DEVOTION: Maintaining God’s Standards (Psalm 1:1-6)
Psalm 1 comes in two parts. In the first part there is a description of the righteous man, who is not like the wicked man at all, but is devoted to God. As a consequence, he prospers in everything he does. In the second part, however, there is a description of the godless man, who is worthless in himself, and faces judgement by God.
The psalm describes a situation which is very black and white. A person is either righteous, or godless. And it concludes that “YHWH knows the way of the righteous, whilst the way of the wicked will perish.”
In one sense, Psalm 1 is a picture of extremes—there is no middle ground. But in another sense, it is a warning, not to cross the line from the righteous to the godless in our private faith, or in our public expression.
Now, in life, we all have to make many decisions. And we face easy decisions and difficult ones. But what Psalm 1 does is to remind us that the decisions we make should be based on God’s laws, not man’s. Indeed, we shouldn’t just go with the flow because, “That’s how things are done these days.”
Psalm 1 is a challenge for all Christians to maintain God’s standards at all times. But that isn’t necessarily an easy thing to do at all.
Posted: 21st April 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: A Formula for Prayer (Psalm 10:1-18)
Psalm 10 is not only a prayer for rescue from the attacks of unscrupulous men, but it is also a formula for prayer for dealing with the problems of life. It comes in three parts …
In the first part (1-11) the psalmist describes the situation as he sees it. And it is a picture of a world where evil men seem to have the upper hand and who seem to be constantly thumbing their noses at God. As a consequence, for the writer, everything was going wrong, and he details all that he is suffering.
In the second part (12-15) he appeals to God for help. But in doing so, he is not frightened of telling God how he feels. He is even free to suggest to God what should happen to his enemies. However, he doesn’t seek revenge himself, he looks to God to do that.
And in the third part (16-18), having expressed his feelings, he continues as though the problem had never existed. And why does the Psalm end like that? Because he has confidence that God has everything in hand.
Psalm 10, then, gives us a formula for when things go wrong. Indeed, it suggests that it is alright to tell God what he already knows, and that it’s alright to express our feelings in prayer. However, when all that is done, it also suggests that the right attitude is to then leave the matter totally in God’s hands (which is not an easy thing to do).
This psalm, then, is a formula for healthy living. And one we would well to apply to ourselves, particularly when we find ourselves in difficulties too.
Posted: 24th March 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis
BIBLE STUDY: Suffering and the Christian Faith (Psalm 22:1-31)
The reality of suffering and faith is something that many Christians struggle with. After all, we can wonder how a person with God in their lives, can still experience the depths of desperate times.
Psalm 22 does not attempt to explain why people of faith face such hardships; rather it simply accepts that as reality. Its intention was probably to provide a congregation with a tool to help them identify with others who were going through rough times.
So, have you ever had a time when things had become all too much, and that you’d even felt abandoned by God? And, at the time, did you receive help from anyone in the church?
PART ONE: A LAMENT (1-21)
A. ABANDONED BY GOD:
READ: Psalm 22:1-5
1. Are the words of verse 1 familiar? How does Jesus’ experience on the cross (where he quoted these words), help us understand the depth of despair being expressed?
2. Verse 3 provides a dramatic contrast to verses 1 and 2. So, at this other extreme, what image of God is being described?
3. Verses 4 and 5 provide a glimmer of hope in the midst of despair. How should knowing the stories in the bible, and sharing experiences with other Christians help us, when we are in moments of despair?
B. LESS THAN A MAN
READ: Psalm 22:6-11
4. Despite the glimmer of hope (verses 4-5), in contrast to his image of God, the Psalmist expresses little value for his own life (verse 6-8). Have you ever been through such depths of despair? And if so, how did you feel?
5. Jesus, on the cross, was not only mocked by others, but according to Christian beliefs, also bore the weight of the sins of the world as well. How do you think our sufferings compare with those that Jesus experienced?
6. Verses 9-11 suggest that there can be hope, even in the midst of utter despair. To whom does the Psalmist look for hope? And what place does he put on his own efforts?
