Eric B. Watkins
New Horizons: October 2020
Also in this issue
by Judith M. Dinsmore
by Brian L. De Jong
Where do we look for help when the world is on fire and so many things seem to be not only out of our control, but headed in a troubling direction?
Several years ago, I had the privilege of studying in Holland and attending church there. The minister would begin each sermon by asking the congregation, “On whom do you depend for help and strength?” The congregation would reply with Psalm 121:2: “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” The Dutch city in which I studied was old, beautiful, and full of history. Members of the congregation there could easily remember life during World War II. Their stories of the war were otherworldly and rather moving to me, a young American student. It was almost impossible for me to imagine what people lived through, and then to realize that so many did not live through it. One old man cried while sharing his memories. Perhaps most striking was the sense that he and so many others had before the war of their own peace and safety, of the utter impossibility that Holland—and so much of Europe—could be invaded, ransacked, and devastated. And yet, by God’s grace, this man not only survived the war, but lived to see better days—and great grandchildren!
The church today finds itself living through perilous times. While not as horrible as a world war, the realities enveloping us are something that most of us never imagined—things we too might describe as “impossible.” Who would have guessed a year ago that people would be wearing masks almost everywhere they go? That schools, businesses, and churches would be significantly hindered from functioning in their normal manner? That words like “quarantine” and “social-distancing” would be part of everyday use? Who could have predicted that a worldwide pandemic would alter the course of history by taking so many lives and creating a climate of fear and panic?
In addition to dealing with an infectious disease, the church also exists in a context of extremely disturbing political unrest. Months ago, the nation was disrupted by both violent and non-violent protests following the death of George Floyd. What began as reflective of a moment in time—discussions about pandemics and protests—has become the new normal. Watching the news has become a daily reminder that more and more people are dying from disease and murder, and more and more property is being destroyed by violent protesters who have taken the law into their own hands. Who could have imagined a year ago that there would be calls to defund the police by politicians, all while violence is on the ascent nationwide?
In the midst of such trying times, where does the church look for help and strength?
It is here that we turn to the Psalms. There is something about them that comforts us in the midst of our trials. Perhaps it is the fact that, as Martin Luther observed, the book of Psalms is a miniature Bible, moving from the Edenic garden of Psalm 1 to the climactic crescendo in heaven of Psalm 150. It may also be because the Psalms embody all the emotions of the soul. When the psalmist makes his confession in Psalm 51, we feel the sting of sin with him, but also his sense of hope and cleansing. When the psalmist cries out to God in Psalm 22, we feel the sense of abandonment with him, but also the promise of relief and celebration when God finally draws near. When the psalmist feels weak, afraid, and defenseless in Psalm 23, we feel the same sense of smallness, but we also rest in the same hope, knowing that our Good Shepherd is with us to comfort, defend, and lead us safely home.
There is something else about the book of Psalms that is uniquely helpful to us, especially in times like this. The Psalms are not simply devotional in a personal sense, they are also apocalyptic and eschatological. By that we mean that the Psalms display the age-old conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan, as well as God’s ultimate triumph in Jesus Christ. The Psalms tell the story of how the people of God triumph over their foes because God is with us and his kingdom will ultimately triumph in history. The Psalms describe the battlefield from the thirty-thousand-foot view just as much as they expose the heart of the psalmist who stands like a lonely soldier—outnumbered, surrounded, with no other confidence except the sure knowledge that the battle belongs to the Lord.
The Psalms, in this sense, demonstrate the tension between this present evil age and the age to come. Thus, as Geerhardus Vos notes:
It has happened more than once in the history of the church, that some great conflict has carried the use of the Psalms out from the prayer-closet into the open places of a tumultuous world. (Pauline Eschatology, 323)
Psalm 121 embodies this very well. It reveals the tension of this present evil age on the one hand, and, on the other, the eternal hope that belongs uniquely to the people of God in the age to come. The psalm begins with the psalmist looking up to God for help. Jerusalem was a city built upon a hill, and the temple was its pinnacle. The psalmist has his eyes fixed on God while traveling through treacherous valleys that were riddled with robbers and wild beasts. The way can be rocky and slippery, yet God is pleased to steady him and keep him on the path that leads to life.
Still, the pilgrim-psalmist grows weary as he travels and needs sleep. This is when a traveler might be most vulnerable—alone, asleep in the dark, with all kinds of predators potentially nearby. But the Lord is his shepherd, and he who keeps Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps. The Lord keeps watch over his lamb-like pilgrim to protect him from the scorching heat by day and the chilling cold of night. He protects the psalmist from all evil and preserves his life as he begins his pilgrimage and even as he returns home. The covenant promise “I will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Jer. 7:23) is made by the Lord, who keeps his word just as faithfully as he keeps the psalmist himself. God truly is our ever-present help in time of need.
