THE SLANDERED (Psalms of Ascent – Part 2)

wild phloxRescue me, O Lord, from liars and from all deceitful people. … How I suffer in far-off Meshech. It pains me to live in distant Kedar. I search for peace; but when I speak of peace, they want war! [Psalm 120:2,5-6 (NLT)]

When we are slandered it is a joy that the Lord knows us, and cannot be made to doubt our uprightness he will not hear the lie against us, but he will hear our prayer against the lie. [Charles Spurgeon]

While many of the fifteen psalms designated A Song of Ascents display the sense of joy and pride in Israel that we’d expect from people returning to their homeland, a few express distress, looming peril, or trials. One such psalm is the first in the collection: Psalm 120. It is the individual lament of someone who seems to have become the victim of slander—the prayer of someone who is surrounded by warlike people.

While I’ve never been the victim of slander, I have a friend who was. His reputation was deliberately damaged by falsehoods, misrepresentations, and innuendo. Until I studied this psalm, I don’t think I truly understood how isolated and defenseless he must have felt. Like the psalmist, he longed for peace but felt like a stranger in the midst of a hostile nation.

The psalmist expresses his distress at such deceit and pleads for relief. He then describes the destiny of the liar’s tongue: being pierced by fiery arrows, like those used in sieges to set places on fire. This is a bit of irony since Scripture frequently likens deceivers’ tongues to a bow that shoots out harmful words. In effect, the psalmist is asking that his enemies receive a dose of their own medicine! Having shot their vindictive words at him, in a bit of divine justice, God will shoot his own flaming arrows of judgment at them!

What follows is a lament about living in both Meshech and Kedar among people who hate peace. The psalmist is speaking figuratively since these pagan nations were in opposite directions and he couldn’t be in both places at once. The people of both nations, however, were ferocious and aggressive barbarians. Living among the ungodly—people who prefer war to peace—the psalmist feels like an outsider. The psalm’s final line expresses the psalmist’s desire for peace and the deceitful people’s desire for war. Maligned and slandered by people who wanted to make his life difficult, the psalmist asks the Lord for peace, for His shalom.

It’s easy to wonder why such a psalm would be among this collection of hopeful and encouraging psalms until we realize that, unlike most psalms, this one is somewhat backwards. Instead of beginning by stating his plight and following with a plea for deliverance, the psalmist begins by telling us that God already has answered his prayer. From the first verse, we know that the Lord has dealt with the problem and delivered him from his enemies. Rather than a lament, this is a psalm of thanksgiving. The psalmist found refuge and peace in a hostile world because God answered his prayers. Let us take comfort knowing that we have a God who answers our prayers!

When we fight our battles on our knees, we win every time. [Charles F. Stanley]

I took my troubles to the Lord; I cried out to him, and he answered my prayer. [Psalm 120:1 (NLT)]

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OUR KEEPER (Psalms of Ascent – Part 1)

I lift up my eyes to the hills. From whence does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved, he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. [Psalm 121:1-4 (RSV)]

zion - court of the patriarchsPsalms 120 through 134 have the superscription A Song of Ascents. What that means exactly, no one really knows. The original word translated as ascent was “stair” or “step” and some scholars believe the title refers to the temple’s fifteen steps leading from the Court of the Women into the Court of the Sons of Israel. Jewish tradition holds that Levites sang a different one of these psalms as they climbed the steps to the temple. Other scholars posit that the title of the psalms has to do either with the rising moods or thoughts in the psalms’ words or their rising pitch as they were sung.

Written by several different authors and ranging from the time of David to post exile, these fifteen beautiful psalms were at one point a separate temple songbook that later was incorporated into the Psaltery. Some scholars attribute the collection to King Hezekiah who, when laying on his deathbed, was granted another 15 years of life. He supposedly compiled these 15 psalms to represent those additional years. Psalm 126, with its reference to returning from exile, disproves that theory since it had to have been composed after Hezekiah’s death.

Because Jerusalem was on a hill, all roads leading to it went uphill and some scholars believe these psalms were sung during the journey back from Babylon as the exiles ascended the hill to Jerusalem. Another commonly held belief is that these psalms were brought together to be sung by Jews returning to Jerusalem to celebrate the pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles.

