I don’t think there’s ever been another New Year so highly anticipated by the masses of our lifetime as 2021. When we consider all the challenges of the past year, we are more than eager for a new beginning. It’s after a year like 2020, we wonder — from where does our hope come? Psalm 121:1 answers that very question with a deep, abiding truth: “My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.”
If we are to take this Psalm at its word, we must trust that for 2021 to be better — more full of hope, more full of joy — we will have to be intentional about looking to God. We’ll need to —
be honest with ourselves and God.
seek Him first and most.
lean on each other for encouragement and accountability.
And, that’s exactly why I am excited to extend this invitation to you!
YOU ARE INVITED!
Come, frolic and play with me as we seek God in His Word together. These first few weeks of 2021 can hold the key to freedom and fresh starts if we’ll set our focus on Jesus, allowing Him to guide us into all He has for us.
With your invitation in hand, read on to find out more about Playing Psalms: Games and Goodness.
On the chance that we might believe our woes are unique to our generation, we can humbly open the pages of Scripture to see that people have been plagued with poverty, pestilences, provocations, and even pandemics since, well, forever.
This truth becomes one of the greatest gifts of the Bible. We can read its words for comfort and assurance that we’re not the first to face such hard times and that we have a God who goes through it all with us, equipping and encouraging us along the way.
God’s Word also helps us remember and realize that even people like David, the great King of Israel, had much to mourn and grieve and lament. Like us, he questioned God and doubted his own faith. He wondered why it looked as though God’s enemies were prospering when God’s people were not. He demonstrated for us what it looks like to come to God with honesty and reverence, with all hurts and hopes, requests and questions.
And so it is — how the Book of Psalms came to be filled with such writings, mostly penned by this poet-king, David. It is a book worthy of our attention and application, certainly for theological understanding but also for collective and personal perspective.
If you’re like me, I’ve had a distant relationship with the Psalms for most of my life, loving the few verses I know well from its 150 chapters, yet not sure what to do with the rest. Then, I spent the fall of 2020 reading every word of this prolific book of poetry as part of a study with Jen Wilkin at The Village Church (virtually, of course).
After months of pouring over these lines of poetry that once felt foreign, I now feel the roots of wisdom growing deep in my heart, blossoming to life within me. It’s why I come to my blog to share my learnings with you — in the hope that you, too, might find a seed of truth to carry with you into your day, into your life.
So that we aren’t tempted to dread what we might assume to be a boring book of archaic analogies, I’ve added an element of play. In our recent Playing Psalms: An Advent Series, our time in the Royal Psalms took our imaginations into an auditorium where we became the audience, challenged and moved by a four-act play about Christ, our Messiah and King.
Similarly, in this new series, we’ll continue to play with the Psalms. Only this time we’re headed outdoors — no masks required. In fact, it would be most effective if our imaginings would allow us to place ourselves in our childhood play spaces.
What was your play space? A front yard? A nearby empty lot? A school’s recess area? A neighbor’s wide open farm? An alley behind your house? Or a tree-lined creekbed of your neighborhood?
Get a clear view of what that place was for you. Imagine the sun shining, the birds singing. Picture yourself running with abandon, no cares in the world — ready to play.
This is the setting for our following frivolity — and your invitation to jump into the high jinks of this journey. And, like every fun-loving kid, be sure to grab a few friends to come play with us.
We’ll keep the rhythm of getting together every week with a new post going up every Sunday morning — though you’re free to click-in any time.
What we’ll discover as we play our way through six Psalms is that, like the games of our childhood, Psalms hold memories, mystery, and meaning that will shape us, even change us, so that we look and act more like our forever friend, Jesus.
Ready to start the New Year well, Shelley Johnson
PS — If you’d like to prepare for next week, read Psalm 25.
The “Hallelujah Chorus” still thrumming in our ears and hearts, we collectively wonder if that’s it. It always seems to happen — we wait and watch for Christ’s coming each year, then all at once Christmas is over. That same feeling of loss settles over us now. We want more.
That’s when we realize the curtain is still open, the spotlights still shining. Never taking our eyes off the stage, we reach behind us, fumbling blindly for our seats. And sit. Full of hope.
Surely, there’s more.
Playing Psalms — The Epilogue
That’s when we hear it. The crackling of the sound system coming to life. We lean forward to better hear what our narrator has to say.
O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things. His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory. The Lord has made known his victory; he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations. He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.
Psalm 98:1-3 (NRSV)
Yes, that’s right! Christmas is a celebration of all the marvelous things God has done — His victories and vindications, His ever-steady, never-changing love and faithfulness. And, those are things we can celebrate — all. year. long. Yes!
The narrator continues,
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises. Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.
Psalm 98:4-6 (NRSV)
Oh, the JOY! To realize all that embodies Christ our King — what He has done and all that He is doing — it evokes the only emotion imaginable: JOY.
The final stanza flows forth from our faithful narrator-friend — a voice we know so well by now:
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it. Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.
Psalm 98:7-9 (NRSV)
To think of all that will happen when our King comes again — His presence. Here on earth. To rule and reign. To make all things right. No one and no thing in all creation will be able to remain silent on that day. Such celebration!
We should join the seas, the floods, the hills. Let us roar our joy, clap our hands, and lift our voices together!
