Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Notes on the Book of the Prophet Habakkuk

The Book of the Prophet Habakkuk was probably written not long before the Israelites were led away into the Babylonian exile. Their captors, the Chaldeans, were steadily gaining power when Habakkuk received his message from God. 

Chapter 1: 

This chapter recounts a dialogue between the prophet and God. Habakkuk is not afraid to bring his concerns to God. He is not afraid to ask why bad things happen. And he expects God to answer, which He does, although He does so in a way the prophet can't quite grasp. 

The prophet begins by asking how long he is going to have to wait before God does something about the evil Israel is facing. All kinds of things are going wrong: violence, troubles, destruction, contention, strife, violation of the law, perversion of justice, and wickedness that seems to overcome righteousness. The prophet can't quite figure out why God isn't responding to all this, why He isn't doing something about it. 

Actually, this sounds a lot like today. There is so much evil in the world, and these verses could describe our modern society just as well as they did the Israelite society. We do sometimes find ourselves asking where God is in all this and how come He doesn't do something about it. But this is okay. Like Habakkuk, we can ask God. We can bring our concerns to Him and trust that He will answer us.

God's answer, though, isn't quite what Habakkuk expects. God says that He is doing something new and wonderful, something that will astound Habakkuk, something that people won't even believe when they hear it. He is raising up another people to do His will. But these people aren't like the Israelites. They don't know God even though He knows them well. These people are the Chaldeans, a warlike group that marched through the countryside attacking other peoples and conquering lands and cities. Yet God will use these people for His own purposes even though He describes them and their actions vividly. They are “dread and terrible” and follow their own set of rules. They are swift and fierce, proud and violent. They strike terror into the hearts of people everywhere they go, and they gather innumerable captives. They laugh at their conquests, unafraid of anyone, and they capture whatever they set their minds to. These are powerful, evil men. Yet God uses them. He bends them to His purposes. 

God is certainly using the old shock factor here. Yet, in a way, this is reassuring. God can turn even the worst-looking evil into something useful, something beneficial, something that will work for His people's good. He doesn't create evil, and He doesn't condone it, but since it is there, He uses it for His own purposes. 

The prophet doesn't quite know what to make of God's answer. His response is mixed. It begins with a kind of “Huh?” Habakkuk recognizes that God is everlasting and that He both protects and chastises His people. Perhaps He is using the Chaldeans for chastisement, then, Habakkuk reasons. But he still doesn't understand. God is so pure; how can He even look on that kind of evil? How can He even tolerate it? The prophet paints his own picture of the Chaldeans. They are faithless people who swallow up the righteous. They don't even hesitate. To the Chaldeans, other human beings are no more than fish or slimy, crawling things. They capture them as easily and thoughtlessly as a fisherman nets fish. They are so confident in their own power that it becomes a god for them. Like the fisherman who sacrifices to his nets, the Chaldeans worship their conquering strength. They are completely without mercy and idolatrously without God. 

Chapter 2: 

The prophet just doesn't understand how God could use such people, but he seems to figure that perhaps he doesn't have to understand. He places himself in a position of watching and waiting. He will look closely and see what God will do and say. 

God replies to the prophet again. He tells Habakkuk to write down a vision that He will give him “so he may run who reads it.” This last phrase is somewhat mysterious. According to a Hebrew dictionary, this is a figurative expression for reading smoothly. So God wants His message to be clear. Interestingly, though, the verb involved can also suggest a courier, so perhaps another underlying layer of meaning exists, implying that anyone who reads the vision should be like a courier and pass it on. 

God also tells the prophet to wait for the vision, to have patience. The vision will come on its own time. It may seem slow, but it will come when the time is right, and it will not lie. The prophet must be live by faith. He must believe that God will do what He has promised. This is righteousness, and those with upright souls will not fail. Good will come. Time will tell. Just hold on in faith and wait. This is what God expects. 

The rest of this chapter contains more of God's message to the prophet. He begins by warning His people about greed and arrogance. In doing so, He recognizes that the Chaldeans are greedy and arrogant folks who enjoy collecting people and gathering nations. These people and nations, however, will have the last laugh, so to speak. God tells us that they will speak five woes against their conquers. Each woe lists the Chaldeans' misdeeds and predicts their downfall. 

