Today we begin study of the largest book in the Old Testament. Surprisingly, it is Psalms with 97 pages of moving poetry that particularly explores our inner journey in seeking to find God. These are prayers, prophecy, wisdom, exultations, laments and pleadings for relief. It is a very ancient book where we can find immense comfort today.
Hello, we’re Scot and Maurine Proctor and welcome to Meridian Magazine’s Come Follow Me podcast. The psalms are linked to the temple in ancient Israel and the Levites stood on the stairs before the temple and sung these. They could also be accompanied by musical instruments. Consequently, since they are so closely associated with the temple, the psalms do give a sense of being purified to be able to see the face of God and to be comforted in His presence.
Unlike the other books of the Old Testament, they aren’t designed to tell us a story or follow the prophetic line of prophecy. They are truly focused on that personal journey to God. We read a study once about children who grew up in religious families and then continued to be faithful adults. On top of church activity and the family’s teachings at home, what had the most sway on a youth’s developing faith was time alone in his bedroom. Personal study, prayer and truly seeking, rather than just going through the motions, was what kept a youth faithful into adulthood.
What’s noteworthy is that of “the 283 direct citations from the Old Testament contained in the New, 116 are identified as coming from the Psalms,” Elder Jeffrey R. Holland pointed out . “Jesus Himself quoted the book of Psalms more than any other Old Testament text. Beyond the Savior’s own use of these writings, the authors of the four Gospels drew heavily on the psalms as they strove to document His life and ministry, particularly those excruciating hours of His arrest, trial, and Crucifixion. It could be argued that in all of holy writ, no book of scripture goes on so extensively about the Messianic mission or the looking and longing for His return than is expressed in the songs of the Psalmist.
“Certainly, nothing so elevated the status of the psalms in this regard as did Jesus’ own words to His disciples after His Resurrection and before His ascension. After appearing to them, showing them His resurrected body, and eating fish and honeycomb with them, ‘He said unto
them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me. Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures.’ In terms of Messianic message and insight into the great Jehovah—past, present, and future—the book of Psalms here takes its rightful place with the highly esteemed and much more frequently acknowledged ‘law and the prophets.’”
When Elder Holland wrote a book about the Psalms, he called it For Times of Trouble, and this is how it begins:
“One of the unfailing facts of mortal life is the recurring presence of trouble, the recurring challenge of difficulty and pain. So often we find ourselves swimming against the tide in what Hamlet called ‘a sea of troubles.’ Someone once reasoned that confronting problems is apparently the common denominator of the living—the great bond between the rich and the poor, the learned and the ignorant, the believer and the skeptic. It is very clear that anyone, including the righteous, who enters the chaotic currents of life is going to face trials and tribulations along the way. One popular writer said that expecting a trouble-free life because you are a good person is like expecting the bull not to charge you because you are a vegetarian.
“When these difficult days (and nights!) come—and they will—” said Elder Holland, “it will help us to remember that ‘it must needs be,’ that in the grand councils of heaven before the world was, we agreed to such a time of challenge and refinement. We were taught then that facing, resolving, and enduring troublesome times was the price we would pay for progress. And we were committed to progress eternally. In a great patriarchal pronouncement given nearly three millennia ago, the prophet Lehi taught that it was fundamental to God’s eternal plan that our quest for exaltation—the triumph of righteousness over wickedness, of happiness over misery, of good over evil—requires ‘opposition in all things.’ Thus, even though on some days we might wish it otherwise, it is essential that our temporal journey be laced with all kinds of choices and alternatives, opportunities and obstacles, exhilarating highs and sometimes devastating lows. Through addressing—and occasionally simply enduring—these myriad experiences we are to learn and improve, grow and repent, have faith, keep trying, and make our way toward our eternal home.
“Of course,” he continues, “the greatest reassurance in this plan is that there was from the beginning a fail-safe protection built into the arrangement, an unassailable guarantee (if we want it) against every mistake we might make, every sin we would commit, every trial we would confront, every discouragement, disease, and the death we will all ultimately face. This salvation would come in the form of a Messiah, the Messiah—the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He would come ‘with healing in his wings,’ both temporally and spiritually. His message would be one of hope and peace. His atoning sacrifice would overcome death and hell for every man, woman, and child from Adam to the end of the world. He would break the bands of our bondage and our troubles, and He would set us free…Though we have received great promises regarding the lifting of our burdens, the weight of them is still often ponderous while we wait for that relief. It was for just such days of opposition, such ‘times of trouble,’ that a large percentage of the biblical psalms were written.
