Can you handle the “hebel”? (part 2)

‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’
    says the Teacher.
‘Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless.’

Ecclesiastes 1:1-2

Last week, we saw that life and everything in this world is not necessarily meaningless, but it is fleeting. The idea behind “hebel” is like smoke, breath or a bubble that soon disappears.

“Hebel” is also translated in the Bible as “idol”. And of course, there is a connection between the idea of transience and an idol. So in Isaiah 57:13, for example, idols are blown away by a breath, but God is a firm refuge.

“When you cry out for help, let your collection of idols save you! The wind will carry all of them off, a mere breath will blow them away. But whoever takes refuge in me will inherit the land and possess my holy mountain.”

What Ecclesiastes is going to teach us is that the very definition of an idol is something temporal that we attempt to grasp hold of as something eternal; a false god we worship instead of the true God. So what is meaningless is to search for pleasures, riches or fame, work or wisdom as something we can grab hold of and find satisfaction in forever. That is putting those things in the place of God, who alone has all wisdom and who alone gives all good gifts, and who alone is eternal.

When we know better who God is, and our place before Him, then our frustrating and fruitless quests for meaning and understanding and even our identity, are stilled.

These two ideas, fleetingness and idolatry, conveyed by the word “hebel”, provide us with much food for thought. It is not meaningless to seek something stable and lasting in a world that is transient and fleeting. What is meaningless however, is to look to anyone other than the Lord Jesus Christ to provide this for us. He alone is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).

Reflection: Where do we tend to look, other than Christ, for stability and permanence and meaning? Why is Christ worthy of our worship?

Can you handle the “hebel”? (part 1)

The words of the Teacher,a son of David, king of Jerusalem:

‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’
says the Teacher.
‘Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.’

Ecclesiastes 1: 1-2

Everything is vanity of vanities – utterly meaningless, perfectly useless, and totally futile? It is amongst the best known phrases in the Bible, yet as Christians we often have no idea what to make of it.

It is not a motto we print on posters of sunsets or in birthday cards, and yet Jews have always read Ecclesiastes with joy as they celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles every year.

It is not a philosophy we want to proclaim when as Christians we know that God has created everything with order and purpose; even if our day-to-day lives can feel mundane, monotonous and even meaningless at times.

And tempting as it is, we cannot write it off as a “foil” where most of Ecclesiastes is seen as the depressing, “wrong” way that non-Christians see the world, which is then put right in the last chapter. The reason for this is because we are told that “The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.” (12: 9-12)

The word translated as “meaningless” or “vanity” is, in the original Hebrew, “hebel”. It is a very important word in Ecclesiastes, appearing 38 times, and in some ways, holds the key to its meaning. “Hebel” actually means a breath, or vapour, or wind. Think of a cold, autumn morning, when you can see your breath for a little while, but it doesn’t last. Think of wisps of smoke, clinging to the air for a moment, then dispersing and disappearing. Think of the soap bubbles children blow with huge excitement, then the bubbles pop and vanish into nothingness. Ralph Erskine, in his poem Smoking Spiritualised, captures the idea nicely:

And when the smoke ascends on high,
Then thou behold’st the vanity
Of worldly stuff,
Gone with a puff.
Thus think, and smoke tobacco.

It is not that there is no meaning to anything. It is the problem of trying to attach eternal meaning to things which are transient and fleeting, like the wind, like the bubble, like smoke. Trying to hold onto a puff of smoke forever would be futile, even laughable. This sets the thinking behind Ecclesiastes, and how we can understand it as Christians seeking to glorify God, enjoying living in His world under the sun.

Reflection: What in your life do you find most difficult to acknowledge will not last? What does Jesus offer us that is different? (See John 3:16)


Psalm 18: Love the Lord Your Strength

Psalm 18 New International Version – UK (NIVUK)

For the director of music. Of David the servant of the Lord. He sang to the Lord the words of this song when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul. He said:

1 I love you, Lord, my strength.
2 The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;
my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
3 I called to the Lord, who is worthy of praise,
and I have been saved from my enemies.

This is a great psalm and I strongly encourage you to read the whole of it. I have been reflecting on the three opening verses, which provide a great summary. In fact, they provide a great summary not only of the psalm, but of Christian spirituality in general. This morning, I couldn’t get past the opening line.

