Monthly Archives: August 2018

C. S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms Redux

We are wrapping up our study of the Book of Psalms this week, as part of a “Summer Reflection Challenge.” As I mentioned at the beginning of the summer, I promised to re-read C.S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms (as an audiobook), and I found a few more gems in Lewis’ wonderful little book that I missed the first time.

This “Summer Reflection Challenge” was indeed a “challenge,” as our church leadership urged us to read 15 psalms a week, thus covering all 150 psalms in 10 weeks. The idea was to read a psalm in the morning, by yourself, then read a psalm at noon, with someone else, and then read a psalm at the end of the day, with your family. Because of attention to my job, I never quite got the rhythm of the noon-time reading, and I missed a number of readings, requiring me to lean on the weekend for catch-up. But it really was a good spiritual discipline, to try to incorporate into my life.

Running back through Lewis’ short book of the Psalms (184 pages), at the end of the challenge, was a great way to top it all off. Most of these lessons may seem a bit random. But they give me a greater love for Scripture, encouraging me to dig deeper into the text in the future:

  • Lewis observes that what makes the Psalms work so well as poetry, is that they employ the literary technique of Hebrew parallelism, taking a particular thought, and then either repeating that same thought, in a slightly different way, or bringing out the first thought’s antithesis, in order to make a point. Too often, some students of Scripture will overwork such parallelism, looking for particular meanings, in each parallel phrase, when the author’s primary concern is simply to repeat something for emphasis, in a slightly different manner.  See Psalm 2:4 and 37:6, for some good examples. The Bible Project has a great video series on biblical interpretation that covers Hebrew parallelism (in poetry), for more information.
  • Lewis also observes that this Hebrew parallelism works well for translators. I would not say that this is a wonderful stroke of “luck,” but it is “a wise provision of God’s, that poetry which was to be turned into all languages should have as its chief formal characteristic one that does not disappear (as mere metre does) in translation” (p. 12). That is a good argument for why we should make every effort to translate the Bible into all known languages and dialects.
  • There is a big difference between “being in the right” on a particular matter and “being righteous.” The Psalmist cry for justice, “being in the right,” works a bit differently than the New Testament emphasis on the importance of justification, so that we might be made righteous. Both are important, and yet both can be easily confused, to our detriment.
  • We often read a Christian understanding into the Psalms that was not there when the authors wrote them. The New Testament writers make good use of the Psalms, particularly with respect to understanding prophecy about Christ. But we miss out a lot on what the Old Testament is saying when we ignore the Old Testament context. Lewis gives Psalm 17:13-14 (on pages 29-30) as a good example, but I defer to Professor Claude Mariottini’s excellent analysis of that text, for all of the details.
  • The Psalms make a big deal about being careful about the company we keep. Yes, as Christians, we are to reach out to our neighbor, and bear witness for the Gospel. However, often it is the case that hanging out with wicked people can cause even the Christian to lower their standards over time, for fear of coming across to one’s neighbor as being a “prig,” as Lewis puts it. For example, Psalm 50:18 has a stern warning against those who compromise their faith principles,  “When you see a thief, you join with him; you throw in your lot with adulterers.” It is always a lot easier to go along with the flow. The Psalmist, in contrast, encourages us to pray that we might have firm boundaries, when dealing with those who might lead the believer astray. Lewis’ advice is sound, “Silence is a good refuge. People will not notice it nearly so easily as we tend to suppose… Disagreement can, I think, sometimes be expressed without the appearance of priggery, if it is done argumentatively not dictatorially; support will often come from some most unlikely member of the party, or from more than one, till we discover that those who were silently dissentient were actually a majority. A discussion of real interest may follow. Of course the right side may be defeated in it. That matters very much less that I use to think. The very man who has argued you down will sometimes be found, years later, to have been influenced by what you said” (p. 62).
  • Lewis’ warning about his fellow Anglicans, and their tendency to be the “Frozen Chosen,” has good application for all sorts of Christians, who miss out on the importance of expressive praise when it comes to worship. It is difficult to read Psalm 97:1, without a sense that exuberance in worship should easily exceed even the most exciting sports match! “We have a terrible concern about good taste. Yet even we can still exult” (p. 52)

So, with that, I conclude this meditation with something that Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann notes in his The Message of the Psalms, about Psalm 150, the closing psalm of this marvelous book of Scripture: “The expectation of the Old Testament is not finally obedience, but adoration… such a life arrives at unencumbered praise” (p. 167). I do not chime in Professor Brueggemann on every element of his theology, but what he says here is well put, summing up much of what Lewis finds so welcoming about the Psalms. Naysayers who might grumble about some things Lewis says here and there would do well to consider Lewis’ thoughtful meditation.

