- Come, Bless the Lord
This is the last of 15 Psalms of Ascent and was possibly sung as the pilgrims prepared to leave Zion to return to their homes. It begins with a call to worship, particularly to those who had stood in place of ministry throughout the night.
These servants were invited to bless the Lord, in other words to express their thanks to him for his mercy and grace. Twice in these three short verses the servants of God were called to bless the Lord, and in return God would bless them. Mathew Poole writes: “Do not stand there like statues, silent and idle, but employ your hearts and tongues in singing the praises of the Lord.” The servants of the Lord identified here are probably representative of the whole congregation of gathered pilgrims. Levites and priests were often designated as those who stood before the Lord, and it as they did this that they blessed the Lord.
It was common for leaders of worship to lift their hands as an aspect of worship. Doing so reflected both the expectation of receiving something from God, and also expressing gratitude for what they had received. There are frequent references to the practice by Bible characters: Aaron, Leviticus 9:22; Moses, Exodus 17:11, Deuteronomy 32:40; Solomon, 1 Kings 8:22,54; Ezra, Nehemiah 8:6 it is encouraged in Lamentations 2:19, 3:41 and throughout the Psalms: Psalm 63:4, Psalm 119:48, Psalm 28:2, Psalm 141:2 and Psalm 134:2. Paul instructs Timothy that what he wanted was: “in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarrelling” (1 Timothy 2:8). To raise hands in an attitude of worship was an expression of reverence and submission. Many people today seem unwilling to raise their hands either because they don’t want to be identified with a particular element of the Christian church or they are too self conscious and afraid of being embarrassed. For the servants of the Lord who ministered in the temple, a serious, conservative group of men, they had no reservations, they would lift their hands to bless the Lord.
As the people blessed the Lord, as they sang praise and offered thanksgiving for all of God’s miraculous works, they waited in anticipation for God’s blessing on them. He was the creator of heaven and earth, he made it and he owns it. God said through the prophet Haggai: “I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the Lord of hosts.” (Haggai 2:6-8) and through Asaph: “For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine.” (Psalm 50:10,11). There are no limits to God’s blessing, nothing is outside of his grace, through Malachi he challenges his people: “Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.”
God promises blessings to those whom he loves, sometimes we stop the flow of his blessing through our own actions, but he holds them for us nevertheless. Paul writes in Ephesians 1:3 that God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. One day when Christ returns he will take us to be with himself and the storehouse of his blessing will be full opened to us. In the meanwhile, we experience a foretaste through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit as we eagerly await his appearing. As we wait let us lift up Holy Hands and bless the Lord.
- Elijah said that he stood before the Lord as he waited for directions, he was ready and willing to go wherever he was sent – what is your posture before God? (1 Kings 17:1)
- Is it appropriate to raise your hands when you worship or pray? Do you do it?
- What might stop or interrupt the flow of God’s blessings in your life and community?
- Praise the Lord
This Psalm begins and ends with the same instruction: “Praise the Lord” and that is its consistent theme. Nearly every verse in the psalm either quotes, is quoted by or refers to another part of the Old Testament. Including ‘four different psalms, two passages from Deuteronomy, two from Jeremiah, and two from Exodus’ (Guzik). Everybody is included in this exhortation to praise the Lord; the servants who stand in the house of the Lord are the priests and Levites who were permitted entrance while those who were in the courts were the rest of the people. Together they were to praise the Lord. To praise the name of the lord meant to praise all the characteristics and attributes represented by that name.
Three reasons are given to praise the name of the Lord; firstly because he is good. God’s essential nature is goodness, there is no evil in him, and this is reason enough to praise him. To be good is to be morally right or righteous, something can be described as good for you if it brings some benefit or advantage. Brian Gaines expresses God’s character this way: “God is altogether good, wise, sovereign, and powerful; therefore, we can indeed trust Him because He is faithful in all things, at all times!” He is not only good, but everything about him is pleasant. Something that brings you a benefit or an advantage is not only good, but it is pleasing – what better reason to sing to his name?
