Psalm 14 – Faith Statement

By Aaron Elder
Both are likely appropriate translations, I mean it isn’t uncommon for a Biblical passage to be saying one thing and winking at a second meaning. Here, let me pose the question: in verse one, is it that when a person says in their heart, “there is no God” they become a fool? Or is it that foolish behavior communicates to the outside world, “there is no God?” There’s no question which interpretation clearly draws the dividing lines – that’s familiar and certainly certain territory I’ve lived in.

I wasn’t really sure what to write so I went to one of my resources, chabad.org (https://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/16235/showrashi/true/jewish/Chapter-14.htm), to see what they had to say. Let’s just say it muddied the waters. According to some Jewish tradition, this Psalm was written about Israel’s lack of faithfulness when Babylon descended on Jerusalem to sack the city.

Why does that matter? Well, first of all, I always thought this Psalm was about those non-Christians over there (cue annoying buzzer). Wrong!

Second, if the above is true, the first view can’t be the primary one, can it? Somebody try to convince me that you would have found even one Jew who would say, “there is no God.” In fact, you would have been hard-pressed to find ANYBODY at this time in history who would say, “there is no God.” Now, one could argue that many didn’t believe in the true God. Granted. What are you going to do with the Jews? The sign on this road reads, “Warning: Hermeneutical Gymnastics Ahead.”

Back to the point. The old saying goes, “Actions speak louder than words.” What if it goes deeper than that? What if how we live our lives is our personal faith statement? Not what I say I believe, but what I actually do. What if what I do communicates to the world around me what I actually believe God is like? Here’s the humbling part – lest I think “what I do” means the activities I choose to engage in or not (i.e. go to church, don’t go to the bookstore owned by a democrat, etc.) – it’s primarily the actions I do when I’m not paying attention. While not exhaustive, this would include what we refer to as “character traits.”

[Sorry *rummaging* – quick break – just trying to collect the pieces of my shattered ego *rummaging*…]

In this short Psalm, I’m emotionally exhausted by the time I get to verse 7. But with gritted teeth, bearing the weight on my feeble legs, I beat my chest and yell, “Oh, that salvation would come out of Zion! When the Lord restores his people, let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad!” (NIV) Indeed salvation has come. May my faith statement act more and more like Jesus.

Psalm 13 – Invitation

By Aaron Elder

Let’s just say things went far differently than I had imagined. Joanna and I had agreed to move to South Korea to teach English shortly after college graduation and our wedding. I imagined an enjoyable, adventurous year – teaching, yes – but a year exploring life in Korea together. For two days, what I imagined was reality. It was hot and humid, but the air-conditioned hotel room provided relief and we observed the cute kids we’d be teaching and located a comfortable coffee shop.
I don’t remember the exact moment my dreams were shattered – was it being on the 10th floor of a 10 floor apartment complex in the sweltering heat with no air conditioner? Or was it the realization that first Monday morning I was doing a job I didn’t know how to do? Whatever it was, I had just begun the most trying year of my life to that point – by a long shot.
Of course, the bastion of spiritual strength that I was (former president of the university’s most well-attended Christian ministry), I knew how to handle such hard times. I read the bible and I pray and I experience complete and utter peace and joy – it fixes everything. Well it fixes everything until it doesn’t. What do you do when what has always worked suddenly doesn’t? I knew – you do the same thing just more and harder….
What the psalmist expressed in Psalm 13 (NIV) became my plea. God, I’m doing all the right things; how long until you rescue me? How long until the anxiety lifts? How long…?
I’ve listened to a good number of sermons in my day, and while God uses them all, there aren’t many that specifically stay with me. One day, I happened upon a sermon by a good friend – Dave Gibson. He was doing a series on walking through the wilderness. Perfect, I thought, he’ll help me figure out what I need to do to get out of the wilderness. He told a story of hunting with his dad when he was a boy when he became lost in the middle of the woods. As he reflected on that time, he articulated that what would have been most utilitarian in that moment (a map), wasn’t at all what he wanted (or needed). He simply wanted to be with his dad. Even in the middle of the woods, if he could be with his dad, he would have everything he needed.
I had been looking for a way out of the wilderness for months on end. And here was God, in the midst of great inner turmoil, inviting me to simply be with him. To be perfectly honest, things didn’t immediately “get fixed.” In many ways, 14 years later, I still find myself in the wilderness – for what seems like very different reasons. And yet, I find it’s just another invitation to be with dad.

Psalm 12 – Why?

By Aaron Elder

Because I want to. Depending on the company, I might actually admit as much, but whether or not I would, that first statement is a primary reason why I do what I do. Which makes me curious… If this is a primary reason, how have I managed to have a family and not trade them in for anything and everything related to baseball? There are actually multiple reasons from biological to spiritual, but ultimately what I want to do has changed. This shouldn’t be surprising. If you’re a human, this has happened to you somewhere along the line.
Why do I bring this up? Whether it is just for my own sake or for whoever is reading these, why am I writing these seemingly random entries about the Psalms? Not all of them relate precisely to the circumstances of a man’s life. So, why? One of the things I’ve observed in my own life is that how I interact with God shapes every relationship in my life. I’ve experienced God’s closeness at various times in my life, but my primary mode of operation has been to interact with God as though he has equations for living a good life and the ultimate goal of relationship with him is to make life work well.
As a result, my evaluation of my life is based on how well I’m executing the equations (prayer+bible+etc.=…). The other thing that happens is that my relationships follow suit. If other “like-minded” folks fit neatly in my worldview, relationships work very well. If they aren’t so “like-minded” they get trampled or excluded (or both). If God is an equation or a set of beliefs, then the people in my life will be assigned a value based on their adherence to my systematic theology.
What the psalmist is addressing is the nature of relationship as wholly dependent on how we relate to God.
Will I be faithful? (v.1)
Will I speak honestly with love and respect? (v.2)
Will I flatter and boast for my gain? (v.3)
Will I submit myself to others with mutual love and respect? (v.4)
Will I take advantage of other people? (v. 5)
Will I honor wickedness? (v.8)
God created men with strength to be exercised, but to what end? God desires for our strength to be exercised to bolster relationships – both with God and man. We have a responsibility to steward strength well. It starts with relating to God as a person and not as a puzzle to be solved. As I do that, God will transform my desires and my relationships with the people in my life.

Psalm 11 – [Emphasis Added]

By Aaron Elder

Two bracketed words make the difference between a well written article and a fraudulent one. A writer will add this to a quotation after drawing attention to the particular part of a statement made by someone else – whether or not the original author intended the emphasis to be placed there. 

As I was reading Psalm 11, this thought came to mind and it made me curious. Every verse is communicating something to us about the nature of God and his world. To make an example, verses 6 and 7 communicate ideas that stand opposed to one another – one verse about the wicked and one verse about the upright. To which of these is my emphasis added? For that matter, when I read any part of the Bible, where is my emphasis added?

We need to zoom out so we can see the whole landscape a bit more clearly. There are many systematic theologies with a few garnering most of the attention. While these systematic theologies have much to offer, they necessarily add emphasis in some areas where other systematics add emphasis elsewhere. While this can be problematic, it doesn’t have to be. 

We all read things through a lens that has been developed through our upbringing, our education, and our relationships. Having a lens is part of being human. Recognizing I have a lens allows me to become curious. Where am I adding emphasis? Should I add it there? Is there a different way to understand what I’m reading? If I’m reading the Bible and everything lines up perfectly with how I think, I’m in desperate need of asking better questions [emphasis added].

Psalm 10 – Flexing

By Aaron Elder

“Ariana Grande Just Released ‘7 Rings’ And It’s All About Being Rich As Hell.” That is the title of a piece written for Elle magazine by Alyssa Bailey (January 19, 2019) regarding the release of a (then) new song by Grande. In the article, she is quoted as saying, “Seven rings is jus like…a flex.” I came across this song listening to Spotify and it was very puzzling. Is this song for real or is it a parody? Well, despite my hope for the latter, the article mentioned above gave me my answer.
This song, as Grande mentioned, is all about flexing (see slang: flaunting wealth) which is afforded her largely on the backs of young girls. At the same time I first heard this song, I was reading and pondering Psalm 10. In many ways, ‘7 Rings’ would be an anthem of the wicked lamented and described by the psalmist. As you’re probably used to me doing, rather than pointing the finger at “them,” I want to turn it upside down and shake it and see where I have the opportunity to grow and mature.
As a Christian living in a world of ‘flexing,’ I’m often tempted to think I need to flex back – and harder. Except that the currency I’m flexing isn’t cash – it’s ‘truth.’ To be clear, this is little ‘t’ truth, not the absolute capital ‘T’ truth of Jesus Christ and his gospel. In the same way that cash creates identity and status, so too does ‘truth.’
It is the ‘truth’ of topics like predestination, social justice, politics, eschatology (to name but a few) and my certainty about such that create a sense of identity and status. I will flex on my topic de jour even if it hinders my relationships. The reason I do so is the same reason Grande (presumably) does – I want to be seen in a certain way to fit in with a certain group. To be alienated from that group would be my ruin… or would it?
We take our cues from Jesus who elevated people above the ‘truths’ of his day. He was absolutely irritating to the religious leaders, not because of his theology, but because he refused to flex the way they did. He was willing to be misunderstood in order to include those with nothing to flex. His alienation ruined him – he died on a cross. It was a death surely needed for resurrection.
So what about me? Is it ok to hold positions on these ‘truths’? Certainly. It is important (and necessary) for people to hold positions on matters of truth, but as a good friend commented, posture also matters. As someone who has had his mind changed on virtually every ‘truth’ topic (some more than once!), I’ll save my flexing… say, which way to the gun show?

