Clay Pots

You’ll recognize the reference to 2 Corinthians 4:7: “But we have this treasure in clay pots, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.”

It’s all about the treasure, not the jars. This is more precious than the Qumran scrolls, because this is something that lives, not fragile shreds of dessicated animal skins with ink. By the same token, we could benefit from a little psychology of persecution. That is, we need to understand the bottom line: We keep this faith alive on the earth. Nobody’s pretending that ours is the only valid expression of truth; it’s valuable as one that is far different from the mainstream. Thus, should the Lord decide to add to our numbers, we rejoice that others are being set free. Should that number He adds be very few, we should rejoice that He has chosen us for something rare.

This isn’t as bad as having to hide in the catacombs. We shall be permitted to operate freely, for the most part. However, there will plenty of people and places who will not welcome us. We can dance outside in the parking lot, singing and humming the music to ourselves. We’ll learn acapella worship. I’d love to have contributions of instrumental music for some of our videos, but there is a place for doing it with nothing except what we carry with us everywhere. The whole idea is seeking what God can do with what He grants us.

This is what I’ll do in some of my videos. Be aware that my project on adding a video channel to our mission will take time, because I seek to portray this strong effort to keep faith alive when there’s virtually no support from human sources. A part of this is teaching folks to think about all the DIY work we can do with minimal stuff. At least part of the time, I’ll restrict my video-taping to just a cellphone. It’s more than just a strong preference for the natural setting; it’s shining the light of God’s glory from cracked clay pots.

Psalm 122 (Updated)

Though written by David whose palace sits in Jerusalem, he assumes the perspective of a pilgrim who has come from the farthest distance.

We have arrived! We are here in Jerusalem and the first thing we want to do is pay our respects to God. This first verse is very popular, though seldom properly understood in context. Instead of seeking rest and recovery from the journey, the pilgrims hurry to seek God’s favor. The anticipation that energized them on the journey brings a demand that cannot be denied. Meanwhile, they pause just a moment to celebrate the fact their feet are now inside the gates of the city. You can almost see them bowing down to kiss the stone pavement. This becomes a song to Jerusalem as the capital of the nation and the symbolic home of God’s Presence among His people.

It’s not just any city; Jerusalem is a most winsome place. The word typically translated as “compact” carries the connotation of communion, a place where the whole nation returns to their spiritual home. It signifies the sense of moral fitness, that everything is in its place, and that the whole universe is in proper balance under God’s favor. It’s a primary meaning behind shalom. The sense of unity in the vast nation is a testimony to God’s greatness. Surely we can all share our gratitude to Jehovah. How proper it is that the City is also the seat of government, the City David won for himself from the Jebusites.

So while we are in the House of God, let us pray for the continued shalom of this lovely place. Given what it represents, let the Lord’s favor rest on those who love to be here. Let there be that powerful sense of peace and rest and vivid life that demonstrates God’s promised blessings. And even if David has to write it himself, there is a standing command from God to pray for the welfare of the king.

Meanwhile, lest we imagine that David is tooting his own horn, he explains his true motives here: David is still the shepherd boy serving his Lord. All of this is for the sake of his flock, his tribe, his nation, his brothers and sisters Israel. If there is peace in the City, it’s a whole lot easier to insure that peace rests on the whole kingdom. So it is for the sake of God’s great name on the earth that David seeks the well-being of his whole nation.

Note: Keep in mind that when David wrote this, there was as yet no Temple. The “House of the Lord” would have been the Tent of Meeting standing in the courtyard outside his fortress-palace.

Psalm 119: Aleph

Westerners get the impression the Hebrews weren’t too good at math, but that has more to do with a different attitude about when and where math matters. At 176 verses, this is the longest chapter in the Bible, and with few exceptions, each verse mentions the revelation of God directly. In English we see: law, testimony, statutes, ordinances, teaching, instructions, commandments, precepts, promises, ways and word, among others. It’s also an acrostic psalm in alphabetical order, 22 stanzas of 8 lines each, one for each letter, and each line in a stanza beginning with the same Hebrew letter of the alphabet.

