Precious Thoughts

PRECIOUS THOUGHTS

by Wayne S. Walker

     “How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God!  How great is the sum of them!” (Psalm 139:17).  The 139th Psalm is a song of praise to God by David for the Lord’s omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence.  David understands that God is omniscient or all knowing, because he says, “O Lord, You have searched me and known me.  You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off” (vs. 1-2).  God knows everything about us.  Of course, He knows when we sin, even if it is in secret and no one else sees it.  But He also knows when we do good to others and go unrewarded or when we suffer for His name’s sake without being noticed by anyone else.  Yes, He knows what is in our hearts.  “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it” (v. 6).

     God is omniscient because He is omnipresent or all present.  David asks, “Where can I go from Your Spirit?  Or where can I flee from Your presence?”  Then he answers, “If I ascend into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there” (vs. 7-8).  God is a person—a spiritual one, to be sure, but nonetheless a person, and His person dwells in heaven.  Jesus taught us to pray to “Our Father in heaven.”  But precisely because He is a spiritual person, not a physical or corporeal one, His spirit or presence exists everywhere on earth and even in the entire universe.  There is simply no place where we can hide or be hidden from God.  “Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You, but the night shines as the day; the darkness and the light are both alike to You” (v. 12).

     And God is omnipotent or all powerful.  The almighty power of God was demonstrated in creation, and in particular the creation of mankind.  David told God, “For You formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother’s womb.  I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are Your works, and that my soul knows very well” (vs. 13-14).  What is so interesting is that the very atheists and unbelievers who in our time are so insistent that there is no such thing as God and strive to turn people away from accepting Him are themselves evidence that just as the existence of a watch implies the existence of a watch maker, so their own existence implies the existence of a Creator.  “Your eyes saw my substance being yet unformed.  And in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them” (v. 16).  These thoughts are truly precious and great!

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The Kings of the Earth

THE KINGS OF THE EARTH

by Wayne S. Walker

     “All the kings of the earth shall praise You, O LORD, when they hear the words of Your mouth’ (Psalm 138:4).  While we understand that God’s greatest gift to mankind involves salvation through Jesus Christ, we know that His plan for our lives here on this earth also includes civil government for our well being.  He rules in the kingdom of men and gives it to whom He will (Daniel 4:32).  Therefore, everyone, Christians and unbelievers alike, should be subject to the governing authorities (Romans 13:1-4).  The fact that “the authorities that exist are appointed by God” does not necessarily mean that God approves of every government and everything that any government does.  He simply has ordained that there be civil government.

     God certainly did not approve of the persecution of Christians by the Roman government, and the book of Revelation even announces God’s judgment upon the Roman empire for its evil.  Yet, this was the very government in power when Paul said, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities.”  Thus, we can and indeed must be subject to properly constituted authority even when we disagree with some of its actions.  Yet, there is a big difference between a government founded upon God’s standards and one founded upon ungodliness.  In the early days of our country, the vast majority of our founding fathers were very religious men who publicly upheld the traditional Judaeo-Christian standard of morality because they knew that it was good for society.  No one thought this odd or out of place.

     Today, however, when people, including those in government, try to follow God’s standards in their civic affairs, such as in opposing abortion and homosexual marriage, they are accused of trying to establish a “theocracy,” of pushing their religious beliefs off on others, and of violating the “separation of church and state.”  However, these charges are made only against those who follow “conservative religious” beliefs, never of those who adhere to “liberal religious” beliefs (and believe me, support for abortion and homosexual marriage are truly “religious beliefs” with the liberals) and try to force their religious beliefs on others.  Christians should not be cowed or driven away from their support, political and otherwise, for God’s standards by this type of argument, because it is still true that “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (Proverbs 14:34).

     God’s people always fare better, and most likely feel better, when those in authority at least show a respect for the principles of righteousness and morality that God has given to mankind.  We like to see “all the kings of the earth” praising the Lord and striving to do His will.  However, we understand that this will not always be the case.  History is littered with rulers who were genuinely evil.  And even today we see government officials who seem bent on promoting something sinful or ungodly.  Yet, we also know that someday God will make it right, when, as He says, “Every knee shall bow to me [including those rulers who have ignored His will, WSW], and every tongue shall confess to God” (Romans 14:11).  Yes, we would prefer to see them do it here and now, but we must let God take care of it in His own good time and way while continuing to do what we can to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:14-16).

