Tag: bible study

Psalm 22: A Surprising Lenten Study

Last Wednesday night I led the meditation for our community Lenten “meal and meditation” service. I chose Psalm 22 from the lectionary for the previous Sunday, but used the entire psalm rather than just the last portion. Here’s the study — 

Psalm 22: A Lenten Study

During the Lenten season, Psalm 22 provides a wonderful narrative of the movement from despair to hope. This psalm is particularly appropriate for the Lenten-to-Easter season because Jesus quotes the first portion of verse one while he hangs on the cross (Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46).

But, there might be more to Jesus’ quotation of this psalm than his lament over God’s abandonment. There might be something there both surprising and encouraging.

David, the psalmist to whom this song is attributed, begins in the depths of loneliness and despair in verses 1-2:

1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from saving me,

   so far from my cries of anguish?

2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,

   by night, but I find no rest.

Here is the cry of one who feels utterly abandoned, and yet knows that his God is still somewhere within hearing. One commentator suggested that verse one is a contradiction, expressing abject abandonment by God, while at the same time addressing God as “my God.” Walter Brueggemann notes that this is classic lament — a cry from the heart in the midst of turmoil and loneliness.

However, in verses 3- 5, the psalmist begins to recount God’s history with Israel. Perhaps the psalmist thinks that by reminding God that in the past, Israel has a history of crying out to God and then being saved by God, that this history will move God to action this time.

3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;

   you are the one Israel praises.

4 In you our ancestors put their trust;

   they trusted and you delivered them.

5 To you they cried out and were saved;

   in you they trusted and were not put to shame.

The psalmist speaks of God “enthroned” and as the “one Israel praises.” The psalmist’s ancestors “trusted and you delivered them,” he argues. Then, using parallelism, he repeats his argument that Israel “cried out and were saved; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.” In other words, the psalmist is saying, “I’m standing in the tradition of those before me, who cried out to you, and whom you then acted to save.” This passage exemplifies the Old Testament tradition of “contending with God” — which sounds much more respectful than arguing with God. Nonetheless, that is what is happening.

In verses 6-8, the psalmist reiterates not only his abandonment, but the ill-treatment and abuse he suffers at the hands of those who mock him and his God:

6 But I am a worm and not a man,

   scorned by everyone, despised by the people.

7 All who see me mock me;

   they hurl insults, shaking their heads.

8 “He trusts in the Lord,” they say,

   “let the Lord rescue him.

Let him deliver him,

   since he delights in him.”

Of course, these words and phrases are echoed in the New Testament crucifixion of Jesus in Matthew 27:27-44. Jesus is scorned, mocked, despised, and ridiculed, along with his God’s reputation.

We don’t know exactly what difficulty David was experiencing when he wrote this psalm, but somehow these descriptions in Psalm 22 become prophetic indications of how Jesus will be treated. This is the lived personal experience of both David and Jesus.

In the midst of describing the insults he is enduring, David reminds God of their personal relationship. It’s not enough for God to be reminded that God has acted on Israel’s behalf in the past (v3-5). The psalmist now reminds God that:

9 Yet you brought me out of the womb;

   you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.

10 From birth I was cast on you;

   from my mother’s womb you have been my God.

This is not an appeal to the general history of the nation of Israel, but a personal account of God’s action and David’s response. David says that God was instrumental in his birth — “Yet you brought me out of the womb.” But, God also created the circumstances for David to trust in God — “you made me trust in you,” David says, as if to further obligate God to help him in his present distress.

Again, David restates verse 9 in verse 10 by saying, “From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.” This connection involves God’s presence and power before, during, and after David’s physical birth. This is David’s claim to God’s response.

In verses 11-18, David asks for God’s near presence — “Do not be far from me,” he pleads. David equates God’s proximity to him as the assurance of God’s action for him.

Then, as evidence of why David needs God, he details the threats surrounding him, and the weakened condition he is experiencing:

11 Do not be far from me,

   for trouble is near

   and there is no one to help.

12 Many bulls surround me;

   strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.

13 Roaring lions that tear their prey

   open their mouths wide against me.

14 I am poured out like water,

   and all my bones are out of joint.

My heart has turned to wax;

   it has melted within me.

15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,

   and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;

   you lay me in the dust of death.

16 Dogs surround me,

   a pack of villains encircles me;

   they pierce my hands and my feet.

17 All my bones are on display;

   people stare and gloat over me.

18 They divide my clothes among them

   and cast lots for my garment.


Bulls, lions, and dogs are incredibly strong and ferocious adversaries. These predatory images are metaphors for the real threats to David’s existence, and also reminiscent of similar threats faced by other Old Testament heroes.