Obviously the psalmist strives to get across his personal experience in devotion to God in terms of what we can know of God, what He allows us to see of Him through His self-disclosure. This is culturally challenging for us because Western Christians suffer the powerful influence of Hellenized Pharisaism and the resulting legalism. This is not a question of learning the Law as legislation, but as the manifestation of God’s personal character. The Law of God is not a mere record of statements and associated events, but the indicator of moral personality. The reason for the record is the Person behind it, so any obsessive legalistic focus on the record will never come up with the right answer. God’s revelation is also the very fundamental nature of reality itself. So we note that this psalm is an elongated celebration of Scripture as the tangible expression of God Himself.

We will examine this psalm one stanza at a time.

119: Aleph 1-8

The psalmist begins with a bold declaration: O, how blessed are those who are possessed of moral integrity! The image is a heart ruling over the entire being, directing all things in concert to conform to God’s divine moral character. This assertion is restated in different terms with twin Hebrew parallel statements. This is not legalism, since our notions of precision are not binding on God, but a celebration of how much power there is for living with a sincere commitment to pleasing God.

It’s the desire that matters, so God does not register their every miscalculation, but sees the heart of love and devotion. Thus, they are said to perform no evil, regardless of mistakes. These are people who do their best to walk in God’s footsteps. In the fourth verse, the word often translated “precept” actually has no English equivalent. It’s a reference to the substance of reality, arising from the concept that all of Creation reflects the moral nature of God. Clinging to whatever perception we have of that character makes our lives consistent with the very design of the universe.

The next verse (5) follows up by wishing mightily that his habits were built from God’s revelation. With that kind of character, reading the Scripture is a warming joy, not some kind of guilt-inducing embarrassment. Verse 7 looks forward to a life of worship that bubbles up irrepressibly from a heart that has an unalloyed commitment to God as personal Lord. Can you not see how our very existence takes on a blessed clarity when we order our commitments consistently? So the final verse is the psalmist’s resolve to build a thorny hedge of protection internally so that his habits of life create a moral hedge externally in his actions.

Finally, in accordance with courtly protocol, he asks that God keep a tight grip on his life and reserve His wrath for someone else.

Psalm 118

This is the final “Hallel Psalm” and we are altogether certain this is the one Jesus sang with His disciples on His way to the Garden of Gethsemane. It was originally composed as a processional and is plainly designed for antiphonal worship, with the congregation echoing in response to the leading lines of a solo cantor. It is loaded with phrases and declarations meant to easily memorize, and we see them echoed throughout the Bible.

The imagery here is highly expressive; the word for “thanks” depicts throwing the hands in the air and shaking them in ecstatic gratitude for uncountable blessings. There is a standard progression repeated: the people of Israel, the Levites leading the procession, and anyone else who feels drawn to honor the Lord. Each is encouraged to declare that God’s mercy outlasts Creation itself.

Then we come to a long section that may well have been composed originally as a separate work, but gains currency in corporate worship by virtue of including everyone individually. Each person is called up to celebrate and assert that they personally have experienced Jehovah’s divine favor.

The word for “distress” is a tight, narrow corner; the deliverance was God opening up space to maneuver or escape. If the place you stand is next to God, how can any force in Creation harm you? He made all things. In the long run, nothing can harm. Our cynicism about humanity is fully justified because no power on earth can match what God does for those who revere Him. So when humans buzz around us like a swarm of bees, we know that busy sound is also like thorns on fire, consumed quickly and gone. Whatever you might do to harm me must first be approved by my God. Maybe you don’t see His hand, but what it does is bigger than all of us.

This business of His powerful right hand becomes the focus of yet another fruitful branch of celebration. It was from ancient times the symbol of a man’s authority, power and his track record of accomplishments. If that hand chastens me, regardless how rough it gets, it will always be in my best interest. The celebrant declares his intent to live in whatever place God’s righteous glory shines. Show me the gate, Lord! And Jesus made a point that He was the stone the builders rejected, a reference to how humans cannot judge things with God’s wisdom. He was judged worthy of execution, but His rejection became the single biggest block on which the whole Kingdom of Heaven is founded. God does not operate as men do; they should strive to operate as He does.

