the ethics of the Psalms

Psalms as TorahI want to say this is a book I read recently, but on reflection it was probably over a year ago. So here are some highlights that have remained in my memory since then.

Gordon J Wenham. Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically. Baker Academic, 2012

This is a fascinating treatment of the Book of Psalms from the perspective of what the psalms teach us about how to live our lives. Whereas the contrast in books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes is between the wise and the foolish, the contrast in the book of Psalms is between the righteous and the unrighteous (that’s the ‘ethics’ of the subtitle).

Wenham discusses several stimulating topics. One is how closely you involve yourself in the ethics of the Psalms when you pray them or (better) sing them. He doesn’t write from an exclusive psalmody position, but he does clearly wish that people made more use of the psalms for singing in individual and public (corporate) worship. But the Psalms very plainly align you (the singer) with the godly and against the ungodly. This serves on the one hand to encourage you, if you are actually one of the godly, by giving you ways shared with the Lord’s people in all times and places to express your allegiance to the Lord and  your willingness to live in obedience to him. On the other hand, it exposes your hypocrisy and dissimulation, if you are not one of the godly, when you not only listen to God’s Word read and preached but yourself use the very words of God to call for his vindication of the righteous and overthrow of the wicked. This provides a sobering reminder of how seriously we should consider the words we use in worship.

Another aspect of the Book of Psalms which Wenham brings out is the significance of its internal structure. After the introductory psalms 1 and 2, the book consists of five mini-books:

  • Book 1 – Psalm 1 to 41 – the righteous and the wicked (the righteous suffering at the hands of the wicked and calling to God for deliverance)
  • Book 2 – Psalm 42 to 72 – mainly biographical about David during the difficult times in his life (persecuted, betrayed and captured, mourning, guilty)
  • Book 3 – Psalm 73 to 89 – the fall of Jerusalem and the monarchy
  • Book 4 – Psalm 90 to 106 – looking forward to a future David who will lead to the universal recognition of Jehovah
  • Book 5 – Psalm 107 to 150 – the new David  installed by Jehovah as priest and king and praising the Lord before the nations

Each of the books ends with a doxology (41:13, 72:18-19, 89:52, 106:48, and 146-150), and psalms on the topic of the covenant made with David are placed at the ‘seams’ of the books. Within these books are of course the groups of psalms which are more familiar and obvious from their titles or themes (eg 146-150). So the arrangement of the psalms in their order isn’t haphazard but deliberate and instructive.

This arrangement is one of the things (along with their poetical form and the musical accompaniment) which Wenham argues makes the psalms easier to memorise and supports the idea that they are actually intended to be memorised. Memorising something is a way of both making it your own and opening yourself to being shaped and mastered by it. By memorising the psalms you appropriate their perspective on right and wrong, and you submit to the view they present of what God approves and what God condemns.

And the structure makes the law of God a key feature of the Psalms. Its composition in five books echoes the five books of the Pentateuch. Then Psalm 1, which extols God’s law, sets the scene for the whole of the Book of Psalms and its view of the righteous vs the ungodly/sinners/scorners. Psalm 19 (‘the law of the Lord is perfect…’) is placed at the midpoint of Book 1, and Psalm 119 (the longest psalm and a beautifully and elaborately formed one, all about the law of God) is located at the centre of Book 5. So that the prominent place given to God’s law, and its definition of good and evil, in the way the psalms are arranged reinforces how important the law of God should be to us and how keen we should be to reflect this in our worship and in our lives.

The final thing that sticks in my mind is how Wenham handles the imprecatory psalms (Psalm 35, 109, etc). He mentions various points to remind us how these psalms are thoroughly consistent with the virtues of the righteous which everyone admires and which are extolled in plenty other psalms (kindness, honesty, etc).

  • The psalmist appeals to God for help against his oppressors, specifically addressing God’s character as the God who cares for the poor and needy who are unjustly persecuted
  • What the psalmist asks for is an application of the ‘talionic principle,’ ie punishment which is proportionate and fits the crime (‘let his net that he hath hid catch himself: into that very destruction let him fall’) – he’s asking for justice, not revenge
  • The psalmist is not intending to intervene himself, the vindication is left to God
  • The psalmist is not being persecuted for wrong-doing but for his allegiance to God’s cause, which is ultimately a sign of hostility against God himself (so he is calling for God to take action to vindicate himself ultimately)
  • He doesn’t want others of the Lord’s people to be put to shame if he is brought low by those who hate the Lord (so he is calling for God to honour his own credibility for the strengthening of his people)

By using the imprecatory psalms, worshippers (1) express sympathy with the fear and pain of those who suffer unjustly, (2) bring the needs of the poor and the oppressed to God, in the conviction that God is concerned about injustice and will eventually deliver justice for his own name’s sake, and (3) force us to reflect on our own possible complicity in violence and oppression (if God cares about unjust suffering, so should we).

