“I think our business as laymen is to take what we are given and make the best of it. And I think we should find this a great deal easier if what we were given was always and everywhere the same.
To judge from their practice, very few Anglican clergymen take this view. It looks as if they believed people can be lured to go to church be incessant brightenings, lightenings, lengthenings, abridgements, simplifications, and complications of the service. And it is probably true that a new, keen vicar will usually be able to form within his parish a minority who are in favour of his innovations. The majority, I believe, never are. Those who remain—many give up churchgoing altogether—merely endure.
Is this simply because the majority are hide-bound? I think not. They have a good reason for their conservatism. Novelty, simply as such, can have only an entertainment value. And they don’t go to church to be entertained. They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best – if you like, it ‘works’ best—when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about your eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.” —C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm (Harcourt, 1992), p. 4
This post was originally published on January 5th, 2015. It was lightly revised on April 13th, 2020.
Habakkuk begins with lament and ends with a prayer praise. Habakkuk is unique among the prophets, because instead of speaking for God to the people, he speaks to God for the people. In the last chapter the uniqueness is ratcheted up.
“A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, according to Shigionoth.”
This isn’t just a prayer of Habakkuk; this is to be a prayer and song of praise for the people of God. “Prayer” here is a liturgical term to introduce this”psalm”, just as it is used in Psalms 17, 86, 90, 102, 142. As for “Shigionoth,” well, we haven’t the slightest, other than that this puts Habakkuk’s song in the same league as Psalm 7. “Selah,” occurs here three times; the only instances of the word in the Scriptures outside of the Old Testament psalter. Finally, Habakkuk ends the song with the subscript “To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.”
Because Habakkuk has cried, the people can sing. Because Habakkuk has lamented, and God has spoken, the people of God, His remnant, may prepare for exile with a song of faith on their lips. Habakkuk has lamented for the people; now he leads them to sing.
This is a song of joy born out of a lament of confusion. The fruit of joy grew out of the soil of confusion, watered by the tears of sorrow. This is always God’s way. On a hill called Golgotha, meaning “place of a skull,” and watered with blood, God grew the tree of life. This is a song for the darkness; a pure and holy light for the darkest of caves. This isn’t a song for the naive, the gullible, or the delusional. This is a song you can sing when a child dies, when cancer is diagnosed, and when riots plague your city. This is a song of rooted unshakable joy. This isn’t “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” This isn’t Pharrell’s “Happy.” It is William Cowper’s “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.”
I’m afraid that just as many “church members” don’t know the joy of salvation because they’ve never known the sorrows of repentance, likewise, many saints don’t know rooted joy because they rarely lament sin and its devastation. They’ve ignored the sorrows meant to drive them into the depths of God. To often we are like Nebuchadnezzar, confident in the city of glory we’ve built for ourselves. If that is you, and you are God’s, prepare for suffering. And, I would admonish you, embrace it as a great mercy. God breaks our mute idols that we might worship the living God. He removes His rays of blessings that we might not be infatuated with them and turn our heads to the Sun of all glory. If you are God’s child know this: His taking is always a giving. You may leave the shallow joy of an imaginative children’s song behind, but you will find an eternal symphony of solid joy that you’ll never tire of. That symphony is the redemption of our Triune God.
“Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’
Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 7:4, 8–11)
Judah worships the true God with a false heart so that she might worship false gods with a true heart. Her worship is full hypocrisy. It’s all paint and no reality. It’s two dimensional. It’s flat. It’s on display but it isn’t living. Like painted fire, there is neither heat nor light. Samuel Rutherford once wrote, “You may paint a man, you many paint a rose, you may paint a fire burning, but you cannot paint a soul, or the smell of a rose, or the heat of a fire.” Judah is all paint and no soul. She is all paint and no aroma. She is all paint and no heat.
