There Is A River

It’s been 23 years since I was there, but I don’t recall seeing any water in the city. Had the opportunity to do a Holy Land tour back in ’97. Went to Jerusalem. Didn’t see a river. So what’s the songwriter talking about?

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.

(Psalm 45:4 ESV)

The city of God, isn’t that a reference to Jerusalem? I’m thinkin’ . . .

Jerusalem, God’s holy habitation. Home to the temple and the holy of holies. The gathering place for the glory of God. And according to the songwriter, there is a river.

A river in the city of God. Fresh, flowing water. Life giving water. Joy giving water. Where its streams flow, gladness follows.

But I didn’t see any water. Where’s the river?

Keep reading, Pete.

God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns.

(Psalm 45:5 ESV)

God in the midst. That’s the river.

God’s water. Water that flows like a river, bright as crystal, sourced at the throne of God (Rev. 22:1).

Living water. Water which forever satisfies every thirst (Jn. 4:14a).

Forever water. When received it becomes a spring of water welling up to eternal life (John 4:14b).

Multiplying water. Drinking from the river by faith transforms the heart into a source of overflowing, living water, itself (Jn. 7:38).

There is a river. And it’s found where God is in the midst.

Streams of life where God abides. Channels of peace in His presence. Floods of joy because He is there.

It was so in the songwriter’s day. It was so back in ’97. It is so today. And it will be so for all eternity.

And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. . . . Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month.

(Revelation 21:10-11, 1-2a ESV)

There is a river. Yes, there is!

By His grace. For His glory.

Got a few more minutes? Check out one of my GVB favorites here.

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A Pleasing Theme

I’ve heard stories of songs that have come to composers almost instantly. An idea is seeded, an inspiration blooms, and, before you know it, a song is written. Verses and choruses emerging from nothing in just a very short time. You sense that the love song in Psalm 45 may have been birthed in such a way.

My heart overflows with a pleasing theme; I address my verses to the King; my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.

(Psalm 45:1 ESV)

It’s in sentiments like these where Peterson’s The Message can add so much to our devotional musings:

My heart bursts its banks, spilling beauty and goodness. I pour it out in a poem to the King, shaping the river into words.

(Psalm 45:1 MSG)

A heart overflowing. Bursting its banks. Spilling out beauty and goodness. No problem putting pen to paper. Almost enraptured, you sense, as the heart-sourced river is poured out into worshipful words.

Guessing it’s a pretty exhilarating experience to go from a blank sheet of paper to a beautiful song of praise with seemingly no real effort. Not many of us are called to be songwriters. Few of us know the euphoric dynamics of such an activity.

But this morning, thanks to the sons of Korah, there is available to us the reminder of a pleasing theme.

Those are the three words I’m chewing on this morning, “A pleasing theme.” Other translations say it is a noble theme or, most literally, a good word.

. . . whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

(Philippians 4:8 ESV)

It’s a good thing to be pre-occupied with a pleasing theme. A profitable endeavor to noodle on a noble notion. And I’m wondering how often, as followers of Christ, we take up the pleasing theme of the King.

Around here we’re starting to think about our Good Friday service and so, have been spending some time thinking about the Savior and His sacrifice. Chewing on the cross and Christ’s crucifixion. Wondering how we might be still and appreciate afresh the Lamb of God and what humiliation He endured in order to lay down His life. That’s a pleasing theme. For in it our love is drawn out for Him as we ponder anew how He first loved us.

And there are other facets of Christ’s person and works which come to mind. Christ our perfect, sympathetic High Priest. Knowing fully the human experience and leveraging it as He intercedes for us at God’s right hand. Or, there is Jesus the friend of sinners, who calls us His friends; invites us to abide; revealing to us deep things that are only known through intimate relationship. All good stuff to meditate on. All pleasing themes.

But what of Christ as King? The yet to be fully revealed King? The coming King? The “most handsome of the sons of men” (v.2); the Mighty One to be presented in splendor and majesty, a sword on His side (v.3). Returning with arrows ready to subdue the nations (v. 5); establishing His “forever and ever” throne, His scepter a scepter of righteousness (v.6). Anointed of God, robes fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia (v. 7b-8), ready to be presented His beautiful bride as He longs for her beauty (v. 10-14). What a pleasing theme! What a noble subject! What filling food for thought!

But how often do I go there?

So easy to be occupied with the present and to draw on what we know to be true about the past in order to get through the day. Good stuff. We should be.