[enter choir — center stage]
Joy to the world! the Lord is come; Let earth receive her King; Let every heart prepare him room, And heaven and nature sing, And heaven and nature sing, And heaven, and heav’n and nature sing.
Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns; Let all their songs employ, While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains Repeat the sounding joy, Repeat the sounding joy, Repeat, repeat the sounding joy.
No more let sin and sorrow grow, Nor thorns infest the ground; He comes to make his blessings flow Far as the curse is found, Far as the curse is found, Far as, far as the curse is found.
He rules the world with truth and grace, And makes the nations prove The glories of his righteousness, And wonders of his love, And wonders of his love, And wonders, wonders of his love.
We sing! We clap! We shout and dance and whoop our joy! This is true worship and adoration. This is the joy of the Lord!
We lose track of time. But eventually, the spotlights dim. The curtains close.
And the rejoicing settles to a more subdued simmer. We turn to the people around us, sharing smiles and squeezing hugs. We gather our bags and coats, our playbills and hats to head out, no longer sad that the production is over. We remember that Christ goes with us — out these doors and into the world, every day, all the time — now and forever. His is a gift that gives of itself every time we seek Him. His was a life that bought our own at the highest price. His is a kingdom that offers shelter and hope, and home. His is a promise kept for all who believe. His is a power that rules all nations. Because He is the King of Kings!
So, as we step back into reality, carrying with us all that we have witnessed and welcomed, we remember that deep knowing of who Jesus is — of what Christmas is. And even though Christmas Day is behind us this year, we take it with us into the coming one. With hope. With joy. And with great expectancy.
Joy to the world!
Still in the Christmas spirit, Shelley Johnson
PS — If you enjoyed Playing Psalms: An Advent Series join in again in January for part two — Playing Psalms: Games and Goodness. Rather than imagining ourselves the audience of a Christmas production, we’re headed outside. To get into games. To ponder the poetry of the Psalms through the lens of…play.
If you haven’t already, subscribe to my blog so that you won’t miss a post! And, invite someone else to take part. Here’s to having some fun while submersing ourselves in Scripture!
As the curtains rise, so do our hopes! It’s time for Act Four of Playing Psalms. Our hearts, in equal measure, eagerly anticipate what comes next and despair of this production’s conclusion.
Because we’ve already peeked at our playbill, we know that this Act will include parts of Royal Psalm 89.
Act Four, Scene One
The stage lights brighten, revealing three scenes: a golden box, a bottle of oil, and a table with a loaf of bread and cup of wine. Knowing by now that these simple displays will have a role in this Act, we automatically try to puzzle out what they represent.
But, alas, our narrator — as usual — interrupts our introspections with the opening lines of our Psalm:
I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations. I will declare that your love stands firm forever, that you have established your faithfulness in heaven itself. You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to David my servant, ‘I will establish your line forever and make your throne firm through all generations.’”
The voice ceases, and the spotlight encircles the golden box, just as verse three pops up on the screen above.
I have made a COVENANT with my chosen one.
Covenant? The promise-like-oath we make with others?
Almost as if he could read our thoughts, the narrator quotes Exodus 24:7-8:
Then [Moses] took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, “We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey.” Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
Oh, yes. We remember now. Moses. The Ten Commandments. The covenant God made with His people — that He would be their God, and they would be His people.
Understanding lights our eyes — that golden box is meant to be the Ark of the Covenant, which holds the tablets of the covenant (see Hebrews 9:4).
The narrator’s voice offers further enlightenment as he repeats verse four:
I will establish your line forever and make your throne firm through the generations.
This verbal vow to David was no simple promise made lightly in the moment. This promise held power. It hinted eternity. This promise was a covenant. And God made it a forever affirmation.
Act Four, Scene Two
The narrator picks up in the nineteenth verse of this Royal Psalm, whose subject seems to be King David. The spotlight sweeps to the bottle of oil, and the psalmist’s soliloquy continues:
Once you spoke in a vision, to your faithful people you said: “I have bestowed strength on a warrior; I have raised up a young man from among the people. I have found David my servant; with my sacred oil I have anointed him. My hand will sustain him; surely my arm will strengthen him. The enemy will not get the better of him; the wicked will not oppress him. I will crush his foes before him and strike down his adversaries. My faithful love will be with him, and through my name his horn will be exalted. I will set his hand over the sea, his right hand over the rivers. He will call out to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, the Rock my Savior.’ And I will appoint him to be my firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth. I will maintain my love to him forever, and my covenant with him will never fail. I will establish his line forever, his throne as long as the heavens endure.
The beauty of this remembering resonates within us. We can picture God’s choosing of the small shepherd boy and the prophet Samuel pouring the anointing oil over David’s head — a sure sign of Sovereign selection (see 1 Samuel 16:1-13).
As the promises roll on, we sense a subtle shift. We can totally see King David being strengthened by God, his enemies never getting the better of him because of God’s intervention (verses 21 & 22). But, perhaps, the imagery of the king’s hand being set over the sea points us to Messiah the King?
Yes, it must. Because then comes the language of Lordship and longevity — “the most exalted,” “love to him forever,” “establish his line forever.”
But, what of being appointed “firstborn?”