The ancient phrase, “this is the day that the Lord has made,” is often misunderstood when translated. We would deceive ourselves longing for some golden time past, or some fantasy day to come. Right now is the appointed time to call on His name and seize the calling for what is in your hands already. The time is ripe — Ancient Near Eastern people always viewed time not as something to measure and schedule, but contemplated time as a matter of ripeness. So give us this day what is just due for Your divine calling on us, Lord. How blessed is the one who operates in this world as an ambassador of Jehovah.

The final verses call on the Levites to prepare the festal sacrifice unto the God who has enlightened us. It matters not what others may say or do, but we declare Him our God. The last words repeat the refrain of the first words in this psalm: His mercy outlasts Creation itself.

Psalm 117

Some people find significance in the observation that this is the middle chapter in the entire Protestant canon, and also the shortest chapter. In a few manuscripts it is considered part of either the previous or succeeding psalms, but there seems no justification for that.

It is still used as part of the “Hallel Psalms” at Passover. Some English translations probably capture the more recent Talmudic Jewish attitude with a tinge of nationalism, perhaps even racism. However, it’s hardly any challenge to see beyond that when you consider the more consistent prophetic attitude from both ends of the Bible. That prophetic word says the only reason for the advantages of the Covenant was so that the light of truth could be shined on those who did not have the Covenant, and the blessings could be shed abroad to those who didn’t belong under it. The whole idea is a welcoming invitation, not exclusion.

So perhaps we would benefit from an alternative translation that captures more of the original Hebrew flavor:

“Let every human living celebrate Jehovah; cheer loudly His name everyone! For His kind mercy prevails over all our needs, and the certitude of His Lordship remains stable into infinity. O celebrate Jehovah!”

Psalm 116

Still reviewing the “Hallel Psalms” used with Passover, this one is unique in the collection — it was originally composed as an intensely personal individual experience. However, it’s not hard to see how it calls on the nation to enter into that experience as a reflection of all the trials of the Exodus.

Who could be unmoved by the devotion of others to our welfare? Well, Our God is a Person, as well, and He defines the quality of faithfulness we love in others. He is the source and ultimate symbol of what makes every child warmly embrace his or her own parents. When I cry, God hears. Why should I go to anyone else?

We might struggle to recount the sorrows we’ve seen, but God was there in the midst of them. He stands ready to deliver. We say these words often, but far too many people have their minds closed off to the deep moral awareness of their hearts. When your heart becomes the seat of your awareness, you cannot avoid sensing the full weight of His divine Presence. You know He’s there and will deliver you; there is no doubt that He cares beyond all comprehension.

And even if someone lacked the broad sense of worldly wisdom, when their hearts rule their minds, the pure simplicity of moral focus will carry them through. God watches of them as if they were the greatest men on this earth. There are times when all the erudition in the world won’t help you, but a pure heart that rules can carry you through Hell.

So the psalmist calls for his soul to stop panicking and just return to that place of peace, because the Lord’s redemption is so overwhelmingly generous and sure. Every flaw of our human existence is more than matched by His power and mercy. Death has to wait until God is ready for us; meanwhile, He wipes our tears and gives us traction to march on His mission. With such gracious provision, we are eager to carry His banner before the whole world.

In verse 10 the word for “I believed” is better translated as moral certainty. It comes from the image of nurturing something with constant long-term care; it’s a faith that is unshakable because God is the one who is faithful. With that kind of commitment binding us to the Lord, we would be eager to relate at length to anyone who will listen, how God carried us through our own personal exodus from slavery. By comparison, we are quick to confess our cynicism about human nature, even our own nature.

How could we possibly repay His kindness? What could we give that God did not give to us first? So in His divine Presence, we worship and share with Him the sweet wine of deliverance. Not merely for show, but we will humbly and publicly render to Him whatever offering and service is mentioned in the covenant by which we have vowed to serve Him. And typical of any real shepherd sheikh, God counts as His most precious resource the people of His living domain. When any of them perish, it’s a big loss.

How fortunate we are to count ourselves slaves born in His household, yet He adopted us as His own children. So the full accounting of what He demands is our minimum return to Him. We will gladly set the example for others, to encourage and provoke them to the same ardor in serving Him. Let us all keep each other honest in upholding the covenant.