But I’m thinking sometimes we need to take time to camp on the future. Be occupied with the coming King. Let our imaginations run wild. Let our hearts overflow, bursting their banks. Our tongue ready to let flow thanksgiving and praise for what is yet to come as, by faith, we count it as certainty. To think about such things as the King in His majestic splendor. To be preoccupied with the pleasing theme of the Christ and His glorious appearing.

Doing so, by His grace, depending on the Spirit’s illumination.

Preoccupied with such a pleasing theme, ultimately for His glory, anticipating that day when faith gives way to sight.

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Dealing with Unexpected Twists

It’s a song of confusion. Of not understanding. Of unexpected twists.

The songwriter knew the stories. Stories of a God faithful to His promise to bring His people into a land not their own. His father had told him of how God had driven out the other nations and planted their nation. How He had afflicted other peoples but had set free the people of God. Made sure he understood that it wasn’t because Israel was adept with the sword, not because they had the mightiest of armies. But because of God’s right hand; and His strong arm; and the light of His shining face. And all this, simply because God delighted in His people.

Their boast, thus, was not in themselves but in their God. He was their King. And it was by Him, and Him alone, that they had pushed down their enemies and tread down their foes. So far, so good.

But then, unexpected twist number one.

But You have rejected us and disgraced us and have not gone out with our armies. You have made us turn back from the foe, and those who hate us have gotten spoil.

(Psalm 44:9-10 ESV)

After remembering the thrill of past victories the songwriter switches up to the agony of their current defeats. All at the hand of the God in whom they boasted. You have rejected us, the songwriter laments, You have made us turn back.

And the rhythm of the “You haves” is repeated again and again. You have made us like sheep for the slaughter (v.11). You have sold Your people for a trifle (v.12). You have made us the taunt of our neighbors (v.13). You have made us a byword among the nations (v.14). You have broken us in the place of jackals and covered us with the shadow of death (v.19).

What happened? Why the turn of events? Why was the God who was for them now so seemingly against them? What did they do?

Short answer: Apparently nothing.

All this has come upon us, though we have not forgotten You, and we have not been false to Your covenant. Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from Your way.

(Psalm 44:17-19 ESV)

Unexpected twist number two. God had seemingly forsaken them though they had not forgotten Him. God was nowhere to be found though they had not been false to His covenant. God had left the building though their feet had not departed His ways. Though God knew their heart (v.21), yet He seemed to be hiding His face. Huh?

We get suffering for sin. We get trouble in return for transgression. But how do we process problems simply because we are His people?

And that’s what seems to be the root cause of their trouble — they were suffering for the sake of His Name.

Yet for Your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.

(Psalm 44:22 ESV)

There would be a time when Israel would suffer at the hands of the nations for their own national transgression. But this wasn’t that time. Now they suffered not for their sin but for their sanctification.

It was because they had been set apart for their God, that they were the object of the world’s wrath. It was for His sake.

Because they had been counted as His friends the nations regarded them as their foes. Because they had chosen to worship and follow Him, forsaking all others, they found themselves feeling forsaken. Not because of their idolatry, but because of their identity. Hated because they were His.

Honestly, that’s not what we expect. Even those of us who would repudiate the so-named “prosperity gospel,” if we’re honest with ourselves, are prone to think that to follow God faithfully should result in blessing and not battering. In peace and not persecution. In the good life and not in running for our lives. But good things don’t always happen for God’s people . . . even when, for the most part, they’re being good.

No real resolution to the song. No tying up of loose ends. No answer for the “why” question. No conclusion, just a cry.

Awake! Why are You sleeping, O Lord? Rouse Yourself! Do not reject us forever! . . . Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of Your steadfast love!

(Psalm 44:23, 26 ESV)

What to do when thrown a curve-ball? How to responded to unexpected twists? Call out. Awake, O Lord! Cry out. Rise up and help!

On what basis? On the promise of, and trust in, His steadfast, faithful, and unfailing love.

Prevail upon His grace. Trust that it will be to His glory.

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The Ask of a Cast Down Soul

The songwriter pants for flowing streams of fresh water. Instead, salty tears are his food day and night. He longs for the days of yesterday when he often got to lead a festive parade up to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise. But these days, he’s just trying to keep his head above water. Trials breaking over him, one after another, as deep calls to deep. Like being stuck under a unrestrained waterfall — a waterfall, he says, at God’s hand — breakers and wavers crashing over him continually.

No wonder then that in Psalms 42 and 43 the psalmist repeatedly tries to battle the drowning of his soul by reminding his heart of his hope in God.

