25 November 2010

I waited patiently for the Lord: A Meditation on Psalm 40

Destiny is an old man's game.

Trust me. I've spent years trying to teach teens about Fate, about ancient beliefs that our lives were out of our control. I felt like I had to teach this--it is essential to understanding works like The Iliad and The Odyssey. Yet I was teaching it to teenagers. Considering the audience, you can imagine that I would have been more successful peddling acne creams in an old-folks home.

I guess that's both the most fascinating and yet also most demoralizing aspect of being a teenager: that age's rejection of anything resembling destiny. On the one had, the teen years usually feature a struggle for control of one's life. This requires a rejection of destiny and a desire to pursue one's own path.

On the other hand, looking back, I realize how many choices I made as a teenager--both bad and good--set my life on the course it has followed.

If I sound like an old man who is writing this...well, I am. As of this writing, I am just three months shy of turning 40. I don't think that's why I chose Psalm 40. I don't think that it's because Psalm 40 inspired a rock song of the same title by my favorite group, U2. I think it's about destiny--the psalm that is.

I didn't choose Psalm 40; it chose me.

I have spent the last few months reading the psalms in Solomon's Temple. I don't own a time machine--just a Bible, an imagination, and a real desire to get to "the heart of worship," i.e. a vision of worship as it might have appeared in Solomon's day, the era during which most of the psalms were written.

And while I have been able, thus far, to consider many aspects of the temple service--the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the rhythm of the songs, the roles and the speakers in the songs, and the role that the temple and its surroundings played in worship--there has been one aspect that has been missing: the order of service.

Over the years I have served on many church worship committees. Because so many of the parts of a service--the offering, the hymns, the sermon--are so traditional, committees often seek re-ordering the service to enhance worship. We place the announcements in the middle of the set of hymns, for example, or we move the offering to the end of the service. Psalm 40 is personal reflection on one act of worship. Hidden therein is a full worship service--and links to two of the Old Testament's most fully realized worship experiences.

The Pilgrimage
Psalm 40 begins with waiting--a theme that will carry throughout the Psalm.
"I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry" (verse 1).
Worship isn't the place where we wait for God. That can happen anywhere. It is the place where he turns--where he hears--and bends toward us. It is not a proposal. It is an engagement.

The psalm continues with the words of pilgrimage. As I described in an earlier blog, the way to worship is as important as the celebration in the temple courts. Worshipers have risen from the "slimy pit" of suffering, the "mud and mire" of despair. Our feet have a firm place to stand on the rock of Mount Zion, in the temple proper (verse 2).

A new song graces our lips as we enter his courts with thanksgiving and praise (verse 3, Psalm 100:4) We look around at the temple courts, packed with people--the music blending with the sounds of animals--and we cannot help but think:
"Many will see and fear
and put their trust in the Lord" (verse 3).

Pilgrimage is a theme of many Old Testament worship services. If I could go back in time and attend just one worship service, it would be singing praises with Miriam by the Red Sea (Exodus 16.19-21), following the pilgrimage from Egypt to Freedom and full of the images of a "muddy pit." Who wouldn't love to be present to hear the praises Jacob uttered as he raised his pillow at Bethel or witness the sacrifice of Abraham and his redeemed son at the top of Mount Moriah?

But my focus in this series is temple worship, and as Psalm 40 leads me into the order of service as it would have appeared in the temple, I want to focus on two services: the dedication of the temple, found in 2 Chronicles 5 and (for details) the dedication of the tabernacle as described in Leviticus 9. The temple dedication--and Solomon's speech there--is the Old Testament's most glorious worship service.

It began with pilgrimage--a journey of the nation's leaders and a very special box:
When all the work Solomon had done for the temple of the Lord was finished, he brought in the things his father David had dedicated--the silver and gold and all the furnishings--and he placed them in the treasuries of God's temple.
Then Solomon summoned to Jerusalem the elders of Israel, all the heads of the tribes and the chiefs of the Israelite families, to bring up the ark of the Lord's covenant from Zion, the City of David. And all the men of Israel came together to the king at the time of the festival in the seventh month.
When all the elders of Israel had arrived, the Levites took up the ark, and they brought up the ark and the Tent of Meeting and all the sacred furnishings in it. The priests, who were Levites, carried them up; and King Solomon and the entire assembly of Israel...were before the ark, sacrificing so many sheep and cattle that they could not be recorded or counted (2 Chronicles 5.1-6)
I imagine this pilgrimage, as it choked the streets of the city with songs of praise and the cries of animals. Before the ark even reached the temple, the blood of sacrifice ran down the streets. Few could contain their excitement

Many could see. Many feared. Many trusted.

