A few thoughts on Psalm 1

The first Psalm speaks of a happy man. This man is happy because he does no wrong and because he knows God through His word.

Now, if you think about things correctly, you’d realise that this Psalm is not talking about any of us. As Paul say, ‘We all like sheep have gone astray’.

Besides our personal failure to fulfil any of the requirements of happiness as described by this Psalm, there is another difficulty.

The Psalm is only talking about a singular male person. In Psalm 32:2, where it talks of the happiness of the ‘man’ to whom the Lord does not impute sin, the word ‘man’ there is actually the Hebrew word for human beings, irrespective of age or gender.

In Psalm 1, as I said, the word ‘man’ means male, a singular male. The singular male is set in opposition to the many wicked, the many sinners.

In Luke 24:43, Jesus says that the whole Old Testament foretells him. The Psalms are essentially about our Lord Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the happy man because he alone fulfilled all the requirements for happiness. He did that for his people. He worked righteousness for them.

Again, when He meditated on the law of the Lord, he saw there his job description. He would live that good life, but as the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, he also became the sinless sin-bearer. Jesus willingly received the condemnation that our sins deserve. The Old Testament temple sacrifices pointed to the death of Jesus for his people.

That is why Psalm 1 can talk about the way of the righteous. Jesus is the way (and the truth. and the life). The Lord God acknowledges that way, and for Jesus’ sake He justifies those sinners who trust themselves to the Son of God who died and rose to save his people from there sins.

It is through this happy man, Jesus, that the happiness promised to Abraham comes to the nations. By means of the good news of Jesus, miserable sinners can have life instead of death, and joy instead of bitterness. Jesus is that fruitful, flourishing tree — the tree of life.

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Footnotes to previous posts

In previous posts, I wrote about the singing of Psalms and the absence of musical instruments in church worship in the New Testament church. I argued that the Psalms were and are the church’s song book, and that use of instrumental music in worship was and should still be regarded as Judaizing; that is, the introduction of Old Testament ceremonial practices into the New Testament Church.

Since writing those posts, I’ve come across some footnotes that relate to them.

In The Baker History of the Church Vol 1: The birth of the Church (AD 30-312), 2004, Ivor Davidson makes the following observation:

There was also singing of “Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19-20; Col. 3:16). The Jewish [sic] Psalter was the primary songbook, and believers found clear images of their Lord, his suffering, and his exaltation in the Psalms … Psalms were read aloud as well as sung, as they were in Jewish worship, and singing in general would almost always have been undertaken without any kind of instrumental accompaniment. Indeed, in later Christian writers there would be a great deal of polemic against musical instruments, which were strongly associated with worldly entertainment (p.118, see also endnote 12, p. 378)

In volume 2 (AD 312-600) of the same series, A Public Faith, 2005, Davidson wrote as follows:

About the actual music of Christian worship we know a lot less then we might wish. So far as we can tell, singing remained unaccompanied virtually everywhere, but the absence of musical instruments did not mean that the aesthetic qualities of worship were treated lightly (p.267).

I’d only add that there is no evidence of the use of musical instruments in the NT itself, and musical instruments were shunned in the early church for that reason, and not only because of pagan usage. The use of instrumental music in worship was regarded as part of the Levitical service that had been abolished in Christ. John Chrysostom, for example explicitly referred to it as being of the ‘child’ phase of the church that Paul mentions in Galatians 3:24-25 when he was speaking against the use of OT practices in the NT church.

The Psalms were and should still be sung because they are God’s word, they speak of Christ (Eg., Luke 24:44 and Hebrews 1-3), and as such they constitute His praise rather than ours.  It is His praise that we are to sing. We should sing the Psalms in our church worship with grace in the heart, unaccompanied by anything but the Holy Spirit who speaks by and with His word.

Cunningham’s comment on conversion

William Cunningham lived a long time ago (1805-1861), but I think he has still some things to tell us today. Cunningham was raised within the Church of Scotland, and was preparing to become a Presbyterian minister when he discovered that he was not a Christian. In one of his later sermons, Cunningham made the following observation about conversion:

It is impossible that such an important change can have taken place upon our moral nature, without attracting our attention, and forcing itself upon our notice … unless a man be conscious of having undergone a great and radical change of moral principle through belief in the Gospel, unless he be conscious that his moral principles are very different now from what they once were, he can hardly have any good grounds for believing that he has repented and been converted.

(‘How to estimate [evaluate/gauge] repentance’, Sermons, p. 34).

 

Have mercy on me, a sinner

Today in church we considered these words from a parable that Jesus told about a Pharisee and a tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). In the story, these two men were praying in the temple.

Of the two, the tax collector got the idea of the temple. It was the place where God assured his people that He was a God who forgives. He forgives wrong doers on the basis of an acceptable sacrifice — one that God had instituted.

The pharisee thought that he had made the grade. He had done sufficient for God to accept him. He had not come looking for mercy; he had come for congratulations. That is why he prayed to himself about his religious activities. Jesus said that these things did not justify the pharisee before God.