Judah’s puts on the theatrics of covenant fidelity so that she can fund her life of immorality backstage. She comes to the temple not seeking refuge from sin, but unto sin. In this way she makes the house of Yahweh a “den of robbers.” When Jesus says this in Matthew 21, because of the flipped tables of the money changers, we think we understand all that is meant by the metaphor. But that square peg doesn’t fit as nicely into this round hole. There’s more to this. The den of robbers would have been their hideout between jobs, where they could lie low after one heist and prep for the next one. This is how they come to Yahweh’s house. They think they can take refuge there, not from their sin, but unto sin.
They have a mystical and sentimental view of the temple. They treat the temple as though it were some kind of talisman they could wield. They thought they had God trapped in a box, forgetting that that box was only His footstool. Play with the footstool and expect a kick.
Deceptive words abound in the American Church today. Many are shouting “We are delivered!” only so that they may return to their abominations with a clear conscience. There’s no fruit, but they declare the tree good, and thus, not destined for the fire. Some think they’re good because of who planted the tree, others, where the tree was planted, and some, how it was planted. A preacher cannot deliver you; it matters not if he be the apostle Paul. A church cannot save you, not even if it is a sound and healthy church. A method cannot save you, no prayer will save you, no matter how true the words of the prayer are, if your heart isn’t true.
Hosts think they are delivered because of sentimental-deceptive words, or mystical-deceptive words. They may say “Falls Creek, Falls Creek, Falls Creek!” or “Baptist church, baptist church, baptist church!” or “Baptism, baptism, baptism!” or “Sinner’s prayer, sinner’s prayer, sinner’s prayer!” But neither should you think you are delivered for true words. Deceptive trust in truth is as deadly as trusting in deceptive lies. Do not say to yourself, “Doctrine, doctrine, doctrine!” As one pastor put it, “Doctrine without… life is like spelling everything right on the tombstone.” Believing truth about Christ isn’t the same as trusting in the true Christ. False doctrine can damn you but true doctrine cannot save you; it can only point you to the true Christ, in whom is salvation.
Because of all these deceptive words, many houses called by the name of Christ are really dens of robbers. They are not assemblies of the saints, finding refuge in Christ to live holy lives unto His glory; they are assemblies of the wicked, where they come from wickedness to go to wickedness, but with their consciences eased thinking they are delivered. But God sees such hypocrisy, and none of the talismans of evangelicalism stay His hand of judgment.
“The voice of the LORD is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the LORD, over many waters.
The voice of the LORD is powerful;
the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.
The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars;
the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon to skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness;
the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the LORD makes the deer give birth
and strips the forests bare,
and in his temple all cry, ‘Glory!’ ” —Psalm 29:3–9
My only ambition here is to provide a flyover of this Psalm to prepare you to trek through it yourself. The psalm begins in the heavens (vv. 1–2) and ends on earth (vv. 10–11). In between, seemingly joining the two, is a storm. The storm begins over the waters (v. 3), moves over the mountain forest of Lebanon (vv. 5–6), and ends in the wilderness of Kadesh (v. 7). In this psalm we mover from heaven to earth by means of a storm that traverses sea, forest, and wilderness.
This psalm is full of majesty, glory and splendor. Spurgeon advised,
“Just as the eighth Psalm is to be read by moonlight, when the stars are bright, as the nineteenth needs the rays of the rising sun to bring out its beauty, so this can be best rehearsed beneath the black wing of tempest, by the glare of the lightning, or amid that dubious dusk which heralds the war of elements. The verses march to the tune of thunderbolts.”
This psalm thunders, not as one of those far off peals that rumbles in the distance, but like the deafening clap that reverberates in your chest such that you cannot but involuntarily jolt. Read it, and ascribe to Yahweh the glory and strength due His name. Worship Him in the splendor of His holiness.
“Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin…” —1 Peter 4:1 (ESV)
“Arm yourselves!” The word has as clear a military connotation in the original language as the English translation suggests. The noun form of the word translated “arm” is often rendered “weapons.” This is a call to weaponize.