All in all, this was a most enlightening and worthwhile read. Although it makes an academic contribution to the scholarly study of Old Testament ethics, it isn’t beyond the reach of the lay reader – it’s accessible and informative, and opens up some very valuable reflections on how we can use and benefit from this important part of Scripture.

(Wenham has also written another book on the Psalms which is directly aimed at a general readership, and which provides an overview of this and other topics in the Book of Psalms. It too is worth the read – The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms (Crossway, 2013).)

matter and manner

John Owen on the Lord’s Supper:

Christ here [in the sacrament] hath given us a more eminent and clear representation of himself. I will name but two things:
– a representation of himself, as he is the food of our souls
– a representation of himself, as he suffered for our sins.
These are the two great ways whereby Christ is represented as the food of our souls in the matter of the ordinance; and Christ as suffering for our sins is represented in the manner of the ordinance; both by his own appointment.

(p171)

There are two things in it:- there is the weak part, that is Christ’s; there is the nourishing part, that is given to us. The Lord Christ hath chosen by this ordinance to represent himself by these things that are the staff of our lives; they comprise the whole nourishment and sustenance of our bodies. He hath so chosen to represent them by breaking and pouring out, that they shall signify his sufferings. Here are both. As the bread is broken, and as the wine is poured out, there is the representation of the travail of the soul of Christ to us; as bread is received, and the cup, which is the means of the nourishment of man’s life, here is the fruit of Christ’s death exhibited unto us, and his sufferings.

(p180)

From Owen’s discourses on the Lord’s Supper, gathered into one volume by Jon D Payne (John Owen on the Lord’s Supper, Banner of Truth, 2004). About a third of this volume is taken up with chapters by Payne on John Owen and his theology of the sacrament. These are useful and on their own virtually justify the volume. Then Owen’s discourses themselves are very helpful. They are brief and meaty. Instead of setting out to be ‘devotional’ in the sense of working directly on the emotions, they are primarily instructive and doctrinal, with the inevitable effect of increasing devotion. This approach (I find, anyway) can be at least as helpful as the other when you’re due to take part in the Lord’s Supper and looking for something to focus on.

saved by his life

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John Murray on Romans: worth getting to grips with

There’s an interesting verse in Romans 5, where Paul argues that if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.

If God treats us so favourably when we were enemies, we can take it that he will be inexpressibly more generous once we are actually reconciled.

But for a long time I’ve wondered what the contrasts mean, exactly. The impression you get is that ‘being saved’ is something even bigger and better than ‘being reconciled,’ and also, that Christ’s life means something even more than his death.

Christ’s life, presumably, means his life after his death. (That’s not to belittle the significance of his life here on earth, when he perfectly fulfilled and magnified the law as a baby, a child, a youth, and an adult, bearing the sins of his people, and going about doing good.) But after his successful death, he rose again and ascended to heaven.

His life now is one of glory, including his own satisfaction with the work he finished on earth, enjoyment of his Father’s delight and approval, and an atmosphere of adoring worship from the angels and spirits of the just made perfect. He finished his labours and that’s the kind of rest he entered into.

But his life now is also one of constant activity. He is continually making intercession for his people, continually sympathising with them, continually revealing to them the will of God for their salvation, continually caring for them and ruling them and defending them from his and their enemies.

And where he lives now, he is preparing a place for them. His life now includes him unfolding the rest of history for them and for their good, and treasuring up for them a weight of glory that will correspond to but hugely over-compensate for whatever light affliction they have experienced here.

This weight of glory which Christ’s people can look forward to in heaven must, I take it, be included in the ‘being saved.’

Over and above ‘being reconciled,’ being saved includes being renewed. Imputed righteousness is always accompanied by infused righteousness, as sinners are brought from spiritual death to spiritual new life. Because of the various mediatorial activities Christ does in the life he now lives, his people live also – they are currently sustained in their new life of living to God, and in fact they are enabled to live more and more to righteousness and die more and more to sin.