Along with these descriptions of predatory threats, David describes his physical condition in verses 14-15 and 17. Being “poured out like water” could mean that his strength is ebbing and he is almost empty of reserves. Bones out of joint, heart melting, mouth dried up to the point of his tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth, and being laid in the dust of death, are all indicators of the low level to which he has sunk physically and spiritually.

Again, in these verses there are prophetic echoes of the treatment and condition of Jesus as described in the crucifixion scenes. Jesus’ thirst on the cross; his exposure to both the elements and the stares of onlookers; his humiliation as bystanders gloat about his fate; and, the scene where those who witness his suffering not only do nothing to intervene, but cast lots for his clothes are horrifying.

In verses 19-21, David again requests that God “not be far from me.” As David asks for God’s intervention, he again details the threats against him and asks God specifically to meet those threats. He asks, “Deliver me from the sword…the power of the dogs…the mouth of lions…the horns of wild oxen.” The implication is that God can defeat all of these threats, and David uses pleading petitions for God to “come…deliver…rescue…save” him from these impending calamities.

19 But you, Lord, do not be far from me.

   You are my strength; come quickly to help me.

20 Deliver me from the sword,

   my precious life from the power of the dogs.

21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;

   save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

Suddenly, the scene and tone shift dramatically beginning in verse 22. David is no longer alone, but in the presence of “my people” and “the assembly.” Perhaps this means a worship setting, possibly the Tabernacle. Not only does a worship setting imply that people are with David, but that God is also present, just as David has requested.

Because God is present, the tone of the psalm also shifts from lament to praise.

22 I will declare your name to my people;

   in the assembly I will praise you.

23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!

   All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!

   Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!

24 For he has not despised or scorned

   the suffering of the afflicted one;

he has not hidden his face from him

   but has listened to his cry for help.

 25 From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;

   before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows.

26 The poor will eat and be satisfied;

   those who seek the Lord will praise him—

   may your hearts live forever!

27 All the ends of the earth

   will remember and turn to the Lord,

and all the families of the nations

   will bow down before him,

28 for dominion belongs to the Lord

   and he rules over the nations.

29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;

   all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—

   those who cannot keep themselves alive.

30 Posterity will serve him;

   future generations will be told about the Lord.

31 They will proclaim his righteousness,

   declaring to a people yet unborn:

   He has done it!

David, to an ever-widening audience, sings the praises of God. He begins first with his people — perhaps his family and those closest to him — “I will declare your name to my people,” he says. Then, the circle widens to the “assembly” which is typically thought to be those assembled at the Temple for high holy days.

Then, the circle expands to include the descendants of Jacob, reiterated as the descendants of Israel — Jacob’s name having been changed to Israel. Verse 27 expands the circle to “the ends of the earth” and “all the families of nations.” Further, in verse 29, “All the rich” and even the dead — “all who go down to the dust.” All people in every circumstance from the best off (rich) to the worst off (the dead) will kneel before God!

But there is another aspect to these final verses 22-31. Previously, David recalled both God’s action in the nation’s history and his own person story. Here, however, he shifts from past tense to present to future tense. David says,

“For he has not despised or scorned

   the suffering of the afflicted one;

he has not hidden his face from him

   but has listened to his cry for help.”

No longer pleading with God to act, David now proclaims that God has not done as the crowds did to him — God “has not despised or scorned” him. In addition, God “has not hidden his face, but has listened to his cry for help.”

Typically, the Bible links God’s presence and hearing with God’s acting. So, if God is present, then God acts. If God hears, then God acts. If God’s “face” is turned toward the petitioner, then that is a sign of God’s favor and action. God’s attention, in other words, means that God is acting.

But, there is a future component to God’s response as well. The poor will eat and be satisfied

…all the ends of the earth will turn to the Lord

…all the families of nations will bow down to him

…all the rich will feast and worship (feasting being a part of a holy day)

…all the dead will kneel before him

…posterity will serve him

…future generations will be told about him

And what will the future generations be told about God? He has done it!

In other words, God has saved David, his people, and his creation, again!

Now, imagine the crucifixion scene with me one more time: Jesus is hanging on the cross and has been for several hours. His strength is failing, his bodily systems are shutting down. He’s thirsty, wounded, bleeding.

But before he dies, Jesus quotes the first verse of Psalm 22, in Aramaic, his native language — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Of course, through the history of Christianity, those words have been interpreted as God’s abandonment of Christ as he bears the sins of the world.

But what if Jesus is really trying to communicate a message to those nearby, and to us today? What if all Jesus can manage is to utter the first words of Psalm 22, but he knows how that psalm ends? It’s like when someone utters the first part of a famous saying or song, and without thinking you fill in the rest of it. Suppose I said, “A stitch in time…” Those familiar with the maxims of Ben Franklin would add, “…saves nine.”