With what are we to arm ourselves? “The same way of thinking.” It would be progress for much of the evangelical church to arm herself with any kind of thinking. Mark Noll has lamented, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” As you sit in the average American church, is the mood predominantly one of amusement or muse-ment? Here’s a test, if you lose electricity, does the worship gathering fall flat? Often a lot of thought goes into such gatherings, but are they thinking about thinking? If their thinking has any links to the academy, it is likely to the one in Hollywood.
We mustn’t pit the mind against the heart, but when the heart is mindlessly moved we have a word for this—manipulation. Collectively, the Christian masses aren’t so much moved by the Spirit as they are manipulated by men. What we want is for the heart to be moved by the mind. If this isn’t so, then our hearts are affected by our own imaginations rather than God’s revelation and we’re found to be worshipping an idol. Ours should be the ambition of Jonathan Edwards, “I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided they are affected with nothing but truth, and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with.”
If we are far from arming ourselves with thinking, how much more so from arming ourselves with a kind of militant thinking that is ready to suffer? We are at leisure in the living room of the world rather than at the ready in God’s armory. If the Christian mind isn’t fighting, it’s surrendered. If our minds are not sober, they’re drunk (1 Peter 1:13–14).
“You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” —Augustine of Hippo, Confessions
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” —1 Peter 1:3a (ESV)
“Blessed” has a different meaning depending on which way the traffic is going. When the flow is from God to us, the sign means one thing, but when commuting from man to God, the same sign has a different meaning.
Numbers 6 is the Bible’s clarion sounding of what it means for man to be blessed by God. There Aaron was instructed to bless the people saying:
“The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” (ESV)
To be blessed means to be in a state of happiness because one is favored by God. In this God Himself is the central joy of the saints. Blessedness means to be in covenant relationship with the God of all glory as our supreme and inexhaustible joy.
As we consider God in Himself, we have a kind of traffic circle where “blessed” carries a similar meaning. 1 Timothy 1:11 speaks of our “blessed God.” Our Triune God is the happy God. Our God is perfectly and indestructibly pleased in Himself as each person of the Trinity rejoices in the perfections of the others.
But when the traffic turns to return to our God, the meaning of “blessed” is “praise.” In praise, Peter isn’t adding to God’s joy, rather, Peter is expressing how God has added to his. Our praise doesn’t fill some void in God, but in us. God doesn’t need our praise. We need to praise God. C.S. Lewis struggled with the problem of praise. When God demands praise he may seem as though he is demanding continued assurance of His excellencies. Lewis says we despise this in a man, so, why is it different with God? Here is one answer he gives:
“The most obvious fact about praise—whether of God or anything—strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honour. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless (sometimes even if) shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it. The world rings with praise—lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favourite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favourite game—praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars. I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious, minds, praised most, while the cranks, misfits, and malcontents praised least.”
He goes on to say, “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.” Do you not sense here in Peter such a consummation of joy? When a child delights in the ocean which fills their bucket by pouring the bucket back into the ocean, they haven’t added to the ocean, the ocean has added to them. When grace flows onto us from the infinite ocean of God’s grace in Christ, and we return it back in praise, we haven’t added to God. He has added to us.
We bless because we are blessed, but the traffic doesn’t go the same way on each side of the street. All comes from Him and to Him. Our praise itself is part of our blessedness.
We’re so vain.
God has written the hymnary of humanity and it has parts. Unfortunately, we don’t know how to sing parts anymore. But the problem is much worse than ignorance or a lack of musicality. Discontent to remain a member of the choir, we insist on a solo part.
Thus it is that we can’t read God’s music—the psalms. We think we’re speaking when we’re being spoken to. Likewise, we think we’re being spoken to when we are to be singing. We sing the wrong parts and we fail to sing the right ones. We sing the solo and fail to sing the choir’s chorus. When we read the psalms, we fail to make individual and communal distinctions and identifications. Who is the individual? Who is the group? When we do make distinctions, we invert them. To top it off, we’re so self-centered, we don’t even realize it—“of course this lyric must be about me.” We too easily identify with David as a king.