Psalm 115

This and the next three psalms were traditionally sung after the Passover meal. However, we also know such usage came somewhat later in the life of the nation. This hymn in particular was originally composed for general worship. It’s laid out in responsive style: The leader would chant one line, the congregation would respond with the second. This back and forth went for the entire song.

The first verse establishes the principle that we exist for our Creator’s glory, and it is always in our best interest to seek His glory alone. Instead of glory, we want for ourselves His mercy and to know Him better. The heathens who don’t know Him might well ask where He is, because they see only with the eyes in their heads, not with the eyes of their hearts. A real God would not be restricted to a material form, but resides in the Spirit Realm. Nothing on this earth can resist His hand because He made everything.

Sure, the heathens can see their gods, because the are but mere idols. The Covenant forbade portraying God as having a physical form, even in visual symbols, because you dare not confine God to any particular notion of His Person or character. But their idols aren’t mere symbols; that’s all the god they have, formed by their own hands from precious materials. They seem to have all the same features as any man, except none of their parts work. It would appear those deities match all the features of the dead. The dedication to these gods consumes wealth, but the gods return nothing because they are imaginary, inanimate and dead. In some ways, so are the heathens who worship such gods.

Don’t do what the heathen do, Israel. Place your faith in Jehovah. Again and again, the echoing refrain: He is our aid and protection. Have we not seen it over and over again? He’s a real God. Can you see around you all the things He has done for us? Marvel at it! He resides in the Spirit Realm, and has given this whole universe into our hands if we simply embrace His truth.

Don’t stand in the graveyard and beg your dead ancestors to praise Him and intercede on your behalf. Worship is not for the dead, but for the living. When was the last time you heard the graves singing? But while we live, we will seek ways to make Him smile and to bring Him joy. Hallelujah!

Psalm 111

This and the next psalm are short acrostics in Hebrew. This would make them easier to memorize. Reading this in most English translations, it seems little more than a collection of stock ritual phrases, perhaps just a little contrived or formulaic. But the language is not poetically forced; it’s very simple. Precisely for this reason, in Hebrew it would be one of those grand old favorites that no one forgets. It fits any occasion because it hits all the high points and provides a comfortable setting for awakening the mind to hear the song of the heart.

The first word is hallelujah — praise Jehovah. It’s meant to be shouted. Following that is a declaration that we will throw up our hands at the name of the Lord, but doing so from the heart, and shamelessly in front of all God’s people.

The imagery is condensed, and merely translating the words weakens the effects. The products of God’s hands are extravagant and anyone with good sense strives to stand in His favor to receive them. We are greeted by a parallelism declaring that God’s actions are unforgettable, and those actions mark Him as the ideal sovereign. His household never lacks because He always walks by His own covenant; it’s His nature to do so.

Indeed, under that covenant He demonstrates to His tribe the power to carve out their inheritance from the riches of other nations. He plays favorites for those who cling to Him. What He does defines truth and justice. His revelation changes everything; it’s more trustworthy than all human wisdom and knowledge put together. What He promises will surely come true. He elevates His own family above all the rest of humanity and stands behind His promises. His very name is awesome beyond words.

The first fruit of wisdom is learning to take Him seriously. People who walk in His revelation are the very image of prudence. The ultimate wisdom is to acknowledge Him as Creator.

Psalm 108

Echoes of Psalms 57 and 60, this combines praise and lament. Likely David used common worship phrases to lift up a battle song, not so much preparing for a literal fight, but to stir both confidence and humility before God.

David proclaims that his heart is standing tall and on the firm footing of God’s glory. From before the dawn, his heart awakens him in worship, so that his hands will awaken the musical instruments. It hardly matters where David finds himself at any moment, for there is a proper place to sing the glory of Jehovah, Creator of all things. The greatness of His mercy and truth stand above the brightness of the sun. So should all of Creation see His glory.

David’s call on God is not merely for Himself, nor so much for any particular people, but for the glory of His mission given to Israel. It is His own revelation living within the nation that He loves most. This is the only justification for calling on His limitless power.