I Love You Lord

Surely this is the very heart of every duty required by humanity in the Bible. Jesus said that all of the ministry of the law and prophets hangs on the command to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. If we ever let our walk with the Lord become about something other than our love for him primarily then we are heading in a dangerous direction.

My son wrote a letter yesterday. He’s just learning to write and so is still enjoying the novelty of it. He writes all kinds of things; the names of superheroes, lists of people to invite to his party, shopping lists etc. Today my wife experienced an unexpected joy when he brought us a letter simply stating: “Dad and mum I love you.” It actually read more like “bab and mUM I luV yOo” but you get the point. If I was the sort of person who cries, then I would have. I was happy.

The Bible reveals that there is little that thrills the heart of God more than when his children profess real love for him. I don’t understand why God would desire to know his people in this way but it is clear that he does.

I realise that “love” is a concept that needs some defining. You are probably begging me to say something like “love is more than a feeling” or “to love God is to obey his commandments”. Some of you will be silently cringing and wishing me to tone down the soppy sentimentalism. These are valid concerns for another time but I’m not going to go there. Love is more than words, more than feelings but it is not less. I know that my son doesn’t have a perfectly biblical notion of love and I don’t care. It is enough for me that he said it because he wanted to and because he believes he means it. My suspicion is that God the Father feels similarly about the technicalities of our profession. He wants us to love him.

My Strength

When was the last time that you simply declared your love for God? A week? Longer? Adoration and worship is the centre of the Christian’s responsibility. If your zeal for evangelism or training or social action or church planting or frontline missions has taken the place of loving God as your highest priority then there is a real problem.

If this is you then why not take some time right now to ask God to help you repent. Cry out to him for the grace to truly love with all your heart. The good news is that God is not only the object of your love but the one who provides you with the strength you need to love worthily.

Psalm 17: I Shall See Your Face (part 2)

Psalm 17

I call on you, my God, for you will answer me;
    turn your ear to me and hear my prayer.
Show me the wonders of your great love,
    you who save by your right hand
    those who take refuge in you from their foes.
Keep me as the apple of your eye;
    hide me in the shadow of your wings
from the wicked who are out to destroy me,
    from my mortal enemies who surround me.

10 They close up their callous hearts,
    and their mouths speak with arrogance.
11 They have tracked me down, they now surround me,
    with eyes alert, to throw me to the ground.
12 They are like a lion hungry for prey,
    like a fierce lion crouching in cover.

Deliver me from the evil one

In the first part of this post we saw that David calls out to God for vindication. It is clear from these verses that the crisis he is facing is not simply to do with reputation. The threat is all but overwhelming. David is surrounded by callous and wicked men who are hungry for his destruction. His life is in danger and so he cries out to God to rescue him.

There are many Christians who face similar trials today because they follow Jesus. In the West, Christians may not experience persecution in the same way but we still have an enemy who is intent on our harm. I’ve reflected more on Christians and their enemies here.

Jesus taught us to ask God to “lead us not into temptation and deliver us from the evil one”. We can and should pray for ultimate deliverance in the form of forgiveness and eternal life but also for “little deliverances” from sin and/or circumstances so as to life a life worthy of the gospel.

Show me the wonders of your great love

David pleads for rescue on the basis of God’s love. We shouldn’t miss how powerful the plea is. Derek Kidner explains it so well in his commentary:

The first two lines, in English, translate just four highly-charged Hebrew words. Wondrously show calls to mind the word for God’s miraculous interventions (see on 9:1) and for his rebuke to Sarah in Genesis 18:14: ‘Is anything too hard (lit. wonderful) for the Lord?’ Steadfast love, or ‘true love’ (neb), is that faithfulness to a covenant, to which marital devotion gives some analogy.”

David knows who God is and what God has done in the past. He has heard about the plagues that forced Pharoah’s arm, the passover, pillars of fire and cloud, crossing the Red Sea, defeat of the Egyptian army, provision of manna and much more besides. We have the same demonstrations of God’s love and faithfulness and more…so much more.

