Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Discovering God in the Psalms: Secret Codes

I have always loved the Psalms, but learning how to read them was like discovering a secret code.

The Psalms are some of the most beloved of all the Scriptures, for good reasons --
  • There is a Psalm for every situation: whether you are rejoicing, grieving, in trouble, searching for meaning, or marveling at God's creation, the Psalms cover the entire range of human emotion.
  • The Psalms is the largest book in the Bible.
  • The writers of the New Testament quote Psalms more than any other source in Scripture.
Over the next few weeks, we're going to be looking at the character of God, using the Psalms as our tool. But before we can begin to do that, we need to learn a bit about how the Psalms are written.  They're poetry, right?  Well, yes -- but Hebrew poetry doesn't always match our Western way of thinking of poetry.  The commentator sheds some light on the subject:
How the Psalms Communicate Their Meaning
Although the psalms are poetry, they do not deliver their message through rhyming words. They get their point across by laying out a thought one way and then immediately following it with a parallel thought that takes the first thought a step further. It is this interplay between parallel thoughts that forms the individual bricks that add up to the meaning of each psalm. In order to understand the psalms, the reader must avoid seeing the sentences of each psalm as independent wholes and recognize the relationships between parallel lines and sentences.[1]
Looking for parallel lines can unlock our understanding of the Psalms and reveal their beauty.  Whenever you see a line that repeats, that should be a red flag that that's important; ask, what is being emphasized here?
In the morning, O Lord, you hear my voice;
in the morning I lay my requests before you
and wait in expectation.
In Psalm 5:3, by repeating that he goes to the Lord in the morning, David emphasizes that he is putting his time with God as first priority, before anything else in his day.  In the first line, we know that that he is taking time to talk to God; the second line takes this thought further by telling us what he is saying (requests), and especially that he expects to get a response, and that response often requires us to wait and listen for it. It's not enough to blurt out what we want and then "hang up" on God -- it's supposed to be a two-way conversation!

But looking at one or two lines is not enough to understand a Psalm's meaning; you have to look for structure and parallelism throughout the entire poem.

Psalm 5, like many other Psalms, is structured as something called chiastic parallelism, a symmetrical pattern which can be diagrammed like this:
A - first point or idea
    B - next point
       C - center point (usually the most important)
    B - reflects second point
A - returns to, or answers, the first point

The Chaistic structure is something that can be found in a LOT (but not all) of the Psalms, and in fact a lot of other places in the Bible. Even the New Testament has examples of chiasm -- some scholar's even believe the the entire Gospel of Matthew is arranaged in this pattern!

Returning to our example in Psalm 5, we can find this structure:
A1 ( vs 1–3) Confidence in the Lord
   B1 ( vs 4–6) The Lord’s rejection of the wicked
      C ( vs 7–8) Commitment to the Lord’s righteous way
   B2 ( vs 9–10) The Lord’s banishment of rebels
A2 ( vs 11–12) Joy in the Lord

Thus, this psalm is framed by David's confidence in the Lord (remember how he expects an answer in v.3?), expresses his need for protection from evil, and its central focus is his request to come into God's house, and to have the Lord lead.

The fantastic thing is that not only can you see this parallel structure in many Psalms, not only in other passages of the Old and New Testaments, but you can actually see it in the organization of the entire collection of the book of PsalmsJoin us as we continue to explore the Psalms, and what they tell us about the character of God!

View and print the handout for this lesson! (Opens with Internet Explorer.)

1 Robert B. Hughes and J. Carl Laney, Tyndale Concise Bible Commentary (, The Tyndale reference libraryWheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001), 200.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Problem of Pain

"If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy. And if God were almighty, He would be able to do what He wished. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both. This is the problem of pain, in its simplest form." – C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

There's no getting around it: Pain is a part of life. Why? There are many possible answers.

If you don't believe in God, you don't have any trouble answering this question. There is no "why". There is only what is, and what is not. There is no reason, no purpose behind it. But that also means that you have no reason, no purpose for your life.

We, however, believe in a God that loves us absolutely, without hesitation or condition, and who at the same time has absolute power, and can do whatever he wants. And that is where we come across this problem: If He loves me, He wouldn't want me to be in pain, would he? If He is good – perfect, in fact – wouldn't he want to eliminate evil from the world? But He hasn't, obviously, since we see evil and pain and suffering all around us.

So, the thought goes, if He hasn't eliminated pain or evil, either

  1. He doesn't want to, which would mean He's not good, or
  2. He can't, which would mean He isn't all-powerful.
However, this doesn't take into account one other possibility: maybe pain has a purpose. Maybe – just maybe – God is smarter than us, and knows of a good reason to allow pain to exist.

Are there any good things about pain that you can think of? What is a purpose it could serve?

  1. Pain tells us when something is wrong. Pain helps to prevent you from twisting your arm the wrong way, or jumping off a building, or any number of things that would harm your body. And if your body is injured, pain screams at you, "Fix me!" If you ignore that pain, like professional sports players sometimes do, you risk causing permanent damage.
    In the same way, emotional pain can tell us when something is wrong. If you cringe when you hear one friend lying to another, or when you see someone suffering from abuse, that emotional pain is screaming at you that something needs to be fixed.
  2. Pain can be God's way of getting our attention.
    "Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, and shouts in our pain. It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world."— C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
    It is almost a reflex for people to turn to God when they are in pain. Even when they are not regularly devout, those who find themselves in dire situations have a natural tendency to look to the Lord for help, and perhaps He has allowed those things to happen just so that they would see their need for Him. 
The problem of pain becomes even more complex when we try to answer why bad things happen to good people. There is something built into us that desires fairness, most of us believe at a gut level that that life is actually fair. Sometimes we even blame the victim, reasoning that if something bad happened to them, then they must have done something wrong to bring it on themselves.
That's what we find Job's friends doing to him in the midst of his pain:

"Think! Has a truly innocent person ever ended up on the scrap heap? Do genuinely upright people ever lose out in the end? It's my observation that those who plow evil and sow trouble reap evil and trouble." (Job 4:7-8, The Message)
In effect, they are telling Job that if he's in pain, then it must be his own fault! Does that sound like what a person in pain needs to hear? No! When a person is in pain, it is not our role to find problems with them, or to add guilt to their discouragement.  Instead, we are to be a people who lift each other up in spirit and in prayer (Hebrews 3:12-13).

The Lord himself answers Job's friends in the last chapters of the book, telling them that their view of Him as a vengeful and unmerciful God are plain incorrect:

“My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right" (Job 42:7, ESV)
To Job himself, the Lord shows again and again that He is the ultimate in power and knowledge.  He challenges,

 8 “Would you discredit my justice?
Would you condemn me to justify yourself?
 9 Do you have an arm like God’s,
and can your voice thunder like his? (Job 40:8-9, NIV)

In other words, how could you, Job, possibly know what the Creator of the Earth knows? How could you dare to challenge my reasons for allowing what happens? No, it is because of who God is, not what He does, that we are to trust Him.  In the midst of our pain, we can always to the Lord as a source of comfort who never fails. 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17