The tax collector, the bad guy, had come to understand that he was a lawless person whose bad deeds had offended his God and creator. His words indicate that he understood the temple’s purpose. He said, “Have mercy on me a sinner!”

This was not a request that God should simply overlook the tax collector’s bad deeds. It was a plea that God would act to take away his guilt by an acceptable sacrifice. Literally, the tax collector says, “Make propitiation for me, a sinner!”

To make propitiation means to do whatever is necessary to remove the cause of offence.

On the day of atonement, in the days of the temple, the blood of a bull was sprinkled by the high priest onto a gold plate that was on top of the ark of the covenant. That plate was called the mercy — the propitiation — seat. Propitiation was made by the death of a substitute.

The tax collector recognised that one must die for him if he were to be rescued from the death and judgement that his sins deserved. He was asking God to make propitiation for him.

Our Lord Jesus, who was telling this story, is the answer to that prayer. In Romans 3:24-25 we are told the Christ Jesus, God the Son, is the propitiation for our sins by his death. This propitiation is received by faith. We simply trust that Christ has done all that is necessary to remove our guilt and to reconcile us to God. This is good news.

 

 

 

An old stone church

We worshipped in an old stone church while on holidays. I admit that my prejudices were making me apprehensive. Old stone churches, to my mind, often mean churches where human traditions trump the gospel of Jesus Christ.

11th tas arvo 185.JPG

But I was very pleased to have my prejudices proved wrong in this case.

The Good News of Jesus was much in the forefront. The reality of human sinfulness and our great need for God’s grace in Christ were made clear from the text of the Bible.

More than this, a Psalm was sung — a real Psalm — not just a snippet pinched from a Psalm and repeated over and over again, nor a piece of a Psalm incorporated into a merely human composition. It was a complete Psalm — in a congregation of the Presbyterian Church of Australia! This is something I have grown NOT to expect from a church whose historic practice was (and whose continuing doctrinal position is) to sing Psalms in the public worship of God. The PCA had become to me almost an anti-Psalm church.

So this unexpected occurrence in a old stone church cheered me considerably.

The public square

In pluralist democracies, ought Christians use their vote and whatever power of persuasion that they might possess to influence the character of society and its laws? This is an important matter to think about. Some people seem to argue that Christians who really trust Jesus  should let civil society go to (or stay with) the Devil and simply tell our neighbours, friends and enemies about Jesus in private conversation. To do otherwise, we are assured, is to use the force of law to oppress non-Christians.

It seems to me that Christians may engage politically as Christians to influence the direction of secular societies. The word ‘secular’, by the way, has nothing inherently atheistic about it. It simply refers to time and space – the here and now. Of course, the word’s extended use now includes the atheistic connotation, but there was a time when the church recognised ‘secular’ clergy – priests who were not monks attached to a religious order such as the Augustinians. Their job was to influence society rather than to hide from it. Whatever your view of priests and monks might be, our Lord Jesus urged his people to be in the world but not of it. I take this to mean that Christians must be engaged – as fully as our circumstances allow — in all the human activities of this world, and to do so as Christians. This includes attempting to influence public morality for the real good of people.

I suggest that the examples of Paul and Barnabas in Lystra support this view. These missionaries arrived at Lystra and presented the Gospel of Jesus to them. During this presentation, a lame man was healed. The people of Lystra utterly mistook the clear teachings of the apostles and intended to worship them as pagan gods (Acts 14: 11-18). The apostles were quite willing publicly to oppose the pagan worldview and to urge the people of Lystra to change their civic behaviour —  civil and religious behaviour was greatly intertwined in pagan society.

In fact the apostles made great and earnest arguments to prevent the people of Lystra from following their own ideas of worship and the good life. Paul told them directly that their religious behaviour was futile and wrong. He and Barnabas had come to turn them from “vain things”. Paul said that ‘in bygone generations [God] allowed all nations to walk in their own ways’ but now the gospel of Jesus has come. As he said in Acts 17 (after saying similar things about bygone generations), God now calls all people everywhere to repent (to change their thinking) as a day of judgement is coming.

It seems to me that Paul saw both belief and behaviour as things to be earnestly addressed in the public square and he made every effort to turn (by argument) people from the poor choices that they have made. Paganism was very accepting of multiple beliefs. You could believe whatever you wanted as long as you agreed that everyone else should believe whatever they wanted. Christianity cut across that worldview. Christianity asserts truth. Paul’s only weapons were arguments and truth statements about who Jesus is, what he has done, and what that means for us here and now and for the future.

Life in the secular ends with life in eternity. Eternal life will either be very good or very bad. If the Church does not make a clear public statement about human sin and does not identify what sin is in all its forms, then how will anyone see their need of the saviour which the Church is to proclaim? Our Lord Jesus made the sinful behaviour of church people clear as he spoke in synagogues, Paul made the sinful behaviour of pagans clear as he spoke in the streets of Greek cities. They both did this so that the offer of good news in Jesus would make sense. Jesus is the only remedy for our moral and spiritual failures.

(BTW, Paul did not have the vote, but he did have Roman citizenship, the force of which he was quite prepared to use on a number of occasions.)