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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Psalm 135: How Great thou Art

Preached at Christ Church, Billericay 16 March at 8am


This is quite a different Psalm from psalm 23, that I spoke on last month.  Psalm 23 has a very personal element that Psalm 135 seems to lack, although even here there are some personal statements.  This psalm is like a collection of favourite verses in the bible put together into a song.  Here's the list:
Psalm 135:1 from Psalm 134:1 and 113:1
Psalm 135:2 from Psalm 134:1
Psalm 135:3 from Psalm 147:1
Psalm 135:4 from Exodus 19:5 and Deuteronomy 7:6
Psalm 135:5 from Exodus 19:5 and 18:11
Psalm 135:6 from Psalm 115:3
Psalm 135:7 from Jeremiah 10:13 and Job 38:22
Psalm 135:8-12 from Psalm 136:10-22
Psalm 135:13-18 from Exodus 3:15; Deuteronomy 32:36; Isaiah 44:12-;20; Jeremiah 10:6-10
Psalm 135:19-20 from Psalm 115:9-11
Psalm 135:21 from Psalm 128:5 and Psalm 134:3
It seems to have been written for use in the temple liturgy of the second temple. It is part of the group of psalms (120-136) known as the “Great Hallal” and starts and ends with Hallelujah's.
And here's how the song is constructed:
1-4 Israel’s Praise
5-7 Yahweh's Greatness as creator
8-14 Yahweh's Redemptive Acts in History
15-18 Inability of Idols
19-21 Israel’s praise

1-4 Israel’s Praise

The psalm opens with Hallelujah, translated “Praise the Lord”, which sounds like an instruction to us, but is as much “Praise of the Lord” as and encouragement to “Praise the Lord”. The praise is to start from those who are closest to God, those who “minister in the house of the Lord” - inside the temple – the priests and move to those in the temple courts – outside where the regular worshippers meet.
We praise the Lord because He is good, and the act of praise is pleasant.  Then as now a great song of worship can lift the congregation and improve their mood, and that is what this Psalm is meant to do.  We all feel better after a really good song of praise.
It is then we find out why the Israelites can praise their Lord so readily and heartily.  Praise the Lord because he has chosen your family to be His own – to receive His special favour.

5-7 Yahweh's Greatness as creator

Now, in the second part of the Psalm we move from the family to the individual. Verse 5 starts with I.  “I know ...”.  The Lord is not just a great God because he has chosen my family, but because he has chosen me, and I know it.  The Lord is greater than all the other Gods, I know that he is in charge of all creation – He does whatever pleases him, in the heavens, on the earth in the sea and under the earth.  He controls the weather.  These are the psalmists personal experiences of God.

8-14 Yahweh's Redemptive Acts in History

In verse 8 the emphasis moves from the general elements of creation to the specifics that the Israelites have to be thankful to God for.  Immediately we are taken back to the escape from Egypt in the Exodus, and the final act of God that made that escape possible.  He struck down the first born of Pharaoh and all the Egyptians, but it was not just escape that was made possible, it was also entry to the promised land.  Sihon, Og, and all the kings of Canaan had to be overcome before the Israelites could enter the promised land.  The land was then given to the Israelites as an inheritance. 
Having set God up as a fearsome Lord, destroying all the enemies, this section ends with a reminder the Lord will be there forever – through all generations.  He will vindicate his people and have compassion on His servants.  He will not treat His chosen ones like the enemies He has defeated for them, to get them to the promised land.

15-18 Inability of Idols

Now we concentrate on the reasons the other kingdoms failed: Their gods are just idols, they are silver and gold made by men, they do not speak, see, hear or breathe, unlike the God of the Israelites.  It's a stark choice, do you put your trust in the God of everything, or the idol that is nothing, that is the comparison.  The section ends with the expectation that you become who you believe in.

19-21 Israel’s praise

In the final section we return to the Hallelujah's this time we start with the praise of Israel, and return to the priests and the Levites, but there is also the more general “you who fear him”, implying that there are those in Israel who do not!

Christian Approach

As we have already said, the psalm was written for the liturgy of the second temple, it was most certainly not written with us in mind. So how should we as Christians understand the Psalm, and use it?
The first, and most important thing to note is that, while it was not written for us, it still conveys some very basic and important truths about The Lord God, all these things we know:
The Lord is Good
Praising the Lord is pleasant
The Lord has chosen us, just as he chose Jacob
We are His treasured possession (I am his treasured possession) [Say it]
The Lord is greater than all the other things we make into gods – mainly ourselves these days
The Lord does whatever pleases him (v6), although we may not believe that He manages the weather second-by-second, we still believe that he has ultimate control of it.
We know that the Lord does miracles, but the miracle we look back to is not the escape from Egypt, but the death and resurrection of Jesus.  We know that the event we look back to was accompanied by signs and wonders, just as the escape from Egypt was. 
We do not look back to the defeat of nations
(vv11-12), but to the subjugation of the 'principalities and powers' as we watch the world turn from its pagan ways to the Christian faith in the early centuries after the resurrection of Christ.
We know that the Lord endures forever.
That he will vindicate his people, and that he has compassion on his servants.
We know that gold and silver, whether they are coin shaped or fashioned into an image of a being cannot really speak into the world.