* Woe #1 – The Chaldeans steal what is not their own, but those who have been plundered will someday plunder them in return. 
* Woe #2 – The Chaldeans build themselves up by doing evil to others, but this will backfire on them, and even their own houses will cry out against them. 
* Woe #3 – The Chaldeans have founded their cities and towns on blood and sin, but someday God will make things right. When the earth is filled with His glory, the Chaldeans' glory will be long gone. 
* Woe #4 – The Chaldeans have made their neighbors drunk with their wrath. They have made people stagger and fall. But someday, God's wrath will descend upon them, and they will be the ones who stagger and fall. The violence they have committed against others will overwhelm them in return. 
* Woe #5 – The Chaldeans are idolaters. They follow lies and worship inanimate things. But the Lord is God. He is in His temple, and the whole earth will be silent in awe and reverence before Him. 

Chapter 3: 

Chapter 3 is really an epic psalm. It begins with an introduction in verses 1-2 in which the prophet tells God that he fears His work (not too surprising since God has just been saying that He is going to use the Chaldeans to achieve His goals). Habakkuk also asks God to renew His work (no matter how scary it is), to make it known, and most of all to remember His mercy.

The psalm then recounts God's powerful work upon the earth. “His glory covered the heavens,” Habakkuk exclaims, “and the earth was full of His praise.” God has shown His light throughout the world. His rays have flashed. His enemies have been destroyed, and the very earth itself has been shaken. Habakkuk depicts God as a powerful warrior. The peoples tremble before Him as His wrath falls down upon the wicked. The psalm sets forth God's power in dramatic language, epic language really, using such images as spears, arrows, lightening, fury, raging waters, and whirlwinds. God saves His people, His anointed, but crushes the head of the wicked and lays them bare in their shame. 

The prophet actually scares himself thinking about all this. He trembles, and his lips quiver. He feels like he might even fall over, like his bones have suddenly become rotten. But he is still willing to believe that God will work all things for the good. He decides to quietly wait for all God has planned. 

In fact, the prophet offers a firm statement of faith. No matter what happens, he will rejoice in God. If the fig trees don't bloom, if the fruit doesn't appear on the vines, if the fields don't yield food, if the flocks and herds die, that doesn't matter. He will rejoice in God anyway. God is his salvation and his strength. No matter what happens, God raises him up. He makes his feet nimble like those of a deer so that he can go up in the high places. The prophet is probably speaking metaphorically here. God has taken Habakkuk up into some pretty high places spiritually, places that most people don't go. After all, he has had a conversation with God. He has brought his questions before God and heard God's response. He has shared in God's plans and listened to God speak. This is a privilege indeed, truly a high place. 

(Source consulted: The Navarre Bible: Minor Prophets)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Little Something Extra...Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

A Prayer to Jesus Our King

Jesus our King, the Israelites declared David to be their king; may all people of the world recognize You as their king.

Jesus our King, David shepherded and commanded the Israelites; shepherd Your people and command us as You will.

Jesus our King, the Israelites rejoiced when they went up to the Jerusalem Temple; may we always rejoice when we enter a Church to worship You at Holy Mass. 

Jesus our King, the Israelites were expected to give thanks to the name of the Lord; may we always give thanks to You.

Jesus our King, in You we have redemption and the forgiveness of our sins; may we always reach out to You in repentance and love.

Jesus our King, You are the image of the invisible God and the firstborn of all creation; hold everything and everyone that You have created in Your loving arms.

Jesus our King, You are the Head of Your Body, the Church; preserve us as members of Your Church and draw those who are away from the Church back to their rightful home.

Jesus our King, You made peace by the blood of Your cross; give us that peace always.

Jesus our King, the Jews and the soldiers jeered at You as You hung on the cross; may we learn to exhibit Your patience and love when we are taunted by other people.

Jesus our King, the repentant thief spoke to You with great humility; teach us how to be humble.