For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it. (Matthew 13:17)

It boggles the mind the think about Jesus as the fulfilment of this psalm. He is both the King who was rescued from death and the King who would rescue his people from death. All of this is possible through God’s display of miraculous covenant love in raising him from the dead. How David would have rejoiced to see Jesus! His life, death and resurrection are the greatest demonstration of miraculous power and love that we could ever wish for.

It is this wondrous love that gives us confidence to pray for God’s intervention and continued faithfulness to his promises today.

I shall see your face and be satisfied

13 Rise up, Lord, confront them, bring them down;

    with your sword rescue me from the wicked.
14 By your hand save me from such people, Lord,
    from those of this world whose reward is in this life.
May what you have stored up for the wicked fill their bellies;
    may their children gorge themselves on it,
    and may there be leftovers for their little ones.

15 As for me, I shall be vindicated and shall see your face;
    when I awake, I shall be satisfied with seeing your likeness.

Initially I read v15 as a poetic way of saying that David will see God’s saving intervention in his current circumstance. When I read it again I changed my mind. I think David is expressing a far more literal expectation that whatever happens in this life, he will see God’s face in the life to come and then he will be vindicated and be satisfied.

The reason I think this is because of the way the wicked are described in v14. They are those “whose reward is in this life”. In v15 David contrasts the aims of the wicked with his own. The wicked hope for nothing beyond this life. The reward of the righteous is to see God’s face.

Many Christians have cried out again and again for deliverance from their enemies. Some have experienced that deliverance and others have not. David knew this full well. He knew that God had not guaranteed his safety and so even though he asks for God’s intervention, he knows that it may not be His will. God has not promised that we will not suffer. However, we know that whatever happens, however God answers our prayers, we will see his face…and be satisfied.

Psalm 17: I Shall See Your Face (part 1)

Psalm 17 New International Version – UK (NIVUK)

A prayer of David.

God is the one who vindicates his people

Hear me, Lord, my plea is just;
    listen to my cry.
Hear my prayer –
    it does not rise from deceitful lips.
Let my vindication come from you;
    may your eyes see what is right.

Essentially this is a prayer of King David for vindication from his enemies.

David is suffering unjustly at the hands of wicked men and is pleading with God to rescue him and clear his name of suspicion. A long time ago another Christian accused me of something that I didn’t do. I knew I was innocent but I had no way of proving it… It was a frustrating and difficult time. At some point during that period I gave up trying to defend myself and I remember God teaching me to turn to him for vindication. The main thing is that God knows the truth and so I can entrust my reputation to him. It is wonderfully liberating to entrust our concerns to God.

God will do what is right

Though you probe my heart,
    though you examine me at night and test me,
you will find that I have planned no evil;
    my mouth has not transgressed.
Though people tried to bribe me,
    I have kept myself from the ways of the violent
    through what your lips have commanded.
My steps have held to your paths;
    my feet have not stumbled.

David knows that God will do what is right and will not side with injustice or deceit. So it is important to David to consider whether in fact he is innocent in this situation or if some of the trouble he is experiencing has been brought about by his own actions. Passages like this have often been troublesome to me. I have never really felt comfortable repeating the words “my steps have held to your paths” as a prayer to God. God would simply laugh. He knows that I slip up all the time. The elders of our church meet weekly for prayer. We always start by reading a psalm and when we discussed this issue we came to the following conclusions:

  • David is not claiming sinless perfection in general – we know this because in his other psalms he regularly admits to guilt and pleads for forgiveness. There are even occasions where David claims to be guilty and to have kept God’s ways in the same psalm.
  • Therefore what David is claiming is that he is not guilty of the accusations against him in this particular circumstance.
  • “My steps have held to your paths” means that David is still following God’s ways. The direction of his life is toward obedience. He has not given up on his faith or on the Bible.
  • In this sense, Christians should be able to say that they are holding to the paths of God with absolute sincerity. God’s paths includes confession, repentance, faith and obedience.
  • We should also remember that David is a type of Christ and that we should first and foremost see the psalm as a foreshadowing of Jesus. David is a picture of Jesus, who is the innocent King who suffers at the hands of evil men. Jesus is the King who trusts God and is vindicated through his resurrection from the dead.
  • Therefore, we can apply the psalm as people of faith but we should not forget that we only have a right to do so because we are in Christ. In him we can count ourselves innocent in the eyes of God. In him we have the privilege of pleading to God for vindication. If God vindicated his innocent King, he will vindicate the innocent people of the King.