God chose the people of Israel, also called Jacob for himself. Jacob was the son of Isaac and this name was given to him at birth. It was a name which means a deceiver or someone who takes what Is not his own and accurately described Jacob’s life until a mysterious encounter changed him and he was given a new name – Israel which means God rules. God conferred on Jacob the promise made to his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac that he would become the father of a nation that God had chosen to be his own people. In the KJV translation verse 4 is given as ‘his own special treasure’ and is probably the most accurate rendering. Israel was God’s special treasure, a promise that has been extended to you. That thought is carried in 1 Peter 2:9 where Christians are called a people for his own possession.
The next group of verses speak of God’s sovereign power, he doesn’t have to explain himself he does whatever he pleases. His domain covers all of creation and every element within it, nothing happens outside of his control – his purposes are irresistible. By way of example the psalmist lists a series of God’s activities in preparing the promised land for his people.
The writer now goes on to contrast this God who is worthy of praise with the false gods of the surrounding nations. Our God has a name that will live forever, he will remembered for all time while the names of the false gods will fade away to become historical curiosities. They couldn’t see, hear, speak or even breathe. They were useless, just lumps of wood or stone or metal, made by weak and sinful men and women. The people who worshipped these useless objects ended up becoming just like them, lifeless and worthless. J.M. Boice puts it this way: “If we worship things that people produce, we will become as impotent and empty as those things, but if we worship God, by the grace of God we will become like God.”
The name of God conveys everything about God’s goodness and his holiness, it is to be praised and also to be revered. All those who worship the Lord should praise his holy name!
- How do you feel about being God’s ‘special treasure’?
- Do you think God’s purposes are irresistible?
- What part does praise have in your prayer life?
- His mercy endures forever
This is a responsive Psalm, that is the leaders of worship would sing the first line of each of 26 statements and the congregation would respond with ‘His mercy endures forever’. Some churches still adopt responsive prayers in their order of service or liturgy, but in many places it has fallen out of favour. Indeed may people complain of repetition in songs and hymns that they sing although it is a feature of the Psalms and Old Testament worship. Repetition is an effective way of memorizing, but often that is exchanged in favour of novelty.
The psalm is broken into a number of stanzas which group reasons for giving thanks, the response in each case is the same and expresses that the reason for giving thanks is the enduring mercy of God. The word that is translated as ‘enduring’ can also be rendered as lovingkindness, mercy and sometimes covenantal love. So it may read “His steadfast love endures forever”. God’s love contains mercy, kindness, faithfulness, and grace, and of course it lasts, or endures for all time. The writer advances the first two reasons to give thanks as our God being the God of gods and the Lord of lords. Even if there were other gods and other lords, they would all submit to the Lord God Almighty – he is supreme and rules over all the heavens and the earth.
The next stanza focuses on the God of creation. He alone does great and marvellous things or wonders and it is his understanding that made the heavens. Verses 5-9 correspond to the first four days of creation as they appear in Genesis 1 and as Derek Kidner cautions it “…invites the Christian not to wrangle over cosmological theories but to delight in his environment, known to him as no mere mechanism but a work of ‘steadfast love’. No unbeliever has grounds for any such quality of joy.”
The writer moves on to the deliverance of Israel from Egypt and how God defeated their oppressors and provided a way through the wilderness. He recounts the escape from Pharoah, his pursuit in an attempt to recapture and the miraculous act of God by dividing the sea. Finally the Egyptians were overthrown, or shaken off as the sea closed over them and the people of Israel entered the wilderness, where despite their misgivings and complaints, God led them every step of the way.
At the beginning of the journey to the promised land God overcame Pharoah and the Egyptians, toward the end of it he defeated Sihon, king of the Amorites and Og, King of Bashan. In the years between the two events God sustained and protected the people, leading them in battle and helping them to achieve great victories. At the time of God’s choosing he brought them to the edge of the land that was to be their possession and heritage and at every turn his steadfast love was demonstrated to them.