If you ever spend much time reading the Psalms, and need a good companion, I highly recommend C.S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms.

 

 

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The CSB Apologetics Study Bible: A Review

Can you defend your faith, when skeptics ask you the tough questions?

I work at a state-run university, so as we get geared up for a new class of entering freshmen this week, I have a recommended new resource (or more) that can help equip anyone… and particularly students … with good answers.

The Christian Standard Bible (CSB) is the next-generation version of the older Holman Christian Standard Bible. The CSB translation was released in March, 2017, and has recently been incorporated into The CSB Apologetics Study Bible, which I have the pleasure of reviewing.

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“Such Were Some of You”: The Language of Christian Identity

Can a Christian ever call themselves a “sober alcoholic?” Or a “non-practicing adulterer?” A “celibate gay” person?

The controversy over the Revoice conference has died down some, but the main topic continues to provoke earnest discussion among evangelicals: Is it ever appropriate to use the terminology of “single” (or “celibate”), “gay,” and “Christian” within the same sentence, to describe some believers? Does such language inherently betray a compromise of a Christian’s identity, as being founded only upon our relationship with Christ? Or even worse, does it wrongly identify a Christian with their sin?

A driver’s license tells us a lot about a person’s identity, but there is a deeper question for Christians: How should a believer “identify” themselves?

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Willow Creek, and “Dumpster Fire” Christianity

Some of you have probably already read the news about Willow Creek Church, and the ungraceful exit of their lead pastor, followed months later by the entire leadership team and elder board. You can read about the full story in the Chicago Tribune.

The specific situation of the pastoral misconduct is tragic enough. I remember feeling the same way when I heard about spiritual abuse, that took place at Bill Gothard’s ministry, a few years ago. But that is not my focus here. I want to take a step back.

Early in 2018, Merriam-Webster’s inserted a new phrase into its online dictionary:

dumpster fire:”

“an utterly calamitous or mismanaged situation or occurrence : disaster”

That is a perfect description of what happened at Willow Creek. Willow Creek has been the driving force behind The Global Leadership Summit (GLS), an event that our church recently hosted. The GLS has been incredibly inspirational for many in our church community. There is much to be thankful for the great good that has continued to come out of GLS. We would be remiss not to acknowledge God’s goodness here.

But for a ministry that gives such a strong emphasis on leadership, the failures in leadership at Willow Creek are sadly ironic. What boggles my mind, is that so many of us have had to hear about the recent story at Willow Creek, not from the church eldership, and not even from Christian media outlets sympathetic to evangelical concerns. Instead, we get the story from secular media outlets, like the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times.

When God’s people, in the Old Testament, wandered off from following the Lord, refusing to listen to the prophets placed in their midst, God had to raise up enemies, like the Assyrians and the Babylonians, to be instruments of His Judgment, to get Israel’s attention. Somehow, the story at Willow Creek seems eerily familiar.

Here are the set of lessons I see that need to be learned from this, particularly for leaders: Listen to your critics. But do more than that. Seek out your critics, even when they do not come forward to you voluntarily. They might be in fear of you. Pay attention to what they have to say, ethically and doctrinally. Weigh the evidence. Do not dismiss the evidence when it comes from the “wrong people,” or it does not fit in with your presuppositions. You do not have to respond to every criticism, but make the effort to treat others seriously. Make the appropriate changes, and do so in a timely manner. Stand for the truth.

Willow Creek has made some controversial moves, within evangelical Christianity, such as pioneering new ways to approach church leadership. The most repeated charge is that Willow Creek has replaced a biblical pattern of eldership, as shepherds of the flock, with a more worldly model, patterned after Madison Avenue, where the head pastor is the CEO, etc.

At the same time, Willow Creek has done some amazing things over the years, for which we can all celebrate. What began as a church meeting in a movie theatre has inspired hundreds of churches to rethink how they do church, in order to reach a new generation for Christ. I pray this will continue, and that such work for Christ will flourish.

I also recall the faithful remnant in Israel’s day, too, represented in our day by the thousands of churches and church leaders, who labor faithfully for the sake of the Gospel, with little fanfare. It may seem like a dumpster fire now, but just as the Jews were able to return from the Babylonian exile, and rebuild their temple and cities, so it will be with the people of God today and into the future.

The work to rebuild trust is difficult, once trust is broken. But it must be done.


A Meditation on Psalm 104

Psalm 104 is a tribute to God’s creation: But along the way, does it also help to resolve a great debate among Christians, as to the age of the earth?

