Christianity 201

October 18, 2020

Living in a Time of Un-Civil War

Today we return again to The Serener Bright, and writer Ian Graham, pastor of the church Ecclesia, located in West Trenton, New Jersey. Click the title below to read this at source; it’s a most timely article.

Psalm 39: Passing Guests

Psalm 39 is a psalm for a digital age, the context that Alan Hirsch calls an “un-civil war.” For many of us, we’ve been knee-deep in the comments section or in a discussion on a social media thread and felt our face getting hot, our blood beginning to boil, and our fingers set the cursor into motion with words that (hopefully) would soon be deleted or filed in a drafts folder never to see the light of day. The Psalmist writes:

I will guard my ways that I may not sin with my tongue;
I will keep a muzzle on mouth as long as the wicked are in my presence.” I was silent and still; I held my peace to no avail; my distress grew worse, my heart became hot within me. When I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue
:
(vv.1-3)

David is clearly in no emotional state to be responding to his neighbors. Any words that he offers are going to be from the dizzying frenzy of fight or flight and if his words are any indicator, flight is not on the menu. But notice, David doesn’t internalize all this strife and absurdity and then finally boil over, spewing hot lava on anyone who happens to be in the vicinity. Rather, David’s words are directed towards God:

Lord, let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days;
Let me know know how fleeting my life is.
You have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is nothing in your sight.
Surely everyone stands as a mere breath. Selah
Surely everyone goes about like a shadow. Surely for nothing they are in turmoil; they heap up, and do not know who will gather.
(vv. 4-6)

David’s frustrations, his agony, his anger are all due to the people he faces every day. Yet his words turn a different direction, looking past the veil of flesh and blood to the unseen world of the divine. David channels his angst into a plea not for vengeance or vindication, but an awareness of just how fleeting his life is. Ultimately, David knows that it is God with whom he must deal.

In the presence of real wickedness (v. 2) and real indignation, David is undone not by his own righteousness but by the weight of the hand of God pressing at the places of vitriol within his own heart.


“You chastise morals in punishment for sin, consuming like a month what is dear to them; surely everyone is a mere breath” (v. 11)

Somehow in the throes of this moment, David finds himself in the court but he is not simply the plaintiff, the victim, he is in the docket himself. The judge has reserved his questioning not for his opponents but for him. And David begs God to turn away his piercing gaze:

Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; do not hold peace at my tears. For I am your passing guest, an alien, like all my forebears. Turn your gaze way from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more.” (vv. `12-13)

It may seem strange. A psalm which begins with David confidently strolling into the courtroom ends with him pleading for just a moment’s reprieve of mercy. But this is often where God meets us in our anger, at the cutting edge of justified rage and the desire to belittle, to treat others with contempt, and—as Jesus will later make explicit—to kill. God is not blind to the the injustice that David endures but he is also not blinded to the reactions of David’s heart.

It’s often the moments where are most right that we are most vulnerable. God will not leave us to wallow in our vitriol, even towards the wicked, because our hearts are too valuable for him to ever look away from. Psalm 39 beckons us back to ultimate reality, it is God that we must face. Even in judgment, the Lord turning his face to us is a blessing of unrelenting commitment. He will not leave us as a passing guest but comes and makes his home with us. Selah.


Bonus links:

Today I want to share with you two videos which have been on my screen this week.

The first is John Walton speaking to students and faculty at Wheaton College on his reading of the Old Testament. 30 minutes. Click this link.

The second is also from Wheaton College’s YouTube page and contains a message from N.T. Wright on “The Good Life in Uncertain Times” followed by Q&A. 53 minutes. Click this link.