Sing a new song, from day to day

Oh sing to the LORD a new song;
sing to the LORD, all the earth!
Sing to the LORD, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples!
For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised;
he is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols,
but the LORD made the heavens.
Splendor and majesty are before him;
strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
(Psalm 96:1-6 ESV)

As the church we’ve got to hold firm to what has gone before us. We hold tightly to our history and the great traditions of God’s people. One thing Scripture is is a collection of what God has been doing, and the psalms are a reflection our what his people do in response. We don’t have to recreate or remake the Bible, but when we listen to God speaking in it, as we see in this Psalm, we do need to allow the creation of new things.

We honor our past and do not leave behind the songs of our forebears. And who would want to? There is still an untapped depth to the poetry of hymns that have been written and surely forgotten. But we are to “sing to the LORD a new song.”

God hasn’t stopped acting in this place and we shouldn’t stop reflecting on his handiwork. When people write new songs and we go through the work of learning them, it is further testimony that still today our God is great and worthy to be praised. He is not like worthless idols that do not deserve an ounce of ink to be spilt in writing their praise. So we declare his glory not only of that which was on display in the past, but of his marvelous works today.

This Sunday we’ll have a chance to do that singing some relatively new songs. It’s not because they are better, but because it is good to do so.*

*And also our pianists aren’t there! But the point still stands. 🙂

A note about Ehud the left-handed man

Does the author of Judges just want to give a shout out to all the southpaws out there, or is there something more to Ehud being left-handed?
Does the author of Judges just want to give a shout out to all the southpaws in Israel, or is there something more to Ehud being left-handed?

If you’re following along in Judges you come upon to the pretty gruesome story of Ehud. He goes to a rival king, Eglon, sneaks in a sword, hangs out alone, and then kills him. Once Ehud leaves the guards assume with the smell that thad made itself to them was just the king relieving himself. By the time they realize he is dead, Ehud has escaped. What a strange story.

With plenty of questions to ask, let’s just ask “Why did the king even feel comfortable to be alone with Ehud?” There is a strange comment about Ehud in his short intro. It says that he was a left-handed man. Do we need to know that? Why is it included?

It could mean more literally that Ehud couldn’t use his right hand, perhaps he was physically deformed or permanently injured. If so, he may not have been a picture of strength and didn’t seem a risk to Eglon.

Not only is that a possible explanation about Ehud, but it tells us something about who God chooses.

Ehud is a surprising choice; in a society which was even more cruel than our own to people who were physically handicapped, he would have been considered ineffective. No one would have looked up to him or naturally chosen to follow him. Yet he is God’s choice. (Tim Keller, Judges For You, Kindle Locations 596-598).

Is Ehud an exception to all the exceptional leaders of God? Or is this just how God works? God continues to surprise and do the unexpected. He takes those whom the world has rejected and works wonders. And when Jesus comes this is just the case. “Jesus? From Nazareth? Joseph’s son? A carpenter?” Even after his miracles and the crowds had gathered, when Jesus is there on the cross, he is not the picture of strength. But this is how our God works.

Let this story of Ehud, with all its vividness that makes it easy to remember, help us remember that God uses people like us and that God used one the one who was rejected by others to be our very foundation.

Preview of Judges, our own sinful cycles, and God’s repeated faithfulness

Judges will reintroduce us to some familiar names, yet as we read it again slowly, we may be surprised at what we learn about people like Gideon or Samson. We may see the Biblical narratives as full of heroes of the faith, yet these heroes aren’t always so heroic.

Judges will remind us of our own failings and how we repeat sinful patterns. God alone is faithful and thankfully the is full of grace and mercy. This points us ahead toward Jesus, as Keller reminds us in his summary of this book:

God relentlessly offers his grace to people who do not deserve it, or seek it, or even appreciate it after they have been saved by it. The book of Judges is not about a series of role models. Though there are a few good examples (eg: Othniel, Deborah), they are early on in the book, and do not dominate the narrative. The point is that the only true savior is the Lord. Judges is ultimately about grace abounding to chief sinners. God’s grace will triumph over the stupidest actions. (Keller, Timothy (2013-08-06). Judges For You (God’s Word For You) (Kindle Locations 70-74). The Good Book Company. Kindle Edition.)

As you continue reading, let this image remind you of what you’ll encounter again and again. It is a cycle of repeated rejection of God, yet he remains faithful.

The tone of God’s instructions

We’ve all experienced rules and regulations in life that do not have clear reasons behind them. While they may have had some logical justification at some point, that time has gone.