Verse four begins, "Blessed is the man." The Levites are gathered, the singers ready, the worship leader stands above the entrance to the inner courtyard and calls out:
"Blessed is the man
who makes the Lord his trust,
who does not look to the proud,
to those who turn aside to false gods" (4).
The choir echoed the invocation in the next verse of the psalm:
Many, O Lord my God,
are the wonders you have done.
The things you planned for us
no one can recount to you;
were I to speak and tell of them,
they would be too many to declare" (5)
The choir for the temple dedication included the families of Asaph (author of twelve psalms), Heman (Psalm 88) and Jeduthun (psalms 39, 62 and 77). "[They] stood on the east side of the altar, dressed in fine linen and playing cymbals, harps and lyres" (2 Chronicles 5.12). An additional 120 trumpeters backed up the choir, which sang, "He is good; his love endures forever" as "the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God" (verses 13-14).

God had turned; he had heard and filled the worship place with glory.

The Sacrifice
Psalm 40 continues with a meditation on the sacrifice. The speaker understands its role in the service, but he seeks a deeper meaning.
Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but my ears you have pierced;
burnt offerings and sin offerings
you did not require (6).
There is a lot to this simple verse, which summarizes the three types of worship sacrifice that were initiated by Moses:
  1. Fellowship Offering. The fellowship offering wasn't connected to sin but to joy and gratitude. At the dedication of the tabernacle in Leviticus 9, Aaron and his sons sacrificed an ox, a ram and sheaves of grain dipped in olive oil. They smeared the blood of the sacrifices along the sides of the altar, and they roasted the choice parts of meat over the fire until the fat had melted away (verses 16-21). At the dedication of the temple, the spontaneous sacrifices that preceded the dedication service (2 Ch 5.6) probably filled this role.
  2. Sin Offering. Separate offerings for priests (a bull calf) and the people (a male goat), this sacrificed took the blood from the victims, touched portions on each of the four horns of the altar, and poured the rest around the base of the altar. Only the fat of the victims was burned in the altar fire (Lev. 9.2, 9-10). Solomon's sin offering was 22,000 bulls and 120,000 sheep and goats (2 Ch 7.5). Considering the volume of Solomon's sins...ahem...no, this sacrifice covered the total population of priests and residents in Israel.
  3. Burnt Offering. The burnt offering was an ongoing fire of sacrifice, meant to be celebrated daily. The blood of the victims was poured on the sides of the altar, the head and guts were burned completely (Lev. 9.12-14). God had said of this offering, "The fire on the altar must be kept burning; it must not go out. Every morning the priest is to ad firewood and arrange the burnt offering on the fire and burn the fat of the fellowship offerings on it" (Lev 6.12) Solomon's burnt offering would be consumed at the climax of his dedicatory prayer as "fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple" (2Ch 7.1).
So what could the Psalmist mean that God would not desire such sacrifice? The 6th through 9th chapters of Leviticus reveal a God who is quite concerned with sacrifice down to the finest detail--down to the destruction of Nadab and Abihu for performing the sacrifice incorrectly.

I think that he understands that the attitude of sacrifice is what God desires, not the blood of the victims itself. The sin offering represented a plea for forgiveness, the fellowship offering stood for a posture of praise, the burnt offering was the wishes and the prayers directed to God throughout the day. As Paul would later write to the Thessalonians, "Pray continually" (1Th 5.17). This was the burnt offering that God required of committed Christians.

Entering the Temple
The psalm moves from the altar into the temple in verses 7 and 8.
Then I said, 'Here I am, I have come--
it is written about me in the scroll.
I desire to do your will, O my God;
your law is within my heart'

My favorite verse of the psalm, this time in the temple achieves two things.

One, I find it surprising that a psalm that began with waiting--"I waited patiently for the Lord"--now reveals that God had waited for man. "It is written about me in the scroll," would imply that God's destiny for the speaker was written long before, only awaiting revelation to spring into action. Before we could breathe, much less seek God in our sorrow, he had written of us in the scroll.

Second, the psalmist desire's God's will. This mirrors the use of the word, "desire," in verse 6 which stated, "Sacrifice and offering you did not desire." God does not desire sacrifice; we desire to do his will. I would summarize it like this: "God does not desire sacrifice; he desires our desire to do his will."

Following the thank offerings and praise of the temple's dedication, the Ark of the Covenant was carried into its place in the Most Holy Place and set between two huge statues of cherubim (these angel statues were in addition to those carved above the gilded box, Ex. 25.21). "The cherubim spread their wings over the place of the ark and covered the ark and its carrying poles" (2 Ch. 5.8). A priestly auditor inspected the contents of the box and found "two tablets that Moses had placed in it at Horeb, where the Lord made a covenant with the Israelites after they came out of Egypt" (verse 10).

