Monday, March 3, 2008

Psalm 15 & 16 - Stand Firm!

READING: Psalms 15 and 16

Where in the Bible do we go when we're sad or weary or troubled? What part do we open when we're full of joy? No book in the Bible reflects the ranges of the heart as well as the Psalms. The Psalms in my Bible are marked up with exclamation points, dates, questons marks, “Thanks, Lord,” and other comments. It’s so easy to see why God referred to David, flawed human that he was, as a man after His own heart. David was so transparent before his Lord and King. He turned to God with a faithful heart – a heart full of questions and doubts and fears and joy and exuberance and wonder and simple statements of understanding.

I am going to put today’s Psalms on the blog. They are poetry, and in my opinion, should be written that way, to help add to their meaning.

So let’s turn to the Psalms for today:

Psalm 15 (NKJ version)
A Psalm of David

LORD, who may sojourn in Your tabernacle?
Who may dwell in Your holy hill?

He who walks uprightly
And works righteousness
And speaks the truth in his heart;
He who does not backbite with his tongue,
Nor do evil to his neighbor,
Nor take up a reproach against his friend;
In whose eyes a vile person is despised,
But who honors those who fear the LORD;
He who swears to his own hurt and does not change
He who does not put out his money at usury,
Nor takes a bribe agains the innocent.

He who does these things shall never be shaken.

Psalm 15 is a didactic poem full of parallelism. It is a poem that is intended to teach while it gives pleasure. The pleasure comes primarily from the arrangement of thought and the repetition of phrases of similar structure. In verse 1 David asks two questions that are much the same question worded slightly differently. That repetition serves to make us pause and rethink the question with the psalmist. The next few verses (v. 2 – the first part of v. 5) answer the question. And the Psalm ends with a short, simple statement that sums everything up.

So what does David ask? He asks, through the use of metaphor, what kind of person lives in God’s presence? And then he answers his question, using simple parallel statements. (And from what I’ve read they’re even more parallel in the Hebrew than in English.) Do you see them? Can you paraphrase them? If you haven’t pondered them, do it now before you read more!

The list includes what we do and what we say and what’s important to us and who we seek out and how we treat others. So what is important to someone who lives in the presence of God, what does that person look like? She will do what is right; she will be truthful with herself and others; she will not hurt her neighbor either with her tongue or her actions; she will be a faithful friend even when others are not; she will not crave the approval of wicked people; she will honor those who honor God and seek their approval; she will do what she says even when it’s hard and hurts; and she will not exploit others or seek to benefit by hurting others.

A simple, wonderful statement at the end concludes the poem. Those who do the things listed, whose lives are characterized by them, will never be moved or shaken. Those people are strong and stable – grounded in their God – so that when the storms of life come they don’t falter or fall or lose their footing.

When I read that last statement of the Psalm I immediately thought of the wise and foolish men Jesus mentions in Matthew 7: 24-27. I’m studying Matthew with some international ladies and that’s exactly where we were last week. The wise man (or woman!) is the one who hears what God says and puts it into practice and is thus on solid ground that won’t shift and move and cause instablity. … well, read it for yourself!

Psalm 16 (NIV)
A miktam of David

Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge.

I said to the LORD, "You are my Lord;
Apart from you I have no good thing."

As for the saints who are in the land,

“They are the glorious ones in whom is all my delight.” *

The sorrows of those will increase who run after other gods.
I will not pour out their libations of blood
Or take up their names on my lips.

LORD, you have assigned me my portion and my cup;
You have made my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
Surely I have a delightful inheritance.

I will praise the LORD, who counsels me;
Even at night my heart instructs me.
I have set the LORD always before me.
Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.

Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
My body also will rest secure,
Because you will not abandon me to the grave,
Nor will you let your Holy One (or faithful one) see decay.

You have made known to me the path of life;
You will fill me with joy in your presence,
With eternal pleasures at your right hand.

or As for the pagan priests who are in the land
And the nobles in whom all delight, I said:

(Apparently the meaning of v. 3 isn't clear. I think this one about the pagan priests makes more sense in the flow of the Psalm.)

Poetry can often be understood on two levels – one more straightforward (don’t want to say literal, because figurative language is hardly literal!) and the other symbolic. Part of this Psalm, the part that talks about not being abandoned to the grave or decay, is quoted by both Peter (Acts 2: 25-28) and Paul (Acts 13: 35) in reference to the Lord Jesus. There's our scarlet thread! So on one level it is a Messianic Psalm – a Psalm that looks forward to God’s Promised One. But it can also be understood on a human level, by those who trust in God.

Spend some time with me thinking about this Psalm. We won’t do it line by line because this entry is already too long, but I want to focus on a few of the phrases and images that hit me.

Psalm 16 progresses from a request for safety to an assurance of joy.

In the opening line God is pictured as a refuge. Think about that image for awhile. What is a refuge? When do we go there and why? It is with God that we are safe. Safe in what sense? What do you think?

As I read on in the Psalm, I next pause at the line “Apart from you I have no good thing.” Wow. Is that true for me? Is it an emotion that’s stated there or a truth? I think David is stating a truth here, not just something he’s feeling. And when I think about it, I get a glimpse of understanding. What is good? If not for God would there be anything good?

Now let’s look at some of the figurative language in this poem, which adds so much richness to our understanding. First, the phrase, “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.” This is probably an allusion to the apportioning of the land of Canaan that God gave the twelve tribes. So this would have meant something to David that I can only wonder at. But I do understand the joy that a beautiful piece of land can give. This metaphor (a comparison between two things that establishes a meaning on one level and then asks the reader to "carry over" that meaning to another level) is there so that we can picture ourselves in a pleasant place, a place of rest and beauty. My husband and I recently bought some land that I have fallen in love with – it’s peaceful and green and beautiful. Daffodils and paperwhites and silverbells are popping up all over it right now. It’s not inherited, but it is delightful! I am full of happiness and contentment when I’m there. David uses that kind of image to show how it is for us in God, what we’ve been given.

And this Psalm, too, like the previous one, talks of not being shaken. Because God is “at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” Here is more figurative language. God is not literally at David’s right hand (or mine, since I think I can say this with David). So why use that phrase? Well, I am right handed (as are most of us) and when I sit on the couch it’s much easier for me to have a table to my right. I can more easily reach things. So being on the right hand makes something accessible. Also, traditionally, even in ancient times, the right hand was the place of honor and power; it was extended in friendship and to embrace someone. So the image of God at our right hand, and later at the end of the Psalm, of us at God’s right hand, gives an image of being close in a place of honor and love and accessibility. Because we are right (Hey, a pun!) there next to God, we are safe and will not fall or be shaken. Close to Him we are firm and steady. He guides us in the path of life that begins now and goes forever. We find our joy in Him.

What other metaphors and images do you see in Psalm 16? Sometimes it’s easy to gloss right over them. Do they help your understanding?

Maybe you will want to paraphrase one of these Psalms or write a meditation or poem based on one of them. Take some time to let them sink in.

Or think of some passages in the New Testament that talk about standing firm. Will you share them with us?

Thank you, Father God, that even as I have you at my right hand, You have me at your right
hand. Thank you for your counsel, and that you work in us even when we are sleeping. Thank
you for Jesus, whose body did not see decay, and through whom we have life and have it
forever! May we be people who stand firm in You, who are not shaken, even when all about us
seems to be falling apart. As we stand in your presence may we reflect you in what we do, say,
and think.
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