Fruit in Its Season: An Ode to Psalms.

psalmslight

“everything written about me in the. . .Psalms must be fulfilled.” – Jesus. (Luke 24:44)

Tonight I end a journey that began on Wednesday night, August 26, 2011. It was on that evening I began walking Psalm by Psalm, stanza by stanza, and at many times verse by verse through the book of Psalms with our Wednesday night Bible study. Our time has been broken up by once a month business meetings, travels, and special events such as VBS and special guests, so by God’s providence tonight is the end of that journey as we study Psalm 150. It is with a jubilant heart of peace and tears of thankfulness I arrive here today. This will not be my last journey and I encourage you as an individual or pastor to take a similar journey. To encourage you, here are a few of my reflections on the Psalms.

The Psalms are the heartbeat of the Bible and therefore the heartbeat of God.  If you want to stay close to His heart, you need to hear His heart. You will find the rhythm in the book of Psalms. I knew as a first time/ full-time senior pastor, I desired to lead in prayer meeting by focusing on prayer. This led me to the conviction (before I knew for sure when and where I would go) our Wednesday night Bible study would initially consist of a study in the book of Psalms.  I read early on, “the Psalms paint pictures.” With that in mind the journey over the landscape of this vast book has been like a hike through the largest National Park with the highest of heights, the deepest of valleys,  with the brightest of sunlight, the darkness of night, the bitterness of stagnate water (of my own heart) and the refreshing and reviving coolness of a mountain stream (of God’s heart). The Psalms tickle the imagination and inoculate the heart with Truth. Spend time in this book and you will find the words more delightful than honey and more valuable than gold.

There are so many things I have learned throughout the study of the book it would be impossible to innumerate them all. However, there are three returning truths one can see from the vantage point of every hill and valley in the book: the mercy of God, the justice of God, and the mission of God. I have also included a word on His protection, providence, and Messiah.

His Mercy

By far, one of the most repeated words in this book is kesed – God’s love. I will never forget an evening cup of coffee with my pastor and a Hebrew professor, Dr. Wayne VanHorn, when he walked me word by word through Psalm 23 (I carry those notes in my Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia to this day) and his bright eyes as he spoke of God’s love (most often translated “mercy”) in Psalm 23:6. Without this kind of love, all of our lives, efforts, and trials are in vain. This is the kind of love God has for His people – very well characterized by the translation “mercy.” Dr. VanHorn told me that night (and I’ve never forgotten it) that one could consider this the “Covenant Love of God”. I have also seen it recently rendered by Alec Motyer as “God’s committed love” and it is also often translated “steadfast love” and “lovingkindness”.  Just as we would have no hope or salvation apart from the kesed of God, there would be no book of Psalms apart from that same kesed. Go to great lengths to find this covenant love throughout the book. It is never far away.

His Protection

We are all refugees. If we do not recognize this, we do not understand the mercy of God. He is our Rock, Fortress, Refuge, Strength and many such other names by which He is called that means He is our home (or “dwelling place” Ps.90:1). We find our rest in the shadow of His wings – in the midst of the “mercy seat” beneath the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant. This picture alluded to by David many times is proof positive of his understanding of Salvation. Without God’s atoning sacrifice and the blood upon the mercy seat – there is no hope for sinful mankind. There is power in the blood after all. I have told our Wednesday night gathering, “we enjoy singing ‘the old rugged cross’ for David the song was ‘the old mercy seat’.” It is little wonder Luther was teaching Psalms alongside Romans and Galatians when he came to his core understanding of the Gospel.

His Providence

He cares for us. Jesus makes sure we know this when he quotes Psalms to us in the “Beatitudes” of the Sermon on the Mount. God is a God who fills us with “the finest of wheat.” Without the Psalms of David, there would be no songs of Mary and Zechariah in the book of Luke.

His Justice

Some of the most puzzling lines for many in the book of Psalms are those lines labeled “imprecations”. However, in the full counsel of God’s word and understanding of His character, they are not as difficult as they would be isolated from the context. God is a just God. He has or will visit justice on all of His enemies. This includes and is not limited to sin, death, hell, the wicked, and those who cause His little ones to stumble. Every prayer in the book of Psalms will be answered, including the imprecations against the Psalmist’s enemies. The reason for this is that all of our true enemies, are actually God’s enemies.