Psalm 40 can be adapted to describe this scene:
"I have come--it is written about me on the tablets.
We desire to do your will, O Lord, your law is within our temple"
It seems strange, doesn't it, almost out of place? The blood of sacrificial victims, the huge cherubim statues, the temple itself are not themselves essential to worship. Our desire--submitted full to God's will--yields worship.

Blessing the People
A sermon closes the public portion of worship in Psalm 40, which follows a worship outline of six steps:
  1. pilgrimage or entrance
  2. invocation
  3. sacrifice
  4. reading of the law (entering the temple with the ark or incense)
  5. sermon, and
  6. personal dedication
The speaker has a message to share with others in "the assembly:"
"I proclaim righteousness in the great assembly;
I do not seal my lips,
as you know, O Lord.
I do not hide your righteousness in my heart;
I speak of your faithfulness and salvation.
I do not conceal your love and your truth
from the great assembly" (verses 9-10).
The speaker disappears into this message--it's not about him, it is about God. He praises "your righteousness" and "your salvation." He reveals "your love and your truth" to the members of his congregation.

After God's glory had filled the temple, accepting the sacrifices, the praises and the deposit of the law, the dedication of the temple continued with a public blessing. "While the whole assembly of Israel was standing there, the king turned around and blessed them" (2 Ch 6.3).

Solomon proclaimed that "the God of Israel...has fulfilled what he promised with his mouth to my father David" (verse 4). He listed the steps that had led to the building of the temple. Sadly, the closing of his blessing lacked the God focus of the psalmist and appears rather arrogant. Note how many times he refers to himself and how often he refers to God:
"The Lord has kept the promise he made. I have succeeded David my father and now I sit on the throne of Israel, just as the Lord promised, and I have bult the temple for the Name of the Lord, the God of Israel. There I have placed the ark, in which is the covenant of the Lord that he made with the people of Israel" (verses 10 & 11).

The Prayer of Personal Dedication
Following his declaration in front of the full assembly, the speaker who closes Psalm 40.11-17 seems quite different from the confident, inspired public speaker. While all is well with God, it is not well with him.

1. He is overcome with sin. He fears his hold on God's mercy, he acknowledges sins "without number...they are more than the hairs of my head" (verse 12). This is not a public acknowledgement. It is a private plea, meant for God's ears alone.

2. He is under threat of attack. He follows a plea for mercy with a petition for safety. Some enemies "seek to take my life," many more "desire my ruin," and still others "say to me, 'Aha! Aha!" (verses 14-15). These are the thoughts, I'm sure, of any political leader--as David was. They are also the fears that every person shares.

3. He is waiting...again. The psalm closes with the words, "O my God, do not delay" (verse 17). It is a return to the mood that opened worship, "I waited patiently for the Lord" (verse 1).

What could all of this mean? I think it shows that true worship is both uplifting and humbling. That may seem like a contradiction, but the psalms are very clear that God alone is lifted up. It is never man (see Psalm 8).

Worship is like looking through a telescope: the further into the heavens one looks, the smaller the world begins to look. God's righteousness makes ours seem feeble. His peace makes ours seem fragile. We wait...we worship...and we wait to worship again.

Solomon closed his service with a prayer of dedication. It was not a public address, per se. "He knelt down before the whole assembly of Israel and spread out his hands toward heaven" (2Ch 6.13). A scribe wrote down every word. While the prayer fills most of the chapter, verses 14-42, it follows the same structure as the prayer in Psalm 40:
  1. Sin. "Will God really dwell on earth with men?" Solomon famously asked (v. 18). He wants forgiveness for the people, beyond the thousands of sacrifices. "Hear the supplications of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place; and when you hear, forgive" (v. 21).
  2. Security. The need for stability and security takes up the bulk of Solomon's prayer. He prays that God will judge disputes between citizens (verses 22-23), avert attacks from foreign enemies (verses 24-25, 32-39), and prevent famine and pestilence (verses 26-31).
  3. Waiting. The temple is already beaming with the glory of God, so it seems ironic that Solomon would ask, "Now arise, O Lord God, and come to your resting place, you and the ark of your might" (verse 41). It is the form of prayer that speaks here--the same form that inspired Psalm 40 a generation earlier. Solomon's prayer closes with a plea, "O Lord God, do not reject your anointed one. Remember the great love promised to David your servant" (42). It echoes the plea, "I am poor and needy" that closes Psalm 40.
Worship: The Aftermath
Psalm 40 closes with supplication, but 2 Chronicles continues with the amazing events that followed Solomon's prayer of dedication.

