Psalm 119:17-32 – Examine the Wonders of God’s Instructions

Psalm 119:17-24, Common English Bible

ג Gimel

Be good to your servant while I live,
    that I may obey your word.
Open my eyes that I may see
    wonderful things in your law.
I am a stranger on earth;
    do not hide your commands from me.
My soul is consumed with longing
    for your laws at all times.
You rebuke the arrogant, who are accursed,
    those who stray from your commands.
Remove from me their scorn and contempt,
    for I keep your statutes.
Though rulers sit together and slander me,
    your servant will meditate on your decrees.
Your statutes are my delight;
    they are my counselors.

ד Daleth

I am laid low in the dust;
    preserve my life according to your word.
I gave an account of my ways and you answered me;
    teach me your decrees.
Cause me to understand the way of your precepts,
    that I may meditate on your wonderful deeds.
My soul is weary with sorrow;
    strengthen me according to your word.
Keep me from deceitful ways;
    be gracious to me and teach me your law.
I have chosen the way of faithfulness;
    I have set my heart on your laws.
I hold fast to your statutes, Lord;
    do not let me be put to shame.
I run in the path of your commands,
    for you have broadened my understanding. (New International Version)

The biblical psalms are one of my favorite places in the whole of Holy Scripture. I especially like Psalm 119 because it reminds me that I am not only saved from something, but I am also saved to something.

Genuine and real deliverance comes so that we can be free to love and serve God with our whole being. And Psalm 119 is there to help us know how to do just that.

Psalm 119 stretches for 176 verses as an acrostic to the Hebrew alphabet. Each Hebrew letter has its own 8 verse stanza, with each of those verses beginning with that letter. Unfortunately, of course, we lose this insight through translation.

One of the reasons the psalm was organized this way is because it was meant to be learned and memorized. In fact, the entire psalter was meant for public consumption – to be engrafted into the soul and hidden in the heart.

The wonders of Psalm 119 are, overall, a paeon of reverence and praise of God’s law. That’s because the Lord’s commands and instructions are an extension of the divine character. Laws of mercy and holiness are given to the people because God is merciful and holy.

Grace and law are not antithetical. They go together like a hand in a glove and rely upon each other. The hand of grace is what fills the glove of the law, and together, they extend divine help and direction to people in this fallen world of ours.

The heartfelt prayer of the psalmist is that the Lord would open his eyes so that he could see the wonders contained within God’s divine instructions for humanity.

“Open my eyes so I can truly see
the marvelous things in your law.”

Psalm 119:18, NET

This is a prayer for us, as well. Those who desire to please the Lord and walk in the way of God are continually seeking awareness of the divine all around them, insight into others, and understanding of self.

It is one thing to read the Bible, but it’s another thing altogether to understand it. The psalmist is asking for God to intervene on his behalf and remove anything and everything that would inhibit his ability to understand and discern God’s words and actions.

Insight, understanding, and application to life comes from dwelling in the Word. It is a process. A daily crumb will neither do to satiate our physical hunger nor our spiritual appetite.

Going days, even weeks, without ingesting God’s instructions will only lead to spiritual emaciation. It harms us and helps no one. Instead, we need to feed on Holy Scripture and savor every bite. Like the cow, we need to slowly chew and ruminate on Scripture so that it can be fully digested and become part of us.

I have memorized large chunks of the Bible over the years. The main reason my memory can call up so much Scripture is that I have read it, and continue to read it, over and over again. Even though I’ve read the Old Testament about one-hundred times and the New Testament in the neighborhood of three-hundred times, I still gain insight and understanding, seeing new and wondrous things.

I truly believe the Bible is an inexhaustible source of sage instruction and a continual fountain of wisdom. I’ll spend an eternity in heaven examining God’s Word and will never reach the height, depth, length, and breadth of it’s incredible, massive, and glorious precepts.

I am a strong advocate of straightforward readings of Scripture, over and over again. Although I encourage looking at devotionals, commentaries, and reflections (like this blog!) to help and encourage us, nothing can replace our constant and continual reading of the Bible.