C. ONE THING AFTER ANOTHER
READ: Psalm 22:12-21
7. In verses 12-18 there seems to be no end to the things the Psalmist went through. It was just one thing after another. How often in our lives do we seem to go through similar experiences?
8. Jesus himself faced a number of trials in his ministry years. What were some of the things that he faced in his three years of ministry, and what particularly did he go through in the last 12 hours of his life?
9. Despite his prolonged suffering, the Psalmist believed that God could save him from his predicament (verses 19-21). So, whether we are currently going through the depths of despair or not, is that our attitude too? And if so, what is the extent to which we believe that God can save us?
PART TWO: PRAISE AND THANKSGIVING (22-31)
D. PRAISING GOD
READ: Psalm 22:22-31
10. At verse 22, there is a sudden change in the Psalm from “lament” to “praise and thanksgiving”. It reflects the idea that, despite the Psalmist feeling abandoned by God, God had been with him all the time, and that God had come to his rescue. When God rescues us, do we respond with praise and thanksgiving too?
11. When Jesus rose from the tomb on the first Easter Day, the events of the previous days (and years) started to all make sense to the disciples. Once they realized that Jesus had risen from the dead, how did the attitude of the disciples change?
12. When we are consumed with our own affairs it may be very hard for us to see the whole picture. However, the images of verses 25-31 are not just expressions of praise and thanksgiving in response to the Psalmist being rescued by God, but they also provide images of what is to come. What are some of those images? And what part do we play within them?
Posted: 2nd June 2015
© 2015, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: King David's Shepherd King (Psalm 23)
Today I’d like to take you on a journey, not only to another place, but to another time. To a place thousands of kilometers away, and a time three thousand years ago. To the Middle East, and to a different world.
1. The Shepherd (1 Samuel 16-17)
Because there on the slopes of Bethlehem, a town eight kilometers south of Jerusalem, we can find a fifteen-year-old boy. He is the youngest of eight sons. And his responsibility is to look after the family’s sheep. And very good he was at it too.
He knew that the safety of the flock was his responsibility. He knew that if anything happened to any of his charges, he would have to pay for any losses out of his own pocket (that is, unless he could prove that a wild beast was responsible for the loss). He was a responsible boy, considered an adult in those days. And even at the tender age of fifteen, he had acquired the skills necessary in order to carry out his duties. He knew how to care for his flock, and protect them. And his skill with a sling to ward off predators was not only something in which he had become very proficient, but was something that in later years would become very well noted.
2. The King (1 Samuel 16 and 2 Samuel 5)
Now, I want you to travel with me off the slopes, and down into Bethlehem itself. Because something important is going on there. Indeed, one of the most important religious leaders of the time has arrived. And led by God, he is looking for someone to anoint as a future king.
Imagine your surprise then when a fifteen-year-old boy—the same fifteen-year-old boy as we’ve just seen on the slopes—is selected. He’s a shepherd—not seen as the greatest job there ever was. He’s the youngest of the family—not the eldest. In fact, he’s not someone you’d normally think was suitable to be king at all. And here he is being anointed to be king, when the current king dies.
Now you’ve probably worked out by now who our shepherd-king is. It’s David. And the twist to the story is that he doesn’t become king for another fifteen years. By which time his life will have been threatened on more than one occasion. And even when he does become king, it will take a further seven years to fight off all the challenges from the previous king’s family and descendants.
3. The Man of God (1 Samuel 17 & 2 Samuel 7)
But leaving that twist aside for a moment, as you look at the fifteen-year-old boy—the shepherd boy being anointed king—you become aware of something else about him. This is no ordinary boy. This is a man of God—someone with deep religious beliefs and convictions; someone who believes that God is guiding him through life; someone with a real faith that God is in charge, and that he needs to be obedient to him.
That’s not too say you get the impression that David is an angel. Indeed, even though history would describe David, as being the greatest king of Israel, it would also describe some major faults. But it would describe David’s acknowledgement of God’s hand in helping him in daily life—from delivering him from attacks by lions and bears, who were attacking his sheep, as a shepherd boy, to acknowledging God’s hand in giving him the throne.