Psalm 9 – Maybe

By Aaron Elder

I lied to him. As I filled my car with gas, a man approached me as he had the others at the pump. Respectfully he asked, “You got any spare change for a cup of coffee?” His clothes, his unshaven face and his two visible teeth suggested he was homeless. I said to him, “No, I’m sorry man,” trying to convey as much compassion as one can muster while lying to a man’s face about not having one dollar.

As the man picked up his backpack and walked away, I began to justify myself, “he’s creating a nuisance for the business owner anyway” and “there’s plenty of resources available to him.” I finished filling my car and I drove to work, wrestling with what I had just done to my fellow man. I have been praying for God to change my disposition toward those different from me, and opportunity showed me I still have far to go. 

For much of the day, I wondered about this man and his story. Did he really need (or want) that cup of coffee? Maybe. Maybe what he really wanted was someone to care. Maybe some faith in humanity could be restored. Maybe God is real. Maybe it is true that God hasn’t forgotten me. Maybe I can continue to hope for a better future.

Likely, I will forget this man as I go about my life. I know when I read verse 18 that at the end of all things God really will remember the needy and afflicted and I know that the saints will give thanks with all their hearts and tell of his wondrous deeds. I do know that God will set all things right. But is it enough for me to praise God for what will be and not act today? Maybe not. What if the way in which God desires to show his faithfulness and love to the needy is through his body – the church? It just may be.

Psalm 8 – Funny Business

By Aaron Elder

Funny Business. There are three main ways I use this phrase and as I read this Psalm, all of them strike a chord with me. Mostly it is in relation to verse 2 of the Psalm because it is so powerful yet seems so out of place.

With someone I don’t trust much, but I’m relying on them to be truthful, we might make an agreement that will be finalized with this saying, “And no funny business.” As I observe the comedy in my world through my kids and otherwise, with a generous laugh I say, “that’s some funny business!” Or In the midst of my work when things don’t go quite as planned on a particular day, I might say, with a shoulder shrug, “it’s a funny business.” 

Call me crazy, but in the context of Psalm 8, all of these come to mind when I think that through the praise of children and infants God has established a stronghold against his enemies.

I picture God joyfully sitting on his throne delighting in what he has made. And from the story of Job, I picture Satan as a curmudgeon coming to God as foe and adversary. I picture Satan, irritated as ever because of God’s joy, declaring his plans for evil. And knowing God’s pension for turning evil on its head, Satan leaves saying, “and no funny business.” The ultimate “funny business” took place at the cross and resurrection of Jesus when God took even the great trump card of death and turned it into the coronation ceremony of the Lord Jesus.

When God declares that it is the praises of children and infants that become his weapon against his enemy, I can’t help but think about my kids. I think about my 2 year-old who pronounces the word “raisin” as “sheh-vay” (what?). I think about my 4 year-old giggling uncontrollably as we wrestle in the living room and I think about my 7 year-old building a penguin instead of a snowman in the front yard complete with pine needles protruding from the top of its head because, “you know, some of them have hair sticking up.” I just chuckle and say, “that’s some funny business!”

As I read the bible and observe life – with all of its twists and turns, with its hurts and searing pain, with its celebrations and deep joys, with its observations of grandeur and the awkwardness of humanity stumbling through life – I’m humbled by the way God joyfully interacts with us. And seeing these miniature humans wrapped up in pure joy, it is their giggles and playfulness that become the powerful weapons that God uses to pierce evil and turn corrupt power on its head. And I can’t help but shrug my shoulders and say, “this life… it’s a funny business.”

Psalm 7 – Heritage

By Aaron Elder

I have missed out. I feel like we (the western church) have been missing out on a great treasure. What is that treasure? Jewish thought on the scriptures. The rhetoric goes like this: Jews don’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah, therefore their lens is broken and little can be gained, if anything, from their comments on the scriptures. I certainly held to this view personally. 

Friends, this is deeply unfortunate. It feels a bit like saying, “since none of my family members are Christian, I’m not going to engage deeply in a relationship with them.” Christian or not, we are who we are at this moment because of everything that has come in the past. This is certainly so when it comes to the church and God’s word. Especially when we realize that nearly everything Jesus said is a direct reference to Old Testament Scripture. Even Acts and the Epistles are dripping with Jewish thought and hermeneutic. 

In my English Bible, for example, I’m not alerted to the fact that Psalm 7 is always read during Purim. If you’re not familiar with Purim, not a worry, neither was I one year ago. It does make sense in the fact that I, an American Christian, don’t celebrate this two-day holiday. This holiday celebrates God’s rescuing of Israel from Haman’s schemes as described in the book of Esther. It doesn’t appear that this Psalm was written for that occasion, but it overlays the story of Esther perfectly. 

