image by Luke Stackpoole from Unsplash
Psalm 101 is the psalm I've been memorizing recently; perhaps its shortness appealed to me (it's been a while since I last memorized Scripture.) Just a verse a day, right? Eight days, and you have one whole psalm memorized. However lazy you are--or how bad your memory is; my two main excuses--you can't really argue with that.
There's a reason why memorizing a passage is different from simply reading it through. As your brain struggles to recall, to remember what order the verses come in, whether it's "haughty" or "proud"--or whether it's "haughty heart/proud look" or "proud heart/haughty look" (!!!) you're meditating on the meaning of the words, the significance of their order. I found much more food for thought from Psalm 101 than I had before just reading through on a superficial level, especially since you focus on just one verse each day. I've enjoyed Spurgeon's verse-by-verse commentary on the Psalms for the same reason.
I will sing of your mercy and justice; to You, O God, I will sing praises.
"Mercy and justice"--only with Christ can we celebrate both of these virtues of God without fear or guilt. Knowing that we are sinners, but redeemed ones.
I will behave myself in a perfect way; Oh, when will You come to me? I will walk within my house with a perfect heart.
Behaving wisely, perfectly, starts with our everyday life. Within our house. The small duties that others won't see. The everyday relationships, tasks, decisions that we make--that is where we should start in our quest to be holy, to model Christ's perfection. And as always, David makes clear the connection between behaviour and heart. Our hearts must be in the right place before our behaviour can be perfect, can be pleasing to God.
I will set nothing wicked before my eyes; I hate the work of those who fall away; it shall not cling to me. A perverse heart shall depart from me; I will not know wickedness.
Holiness is not merely doing what is right, but just as much the purposeful avoidance of temptation and removal of sin from our lives. We may be going to church, giving generously, behaving with kindness and graciousness; but are we turning a blind eye to the pet sins that we are reluctant to give up? Is there bitterness, pride, or hatred that we need to address, but distract ourselves from by being busy with doing good?
Whoever secretly slanders his neighbour, him I will destroy; The one who has a haughty look and a proud heart, him I will not endure.
This includes seemingly petty/respectable sins: gossip, lying, jealousy, pride. David does not mince his words. He addresses these sins for what they are, and affirms his commitment to eradicating them from his life.
My eyes shall be on the faithful of the land, that they may dwell with me. He who walks in a perfect way, he shall serve me. He who works deceit shall not dwell within my house; he who tells lies shall not continue in my presence. Early I will destroy all the wicked of the land, that I may cut off all the evildoers from the city of the Lord.
Within our responsibility and scope, how do we encourage what is right, and discourage what is evil? How do we live making a clear distinction between good and evil, when often culture, society, or environment tries to blur the line and justify what ought not to be justified? Here's a quote from Mark Driscoll I happened to come across that puts it clearly and simply (whatever bones you might have about him otherwise:)
"One of the great themes of the Protestant Reformation was that scripture--not culture--is best suited to interpret Scripture. If at any point our cultural preferences are in contradiction to Scripture, it is culture that must move, and not Scripture."
If you've ever watched any period dramas--be it the Game of Thrones fantasy sort, Chinese palace dramas, or Western historical dramas--politics, merciless survival-of-the-fittest scheming, deception, and backstabbing are the foundation of any court life. How revolutionary is it that David, as king, declares here his resolution to remove lies and deception from his court? Idealistic, some would scoff. As king, David could have shrugged and settled for "it be like that sometimes." Especially as someone who had been majorly exposed as a liar and deceiver over the whole ugly affair with Bathsheba, trying to cover up the sins of murder and adultery. It was all the more humbling, an act of vulnerability as well as an act of accountability, that David took this stance against lies and deception. His resolution did not stem from or cultivate a holier-than-thou attitude because it was common knowledge that the king himself had been a liar. His resolution was an effort of true repentance, seeking to put away all traces of what had been his besetting sins of pride, lust, deceit.
"A Psalm of David. Promised faithfulness to the Lord."
image by Aaron Burden from Unsplash
Psalm 51, in my Bible, is the only page that has a special fawn book tab sticker to mark it out. Partially because the moment I stuck it on I regretted it big time--I didn't realize how thin my Bible pages were, and they tore around the sticker edges if I wasn't careful turning the page. AbortMissionAbortMission--
But that's just standard characteristically bad decision making; Psalm 51is the psalm that became meaningful to me when I was seeking to be saved. Perhaps the first time that the Bible really 'spoke' to me, to use a trite phrase. When the aptness and timing almost frightened me. When I realized for the first time why reading the Bible is not like reading War and Peace or any other old thick book with tiny text.
I still remember a particularly low point, struggling with feeling depressed and hopeless because I was forced to accept that no matter how hard I tried, I could not make it through a single day without regret, without realizing I had acted selfishly or proudly; without anger and impatience--and the list goes on. During this time, crushed by the appalling proof of the limits of my self-control, of just how useless "trying harder" was, I found myself drawn more and more--not to the deep theological discussions and records of Jesus's life in the New Testament, or the multi-faceted stories of the Old Testament that I had always enjoyed as a child, but to the Psalms--that unassuming book somewhere in the middle which I had always passed by. David's intimately personal "I" and the honest, vulnerable expressions of his emotions--his frank, child-like joy in God, or his most wretched moments of guilt and self-doubt--were something that drew my own restless, unhappy heart.