The biblical Book of Psalms is the Church’s prayerbook. All 150 of them are meant to be used for every sort of life circumstance. Whether discouraged or anxious, joyful or confident, the psalms encompass the full range of the human condition – and Psalm 119 lets us know how central God’s instructions are to the life of God’s people.

So, read today’s psalm… several times. Let Scripture do it’s marvelous and wondrous work within you.

Blessed Lord, you caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning. Help us so to wisely hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them so that by our patient reading of your holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.

Leviticus 19:9-18 – Be a Good Neighbor

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.

Do not steal.

Do not lie.

Do not deceive one another.

Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the Lord.

Do not defraud or rob your neighbor.

Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.

Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind but fear your God. I am the Lord.

Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great but judge your neighbor fairly.

Do not go about spreading slander among your people.

Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord.

Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord. (New International Version)

All of these Old Testaments commands to the ancient Israelites are a development and expansion upon the basic core Ten Commands or Words given by God to Moses.

Those core commands are based in the character of God. That same character is to be the normal daily lived experience of God’s people.

The Levitical instructions are a fleshing-out of God’s basic commands for a specific people in their particular social, economic, and historical situation.

Although we need not, as modern folk, strictly observe the commands, as they are culturally constructed, we very much need to fulfill the ethics and morality which are behind the specific instructions.

Today’s Old Testament lesson has to do with being a good neighbor – a person who conscientiously lives in community with others and pays attention to the collective needs and wants of everyone. It is to live into God’s overarching ethic for the common good of all persons.

A commitment to community life needs good neighbors. They are characterized by the following virtues:

Sacrifice

Israel was chiefly an agrarian society. So, when the season of harvest came, the workers gleaning the fields were to only go over it once. That way, the poor and less fortunate could come behind and pick up what the workers missed or dropped.

Any landowner who instructed the workers to keep working until they got every scrap of grain or fruit was being cruel to the poor. Merciful and generous owners would, conversely, instruct the workers to leave a bit behind and not get everything.

Since God sacrifices on behalf of humanity, so we, too, are to make sacrifices which benefit the common good of all persons in the community.

Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God. (Ephesians 5:2, NLT)

A sacrificial spirit, not a self-indulgent one, is what God is looking for in a good neighbor.

Honesty

Cheating, lying, stealing, and deceit have absolutely no place in the kingdom of God. Instead, honest dealings with others, always being above board in all matters, is of upmost importance to God.

Witnesses in court are expected to speak the truth without falsehood. Business dealings are to have accurate weights and measures. Integrity and trustworthiness are the building blocks of any good society.

Since God is truth, so we, too, are to live into truth through being honest in all we say and do.

Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the innocent. (Exodus 23:7-8, NIV)

An honest spirit, not a thieving one, is what God is looking for in a good neighbor.

Fairness

In the ancient world, and still in many parts of the world today, workers were paid at the end of the day for their day’s work. Bosses who withheld expected wages till the next day were quite literally depriving a family of their supper.

For those who are not able to do a solid day’s work, such as the blind and the handicapped, it’s bad enough to simply ignore them, because God is attentive to their plight. That situation is exacerbated exponentially, whenever someone or a group of people, decide to make such persons’ lives even harder than they already are.

Since God is fair in all dealings, so we, too, are to extend fairness to all without any prejudice or favoritism.

The Lord watches to see if we are fair or if we cheat others. (Proverbs 16:11, CEV)

A fair spirit, not an exploitive one, is what God is looking for in a good neighbor.

Justice

Unequal treatment is about as far from God as one can get. Being concerned only about those with similar political views, economic interests, or spiritual inclinations is a gross practice of injustice. It denies the ethic of the common good of all in favor of the common good of some.

Since God is just in all things, so we, too, are to uphold biblical justice for our fellow humanity, no matter who they are or where they come from.