This is but a small taste of the treasure buried within the pages of our bibles. There are a multitude of resources out there to do some digging, and there have been a handful that have been particularly helpful for me.

If you’re a podcast listener, I recommend BEMA podcast (start at the beginning) and The Bible Project podcast (also check out the Bible Project videos on YouTube). A source I’ve sampled but not purchased is the DVD series, “That The World May Know” by Ray Vander Laan. And a website resource that has been insightful is Chabad.org. 

You will likely not agree with absolutely everything you hear or read, but there is much treasure to be gained. Here’s what these resources will not do: they will not give you all the answers. They will encourage you to wrestle with the text. And in the midst of that wrestling we will know ourselves and our God more.

Psalm 6 – Foes

By Aaron Elder

Reading this psalm and a variety of thoughts of others on it, I was confronted with an unfamiliar and uncomfortable question. The first part of this psalm has David apparently repenting for some sin committed. The second part seems to be David praying for deliverance from his foes. The psalm, while powerful, can seem a bit disjointed. The question that confronted me was this: What if it was my sin that created my foes?

I had a taste of this idea two months into my new job. I spoke with a somewhat demanding and particular client who requested some information related to a sales opportunity. Because of my fears and insecurities, I did things the way the client requested rather than how I was instructed and I failed to include my boss on the call. It was not until after the phone call and a conversation with my colleague that I realized the error I had made. Even with that, I wrestled with what to do. Do I confess it to my boss or will it just pass? My boss wasn’t in the office, and I had other work to do, and as Friday drew to a close, I headed home to enjoy the weekend. 

When I woke up Saturday morning, the weight of what I had done hit me like a ton of bricks. What ensued was a war of emotions. On the one hand, I was grieved at what I had done and wishing I had done things differently. On the other, I was turning my boss into a hardened, unforgiving foe and being angry with him. 

What an odd emotional space to be in. I was simultaneously penitent on the one hand and vilifying my foe on the other… the irony being that it was my sin that created the foe!

So what to do? On Monday morning I went to my boss and I told him what happened. Any guesses of what I found? Here, a demanding, non-Christian boss with high expectations… extended grace, mercy, and forgiveness in abundance. 

Often as I read the psalms and come across foes and enemies, I tend to place myself as the innocent. Sometimes that’s true. More often, though, I create my own foes. God would you deal with my foes justly and show me where my own repentance and restitution is needed? May I be willing to be the first to step into the “firing line” to orchestrate reconciliation.

Psalm 5 – Wickedness

By Aaron Elder

Verse 4a of this psalm reads “For you are not a God who is pleased with wickedness… .” (NIV) The word “wicked” or “wickedness” is a weighty word. When I read it in the Bible, I tend to swap it out in my mind for the word “evil” or “bad.” But as with any word, it can start to take on meanings that were handed to me from other sources. I think this word is incredibly important and deserves some unpacking.

Most English definitions will revolve around verbiage like “morally bad or evil.” To me that isn’t entirely helpful. How do you define what is evil? Because I’m a Westerner, my default is to find the list of items that make someone wicked. How about the Law of God in the Old Testament? God gave it so that settles it right? Well…

Jesus harshly rebuked the Pharisees for tithing all the way down to their spices and yet neglecting care for their parents. Clearly it can’t be simply failure of a moral code. In Hebrew writing, often the first usage of a word will under-gird its use in future passages. The first use of the word “wicked” occurs in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. We’ve come to think that the great wickedness of these cities was their sexuality. Not so. The wickedness of the people of Sodom was that they used other people for their own pleasure or gain. They pushed down the weak to elevate the strong.

This is the great wickedness of Egypt. Egyptian thirst for empire crushed the dignity of those individuals who made the engine run. This is exemplified when Pharaoh orders the Hebrews to increase their brick quota without providing straw. Sadly, this too becomes the great wickedness of Israel as written about throughout the prophets.  

Wickedness is, at its root, a disposition to get what I want at the expense of another person. Further, it is action with the intent to dehumanize or rob the dignity of another person or group of people. What we read, then, in this psalm is not a broken moral code, but the variety of expressions of the dehumanization of other people. When David says, “Not a word from their mouth can be trusted,” (NIV) he means, “How can I trust someone whose intent is to dehumanize another person?”

“Lead me, Lord, in your righteousness,” (NIV) David says in verse 8. “Lord, make me the kind of person who lifts up the vulnerable, the weak and the oppressed.” What we find in Jesus is a man whose ministry was defined by this kind of righteousness. This is the kind of righteousness that has now been handed to us. We do battle against wickedness, not by sword and shield, but by restoring dignity where it has been stripped.