Jesus our King, You told the repentant thief, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise”; may we, too, hear those words at the moment of our death.

Jesus our King, You reign forever and ever; reign in our hearts.


Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Little Something Extra...Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Are You Ready?

As the end of the liturgical year approaches, the Church turns out attention to the end of time, to that day when Jesus will come back in glory to judge the living and the dead. 

Our First Reading, Malachi 3:19-20, presents a picture of what that day might look like:

Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven,
when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble,
and the day that is coming will set them on fire,
leaving them neither root nor branch,
says the LORD of hosts.
But for you who fear My name, there will arise
the sun of justice with its healing rays.

The day will arrive with fire, light, and heat, which will affect people differently based on how they lived their lives. Those who have been proud and who have done evil during their lives will be consumed by fire and reduced to stubble. They will be cut off, with neither root or branch, isolated and diminished. 

Those who fear God's name, however, will be healed by the warm, enlightening rays of the “sun of justice.” What does it mean to fear God's name? This kind of fear is not a shivering fear that stands before a stern God. It is an awe-filled reverence that stands before the God Who is both transcendent and imminent, Who is more powerful than we can ever imagine and Who loves us more than we can ever imagine. This is the fear that does not shrink away from God but instead shrinks away from offending God by sin. 

Notice, too, that this fear is of God's “name.” In the Bible, a name is not merely a word that points to a particular individual. A name encompasses and identifies a person's entire being and character. So to fear God's name is to fear Who God is in Himself, His whole character, His honor, His glory, and His majesty.

Those who fear God's name will experience a type of fire, but for them it will be the “healing rays” of the “sun of justice.” These rays will shine down upon them, filling them with light and warmth and making them just. They will be right with God, completely perfect in His sight. Their human sin and shame will be burned away in the fire of God's love. 

How do we prepare for the day when Jesus returns, when fire will consume the earth? It could come at any time. No one knows the day or the hour. The answer is simple but not necessary easy to fulfill. 

1. We must make sure we are in a state of grace and go to confession if necessary. 
2. We must pray in order to nurture our relationship with God.
3. We must develop our consciences according to God's will and the Church's teaching so that we can make good moral choices. 
4. We must take full advantage of the sacraments, especially attending Mass and receiving Jesus in the Eucharist. 
5. We must love God with our whole heart, our whole mind, our whole soul, and our whole strength, and we must love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus said that this encompasses the Law and the Prophets. It is what He expects, and it is what those who fear His name will be doing when He returns. 

Are you ready?

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 143

Psalm 143 is a beautiful prayer in which the psalmist, identified as David, pours out his heart to God in the midst of his troubles. We'll examine the psalm verse by verse, focusing especially on the progression of its ideas and the nuances of its Hebrew.

David begins with a plea: “Hear my prayer, O Lord; give ear to my supplications in Your faithfulness; answer me in Your righteousness” (verse 1). There are three requests here: hear, give ear, and answer, in Hebrew, shâma‛, 'âzan, and ‛ânâh. The first, shâma‛, suggests a favorable hearing. David longs for God to grant his prayer. He also wants God to hear or listen to, âzan, his supplications or specific requests. He hopes that God will respond to him, ‛ânâh. Why would God do this? David understands that God is faithful ('ĕmûnâh – steady, trustworthy) and righteous (tsedâqâh – just). God is good in every sense of the word, and David asks God to apply that goodness to him by listening to his prayers and responding favorably.

David's plea continues in verse 2: “Do not enter into judgment with Your servant, for no one living is righteous before You.” David is not asking for God's favor based on his own merits. In fact, he is well aware that he is far from perfect. He, like everyone else, is a sinner, and he is humble enough to acknowledge that he is not righteous before God. He begs God not to pass a sentence on him, not to give the guilty verdict he knows he deserves. 

In verse 3, David begins explaining his situation to God: “For the enemy has pursued me, crushing my life to the ground, making me sit in darkness like those long dead.” Someone who hates David is chasing after him (Hebrew râdaph – persecute, harass, hunt). He is on the run, and he knows that his enemy is bent on shattering his life into small pieces (Hebrew dâkâ' - destroy, oppress, smite) and casting him to the ground. He is dwelling in darkness, and he feels as though he is hardly alive. 