“By the Rivers of Babylon”

“BY THE RIVERS OF BABYLON”

by Wayne S. Walker

     “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion” (Psalm 137:1).  God brought the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage, through the wilderness, to enter the promised land.  Israel became a great nation under the reigns of David and Solomon, but afterward the kingdom divided, the people went into apostasy, and they were taken into Babylonian captivity.  Psalm 137 records how some of them, the faithful or the repentant or perhaps both, sat by the rivers of Babylon to weep when they remembered Zion.  They hung their harps on the willows when those who took them captive asked them to sing a song because they could not sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.

     When I was a sophomore in high school, we read a short story from our literature book whose title, “By the Waters of Babylon,” seems to have been taken from this Psalm.  It was written by Stephen Vincent Benét and first published on July 31, 1937, in The Saturday Evening Post as “The Place of the Gods.”  In 1943 it was republished under its present title in The Pocket Book of Science Fiction.  At the beginning of the story, set in the future following the destruction of industrial civilization, one might think that it takes place somewhere in the Middle East or North Africa, because the story is about ruins and a great river such as the Euphrates or the Nile. But when the details are examined, the reader comes to see that the story occurs somewhere in the Northeastern United States, with the river Ou-dis-sun (Hudson), a statue that says “ASHING” (George WASHINGton), and a building marked “UBTREAS” (the Subtreasury Building of New York City).  The plot produces a very eerie, almost chilling effect.

     Benet evidently was comparing the feelings that the people of this futuristic setting would have at the destruction of their industrial civilization to the response that the Israelites felt in their captivity following the conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians.  In like manner, when a person is separated from God by sin, there can be no true joy in his life.  However, there is always hope.  The main character is a young man named John who is the son of a priest. The story ends with John stating his conviction that, once he becomes the head priest, “We must build again.”  A remnant of the Israelites returned to Jerusalem that they might rebuild.  And even though we have sinned, “God so loved the world that He have His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).  Yes!  We too can start over and build again, as we weep “by the rivers of Babylon.”

“For His Mercy Endures Forever”

“FOR HIS MERCY ENDURES FOREVER”

by Wayne S. Walker

     “Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good!  For His mercy endures forever” (Psalm 136:1).  In the New King James Version, Psalm 136 is headlined, “Thanksgiving to God for His Enduring Mercy.”  It mentions several things that God had done to deserve this thanks.  He created the heavens, the earth, the sun, the moon, and the stars.  Also, He brought the plagues upon Egypt, delivered Israel from bondage, overthrew Pharaoh in the Red Sea, led the people through the wilderness, slew the kings of Canaan, and gave Israel the promised land.  Then He remembered our lowly estate, rescued us from our enemies, and gives food to all flesh.  Each verse in the Psalm ends with the clause, “For His mercy endures forever.”

     There was a time in the early days of the English speaking church, following Henry VIII’s break with Rome, when the primary musical expression of public worship was the singing of Psalms.  We still sing “All People That on Earth Do Dwell” from the Anglo-Genevan Psalter, and “The Lord’s My Shepherd, I’ll Not Want” from the Scottish Psalter.  Other writers have sought to express the sentiments of the Psalms in more literary terms, including Isaac Watts (“O God, Our Help in Ages Past”), Henry F. Lyte (“Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven”), and James Montgomery (“Hail to the Lord’s Anointed”).  But today we sing far more hymns and gospel songs than we do Psalms.

     In the winter of 1623-1624, while living at his father’s house on Bread St. in London and learning his lessons at St. Paul’s School, the fifteen-year-old John Milton (1608-1674) produced a free rendering of Ps. 136 in 24 two-line stanzas, evidently for his own delight or for that of his father and teachers. Each of the stanzas ended with the couplet, “For His mercies aye endure, Ever faithful, ever sure.”  It was natural, considering his Puritan heritage, that he would turn to the Bible for his inspiration. The fact that he chose a Psalm to paraphrase shows that the Psalms were still the chief outlet for singing praise to God in his day.

