Devotions In Psalms

Mystery: Our Sin and God's Grace

Psalm 78.
In spite of all this, they kept on sinning; in spite of his wonders, they did not believe (v. 32).

Lord, this psalmist found the history of Israel enigmatic, mysterious. So, too, the history of the Church. So, too, my own history.

There is, here, the mystery of human sin. In spite of deliverance from Egyptian bondage, in spite of preservation in the wilderness, in spite of the severe lessons taught through chastening judgments, they continued to rebel. They tested You, they forgot Your love and power, they disobeyed Your commands, they rejected Your covenant. Their hearts were disloyal and faithless--the mystery of iniquity.

There is here, too, the mystery of divine grace. They repeatedly sinned but You repeatedly acted to preserve them, to discipline them, to forgive them. They would not cling to You, but You would not let them go. You split the sea and split the rock to save them. You gave them bread from heaven and water in the desert. You destroyed their oppressors and guided them as a flock. You "atoned for their iniquities and did not destroy them." Your grace was greater and more durable than even their sin.

That is Israel's story, the Church's story, and my story-- the story of Your steadfast love!

"For Your Name's Sake"

Psalm 79.
Help us, O God our Savior, for the glory of your name; deliver us and atone for our sins for your name’s sake (v. 9).

There is some ugly stuff in this psalm, Lord, for there was some ugly stuff in Your people's hearts even as they cried to You in prayer. Knowing that You had brought calamity upon them because of their sins, they still desired a sevenfold vengeance upon the heathen who had functioned as agents of Your wrath.

The ugly stuff in our hearts is the reason why only You can make atonement for our sins, the reason why our salvation can only be "for your name's sake." There is no ground for pardon in us, only a need for pardon. Deliverance can only be grounded upon Your unfailing love.

When You punish Your people, Lord, unbelievers charge You with inconstancy and impotence. They reason that You either don’t care or can’t help. To rescue Your name from such defamation You are implored to liberate and avenge Your people. Their names furnish no reason for Your intervention.

Grace alone can save from wrath. Urgent situations provoke urgent petitions: "How long, O Lord? ...come quickly to meet us"--but only for the sake of Your name. Lord, Your last word is grace; let our last word be praise (v. 13).

An Urgent Prayer

Psalm 80.
Restore us, O God; make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved (v v. 3, 7, 19).

Beautiful epithets are used of You in this psalm, Lord. You are the "Shepherd of Israel." You are the vineyard owner and dresser. You are God Almighty. You stood in a merciful relationship to Your people, having rescued them from slavery in a foreign land, having planted and tended them as a flourishing vine in a new homeland; having protected and defended them from their enemies.

But now their situation is ugly and desperate. You removed the fence, leaving the vine to be robbed by vagrants and ravaged by beasts. It has been chopped and burned--"Look down from heaven and see!"

The psalmist knows that Your people brought this awful judgment upon themselves. He doesn't question its justice, he deplores its duration. Thus he prays, in agonizing urgency, that Your face may shine on Israel again, that You will prove again to be the compassionate Shepherd, the attentive Vine-dresser, the almighty Savior. You are the broken people's only hope.

Lord, teach me anew that Your love extends to those who have brought judgment upon themselves. You hear the cries and save the lives of despairing, undeserving people. You are almighty, able to judge, able to restore. Be my Shepherd, my Caretaker, my Redeemer, though I deserve nothing from You.

A Sermon in Psalm

Psalm 81.
I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt. Open wide your mouth and I will fill it (v. 10).

Lord, if Psalm 81 is a liturgical sermon, as many commentators think, then I can learn valuable lessons about preaching in worship services from it.

It opens with a call to sing for joy, reminding me that worship is celebration.

It rehearses Your saving acts, focusing upon the Exodus, the wilderness miracles, and the covenant at Sinai.

Salvation-history presupposes sin-history, and the sins of the fathers provide serious warning examples for later generations. When the people refused Your way You allowed them to have their way, and the consequences were disastrous.

Preaching should rebuke and warn but its final word is grace. If Your people will listen to You, they will prosper materially and spiritually. Their opened mouths will be filled with "the finest of wheat," with "honey from the rock," and with the saving words You speak through preaching. Your promises, commands, and rebukes are the stuff of preaching.

