The Victim of Contempt Returns to Joy – Psalm 123

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Psalm 123 NASB
A Song of Ascents, of David

1To You I lift up my eyes,
O You who are enthroned in the heavens!
2 Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master,
As the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,
So our eyes look to the Lord our God,
Until He is gracious to us.

3 Be gracious to us, O Lord, be gracious to us,
For we are greatly filled with contempt.
4 Our soul is greatly filled
With the scoffing of those who are at ease,
And with the contempt of the proud.

“These people are a joke! What they are doing will never succeed. Look at what they are building. Why, if a fox were to jump on that wall, it would simply collapse!”

This was the taunt of God’s enemies when Nehemiah returned from exile and was rebuilding the security wall around Jerusalem (Neh 4:1-3).

Nehemiah returned from exile to find Jerusalem in poor repair. He urged the people, “You see the bad situation we are in…. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem so that we will no longer be a reproach” (Nehemiah 2:17). Nehemiah saw the need and the Lord stirred his heart. Nehemiah understood that he could do something about the dire situation, and the Lord called him to this impossible task.

Some are intimidated by work that is hard. Nehemiah is not numbered among them. He was unequal to the burnt gates and the rubble wall of his home city. But he would not be alone because this was God’s work. God had wired him differently. Nehemiah saw opportunities where others saw none. Nehemiah felt a passion to rebuild the city when others despaired.

Christians can look at our broken world and ask how we can ever rebuild it to the Eden God gave us. Christians can look at our community, our city, and ask how it can recover its spirituality, how the mind of a beast obsessed with greed can be given a human mind again.

Nehemiah had seen God at work in the life of Nebuchadnezzar, their conqueror and despoiler; the cruel destroyer of Jerusalem, no less. His mind was taken from him but restored so he will acknowledge the God Most High (Daniel 4). All of God’s people with eyes to see understood God’s message. Lest anyone think that Nebuchadnezzar was beyond Yahweh’s sovereign control, Yahweh will bring Nebuchadnezzar low and then restore him and turn his heart to acknowledge that Yahweh is the God Most High.

Nehemiah’s eyes were fixed on the God who is able – the God who turned the heart of the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar and Persian Artaxerxes alike.

When we say we are filled with contempt, it means we are contemptuous of others. But the Hebrew expression here means the opposite. When they were filled with contempt, it meant others were contemptuous of them, and they were filled with the contempt from others.

Here, an idiomatic translation is helpful: “Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy, for we have had our fill of contempt.” (Psalm 123:3 NLT).

Nehemiah suffered from contempt. God’s enemies harassed Nehemiah and told him all the things he could not do. But is this all there is to the story. If Sanballat, God’s enemy, was truly contemptuous of Nehemiah, he would just sit back to watch Nehemiah fail. Instead he was actively spying on Nehemiah and worked hard so Nehemiah would fail.

The enemies of God are threatened by God’s work, and used contempt to discourage God’s servants. If God’s work were truly so unachievable, why does the Adversary need to work so hard to obstruct it? Does not the obstruction show the great promise God has for his own work?

This Psalm of Ascents as the pilgrims headed for Jerusalem is a psalm that calls to mind the contempt of those who oppose the work of God. They speak ill of God’s work. They attack God’s servants. They are unhappy when Jerusalem is rebuilt.

This spirit of Sanballat is true in our own time. The Adversary still uses this trick and we must expose it. The Old Serpent tells us God’s work is too much for us, and what we do is useless work. This psalm is powerful antidote to those of us who feel the sting of contempt.

3 Be gracious to us, O Lord, be gracious to us,
For we are greatly filled with contempt.
4 Our soul is greatly filled
With the scoffing of those who are at ease,
And with the contempt of the proud.

The psalmist says he has had his fill of contempt. It comes from those who are “at ease,” those who are “proud.” These people have no reason to fear. They are secure where they are. They seem to have all that life holds dear. The psalmist, however, struggles for a toe hold as he serves the Lord. So what does he do?

The word “gracious” or “mercy” occurs three times in these four verses. That should tell us something. Note the desperate dependence on God that the psalmist feels. “Be gracious to us, O Lord, be gracious to us.” Why? Because we have had our fill of contempt.

Those who oppose God’s work can seem so overwhelming, so justified in their contempt. “Your people are few. The people you have are poor. You have no money. You have no legal status. You are nothing.” There was at least some truth in all these remarks of contempt to Nehemiah. That is why contempt works – it contains truth. And this continued barrage of contempt has successfully kept some people away from Nehemiah’s work for God.

But the antidote to his discouragement is found in the grace and mercy of God. Grace is to receive from God what we do not deserve. Mercy is to not receive from God what we deserve. In this context, it seems that “gracious” (NASB) is an excellent translation. The psalmist is asking for God’s grace, God’s favor, as the answer to man’s contempt.

He possesses the attitude of “poor in spirit.” It is the attitude of dependency on God. Yes, it is true that he is not the equal of the work that God has called him to do. This is why he comes to God with total dependency.

The psalmist lifts up his eyes to the one who is “enthroned in the heavens.” The sting of these earthly taunts cannot be resolved by more earthly squabbles. He has neither the resources nor the spirit to fight the contemptuous. Instead the psalmist looks to God. He is reminded that God is king. He is enthroned and he is in-charge.

God’s servant looks for God’s favors. God’s servant will do no more or less than he is empowered by his Master. He is like a man or a maid servant seeking the favor of the Master. He looks to the hand of blessing from his Master.

People today are too proud to be dependent on God. But the true servant of God is not ashamed to admit that he is waiting for a hand-out from God. He does not look to man for deliverance even though God uses people and moves them according to his sovereign design. He is looking for a blessing from the Master, not his fellow servants. He fixes his eyes on the Master who sits in the heavens. And he continues to do so “until he is gracious to us.”

1To You I lift up my eyes,
O You who are enthroned in the heavens!
2 Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master,
As the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,
So our eyes look to the Lord our God,
Until He is gracious to us.

Story of an Unequal Task

Imagine yourself a single woman with a call from God to serve him in Egypt. Any person serving alone in a strange country is a scary thing. But you are a woman. This makes you a hundred times more vulnerable in 1910 when women hardly travelled alone, much less in the Middle East.

You are bringing Jesus Christ, a message hostile to the locals who have only contempt for your message. You are not supported by, or approved by any real missionary society. You are not very well trained in the Bible compared to others. Your only means of support as you travel to Egypt, and when you arrive there are random acts of kindness. And your job? To start an orphanage, to house, feed and clothed the abandoned babies destined for the watery grave of the Nile.

Lillian Trasher (1887-1961) arrived in Asyut (Assuit) Egypt in 27th October 1910, and in within four months, on the 10th of February 1911, she started her orphanage. She did not have financial backing from America, but went on a donkey from town to town adopting unwanted babies and asking the locals for support to feed these children. She became known to the locals as “the lady on the donkey.”

We must not imagine that she won the hearts of the locals easily. Many suspected she was adopting the babies to be shipped to America to become slaves. But her persistent faithfulness became apparent to all.

WW2 saw a new level of need. There was a time when Trasher became desperately short of supplies. She had no means to supply the hungry children. This was a time of war. People did not have provisions to spare. Politics interfered. Who is on whose side and who should get help? Lillian Trasher had only one recourse.

As the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,
So our eyes look to the Lord our God,
Until He is gracious to us.

Keep praying to God until he delivers.

The American Ambassador, Alexander Kirk summoned Lillian Trasher to Cairo to give her the news. A Red Cross ship was to deliver supplies to Greece. But Greece had fallen into German hands. The ship was ordered to dump their cargo at sea and return home. A young Scottish solder learned of Trasher’s work and after much persuasion had the captain dump the supplies in Alexandria, Egypt for Trasher to collect. She collected 2,600 dresses, 1,900 sweaters, 1,900 pairs of pants for boys, 3,800 blankets, 1,100 towels, 700 kegs of powdered milk, 1,200 sacks of rice, etc.

God supplied when no man could.

When we are truly unequal to the task, it is so easy to become overwhelmed. There will be many adversarial voices of contempt, calling us to give up. There will be even well meaning friends asking us to give up. But if the call of God remains, we can listen only to one voice—God’s.

You can imagine what it was for Trasher to run an orphanage through WW1, the Great Depression, WW2, the independence of Egypt from the British in 1952, the wars of Egypt with Israel, and the regime changes.

Egypt celebrated the centennial of Lillian Trasher, Mother of the Nile in 2010. In her lifetime alone, she saved more than 10,000 children and women. Today, many of Trasher’s children are all over Egypt as powerful witnesses of Christian love and God’s provisions. At a time when Christians in Egypt have every reason to fear, Trasher’s children are telling the country that Christians are good people, and should not be molested.