     Young Milton, the lyric poet, was just imitating his elders, but many feel that he did a better job than they did. The poem was not published until 1645 in his Poems, Both English and Latin.   Milton went on to become one of the most famous English authors of the 1600s with Paradise Lost in 1667 and Paradise Regained in 1671.  His version of Psalm 136 was never used as a hymn until 1855, when it was included in the Congregationalist Hymn Book.  It is not as popular as it once was, but it is still a great hymn.  “Let us with a gladsome mind, Praise the Lord for He is kind; For His mercies aye endure, Ever faithful, ever sure.”

Singing Praises to His Name

SINGING PRAISES TO HIS NAME

by Wayne S. Walker

     “Praise the LORD, for the LORD is good; sing praises to His name, for it is pleasant” (Psalm 135:3).  The New Testament teaches Christians to “Praise the LORD…; sing praises to His name” just as the Psalmist  exhorts.  Sometimes, this raises questions in people’s minds.  I was recently sent the following request.  “Thank you for your review of Sacred Songs of the Church.  Some of your comments really got me to thinking about the songs we sing in our worship services.  I love God with all my heart and pray that I am doing what He commands.  Maybe you can help me understand this a little better, since you have a better knowledge of these songs and their writers than I do.  My question is:  How can we know that the songs we are using to worship and praise our Heavenly Father are acceptable to Him?  I am looking forward to hearing from you.  Thank you so much for your time.”

     This is a very difficult question to answer for a couple of reasons.  First, the scriptures do not give us much specific information about the kinds of songs that are acceptable to the Lord in worship.  All we know is that He authorizes “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16).  The usual definitions given to these terms are that psalms are devotional songs which are of the character of the Old Testament Psalms, hymns are songs of praise to God, and spiritual songs are songs which teach spiritual truth.  However, I am not sure that Paul is intending to give us three hard and fast categories into one of which a song must fit to be approved but to provide general descriptions of the kinds of songs that God wants in worship.

     Secondly, there is a great deal of personal taste involved.  Historically, following the break between the English church and the Roman Catholic Church, the English churches sang only the Psalms.  When “hymns of human composure” were first introduced, the older generation objected to them, but with the passing of time they gradually won out over the Psalms.  Then, when gospel songs began to be popular, again the older generation expressed its preference for the more sedate hymns, but in succeeding generations the vast majority of hymnbooks contained a combination of older hymns and newer gospel songs.  Now, we have the introduction of the so-called “praise song” drawn primarily from the genre of “Contemporary Christian Music,” and the differences in tastes between the older and younger again become pronounced.

     Most of our newer hymnbooks contain a mixture of a few Psalms, some hymns, a lot of gospel songs, and a growing number of the contemporary “praise songs.”  It is no secret that I do not care for the vast majority of these “praise songs.”  However, I have no desire to set myself up as some kind of standard to dictate to brethren what they can and cannot sing.  Yet, I do have some serious concerns about many of the “praise songs.”  Now, I have no objection to new songs.  I have often led “new” songs and have even written some myself.  So the problems that I see with a lot of the “praise songs” have nothing to do with their being new.

     Since we are to be singing with grace in our hearts to the Lord, the primary focus in our singing should be that of praising God in hymns.  However, since we are also to be teaching and admonishing one another, there ought to be a place in our singing for spiritual songs on scriptural topics that edify and exhort us as well.  So, how can we tell if the songs we are using to worship and praise our Heavenly Father are acceptable to Him?  Of course, we must first make sure that they are in harmony with truth.  At the same time, we must not fall into the trap of assuming that “calling things by Bible names” means “calling Bible things by King James names.”  There must be allowance for poetic license.  But Bible truth must be a priority.

     Second, we should strive for songs that are Christ centered rather than man centered.  Obviously, some judgment will be involved as to how to apply these concepts.  This does not mean that all songs in worship must be hymns that directly praise Christ, although we would do well to have more such songs in our assemblies.  Merely singing “Let’s just praise the Lord, praise the Lord” ten times to a catchy tune is not the same thing as actually praising the Lord.  It is not wrong for us to sing about our faith, our hope, our love, and so forth, because those are scriptural topics by which we can teach and admonish one another.  Yet, we should be careful to strive for songs that place more emphasis on God and Christ than on us.