Mine is the awesome and joyful task of proclaiming Your saving deeds--the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, deeds which condemn sin but liberate sinners. What a cause for celebration!

Champion of the Needy

Psalm 82
Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked (vv. 3-4).

Lord, this psalm bristles with difficulties for my modern western mind. As a friend of mine often says, "I don't understand all I know about it." I can't identify this "great assembly" of lesser "gods" who get booted out of office for malfeasance of duty and consequently "die like mere men."

But this much is disturbingly clear: Those in authority who favor the rich and oppress the poor are going to face You and be severely judged. Yours is a moral universe, and the perversion of justice shakes "the foundations of the earth," threatening chaos where You have imposed order. Those guilty of governing unjustly make themselves Your enemies. They dispensed unrighteous judgment to men; they will receive righteous judgment from You, and that will mean their destruction.

You are called upon to “rise up” and do what those “gods” failed to do, to judge the earth,” “all the nations,” impartially and righteously. And this You will do at Your appointed time through Your appointed man, Jesus Christ (Acts 17:31-32). Evil is not ultimate. Truth and justice will prevail.

 Ancient Prayer, Modern Need

Psalm 83.
Let them know that you, whose name is the Lord—that you alone are the Most High over all the earth (v. 18).

Lord, this old prayer speaks to a present need. As never before the whole world needs to recognize Your authority as the Most High.

Men often learn this lesson through judgment in the service of mercy. The psalmist prays that You will arise and smite Your enemies, driving them like tumbleweeds in high winds, destroying them like a forest fire sweeping across a mountainside. In terror and shame they will "seek your name," offering submission and praise.

He knew You could do this, Lord, because of Your past works of judgment. "Do to them as you did to" kings and armies in earlier days, when You delivered and guided and protected Your people. You are still the only hope of those "you cherish" and those who cherish You. Though they are ringed about by ten hostile nations, small and great, and bent on genocide, You can preserve Your chosen people.

To "know" You, Lord, is to experience Your judging and saving power, not simply to read of it in books or even in the Book. This is the sole hope of nations and individuals. This is how I know You, and will continue to know You, Lord Most High!

God's House, My Blessings

Psalm 84.
My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God (v. 2).

How often, Lord, has this psalm been in my heart and on my lips during those Sundays when I could not join Your people in Your house to celebrate Your conquest of sin and death through Jesus Christ.

When I could not be in Your house, You were in mine. I praise You for that, but we both know that falls short of the joy experienced in corporate worship, where Your presence, and the blessings flowing from it, become sun and shield, grace and glory. This gives strength to my faith and hope and love.

One Sunday in Your house beats a thousand elsewhere. Indeed, it is a source of strength added to strength by which the days elsewhere can be lived effectively and productively.

I yearn for Your house because I hunger and thirst for You. You are present there in special ways to confer special benefits. I bless Your name, almighty God, for festival, freedom, and favor bestowed as privileges during worship services that focus on You, on who You are and what You do. "Blessed" indeed "is the man who trusts in you." I am such a man, and intend to be always.

Good Gifts

Psalm 85.
The Lord will indeed give what is good (v. 12).

You are good, Lord, and therefore Your gifts are good. I may not perceive them all as good, but they cannot be otherwise and correspond with Your essential being.

The psalmist speaks of Your wrath and displeasure, and prays that they may be lifted from a chastened and subdued people. If they produce penitence, and inspire prayers to be "restored" and "revived," then surely Your disciplining judgments were also good. I must trust Your essential being, not my faulty perceptions.

The "good" of which the psalmist speaks is both material and spiritual. He speaks of bumper crops, but speaks also of "forgiveness," "salvation," "peace," and the "glory" of Your abiding presence. Your "unfailing love" restores the joyful praises of Your people.

You are good. Like a herald going before a king, righteousness prepares Your way and announces Your arrival. That righteousness is Your saving acts as the source of our forgiveness, freedom, and favor.

For Your good to me I do praise You. Your blessings are constant; let my thanksgiving be continual. "I will listen to what God the Lord will say; he promises peace to his people" (v. 8). O speaking God, make me a listening man, for through obedience to Your word I keep unclogged the channel of Your good gifts.