This situation is taking its toll on David. “Therefore my spirit faints within me;” he says, “my heart within me is appalled” (verse 4). The Hebrew word for “faints” is ‛âṭaph, which literally means to be shrouded or to languish. David is wrapped in darkness and pain. He is weakening, fading away. He is overwhelmed. His heart is appalled, or in Hebrew, shâmêm, desolate, stunned, stupefied, devastated. He is tired of the whole situation and perhaps feels like he could just give up and lie down. 

But he doesn't. Instead, he turns to God. He remembers what God has down in the past: “I remember the days of old, I think about all Your deeds, I meditate on the works of Your hands” (verse 5). David knows that God has performed some amazing deeds for His people. David focuses on those. He remembers (Hebrew zâkar – to call to mind but also to mention). He thinks carefully (Hebrew hâgâh – to muse, meditate, imagine, and ponder but also to speak aloud). He meditates (Hebrew śı̂yach – to ponder, consider, and muse, especially out loud in conversation). David, then, isn't simply sitting silently and allowing God's past deeds to flit through his mind. He is proclaiming them to his companions and discussing them with those around him. David is making every effort to prevent the darkness from overtaking him. 

Further, he expresses his longing for God. “I stretch out my hands to You; my soul thirsts for You like a parched land” (verse 6). He opens his arms to God like a child to a parent, presenting himself vulnerable and needy but trusting. He feels dry and parched, but he knows that only God can quench his thirst. So he turns to God and reaches for Him. 

David pleads with God again: “Answer me quickly, O Lord; my spirit fails. Do not hide Your face from me, or I shall be like those who go down to the Pit” (verse 7). He senses that his life and breath are wasting away, expiring (Hebrew kâlâh). God seems far away, hidden and absent, but David begs Him to come close lest he drift down into the ultimate darkness. Only God can sustain him by coming close, lifting him up, and holding him tightly. 

“Let me hear of Your steadfast love in the morning,” David continues, “for in You I put my trust. Teach me the way I should go, for to You I lift up my soul” (verse 8). David longs for God's love, mercy, and faithfulness (Hebrew chêsêd). He wants to be able to hear it, in Hebrew shâma‛, which also means to understand and obey. David wants to know God's love intimately, personally. He wants it to penetrate him, for he trusts completely in God. The Hebrew word for trust is bâṭach, which also means to be confident and bold. David can be bold in his requests to God. He can be bold in his longings and in his prayers because he believes that God loves him. He wants to know and follow God's path, and he lifts up his soul to the Lord, offering Him everything he is and has to the very depths of his being (Hebrew nephesh – soul but also life, being, desire, passion, emotion, mind, will, self, character). This is a complete surrender. 

David's plea continues in the next two verses: “Save me, O Lord, from my enemies; I have fled to You for refuge. Teach me to do Your will, for You are my God. Let Your good spirit lead me on a level path” (verses 9-10). David now remembers his danger and asks God to rescue him from his threatening enemies. God is his only refuge, his only security, the only place he can hide. That being said, David is eager to fulfill God's will. Even in his fear, his focus remains on God's plan for him. The Hebrew word for will is râtsôn, which can also mean pleasure or delight. David wants God to take delight in him. He wants to please God, even in the face of his enemies, and therefore, he asks God to guide him, to lead him on a secure way, to set him on solid land, on firm ground. God is his priority. While he asks for deliverance from his enemies, he is determined to grow in his relationship with God above all. 

In the next verse, David once again pleads for a rescue. “For Your name's sake, O Lord, preserve my life,” he begins (verse 11). Not for my sake, he suggests, for I am a sinner, but for the sake of WhoYou are, God. Remember that in the Bible, a name is not just an identifying word but an indicator of character and honor. God will preserve David because of Who He is, the all-powerful, all-loving God. “In Your righteousness, bring me out of trouble,” David says next. Again, because God is righteous, He will help David. God is all love, and loving His child, He will draw him out of his distress (Hebrew tsârâh). 