It’s not surprising then, that at some stage in his life, David would envisage God in terms of his own experience—of being both a shepherd, and a king. And being a bit of a musician he wrote a song. And I think you’ll find the words are very familiar.
1. The Caring Shepherd (1-4c)
The Lord is my shepherd; I will lack nothing. He lets me rest in grassy meadows. David knew what it was like to be a shepherd. He was well aware of the shepherds’ role in looking after the needs of the sheep. And he saw God’s role in his life as being a far more superior shepherd. God provided all his needs. He never wanted for anything. And he could rest peacefully, knowing God was looking out for him, and was on constant guard for his safety.
He refreshes me besides quiet waters. He restores my soul. David knew all about the responsibility to guide the flock, to provide water for refreshment, and to provide rest—to restore the sheep back to vitality when they needed refreshing. And he called on God many times for his leadership and direction, and to thank him for his abundant provision.
He leads me along paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. David knew all about keeping his flock on the right path. He knew too the jealously kept reputation that shepherds had for caring for their flock. He knew from personal experience, that he had strayed from the straight and narrow many times. But each time God had guided him back, and set him straight once again.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will not fear evil. David knew that even in rough times—when things looked bad and the sheep were getting scared and fearful—that the sheep would look to him for guidance and protection. This was indeed a vital role for the shepherd. And David had experienced some pretty rough times himself. But he always came through the situation with the confidence of knowing he wasn’t alone, but that God was with him.
2, Summary of the Shepherd Section
In the song that he wrote, then, David didn’t just describe any old shepherd, he described God. He described God as someone far superior and far more able to care than he ever was, would be, or could be. And, of course, he described his own relationship with him.
3. God with us (4d-f)
It’s perhaps not surprising then that he linked this first section—the Shepherd section of the Psalm—with the idea of the assurance of God’s presence: For you are present with me; your club and your shepherd’s staff bring me comfort. The club, used by a shepherd for defense, to drive away wild animals. The staff, much longer than the club, used as a support.
There’s a reassurance, David described, in knowing that God is there. And that he has the ability and the power, to protect his people no matter what the circumstances.
4. The Gracious King (5-6)
Now at this point in David’s song the images of the far superior shepherd are complete. He has described God and his relationship with him in terms of being a shepherd. But when he wrote this, David had not only been a shepherd, but he was currently a king. So, in his Psalm he turned to some images of kingship, and the imagery of the royal court.
You have set a table before me, and I can feast in the presence of my enemies. David knew well what it was like to be king, and still to be surrounded by enemies. At the beginning of his reign, there was Saul’s family. At the end, his own family. And during his reign there were the Philistines, and all the other surrounding nations. David could identify his God therefore as a king who still provided for his needs even though some very serious situations remained unresolved.
You have anointed my head with oil. The cup you have given me is overflowing. Oil, symbolic of rejoicing, and used on festive occasions. This wasn’t just a God who provided for his people’s basic needs. This was a God who was a generous host. He just didn’t look after people’s basic needs, he provided in abundance for his people.
Surely goodness and mercy will pursue me all the days of my life. David knew all about the welfare a king needed to provide for his people. And David felt literally pursued by the goodness of God.
I will live in the house of the Lord. Forever. David knew that being on the throne, living in Jerusalem, and life itself, was something that someday would come to an end. So, he expressed trust and confidence that his relationship with God was something that would continue beyond the grave. And indeed, it would be one that would never end.
5. Summary of the King Section
Now this wasn’t just any king that David was describing. This was God. Far from being a human king with all their weaknesses and limitations, this is an image of a gracious king—a God concerned with the welfare of those devoted to him, making sure that his followers not only had their basic needs met, but that their needs were met in abundance.
Now, one of the problems with the twenty-third Psalm is its familiarity. We hear it at church, at funerals, and weddings. We sing it in various forms, like “The Lord’s my Shepherd” or “The King of Love My Shepherd Is” or one of a number of variations. And in a sense, it’s become too familiar.
So, it’s helpful to be reminded that the Psalm is an attempt by one man to use his experiences of life, as both a shepherd and a king, to describe God in terms that he could understand. And he did so by describing both a shepherd and a king, but in a way that was far superior than he could ever be.