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise Him, my salvation

(Psalm 42:5, Psalm 42:11, Psalm 43:5 ESV)

Lot of questions in these two songs. Why are you cast down, my soul? When shall I come and appear before God again (42:2b)? Where is your God (42:3b)? Why have You forgotten me (42:9a)? Why have You rejected me (43:2a)? Why this perpetual mourning because of the oppression of the enemy (42:9b, 43:2b)? Why is this happening? When will it stop? Where are You in all of this? The questions of a cast down soul.

But there’s also an ask. In Psalm 43. I think it’s the only petition of God in these two songs. Seems to me to be a key ask in situations where the only thing you seem to be able to do is try and keep your head above water. It’s a lifeline ask when you seem to be drowning.

Send out Your light and Your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling! Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise You with the lyre, O God, my God.

(Psalm 43:3-4 ESV)

Send out Your light. Show me Your truth. I know that they will keep me tethered to Your holy hill. I know that they will show me the way back to again singing praise before Your altar.

Send out Your light. Show me Your truth. That’s the ask of a cast down soul.

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.

(Psalm 119:105 ESV)

The written Word of God is a lifeline in seasons when deep calls out to deep. Holding on to God’s living, active, mind-renewing, life-transforming Word is what gets you through the storms. Where is God? In His word. Is He absent? Not when I’m reading, seeking, asking, and His Spirit is actively illuminating, answering, consoling. Providing, in a sense, an on demand encounter of the divine kind. And in its light and truth is the substance for the hope the songwriter wants his downcast soul to be reminded of. The certainty that the God who saved him, and is saving him, is the God who will surely one day save him. And in that day, there will again be rejoicing. The Word a lamp and light because it points to the Source of light and life!

The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

(Psalm 27:1 ESV)

Jesus, the living Word, the Author of Life, is the stronghold of life in times when life is overwhelming. The great High Priest able to sympathize with our weakness. The faithful Mediator who intercedes for us at the right hand of God. The once forever Victor in whom we are more than conquerors. The cross our strength in weakness. The empty tomb our hope amid despair. Send out Your light. Jesus is the light of the world. Show me Your truth. He is the truth, the way, and the life.

Why are you cast down, O my soul? Send out Your light and Your truth, O my God! Because of Your steadfast love.

Your overflowing grace sufficient to endure the relentless storm tossed breakers crashing overhead as deep calls out to deep.

Your Word, my lamp. Your Son, my light and truth. Lifelines until the tempest calms.

For my good. For Your glory.

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Doubling Down on Amen

The term comes from the gambling world, as in your hand is so good you’re going to “double down” by doubling your bet. But more broadly, when we talk about doubling down, we’re talking about being fully committed to a course of action. Of being absolutely fixed on a certain undertaking. We double down when we’re all in — fully convinced that the path or position we’ve chosen is the right path or position.

David, it seems to me, doubled down in Psalm 41.

The king writes a song about a time when he was sick, very sick. So sick his enemies were convinced it was jut a matter of time before he would die — and they couldn’t wait! Even some of his so-called friends were conspiring as to how to profit from his untimely demise. A time when he was confined to his sickbed, surrounded by his enemies, and yet mindful of the power of God who had called him to the throne.

Blessed is the One who considers the poor! In the day of trouble the LORD delivers him; the LORD protects him and keeps him alive; he is called blessed in the land; you do not give him up to the will of his enemies. The LORD sustains him on his sickbed; in his illness You restore him to full health.

(Psalm 41:1-3 ESV)

David believed that the God of his fathers was well aware of his weakness. And David was convinced that the God who had said He would establish David’s kingdom forever (1Chr. 17:7-12) could deliver him, protect him, and keep him alive. That his God could, and would, sustain him on his sickbed and, in God’s perfect timing, restore him to full health.

Not because David believed he merited it:

As for me, I said, “O LORD, be gracious to me; heal me, for I have sinned against You!” (Psalm 41:4 ESV)

But that God would grace him because God delighted in him:

By this I know that You delight in me: my enemy will not shout in triumph over me. (Psalm 41:11 ESV)

And so, even on his sickbed, even surrounded by his enemies, the promises of God evoke the praises of David. And David determines to double down.

Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting!

Amen and Amen.

(Psalm 41:13 ESV)

Amen and amen! Truly, truly! So be it, and so be it, again!

Bottom line, David blesses the LORD even though he’s stuck in bed. Gives God glory though still surrounded by his enemies. Praising God for His everlasting promises, even while he pleads for His intervening presence.

Sometimes that just what you gotta do. Double down on the amen.

Only by God’s grace. Always for God’s glory.

Amen and amen?

