James Philip Bible Readings: 11th-17th February

11th) 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.

Following on the thought at the end of the previous note about God sharing our experience, here are some lines written by George Goodman, the Brethren evangelist, expressing this truth in a most beautiful and moving way:

He led me by the way of pain,

a barren and a starless place;

I did not know his eyes were wet,

he would not let me see his face;

He left me like a frightened child

unshielded in a night of storm;

how should I dream he was so near?

The rain-swept darkness hid his form;

But when the clouds were driving back,

and dawn was breaking into day,

I knew whose feet had walked with mine,

I saw his footprints all the way.

That is true, because for Christ it was not true. Even in the darkest night, we are not forsaken; but in this dark night described here, Jesus was forsaken, and God turned away his face from his only-begotten Son, when he was made sin for us. He trod the winepress alone, and of the people there was none with him (Isa. 63:3). When we look at the psalm in the light of our Lord’s sufferings (as the source of our comfort in the darkest night), we see that it divides into two sections, 1-21 and 22-31; the first characterised by the words in 2, ‘thou hearest not’; and the second by the words in 21, ‘thou hast heard me’. The one depicts the sufferings of Christ, the other the glory that should follow. We shall look at these two sections in the notes that follow.

12th) Psalm 22

See yesterday's Note for reading.

The first section is undoubtedly overshadowed by the awesome words in 1, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Indeed, the question, ‘Why?’ is a fundamental one. How it is that he, of whom the Father said, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased,’ was in such desolation? How is it that he who said, ‘I know that thou hearest me always,’ (Jn. 11:42) should now say, ‘Thou hearest not’? There is a double poignancy in 3-5, for they recall God’s faithfulness in prayer in the past, but now – no answer, only black darkness, and the heavens as brass. It has been pointed out that the literal, physical torture of crucifixion is well depicted in 14-15, and this is true; but it was not the physical torture that so appalled the spirit of Christ. The descriptions in 12-13, indicate something spiritual. One thinks of Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 15:32 where he speaks of fighting with wild beasts at Ephesus, referring surely to a spiritual conflict with principalities and powers, indicating the ferocity and intensity of the battle. To be hemmed in on all sides by terrible powers of evil – this was our Lord’s experience. Above all, it was the separation from God that caused the agony – a disruption in the very Godhead itself – and all else in the psalm is subsidiary to this, and all else – every expression of pain, suffering and agony – is simply an expression of this terrible dereliction. The picture we have here is one of Christ ‘outside the gates of God’. If we ever wanted to know what it would be like to be in hell, this is what would describe it best – this agony, bodily, mental, and above all spiritual, desolation, forsakenness, dereliction, alone.

But none of the ransomed ever knew

how deep were the waters crossed

nor how dark was the night that the Lord passed through

e’er he found his sheep that was lost.

13th) Psalm 22

See yesterday's Note for reading.

We still have not answered, however, the question ‘why?’ Two things must be said, and the first is this: what is it that is able to cut off a soul from God? The answer is: sin. Elsewhere, the psalmist says, ‘If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.’ This is the issue, and end, of sin: it separates from God. But how could this happen to Christ? He was sinless. ‘Which of you,’ he said, ‘convinceth me of sin?’ How could this happen to him? There is but one answer: it was for sins not his own that he suffered so. This is the proof that he died as a Saviour. He could not have been separated from God otherwise, nor could he have died otherwise. He bore our sins in his own body on the tree, being made sin for us, and this is what it involved, and cost him.

The second thing is this: why did Jesus ask why God had forsaken him? Did he not know? Had he not voluntarily and willingly gone to the cross, knowing it would involve separation from God? Ah, yes. But this belongs to the very essence of the experience of becoming sin for our sakes. To do so was to cut himself off from God, and in that dereliction his consciousness of what was happening was clouded. That is the real heart of the agony. To have been able to go through it all, and still know that all was well, would not have plumbed the ultimate depths of the mystery of iniquity. He must forgo even that knowledge. It is this that made it a hell for him. He descended into hell, the place of hopelessness, darkness and despair. It was there, at that point, where the Son of God lost the last, final consciousness of the Father’s love – there, that atonement was made and pardon bought and won for men. Ah, does it not bring tears to our eyes, tears of love and gratitude and adoration? What a Saviour!

14th) Psalm 22

See yesterday's Note for reading.

The second part of the psalm (22-31) deals with ‘the glory that should follow’. The RV renders 22 more graphically than the AV – ‘Save me from the mouth of the lion, and from the horns of the wild oxen – thou hast answered me.’ There is a wonderful paradox there in them two parts of the psalm. It is because God did not answer him in the first sense that he was answered in the second. It was because, as P.T. Forsyth beautifully puts it, God was strong enough to resist pity until grief had done its gracious work in his Son, that Christ’s prayer in Jn. 17 was answered and salvation was won for the children of men. The name of God as Saviour is made known through the sufferings of the Son (22-26). The sufferings of Christ has won for him a kingdom (28). As Paul puts it in Phil. 2:5ff., it is because he was obedient unto death, even the death of the cross, that God highly exalted him and gave him a name above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord. Such is the nature of his kingdom, and in it rich and poor alike are blessed (29), for great and small, lofty and low alike must take the lowly place and receive the food of their souls as the gift of his grace. The words in 30, ‘a seed shall serve him…’ are rendered in the modern renderings as, ‘posterity shall serve him,’ but it is perhaps better construed as that one generation of worshippers will proclaim the message of grace to the next, and they in turn will pass on that message to their children, as yet unborn. But tell what? That he hath done this. The original simply has ‘he hath done’ and this echoes a mighty New Testament cry, ‘telelestai’, the Greek word translated in the gospels as, ‘It is finished.’ Each generation will tell out the finished work of Christ to the children of men.

