Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Month: November, 2017

BLESS THE LORD, O MY SOUL

 

 

Thanksgiving has been observed as a national holiday ever since November, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation to “invite my fellow citizens” to observe the day “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”  Most modern secularists today would recoil at the idea of a national Day of Thanksgiving if it meant actually giving thanks “to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens,” and most people have turned the holiday into anything but the giving of thanks; which, of course, has the effect of robbing the occasion of its original meaning and purpose.

But the question remains, why give thanks to God in the first place?  What do we owe to God?  Did we not get where we are by dint of our own effort?  Psalm 103 in the Bible gives the explanation.

The psalm, ascribed by ancient tradition to David, begins with an exhortation of the psalmist to himself:

“Bless the Lord, O my soul;

And all that is within me, bless His holy name!”

(v. 1; NKJV).

Why?   Because God is the One “who forgives all your iniquities” (v. 3a).  The psalmist begins by reflecting on the fact that he himself is a sinner, that he does not deserve any blessings form God; indeed, he deserves to be punished instead.  But as undeserving as he is, God has blessed him anyway, forgiving David’s sins.

But that is not all.  The psalmist goes on.

“Who heals all your diseases,

Who redeems your life from destruction . . .”

(vv. 3b,4a)

The psalmist had evidently lived long; he had endured many harrowing circumstances.  Many of these were beyond his control.  Yet he managed to survive them all.  And he was conscious that this was not so much the result of his own personal effort as it was the providence of God.

But there is more.  God “crowns you with lovingkindness and tender mercies” (v. 4b).  God does not merely tolerate us; He cares about us.  And He showers us with blessings beyond what we deserve.  He gives us life and health, friends and family; a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, and food on the table.  “. . .So that your youth is renewed like the eagle” (v. 5b).  Every day that we live is a gift from God.

But then the psalmist goes on to reflect on the character of God himself.  Human history has been marked by the atrocities of human tyrants such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung.  But what is God like?  Is He a cruel tyrant?  Far from it.

“The Lord executes righteousness

And justice for all who are oppressed.”

(v. 6)

In other words, God is the ruler of the universe, but He is absolutely just in the way He governs it.  The innocent are not punished and the dishonest are not rewarded.  And in particular He insures justice “for all who are oppressed.”  It is the mark of human depravity that the strong will take unfair advantage of the weak.  Human justice will often fail to redress the wrong, and sometimes will even reinforce it.  But God sees all that goes on and in the end justice will be done.

But God is not only just; He is also compassionate.  The psalmist goes on to point out what God had said about Himself to Moses on Mt. Sinai:

“The Lord is merciful and gracious,

Slow to anger and abounding in mercy.”

(v. 8; Ex. 34:6)

It is God’s essential nature to care about His creatures.  The word “merciful” might better be translated “compassionate” (NASV) and the word “mercy” might better be rendered “lovingkindess” (NASV) or “steadfast love” (ESV).

God’s compassion is compared to that of a father towards his children.  It is the child’s very weakness that draws out the father’s love.  And so it is with God.

“For He knows our frame;

He remembers that we are dust.”

(v. 14).

Likewise God is said to be “slow to anger.”  This is demonstrated in the fact that

“He has dealt with us according to our sins,

Nor punished us according to our iniquities.”

(v. 10).

Even though we have provoked Him with our sins, He has held back His anger.  And God’s “lovingkindess” or “steadfast love” is said to be “from everlasting to everlasting” (v. 17).

And so the psalmist ends where he began, calling on everyone to “bless the Lord.”  It is not a matter of rendering formal gratitude for blessings received.  Ultimately it is a matter of appreciating God himself for who He is.  As Jesus would point out centuries later, the “first and great commandment” is that “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37,38; cf. Dt. 6:5).  God created us for Himself.  He endowed us with an intellect, emotions and will.  He wants us to enter into a meaningful relationship with Himself.  Anything less misses the whole point of the Christian gospel.

And so this Thanksgiving Day let us take time to thank God for all His blessings towards us.  But more importantly, let us praise Him for what He is, the Lord, “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy”!

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THE LORD IS KING

 

 

“The Lord reigns, He is clothed with majesty;

The Lord is clothed,

He has girded Himself with strength.

Surely the world is established, so that it cannot be moved.

Your throne is established from old;

You are from everlasting.”

Psalm 93:1,2; NKJV

 

Americans have a hard time thinking of God as “King.”  We are used to thinking in terms of freedom, equality and democracy.  Our very Declaration of Independence states that governments are instituted “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”  It is no wonder, then, that Americans have a hard time dealing with authority.

We sometimes try to picture God as a warm, fuzzy father figure who is there to comfort and encourage us, who understands that we are “only human,” and who would never think of punishing us.  And yet the Bible says that the Lord “reigns” and has a “throne.”  People in the ancient Near East knew exactly what that meant: God is a king.  He has authority.  He must be obeyed.

God has that authority by virtue of being our Creator.  We owe our very existence to Him.  He is eternal and all-powerful; we are mere creatures of the dust.  Our relationship with God, then, is one of sovereign and subject, of Lord and servant.  He is the lawgiver and judge.

But there is another reason why it is important to recognize God as Lord and King, and that is to establish the principle of justice.  One of the chief functions of a king is to promulgate and enforce the law; and the real question is, is there any real justice in the universe?

At first sight the answer might appear to be “no.”    We see dishonesty, exploitation and oppression at every hand.  The strong take advantage of the weak.  Governments themselves are often corrupt.  And yet we long for something better.  We would each like to be treated fairly, and we know instinctively that that means that everyone should be treated fairly.  We long for justice.  But does it exist?

The answer is “yes.”  The Bible tells us that

“The Lord reigns;

Let the earth rejoice;

Let the multitude of isles be glad! . . .

Righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne.”

Psalm 97:1,2

“Justice” is the act of judging rightly – of making sure that each one is treated fairly and gets what he deserves.  And God is a righteous and just King: “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne.”  He will reward good and punish evil.

But, you say, we do not see this now.  We see a world full of violence and oppression.  Where is there any justice?  The answer is

“Let the rives clap their hands;

Let the hills be joyful together before the Lord,

For He is coming to judge the earth.

With righteousness He shall judge the world,

And the peoples with equity.”

Psalm 98:8,9

This points to a time in the future when there will be a final, last judgment.  The judgment will be universal – God will judge “the world” and “the peoples,” i.e., the entire human race.  But unlike human justice God’s justice will be perfect.  He will judge the world with “righteousness” and “equity.”  Both words imply judgment which is fair and honest – true to the actual facts of the case and without partiality.  As a result everyone will receive exactly what he deserves.  Sin will be punished and righteousness will be rewarded.

All of this should be, according to the psalm, a cause for rejoicing.  The whole earth is exhorted to “shout joyfully,” “break forth in song,” and “sing”.  Even the physical world is exhorted to “clap their hands” and “be joyful together,” all because “He is coming to judge the earth” (vv. 4-9).  It means that true justice will finally prevail.

None of us could bear to live in a society in which there is no justice.  It would be a society in which crime pays and evil would prevail.  It is largely for this reason that human governments are formed.  But human justice is often imperfect.  Sometimes criminals escape unpunished.  Sometimes innocent people are put to death for crimes they did not commit.  Sometimes the government itself becomes corrupt.  And this raises a very disturbing question: will justice ultimately prevail?  Or are we doomed to lead an existence which is fundamentally unfair?  The answer is, God is on the throne.  He is perfectly just in all His ways, and He is coming to judge the world.  The prospect is both comforting and terrifying at the same time.  Comforting, because we live in a universe in which justice will ultimately prevail; terrifying, because by nature we are all guilty sinners.  And therein lies the human predicament.

 

WHAT IS GOD LIKE? – II

 

 

 

But what is God like in His personality and character?  What is it like to deal with Him personally?

Here again the Bible has a great deal to say about the subject and only a brief summary can be given here.  But there is a passage in the Old Testament that gives us such a summary, and it is found in Exodus 34:6,7.  Moses has been on Mount Sinai where he received the Ten Commandments.  Israel, in the meantime, had fallen into gross idolatry.  Moses interceded with God on Israel’s behalf.  God relented, but then Moses made a bold request: “Please, show me Your glory” (Ex. 33:18; NKJV), and God agreed to do so.  On the appointed day Moses stood on top of the mountain,

“And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord God,

merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth,

keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgressions and sin,

by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the

children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.”

(Ex. 34:6,7)

The statement begins by declaring that God is “merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth” (v. 6).  He is “merciful and gracious.”  The Hebrew word translated “merciful” refers to the compassion God has towards those who are weak and helpless.  God’s “grace” refers to His free, unmerited favor.  In other words, it is God’s nature to do good to His creatures.  He is generous and compassionate.

And then our text says that God is “longsuffering,” or “slow to anger as it might be more literally translated (NASV, ESV).  God is patient with us.  His anger is not quickly aroused.  It is not that He never becomes angry – He has good reason to be angry with us because of our sin and rebellion against Him.  But He is slow to anger.  He is not easily provoked, and when He does become angry it is because it is well-deserved.

And then our text says that God is “abounding in goodness and truth,” or “steadfast love and faithfulness” (ESV).  His “goodness” or “steadfast love” refers to God’s willingness and desire to show kindness to His creatures.  His “truth” or “faithfulness” refers to the consistency and reliability of His character.  He can be depended upon to keep His word.

Our text goes on to explain how this all works out in actual practice.  First, God is “keeping mercy for thousands.”  The word translated “mercy” here in verse 7is the same word translated “goodness” in verse 6.  It is the kindness that God shows toward His creatures, and the fact that He “keeps” it “for thousands” shows how rich and abundant it is.

But there is more.  He “forgives iniquity and transgression and sin.”  This is what is truly remarkable.  The implication here is that the objects of His attention are, in fact, sinners – they have sinned against Him and are guilty in His sight.  The logical thing to do would be to punish them.  Yet His kindness is displayed in His “forgiving” them.  It is possible to be a guilty sinner and yet be forgiven.

Yet there is another side to this as well.  For the text goes on to say, “by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children . . .” Is there a contradiction here?  Does God forgive sin or does He not?  The answer is that there is an implied but unmentioned condition.  Sinners can be forgiven, if they repent.  But if they persist in their sin and rebellion they will be punished.  How is it possible for a just and holy God to forgive sins is not fully explained until the New Testament: God would sent His into the world to die on the cross as an atonement for our sin.  God sent forth His Son “as a propitiation by His blood . . . to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:25,26).  And so it was that Israel was warned that if they sinned they would be sent into exile; but if they repented they would be restored (Dt. 30:1-6; II Chron. 7:13; Jer. 29:10-14).

The text also says that God “visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generations.”  On the surface this hardly seems just: God is punishing one person (the son) for another person’ sin (the father’s).  Strictly speaking, however, it is not a punishment directed toward the children and grandchildren, but a recognition that we are each affected by the decisions made by our parents.  Bad decisions can have effects that last for generations.  It ought to be a warning to all who treat sin lightly.

God is by nature kind, gracious and compassionate – He genuinely cares about the welfare of His creatures.  But by the same token He is genuinely angry with those who are cold and indifferent, who abuse, exploit and mistreat others.  God is love, and cruelty and injustice are an abomination in His sight.