Or if I started singing, “O say can you see…” and immediately you and other Americans would know I was singing The Star-spangled Banner, our national anthem.

Jesus knows Psalm 22. His hearers know Psalm 22. So, perhaps by just beginning to utter this psalm, which says so much prophetically about Jesus, he knows that some will understand. Jesus knows that while Psalm 22 begins in lament, it ends in praise and rejoicing.

Suppose Jesus is trying to encourage his disciples, his mother, and those who are standing at the foot of the cross by reminding them of the meaning of the whole psalm.

Suppose Jesus is saying, “I’ve cried out to God for help, and things look bleak now. But God has always saved his people, and he will do so again. God has always responded. Like David, God has known me since before I was born and called me to this work. And, like David, God will come near, listen, and act. And, when this is all over, we will all know that God did it!”

Read Psalm 22 with that idea in mind. If you do, you might just hear the psalm’s lament, repeated by Jesus on the cross, as the beginning line of the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Quite an appropriate and encouraging passage for this lenten season.


5 Issues Your Members Will Talk About in 2012

The flood of articles predicting what’s going to happen in 2012 has begun, so I thought I would throw in a small church perspective.  Interestingly, I think 2012 will bring us to a unique intersection of faith and politics.

Here are the top five issues your members will be discussing in 2012:

Religious pluralism.  Your members may not use that phrase – “religious pluralism” – but their conversations will be sprinkled with talk about the rise of other, non-Christian religions in the United States.  With Mitt Romney and John Huntsman running for the Republican nomination, Mormonism has moved into the public consciousness.  Do we take the position that Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, took when he publicly labeled Mormonism a “cult?” Jeffress was condemned roundly for his intolerance by other Republicans.  Your members will want to know about Mormonism — particularly if Romney is the Republican nominee.  Of course, Muslims are also a hot topic as Christians struggle to understand how we should love our neighbors, some of whom wear hijabs.

Extremism.  Many in media acknowledge that the popularity of conservative talk radio and TV news commentary has moved the country further to the right than it has ever been.  Extreme views are now becoming mainstream views.  Some of your members will applaud the rhetoric about arresting sitting judges, isolating our nation from international conflicts, and ending entitlement programs.  Ron Paul’s blatantly racist 20-year old newsletters will continue to be an issue.  Some will see no problem with them, while others will believe those views disqualify him from nomination.  Extreme views are often fear-based, and designed to get media attention, but they find resonance in the frustrations of those who feel marginalized.  As church leaders, our task is to let the Gospel inform our civic dialogue.

Social economics.  This year, politicians are not only touching the previously-fatal “third rails” of Social Security and Medicare, some are proposing ripping them up.  Churches need to have conversations about the role of government and the local church in caring for the poor, hungry, sick, and incarcerated.  Matthew 25 might be a good place to start because Jesus has some pretty harsh words for those who do not care for the “least of these.”  The question for Christians is not should those on the margins of society be helped, the question is how and by whom.  Your members will have a variety of opinions, and all of them strongly-held.

Immigration.  Alabama, Georgia, Arizona, and other states have passed tough anti-immigration laws.  But in Alabama and Georgia farmers are complaining that their laborers have left the state out of fear.  How does the story of the good Samaritan square with the actions of these states and of popular opinion?  Some of your members may want to “fence them out,” but the Bible does have a great deal to say about “the stranger within your gates.” Balancing the rule of law and Christian hospitality can be tricky business.

Hierarchy of beliefs.  In 2012, evangelicals will face the challenge of having to rank their beliefs in a hierarchy of importance when making political choices.  Which is more appealing to evangelical Christians – voting for a candidate who has been faithful to his marriage vows but who is a Mormon (or liberal Christian in Barack Obama’s case); or, electing a repentant serial adulterer and former evangelical-turned-Catholic? Of course, I’m not the first to point out the contrast between Romney and Gingrich, and some evangelical leaders have made their choices public.  But, there are other areas in which we are being forced to choose one value over another, and these cut across party lines.  For example, is President Obama’s use of drones to assassinate individual terrorists more or less acceptable than using U. S. troops in traditional combat roles, both of which result in loss of life?  Does the sanctity of life extend from the issue of abortion to capital punishment, or is a convict’s life not included in that which is sacred? Your members will want to know if some of our Christian values should take precedence over other values when making decisions.

These five issues provide church leaders with opportunities for discussion and Bible study.  Of course, these are hot-button issues and emotions can run high even in church conversations, so tread carefully.  But if we do not offer our members the resources to explore these issues in order to make decisions informed by their faith convictions, then we are missing an important opportunity.  Happy New Year!

Lenten meditation: Remembering the Journey

This is the meditation I am sharing tonight for our community Lenten service.

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

1 When you have entered the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, 2 take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the LORD your God is giving you and put them in a basket.