Right on cue, our narrator speaks Paul’s words from his letter to the Colossians. We close our eyes, urging our minds toward understanding:
[Christ] is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Further clarification rings out as words from Revelation are read:
…Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth…who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father — to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.
[enter choir, stage right]
Act Four, Scene Three
Our eyes still closed, we wonder if what we hear is real. But, we stay there, unmoving and unwilling to break the spell, allowing the notes to wash over us. As the music crescendos, our voices join in. Softly at first, then in fully abandoned adoration of the King of Kings!
Goosebumps aplenty, our arms remain lifted in worship as we open our weepy eyes. We declare this King we’ve come to know and love as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
And, from our depths of being, we mean it.
Act Four, Scene Four
The notes and lyrics reverberating in our chests, we stay standing and stare as the spotlight slides to the table, casting a holy glow over the bread and wine.
In the silence, we take our seats and await the next stanza of this psalm.
Our narrator, never one to disappoint, takes on the voice of God as he speaks with authority over us:
“If his sons forsake my law and do not follow my statutes, if they violate my decrees and fail to keep my commands, I will punish their sin with the rod, their iniquity with flogging; but I will not take my love from him, nor will I ever betray my faithfulness. I will not violate my covenant or alter what my lips have uttered. Once for all, I have sworn by my holiness— and I will not lie to David— that his line will continue forever and his throne endure before me like the sun; it will be established forever like the moon, the faithful witness in the sky.”
Oh, this list of all the things that could go wrong, with promises of punishment looming, we start to feel deflated, maybe a little defeated. Is there any way God’s covenant can last forever when we people miss the mark so consistently?
Then the little word — but — and everything shifts.
God’s promises, they are forever. Even when we fail to follow through, even when consequences crater our worlds, God is faithful. He will never go back on his forever covenant. His word remains true.
On the chance that we still haven’t caught the connection or put our full faith into forever, our narrator recites to us the promise God made to Mary, Jesus’ mother:
“You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
There it is. At the start of the Christmas story — before the Savior is even conceived — the promise that His kingdom will never end. A promise fulfilled. A covenant kept.
This Savior, He ushers in a new covenant — one that He brought about by the shedding of His own blood, the giving of His very body. One that covers all sin. For all time. Here is a King who not only keeps His covenant but becomes the fulfillment of it.
The curtain remains open. Three spotlights shine on the signs of covenant, and we contemplate all we’ve witnessed and felt.
Sitting there, all senses swirling, we settle into a deep knowing.
God is good. He loves us. He is faithful. So faithful that He keeps His covenants even when we do not.
Jesus is proof of that — the promised Messiah sent to save the world, whose very being embodied promises made hundreds of years before to a king whose heart belonged to God.
This King of Kings has come! And He’ll reign — forever and ever.
Still singing that famous chorus, Shelley Johnson
PS — Read ahead for our final installment, The Epilogue: Psalm 98.
The lights flicker, indicating the end of intermission. Picking up our playbill, we note that Act 3 of Playing Psalms will portray Psalm 110. Interestingly, the playbill goes on to explain that Psalm 110 is the most quoted Psalm in all of the New Testament. By a lot. We wonder why that would be, but we suspect it has something to do with the Messiah. Curiosity peaks just as the curtains lift.
Our eyes try to take in the props before us. Three large statues, spaced equally apart so that none seems to overtake the others. A king. A priest. A warrior.
Act Three, Scene One
Immediately, the spotlight illuminates the king, and our narrator’s voice speaks clearly, slowly, as if to help us hear every word.
The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”
The words of this verse pop up on a screen we hadn’t noticed before. No explanations. Just verse one of Psalm 110.
Then the verse is repeated aloud, our eyes following along:
The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”
Understanding dawns as we work out there are three kings at play in this verse:
“Psalm 110 is spoken by a human king (David) about a divine king (God) and a divine-human king (Jesus).”
(many thanks to Jen Wilkin at Village Church in her Psalms study for this observation)
David is speaking. About God, who is speaking to Jesus and inviting Him to sit at His right hand…
[Pause the play.]
In case you’re wondering about the interpretation of this verse, I’d love to point you to Matthew 22 — a place in the New Testament where Jesus Himself dialogues with the Pharisees, Jewish leaders of His day.
While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them,“What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?”
“The son of David,” they replied.
He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says,
“‘The LORD said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.”’
If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?”No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.
In an epic battle of wit, Jesus victoriously directs the Pharisees toward truth. Pharisees had long believed Psalm 110:1 described David’s literal son, but Jesus pointed out the fallacy of such logic. King David would not have called his son, Lord, a title saved for someone of higher rank.
Jesus clarifies for everyone what was intended in this Psalm — a foreshadow of Messiah as King, as God’s literal “right hand man.”
Writers of the New Testament quoted and alluded to this verse over 20 times. All three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) include this clarifying conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees. In other words, it’s important.
Peter, an apostle and one of the leaders of the Jerusalem Christian church, quoted Psalm 110:1 in his Pentecost sermon (see Acts 2:34), convincing three thousand people to follow Jesus that day.