“Consider these pleading passages:
“Be not far from me; for trouble is near; for there is none to help” from Psalms 22
“Turn thee unto me, and have mercy upon me; for I am desolate and afflicted.
The troubles of my heart are enlarged: O bring thou me out of my distresses.
Look upon mine affliction and my pain; and forgive all my sins.” From Psalms 25.
“Save me, O God; for the waters are come in unto my soul.
“I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing: I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me.
“I am weary of my crying: my throat is dried: mine eyes fail while I wait for my God. . . .
“Deliver me out of the mire, and let me not sink: let me be delivered from them that hate me, and out of the deep waters.
“Let not the waterflood overflow me, neither let the deep swallow me up, and let not the pit shut her mouth upon me.
“Hear me, O Lord; for thy lovingkindness is good: turn unto me according to the multitude of thy tender mercies.
“And hide not thy face from thy servant; for I am in trouble: hear me speedily,” from Psalms 69 (Jeffrey R. Holland, For Times of Trouble)
These near-constant pleas to be rescued from trouble and pain and God’s comforting, soothing ability to do just that are one of the constant themes in Psalms. These cries for solace are called the supplications, and generations of people, living on an earth that challenges them to the very core, have identified with these words.
That is why Elder Holland starts his book with turning us to Psalms 56:9 that reads “When I cry unto thee, then shall mine enemies turn back: this I know; for God is for me.”
He said, “I have chosen to begin my discussion of individual passages with this one because I believe all confidence, all comfort, all strength, all safety starts here—’This I know; . . . God is for me.’ That truth has to be seared into our hearts, written in bold letters across the tissue of our brains, and never forgotten.”
He continues, “Like the blood of the Passover with which ancient Israelites were to mark the lintel and side posts of their doors, we ought to have some such figurative reminder constantly before our eyes and always in our hearts that God is for us. Whenever we go out and always when we come in, no matter what the trouble and trial of the day may be, we start and finish with the eternal truth that God is for us. He loves us. He is our Heavenly Father. He never sleeps nor slumbers in His watchcare over us. His work and His glory are to save us, to exalt us, to see us safely home with Him.
“Everything He does is in support of that ultimate purpose, no matter what refinements or trials are required in the achievement of that objective. Acknowledging the dimensions of His majesty and all quantum physics of the universe, from the budding of a flower in spring to expanding realms of galaxies without number, God’s singular, solitary quest is to bless and exalt His children, to save (if they will let Him) every human soul.
“So in our efforts to swim through our sea of troubles, we must master this thought; in the common parlance of our faith, we must get a testimony of it. God is for us. He is never against us.” (Holland ibid.)
Elder Holland’s plea to remember that God is for us must be taken straight to heart, for it is what will sustain us when times are difficult. Life is not tough because God is trying to punish you. It is sin, and Satan’s raging, and life in a fallen world that makes it so difficult. God is our rescuer, our home base, our solace against this all.
In tough circumstances, some people come to believe that God isn’t there, or if He is, He is ignoring them. Worst of all some see God as the source of evil in this world, who turns His back when children are abused and a life is taken early, breaking the hearts of a family. God, undoubtedly has more resentment directed toward Him than anyone else in the universe? Why didn’t God use his Almighty strength, His omnipotence to spare the innocent or the righteous? If, however, we know that God is for us, life is entirely transformed. “His unfailing, unfaltering, unflagging love for His children”, means that he will seek to develop in us those divine attributes, which only his tutoring allows. (Holland ibid)
Some will say during tough times that God isn’t blessing them. What is real is that God is blessing you even then in ways you cannot see, because God is for you. He will make all things work together for your good. I remember one time when I had a tough task to do the next day, my strength seemed not enough. Then I remembered that it wasn’t my strength alone I had to rely on, but the Lord’s strength, and I fell asleep with confidence. God is for me.