Read the 20th Psalm. Did you hear blessings being spoken to you or did you hear yourself blessing someone? In this psalm, the people pronounce blessings on David as He goes out to battle, knowing that Israel’s welfare is found in him. Save the solo part in verse 7, this is a song of the people for their king.
In Christ we have a King, not whom we bless, but who is blessed. He doesn’t need our blessing, this blessing is on Him. And so it is that we can be all the more confident exclaiming:
Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.
They collapse and fall,
but we rise and stand upright.
Make the Psalms all about you, and any “confidence” you sing with is a display of arrogance. Sing with humility, and you may belt this psalm out with true confidence. Your King is blessed. Your King is heard. His victory is established. Let us shout over His salvation!
The psalms up to the ninth are pretty easy to pigeonhole. At risk of being accused of profiling, I’ll confess it’s pretty hard not to categorize the sixth psalm as a lament. The seventh is a stereotypical imprecatory psalm, and the eighth psalm is unmistakably a hymn. So as to cover my tracks and be politically correct, let me add that none of these categories are absolute or watertight. In contrast, the ninth psalm doesn’t so neatly fall into place. It is a mixture of thanksgiving, praise, imprecation, and lament.
At the risk of further offense, we might say that this otherwise masculine psalm seems to have a feminine emotional state. Yes, all of these emotions can come together, not only in one psalm, but in one person—the poet-warrior David. Not only can these diverse moods go together, they should. The emotional hue of many worship gatherings today is a tepid pastel pink. We’re neither burning red or cooling blue. We don’t know how to lament or rejoice, so we settle for cheap laughs and peppy talks. We have more goofy than glory.
The psalms invite us to a wider emotional range. A range corresponding to reality, that is to say, to God. John Calvin wrote, “I have been wont to call this book not inappropriately, an anatomy of all parts of the soul; for there is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.” The psalms teach us that not only must our minds be discipled to think truth, but our hearts must be disciplined to feel accordingly. This doesn’t mean we become monotone emotionally. It means the colors become righteously vivid.
If this psalm is mixed-up, it’s mixed up in a good way, like cake batter. Bitter vanilla and sweet sugar come together to make something better together than they could’ve independently.
Some parts of the Bible are like nuts, and often, we’re too lazy to crack them. We easily bore with a passage like this. It is as though we shove the shell of in our mouth expecting candy and then quickly spit it out. Our palates are juvenile and our minds lazy. Comparatively, even among similar passages of Scripture, we find this one lackluster. After the description of the tabernacle, we find that of the courtyard plain, dull, and drab. What we bore with, the Israelites sang of.
“When iniquities prevail against me, you atone for our transgressions. Blessed is the one you choose and bring near, to dwell in your courts! We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, the holiness of your temple (Psalm 65:3–4)!”
“How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God. Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise! Selah …For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness(Psalm 84:1–4, 10).”
“Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth! Serve the LORD with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! Know that the LORD, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name! For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations (Psalm 100).”
Come to texts like this prayerfully. Come to texts like this willing to work prayerfully. Come to texts like this asking God to make you sing.
Cracking this nut isn’t a matter of finding some hidden meaning in the fine details, but rejoicing in the clear revelation found in the big emphases. The altar is the biggest piece of furniture in the court, don’t miss it. It’s the biggest piece of furniture associated with the tabernacle, and for good reason, it was the most utilized.
As the ark is central to the tent, the altar is central to the court. Sometimes a person might have a piece of furniture or an appliance so large they joke that they build their house around them. Sometime it’s no joke. The tent and the court are designed around the ark and the altar respectively. Ark and altar are not just the prominent pieces of the tabernacle, they are the prominent pieces of the universe.
The only way to the ark is through the altar. The only way into God’s blessed covenant presence is through the altar of Christ cursed for our sins. The only way to the throne of grace is by the judgment of the cross. That’ll make you sing.