One woman without resources spent her life on the weakest and most vulnerable, in a country hostile to Christ. Today, she is recognized by all religions in Egypt for her work. But her work was not a social work as no social work can survive even a small fraction of the adversity she faced. She did God’s work as God’s servant, always depending on God’s provision.

The contempt of God’s enemies may hurt for a moment, but the victim of such contempt returns to joy in the Lord because he sees God’s grace. This is not to suggest there are no hardships. Hardships characterize the work of God’s kingdom. Dependence on God does not suggest we do not have our responsibilities. God chooses to work through people and we may be the very ones God is calling to bring joy to his servant who suffers from contempt.

All too often, the media highlights Christian foibles, and leave untold the story of God’s great work in our world today. We can become unwitting allies of the Adversary if we only affirm Christian failures and not rejoice with God’s successes.

Our very real God is working in our very real world. Invest yourself in God’s kingdom. Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.

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Lillian Trasher with Orphanage Children

 

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Resources
- Janet and Geoff Benge. Lillian Trasher: The Greatest Wonder in Egypt. YWAM: 2004.
- Video of Lillian Trasher and her ministry: Lillian Trasher – The Nile Mother

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Worship Returns Me to Joy – Psalm 122

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Psalm 122, NASB
A Song of Ascents, of David.

1 I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the Lord.”
9 For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your good.

“Wake up! It’s time to go to church,” Bob calls out to his son on this bright Sunday morning as they get ready for worship in Tohickon Church in Small Town, USA. Then the hustle and bustle as the family makes its way out of the house, sometimes with a good dose of yelling at each other. But today’s tone was more urgent than angry.

“Aiyah! You still sleeping? Time to wake up already!” Mei calls out to her slumbering children as she looks at the clock to keep track of time. “Your daddy needs time to bring us to church you know!” They live in Punggol but church is far away in Thomson Road, Singapore.

There are many reluctant church goers on Sunday, and there are many who say, “Let us go to the house of the Lord (Y-hw-h).” King David was glad when they said, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.”

The temple was not yet built. When King David thought of God’s house, he was thinking of the Tent of Meeting, and the Ark of the Covenant in the tent. (For a chronology of the Tent and the Ark, see note at the end of this article.) The house of Y-hw-h was so primitive. It could not be compared to the temples of the other gods. Yet David was delighted to go to the house of God.

When the props to worship are stripped away, and there is nothing to excite our spiritual senses, the purest and truest worship happens. These people worship God in spirit and in truth. Most of the time, we need an environment to help us worship. But in times of the moving of God’s Spirit, believers worship in homes, in basements, and outdoors. There is no pipe organ, no band, and when there is persecution, some believers sing without sound, only mouthing the praises in unison.

We might expect David the King to provide spiritual leadership and he would be the one asking others to go to the house of the Lord to worship. Instead David is the recipient here. Sometimes we dare not approach others who are our superiors in the stations of life. But we see the entire sequence played out in the life of King David because someone reminded him, exhorted him, to go to the house of the Lord. Someone brought him joy by asking him to go to the house of the Lord.

We do not know how God works in the hearts of our boss, mom or dad. But if we can be agents to invite them to worship, we bless them with gladness, even those who have God in their hearts.

David was not enjoining others to worship. Instead, he humbly received the exhortation of others to worship God. He was pleased to receive spiritual blessing and leadership from another. It did not matter who, but the great king was not too proud to receive a spiritual encouragement. Whatever his frame of mind before the encouragement, he was glad for that nudging.

At times, we are called to be the “nudger,” and at times are the nudged. The same person can be both. The joy in being asked to go to the house of the Lord is of course, the joy in worship itself. The rest of the psalm describes the worship experience of David.

2 Our feet are standing
Within your gates, O Jerusalem,

David immediately finds himself standing within the gates of Jerusalem with those who invited him back to worship, back to joy. While others journeyed to Jerusalem, David lived there. We can become familiar with what we have and lose the sense of wonder at what God has given us. So David puts himself in the shoes of a pilgrim, looking at what God has given him with new eyes. He allows his heart to wonder in awe that he is standing within the gates of Jerusalem.

The next time you return to worship, why don’t you try what David did. He looked at God’s work with awe. He was not indifferent to the familiar. For when one becomes indifferent to the familiar blessing, one loses the joy of God’s blessings.

3 Jerusalem, that is built
As a city that is compact together;
4 To which the tribe s go up, even the tribes of the Lord—
An ordinance for Israel—
To give thanks to the name of the Lord.

Do you like to be in a crowd? If you are like me, it will depend on the crowd. Mom told us how during the Japanese occupation of Singapore, she was a young girl but had to join in the crowd getting rationed sweet potatoes that had already rotted. It was a brutal crowd of hungry people. This mass of desperation crushed her to the point she could not breathe and almost passed out. But by God’s grace she was preserved. I cannot imagine anyone liking a crowd such as this.

On 11 November 2011, there was a prayer meeting at the cave church in Cairo, Egypt. The church was packed and the Spirit of God was moving in the hearts of the people. For ten minutes, the crowd spontaneously called out “Yeshua” (Jesus). This was a worship of great joy. The people there wanted to be there, and God blessed them with such joy. (See YouTube links at the end of the article.)

The pilgrims crowded Jerusalem, it was a holy bustle. David marveled at how the little city was crowded, so compacted with people as the different tribes gathered there together. This suggests a specific feast day and it was such a wonderful thing to see this crowd. While the tribes were many, they formed one people of God. This is a foretaste of that great throng of people worshipping God, “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’”(Rev 7:9-10).

Perhaps David was also looking at the stones of the wall that fit closely together, and thought how these resembled God’s people compacted together. And standing together in such a united way, the people and stones could not be breached (NLT).

The nation was in a crisis. But that crisis had passed. David knew that crisis-prompted worship must be followed by gratitude-prompted worship. It was now time to gather together to thank God. Israel’s enemies had been subdued, and the hard work of fighting gave way to the joyful work of praise.

5 For there thrones were set for judgment,
The thrones of the house of David.

The throne given to David and his descendants were established by God in Jerusalem to implement judgment. This is true justice: spiritual and social.

Too many well-meaning and socially minded Christians are deceived into an unbiblical concept of social justice in the name of Christ. They seem to think that the equality of opportunity is not enough, there must be an equality of outcome. If there is an equality of outcome no matter what preceded, that is the violation of justice. If a teacher averages out all the grades of the students to give an average grade to everyone, is that justice? If the hardworking and the lazy are rewarded the same, is that justice? If the criminal and the law abiding are both thrown in prison or both walk free, is that justice?

When Jesus comes to restore his kingdom, when he takes his place on the throne and those who are faithful reign with him, we will enjoy a justice the world today does not even know how to describe. But it is not the false “social justice” label that some Christians apply to the socialist ideal of equal outcome.

True justice will come from the house of David. And it will be Yeshua HaMashiach (Jesus the Messiah), who will bring this justice to pass.

If you are a victim of injustice, you would love the establishment of God’s Kingdom with Jesus as king. He will implement true justice; he will reward the just and judge the wicked.

6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May they prosper who love you.
7 “May peace be within your walls,
And prosperity within your palaces.”
8 For the sake of my brothers and my friends,
I will now say, “May peace be within you.”

Christians think of prayer narrowly. We think of a worship service with prayer as a minor component in the worship, and a prayer meeting where we just list items and pray.

In the west Asia, a prayer meeting is like what we call a worship service, and prayer is a large component of the meeting (as you might see in Korean Churches today).

Praying for the peace of Jerusalem extends beyond individual prayer for Jerusalem. It is a call to prayer-worship for the peace of Jerusalem. Prayer-worship is powerful. It is not a weekly ritual. It is a re-centering of the heart to God and God’s people.

It is always right to pray for peace. For Jerusalem, for any city that is currently in turmoil, and for the city in which we live. But there is something special about praying for Jerusalem. There is a blessing! “May they prosper who love you.” This refers to those who pray for the peace of Jerusalem. When we love Jerusalem and pray for its peace, there is a blessing of prosperity for us. This blessing for prosperity is a real one, but it is not about money. It may include financial well-being, but it is about abundance in life.

The psalmist prompts us how to pray for Jerusalem. We are to pray for the peace of Jerusalem and for her prosperity.

The name Jerusalem (from “Salem”) means peace. But it is a city that has suffered much conflict and continues to suffer conflict even though it is called by the name peace.

There is no doubt David was talking about the real city of Jerusalem. But David was also speaking as a prophet. David looked forward to a house of God that was not yet built (only a tent was there), and to a city that was at peace, but not secure in her peace. We do likewise. We pray for the peace of the Jerusalem to come and the house of God to come.

What is that?