It’s also helpful to be reminded, that David may have written about more than he could possibly have known. Because it’s no coincidence that Jesus, a descendant of David, and born in the same town where David lived as a young boy, used the same images of being a shepherd and king to describe himself.
1. The Good Shepherd (John 10:14-15)
“I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and my sheep know me, just as the father knows me and I know the Father. I lay down my life for the sheep.” Jesus identified himself as the shepherd, and he took personal responsibility for his sheep—us.
2. The King of the Jews (Luke 23:3)
And the dialogue between Pilate and Jesus just hours before he died: “Then Pilate questioned Jesus. He said, “Are you the king of the Jews?” And Jesus answered him, “It is as you say.” Jesus claimed to be king over his people, and he gave up his life so that they (and we) could be saved.
Now there’s no doubt that this Psalm had a lot of meaning for David. It is very personal. But is David’s shepherd-king the one we know and experience too?
After all, do we experience God as the caring shepherd? As someone who is concerned for our needs. Who is constantly on guard for our (spiritual) safety. Who restores us to life. Who brings us back to vitality when we are down. Who is someone who, when we stray, puts us back on the straight and narrow. And when things look bad, is someone who we can look to for guidance and protection.
And do we experience God as the gracious king? Providing for our needs, even in the midst of our enemies—even though many things remain unresolved. Who not only provides for our needs, but provides in abundance. Who cares for our welfare, and indeed pursues us with goodness. And who has committed himself to a continuing personal relationship that will continue beyond the grave.
And do we experience God, as the one person who has the ability and power to protect his people, no matter what the circumstances?
Without doubt in his Psalm, David conjures up some very powerful images of God. A God who he knew intimately. But is this our God? And do we identify with the images?
Posted: 25th March 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Unity in the Kingdom (Psalm 133:1-3)
1. Sorting Out the Psalms
I’d like to begin with the first line of Psalm 133: See how agreeable and delightful it is for brothers to live united together. (133:1)
Now I‘ve had good reason to look at this psalm. For those who don’t know, I’ve been working on my second book in the series A Twenty-First-Century Bible – translations intended to make the bible easier to understand. And what I’ve been trying to do is to put the psalms “Of David”, of which there are 73, into their historical context.
The idea behind this, is so that I can include in the narrative the psalms which relate to the specific events described, whilst placing the psalms of a more general nature, or where the specific historical events cannot be identified, into a special section on their own.
2. The Chronology of David
Of course sorting out David’s life into some sort of chronological order has not been an easy task. There are two versions of David’s story – one in 1 & 2 Samuel, and the other in 1 Chronicles. Both have their differences, and there are problems with the order of events. So getting David’s chronology in reasonable order has been a challenge in itself.
3. Psalm 133
But let’s get back to Psalm 133. Where does it fit into David’s chronology? When were the people living together in unity? And what are the things that we can learn by even attempting this exercise?
B. HISTORICAL SETTING
1. Historical Criteria
Well to answer the questions the first thing we need to look at is the historical criteria detailed in the psalm. Because the psalm doesn’t just describe the unity of the people, but something of the circumstances behind that unity. And what we can see is: in verse two we have a reference to the anointing with oil; at the beginning of verse 3 we have a reference to Mount Zion; and at the end of verse 3 we have a reference to God blessing his people from the mountain.
So how does this all fit together?
2. Clue 1: David Anointed King
Well in regard to the anointing of oil, in the days of David there were only two people who were anointed with oil – The High Priest, and the King. And they were anointed with oil as part of their commissioning or appointment for the task. Now David probably wasn’t even born when Saul was made king. And yet the anointing with oil was evidently a very important part of his memory. Indeed the psalm suggests this anointing may have been recent and personal.
The trouble is that when we look for a time in David’s life when he was anointed with oil, we discover that he was anointed three times. The first time, when Samuel anointed him successor to King Saul; the second time when he was made king over the tribe of Judah; and the third time when he was made king over the whole of Israel.
