten Commandments in Ex. 20:2, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”  Later, Joshua summarized how God lead His people from Abraham to the present (Josh. 24:2-13).  After Joshua challenged the Israelites to fear the Lord and serve Him only, they wholeheartedly responded, “We will serve the Lord our God and obey him” (v. 24).

This powerful connection between history and relationship should not be a difficult one to grasp.  Shared experiences over time connect us.

I am reminded of many times where my wife and I have purposefully brought to mind how God brought us together.  We stated this plainly when we read our vows to one another and entered into the covenant of Christian marriage.  For over 37 years we have consistently celebrated the anniversaries of our relationship: dating (April 1st), engagement (June 24th), and wedding (December 20th).  Remembering these key events remind us of the promises we made to one another: to pursue each other exclusively, to commit to marriage, and to be faithful and cherish one another for life.  When one of us thinks about something special that the other one did, it brings us joy.  In the midst of troubled times or during an argument, we have sometimes had to remind our partner that we were still committed to them and were on their side, though we disagreed.

There is a lot more to be explored on this fascinating topic in the days to come.

The Use of the Old Testament in the Psalms (Part 3)

This morning, I was grateful to find some helpful quotes from Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, in An Introduction to the Old Testament (Zondervan, 2006).  They concur with what I had observed about the value of actively remembering both personal and corporate history.

“Praise, lament, and thanks: these are the three major genres of the Psalter” (p. 250). Next, Longman and Dillard mention some other categories, one of which is Psalms of Remembrance.  They explain further: “Memory plays a key role in the Psalter.  The thanksgiving psalms recount to the congregational prayers that have been answered in the past.  Many hymns and laments call to mind God’s past acts of deliverance.  Such reminders build confidence in God.  He has shown himself in the past to be a reliable savior; he will do so in the present.  Not surprisingly, a few psalms may be grouped into a separate genre on the basis of their preoccupation with God’s great redemptive acts in the past.  These redemptive acts are recalled to build confidence in the present.  Examples of this genre are Psalms 78, 105, 106, 135, 136” (p. 250).

I was glad that I had already captured all of the examples these commentators provided.

I started with Psalm 78 to see what other commentators had to say that would confirm my observations and shed some additional light on my understanding.  Robert Alter, author of another one of my seminary textbooks, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (W.W. Norton & Company, 2007), was helpful.  He pointed out that Psalm 78 “is a historical psalm, which recapitulates in poetry the Plagues Narrative and the victory at the Sea of Reeds from Exodus as well as certain later events” (p. 272).  He lists a couple of verses that are quoted from or allude to the Song of the Sea, found in Exodus 15.  He states that Ps. 78:13, referring to the phrase (from Alter’s translation), “He made water stand up like a heap”, is a quote from Ex. 15:8 (p. 274).  He adds that the description of the exodus in Ps. 78:54, “He brought them to His holy realm” was also written to bring to mind Ex. 15:13 and 17 (p. 278).

Alter also has some points to make concerning Ps. 105.  He observes, “The initial formulas of this psalm reflect a kinship with the psalms of thanksgiving, but the ‘deeds’ (or ‘feats’) referred to are God’s wondrous acts in history on behalf of Israel, as the next few lines make clear.  This is, then, a historical psalm, reviewing in versified summary (perhaps as part of a temple ritual) the following sequence of events familiar from Genesis and Exodus” (p. 369).  He lists the same key persons, places, and things that I identified when I first began this study.  The Psalmist invites the reader (or listener) in verse 5, “Recall the wonders that He did” (p. 370).  Alter remarks, “The whole national community of Israel is exhorted to contemplate and celebrate God’s great deeds on behalf of the nation” (p. 370).  In verse 6, after identifying the nation of Israel as the “seed of Abraham”, the Psalmist takes them on a detailed historical tour highlighting God’s great acts that so clearly demonstrated His divine attributes of faithfulness, sovereignty, compassion, and power to deliver His people from bondage and lead them into the Promised Land.

We would be greatly encouraged if we took the time to remember stories of God’s faithfulness in the past to give us confidence in Him when we need it here and now.  This certainly should include the cross, as the place of our own deliverance in Christ.  This is our shared corporate history.  We should also actively recall our individual history: those times when God provided for us, led us to make a right decision, and comforted us.  For my family, our stones of remembrance were erected in 1980 after God’s provision of an unexpected gift, in 1986 when I joined the Army, and in 1998 after our first miscarriage.  There many other events where we saw God’s hand of protection, healing, and blessing.

What about you? What are your stories?