Psalm 16: You are my Portion

Psalm 16 New International Version – UK (NIVUK)

miktam of David.

This psalm expresses aim of the Christian life: to worship God as the all-satisfying Lord. In the 17th century it was expressed in the Westminster Catechism in this way: “Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully enjoy him forever.”

More recently, John Piper has famously stated that “God is most glorified in us, when we are most satisfied in Him” is the message at the heart of the Bible.

Throughout the centuries, Christians have sought above all to be those who know, love and worship God. How can we make certain that we are moving toward this goal rather than away from it? Here are a few principles that I gleaned from the psalm.

1. Recognise the Giver in the gifts

Keep me safe, my God,
    for in you I take refuge.

I say to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord;
    apart from you I have no good thing.’
I say of the holy people who are in the land,
    ‘They are the noble ones in whom is all my delight.’
Those who run after other gods will suffer more and more.
    I will not pour out libations of blood to such gods
    or take up their names on my lips.

What does “apart from you I have no good thing” actually mean? I have family, friends, a warm bed. How can I say that I have nothing good outside of God? I think v4 helps us to answer these questions.

In v4 David declares that he will never offer sacrifices to false gods. This is because he recognises that God provides him with all that he needs and so why would he betray God by turning to other sources. So to say that we have no good thing apart from God is to recognise that he is the only giver of good things. Or to put it slightly differently, every good gift is from him. If we allow the gifts to point us back to the Giver we recognise that all we have comes from him and that without him we have nothing.

2. Thank God for the gift of the church

I say of the holy people who are in the land,
    ‘They are the noble ones in whom is all my delight.’

I think it is worth noting that David identifies God’s people in particular as a source of delight. Do I feel the same way about the church? Do I recognise the people I meet with every week as good gifts that reflect a good giver? Does my local church fill me with thankfulness and joy? I thank God that my church does bring me joy because, through them, I can see God at work. However, it is a gift that I far too often take for granted.

3. Never look to idols

Those who run after other gods will suffer more and more.
    I will not pour out libations of blood to such gods
    or take up their names on my lips.

The same point can be stated more negatively. The flip-side of acknowledging God as the Giver is renouncing false gods as givers. Idolatry comes naturally to us. We are made for worship and, in our blindness we latch on to the closest possible provider and make idols out of them. It may be an alternative belief system like Islam or Mysticism. It may be something more abstract like wealth or popularity or success. It may be something much more tangible like a relationship or hobby. An idol is anything that we trust, rather than God, to give us what we need or desire. It is anything that we love more than God. It is anything that we serve other than God.

May God grant us the grace we need to turn “to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.” 1 Thess 1: 9-10

4. Walk closely with God

Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup;
    you make my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
    surely I have a delightful inheritance.
I will praise the Lord, who counsels me;
    even at night my heart instructs me.
I keep my eyes always on the Lord.
    With him at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.

It’s striking to see how intent David is on God. He is praising God, listening to God, fixing his eyes on God and keeping God close to his side. David knows God and this is why he is able to say with such conviction that the Lord is his portion. If we want to glorify God and be satisfied in him then we need to know Him.

5. Hope in God’s promise of eternal life

Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
    my body also will rest secure,
10 because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
    nor will you let your faithful one see decay.
11 You make known to me the path of life;
    you will fill me with joy in your presence,
    with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

The whole psalms sings about Jesus and perhaps these verses more loudly and clearly than the rest. He is the one who died at the hands of sinful men and yet God raised Him from the dead. It is precisely the death and resurrection of Jesus the King that secures our hope (as well as David’s) that we will live forever in his presence. Because he lives, we too will live.

These verses reveal that David’s focus in the psalm was not on material gifts in this life but rather the gifts he bestows on his people in the life to come. I think this is why he focuses on the people of God. They are a gift to us now but they will also be a gift to us in the new creation.

When we focus our hearts and minds on our ultimate destiny, it helps to put this life in perspective. Those who trust in Jesus in this life will live with him in the next. We will spend eternity rejoicing in the Giver and the bountiful gifts he so lavishes on us.