The psalm ends with a final request: “In Your steadfast love cut off my enemies, and destroy all my adversaries, for I am Your servant” (verse 12). David asks God to remove his enemies from the picture, to annihilate them, to exterminate them, to blot them out. This seems pretty harsh, but remember that David is in mortal danger from these enemies, and they will not let up. David probably feels like he has no other choice. He ends with what is essentially a promise to God. He is God's servant. He submits to God and obeys Him. The focus is back on God and on David's relationship with Him. David wants only God's will.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Little Something Extra... Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time


Today's First Reading comes from the Second Book of Maccabees. Written sometime in the two centuries before Jesus' birth, Second Maccabees tells the story of how Greek world leaders tried to force the Jews to give up their religion and how some brave Jews resisted to the point of death. 

We hear part of one of those tales of martyrdom in our reading. Seven brothers and their mother were arrested for refusing to violate the Jewish Law, which was God's Law as far as they were concerned. The king was so intent upon homogenizing his realm that he wanted everyone to follow the same customs, namely, Greek customs. Jews were ordered to give up their dietary laws, refrain from circumcising their children, and sacrifice to Greek gods. Many, like the mother and her seven sons, simply would not do so. They were ready to die instead.

One of the brothers makes this position clear when he speaks up for his family after being ordered to eat pork (an unclean food for the Jews) or suffer torture. The brother confidently responds, "What do you expect to achieve by questioning us? We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors." 

So, one by one, they die. The king, in a rage, orders each of the oldest six brothers to undergo extreme torture before they die. The kings' servants cut out their tongues, scalp them, chop off their hands and feet, and burn them alive while their mother and brothers look on. All the while, they remain firm in their decision. They will not violate the Law at any cost. 

Further, they are certain that they will receive a reward for their brave actions, certainly not in the present life but in the eternal life to come. One of the brothers articulates this belief just before he dies when he tells the king, “You accursed fiend, you are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever. It is for His laws that we are dying.” Death is not the end. There is another life to come, an eternal life, one that is far more important than the current, earthly life. It is this life that the mother and her sons are reaching out to embrace, and that knowledge gives them courage to endure whatever torture the king can dish out. 

The third brother offers more perspective on the value of earthly things compared to that of heavenly, eternal things. Just before his tongue, hands, and feet are cut off, he calmly says, “It was from Heaven that I received these; for the sake of His laws I disdain them; from Him I hope to receive them again.” He knows where his life has come from; God has given him all he has, even his very self, and he is quite willing to give it all back, including himself, rather than violate God's Law. 

The fourth brother, too, speaks up bravely before his death. “It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by Him;” he announces, “but for you, there will be no resurrection to life.” Here is a warning. The brother lays his life down because he is positive he will receive something even greater in return. But there will be nothing greater for the king. 

When all the brothers have been martyred except for the youngest, the king appeals to the mother and urges her to tell her son to eat pork and live. The mother leans close to her son and speaks to him in their native language. Perhaps the king thinks she is pressing her son to give in, but she is not. Instead, she is reminding him of his brothers' bravery and of the reward God has promised. She urges him not to be afraid and to accept his martyrdom so that she may have him back in eternal life. The son listens to his mother and obeys. He refuses to follow the king's command and is killed along with his brothers. Finally, the mother herself becomes a martyr. 

All eight have fought the good fight, to use St. Paul's phrase. They have won the race. They have held on to their faith until the end, enduring the worst possible pressure and torture. They knew their priorities and followed them without fail. God and His Law were more important than anything in the world. Can we Christians say the same when earthly rulers and laws challenge our faith? Do we stand up for what we believe? Would we be willing to become martyrs like the Jewish mother and her seven sons? 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 140

With Psalm 140, we return to the story of David, who is named in the inscription as the psalmist. The psalm follows a pattern we've seen before. David is in some sort of trouble. Perhaps he is being hunted by Saul, with all the plotting, running, and hiding that involves. David begins by explaining his situation to God. Then he asks God to act in his favor. Finally, he expresses confidence that God will indeed do so. Let's take a closer look at each of these three sections. 