Paul also quoted this same verse in his letter to the Corinthians, arguing Jesus as the resurrected Christ (see 1 Corinthians 15:25). Additionally, he either quoted or alluded to it in several other letters, building on the imagery of Jesus sitting at God’s right hand as proof of His identity — as did the letter of Hebrews in its opening paragraph (1:3).
To say this verse is significant in pointing people to Jesus as Messiah is an understatement.
[back to the play]
Our eyes glued to the statue of the king, we picture Him sitting next to God on a throne, with his feet propped-up on the backs of his enemies. This is a King of great power!
Act Three, Scene Two
The spotlight remains on the king as we hear the next verses of this Royal Psalm:
The Lord will extend your mighty scepter from Zion, saying, “Rule in the midst of your enemies!” Your troops will be willing on your day of battle. Arrayed in holy splendor, your young men will come to you like dew from the morning’s womb.
The image of the mighty scepter in the hand of the Lord opens our imaginations further. While most of us have never been led by a king, we know enough of history to recognize this ornamental staff as a symbol of sovereignty.
Jesus the King reigns supreme. The Sovereign One rules His army in all glory and power, and He leads in such a way that soldiers freely follow Him onto the field of battle — they pursue His presence because they want to.
Act Three, Scene Three
We watch as the spotlight meanders to and rests upon the middle statue of the priest. Our narrator picks up with our Psalm:
The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”
We recognize the voice in this verse as God’s, speaking to His Son, the King. Only now God calls Jesus…priest?
Risking a glance at our playbill for an explanation, we find a simple definition — Priests are mediators who stand between God and God’s people, representing the people on their behalf before God.
Could Jesus be both king and priest?
Our inner inquiries are interrupted when the screen lights up, emblazoned with the name, MELCHIZEDEK. Simultaneously, the narrator cites a selection from Genesis:
After Abram returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley).
Then Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High,and he blessed Abram...
Grateful for some context, we learn that Melchizedek was both a king and a priest of God. The comparison of Melchizedek and Jesus sheds light on the complex nature of Messiah.
Then, the narrator continues with a passage from Hebrews:
This Melchizedek was king of the city of Salem and also a priest of God Most High. When Abraham was returning home after winning a great battle against the kings, Melchizedek met him and blessed him. Then Abraham took a tenth of all he had captured in battle and gave it to Melchizedek…. There is no record of his father or mother or any of his ancestors—no beginning or end to his life. He remains a priest forever, resembling the Son of God….
Jesus became a priest, not by meeting the physical requirement of belonging to the tribe of Levi, but by the power of a life that cannot be destroyed. And the psalmist pointed this out when he prophesied,
“You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.”
…Because Jesus lives forever, his priesthood lasts forever. Therefore he is able, once and forever, to save those who come to God through him. He lives forever to intercede with God on their behalf.
Hebrews 7:1-2a, 3, 16-17, 24-25 (NLT)
The production pauses, perhaps to give us space to ponder how Jesus the Messiah fittingly fills both roles — king and priest. Jesus certainly reigns and rules, but He also intercedes for us before God, making us right with God (see Romans 8:34).
We stare at the priest statue with wonder and awe. Jesus is both! King. And priest!.
But, wait. There’s a third statue. You don’t think…
Act Three, Scene Four
The spotlight finds its way to the warrior sculpture and stops. This mounted soldier holds his sword high. He is ready for battle. We scratch our heads as the narrator finishes Psalm 110:
The Lord is at your right hand; he will crush kings on the day of his wrath. He will judge the nations, heaping up the dead and crushing the rulers of the whole earth. He will drink from a brook along the way, and so he will lift his head high.
Psalm 110 ends where it began with Jesus at God’s right hand, vanquishing His enemies. This is a picture of final victory — the one of Jesus’ second coming. This Warrior King and Priest wins! The victory is His! We end with this picture:
“The king-maker put His King on the throne. The true King rules with His head held high.”
(Jen Wilkin in Village Church’s Psalms study)
The three statues loom over us, helping us see Jesus as He is — King, Priest, and Warrior. He came to earth, born in a manger to rule, intercede, and fight for us.
[Enter choir — stage right]
We close our eyes as the familiar tune begins. We sing along, recognizing all the truths we’ve been learning, woven throughout the lyrics.
It came upon a midnight clear That glorious song of old, From angels bending near the earth, To touch their harps of gold: “Peace on the earth, goodwill to men, From heaven’s all-gracious King.” The world in solemn stillness lay, To hear the angels sing.
Yet with the woes of sin and strife The world has suffered long; Beneath the angel-strain have rolled Two thousand years of wrong; And man, at war with man, hears not The love-song which they bring; O hush the noise, ye men of strife, And hear the angels sing.
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load, Whose forms are bending low, Who toil along the climbing way With painful steps and slow, Look now for glad and golden hours Come swiftly on the wing. O rest beside the weary road, And hear the angels sing!
For lo, the days are hastening on, By prophet bards foretold, When with the ever-circling years Shall come the age of gold When peace shall over all the earth Its ancient splendors fling, And all the world give back the song Which now the angels sing.
Glory to God Glory in our heart
[Exit choir — stage right]
The curtains still lifted above us, the statues still gazing upon us, we remain there in worshipful gratitude. We mutter a word of repentance. We speak silent words of thanks. We bow our heads and utter, “Glory to God!”
And the curtain closes.