Now, even though they were in the land of their heritage they faced opposition and conflict. They still needed to be protected and rescued and because of God’s enduring mercy, they were. We too have entered the land of promise and yet we face opposition and conflict as Satan tries to steal from the peace and joy that God has given. Even though we might sometimes complain and even wish to ‘go back to Egypt’ God’s steadfast love and mercy never fails. He is our rock, our fortress, our deliverer and our very present help in times of trouble – Oh, give thanks to God, his steadfast love endures forever!
- Can you look back through your history and see the hand of God at work?
- What do you think of responsive prayers and readings?
- Have you entered the land of God’s promise, or are you still in the wilderness?
- By the Rivers of Babylon
This Psalm is a reminder of the time Israel was in exile in Babylon, Jerusalem had been destroyed and the people were in captivity. It is a song of lament or woe as the people remembered what they had lost, and the things they were compelled to endure and ends with a desire that is likely to offend our sensibilities.
The writer remembers when he and other musicians sat by the side of the Euphrates River, the massive waters of Babylon. It was a river surrounded by willow or poplar trees, and there they talked together about Zion, their city which had been destroyed. Not just a city but the dwelling of God, they wept because of all that meant. Their homes and their liberty was gone, but so was God – who would deliver them now, from where would their help come? What was worse their captors tormented them by telling them to sing the songs of praise they were famous for, to entertain them. They didn’t want to worship God, they wanted to make fun of him and his people. They couldn’t do it, so they hung their instruments in the trees perhaps as an act of defiance.
It is a similar to picture to that of slave owners who compelled their slaves to sing the gospel songs of deliverance that they sang while they worked in cotton fields and elsewhere in the deep south of North America. It was intended to humiliate and torment those who had been no ability to resist. This is the position God’s people found themselves in and they asked each other and themselves, “How could we do it, this is not our home we long to be back in Jerusalem, we don’t belong here we cannot offer praise”. Now they had lost their city they determined never to forget it, they would rather lose their skill and their ability to sing than forget Jerusalem. These people could sing but would not, they wanted to sing, but not in a foreign land. F.B. Meyer uses this account to challenge Christians who seem to have lost the desire to sing for other reasons: ““You have ceased singing lately. The joy of your religious life has vanished. You pass through the old routine, but without the exhilaration of former days. Can you not tell the reason? It is not because your circumstances are depressed, though they may be; for Paul and Silas sang praises to God in their prison. Is not disobedience at the root of your songlessness? You have allowed some little rift to come within the lute of your life, which has been slowly widening, and now threatens to silence all. And you never will be able to resume that song until you have put away the evil of your doing, and have returned from the land of the enemy.”
Of particular distress to the people of Israel were the actions of the Edomites, they were the descendants of Esau, the brother of Jacob and they may have expected some sort of support from them in their fight against Babylon. Instead they took the side of King Nebuchadnezzar and led the charge in tearing down the walls of the city. The Jews wanted God to remember this and act against them, to wipe them out. Their anger wasn’t confined to the Edomites though, it seems that the capture of Jerusalem and its people was accomplished in a particularly brutal and barbaric way. Spurgeon suggests that the survivors had seen: ‘’their temple burned, their city ruined, their wives ravished, and their children slain”, this was the common way warfare was carried out but now the people of Israel wanted vengeance. The custom of throwing small children against rocks to kill them was evidently employed by the Babylonians and now the Israelites asked for a blessing on any who would do the same to the children of their captors. We would find this impossible to imagine and to ask God to bless such an action would be beyond belief, and it is a wish that God would not honour.
- Have you lost your song of praise?
- It has been said that you don’t know what you’ve lost until its gone – what are the things you may take for granted?
- How do you respond to the request from the people of Israel in the last verses?
- When I called, you answered
As David wrote this psalm he declared that he was wholehearted in his gratitude. As he and others have written before there was no place for being half-hearted or lukewarm, he was fully committed. It is often commented in recent times that people are less committed in a range of ways. They may be referring to support of a football team, their marriage or church attendance. Loyalty to an employer is less common than it once was, the Australian Institute of Business reports that on average, employees change jobs 12 times throughout their life, with an average stay in the job of 3.3 years. For workers over 45, the average job lasts 6 years and 8 months, while for under 25s it’s just 1 year and 8 months. Marketers have to work harder to achieve brand loyalty and allegiance to a political party or religious denomination is much more rare. In a time when it seems wholehearted commitment is less common, we are challenged to be fully committed to a life of gratitude.