Paul tells us there are two Jerusalems: one on earth, the geographic Jerusalem, and one in heaven. The geographic Jerusalem is like the product of Hagar the slave girl, but the heavenly Jerusalem is the product of Sarah the free woman. Geographic Jerusalem represents slavery under the law, but heavenly Jerusalem represents freedom in Christ. “Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother” (Galatians 4:25-26).

Concerning geographic Jerusalem and the physical temple building, Jesus said, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another which will not be torn down” (Mark 13:2). And this was fulfilled in AD 70, and to this day, the only stones that remain to testify to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple is the “Wailing Wall.”

Even though Jerusalem and the temple stood when Paul wrote to the Galatians, Paul called on the Galatians to look to the heavenly Jerusalem. We should do likewise. We must not be caught up with the hype about how geographic Jerusalem portents the coming of Christ and forget that Jesus himself, with his apostles, points to the heavenly Jerusalem.

The Apostles also paint an image of the temple for us. The Apostle Paul says we are the temple of God, and joined together, we are growing into a holy temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; Ephesians 2:21-22.) The Apostle Peter says, “And coming to Him as to a living stone which has been rejected by men, but is choice and precious in the sight of God, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-5). And the Apostle John says, “I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Revelation 21:22).

We pray for the peace of spiritual Jerusalem. Spiritual Jerusalem is the place where all believers of all time come in prayer-worship. We ask God to give us the wisdom and the humility to resolve our quarrels and know that God wants to bless all of us who are within the walls of Jerusalem. Let peace be within our walls. Let prosperity be within the palaces—the place where The Anointed One rules with justice. The peace for the city is peace for the palace. The prosperity for the palace is prosperity for the city.

For the sake of our spiritual brothers and friends who are all citizens of God’s kingdom, we pray for the fulfillment of peace for the heavenly Jerusalem. There Yeshua HaMashiach will rule with true justice and bring true peace. There our souls will find rest.

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The Prayer-Worship Crowd

  • Prayer-Worship of Egyptian Christians in the cave Coptic Church, Cairo, Egypt (11-11-11): CLICK
  • Prayer Worship crowd extends to the outside of the church: CLICK

Messianic Praise for Yeshua HaMachiach (Jesus the Messiah)

  • Messianic praise: CLICK
  • All the Songs of Ascent in Hebrew (Psalm 120-134) [Just to get a feel of it in Hebrew, probably not something you will enjoy unless you are studying Hebrew]: CLICK

The Movement of the Tent of Meeting (Tabernacle) and the Ark of the Covenant

When the Hebrews conquered the Promised Land, the Tent of Meeting, with the Ark of the Covenant was located in Shiloh.

The Philistines attacked Shiloh in 1088 BC and captured the Ark of the Covenant. It first went to Philistine territory until it was returned, and David brought it to Jerusalem. (Journey of the Ark: Shiloh —» Ebenezer —» Ashdod —» Ekron —» Beth-Shemesh —» Kiriath-Jearim —» House of Obed-Edom —» Jerusalem.)

When the Philistines attacked Shiloh, the Tent of Meeting was moved to Nob (for 76 years), then to Gibeon (for 59 years). David erected a new Tent of Meeting in Jerusalem around 955 BC. The original Tent of Meeting made during the time of Moses became extinct in 953 BC from Gibeon. (Journey of the Tent: Shiloh —» Nob —» Gibeon —» Jerusalem.) King David restored the worship of the Lord (Y-hw-h) with Tent and Ark together around 993 BC.

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The Bewildered Returns to Joy – Psalm 121

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Psalm 121, NASB

1 I will lift up my eyes to the mountains;
From whence shall my help come?

“What’s next?” That is a question you would ask from time to time. Perhaps you are asking that question now. Sometimes, we are uncertain what to do next, sometimes we are completely bewildered.

When a loved one passes away, it leaves us bewildered. Suddenly, there is a hole in our heart. If that loved one is a breadwinner, fear strikes us as we struggle with the pain of loss. We are filled with guilt for not having done enough for the departed. We are anxious about what this death will mean to us.

If we lose our job, and we are unable to find a new job, we become bewildered. “What is God’s will for me now?” we ask. Most people do not realize how important their job is to them till they lose it.

In an instant your income and security is gone. You stay at home stressed out doing nothing. You avoid social situations where you have to answer what you are doing. As your severance money runs out, your anxiety increases. Soon, you just want a job, any job. “What happened? What’s next?”

You work hard in school. You prayed even harder, and pleaded with God or promised all kinds of sacrifices if God will give you the grades you need. When the grades arrive, your world falls apart. Your hopes and dreams are dashed. What do you do now? It looks like you are condemned to the left-over options.

If your spouse comes to you and say, “I have found somebody else, I want out of this marriage,” you feel numb, then searing pain, then bitterness. You blame the other person, then yourself, then people, then God. Your feelings and thoughts are so crushed and mangled you know there is no way this wreck can be restored.

“Where do I go from here?”

The Pilgrim heading for Jerusalem realizes that his journey mimics his life. As he journeys towards Jerusalem, he uses the mountains to guide him. So he lifts up his eyes to the mountains. Roads are built on the plains, and there may even be times when the trails are not distinct. As he walks or rides his camel through the wilderness, a turn in the wrong direction can mean death in the desert.

There are many stories of those who have died because they failed to navigate properly. Pilgrim listens to directions carefully and notes when a mountain should be ahead of him or behind him, and when it should be on his right or left. He is using the mountains to navigate. At times, he has to cross mountain passes. Mountains are everything as he makes his way across the barren land.

And why does he navigate using the mountains? Because they do not move! They are fixed points and these fixed points are true. As long as he moves correctly using these fixed points, he will get to his destination.

Up to our point of bewilderment, we were navigating by certain mountains. When we turn a corner, we may suddenly realize that the mountain we used was a mirage. Or that we had wrongly identified a mountain and used it incorrectly. We are lost.

When we are bewildered, we do exactly the same thing. We look for fixed points all over again. We look for mountains that we know to help us navigate.

The Pilgrim lifts up his eyes to the mountains to look for direction—again. He is uncertain or even bewildered where to go next. The mountains help him know where to go next—ordinarily, theoretically. The mountains are the sure landmarks for the pilgrim, as the unchanging principles of life guide us onward.

But what happens when our journey does not seem to add up? What do we do when the mountains that guide us also conceal the highway robbers who maraud and murder? What alternative route can we take?

That is when the Pilgrim questions, “From where shall my help come?” When your fixed stars move, disappear, or fail you in some way, where do you go from there? You are lost and joy has fled.

Psalm 121 starts with bewilderment but spends the rest of the song explaining the deliverance. Let us enjoy it together

2 My help comes from the LORD,
Who made heaven and earth.

Up to this point, the mountains are his help. But when the mountains fail him, the Pilgrim looks to the LORD (Y-HW-H). He is a faithful, covenant- keeping God. Even when all else fails, the LORD does not fail. He made the mountains, no, more than that, he made heaven and earth. What security can these mute mountains provide compared to the creator God?

The Pilgrim turns his gaze from the mountains to the LORD. He is not denying or rejecting the mountains. The Lord has placed them there to help him. But there are times in life when our mountains, our best guiding principles, fail us. And when these fail, the child of God looks to the LORD. That is where he will receive help.

When our best wisdom fails us, when our best friends desert us, when our best securities collapse, when our health betrays us, we still have the LORD who made heaven and earth.

3 He will not allow your foot to slip;

The help the mountains provide is passive. They are just there. They do not care if you read them correctly or not. They are there whether you use them or not. And if you read them wrongly, they do not correct you. That is the character of our best life principles. They are just there.

When they fail us, and our hearts find the way back to God, a new dimension takes over. God is not passive, like the mountains. God loves, God cares. He does not allow your foot to slip. This is figurative, of course; otherwise all of God’s children will be exempted from sprained ankles!

One picture we can have in mind is when the traveler moves along a narrow mountain path that is at times washed away; on one side the mountain and the other the plunge. The Lord does not allow your foot to slip. He is watching over you in your dire moments. Your foot will not slip when you are on a treacherous path. Your current predicament is but a mountain pass. The nature of the mountain pass is that it will pass. Let your heart repose in the LORD.

He who keeps you will not slumber.
4
Behold, He who keeps Israel
Will neither slumber nor sleep.

He is a Keeper not a Sleeper!

If you travel in a caravan group and have the benefit of people taking turns to keep the watch at night, you are relatively safe, unless the keeper turns out to be a sleeper. Those who spy on the camp to attack under the cover of night will strike when the keeper sleeps.

The uninitiated may easily decry the sleeper. Those who have served in combat duty know the temptation to sleep is powerful. I recall the details to keep watch at the camp perimeter. Here I am, away from the main camp, all alone, lying prone in my shallow shell-scrape. For the next two hours, I will stare into the dark and alert my buddies if there is danger. Tiredness, silence, boredom, darkness—they all conspire with the unseemly hour to place these heavy weights on my eyelids.

