Panting and Thirsting for God

As the hart panteth after the water brooks / so panteth my soul after thee, O God.
My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God / When shall I come and appear before God? (Psalm 42:1-2)

“As the deer pants for the water / so my soul longs after You…”

Many Christians will recognize the above as the beginning of the hymn “As the Deer,” one of the more well known and beloved hymns. It proves to be a hymn of yearning for God, a desire to establish God as primary in life and to serve Him. For its purposes “As the Deer” is a great hymn, well composed, its message matching its tune, and is justly popular.

The Biblical antecedent for “As the Deer” is much more bleak and challenging even if it ends up in a similar place.

The first line of “As the Deer” is taken from Psalm 42:1, attributed to the sons of Korah, and set by the Psalter as the beginning of Book Two of the Psalms. The sons of Korah yearn for God as deer pant for water; they deeply desire the presence of God as one desires food and drink (Psalm 42:1-2; cf. Matthew 5:6).

The sons of Korah have this experience in distress: their food and drink have been their tears, and people all around deride them by asking where their God has gone (Psalm 42:3). They pour out their souls when they reflect on how they used to go up to the house of God during the appointed festivals (Psalm 42:4). The sons of Korah pick up the refrain of Psalm 42: they rhetorically ask their souls why they are cast down and in distress, for they do well to hope in God whom they will yet praise (Psalm 42:5).

Yet, for the moment, the sons of Korah speak as if in distress, remembering God as if from on the heights of Hermon and in the depths of the Jordan valley (Psalm 42:6). They feel as if overwhelmed by God, as if His waves have gone over them (Psalm 42:7). They express confidence in YHWH’s hesed, covenant loyalty, and His song is in them, and yet they wonder whether God their Rock has forgotten them while their enemies oppress and reproach them, asking where their God has gone (Psalm 42:8-10). The sons of Korah end with their refrain: why are their souls cast down and disquieted? They ought to hope in God, for they will yet praise Him, the help of their countenance, their God (Psalm 42:11).

For most Christians “As the Deer” is a hymn of encouragement, giving them a voice to express to God their desire to be devoted to Him and serve Him, firmly confident in God’s nearness and love. The sons of Korah give voice to the people of God in a far more dire, and all too realistic, situation: crying out to God in the day of trouble when God feels far away and we are cast down in distress and hopelessness, and even the remembrance of better days increases present sorrow.

And yet even in that day of distress the sons of Korah wish for the people of God to reflect. Why are their souls in distress and cast down? They do well to trust in God’s covenant loyalty; He remains their God; they will yet praise Him in and despite all their difficulties and the taunts of their opponents.

Israel would need such a psalm many times in its history. Those who endured the exile would remember the past glory of Zion bitterly in light of their later experiences in a foreign land under the authority of a pagan nation. Many times during the next few hundred years Israel would endure great pain and distress on account of the nations around them; none of this speaks to the various difficulties and challenges endured by individual Israelites on account of smaller-scale oppression and persecution, illness, other tragedies, and death. And yet, through it all, Israel would be encouraged to trust in God and His covenant loyalty, to be assured that one day they would yet praise God.

Christians to this day will find times during which the sons of Korah will give them voice before God in Psalm 42:1-11. If we are honest with ourselves we will admit times when our souls are in distress within us, disquieted on account of trial or trouble. In days of distress, be it on account of personal trial, oppression or persecution, illness, our sins or those of others, etc., even remembrance of better times among the people of God may cause greater distress and disturbance; we may feel even greater distance from those good times and God and all that is good and right.

In those times when God feels the furthest away we do well to yearn for Him as the deer pants for the water; our soul can only truly thirst for the living God if and when we feel as if it has been some time since we were able to drink deeply from His presence. The sons of Korah give voice to freely ask where God has gone, to wonder if we have been forgotten: these are real feelings, real experiences, and attempting to paper over them with theological niceties will not allow us to endure the day of distress. The sons of Korah give voice to those moments in the dark valley of shadows in which we feel very far away from God; that is a real experience, and presuming that no faithful Christian will endure it is a fool’s errand. Yet the sons of Korah do not allow themselves, or those to whom they give voice, to stay there: whatever reasons the soul may be in distress or disquiet do not negate the love and covenant faithfulness of God. We will yet praise Him; we have reason to hope that our desires in Him shall be satisfied. Yet those desires can only exist when they have yet to receive satisfaction; we must learn to seek God precisely because our current condition is fraught with danger, distress, oppression, and opposition. Yes, we will praise God; He is the light of our countenance; yet while we walk in the shadow of the valley of death, may we pant and thirst for the living God, seeking the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Source of Security

Except YHWH build the house / they labor in vain that build it.
Except YHWH keep the city / the watchman waketh but in vain.
It is vain for you to rise up early / to take rest late / to eat the bread of toil;
For so he giveth unto his beloved sleep (Psalm 127:1-2).

From insurance to elaborate building designs, humans continue to seek various sources of security.

Solomon meditated upon the true source of security in Psalm 127:1-5. Psalm 127 is listed among the “songs of ascent,” songs which would be sung as Israelites would make the pilgrimage up to Jerusalem and Mount Zion to the presence of YHWH at a festival. For Solomon, and the Israelites who sang this song as they climbed to stand before YHWH, only YHWH was true security. To build a new house would be vain unless YHWH protected it and provided for it. All the watchmen in the world would prove useless to a city unless YHWH watched over it. Working excessive hours to make a living independent of YHWH’s blessings proved equally vain; YHWH gives reason for those whom He loves to sleep, for they have little need to fear (Psalm 127:1-2).

Solomon will go on to glorify children as the heritage of YHWH, His reward to people (Psalm 127:3). Children are seen as arrows in the hand of a mighty man; a man with many (and ostensibly good) children will not be made ashamed in the gate of a city, the place where the elders would meet and matters were adjudicated (Psalm 127:4-5; cf. Ruth 4:1-12).