Now as we look at the Psalms that are particularly in this lesson, we can only touch on a few, but one thing strikes us immediately. That is in Psalms 1 the first words are “Blessed is the man” which ties us immediately to the Sermon on the Mount and the beatitudes, which all begin with “Blessed are”. Indeed, the listeners who flocked to hear that sermon would have heard the echoes of scripture they already knew from the Psalms.
You can hear the Sermon on the Mount in Psalms 24, which is a temple psalm. It speaks of ascending to the hill of the Lord, or the temple, and elevating your heart and your mind to be prepared to see God. This is what they understood anciently, and we know today, that a certain righteousness is required to enter God’s presence, and the temple experience leads you that way.
Psalms 24 reads “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.” The Lord says it this way in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.”
Back to Psalms 1:1. “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.” Now, when we read this scripture, our mind casts back to ancient Israel, and we think of the ungodly as those who opposed Jehovah worship and turned to idols. But no, this is for us today. Some essential things never change. We have the counsel of the ungodly hammered at us 24 hours a day through the news and social media. We face ideologies that are scornful of religion and biblical values. We live in Lehi’s dream where the unholy crowds in the great and spacious building point mocking fingers at us all day long. How do we combat all that when we live in a world where that is the air we breathe?
The Lord gives the answer, “delight in His law”. What if we were driving to the Grand Canyon and had no map how to get there or no sense where it was? We would wander and never get there. The Lord gives us divine law—the way things really are—so that we don’t painfully stumble in the darkness and that we can make it to our divine destination. Some of the misery in our lives happens through no cause of our own, but some of the trouble we could have avoided “by greater understanding of God’s declarations and more faithfulness in adhering to that counsel,” said Elder Holland. “We must see these divine directions as among our greatest gifts and not a burdensome set of restrictions designed to rob us of all spontaneity and freedom…The fact of the matter is, we have the potential in mortality to be lost much of the time. We need to be shown how to come out safely.” (Holland, ibid.)
Maurine, this reminds me of a story I just heard of a man who wanted to go heli-skiing his whole life—which means a helicopter drops you off in a back country mountain and you are left to ski down. Yet, as he was up in the helicopter ready to be dropped off, suddenly he was frightened. He knew below that there were cliffs with sudden plunges, avalanche danger, crevices and unpredictable possibilities on every side. His companion in the helicopter said, “Don’t worry. Just follow me.” As they were dropped off on the mountain top into deep snow, his friend went ahead and motioned to him with different arm movements. Some meant, stay right, stay left, continue straight, but the one he particularly watched for was two hands up which signaled, “Don’t come this way.” How could our friend, who was suddenly so terrified, have a better leader, watching over him?
Three of the Psalms in our readings today—2,22, and 31—are Messianic as are many of the Psalms. They remind us of Christ, they celebrate Christ. They indicate that the people knew not only that their Messiah was coming, but they knew much about Him. In Psalms 2:7 we read, “the Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee.” We are told that the” heathen rage” against the Lord’s anointed, as do the kings and the rulers, “who set themselves” above him and “take counsel together against the Lord” (vv. 1,2). In other words, the Lord, despite His love for us, has never and will never win a popularity contest on earth. But the Lord is mightier than they all: “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron.”
Psalms 22 makes the Messianic message even more specific, right down to the very words the Lord will say in His life. Verse 1 begins, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” These words take us to the Lord’s lowest moment, along with the atonement the nadir of His experience. As he took the weight of the world’s sin and pain upon him we read In Matt. 27:46 , “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? That is to say, My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me.” This moment was foreseen in Psalms 22.
The Messianic message continues in 22: 7-8, “All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, He trusted on the Lord that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him.” This connects again to the Savior’s time on the cross as described in Matthew 27: 42-43). “He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him.“ In 22:16 we read “They pierced my hands and feet.” Of course, we know the brutality of that as nails are driven through Jesus’s hands and feet to put him on a cross.
In Psalms 22:18 we read “They part my garment among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.” In Mathew we see the Romans soldiers casting lots for Christ’s robe. The specificity of these verses which take us immediately to Christ’s crucifixion with words we’ve heard our entire lives is breathtaking—what a prophet may know centuries before it happens. Finally, we read in Psalms 31:5, “Into thine hand I commit my spirit,” which are the words Christ said as he died upon the cross.