Do guards fall asleep? You can count on it! If the keeper turns out to be a sleeper what security is there? If those who watch over your safety will fail you from time to time, who will watch over you? In contrast to the sleeper, the LORD is the Keeper who neither slumbers nor sleeps. He is like the electronic motion sensor that does not tire and does not sleep. Darkness or light makes no difference to him. He does not lose a moment’s attention. God is our fail-safe keeper!

God the keeper who does not slumber is given to us against the backdrop of moral evil. This is in contrast to physical evil. In the Hebrew worldview, the term “evil” is used for both moral evil done by others to hurt us, and physical evil or calamities that befall us without a moral cause. For instance, if a branch breaks on its own accord and smashes your car, it is a physical evil. But if your enemy waits for you and sends a branch crashing on your car deliberately, that is a moral evil.

There are people who mean us harm. False friends betray us. Faithful friends can only do so much. Enemies seize opportunities to bring us down. But God is our Keeper!

There are times in life when evil people seem to triumph over God’s children. There are times when sin seems to rule and righteousness beats a retreat. This is one of the times when the mountains on which we depend fail us. How can God allow the wicked to triumph over the righteous?

“No,” the psalmist tells us, “The Lord does not slumber or sleep.” When we are attacked by evil people, God is not mocked. We may think he failed us, but he has not.

In many instances, we need to ask if our predicament is our own doing despite warnings from God. Think of some great evil, like the holocaust in World War 2. Why did the Jews in Europe ignore all the warnings they receive? Should we blame God when we ignore his warnings? Think of the Word of God given to guide us, and when we feel lost, do we blame God for not leading us?

Too many of us are willful in what we do, and then ask why God did not stop us. He simply does not. He has given us the right to choose, even when the choice is wrong. He has given us the right to ignore his warnings even as he sounds them. What we need to notice is that despite our negligence, God still keeps watch over us. In that we marvel.

The Lord as our Keeper is truly emphasized in this psalm. This psalm is traditionally called the “Traveler’s Psalm.” That is a good name and a good use for the psalm. But the NASB has titled it, “The LORD the Keeper of Israel.” This is also a good name because the word “keep” (Heb: SMR) occurs six times in these eight verses! If you use the NASB, you will count four times the word is used, and two more times given to you in the footnote of verse 7 and 8.

7 The LORD will [keep] you from all evil;
He will keep your soul.
8
The LORD will [keep] your going out and your coming in
From this time forth and forever.

Not only does the Lord (Y-hw-h) keep watch over us against the backdrop of evil people, but he also keeps watch over us to keep us from evil events. This is found in the words that follow:

5 The LORD is your keeper;
The LORD is your shade on your right hand.
6 The sun will not smite you by day,
Nor the moon by night.

We know this is about natural or physical calamities because of the reference to the sun and moon. The traveler’s nemesis by day is the unrelenting heat from the scorching sun. And by night, the pale moon turns the desert into a deadly freeze.

The LORD is your Keeper from natural disasters. When they do not overcome you, it is because the LORD is keeping watch over you. Hallelujah!

The Lord as our shade on our “right hand,” means he provides us shelter from harm for the things that are the most important to us. Our right hand means our best interest. We may become distracted with many non-essentials in life, and expect God to attend to our fancies. He may not. But God is always there for the things that count.

7 The LORD will protect [keep] you from all evil;
He will keep your soul.

Thus the Psalmist assures us: the LORD will protect us from all evil: moral or physical. “He will keep your soul” means he will keep you alive. You will not die from these challenges unless he is calling you home. No human enemy and no physical calamity will claim your life. Your life belongs to God.

How does God keep your life?

OT believers focused on God’s goodness mainly in this life. They had a vague notion that there will be a resurrection. But Christians are very clear (or ought to be very clear) that there is a resurrection waiting for us. This is taught by Jesus our Lord and his resurrection opened the way for us.

Life’s ultimate defeat is death. Death takes all. Death is the winner. All life gives way to death. The greatest harm that can come to us, whether by evil men or evil moments, is death. When we die, we lose. “Better a live dog than a dead lion” we are reminded. Death is the ultimate loss. And there had not been a way around it. We all die. We all lose.

If our soul goes to heaven, is death defeated? No! Our body is still dead and worms claim us for food.

It is only in Christ that we have the resurrection. Too many Christians today present a Gospel that is half-good news. They explain that when we receive Christ, we have eternal life. And they explain that means we go to heaven and live with God ever after. That is half-good news.

The Bible tells us that when the immaterial part of our body goes to God, we are in a temporary state. We await a resurrection of our body; and that is the restored whole and imperishable body. We do not exist as disembodied spirits for all eternity. The disembodied person is incomplete and exists only until our bodies are restored. Our victory over death is in the resurrection, not in going to heaven.

The Apostles creed explains clearly, “I believe … in the forgiveness of sin, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.” The everlasting life is after the resurrection and refers to the resurrected person not the intermediate state, as seen in the sequence of the Apostle’s Creed.

“The LORD will protect [keep] you from all evil.” This is true in this life, but all the good we receive are mere tokens. “He will keep your soul (i.e. keep you from dying)” is also true as a token. God keeps watch over our life and spares us from many disasters even when we have acted unwisely. But the ultimate fulfillment of this promise is found in Jesus Christ our Lord. In the resurrection!

We will have the victory in Christ. Death will be swallowed up by the resurrection of our body. All our imperfections, our diseases, our maimness, our injuries will be raised incorruptible.

God in Christ is saving our entire person, body and soul. He is not just saving our soul and leaving our body to rot. God is restoring and refining his creation as in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve were living persons with body and soul.

Hallelujah!  What a Savior is Jesus my Lord!

8 The LORD will guard [keep] your going out and your coming in
From this time forth and forever.

The traveler may be going or coming. Either way, the Lord is keeping watch over him. This is a promise good for now and the future.

In the world of the Psalmist, travel was not the lot of the common person. But in our world today, men and women, young and old, all travel. We travel for work, for leisure, and perhaps a few, will travel on pilgrimage.

To the traveler belongs this psalm. The LORD is your Keeper from all evil, moral or physical, from this time forth and forever.

But this psalm is much more than a psalm for one who travels. It is for all of us who travel the road of life. We are fellow travelers, fellow pilgrims kept from disaster, kept for fellowship with God and one another, kept from this time forth and forever. Our great and final victory is when we rise from the dead, victorious over death.

The bewildered in life can return to joy because the LORD keeps watch over him now, and forevermore.

Red rose

Links for your viewing pleasure:

They are annotated with ratings (1-5) on music (based on my arbitrary taste) and Lyrics.

Traditional:

  • Psalm 121 “My Help” by the Brooklyn Tabernacle. English, Traditional. Music (4), Lyrics (NA, direct from KJV). CLICK

Contemporary:

  • “I lift up my eyes” by Brian Doerksen from Vineyard Album. English, Contemporary. (Music (4), Lyrics (3). CLICK
  • “I lift up my eyes” by Paul Wilber, a Messianic Jew. English, Contemporary. Music (5), Lyrics (2). CLICK

Hebrew:

  • “Shir Lama’a lot” by Yosef Karduner from Album Simanim BaDerech. Hebrew, Contemporary. Music (4), Lyrics (NA, direct from Hebrew). CLICK
  • Ancient Hebrew pronunciation / English. Music (3), Lyrics (NA, rare paleo Hebrew pronunciation). CLICK

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The Victim of Lying Lips Returns to Joy – Psalm 120

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Psalm 120, NASB

1 In my trouble I cried to the Lord,
And He answered me.
2
Deliver my soul, O Lord, from lying lips,
From a deceitful tongue.

It is really hard to be joyful when we are victims of “lying lips” and “a deceitful tongue.” The Psalmist is a child of God and he is suffering from this injury. Through this pain, he finds his way back to God and returns to the joy of the Lord.

The lie is a powerful tool. If a person lies convincingly enough, we often accept his words without even verifying them. We are just too lazy to check the facts, and we swallow the lie; hook, line and sinker.

No one likes to be the victim of gossip. At the same time, we love to listen to gossip; and forget that when we listen to gossip, we have created a victim through our passive gossip. If we do not listen, the other person has no audience and the victim is less of a victim. If we listen, we encourage the rumor mongering.

There are some who lie about others because they are simply liars. The great puzzle comes when ordinarily good people tell lies about others. That is difficult to comprehend. But it happens. They lie about you and hurt you deeply even when they do not appear to hate you. Why then do they lie? They lie because they love themselves more. And there are lots of people who love themselves (or somebody else) more than you.