Psalm 110, written over 700 years before Jesus’ birth, paved the way for Messiah, giving Jesus definition beyond our understanding and roles of authority in every facet of life we can imagine — governmental, spiritual, physical.
How will you respond today to your King? Will you submit to His reign in your life? Accepting His will over your own?
How will you look to your Priest? Will you surrender every thought and action to His authority and accept His grace?
How will you come alongside to serve the leader of the Angel Armies? Willingly? Humbly? Ready to step forward as needed?
This Advent we can look at the manger full of renewed gratitude for what He came to be and do. That little baby, full of innocence and fully holy, becomes king, priest, and warrior. For us.
Still uttering my worship, Shelley Johnson
PS — Read ahead for Act Four: Psalm 89:1-4, 19-37.
As I drove north toward Oklahoma, my shoulders tense and mind whirring, I turned on some of my favorite Christmas songs that evoked worship and praise. And sang as loud as I could.
By the time I got where I was going, my worries had subsided and my focus was back on Jesus.
Yes, my circumstances remained the same.
Yes, it was all beyond my control.
But, my faith had returned. Beyond what would be considered rational.
God was in control, and I could trust Him — beyond what I could think or even hope for.
That night I kept waking in the night. The worry was back. My head knew God would carry me through the next few days, but my emotions were running in the other direction. Flipping and flopping, I finally focused on Jesus, calling on Him to be my Good Shepherd — to make me lie down in His green pastures, to lead me beside quiet waters where He’d refresh my soul. I breathed in and out and prayed Psalm 23 over and over until I fell asleep.
I awoke aware that much rode on other people’s choices that day, but my hope in my faithful God kept me afloat, carrying me beyond fears and what-if’s.
With each moment throughout the day, I breathed those Psalm 23 prayers, choosing to trust God, and little by little God answered every prayer. Big steps were taken and promises fulfilled. All those imagined worst-case scenarios were for naught. That day I witnessed what felt like miracles as the people I love so much made good choices.
God met me this week in ways beyond my imagination, certainly beyond what I could have done by myself. He once again demonstrated His faithfulness. And, He reminded me that putting my trust in Him requires intention and surrender — beyond my own strength, for sure. But, as He showed me these last few days, He is always present and providing. Beyond.
The brief intermission over, we’re ready to get back to Playing Psalms. We settle in our seats, perhaps a little less eager than we were before the start of the show because we’re realizing this Christmas production isn’t all about snowflakes and sugar plums. It’s much more about the King who came to save His people and redeem them back to His Father.
Nevertheless, we feel drawn to the stage. We anticipate learning more about this Messiah born in a meager manger.
We look to our playbill and read that Act 2 depicts our next Royal Psalm — Psalm 22.
Stillness falls over us as the curtain rises.
Act Two, Scene One
The spotlight pierces the darkness to focus on a small section of stage, illuminating a wooden manger, bits of hay hanging over its sides. We smile. We know. This is Baby Jesus’ bed.
Suddenly, the spotlight moves to a much larger set — that of the cross. Jesus’ cross. Our foreheads furrow in confusion when a booming voice shatters the silence:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
In one movement of the spotlight, we’ve covered the journey of Jesus — birth to death. Both significant. Interconnected. Inseparable.
These opening words of Psalm 22 were some of Jesus’ final words as He hung on the cross. Our brains try to work out why a Christmas production looks and sounds more like Easter. We look to the manger then back to the cross.
None of us move in our seats, eyes wide. We realize we’re witnessing the truth of who our Savior is — how He entered the world and how He exited.
Matthew 1 describes the birth of Jesus. Matthew 27, His death.
From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” –which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The perfectly woven story of our Messiah didn’t begin in a manger. But in heaven. We recall how John described Jesus, as the Word, in his first chapter: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning” (John 1:1-2).
The reality of who this tiny baby is sinks to the depths of our very beings. What He did for us becomes bigger. It far exceeds our expectations. There would be no cross if the Lamb of God hadn’t left His throne to be born in a lowly barn filled with sheep.
The narrator’s voice begins again:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.
Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the one Israel praises. In you our ancestors put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them. To you they cried out and were saved; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. “He trusts in the Lord,” they say, “let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.”
Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast. From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God. Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
The story of this Psalm picks up a bit as we recall that King David wrote this Psalm at a time when he felt forsaken by God. He was crying out for help. In his lament, David remembered God’s faithfulness and how trustworthy this enthroned, Holy One is (verses 1-5).
But David’s reality was harsh. His critics mocked him, hurling insults, even taunting his faith in God (verses 6-8). These words captured David’s experiences and his cries to God, and they foreshadowed a day when the Holy One would be taunted, insulted.
As we look upon the manger, we remember the One who came to be among us. We move our gazes to the cross and remember the horror of Jesus hanging from it, enduring the insults and mockery of those who saw Him hanging there in humiliation and pain (Matthew 27: 29, 31).
In a few verses, this Royal Psalm brings together the history of a king and a prophecy of the King. We release the breath we didn’t even realize we’d been holding.
The scene ends as David pleads again for help, clinging to the hope that God created him and put a deep trust of God in him for a reason (verses 9-12). And we whisper, amen.