And were the people united at any of these times? No! Because at the first time, aged about 15, Saul was still king, and at that time Saul was having great trouble keeping the people together. The second time was when David was 30. But he may have been made king of Judah, but the rest of Israel had appointed their own king – one of Saul’s descendants. And the third time was when David was 37, and had been made king over Israel. But the people were far from united. Indeed as far as Israel was concerned it was a very uneasy alliance. And with a number of Saul’s descendants still being around, who could be considered potential kings, David had to tread very carefully indeed.
So the unity of the people did not coincide with any of these three events. As a consequence we need to look further into the events of David’s life, after his third anointing, but whilst his anointing was still fresh on his mind.
3. Clue 2: The Capture of Jebus
So if the anointing of David wasn’t the event that united the people, then let’s move on to the second clue: the reference to Mount Hermon and Mount Zion. Now Mount Hermon in Syria is visible from many parts of Israel. It is also known for its dews, which are refreshing and invigorating. So the connection with the idea of life on Mount Zion in the context of a united people makes a lot of sense.
But how does this fit in to David’s chronology? Well at the time that David was made king over Israel, Mount Zion was not even in the hands of Israel or the tribe of Judah. Indeed the town, “Jebus” as it was known at the time, was still part of the Promised Land that needed to be conquered.
But David, having been made king of Judah and Israel, needed a base to work from. And with the uneasy alliance, he needed a place that was neither part of Judah nor Israel – somewhere neutral where he could base his administration and his army. Somewhere in which none of the people had a vested interest.
So he organized the combined armies to attack Jebus. They took the city, and David renamed it the “City of David”. (Of course we know it as “Jerusalem” (“foundation of peace”), but that name was only adopted later as the city expanded).
So then is this the point that we can say that the people were truly united? Well the answer is still no. The taking of Jebus may have helped unite the people, but there were still tensions between Israel and the tribe of Judah. And that wouldn’t have been helped by the Philistines, who were used to occupying parts of the land, being very threatened by David being made king over all of Israel.
4. Clue 3: God on Mount Zion
So how are we going…? What was it that united the people? Well we only have one clue left. That is God blessing the people from Zion.
Now for David, being king, and having an administrative and military centre was one thing. But the City of David was not the spiritual centre of the land. Indeed the place where all males were required to go three times a year, and where the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle were located, was still in Kiriath Jearim, 23 kilometres north-west of the city. As a consequence, from a political point of view, to bring everything together, it needed to be moved to the city.
Of course you could say that God is everywhere, he doesn’t need physical representation in the city. But as far as the people were concerned, God had instructed them to worship in the one central place, and had provided the structure necessary for that to happen. So very early on, having become king and having conquered Jebus, David moved the Ark into the city.
Now if you want to read the story of the Ark coming into the city, I suggest you need to read both versions of the story – the one in 2 Samuel and the one in 1 Chronicles. Because only when you combine the two versions do you really get that sense of enthusiasm, and excitement, as the Ark is brought into the City.
Now for me, this was the first time that all aspects of psalm 133 fit together. A new king had been anointed; the kingdom had its base on Mount Zion, and God was now physically and spiritually present on the mountain. For the first time under David’s rule, the people were truly united.
5. What Happened Next
But did it last?
Well there were a few hiccups early on – any new king had to be careful about the security of his throne. In particular there were tensions with the descendants of Saul, but they were quickly dealt with. But by far the biggest problem in his first 10 years as king was the problems David faced from without – from the surrounding nations.
But having established his throne, and having achieved relative peace within Israel, that unity was then shattered. David’s sons vied for the throne; tensions re-emerged between Judah and Israel; on occasion David had to flee for his life; and at times his own behaviour had much to be desired.
In the last 20 odd years of his life, there was all the talking behind his back, secret meetings, back-stabbings, intrigue, and even the out-and-out rebellion. One thing after another went wrong as people sought to put their own wants and desires before the needs of others.
So what went wrong? Why did the people move from being united to tearing each other part?
Well to answer that, we don’t have to go any further than the day David brought the Ark into the city. Because after the enthusiasm, and the excitement of the day, David returned to his home in the city, and he was confronted by his first wife, Michal. She expressed her great displeasure at his apparent over-enthusiastic welcome of the Ark. And she demonstrated a hatred and bitterness towards David, and a contempt for God.