It would be easy to consider Psalm 127:3-5 as separate from Psalm 127:1-2, but a connection is there. YHWH provides for His people. He watches over them, protects them, and blesses their endeavors. No endeavor will succeed if it does not come with His blessing. Part of that provision is children who will honor their father and mother in their old age (cf. Matthew 15:4-6). The man who trusts in YHWH and is blessed by Him will have a strong house and descendants; his blessedness will be known to all; he will have no reason to be ashamed among his fellow people.

We can understand why Psalm 127 would prove to be a satisfying song of confidence in YHWH as Israelites went up to stand before Him. Israel is thus reminded that YHWH and YHWH alone is their source of confidence; all feeble human attempts to maintain their own security will fail. You can only hold so much food in barns, and even then an enemy can seize them. Military strength can take you only so far; not a few times a massive force was thoroughly defeated by a smaller one. Foreign policy is a capricious adventure: your ally one day may turn into your foe the next. Other people often prove only as good as their word, and the world has always lacked sufficient people who uphold their word. Israel always needed this reminder; temptations always existed to trust in other presumed sources of security other than God.

Christians today could also use this reminder. Far too often, in the name of worldly wisdom, Christians are tempted to put their trust in anything and everything but God. In the name of worldly wisdom we purchase insurance to mitigate the risks to health, life, and/or property; we invest resources in markets and pay into governmental schemes to provide for life in the present and/or for days of disability or retirement. We are invited to trust in government for security against all foes, domestic and foreign. Many seem to orient their lives around the proposition of risk management.

There is nothing automatically or intrinsically sinful or wrong in buying insurance, investing for retirement, or taking advantage of the social safety net. The Israelites themselves built the houses; walls and watchmen were still needed in the cities of Israel. But we must remember Matthew 6:19-34, Jesus’ message which is not unlike Solomon’s in Psalm 127. It is one thing to use insurance or investments to mitigate risk in a sensible way as one seeks to trust in God and His purposes; it is quite another to fully depend on such insurance or investments, or to orient one’s life around such insurance and investments. In the process we have no right to dismiss God’s intended “retirement program” for His people, providing an opportunity for children to honor their fathers and their mothers (1 Timothy 5:8, 16). As children we should seek to provide for parents in times of need, and to have children ourselves and instruct them in God’s right way (Ephesians 6:1-4).

We almost must take care how we use and consider Psalm 127. Israelites themselves were vexed by the apparent discrepancies between the message of Psalm 127 and its ilk and experienced reality: sometimes the righteous, whom one would imagine YHWH would protect, suffered, and the wicked, which one would imagine YHWH would not bless, nevertheless prospered (cf. Job 21:1-34, Ecclesiastes 8:10-17). It has proven all too easy to take Psalm 127 as prescriptive and to thus judge those who prosper as blessed by YHWH and those who suffer as chastised by YHWH. This might well be the case in some circumstances; it need not be the case in every circumstance.

Can we live in that ambiguity, trusting in God in Christ even though that trust does not guarantee a comfortable middle class existence in this life? Will we give more than mere lip service to Psalm 127:1-2, recognizing that our prosperity might well prove a demonic temptation to trust in the things of this world and not in God the Giver of all good things? Do we trust in YHWH as our real, lasting, and ultimate security, or have we given ourselves over to the pervasive temptation to trust in our possessions, our bank account, our portfolio, our government, our military, or other such things of the world? How much do our children factor into our confidence about our present and future? As we continue in our pilgrimage on this earth we do well to sing this song of ascent as we seek to stand before the throne of God, recognize God is the only true source of security, and seek refuge in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Wonderfully Made

I will give thanks unto thee / for I am fearfully and wonderfully made
Wonderful are thy works / and that my soul knoweth right well (Psalm 139:14).

If we step back and think about it, mankind represents a powerful and amazing manifestation of God’s creative genius.

In Psalm 139 David meditates on how God knows him. YHWH has thoroughly searched and known him; He knows the thoughts and the ways in which David walks, and this knowledge is far beyond David’s ability to understand (Psalm 139:1-6). David could not hide from God: God is in heaven, Sheol, the deepest part of the sea, or even the darkness, God is there and sustains him, for God sees whether it is light or dark (Psalm 139:7-12). David confessed how God formed him in his mother’s womb and knew of his ways before they took place (Psalm 139:13-16); in the midst of this observation David exclaimed how he would give thanks to God because of how he was fearfully and wonderfully made, and because of this testified to the wonderful nature of God’s works (Psalm 139:14). David would continue by praising God’s thoughts, how God would judge the wicked, considering YHWH’s enemies as his enemies and asking for them to depart from him, and opening himself up to searching by God so God would lead him in the right and good way (Psalm 139:17-24).

Psalm 139 does set forth God’s formation of a human being in the womb; David does not believe that a human being only becomes as much after birth (Psalm 139:13-16). Yet such meditations about babies in the womb are just one part of David’s greater purpose in praising God for His continual sustenance, care, and direction. In Psalm 139:14 David glorified God for the wonderfully amazing nature of mankind His creation; and yet Psalm 139 on the whole is not about mankind, or even about David, as much as it is about God’s great understanding and perception. God sees all things; we cannot hide from God. We cannot imagine that our thoughts are hidden from Him; He knows all things, and all will be laid bare and we will have to give an account (Acts 17:30-31). God is always watching, but not as a tyrant or as “Big Brother”; God knows, sees, and watches for our care and our benefit. If we associate with God in Christ we have every confidence that God has known our life and plan from beginning to end and will sustain us and see us through as long as we subject ourselves to His examination so as to depart from the ways of wickedness and follow in His right way.

And yet we do well to stop for a moment to consider how fearfully and wonderfully made we are. We inhabit a universe with many constants fine-tuned to allow for the presence of life. We live on a planet in the habitable zone of the solar system with sufficient elements to facilitate life. While many creatures on earth may have certain characteristics which prove superior to what may be found in mankind, no creature measures up to homo sapiens. No one has quite the dexterity and brainpower; coordination and language; the ability to reason and to find much more out of life than just the bare necessities of living. We walk on two legs; can run and jump; and also paint, sculpt, and design. God has made us with all of these skills; indeed, only in mankind do we find the testimony of God’s divinity in the creation (Genesis 1:26-27, Romans 1:18-20). Mankind is made in God’s image, the Three in One and One in Three, able to reason, meditate upon the nature of existence itself, appreciate aesthetics of beauty, uphold truth, and above all things seeks after relational unity with his God and with his fellow man. We are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made; we do well to praise God for His wonderful works.

