Zion

“He has founded His city on the holy mountain. 
The Lord loves the gates of Zion 
     more than all the other dwellings of Jacob. 
Indeed, of Zion it will be said, 
     ‘This one and that one were born in her, 
     and the Most High himself will establish her.’ 
The Lord will write in the register of the peoples: 
     ‘This one was born in Zion.’”
Psalms‬ ‭87:1-2, 5-6‬ ‭NIVUK‬‬

This Psalm is very short and written by “The Sons of Korah”, who were musical and choral leaders in the time of King David. So they probably wrote this Psalm as a song, to be used in worship in the temple. But what was all this about “Zion”, a word that has come to describe the nation of Israel. A word associated with the Jewish nationalistic movement. A word hated passionately by certain adjacent countries in the Middle East.

Zion was a place, geographically situated in Jerusalem, but spiritually, God’s home. And the importance of Zion to the Jews cannot be underestimated. As we can see from these verses today, people born in Zion were contained in God’s Register of Births. Obviously a special place. But can we draw any conclusions from Psalm 87 that will help us in our pilgrimage through life today? Although Zion described a place and a movement in the Old Testament, in the New Testament Zion has become a word associated with the Kingdom of God, our spiritual kingdom. We see this particularly in Hebrews 12:22, “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly,”. One day we will find ourselves living in this city, our ultimate spiritual home. But isn’t that too far in the future to bother about? Do we need to be aware of it today, when bills fall through the letterbox, when the washing machine breaks, when we sit at our office desk, earning enough to live on? Whatever we think though, we need a focus. We need to know where we are going. What we are working towards. Sometimes a vision of Jesus, of our future home, of the new life to come, will sustain us through the valleys encountered in our pilgrimage through life. Otherwise we will just flounder, perishing in the “now” and losing sight of “tomorrow”.

John Newton wrote a hymn in 1779 entitled, “Glorious things of thee are spoken, Zion, city of our God” based in part on verse 3 of today’s Psalm. The last verse is:

Saviour, if of Zion’s city,
I through grace a member am,
Let the world deride or pity,
I will glory in Thy name;
Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
All his boasted pomp and show;
Solid joys and lasting treasure
None but Zion’s children know.

‭‭A great hymn – I’m looking forward to “solid joys and lasting treasure” – how about you?

Teach Me

Teach me your ways, O Lord, 
     that I may live according to your truth! 
Grant me purity of heart, 
     so that I may honour you.”
Psalms‬ ‭86:11‬ ‭NLT‬‬

How do we learn? What do we learn? Why do we learn? Questions that sit at the very heart of our lives. For unless we learn what we need for life, we will be woefully ill-equipped to make our way through the minefields that exists between the cradle and the grave. In our early years, our parents taught us the basics. School teachers added their weight and learning in our formative years. But unless we are receptive to what we are taught, we will continually bounce off the obstacles that will come our way, becoming damaged in the process. How many times have I thought, when observing the struggles of someone I know, “You never seem to learn”. Sadly, that sometimes applies to me as well.

We all walk a road through life. Sometimes there are mountain top experiences, where we find that life is wonderful and good. But at other times we walk through a valley, dark and dismal. Full of misery and depression. Through these experiences we learn, so that the next time we encounter life-trials, we know how to face into them.  

The ultimate and best Teacher is God through His Spirit. And we have a text book to help us, the Bible. The wonderful thing is that it is full of truth. Not someone’s opinion. Not a series of subjective thoughts. But Truth, because God is Truth. The teachings contained within the Holy Scriptures may not be easy reading. They may be opposite to what our human nature desires. But we reject them at our peril. Many people have made a “rod for their own backs” by ignoring Biblical teaching. We look on at our political leaders and see the mess they create when they choose to follow their own desires and not God’s desires, as set out in His Words in the Bible. There is another amazing fact about our Heavenly Teacher – “…God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’” (‭‭Hebrews‬ ‭13:5‬ ‭NIVUK‬‬). So to turn that around, God said that He is always with us. On the mountain tops but also in the valleys. Encouraging us. Teaching us. From the cradle to the – hang on – He will never leave us. Ever. 