His Mission

Psalms is a missionary book. One does not have to read too long about God’s special people to realize He desires all the goiim (Greek: ethnay) to become part of His special people. This is the staff on which the music of the book of Psalms is written. The Psalms by nature are invitational and provide motivation for God’s chosen people to be missionaries to the ends of the earth. They will be drawn in by our pure worship of Him as Creator, Sustainer, and Savior.  This is perhaps best illustrated with the shortest Psalm – also the shortest chapter in the Bible, Psalm 117. This Psalm is not only the heartbeat of the book of Psalms, but is quite literally the heart of the Bible. This Psalm has the same number of chapters from Genesis 1 to its first verse as it does from its last verse to Revelation 22.

Praise the Lord, all nations!
    Extol him, all peoples!
For great is his steadfast love toward us,
    and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.
Praise the Lord!

His Messiah

From the prophecies of Psalm 22 to the promises of Psalm 91, one finds Jesus fulfilling every ounce of unrequited expectation of the couplets and questions of the book. As with the Bible, so goes Psalms. If one reads the Psalms and misses Jesus, he has missed the book of Psalms.

Praise Him!

As I close this time and study in Psalms, I have also crossed another great milestone in reading through Spurgeon’s Treasury of David. Having spent so much time with Mr. Spurgeon, it seems fitting to give him (almost) the last word from his final introduction of a Psalm,

“We have now reached the last summit of the mountain chain of Psalms. It rises high into the clear azure, and its brow is bathed in the sunlight of the eternal world of worship, it is a rapture. The poet prophet is full of inspiration and enthusiasm. He slays not to argue, to teach, to explain; but cries with burning words, ‘Praise him, Praise him, Praise ye the LORD.’

“Here, the word says, ‘let everything that has breath praise the Lord,’ what if that were reversed and it said, ‘let everything that praises the Lord have breath?’” – David Platt.

Indeed. Hallelujah. Amen.

I praise Him not only as one who was found in mud and brought to new heights, but as one who hopes to be planted deep in mud with roots reaching down to the waters of life. On His word, may I meditate day and night.

Study Materials

There is nothing quite like reading the Psalms in one’s heart language and “meditating on them day and night.” However, I have found many sources to be of great value for further reflection and recommend them to the pastor wishing to embark on a similar journey or as the leader of in-depth Bible study. Of irreplaceable value has been the original language of the book of Psalms. This, coupled with Koehler and Baumgartner’s Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon has been a treasure trove of riches. If your Hebrew waxes and wanes, I highly recommend Zondervan’s Hebrew Reader’s Bible (it’s “Bible” feel, sizable font, and accessibility is superb). Of inestimable value at different intervals for personal devotional reflection have been the Treasury of David by Charles Spurgeon, Calvin’s commentaries, W.S. Plummer’s Commentary on the Psalms (Banner of Truth Trust), and lately The Psalms by Day: A New Devotional Translation by Alec Motyer. Of instructional value have been Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook by Mark D. Futato and David M. Howard, Jr., the ESV Study Bible, and the MacArthur Study Bible.

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Happy Birthday, Charles H. Spurgeon

spurgeonsmileAs someone who loves history, is trained in history, and has occasion to teach history, I am often asked about places in history I would like to have been. One of those answers surprises many. I would love to be on New Park Street of London in the Metropolitan Tabernacle in the second half of the 1800s singing acapella hymns with thousands of voices just before Charles Spurgeon stood to expound the word and deliver the gospel.

Spurgeon was born 182 years ago today. I would be remiss if I let the day pass without saying a few words. Since I have arrived in my present pastoral role I have been teaching through the Psalms on Wednesday night (we are on Psalm 122 after five years). An irreplaceable gem in my study has been reading The Treasury of David straight through – Spurgeon’s magnum opus of a homiletical commentary.  In some sense, after this much reading and processing, one begins to have a sense for where the author is going, how he might process a particular text, when he may make an somewhat appropriate jab at “papists” or liberal Baptists of his day, how he might turn a phrase or when he is about to offer some keen insight one can no longer not see once the Prince of Preachers has shown it.

His short 58 years of life on earth were larger than life on the spectrum of church history. He wrote voluminously, still maintaining more room on the shelf (and in print) than any other writer in church history and many combined. That’s impressive. The number of charitable organizations, push for missions, love for orphans, care for the poor and continuous striving for gospel centered baptistic orthodoxy are legend and seem almost humanly impossible. In fact, Spurgeon was once asked about this when the inquisitor pointed out he lived as if there were two of him. He smiled and quipped, “You forget sir, but there is two of us.” All this and he managed to maintain being a faithful husband and doting father. His wife Susannah was as much a part of who he was as, well, he was.