As a young follower of Jesus in college, one of my favorite Scripture songs came from Psalm 104:

I will sing unto the Lord as long as I live: I will sing praise to my God while I have my being. My meditation of him shall be sweet: I will be glad in the Lord.

Bless thou the Lord, O my soul. Praise ye the Lord. (Psalm 104:33-35 KJV)

I would help to lead my small Pentecostal church in worship with this song. It truly was a sweet time of prayer and praise, every time we lifted up our voices to glorify His Name.

Most evangelical churches today no longer sing such simple Scripture songs, taken directly from the words of the King James Version of the Bible. As the classic cadence of the King James Version gives way to the plethora of newer, often tribal, translations, we tend to miss the joy of simply rehearsing the words of Scripture together, preferring songs that are only loosely based on translations of the Bible, from what we hear on KLove radio, or from Australia’s Hillsong, or California’s Bethel Church. If there was one advantage of having the King James Version of the Bible, as the primary translation for all English speaking Christians, it was having the ability to memorize Scripture in one voice, among a wide collection of believers, particularly through the vehicle of song.

As my church has been reading through the entire Book of Psalms this summer, I thought I would write a meditation on this great psalm, as a whole. Psalm 104 stands out as a classic, not simply because it rings in my memory from a once-popular Scripture chorus, but because it addresses so many key doctrines of the faith.

 

Psalm 104: A Creation Psalm

Old Testament scholars will tell you that Psalm 104 is a creation psalm, a song that celebrates God’s miracle of creating and ordering the world. When many Christians read their Bibles, they tend to drill down on the first few chapters of Genesis, as telling the whole, complete story of creation.

Nothing can be further from the truth. The Bible has dozens of passages that speak of creation, and a number of these passages are found in the psalms, including Psalms 8, 19, 29, and 148.

Much of Psalm 104 gives praise to God, as Creator, making it clear that the universe owes its very existence to the sovereign purposes of the Lord. Who is this Creator? None other than the God of Israel. But you will also find some nuggets here that might give an indication of exactly what God did, in the act of creation. See what you think.

 

Is Science and the Bible in Conflict With One Another? Or is the “Conflict” Imaginary?

For example, consider the first two verses:

Bless the Lord, O my soul!
O Lord my God, you are very great!
You are clothed with splendor and majesty,
covering yourself with light as with a garment,
stretching out the heavens like a tent. (Psalm 104:1-2 ESV)

In the 1920s and 1930s, most astronomers adopted the steady state theory of cosmology, which essentially argued for an eternal universe, with no beginning and no end. God seemed completely out of the picture.

But when Edwin Hubble first observed the continuous expansion of the universe, which was then confirmed by the discovery of cosmic microwave radiation in 1964, the steady state model collapsed, being taken over by the “Big Bang Theory.” The Big Bang, though not a scientific proof for the existence of a creator, is fully consistent with the biblical teaching that there indeed was a beginning…. and if a beginning, therefore a Beginner!

Moreover, the literary image of “stretching out the heavens like a tent” perfectly matches Hubble’s description of a continuously expanding universe. Now, I am not saying that the psalm writer in any way knowingly predicted the discovery of the Big Bang, a few dozen centuries earlier than the scientists did. The ancient Israelite author probably just used the imagery of a stretched-out tent, a familiar part of Hebrew life, to describe what he saw in the sky. Nevertheless, if we consider the Bible to be inspired by God, it should not surprise us to find the psalm writer giving us an exact description of the expansion of the universe, consistent with yet-unknown Big Bang cosmology.

I think of it as a kind of “easter egg,” a hidden feature in the Bible, put there by God, meant to encourage Christians many centuries later, beset by the persistent atheism of the secularizing culture around us. God already knew about the Big Bang, centuries before the scientists did. Why? Because He created the universe!

Many of my fellow believers, who are Young Earth Creationists, object at this point, as Big Bang cosmology requires a universe to be about 13.799 billion years old, orders of magnitude older than the 6,000 to 10,000 years required by the Young Earth model. But this particular objection, despite whatever else might be attractive about Young Earth Creationism, has always puzzled me. For the same language about the “stretching out [of] the heavens” is repeated at least ten more times throughout the Bible (Job 9:8; Isaiah 40:22; 42:5; 44:24; 45:12; 48:13; 51:13; Jeremiah 10:12; 51:15; Zechariah 12:1).

Is this just a coincidence? Does the Bible just happen to be lucky, and get it right, so many times?

Or does it make more sense to think that God knew exactly what He was doing when He inspired the Word of God to be written?