Liars rarely show remorse. And if you confront them, they do not admit the truth. This is because the liar’s self-interest is more compelling than the pain you are suffering. For instance, someone sells you an item and lies about the item. He is not doing it to harm you. He is doing it to make a bigger profit. When you confront him, there is no reason for him to now turn around and tell you the truth (if he can avoid it). His original goal of unjust profit has not changed, and he now wants to avoid the punishment for that unjust profit. Instead of admission to the lie, you must expect a cover-up.

It was not too long ago that a milk supplier in China lied about its contents. The melamine they put in the milk sickened thousands and killed babies. When they did this evil, it was not to harm people; they just wanted to make a bigger profit. But their lying actions resulted in terrible consequences for their victims.

When we see this applied to our life, we are conscious that lies told, not necessarily out of malice, but out of self-interest, can hurt us no less than those told in malice.

A co-worker can lie about you so he can get ahead. He can even justify it as self-preservation. Whatever the motivation, the harm is done. The arrow is loosed from the bow and finds its mark. The harm on the innocent can be devastating, and sometimes there is nothing you can do about the lie.

On 15 July 2008, Cindy Anthony called 9-1-1 to report that her grand-daughter Caylee had not been seen for 31 days, and that her daughter’s car smelled as though something dead had been in there. Cindy had been asking her daughter Casey about Caylee, and Casey had been telling stories about why Caylee had not been seen. Finally, Casey admitted to her mother that she had not seen her daughter Caylee for weeks. That was when Cindy called 9-1-1.

As the investigation unfolded, it became apparent to everyone that Casey was a compulsive liar. The defense was vigorous, but it could not change the fact that Casey had told one lie after another. Given that situation, we might think that she would be convicted. The jury returned a “not guilty” verdict for murder, but recognized her lies and found her guilty of lying to the police. She was released on 17 July 2011, not guilty of murder, but placed on probation. On 23 August midnight 2012, she served her probation and now walks free.

There is no reason why Casey would want to harm Zenaida. What Casey wanted to do was to pin the blame of her missing daughter on someone else. She found her victim in Zenaida. Casey told police that her two year old Caylee was placed in the care of her nanny, someone known as “Zanny the Nanny.” Casey supplied basic information to the police identifying her as Zenaida Fernandez-Gonzales. Both women had visited an apartment building at the same time, and Zenaida had filled in her information on a card. Apparently, Casey used that information to mislead the police so as to deflect blame from herself.

Investigations showed that Casey was lying about Zenaida. She was trying to deflect blame for the missing child. Zenaida had no connection with Casey or Caylee other than the chance meeting. The investigators concluded there was no basis to think Zenaida had kidnapped and killed Caylee.

But when the allegations became public, Zenaida suffered grievously. Casey is shown to have lied repeatedly, but it did not matter with some people. Zenaida became the victim of Casey’s lie.

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In 2012, Zenaida filed a defamation suit against Casey. As of now, the lawsuit is in progress. We do not know if the American justice system will assign guilt correctly this time. But there is little doubt that Zenaida suffered terribly from Casey’s accusations. Zenaida lost her job, lost her home, and her daughters were tormented in school.

To this day, some foolish people choose to believe the vivacious Casey against Zenaida, a plain looking Hispanic woman. Some choose neutrality under the false notion that it is the wisest thing to do. Neutrality is wrong when sides have to be taken. A two year old is dead, and somebody did it. It was not Zenaida, so there is no reason to pretend neutrality when it is clear she suffered from Casey’s lies.

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Zenaida continues to suffer when she brought the defamation suit. Some argue Zenaida has not really suffered because she made many public appearances to protest her innocence. Surely, they think, a victim will be languishing in some corner and not fight back. “Her fighting back shows she is not a victim,” they say. That is, again, faulty reasoning. If she did not respond, would they not say it proves she is guilty?

The doormat mentality is not fundamentally Christian. When a Christian accepts wrongs done against him, it is to come out triumphant. When we allow ourselves to be trampled, it is not a virtue, but a lack of courage.

In addition to Casey deflecting blame on Zenaida as the nanny who kidnapped her daughter, Casey’s defense was that Caylee drowned accidentally and Casey’s bizarre cover-up was on account of her troubled childhood. Casey’s defense would not even suggest Zenaida killed Caylee. So why do some people still think Zenaida is responsible? Go figure!

To explain her bizarre behavior in covering the supposedly accidental drowning of Caylee, Casey’s defense accused Casey’s father of sexual abuse. Her father stood by silently as his own daughter laid these charges on him. He would not refute her because her lies gave her a better chance of winning her case. Despite Casey’s record of lying, some will believe her accusations against her father. He will forever live with his daughter accusing him of sexual abuse. He is another victim of her self-interest.

The Psalmist is the victim of lying lips. Even though he is innocent of the charges brought against him, he suffers as a powerless victim. There is no doubt he is in deep trouble. His opening words are “In my trouble I cried to the Lord.”

There are two general possible Christian responses to lying lips. One is to assert truth because God is truth and injustice is an affront to God’s character, and the other is to stay silent and ask God for deliverance, and perhaps quote the example of Christ. This psalm is not a treatise on how to respond under all situations. But it guides our hearts in a situation when we are victims of lies.

When all joy is fled from his life, the Psalmist points his own heart back to God and back to joy.

It is a sad reality that “myth is more potent than history” (Robert Fulghum). Once a rumor is released, a chain reaction is set in motion. It does not matter that the salacious rumor is myth, but it is more potent than the truth that tries to emerge. It will do as much damage as it wants, and there will be no shortage of mean people who believe or repeat a rumor, sometimes for no other reason than to appear they are in the know.

The Psalmist has no effective recourse to correct the lies said about him. So he brings his complaint to God. When we have the means to expose lies, we ought to do so. But when we are powerless to confront evil, we have the assurance that God will be our defense.

Injustice is contrary to God’s holy character. When we pray for deliverance from the lying lips and the deceitful tongue, we can be confident it is a prayer he hears. So the Psalmist says, “And he answered me.” We do not have the impression there was immediate deliverance, but we certainly see the immediate answer.

Spurgeon rightly points out, “It is of little use to appeal to our fellows on the matter of slander, for the more we stir in it the more it spreads; it is of no avail to appeal to the honour of the slanderers, for they have none, and the most piteous demands for justice will only increase their malignity and encourage them to fresh insult. As well plead with panthers and wolves as with black hearted traducers.”

When God answers our prayer for deliverance against lying lips and a deceitful tongue, we are not to think it means he sends his angels to expose evil, strike the liar dead, and carry us on their shoulders in a victory parade. But he does answer our cry without delay. He speaks peace to us who go to him. He stills our troubled minds and tends to our wounded hearts.

Sometimes, God sends someone who believes us. Sometimes a person stands up for you and blunts the attacks. And painful though it may be, sometimes God shows us our friends through the pain of being a victim. Through these and other means, God answers our cry for help. We just cry out “Deliver my soul O LORD.”

The word “soul” simply means “person” in most of the Psalms. It is not a cry to deliver the soul and let the body rot. This is a poetic way of saying, “Deliver me O Lord.”

The cry is to “the Lord.” (When we see all caps for “Lord,” it means the original Hebrew name for God Y-hw-h / Yahweh is used). This is a reminder that God is the covenant keeping God. He is faithful. He is the God who is able to deliver.

Perhaps this song was written in exile in Babylon. Perhaps the Psalmist was referring to the Babylonians as those with lying lips. Perhaps the lying lips were other Jews who lived with him in Babylon, or among the returnees to Israel, or even those who were living in the land of Israel. We do not know. What we do know is that they were powerful. They out-maneuvered the Psalmist; out-talked him; out-funded him; and they had the ears of the audience.

Are there times in your life when joy has fled because evil rumors flood your life? Regardless of who the liars are, and how influential they may be, God hears your cry and sees your plight.

When you are maligned, your hearts suffer a terrible wound. Even when you have means and mandate to refute evil, there is still pain. But that pain and anger is multiplied when you have no recourse. The first thing you ought to do when you are maligned is to ask God to deliver you and to return you to joy.

There is a tendency for all of us to forget God until we are truly desperate. We use human resources and human methods to respond to the lying lips and the deceitful tongue. There is no virtue in living with lies, but there is also no spiritual growth when we handle lies merely with the arm of flesh. That is what many Christians do, and we come to God only as a last resort.

The first line of the song tells us that the Psalmist is in trouble, and the immediate response to that trouble is, “I cried to the Lord.”

3 What shall be given to you,
and what more shall be done to you,
You deceitful tongue?

The Psalmist addresses the “deceitful tongue” as though it were a person. “What shall be given to you, and what more shall be done to you” is a Hebrew style that conveys a statement and follows it with an intensification. That is, “What punishment shall be given to you, and what more can be added to that punishment?” As much as the lies and rumors cause harm long after they are spoken, may the punishment befit the offense. That is, may God punish the liar and add to that punishment.

