As we sing “The Battle Belongs to the Lord,” we are encouraged that God fights for us and is powerful to do so, but are we certain that He will act? Those struggling to hang on and needing God to intervene hope He will do so quickly, but uncertainty can leave us anxious. In Psalm 18, the psalmist trusts in God as his protector and deliverer as he was encompassed and entangled in the cords of death and the grave and overwhelmed by the “torrents of destruction.” Perhaps you’ve been there and worried that God didn’t care enough to help? When God hears his distress, even though He is in His distant temple, He moves heaven and earth to help the psalmist with true power. Why? Because “he was angry” and “he delighted in me.” It is from His great love and concern, then, that the Lord rescues those who are insignificant and unworthy of His notice, yes, but are His own. Anxiety about His intervention in your struggle may be a lack of trust in God’s character. So, when God takes on your battle as His own and fights for you, do you return that great love with obedience and blameless living, just as the psalmist does? Do you trust fully in God’s love for you to fight your battles?
“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” Galatians 5:13. The prevailing religion of humanism, the belief that only man can be man’s savior, cannot tolerate Christianity. Why? In Christianity, moral behavior is internally regulated; the individual, knowing the consequence for disobeying God’s law, chooses to love, forgive, and walk as Jesus did. In contrast, for humanism to work as a regulator of moral behavior, it must externally pass laws that an elite minority decides and enforces these societal codes through cancellation or other persecu-tions. Since humanists need those who will not question but blindly follow the standard they impose, Christians have no place because they freely weigh consequences for various paths and then choose God. The lie, how-ever, is that in the humanistic system a person is free to follow whatever he chooses because when free from God’s moral code, behavior degenerates into a sinful spiral. They insist that it is the Christian who is a slave because he follows God’s commandments. What do you choose to do with the freedom that God gives to you?
So, we come to the last of these great Hallel psalms – Psalms 113-118. We have been looking at them from the standpoint that they were traditionally the songs sung by Jews at Passover, and thus likely to have been sung by Jesus and his disciples when they celebrated the Passover the night before the cross.
In contrast to #117, #118 is a longer song, containing 29 verses (though not nearly as long as its neighbor to the right, #119, with 176 verses!). As we read its lyrics, it sounds like a song to us, with its repetition of certain phrases – “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever”; “The Lord is on my side”; “It is better to take refuge in the Lord”; “They surrounded me”; “The right hand of the Lord”; “You are my God.”
Like many songs, its words were well-remembered and quoted by later writers. Jonah quotes verse 5 from the belly of the great fish – Jonah 2:1. The writer of Hebrews quotes verse 6 in Hebrews 13:6. Verse 22 is one of the most oft-remembered lines by New Testament writers. Verse 24 is a favorite of many of us moderns. Verse 25 (and then 26) is shouted by the masses who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem for the last week of his life, when they said “Hosanna! [“Save us, please!”].
We might most helpfully see the words of this song as a march – a procession – of a worshipper toward the Temple. Ultimately it is played out in the life of Jesus the Christ, who set his face toward Jerusalem to offer himself on the altar of God, the single great sacrifice of all time – our sacrifice – our Passover lamb – 1 Corinthians 5:7. He approached the city of God with joy and thanksgiving, despite the personal cost. He affirmed his total trust in his Father. He was surrounded by enemies, but not deterred. He was welcomed to the city with wonderful words whose speakers knew not what they were saying.
What a powerful song for Jesus to sing the night he was betrayed, the night before he laid down his life for you and me. Perhaps we have underestimated the power of psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to prepare us to accomplish the will of God in this world? The Son of God prepared himself by singing, and of course by prayer, to accomplish the good news of God. We who are charged with spreading the good news would do well to tap in to such potent sources of spiritual strength.
Praise the Lord!
Psalm 117 is another of the great Hallel psalms we are considering in this series, in light of the very real possibility that they are the hymns sung by Jesus and his disciples on His last night before the cross. This is the briefest of these songs – just 2 verses! Here are the lyrics:
Praise the LORD, all nations! Extol him, all peoples!
For great is his steadfast love toward us, and the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever.
Praise the LORD!
As you can see, a “hallelujah” both opens and closes the song – thus its appropriate inclusion in this section. As all mature people have discovered, sometimes great power comes in small packages. This short song has a huge reach! It calls on “all nations” to praise God! Not just Israel – ALL.
Jesus would soon command his disciples to “go into all the world” and preach good news. How apropos that on the night before He generated all that gospel work on the cross, they sang of all the world praising God!
You might take note that verse 1 is taken up and used by the great apostle to all the world – Paul – in Romans 15:11. In a section where Paul is driving home the point that the good news of Jesus is for both Jew and Gentile alike, he remembers the powerful words to this little psalm.
Also, in verse 2, most of our translations render something like “great is His steadfast love toward us.” The word “great” there is the same used in the Genesis story of the Flood, whose waters “prevailed mightily” upon the earth (Genesis 7:18). God’s steadfast love is a powerful thing which cannot be held back, and which covers the entire earth, we might say.
I told you – a lot of power in a little song! Wouldn’t you love to know how it sounded?
As Jesus prepared himself and his disciples for the cross, one of the songs they may have sung is Psalm 116, a great psalm of thanksgiving. There is much to meditate upon in these ancient words, including the famous question of verse 12 – “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me?” Thereafter comes a three-fold response in verses 13-19.
But for this reflection, consider another well-known phrase which occurs here in verse 15: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” Jesus knew he was hours from death. His disciples should have known, but they would not accept it. Imagine the intensity of singing these words from Psalm 115, and then adding the “Hallelujah” at the end (vs. 19b)!
It is one thing, from a distance, to quote this verse, perhaps at a funeral as many have, and apply its words, legitimately, mind you, to some good soul, some faithful servant, who has left this earth for eternity’s shores. It is another thing to sing this verse with the death of the cross staring you in the face.
Death on a cross – precious? How? In what way? It boggles human imagination! Even Jesus – 100% man, 100% God – would it not have been a struggle to fathom the meaning of these song lyrics? Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints?
On the cross, in the midst of the gruesome mix of pain and shame, Jesus would quote another Psalm/song – the 22nd – when he shouted, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
My death is precious to God vs. Why have you forsaken me? In the words of these ancient songs we begin to plumb the depths of the mysteries of what God has done in Christ Jesus. Perhaps we should allow Paul to be our tutor in going deeper, for he wrote of it this way in Philippians 2 –
…who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name…
The word “precious” in verse 15 can be a source of confusion. We think of precious being a cute child, an adorable puppy, a kind deed. Think instead “highly valued.” Jesus’ death was of high value to God. With it He accomplished the greatest thing ever accomplished – the redemption of mankind. The cross brought forth “the precious blood of Christ,” and with it we were ransomed from our sins (1 Peter 1:19).
It is truly amazing what God can do with a thing we consider awful. Even death becomes a cause for celebration. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints!