As we find ourselves coming out of lockdown I wonder what we will find.  The Old Testament has a fairly positive ending as the people of Judea are released from exile in Babylon.  They  return to their Promised Land and rebuild the temple, and then there is a time of lamenting from the older people who remember the first temple.  This one isn’t as good!  God doesn’t fill it with his glory!  The exile is over, but things aren’t what they used to be!

    And so I thought that this might be the time to look at lamenting in the Bible, and I want to look through the book of Psalms.  Of the 150 psalms, 48 are psalms of lamentation.  I begin with Psalm 3.

    The psalmist tells of his problems, caused by his many enemies, but rather than looking at his enemies (and his desire for God to smash their teeth in [v7], I want to look at how God helps him.

    While many are saying “God will not deliver him” (v2), the truth is, “You are a shield around me, O Lord.”  He is protected by God; the God who bestows glory on him and lifts up his head (v3).  This is our God.  Have you found him to be your shield?  The one who bestows glory on you and lifts up your head?  The one who answers when you cry to him (v4)?

    The psalmist is able to sleep and wake again because the Lord sustains him (v5).  Even when surrounded by his enemies the psalmist is able to sleep without fear.

    We have heard a lot about mental illness and wellbeing over the past year.  I think we will hear more about it as we venture out once again into a world where the pandemic isn’t actually over.  We are only going out again to help the economy, not because the virus has gone.  This is our tiny, but deadly, enemy, and so as the psalmist found deliverance from his enemies as he trusted in the God who answered from his holy hill (v4), so we can find deliverance from our enemies.

    We can find that while those who do not know God cannot find peace, we can lie down and sleep, and wake again, because the Lord sustains (us) (v5).

    We can pray, along with the psalmist, Arise, O Lord!  Deliver me, O my God! (v7a)  And we can know that He will.

    This is not a psalm asking, How long, O Lord?  We will get to those soon enough.  This is an honest psalm where the psalmist acknowledges that life is not perfect (how many are my foes!  How many rise up against me! [v1])  He is aware that the odds are stacked against him.  But he isn’t despairing!  He is trusting in an all-powerful God who is bigger than all his enemies put together.

    And that is where we should be as his people.  Trusting that the Spirit who lives in you is greater than the spirit who lives in the world (1 John 4: 4).

 

    The next Psalm I want to look at is Psalm 4, which begins with the request: Answer me when I call to you, O my righteous God.  The psalmist is in some kind of distress, so this is another psalm of lament: Give me relief from my distress.

    The prayer is one of faith and trust because the psalmist is expecting to be answered.  His main problem is with other people.  He asks the How long? question, but it is not God he is asking:

How long, O men, will you turn my glory into shame?

How long will you love delusions and seek false gods?

    This psalm suggests that most people are looking in the wrong places for their help: delusions; false gods; Many are asking, “Who can show us any good?”

    During the past 12 months or so we have had all manner of experts, in many fields, advising us how we should survive this pandemic.  We have had the government laying down the law, while the scientists have tried to explain what they think is happening; the conspiracy theorists telling us there is no virus and the vaccine is dangerous, and we have had to listen to all kinds of weird and wonderful pieces of advice.  I’m not sure anyone was tempted to inject bleach even when the then President of the USA suggested it.  But there have been ‘experts’ all year long.

    And the psalmist has faced something similar.  We don’t know his precise situation, but we should know the God to whom he is talking.  And while people were looking in the wrong direction, the psalmist had the answer.

    He didn’t just have faith that God would sort everything out; he knew his God.  His God is righteous.  His God has filled his heart with greater joy than when (the) grain and new wine abound.  This is not a man who needs a glass of wine when he gets home at the end of a hard day.   This is a man who knows his God.  His heart is filled with joy.

    And then he is able to sleep well at night because, as he says, you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.

    So it is a lament, but not for himself.  He is lamenting the people who love delusions and seek false gods.

    For himself there is joy and peace because he knows the One, True, God and that God brings him peace and enables him to sleep at nights.

    So that answers the problem of this ongoing pandemic.  There may be another wave, we are told by the experts.  There are a variety of new variants.  We may need Covid passports to go anywhere and everywhere.

    But whatever the rest of this year may bring us, we can know peace and joy and rest.  

 

    Psalm 5 is the psalm I want to look at this week.  This one begins by describing itself as a lament:  

Listen to my words, Lord,

    consider my lament.

2 Hear my cry for help,

    my King and my God,

    for to you I pray.

    And again, as with so many of the psalms we don’t know the context; we don’t know what is happening in the psalmist’s life, but we know he’s not happy!  He asks God to consider his lament, which turns into some harsh words about his enemies.  And the psalm ends:

But let all who take refuge in you be glad;

    let them ever sing for joy.

Spread your protection over them,

    that those who love your name may rejoice in you.

12 Surely, Lord, you bless the righteous;

    you surround them with your favour as with a shield.

    Throughout this psalm the psalmist has the confidence that no matter what is happening in his life God knows about it.  He knows that God will listen to him: his lament; his cry for help.  Knowing that God is listening allows him to be honest about the fact that he has enemies - that life is not perfect.  He is not pretending that everything is OK.  He admits that it isn’t.  And sometimes we need that honesty.

    And he knows that he can turn to God for protection, for shelter, for help.  Which makes me wonder how we compare to this psalmist!  When it comes to the problems of life do we try to deal with them by ourselves?  Do we deny the problems?  Or do we turn somewhere else for help?

    I find it helpful to have these psalms of lament in the Bible.  They show us how we should respond to life’s many difficulties.  If we are those who love God’s name then we may rejoice in him.  If we are counted among the righteous then we can be assured of God’s blessings, and we can know that we are surrounded with his favour, as with a shield.

    The result of this is that we can ever sing for joy.  Even with all his problems the psalmist can sing for joy.  And how is he able to do this?  Because of how he starts his day: 

In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice;

    in the morning I lay my requests before you

    and wait expectantly.

    Each morning he prays and then he waits, expecting God to answer.  Not just a quick prayer, but expectant waiting.  And as result he gets through each day with the assurance of God’s presence and protection.  A lament with a solution - God is there to protect us if we are prepared to trust him.

    So how’s that working out for you.

 

    This week we are looking at Psalm 6.  This is one of those psalms that asks the question, How long, O Lord?  The psalmist writes from a position of weakness and possibly illness.  He says, O Lord, heal me, for my bones are in agony.  My soul is in anguish….  I am worn out from groaning; all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.

    He is having a difficult time, and the psalms are good for showing us that life for those who are following God is not always full of joy and praise.  We get to see so many aspects of life and here we have a person who is finding life really difficult.

    At the beginning of the psalm he seems to think that God is punishing him: O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath.  The psalmist knows God.  He isn’t a liberal theologian who spends his time denying that the God of the Bible demonstrates anger.  He is a devoted follower of God and so with his knowledge he also experiences uncertainty.  He asks himself if his current situation is God’s punishment.  Without the benefit of New Testament Theology and a proper understanding of the cross of Jesus the psalmist believes that God is punishing him.

    And it is possible to think like that, which is why it helps to have a good understanding of what the Bible teaches about God, as well as a good understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    The psalmist doesn’t have our advantage.  He lived in Old Testament times.  And yet he knows God, because God has made himself known to his people.

    And so by the end of the psalm the psalmist is reassured that God has heard his weeping; He has heard his cry for mercy; He has accepted his prayer.

    What starts as a psalm of lament ends as a psalm, not so much of praise, but of assurance.  The psalmist discovers that God is compassionate, merciful and He is a God who hears our prayers.  

    This is a good psalm for our day.  People have asked where this pandemic came from.  There have been those who claim it is from God - those with no Bible knowledge.  There have been those who have worried when they have become ill and at such times it is possible that God is not seen as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    The psalmist teaches us persistence as he prays:

How long, O Lord, how long?

Turn, O Lord, and deliver me;

save me because of your unfailing love.

    He is not a Stoic, accepting his fate.  He is a person who expects God to be a major part of his life.  And so this is a good psalm for today.  Try it out and see how it helps.

 

    This week’s psalm is Psalm 7.  This psalm has a verse I love: He who is pregnant with evil and conceives trouble gives birth to disillusionment.  And this psalmist is aware of his own tendencies in that direction as he asks God to judge him if he sins.

    But that is not where I want to focus.  The psalm begins:

O Lord my God, I take refuge in you;

save and deliver me from all who pursue me

    It is a cry for help with the assurance that help will be given.  This is a prayer to the God of justice who brings judgement and salvation.  The God who knows the difference between sin and righteousness, and so to this God the psalmist can pray:

Judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness,

according to my integrity, O Most High.

    This is so different from what we normally read in the Bible.  We would expect the psalmist to ask God to judge him according to God’s righteousness.  But this psalmist knows he is in a right relationship with God.  He knows his sins have been forgiven.  He knows that his integrity is intact.  And as he writes later, he knows he is upright in heart.

    So when it comes to singing, or reading, the psalms, is this one that you could join in with?  Are you as confident as the psalmist in your relationship with God?  Maybe it was King David who wrote this psalm - the man after God’s own heart.  But even if it was, he is still an Old Testament character.  We live in the New Testament.  We know that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all unrighteousness.  We know that the Holy Spirit lives within us, if we really are children of God.  We have that promise from Jesus, that I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.

    And with all of that knowledge we are in a better position than this psalmist.  Whatever trouble the psalmist was facing he had the assurance that God, the righteous Judge, would deliver him, because the psalmist was righteous, a man of integrity, with an upright heart.

    At the end of the psalm the psalmist acknowledges God’s righteousness: I will give thanks to the Lord because of his righteousness.

    God is thanked because He is righteous and does what He has promised to do.  So as we get away from COVID-19 and get back to all the regular slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (as Shakespeare put it) we can trust in God, not because He’s an indulgent heavenly grandfather, but because of the relationship that we have with him made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

    So maybe we can join in with this psalm once we have experienced the reality of a living relationship with the living God.

 

   This week we are looking at Psalm 10 which begins with the question:

Why, O Lord, do you stand afar off?

Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

    And then half of the psalm is the psalmist telling God what ‘the wicked’ get up to, and how they manage all this without having to face any consequences.  And then the psalmist asks God to step in and help the helpless.

    This results in the psalmist listing God’s involvement in life.  After listing what the wicked get away with the psalmist realises that God is at work after all.  And so he tells God:

you, O God, do see trouble  and grief

    And God does not just see it: you consider it to take it in hand.  I find that more helpful than the idea that God is with us in our troubles and unable to help.  The real God takes our troubles in hand.  And so the victim commits himself to God. The victim doesn’t complain that God shouldn’t have allowed his/her trouble; the victim doesn’t believe God is punishing him/her.  This is a much better understanding of what a relationship with God is like.  This psalmist knows that there is trouble in the world; he knows that even having God in his life doesn’t make him immune from the world’s troubles.  And yet he knows that God is there.  And so he commits himself to God, knowing that God will help him.

    God is the helper of the fatherless.  As with many psalmists, we don’t know who this one is and we don’t know if he is fatherless, but he certainly has a soft spot for orphans - he mentions them again later in the psalm.

    He concludes the psalm:

You hear, O Lord, the desire of the afflicted;

you encourage them, and you listen to their cry,

defending the fatherless and the oppressed.

    I have often said that the psalms are not theology; they are personal testimony.  If we take this psalm as a personal testimony, then we can assume the psalmist is writing about his own experience of committing himself to God and discovering that God heard his desire, encouraged him and listened to his cry.  And so he puts himself in the camp of the fatherless and the oppressed.

    Supposing you were to write a psalm, how would it go?  What is your testimony to this God who is described here as King for ever and ever?

    Would you be able to write that God has encouraged you?  The psalmist starts off feeling negative, but then he takes the time to think about who God is; he looks back on his life and realises that, despite all the troubles, God has always been there helping him.  Maybe you should try writing your own psalm!

 

    Psalm 13  asks the questions: How long, O Lord, will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?  This is a desperate cry from someone who’s prayers have not been answered.

    And then he gives us a little more detail: How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?  This psalmist is suffering in his whole being - his soul!  He then talks about his enemies - and we don’t know who they are, or what they are doing to him, but they do seem to want to shake his faith somehow.  They don’t like the confidence he has in God.

    This psalmist knows his God, as we shall soon see, and it appears that his enemies are those who don’t know God.  They are members of the tribes of Israel possibly (the Old Testament equivalent of the Sadducees - the bad guys of the New Testament).  Or they could be the Assyrians who after torturing their own people for long enough decided to invade the surrounding nations and eventually arrived at Jerusalem mocking the God of Israel, because (they said) He wasn’t as strong as their false gods (see 2 Kings 18).

    But whoever it was, in this short psalm the psalmist soon turns to God:

5 But I trusted in your steadfast love;

    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.

6 I will sing to the Lord,

    because he has dealt bountifully with me.

    He has absolute confidence in his God, even in these troubled times.  He cannot honestly testify that his prayers have been answered - they haven’t!  He cannot honestly say that he knows what God is doing - he doesn’t!

    But he knows his God.  This God has dealt bountifully with him.  He is trusting in his steadfast love, because in the good times he maintained his relationship with God.  He knows his God will not let him down, even though at the moment he is not getting answers to his prayers.

    And in this situation his heart that had sorrow … all day long at the beginning of the psalm shall rejoice in (God’s) salvation.  The salvation hasn’t yet come, but he knows it will, because he knows his God.

    This is a psalm that tells us to develop our relationship with God when times are good, so that we can trust him when times are bad.  It is too easy to ignore God until troubles come and then fire up a quick prayer and then wonder why there is no answer.  The only way to have confidence in this world is to get to know God personally and Jesus has made this possible through his death and resurrection.

    So follow this psalmist’s example and learn to rejoice when troubles come!

 

    The next psalm on the list is Psalm 14.  It doesn’t look like a psalm of lament - there is no complaining!  But to lament does not always mean to complain about our own circumstances; sometimes we can lament the state of the world, or the state of the human race.  And that is what this psalm does.

    The psalmist can see how people live and he laments: The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”   The psalmist is concerned, not about the intellectual atheist who thinks he/she has managed to eliminate God intellectually (although they do need our concern), but he is concerned with those who live as though there is no God - his own people!

    He laments the fact that The LORD looks down from heaven … to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God.  And there is no one!  That’s the Bible’s understanding of the state of the human race!  No one understands; no one seeks God.  All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good.  So, yes, this is a psalm of lament that shows us that God has a different view than most of us.

    But again we see biblical hyperbole (a phrase I will never use in the pulpit).  There are some righteous people: God is present in the company of the righteous, so there are some - a remnant - who know God and understand his ways; some who are seeking him.

    And as the psalmist is talking about the Old Testament people of God, so we can apply this to the New Testament people of God, and we can apply his final prayer to the Church: O that salvation … would come…!  When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people….

    We live in interesting times.  As we recover from all the lockdowns we are seeing a different church - everyone is older; it’s hard to get motivated again; there has been time to assess and prioritise.  And maybe some (but not all) people are asking where God is in all this.  What is God saying to us in this?

    Should we carry on trying to run the church like a business - desperate to keep the bank balance healthy and forcing people to take on positions so that we don’t have to accept that we are not the church we used to be.

    Maybe now is the time to pray that salvation will come, and that the LORD will restore the fortunes of his people.  This is not a time for more and more committee meetings.  This is a time for prayer meetings.  A time to seek God and to look for understanding.

    And even though the psalmist doesn’t ask the “Why?” question in this psalm, maybe we should ask it.  Why is our church in the state it’s in?  why are the people not flocking into our buildings now that they can?  They can be useful questions!

 

    The psalm of lament this week is Psalm 17.   It isn’t until v8-9 that we read what the psalmist’s problem is.  He has enemies; people who want to bring him down.  He prays for God’s justice on them and then the psalm ends with the psalmist’s assurance of his vindication by God.

    But the important part of the psalm is the psalmist’s assurance that he is in a relationship with God Almighty - El Shaddai; YHWH; The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He is not religious.  You never find any trace of religion in the psalms (mainly because there is no religion found in the Bible).

    And so the psalmist begins with his righteous plea, that does not rise from deceitful lips.  He knows that he is righteous because he is in a right relationship with God.  No prayers of confession from this psalmist because he knows his God.  Verse 3 is a statement that all Christians should be able to make:

Though you probe my heart

and examine me at night,

though you test me, you will find nothing;

I have resolved that my mouth will not sin.

    That is quite a claim to make to God!  But it fits in perfectly with the New Testament understanding of holiness.  If our sins are forgiven and we are baptised with the Holy Spirit we can make the same claim.

    Then v5

My steps have held to your paths;

my feet have not slipped.

    That is a good testimony to have.  To live in such a relationship with God that his feet never slipped.  And so the psalmist, while lamenting his situation, prays, knowing that God will answer him (v6).  He doesn’t hope God will answer him; he doesn’t believe it as a ‘faith position’; he knows for a fact that God will answer him.

    That has been the focus of my ministry from the beginning: getting people to know God through Jesus; seeing people’s lives transformed through the forgiveness of sins and the filling with the Spirit; assurance (the first Methodist doctrine).  So much better than religion which is all about striving for acceptance and hoping in spite of the evidence.  Knowing God; knowing that He is listening when we call to him; knowing that He doesn’t mind us calling him ‘He’.

    And then that wonderful sense of God in v8: Keep me as the apple of your eye.  Some people will argue against the Bible and the confidence it offers, but isn’t it better to know the truth and be set free by the truth?

    This week’s psalm of lament is the opposite of the others we have looked at.  Psalm 25 has the hope in God at the beginning and the despair at the end.  That is probably the best way to face life: get your eyes focussed on the greatness of God and then look at your problems in comparison.  The size of God will diminish the size of the problems.

    The psalmist’s problems are loneliness, affliction, anguish, distress, all his sins, the multiplication of his enemies and the fear of being put to shame.

    That’s enough of a list to be going on with!  You may find any one of those at different stages of your life.  And if so it helps to know that God is there.  Not just there, but active.

    The psalmist lifts up his soul to God and trusts in him, with the assurance that (N)o one whose hope is in you will ever be put to shame.

    And then to be assured that his trust will be rewarded, the psalmist is aware that he has a part to play:

Show me your ways, O LORD,

teach me your paths;

guide me in your truth and teach me,

    He knows that he can’t just choose his own way in life (remember Jesus said, ‘I am the way’); he is aware that God has a way (and again Jesus tells us it is a straight and narrow way).  So if we walk this way, we will learn his paths and be guided in his truth.  It seems everyone has their own understanding of truth these days, but there is only one reality and if we are living in the world that the God of the Bible created, then living by his truth guarantees us his presence and protection.

    And then  the psalmist twice tells God that He is good: Good and upright is the LORD.  And:

All the ways of the LORD are loving and faithful.

    And there is a conditional clause:

for those who keep the demands of his covenant.

    We do tend to forget the conditions that are found throughout the Bible and then wonder why God doesn’t fulfil his side of the covenant, while we are not fulfilling our side.  And yet that is what we find throughout the Bible - a covenant of two sides.  So often we hear about God’s side and then when God doesn’t deliver there is doubt and questioning.

    It would transform our church if we actually applied the covenant to our lives; it would transform our lives!  

    Let’s give it a try!

   The next psalm of lament is Psalm 26.  In terms of theology this is a very good one.  We know nothing of the problem behind the psalm because the psalmist doesn’t tell us.  He spends the whole psalm defending himself - and what a defence!

    He begins with a plea for God to vindicate him.  We don’t know what he has been accused of, but it doesn’t really matter.  Life is just not going his way and he is feeling in need of God’s help.  

    And so he begins his defence: I have led a blameless life.  In terms of Old Testament Theology that means he has never knowingly broken any of God’s laws.  There were sacrifices for unintentional sins, but not for intentional sins, so he is blameless because the sacrifices covered his unintentional sins.

    Then he writes about his unwavering trust in the LORD.  He tells God: 

Test me … and try me, 

examine my heart and my mind’.  

    That’s a challenge isn’t it?  Could you ask God to test your heart and mind to see if your trust in him is unwavering?  Then he says, ‘your love is ever before me’.  

    The God of the Old Testament was known for his love.  Sometimes preachers lead us astray on this and give us a different picture of God, but those who knew him knew him as a God who loved them.  But it isn’t just about trusting in God’s love and living how you like.  The psalmist also ‘walk(s) continually in your truth’.  His trust is unwavering because he knows his God and he lives according to God’s Word.  He doesn’t take the advice of people who don’t know God; his guide through life is the Word of God.

    He then lists the people he doesn’t hang out with and continues: ‘telling of all your wonderful deeds’.  The God of the Bible is the true God; He performs wonderful deeds.  He isn’t distant, or inactive.  He is a God of power who wants to work in our lives if we would let him.  We just have to open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit and we would experience some of those wonderful deeds for ourselves.  Some people go to church all their lives and never experience the power of God; this Old Testament psalmist loves going to the Temple because he knows the God to whom it is dedicated.

    And he concludes the psalm by again reminding God that he leads a blameless life:

My feet stand on level ground;

in the great assembly I will praise the LORD.’

    I love this psalm because it was written in Old Testament times, before Jesus died on the cross and rose again, before the Holy Spirit was poured out, and yet there is so much life in it.  This psalmist knows his God personally and yet he has never had a life-transforming encounter with Jesus; he has never been filled with the Holy Spirit and experienced that real power of God flowing through his body.

    Aren’t you grateful that you live on this side of Calvary and this side of Pentecost?  All that the psalmist testifies to in this psalm is ours daily, and more besides.

    Everyday, along with this psalmist we should be:

‘proclaiming aloud (God’s) praise 

and telling of his wonderful deeds’.

   Psalm 27 begins like a psalm of praise, but as you read through it you can see the psalmist’s problems: ‘evil men advance against me to devour my flesh’; Though an army besiege me’; ‘though war break out against me’; ‘in the day of trouble’; ‘the enemies who surround me’; ‘Though my father and mother forsake me’; ‘my oppressors’; ‘the desire of my foes’; ‘false witnesses rise up against me, breathing out violence

    He is not having an easy time!  There seems to be nothing but trouble, including from his own family.  Anyone would give up under the pressures he seems to be facing, but he begins the psalm with a statement and a question:

The LORD is my light and my salvation -

whom shall I fear?

The LORD is the stronghold of my life -

of whom shall I be afraid?

    Good question!  If God is on our side it doesn’t matter how many people are against us.  In the early days of my Christian life there were posters - usually with kittens on them - with pithy little sayings and there was one that fits in here: “With God on my side I’m always in the majority”.  I always liked that one (even with the kitten!)  It doesn’t matter who is against us as long as God is for us.

    The psalmist asks one thing of the LORD: 

that I may dwell in the house of the LORD 

all the days of my life, 

to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD.

    And that is the secret to his confidence.  He has confidence in the God he knows; the God he spends time with; the God he meditates on.  The better he knows God, the better he knows God, and that gives him confidence and hope.

    He finishes the psalm with the words: 

Wait for the LORD;

be strong and take heart

and wait for the LORD.

    He has confidence and hope and he is able to praise the LORD, even though the answers may not come immediately.  He is looking at the big picture and trusting in the God he knows.  And so with all his difficulties he can still praise God.  This is one of those situations where it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

    That is our God - someone worth knowing!

 

   The more psalms we read, the more we realise that God’s people didn’t always have an easy time.  The idea that they believed in a Creator God who was good to them because their lives were running smoothly is false to the evidence that we see in the psalms.  These people suffered; they had enemies and life wasn’t easy.  Today we are looking at Psalm 28.  There doesn’t seem to be any physical threat this time, but there is the threat of the two-faced friend: ‘those who do evil, who speak cordially with their neighbours but harbour malice in their hearts’.  The person who is nice to your face, but has a different story to tell when your back is turned.

    There is a call for justice in this palm; it sounds like a call for vengeance.  And that makes it a very real psalm.  There is no point in lying to God when He knows how we feel.  God is more pleased with our prayers for someone’s judgement than He is with our prayers for their blessing, when He knows, and we know, that we don’t mean it.  He wants us to be honest!

    To use a modern analogy, the book of Psalms is like Facebook, or any other social media platform.  It used to be that people kept diaries and they would be horrified if anyone read them.  Today we have Facebook and you can learn what people had for breakfast; their favourite film; where they are going on holiday; and their opinions about anything from Brexit to Covid.  They are usually disappointed if people don’t read and “Like” these diary entries.

    And so if the book of Psalms is seen as a public prayer diary then we can understand the feelings expressed there.  Life is tough and the psalmist is expressing his feelings about what is happening.  And, just like the InterNet, what goes in the Bible is there forever.  So we may not know the individuals being referred to, but we know how the psalmist dealt with it.

    And once again the way to deal with issues is to recognise God and take everything to him.  The psalmist calls God his Rock, the One who has heard his cry for mercy; his strength and his shield.  And not just his:

The LORD is the strength of his people,

a fortress of salvation for his anointed one.

    This is the God who is always there and the God who is able!  Able to protect us in every situation.  Able to deliver us from all evil.  

    And so the psalm ends with a prayer:

Save your people and bless your inheritance;

be their shepherd and carry them forever.

    That’s an even better picture - the God who is our Shepherd, carrying us through the difficult times.  So whatever you may be facing at this time, remember the LORD who is your Shepherd, who will carry you through.

 

   This week’s psalm is Psalm 31.  In this psalm we have another quote that Jesus used on the cross: v5, “Into your hands I commit my spirit”.  And once again there are enemies and there is trouble, but as you read through the psalm you begin to notice something else.  And the something else made me wonder how old this psalmist is:

my eyes grow weak with sorrow,

my soul and my body with grief.

My life is consumed by anguish and my years by groaning;

my strength fails because of my affliction, and my bones grow weak….

I have become like broken pottery.

    He is under stress, but he also seems to be suffering the ravages of illness and age.  I liked the broken pottery image - maybe a bit cracked!  Maybe completely broken like Humpty Dumpty.  Humanly beyond repair.  And there is the description of weak bones and failing strength, failing eyesight.  He’s not doing so well!

    And yet with all of that he still knows his God.  That verse that Jesus quoted as his strength was failing on the cross, Into your hands I commit my spirit is a good prayer for each of us to offer - who else are we going to trust as our bodies get older!  The psalm begins with the psalmist trusting God as a refuge, a deliverer, a rescuer, a rock of refuge and a fortress.  This is a God who is able; a God who is powerful.  And a God who is in control.

    The psalmist goes on to say, My times are in your hands.  And that is a statement of faith, trusting in the eternal God who is from everlasting to everlasting, as another psalm describes him.

    This is the God who has his hand on our lives.  He knows every day before we live it.  He reads every email before it arrives in our inbox; every text before it arrives in our phone, and every letter before we open the envelope.  He knows what we are facing and even if we are not able to cope, we can trust that He is.

    The psalmist, with all his problems, was able to trust in God and so he finishes the psalm with:

Love the LORD, all his saints!

The LORD preserves the faithful,

Be strong and take heart,

all you who hope in the LORD.

    And if we know this same God, revealed to us more fully in Jesus, we should also be able to be strong in the face of everything that we face in this coming week; we should be able to take heart, and to hope in the LORD.

 

    In this week’s psalm it takes a moment to realise that the psalmist is a good person.  Psalm 35 starts with the psalmist asking God to fight against his enemies, and asking that their lives be ruined.  He doesn’t sound like a good person until you reach v13, where he tells us:

when they were ill, I put on sackcloth and humbled myself with fasting.

When my prayers returned to me unanswered,

I went about mourning as though for my friend or brother.

I bowed my head in grief as though weeping for my mother.

    So he is concerned about these people and he isn’t happy to see disaster fall on them, but he is understandably upset when they slander him and are glad of his misfortunes.

    But how does he respond?  In a very human way!  He wants them to experience what they are wishing on him.  The problem with this psalmist is that if his prayers are answered then he has to go back to v13 again and begin fasting in sackcloth.  He can’t really win!  But he doesn’t want to win.  This psalm, like so many others, is his prayer diary.  This is between him and God.  As I said before, the book of Psalms was the Social Media of its day and so we get to read his prayer diary.

    But at least he is honest!  And in his honesty we can see the biblical way to deal with difficult people.

    The psalmist doesn’t plot his revenge.  He is genuinely concerned about the people who are giving him a hard time.  As much as he wants God to punish them, he also treats them like friends and family.

    And he appeals to God for help: O LORD, how long will you look on?   The usual cry in the psalms, and probably a common complaint today: how long will it be before my prayers are answered?

    But he knows that God will answer.  Despite his troubles he trusts, because he knows his God:

May those who delight in my vindication

shout for joy and gladness;

may they always say, “The 

LORD be exalted

who delights in the 

well-being of his servant”.

    And he concludes:

My tongue will speak of your righteousness

and of your praises all day long.

    So on first reading this psalm looks like it’s written by a vindictive man, but once you realise how concerned he is for these people you can understand him better and realise that he is upset with the way they treat him after he has been (and continues to be) so good to them.  And once again there is that underlying trust in God who will vindicate him.

    The psalmist would tell us to pour out all our troubles to God; keep on caring for our “enemies” and trust God to sort it all out.  Not bad advice!

 

    This week we have one of the most miserable psalms, Psalm 38.  The psalmist spends most of the psalm complaining about how God has mistreated him and then, inevitably, he mentions all the people who are mistreating him as well.  And there is no happy ending!  Just a plea in the last verse:

Come quickly to help me,

O LORD my Saviour.

    And we are left wondering: Did He?

        But maybe that’s the point!

            Maybe that’s why this psalm is included in this book!

    Sometimes we can get tired of “Happily ever after”.  It’s OK in fairy tales, but it doesn’t sound like real life.  It doesn’t sound like where we are at the moment, and all those platitudes about how everything will work out and time will heal etc, give nothing but cold comfort.