David’s voice, spoken by our narrator, haunts of desperation as Scene Two opens:
Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me. Roaring lions that tear their prey open their mouths wide against me. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me. My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet. All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.
But you, Lord, do not be far from me. You are my strength; come quickly to help me. Deliver me from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dogs. Rescue me from the mouth of the lions; save me from the horns of the wild oxen.
Vivid images flow forth from the mouth of this king-poet — bulls and dogs surround him, lions come at him, and villains encircle him. David feels so bad it’s as if his very life blood has been poured out and his bones are out of joint (verses 12-16).
We feel his pain. Some of us know his pain. David’s desperate cries become our own:
Does God hear us?
Then we hear the words — “pierced my hands and my feet” — and our eyes dart back to the cross, remembering the stories of what crucifixion is like. Nails. Hammered. In His hands and feet. Something like a sob rises in our throats.
King David, the poet and prophet, may have felt as if his hands and feet were pierced (verse 16), but the Holy One’s actually were. Those who gloated and stared at King David (verse 18) were but a foretaste of those who would literally divide Jesus’ garments and cast lots for His clothes (Matthew 27:35).
Just at the point we think we can’t handle any more of this crucifixion scene, David pivots with a cry to God to be his strength, and we make it our own.
Relief floods our souls as we hear music and see the choir enter between the manger and cross. We relax in our seats and allow the familiar tune to pour over us.
What child is this, who, laid to rest On Mary’s lap is sleeping? Whom angels greet with anthems sweet While shepherds watch are keeping? This, this is Christ the King Whom shepherds guard and angels sing Haste, haste to bring Him laud The babe, the son of Mary
Why lies He in such mean estate Where ox and donkeys are feeding? Good Christians, fear, for sinners here The silent Word is pleading Nails, spears shall pierce him through the cross he bore for me, for you Hail, hail the Word made flesh the Babe, the Son of Mary
So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh Come, peasant, king, to own him The King of kings salvation brings Let loving hearts enthrone him Raise, raise a song on high The virgin sings her lullaby Joy, joy for Christ is born The babe, the Son of Mary
The last echoes of the song reverberate in our hearts while our brains catch up to the lyrics. “Nails, spears shall pierce him through, the cross he bore for me, for you?” One moment we wonder if we’ve sung those words before; the next we decide it doesn’t matter — they have new and deeper meaning now.
The choir remains on stage, even as we await our final scene.
As the words of the final stanza of our kingly Psalm resound, the tone has changed. No longer desperate, David’s words of praise fall on our hungry ears.
I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you. You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel! For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help. From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly; before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows. The poor will eat and be satisfied; those who seek the Lord will praise him— may your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations. All the rich of the earth will feast and worship; all who go down to the dust will kneel before him— those who cannot keep themselves alive. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!
By the time the Psalm comes to an end, we’re all on our feet. He has done it!
The dirge becomes delight; the petition turns praise! Worship blossoms among us as the choir leads a carol of celebration:
Hark! The herald angels sing Glory to the newborn King Peace on earth, and mercy mild God and sinners reconciled Joyful all ye nations rise Join the triumph of the skies With the angelic host proclaim “Christ is born in Bethlehem” Hark! The herald angels sing Glory to the newborn King
Christ, by highest heaven adored Christ, the everlasting Lord Late in time behold Him come Offspring of a virgin’s womb Veiled in flesh the Godhead see Hail the incarnate Deity Pleased as man with man to dwell Jesus, our Emmanuel Hark! the herald angels sing Glory to the newborn King
Hail the Heaven-born Prince of Peace Hail the Sun of Righteousness Light and life to all He brings Risen with healing in His wings Mild He lays His glory by Born that man no more may die Born to raise the sons of earth Born to give them second birth Hark! The herald angels sing Glory to the newborn King
The third stanza still ringing, Act Two closes on this good news. We remain standing, awestruck and amazed, and once again feel excited. It’s Christmas!
No matter what our despair or discouragement or doubt, Jesus has done it! He has covered all of it by coming to earth, dying on a cross, and rising to life — all so we can have life. Yes, life in eternity one day, but also life now. Today.
Jesus came to free us from all the things that hold us captive. He deeply desires us to live life fully, in freedom and service, with confidence and humility, in grace and truth, and for His glory.
Trust — my word for 2020 — has proven to be just what I needed. Crazy how one five-letter word can become a sustaining anchor. A rock to cling to when life crumbles and shakes and looks nothing like you expected.
Early in the year, I dug into what it looks like to fully trust God, and quickly surmised that much is required of me. First and foremost, I must be present with Him. I need to seek His presence. Consistently. Sincerely.
Yes, God is always present, always near. But if I don’t shift my focus from myself and my long list of worries and to do’s, I am the one who is not present with Him. Without my full involvement and my undistracted attention, my faith lacks. My trust wavers. My hope flails.
Like Peter, I started off the year with much gusto — with a great Bible study, a new reading plan, and solid prayer-partners. I developed a new quiet time rhythm. And I could tell a difference in my soul.
Then one day in March, the world flipped upside-down. The church where I worked shut things down along with the rest of America, the world. At first I loved the staying-home, the being present with my family all the time. I increased my quiet time and picked up journaling.