In verses 1-8, David begins with a prayer and then presents his circumstances to God. “Deliver me, O Lord, from evildoers;” he requests, “protect me from those who are violent, who plan evil things in their minds and stir up wars continually” (verses 1-2). David asks God to do two things for him: to deliver him from evildoers and to protect him from violent men. A glance at the Hebrew offers some insight into his appeal. The Hebrew word for “deliver” is châlats. It can mean to rescue or remove or withdraw someone from a situation, but it can also refer to equipping or arming someone for war. David may either be asking God to rescue him or to arm him or perhaps a combination of both since he often needs to defend himself against his enemies even as he escapes from them. 

David spends several verses describing his enemies. They are evil and violent, unjust and cruel. They are continually hatching wicked plots and starting wars. Conflict and calamity are their specialties. Further, they have sharp tongues, and their words drip poison against David (verse 3). They make their false accusations against David, slandering him, poisoning the minds of all who listen to them. 

“Guard me, O Lord,” David pleads, “from the hands of the wicked; protect me from the violent who have planned my downfall” (verse 4). David's enemies are out to get him. They have set traps for him, spread nets, and hidden snares. David may be speaking figuratively here. Perhaps his enemies are trying to trap him in his words, to ruin his reputation, to turn people away from him, or to slander his good name. Of course, if David is on the run when he writes this psalm, his enemies may be setting literal traps for him, trying to capture him, imprison him, and perhaps even kill him. Both options, or a combination thereof, are possible. In any case, David is in danger. His enemies are strong. He feels weak. So he turns to God. 

David reminds God that He is his God, and he asks Him to listen to his pleas (verse 6). David also reminds God, and himself, that God has been a “strong deliverer” to him (verse 7). In Hebrew, this phrase literally reads, “the strength of my salvation.” God has saved David in the past, and, as David says, God has “covered my head in the day of battle.” God has protected David, rescued him from his foes, and helped him succeed. David needs to recall these actions even as he begs God, “Do not grant, O Lord, the desires of the wicked; do not further their evil plot” (verse 8). He desperately needs God's reassurance. He knows what God has done for him in the past, but he wants to make sure that God will act on his behalf now and in the future. 

David continues by praying that those who seek to harm him will find that their mischief backfires on them (verse 9). “Let burning coals fall on them!” he calls out in his fear. “Let them be flung into bits, no more to rise! Do not let the slanderer be established in the land; let evil speedily hunt down the violent!” (verses 10-11). These wicked men are seeking to destroy David, but their evil will fall back down upon their own heads. God will see to it that they do not succeed in their evil plots. Their destructive actions toward David will end up destroying them instead. They will reap what they sow.

David ends on a confident note: “I know that the Lord maintains the cause of the needy, and executes justice for the poor. Surely the righteous shall give thanks to Your name; the upright shall live in Your presence” (verses 12-13). David trusts that God will judge rightly, that He will make things turn out for the best in the end. He believes that God will care for the needy and the poor (and he feels that he is among these people at this point). God will also see to it that the righteous, those who are just and who live in a right relationship with God, will have plenty of opportunities to thank God for His blessings (and plenty of blessings for which to thank Him). Those who are upright, who follow God's ways, who walk a straight path, these will obtain the greatest blessing of all. They will live in God's presence. They will experience an intimate relationship with Him. All of a sudden, David's troubles and enemies fade into the background. God takes center stage. David knows his prayers will be answered and that God will be with him always. 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A Little Something Extra...Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time

God's Gentleness

Today's First Reading comes from the Book of Wisdom. Probably written in the century before the birth of Jesus, Wisdom is one of the last books of the Old Testament to be composed. By this time, God has revealed much more of His character. He has shown more of His many facets and let His people catch glimpses of various elements of His personality. In this reading, for instance, God allows us to contemplate His gentleness.

The reading begins with a reminder: Before the Lord the whole universe is as a grain from a balance or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth. God is larger than we can ever imagine. Compared to Him, the whole universe is a little, tiny drop or the smallest of grains. It is nothing at all, but God loves it anyway.