Use in worship?

That is looking at the detail of the psalm, and perhaps that is the best way for us to use it.  I tried to find a sung version of the psalm, I was hoping to hear it in the Hebrew language, but I could only find a Serbian chant.  It did not raise my spirits, to my ears it was just something that should be turned off.  I went to the scripture index of my Songs and Hymns of Fellowship (volumes 1-3) to see if there were any songs based on this psalm – there aren't.  Judging by the list it is one of the few psalms that hasn't inspired a modern song.
There is one song that captures the sort of worship this psalm was aimed at, but its verses are specifically Christian.  It praises God, it recognises that creation is His.  It looks back to the amazing miracle that Jesus died for our sins, and rose from the dead to prove He is God, and is coming to collect us and take us to a land so much greater than the land of Israel.
Sing it to yourselves as you leave.
Any suggestions?
The one I thought of is: "How Great Thou Art"

O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art!

When through the woods, and forest glades I wander,
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees.
When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur
And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.


And when I think of God, His Son not sparing;
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;
That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.


When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation,
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.
Then I shall bow, in humble adoration,
And then proclaim: "My God, how great Thou art!"


Sunday, March 09, 2014


Preached at St Johns, Billericay 9 March 2014


In Oscar Wilde's play “Lady Windemere's Fan” Lord Darlington says “I can resist anything but temptation”.  It is said rather flippantly in the play, but for us it is a good starting point.  Should we try to resist temptations, or should we just give in to them?  That is the proposal in another of Oscar Wilde's plays - “The Picture of Dorian Grey”, where Lord Henry says “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.”.  It is quite a contrast to the response that Jesus had when He was tempted.
Are you tempted?  Do you recognise what Oscar Wilde is saying? 
I have several temptations, one that I have suffered from for many years is the temptation to eat when it is not necessary, when I'm not hungry and it's not meal time.  Just writing these words has made my stomach rumble!  I have only recently tried to resist this, so I can say that yielding to temptation does not make the temptation go away.


Lets see what we mean by temptation.
According to the Oxford Dictionary a temptation is “The desire to do something, especially something wrong or unwise”.  Other dictionaries add the concept of evil, so temptation is the desire to do some wrong, unwise or evil.
In the bible the word for tempting can also mean testing.  I saw a good tweet the other day that illustrates this.  “I didn't break it, I was administering a robustness test and it failed”. 
I have started to resist the temptation because I have come to understand that it is unwise.  My weight is beginning to affect my health, so in order to live a healthier life I must resist the temptation.
So let's take a look at the gospel passage we read in the light of those ideas and see where it takes us.
Jesus led to the Wilderness
After his baptism Jesus is led into the wilderness by the spirit to be tempted by the devil.  He has just heard the words ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ Now He has to face a test, it is not a test that is intended to break Jesus, it is one that is intended to prove Him.  To prove that He is up to the task of bringing salvation to mankind.
We must not miss the parallels with the Old Testament.  God's chosen people faced the wilderness immediately after the triumph of escape from the Egyptians, and Jesus will face the wilderness after the triumph of hearing the heavenly voice.

The temptations

For forty days in the Wilderness Jesus fasts, and Matthew says he was hungry.  Forty days is about as much as anyone can fast without being in danger of serious health problems, or even death, so to say that Jesus was hungry was an understatement.  He is weak when the devil attacks. So it is not surprising that the first temptation is about food.

Turn these stones into bread

Satan, or the tempter as he is called starts off with something like “Well so you're Jesus, the son of God.  You sure look hungry. God doesn't want you to starve, he provides for your every need, and you have all the powers of God, so just turn these stones into bread and you will be satisfied”.  Satan is not suggesting that there is any doubt that Jesus is the son of God, he is just suggesting that the son of God should not be in need of a good meal.  We know that Jesus has the power to produce miraculous food from the stories of the feeding of the 5000 and the feeding of the 4000.
Jesus quotes part of Deuteronomy 8:3.  It is part of the story of the Israelites in the wilderness.  Here's the whole verse:
“He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
God fed the Israelites, even though they had not trusted him and had complained to Moses that they had left behind all the good food that was available in Egypt.
Jesus knows that his ability to perform miracles is not to be used to look after himself, for that He must trust in God just as those he has come to save must trust in God for their everyday needs.

