Category Archives: Psalms
“Speech-act theory [SAT] insists that language does not exist idly to make certain sounds, but is always language in action, and usually communicative action” (Briggs). SAT can be taught well or poorly and the difference is how clearly the teacher brings to bear the “so what” of why it matters in the first place.
If you’re going to explain the “so what” of SAT, and you want to avoid abstractions, the psalms are a great place to do it. By praying or sing the psalms we are not merely reciting idle sounds with our tongues. We are performing. This is especially true because language is part of our covenant relationship, as we will see shortly.
I appreciate how Gordon Wenham explains the “so what” in his forthcoming book, The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms (Crossway, Feb. 2013). Here’s a spattering of quotes. Perhaps it will spark more interest in the book or in SAT and its implications for our devotions, our local churches, and all forms of corporate speech.
Promises change a situation by imposing obligations on the speaker and creating expectations in the listener. A promise is an example of a speech act. Wedding vows are speech acts too. The key words in a marriage ceremony are spoken publicly and before God. “I A take you B to be my wedded wife/husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.”
One trusts that brides and grooms pronounce these words after careful thought beforehand and with complete sincerity on the big day. The words themselves transform their status: the two become man and wife. Thus the words are performative.
To say, “I give thanks to Thee, O Lord, with my whole heart” is not merely informing God about one’s feelings, but also performing an act of thanksgiving in itself.
To sum up, singing or praying the psalms is a performative, typically a commissive, act: saying these solemn words to God alters one’s relationship in a way that mere listening does not. This is not a new insight. St. Paul saw confession of faith as altering one’s status before God: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Rom. 10:9–10).
Paul’s argument may be applied to the Psalms. Throughout the Psalter one is confessing that the Lord is God, and as the Psalms often insist, this is supposed to be a confession that comes from a pure and sincere heart. And it is certainly salvation that the Psalmist seeks: time and again he pleads to God to save him, to deliver him, to hear his prayer, and so on. Whether or not this always occurs is not my purpose to discuss now. I simply want to draw out some of the similarities between taking an oath, making a vow, confessing faith, and praying the psalms. I think these parallels may help us to see how powerful the commitment is that the psalms demand of their user. In singing the psalms, one is actively committing oneself to following the God-approved life.
This Sunday at his church (Sovereign Grace Fellowship; Bloomington, MN), my friend Rick Gamache kicked off a new summer sermon series in the Psalms. The series begins with Psalm 33.
On the opening three verses (Psalm 33:1-3) Rick made the following comments in his sermon:
This is not a casual suggestion to worship God. This is not a suggestion at all. It’s a command. There are five imperatives in this three-verse invocation to worship. Here they are: “shout,” “give thanks,” make melody,” “sing,” “play.” We are to do all those things joyfully and so we are to do all those things very loudly. It is a call to passionate, exuberant exultation. As Charles Spurgeon said, “Joy is the soul of praise to God.”
This is a hymn to be sung when the people of God gather together. The Psalmist, by commanding that we worship joyfully, is saying that joy should mark the people of God. Joyful praise, the Psalmist says in verse 1, befits the people of God. In other words, joy is the appropriate response to God. It’s not the only response. There are other hymns that call for other types of response: stunned silence, or awe and wonder, or holy fear, or brokenness and contrition, or deep longings. But in all those other responses to God, there should be an undercurrent of joy because joy is the soul of praise. So when the people gather–like we are gathered this morning–the accent should be on joyful celebration.
Note that the joyful shouts and the joyful expressions of gratitude and the joyful singing and all the joyful playing are not tied to our circumstances.
Were not told:
- Shout for joy in the Lord … if everything is going well with you.
- Give thanks to the Lord … if everything went as you planned it this week.
- Sing a new song to God … if you got a raise.
The imperatives are not tied to our situations or our circumstances. …
So what is all this joy about? Why give exuberant thanks? Why sing new songs? The Psalmist does not encourage us to put on a show. He’s not saying, “Gather with the people of God and when you do, do all that you can to appear joyful.” This is not a command to be disingenuous. The Psalmist and God expect us to experience joy–real joy–as we shout and give thanks and sing. And so the rest of the Psalm tells us why we should be joyful.
Three verses tell us what to do (1–3), and those are followed by 17 verses that specifically tell us why (4–22). And that’s evidence of the fact that we need all the help we can get to be stirred to joyful praise.