God can do all things, but He still chooses to have mercy on His creatures. He even overlooks people's sins so that they have time to repent. He does not smite them on the spot when they mess up; He turns the other way so they can recognize their sin and ask for forgiveness. 

God does this because He loves His people. As the author of Wisdom assures us, God does not hate anything He has created. Our very existence depends on His will. If He were to stop thinking about us for even an instant, we would simply cease to be. Yet He never does that, for He wants us. He has created us, and He preserves us. He spares us, always ready to provide the second, third, and fourth chances we need (and even beyond).

We belong to God, the author continues. His spirit dwells within us. That's why, when we sin, He rebukes us little by little. Like a father, He guides us and warns us that we may turn away from sin and fall into His loving arms. 

God is gentle with His children. His love and mercy shine forth in this little passage. Take some time today to reflect on how God has been gentle with you and how He has showered you in mercy and forgiveness.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 89

Because Psalm 89 is very long, 52 verses to be exact, we will study it in a little different way. We will begin by looking at the overall structure of the psalm before reflecting on the circumstances to which the psalm refers. We will end by exploring a few verses in detail.

The structure the psalm breaks down as follows:

* Verses 1-2 – a declaration of God's love and faithfulness 
* Verses 3-4 – a quote from God about the covenant with David and his descendants 
* Verses 5-18 – a catalog of God's attributes and the blessings He gives to His people 
* Verses 19-37 – the establishment and promises of the covenant 
* Verses 38-45 – the violation of the covenant and the rejection of the anointed one 
* Verses 46-51 – a plea to God to remember His anointed one 
* Verse 52 – a blessing 

The psalm's inscription says that it is a “Maskil of Ethan the Ezrahite.” Scholars debate about who Ethan was. Some say that he was a musician in the court of King David. Others maintain that he lived at the time of David's grandson Rehoboam. In any case, Ethan was writing at a time when Israel was in distress. If he did live at the time of David, perhaps he was writing during the period when David's son Absolom usurped the throne and drove his father into exile. If the latter option is correct, Israel was certainly in trouble, for the Northern and Southern kingdoms split during Rehoboam's reign. 

The psalmist seems to be using his long psalm to explore what happened in the past and compare it to what is happening in his own day. He begins by declaring that God is faithful and that God loves His people. He seems to need to firmly remind himself of this because he mentions it twice, using the words “proclaim” and “declare” for extra emphasis. He sets faithfulness and love as the foundation for the rest of the psalm.

On this foundation, he builds a covenant, or rather God does, for the psalmist quotes God directly. “I have made a covenant with My chosen one,” God says, “I have sworn to My servant David; 'I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.'” In this time of distress, the psalmist needs to remember God's words and God's promise. God has made a covenant with David, a bond of self-giving love that will extend to all generations. God has made it; it will not fail. Even when things are bad, the psalmist and his people can rely on God's covenant.

Over the next several verses, the psalmist comforts himself by remembering God's greatness. God is worthy of all praise in Heaven and on earth. He is the most powerful being of all, far superior to any other heavenly being. Because of His might, He must be feared and approached in awe and wonder. Even in this power, however, God is faithful. His faithfulness surrounds Him, and He is steady, firm, and trustworthy. He rules the whole world and can even calm the raging sea. He has complete control over creation, and He is perfectly capable of crushing His enemies. The whole world belongs to Him, for He made the heavens and the earth. He is strong and loving and righteous and just, perfect beyond all telling. And His people rejoice in Him, those who walk in His presence, praising His name and lifting up His righteousness and glory. He gives them strength and favor and protects them from their foes. 

It is this marvelous God Who has made the covenant with David. The psalmist describes that covenant in more detail in the next section. Once again, he quotes God directly, for the covenant comes from Him. He established it of His own free will and out of love, and He will maintain it. God explains how He has anointed David and how He will be with him always and give him strength. He promises that his enemies shall never gain the upper hand. God Himself will crush them, and His love and faithfulness will always remain with David, whom He will exult. He will make David His firstborn son and establish his dynasty forever. David's descendants will reign for all time, and God will never stop loving them. He will not violate the covenant He has made. He has firmly established David, and his throne will remain forever. 