As beautiful and encouraging as Psalm 121 is, it must also be seen in the broader context of covenant history and God’s plan to fulfill his promise not to the psalmist alone, but also to the people of God whom the psalmist represents. Luther was right; there is a reason that the psalms begin in the earthly garden and end in the heavenly sanctuary. The story in between is one of God’s pilgrim people, making their way through the valley, up the hill, and into God’s eternal city of glory, righteousness, and heavenly rest. But the psalmist is not the one who can ultimately bring this beautiful story to its climactic fulfillment. In fact, the psalmist himself will one day cease to make his pilgrim-journey in this life. God may preserve him from wolves and robbers, but death is a reality that all must face—including God’s well-kept psalmist.
It is here that we recognize that the Psalms find their ultimate meaning and fulfillment not in themselves, nor in us, but in Jesus. The Psalms were not only the poetry of Jesus’s soul, they were also a preview of his entrance into this present evil age on our behalf.
Jesus is the blessed man of Psalm 1 who keeps God’s law day and night and is not led astray by evil; yet he is ultimately driven away from God’s presence because of our sins. Jesus is the messianic Lord against whom the nations rage in Psalm 2. He is the righteous king of Psalm 3 who is assailed, rejected, and cast out by so many of his foes. He cries out to God from the cross in the first line of Psalm 22 and as he travels through the valley of the shadow of death in Psalm 23. Jesus is the one who ultimately fulfills the Psalms as he retraces many of the psalmist’s footsteps, bringing them to completion in himself.
The Psalms are our Psalms—the poetry of our souls—because they were first the same for Jesus. He not only sang them, he lived them. And we do too, in many ways. There is obvious redemptive-historical discontinuity in that the Psalms were written under the Mosaic covenant. Their primary context and particular nuances are not exactly the same for Jesus or for us. At the same time, there is also profound continuity between the struggles the psalmist endured and the joys he experienced, and this was true for Jesus before it became true for us. The Psalms embody the struggles of the people of God in this present evil age while we long for the age to come. The life of the church is understood by looking closely at the life of Jesus, our intervening Lord and ever-protecting Shepherd. For our sakes, he also became our Lamb, who was led through the valley of darkness and death for us, and who has also sat down by the eternal, still waters of heaven, which God prepared for him—and not only for Jesus, but also for us.
To say it in a way reminiscent of Romans 8, the sufferings we see displayed in the Psalms pale in comparison to those of Jesus, just as the glory and rest we see in the Psalms pale in comparison to that which awaits the people of God in Christ.
As Vos again notes, “What can be prayed and sung now in theatro mundi” (in the theater of the world) was never meant for the psalmist alone (Pauline Eschatology, 324). They are our Psalms, and their chief goal is to fix our eyes on the one who is both our travel partner and our destination. God is with us; and it is to the city of God that we are going. The reason this is so important brings us back to the reality that we are not yet home, as much as we long to be there. We are still what older theologians called the “church militant.” We are not yet a part of the “church triumphant.” The curtain has not closed. The last call has not been given. The church, like a cast of characters performing before a watching world, is still called to remain faithful under pressure. Pastors are still called to stick to the script of Scripture and remain confident that the ordinary means of grace (the preaching of God’s Word, the sacraments, and prayer) are still sufficient, still sanctify, and still sustain the people of God.
There is also a wonderful opportunity before the church. As the world scrambles to come up with earthly solutions to its spiritual problems, the church has an otherworldly message of grace and hope in Jesus Christ.
Such confidence in dark times has been part of the identity of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church since its earliest days and should continue to be. J. Gresham Machen believed that in spite of all the opposition before the church, we could nevertheless face the future with “lively hope” because God had raised up our little church for such a time as this to proclaim the gospel (Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir, 502).
Cornelius Van Til believed the same. He stood before the OPC General Assembly in 1968 and proclaimed,
Only if each one of God’s people will see himself in the light of the calling that he has, together with all the people of the covenant to become a blessing to all nations through the promised Messiah, will they be able to face the future with joy and confidence instead of fear. (God of Hope, 41)
When the world is on fire, it is important for the church to remember to be the church and to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the “founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2). He has gone before us through the darkest valleys. He has triumphed over the most formidable of our foes by his resurrection. His victory has secured heaven for us as our sure and everlasting inheritance. And he does not simply promise to preserve us, he intends to use us as his mouthpiece to the world, holding forth a message of hope and peace through the gospel.
As God’s pilgrim people today, we too are called to be heavenly minded, and that all the more when the world is so clearly on fire.
There is an old cliché that Christians are too heavenly minded to be any earthly good. We might suggest the very opposite. It is those Christians who are the most heavenly minded—that is, with their eyes most steadily fixed on Christ—who most peacefully find their place in this world and are able to minister to it.
As long as the psalmist kept his eyes on the Lord who made heaven and earth, he was safe. And so are we. Nothing can happen to us apart from our Father’s will, and no one or nothing can separate us from the love of our God who keeps his covenant, just as he keeps us from this time forth and forevermore—in Christ.
New Horizons: October 2020
Also in this issue
by Judith M. Dinsmore
by Brian L. De Jong
© 2022 The Orthodox Presbyterian Church