If you are anything like me, then you are fickle, you are distracted, your joy wanes, and sometimes it seems to disappear completely. And yet here is a call to joyful worship. Why? What or who ignites this joy? God. God is the one who ignites the joy. The 17 following verses answer why we worship with joy—because of God, who he is, and what he’s done for his people. God is the reason for our joy. And it is this joy that runs as an undercurrent and withstand all the attacks of life.
Speaking of the best books of 2009, I’d list John Sailhamer’s The Meaning of the Pentateuch (IVP Academic, 2009). This from page 504:
“[Matthias] Millard argues that the Psalter, as such, originated in the Persian period. It was conceived as a collection of prayers for the Diaspora and functioned as a replacement for temple worship. In reading the Psalter, one was both oriented to the temple and, at the same time, absolved from actually having to worship there. The Psalter thus was intended to promote the importance of the temple pilgrimage while at the same time being a substitution for the temple itself. It was a private surrogate for the pilgrimage to the postexilic temple in Jerusalem.”
Sailhamer next focuses on the three strategic psalms: 2, 72, and 145. A nice little bonus in a book on the Pentateuch!
From John Piper’s sermon, “Songs that Shape the Heart and Mind” (5/25/08):
“The Psalms, more intentionally than any other book of the Bible, is designed to carry, express, and shape our emotions, to give vent to them—all of them, and shape them, to reign them in, and to free them up, to explode them, and to kill them when they should be killed. It is an amazing gift to the Church. … The Psalms are songs and poems, and songs and poems exist because something more should happen to us than doctrinal refinement.”
Last night I lay awake in bed unable to fall asleep as my active mind protested my tired body. So my mind wandered and wondered, eventually arriving at Psalm 103:13–14, two verses I have focused my attention upon these past two days. The following words came to my mind. I played them over in my head until sleep arrived—
I am collected dust
bound together for a time
into this mud
formed by liquid soul.
How often I forget this frame
and attempt to live as gold
Anything, everything, but collected dust.
But He never forgets.
He never forgets.
His tenderness speaks it so.
“…only two years lie between the appearance of the commentary on the Psalms (1557) and the publication of the last Latin edition of the Institutes (1559). Given certain passages which are duplicated nearly verbatim in both works, it is noticeable that Calvin worked on both books simultaneously. In light of the distinction in genre and reading audience as well as the correspondence in content, I would like to define the commentary on the Psalms as a pastoral variation of the Institutes. In his commentary in particular Calvin applies himself to the main themes of the Institutes and gives them form so that they are directly applicable to the practice of living in faith. This would also explain why Calvin sometimes brings issues into consideration during his exposition which neither appear in the text of the Psalm nor seem to directly relate to it, and meanwhile Calvin makes far fewer references to contemporary events and situations than others commentators from the era do. Hence discussions of such things as the Lord’s Supper and the Trinity do not occur at all, and the matter of election scarcely occurs.”
—Herman J. Selderhuis, Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms (Baker Academic 2007) pp. 283-284.
In the evening when my wife and kids gather for dinner, I throw out theology-loaded questions to gauge where my children are at spiritually, and and to see where I can improve as a father. I chuckle at their cute little responses and we work through the answers together.
Our 7-year-old son can field questions like a reformed little league all-star, already thinking a bit like the man he was named after (Jonathan Edwards), already asking and working through questions (like: why is it not selfish for God to love Himself above all others?). But it’s the open theism tendencies of my closet arminian 3-year-old daughter that leave me concerned (not to mention the open-fisted carbohydrate hurling of my 18-month-old switch-pitching son that leaves me covered in gravy.)
So I continue to ask questions.
Last Wednesday night, the question that joined the chicken casserole out on the table was this: For Christians, what promises to deliver joy? We all know that we should be joyful, but why? How?
I rephrased the question a bit for my daughter: If God took away all our stuff, would we be happy? Could we be happy?
“No,” she said without pause.
So I asked the question again to see if a moment of reflection would help her formulate a more detailed answer.
“No,” she said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because we could not be happy because we have no things.” You needed to be there to hear the words for yourself to get the full cuteness factor.
I appreciate my daughter’s response for its honesty (and for the way she answers questions with multiple uses of the word because in each sentence). She was born with this materialism because her dad passed this tendency along to her, a dad who sometimes acts as though his happiness was tethered to the amount of stuff he possesses.
