James Philip Bible Readings: 4th-10th February

4th) Psalm 20

To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David.

May the LORD answer you in the day of trouble!
May the name of the God of Jacob protect you!
May he send you help from the sanctuary
and give you support from Zion!
May he remember all your offerings
and regard with favor your burnt sacrifices! Selah

May he grant you your heart's desire
and fulfill all your plans!
May we shout for joy over your salvation,
and in the name of our God set up our banners!
May the LORD fulfill all your petitions!

Now I know that the LORD saves his anointed;
he will answer him from his holy heaven
with the saving might of his right hand.
Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.
They collapse and fall,
but we rise and stand upright.

O LORD, save the king!
May he answer us when we call.

This psalm is a battle song, almost a national anthem, the sort of song sung at great times of crisis. The picture presented is of an army, in all probability drawn up in battle array, ready for the fight, with the enemy facing them across the plain or valley, and on the eve of the battle the army pours out its united prayer for victory, and for the prospering of their leader and king (1-5). In 6, a single voice speaks – either that of the officiating priest or that of the king himself, expressing confidence that the prayer is answered. This is followed in 7ff., by a chorus of many voices throbbing with the assurance of victory before a blow is struck, and sending one more long drawn cry up to God ere battle is joined. It is a fine, moving picture, and few passages could show forth more eloquently the loyalty and love that David’s people had for him. One is reminded in this of the touching episode about the water from the well of Bethlehem that his mighty men obtained for him at the risk of their lives (2 Sam. 23:15ff.). It is this bond of love that provides the key to the message that the psalm bears for us, as we shall see as we continue our study of the psalm. We look first of all, however, at the prayer itself in 1-5, and this will be the subject of the next note.

5th) Psalm 20

See yesterday's Note for reading.

There is but one central emphasis throughout the prayer, the name of Jehovah. In the Bible names are always deeply significant as being the revelation of character, and the communication of the name of God is a revelation of the divine character. God had revealed himself to his people, and made himself known to them by his covenant name, as a God of grace, power and salvation. Not only so: in revealing himself to them, he had given himself to them, and they for their part have a certain right to him: they have free access to his majesty. All this lies behind the phrase, ‘The name of the God of Jacob defend thee.’ It is this that explains the glorious confidence begotten in David and his people through such a prayer; it could well be called ‘the prayer of faith’, which is something specific and definitive, something that the church does not appear to know a great deal about in our day. There is certainly food for thought in this consideration.

Now, for application of the general picture: here is a king going forth to battle, and he has the prayer and love of his people as he goes. This is a pattern of the prayer and encouragement a fellowship should give to those who go forth in its name to fight the Lord’s battles, whether in the pulpits of the land or in the mission fields of the world. These faithful and loyal souls of David’s did not content themselves with private, secret prayer in their tents. They came together as a fellowship and lifted up their voices to God. They held a prayer meeting! That was the mark and the measure of their loyalty and love. Are our loyalty and love marked and measured in this way?

6th) Psalm 20

See yesterday's Note for reading.

The picture of corporate prayer given here is one that fits the New Testament missionary situation, as we may see in Acts 13 – 14. Not only prayer, but the fellowship of prayer, bounded Paul’s first missionary journey from beginning to end: he and his colleagues were sent out by a praying fellowship and they were welcomed back by a praying fellowship that had upheld them all through the months of their journeyings, sharing with them in all their travail. What must this have meant for Paul and Barnabas, in all the hazards they experienced, just to know that loving and earnest prayer surrounded them everywhere they went. This is surely the true meaning, purpose and function of a Christian fellowship. And since it is, the message of the psalm may be applied in a general as well as in the special sense, illustrating the encouragement and help that can be given by loving prayer to those who fight in the battles of life – in the spiritual life, where God’s children battle with themselves, with difficult natures, when great forces they cannot understand, let alone control, are like to tear them apart; in the battles of doubt and depression, when the clouds come on and the race of God seems hidden and obscured from view; in the sorrows and sadnesses of life, which are for many the greatest battles of all. To know then, in such circumstances, the strengthening power of a living, loving fellowship, the fellowship of people who care deeply for us in our need, to know that they are praying, ‘The Lord hear thee in the day of trouble…’ must surely help troubled hearts round the corner of trouble into rest and deliverance and peace. God grant that ours may be such a fellowship.