4 Sharp arrows of the warrior,
With the burning coals of the broom tree.

Two different images of justice are used. Let that justice be like “sharp arrows of the warrior.” As much as the rumormongers have shot at, and pierced him, the Psalmist asks God to recompense the same to the evil doers.

The next image is that of burning charcoal. When others tell lies about us, it causes us to burn in frustration and anger. The broom tree is used for making a good hot-burning charcoal. So the Psalmist asks God to punish these liars so they suffer the burning as coal from the broom tree.

This is a prayer for justice; a plea to God that the ones who liar will suffer for the lie and will continue to suffer for it as long as the lie has a life. It is a cry for justice to be satisfied.

5 Woe is me, for I sojourn in Meshech,
For I dwell among the tents of Kedar!

Meshech is a place northeast of Israel (exact location uncertain), and Kedar is to the southwest. The song writer cannot live in both places at the same time. It is clear that this is figurative speech. While we know only the approximate geographic location of Meshech, we know its moral location. The people from Meshech lived in a distant land and did not know the Lord (Isa 66:19, NASB); they were slave traders (Ezek 27:13); they were connected to death (Ezek 32:18, 26); and they were connected to Gog and Magog as enemies of God (Ezek 38:2-3, 39:1).

The location of Kedar is more certain. It is the ancient name for a tribe that lived in Arabia, descendants of Kedar, second son of Ishmael (Gen 25:13). However, we do not know the moral issues in Kedar except that the song writer calls it a woe to live there.

Simply put, the writer is in a bad spot. He is living among people who do not value truth. Instead, they support lying lips and the deceitful tongue. This is a very important point we must not miss. The writer is speaking as one who has no means to set right the lies told about him. It is even possible that he is not talking about living among the Gentiles, but among fellow Jews. Yet the way he is treated makes him feel as though he is living in Meshech and in Kedar.

The verse can also have the sense of “Woe to me, whether I sojourn near Meshech, / or dwell near the tents of Kedar” (Dahood). In this case, the Psalmist is saying that even if he were to move to remote Meshech or to remote Kedar, the poisonous lies said about him will follow him there.

This interpretation is very plausible. It flows well with the lament by the Psalmist. He is weeping over the reality that even though he tried to ignore the lies and tried not to respond in kind to these rumor mongers, they just will not leave him in peace.

This is even truer today. We live in a global village. Myth is so powerful it will travel oceans at the speed of an electronic byte to overtake us and wait for us at our destination. There is no escaping the lie. This problem has become so severe that people are making a business out of protecting reputation on the web. Yet, it is not an easy battle to fight. Laws and defamation lawsuits can only do so much. They may gag some people, but no method has yet been found to compel everyone to speak the truth.

6 Too long has my soul had its dwelling
With those who hate peace.
7
I am for peace, but when I speak,
They are for war.

The Psalmist comes forward now as someone who is a lover of peace, and who speaks peace, but his enemies want war. How did the Psalmist get to the point when he is for peace despite his ongoing suffering?

This is what Jesus taught, saying, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt 5:9).

Some recoil at this psalm because it seems to call for justice and does not seem to fit with the call for us to love our enemies.

There are paradoxes in the Bible because there are paradoxes in life.

The inspired Word of God is rarely a treatise of one thing or another. It is given to us to address our spiritual needs. When we are maligned, we have a natural need for justice. There is nothing unspiritual about wanting justice because God is just. Our innate desire for justice is a reflection of God’s image in us.

But how can we ask for justice and at the same time, do good to those who abuse us? (Matt 5:44; Luke 6:27-28). It is this paradox that seems irreconcilable to some. But this paradox is true in life application.

In sports medicine, cold and hot compresses are often used. This seems like a paradox. Why would you use a cold compress only to follow-up with a hot compress? You do it because the cold compress reduces swelling, and after the swelling is reduced, you use hot compress to stimulate circulation.

The human spirit is like the human body. We need both the cold and the hot compress. We need to have the liberty to call on God to pursue justice on our behalf because we have no means to do so. We must be allowed to cry out for justice. This prayer for justice is our victim-voice speaking to God. But what we observe is that this helpless victim did not choose the path of vengeance. He leaves the injustice with God.

It is a cry that says, “Lord, I am powerless to pursue justice, now I leave it with you.” This is the release we need so we can move to the next step: to love our enemies and do good to those who abuse us.

When Jesus teaches us to love our enemies, he is asking us to fulfill the law of God. The law starts with:

“Vengeance is Mine, and retribution,
In due time their foot will slip;
For the day of their calamity is near,
And the impending things are hastening upon them”
                                                                     (Deut. 32:35)

Our need for justice has to be satisfied. When we have the means to assert justice, we need to do so. But all too often, we do not have the means to demand justice in our imperfect world. So God tells us he is interested in our justice, and we can lodge a complaint with him and leave it with him. He will take up our cause.

Jesus then tells his disciples they must not stop there. There is one more thing the true child of God would do. He would love his enemies.

Some people walk through the need for justice quickly, and some walk through that path slowly. But it is a path we need to take before we can emerge on the other side.

Paul explains to us, “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom 12:19).

When we look at Jesus on the cross and the injustice he suffered for us, we find our motivation to forgive; and to love; and when our enemy is hungry, to feed him; and when our enemy is naked, to clothe him.

In Jesus Christ, we see the payment for justice satisfied and the love of God enabling us to let go of hurt done against us.

Therein lies our paradox, but therein lies our redemption. When our wounds are fresh and hurting, we call out to God for justice. When God comes to us in grace and heals our broken spirit, we learn to return good for evil.

There are Christians who have so thoroughly understood the surpassing grace of Christ on the cross that they find it easy to forgive. Others take the long road. In either case, we lay the injustice at God’s feet, and then arise and do good to those who abuse us. That is when joy returns.

How can the child of God find joy in the midst of pain? How can the child of God find rest when there are those who spread lies about him?

There is no answer in this world. The answer is in the Lord himself. The peace and the justice the Psalmist longs for is one that can be found only when he comes into the presence of the good, faithful, and covenant-keeping God. To return to joy, we need to return to God and place the injustices at his feet.

We who see the love of God poured out to us in Christ on the cross can never say we suffer greater injustice than Jesus. There is no grievance that we cannot place at the cross. There is no injustice so great that we cannot return to joy.

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Return to Joy: Introduction – Psalm 120-134

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“This day is holy to our Lord.
Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
                                                            (Nehemiah 8:10 NIV)

Nehemiah comforts the people of God when they return from exile in Babylon. It is an emotional time. There is regret as the people of God understand that they have sinned against God blatantly. There is gladness that God once more shows them favor and they rebuild Jerusalem.

Rebuilding Jerusalem is hard work. There is sorrow in life. There is pain that we inflict on ourselves. There is pain that others inflict on us. There are hard times even when we are doing God’s will. But we are to return to joy every time we are discouraged, in sorrow, or in pain. Joy is something we possess, lose, and repossess. It is our spiritual heritage as worshippers of the One True God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

As the people sorrow and weep, Nehemiah speaks these words of comfort to strengthen them: Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Neh 8:10)

God makes us a complete unit with both the spiritual and the material. Both are good, and each affects the other. So Nehemiah tells God’s people to eat something they love and drink something sweet. Nehemiah is surprisingly modern! He knows that when our blood sugar is too low, it is hard to be joyful.

Joy is not an uninterruptible emotion. But it is a necessary blessing. Where there is so much going on in our life and they crowd out or shout out our joy in the Lord, but we must return to it. When we return to the joy of the Lord, we re-center our life, find hope, and renew our strength.

Around Nehemiah’s time, fifteen psalms were collected and placed together for the people to use. They are called the Songs of Ascents (Psalm 120-134).

These are songs about God’s people returning home. They are songs of joy that give them strength. They are songs that help them look to the Lord rather than focus on the complications in their life.

Joy in God’s Word is real. It is not a call to look at our world through tinted glass. It is a joy that arises from adversity. It is a joy that comes in spite of trouble or pain. It is not a joy that comes through escape; it is a joy that comes through triumph.

The songs were used by returnees as they journeyed from pagan lands to return to the Promised Land. They were used by returnees who have arrived in the Promised Land and are rebuilding their ancestral homes. They were songs used by God’s people who were starting life over. They were also used three times a year as by Jews we return to Jerusalem to worship God.

There were fifteen steps leading up to the temple on the south side. Many tourists today would recite each psalm as they ascend the steps.

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.This is one time we don’t have to choose how the psalms should be used. It is as useless to argue when we sing certain hymns or songs. We sing them when we feel like it! There is no restriction to songs. The more we sing them, the more we enjoy them, and the more we enjoy them, the more we sing them. It is unimaginable that people are told, “You cannot sing this song unless you are doing this or that.”