One of my favorite psalms, Psalm 121, is in this collection. Perhaps giving credence to the theory of pilgrims walking up to Jerusalem’s gates, the psalmist looks to the hills and asks from where his help comes. When he asked that, was he looking at the hillside with its threats from wild animals, pagan enemies, and bands of robbers? Or, was he confidently looking up toward Mt. Moriah and the temple? With his answer of, “My help comes from the Lord,” I think he was looking beyond the mountains to the God who made them. The psalmist is so confident in the Lord, the one who “keeps” Israel, that he doesn’t even mention what is troubling him!

In this eight verse psalm, the Hebrew word shamar is used six times. Usually translated as keep or preserve, it meant to have charge of, protect and guard as would a watchman. For many pilgrims, the trip to Jerusalem was an arduous one taking several days. With its promise that the one who watched over them never slumbered, this psalm would have been reassuring to the pilgrims as they made camp in the wilderness each night.

We’re not Levites ascending the temple’s stairs nor are we pilgrims journeying up to Jerusalem and we’ll never know why these psalms are songs of ascents. Nevertheless, we’re all on a journey that often seems like an uphill climb. The psalmist’s faith and strong conviction that God will come to his aid certainly makes my spirit ascend. Let us take comfort in knowing the Lord is our keeper, watchman, and protector; He is the God who never sleeps!

The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not smite you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and for evermore. [Psalm 121:5-8 (RSV)]

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KEEP CALM AND PRAY ON

Naples FL sunsetDon’t panic. I’m with you. There’s no need to fear for I’m your God. I’ll give you strength. I’ll help you. I’ll hold you steady, keep a firm grip on you. [Isaiah 41:10 (MSG)]

The minute I said, “I’m slipping, I’m falling,” your love, God, took hold and held me fast. When I was upset and beside myself, you calmed me down and cheered me up. [Psalm 94:18-19 (MSG)]

In 1939, on the eve of World War II, the British government produced three posters to be used in the event of war. Printed with the goal of reassuring the public of the nation’s ultimate victory, the posters featured a plain background, a small crown logo on top, and simple block lettering. The two posters that were distributed said, “Freedom is in peril, defend it with all your might” and “Your courage, Your cheerfulness, Your resolution will bring us victory.” The third poster, with its message to “Keep calm and carry on” was only to be issued in the event of a German invasion. Fortunately, it never was needed. In 1945, most of the “Keep calm” posters were destroyed and forgotten until some were discovered and popularized sixty years later. In spite of the unsettled political climate in our nation, freedom doesn’t seem to be in peril but, if there ever were a time we need, pluck, optimism, determination, and composure, it is now!

Since we’ve been invaded by COVID, I’ve seen several memes with variations on the “Keep calm” posters. They suggest everything from keeping calm and washing our hands, quarantining on, masking up, and staying home, to drinking wine, baking brownies, eating chocolate, blaming someone else, and calling Batman. One simply said “Now panic and freak out!” When faced with a disaster, misfortune, or major mess up, I admit to having done nearly all of those things (except call Batman) but none did much to calm my troubled soul. Perhaps the Christian’s versions of the original poster would have a cross on the top and include suggestions to keep calm and pray on, remember God loves us, or trust in the Lord and His plan. At least, those suggestions would work!

Let’s remember: Jesus stilled the water and waves on the Sea of Galilee with just a word! If He can do that, He is more than capable of calming our troubled hearts and quieting every storm in our lives, even a global pandemic! In the face of life’s predicaments, troubles, uncertainties, and calamities, let us choose to carry on with courage, cheerfulness, and resolution by keeping calm and praying on!

When we fight our battles on our knees, we win every time. [Charles F. Stanley]

You can do more than pray after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed. Pray often, for prayer is a shield to the soul, a sacrifice to God, and a scourge to Satan. [John Bunyan]

Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live. [1 Thessalonians 5:18 (MSG)]

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RICH AND HEALED

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. [Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV)]

And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. [Matthew 19:29 (NIV)]

white peacock butterflySo, since God wants us to be prosperous, we’ll get 100 acres of land for every acre we give up or a return of $10,000 for every $100? Sounds too good to be true and it is. Logic tells us Matthew 19:29 can’t be taken literally—we can’t have one hundred fathers and none of us want one hundred children or wives! To make sure the disciples understood, Jesus made it clear that God is not our heavenly banker who dispenses gifts (especially monetary ones) to the most deserving with His parable of the Gracious Landowner. “Do I not have the right to do what I want to do with my own money? Does your eye make you want more because I am good?” asked the landowner. Jesus explained: “So those who are last will be first and the first will be last.” [Matthew 20:15-16] His message was clear: God’s grace can’t be earned or controlled. Moreover, the word often translated as “prosper” in Jeremiah 29:11 is shalom, meaning completeness, soundness, welfare, and peace rather than wealth. Biblical prosperity and prosperity theology are not the same!