Throw yourself off

Satan is clever.  If Jesus wants to use scripture to defend himself, then Satan will use it to attack too.  So Jesus is taken to the highest point of the temple, and invited to throw himself off.  Satan is saying something like “OK, Jesus, you trust God, but how much do you trust God.  Do you trust God with your life, even when its in immediate danger?  Psalm 91 says that you should, so go on ...” 
Here’s the verse from Psalm 91 that Satan uses:
 9 If you say, ‘The Lord is my refuge,’
    and you make the Most High your dwelling,
10 no harm will overtake you,
    no disaster will come near your tent.
11 For he will command his angels concerning you
    to guard you in all your ways;
12 they will lift you up in their hands,
    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the cobra;
    you will trample the great lion and the serpent.
It's not a full quote, he has missed out 'to guard you in all your ways', but its not so far away for Satan to have been accused of misusing scripture.
Later Jewish writings say that the messiah will prove himself by throwing himself off the pinnacle of the temple, but not as a spectacle for the crowds. 
Jesus' response is to use more scripture.  This time it comes from Exodus 17:2-7 and is not a direct quote.  In Exodus 17 the Israelites are complaining that they don't have water, Moses strikes a rock and water gushes out.  Before this Moses is angry with them and says “Why do you put the Lord your God to the test?”

“Bow down to me”

The final temptation really gets to the crux of the matter.  Both the temptations so far have been clear lies, but subtle with it.  The third is not subtle in any way.  Jesus is taken to somewhere where he can see the whole world and its' splendour. With this in view Satan makes him an offer. “I will give you all this if you will bow down to me”.  The lie here is not only that Jesus won't really own it if He has to give allegiance to Satan, but what He is shown is also a lie, the world is not only the splendid parts, and Jesus has primarily come to deal with the less than splendid parts.  Jesus is being offered a short cut to get what he came for. Satan is saying something like: “Look at all I have, you can have it all, and you won't need to go through all that suffering and pain.  Just bow down to me and its yours” 
Jesus knows that if he is to do anything about the suffering and pain he must go to the cross and pay the price for all the people who are less than splendid, and that that is the only way.  So his response is another piece of scripture, this time Deuteronomy 6:13 “Fear the Lord your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name.” and he give Satan a direct command, which He has the authority to give, so Satan must leave, but he will be back.

Not a sin to be tempted

Jesus was without sin, and yet Jesus was tempted, so we can see that it is not a sin to be tempted. Temptations though, must be dealt with, or they will quickly turn into sins.  As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:13 “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

Our temptations

Satan approaches us in the same way he approached Jesus.  He will ask us the same type of questions, and offer us the same ways forward.
Here are a few key pieces of scripture that will help us resist the temptations placed before us by Satan:
1 John 5:4 everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.
Our faith keeps us close to God, just as Jesus was close to his father.  If we stay focussed on God and his kingdom the distractions of the world will become less significant for us.

2 Tim. 2:22 Flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.
Mark Twain said “There are several good protections against temptations, but the surest is cowardice.”  and it seems that the Bible agrees – Run Away.
Just like Jesus we too have authority over Satan,  just tell him to “Go Away”.  You'll have to say it out loud though, because Satan is not inside you like God is.

Our fault

Sometimes though our temptations are not caused bay Satan whispering in our ear, but by our own determination, and sometimes those are the ones that lead us to sin.
Jack was a slave in the Philippines whose main job was chopping wood. One day Jack told his master “I finally realised that it is not my fault I'm a slave, its all Adams fault, he ate the forbidden fruit.”  So the master said he was very sorry, and that from now on he should live in the big house.  There was only one condition, he must not look in the box on the dining table. 
After gorging himself with a sumptuous meal, he saw the box. It was just an ordinary looking box. He shook it. But it was light and it seems to be empty. He got so curious that he opened it. He saw a letter. It read: “Dear Jack. See? Don’t you ever blame Adam again! If you were in his place, you would do the same thing. Go chop some wood!”


Paul explains Adam's curse, and Jesus redemption through the grace of God in the reading we had from the letter to the Romans.  It is why Jesus came, why he went through the temptations, to prove that there was one man who would never fall, and that He can pay the price for us all.  The last verse sums it up:
For just as through the disobedience of the one man q  the many were made sinners, r  so also through the obedience s  of the one man the many will be made righteous
We have seen that giving in to temptation is not helpful, because it does not make the enticements go away.
We have seen that Jesus was tempted – or tested – and proved to be the righteous son of God, who succeeded where Adam and the Israelites failed. He was clear about his mission, focused on God, and not the world.
We have looked at some helpful ways to avoid temptation and that we have a forgiving Father who has paid for the sins we commit when we fail to avoid or resist temptation.