David had always been one of my favourite characters. I tried my best to forget about that horrid incident in and as a result the preface to Psalm 51--"To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba"--kind of put me off the rest of the Psalm. For the first time, however, I remember looking past the shadow of that incident and feeling verse one hit me in the pit of the stomach; "Have mercy upon me, O God..."
In the 21st century vocabulary we don't speak like that. This was what my heart had been groaning wordlessly, and it felt almost like relief, hearing it articulated so honestly and simply for me. Yes. Mercy. Simply mercy--I had no excuses, no reasons, only a wracking yearning need to be lifted out of this swampy morass of guilt and self-doubt, even self-loathing, that I could see no way out of. With a small sighing sob I felt the smart of tears, and looked through them at the rest of the psalm, blinking.
Empathy. Catharsis. Comfort. Guidance.
But more importantly, hope.
I found those as I made my way slowly through the rest of Psalm 51. And each time I reread it, I find more things to carry away, to store up, picking up pearls that only add to the beauty and significance this particular psalm has for me.
Have mercy upon me, O God,
According to Your lovingkindness;
According to the multitude of Your tender mercies,
Blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
And cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I acknowledge my transgressions,
And my sin is always before me.
Guilt, ever-present, forcing us to realize that something is wrong with us, something is wrong with this world, that we have a gaping hole, a desperate need of Someone greater than ourselves...
4 Against You, You only, have I sinned,
And done this evil in Your sight--
That You may be found just when You speak,[a]
And blameless when You judge.
This always caught me unexpected--a reminder to see our sin in its full scope; as primarily an act of rebellion and rejection against God Himself.
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
And in sin my mother conceived me.
6 Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts,
And in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom.
This is not the problem of isolated acts, isolated "bad decisions," moments of weakness, as we'd like to think--because we want to think that we can manage it, we are basically good despite these small flaws.
This is something intrinsic to our human condition, from our very conception; something that underlies our whole world.
And to change--to fix it--we need likewise a transformative change. Not a quick fix or a coverup, but from the inside, from our "inward parts". You need to change us. You need to plant truth and wisdom in the very core of our being, to transform us from the inside out. Our hearts, not just our external actions, need to be changed.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Make me hear joy and gladness,
That the bones You have broken may rejoice.
9 Hide Your face from my sins,
And blot out all my iniquities.
The self-aware, cringing consciousness of guilt, of impurity--washed away. Cleansed, as thoroughly and simply and effectively as physical cleansing. The satisfaction of watching the dirt being blasted away, watching the cleanliness being restored. Free!
Free, and joyful.
No longer trapped inside the swampy morass, even though we might have broken a few bones in our fierce struggle to get out. Wounded and weak and still vulnerable, still raw from the struggle, perhaps; but rejoicing.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from Your presence,
And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of Your salvation,
And uphold me by Your generous Spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors Your ways,
And sinners shall be converted to You.
14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
The God of my salvation,
And my tongue shall sing aloud of Your righteousness.
15 O Lord, open my lips,
And my mouth shall show forth Your praise.
And here you have the new convert's earnest prayer--for sanctification, for perseverance. With a vivid awareness of how much, how intensely you need God's presence. The power and guidance of the Spirit. In order to have a "clean heart"--to persevere--to have joy. And even--I found this point especially enlightening--to spread the Gospel. David prays, not simply to evangelize as a duty, but for God's abundant mercy and joy on him, which overflows into the most powerful and effective--and sincere--evangelism. Evangelism akin to praise.
16 For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it;
You do not delight in burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,
A broken and a contrite heart--
These, O God, You will not despise.
And to balance that, David acknowledges that yet, all these things, all the things he promises to DO for God, they are not what is actually important. They do not earn him merit. That's not why he does them.
As John Piper said in Desiring God, our desire to be like God, to be righteous like God, should be our motivation--arising from our deep love and joy in Him; like a boy to whom the most intense, direct enjoyment of football would be to play the game himself, rather than simply watch others play.
Instead, how do we please Him?
With humility. With repentance. With faith in Him, not in ourselves.
18 Do good in Your good pleasure to Zion;
Build the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then You shall be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness,
With burnt offering and whole burnt offering;
Then they shall offer bulls on Your altar.
With that as our foundation, we are empowered to truly serve in the more common, concrete action-oriented understanding of the word. To change lives for the better, to nurture and bless and build up our communities and the people around us. To build the walls of our own Jerusalems, not because God is depending on us to get it done, but because we see ourselves as the instruments of His good pleasure, of His power. Without the pride, self-reliance, anxiety, and doubt that characterizes human achievements. With humility and purity in our personal lives as the foundation for these "sacrifices".
Those are the sacrifices of righteousness, the sacrifices that please You.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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