Far too many people anymore deny the truths of Psalm 139:14. Yes, indeed, many deny that God is their Creator; yet far too many others deny that man is fearfully and wonderfully made, and think very little of the value of people. A lot of people find it much easier to love “humanity” than individual human beings. We hear so often that people go to “find God” in the wilderness, as if a place out in nature without any human beings around is the ultimate sanctuary. In such a view people are the biggest problem in the world, and everything would be better off without them.

God’s divine power is manifest in nature (Romans 1:18-20); we can certainly understand the benefit of a place of solitude, meditation, and reflection, which are often difficult to find in the presence of other people (e.g. Matthew 14:13). But God is not present “more” in nature than He is among people. You will search in vain to find the image of God in nature; you only find the image of God in your fellow human beings. If the world is better off without human beings, not only would that include you and me, but it also would mean that God made the most colossal blunder imaginable in creating mankind as a steward of the creation!

What if God felt that way about mankind? We would be utterly lost without hope! Thanks be to God that He loved and cared for mankind enough to continue to provide for and sustain them, as David professes throughout Psalm 139. Thanks be to God that He sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins so we could maintain hope in the resurrection (John 3:16). Thanks be to God that He proved less willing to give up on humanity than we do!

People are often difficult; they are sinners, corrupted by evil, and cause untold suffering, misery, and even environmental degradation (Hosea 4:1-4, Romans 3:23, Titus 3:3-4). In truth, so am I and so are you. There is a lot of ugliness in our own lives we would rather not acknowledge. We are who we are but by the grace of God; so it is with our fellow man.

Therefore, despite the difficulties of sin and evil, we do well to praise God for He has made us in such a fearful and wonderful way. We do well to see the image of God in our fellow man despite all of his sins, weaknesses, and shortcomings, for so God has elected to see us. We do well to recognize that God’s presence is as much among people as it is in nature or other such places, and to seek the image of God not in plants and majestic scenes but among people made in His image, even if they are grubby and dirty and laden with problems. May we uphold the dignity of humanity as made in God’s image, and in the name of Jesus treat each other accordingly!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Stronghold

But the salvation of the righteous is of YHWH / He is their stronghold in the time of trouble.
And YHWH helpeth them, and rescueth them / He rescueth them from the wicked, and saveth them / because they have taken refuge in him (Psalm 37:39-40).

When we feel threatened and/or weak, to whom or what do we turn? What do we trust when the situation seems dire and we feel powerless? We do well to go to our Stronghold.

Zin stronghold (4)

In Psalm 37 David sings a wisdom psalm, encouraging faith in YHWH and providing assurance of the demise of the wicked (Psalm 37:1-40). David would not deny that sometimes the righteous are oppressed and downtrodden while the wicked prosper; if he would, Job and the Preacher would have something to say to him. David in fact has seen the wicked in power, seemingly well rooted and planted (Psalm 37:35); and yet, soon after, he existed no longer (Psalm 37:36). The righteous will be exalted in the end (Psalm 37:30-34, 39-40); they must wait, and they will see YHWH’s salvation.

The righteous know that their salvation is of YHWH (Psalm 37:39). Those in the world, and even those opposing them, trust in their own strength, the weapons of this world, or some other power. It would be tempting to try to meet force with force, or use their own forms of force against them. YHWH can deliver, and has delivered, through many means, including armies and nations; nevertheless, the righteous know that YHWH is behind it all, has assuredly brought it all to pass, and it is for them to put their trust in Him and do as He directs them.

YHWH Himself is the stronghold, the One who helps, rescues, and saves the righteous (Psalm 37:39-40). How that deliverance takes place need not be explicitly revealed; to many it may not look much like deliverance, at least in the short term, but God has always ultimately justified all who have put their trust in Him. The full victory may not be accomplished for many years; one may receive vindication in the resurrection more than in this life.

Even so, YHWH saves the righteous because they take refuge in Him (Psalm 37:40). Such is why YHWH is their stronghold; He is the Source of their confidence and hope. They will not turn to worldly wisdom or methods. They will not depend on the forces of the world or the spiritual powers of this present age. Their confidence is not in their stuff, their power, or themselves, but in YHWH; He will see them through whatever trials or tribulations may take place.

It is an easy thing to declare YHWH as one’s stronghold in good times; it is quite another to prove willing to make YHWH one’s stronghold when one really needs a stronghold. Our faith, and our character, are proven in the crucible of trials. When the savage army menaces, to where will we flee? Will we try to defend a fortress of our own making or imagination? Will we try to meet force with force? Or will we seek refuge in God in Christ?

The people of God have always had to suffer the menace of the wicked around them. Danger lurks around every corner. God has called us to trust in all times and in all ways in Him, Him alone, and Him fully. May we establish God as the stronghold of our lives, take refuge in Him, prove to be the righteous, and be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Ground of Complaint

I will sing of the lovingkindness of YHWH for ever / with my mouth will I make known thy faithfulness to all generations.
For I have said, “Mercy shall be built up for ever / Thy faithfulness wilt thou establish in the very heavens.”
“I have made a covenant with my chosen / I have sworn unto David my servant:
‘Thy seed will I establish for ever / and build up thy throne to all generations'” (Psalm 89:1-4).

Ethan begins his psalm with great praise and confidence in YHWH. He does not end that way.

Ethan is famous in Scripture for being wise; not as wise as Solomon, of course, but the comparison shows just how highly Ethan was esteemed (1 Kings 4:31). His wisdom is on full display in the only Psalm ascribed to him.