Bend Down, God

Bend down, O Lord, and hear my prayer; 
     answer me, for I need your help.
‭Psalms‬ ‭86:1‬ ‭NLT‬

Yet again the imagery in the Psalms impresses me. Straight away, this verse develops within me a picture of a parent bending down to hear what a small child is saying. David is back again, pushing the Psalmist’s pen. And once again he is calling out to God for help.  If the only information about his life was contained within the Psalms then we would perhaps have a very skewed picture of his existence, as he seemed to stumble from one disaster to the next. From one petitioning audience with God to the next.

But this picture of God bending down to hear our prayers. My prayers. Your prayers. The world’s prayers. So many of them incessantly rising up into Heavenly places. But we read that God doesn’t loftily wait for them to arrive, holding out a net to catch the best ones, letting most fall back to earth unanswered. No, God actually bends down to hear them – David wouldn’t have asked otherwise. Our hurried whispered prayers. Not making much sense. But God knows – He bends down to hear them. And just in case the words from our mouths are garbled and incoherent, He checks out what is in our hearts, where the source of our prayers are birthed. 

The wonderful thing about our relationships with our Heavenly Father, is that He is always there for us. “An ever present help in times of trouble”, (Psalm 46). And we can call upon Him at any time. Day or night. From wherever we are. From a prison cell or a palace. In bed, on our knees, at our office desk, anywhere at all. There in no place where God is unreachable. So why do we hold back in our petitions, in our prayers for help when we need it? 

David’s faith was such that he was convinced God would always answer him. He wrote in verse 7 of this psalm, “I will call to you whenever I’m in trouble, and you will answer me.” And he also knew that God would never tire of hearing his prayers. He wrote in verse 3, “Be merciful to me, O Lord, for I am calling on you constantly.” David knew the wonderful love and provision of His Heavenly Father. But He’s our Father as well and He has no favourites. We can all stand before Him, equally able to offer up our prayers. His unfailing love and mercy means He is always ready and waiting to hear us, bending down if necessary to hear our heart-felt petitions. Oh – just one more thing – we mustn’t forget our manners – we mustn’t forget to thank Him. And offer Him our praise and worship, in constant wonder that the Creator of everything cares enough to bend down and hear our prayers.

‭‭

A Holy Kiss

“Unfailing love and truth have met together. 
Righteousness and peace have kissed! 
Truth springs up from the earth,
     and righteousness smiles down from heaven.”
‭‭Psalms‬ ‭85:10-11‬ ‭NLT‬‬

I love the poetic language in the Psalms. The descriptive words used, even in a translation, capture the Holy Spirit inspired message, lyrically flowing from the writer’s pen onto whatever medium was used in those days. In verse 10 we have four God-words – love, truth, righteousness and peace – coming together in a cosmic coincidence, intimately acquainting us with a glimpse of God in his Heavenly home. It’s the purity behind these words that has grabbed my attention today. Not just the limited human love, but unlimited, unfailing, God-love. Not the truth tarnished by human minds, but total God-truth. But what happens when just these two aspects of God’s character meet? A priceless jewel is birthed and it has a new word to describe it that hasn’t yet been conceived, awaiting us in Heaven. Something so significant has happened in Heaven that it can’t be held back, and in response, truth, a poor copy though, emerges in our sin-ridden domain here on planet earth. The imagery continues when two more God words appear on the Psalmist’s parchment – God-righteousness and God-peace. We are bounded by our very limited human understanding of what these words even mean, but we read that they come together in a kiss, in an intimate embrace, producing another jewel. Heaven is full of priceless objects that totally escape our human comprehension. An unlimited treasure chest of precious jewels that will take us eternity to discover and enjoy. Jewels safe in an environment uncorrupted by sin. I appeal to my readers this morning – make every effort to ensure your future. Make every effort to make the right investment. Make that faith-leap through the blood of Jesus into an assured future, beyond human understanding and comprehension, safe and sound in God’s presence.