One of the things I love most about the Psalms is that they open my mind and expand my vision as to who God is. We live in such a narrow sphere here on earth, with only a few years and unable to truly comprehend large things well. You look at the new photos that come back from the Webb telescope and you just can’t help but gasp. I never knew. I never knew. How could anyone reach so far and comprehend so much as God does?
In fact, one of the defining marks of human beings is that we can only think of one thing at a time in a fairly narrow line in front of us. When you feel overwhelmed with many things on your mind and pressing at you, you can only still think of only one thing at a time. You then just think of one and then the other and then the other. We also live our entire lives in a fairly small sphere, of those people and places that are immediately around us. We think our little bubble is the world. Don’t you just want to see better and farther?
Who is this God that we can know Him? This God who asks us to seek Him?
Some verses from both Psalms 19 and 8, together paint this majestic picture. First Psalm 19:
“The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.
“Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.
“There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.”
Now from Psalm 8
When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained:
What is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him?
For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels and hast crowned him with glory and honour.
Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet.
Everywhere we look is a reflection of God’s creative hand and mind, so, it’s not so surprising that when we head into nature where we are not distracted by agendas and noise, that suddenly we feel the peace of the Creator and the beauty of His mind. Do you remember, Scot, how it felt to be under this bowl of the brightest stars when we were in the Sinai desert? We who live in light pollution so that the stars fade from our sight hardly realize how bright and vast the stars are right above our heads. The Milky Way spreads its band of light across our head and we learn with an intake of breath that there are billions of galaxies that fill the immensity of space. To see that is to see the handywork of God. To know that He loves us and that we are the focus of his work and glory is to understand something more about ourselves.
Look at the universe and ponder, “What is man, that thou are mindful of Him?”
Who are we, but God’s greatest creation? Greater than any sight that the Webb telescope sends home to us. We are not an ordinary person. We have never met an ordinary person. We are certainly dressed up in ordinary costumes here on earth. Some have trouble. Some have misfortune. Some have misfortunes they couldn’t foresee and didn’t cause, but each person is more than they currently see or comprehend.
C.S.Lewis said, “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a ceature, which if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.”(C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, Harper Collins 2001). Who are you that God should take notice of you? Someone bigger than you realize.
When the antichrist Korihor haughtily asked Alma for a sign of God’s presence and power, Alma answered, “Thou hast had signs enough.” And the greatest of those signs was the everlasting evidence of “the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form.” These things “do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.”
So now let’s turn to the most familiar Psalm of all, 23. Here we are identified as sheep.
“The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want.
“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
“He restoreth my soul: he leaded me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”
This is a Psalm that glorifies God’s goodness and infinite care in watching out for His sheep. If the Lord is your shepherd, you shall not want. Can there be a more soothing, comforting line than that? Lying down in green pastures, still waters. Yet, as beautiful as this is, we miss some of the implications of its meaning because we don’t live in an agrarian world where we have much exposure to sheep and their needs. To see even more deeply into this metaphor with Christ as shepherd and we as His sheep, we like to turn to a book by W. Phillip Keller called A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm. David, who was once a shepherd boy and wrote this Psalm, would understand this well.
First, it is good to know “that the lot in life of any particular sheep depended on the type of man who owned it. Some men were gentle, kind, intelligent, brave, and selfless in their devotion to their stock. Under one man sheep would struggle, starve, and suffer endless hardship. In another’s care they would flourish and thrive contentedly.
So if the Lord is my shepherd, the one who created a universe and put everything in its orbit, cares for me, I am perfectly attended to by One I can completely trust. Who than my own Lord, could be perfectly trusted to know me and care for me? Who but the Savior knows every thought and intent, every pain and weakness of my soul? He gave His life to know me. I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep” (v. 11)
It is no accident that we are called sheep. As it turns out, sheep are fairly helpless and defenseless. They cannot thrive without the care of a shepherd. They are subject to predators that steal into the fold at night and kill them, if the shepherd is not watching at the door. The Lord, as the good shepherd, said, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep.”(v. 7) “But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scatter the sheep” ( v. 12). Only the good shepherd can be counted on to stay at the door of the fold.