But weeks turned to months and emotions ran up and down. It was so easy to let my eyes focus on the waves thrashing about me. But as long as I kept my eyes on Jesus, my constant source of peace and hope remained steady. As long as I made myself present with God — fully engaging, fervently imploring — He was present with me — firmly embracing, forever empowering.
2020 came with more crashes and curve-balls, but what never changed was this daily rhythm with God. I take all I’ve experienced and learned into 2021, knowing that whatever the new year brings, I can trust God. And, as long as I make myself present to Him, He will gift me with His presence.
Today, the world kicks-off Advent, the season of preparation leading up to Christmas, and we’re taking part by having some fun Playing Psalms together.
The particular Psalms that we’ll be playing in this series are the Royal ones that not only make use of mental images of monarchs but move us toward Messiah.
I read recently that the Psalms “play upon the keyboard of the human soul with all the stops pulled out” (J. Vernon McGee in Psalms, Volume 1). I love that. So, let’s close our eyes and take a few deep breaths, asking the Holy Spirit to come and play upon the keyboards of our souls.
Now, let’s play — as in music. Play, as in explore. Play, as in allowing our imaginations to carry us off to distant lands where emperors ruled and a long-expected King finally came to earth. As a baby. In a manger.
Remaining in our imaginations a moment longer, we allow ourselves to see a stage. A curtain rising. A hush falling over the audience. Our own anticipation soaring.
We release all our assumptions, yet fully expect that Jesus — the star of the show — will move in us, preparing us for His presence.
It is time.
Act One, Scene One
Act One of our great Christmas production, Playing Psalms: An Advent Series, takes us to Psalm 2. This Royal Psalm is a collection of kingly imagery that points us to earthly kings, as well as, the King of Kings. If you were able to read Psalm 2 ahead, what treasures of regal renown did you find? Perhaps, gems such as,
“The One enthroned in heaven” in verse 4?
“I have installed my King on Zion” in verse 6?
“You will rule them with an iron scepter” in verse 9?
And, you would be spot on. Kings sit on thrones. They aren’t voted-in or nominated — they’re set, or installed, often born into the role. Kings rule with great might and power, so we’ll see all sorts of imagery in our Royal Psalms, like scepters, that help us remember that Jesus is King.
Our first scene opens. Our narrator (or author) is unnamed, but he quickly makes us witnesses to much of Israel’s history:
Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his Anointed One, saying, “Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.”
Earthly kings oppressed the nation of Israel multiple times throughout the generations — sometimes the people of God were slaves, other times vassals to cruel kings who asserted their rule over them in the darkest, vilest ways.
Even while Jesus walked the earth, the Jews were subject to the Roman Empire. And after Jesus’ ascension, Christians were persecuted for following Him. Peter and John, two apostles imprisoned for preaching their faith, prayed with the church after their release, directly quoting the first two verses of Psalm 2 (see Acts 4:23-31) as part of their prayer.
These leaders of the early church dabbled in the diatribe of the psalmist, drawing their listeners into the rich history of God’s people. By citing a Psalm, Peter and John connected their current circumstances to those of their ancestors, offering hope and building faith.
Just as they did then, the Psalms give us language now for our own prayers, anchoring us to ancestors who have offered prayers of praise and deliverance for millennia.
As the cries of the oppressed grow louder, our second scene opens abruptly with the sound of…laughter?
The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, “I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.”
The One enthroned laughs — the kind of laugh that a person with all the power uses when they’re about to demonstrate their might. Gulp.
We’ve heard maniacal laughs in the movies. We know what comes next…
Lightning. Thunder. Power unleashed upon the people.
While God doesn’t scoff with any evil intent, He does know that He holds all the power, so enemies beware!
In the days when the Psalms were written, the world was full of kings — the kind of leaders who imposed might to ensure their right to rule over their people. And, believe it or not, our Christmas songs sometimes reflect this reality.
Enter stage right — the choir:
O come, O come, Emmanuel And ransom captive Israel That mourns in lonely exile here Until the Son of God appear
O come, thou Day-Spring, come and cheer Our spirits by thine advent here Disperse the gloomy clouds of night And Death’s dark shadows put to flight Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee O Israel
O come, desire of nations, bind All peoples in one heart and mind Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease Fill the whole world with Heaven’s peace Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel
A song originally written in Latin, translations of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” vary in subtle ways, but the theme is always — Help us, God! A cry heard over and over in the Psalms.
The choir exits, and our third scene opens with a proclamation from God. (Try really hard not to hear Darth Vader’s voice as you read verse 7…):
I will proclaim the Lord’s decree: He said to me, “You are my Son; today I have become your father. Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. You will break them with an iron scepter; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.”
The Anointed One from verse 2 sits on the throne as God’s Son, ruling all the earth, a vision that brought much hope to the oppressed people of God. And to us.
The early church knew this Anointed One as their Savior, specifically seen in Acts 13:33 and Hebrews 1:5 and 5:5, where church leaders like Paul intentionally drew from the prophets and wisdom writings (like Psalms) to show Jesus as Messiah — the One sent to help.
The big THEREFORE opens our final scene with a flourish of trumpets and a booming word to the earthly kings:
Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling. Kiss his Son, or he will be angry and your way will lead to your destruction, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
The warning is issued. The call to “kiss the Son” is made: kings of the earth, humble yourselves and submit to the King.
