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3 Helpful Doors into the 91st Psalm

A “fowler” trapped birds.

The 91st Psalm was our family’s go-to prayer during emergencies –like when a tornado funnel whirled dangerously close to our living room window in Oklahoma.  It’s one of the three Psalms my Mom had us memorize and pray before going to sleep—something I was incredibly grateful for as the years went by and new emergencies arose.

In World War I, many of the troopers recited Ps. 91 daily, earning its moniker as “The Soldier’s Psalm”.  Some claim the Commander of the Army’s 91st Brigade even had the Psalm printed on a small card for his men, asking them to pray with it daily.   They must have felt particularly close to it given the name of their Division.

Here are three ‘doors’ for understanding it more, which I hope you also find helpful:

1–Context. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned studying different Biblical texts is to look at their context:  what precedes and follows them.  It turns out that Ps. 90-92 are a unit, all written while Israel was in Exile, yearning for their homeland, embedded with a foreign culture, language, and religion.

Psalm 90 is the opening of Book IV of the Psalter (which has five books total) and includes Psalms 90 – 106.  While the previous Book III is full of laments over Jerusalem’s fall and the Exile, Book IV’s tone changes significantly.  It takes us back to the time of Moses since Ps. 90 is the only Psalm attributed to the great Hebrew lawgiver.  We’re reminded of the Wilderness period before there was a Temple, land or king.  It was just the people and their God, which reminds us that even in the most desolate, abandoned situation, God is in charge and reigns.  What hope this must have given the Children of Israel.

While it’s not possible that Moses actually wrote this Psalm (formed after the Exodus period), the anonymous author clearly wants to remind us that in God we find our home.  Its opening declares unequivocally:  ‘Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.” (Ps 90:1).  How life-saving must have been their growing realization that home wasn’t a physical place but the presence and power of the eternal God.

The English hymn writer, Isaac Watts (1674-1748) captured this in his loved Christian hymn (of the 750 he wrote!):

“O God, our help in ages past,

Our hope for years to come,

Our shelter from the stormy blast,

And our eternal home.”  (emphasis added)

2 – Response.  And that brings us to Psalm 91 which is a response to the petitions of Psalm 90.   Three examples:

  • 90:14 petitions: “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love”

Ps. 91:5 answers: “You shall not be afraid of the terror by night nor of the arrow that flies by day.”

  • 90:16 invokes: “Let your work be manifest to your servants.”

Ps. 91:14 replies: “Because he has set his love upon Me, therefore I will deliver him.”

  • 90:17 entreats: “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us.”

Ps. 91:3 responds: “Surely He shall deliver you from the snare of the fowler…”.

I love that these two Psalms have this meaningful ‘conversation’ of entreaty and response because it mirrors our own prayers when in need.  Petition, then declaration.  This one-two divine punch destroys fear and lifts us to the astounding reality that God is right here, present, loving us.   Wow.

3- Structure.  It’s also helpful to know what the author intended by seeing how a text naturally divides.  Psalm 91 separates into three sections:

  • Verses 1 – 2 are addressed to a believer who already understands the security the Lord provides.
  • Verses 3 – 13 is the body of the Psalm offering instruction about the Lord and describing how free and secure life is when we know God. A fowler was one who trapped birds ( 124:7) and can be easily understood as a metaphor whenever we feel trapped by something or someone. The Psalm promises:  “Surely he shall deliver you from the snare of the fowler” (Ps. 91:7)
  • Verses 14 – 16 are the triumphant climax when God speaks directly. And surely it is the benediction to our lives.

“Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
     When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honor them.
    With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.

Please share your experiences with this Psalm of Psalms!

 

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Six Reasons why Abraham is a January Role Model

Jozsef Molnar, Le voyage d’Abraham d’Ur à Canaan, 1850,  Galerie Nationale Hongroise, Budapest

With a new year, who better to look at biblically than Abraham, that Scriptural template for new starts.  His life spans 14 chapters in the book of Genesis (from 11 – 25) and weaves an extraordinary story of faithfulness, mistakes, and renewed efforts.  I’ve loved reviewing the sweeping events of this Patriarch of Israel’s life, not just because he is a key figure in the world’s three great religions –Judaism, Christianity and Islam –or even because his story launches the Bible’s ancestral narratives.

Rather, Abraham embodies timeless qualities we can model today:  flexibility, openness, willingness and especially faithfulness.  As you think about 2019 and your spiritual progress, it’s hard to aim higher than hearing and following God’s direction which requires trust and obedience, qualities that Abraham models – most of the time!