The Lord also said, “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep and am known of mine” v. 14). “My sheep hear my voice and they follow me” (v. 27). Sometimes several shepherds will hold their sheep in one fold over night. You might think this would mix them, so they would be hard to sort. Instead, in the morning, the shepherd comes and calls and his own sheep come out of the fold and follow him. The sheep know their own shepherd’s voice. They belong to him. And those of us who have made covenants know that we also belong to God and have put ourselves in his precise and infinite care.
The idea of “I shall not want,” is a bold and beautiful statement that needs a broader examination, because righteous men and women throughout the centuries and now have often lived with want. Sometimes our challenges put us in a different kind of want—emotional or physical. We don’t find ourselves completely satisfied or feeling sure. Yet, what this says, is that though we may know some difficulties in this brief sojourn on earth, in the larger picture we are content and safe in His care. We can say, “I shall not want because I shall not lack the expert care and management of my Master who will never abandon me.” It does not mean that if we have difficulties we should complain that God has abandoned us or that He has broken His promise that “I shall not want.” We live in a fallen sphere and he will shepherd us through. .
Next, “He makes me to lie down in green pastures”. Phillip Keller says, this: “The strange thing about sheep is that because of their very makeup it is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down unless four requirements are met.
“Owing to their timidity they refuse to lie down unless they are free of all fear.
“Because of the social behavior within a flock, sheep will not lie down unless they are free from friction with others of their kind.
“I tormented by flies or parasites, sheep will not lie down. Only when free of these pests can they relax.
Lastlly, sheep will not lie down as log as they feel in need of finding food. They must be free from hunger.
Keller continues that “a flock that is restless, discontented, always agitated and disturbed never does well. And the same is true of people.
“It is not generally known that sheep are so timid and easily panicked that even a stray jackrabbit suddenly bounding from behind a bush can stampeded a whole flock. When one startled sheep runs in flight a dozen others will bolt with it in blind fear, not waiting to see what frightened them.”
What is the first thing that soothes the fear of the sheep? Keller said, “In the course of time I came to realize that nothing so quieted and reassured the sheep as to see me in the field. The presence of their master and owner and protector put them at ease as nothing else could do, and this applied day and night.”
He continues, “In the Christian’s life there is no substitute for the keen awareness that my Shepherd is nearby. There is nothing like Christ’s presence to dispel the fear, the panic, the terror of the unknown. We live a most uncertain life. Any hour can bring disaster, danger, and distress from unknown quarters…Generally it is the “unknown,” the “unexpected” that produces the greatest panic. It is in the grip of fear that most of us are unable to cope with the cruel circumstances and harsh complexities of life. We feel they are foes which endanger our tranquility. Often our first impulse is simply to get up and run from them.
“Then in the midst of our misfortunes there suddenly comes the awareness that He, the Christ, the Good Shepherd, is there. It makes all the difference. His presence in the picture throws a different light on the whole scene, Suddenly things are not half so black nor nearly so terrifying. The outlook changes and there is hope. I can find myself delivered from fear. Rest returns and I can relax.”
Keller says, “The idea of a sound mind is that of a mind at ease—at peace—not perturbed or harassed or obsessed with fear and foreboding for the future. ‘I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord make me dwell in safety.’”
If sheep are to lie down, they must also have freedom from the fear of hunger, thus the lying down in green pastures is paramount. Yet, ironically, many of the places in the world where sheep are kept are arid and dry.
We have seen this so much in the Middle East, arid hillsides where a shepherd is keeping his sheep. Keller notes that green pastures did not just happen by chance. Green pastures were the product of tremendous labor, time, and skill in land use. Green pastures were the result of clearing rough, rocky land; of tearing out brush and roots and stumps; of deep plowing and careful soil preparation; of seeding and planting special grains and legumes; of irrigating with water and husbanding with care the crops of forage that would feed the flocks.
“All of this represented tremendous toil and skill and time for the careful shepherd. If his sheep were to enjoy green pastures amid the brown, barren hills, it meant he had a tremendous job to do.”
Psalm 23 makes us want to celebrate our good shepherd who does so much toil for us. We are all dependent on His infinite care, which He offers for free.
That’s all for today. This is Scot and Maurine Proctor for Meridian Magazine’s Come Follow Me podcast. Next week, we’ll be studying more Psalms. Dig in. It’s delicious. Thanks to Paul Cardall for the music that begins and ends this podcast and to Michaela Proctor Hutchins, the producer of this show.