These songs are always connected in some way to Jerusalem and to the Temple. To this day, an inscription of the “Song of Ascents” stands at the entrance of the City of David.

In a very real way, our life is a pilgrimage towards Jerusalem. To be sure, God himself will bring Jerusalem to us, but we also journey to it. We are all pilgrims looking for the joy of our Promised Land. Revelation 21 tells us:

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

3 I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” (NLT)

The Songs of Ascents is not about the past. They are for us to use today as we await the new Jerusalem where God will wipe every tear from our eyes.

Let’s enjoy these songs together!

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When God Accommodates

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I had a view of God that focused on “What does God expect of me?” And to that query, I decided that God wanted me to be such-and-such. Yet the human heart is deceitful and desperately wicked (Jer 17:9) while I developed a view of what God expected of me. But that view was more me than God. It was more a tweaking of what I wanted without falling afoul of God than a true seeking after God. There were just too many things in my life I would not give up, and did not even know to give up.

We need to constantly challenge our thinking about what God expects of us. This is simply because we have a tendency to self-deception.

One aspect of God’s character that surprised me, and made me rethink many things is found in Matthew 19:3ff. This is the passage Christians use to determine when divorce is permissible, and if remarriage is permissible. But in all that debate, which is not our point here, we can easily miss something of great value found in the words of Jesus, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard.”

The striking point is that during the time of Moses, God permitted divorce because of the hardness of man’s heart. If we say it plainly, it would be that the law of God, permitted divorce because men are so wicked that if divorce is not permitted, worse can happen.

Men are physically stronger than women in most instances. A man, with greater physical strength, can easily abuse a woman. And this is the sad commentary that goes on even in our day in almost any country or culture.

Can you imagine what a man would do if he could not divorce a woman? If that option is not open to him, he may resort to more terrible things. We have the shameful example of King Henry VIII who resorted to false charges and had his wife executed. From time to time, we hear of men murdering their wives, and the tearful response from the victim’s family is always, “But divorce is an option.” The cruel reality is that if men are not allowed to divorce their spouses, the murder of wives will spike.

The reason why God permitted divorce (whatever we may want to accept as a viable reason), is that prohibition is worse; not because divorce is normal. This point set me to reflect more deeply about God’s accommodation to human weakness.

There are quite a few examples of God accommodating our weaknesses, foolishness, or some other shortcomings. Let me name a few.

When Cain killed Abel, God condemned him to become a vagabond. But Cain pleaded with God, “My punishment is more than I can bear… and whoever finds me will kill me.” In response, God ensured that he will not be killed by any blood-avenger (Gen 4:11-15).

Beginning with Adam, we do not have any suggestion that people ate meat. Adam and Eve were probably vegans or vegetarians. After Noah’s flood, God gave permission for humankind to consume meat. (Gen 9:3). The taking of animal life to eat it was an accommodation after the flood.

When God wanted to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah on account of their sin, Abraham bargained with God not to destroy Sodom where his nephew Lot lived. He asked God to spare the city if there were fifty righteous people in it. And he bargained God down to ten righteousness people (Gen 18:23-33). God accommodated Abraham. Of course, we know it was eventually to no avail because Sodom did not have ten righteousness people in it. God in his great mercy delivered Lot from the destruction even when he was supposed to perish with the city.

We skip to the time of the judges and see Gideon who was too frightened to answer God’s call for him to lead the people against their enemies. So he asked God to confirm the calling by making the fleece wet while the ground around it dry. When that happened, he asked for the opposite, that the ground would be wet and the fleece be dry (Judges 6:36-40). God accommodated.

There is a big picture of God’s accommodation in Calvin’s theology which theologians are aware. Calvin points out God’s transcendenceand that almost all of what God does for us, starting with his revelation to us, were accommodations to our limitations. It is like when we try to explain something to a child. We use simple words and simplify things so s/he can understand. The theology of God’s accommodation is clearly seen when God became human flesh in the person of Jesus. What is not recognized by many is that God also accommodates us in the day-to-day matters.

God’s ideals for us do not change. They reflect his holiness and truth. At the same time, “If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you” (Ps 130:3-4). If God were to keep a record of our sins, who among us can endure his holy and just anger? The psalmist rightly asks. In addition, our fear of God is not based on his record of our wrongs, but on his forgiveness. We fear God because he forgives us.

This is powerfully seen in the life of Simon Peter after he denied Jesus three times. Peter had seen the resurrected Christ. He was glad for the resurrection, but he had given up on himself. “I go a-fishing” Peter said. Simon Peter has condemned himself. He was a fisherman when Jesus gave him the high calling to fish for men. When he decided to return to fishing, it was not a casual remark. It was said to James and John, his partners in the fishing business. They decided they would go with Peter.

They fished all night but did not catch anything. At the break of dawn, someone called out to them from the shore asking, “Have you food?” Meaning, “Have you caught any fish?”

“No,” they replied.

“Cast your net to your right and you will find some,” the stranger offered.

With nothing to lose, they cast to their right. And there was so much fish they could not haul in the catch.

This was a replay when Jesus first called them. They were fishing all night and caught nothing, had given up and were washing their nets. Jesus had them go back out into the deep of the lake to cast their net. And they had a huge haul of fish (Lk 5:1-6). John immediately recognized this person had to be Jesus. He told Simon Peter who knew John must be right. Peter wrapped on his outer garment and jumped into the water and swam or waded about 100 meters to shore.

When the disciples hauled their catch and came to Jesus, the first thing Jesus did was to feed them. After feeding them, Jesus turned to Simon Peter and asked, “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?” (Referring to Peter’s boat and fishing business.)

Jesus called him “Simon.” Jesus was going back to the time when he was not yet renamed Peter the apostle. He was taking Peter back in time, so he was Simon once more. Next, he called him “son of Jonas.” Perhaps Jesus meant no more than to bring Peter back to his starting point by referring to his father. Perhaps Jesus was using the name of Peter’s father, which happened to be Jonas, to remind him of Jonah the prophet who fled from God’s call to win the Ninevites.

Whatever the case, Jesus created this déjà vu. He helped them catch fish, and he called Peter by his pre-appointment name “Simon.” Then he asked, do you love me more than these?” We will expand the dialog to clarify the meaning.

Jesus is saying, “Do you love me with a supreme love (Greek: agapao) above all these?”

Peter replied, “Lord, you know I love you with the lower grade friendship love (Greek: phileo).” To which Jesus said, “Even with your friendship love, I want you to feed my lambs.”

What is Peter saying? He is confessing to Jesus, “I know you deserve the supreme unconditional love (agapao), but you know that all I have to offer you is a limited friendship love (phileo). You know I failed you. You know I denied you. I cannot say I love you with a supreme love.”

Jesus asked Peter a second time, and Peter gave the same reply.

Something happened the third time. Jesus lowered the bar to accommodate Peter. He said, “Simon, son of Jonas, do you love me with the friendship love?” At that, Peter was grieved. Some think Peter was hurt. I think it was a general but powerful feeling of sorrow than hurt pride.

Jesus was accommodating Peter.

Twice he asked Peter if he loved him with the love he deserves (agapao). Twice Peter says he is only good for the friendship love (phileo). The text tells us that Peter was grieved not, less on account of his being asked a third time, and more of what he was asked the third time. Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me (phileo)?”

Peter could not rise to the supreme love that Jesus deserves. So Jesus lowered the bar for Peter, to the friendship love Peter offered. This is God’s accommodation. Peter was grieved that Jesus had to come down to his level because he could not rise to Jesus’ level.

And Peter, now sober about his own limitations, replied one more time, that his love is only a friendship love. And in remarkable divine accommodation, Jesus accepted Peter’s imperfect love, and still called him to “Feed my sheep.”

This is mind boggling!

Jesus knew Peter’s heart. Peter was forever humbled by his denial of Jesus. He denied Jesus three times, and now Jesus asked him three times “Do you love me.” Peter was in the habit of trying to over-deliver. Imagine Peter of the past. If Jesus had asked him “Do you love me with a friendship love?” Peter would have replied confidently that he loves Jesus with a supreme love. The reverse is now true.

It is not the words of Peter that we should be looking at, it is the heart of Peter.

Here we see a humbled and no-longer-confident Peter. He no longer dared to claim he loved Jesus with a supreme love. Perhaps at this time, he loved Jesus more than before. He just didn’t know it.

Jesus asked Peter three times and Peter affirmed his love three times. Jesus is the wronged party. But in love, he reached out to Peter to offer him healing.

Jesus topped it off by recommissioning Peter: “Feed my lambs/sheep.” Jesus had just fed his disciples (with fish and bread). Now, Peter was to feed the sheep. Jesus knew Peter would deny him when he first chose Peter. His call to Peter to be a fisher of men had not changed. He knew Peter’s failure even before he called Peter that first time.