Never deprive foreigners and orphans of justice. And never take widows’ clothes to guarantee a loan. (Deuteronomy 24:17, GW)

A spirit of justice, not injustice, is what God is looking for in a good neighbor.

Love

Hate is the inevitable result of holding onto anger through nursing a grudge and holding onto bitterness. It fails to speak up and speak out.

Love, however, assertively addresses anger and seeks to make things right in a calm and concerned way. Love attacks problems, not people.

Since God is love, so we, too are to love one another.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. (1 John 4:7, NIV)

Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good. (Romans 12:21, MSG)

A spirit of love, not a hateful vengeful one, is what God is looking for in a good neighbor.

A good neighbor is one who seeks the common good of all persons because God is good, all the time, and always does what is right, just, and fair.

Gracious God and Father, in a world of fear and suspicion, teach us that love is the only means to conquer fear.

Loving Lord Jesus, Son of God, in a world full of anger and frustration, teach to overturn the tables and tear down the fences which turn away the hungry and homeless; and to practice hospitality without prejudice.

Blessed Holy Spirit of God, in a world of indifference and ignorance, teach us wisdom, to be caring of one another, and to protect one another.

Blessed Holy Trinity, the God whom we serve, help us to know the peace that steals gently in through quiet acts of kindness, just as peace is always within you as one God, now and forever. Amen.

Leviticus 23:1-8 – There’s More to Life Than Work

The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites and say to them: These are my appointed times, the Lord’s appointed times, which you will declare to be holy occasions: Work can be done for six days, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of special rest, a holy occasion. You must not do any work on it; wherever you live, it is a Sabbath to the Lord. These are the Lord’s appointed times, holy occasions, which you will celebrate at their appointed times:

The Lord’s Passover is on the fourteenth day of the first month at twilight. The Lord’s Festival of Unleavened Bread is on the fifteenth day of the same month. You must eat unleavened bread for seven days. On the first day you will hold a holy occasion and must not do any job-related work. You will offer food gifts to the Lord for seven days. The seventh day will be a holy occasion; you must not do any job-related work. (Common English Bible)

When I was kid, watching the cartoon The Jetsons was a Saturday morning ritual. The futuristic family featured George the husband and father, an employee of Spacely Sprockets. 

In one episode, George comes home and is met by his dog, Astro, and wife, Jane, looking tired and haggard from a day’s work. George’s comment when he entered on the treadmill through the door was, “Jane, these 3-hour work-days are killing me!”

Indeed, the technological progress of post-World War II America had led to the common belief among many that with so many advancements, workdays would become smaller, with leisure time growing. In the 1960’s, it seemed a foregone conclusion that technology would provide the masses with unprecedented amounts of discretionary time for whatever they would want to do.

Sixty years removed from The Jetsons, and we now know what Americans and people across the world would do with time-saving devices: We simply work a lot more. 

Just the opposite has occurred from having loads of leisure time. People discovered that greater efficiency with technology has brought an equal competition for business and making more money. Time saved has translated into accomplishing more work, and not in taking vacations or indulging in new hobbies and ventures.

The fourth command of God’s Ten Commandments is needed today more than ever. It is high time that we come back to this basic instruction of the Lord and engraft its wise counsel into our lives. 

The point of God’s command for a Sabbath-rest is neither to squash commerce, nor to be a curmudgeon about fencing one day a week of doing nothing. Instead, the Sabbath command is designed to be a life-giving day where we discover that: There is more to life than work.

The word “Sabbath” literally means “to rest.” God built into creation a rhythm of rest and work. God rested, not because of being tired but so that there was enjoyment of the earth and everything in it. 

Everything in life is done in rhythm. We walk in rhythm, talk in rhythm, and our hearts beat in a rhythm. The earth cycles in rhythmic seasons of the year, and the animal kingdom mates and lives in annual rhythms. All creation is rhythmic.

Whenever we keep going and do not live according to the rhythm laid out for all of God’s creatures, we break. Therefore: Rest from work is needed.