There are also laws in this world that may not be any better than another way of doing things, but they are enforced because there needs to be some sort of consistency. Think about what side of the road you drive on. The left or right side of the road is no better or worse; one is not a more morally superior option. All that it is really important is once a decision is made you stick with it.

Sometimes we see the path God lays out for us and we wonder, “Why?” Is there a good reason to follow? Is it just arbitrary? Does God just want me to follow his way, yet any other way could be fine, too? But he just wants me on his side?

While we do not always know the full benefits of following God, for we do not always see what is around the corner and we never can see what might have been, God doesn’t want us to think following him is arbitrary. He doesn’t want his people to worship him and him alone just because that is the way he happens to prefer us to act. God desires that we follow because his ways are good and true. And that doesn’t mean just for him. When we follow it is good for us.

That’s why when we read a psalm like Psalm 81, we get a clear tone from God. He says listen to my voice, remember what I have done, turn to me so I may provide! He is grieved when we turn away because he knows it won’t go well for us.

Oh, that my people would listen to me,
that Israel would walk in my ways!

God is pleading with us because he wants what is good for us. He’s not a hall monitor yelling at us, merely upset we’re not presenting our hall pass. He’s not demanding we retake some test because we used the wrong pencil. He’s certainly not trying to put up countless hoops of bureaucracy and paperwork, like we navigate to complete our taxes. He’s not looking to make life more frustrating or painful or arbitrary. God loves his people and he knows his ways are best. Let that help guide your reading and give you a sense of the tone we see in the words of God.

Can we find questions to the struggles of life?

There are a variety of types of questions in life. Those questions we have answers to, the questions we may one day be able to answer, and there are questions we may not ever be able to answer. Our curiosity may not be able to sit well with the idea that we don’t have every answer and that instead we’ll need to be satisfied with mystery.

You could put these extremes on a spectrum, with a sense of certainty about all things on one side and a belief that we can’t know anything on the other. We, the church, can get into trouble if we fall too far to one side. We can get dogmatic and argumentative about every minute detail, puffed up with a pride that we can know everything, even everything about God. On the other hand, the church may be too reactive to this and shrug its shoulders claiming “who are we to claim to know anything?”

The difficult task is then to discern what in fact God has shown us and what is kept concealed. Where can we have boldness and certainty and when must we patiently wait with our mouths quiet? And how do we learn the answers when we are able to find them?

John Calvin speaks well on this:

“Let us… permit the Christian man to open his mind and ears to every utterance of God directed to him, provided it be with such restraint that when the Lord closes his holy lips, man also shall at once close the way to inquiry.”

We ought to seek wisdom and answers and understanding throughout life. God has gifted us with our minds and blessed us with great understanding by his Spirit. The church should be a place of deep questioning and long meditation. Yet we must remain humble knowing that we have our limits and our place—a place far below the full understanding and wisdom of God. We must remain dependent upon God and his word.

All this to take me to the passage I read this week from Psalm 73. The psalmist is struggling with the way the world seems to operate. The wicked are finding such riches and comfort, and this seems to go against the ways that God has prescribed. He can find no answer for his questions. Does this question have an answer or not?

It turns out that this is the sort of question that finds an answer in only one place: the presence of God.

But when I thought how to understand this,
it seemed to me a wearisome task,
until I went into the sanctuary of God;
then I discerned their end. (Psalm 73:16-17 ESV)

We may not always know where this discernment will lead, but doing so holding the hand of God (v23) will lead us nearer to him. And while our flesh and heart may fail, God says he will forever be our strength (v26).

Dealing with the Details of Exodus

Not the real ark.

The parts of Exodus that we are more familiar with are likely the dramatic activities in the front half of the book. We know Moses and Pharaoh, the plagues, and the parting of the Red Sea. But once the people stop moving and the book deals more with the details of God’s directions to Moses, we don’t follow that as well. Yet there is much to learn from what God has to say to Moses.

So don’t let the details of cubits and gold keep you from reading. Perhaps pick up a different translation. Here’s the beginning of chapter 26 in the ESV:

Moreover, you shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twined linen and blue and purple and scarlet yarns; you shall make them with cherubim skillfully worked into them. 2 The length of each curtain shall be twenty-eight cubits, and the breadth of each curtain four cubits; all the curtains shall be the same size. 3 Five curtains shall be coupled to one another, and the other five curtains shall be coupled to one another. 4 And you shall make loops of blue on the edge of the outermost curtain in the first set. Likewise you shall make loops on the edge of the outermost curtain in the second set. 5 Fifty loops you shall make on the one curtain, and fifty loops you shall make on the edge of the curtain that is in the second set; the loops shall be opposite one another. 6 And you shall make fifty clasps of gold, and couple the curtains one to the other with the clasps, so that the tabernacle may be a single whole.