We have every reason to believe Ethan is serious: he proclaims YHWH’s hesed (lovingkindness, covenant loyalty) and His faithfulness to all generations (Psalm 89:1). He builds up mercy and establishes faithfulness in the heavens (Psalm 89:2). Ethan has as similar confidence in YHWH’s promises to David in 2 Samuel 7:11-16: a covenant was made with David and his house, and his kingdom would be established forever (Psalm 89:3-4). So far Ethan has made a clear confession of faith.

Ethan would continue by extolling God’s power in and over His creation (Psalm 89:5-14) and His care and provision for His people, particularly David and his descendants (Psalm 89:15-28). Ethan recognized the warnings about the consequences of disobedience, but also maintains confidence that YHWH would still maintain His covenant and be faithful to David (Psalm 89:30-37).

solomon

But then the psalm takes a sharp and dark turn. Ethan declared that YHWH had cast off, rejected, and been angry with His anointed, demonstrating how YHWH has reversed Himself at every point in terms of His dealings with the offspring of David (Psalm 89:38-45). Ethan wanted to know how long YHWH would be angry with the house of David; Ethan’s life would not be long (Psalm 89:46-47). Where was YHWH’s covenant loyalty which He swore to David (Psalm 89:49)? Such is the question that resounds at the end of the psalm; Ethan concluded by asking the Lord to remember the reproaches which the enemies of the people of God have reproached them and His anointed (Psalm 89:50-51). While Ethan would not dispute Psalm 89:52, it is most likely added by the Psalter as the conclusion of Book III (so also Psalms 41:13, 72:20, 106:48).

Psalm 89 is most assuredly a psalm of lament, and yet it does not follow the standard lament pattern. Most psalms of lament set forth the difficulty, challenge, or complaint, and internally move toward a declaration of confidence and faith in YHWH and His covenant loyalty (e.g. Psalms 3, 22). Yet Psalm 88 and Psalm 89 end without that “resolution” of at least a declaration of faith; they leave us with their cry unanswered. In many ways the Psalter “answers” their concerns in Book IV (Psalms 90-106) by testifying to God’s faithfulness over time. We can “answer” Ethan’s question in terms of Jesus of Nazareth who received the throne of His father David, has reigned for two thousand years, and continues to reign (Luke 1:31-33, Matthew 28:18-20, Revelation 5:9-14).

But Ethan does not know that, or at least he is giving voice to people who do not know that. He knows what God promised David; from 586 BCE until the days of Jesus in the first century CE one could well ask where YHWH’s covenant loyalty to David and his offspring had gone. He perishes long before the promise is fulfilled.

It is important for us moderns to note the ground upon which Ethan makes his complaint. Many people today, after all, have all kinds of questions, challenges, and complaints for God. Yet today people ask, complain, or demand from a place of doubt; they wonder if God is even there, is a figment of their imagination, or fear He is the god of the Deists who no longer really cares what happens within the closed system he started. Ethan, on the other hand, asked, complained, and questioned from a place of faith. Ethan could not make sense of the condition of Judah and the house of David, not on account of any fears about YHWH’s existence, power, or covenant loyalty, but precisely because he believed firmly and strongly in YHWH as the Creator God of Israel who shows covenant loyalty to His people and proves faithful to His promises. If he did not have such faith he would have no reason to expect anything for the house of David: without God as their protector, Israel could never consistently stand against her adversaries. If YHWH did not care for His people at all, there would be no reason to expect anything less than the devastation of the people. The only way Ethan can really ask God these questions and to air his grievances is because he trusts God and what God has said to His people.

There are many reasons why we might think (if we do not prove open, honest, and faithful enough to actually say and ask) about many disconnects between what God has promised and the situation on the ground. We may wonder why the Lord has not yet returned, or why wickedness prospers while righteousness is set at naught, or why we experience trials and tribulations. In such conditions we do well to learn from Ethan; we can only have such complaints if we remain grounded in our belief that there is a God, that He has created us, maintains covenant loyalty, is faithful, and full of mercy. How can we doubt God’s existence while still expecting the kind of life and universe which only God could have created? After all, if God does not exist, or does not care about us, what does “good” or “evil” mean, anyway? Why should we expect “good” to happen to us but not “evil”? Why should anything in life be pleasant, good, positive, and above all, meaningful? By no means! Without God the universe has no purpose or meaning, and neither do we. Good and evil become human categorizations and are unmoored from any standard beyond human conceptions. We can only expect good to happen, for life to have meaning, or that all of this is going somewhere if God is who He says He is in Scripture.

We all live with unanswered questions, at least if we are honest with ourselves. Ethan the Ezrahite wrote an inspired psalm that ends with an unanswered question. Yet Psalm 89 begins with a powerful declaration of faith. We will have unanswered questions; can we sing of God’s lovingkindness, covenant loyalty, and faithfulness to all generations as well, and trust despite, or even because of, the questions, difficulties, and trials of life?

Ethan R. Longhenry

Numbering Our Days

The days of our years are threescore years and ten / or even by reason of strength fourscore years
Yet is their pride but labor and sorrow / for it is soon gone, and we fly away.
Who knoweth the power of thine anger / and thy wrath according to the fear that is due unto thee?
So teach us to number our days / that we may get us a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:10-12).

Moses is trying to do a lot more than just to provide us with a baseline about the average lifespan.

Psalm 90 is the only psalm attributed to Moses; it is a tefillah, a prayer or perhaps prayer-hymn, and the Psalter has placed it at the beginning of the fourth book of psalms (Psalms 90-106). Moses praises God as the dwelling place of His people throughout all generations (Psalm 90:1). He speaks of God’s eternal nature, existing before the mountains and the world, everlasting to everlasting (Psalm 90:2). God who created man also sees his end, returning to dust, for to God a thousand years is as a day when it is past or a watch in the night, a time passed in sleep by most and thus barely perceptible (a four hour period; Psalm 90:3-4, cf. 2 Peter 3:8). In comparison humans are like sleep or grass in the field, alive one morning, cut down by evening (Psalm 90:5-6). The people of God are consumed in God’s anger, for their iniquities are set before them and they pass their days under the wrath of the hand of God (Psalm 90:7-9).