I cannot express how thankful I am for Spurgeon’s phraseology, one liners, humor, faithful theology and inspiration in pastoral care and leadership though he died 91 years before I was born.

If you have not yet been introduced to the unavoidable Spurgeon, you must read both Arnold Dallimore’s biography   and Tom Nettles, Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles Haddon Spurgeon .  For a shorter and equally necessary read, find Iain Murray’s The Forgotten Spurgeon . Also available is a condensed version of Dallimore .

“Under Sixty”

Image                                                                                                                               A beardless and youthful Charles Spurgeon.

Charles Spurgeon was fifteen years old when he inadvertently preached his first public sermon.  A mentor had recognized his apparent calling and gifts and sent him to a Baptist meeting house.  Spurgeon was at that point unaware it had been arranged for him to be the preacher for the evening.  After encouragement from the pastor, Spurgeon preached to great effect upon the congregation.  This prompted one woman to call out, “how old are you!?” To which the flush-faced young but yet quick-witted Spurgeon replied, “Under Sixty!”   The woman replied with a smile, “And under sixteen!” This was well received by the congregation and Spurgeon was invited back.  He would enter the fulltime pastorate at seventeen.[1]

Though I am no Charles Spurgeon, I was unquestionably called into the ministry at fourteen.  I preached my first sermon at fifteen, I was in my first “pastorate” at eighteen.[2] I have grown accustomed to being the youth up front, but am still growing comfortable with it. One intangible piece of advice was given me by my pastor at the time of my call. It went something like this, “John, if the Lord is calling you in to the ministry, He is not calling you in to ministry when you graduate Seminary, when you are ordained, when you graduate college or even high school, He is calling you in to ministry right now, and you have to figure out what that means.”  That set a trajectory in my life that raised what others expected of me, and even more so what I expected of myself.

It did not take me long to come across what the Apostle Paul wrote to his protégé Timothy, “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” This has, throughout each generation, become somewhat of a mantra for youthful congregants everywhere: “let no one despise you for your youth. . .” However, I had to mature a bit before I realized what I taught my own youth group over and over: If you are setting an example in speech, conduct, love faith and purity you will not (in most cases) be despised. If you are despised, then it let be for those reasons.

Spurgeon certainly does not stand alone as a youthful example of leadership. History, even recent history, is replete with young leaders. One of my favorite examples is William Pitt who became Prime Minister of Great Britain when he was 24.  His friend, William Wilberforce, was the same age when he set out on his lifelong battle against the African slave trade. George Whitefield was ordained and began evangelizing at age 19. David Brainerd, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, nor Jim Eliot ever reached the age of thirty.  Dr. Duke McCall was 28 when he became President of the Baptist Bible Institute in New Orleans, LA (destined to be become the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary), Dr. Albert Mohler was 32 when he became the President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and most recently Dr. David Platt was 27 when he became the pastor of the Church at Brookhills in Birmingham, AL. What is more, is that Jesus’ public ministry began when he was around thirty years of age. How often do we stop to think that means the disciples were most likely younger (if not a lot younger!) than He was. It is possible that the Apostle Peter was still a minor (by modern standards) when he preached at Pentecost.

Let’s take one more look from the other end: Charles Spurgeon was still “under sixty” when he died. So were Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, John Calvin, Urlich Zwingli, and John Bunyan. This is not to mention the countless martyrs ranging from Stephen (Acts 7) to Lady Jane Grey, to countless Romans, Chinese, and Indonesians whose names we will never know this side of glory and youth has been made immortal, due to their seemingly early deaths.

I am still under 60, and will be for quite a while. In fact, if someone is born today who is called to preach, he will also be under 60 with me (for a few months anyway.) There are days when I am asked about my age I am tempted to answer like the younger Spurgeon. In the meantime, in an age of prolonged adolescence, regardless of which decade we find ourselves in, we must be ever mindful that days are fleeting, life is but a vapor, and there is work to be done.  As we set an example in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity, let no one despise us for our youth, including ourselves.


[1] Recounted in Arnold Dallimore’s Spurgeon: A New Biograpy. Banner of Truth Trust. 1998.

[2] I was pleased to preach for a small and aging congregation called White Bluff Baptist Church in Marion County, MS that met once every two weeks in the afternoon.