Even machinery needs a break. I find it more than ironic that we treat our cars and vehicles with the regular maintenance and care that we don’t even extend to ourselves. We care for our cars because we don’t want to experience a breakdown on the highway. Yet, much more important is the care of our souls and our bodies. 

Without regular intervals of work and rest, in a consistent rhythmic pattern, we breakdown, burnout, and, like little children who have missed a nap, we have epic meltdowns of anger, frustration, and passive-aggressive behavior because we simply ignored God’s fourth command.

“Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.”

Maya Angelou

Legalistic observances of the Sabbath miss the point through a continual, “Don’t do this, don’t do that, can’t do anything fun on Sunday,” as if God were some divine curmudgeon who frowns with a deeply furrowed brow at anything happy on the Sabbath. (Mark 2:23-3:6) 

To rest means to have a change of pace from the regular weekday activity of work. To rest and enjoy the difference of a Sabbath’s day is avoided by so many people because it brings this question to the forefront of our minds: Who am I if I’m not working?

Our identities can be so tied to our jobs that we compulsively check our multiple e-mail accounts on a day off; tie ourselves to our smart phones and iPhones on vacation; and allow work to bleed into our time away from the job. 

God has wisely placed loving boundaries around us. But like Adam and Eve, who were not content with enjoying the entire garden, we obsessively pluck the forbidden fruit from the one tree that is off limits.

Work brings money, influence, power, relationships, industry, and a host of good things. The problem is not work; the problem is that we humans can create an idol of it.

Whenever work and all that comes with it, consumes our attention, we are on a one-way road to nowhere. I have heard many deathbed confessions. I’ve yet to hear anyone wish they had worked more.

No, the confessions typically involve something out of rhythm and out of whack – that they let their jobs and their ambitions surrounding work call the shots in life, without stopping to enjoy the vast creation, the gifts of God, and the emotional wealth that can come from relationships.

“If we only stop when we are finished with all our work, we will never stop, because our work is never completely done… Sabbath… liberates us from the need to be finished.”

Wayne Muller

Because we aren’t sure who we are if we’re not working, we just keep working. If we feel bad, we work harder.  If things are tough at home, we just put more hours in at work. If we need more money, we pick up a part-time job. 

When work becomes the catch-all answer to our many problems, it has become our god and we will worship at the altar of money and activity… until we can learn to stop and rest. 

One day out of seven. Just one-seventh of your life is needed to allow a divine rhythm into your existence. 

The temptation, however, is to take a day off from work so that you can do other work at home. So, the challenge, for many people, is to allow the one day of the weekend to be the time you get stuff done, and another day to truly rest.

This is not easy. For me, it is terribly hard. I can easily slide into working seven days a week for weeks, even months, at a time. Few people bat an eye at my constant working, except my wife and a few friends. In fact, many people seem impressed when I work all the time. But what gets lost in all this is God’s grace to us through rest.

God wants enjoyment, not avoidance – for us to be still and know God. The Lord longs for us to connect with the Divine. This means we must plan and prepare for it. Maybe we need to put God on our calendars, to make an appointment with God like we would anyone else. That will often involve being out in God’s big creation.

Whenever we get down to practicing the Sabbath, we find that the world didn’t stop. Then, when we return to work, we discover that the earth is still spinning on its axis. 

Life doesn’t cease when we submit to a Sabbath rest; it’s just that we cease from participating in it for a short time. Our delusions of grandeur dissipate and disappear when we finally come around to consistently obeying a good old Sabbath rest.

Work is noble. But there is nothing noble about working without rest. 

We are still human beings when we aren’t making money, and still valuable when we don’t have jobs. Folks in healthcare facilities aren’t any less important because they no longer hold a job. Work doesn’t define us – God’s image within us does. 

It’s unlikely that we’ll ever see a George Jetson 3-hour workday, and that’s probably a good thing. Work’s inherent goodness can only be truly appreciated when we plan and prepare to live and enjoy a Sabbath’s day rest. 