Moses then speaks of the “average” human life of seventy to eighty years (Psalm 90:10). The figures are appropriate; life expectancy these days is on average 67 for the world and closer to 80 for industrialized nations. Yes, average life expectancy was much worse during Moses’ days on account of illness, child mortality, and other factors. Medical technology has allowed modern man to increase the average life expectancy but not nearly as much if one focuses primarily on those who have already reached a level of maturity, that is, those who could hear and understand what Moses is saying in Psalm 90. All things being equal and without significant famine, plague, or war, even in Moses’ day 70 to 80 was the average upper limit to a lifespan, and has perhaps increased by a decade or so since.

The Death of Moses (crop)

Moses did not intend to provide some interesting factoid when he speaks of a lifespan of seventy or eighty years; he says their pride is labor and sorrow, it ends soon, and we fly away (Psalm 90:10). Seventy to eighty years is our lifetime, and it may seem like a lot to us; Moses just said that to God a thousand years, 12 or so times an average lifespan, is but four hours or a day (Psalm 90:4). Moses asks who can know the power of God’s anger according to the reverence due Him (Psalm 90:11). Moses gives voice to God’s people to ask God to teach us to number our days so we can obtain wisdom (Psalm 90:12); such is the real goal of this exploration of life and time.

Yet Moses speaks for God’s people in distress and would like for YHWH to return to His people and to show mercy to them, showing them covenant loyalty so they can rejoice and be glad as many days as they have been afflicted (Psalm 90:13-15). God is asked to have His work appear to His servants, His glory on their children, the favor of the Lord upon His people, establishing the work of their hands (Psalm 90:16-17). Thus ends Moses’ prayer.

We could imagine many circumstances in which Moses is speaking from experience. He led the Israelites out of Egypt after they had suffered deep distress for at least eighty years if not longer (Exodus 12:40, Deuteronomy 34:7). The people of God suffered His wrath on account of their faithless for forty years as they died in the Wilderness (Numbers 14:26-39). Yet Moses also knew that the Israelites would sin again and suffer great distress (Deuteronomy 31:27-32:44), and perhaps is giving them voice through his prayer in Psalm 90.

Israel desperately needed to keep Moses’ prayer in mind during difficult days. The Psalter is aware of this and likely places this psalm in its position as Psalm 90, the introduction to Book IV of the Psalms, but also after the maskilim of Heman and Ethan the Ezrahites (Psalms 88-89), which maintain confidence in YHWH as God of Israel, full of covenant loyalty, but who would really like to know where that covenant loyalty has gone in light of distress and exile. Of all the “lament” psalms they do not end on a note of faith; the questions are left open. In many ways Moses is left to “answer” Heman and Ethan: yes, our days may be full of woe and suffering; we may make it to 70 or 80 but those years are full of pain; but God is eternal, to Him a thousand years is like a night of sleep, and so we must number our days and be wise. God shows covenant loyalty and is faithful to His promises, but sometimes those promises take years to unfold, many more years than the average human life. From Abraham to the Conquest is about 590 years; from David to Jesus is about 950 years; from the hope of the end of exile to the establishment of Jesus’ eternal Kingdom was no less than 570 years. God was not slow as many count slowness; He was patient, and worked according to His purposes.

We also do well to keep Moses’ prayer in mind, not least because Peter quotes Psalm 90:4 in 2 Peter 3:8. It has been almost two thousand years since Jesus ascended to heaven (Acts 1:1-11); that may be 25 times the average lifespan of a human, but it is only as a half a night or two days to God. When we experience great trial and distress, living our seventy or eighty years in labor and sorrow, we may be tempted to wonder where the promise of God’s goodness or covenant loyalty has gone. We must remember that God has promised to give eternity of joy and rest, far more and longer than the days of our sorrow and pain (Romans 8:17-18, 2 Corinthians 4:17). We do well to ask for God to teach us to number our days and get wisdom, to always remember that God’s time-frame is not our time-frame, and it is for us to trust that all things will work together for good for the true people of God (Romans 8:28). May we serve God in Christ and obtain the blessing!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Making Mention of the Name

Now know I that YHWH saveth his anointed / he wilt answer him from his holy heaven with the saving strength of his right hand.
Some trust in chariots, and some in horses / but we will make mention of the name of YHWH our God.
They are bowed down and fallen / but we are risen, and stand upright.
Save, YHWH / let the King answer us when we call (Psalm 20:6-9).

How could Israel be saved?

The land which YHWH gave to Israel was a good and prosperous land, yet one that just so happened to lie right in the middle of the ancient world and its empires. Wars had been fought between Egypt and Mesopotamian powers for hundreds of years before the Israelites entered the land; wars have been fought over that land ever since. During times when Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon were experiencing internal decline or turmoil, Israel and its neighboring nation-states could assert independence and expand their territories; when these larger powers were strong enough to exert their force, these smaller nation-states were in danger of losing everything.

These larger nations all trusted in their military forces; at the time, the best battlefield technology involved horses and chariots. If Israel trusted in their horses and chariots they would not last very long! Israel’s salvation and continued integrity in the land would have to be grounded on something else. David writes so Israel would continually remember in whom they should put their trust: not in horses and chariots, but in making mention of the name of YHWH their God (Psalm 20:7).

Egyptian-Chariot

In the first half of Psalm 20 David blesses the people, asking YHWH to hear them in their times of trouble, to accept their offerings, and to give them what they desire (Psalm 20:1-5). David then turns to the ultimate hope of Israel: YHWH will save “His Anointed” (Psalm 20:6). Israel must trust in YHWH, not horses and chariots; those who trust in their military will be bowed down and fallen, but YHWH will make His people stand upright and rise (Psalm 20:7-8). David ends by asking YHWH to save and to let the King answer when they call to Him (Psalm 20:9).

David’s exhortation and warning was appropriate for Israel during the time of the kings. The Israelites did not obtain the land through their strength alone but through the power of YHWH; they could only preserve their hold upon it through the same means. In the historical chronicles of Kings and Chronicles we see kings who trusted in YHWH and prospered; we also see when kings turned away from YHWH, trusted in their own military might or in their treaties with foreign powers, and were humiliated. Ultimately, Israel thought she could stand against Assyria by the power of its own strength and its alliances with others; Assyria conquered and exiled Israel from its land (2 Kings 17:1-23). A few generations later Judah trusted in its military strength and its alliance with Egypt against the Babylonian forces; the Babylonians conquered and exiled Judah from its land (2 Kings 25:1-21). They did not trust in YHWH; YHWH gave them over to what they trusted; they were lost.

After the Exile the Israelites would put their hope in YHWH that He would send His Anointed One who would provide them victory; Jesus of Nazareth was the Anointed One, the Messiah, whom YHWH would save in the resurrection and through whom YHWH would save all mankind (Romans 5:6-11, 1 Corinthians 15:20-58). All people can now call upon YHWH, praying to the Father in the name of Jesus the Son (John 15:16).

Christians today also do well to heed the message of Psalm 20:6-9. Many in the world continue to trust in “horses and chariots,” military might and the power of the political process. It’s tempting for each generation to do so, but David is correct: ultimately all who trust in the ways of this world will be destroyed by those ways and will become bowed down and fallen. Nations rise and fall. Laws are enacted and struck down. Popular opinion may be for you one moment but then against you the next. If we put our trust in these worldly forces we will be consumed by them. The only way we can stand is by making mention of the name of God in Christ, putting our trust in Him and in His Word, for they will endure forever (1 Peter 1:24-25).

Deliverance will not come from a military, a legislature, or an executive; deliverance comes from God in Christ. May we put our trust in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Blessed Are the Righteous

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the wicked / nor standeth in the way of sinners / nor sitteth in the seat of scoffers:
But his delight is in the law of YHWH / and on his law doth he meditate day and night.
And he shall be like a tree planted by the streams of water / that bringeth forth its fruit in its season / whose leaf also doth not wither / and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.
The wicked are not so:
But are like the chaff / which the wind driveth away.
Therefore the wicked shall not stand in the judgment / nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.
For YHWH knoweth the way of the righteous / but the way of the wicked shall perish (Psalm 1:1-6).

You certainly cannot judge the book of Psalms by its cover.

The book of Psalms features so many wonderful songs and prayers praising YHWH and extolling His greatness while also giving voice to the pain, suffering, distress, and questions of the people of God. Yet the book begins with a psalm which would not be out of place in the book of Proverbs.

Psalm 1:1-6 is without a doubt a wisdom psalm, well crafted with sharp and vivid imagery. The Psalmist pronounces blessings on the righteous: he does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers (Psalm 1:1). Notice how the Psalmist intensifies the imagery: walking / standing / sitting would denote ever greater comfort and association, and wicked / sinners / scoffers features a progression from bad to worse! Instead the righteous delights in the law (Hebrew torah) of YHWH, and meditates upon it day and night (Psalm 1:2). He has taken the way of YHWH, not the way of sinners.

The Psalmist then describes the righteous in terms of a tree planted by a river (Psalm 1:3). In a semi-arid or arid climate like Israel, riverbanks are one of the few places where water will be found in dry times. Thus a tree planted by the river will produce fruit, will not wither, but will prosper, and so it will be with the righteous (Psalm 1:3).

Tree by River Dee - geograph.org.uk - 792040

The poetic flow of the psalm is sharply interrupted in Psalm 1:4, and for good reason: whereas the righteous prosper, it will not be so with the wicked! The Psalmist compares the wicked to chaff, the cases or straw of grains which provide no nutrition and are left to blow in the wind as worthless (Psalm 1:4).

The Psalmist assures us that the wicked will not stand in the judgment or in the “congregation of the righteous” (Psalm 1:5). YHWH knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish (Psalm 1:6). Thus Psalm 1 is a pure exhortation to wisdom, representing “proverbial orthodoxy” to the full: blessings and prosperity come to the righteous, but the wicked will perish.

Psalms 1 and 2 have no superscription; throughout time they have been understood as the “introduction” to the Psalms. This means that Psalm 1:1-6 was deliberately placed here as the beginning of the Psalter. Why should we expect the Psalms to begin with such a message, especially since the message of many of the psalms would challenge this “proverbial orthodoxy”?

Perhaps that is the very reason God directed the Psalter to begin the collection with Psalm 1. The world of the Psalms is full of sacrifices, kings, glory to YHWH, but also pain, suffering, doubt, and questions. The Psalmist grapples with the prosperity of the wicked and the struggles of the righteous. The Psalmist tries to make sense of a world in which the people of God suffer under the rule of pagan overseers. And yet Psalm 1:1-6 remains.

Psalm 1:1-6 reminds the reader, singer, or prayer of the Psalms of the two ways, the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked, and of their ends. It always goes best with the righteous: if not in this life, then in the next one. The Psalms in many ways must begin with a full exhortation to righteousness so as to remind Israel that sacrifice alone has never been and is not sufficient to please God. Likewise, Psalm 1:1-6 in many ways serves as an anchor for the whole Psalter: no matter how bad it gets, no matter how terrible it looks, it goes better for the righteous than it will for the wicked. In a world where Israel might be tempted to see too much grey God wants to remind them of the black and white.

We do well to recognize the value of Psalm 1:1-6. If we take it absolutely and expect the righteous to always prosper in this life and the wicked to always perish in this life we will be disappointed; as with all wisdom literature we must understand that many times the author is telling us the way things ought to be and will be when the Lord returns. On the other hand we can easily get discouraged when we see the complications in life, the seeming prosperity of the wicked, and the trials which accompany standing for righteousness. Psalm 1 reminds us of the way things should be, the way things stand before God, and that in the end the righteous will be the ones who are planted by the river and will prosper. The wicked will not endure!

Blessings still attend to those who seek to follow God’s instruction; they will prosper before God. We do well stand firm in God in Christ, as a tree planted by the water, and not be moved!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Structure in the Creation

For the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David.
The heavens declare the glory of God / and the firmament showeth his handiwork.
Day unto day uttereth speech / and night unto night showeth knowledge.
There is no speech nor language / their voice is not heard.
Their line is gone out through all the earth / and their words to the end of the world.
In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun / which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber / and rejoiceth as a strong man to run his course.
His going forth is from the end of the heavens / and his circuit unto the ends of it / and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.
The law of YHWH is perfect, restoring the soul / the testimony of YHWH is sure, making wise the simple.
The precepts of YHWH are right, rejoicing the heart / the commandment of YHWH is pure, enlightening the eyes.
The fear of YHWH is clean, enduring for ever / the ordinances of YHWH are true, and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold / sweeter also than honey and the droppings of the honeycomb.
Moreover by them is thy servant warned / in keeping them there is great reward.
Who can discern his errors? / Clear thou me from hidden faults.
Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins / let them not have dominion over me: Then shall I be upright, And I shall be clear from great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart / be acceptable in thy sight, O YHWH, my rock, and my redeemer (Psalm 19:1-14).

“I take [Psalm 19] to be the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world ” (C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, 63).

Psalm 19 is justly famous as an ode to YHWH the Creator and how He has made the universe. Psalm 19:1 is famous in its own right as is Psalm 19:7-10, the latter of which is frequently sung as a hymn. It has thus been fashionable to consider Psalm 19 in its various parts; many in fact suggest Psalm 19 is a compilation of two or three separate psalms all put together. Is it really just two or three Psalms put together? What is David attempting to communicate in Psalm 19 as presently arranged?

The three main sections of Psalm 19 are Psalm 19:1-6, Psalm 19:7-11, and Psalm 19:12-14. Psalm 19:1-6 describes how, as Psalm 19:1 says, the heavens declare God’s glory and handiwork. The whole system betrays an intelligent Artificer behind the scenes (Psalm 19:2). God has set all things in their place and has made the course for the sun; the sun is spoken of in terms of a bridegroom leaving the chamber, or rejoicing as a man finishing his task, shining over all the earth with nothing hidden from it (Psalm 19:3-6).

Psalm 19:7-11 commend YHWH’s instruction. David speaks of YHWH’s law, testimonies, precepts, commandments, fear, and ordinances, terms reminiscent of the Torah (Psalm 19:7-9; cf. Deuteronomy 4:45, Psalm 119:4). YHWH’s instruction is perfect, sure, right, pure, clean, and true; they restore the soul, make wise the simple, rejoice the heart, enlighten the eyes, endure forever, and are altogether righteous. The poetry is succinct; the lines are sharp. YHWH’s instruction is more desirable than gold or honey, warning the servant, providing great reward (Psalm 19:10-11).

Psalm 19:12-14 feature David’s response. He rhetorically asks who could discern God’s errors? No mortal can, of course; he therefore wishes to be cleansed of hidden faults and to be kept back from presumptuous sins (Psalm 19:12-13a). He will then be able to stand upright and be clear of transgression, and he prays that his words and meditation are acceptable in the sight of YHWH his Rock and Redeemer, the source of his strength, refuge, and vindication (Psalm 19:13b-14).

It is easy to see why people might think that two or three psalms have been put together here: what does the sun have to do with the Law? What do they have to do with hidden faults? Yet we do well to consider why David and/or the Psalter has prepared Psalm 19 as a whole. Is there anything that might bind Psalm 19 together?

The theme of all of Psalm 19 is found in Psalm 19:1: God’s glory is seen in His handiwork. Of all the things David could have featured when speaking of the heavens he focuses on the sun and how things are in their proper courses (Psalm 19:1-6). The sun, and particularly the way in which the sun is described, expresses not only God’s majestic structure in the heavens but their benevolent function as well. The sun gives light and life, joyful as the man who has just experienced his first copulation or who is about to finish a race (Psalm 19:5). As the heavens and the sun do not speak themselves but show the speech of YHWH and His benevolent structure in the heavens, so the words of YHWH in the Law, in His Torah, provide benevolent structure for the conduct and behavior of His people (Psalm 19:7-11). Keeping YHWH’s Torah provides great reward (Psalm 19:11); what if David actually meant what he said and believed that just as the sun allows for life to exist and flourish so YHWH’s Torah restores the soul, rejoices the heart, and enlightens the eyes? And what would be the appropriate response to seeing YHWH’s benevolent structure in His creation, both in the heavens and in the Torah? Humility and faithfulness: asking for forgiveness from hidden faults and presumptuous sins, trusting in YHWH’s benevolence and beneficence, maintaining YHWH as refuge, strength, and source of deliverance (Psalm 19:12-14).

Thus Psalm 19 can be well understood in its unity: all we are and have are thanks to YHWH’s benevolent structure He established in the creation. He made the heavens so that the earth could be inhabited; He established His Torah, His Law, so that people could live and thrive; in response we do well to give thanks, ask to be kept from thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought, and to trust in YHWH as our Rock and Redeemer. May we allow Psalm 19 to give voice to us to proclaim the greatness of God’s handiwork in the heavens and in His instruction, to ask to be kept from presumption, and trust in our redemption secured by His Son the Lord Jesus Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Desiring God

Nevertheless I am continually with thee: Thou hast holden my right hand. Thou wilt guide me with thy counsel, And afterward receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides thee (Psalm 73:23-25).

The Psalms begin with a wisdom psalm affirming the way things should be: the righteous prosper while the wicked fade away in transience (Psalm 1). The third book of the Psalms attempts to come to grips with the feeling that this is not always so (Psalm 73).

Asaph does not deny God’s goodness to Israel and those who are pure in heart (Psalm 73:1). Yet he was prone to stumbled for he was envious of the arrogant on account of the prosperity of the wicked (Psalm 73:2-3). These are not the “good people” who “deserve” what they have; they are arrogant, foolish, impious, oppressive, the rich people only fellow rich people tolerate (Psalm 73:4-12). Asaph is left to wonder if his righteousness has gotten him anywhere or anything (Psalm 73:13-14).