An Undivided Heart

Psalm 86.
Teach me your way, O Lord, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart that I may fear your name (v. 11).

The psalmist is not named. His trouble is not specified. He just describes himself as "poor and needy" and as "your servant." He speaks simply of "the day of my trouble" and "my enemies." I like that, Lord, for I can appropriate his prayer as my own. I can fill in the blanks with my name, my trouble, and my enemies.

I say “amen” to his description of You. You are "kind and forgiving;" You are "abounding in love;" You are "great," unique and incomparable; You are "compassionate and gracious." Indeed, You are everything I need. This psalm is noted for its "cluster" of petitions, Lord, and my heart resonates with them all.

Central to them is the prayer for an “undivided heart” and a truthful "walk." That is what I most desire, O Lord! I want "your way," not mine, not the world's. To be instructed, though, is not enough. I must be enabled, and that demands a heart fixed on You, a total commitment of my will to Your will.

"Hear my prayer, O Lord," for this, and nothing and no one can defeat me.

A Happy Psalm

Psalm 87.
As they make music they will sing, “All my fountains are in you (v. 7).

What a happy vision this song records, Lord! Zion becomes the worship center of all nations. Those who serve You, whatever their national origins, will be accorded "birthright" privileges equal to native-born Zionists. For one who loved You and loved Zion, this must have been elative enough to inspire singing and dancing.

The vision is being fulfilled in Christ. Jews and Gentiles are united in Him to form a new humanity, all of equal status.

I am one of those privileged to be "adopted" or "legitimated" by You. Your grace has determined my character and destiny, O Lord. Where I was born, and with what blood, no longer matters. I am Your child and my home is "Jerusalem above." Toward it I move with the kind of joy that marked the pilgrimages of devout Jews to Jerusalem and the temple.

"All my fountains are in you." You alone are the source of the life and blessings that I share with all who "know" You. Wow! When I think about that I feel like dancing and singing myself.

"The Lowest Pit"

Psalm 88.
You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily upon me…(vv. 6.7).

Lord I've never read a portion of Scripture that made me so eager to hurry on to another! This psalm is almost totally unrelieved misery and darkness.

The speaker's situation is horrifying. Longstanding affliction has brought him to the brink of death, to the edge of a lower world where praise is not heard and Your loving, saving deeds are not proclaimed. He is repulsive to closest friends and feels deserted by You. All he can do is pray, but his cries seem to go unheard.

And yet, a measure of faith persists, more implied than stated. He knows You are in charge, not some blind and cruel Fate. It is "your wrath," "your terrors," that overwhelm him. He knows that "love," "faithfulness," and "righteous deeds" are also attributable to You. He knows You as "the God who saves" him.

And so he prays on "day and night." For such a person, Lord, darkness may be the last word in the psalm but not in his life. Your light will shine and his soul will live.

How good to have the Savior's promises of unfailing presence (Matt. 28:20) and a home forever with Him (John 14:1-3). The lowest pit for a while, perhaps, but the highest heaven forever.

Mood Swing

Psalm 89.
You have renounced the covenant with your servant and have defiled his crown in the dust (v. 38).

Talk about mood swings! Lord, this psalmist had a radical one. He begins by joining heaven in its praise of Your faithfulness, Your love which "stands firm forever." He praises equally Your power, Your strong right hand which scattered Your enemies.

Having praised Your constancy he abruptly charges You with inconstancy. You made a covenant with David, Your chosen and anointed servant, promising to establish his throne and perpetuate his lineage forever. Now, he feels, You have renounced that covenant and reneged on Your promises. You have given victories to his enemies, ending his splendor and cutting short his days. The charge is serious, almost blasphemous. How patiently You endured it, Lord.

And yet, he prays. He expects You to answer. He continues to believe in Your love and he anticipates a reversal of fortune. His hope endures.

Answer You did--centuries later when Jesus Christ, chosen, anointed, and victorious over sin and death, possessed a kingdom that shall never end. You do love. You are faithful. Your promises are fulfilled--and that is my faith and hope when circumstances seem to contradict them. Amen.