Revival

“Won’t You revive us again, 
     so Your people can rejoice in You? 
Show us Your unfailing love, O Lord, 
     and grant us Your salvation.”
Psalms‬ ‭85:6-7‬ ‭NLT‬‬

Why was the Psalmist asking God for a revival? Society’s relationships with God have waxed and waned over the centuries since Jesus walked this earth. A time of dryness is followed by a period of spiritual blessings before it dies back into a lethargic and Godless state again. It was obviously the same in the history of Israel, as we can tell from the Biblical writings in the Old Testament. What is there about human beings that they move away from the very One who can provide the life they need, only returning to Him when they hit an insurmountable problem? We have seen it particularly since the start of the Covid pandemic; churches that used to be well attended are now struggling to get going again because people have not returned to the pews. But so many people, secure in their comfortable lives, think to themselves, “Why should we connect with God again. What’s in it for me?” But Asaph, the writer of Psalm 85, boldly asks God the question – “Won’t You revive us again”? Why should God do that? After all, He created man with the option of free choice. Mankind can choose to accept or reject their Creator, should they so wish. And in the same way God has a choice, Asaph points out. If God revives us, he suggests, then His people will rejoice in Him once again. It’s almost a “chicken and egg” situation. But we know that if we reach out to God then we will find that He is there. Jeremiah 29:13 reads, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” I have a picture in my mind this morning of a man living in a room quite happily. There’s a door on the far side, but he doesn’t bother about it. Not even curiosity will drive him to open it. But until he does, he won’t find the wonderful world, God’s world, that exists on the other side. No more walls defining his limits. Just a limitless world filled with our limitless God. And the door isn’t even locked.

Asaph asks God to take the initiative. He asks God to revive us so that His people, us, you and me, can experience once again a wonderful relationship with our wonderful Heavenly Father. Asaph gives God the excuse for revival – “so Your people can rejoice in You”. I pray that prayer as well this morning. If there is ever a time when our world needs to rejoice in God it is today. 

God’s Home

“How lovely is your dwelling place, 
     O Lord of Heaven’s Armies. 
I long, yes, I faint with longing to enter the courts of the Lord. 
With my whole being, body and soul, 
     I will shout joyfully to the living God. 
Even the sparrow finds a home, 
     and the swallow builds her nest and 
     raises her young at a place near your altar, 
O Lord of Heaven’s Armies, my King and my God! 
     What joy for those who can live in your house, 
     always singing your praises.”
Psalms‬ ‭84:1-4‬ ‭NLT‬‬

In a sinful and war-torn world, there is something reassuring about being in God’s presence. The mayhem of the last Psalm, Psalm 83, is displaced by a totally different world, where the presence of God fills all space. Because where God has His home, we will find rest and peace, love and acceptance. And the wonderful thing is that the doors to His house are wide open. Anyone can enter through the blood of Jesus into His presence and find Him there. In His home we will find a place of protection, a place of spiritual wholeness, a place of singing, a place of joy, a place of love, a place where we can relax and just enjoy Him. The birds of the air, without even thinking about it, camp there, going about their lives without fretting over the cares of life. And so must we. I’m writing this piece on a Sunday morning, with thoughts of anticipation about what God is going to do through His people, through His presence, in the lives of His people, as we go to church, as we come into His place. Yes, I know it’s just a building. There may of may not be an altar there. But God is everywhere through His presence, and wherever we are, we can enjoy Him. We might be heading for an ornate building filled with pews and stained glass windows, or just simply kneeling down beside a prison bed. We might be sitting in a chair, unable to move far anymore because of illness or infirmity. We might be walking across the Scottish Highlands, listening to the wind and the occasional bird call. Wherever we are though, we can be transported into God’s home. Finding the door into His heart wide open.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism starts by asking the question about what the chief end of man is. And the answer is to enjoy Him forever. What an invitation – that we in our frail human state, can come into the presence of God and enjoy Him forever. Let’s reach out this morning to each other as we run into His presence, holding hands of love and fellowship, enjoying His presence.

