Psalms and Proverbs Times Twelve
A Guaranteed Investment Plan
I have just finished a most valuable Bible reading endeavor. It was suggested that we as a church, but individually, read the Psalms and Proverbs and one of the minor prophets through each month. I am afraid that I failed to complete the minor prophets, but I gained enormously from my monthly trek through 150 Psalms and 31 Proverbs. They are now like old friends, much warmer than just acquaintances, and I shall re-visit them often, companions in the struggle. And don’t you have to spend several hours with someone before becoming friends? I also imagine each Psalm and each Proverb as an individual picket, forming a beautiful picket fence to hedge me in, straight and tall and firm and protective. This is an exercise that changes one, rather like my going to Africa did. You can never be quite the same again. You cannot unlearn what you have taken in so systematically. What a legacy of wisdom and compassion has been given to us in this string of pearls!
It will be a real challenge to highlight what I found. As an overview, the Psalms are a plea for God to rise up and act and to see what we suffer. They are a plea for vindication and for justice. I am made to think of the Innocence Project, a national organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted prisoners through DNA testing. Over 300 men and women have been found innocent, often after having spent years in prison. One can only imagine what their freedom must mean to them when they are released. The cry for justice and the understanding that we must wait for it is repeated over and over. With regard to innocence and justice, we are urged in Psalm 18 to withhold judgment until we have heard both sides: “The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him.” What wise words and somber. I am convinced that God will have His own “innocents” project. While we in the U.S. make a noble attempt to institute blind justice, our God will display a justice, combined with mercy and grace, which will be dazzling to behold.
Both Psalms and Proverbs display a passionate search for wisdom that is becoming foreign to our culture. These writings vehemently contradict the idea that wisdom is unimportant or that it can be superseded by lifestyle. That God is in control is not doubted for a moment and we are given two principal ways that we can know Him: 1) through the Scriptures, and 2) through His anointed one to come. Someone insightfully has said that “The New is in the Old contained; the Old is in the New explained.”
This exercise gives one the opportunity to notice repetition and to watch for recurring words or a “Haven’t I seen that somewhere before?” question. I absolutely delighted in seeing the number of times God’s love is said to be unfailing. Try 77 times alone in the Psalms and Proverbs! I get it! God’s love is never to be doubted, as it is not possible for it to fail. A proper response might just be: “In God we trust.” We dare not let those words fall by the wayside or become meaningless. We see the pattern or routine of David’s praise to God — deliberate and then outward focusing as in his writings which communicate his heart to us today. This might just be a good lesson plan for us to follow.
Psalm 15 is only five verses long and one could easily pass right over it. Stop! It is an invaluable integrity test! One question: who may enter God’s Kingdom or presence? The answer: those who 1) do what is right, 2) speak the truth, 3) refuse to slander or harm their neighbors (massive introspective question here: who are my neighbors?!), 4) refuse to speak evil of their friends, 5) hate sin, 6) honor God’s faithful ones, 7) keep their promises, even when it hurts, 8) do not charge interest on money they have lent, and 9) refuse to accept bribes to testify against the innocent. This is a pass/fail test, not an 80 percenter.
David’s statement in Psalm 101:3 screams out at us as we navigate the world we have inherited: “I will refuse to look at anything vile and vulgar.” How set apart we must be from what is thought worthy in today’s system. I am reminded of Job’s “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look with lust upon a young woman” (Job 31:1). What a strong word to use. We don’t often think of using “covenant” in that manner, but what a brilliant stand to take, and how very relevant to today’s world. Psalm 12:8 stresses that evil is praised throughout the land. Let us not be a part of that. Psalm 119 adds the instruction that there can be no compromise with evil. There is a life manual here.
Psalm 116:2 provides a vivid picture: “I love the LORD because He hears and answers my prayers; because He bends down and listens, I will pray as long as I have breath.” And verse 5 provides us with a theology of kindness regarding the character of God: “How kind the LORD is! How good He is!” This is of great importance with regard to the charges of Calvinists who maintain that God can and does torture eternally (see the movie Hell and Mr. Fudge, A Little Story about a Big Lie, or my review of Hell, A Final Word at 21stcr.org). So, if God is of the Calvinist variety, then every time God destines a creature to damnation that unfailing love which Scripture speaks of is a lie. How absolutely critical that we know the character of the God we worship — first, so that we recognize Him, and secondly, because we shall become like Him.
It is also imperative that we know what God is not like. Psalm 103 helps us there: “He will not constantly accuse us, nor remain angry forever” (v. 10). (This reasonable question would then follow — how then could He punish us forever?) Psalm 103 also is known as the mother lode of golden truths: God’s character as a loving Father revealed, His intentions toward us named, His mercy outlined, and our futures secured. “For He understands how weak we are; He knows we are only dust. Our days on earth are like grass; like wildflowers, we bloom and die. The wind blows and we are gone — as though we had never been here. But the love of the LORD remains forever with those who fear Him. His salvation extends to the children’s children of those who are faithful to His covenant, of those who obey His commandments” (Ps. 103:15-18). Like the wildflowers mentioned above is our plaintive plea to that all merciful Father: “Forget-me-not.”