Below are six key events with lessons that yield, like interconnected threads of a tapestry, a life shaped by spiritual pursuits that grow into blessings for an entire nation.  This process of examining some of his pivotal moments has been instructive in discerning turning points that can fill a life with contribution, meaning, and influence.

Please share what these mean to you or add any of the other signposts you’ve noted in his spiritual journey that are helpful on your own.

  1. Abram, his original name, received God’s call (Gen. 12) to leave Ur in Mesopotamia–south of today’s Baghdad, Iraq—to relocate to an initially unnamed land God would provide. The unstated outcome of following this divine directive meant forfeiting his inheritance –all the animals, household possessions and land–from Terah, Abram’s father.  The fact that God promised the blessing of new land still meant turning away (as the expression goes) from ‘the bird in the hand (Ur) worth two in the bush (the promised land)’.  Attributes:  willingness, readiness, humility.
  2. Abram’s faith in God causes him to obey, a singular act so powerful that 2000 years later a young Pharisee-turned-apostle, Paul, will point to it as the model for the faith that new Christ followers (“all who believe”) will need on their spiritual journey (see Rom. 4:11). This obedience is all the more remarkable considering the promise of heirs in spite of Sarai’s barrenness, the central challenge of the Abraham saga.   Attributes:  trust, conviction, faith.
  3. Abram’s story is not just his own but a precursor to the nation of Israel’s experiences as well. In fact, God’s call in Gen. 12:1-3, is considered a ’fulcrum text’, meaning one that is central to both past and future events.  For the past, the text declares that God’s call to Abram will bless ‘all the families of the earth’, meaning those mentioned prior to Abram in Gen. 1 – 11 (Noah, his son Shem, and others).  These verses of God’s call then point forward to the rest of Genesis where the beginning story of the ‘great nation’ commences with the stories of Abraham’s heirs (Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph).  How Abraham answers God will affect all those future children, families, and tribes, although Abraham himself won’t see this.  The patriarch’s positive response to the sudden divine directive of his calling reveals more spiritual qualities. Attributes:  obedience and vision.
  4. Abraham is already in his 7th decade, not exactly the time most people call the moving van and take off!  The journey was 560 miles northwest through the Fertile Crescent, along the Euphrates River to Haran, in eastern Syria. Attributes:  grit, persistence, stamina.           
  5. Along the route of his journey, Abraham is not told where this land or final stop will be, yet he continually builds altars as an acknowledgment of his faith in this God he cannot see. How beautifully this tees up what his grandson, Jacob, will do in Gen. 35, when he too will build an altar, acknowledging the Almighty’s presence every step of the journey: “He has been with me wherever I have gone” (Gen. 35:3).  We can only imagine how Abraham and his family told the stories of such stops and how this thankfulness for God’s blessings carried to subsequent generations.  Attribute:  gratitude.
  6. When in Haran, Abram is again directed to pick up and move the family, flocks and possessions.  Now seventy-five, he is finally told that Canaan is indeed the promised land.  Yet on arrival, he discovers no milk and honey but a terrible famine, one more test for Abram’s faith.  So he heads South to Egypt in order to survive, an act later generations will imitate. Like many life journeys, Abram makes a bad decision to ensure his own survival, positioning the much-desired Sarai as his sister.  (He reasoned that if the Egyptians knew she was Abram’s wife, they would kill him and take her.)  Gen. 20:12 reveals that they actually were half-siblings.  But failing to truthfully acknowledge Sarai also as his wife enables Pharaoh to take the beautiful woman into his home, paying Abram a significant amount in servants and animals as a dowry.

What a terrible price Abram’s cowardly, self-serving actions have cost:  he loses Sarai, and she loses her honor since the ‘marriage’ with Pharaoh was no doubt consummated.  Yet in spite of Abram’s duplicity, the deceived (Pharaoh) is punished instead of the deceiver (Abram).   Although the Pharaoh experiences plagues for his involvement with Sarai, he is a model of generosity, allowing Abram and Sarai to leave Egypt with all their possessions, thus becoming an example of how God is always in charge, saving his children even when they’ve erred.   Attribute: learning from the sin of self-centeredness.

Perhaps this last episode is the nadir of the father of Israel’s life, yet it is also the precursor to what the nation of Israel will itself experience:  the ups and downs of obedience, not unlike our own lives perhaps.   This is one of the dozens of reasons the Bible continues to guide us on our journey from whatever ‘Ur’ we come from to our own ‘promised land’.