    I remember going on my first Bereavement Counselling Course many years ago and thinking, “How does this help?  The person (relative/friend) who died is still dead, so how does counselling help?”  And as negative as that sounds, it’s true and that’s where this psalm helps.

    And yet, as bad as his life is, this psalmist is still talking to God.  Even though he has that fairly common human response to his problems - health and relationships - of blaming God, or assuming God is involved somewhere in his troubles, at least he is still talking to God.  That is a much better way than living like a practical atheist and assuming that “This is just life!”

    Sometimes the real world is not fun and sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel actually is an oncoming train!  Sometimes we can become overwhelmed.  And it’s good to know that there is at least one (there are more!!) psalm that leaves us hanging; wondering what happened next!

    There are some issues in life that never get resolved; some questions that never get answered; some prayers that just seem to hit the ceiling.  And the Bible acknowledges that.  It isn’t a book of fairy tales (although if you read the end you’ll see there is a “Happily ever after” ending, but that’s not where we are living today).

    And yes we can know that we live in the New Testament and that Jesus has conquered everything, but while we are going through all those things that are working together for good, it can hurt.  So read Psalm 38 and recognise the trust that this psalmist has in his Saviour LORD and if you are in the same position as him - Hang on in there!

 

   This week we have another doom and gloom psalm - Psalm 39.  The beginning is entertaining: I have often thought a muzzle is necessary, but I find, like the psalmist that there is a need to say something, otherwise I’ll burst.  But notice that when the psalmist does speak he speaks to God.  And his main concern is with the fleeting nature of life.

    It isn’t that life is short; it is that life goes by so quickly.  There is a request in v4

Show me, O LORD, my life’s end 

and the number of my days.

    I wonder how many of us would like to ask those questions?  I have been in situations where I have counted down the days.  In one circuit I was in I did it the other way and counted the first 1,000 days, just to see what could be done in 1,000 days.  But would you like to know when and how your life is going to end?

Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro:

He bustles about, but only in vain;

he heaps up wealth, not 

knowing who will get it.

    That describes so many people today.  We have made busy-ness into a virtue, as though being busy is the normal state of life and actually resting, relaxing and chilling out were somehow wrong.  But to what end?  Busy with what?  For what purpose?  Each man’s life is but a breath.

    And all we are doing is killing time, which will kill us right back!  The psalmist, however, knows his God.  He knows that he is an alien and a stranger (v12) on this earth, and he is aware that it is his sin that is causing him his problems (v8).  He also confesses to his trust in God (v7), but he is finding God’s discipline too hard to bear (v13).

    These psalms are not written by people who believe, as so many do today, that God is a cuddly grandfather-figure.  They are written by people who know that God is not tame.  He is a holy God who condemns sin; a righteous God who judges sinners.  We need to look again to these psalms to see how people who know their God talk to him, to see how they deal with the many different issues of life.  And even when there isn’t an immediate solution to their difficulties, to see who it is that they are trusting in.

    In verse 12 the psalmist describes himself as an alien and a stranger.  If you know your Bible you will know what the Law says about aliens and strangers; you will know that David, as king, described himself this way; you will know what the letter to the Hebrews says about aliens and strangers, and you will understand what the psalmist is saying.  God doesn’t treat us the way our government treats refugees - He treats us in the completely opposite way.  And that gives us hope in all circumstances.

 

   In complete contrast to Psalm 39 Psalm 40 is quite cheerful - for a psalm of lament.  The psalmist begins by recounting God’s salvation and goes on to talk about the new song - the hymn of praise - that God has put in his mouth.  And we almost get to the end of the psalm before he mentions all who seek to take my life.  On the whole this is positive!

    But it is a psalm of lament.  The psalmist was in the slimy pit and the mud and mire.  He writes of troubles without number that surround him.  And then he reveals the source of his problems: 

my sins have overtaken me,

and I cannot see.

They are more than the hairs on my head,

    The psalmist is living before Calvary and Pentecost and he is in a time when there is no salvation from sin, no dying to our old selves.  He recounts the sacrifices of the Old Testament, realising that this is not what God requires.  It is surprising how many times in the Old Testament that the sacrificial system is discounted as something that God doesn’t require.  In this psalm we read about the grace of God.

    The Old Testament is just a shadow compared to the reality that Jesus brought, but the picture of God is just as clear and this is what the psalmist concentrates on.  God responds to the psalmist’s cry for help and sets his feet on a rock and gives him a firm place to stand - remember what Jesus said about building your house on the rock, not on sand?

    It was God who put the new song in the psalmist’s mouth.  The Old Testament God is worthy of praise because of his grace, mercy and love.  The only law that the psalmist needs is in his heart.  It wasn’t an external law that needed to be read and observed.  It was within his heart.  We sometimes hear from preachers that one of the main differences between the Old and New Testaments is that everything was internalised in the New Testament, but reading the Old Testament reveals that this isn’t true.  God had revealed himself to his people in the wilderness and in the Promised Land.  They knew what He was like.  They knew what He required of them.  They weren’t capable of fulfilling God’s requirements because they didn’t have the Holy Spirit yet, but they knew their God.  And they knew that He was worth following and worthy of their praise:

Many, O LORD my God,

are the wonders you have done.

The things you planned for us

no-one can recount to you;

were I to speak and tell of them,

they would be too many to declare.

    This is our God, and whatever slimy pit we may find ourselves in, this is the God who will lift us out and clean us up.  So wherever you find yourself, cry out to God and see what He will do.

 

     This week’s psalm - Psalm 41 - is one that is quoted in the New Testament, referring to Judas: 

Even my closest friend whom I trusted, 

he who shared my bread, 

has lifted up his heel against me.

    And it is all about righteous living in the midst of people who are critical.  The psalm begins with an affirmation of trust in God who will preserve the life of the righteous person (who has regard for the weak); the God who will bless, protect from enemies and restore from illness.  And the psalm ends with a cry of praise to God.

    In between!  Well, that’s where we hear all about his problems.  He acknowledges that his sin causes his problems.  This is not the simplistic judgement for a wrong act that we might suspect, but rather an awareness that his separation from God leads to ill-health.  Meanwhile, his enemies, like good pastoral visitors, have been visiting him - and wondering when he will die!  You have to wonder about these “enemies” - they are visiting him!  They can’t be that bad.

    They sound very like Job’s friends.  They are concerned about his health, but they are also a bit judgemental - blaming him for his illness

    But it also sounds like Judas - a follower of Jesus who then betrays him.  There is a fine line between the psalmist’s closest friend who shared his bread, and his enemy who speaks falsely, while his heart gathers slander.  There is a fine line between Judas the follower of Jesus and Judas the betrayer of Jesus.

    The gospels don’t record the call of Judas, so we don’t know what he was doing before; but we know he was one of God’s chosen people; we know he preached the gospel, healed the sick, cast out demons and raised the dead.  We know he helped feed the 5,000.  And yet he lifted up his heel against Jesus.

    One of the benefits of God becoming human is that He understands what it is to be human; to have a family; to have friends; to have enemies; and sometimes to discover that they are all the same person.

    And yet the psalmist (and Job {and Jesus}) still is able to praise God.  God is always worthy of praise, from everlasting to everlasting.  And it is God who will set us in his presence forever, as the psalmist says.

    Whatever else is happening, we can have that assurance, that God doesn’t change - He doesn’t change his opinion of us.  He is never disappointed, or let down, by anything we do.  He knows us inside out and He loves us anyway.  He can be relied on, when others cannot.

 

 

    This week’s psalm appears as two psalms in our English translations: Psalm 42-43.  They are, in reality, one psalm, and they are very personal to me.  Two years after I became a Christian I fell away to the point that I was depressed and suicidal and this psalm is the one that spoke to me the most:

My tears have been my food day and night,

while men say to me all day long,

“Where is your God?”

    This was the position I found myself in among my Christian friends.  In the 1980s it wasn’t considered possible for a Christian to be depressed.  And I remembered, myself:

how I used to go with the multitude,

leading the procession to the house of God

    And it took doing what the psalmist did to get myself out of the cycle of depression and suicidal thoughts - asking myself:

Why are you downcast, O my soul?

Why so disturbed within me?

    And then advising myself:

Put your hope in God,

for I will yet praise him,

my Saviour and my God.

    It did feel, as the psalmist writes, as if God had forgotten me.  And so I did what the second half of the psalm (or Psalm 43) does; I pleaded with God:

Vindicate me, O God

and plead my cause against an ungodly nation.

You are God, my stronghold.

Why have you rejected me?

Why must I go about mourning,

oppressed by the enemy?

    And it made a massive difference!  I was brought to his holy mountain; to the place where He dwells, and I have never had a break in my relationship with my Saviour and my God since then - that was 1983, and as a result of that experience I was called into ministry and I have seen the power of God at work, not just in my life, but in the lives of so many other people.

    So my advice would be: if everything seems dark and hopeless and there seems to be no way out, have a good long look at yourself and ask yourself why you are feeling like that; then have a good long conversation with God and ask him for his Salvation.

    And this is a guaranteed money-back offer - you will yet praise him as your Saviour and your God.  I can guarantee it!

    This week’s psalm (Psalm 51) is associated with King David’s adultery with Bathsheba.  If that is the case, there is a genuine need to lament, because this was bad.  But once again we find the psalmist appealing to God’s nature first: 

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; 

according to your great compassion….

    This is the Old Testament God - known for his unfailing love and great compassion.  Sometimes God has been mercilessly slandered by those who do not know him!

    This loving God is also a judge (v4) who desires truth in the inner parts (v6), a God who saves (v14) and a God who isn’t satisfied with ritual sacrifices (v16).

    I will assume for now that this is David writing, and we can see how guilty he feels:

I know my transgressions,

and my sin is always before me.

    He knows that sin is against God; it isn’t based on moral standards that change with each generation:

Against you, you only, have I sinned

and done what is evil in your sight.

    And he feels so guilty that he believes he was born that way:

Surely I was sinful at birth,

sinful from the time my mother conceived me.

    You may have felt that bad at some time in your life, or maybe you haven’t.  But there may come a time when you will.  And so David appeals to God and asks for a fresh start:

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall be clean,;

wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Hide your face from my sins

and blot out all my iniquity.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,

    God does forgive David, but a pure heart and the radical cleansing are only offered in Jesus:

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 Jn.1: 9).