Because I belong to you, God, and not to myself,
I will rest from worrying about the future
and rest in your never-ending divine presence;
I will rest from frustration at things not working out as I want them to;
I will rest from fear
and rest in my experience of courage when days are hard.
I will rest from complaining
and rest in the beauty and pleasure all around me.
For the Lord’s yoke is easy and his burden is light,
and I will find rest for my soul. Amen.

Nehemiah 9:26-31 – Judgment and Grace

“Repentance of the People” by German painter Julius Schnoor von Carolsfeld (1794-1872)

But despite all this [God’s blessings] they were disobedient and rebelled against you. They turned their backs on your Law, they killed your prophets who warned them to return to you, and they committed terrible blasphemies. So, you handed them over to their enemies, who made them suffer. But in their time of trouble, they cried to you, and you heard them from heaven. In your great mercy, you sent them liberators who rescued them from their enemies.

But as soon as they were at peace, your people again committed evil in your sight, and once more you let their enemies conquer them. Yet whenever your people turned and cried to you again for help, you listened once more from heaven. In your wonderful mercy, you rescued them many times!

You warned them to return to your Law, but they became proud and obstinate and disobeyed your commands. They did not follow your regulations, by which people will find life if only they obey. They stubbornly turned their backs on you and refused to listen. In your love, you were patient with them for many years. You sent your Spirit, who warned them through the prophets. But still, they wouldn’t listen! So once again you allowed the peoples of the land to conquer them. But in your great mercy, you did not destroy them completely or abandon them forever. What a gracious and merciful God you are! (New Living Translation)

Much of the Old Testament is a rhythmic pattern of God’s judgment and grace. The storyline often goes something like this: 

God makes promises and gives commands. 

People get stubborn, refuse to listen, and disobey. 

God responds with judgment. 

People cry out in their distress.

God gives grace and fulfills divine promises. 

People enjoy, then get stubborn again…. 

The promise of God always involves judgment and grace. Proclaiming only a message of judgment without grace brings despair, death, and hell; there is no hope. Speaking only of grace apart from judgment is oxymoronic – it doesn’t exist because there is no need for grace if there is no judgment; grace is an undeserved mercy given freely by God in the face of our stubborn obstinate selves.

Nehemiah chapter nine is a beautiful prayer of confession. Having heard the Word of God proclaimed, the people released their obstinacy; they realized exile occurred because of their own stubborn refusal to listen to God. So, they repented. 

“Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.”

C.S. Lewis

The ancient Jewish people acknowledged their checkered past of ignoring God’s prophets, and they bellied-up and took ownership of their past choices. And God was faithful. Even though the city of Jerusalem had been overtaken and the people sent into exile, God brought them back and the broken wall was rebuilt.

It’s never too late to turn from a past filled with poor decisions, broken relationships, and spiritual disobedience. The time of confession is available, and the time is now. God’s grace always overwhelms our dubious past. 

The appropriate response to today’s Old Testament lesson is to spend some time in confession to God. This chapter, along with Nehemiah chapter one, are good places to begin with understanding just what to say to God. 

For the Christian, confession ought always to conclude with accepting the grace available to us in Christ. 

Today is a new day and a new Christian Year. Let it be a life with the love of Jesus implanted in your heart. As we enter the Advent season, allow that love of Christ to gestate within your soul. Anticipate the birth. Look forward to the Nativity. Long for Christmas and the inbreaking of God to this earth.

Holy Lord, in this time of Advent, we confess we often are distracted by the season’s busyness, by the stress of commitment, and even by putting our own traditions ahead of the true meaning of Christmas. We confess we also often prefer being sentimental to being sacrificial.

Forgive us for all the times we have missed seeing You in our midst, for all the times we have doubted Your presence, and for all the times we have failed to hold the holidays as holy days. Pour peace into our lives and let us be bearers of Your peace to others. Remind us that this is a season of waiting and preparation for the greatest Gift of all. In the holy Name of our Savior, Jesus, we pray. Amen.