What else is there in this life that compares to this hope? You will enjoy God forever, so strive to enjoy Him now.

Psalm 15: Who will live on the holy mountain?

Psalm 15 New International Version – UK (NIVUK)

I want to live on the mountain

Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent?
    Who may live on your holy mountain?

Every Christian longs for this don’t they? We long to see God face to face. We long to be nearer to Him. We yearn to experience more of his presence. Our deepest desire is to know God more fully and live forever with him in glory.

So when the psalm asks the question in v1, “Who will dwell in your sacred tent? Who will live on your holy mountain?” my attention is captivated. There are few answers in the world that I care more about.

I can’t live on the mountain

The one whose way of life is blameless,
    who does what is righteous,
    who speaks the truth from their heart;
whose tongue utters no slander,
    who does no wrong to a neighbour,
    and casts no slur on others;
who despises a vile person
    but honours those who fear the Lord;
who keeps an oath even when it hurts,
    and does not change their mind;
who lends money to the poor without interest;
    who does not accept a bribe against the innocent.

Whoever does these things
    will never be shaken.

As I read on through the psalm, I find that something unexpected happens. Instead of the elation I was anticipating, I start to feel hope draining away.

I once entered into a bodyboarding competition at my school. After the competition, I was told that I had come first. Great! However, a few minutes later they realised they had counted the scores incorrectly and that I didn’t even make it onto the podium. Not so great.

This is what happens to me when I read on from v1. I go from the elation of a dream come true to cold hard reality of knowing that I can never experience that dream.

It is not as though I don’t think the psalm is fair or right. (It is perfectly legitimate for a morally pure God to forbid all but those who are “blameless” to dwell in his presence.) I desperately want to be the sort of person described in this passage. But when I look at that list of qualifications I cannot, no matter how hard I try to convince myself, claim this as a consistent and perfect description of my life:

  • blameless way of life
  • righteous deeds
  • speaks sincerely and truthfully
  • never slanders
  • never does wrong
  • never maligns
  • hates all the evil of people
  • honours God’s people
  • always keeps their promises
  • gives generously to those in need
  • not susceptible to corruption

Frankly, I would be surprised (note my use of classic British understatement) to find that there is anyone alive today who meets that description. I cannot draw any other conclusion: I will not live on the Lord’s mountain. I will not be accepted into his presence. Right? Yes and no.

I will live on the mountain

It is true that if my hope of living in the presence of God is dependent on becoming the sort of person described here then I have no chance. However, the psalmist would also be aware that long before God gave his people the promise of reward through obedience to the Law, he gave them the promise of blessing through an oath he swore to Abraham. The psalmist’s hope would not be based on the law, but on the promise; not on himself but on God. I will do the same:

  • I know that although I have failed to meet God’s standards in the law, he will nevertheless keep his promise of grace.
  • I know that Jesus, the Son of God, is the only one who has ever lived up to these standards. He is the only one to ever fulfil the righteous requirements of the law.
  • I know that Jesus, though he was blameless, suffered the penalty of death and judgement that his people deserved leaving them blameless in God’s sight.
  • I know that he transfers his perfect obedience to those who trust in his promise to bless his people through Jesus.
  • I know that I will dwell with God in his presence forever because of the sheer grace of God.

I will strive to live like one who belongs on the mountain

So my dream will come true. If your desire is to see God, and you place your trust in Jesus to give you what you cannot earn, then he will give you the desires of your heart. And until that day, I will strive to live like the person Jesus has made me. I want to be like Him. I want to live like one who belongs… because I do belong.

Before the throne of God above
I have a strong, a perfect plea
A great high Priest whose Name is Love
Who ever lives and pleads for me
My name is graven on His hands
My name is written on His heart
I know that while in heaven He stands
No tongue can bid me thence depart
No tongue can bid me thence depart

Psalm 14: Atheism, Religion & Folly

Psalm 14 New International Version – UK (NIVUK)

For the director of music. Of David.

