“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.
God’s calendar certainly seems to intrude on their time doesn’t it? There’s the rub. “Their time” is a myth. Time is one of God’s biggest blessings, for any time that we’re given means that we’re not suffering the eternal hell we deserve. Time is grace. Time is His. By these Sabbaths and feasts, God isn’t imposing on their time, He is giving them time—sacred time.
Time, as given to all humanity, is a common grace, a grace that saints and sinners alike share. These Sabbaths and feasts were grace saturated time. They were times of special grace. When Israel followed God’s calendar, the poor were fed, the livestock flourished, the land was fruitful, all enjoyed rest, and celebration was mandatory. When God puts you on His calendar, you don’t want to miss it.
God doesn’t intrude on our time, we’ve intruded on His. Grace resets our calendars around God. For those who have eyes of faith, these celebrations were a command to rejoice and rest. By these feasts God was inviting them to taste the future when all time would be all holy; a day when sins’ curse would no longer blight the harvest and death would not eat at time. The church now assembles on the Lord’s day to feast over the Word and Sacraments as a foretaste of that same future. For those with eyes of faith, there is resting and rejoicing. If you feel God intrudes on your time, beware your soul. If God isn’t lord of your time, He isn’t your Lord and you know neither real rest or joy.
Who you worship determines how you worship. God spoke, therefore, they shall not make an idol of silver (Exodus 20:22, 23). Capiche? Deuteronomy teases out the logic a bit more.
“Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth (Deuteronomy 4:15–18 ESV).”
Because they saw no form, but only heard a voice, they are not to make an image. Our God is a talking God, therefore our worship is a listening worship. The worship of God’s people is to be centered in God’s word. Who you worship determines how you worship.
Allah is a monad. Our God is triune. Allah cannot be love. He can be power, but he cannot, in his essence, be love. This impacts how Muslims worship. When you worship Molech, you sacrifice babies. When you believe in evolution, you abort them. How is an outworking of who. If the how is ugly, the who is ugly. When the Who is beautiful, the how will be beautiful.
There is an elegant simplicity to Christian Worship. We gather to preach the word, read the word, hear the word, sing the word, pray the word, and see the word (in the sacraments). When the visual begins to dominate our worship, idols of silver and gold are being crafted. When man’s production dominates and draws, when we want less holiness and more Hollywood, then like Ahaz we’ve brought a Damascus altar into a Jerusalem Temple. We didn’t choose the altar simply because of its practical superiority; it was aesthetically appealing because of our idolatry. Desiring to be like the cool Canaanites we loose what makes us distinctly Christian. Man’s fog and lights replace the revelation of the God of flashes and smoke. We work our altars of stone, chiseling the names and images of our gods on them—ourselves. Our work, not the Word of His work receives the limelight.
How you worship reveals who it is you’re really worshipping. Does your worship speak of a God who spoke from the fire (Deuteronomy 4:11–12)? Does it tell of a God whose word is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16)? Does it demonstrate that you really believe faith comes by hearing the word (Romans 10:17)? Does it testify to the God who causes dry bones to live by His word (Ezekiel 37:1–14)? Does indicate trust that the new birth comes by the word (1 Peter 1:23)? Does it display that the sanctifying of the church happens by His word (John 17:17)? Does it evidence the sufficiency of the word to make us complete (2 Timothy 3:16)?