The Silent God

“O God, do not be silent! 
Do not be deaf. Do not be quiet, O God. 
Don’t you hear the uproar of your enemies? 
Don’t you see that your arrogant enemies are rising up? 
“Come,” they say, “let us wipe out Israel as a nation. 
We will destroy the very memory of its existence.””
‭Psalms‬ ‭83:1-2, 4‬ ‭NLT‬‬

Feelings of fear and anxiety are rising up in Israel. The Jewish people see their enemies amassing their military assets just over the border. They hear other reports of enemy alliances, conspiring to eliminate the Jews from the face of the earth. And they are fearful. You can just imagine the talk on street corners, in the pub, over the dinner tables. Ratcheting up the feelings of worry and helplessness, as they look up the road or at the horizon, scanning for signs of the coming of war. The menfolk taking their swords and spears out of the rafters, polishing and sharpening, but hoping they won’t be needed. And then along comes Asaph the writer of this Psalm. “Wake up, God!” was his cry. And he forensically lays out before God the scale of the problem. The military intelligence. The predicament God’s people were in. As if God wasn’t aware of what was going on. And Asaph continues with some graphic details of what he wanted God to do about the situation. Some theologians have concluded that this Psalm may have been a prophesy about Israel’s Six Day war in 1967. But however the situation appears today, Israel was in a pickle.

The world as we know it has always seemed to be gripped by strife. Both within and without nations. And the pettiest of situations seems to ignite a response far beyond reason. There seems to be something within human beings that reacts badly when provoked. Pride, individual and national, rears its ugly head. Political leaders stir up dissent, stoking the embers of nationalism into flames of strife. And before people can take stock of what is happening, another unnecessary war erupts, with death and destruction following.

As Christians, how should we respond to social unrest, to wars, to nationalistic threats, to all types of aggression? Jesus’s teaching was clear. He counter-culturally taught about loving enemies. Going the second mile. Giving in to aggressive acts. Because by doing so we would then display God’s love for people through us. Difficult I know, but we have to take the long view. Perhaps one day how we have responded in love to an aggressive situation will birth the seed of a new life in Christ. So we bring our natural feelings of anger to the Cross, asking God to deal with them, and the situation that is bothering us. We pray for our enemies, for those around us intent on creating mayhem and stirring up trouble. We pray for those in society, in our communities, who seem unable to understand or accept that their behaviour is hurting their fellow neighbours and friends. We pray for our governmental leaders, that God’s will would prevail in their lives and in their political acts. And we allow God to deal with the people, the nations, as we gaze forward to the new Kingdom, that’s coming, that’s just over the horizon.

The ‘Gods’

God presides in the great assembly; 
     He renders judgment among the ‘gods’: 
‘How long will you defend the unjust 
     and show partiality to the wicked? 
‘The “gods” know nothing, they understand nothing. 
They walk about in darkness; 
     all the foundations of the earth are shaken. 
Rise up, O God, judge the earth, 
     for all the nations are Your inheritance.”
Psalms‬ ‭82:1-2, 5, 8‬ ‭NIVUK‬‬

This is a strange Psalm, short but open to different interpretations. But a linguistic, theological and academic study, though interesting, is unhelpful for the punters like us living on Planet Earth. What was in the mind of the Psalmist, Asaph, when he wrote this?

Reading it I get the picture of our Heavenly Father dispensing judgement in true righteousness and purity, against the tendency of human traits to practice partiality and to favour injustice. The reference in the NIV to ‘gods’ could mean the involvement of angelic beings or prominent human figures from long ago, or be a more topical reference to demagogic leaders pursuing a popularity ticket. But however we choose to define the meaning of ‘gods’, the object of their unfairness and partiality impacts those who are least able to defend themselves in the world they find themselves. As Christians we have a responsibility to adhere to God’s laws and dispense His righteousness in the communities and societies in which we live. And this will mean a counter-cultural emphasis in the way we treat the least able members of our societies. 