Atheism is not scientific

1 The fool says in his heart,
‘There is no God.’

I sometimes find it tempting to buy into the modern notion that if we take science seriously then we need to dismiss any notion of God as “primitive” and “pre-scientific”. When you stop and think about it there are a number of problems with this worldview, and not least among them, is the assumption that atheism is not pre-scientific. We have it plainly here in the Psalms written a good deal BC. Some people are telling themselves that “there is no God” and, in the eyes of the psalmist, this is the height of folly.

Atheism is foolish because it corrupts us

They are corrupt, their deeds are vile;
there is no one who does good.
2 The Lord looks down from heaven
on all mankind
to see if there are any who understand,
any who seek God.
3 All have turned away, all have become corrupt;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.
4 Do all these evildoers know nothing?
They devour my people as though eating bread;
they never call on the Lord.

What really struck me reading the Psalm this morning is the reason given for saying that atheism is foolish. I had always assumed that it was because of how irrational it is. The odds against the universe inventing itself by chance are staggeringly and, dare I say, “unscientifically” high. This is certainly a part of it, but the true folly of atheism in this passage is that the act of believing that there is no God corrupts us. What we believe affects the way we live. If we believe there is no God, it will change the way we live and not for the better.

Atheism is foolish because we will meet God in judgement

5 But there they are, overwhelmed with dread,
for God is present in the company of the righteous.
6 You evildoers frustrate the plans of the poor,
but the Lord is their refuge.

The reason why it matters that we are being corrupted by what we believe is because one day we will meet God in judgement. David is here looking ahead to a time when the people of God will be vindicated and evildoers will be “overwhelmed with dread” when they realise their error. At that moment all the pomp and show of militant atheists will be silenced.

Religion is equally foolish

It is important to add at this point that this psalm does not advocate religion either. The psalm applies to all people not just atheists.

2 The Lord looks down from heaven
on all mankind
to see if there are any who understand,
any who seek God.

When the Lord looks down from heaven on all humanity, he sees not only the folly of atheism but of religion as well. Its a devastating insight that when God looks over the religions of the world he sees that none of them seek God. If religions are not seeking God then what exactly are they all about?! No, religion is not the answer to atheism because they are ultimately human inventions. They tell us that we need to be better and that we should stop doing x, y and z if we are to avoid God’s judgement. They tell us that we should start doing a, b and c if we want to earn God’s acceptance. While all this is going on, God seems to view religion on a par with atheism: there are none who seek him.

What we need is salvation

7 Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion!
When the Lord restores his people,
let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad!

As we know from Israel’s history, these pleas for salvation where as much “from themselves” as “from their enemies”. Its a recognition that despite the claims of the atheist and the religious, people are beyond the point of being able to rescue themselves. We need God to save us. We need God to restore us. The good news is that this is precisely what God has done through Jesus.

Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin. But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference… for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3: 19-24)

Psalm 13: Waiting for God

Psalm 13 New International Version – UK (NIVUK)

For the director of music. A psalm of David.

When my brother moved to London from South Africa a few years back, we were forced to communicate via letter. For those of you who don’t know what that is… well, lets just say that it was revolutionary at the time of the carrier pigeon. We weren’t Christians at the time but I still remember the way he likened the experience of letter writing to prayer. You write the letter, send it off and wait.

There are times in the Christian life when we are desperate for answers to our prayers. Whether they are prayers for loved ones, help in times of suffering or discernment about the future, sometimes we literally ache for God’s intervention. It is also at these times that we discover just how bad we are at waiting for anything…especially God. These are periods where we are vulnerable but they can also be tremendously fruitful.

This psalm gives us a great model of how to guard our hearts and minds as we wait on the Lord.

Pray fervently and persistently

How long, Lord? Will you forget me for ever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, ‘I have overcome him,’
    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

If I’m honest, my greatest struggle with prayer is not doubt or despondency but apathy. It just seems like too much effort to persistently lay myself bare before God. Besides, I have more than enough on my plate at the moment! David however, is wrestler. He doesn’t let go of God. We could learn from this that waiting on God means spending time in persistent and fervent prayer.

Trust in his love

But I trust in your unfailing love;
    my heart rejoices in your salvation.

If the previous verses are about striving to keep hold of God, this verse is about remembering that it is God has has first taken hold of you. His grip of love is stronger than ours.