In case kissing images flood your imagination with the likes of polite air kisses of Europeans or mommy kissing Santa Claus — this is not that.
This is a knees-to-floor, head bowed kind of hand-kissing. The kind of kiss that says, You are my Lord. I am humbly Yours.
All nations. All people. Of all time. Will bow to Jesus, our King. Even in the end of days. Revelation beautifully incorporates Psalm 2 to make that point:
To the one who is victorious and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations—He ‘will rule them with an iron scepter…’
The first act comes to a close with a final reminder that all who take refuge in this Messiah will be blessed.
The curtain drops. We hear rustling sounds as the set changes in preparation for the second act. We look at our playbill, wondering what the second act will hold…
Before we leave here today, allow me to ask the question Anglican Minister Simon Finders once asked of his church: Who are you kissing this Christmas?
Sure, your loved one under the mistletoe.
Yes, your friends and family as you greet them throughout the holidays.
But, how about Jesus?
This Advent, as we seek to prepare our hearts and spirits for the coming of Christ, let’s try bowing to our King. There is something powerful in getting low before Jesus — the One who was raised up so we could live forever.
And, let’s keep the words (and haunting tune) of ”O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” in the mix of our Christmas playlists so we don’t lose sight of Jesus as our Savior King.
The King is coming! Let’s be ready!
Speaking of being ready — if you want to read ahead for next Sunday, read all of Psalm 22, looking for signs of royalty or Messiah. And, don’t forget to follow this blog so you won’t miss a post!
As I listen to Lauren Daigle croon, “Oh, what fun it is to ride! Oh, what fun it is to ride in a one horse open sleigh,” I feel an excitement tapping itself into being within me. I want to have fun! Yes, I do!
Believe it or not, I think we can have some fun together this Advent with the Psalms.
You did read that correctly. Fun with the Psalms. Really. We can.
In these weeks leading up to Christmas, we’ll look at a few Psalms that revealed hints of who Jesus would be hundreds of years before He was born. The Bible scholars of the world would call these particular Psalms the Royal Psalms. Royal because they have themes and motifs of kings — earthly kings like David, our Heavenly Father as king over Israel, and the eternal king, the King of Kings, who will at the end of this age reign forever. This King of Kings is the Messiah, aka, Jesus, and the focus of our Christmas cavorting.
Beyond the wisemen who brought good tidings, joy, and gifts to Baby Jesus, our Christmas decor doesn’t much reflect royalty. We don’t typically hang regal accoutrements as we rock around the Christmas tree. But, perhaps, as we frolic with these Royal Psalms over the next few weeks, we’ll better understand why the kings of the east followed that star for all those miles to see a baby in a manger.
And, just in case you’re wondering why we might spend an Advent scouring the Psalms for scents of the Savior, know that it’s because they stand as witness to the fact Jesus was always God’s plan. God knew before humans fell to the wages of sin that He’d need a plan of redemption. That plan came in stages with King Jesus at its climax and culmination.
God in HIs wisdom and kindness let us know, through many of the writers of the Old Testament, that His Messiah was coming — even in the Psalms.
Maybe our playtime in the Psalms will be a little like hunting for treasure. If you bring your shovel, I’ll bring the metal detector. Together, we’ll make a few discoveries about this Baby who was born to be the Savior of the World. We’ll come away with our arms, and hearts, full of God’s purposes and providence.
Our romp through the Royal Psalms will make us ready for Christmas — faith bolstered and eyes opened to all He has for us as we close-out what has been one crazy year.
If you want to do a little prep work before we meet again next Sunday, read Psalm 2 and see what royal themes you find. Grab that shovel and start digging.
Oh what fun we’re gonna have!!
Ready to play, Shelley Johnson
PS — So that you don’t miss out on any of the “Playing Psalms” posts, follow my blog by entering your email in the upper right corner of this page.
Since COVID-19 slammed into the States in March, our vocabulary has expanded to include words and phrases we’d not employed before — social distancing, flattening the curve, and shelter-in-place to name a few.
Other expressions were familiar yet not common — pandemic, incubation, and quarantine. Then there are the words that have come to hold much dread — postponed, delayed, and cancelled. Weddings, basketball tournaments, and movie releases are among the many events and plans that have felt the crushing blow of a silent enemy.
2020 has not felt kind. We’re tired of wearing masks and keeping our distance. We are so ready for traveling and hugging, for gathering and snuggling. No. More. Isolation. No more disappointing cancellations. Please.
It’s so easy to get swallowed up by the sorrows of what could have been, but let’s not. Instead, let’s head into the holidays with hope. We can sit down, albeit at a distance, with a few loved ones to carve turkey and watch football. We can count our blessings that we live in the digital age where cell phones connect across mountains and oceans, video conferencing allows us to do our jobs remotely, and Netflix streams in all seasons.
We can choose gratitude this Thanksgiving.
And, as we look ahead to Christmas we carry that thankfulness with us into a season that can never be cancelled. Christ came. He was born. And nothing can change that.
We might have to change how we celebrate, but maybe — just maybe — our hearts will discover that Christmas is more than decorations and gifts around the tree. It’s an all-consuming hope that fills us for what is to come. There’s no cancelling that.