And I think each of us are born with this Asaph-complex, the tendency to gauge God’s favor towards us, and therefore define our personal joy, by material prosperity and circumstances (Psalm 73).
So can we be happy if God takes away all our stuff—or even worse?
In this Psalm, David was surrounded by trials and temptations and loss. David was cornered, he was hunted by his own son who usurped his throne, he was both the target of slander and defenseless to it, he was pierced with the hot lead of gossip fired from the barrel of loose tongues, he was humiliated publicly, he was surrounded by lies that further undermined his authority, and he was even brought down low by his friends, who became a cloud of doom further darkening his life.
This Psalm perplexes those of us in a western materialistic climate, because despite experiencing the loss of everything, David was filled with joy. He had joy because he had God.
Communion with God was David’s joy, a joy untouched by the slander, untouched by the loss, untouched by the outward gloom, a sweet fellowship enjoyed in reflection and prayer in the quiet peacefulness of night, those dark hours when the terror of anxiety often breaks into the silence with piercing screams to steal and destroy joy, moments now calmed for communion with God.
It was God who deposited this joy in David’s heart, a joy similar to the joy filling the heart during times of material abundance and prosperity, but a different joy altogether, a joy untethered from physical comforts, untethered from the approval of others, untethered from the plunge of Wall Street.
We, too, can find this joy if we find it in God, as we walk in God’s Word, as we know Him, as we love Him, as we delight in His goodness. And as we walk this path, joy, untouchable by circumstances, fills our hearts.
It is a good thing, and rightly do we enjoy, a bank account with money, a table with food, and several pair of clothes. These gifts each flow from God’s generosity towards each of us. But the possessions are small, temporary gifts compared to the fountain of joy He offers us.
To have God as our own, being united to Him through the death of His Son on the cross, is to possess the source of all joy, not merely enjoying temporary gifts, but to directly enjoy God, who is the source of our “infinite, self-sufficient, all-sufficient, essential, overflowing good” (Edwards).
This is the one secret to joy and happiness that you will not find printed in 40-point fluorescent green font on the cover of a magazine cover in the check-out line at the grocery store:
Get God, then seek Him all of your days, and discover with the Psalmist that the source of eternal joy is not in the what, it’s in the Who.
Quote from Works of Jonathan Edwards (Yale) 10:383.
Absalom stole David’s throne and stole from David the hearts of Israel. And David hightailed out of Dodge.
Overnight, David was tossed from his throne and hunted in the wilderness. Now he is pressed against a dark cave, listening in the distance for the sound of approaching hunters, enduring the heart-stopping responses to the smallest sounds, listening for the crack of twigs, holding his breath.
David cried out to God.
I fear too often the god I cry out to is a god of my imagination, fitted with padded boxing gloves, a stick for a sword, and a cap gun to make a lot of noise. He becomes a god who cannot break a sweat, and could never break an enemy.
This is not our God.
Our God is the lifter of heads, holding up the downcast, the discouraged, the fearful, and the hunted. But He is also dressed for battle, at war against sin, and fully aware of every enemy crouching in the bushes waiting to rise.
God is also the smasher of faces.
And as violent as this sounds, it’s under the shield of this God that David finally rests, being hunted but no longer in danger, shielded from the blows of his enemy, released from fear, released from the adrenaline kick that kept him watchful and alert, free from the worry that raced his heart, released from tension, sustained in God, now slowly becoming limp, a powerless body mercifully given over to sleep.
Perhaps because we fail to balance both sides of our God, we lack confidence in Him as our shield. And we don’t sleep well. We respond to the blows of life as if there is no iron shield to protect us, as if we are abandoned in the cave by a God who is too busy, too unconcerned, or simply too incapable to help us.
The god who cannot break his enemies is a god who will not comfort the fear-filled.
Among a thousand worries we are safe in Him. And if this is our God we have no cause for fear. No longer do we need fear over the economy, worry over personal finances, and toss and turn all night in the sleepless tumult of tension, worry, hypotheticals, and the fear of the unknown.
This Psalm teaches me a simple lesson: God is both the One who lifts heads and breaks teeth. A powerful, sustaining, defending God like this can remove all fear. He is strong enough to spread a blanket of sleep over the foxhole of life.