Asaph wants to know what we all want to know: why do the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer? He sees it is a wearisome task to consider the question (Psalm 73:16). But while he goes to stand before the presence of YHWH in the Temple he gains a critical insight (Psalm 73:17). To what do the wealthy wicked look when they see the future? Asaph sees their worst case scenario: they lose all their wealth and fall into ruin, and all that in but a moment (Psalm 73:18-19). They are left with nothing; they are exposed as naked and helpless through calamity and disaster.

Asaph feels pricked in heart based on this insight; he recognizes the surpassing value of what he has by being continually with God, who holds His right hand, guiding him with His counsel, ultimately to receive him to glory (Psalm 73:24). Asaph then cries out a notable declaration: whom does Asaph have in Heaven but God? Asaph desires nothing on Earth besides God (Psalm 73:25). His flesh will fail; God will be his strength forever (Psalm 73:26). The wicked will perish, but Asaph knows that YHWH is his refuge and will proclaim His works (Psalm 73:27-28).

There is little pretense in the Psalms; in them life is exposed for all that it is, both what is beautiful as well as what is ugly. The Psalms do not tolerate the pious fictions we like to tell ourselves, knowing that since we should feel in certain ways and not feel in other ways, we will not speak publicly when we fall short, and all pretend that all is well. Asaph makes his admission: he was stumbling in his trust in YHWH because he was envious of the wealth of the wicked. If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that we at times have been guilty of the same envy. Like Asaph, we want to know why; we always seem to want to know why.

Why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer? From the ancient Near Eastern world until today the assumption has been that people prosper when righteous and suffer when wicked. The book of Job is all about Job and his friends having to come to grips first with the possibility that a person might suffer illness or indignity but not as a result of sin and then by extension that wicked people prosper despite their evil. Yet no explanation is really given. The Preacher considers questions of this sort as vanity (Ecclesiastes 8:14). These days we tend to point to God’s “common grace,” that God gives rain to the just as well as the unjust (Matthew 5:45), or we just put off the question, as in the song “Farther Along,” presuming that we will understand everything at some point in a future realm.

Yet for Asaph the question does have an answer; it is a real and present one, but it only could be discerned in the presence of God. The whole question presumes that material wealth is true wealth and material lack is true poverty, health is true wealth and illness is true poverty, or favor is true wealth and adversity is true poverty. Asaph sees that reality is not that simple. It is easy to be envious of the wealthy because we want what they have; nevertheless, their wealth can be their own prison. Asaph describes the greatest fear of the wealthy: the deprivation of all they have (Psalm 73:18-19). That fear motivates them to continue to accumulate wealth, to keep God and/or their fellow man at a distance lest they lose their wealth, and in general maintain great fear and apprehension about maintaining or increasing what they already have. After all, they are but a major economic collapse, a war and its deprivation, or an incurable illness away from losing everything! And they are filled with fear and terror. The wicked do not have true wealth; what they have causes them great fear and apprehension. In a strange sense they suffer because of their prosperity.

Asaph, on the other hand, has true wealth: God. Whether Asaph has material wealth or prosperity, God is with him. Whether Asaph maintains good health or is struck with illness, God holds his right hand. Whether he is quite popular among his people or derided and persecuted, God guides him by His counsel. When it is all said and done, and Asaph goes the way of all flesh, God will receive him into glory.

We do well to consider deeply Asaph’s cry. Whom is there in heaven for Asaph but God? No one, of course, and that is the same with us. So Asaph makes a confident declaration, one I dare say we could not make as confidently: there is nothing on earth [he] desire[s] besides [God] (Psalm 73:25).

The reason for our lack of confidence is that we like God’s blessings more than God. We like material prosperity; we like comfort, both physical and spiritual; we like having good people in our lives who care for us and we for them. God, on the other hand, is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24, Hebrews 12:29). Those who would draw near to Him must sanctify Him and His name, and many have suffered and perished for not thus honoring God (e.g. Leviticus 10:1-3). God is the Other, far above mankind; He cannot be manipulated or controlled. God has questions for our certainties. We all see the value of His blessings, but as for God Himself? We feel it is wiser to keep our distance.

Yes, God demands holiness from those who would draw near to Him; many times those closest to Him have suffered the greatest deprivations and trials, both to test their faith as well as to suffer on behalf of the Name and for others (Hebrews 11:1-40, 1 Peter 2:18-25). Nevertheless, Asaph has it right: we must desire God, not what God gives. That which God gives are but an extension of Himself and His love for us; on their own they can often distract people as they clearly did for the wicked. While God has questions for our certainties, He remains the Certainty in the midst of our trials and challenges.

In the end that is why we must desire God and not what God gives: only God can be our refuge, and only God will receive us to glory (Psalm 73:24-25, 28). In times of trial wealth, perhaps even friends, and popularity fail. In life we are given reason to question or challenge the goodness of this creation and the things within it; we sometimes may even question if there will be anything beyond this life, any great reckoning, any ultimate goal. The Lord YHWH is the Creator; Jesus is the Author and Finisher of our faith (Genesis 1:1, Hebrews 12:2). The life of faith is not just about what happens after death; the life of faith is about trusting in and desiring God. If we want God, we will want to be where God is; if we want God, then the resurrection will be glory, because in the resurrection He will make His dwelling place with us (Revelation 21:1-7). God’s blessings cannot compare with God Himself; why do we suffer from such a lack of faith so as to covet the lesser good when God wants us to have the greatest Good of all?

Why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer? Actually, both the righteous and the wicked prosper and suffer in various ways to various degrees at different times. Sometimes the prosperity is a cause of suffering; sometimes suffering leads to true treasure. Asaph has learned true wisdom: God is true wealth, because despite all the trials, tribulations, suffering, and righteousness necessary to be in relationship with God, God is the Certainty by which we can continue to live, our Sustainer and Redeemer whether we have much or little, health or illness, fame or infamy. God’s blessings do not compare with God Himself; let us declare, as Asaph did, that there is nothing on earth we desire besides God, and grow in faith accordingly!

Ethan R. Longhenry