     Third, we ought to seek out songs that are singable.  The singability of various songs will differ from congregation to congregation depending on people’s abilities.  However, the vast majority of hymns and spiritual songs which have endured through the years have simple melodies, harmonies, and rhythms that are within the reach of the average congregation to render.  In contrast, so many of the newer “praise songs” from the “Contemporary Christian Music” genre, like the southern gospel style of convention songs that were so popular a few years ago, while very catchy are frankly rather difficult for a large number of people, not only harmonically and rhythmically but even melodically.  I believe that considering these three guidelines will help in choosing songs that are without a doubt acceptable to the Lord and beneficial for us.

Lifting Up Hands

LIFTING UP HANDS

by Wayne S. Walker

     “Lift up your hands in the sanctuary, and bless the LORD” (Psalm 134:2).  The Bible makes many references to the lifting up of hands.  Concerning this verse, Charles H. Spurgeon, who says that the Psalm was an exhortation by the returning pilgrims to arouse the priests to pronounce a blessing upon them and thus teaches us to pray for those who are continually ministering before the Lord, wrote, “In the holy place they must be busy, full of strength, wide-awake, energetic, and moved with holy ardour.  Hands, heart, and every part of their manhood must be upraised, elevated, and consecrated to the adoring service of the Lord.  As the angels praise God day without night, so must the angels of the churches be instant in season and out of season.”

     I have heard, though I cannot confirm it, that the lifting up of hands was a common motion of greeting to show that one did not have any weapons.  We have all probably seen some movie or television show where the police are bearing down on someone who immediately holds his hands up to show that he is not armed or will not take any retaliatory action.  Somehow, it must have become a custom associated with worship.  Spurgeon quoted Samuel Eyles Pierce who said, “The lifting up of the hands was a gesture in prayer, it was an intimation of their expectation of receiving blessings from the Lord, and it was also an acknowledgment of their having received the same.” 

     In 1 Timothy 2:8 Paul wrote, “I desire therefore that the men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting.”  In many denominational worship services, it is common to see people holding up their hands and swaying during prayer and even singing.  As in the washing of feet by Jesus in John 13 and the holy kiss of Romans 16:16, the thing being commanded here is not the action itself but the attitude that it represents—holiness, having nothing of an ulterior nature behind us.  If for whatever reason a person might choose to hold up his hands in prayer, one would be hard pressed to say that it is unscriptural, but there is no passage of scripture which teaches that it is necessary or that one sins without doing it.  Rather, he must spiritually lift up holy hands by coming to God in an attitude of humility.

How Good and Pleasant Unity Is

HOW GOOD AND PLEASANT UNITY IS

by Wayne S. Walker

     “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1).  Unity among God’s people is something that is emphasized over and over in the scripture.  Of course, it must be understood that this is not merely unity for the sake of being united; rather, the basis for this unity is a common acceptance of the truth of God’s word (John 17:17).  There were times in Israel’s history when those who were supposed to be God’s people seemed united, but it was a unity in following unrighteousness and it finally led to their destruction.  That is why we are warned to have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness (Ephesians 5:11).

     The Psalmist describes the beauty of godly unity as “like the precious oil upon the head, running down on the beard, the beard of Aaron” (v. 2).  Sometimes, especially in the winter, I let my beard grow out, although I doubt that it has ever gotten as long as Aaron’s probably was.  Somehow, in our western minds, the picture of oil running down the head and dripping off the beard of someone is not necessarily a pretty one.  However, it evidently was to the ancient Israelites.  Thus, the Psalmist uses this vision to emphasize the fact that unity is a desirable goal.  And having been through a few, not many but enough to form a conclusion about them, good church fights, I would heartily agree!

     Jesus prayed for the oneness or unity of all who believe on Him through the apostles’ word (John 17:20-21).  The denominational division among supposed believers is a scandal that gives the unbelieving world fuel for their criticism of Christianity.  When division reared its ugly head in the church at Corinth, Paul commanded the brethren there “that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10).  The Bible gives us God’s plan for unity in Ephesians 4:1-16 and tells us that we should be “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (v. 3).  Yes, Biblical unity is something that is good and pleasant.