But whatever fullness and richness of life the Lord’s people enjoy here due to Christ’s life above, ‘being saved’ must include being finally gathered into the completeness of salvation in heaven at the end of time. The goal of salvation for this life is a quickened, renewed, holy people – but that’s only an interim goal, until they can be made perfectly blessed in the full enjoyment of God to all eternity. Christ’s glorified life guarantees the glorification of his people.

This is something I’ve been mulling over for ages now, but it was only coming across John Murray’s commentary on Romans very recently that clarified and crystallised what this verse must mean. He says:

“The life of Christ referred to here is not what we often speak of as the life of Christ, his sojourn in this world in the days of his flesh. It is the resurrection life of Christ. There lies back of the expression an implied contrast between the death of Christ and his resurrection (cf 4:25). It is not simply the resurrection as an event that is in view, however. Paul does not say, we shall be saved by his resurrection, but ‘by his life,’ and therefore it is the exalted life of the Redeemer that is intended. The resurrection is in the background as conditioning the exaltation life. Since the clause in question is parallel to that in verse 9 – ‘we shall be saved through him from the wrath’ – and since the latter has eschatological significance, it is likely that the salvation here envisaged is also eschatological. On that assumption the guarantee of the final and consummated salvation is the exaltation life of Christ. This is a more embracive way of expressing the truth that the guarantee of the believer’s resurrection is the resurrection of Christ (cf 1 Cor 15:20-24).

The a fortiori argument of the apostle is thus apparent. It is to the effect that if, when we were in a state of alienation from God, God showed his love to such an extent that he reconciled us to himself and instated us in his favour through the death of his own Son, how much more, when this alienation is removed and we are instated in his favour, shall the exaltation life of Christ insure our being saved to the uttermost. It would be a violation of the wisdom, goodness, and faithfulness of God to suppose that he would have done the greater and failed in the lesser. This argument also shows the indissoluble connection that there is between the death and resurrection of Christ and that since these may never be dissociated so the benefits accruing from the one may never be severed from those accruing from the other. It is a frequent emphasis of Paul (cf 6:3-5, 2 Cor 5:14-15, Eph 2:4-7, Col 3:3-4). Hence those who are beneficiaries of Jesus’ death must also be the beneficiaries of all that is entailed in his resurrection life. …”

the midweek meeting

In the very latest spat between Mark Jones and DG Hart (at time of writing), the dispute centres on the status of midweek prayer meetings. Whereas Jones regrets that more people don’t value midweek meetings more highly, Hart is concerned that people shouldn’t be pressurised into attending meetings which aren’t after all mandatory. (Jones, Hart.)

Here I have mixed feelings, because although my heart is with Jones, my head is with Hart.

When midweek prayer meetings go well, they are an extremely valuable form of fellowship and joint edification. It helps you to keep things in better perspective if your week includes an extra service half way between one Lord’s Day and the next. It’s helpful to hear fellow believers pray out loud in a public setting – all the more so, the more their prayers prioritise spiritual rather than providential blessings, and plead Christ’s merit and worthiness rather than our perceived neediness, and feature more confessions of our sinfulness than complacency over what restraining grace has kept us from. You can face the rest of the week better after being reminded of God’s grace, including the accessibility of the throne of grace, and the graces of other members of your congregation. This is what my heart says.

But as my head knows, the basic source of spiritual help from one week to the next is the Lord’s Day itself. This is the day which the Lord has singled out and set apart for people to gather together to worship him. Whereas on other days of the week we’re allowed to gather for worship, on the Lord’s Day we’re required to gather for worship. That’s required not just in the straightforward sense that it’s the fourth commandment, but also with the implication that we’re licensed to look for the Lord’s blessing in a special way when we trustingly obey what he requires. The Lord summons his people to gather for his worship in his house on his day, because that’s the way he has chosen to bring them so many of the benefits of redemption. On the Lord’s Day the Lord’s people gather in the Lord’s name to hear the Lord’s Word read and preached by the Lord’s servants, to sing the Lord’s praises, to call on the Lord’s name in prayer, to participate from time to time in the sacraments the Lord has instituted, and to receive the Lord’s benediction – these are the means of grace which the Saviour has established, and they’re all meant to be enjoyed on the Lord’s Day. The ‘assembling of ourselves together’ which we must at all costs avoid forsaking is the official, corporate, authorised, authoritative assembly of the Lord’s people in the Lord’s name on the Lord’s day. This is the day when we’re meant to worship him – the day we’re meant to praise him – the day we’re meant to pray to him – and all day long, in fact.