Nevertheless, the health and wealth/name it and claim it/prosperity gospel movement would have us believe otherwise. Their distorted version of the gospel asserts that our words and actions can influence God with some sort of faith force so that we’ll get the health and wealth supposedly promised in today’s verses and others like it. Things like illness and financial troubles result from a lack of faith. If we just picture what we want, have enough faith, and ask for it in Jesus’ name, it’s ours! Thinking that we can somehow manipulate God to do our bidding, however, denies His sovereignty and God becomes more a heavenly vending machine than the ruler of the universe. Our hope is not in the power of our words or size of our faith; our hope is in the power of God alone!

 While we’d like the think that all we need for health and wealth is faith, Scripture tells us otherwise. Not everyone who deserved healing got it while some who didn’t deserve it did! Out of all the sick, blind, and lame people by the pool at Bethesda, Jesus asked just one man if he wanted to get well. Instead of answering the question, the man complained. Nevertheless, when Jesus told him to get up, pick up his pallet, and walk, the man was healed instantly. Censured by the Jewish leaders for carrying his mat on the Sabbath, he explained that he’d been told to do so by the man who healed him—a man whose identity he didn’t know! This sinner, who didn’t know Jesus, have faith in Him, and never asked for healing, was restored to health while the “thorn” in Paul’s flesh remained in spite of his faith, service, and devout prayers!

The gospels and epistles give us more guarantees of suffering and persecution than promises of health or wealth. Rather than a get rich plan, our sovereign God offers a plan for salvation. Our relationship with God is not a business transaction and giving us stuff or taking away our illness is not what makes Him good. God is good because He alone is God. He’s good whether we’re sick or healthy, in debt or flush with money, out of work or gainfully employed, infertile or pregnant, struggling in school or on the honor roll, have a child in rehab or one in seminary. God is good because, in Jesus, we are both rich and healed!

If you have everything but you don’t have Jesus. You have nothing. If you have nothing but you have Jesus, you have everything. He’s worth it. [Costi Hinn]

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. [2 Corinthians 8:9 (NIV)]

And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:19 (NIV)]

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IN GOD’S TIME

So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honor. Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you. [1 Peter 5:6-7 (NLT)]

Humility is the proper estimate of oneself. [Charles Spurgeon]

silk floss tree“Haven’t they ever seen this show? They’re sure to fail!” I exclaimed as we watched the two chefs attempt to make panna cotta in the final round of Chopped. An Italian dessert made of sweetened cream, gelatin, and flavorings, panna cotta usually requires a minimum of four hours to set. In spite of chefs using quick process gelatin, liquid nitrogen, or the blast chiller to speed things up, I don’t think there’s ever been a successful panna cotta on the show. In fact, Chopped judge chef Alex Guarnaschelli calls panna cotta “Chopped suicide!” Nevertheless, these two chefs were sure they would be the ones who could pull it off in the allotted 30-minutes. As expected, instead of ending up with a dessert resembling a Jell-O mold made with cream, they both served something more like melted ice cream. I wondered what made them think they were that much better than any of the other chefs in the twelve years the show has aired. Apparently, competitive chefs tend to be a little short in the humility department!

We may not be chefs who think they’re more skilled than everyone else but, sometimes, we think we’re more skilled than God! As unwilling as the chefs were to accept that gelatin needs time to set, we’re often as unwilling to wait for God to do His work, His way, in His own time. So, rather than humbly admitting that God knows best, we try to be God and make things happen our way and in our time.

“Pray as if everything depends on God; work as if everything depends on you,” often is attributed to St. Ignatius and that advice may be wise in some cases. Nevertheless, there are times when we must humbly step back and leave it all to God. Just as it’s impossible to make a panna cotta in thirty minutes, we can’t make other people change. We can’t make them reconcile, forgive, love, heal, believe, or get sober but, sometimes, we act as if we can! Instead of using the blast chiller or extra gelatin, we try to nudge things along with intimidation, meddling, prying, interference, or concealment. Take it from one who’s learned the hard way, when we think our way is better and faster than God’s, the result is far worse than a runny panna cotta.