Grace Grows Best in Winter

. . you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Luke 1:76-79 ESV.

Advent Reflections the Day after a Tragedy

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In writing an introduction to a song our choir will be singing tomorrow night (entitled “A Communion Hymn for Christmas”; lyrics below) I was reminded of a dear woman in the recent history of the church: Edith Margaret Clarkson. I pray her story and her words may be helpful to you during this advent season.

Charles Spurgeon wrote, “The music of the sanctuary is in no small degree indebted to the trials of the saints. Affliction is the tuner of the harps of sanctified songsters.”

The hymn (A Communion Hymn for Christmas) we are about to sing is no exception.

Recent events will not allow us to forget: We live in a broken and hurting world. Margaret Clarkson, the woman who wrote the hymn we are about sing knew that. After migraines and a bout of sickness as a little girl, she was diagnosed with arthritis that would plague her for the rest of her life. Her parents would be divorced at an early age and this hurt would also hang over her. Her only solace was found in the presence of God and his people – she used to climb to the highest tree with a songbook (on her good days) and sing at the top of her lungs. She would say she wanted to always be somewhere where “good preaching as well as good hymns could be found.” She, though physically and emotionally hurting, would write her first Christmas hymn for her church as a teenager. She would write on and off throughout the years producing many favorite and important hymns that tell of the love of the God and His Sovereignty. Still, as she would remain single for her entire life, she felt a deep sense of loneliness and would write many books that have been an encouragement to many. One such book, entitled, Grace Grows Best in Winter is a reminder that though winter comes; though the dark, cold, and difficult days are upon us, there is a new day dawning. Margaret would retire early after many surgeries on her spine and would end her days in a retirement home in Ontario, but her books and hymns continue to remind us of a God we can trust, even when life hurts.

She wrote in this book:

“The sovereignty of God is the one impregnable rock to which the suffering human heart must cling. The circumstances surrounding our lives are no accident: they may be the work of evil, but that evil is held firmly within the mighty hand of our sovereign God…All evil is subject to Him, and evil cannot touch His children unless He permits it. God is the Lord of human history and of the personal history of every member of His redeemed family.”

As we sing this song, let us reflect upon the reality that lies before us in the manger – a little baby Who would grow and live in perfect submission and obedience to His Fathers’ will. One who would take upon His own shoulders the sins and brokenness of this world, making a way for wretched sinners to be saved from their sins by His own broken and hurting body and releasing us from the fear of death and the grave by rising again and laying upon us His own righteousness. That is what we sing tonight and that is what we celebrate tonight.

A Communion Hymn for Christmas

Gathered round Your table on this holy eve,
Viewing Bethlehem’s stable we rejoice and grieve;
Joy to see You lying in Your manger bed,
Weep to see You dying in our sinful stead.

Prince of Glory, gracing Heav’n ere time began,
Now for us embracing death as Son of Man;
By Your birth so lowly, by Your love so true,
By Your cross most holy, Lord, we worship You!

Bethlehem’s Incarnation, Calvary’s bitter cross,
Wrought for us salvation by Your pain and loss;
Now we fall before You in this holy place,
Prostrate we adore You, for Your gift of grace.

With profoundest wonder we Your body take–
Laid in manger yonder, broken for our sake:
Hushed in adoration we approach the cup–
Bethlehem’s pure oblation freely offered up.

Christmas Babe so tender, Lamb who bore our blame,
How shall sinners render praises due Your name?
Do Your own good pleasure in the lives we bring;
In Your ransomed treasure reign forever King!

For more specific reflections on yesterday’s events and the gospel, please consider: The Gospel and Newtown by David Platt and How Does Jesus Come to Newtown? by John Piper.

Take up and Read take 2: Devotionals

Do not waste your time reading unprofitable books. – Matthew Henry

Perhaps as the first week of January has past, you have thought, “I really intended to start a quiet time this year.” Perhaps you went to a bookstore or went online to find a devotional book, only to be discouraged by the vast amount of materials available. Since my posting about the Word, I have had a few questions about devotional materials so I am providing here a few tips.

If you can only have time to read one thing, then it must be the Bible. Being in the word is the most important part of the Christian walk. In fact, without the Word, we cannot see to walk (Psalm 119:105). Therefore, if your quiet time is not Biblically saturated, then it is in fact wasted time.