I do not know about you, but I am more persuaded by the latter.

 

What is Psalm 104 Trying to Tell Us? How God Did Things, or Who God Is?

Some may insist at this point and say that we should not look to the Bible to get our science. Those critics have a good point to make. For if you were to take verse 5 out of context, as many Christians did for about 1500 years, you would never pass your high school science classes!

He set the earth on its foundations,
    so that it should never be moved.

A non-movable earth? Galileo saw the problem here, when he sought to favor the Copernican theory that the earth indeed moves around the sun, as opposed to the older geocentric model, that posited a sun moving around a fixed earth. I do not know of a single Christian today, except for a handful of naysayers in the deep, dark corners of the Internet (these people are real folks!), who would still champion the geocentric model of the solar system!

But the language of this verse is not concerning the earth’s physical location. Rather the foundation of the earth is upon the Word of God (see verse 7 below: “At your rebuke, [the waters] fled“). This verse 5 speaks of God’s power to sustain the universe, which He created to be secure, by the surety of God’s Word. “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matthew 7:24 ESV).

Just as we have confidence in God as Creator, so we also have confidence in God as our Redeemer, through Christ. Those who put their trust in Christ are building their life on the strong foundation.

This theme of confidence in God is repeated throughout the psalm, as the birds have their dwelling places (v. 12-13, 17) and the wild goats and badgers have a home among the mountain rocks (v. 18).

The psalmist even announces the security and comfort of the Lord, for a land-based, Jewish community that was terrified by the depths of the sea:

Here is the sea, great and wide,
    which teems with creatures innumerable,
    living things both small and great.
There go the ships,
    and Leviathan, which you formed to play in it (Psalm 104:25-26).

Tales of the great sea monsters, like the Leviathan, are not a threat. Instead, they are playful in God’s world!

Some see the Leviathan as a real creature, even suggesting that the Leviathan was a type of sea dinosaur, present with the humans, at creation. As I have written before, Christians may speculate as to the identity of this Leviathan, but such speculation can take us far away from the message of the text. The reason for mentioning Leviathan could be a lot simpler than that, thus defusing the objections of the skeptics. Many Bible scholars view the ancient Leviathan as a symbol of cosmic disorder, not be interpreted literally.

Jesus walked on water, in the Gospels, to demonstrate His mastery over creation. It should not surprise us then, that Psalm 104 tells us that we are not to be threatened by the sea monsters, as they are merely playful in the sea.

Thinking too hard about the identity of Leviathan can easily distract us from the main message of Psalm 104. We may gain some insight into exactly what God did in Creation, but such exploration should not cloud our vision from getting the bigger picture. God is a God of order, and not disorder. That is the point that the psalm writer wants to drive home. Psalm 104 is really not so much about how God created the universe, but rather, about the character of God: who God is.

 

A Reference to Creation, or Sneaking in a Reference to Noah’s Flood?

Still, there are some who resist in thinking Psalm 104 to be a hymn fully dedicated to praise the Lord as Creator. For example, in the following portion of the psalm, whereby God spoke His Word (“rebuke,” in verse 7), to separate the waters, some see this as a description of the aftermath of Noah’s flood.

You covered [the earth] with the deep as with a garment;
    the waters stood above the mountains.
At your rebuke they fled;
    at the sound of your thunder they took to flight.
The mountains rose, the valleys sank down
    to the place that you appointed for them.
You set a boundary that they may not pass,
    so that they might not again cover the earth.(Psalm 104:6-9)
.

In these verses we have a description of a world covered by water at the outset. Then God separates the waters, then making a pledge to never again cover the surface of the earth with water. No matter what you think about “global climate change,” we have a promise here that the oceans will never rise enough to completely wipe out the earth’s land masses!

Those who advocate for a description of Noah’s flood here go on and contend that the psalm writer jumps around in time, to describe different events in the history of the world, apart from Creation. But while we can see how the psalm writer anachronistically speaks of “ships” in verse 26, that surely did not exist at Creation (yet note the present verb tense, as opposed to the past tense, in these verses), it is quite a stretch to contend that the writer is just jumping around to describe various events of world history, aside from Creation.

Are verses 6-9 really about the aftermath of Noah’s flood, where God calls judgment down upon the people of Noah’s generation?

There are some problems with this view. First, there is a mention of judgment in this psalm, but only towards the end of the text (“Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more,” verse 35). We are reminded that the God of Creation is also a God of Judgment. This is surely true.