The Lesson I Need

Psalm 90.
Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom (v. 12).

Lord, have I ever been to a funeral where this psalm was not read? The contrast between Your eternity and our mortality is certainly accented when someone in our circle of family and friends is snatched away by death.

The psalmist recognizes the connection between sin and death. The consequences of our "fallenness" fill our brief lives with "trouble and sorrow"--trouble in many forms, sorrow to appalling depths. Because sin necessarily incurs Your wrath, the decree of death and the degree of chastening are imposed by You. This adds to our sense of helplessness and spurs the sufferer to urgent prayer for wisdom to cope effectively with earthly life.

Lord, Your "favor" alone can give to our hectic and hurting lives any meaning and value. We are hopeless apart from Your "compassion," Your "unfailing love." Our sorrow turns to joy, our groans to songs, when You lift the rod, forgive our sins, and affirm our worth and work.

Lord, You are my dwelling place. At home in You I am saved and secure. Not even death can separate me from Your love!

Too Soon Old

Psalm 90.
The length of our days is seventy years—or eighty if have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away (v. 10).

I remember, Lord, the first time I heard this passage of scripture quoted. I was 21, trying to be an evangelist. I was staying in a vacant parsonage in Fort Lauderdale, and I had breakfast each morning with a widow who lived alone in a small cottage across the street. She quoted the verse, from the King James Version of course, and I could hear pain and sadness and loneliness in her voice, and see them in her eyes. She was then 84 years old, a retired preacher.

Now here I am, a retired preacher over 75 with a damaged heart, who has looked into the face of death in recent days. I know how she felt. My life has so quickly passed, and tears have never been far from smiles, sorrows never far from joys. I'm descending life's western slope, grieved over lost children and frustrated by how little I've achieved for You.

My comfort is this alone--that You are my God and my eternal home. Your love holds me, Your presence sustains me. I am Your old man as I was once Your young man. But being Yours is all that finally matters!

Security and Satisfaction

Psalm 91.
He will call upon me, and I will answer him. I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him. With long life will I satisfy him and show him my salvation (vv.15-16).

These comforting words, O Lord, are addressed to the one who "loves" You, who "trusts" in You, who "dwells" in You. They speak of a deep, intimate relationship, not an occasional and formal lifting of the hat or waving of the hand. That is how I want to know You, Lord. I want to know You, not about You.

To those who so love and trust You, You become a "refuge" and a "fortress." Guardian angels are appointed them, and "lions" and "cobras"--including the two-legged variety--will not ambush and slay them. You are their security by day and night, and disaster will not be their destroyer.

You do not keep them from trouble but are with them "in trouble" as a Savior, a Deliverer. You do not promise that nothing bad can happen, only that nothing bad can destroy. The last word is not with plague or even with death; it is with You and the promise of satisfying life.

How I am cheered and braced by this psalm, Lord. It is mine to dwell and trust and pray. It is Yours to protect and rescue and honor. The arrangement suits me!

Singing on the Sabbath

Psalm 92.
I sing for joy at the work of your hands (v. 4).

Some editor long ago designated this psalm a song for the Sabbath day. "It is good to praise the Lord" any day, but especially on a Sabbath day. To open the day proclaiming Your love, to close it proclaiming Your faithfulness, is bound to enhance faith and gratitude.

The singing celebrates "your works," not the feelings of your people about those works. It focuses on Your hands, not on their hearts. Here, Lord, the songs exalt Your work as Creator or Savior--or both, for they are necessarily related. Your works abide, while the wicked are quickly destroyed, like short-lived grass in hot, arid places.

To old age Your people are productive, still singing Your praise, still proclaiming Your righteousness. They are like palms planted in Your courts, "fresh and green" despite the lapsed years.

Lord, that blesses me, for I am old, but still fired by thirst to know You and make You known.

My Sabbath day is Sunday. I sing of new creation. I celebrate Your resurrection, O Christ, in its meaning for deliverance from sin and death. Your deeds make me glad and my gladness is vented in praise. My heart resonates with Psalm 92!

Holy House

Psalm 93.
…holiness adorns your house for endless days, O Lord (v. 5).