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Thanksgiving Psalms for the Season

Praise the Lord!”  And so begins one of the glorious types of Psalms (Ps. 111) from the Psalter, built on a recognition of God’s many blessings.  What a perfect time of year to consider the Thanksgiving Psalm more deeply and maybe even write your own!

David dictating the Psalms.  Codex binding in ivory, from the Treasure of Saint-Denis, France, end of 10th century.

There are many types of Psalms, but two predominate:  the praise psalm and the lament.  The former is often sung as a hymn and the latter, a lament, is a prayer.  Both types of Psalms are found applying to either individuals or whole communities.  The Thanksgiving Psalm begins where the lament leaves off– the gratitude expressed for the very thing or situation that had before seemed so insurmountable.

Thanksgiving Psalms are complements to laments because they provide concrete testimony to answered prayer.  Just as laments are cries for help during a crisis, Thanksgiving Psalms are their natural corollary because they declare:  “My prayer is answered.”

Yet Thanksgiving Psalms are more than hymns of praise because they relish the language of proclamation of what God has done and is doing for both the individual and community.

The Psalter has long served as one of the most loved portions of the Hebrew Scriptures, treasured by Jew and Christian alike, and quoted more in the New Testament than any other Old Testament book. Perhaps one reason for the Psalms’ timeless appeal is that all 150 Psalms teach us how to pray, how to feel God’s presence.  They show why we can have unwavering confidence in God’s power to deliver men, women and children from every kind of evil that would intimidate, threaten or bully.

An example comes from one of my earliest childhood memories.  My mother, brother and I were shouting the 23rd Psalm together as we held hands in our Oklahoma home’s small hallway, the only room where flying glass couldn’t reach us. It was our way of remembering that God’s power is greater than any tornado funnel, including the nearby one which sounded like a freight train about to come through the house.  Not just that year but all our growing up years, we experienced protection and safety from diseases, accidents, school challenges and sports, and the Psalms were a significant part of those prayers.

Here are some Thanksgiving Psalms you might enjoy reading this season (Ps. 30, 46, 48, 66. 76, 126, 135, and 147), along with an extended portion here of Ps. 111.

*Praise the Lord!

I will thank the Lord with all my heart

as I meet with his godly people.

How amazing are the deeds of the Lord!

All who delight in him should ponder them.

Everything he does reveals his glory and majesty.

His righteousness never fails.

He causes us to remember his wonderful works.

How gracious and merciful is our Lord!

He gives food to those who fear him;

he always remembers his covenant…

All he does is just and good,

and all his commandments are trustworthy.

It is always a joy to hear from you, our thoughtful readers.  Please share how you think about these Thanksgiving Psalms, or better yet, share a verse of one you’ve penned to capture your own gratitude this beautiful season of giving thanks.

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A Surprise Lesson from Joshua

The burning bush and Red Sea parting may be some of the most well-known stories of the Hebrew Bible.  But do we realize Joshua had his own exceptional signs of God’s guiding presence?  This came to light recently while rereading Joshua.

Some quick background:  Moses had finished his role leading the Children of Israel from Egyptian slavery, guiding them through the wilderness for a generation.   Finally, the twelve tribes were within sight of the land Yahweh promised and, in one of the tougher parts of the Bible, Moses’ story abruptly ends.  This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there (NRSV, Deut. 34:4).

Brass serpent sculpture at top of Mt. Nebo. Photo courtesy of Travelfeatured.com

One of the special joys of traveling to Jordan is seeing this site of commemoration at Mt. Nebo.   An immense snake sculpture stands as tribute to the Hebrew lawgiver recalling one of the many ways Moses’ obedience saved his people.   As Numbers 21 relays, Moses followed God’s directive to create a brass serpent fixed on a pole for the people who had serpent bites for their disobedience.  Then anyone who was bitten by a snake could look at the bronze snake and be healed!  (NLT, Num. 21:9

And now, it’s Joshua’s turn.  As second in command under Moses, we read:   Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses (NRSV, Deut. 34:9)

That ‘spirit of wisdom’ Joshua demonstrated included exceptional leadership qualities we need in today’s leaders as well:   courage, strength, humility, obedience, and single-minded focus on mission– to name just some the text cites.  Reading Joshua is a handbook in leadership development – whether in a family, school, community organization, church, business or politics.