David claims that he will sing God’s praise before the gods. It is not certain what that means, it might be false gods such as mentioned in Psalm 95:3; Psalm 96:5, kings and rules like verse 4 of this psalm or angels which sometimes are referred to as gods and as the temple is mentioned it is probable that they would be present in some form. Whoever they were, they heard David’s praises as he proclaimed God’s steadfast love and mercy. This God who was seated above all other things on earth and in heaven answered David’s prayer when he called on him and gave him the strength he needed.
According to David, all the kings should be giving thanks, they should all be singing praise – they had heard his word and seen his glory now they should be praising him. God takes particular notice of those who the world considers of little value, from his throne in heaven he sees them and pays attention to them and their needs. On the other hand the arrogant and the proud, those who think too highly of themselves he turns away from.
Knowing this, David has confidence. He has been and may have been at the time of writing the psalm in a difficult place. He speaks of being in the middle of trouble, among enemies, but in those dark places God protects him and delivers him. It is as if he is looking back to Psalm 23 when he wrote that even though he walked through the valley of shadows where death lingered, he would fear no evil for God was with him. He would guide him through the valley to a banquet table where they would eat together. He had called on God, and He had answered him. He had restored and renewed his strength and had regard for him.
David knew that God had a purpose for him, and that He would fulfil it. Paul writes to Timothy that he was confident of God’s protection because “I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me.” (2 Timothy 1:6) and to the Philippians he wrote “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” God has a purpose for you, he has entrusted it to you and he intends to make sure that it is completed. Do you know what God’s purpose is for your life? He may not intend you to be a king or queen or even a political leader, you may not be a pastor or missionary although it could be any of these things. His purpose may be that you be the best schoolteacher you can be, or the best housewife; he may want you to excel at being a gardener, or butcher or administrator, but whatever it is, he has created good works before the foundation of the earth for you to do (Ephesians 2:10). Do you know your purpose?
- David knew that if he called of God, he would answer – do you have that assurance?
- When you walk through valleys of shadows are you conscious of God’s presence?
- No matter what stage of life you are in, you have a purpose – what’s yours?
- You know me very well
This Psalm describes the extent of God’s interest and knowledge of each one of us. David begins by exclaiming that God has searched him and ends with a request that he will search him still more. What David says about himself in this psalm can just as easily be applied to you and me.
“You have searched me and known me” David says. Every aspect of David’s life was laid bare before God’s scrutiny, nothing was hidden. We are increasingly under scrutiny these days, there are CCTV cameras in public spaces, shopping centres, schools and on our roadways that record our movements. If you enter a shopping centre with your phone turned on you can be tracked and when you use store cards or electronic payments then your purchasing patterns are also stored in a data base. There are many other ways that your life is open to others, most of these others are not governments but businesses who are only guided by the desire to make a profit. All of this scrutiny pales though to the knowledge God has of you.
David writes that God knew when he sat down and when he got up, in other words whatever he was doing and whenever he did it was known to God. He didn’t need a camera or recording device, he knew because though he may seem far off, God is always present. He knows the path we are taking and the times of rest we take, he knows about all of our habits, and the places we go and the TV programs we watch. David goes on to say that even before we form the words we want to say, God knows what they will be – whether it is a word of encouragement, or of irritation, to praise or to curse. God doesn’t just know what we will say, but he knows why we will say it. With this knowledge available to him he builds a hedge of protection around us, he keeps his hand gently on us as he steers us in the right direction or gives comfort when the road gets hard. David couldn’t get his head around this; it was too much for him. God was too big for him to explain, and he is too big for you and me as well.
Wherever David went, God was present. He could not escape him, even if he wanted to. David gives two illustrations of how impossible it is to escape God – he could go up to the highest heaven, or down to lowest parts of hell and God would be there. He could travel as far east as the sunrise, or into the depths of the sea and God is still there. Not only that but he could be in the darkest night where there was no light and find God there and once he did then the darkness would become light. If David were to head east God would be with him as he left, he would be with him on the journey and waiting for him when he arrived! God is everywhere present in all that he has created, all at once.