The Psalmist ends his short dissertation with an appeal for God to judge the earth. That is not a reference to the inert substance on which we stand, but to the peoples who stand on it with us. One day everyone will face judgement. A weary Asaph wanted it to happen quickly. He wanted God to “rise up”, to wake up and be God in His capacity as the ultimate Judge. And in the process purifying His inheritance, the nations. It has been said that there are two certainties in life – death and taxes. To this I will add a third this morning – judgement. One day everyone will stand before God to give an account of their lives. A sobering thought that should help us in the ways we view those who live around us. But not from a position of fearfulness, but one of faith in the righteousness of our Heavenly Father, as we, His people, call on His grace and mercy.

Honey From the Rock

“If My people would only listen to Me, 
if Israel would only follow My ways, 
how quickly I would subdue their enemies 
and turn My hand against their foes! 
Those who hate the Lord would cringe before Him, 
and their punishment would last for ever. 
But you would be fed with the finest of wheat; 
with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.
Psalms‬ ‭81:13-16‬ ‭NIVUK‬‬

What a wonderful and compassionate God He is! In spite of their rebellious and stubborn hearts, God continually reaches out to His people. The phrase “if My people” occurs several times in the Bible. And in particular in 2 Chronicle 7:14 God again used the phrase “if My people”. We read, “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” He was consistent in His advice and appeals to His people, that if they followed His ways all would be well, but if they didn’t, then disasters would overtake them.

The same advice applies today. We see our political leaders diverging from God’s ways, embracing the advice of godless people and following their own deceitful wishes, and by so doing legislating wickedness into our statute books. And unintended consequences emerge, causing difficulties and misery to many. “If My people would only listen to Me” is advice that has been rejected. We see people around us in our communities, who too have rejected His ways, instead blindly following the paths of sin and wickedness that lead to a sticky end.

So we, as God’s people, pray. Seek His face. Repent of our sins. And all in the knowledge that God will truly hear us from Heaven. And we pray that He will have mercy on our nations, forgiving our national sins. But sadly those who hate God will one day discover their eternal punishment. We have to use every opportunity to introduce them, through Jesus, to our gracious God and help them follow His ways. There is no other solution to their otherwise terrible fate.

But to end on a positive, we read the lovely picture of enjoying the “finest of wheat” and “honey from the rock”. A picture of not just ordinary provision, but a banquet of plenty never before experienced. We get a picture of natural and spiritual provision directly from God, bringing a state of satisfaction almost unheard of and only dreamed about. In the eternal context of the previous verse, perhaps God is painting a picture of our Heavenly home. Providing a hint of the wonderful life we will have one day in His presence, a seat at His table of plenty.

‭‭

The Son of Man

“Your vine is cut down, it is burned with fire; 
at Your rebuke your people perish. 
Let Your hand rest on the man at Your right hand, 
the son of man You have raised up for Yourself. 
Then we will not turn away from You; revive us, 
and we will call on Your name.”
Psalms‬ ‭80:16-18‬ ‭NIVUK‬‬

After the frenetic and dark days of Psalm 79, Asaph, the Psalmist, seems to be calming down and looking at his predicament with a more contrite and objective heart. Three times in the Psalm he appeals to God to ”make your face shine on us”. And he ends the Psalm with the reason for his request – “that we may be saved.” But, in a prophetic glimpse in verse 17, he introduces “the son of man”. This was the phrase that Jesus used to describe Himself when He walked in the highways and byways of Palestine. A phrase used many times in the Old Testament and the Gospels. But in his prophetic glimpse, perhaps Asaph saw that the solution to the national distress of the Jewish nation was a Messianic figure who would lead the people and keep them close to God. He wasn’t to know that a few hundred years later such a person would emerge, the Son of God, but also the Son of Man. Jesus, the divine and human Messiah. Amazingly, and sadly, the Jewish people failed to recognise Him, because by then they had lost sight of the reason for the Messiah’s coming, which was, according to verse 17, to bring God’s people back into His presence. Instead their expectation was for a Leader who would free the Jewish nation from the tyranny of the Roman occupation. And then there came the dark day when they crucified the very Man who was their salvation.

But Jesus died once, not just for His people, but for all mankind. His mission was accomplished. And by believing in Him, that His death brought forgiveness for our sins, we can fulfil the prophetic insight from this Psalm, turning back to God. And then we will find that His face will truly shine on us.