Lord, I like the way this Psalm begins: "The Lord reigns." From eternity You have reigned. From Your conquest of the chaotic forces that first threatened creation, You have reigned. As a consequence two things are "firmly established"--"your throne" and "the world." "Robed in majesty" and "armed with strength" You sustain what You have made. The seas may roar defiance, but "mightier than the breakers" are You, "the Lord on high."

I like the way this psalm ends, too: "...holiness adorns your house for endless days, O Lord." Every house reflects the character and behavior of its residents, for honor or for shame. You are holy, and therefore Your dwelling place is holy.

The psalmist refers to the temple, but Your word also identifies Your redeemed people as Your house. Holiness adorns them, as they live in obedience to Your will. Your presence in their hearts has a transforming, cleansing effect. From that inner radiance flows ordered lives, undaunted by the raging seas of evil opposition.

You sanctify and sustain Your house, Your people, "for endless days." Thank You, Lord! That's long enough to enclose all my needs.

The Avenger

Psalm 94.
For the Lord will not reject his people; he will never forsake his inheritance (v. 14).

Lord, how few there are who would call You "the God who avenges." Arrogant rulers, murderers of defenseless people, commit their crimes as though You do not exist and judgment will not come. They are indeed "senseless...fools," for You have said, "Vengeance is mine," and payday is coming for all who oppress Your people. Your people may seem to be rejected and forsaken, but You are with them in their trials and You assure their ultimate triumph.

Justice "delayed" emboldens the wicked and creates a crisis of faith for Your people. The psalmist's feet almost slipped, his faith almost collapsed. Your love supported him and comforted his soul. You became his rock and refuge. His confidence in Your righteousness was restored and he was convinced that sooner or later You would destroy these ruthless slayers of the innocent.

I read the daily news and my heart cries, "How long?" You are ignored and defied, evil struts and boasts, nations are bathed in blood, people fear the streets where violence rages. "How long?" But You are "the God who avenges" and justice will prevail. You see and hear and record and You will judge the earth in righteousness and truth. When is Your decision. Mine is to believe Your word and trust Your love.

Joyful Worship, Again!

Psalm 95.
Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care (vv. 6-7).

Lord, what a ringing call to worship is this psalm! "Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation"! Wow! That kind of jubilant worship would scare the wits out of most modern churches. Sunday mornings would fill hospital emergency rooms with heart-attack victims!

And yet--when we reflect upon Your power as Creator and Your love as Shepherd, uncontainable joy is bound to arise in our awed and grateful hearts. You, whose mighty hands formed earth and seas, care tenderly for us! That's enough to bring a spate of joy from the driest of souls. That has to inspire "music and song" and "thanksgiving."

And yet, Your wonders and kindness can tempt us to take You for granted and to view Your mercies as our rights. We can become spoiled brats, angry when disciplined, sulking when refused. Our prayers can become demands as we vainly attempt to reverse the Creator-creature and Lord-servant roles. Even in our jubilation, therefore, we are warned against "testing" You. Disobedience will forfeit "rest." Rebellion will result in judgment.

Lord, teach me anew that obedience is as vital to worship as jubilation.

Call to Worship

Psalm 96.
Sing to the Lord…proclaim his salvation…. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name…vv. 1, 2, 7).

I am called to worship by this jubilant psalm, O Lord, and my heart eagerly responds. I am called to sing, indeed, to sing "a new song." And why not? You certainly furnish new occasions for joy. Your mercies are as fresh as sunrise and sunset each passing day.

I am called to proclaim, to declare the "glory" of Your "marvelous deeds" by which "salvation" comes. What all this meant to the psalmist and his contemporaries, I can only guess. To me it means especially the miracles of incarnation and resurrection that gave atoning value and saving power to the death of Christ.

Your continuing works as Creator and Redeemer are the subjects of song and proclamation. I am called to ascribe "glory and strength" to You as the God "above all gods," who reigns in sovereign splendor and who comes to judge the world in righteousness and truth. I worship You as God who gives stability to the earth, moral order to the nations. How great You are!

Past provisions of grace, present applications of salvation, future expectations of righteousness—these certainly ought to inspire all nature, all people, and me to worship You.