15th) Psalm 23

A Psalm of David.

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD

This is a psalm whose words have formed the creed and the comfort of countless numbers of God’s people down the ages, yet very familiarity with it is apt to conceal from many its real massage and import and make them miss the teaching of the psalm as a whole. Like many psalms, it presents a series of pictures – some think three, the shepherd, the guide, the host, and some only two, the shepherd and the host. On any interpretation, however, the first and second are linked anyway, although the ideas are distinct – first rest, peace and satisfaction, then through righteousness into the valley of the shadow; then the feasting in the presence of the enemy. First of all, we should bear in mind that this is the second of three psalms which belong together, and we need to notice that this wonderful utterance, depicting the blessedness and fulness of the life of trust, follows the picture of the cross. It is on the other side of the experience of the cross that the sweetness and satisfaction of the green pasture can be known. The awesome words that open Ps. 22, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ are the true basis of those in Ps. 23, ‘The Lord is my shepherd.’ It is because of the one that the other can become real and true in our experience. In this regard we need to see that the very first verses of the psalm contain by implication a wonderful evangelistic appeal, and that in two ways: on the one hand, they proclaim that the heart of true religion lies in a personal relationship with the Lord. It is no secondhand knowledge that is spoken of here, but a personal relationship that has been entered into. Furthermore, it is with the shepherd of souls, and this can only mean that it is through the death he died on the cross. It is only when the message of the death he died touches our lives and we become related to it and conquered by it that we can enter that relationship with him. On the other hand, the psalm proclaims the good news of the gospel in the sense that it tells out the blessings that await those who come to a personal knowledge of Christ. And nothing could show forth the winsome attractiveness of the gospel and the Christian life more tellingly than this lovely psalm, for in almost every phrase in these first verses it tells out them answer of peace to the deep cravings and anxious restlessness of our modern, distracted age.

16th) Psalm 23

See yesterday's Note for reading.

The ‘green pastures’ and ‘still waters’ indicate the two sides of the believer’s life, the contemplative and the active. The pastures are his word, by which we are built up and made strong; the still waters are spoken of in relation to his leading in daily life. The movement of our souls is onwards, on the path to perfection. And the quiet contemplation is followed by the activity, and is meant to equip us for it. Repose and refreshment are meant to prepare us for tasks and marches. And this thought leads on naturally to the next section (3b, 4), in verses which give the corrective to the erroneous idea that the Christian life is all green pastures and still waters, in the sense of being free from the trials and distresses common to all human experience. ‘Strait paths’, or paths of righteousness, are his appointment for his people, and this often means the discipline of dark experiences. To anticipate the message of 5-6, the true Christian life means a battle with enemies; it is a warfare, nothing less, and it is significant that even in this most pastoral and gentle of sermons it cannot be left out. The way of righteousness is in fact the way of the cross: danger and sorrow are both alike the lot of the believer, but the great reality is that in them, we do not stand alone. It is this that transforms the situation. There are several points to note: one thing, it is he who leads us into the shadow, and no one is exempt from this inscrutable providence. The ‘valley of the shadow’ does not primarily refer to death, but rather to any or all dark experience. And, for our comfort, we should remember that where there is a shadow there must be light somewhere. Let us rejoice then that there is a light beyond!

17th) Psalm 23

See yesterday's Note for reading.

The picture changes again (5-6), for the Christian life is a many sided one. Spurgeon says of 5, ‘the warrior feasted, the priest anointed, the guest satisfied.’ It is almost like a kaleidoscope, the way in which the image switches from one pattern to another, but this is an evidence of the different insights the psalm gives into the nature of Christian life. It is possible to discern a progression in the psalm: the ultimate aim of God’s dealings with us in grace is that the sinner is turned into the saint, and the saint disciplined in order to become a soldier. But in the warfare that ensues there is always bountiful provision, even in the thickest of the battle and in the presence of the enemy. The greater the pressures and disciplines on the believer’s life, the greater and richer the divine provision, as the anointing with oil and the overflowing cup indicate: plenty in a world of need (1), peace in the midst of shadows (4), victory in the face of the enemy (5). Finally, the ‘goodness and mercy’. The RV translates ‘only good and mercy shall follow me’ as implying that faith has transfigured all the evil in the believer’s experience into good (cf. Rom. 8:28, ‘all things work together for good…’). This is an invincible position for the child of God, when evil itself is pressed into service for him and made a blessing (cf. Gen. 50:20; Phil. 1:12). Well might Paul cry in exaltation, ‘We are more than conquerors through him that loved us.’