If an online guide or a printed plan is difficult for you to follow, then my chief recommendation for your devotional time this year is a One Year Bible . Each day there is a selection from the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Book of Psalms in an easy-to-follow format. The One Year Bible is available in all good modern English translations, and can also be found on Kindle for relatively inexpensive.

At the same time, there are many good tools out there that may be a springboard into the depths of the riches of God, if used rightly.

Selecting a Devotional Book.

“Help! I’m at the Christian bookstore and there are hundreds of devotional books, which one should I use/read?” Believe it or not, this answer is easier than you think. Is there a passage of scripture anywhere on the page? If not, put it down immediately! Hopefully, the passage is towards the beginning if not the beginning.

Sit down. Read one, or two. In fact, I would recommend looking at half a dozen to perhaps one per month. Did this devotional reflect upon the verse cited (in a responsible way)? Was I drawn to pray?

A good devotional will have you anchored in the word and centered on the Person of Jesus Christ. Without those elements, a “devotional” is just a story. This is why Chicken Soup for the Soul (in any form!) is a great bathroom reader and not a bedside or a book to read with your morning Coffee.

My suggestion is to start with a classic in devotional literature. There is a reason why the author is today with Jesus and his or her books are still in print. I include here a brief list of recommendations or books I have used that is in no way exhaustive but I hope helpful.

Suggestions.

Anything by Charles Spurgeon. I would suggest Morning by Morning , Morning and Evening , or Faith’s Checkbook for starters.

The Lord used the ministry of Charles Spurgeon to convert Oswald Chambers. His book My Utmost for His Highest has been a devotional classic for well over a century. It is available in updated language.

A Godward Life, John Piper. These daily readings are not only grounded in Christ, they are also challenging to the individual in preparing to live a Godward life in today’s world . You may view a free .pdf file at the Desiring God sitehere.

Streams in the Desert, L.B. Cowman. If you are looking for a lady author, this classic has been around a while and is a good one.

Daily Light for My Path by Anne Graham Lotz. This book keeps you focused on the word and is arranged neat and orderly.

Another trusted author is Joni Eareckson Tada. You can sign up for a daily emailed devotion at Joni and Friends here. Any book she has authored I would also recommend to you. We keep a copy of Christmas Longings around during that time of year.

If you want to try less than 365 days, try one of the 90 studies by Beth Moore on David , John , Paul or Jesus (or all the above for 360 days – that’s almost a year!). These interactive studies will engage your heart, soul, and mind.

Also the Voices of the Faithful series and Robert J. Morgan’s Then Sings my Soul books (stories about hymns) may also provide encouragement if you are more weighted towards missions or music.

Crosswalk.com

There is a plethora of material available at Crosswalk.com. Some is to be desired over others, but all in all they have a pretty good array of material available that includes two of the Spurgeon volumes I mentioned and Streams in the Desert. Their website is here.

Set a Time.

Mornings are arguably the best time for quiet/time devotional reading and prayer. There are many reasons why this is true, none of the least of which are scriptural examples of early morning meetings with the Lord in prayer. This will also help set the tone for the day. However, in the busyness of life, you may have a house full of people ( one or two kids is/are enough for this ) and you may have to steal a few moments sometime during the day. If this is the case, perhaps have a family time of prayer and reading of a passage of the Bible and have your personal time when everyone is out of the house, or during your lunch break, depending on your schedule and station in life. Whatever time works for you though, be consistent, as this will help you form a very important habit that may be the most profitable time you spend all day.

Do Not Get Discouraged.

If you miss a day or so, do not try to play catch up! You will drown this way. If following a daily devotional, pick up with the day you are on, then later (perhaps in a evening or a Saturday) read the days you have missed. There is grace!

Additional Suggestions.

Read Operation World.

If you like information, travel, geography, or are really Missions oriented, then my suggestion instead of a devotional book is Operation World. This resource has recently been updated and is a daily prayer guide for every country in the world. I recommend it’s reading and praying through by everyone. You may also find the information from the book at the site here.

Read a Classic or Biography.

If a daily book is not quite your style, then dive into some other form of Christian literature, perhaps a classic by C.S. Lewis, or a biography such as Eric Metaxes’ Bonhoeffer. Reading books such as these will continue to focus you on the person of Christ as we see the examples of those who have gone this way before. As lengthy as this post is, I may do a post on classics later.

In the meantime, “Take up and Read.” Please let me know if I can help you in any way.