The "amen" or ending of Solomon's prayer is scarcely out of his mouth when fire from heaven consumes the sacrifices and glory pours out of the temple (as it had in 2Ch 5.13).

The people sing more praises. The courtyard and the outer courts throng with the song, "He is good; his love endures forever" (2Ch 7.3).

There are even more sacrifices. The chronicler records astonishing numbers of sacrificial victims: 22,000 cattle, 120,000 sheep and goats (verse 5). If the earlier sacrifices "could not be recorded or counted" this day's sacrifice--and the feasting that followed it, no doubt--was truly amazing (see 2Ch 5.6 for earlier sacrifices).

The celebration went on for weeks. Eight days after the dedication of the altar, Solomon inaugurates another festival (probably the Feast of Tabernacles, Lv 23.36, a Thanksgiving or All Saints Day), and the celebration continues for another week. Finally Solomon sent the people home. They were "joyful and glad in heart for the good things the Lord had done" (2Ch 7.10).

Solomon received a special visit from God, a personal assurance that "I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a temple for sacrifices" (2Ch 7.12). But God's appearance is full of destiny, the kingdom is not eternally secure: its stability rests on choices that Solomon and his descendants will make.

The worship of the psalmist emerges from Psalm 40 in a vibrant way. It reflects the details of the single-greatest worship event described in the Old Testament. It is a guide to worship today.

04 November 2010

Better is One Day in Your Courts: A Meditation on Psalm 84

There is a right way to worship.

I can't count the number of discussions I've had over the years regarding this way to worship. Yet, looking back, I realize that most disagreements about worship dealt with items within the worship service--hymns, scripture readings, sermons, prayers.

There is another way to worship--a right way, a true way--and it takes place en route to worship. After all, the psalmist writes
"Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise;" Psalm 100.4
Worship is something that begins outside the sanctuary. It is carried into the holy place and fulfilled there.

(Incidentally, I look back on other theological questions I have struggled with, and I realize now that many dealt with a misunderstanding of the word, "way." When Christ states, "I am the way," is he claiming to be the way/method or the way/road?)

In Psalm 84, like the psalms of ascents later in the book, the way to worship is a road--one paved with celebration and one that ends in worship.

It is fun to look back on times that I worshiped and try to remember how I got there. For many years here in Portland, the kids and I walked to church most Sabbaths on a path I had carved through the woods. When I was a kid, the way to worship followed the winding, hilly roads of southern Ohio.

One way to worship comes to mind when I read Psalm 84. In June of 1996 I spent a weekend with relatives in Diedelsheim, Germany (a village so small it is now a vorort of the town of Bretten, about 25 miles outside of Karlsruhe). On Sunday morning, the bells of the village's Lutheran church summoned me to worship, much as they had summoned my ancestors who had lived in the village from 1589 to 1901 (when my great-grandfather emigrated to America).

It's funny. I remember very little about the service that day, but I can recall nearly every step down Albert-Schweitzer-Strasse to Steinzeugstrasse to the church.

It was the way to worship--a worship I had never known. Or maybe I had. It was a way to worship that generations of Ditteses had known, after all. (Pictured at right, the caption, translated, reads, "Church with old Dittes House, today Guhl." The Dittes House is in the foreground. Perhaps the walk was even shorter--the bells louder--when my ancestors roamed these streets!)

Psalm 84 celebrates the way to worship.
How lovely is your dwelling place,
O Lord Almighty!
My soul yearns, even faints,
or the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh cry out
for the living God (verses 1-2).
The vigor of this psalm overwhelms the reader. It seems like I am already in worship. Maybe I am, but "the courts of the Lord" are still some ways off. "My soul yearns [and] faints" for them. I haven't entered yet.

Temple worship began outside the temple, often a long way off. Summoned by trumpets, worshipers filled the streets of Jerusalem, dressed in their brightest colors as they danced to the Temple Mount. Pilgrims hurried through the valleys on either side of the city, their journey having begun before the sunrise.

The way to worship was a melange of sight and sound, too. Chariots of the king and his nobles clattered along the pavement, and heralds made way. Animals lowed as they were herded through narrow streets, destined for sacrifice.

One of the best visual images of this way to worship was captured by Athenian sculptors in the frieze around the Parthenon known today as the Elgin Marbles.* The scenes presented there show the procession of worshipers who celebrate the Panathenaic festival.

One of the great senses that one gets from viewing the Elgin Marbles is the joy of the worshipers. Boys grin and gesture as they rise toward the Acropolis. Cows struggle and buck as they are led to slaughter. Women parade in their finest clothes. This is a vivid scene from Athens. It hearkens to Jerusalem in the moments that led to worship--the moments described in Psalm 84.