Then go to the place the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name 3 and say to the priest in office at the time, “I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come to the land the LORD swore to our forefathers to give us.” 4 The priest shall take the basket from your hands and set it down in front of the altar of the LORD your God.

5 Then you shall declare before the LORD your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. 6 But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, putting us to hard labor. 7 Then we cried out to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression.

8 So the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders. 9 He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey;

10and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, O LORD, have given me.” Place the basket before the LORD your God and bow down before him. 11 And you and the Levites and the aliens among you shall rejoice in all the good things the LORD your God has given to you and your household.

God brings us down.

Jewish life is full of storytelling.  The Passover is the most well-known example, when the youngest child asks the question, “Why is this night different from all others?” Then, among other things, the story of the exodus from Egypt is told, very much like this telling we have just read.  But our passage tonight covers a lot of territory.

First, “My father was a wandering Aramean” probably refers to Abraham to connect the storyteller with the ancestry of all Jews.  Aram and Chaldea were closely connected, although we don’t have time to go into that here.  But this is probably an attempt to Continue reading “Lenten meditation: Remembering the Journey”

Crucifixion: Everything you wanted to know and more

If you think you know everything you need to about crucifixion and the cross, think again.  I’m preaching a 13-week series on The Apostles’ Creed, and this past Sunday we arrived at the phrase about Jesus —

“suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried…”

So, of course, my sermon was on the crucifixion, and I used the text of I Corinthians 2:1-2, where Paul says when he arrived in Corinth he was determined to “know nothing… except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  Which is a very strange statement when you really think about it, which I did.

Thinking about the crucifxion and the cross led me to Martin Hengel’s small book titled, Crucifixion In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross. Which is an incredibly long title for such a short book of 90 pages.  But Hengel, who died this year, packs more than you’d ever want to know about crucifixion and its significance into this brief work.  Hengel was Emeritus Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism at the University of Tübingen, and specialized in second-temple Judaism.

He traces the use of crucifixion from its invention by the Persians to its adoption by the Romans, who continued to describe it as barbaric.  Roman literature considered the mention of this form of execution as too coarse for public sensibilities, and little was preserved in the more refined works of Graeco-Roman authors.

When crucifixion is mentioned in ancient references, the descriptions are more horrific than even the depiction in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ, which was rated R because of the brutally violent acts shown.  Did you know, for instance, that….

  • Dead people, as well as the living, could be crucified?
  • Crucifixion was one of three forms of capital punishment preferred by the Roman empire.  The other two were burning and being torn apart by wild animals.  Sometimes crucifixion was combined with one or both of the other methods.
  • The largest number of crucifixions known at one time was over 500.
  • Bodies were often left on the crosses to decompose and be consumed by wild animals and vultures.
  • Jews were “scandalized” by the cross and crucifixions because of Deuteronomy 21 — anyone hanged on a tree was cursed by God.
  • However, some in Judea liked the Roman system of justice because common robbers were crucified, and roving bands of robbers were a problem for rural Judeans.
  • Early Christians were ridiculed for following a common criminal who had met his death by being stripped naked and hung on a cross.
  • To wish someone a “cross” was to insult and curse them.
  • Crucifixion was reserved for common criminals, and slaves who had attempted escape.  The execution of slaves takes on new meaning when you read Philippians 2:5-11, where Jesus is said to have taken on the form of a “servant” which usually mean a slave.

Okay, enough of that or I’ll have all 90 pages summarized right here.  But the most enlightening chapter, which is also the last, was Hengel’s explanation of the Jews inability to believe Jesus was the Messiah.  Add this book to your reference library.  Disclaimer: You can get yours the way I got mine — buy it for yourself.

Thru the Bible on Wed nights


Wednesday nights follow a typically Baptist schedule at our church. We meet for dinner at 5:45 PM, followed by prayer and Bible study at 6:30 PM, and choir at 7:30 PM. About 25-30 folks attend on an average Wednesday night, and we enjoy the time of midweek fellowship together. This year I decided we would cover the entire Bible on Wednesday nights during the hour we have for prayer and Bible study. Here’s what we’re doing:

  • I developed a 50-week schedule to move from Genesis thru Revelation in 2008.
  • I hand out a simple outline of the book(s) covered that evening.
  • A key verse is identified which characterizes the book.
  • We look for the overall “story” a book is telling, rather than the details.

Since we announced this Thru the Bible in 2008 study, our attendance and enthusiasm on Wednesday nights has increased. Of course, a study like this only hits the highest-of-the-high points, so you have to lower your expectations on covering detail. But, covering a book a week in less than 45-minutes is an exciting way to get a 30,000-foot view of the Bible. Have you ever done anything like this, and if so, what did you experience?