Christ, the Anointed Son, sits on a throne. His rule stretches to the corners of creation. Every trickle of authority in heaven and on earth is now under his rule. No one–no pharaoh, no king, no president, is outside his reign. The Sovereign authority of the Son encompasses all people—from every racial origin, from all the continents of the globe. All have been created to serve and worship and glorify Him, and to enjoy the rich blessings of an eternal kingdom.
The Anointed has cast his rope of authority over all men.
But man rages against God, thrusting knives at the ropes of authority—as if the chords were an ambush, like a net contracted around a trapped animal, hanging helplessly in the air for its hunter.
Man forms alliances to build strength against the Anointed.
The Lord in heaven laughs at man’s rage.
No less a rebel is the man who ignores God. He refuses to pursue God. The fool says in his heart that God is nothing, a phantom, an impotent and imagined delusion. God is to him an unnecessary distraction from the banquet of selfish desires (Ps. 10:4, 14:1-3, Rom. 3:11). The fool has become His enemy by intentional ignorance.
The Lord in heaven laughs at man’s delusions.
The kings of the world conspire together to murder the Anointed Son. False accusations, slander, violence, spit, lashes, nails–all reveal the hatred. Cold death descends with the darkness. But Christ’s murder breaks a pathway down into the ground that opens upward to enthroned exaltation. The throne is a reward for His death.
The Lord in heaven laughs at man’s wisdom.
The kings of the earth rage against the gospel, persecute believers, threaten violence, destroy families, kill, disband churches, imprison leaders, refuse the distribution of bibles, silence preachers.
The Lord laughs. The church grows. Convictions strengthen. The gospel spreads (Acts 4:19-31).
The Lord laughs because the Anointed is returning. Soon Christ will end the mutiny. He will step down from his throne with an iron scepter in his fist to shatter his enemies like glassware (Rev. 2:27). He will step back into this world to tread his enemies with the sole of His feet, thrusting down on his enemies the winepress of his wrath, crimson blood soaking the bottom of his white robe (Isa. 63:3).
This is the Jesus we never knew—or the Jesus many would like to forget. But this is the real Jesus, the anointed King who will return to fulfill thousands of years of expectations and anticipations of God’s people. He will fix every injustice, dry every tear, and remove the handcuffs of evil from his people and his world.
But before the Son returns with His scepter in his fist, He stretches out mercy in his hand. The Anointed bids sinners to come, to kiss the ring of His Lordship, to find refuge from the wrath.
The King’s heart throbs with love towards sinners. The Anointed takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather hopes that sinners turn and live.
Captured in Psalm 2 are life-shaping realities:
The only refuge from the wrath of the King is to find refuge in the King.
The day of wrath upon His enemies is also the day of deliverance for His people.
His return is meaningless for none.
Perhaps you kick violently against God’s authority, thrusting knives at the bonds of His authority. Perhaps you plug your ears, unwilling to pursue Him. Perhaps you find your heart somewhere in the middle. It matters little. The King’s return is imminent.
Kiss His hand. Bow under His rightful authority. Humbly and joyfully take up His yoke. And find in Him a place of refuge where sinners are given forgiveness in His blood, safety, justice, salvation, spiritual riches and eternal joy. Blessed are all who take refuge in Him.
Illustration by MarkLawrenceGallery.com
When I picture the Psalm 1 man, James Bond comes to mind. Trite, I know.
Bond fights evil wearing shades and a suit. He walks behind enemy lines like he walks the public streets of London. He strolls down the sidewalk, away from his ticking bomb that will soon detonate. Boom! The blast from down the street and over his shoulder swishes his suit coat mildly. Bond cups his hands to light a cigarette, and keeps walking.
The Psalm 1 man is cool, calm, and unaffected, but not because his heart is granite.
The Psalm 1 man slips on his shades and walks straight through fads, ignoring the pressures to conform, closing his ears to gossip. He keeps walking because his heart is soft. He is not self-confident. He is not boastful. He is not proud.
The Psalm 1 man does not think like the world, he does not behave like the world, he does not belong to the world. His heart has been softened to what is true and steadfast.
The Psalm 1 man does not walk confidently because he is sure of his own perceptions, wisdom, and confidence. He walks confidently because he trusts God’s Word to deliver wisdom, direction, and transcendent joy.
Over time the Word has germinated in the softened soil of his heart, stretching its roots deeper, and slowly growing upward into a magnificent, large, and fruitful tree.
The Psalm 1 man is both certain and soft, fearless and affected, firm and joy-filled. How happy, how blessed, is this man!