There are things a person cannot help but understand after submersing oneself in the Psalms for a year. One is simply where the dead are. Psalm 146:4: “When their breathing stops, they return to the earth, and in a moment all their plans come to an end.” Or Psalm 115:17: “The dead cannot sing praises to the LORD, for they have gone into the silence of the grave.” Or Psalm 76:5b: “They lie before us in the sleep of death.” And it is further interesting that God grieves when His loved ones die (Ps. 116:15b), when they too “sleep the sleep of death” (Ps. 13:3). How can such a thing be when as is commonly heard, “He has taken them ‘home’”?! How odd that we never hear Psalm 115:16: “The heavens belong to the LORD, but he has given the earth to all humanity.”
The other things-to-be-known-for-sure item would be what the Promise was and is. Psalm 25:13 reveals that the children of God’s followers will inherit “the Promised Land.” Six times that land promise is affirmed in Psalm 37: “The godly will inherit the land”; “those blessed by the LORD will inherit the land”; “those who are gentle and lowly will possess the land”; “you will live in the land forever”; “then you will live safely in the land and prosper”; “those who trust in the LORD will possess the land.” A wise person has said that if you do not understand the Old Testament, you will inevitably misunderstand the New. If you understand that the land promise in the Old Testament comes through in the New as the Kingdom of God you will do well.
The Proverbs contrast every foolish course of action with a wise one. They challenge all readers: “If you are this, become that.” Children (and all of us are) could have a field day here, with the massive variety of advice, caution, guarantees, maxims. Life lessons, to be sure, companions in error prevention, absolutely required knowledge (and practice!). They are more necessary today than ever with the demeaning of old virtues and substitution of new “virtues” (acceptance, toleration, murder disguised as choice, etc.). Psalm 119:9 asks “How can a young person stay pure?” The answer is there, as it were, gift-wrapped.
Proverbs provide a non-negotiable directive for children in respect of their parents. The status of parenthood is a venerated one and to be regarded as such. God set it up that way. David reflects a parallel of this in that he was afraid to harm Saul in any way as long as Saul was in the position of King (“God forbid that I should…”) I believe that God has so ordered the parent/child relationship (think: Godparents). It is the position which is hallowed. To disrespect it is to take on God.
In both Psalms and Proverbs the importance and necessity of humility could not be more emphasized than it is. There are many words used to describe the opposite character traits: stubborn, arrogant, boastful, proud, etc. Is it not interesting that one hurts oneself the most by these stultifying flaws because they deprive one of growth, of learning, of improving? You simply cannot learn or grow in that condition; you stunt your own growth.
There are some hard and challenging concepts in the Psalms. Some 32 Psalms have not only a cry for justice but an appeal to bring calamity upon one’s enemies. They are known as imprecatory Psalms, praying for evil to befall those who do not love God. What helps me here is the knowledge of the continual and recurring theme of repentance in Scripture. Our Father always desires (indeed, begs) us to repent. Psalm 83:17, 18, for example, asks God to “make them failures in everything they do, until they learn that you alone are called the LORD.” We are not allowed to rejoice when our enemies stumble; we are allowed no “paybacks” — that is for the Judge of the whole universe to do. And, of course, we have to busy ourselves doing that enemy-loving thing which we are under orders to do.
Although I write as a novice (in-depth studies of these wonderful books could engage one for years), there is one technical detail that I would like to mention. That is parallelism, where one idea is repeated, saying the same thing in different words. The second idea reinforces the first: “I can never escape from your spirit! I can never get away from your presence!” (Ps. 139:7). Spirit and presence are not two different things but different words for the same thing. In Proverbs we find contrasting parallelism like this: “It is better to be poor and godly than rich and dishonest.” The Proverbs are filled with this writing technique. It is so good to be aware of it. Parallelism can also be used by way of contrast as in “If I go up to heaven, you are there, if I go down to the place of the dead, you are there” (Ps. 139:8).
I have saved the best for last. Psalm 110:1 is the crowning glory of the Psalms, a brilliant insight into our universe and how it functions. Without this understanding we are lost, prey to lies and a dysfunctional approach to our Creator. Psalm 110:1: “The LORD said to my lord, ‘Sit in honor at my right hand until I humble your enemies, making them a footstool under your feet.’” What is revealed here is nothing less than a magnificent truth — there are two Lords in Scripture. One is speaking to another, telling the other what to do. This is not God speaking to another Lord God! This is the Father speaking to the Son, in His Plan, as David is privileged to see it. The second lord is adoni in Hebrew and adoni is never in all of its 195 occurrences a title of Deity. Jesus is the unique man Messiah (1 Tim. 2:5).
Anything worth doing is going to take some muscle and time. We use the word applied regarding science, etc. Why not apply the precious Psalms and Proverbs material to our practical lives, our thought processes, our planning, our dealing with others? It is said that out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. Perhaps by immersing ourselves in this incredible knowledge we will of necessity spill over, blessing others; the need is great.
How is this for an all encompassing statement describing God’s character and purposes toward us?: “For his unfailing love toward those who fear him is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth. He has removed our rebellious acts as far away from us as the east is from the west” (Ps. 103:11, 12). Everlasting grace — which is to say “Thy Kingdom come.”
And the Gospel in Psalms? There it is from chapter two onwards – the joint promise of both Savior and Kingdom, whole and complete. How well did Jesus know and understand these Scriptures? Well enough that He would quote Psalm 22 as He was dying, giving absolute authenticity to prophecy of a 1000 years earlier. Jesus derived courage and conviction and sober resolution from these words of Scripture. May we do the same. May the 26 occurrences of “His faithful love endures forever” in Psalm 136 echo, and resound and pound, and encourage and convince us as they did Jesus!