A Search for Home
"Even the sparrow has found a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may have her young--
a place near your altar,
O Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house;
they are ever praising you" (verses 3-4).
I love this break in the meditation on God's dwelling place. A sparrow nests there. The temple is a place of worship, but it isn't pristine. It is a holy place, yet the humblest of creatures also has a dwelling place there, perhaps close enough to the altar to sing before kings!

When this stanza closes with the words, "blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you," the songs I hear are bird songs, not (yet) the hymns of priests and Levites.

The Pilgrimage
The next section of the psalm is a pilgrimage allegory. See if you can catch the double meaning before I explain it below:
"Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.
As they pass through the Valley of Baca,
they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
They grow stronger, ever stronger,
till each appears before God and Zion" (verses 5-7).
This is a psalm of the way to the temple. These verses fill my imagination with dreams of pilgrimage: climbing from the Jordan Valley, cresting the Mount of Olives, and hurrying through the Kidron Valley, always looking up toward the temple, listening for the sounds of trumpets.

The arid valley suddenly turns green as springs burst from the ground. The "autumn rains" are soothing and gentle (there is no winter in the Holy Land, and these rains would be the equivalent of the soft rains of January and February I remember from Arizona). This imagery brings to mind the Passover celebration, wedged as it is at the end of winter/autumn and just before the full rush of spring.

I thought I knew the valleys around Jerusalem, the Kidron Valley to the east and the Hinnom to the south. These verses took me aback, trying to find a valley called "Baca" or weeping. That's when the double-meaning really struck me. This wasn't a literal pilgrimage from Jericho to Jerusalem; it was a metaphorical pilgrimage through the "valley of the shadow of death."

As believers pass through a valley of weeping, "[their tears] make it a place of springs." How deep the suffering must be! This isn't a place of sadness, but despair--so much despair that the cool autumn rains are an afterthought which "also" fill the pools.

This valley of weeping is only a part of the journey for believers, who "go from strength to strength" (I interpret this line as "grow stronger and stronger" above) until they reach the temple courts in Zion, also known as the presence of God.

The Prayer
The pilgrimage is at an end. The psalm ends with a prayer and a dedication.
"Hear my prayer, O Lord God Almighty;
listen to me, O God of Jacob
Look upon our king, O God;
look with favor on your anointed one.
Better is one day in your courts
than a thousand elsewhere;
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tens of the wicked.
For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
the Lord bestows favor and honor;
no good thing does he withhold
from those whose walk is blameless.
O Lord Almighty,
blessed is the man who trusts in you" (verses 8-12).
This prayer takes me to the temple courts--even to the inner courtyard that surrounded the temple building. The king is here. He joins the sparrow--he joins me--in worship. I think, 'I could dwell in this place forever, just like God does.'

I've had the privilege of visiting many beautiful places in my lifetime--places where I would be happy just living in a tent or trailer, waking up to the beautiful view. You could give me a cave and a sleeping bag anywhere on the Gower Peninsula of Wales, and I would wake every day happy. A heater and a yurt would give me year-round pleasure in northern Wyoming. The shade of a Ponderosa is all the shelter I would need along the Arizona-New Mexico border.

As I think back to those beautiful places, I realize that I spent very little actual time in any one of them. A weekend camping trip, perhaps, or a glorious moment of sunset. Even so, they inspired a thousand moments of reflection, wonder and peace. "One day in your courts" is indeed a culmination of pilgrimage (both physical and spiritual), but it is also the moment of worship--of wonder--from which we gain inspiration over a lifetime.

What if there could be more? More wonder, more worship, day after day, leading to months, years, a lifetime? This is the feeling of the singer of Psalm 84. A doorkeeper isn't a great job. You sit around most of the day; you say, 'watch your step,' over and over again. Yet even this lowly job is superior to the luxuries of the wicked. (When the psalm mentions "the tents of the wicked," it isn't talking about "roughing it." These tents--of foreign nobles, of generals at war--were often as luxurious as palaces, with carpets, fine draperies and golden flatware.)

Besides, who needs warmth or shelter when "the Lord God is a sun and shield"?

There is one right way to worship. Psalm 84 shows the way.

It begins with a longing. It prevails through sorrow and weeping. It grows stronger as it climbs toward Mount Zion. It ends in a resting place where God himself is our warmth, our shield, our dwelling place.

* The Parthenon was built atop the acropolis in Athens about 150 years after the destruction of the first temple, so I'm not saying the images are contemporary in any way, only the way of worship through the streets of the city and the spirit therein.