Sometimes, the Bible seems boring. It’s because we’re familiar with it. The words have lost their edge.
So when biblical counselor David Powlison wrote Antipsalm 23 a few months ago, I actually found it to be refreshing. It was refreshing because this “antipsalm” echoed and exposed the way I think sometimes. It was refreshing because it brought into stark relief the comfort and the beauty of Psalm 23.
So here’s my own take. Instead of a mega-depressing Antipsalm 23, in which God is absent from my life, I’ve written a moderately-depressing Semipsalm 23, in which God is a distant manager of my life instead of a loving shepherd. Sad to say, this is the way I tend to think of him. It’s hard to love and feel loved by a God like this.
The LORD is my manager;
I’m equipped with what I need to be successful.
He makes sure I have enough to eat and drink,
And that I’m not too stressed out.
He gives me what I need to get by;
He communicates good advice
so I can keep him satisfied with my progress.
But when the darkness closes in and I feel half-dead,
I’m frightened by all the pain that grips me,
Because you seem so far away from me,
And your distant management of my life leaves me alone and afraid.
You do let me help myself to the leftovers from your table,
Which I suppose is better than what my enemies get.
You acknowledge my presence at dinner,
And you let me pour a little wine into my cup.
I guess I have an adequate and decent life most of the time,
And I can always stay at the LORD’s house for a few days if I ever feel the need.
Two weeks ago, I left behind the town of Lafayette, Indiana. I lived there for more than eight years, which is the longest span of time I’ve lived in one town or city. It was the closest I’ve come to calling a town my own.
The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me.
What always held me back from feeling settled in Lafayette was the fact that it is such a transitional town. When I left, several people in my church commented that it was hard to imagine the church without me. They had arrived later, and as far as they were concerned, I had been around forever. I was the permanent one—possessing eight years of permanence!
You can’t shake that unsettled feeling when you live in a town like that. You know that you are a sojourner. You can’t fool yourself into believing you’ll be there forever.
In the Old Testament, as Israel was preparing to move into the promised land of Canaan, the Lord instituted a series of laws about how they were to treat the land. They were not to overwork it or sell it permanently because the land was his, not theirs. They were tenants; he was the landlord. He was their host; they were his guests.
For we are strangers before you and sojourners, as all our fathers were. Our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no abiding.
—1 Chronicles 29:15
When you’re a stranger and a sojourner, you feel your impermanence on a visceral level. You could disappear, and the world could go on just fine without you. You flit about like a phantom, a shadow, moving from place to place, with no substance.
When I moved away, I had many people come to me to wish me well and to say goodbye. It was hard for me to say goodbye—not because the separation was too painful but because it was perhaps too easy. Most of these friends I will be able to keep up with on Facebook, after all. There will be few severed relationships.
And this was not the first time I’d had to say goodbye. The fact is that it was simply the conclusion to eight years of goodbyes. When you live in Lafayette, people come and go every year. They pass like phantoms through the town, taking classes or working a temporary job until career or family draws them away. You make friends, then let them go, then make new friends, then watch them leave as well. And when it comes time for you yourself to leave, it is not your closest friends who have remained to see you off. So “goodbye” is not as hard, because it’s fundamentally no different from any of the others.
O LORD, make me know my end
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting I am!
Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing before you.
Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! Selah
Here in the West, we do our best to quarantine death, to hide it away in hospitals and nursing homes, to pretend that we will live forever. We do our best to make this world a heaven, to live in a nice neighborhood and own a shiny car and find a purposeful career. But this requires a lot of transience and rootlessness, a lot of moving around. So even though we can postpone the death of our bodies, we cannot avoid the isolation of lost friendships. Our impermanence is more obvious than ever.
Hear my prayer, O LORD,
and give ear to my cry;
hold not your peace at my tears!
For I am a sojourner with you,
a guest, like all my fathers.
The earth is the Lord’s. I’m just passing through. I am a sojourner here, a guest of the Lord’s, just like my father was, and his father before him—a man who did not last long enough for me to meet him. There is no hope to be found in our relationships with one another. Hope must be anchored to an immovable object; I can’t find hope in my relationships with other people any more than a ship at sea can anchor itself to the wind and fog.
Who does David, king of Israel, appeal to in Psalm 39? He appeals to the one who created the land on which he is kneeling, the one who owns it and will continue to own it thousands of years after David vanishes from the earth. The Lord is the only permanent mooring in a world of passing shadows.
So may you cling to the Rock which will outlast the world. And may you find eternal life by binding yourself to our eternal God.
When I rise up, when I lie down each day
Still, O Lord, you search me, and you know all my ways
Hemming me in, laying your hand on me
When you surround me, you set my spirit free
You set my spirit free
Were I to run, were I to hide away
Dwell in deepest oceans, or fly to break of day
Still you are there, seeing in darkest lands
Lead by your Spirit and hold me in your hand
And hold me in your hand
When I was formed, you had prepared for me
Days you had written before I came to be
Fearfully made, knit by a skillful hand
How vast your wisdom—your thoughts like grains of sand
Your thoughts like grains of sand
Lord, when I see enemies scorn your name
How I hate the wicked—but, Lord, am I the same?