A certain amount of arrogance probably is necessary in cooking competitions. The chef needs to think he can achieve the impossible and, someday, a chef may prove victorious over 30-minute panna cotta. Prayer, however, is not a competition; it is a lesson in humility. It is admitting our powerlessness and handing the challenge to God for Him to deal with in His own time and way. Victory alone comes from Him!

We tend to use prayer as a last resort, but God wants it to be our first line of defense. We pray when there’s nothing else we can do, but God wants us to pray before we do anything at all. Most of us would prefer, however, to spend our time doing something that will get immediate results. We don’t want to wait for God to resolve matters in His good time because His idea of “good time” is seldom in sync with ours. [Oswald Chambers]

I wait quietly before God, for my victory comes from him. … Let all that I am wait quietly before God, for my hope is in him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress where I will not be shaken. My victory and honor come from God alone. [Psalm 62:1,5-7a (NLT)]

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HALT

Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” [John 6:35 (NLT)]

chicoryAlthough they were twins, Esau and Jacob were as different from one another as oil and water. Esau, the first born, was impulsive. An outdoorsman and hunter, he was his father’s favorite. Jacob was the quiet (and cunning) stay-at-home mama’s boy. Esau would have watched the Outdoor and Sportsman Channels while Jacob would have watched Food Network and HGTV.

Returning exhausted from one of his adventures and claiming he was starved, Esau asked for some of Jacob’s stew. Exploiting his brother’s hunger, Jacob offered to trade the stew for Esau’s birthright. The stew must have smelled delicious because Esau, who should have been outraged at the idea, accepted his brother’s offer. Foolishly, he relinquished his double share of their inheritance along with all the privileges and responsibilities due the eldest son simply to gratify his hunger.

Esau’s story reminds me of the acronym HALT which stands for hungry-angry-lonely-tired. Halt is what we should do before making a decision if we’re feeling any of those things! Esau was both tired and hungry when he made that life-altering decision. Granted, Jacob’s insistence on making a bargain before feeding his own brother was both sly and selfish of him. Still, the fault for that decision falls solely on the shoulders of Esau.

Esau wasn’t starving; his empty stomach may have been growling but he wasn’t malnourished or wasting away. Nevertheless, he was far more interested in immediately gratifying his hunger with a bowl of lentil stew than the ramifications of his choice. Like Esau, when we’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, we look to quickly meeting our needs without thinking about the consequences. In short, we’re blind to the enemy’s tactics and vulnerable to sin.

Our hunger may simply be for food, as it was for Esau, but it also can be for things like money, fame, attention, understanding, or acceptance. Simon the Sorcerer, for example, was so hungry for the power and authority of the Holy Spirit that he tried to buy it from Peter and John.

The time to make decisions is not when our emotions are on high alert. Acting in anger is dangerous and can lead to name calling, broken relationships, criticism, belittling, destruction, and even violence. Anger is what caused Moses to rashly smash stone tablets that had been written on by the hand of God! When insulted by Nabal, an enraged David immediately set out to kill every man in Nabal’s household. Fortunately, Abigail stepped in, pled for mercy, and cooler heads prevailed.

Making decisions when we’re lonely isn’t a good idea either. Feeling abandoned and alone, Elijah wanted to lie down and die. Being lonely, however, doesn’t necessarily mean being alone. We can feel isolated and disconnected even when surrounded by plenty of people. Perhaps, in spite of his wives and concubines, it was that sort of loneliness that caused David to desire Bathsheba. Halting helps us remember that God always is with us.

Being tired can be physical exhaustion, as it was with Esau, but it also can be a sense of being overwhelmed and drained. For forty years, Moses faithfully led the Israelites but it was his weariness and exasperation at their constant rebellion that caused him to disobey God and strike the rock at Kadesh. Sadly, his impulsive act meant the weary man never entered the Promised Land.

It’s been said that the difference between school and life is that, in school, you’re taught a lesson and then take a test but, in life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson! Let us learn the lesson about halting without having to make a mistake like Esau’s. As the old saying goes, “act in haste, repent in leisure.” Poor decisions come when we’re hungry, angry, lonely or tired. When you’re in one of those situations, halt and pray instead!

We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. [2 Corinthians 4:8-9 (NLT)]

Be still in the presence of the Lord, and wait patiently for him to act. Don’t worry about evil people who prosper or fret about their wicked schemes. [Psalm 37:7 (NLT)]

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