Meanwhile, the other six days God has allowed us ‘for our own employments’ (SC 62) or ‘for our own affairs’ (LC 120). The six days are for work and worldly things, as distinct from the one day for rest and heavenly things. And here there’s an important point about the limits of ecclesiastical authority and how seriously we take the regulative principle as a safeguard against imposing burdens on our consciences. Clearly, the church is authorised to call people together for worship on the Lord’s Day – that’s what the Lord’s Day is for – and members of a congregation can rightly expect to be challenged if they negligently fail to attend the Lord’s Day worship. But the church doesn’t have the power to make any of the other six days into holy days (or days with holy times) when people can be summoned together, even for such an apparently blameless purpose as worship. We know this from the traditional Reformed objection to Lent, Easter, Christmas – festivals like these, vulgarly known as holy days, have no warrant in the Word of God – and when the church insists that they need to be religiously observed, it’s an abuse of churchly authority and an illegitimate imposition on the consciences of the Lord’s people.

Of course, the principle of six days for worldly employments and recreations doesn’t exclude a spiritual dimension to our lives (just as the heavenliness of the Lord’s Day includes provision for works of earthly necessity and mercy). So it is that on the six days, everyone is supposed to read the Bible for themselves and in their families, pray with and for others, reflect on scripture truths they’ve read or heard, have fellowship with other believers, and so on. This is distinct from the official corporate worship of the Lord’s house on the Lord’s Day, though – it’s personal, family, and/or group devotions. Even though these activities may be exceptionally edifying and highly spiritually beneficial, they have to be fitted in to worldly schedules, with time being carved out for them around our worldly commitments as best we can, instead of being the whole purpose of our time for the whole day, as is the case on the Lord’s Day. In other words, whereas worship on the Lord’s Day is churchly (mandatory and corporate), worship on the other six days is non-churchly (discretionary and personal/familial).

Midweek prayer meetings, then, fall into the category of the discretionary. Unlike the Lord’s Day worship, they are non-compulsory and non-corporate. Non-compulsory in that, completely unlike on the Lord’s Day, it’s legitimate to have worldly business on a weekday that prevents you attending the service. You’re allowed to be sensible about whether you can make it along this week and pragmatic about a cost/benefit analysis of weeknight exhaustion to likely spiritual refreshment, and the church, which has no authority to summon people for worship not on the Lord’s Day, has no power to discipline people for not attending midweek meetings. And they’re non-corporate in that they’re an expression of personal or group devotion, but not an authorised part (or authoritative act) of the worship of the church as such.

Obviously, this isn’t to say that prayer meetings are pointless or that everyone should stop attending them. The only thing it means is that we need to keep clearly in mind what we’re doing when we gather for midweek meetings, and value them in the right way. For groups of believers to agree to meet for the purpose of praying together at a convenient time in the middle of the week is perfectly legitimate. It will usually be edifying and an encouragement to persevere in personal and family prayer and in growth in grace generally. (You could of course make the same argument about reading devotional books or admiring some aspect of creation so as to reflect on divine power or researching some aspect of history so as to reflect on divine providence or having friends round for food and fellowship or keeping spiritual diaries and prayer journals, or any number of everyday activities that can be done in a way that allows Christian graces to be manifested and developed.) But it would be a mistake to look to things like these, which are ultimately only optional expressions of personal or group piety, for the kind of blessing and strengthening which God has ordained to be sought and received in the actual means of grace in the courts of his actual house on the day he has actually set apart for himself and his worship.

People can’t, therefore, measure their own holiness or the holiness of others by their attendance on midweek meetings. So it can’t be fair to say that it’s laziness that drives non-attendance, or lack of acquaintance with the power of prayer. It could be diligence in your lawful calling (job, family/friend relationships, caring responsibilities) that prevents you getting to the service. Or, if most of the prayers are going to be lugubrious updates on people’s latest hospital appointments and routine moralising about the predictable latest instances of societal breakdown, perhaps it’s a sense of the real power of prayer that makes it more attractive to stay at home and go on your knees in your own closet. Obviously, though, this line of reasoning is inadmissible if we’re talking about the services of the Lord’s Day.

Midweek meetings are valuable and can play an important part in the life and growth of a believer and a congregation. But only up to a point – they’re not the Lord’s Day worship that the Lord requires. If we had a higher view of the Lord’s Day and the mandatory services of the Lord’s house, and greater confidence and firmer expectations about their effectiveness as his own designated means of grace, we would perhaps be less distracted by the optional extras that grow up around them in different communities of believers, and less inclined to invest them with meaning and powers and holiness which they only have derivatively (drawing on the graces which are really nurtured in the ordained means of grace) not in and of themselves.