    So remember Jesus if you ever find yourself in need of forgiveness and a completely fresh start.  There are no sacrifices that offer forgiveness; there is no religious ritual of repenting and confessing that will give us a pure heart.  Just Jesus!

The next psalm on the list was to be Psalm 53, but as this is an almost exact repeat of psalm 14 I am leaving it out and moving to Psalm 54.  This is a very short psalm, with a familiar theme of the psalmist being attacked by strangers - men without regard for God.

    We used to talk about “Stranger-danger” and warn our children not to talk to strangers; we don’t seem to do that so much anymore.  But there is still that fear of strangers that comes down from Genesis 4 when Cain was concerned with how he would be treated by strangers.  We use the word “phobia” now to describe stranger-danger - anyone who is different, for whatever reason; if we are scared of them we are phobic, or even …ist.  This seems to be the psalmist’s problem, although a 21st century label cannot be applied to him.  We don’t know his situation (despite the titles that were added later) - a good supplement to the Book of Psalms would be an index telling us when, by whom, and why these psalms were written.  Maybe another Arabic schoolboy will discover a jar with that index in it one day.  That would make interpreting these psalms so much easier!

    Anyway, the important thing for us is where the psalmist looks for help, and once again it is to God, who is described:

God is my help;

the Lord is the one who sustains me.

    The psalmist asks God to save him by your name, and to vindicate him by your might.  An interesting way of phrasing it; the psalmist is relying on the Name of God to save him, not on his might.  He is relying on his might to vindicate him.

    The name of God is powerful.  We know his name as Jesus and that is a powerful name: God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth (Philippians  2: 9-10).

    The psalmist didn’t know this name of God, but there was that one name of God in the Old Testament: I am who I am, or I will be who I will be.  It is an active name!  God is a verb in the Old Testament, not a noun.  God is always doing something and always looking to help his people.

    At the end of the psalm it is the name of the LORD that the psalmist praises because he has delivered him from all his troubles.

    So next time you find yourself in difficulties, consider the name of God - Jesus (which means Saviour) and ask him for help and see what God will be in your situation.

    And then remember to praise Him.

    This week’s psalm is Psalm 55, which seems to be a psalm by David written to describe his experiences when Absalom his son rebelled against him and in the process took some of David’s trusted friends with him, leaving David isolated.

    That’s enough context to explain his enemies, but as with all the psalms my concern is with where the psalmist finds his help.  He begins by asking God to listen to his prayer, which is always a good place to begin.  I’m one of those people who doesn’t believe in the power of prayer - I believe in the power of the God to whom I am praying.  There is a difference!  I don’t need to be eloquent, or use the right phrases, or pray the “right” kind of prayer.  As with this psalmist, I can just ask God to not ignore my plea.

    I find verse 9 a helpful prayer:

Confuse the wicked, O Lord,

confound their speech,

    I used it in Belfast more than once!  And there are times when righteousness involves silencing the wicked.  Verse 15 may seem a little extreme to some so I won’t comment on that.

    And then we get the positives:

But I call to God,

and the LORD saves me.

Evening, morning and noon

I cry out in distress,

and he hears my voice. 

    And that is the purpose of this psalm - to let us know that even though many oppose (us) God will still listen and rescue us from all our troubles.

    And so the psalm ends with the advice:

Cast your cares on the LORD

and he will sustain you;

he will never let the righteous fall

    Peter quotes and adapts this in his 1st letter: Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

    These are psalms of lament, so they all contain troubles.  There are psalms of praise, but there are times when we need to lament: we have had COVID (and it’s still here); we have some empty shelves in the supermarkets; there is the petrol-panic; and there are all those personal troubles that we don’t tell anyone about.  So it’s good to read about someone who had it worse than us, but still found help in casting all their cares on the LORD.

    There is no better solution!

    This week’s psalm is another one attributed to David: Psalm 56.  The heading in my Bible says that this was when the Philistines had caught him.  Once again there is talk of enemies: slandering him; twisting his words; plotting to harm him.  You don’t need to be a King in Israel to experience such things, but again it is the solution that is the helpful part of the psalm for us.  We can fit the problems into our own context and find God to be just as faithful today as He was back then.

    The psalmist appeals to God for mercy.  His enemies are attacking him, but it is God he asks for mercy!  He doesn’t ask his enemies for mercy.  He directs his attention to God right from the start.

    Then he tells us he trusts in God when he is afraid.  He doesn’t deny the fear, but in the midst of his fear he is trusting God, and rationalising:

in God I trust; I will not be afraid.

What can mortal man do to me?

    It is good to get our problems in proportion - God is bigger than anything we have to face, so even though our natural reaction may be fear, or anxiety, we need to consider God and remind ourselves that with God on our side we can face anything.

    Then a different emotion: 

Record my lament;

list my tears on your scroll -

are they not in your record?

    It’s an interesting idea to think that God has a book in which He records all our tears.  God misses nothing.  He is that attentive to all our emotions.

    The psalmist is convinced that God will show his hand when he calls for help - his enemies will turn back.  If this is David, then think about his encounter with Goliath!  He has faced enemies before with God’s help, so he is relying on past experience; and with that past experience in mind he knows that God is for him.

    And so he trusts in God; he praises the word of God and he presents a thank-offering to the God who delivers him from death and his feet from stumbling.

    He presents the thank-offering before his deliverance because he has absolute confidence in God!   That is one of the secrets to a successful prayer-life: first we establish a relationship of trust with God; then we tell him our problems (not because He doesn’t know); then we thank him for answering.

    It worked for the psalmist; there is no reason to think it won’t work that way for us.  Jesus said something once about people thinking they would be heard for their many words.  We don’t need a set liturgical prayer, or to use the “right” words.  We just have to know our God and trust him.  Then we watch him in action, grateful that He is on our side.  Give it a try!

    Yet another psalm in which the psalmist tells us of his enemies: Psalm 57.  As with the others I will just look at the God in whom he trusts.  The psalmist begins by telling us his soul takes refuge in God.  Popular thought would have us believe that the soul is a separate part of us, but in the Bible the soul refers to the whole of us.  The psalmist is saying that he takes refuge in God completely.

    And then he cries out to God: who fulfils his purpose in me.  God has a purpose and the psalmist is aware that God requires him (and us) to fulfil his purpose.  We can compare this to Ephesians 2: 10: we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.  There are some things that God cannot do, because He is relying on us to do them.  If we don’t do them, they don’t get done.  That’s quite a responsibility.

    And then moving to verse 10:

For great is your love,

reaching to the heavens;

your faithfulness reaches to

the skies.

    This is the God we recognise in Jesus, but one we are told is not found in the Old Testament.  This is a God who loves his people to the moon and back - his love reaches to the heavens!  Not the way God is often described, but the way He was experienced by his people.

    And God’s faithfulness also reaches to the skies.  He is a faithful God - He is faithful to his promises and faithful to his people.  Whether it is 1000BC or 2000 AD God is faithful.  It doesn’t matter what year, decade, century, or millennium it is - God is faithful.  With that in mind, it doesn’t matter what age we are either.  I find the Bible to be consistent throughout in its description of God and while writing this Romans 8: 35-39 has come to mind, so I’ll leave you with this:

    Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? ….   No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

    Have a look at Psalm 57 and you’ll find that the psalmist would agree with what Paul wrote there.

    This week’s psalm is traditionally interpreted as being written when King Saul sent men to watch David’s house in the hope of catching and killing David: Psalm 59.

    It has a lot of apparent anger in its tone, but if read from within an understanding of biblical theology it is no different from praying, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven”.

    David is praying that those who oppose God’s rule would be punished.  He asks that God will show no mercy, but at the same requests that God not kill them, otherwise Israel will forget, and that would not serve the psalmist’s purpose in his prayer.  His concern is not with revenge, or even justice.  He is concerned with God’s glory:

 

Then it will be known to the

ends of the earth

that God rules over Jacob.

 

    Again, this is what we are asking when we pray for God’s kingdom to come and his will to be done on earth.  What would it look like for those who oppose God if his kingdom were to fully come on earth?  What would it be like if God’s will were fully done on earth?  It would not be peaceful for such people.  But for the people of God it would be a time of vindication; a time of peace.

    And so in this psalm, as with the other lamenting psalms, we have a description of God as He was understood in Old Testament times:

 

O my Strength, I watch for you;

you, O God, are my fortress,

my loving God.

 

    The psalmist calls God his strength.  This is the God who sustains him against all the oppression he faces.  The God who helps him to get out of bed every morning and face a new day.  Sometimes there are so many problems that we need God to help us to get up.  If we begin the day with the News, on the radio or TV, we may wonder if it’s worth getting up, with wars, acts of terrorism, COVID, climate change, petrol shortages and so many other things.  If we begin the day with bad news it’s hard to get up.  If you start with the good news of Jesus, and the news of a God who is from everlasting to everlasting, then maybe getting up will be easier.

    And the psalmist calls God his fortress.  Now that he is up and out of bed he relies on God to protect him through the day.  Whatever he has to face, he knows that he is surrounded by God and so nothing can affect him unless God allows it.

    And, as with all the psalms, God is called my loving God.  Whatever we have to face we can know that God loves us.  The Bible repeats that message constantly.  Most people reject that love and become enemies of God, but for those of us who know God, we find him to be a loving God, and that should help us, at the end of the day, to sleep.

 

    This time we are looking at Psalm 61.  And there are no enemies attacking!  But there is a sense of estrangement.  When the psalmist writes, From the ends of the earth I call to you, he is describing how he feels, not where he is.  This may be a feeling with which you are familiar - you are not where you expected to be at this stage in your life.  Things haven’t quite worked out the way you imagined they would.

    This is another psalm written when David was exiled after his son Absalom usurped his position.  David had every reason to believe that he would be living in his palace in Jerusalem until he died with his family around him.  Instead he finds himself hiding away while his son is on the throne.

    And so in this situation he calls out to the God who has always been there for him: 

you have been my refuge, 

a strong tower against the foe.