God’s knowledge of and care for you began before you took your first breath. Even while your body was taking shape in your mother’s womb his hands were gently moulding you into the person he had planned you to be. He knows every day of your life, he determines the day of your birth and he knows the day of your passing from this life. Every day is written in his book – before the day of your birth. The birth of no child is a mistake and every child is fearfully and wonderfully made by the master creator.
David was overwhelmed by God’s knowledge of him. God had a purpose for him and he knew the road David would take, the right turns and the wrong ones. God was never taken by surprise and in his infinite mercy he allowed David to stumble on the road, but he stood him up, laid his hand upon and led him to the end of his journey.
After expressing his frustration with those who hated and planned evil towards him, David asked God to search him, he knew he couldn’t hide anything from Gpd and yet he welcomes the scrutiny. He wanted God to show him the areas in his life that needed cleaning up and then take him by the arm and lead him on.
- What do you think about being always under God’s scrutiny?
- Have you ever thought God made mistakes when he formed you or could have done a better job?
- Do you have the courage to ask God to search you and reveal the black spots in your life?
- From complaint to thanks
David begins this psalm with a complaint, a request for protection and deliverance, but by the time he comes to the end he has turned to confidence and thanksgiving. It is unknown when this was written but there are many occasions that David found himself under attack, and they are referred to often in the Psalms. In this Psalm he mentions someone who is the head of those who are attacking David so it may be that it is while he was running from King Saul.
Enemies are attacking David physically and with their words. They were hoping to catch and kill David and if they were not able to do that they would lie and spread rumours about him. They were unrelenting, this was not just an occasional insult or piece of slander, it was continuous and ongoing. No one likes to be lied about, or to be spoken about in a negative way. It is especially painful when that happens from people we have been on friendly terms with or even close to. Their weapon, the tongue is even sharper than usual and the pain seems stronger and more debilitating.
There are those who were intent on doing physical harm to David, they had laid plans, set snares and recruited others to ambush him. David wanted God to guard him and keep him. The battle was too great for him to fight alone, he needed God’s help, this was a spiritual battle fought by normal men, but David needed supernatural help. You and I will face battles with normal men and women, maybe at work or even at home or school, or in any other place where we may interact with others, sometimes even the church! Paul reminds us in Ephesians 6 that our battle is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers in the heavenly places – it is a spiritual battle and must be faced with supernatural resources. We thank God that we have been provided not only the weapons to fight with but the armour to wear to give us protection. You can read about that armour in the rest of Paul’s chapter, but in particular the breastplate of righteousness protects your heart and that is what is most at risk from the untrue criticisms and comments that may be thrown your way.
David wants the assurance that God has heard his prayer, he is not swayed from his belief, the Lord is his God, that will not change. In the past God has protected his head in battle, he had the helmet of salvation which covered him. Now he wants to be sure that the evil would not succeed, otherwise they may boast, claiming that God was not able to protect him. As for the leader of these enemies David asked that they would suffer the fate they intended for him. He doesn’t ask for strength to defeat his enemy, but that God would deal with him in a just way. He didn’t want temporary victory, he asked that these mischievous foes be hunted down and expelled from the land. As had happened to enemies in the past he wanted them to be driven into miry pits from which there was no rescue. The Valley of Siddim which was the site of a battle recorded in Genesis 19 was full of tar pits into which fleeing soldiers fell. Siddim was not far from Jeruslaem and the story would have been well known to David.
David knew that the lord would support him, and justify him. He would also bring justice to the poor and needy who were being oppressed. He didn’t just hope this, or think it – he knew it. His complain and his prayer have turned to confidence and he can and would give thank for the deliverance that would be his.
- Are you able to turn your plea for deliverance into confidence and thankfulness?
- Do you try to fight your battles in your own strength or do you seek the help of the Holy Spirit?
- Which piece of God’s armour do think is most necessary for where you are now?