And what does God say? He will exult in the triumph of His truth revealed among men. He knows the intimate details of such landmarks as Shechem between the mountains of Ebal and Gerizim, or the Valley of Succoth. He owns the vast grasslands of Gilead and the Tribe of Manasseh that resides there. He keeps the Tribe of Ephraim powerful and safe in the fortress of His mind, and the power of His Law is exercised through the Tribe of Judah. Moab is just a place to wash His feet, while He drops His sandals on Edom. Philistia will tremble with the echo of His triumph.

David asks who could possibly give him the military prowess to invade Edom. Perhaps this was one of those times when Edom was a problem for Israel. David asks rhetorically if God has not tossed Israel aside already, a standard protocol of prayer and supplication to one’s sovereign. It’s best to wait on God for dealing with such trouble, because mere man cannot solve anything that matters. Indeed, it is with the hand of God that all human trouble is put down.

Psalm 107

Book 5: Psalms 107-150

This is a catchall collection of several smaller collections of public worship songs, including the songs of Ascents and Hallelujah psalms. In other ways it seems to celebrate specifically covenant promises and how to claim them.

Psalm 107

This is called “The Song of the Redeemed.” While the specific focus is how God has kept His covenant promises, we do well to remember there is more than one covenant with humanity. The promises under Moses are specific examples of how God acts in all times and places. If you cling to a heart-mind awareness of His divine moral character in Creation, then Creation will respond of itself, but He will amplify those natural blessings to those who love Him.

We are treated to five examples, but the last is more of a summary. All are in dire straights, as is the norm for fallen humanity. In some cases the trouble is because of a failure to keep faith with God, but some are simply the result of seemingly random circumstance. God does what He does, and humans often stumble into His works without full knowledge and run the risk of perishing. In call cases, calling on His name is the key to deliverance, while giving thanks and praise is the key to staying out of more trouble. Does anyone have to explain that the symbolic or parabolic meaning is more important than the specific imagery?

It’s not hard to pick out the pattern of musical stanzas in the first four examples. Someone comes into difficulty, cries out to God and He delivers. The psalmist encourages all to glorify God for His greatness, as demonstrated by the repeated phrase, “His goodness, and for His wonderful works to the sons of man!”

First are the travelers. For Israel, the standard symbol is wandering in the semi-desert wilderness. There is no particular sin at work; this is simply how the world is. By default, we are blind to God’s promises of provision. We cannot with our own human abilities find the basic needs of life and create a stable society. The symbol of shalom is summed up as stable and prosperous life in an Eastern feudal community. But if mankind calls on God, He will provide their needs, in this case by guiding them into His divine provision. He shows them the place He made for them and it provides all they need. When you respond to God’s call on your life, He provides all you need to glorify His name.

Second are the captives; there is little difference between slavery and prison in the ancient Hebrew world. In this case, it is the result of disobeying God, hinting at idolatry. This is a parable for those who reject whatever revelation God offers, and are forced to serve the Enemy of our souls. Calling on God is the only deliverance.

The third group is portrayed as ill, but the primary cause is moral illness — insensitive to the moral fabric of Creation. There is no pleasure in this dissolute life, and they approach death rapidly. But calling on God brings healing and restoration.

Fourth are sailors, a job that is high risk with a high payoff if you succeed. Ancient mariners were uniformly religious and quite superstitious because they were so powerless. They were fully aware of the power of God’s mighty works in Creation, because they saw it up close. When by His inscrutable will He sends storms into their lives, they experience the radical ups and downs of high waves, hardly able to keep their feet under them. But if they cry out to God, He can deliver them and guide them to their destination.

Finally, the psalmist summarizes God’s faithful to Israel. Had he called her to occupy the most desolate land of all, it would not have mattered. Were she faithful to the covenant mission, God could have easily made the desert like a garden, with streams and pools aplenty. It would become fertile and produce abundant food. Life would explode, including their own population. And if they stray from that mission, it could all be reversed and they would be oppressed and humiliated by their enemies. Don’t get too fat and sassy, because God favors the humble who depend entirely on Him.

The psalm closes with a final warning to heed the moral character of God as indicated by these examples.