    His request is not to be returned to his throne in Jerusalem; he doesn’t just want to go back to ‘business as usual’, instead he prays:

I long to dwell in your tent forever

and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.

    David has made vows to God because God has made promises to David - 2 Samuel 7 is where God promises David a lasting kingship and so in the second half of this psalm David prays for himself as king, with the assurance that God will keep his promises:

Increase the days of the king’s life,

his years for many generations.

May he be enthroned in God’s presence forever….

    He begins the psalm recognising he is not where he expected to be; he ends the psalm by trusting in the promises of God that he has responded to with his vow to be faithful.  He is in the state that he is in because he hasn’t been faithful, but he calls out to God, knowing that God will be faithful.

    We can all find ourselves in David’s position - realising that our wrong choices have led us away from the destiny that God has for us; but then able to call out to God to help us and to bring us back from the ends of the earth into God’s presence forever.

    Even when we are not faithful, we can be assured that God is faithful.  And that makes this a positive psalm to use in prayer, especially if, with COVID and other things, this isn’t where you thought you would be at this stage of your life.

 

    Psalm 64 is about David once again talking to God about his rebellious son, Absalom.  This is a complaint, as he says in v1.  It’s a complaint addressed to God who David is expecting to protect him from the threat of his enemy.  By the end of the psalm there is a call to rejoice in the LORD and (to) take refuge in him.  And: let all the upright in heart praise him.

    It’s a reasonably good beginning and a positive ending, but in our day when we seem to think people should get away with murder and other crimes, while we ignore the victims, I don’t think the rest of this psalm would be very popular.

    Here is a victim who is complaining to God about his enemies who are conspiring against him, sharpening their tongues like swords and aiming their words like deadly arrows.  And we would object to the fact that he is not happy about this state of affairs.  He should turn the other cheek and forgive his enemies, we say, from our comfortable western affluent society.

    The idea that God would take the side of the victims and shoot their enemies with arrows and strike them down; that God would

turn their own tongues against them

and bring them to ruin

is something we cannot approve.  We don’t like the idea of God getting involved in the mess of this world.  We object to the idea of God getting upset by all the injustices and actually doing something about it.

    And yet that is the kind of God He is!  The victims of abuse and terror and war can know that God is on their side and while we maybe wouldn’t choose to sing this psalm on a Sunday morning in church, it is still in the book!  And it is there to help those of us living in the real world to cope, even if it upsets those living in a fantasy world where ‘everything is awesome’.

    This, after all, is why Jesus came - not to tell us to love everyone - but to lay down his life for us all and to satisfy justice.  We live in a moral universe where sin has to be punished and where crime does not pay.  And so God chose to pay the penalty himself.  He became the victim on the cross so that He could identify with all victims throughout history.

    And some of us are happy with a God who would do that for us.  It may be messy and it may not be a pleasant subject to talk about in a coffee morning.  But it answers the need and solves the problem.

    If David had known what God was going to do in Jesus he would have written a more positive psalm and he would have rejoiced that little bit more in his God.  I hope you can too.

    If you have ever had that sinking feeling, overwhelmed by life, then Psalm 69 is the one for you.  The psalmist tells us the waters have come up to his neck - he’s just about keeping his head above the water.  Worse than that, he says, 

I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched.  

My eyes fail looking for my God.

    And yet he doesn’t give up talking to God.  He recognises that he isn’t without fault:

You know my folly, O God;

my guilt is not hidden from you.

    He demonstrates a concern for others in his distress:

May those who hope in you 

not be disgraced because of me…

may those who seek you

not be put to shame because of me.

    This is a psalm that is applied to Jesus, but it was originally written out of the psalmist’s own experience, so when he writes of zeal for God’s house consuming him, it isn’t just a reference to Jesus, it is true of the psalmist.  When he writes:

the insults of those who 

insult you fall on me

he means it personally.  I wonder, in the midst of our troubles do we respond in the same way?  Do we show the same concern for those who may be watching how we respond to trouble and distress; do we have the same concern for God’s glory when others insult him?

    The psalmist goes on to pray for salvation, referring to the goodness of God’s love, and his great mercy.

    And he concludes by making a choice to praise God.  He intends to sing God’s praises and to glorify him with thanksgiving.  This, he concludes, is better than an animal sacrifice - it is a sacrifice of praise, because he definitely doesn’t feel like singing.

    Sometimes, I think we forget about God!  The psalmist is up to his neck in it and everything is going wrong for him, yet he remembers to pray and he determines to praise God anyway, before he has seen his prayers answered.  He trusts in God and he praises him first.  And he calls on all of creation to praise God.

    It can be an effort to gather together and think about how great God is; it can be difficult if we are still wearing masks, or if we don’t know, or like, the song that was chosen this week.  But we need to remember that God deserves our praise whether we feel like it or not.  And maybe if we prioritise and put God first, maybe, just maybe, everything else will fall into place.

    Why not give it a try!

    Sometimes it seems as though there isn’t time to pray because circumstances are too desperate. Psalm 70 reads like one of these types of prayer: it is short and it is desperate.  The psalmist is asking God to come quickly and rescue him.  He acknowledges God as his help and deliverer, but he needs help right now and he knows that God is eternal and deals with things according to his own timetable.

    It is good theology to say that God is working to his own timetable, but it doesn’t help when we are in desperate need; in times of emergency; when time appears to be running out.  And so this is a psalm for those occasions.

    The psalmist has time to mention that people are after him and he prays for justice - knowing that God is a God of justice.  He also testifies to his trust in God:

may all who seek you

rejoice and be glad in you;

may those who love your

salvation always say,

“Let God be exalted”.

    But he acknowledges that at this point in time he is poor and needy.  He isn’t at the stage of rejoicing just yet.  And so he is still calling to God for deliverance.

    And knowing how prayer usually works he asks God not to delay.

        The psalms, like all of the Bible, are honest.  They acknowledge that life isn’t one series of miracles after another; that sometimes it can seem as though God is taking too long to act.  But there is still the understanding of God as the deliverer.  This is a picture of God that we see in the Old Testament particularly in the Exodus.  So many of the psalms look back to the Exodus as God’s great deliverance of his people.  In the New Testament Jesus refocuses us, and at the last Passover meal He takes the bread and says, ‘Stop looking back to the Exodus and remembering that deliverance; instead, look to me, and do this (from now on) to remember me’.  God the deliverer is seen now as the One who brings deliverance in Jesus.

    He is working to his timetable, but He does tell us to pray and ask for whatever we need knowing that God is the great deliverer who has brought us salvation in Jesus.  And He has expanded things for us with his talk of resurrection and eternal life.  So the timetable has been enlarged to all eternity.

    We may still need immediate, urgent, help, but we have a better idea than the psalmist did, about how God works.  He doesn’t delay!  He provides the best solution, whatever circumstances we find ourselves in.  We might think that an instant miracle is what we need while God knows we need to learn to trust him in the dark!

    The next psalm to consider, Psalm 71, looks at God as a lifelong deliverer.  This is one of the 34 psalms in the Book of Psalms without a title, so there is no clue about its origin.  But it deals with someone approaching old age (anything from 50 upwards in those days!).  Verse 9 says, 

Do not cast me away when I am old; 

do not forsake me when my strength is gone.

    And verse 18:

Even when I am old and grey,

do not forsake me, O God

    It sounds like the fear of someone who believes that God is only interested in him as long as he is useful.  And in our day we have made people feel useless and worthless when they get old (50+).  The housebound; those in nursing/residential homes; those no longer able to do what they once could; the emphasis on wanting younger people in the church because the old ones can’t….

    So I think this is a good psalm to consider.  The psalmist asks God to: Be my rock of refuge, to which I can always go.  He is appealing to the God who has been: my hope … my confidence since my youth.  From my birth I have relied on you….  It just seems as though he fears that God has the same obsession with youth that we have today.

    And then the psalmist recognises that God is his hope, so he promises to praise him more and more.  And he finds a purpose, even in his old age: 

do not forsake me, O God, 

till I declare your power to the next generation,

your might to all who are to come.

    He has a purpose, even in his old age!  To tell of God’s faithfulness.  His life hasn’t been easy, but he knows his God and he can testify to God’s faithfulness and comfort throughout his life, even in the tough times.

    And he even gets to outlive his enemies - one of the benefits of a long life!  Which leaves him with a testimony:

My tongue will tell of your righteous acts all day long.

    So as age progresses this psalmist would recommend looking back and identifying those times when God has stepped in to help, even from birth when we weren’t aware of him and recognise God’s protection so we can testify to his power and provision.  And who knows - someone just might listen and learn!

 

   In this next psalm (Psalm 77) there are no enemies mentioned!  It reads like the reminiscences of an older man looking back over his life.  At the time of writing he is experiencing silence from God.  He begins:

I cried out to God for help;

I cried out to God to hear me….

my soul refused to be comforted.

    And as he experiences this silence he thinks back to an earlier time; a better time; “the good old days”.  He remembers how it used to be when things were good between himself and God and all seemed well with the world.

    So he formulates a plan:

Then I thought, To this I will appeal:

the years of the right hand of the Most High.

    He starts to think even further back, to the miracles of long ago.  And so he thinks back to the Exodus and remembers God’s power, his miracles, his redemption of his people.  There is a whole passage in this psalm dedicated to the special effects that accompanied the parting of the water at the Red Sea, and he finishes with remembering how God, like a shepherd, led his people, by his under-shepherds, Moses and Aaron.

    And that’s how the psalm ends!  He remembers who God is!  Even though at the moment things aren’t going as well as he would like; even though he is not experiencing the power of God for himself at the moment; even though he is not seeing the miracles he would like to see, he remembers who his God is - the God of the Exodus!

    We can find ourselves in a similar position: life may not be what we would expect; we may remember earlier days when God seemed more active in our lives and we experienced his power and his miracles.  In those times we can find the same hope that the psalmist found as he looked back to the Exodus.  We can look back to the cross and consider how Jesus provided our redemption by that greatest of miracles - his resurrection.  We can see again the power of God at work in Jesus.  And we can remind ourselves that this is our God, and what He did in the past He can do again in the present and in the future.