Michal took her eye of the ball. She completely lost sight of what it meant to have God as the central focus of life. And in that one instance, we have a hint of what was to come.
What we have with this psalm then is a celebration of the unity of the people, based on David’s kingship, with its administrative centre on Mount Zion from which the people could receive God’s blessings. A good, positive, and uplifting psalm. But what we find from the context is that that unity was totally dependent upon the people keeping their eyes firmly focussed upon God.
C. A SONG OF ASCENTS
Now that’s all very well, but as I said, the unity didn’t last. People took their eyes off God. Which is why we need to look at something else about this psalm. Because having worked out its historical context, we need to examine how it was later used.
Now historically this psalm is noted as being “A Song of Ascents”. Now that probably wasn’t a title that David gave it, but one it acquired later. But what it means is that it was used by pilgrims going to Jerusalem to participate in one of the major festivals: i.e. the Feast of Passover/Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks or the Feast of Tabernacles. And what would happen is that as the pilgrims got closer to the city, and start to ascend Mount Zion, they would sing these “Song of Ascents”.
Now, over the next few hundred years, the pilgrims to Jerusalem would not always have been happy with their king. Indeed most of the kings that followed David were not nice people. As a consequence the people would not always have been united either.
So what was the psalm used for? Well in one sense it would have been used to remind the people of happier times. But in another sense it would have been used as a reminder of something to strive for – unity under a common leader; unity with common goals; but most importantly, and those two things depend upon it, unity based on a central focus upon God.
So having solved the mystery, having placed the psalm in its historical context, and having looked at its ongoing use, what can we learn?
1. Human Leadership
Well, how often do we hear on TV, or elsewhere, about how someone would be a great leader? How often are we introduced to someone with a charismatic personality – someone who could truly unite the people? And yet, one of the things that we learn from this psalm is that unity cannot be obtained by simply placing our trust in a human leader.
Indeed, David, considered the greatest king of Israel, was unable to unite the people based on his kingship alone. And yet when he was working as a military commander under Saul, he was the people’s hero. At that time, in the people’s eyes, he couldn’t do anything wrong. Yes, King Saul had a problem with him, but then he was jealous of David, and wanted his own son, Jonathan, to inherit the throne. But even when Saul’s died, David could not gain the unity of the people on his own.
2. Common Goals
How often do we hear the idea of becoming united by pursuing the common ground, or something neutral to which we can all agree? And yet, another thing that we can learn from this psalm is that unity cannot be achieved simply by agreeing to common goals, or neutral bases, either.
Indeed, David was unable to unite the people by having a common, but neutral administrative, and military base – somewhere to which all the people could belong, and have their focus. Yes, it might have helped him bring the people together for a while, but it did not truly unite the people.
3. A Focus on God
What this psalm teaches is that there is only one thing that can truly unite people. And that is people having their eyes focussed fairly and squarely on God.
But does that mean, we should abandon the idea of having a common leader, and abandon the idea of having common goals? No! But what it should mean is that we should pursue a godly leader, and godly goals, with our eyes very firmly focussed on God. Because without God as our central focus everything will just fall apart.
What we see by placing this psalm in its context, then, is the reality that without God we can do nothing. We might be able appoint ourselves a great leader, we might even come to an agreement on a common focus. But without God, we will not be truly united, and what we have, in the end, will simply fall apart.
Now I started today with a psalm, and a mystery. But what we have discovered is that it is a psalm of David which is a snapshot of a moment in time when everything came together. The psalm was also a reminder for pilgrims to Jerusalem to pursue a time when all those things would come together again.
And for us? Well, like the pilgrims, it should also be a reminder for us to pursue a unity under God. Because it is also a warning of how easy it is for that unity to break down.
So, let us be united under a good godly leader. Let us have all things in common. Let us strive for those things. But let us do so the only way that those two things can become possible – with our eyes firmly fixed on our God.
Posted: 30th August 2015
© 2015, Brian A Curtis