Many of us fail like Peter. We no longer dare to proclaim, “I love you supremely!” We wonder deep within us if Jesus still wants us. We ask if other Christians can accept us despite our failures. We no longer see ourselves as worthy instruments for God’s use. We are broken.

When we are broken it does not mean we are broken for God. We can be no more than sad broken individuals stripped of dignity and worth. But God chooses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise. He takes what is broken and remolds us to become more like Jesus. He accommodates us, comes down to our level. But thanks be to God, he does not leave us in that broken state. He lifts us up again, and remakes us as he did Peter.

When we are low, God accommodates us. When God accommodates us, he lifts us up again.

Hallelujah!

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The Beam in My Eye

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“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Luke 6:41)

As a child, I was endlessly fascinated by the ray of light that cuts into some place indoors and lights up minute particles of dust. These particles, otherwise not visible, become visible under strong and direct light. One of these particles of dust is a speck.

Can we see a speck? Not ordinarily. But if we shine a bright enough light, and if we have good enough eyesight, we can see it. The speck may or may not bother my brother’s eye, but it bothers me. I need to get it out. In contrast, I have a beam in my own eye, which should incapacitate me. But I am not bothered by the beam in my eye, and I just want to remove the speck from my brother’s eye.

Of course, Jesus says this to us as ironic and exaggerated speech. We cannot really see a speck in another person’s eye and we cannot really have a beam sticking out of our own eye.

When we think of this rather famous saying, we rarely think of applying this to ourselves. We see the other person with the beam stick out of his eye looking for the speck in ours. But isn’t that exactly what Jesus is saying when he gives us this picture? We see our brother’s speck and not see our own beam?

An intriguing book I read has the rather damning title: I told me so – self-deception and the Christian life (Greg Elshof, 2009). I would like to use several points from this book for us to explore the problem of the beam in our eye.

If we will be more like Jesus, we need to identify our self-deception. We need to recognize that we are all deceived at this point in time. The only question is what we are deceived about.

One point the author makes is that if we look back in our lives, we will recognize that we were deceived or mistaken about things we thought were true. There is therefore every likelihood that even though we do not know how we are deceived now, eventually we will learn about what we believe wrongly now. Looking back to our past, it is reasonable to assume that we are deceived in some things now as we were deceived then. In other words, we all have beams in our eyes we cannot see. And if we will grow in Christ, we need to identify these beams in our eye.

Jesus’ anecdote focuses on the beam in our eye and not the speck in our brother’s eye. Let’s use a test that is unrelated to faith so we are less sensitive about ourselves. Let’s say we run a survey among men on how well they drive compared to other men; and we ask mothers how hard they try to be good mothers. We give them five options: (1) poor, (2) below average, (3) average, (4) above average, (5) excellent. Logically, we should have the most people indicating “(3) average” since that is what the word means. In reality, we will almost certainly have most people saying “(4) above average.” That is a logical impossibility. If a certain level is the majority level, then that is the average.

But our self-deception is necessary to keep us happy about ourselves. Conversely, it is reality that will keep us humble and enable us to be more gracious towards other people who are less than perfect.

One beam we need to realize is that most of us are average in most things; and we may be above average in a few things; and excel in perhaps one or two things. But we love to engage in self-deception because we have an emotional stake in our self-deception. We feel better about ourselves when we deceive ourselves into thinking we are better than we really are.

As a general rule, the more stake we have on a certain matter, the more prone we are to self-deception. Since I am a pastor, I will use my own foibles as an example. Let’s say I come to a certain conviction and go public with it. I argue strongly for it without a provision for my being wrong. What I have done is to create an emotional stake on the issue. I now become less able to look at counter arguments objectively and less capable of presenting arguments for my own case that may convince others, and I have severely reduced my ability to examine counter arguments.

However, if I have not made a public commitment to my conviction and find myself in the company of my peers (pastors or students of the Bible), and we examine the same subject, my reduced emotional commitment to the issue tends to give me greater room to change my mind. First, I have not made a public commitment, so I do not need to make a public defense. Second, I am among my peers and it is emotionally easier for me to concede to my peers than it is to my parishioners.

One approach I take to prevent self-deception is to refrain from taking positions on non-essential matters. I know that when I take a stand it becomes much harder for me to examine issues objectively. A Christian value that has helped me handle my self-deception is the practice of humility. If there are things I have not noticed before, I learn to be gracious and to say that is a good point, and that I have not noticed it before. It reduces my emotional stake on a position, and allows me to rethink my position without having to change it on the spot.

Self-deception is extremely hard to handle because the deceived person cannot see it. I make it a priority to reduce my self-deception by reducing the conditions that lead to a greater likelihood for self-deception.

Another way of expression of the self-deceptive beam in our eye concerns pride which God hates. Most people have enough humility to acknowledge they can make mistakes or be wrong about something – at least in an abstract sense. But self-deceptive pride can easily take over our life if we have to defend our public actions or words. When the things we say and do commits to either a humbling admission of sin, or further justification for our wrong doing, we often choose the route of self-deceptive defense. Why? Pride! [It’s like the Chinese expression: xia bu liao tai. Not able to get off the stage without loss of pride.]

While no one is exempt from this foible, I think those who teach, like myself, stand in greater danger than other people. That appears to be the case between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the respected religious class. They were the gold standard for understanding the Word of God. When Jesus came and gave the authoritative interpretation to the Word of God, they were outclassed. They think their worth is diminished in the eyes of observers. And pride drove them to try and trap Jesus at his teachings.

We too can fall into the same self-deception. We can try to win by fair means or foul, just to salvage our pride. We can also resort to bullying tactics if we are in a position of power. These are just some of the ways we miss the beam in our own eye.

Substitute Criticism

When we are angry at someone and refuse to admit our anger, we end up engaging in revenge through substitute criticism. Did not Jesus tell us it is necessary that if we have something against a brother, we should speak to him alone? Let’s walk ourselves through a sequence of what can happen.

Nick said something that offended Mike. At some point, Mike begins to form a strategy for revenge. He would not actually allow himself such unworthy thoughts, but creates a self-deceptive strategy. If he were to heed the command of Christ to speak to the brother alone, the matter will close. But his real objective is not closure but revenge.

“When we’re angry with others and we’re not willing to think of ourselves as harboring anger toward them, we’ll find some alternative characterization…. Sometimes we’re “concerned” for them. Other times we’re “sad.” We’re not angry with them; we just feel sorry for them. Or maybe we’re frightened that someone else may be injured by their actions. “I’m not angry with him,” we say. “I’m just worried that he’s going to hurt someone else – something needs to be done to stop him.” (Elshof. I Told Me So, Kindle Locations 765-768).

Mike begins a character assassination campaign against Nick. So Mike talks to his friends about his concern over Nick’s behaviour problem of harshness. His friends begin to look out for Nick’s harshness. Every time they hear something respeckly true they chalk it up against Nick.

Mike’s self-deception would not allow him to see his own action as wicked. At some point, he convinces himself that he is doing it for the good of the other Christians in the community. One day, the group confronts Nick with spurious examples of Nick’s harshness. Nick explains himself, but there is now another problem. This group that confronted Nick has committed themselves. Their pride is now at stake. If they are wrong, they owe Nick an apology for their gossip. Rather than admit wrong, they embark on a self-deceptive group-think. They need to find some way to justify their action against Nick. And unless there is one righteous person among them willing to break the cycle and admit they have sinned against Nick, Mike has successfully created a self-deceptive group-think against Nick. It is now a matter of time before they find another reason to criticize Nick, and a matter of time before Nick is rejected from their midst.

Group bullying in the name of Christ is just wicked in every way.

Have you ever wondered why some churches are perpetually sick? More likely than not, they have embarked on a self-deceptive group-think of some sort. It may be how they deal with individuals. It may be some sacred cow in the church. It may be a false doctrine. Underlying these is self-deception.

Most people just care more about their sinful self-interest than the church of Jesus Christ. They will not admit their own wrong that keeps the church from moving forward. They will see the speck in their brother’s eye but will not see the beam in their own eye. Their self-deceptive pride just won’t allow it.

No, it is not “they” and “them.” It is “we” and “us.” To a lesser or greater extent, Jesus speaks to all of us when he says Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Luke 6:41) If we read this passage and immediately see the fault in another person, it confirms for us that we have a beam in our eye.

Admitting self-deception is extremely difficult. That is why it is called self-deception! After David sinned against God, and when he understood his own sin and self-deception he cried out, “Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being, and in the hidden part you will make me know wisdom… Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (Psa 51:6,10)

If you have never admitted to self-deception, the chances are high that you are currently engaged in self-deception. Will you now hate me for saying this and begin a certain course of action? I think better of you.

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