    I’m writing this on the 1st December - the last month of the year.  This is when we look back over the past year (and beyond) and look to the future.  As we look back we need to look for evidence of the right hand of the Most High so that we will be reminded of his presence with us as we move into a new year.

    We now have Psalm 86.  This psalm, as so many others, mentions enemies, but only in the context of God’s blessing - the psalmist wants his enemies to see God’s goodness to him.

    What we have in this psalm is the psalmist explaining to God why he thinks God should respond to his prayers:

    for I am poor and needy;

        for I am devoted to you;

            for I call to you all day long;

                for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.

    Then the psalmist explains why he will continue to praise God:

for you will answer me;

    For you are great and do marvellous deeds;

        For great is your love towards me;

            you have delivered me from the depths of the grave.

    This psalmist is a man who knows his God!  He isn’t bargaining with God, like an agnostic, or atheist, wanting God to demonstrate his existence, or his goodness.  This is a man with a personal relationship with God.  He knows, from his Scriptures that God answers the poor and needy.  He knows that God established a covenant relationship with his people, and they, for their part, were to be devoted to God, so that He would bless them.   His calling to God all day long shows where his trust is - not in lengthy prayers, but in the God who answers prayer.  And so he lifts his soul up to God, in response to all that God has promised, knowing that God will honour that and respond.

    He knows that God will answer him, because that is his experience from the past; the Old Testament repeatedly looks back to the Exodus, which demonstrated God’s great and marvellous deeds.  The Old Testament constantly talks about the love of God for his people.  And deliverance from the depths of the grave is seen in history from Judges up to the time of David.  If David did write this psalm then he has plenty of personal experience of God’s deliverance throughout his life.

    And this is all the Old Testament!  As the writer of Hebrews tells us, we have a better covenant.  So as we look forward to a New Year, with COVID still around and climate change still a concern (some people had a White Christmas while the rest of us had a Wet Christmas), let us look to this God that the psalmist knew.  Let us commit to maintaining, establishing, or even starting, our relationship with this same God.

    This God has answered the prayers of his people by sending Jesus.  He has done great and marvellous deeds in Jesus.  And as John tells us, God loved the world (each one of us) so much that He gave his only Son, so that none may perish, but that all may find eternal life (and so be delivered from the depths of the grave.

    This psalm is Psalm 88 which has been described as the darkest and most hopeless prayer in the Bible.  The one hope found in this psalm is that God is still sovereign.

    There is no other hope found in this psalm.  The psalmist is not in a good way.  He is crying to God day and night; he feels close to death, possibly because he is terminally ill; he is depressed; he is lonely; he is housebound and no one calls him; he has no hope for any kind of life after death; he feels rejected by God.  And it seems he has been like this all his life.

    It really is a depressing psalm!  There is no happy ending.  There is no sequel that tells us that his prayers were finally answered.  This is a prayer from a man who is going through the darkest of times, and he concludes the psalm:

the darkness is my closest friend.

    But he is addressing his complaint to God; to YHWH, the covenant God of Israel.  Even though God is not answering him, still he calls to him; even though he blames God for the state he is in, still he calls to him.

    I wonder, in our darkest moments, do we still trust in the God of the covenant?  As the writer to the Hebrews reminds us, we have a better covenant.  Jesus established a better covenant which is eternal.  The Old Testament Hebrew belief was that God ends his relationship with us when we die, as the psalmist states here:

 

Do you show your wonders to the dead?

Do those who are dead rise up and praise you?

Is your love declared in the grave,

your faithfulness in Destruction?

 

    We have a better covenant!  We know that Jesus came to bring eternal life and the hope of resurrection.  This psalmist doesn’t have that hope.  And yet still he calls out to God.

    Right at the beginning of the psalm, despite evidence to the contrary, the psalmist calls God: the God who saves me.  There is no evidence of salvation in this psalm.  There is fear and terror and pain and illness.  It really is the darkest and most hopeless prayer in the Bible.  Even Job had more hope than this psalmist.

    And it is included in the Bible!  What were the editors thinking?  Maybe there is a connection with Job.  Satan says to God, about Job, “Does Job fear God for nothing? ….  stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”  This psalmist has no hope - less hope than Job - but he is not cursing God.  He has no hope in the present, or for the future, but still he calls to the God who saves him.

    How are you coping with all that is happening at the moment?  Do you see any hope in 2022?  Maybe that is why this psalm is included - a reminder that God is still God and He will do what He has promised to do, despite the evidence to the contrary!

    Our next psalm, Psalm 89, is very long!  So let me break it down a little.  It contains 37 verses of celebration of all that God will do through the Davidic king, what we know as the Messiah; it also contains 14 verses asking why it has all gone wrong.

    That’s a pretty good balance.  A lot of celebrating because of all that God has promised - and we know that God keeps his promises - but still, today we are living with the trouble, so there is some lamenting.  

    The first 37 verses of this psalm are celebrating God and his promises, and then in v38 we get a But.  This is an Old Testament But.  It’s negative.  The New Testament Buts are positive.

    Verse 46 has that familiar question: How long, O LORD?  Will you hide yourself forever?  And this is where we can find ourselves so often in the day to day business of living.  We know that God has made so many promises; there are promises of blessings in abundance; there is the assurance of eternal life; of resurrection into the New Jerusalem; there is the assurance that Jesus has healed all our sicknesses; we are no longer slaves to sin; we are being changed from one degree of glory to another.  But (Old Testament But that is!).

    But why is life so short?  And futile?  The psalmist writes:

Remember how fleeting is my life.

For what futility you have created all men!

What man can live and not see death,

or save himself from the 

power of the grave?

    And then he asks whatever happened to the glory-days of King David.  And he asks God to remember him.  He assumes that God has forgotten him, otherwise the promises would have been fulfilled in his lifetime.

    Sometimes we need to do that!  We need to remember as the psalmist asks God to remember him.  We should look back at what God has done.  As we worry about climate change look back to Genesis 1 and remember that God created this world and declared it to be very good.  He is not going to abandon this world.

    We need to look back to Calvary and remember all that Jesus accomplished on the cross.  Salvation and healing and eternal life.

    And then, like the psalmist finishes this psalm, we can say:

Praise be to the LORD for ever!

Amen and Amen.

    And trust in the promises of God who works according to his own timetable.

    This next psalm is Psalm 102.  This psalmist is in a really bad way; he is forgetting to eat; he is having trouble sleeping; his food tastes like ashes and he is crying into his drink.  And he blames God for all these troubles:

because of your great wrath,

for you have taken me up

and thrown me aside.

    He also blames God for his lack of health and impending death:

In the course of my life he 

broke my strength;

he cut short my days.

And yet, in all these troubles he prays to God; God who is eternal; God who will have compassion on Zion; God who:

will respond to the prayer

of the destitute;

he will not despise their prayer.

    Presumably he includes himself in those who will have their prayers answered.  And this shows an amazing faith in spite of the evidence to the contrary.

    Whatever this man is suffering from it is making him despair of life itself.  As a good Old Testament Hebrew he recognises God as the source of everything in his life - the good as well as the bad.  And yet in spite of his sufferings he is able to recall the true nature of his God - the Creator who has redeemed Israel and who will fulfil his promises and purposes at some point in the future.

    Whatever we may be facing it is good to acknowledge the work of God in our lives.  You may not be in the position to recognise that God allows all things that you face, but maybe from a New Testament perspective you can recognise that:

in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8: 28)

    And so whatever you are facing today, recognise that God is faithful to his promises and good will prevail.  He will answer prayer.

    The psalmist wanted his psalm to be preserved so that:

a people not yet created

may praise the LORD.

    Hopefully we may answer his wishes and praise the LORD in our lives, on the good days and on the bad days.

    This time we are looking at Psalm 109.  The psalmist, who may well be King David, is not happy!  He has some enemies and he is not about to turn the other cheek.  He begins the psalm by praising God and describing himself as a man of prayer.  And then we get to see what he is praying!  Some time ago I compared the book of Psalms to Social Media - we read publicly what should be written in a private diary.  This is one of those prayers that should have stayed in a private diary!  But look at what he prays: vv6-20.  He really doesn’t like his enemies … but who does?  They wouldn’t be enemies if we liked them; they would be friends.

    There is a lot to be said for venting your feelings and that seems to be what the psalmist is doing here, and he holds nothing back.  He curses his enemy, his enemy’s mother, father and children.  And maybe that’s just him being honest about how he feels about someone who has given him a hard time.

    Although we would prefer not to read these curses, I think it is right that we can.  It reminds us that God knows all our thoughts and feelings and motives, so to pretend that everything is OK may fool other people, maybe we can almost fool ourselves, but we are not fooling God.  He knows our thoughts.

    And He knows that it would be good for us to pour everything out to him, so that we can be released from the feelings.

    And then the psalmist goes back asking God to deliver him.  He confesses that he isn’t handling the opposition too well, but still he trusts that God will eventually deliver him:

With my mouth I will greatly extol the LORD;

in the great throng I will praise him.

For he stands at the right hand of the needy one,

to save his life from those who condemn him.

    It may be that you don’t have any ‘accusers’, opponents, or ‘enemies’, but this psalm is still useful to help us consider how we relate to God in our everyday lives.  Could we, for instance, describe ourselves as a man (woman) of prayer?  When  troubles of any sort come into our lives where do we turn to first?  Is God our first port of call, or do we pray “when all else fails”?

    When we do pray, are we honest with God?  Do we open ourselves up and admit to him (and ourselves) how we are really feeling?

    And if we are not feeling good, do we try to gloss over how bad things are, or do we give full expression (as this psalmist does) to all we are feeling?

    We can learn a lot from these psalmists with their vengeful prayers, as long as we conclude with the positive of trusting God to sort everything out - and forgiving our “enemies” as well.

    This psalm is Psalm 120.  And this is a very short psalm.  If you are reading through the psalms then this comes as a relief after working your way through Psalm 119!

    And the main concern here is that the psalmist sees himself surrounded by people who do not tell the truth:

Save me from lying lips

and from deceitful tongues.