And here are the same six verses in the Message version:

“Make The Dwelling itself from ten panels of tapestry woven from fine twisted linen, blue and purple and scarlet material, with an angel-cherubim design. A skilled craftsman should do it. The panels of tapestry are each to be forty-six feet long and six feet wide. Join five of the panels together, and then the other five together. Make loops of blue along the edge of the outside panel of the first set and the same on the outside panel of the second set. Make fifty loops on each panel. Then make fifty gold clasps and join the tapestries together so that The Dwelling is one whole.

There are great strengths to a version like the ESV. But having to do mental math about a cubit to try to understand the size of a tapestry can be distracting. Those distractions can even tone done what we are reading. God is giving instructions to Moses for something radical! God is going to dwell right in their midst within this tabernacle/Dwelling, with himself intensely present above the ark of the covenant. He wants this structure built to precise specifications because the details are symbolic. The tabernacle and the practices related to it are to remind the people of God’s desire to be with them and of the original garden when that was true. It should be beautiful. Yet it also reminds them that even though their sin now separates, God has provided a way to dwell in their midst. And this central structure (literally to be at the center of their encampments), would one day help the people understand what Jesus would come and fulfill.

For a bit more help on the where we’re going in this second half of Exodus, here’s another great video from The Bible Project.

Romans 3 and Laborers in the Vineyard

Paul often steps through many questions in his letters. These are either questions he has heard or he does well to anticipate the questions himself. In chapter three he, a Jew, is asking about the status of the Jewish people. Do some say that the Jews have no advantage now because of what Jesus has done (3:1)? Are the Jews any better off (3:9)?

Paul says there was an advantage to being entrusted with the “oracles” of God, but does that mean the Jews are now better off? Is there any different status or level for the Jewish believer as opposed to the Gentile believer? To that he says no. Receiving the promises of God did not mean that those promises were not for the world, as well. And this was not a race in which one runner was given a head start. Paul is de-emphasizing our activity completely in order to focus on the faithfulness of God.

This is one of the parts of the good news that can be uncomfortable at times. When grace means that “I am saved apart from what I do” it is easy to accept. But if grace also means “they are saved having done less than me” that can feel different.

Jesus tells a parable about the kingdom of heaven in which a master of a vineyard hires workers at different times throughout the day. At the end of the day the foreman calls the workers in to be paid:

And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.” (Matthew 20:9–16 ESV)

Our attention ought to be less on the others working alongside us in the kingdom of God, and more fixed on Jesus. If we let ourselves be caught up in comparison, we aren’t looking to him. And he is our true reward.

We should be thankful that God is gracious, and we should pray that more would receive his grace. When God gives generously, it doesn’t take away from what he has done for us.

God be merciful to me – David chooses repentance over defensiveness

King David, while regarded as a great king of Israel and a man after God’s own heart, was by no means a perfect man. When we think of his failures, his infidelity with Bathsheba and murder of her husband is likely the first thing to come to mind. After this abuse, the prophet Nathan goes to David to confront him.

Now bear in mind that a king doesn’t have to listen to a prophet or even be nice to them. When Nathan calls out David for his sin, David could’ve made life miserable for Nathan. No one likes to be called out, criticized, judged. We don’t tend to seek out opportunities for our secret sins to be named. Yet, David, the man as king who could’ve done anything to continue to cover up his sin, doesn’t choose further defensiveness. When Nathan comes to him, David is broken and he repents.

The narrative of this is recorded in 2 Samuel 12, and in our readings this week David’s response is recorded poetically in Psalm 51. We may quickly skim the headings of the psalms, but there we see that 51 is written after Nathan rebukes David, leading to this long confession of sin.

It’s a beautiful psalm with a tragic backstory. It reveals a desire for real repentance, not merely to deal with the outward appearances or public actions. David asks that God create in him a clean heart and renew a right spirit. For while all the external actions and sacrifices could continue, we see in verses 16-17 that what matters most to God is the heart behind it.

May we learn from David’s mistakes and from his repentance, and rather than be defensive, be open to confess.

I’d recommend reading Psalm 51 and listening to this song taken from this scripture.