The surprise that stood out in this reading is an event that occurs after the Jordan crossing into Canaan.  Joshua needed ‘signs’, indicators that he wasn’t alone but being guided by the unseen power the Israelites knew to be God.  The people also needed it.  The Lord said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses (NRSV, Joshua 3:7).  The parting of the Jordan, so similar to what they had either seen firsthand or learned from their parents’ generation, was one of those.

But now that they have crossed into a land filled with tribes and Joshua’s leadership is far from over.  Suddenly Joshua has a vision:

“…he looked up and saw a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand… “Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?” 14 He replied, “Neither; but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped, and he said to him, “What do you command your servant, my lord?” 15 The commander of the army of the Lord said to Joshua, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.” And Joshua did so (NRSV, Josh 5:13-15).

This was one of those sweet surprises that come when we’re quietly reading our Bibles.  I realized Joshua needed his own version of the burning bush Moses had seen, his own unique assurance he was never alone.  He must have heard Moses share the story of suddenly seeing a bush that wouldn’t burn and then hearing that directive voice to leave the desert and confront Pharaoh to free his people.  Joshua knew that was the beginning of Moses’ journey that would change not only the Hebrew people’s lives, but the world – with the Ten Commandments becoming the basis of Western civilization’s law codes for centuries.

Now Joshua needed his own sign, knowing his role was to clear the land of Canaan and fulfill the Biblical promise harking back to Abraham, the covenant promise of not only ancestors but of a land where they could live.  An image of someone with a sword must have been exactly what Joshua needed to boost his courage and forge ahead.

And that’s how Biblical signs continue:  precisely suited to meet our individual needs.  I hope every reader of this column has discerned at least one such sign created just for you, on which you are building your life.  Such signs have been for me, the greatest treasure and encouragement.  Reinforcement of the importance of these spiritual markers in our lives is one of the many reasons that daily Bible reading brings such appreciable joy.

Example of markers for Horner Reading Plan.

We offer a specific reading plan on the Bibleroads website.     If you’ve tried reading the Scriptures straight through, beginning in Genesis and getting bogged down around Leviticus, perhaps the Dr. Horner reading plan is also for you.  Here’s the Bible I’m reading through this year with its markers as an illustration of how simple it is to set up. Please let all of us know how you’re doing with any reading plan and what it has meant for you—especially those surprises, tailored for your unique spiritual journey just as they were for Joshua.

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Jerusalem: City of David – part 1

Jerusalem–the holy city for the world’s three monotheistic religions.  It evokes life-changing events for millions and history unparalleled for centuries with political,  religious and archaeological claims to every holy square inch.  To see it for the first time, perhaps standing on Mt. Scopus at sunset, is to have a moment forever etched in memory.

 

Byzantine mosaic map in St. George’s Church, Madaba, Jordan.

The city’s importance through the Byzantine period, in the 6th century CE, is tangibly seen in Madaba, Jordan.  Here a mosaic map, created to show not just locations of sites, but their importance by size, reveals Jerusalem as the center of the world.  As the photograph reveals, “The Holy City of Jerusalem” contained six gates and twenty one towers surrounded by city walls, all displayed in stunning mosaic that covers 15′ square feet of floor in the St. George Byzantine church.

Today, 3000 years later, the City of Jerusalem, working capital of the country of Israel since its founding, continues in daily news headlines as a center of political and religious controversy. Whether it is the potential relocation of the American Embassy to Jerusalem, or the response of Palestinians to sharing their beloved city with others, Jerusalem seems anything but the city of peace.

Bible Roads will be sharing four brief videos from a recent trip to Jerusalem, each one explaining a different facet of the city.  This current vlog (video blog) highlights the Dome of the Rock, that iconic gold dome in virtually every city skyline photograph of this ancient capital city.  It serves as a sacred destination for Jews since it is thought to be the rock on which Abraham started to sacrifice his son, Isaac.  It also is thought to be the site where the holiest of holies was located for both the Temple Solomon built in the 9th century BCE, and the second Temple built after return from the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BCE.

For Muslims, this site is a shrine — not a mosque–for those pilgrims who want to commemorate where Muhammad was supposed to have ascended, and was built in the 7th century CE.

The Dome of the Rock sits on what is known as The Temple Mount, which rises above the Kidron Valley and sits directly across from the Garden of Gethsemane.  Following his night in the garden praying, Jesus was taken to the Temple Mount where the palace of Annas, the High Priest, was located.  After his questioning, Jesus was transferred to the palace of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, nearby.   As mentioned, every square inch:   holy ground.

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