But to read the theme of judgment, as with God’s judgment in the days of Noah, back into the earlier part of the psalm, seems very out of place.  Instead, the separation of the waters harkens back to the very Creation event, as described in the very first chapter of Genesis, and not the Flood story:

And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so..(Genesis 1:-6-7 ESV).

In fact, you find some interesting parallels between the days of Creation, back in Genesis 1, and Psalm 104 (taken from the ESV Study Bible):

  • Day 1: Psalm 104:2a. Light.
  • Day 2: Psalm 104:2b-4. The “expanse” divides the waters
  • Day 3: Psalm 104:5-13. Land and water distinct (including our verses 6-9). Verses 14-18. Vegetation and trees.
  • Day 4: Psalm 104:19-24. Light-bearers as time-keepers.
  • Day 5: Psalm 104:25-26. Sea creatures.
  • Day 6: Psalm 104:21-24. Land animals and man. Verses 27-30: Food for all creatures.

You will notice the permanent boundary setting between the land and the waters takes place before the entrance of the sun and moon, as lights that help to mark the seasons and tell time:

He made the moon to mark the seasons;
    the sun knows its time for setting (Psalm 104:19 ESV).

Given everything we read here in Psalm 104, it is difficult to conclude that the earth will ever completely flood again with water, which pretty much rules out a global flood in the days of Noah…. which proponents of the “Noah’s-flood-in-Psalm-104” view wish to eagerly defend. Whatever Noah’s flood was, to insist on a global flood event, as opposed to a more local event, would introduce a convoluted way of reading the Scriptural text that need not exist.

Critics of the “local” flood view contend that after Noah’s flood, God promised not to flood the entire globe again, citing Genesis 9:11:

I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth (ESV).

However, the Hebrew word translated as “earth” here can have multiple meanings. It could mean the entire planet, but it could also mean simply “land.” Few people bother to read later in the passage for additional clarity:

And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. ( Genesis 9:15b ESV).

The “all flesh” that was destroyed in Noah’s day need not encompass the entire planet. The purpose of the flood was to wipe out “all flesh,” not to envelope the entire globe with water. Compare this with Psalm 104:9, which permanently fixes the boundary between the created land and the water, which appears to be global. There is no need to be dogmatic here, but because of this biblical data, I lean toward a less complicated reading of the passage.

 

Provision For Food For Meat-Eating Animals, At Creation

Likewise, the presence of animals at creation, that are made to devour other living animals, pretty much rules out the hypothesis that there was no animal death before the Fall of humanity, according to Psalm 104. At least, there is no dogmatic requirement to insist that there was no animal death before Adam’s Fall.

Recall that Psalm 104 speaks mainly of the act of creation, along the lines of Genesis 1, without touching upon later events, such as the Fall of humanity in Genesis 3:

The young lions roar for their prey,
    seeking their food from God. (Psalm 104:21 ESV)
.

If it has ever troubled you as to why God might have created lions with teeth, by which they can eat their animal prey, then spend some time in Psalm 104. The idea of animal death and suffering, prior to the Fall of humanity, does not appear to be of any concern to the psalmist.

 

Connecting Psalm 104 More Broadly to the Great Themes of the Bible

However, Psalm 104 does more than just proclaim the doctrine of creation. Other critical doctrines of the faith are brought to light as well. In addition to seeing that the God as Creator is also the God as the coming Judge, we also see the God who will come, through the Second Coming of Christ, to make all things right.

The New Testament quite frequently recalls the language of Daniel 13:7, that of the Son of Man, who comes “with the clouds of heaven,” as anticipating a time when Jesus will return to fully restore his creation:

And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. (Mark 13:26 ESV).

Where do we see this allusion to the restoration of all of things, through the Second Coming of Christ?

He makes the clouds his chariot;
    he rides on the wings of the wind;
he makes his messengers winds,
    his ministers a flaming fire (Psalm 104:3-4 ESV).

The one who creates all things will return to restore all things. Which brings us full circle back to the final stanza of Psalm 104:

May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
    may the Lord rejoice in his works,
who looks on the earth and it trembles,
    who touches the mountains and they smoke! (Psalm 104:31-32 ESV)
.

This is a God to be worshipped. This is a God who knows what He is doing. This is a God who reveals Himself in Nature. This is the God of Creation.

What a better way to close out the psalm, by meditating on the Lord of all Creation:

My meditation of him shall be sweet: I will be glad in the Lord (Psalm 104:34 KJV).
  • …………………………….

Here is what the Scripture song from the 1980s sounds like, and below that is a more contemporary version by the Israeli Yamma Ensemble, sung in ancient Hebrew. Crank this last video up, particularly after the 1 minute mark, because it is pretty cool:

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