Search all my heart, see where I go astray
Try me and lead me in your eternal way
In your eternal way
Let me quote Psalm 29 before I share my thoughts on it. Read it carefully, and let it sink in:
A Psalm of David.
1 Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
2 Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name;
worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness.
3 The voice of the LORD is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over many waters.
4 The voice of the LORD is powerful;
the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.
5 The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars;
the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
6 He makes Lebanon to skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
7 The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.
8 The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness;
the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
9 The voice of the LORD makes the deer give birth
and strips the forests bare,
and in his temple all cry, “Glory!”
10 The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.
11 May the LORD give strength to his people!
May the LORD bless his people with peace!
Today, I stumbled on a blog commenting on the flooding in Lake Delton, Wisconson. I hadn’t heard of it, but apparently there isn’t really a Lake Delton anymore. Due to a recent flash flood, the waters damaged much of the town and ultimately overflowed the dam, escaping from the lake and leaving behind a muddy basin. It’s a tragedy for those who live there, but the blog author painted it as part of the struggle of man vs. nature: “Mother Nature is watching. She knows who is really in control.” I’ve heard it said that “Mother Nature” is merely a flimsy euphemism for “Father God.” It’s ridiculous to talk about the creation as though it were in control rather than its Creator. In Psalm 29, we see who really is in charge. It is not a nebulous “Mother Nature” at work in the lightning, in the thunder, in the breaking of cedars, in the shaking of the wilderness. It is the resounding voice of the Lord. I remember driving through Mississippi the summer after Hurricane Katrina and seeing an entire forest ruined, its greatest trees snapped in half by the force of the storm. (The heat energy produced by a hurricane is about the equivalent of a 10-megaton nuclear warhead exploding every 20 minutes.) The psalmist had witnessed a similar storm shatter the thick cedar forests of Lebanon, and in it he saw the power of the Lord.
I especially love v. 9. “The voice of the LORD makes the deer give birth and strips the forests bare, and in his temple all cry, ‘Glory!’” I heard that verse quoted once in a “Sermon Jam” made from a John Piper sermon. The awe and wonder with which Piper quotes it as part of a prayer—it is something I don’t think I can ever forget. There is something incredible about the reading of scripture with passion, when the reader clearly believes that these are the words of the Almighty. Too often we fail to express this as we read scripture.
What I love about this verse, beyond the visceral impact, is that last line: “And in his temple all cry, ‘Glory!’” The temple was the place where man encountered God and experienced His presence. It was the intersection of heaven and earth; in terms of ultimate significance, it was the center of the universe. The true worshipers of God who stood in His temple were stunned by His power, and only one word escaped from their lips: glory!
All that we see around us leads to the inescapable conclusion that there is an unbelievable gravity to God—what the dictionary calls an “alarming importance” or “seriousness.” The Hebrew word for glory referred to something heavy—something weighty or significant. Those standing in the temple could see and hear the power of the storm, and they knew Someone big was behind it all. And the Lord has not changed; His voice retains its power and authority today.
Our God is a colossus.
April Fools! I promised in my last post that I would start blogging more often. Three weeks later, here we are. Gotcha, didn’t I? Unintentional April Fools’ jokes are the best.
Now, the good news is that I’ve had at least three posts bouncing around in my head in the meantime. This is the first.
As part of our Hebrew class, Psalm 115 was required reading. It’s a great psalm made even better by the unfamiliar, fresh, and raw Hebrew poetry. Its mocking description of idolatry in vv. 4-8 are pretty hilarious but sobering. Why would anyone worship idols that can’t actually do anything? The psalmist observes that “those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them” (v. 8).
The tragic irony is that while we sneer at these ancient idolatrous practices, we ourselves are idolaters at heart. In fact, John Calvin famously referred to the human heart as an idol factory. We obsess over the self-absorbed celebrities of Hollywood. We seek a political savior in the next presidential candidate. We gather to worship at vast sports stadiums, cheering on our gods as they do battle with the gods of enemy cities. We lavish attention and praise on our cars, motorcycles, and iPhones. We hide from the world all day with iPod earbuds nestled gently in our ears, soaking in the music of our favorite musicians. We gather as families in front of our living room shrines, basking in the glow of our television sets, amusing ourselves with the latest trivialities of our culture. Our attention and energy, our passion and joy, is devoted to all of these and not to the God of the heavens.
As I think about it, at least the ancient Canaanites had a leg up on us. They worshiped idols which—they thought—possessed supernatural abilities, were immortal, and could help them in times of need. Our idols fail in every respect. These people would probably laugh at us today. They would laugh at our primitive practice of idolatry and our pathetic attempts to supplant the Lord Almighty.