7th) Psalm 21

To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David.

O LORD, in your strength the king rejoices,
and in your salvation how greatly he exults!
You have given him his heart's desire
and have not withheld the request of his lips. Selah
For you meet him with rich blessings;
you set a crown of fine gold upon his head.
He asked life of you; you gave it to him,
length of days forever and ever.
His glory is great through your salvation;
splendor and majesty you bestow on him.
For you make him most blessed forever;
you make him glad with the joy of your presence.
For the king trusts in the LORD,
and through the steadfast love of the Most High he shall not be moved.

Your hand will find out all your enemies;
your right hand will find out those who hate you.
You will make them as a blazing oven
when you appear.
The LORD will swallow them up in his wrath,
and fire will consume them.
You will destroy their descendants from the earth,
and their offspring from among the children of man.
Though they plan evil against you,
though they devise mischief, they will not succeed.
For you will put them to flight;
you will aim at their faces with your bows.

Be exalted, O LORD, in your strength!
We will sing and praise your power.

This psalm belongs to the thought of Ps. 20 and needs to be studied along with it. There, it was the picture of the Israelite army ready for battle, pouring out its heart in united prayer for victory and the prospering of their king (see previous notes). Here, the lessons are complementary, and similar. Thus, the prayer in 20:4 finds its answer in 21:2; and 20:2. There are three obvious and simple, yet important and significant, lessons for us. The first is that God is a prayer hearing God. He is a God who can be approached with confidence in the name that is above every name and by pleading the covenant and the promises. He is easy to be entreated, and waiting to be gracious to those that call upon him. This is something that needs to be emphasised today, in a time when God has seemed to be very remote and unreal even in the life and experience of the church – so much so, indeed, that when men speak of real experience of his power in their lives in answer to prayer, others are embarrassed by their testimony, and tend to think of them as ‘earnest’ and even ‘extremist’. The second lesson relates to the joy of answered prayer. This is one of the most notable and characteristic qualities of biblical religion. Whenever and wherever God is known as a prayer-hearing and prayer-answering God, there is a great ringing thrill and exuberance of rejoicing in his mighty works. This is seen not only here, but throughout the psalms (cf. e.g. Ps. 126:2, ‘Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongues with singing’). And the same thrill of rejoicing is very evident in the New Testament, as we may see from passages such as Acts 4:24ff. or Acts 12:12ff.. Ah, have we not much in which to rejoice and for which to praise his great and glorious name!

8th) Psalm 21

See yesterday's Note for reading.

The third lesson of the psalm underlines the many blessings won by prayers (3-7). And they are manifold indeed, the blessings of goodness with which God goes before the praying soul, that is, the heart that goes out in prayer encounters a God who is already there to help: ‘Before they call, I will answer; and while they are yet speaking, I will hear’ (Isa. 65:24). The victor’s crown (3) speaks of the coronation of the conqueror (cf. ‘made us kings and priests unto God,’ Rev. 1:6); the ‘life’ and ‘length of days’ in 4 affords a good example of Paul’s words, ‘He is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think’ (Eph. 3:20); the ‘glory, honour and majesty’ in 5 speak of the dignity that falls on a man who is drawn into fellowship with the living God, and reminds us of the psalmist’s words in Ps. 90:17, ‘Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us’ (cf. also the New Testament counterpart in Acts 4:33, ‘Great grace was upon them all’). In 6, the blessedness referred to, speaks, according to Alexander Maclaren, of both the possession and the communication of God’s blessing. The man who is blessed of God becomes a fount of blessing to all around. This, then, is the fruit of prayer, and this is what a praying people can do for a minister, particularly in terms of making and keeping him steadfast (7) amid all the pressures of life.

Finally (8-13), the victory which has been won (through prayer and its answer) is now taken as a token and earnest of even greater victories in the future. The psalmist ‘takes off’, as it were, in a fierce exaltation as he views the ongoing conflict as it becomes clearer and more starkly defined as time goes on. More and more it becomes plain that the ‘enemies’ are fighting against God himself, and God would not be God if he allowed their opposition to continue with impunity. This is what explains the fierceness of tone in the final verses of the psalm. The gospel divides men, and sets them over against one another. Those who do not given their allegiance to God will soon hate those who do (8), and will set themselves against God’s work. And, apart from their repentance, there is nothing left but judgement upon their opposition against him.