    I had a a girlfriend once who told me that she was a compulsive liar.  I didn’t know whether to believe her!  And that is the problem with dishonest people - when can you believe them?  Was my girlfriend a compulsive liar?  If she wasn’t, then when she told me she was a compulsive liar, she was lying, so I couldn’t believe her whatever she said.

    Anyway, back to this psalm!  The NIV that I am using puts this in the present tense, but the original Hebrew is in the perfect tense (which implies a completed action).  The psalmist had been living among people who were dishonest (possibly during the Babylonian exile), but now he is back in Jerusalem and he is happy for his safe return.

    He begins telling us he called to YHWH and YHWH answered him.  God answered him by saving him from those with lying lips and deceitful tongues.  And he equates these liars with those who hate peace.

    The psalmist, as is common in these psalms, suggests that God will punish these dishonest people.  Notice that he doesn’t ask God to punish them:

He will punish you with a warrior’s sharp arrows,

with burning coals of the broom tree.

    This is the psalmist’s understanding of God’s judgement on liars.  The book of Revelation has a more severe judgement!

    We live in a world where people make false accusations, where there are deceitful dealings, with telephone and internet scams, and conspiracy theories on Social Media.  This psalmist, if he were living in our society today, would write:

Too long have I lived among those who hate peace.

I am a man of peace.

    And so I finish with Peter’s description of how Jesus reacted to these kind of people and situations, and I hope we may be able to follow his example:

“Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. 

He committed no sin,
   and no deceit was found in his mouth.

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly”. (1 Peter 2: 21-23)

The next psalm we are looking at Psalm 130.  This is a psalm that completely turns our understanding of God upside down.  It begins with the psalmist in the depths of despair:  Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD.  He asks for mercy and for a change there is no mention of enemies.  It seems to be himself that he is concerned about: 

If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, 

O LORD, who could stand?

    We don’t know the occasion for the writing of this psalm, but the title tells us that it is one of the psalms called: “A song of ascents”.  These were the psalms to be sung on the way to the Temple, so  possibly a psalm of confession, lamenting the sinful state of the singer.

    The main focus of the psalm is God and so we see the God of the Old Testament, not as He is often portrayed, but as He actually is, as He was seen and experienced by the people who lived in Israel during those times: 

with you there is forgiveness.

with the LORD is unfailing love.

with him is full redemption.

    This is not the angry God of vengeance that we hear about in popular theology; this is the God of the Bible who never changes.

    It is interesting to read that God is feared because of his forgiveness - not because of his judgements.  The psalmist displays a true understanding of God that we so often miss.  God is forgiving, but that doesn’t mean sin goes unpunished, that injustices are never corrected, nor does it mean that crime pays.  God is not indulgent!  And so his forgiveness should not be assumed, or taken for granted.

    But we see the psalmist as a man who knows because he puts his hope in the word of God:

I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,

and in his word I put my hope.

    He has his Old Testament with all those laws that we don’t like to read anymore.  He didn’t have a New Testament, so he didn’t know about Jesus.  But he had enough of the word of God to give him hope - not wishful thinking, but hope.

    And so he tells Israel to put their hope in the LORD and to trust in his unfailing love.  God never changes!  He is a holy God; a God of Justice; a God of righteousness and He doesn’t let sin go unpunished, but He is also a God of unfailing love.

    If we trust in his word as it is written then we will find, like the psalmist, that we can wait for the LORD and be assured that He will respond to our cry for mercy.

    This time we have Psalm 139, which will be familiar from some passages.  There is a sense that the psalmist is trying to hide from God throughout this psalm and he is aware that God is like George Orwell’s “Big Brother” - always watching!  Aware of  his every move; his thoughts; every word that he speaks (even before he says the words).

    The psalmist feels claustrophobic in God’s presence:

You hem me in - behind and before;

you have laid your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,

too lofty for me to attain.

    Unlike those psalms that ask the question: How long, O LORD?, this psalm is concerned that God is too involved, and the psalmist is hoping to take a break from God’s presence.  A lament of a completely opposite type!

    The psalmist goes on to ask where he can go to escape God’s presence.  It appears that he actually wants the answer!  He isn’t comforted by the fact that God is inescapable.  You could almost imagine Jonah writing this psalm!  He tried to escape God by taking a ship to Spain, but even there God found him.

    It seems though that the psalmist relents and realises that it is no bad thing to have God’s presence forever there.  Even in the womb, before he was born, God was there.  And this knowledge that God has even includes the day of his death - God is not going to be surprised:

All the days ordained for me

were written in your book

before one of them came to be.

    And so he concludes: How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!  It’s comforting to know that whether we are awake or asleep God is with us.  He never leaves.  If He knows our thoughts then He knows our dreams and our nightmares; He knows our desires and our concerns.  We don’t have to pray to let God know what is on our minds (He already knows); we pray to develop our relationship with him.  Sometimes the best prayer is to just tell God that we know that He knows!

    There is (naturally for the psalms) an outburst against those who oppose God.  These are not the psalmist’s enemies, but they are not friends of God.

    And having cursed the wicked the psalmist asks God to search him, to root out any offensive way and to lead him in the way everlasting.   This way everlasting is the same phrase that Jeremiah uses in Jer.6: 16:

    Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.

    The way everlasting is the ancient paths, which leads to rest.  This psalm begins with a desire to escape God’s all-seeing eye and concludes with the desire for God to search the psalmist and lead him on the ancient paths.

    It is a very honest psalm, and in difficult times maybe it’s one that could bring us comfort too.

    This time we have Psalm 141.  The compiler of the book of Psalms gave it the title: A psalm of David, and he may have been right.  If you haven’t read David’s dying words to his son and successor Solomon they are worth reading: 1 Kings 2: 1-11.  If you read that then you will have no problem attributing this psalm to David.  

He was very keen on revenge!

    So we will ignore the parts about rulers being thrown down from cliffs and concentrate on  his own relationship with God.  

    I like verse 3:

Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD;

keep watch over the door of my lips.

    This could be the verse for WeightWatchers, but I think David is more concerned with guarding what may come out of his mouth rather than what goes in!  He wants to be sure that he doesn’t say anything that he shouldn’t.

    And so he writes about his praying:

May my prayer be set before

you like incense;

may the lifting up of my

hands be like the

evening sacrifice.

    If you know the book of Revelation you will see the reference here: The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand (Rev.8: 4).  God collects our prayers, along with the incense, at his throne - nothing is ignored.  The evening sacrifices were a reflection on the day that had passed, involving repentance and recommitment.

    And so in the midst of a vengeful spirit because of his many enemies, in a time of war, we see that David is still focussed on his God:

But my eyes are fixed on you,

O Sovereign LORD;

in you I take refuge - do not

give me over to death.

    This may not be a psalm that we would set to music and sing on a Sunday morning, but, as we look at what David is praying here, we can pick out the good points - keep a guard over our mouths; pray daily (whatever our circumstances) and fix our eyes on the LORD who is Sovereign.  Take refuge in him and whatever else anyone around us is doing, trust God to help us to pass by in safety.

    The next psalm is Psalm 142.  This is another psalm attributed to David ‘when he was in the cave’.  He is feeling very much alone as he writes this:

no one is concerned for me.

I have no refuge;

no one cares for my life.

    He is on the run from King Saul and feeling as though the whole world is against him.  As we are in the situation we are in with the Russian army threatening to overrun Ukraine it is worth looking at this psalm.  There may well be many people there wondering how long this will continue and how much worse it will get before it is over.  The same may be true in Russia as well, among the many people opposed to this invasion.

    And in the West there are those who fear an escalation that may spill over to our peaceful lives.  And so this psalm is appropriate as the psalmist writes:

I pour out my complaint before him;

before him I tell my trouble.

    We can tell all the stories about Russia, the USSR, Putin, but they don’t solve anything and they don’t take away the anxiety of those who are afraid, but the psalmist shows us who we should be talking to and where our complaints should be directed.

    And as we consider our own safety, we read:

I cry to you LORD;

I say, “You are my refuge,

my portion in the land of the living.

    After the collapse of the Iron Curtain Ukraine became a country open to the gospel and many former atheists became Christians.  More missionaries went out from Ukraine than from anywhere else in the former USSR, so there will be many people there turning to the Word of God for comfort, and like the psalmist they will say:

Listen to my cry,

for I am in desperate need;

rescue me from those pursuing me,

for they are too strong for me.

    

    And the hope is that when God answers and brings salvation, there will be times of testimony and praise:

Then the righteous will gather about me

because of your goodness to me.

    We know that for King David this was the case, and in our day, as we are watching the events so far away, that have the potential to impact our lives, we trust in the same God to fulfil his purposes and to bring in his kingdom of righteousness and peace in our time.

    Psalm 143 is the 48th and final one of the individual psalms of lament.  Next time we get to the corporate psalms of lament.  There are 15 of them!

    And in our world today the psalmist crying for help against his enemies has become relevant.  These psalms are written in a specific context and sometimes it helps to know the background, but they are also good to apply to other contexts.  Imagine this psalm coming from a Christian living in Ukraine today:

O LORD, hear my prayer,

listen to my cry for mercy;

in your faithfulness and righteousness

come to my relief.

    You can see how these laments are ideally suited to the Ukrainians:

The enemy pursues me

he crushes me to the ground

Rescue me from my enemies,

O LORD

    So as we watch what happens on the News and we wonder when NATO, the UN, or anyone else will step into help, we can only try to imagine how it feels to be living in Ukraine right now, not to mention the Russian soldiers, many of whom not knowing why they are there.

    But we find once again that the psalmist, and therefore the Christians in that war zone, can turn to God for help:

I remember the days of long ago;

I meditate on all your works

and consider what your hands have done.

Let the morning bring me

word of your unfailing love,

for I have put my trust in you.

And:

For your name’s sake, O LORD,

preserve my life;

in your righteousness, bring

me out of trouble.

    It is easy to read it as a Ukrainian living with war, but there are many people here who have experienced war, or acts of terrorism, who fear what may escalate from this, and so as we are still at peace here in the West now is the time to establish that trust in God that the psalmist had, so that if the time should come when peace ends, we will be prepared.