In the next section, however, the psalmist changes his tone. Something has happened, some kind of disaster or distress, and the psalmist is filled with doubt and fear. In spite of His promises, God seems to have turned upon His anointed one, either David or one of David's descendants. The psalmist complains that God has rejected His anointed one, His chosen king, and turned His wrath upon him. The king is broken down, his city plundered and in ruins. His enemies are rejoicing as the king loses his battles. God does not seem to help at all. In fact, He has taken away all the king's power. He no longer has his scepter and throne, and he is filled with shame. 

The psalmist begins to plead with God, asking Him how long this is to go on, how long God will hide Himself and forget His covenant. The psalmist knows that his time on earth is short, and he would very much like to see things change before he dies. “Lord,” he begs, “where is Your steadfast love of old, which by Your faithfulness You swore to David?” He feels as though he can no longer bear the taunts of the enemies, who insult the anointed one constantly. Please, God, he seems to say, become what You once were! Remember Your covenant! Show us once again all Your power and majesty and love! Remind us of Your faithfulness! Don't let us drown beneath the weight of our shame and defeat! Come back to us, God! 

Even with all his distress, the psalmist ends his reflection on a positive note. “Blessed be the Lord forever,” he cries. “Amen and Amen.” Even though he doesn't understand God's actions, he still praises God, and with his “Amen and Amen,” he assents to whatever God is doing. This is a powerful expression of love, praise, and trust. 

Let's look at a few verses in more depth. Verse 89:4 is follows by Selah, which is a shorthand message from God to pay special attention. Here's the verse: “'I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.'” God is speaking to David, offering him the promises of the covenant. And what a promise! David's throne will stand forever. His descendants will always reign. We Christians know that this promise was fulfilled in an amazing way. Jesus Christ, Son of God, became man, a human descendant of David. Jesus does indeed reign forever on David's throne, the King of Israel and the King of the Universe. With Jesus, the old covenant became the new covenant, extending to the whole world and opening the way to Heaven through the passion, death, and resurrection of the Son of God. The psalmist could never have dreamed of the way in which God kept His covenant, but had he known, he would have been overjoyed.

The second Selah verse also emphasizes the everlasting nature of the covenant: “It shall be established forever like the moon, an enduring witness in the skies” (verse 37). The “it” in this verse refers to David's royal line, and indeed, it has been established forever in Jesus. He is the “enduring witness in the skies” Who has shown conclusively that God always keeps His promises. 

The third Selah verse takes a different tone: “You have cut short the days of his youth; You have covered him with shame.” The psalmist is speaking to God about the dejected state of the anointed one. The king's youth is gone, his vigor curtailed by his pain and trials. He is wrapped in shame, clothed in sorrow, completely clad in mourning. This is no longer the strong, vibrant king of old, the one who strode confidently in the light of God's covenant. Although the psalmist could not have known it; this verse could easily apply to Jesus, Whose life was cut short in His prime, Who was covered with shame by His enemies. Jesus went to the cross; there was no death more shameful than that. He gave up His kingship, at least in the world's eyes. He experienced the abandonment of God. He sunk into unimaginable misery as His enemies attacked Him from every angle. And He did it all for us. 

The final Selah verse asks a question: “Who can live and never see death? Who can escape the power of Sheol?” (verse 48). The psalmist's answer would have been “no one.” In his world, before the redemption brought by Jesus Christ, no one entered Heaven. The gates were closed by sin. Death loomed like a monster, and the afterlife seemed dark and gloomy. How things have changed! When Jesus died, He opened the gates of Heaven. Now we can look forward to spending all eternity in the presence of God. If we love God and live according to His plan, accepting His grace, obeying His laws, and maintaining a relationship with Him, we do not need to fear death. It cannot harm us. In fact, it is only the doorway to greater and more wonderful things and, indeed, to a face-to-face relationship with God Himself.