With an Everlasting Love

HMCartwrightA collection of sermons by Rev Hugh M Cartwright has recently been published, titled With an Everlasting Love.

Mr Cartwright’s preaching never dipped below a baseline of ‘very good’ and often hit ‘excellent.’ The sermons in this volume are a small sample of this, reflecting how accurately he opened up Scripture, how deftly he applied it to his hearers, and how heartily he glorified Christ as the Saviour of sinners.

You can get it from Amazon (paperback, kindle) (with hardback on the way), if you’re not in striking distance of the FP Bookroom or the Stornoway Religious Bookshop.

I, yet not I

Salvation is strangely both ‘all about me’ and at the same time ‘not about me at all.’

In some aspects, it is or has to become intensely personal.

In order to be saved, things have to get personal. God, who is real, needs to become real to me. I need to understand that I have sinned and I need to embrace Christ as my Saviour from sin.

Then, in order to get the comfort of salvation, things have to be personal. If Christ is my Saviour then I am forgiven and accepted and loved and cared for and will be brought safely through to the end – all the blessings of redemption belong to me for my benefit and encouragement.

But in other ways, this “I” is the least important of all.

Election – In a past eternity, God elected some and not others to eternal life. He did this out of his mere good pleasure. Although it’s important to know that each one of them is precious and loved individually, yet none of them had any say in their own election and they weren’t elected on the basis of any characteristics of their own. Neither their good qualities nor their pitiableness nor their desperate need played any part in the Father’s choice – his reasons were all in himself, not in them.

Regeneration – At some point in time, God acts on the soul to bring that person from spiritual death to spiritual life. It is as impossible for someone to regenerate themselves as it is for someone to give birth to themselves. The initiative is his, not theirs.

Justification – Justification is an act of God which completely bypasses our involvement. Goodwin says you’re more capable of ordering a conjunction of the planets than of arranging your own justification. The counter-imputations of sin and righteousness happen in a realm utterly beyond our ability to influence – the sentence of God the Father on the basis of the merits of the Son in human nature.

Sanctification – Faith and repentance, the twin first acts of the newly regenerated soul, are my acts but his gift. Dying more and more to sin and living more and more to righteousness do of course involve my faculties and my effort, but the motivation, the empowerment, and the model are outside of myself. And growth in grace in general is much less about what we do and achieve, and more about what we suffer or (for a less emotionally loaded term) what we are given to experience and undergo. We are shaped, we are changed, we are developed and taught, much more by what happens to us than by what we achieve. And it’s an infallible principle that the bigger self is, the less holy we are. Those of the Lord’s people who are the most sanctified are the ones whose own will is less wilful, who are the most ready to accept and learn from God’s Word and providence instead of resisting and wanting things their own way, who are increasingly dependent on and decreasingly independent of their Saviour. We would be more holy if we were more absorbed with the greatness and goodness of God, than of ourselves: it’s not about us.

The salvation of millions of individual people, each one loved and redeemed individually, is essentially of the Lord. Each individual saved sinner can say, I get the benefit – but each one confesses, it’s not on my initiative, I don’t contribute anything, and I don’t get the glory.

four months

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Well, the sproglet is now almost 4 months old. But I don’t have anything new or interesting to say about babies (being pregnant was exasperating from beginning to end, giving birth wasn’t much fun, and looking after a baby is all-consuming) (- just to prove the point).

So on here it will just be the same old same old.

Like – the first thing I read once the baby arrived, other than, of course, facebook, was Thomas Goodwin on saving faith.

This was really just revisiting familiar territory, in a concession to the mush that my head had/has become. The page I opened at said this:

“… though promises are the means by which we believe, yet it is the promiser that is the basis or the foundation on whom our hearts ultimately and quietly rest for the performance [of what is promised].”

And this was helpful. The scriptures are full of great and precious promises. Sometimes they seem almost too good to be true and too much to hope for, although obviously their credibility comes from God’s faithfulness, not from our optimism, our grasp of them, or the circumstances looking likely.

But more to the point, even when we do believe them, there is a problem if we end up fixating on the things promised at the expense of the one who does the promising. We’ll take his stuff, we’re not so concerned about him. We like the spiritual comfort and we like our providences running smoothly, but with the promise known to be guaranteed we then disloyally relax leaving the Lord in the background of just a corner of our lives. If only we would believe the promises by quietly resting our hearts more and more on the covenant keeping God.

(Ps – no more gratuitous baby photos, I promise!)