That phrase “unfailing love” typically is used to describe the love God has showed to us through his covenant promises. David is trusting that God will keep his wedding vows to his people. This is no passive exercise but rather a deliberate and conscientious effort to meditate on the love of God. It is also why trusting in God’s love is coupled with rejoicing in His salvation. His love has been chiefly demonstrated to us through the saving work of Jesus Christ. “For God so loved the world that he gave His only Son…” (John 3:16)

God’s loving gift of salvation through faith in Christ gives us confidence and perspective: confidence, in that we know God is working for our good and that he has not abandoned us; and perspective, by putting our small sufferings in the context of his promise of eternal life in his new world.

Sing praise to God

I will sing the Lord’s praise,
    for he has been good to me.

No matter what you are going through, you still exist for the praise of his glory. Praising God is a wonderful tool with which to guard our attitudes as we wait for the Lord. It humbles us before God as we recognise again that we exist to serve him and not the other way around. It reminds us of God’s goodness as recount all he has done for us. It is also pretty difficult to stay miserable when you are singing praise songs to God.

Psalm 12: Purity in a Tainted World

Psalm 12 New International Version (NIV)

For the director of music. According to sheminith. A psalm of David.

We live in a world tainted by evil

In his song Good People, Jack Johnson expresses a sentiment that thoroughly biblical.

“Where’d all the good people go?
I’ve been changing channels
I don’t see them on the TV shows.
Where’d all the good people go?
We got heaps and heaps of what we sow.”

This is the same frustration that we see in the psalmist when he writes:

Help, Lord, for no one is faithful anymore;
    those who are loyal have vanished from the human race.
Everyone lies to their neighbor;
    they flatter with their lips
    but harbor deception in their hearts.

May the Lord silence all flattering lips
    and every boastful tongue—
those who say,
    “By our tongues we will prevail;
    our own lips will defend us—who is lord over us?”

We’ve all felt it at one point or another. The media mercilessly reports wave after wave of unrest, criminal activity, terrorism and scandal. The people in our lives constantly wound us through careless words and selfish actions. Perhaps the most desperate feeling of all arises when we recognise our own part in the mess. This is the bad news: we live in a world tainted by evil. The good news is that there is one place we can go that is free from corruption.

The Word of God is pure

“Because the poor are plundered and the needy groan,
    I will now arise,” says the Lord.
    “I will protect them from those who malign them.”
And the words of the Lord are flawless,
    like silver purified in a crucible,
    like gold refined seven times.

Did you see that? At first it seems that v6 is a random shift in subject. A closer look reveals that the “flawless” words of God in v6 are beautifully connected to God’s promise to “arise and protect” in v5. Here’s how I think this works…

The Word provides respite from the World

First, the flawless word of verse 6 is contrasted with the corrupt world of vv1-4. I love this because it shows us where we can go when we feel utterly overwhelmed by the evil in the world. We can go to God’s Word because there is no evil there at all. His Word is flawless and utterly free from corruption.

It reminds me of the beach.

When I take the children to the seaside, I can be absolutely certain that at some point they will pour sand over me. Despite my most fearsome reprimands, I know it is merely a matter of time before I hear the barely-contained giggle of children standing behind me, armed with sand and mischievous intent. After all of the “fun” I’m left with the task of extricating the sand from my clothes. At this point my wife will hand me a towel. The trouble is that the towel is in a worse state than I am. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to remove sand from your body with a sandy towel.

This is why the Bible is so precious. It is the one place that still provides us with truth and goodness. Going anywhere else in order to make sense of the world we live in is like trying to get rid of sand with a sand-saturated towel.

The Word cleanses us from the World

Secondly, the Word in v6 re-assures us of God’s promise to “arise and protect” in v5. We know that God will keep his promise because his Word is pure and not tainted by deceit. This is fulfilled in countless interventions from God throughout history but is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus. He protects his people from the corruption of the world in two ways.

  1. Jesus cleanses us from the taint of the world by washing us in his blood. (Heb. 10: 19-22)
  2. He fills us with the Spirit, who teaches us to say put off the corruption of the world. (2 Cor 3:17-18)

You, Lord, will keep the needy safe
    and will protect us forever from the wicked,
who freely strut about
    when what is vile is honored by the human race.