9th) Psalm 22

To the choirmaster: according to The Doe of the Dawn. A Psalm of David.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.

Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our fathers trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried and were rescued;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.

But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by mankind and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
“He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him;
let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”

Yet you are he who took me from the womb;
you made me trust you at my mother's breasts.
On you was I cast from my birth,
and from my mother's womb you have been my God.
Be not far from me,
for trouble is near,
and there is none to help.

Many bulls encompass me;
strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
they open wide their mouths at me,
like a ravening and roaring lion.

I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
my strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.

For dogs encompass me;
a company of evildoers encircles me;
they have pierced my hands and feet —
I can count all my bones —
they stare and gloat over me;
they divide my garments among them,
and for my clothing they cast lots.

But you, O LORD, do not be far off!
O you my help, come quickly to my aid!
Deliver my soul from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dog!
Save me from the mouth of the lion!
You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen!

I will tell of your name to my brothers;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the LORD, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him,
and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
For he has not despised or abhorred
the affliction of the afflicted,
and he has not hidden his face from him,
but has heard, when he cried to him.

From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will perform before those who fear him.
The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the LORD!
May your hearts live forever!

All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the LORD,
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before you.
For kingship belongs to the LORD,
and he rules over the nations.

All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
even the one who could not keep himself alive.
Posterity shall serve him;
it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation;
they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn,
that he has done it.

This psalm is the first in a group of three psalms which are messianic in character. Someone has very beautifully described them as portraying Christ (i) as the good shepherd who gave his life for the sheep (Ps. 22); (ii) as the great shepherd who leads his people (Ps. 23); and as the chief shepherd who will come in glory (Ps. 24). It is impossible not to think of our Lord and his death in reading this psalm, if for no other reason than that its opening words will forever be associated with the cross, for our Lord used them to express his dread consciousness of being forsaken by God when he bore away the sin of the world (it is a message all by itself to realise that in such a moment of crisis Jesus turned instinctively to the Scriptures). But, apart from the well-known first verse, there are far too many familiar references throughout the psalm for us to doubt that it is messianic in its whole intention and purpose. Those familiar with Handel’s ‘Messiah’ will recognise how many of these verses are employed in the great oratorio in depicting our Lord’s sufferings and death. Also, the writers of the gospels, Luke and John, clearly had the psalm in mind: Luke uses the phrase in 7, ‘laugh me to scorn,’ in Lk. 23:35, ‘(they) derided him’; and John speaks of Christ’s thirst (cf. 15) as being the fulfilment of Scripture (Jn. 19:28); the physical effects of crucifixion are described in 14-15, and them dividing of the raiment (18) was fulfilled at Calvary. All this is very mysterious and wonderful indeed. It is an example of what Peter says in his first epistle (1 Pet. 1:11), when he speaks of the Spirit testifying beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glory that should follow. It is of course true that the psalmist here recounts a dark and terrible experience that he himself passed through; but in the providence of God that experience became the vehicle by which an infinitely greater and more costly experience – the atoning sufferings of the Son of God – are portrayed and described for us (in much the same way as, for example, the agonies of the prophet Hosea became the revelation of the broken heart of God to Israel). As one commentator puts it, the psalmist’s experiences and utterances ‘were divinely shaped so as to prefigure the sacred sorrows of the man of sorrows’.

10th) Psalm 22

See yesterday's Note for reading.

The important interpretation of the psalm is therefore the light it sheds on the sufferings of Christ on the cross. As Professor R.A. Finlayson once put it, ‘While the gospel records give us the biography of Christ, the psalms give us his autobiography.’ But this does not mean that the experience of the psalmist has nothing to teach us. Indeed, it is because his experience prefigures the sufferings of Christ that there lies just here a word of great and lasting comfort and encouragement for us, and we must look at this first of all, before turning our attention to the cross. It is this: the psalmist was passing through ‘the dark night of the soul’. This is a very trying, and sometimes a very terrifying, experience, and the best of God’s saints are sometimes called to pass through it. But every dark night of the soul is under-girt by the realisation that another has taken the sting out of it, another who by his own sufferings and darkness has ensured that in the darkest night that could ever come upon us we do not, and will never, stand alone (cf. Ps 23:4, ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow … thou art with me.’). Not only so: he is there with us, in it, and sharing in it, understanding what we experience.