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Considering a Conversation with the Felixes

For two years Felix often sent for Paul to talk with him. Not because he was seeking the truth, but because he was hoping for a bribe (Acts 24:26-27). And I imagine the repeated conversations weren’t a lot unlike that first conversation.

After some days Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, and he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. And as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.”

(Acts 24:24-26 ESV)

Paul spoke about faith in Christ with the Felixes. He reasoned about righteousness, self-control, and the coming judgment. And Felix was, literally, “thrown into fear.”

So, I’m thinking, as Paul talked about faith in Christ, he didn’t just talk about the righteousness to be found in Christ. Nor only the self-control that was available as fruit from an indwelling Holy Spirit. Or the victory that would come for everyone who had faith in Christ Jesus when He returned for the coming judgment. But I’m guessing Paul talked candidly with Felix and wife about their own righteousness . . . or lack thereof. And their own self-control . . . which they had cast off. And the coming judgment of their sin . . . which was certain without Someone else bearing the penalty for that sin. And Felix was alarmed.

Paul preached the good news without skirting over the bad news. They were sinners in need of a Savior. In bondage to the flesh unless freed through faith. Corrupt unless converted. Destined for judgment apart from justification.

We’d rather talk about having a relationship with the Creator. Of brokenness mended. Of wholeness realized. All true when it comes to incentives for receiving Christ. But sometimes we also need to talk candidly of righteousness, or the lack thereof; self-control, or the lack thereof; and the certain judgment to come, and the fear thereof.

Paul spoke the truth and he spoke it in love. But he spoke all the truth, the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good news of the cross, the bad news of our sin, the ugly news of judgment. For he sought to persuade the Felixes towards faith in Christ.

And how did Felix respond?

When two years had elapsed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus. And desiring to do the Jews a favor, Felix left Paul in prison.

(Acts 2:27 ESV)

Paul had been faithful, but Felix wanted to do the Jews a favor. Paul had stewarded the gospel entrusted to him, yet Felix stuck to the corrupt ways which enslaved him. Not a happy ending here.

Unless I consider myself, by God’s grace, as the anti-type of Felix. Because of faith in Christ, possessing a righteousness not my own. Because of the promise of the gospel, empowered with self-control through the indwelling Spirit. Because of the salvation of the cross, without fear of the judgment to come. Reminded that, by God’s grace, when I heard the good news, rather than responding, “Go away,” I was gifted the faith to cry out, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

A little bit to chew on here.

By His grace. For His glory.

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Look and Listen

That it was meant to be a visual experience unlike any visual experience they had ever had is pretty obvious.

One moment Peter, John, and James are hiking the hill with Jesus and the next moment . . . BAM!!!! Lights on!

And [Jesus] was transfigured before them, and His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became white as light.

(Matthew 17:2 ESV)

He who had “emptied Himself” of His eternal glory in order to be “born in the likeness” or mortal men (Php. 2:6-7), suddenly and unexpectedly undergoes a miraculous metamorphosis. Putting on, as it were, His true colors. And that color was white.

His face shining like the sun. His glory so emitting through His clothes that their whiteness was the very definition of light. “Dazzling light” is how Luke would describe it (Lk. 9:29). Radiant light. Like flashing lightning light. Blinding light yet, somehow, light that could be looked upon.

And the visual extravaganza didn’t stop there.

And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with Him.

(Matthew 17:3 ESV)

Don’t know how the three amigos knew the two guys suddenly standing with the radiant Jesus were Moses and Elijah, but they knew.

What a sight to behold. How do you respond to such a vision? Evidently not the way Peter did.

And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for You and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.”

(Matthew 17:4-5 ESV)

Think about it. There’s Peter before the glorified Jesus. There he is looking at Moses and Elijah. And he makes it about himself. “How cool is this for us! I, me myself, should do something!”

And, as if there wasn’t enough light on that hill already, “a bright cloud overshadowed them.” A cloud itself composed of light. The sort of cloud Moses had become extremely familiar with. The kind of cloud that hovered over the tabernacle when the glory fell. And the Father intervenes, putting a stop to Peter’s well intentioned, but inappropriate, lets-make-it-about-us response.

You’re seeing the glory of My Son here, My beloved Son. The radiance of My glory. The exact representation of My being. Be still. Be quiet. Listen to Him. Listen to Me.

Sometimes God gives us an unexpected look simply so that we might listen. Encountering the glory, not that we might know how good we have it, but how great our God truly is. Not so we can busy ourselves to respond with acts of piety for the privilege extended to us, but that we might quietly take our place at the Master’s feet so that He might be the sole center of our attention. At His feet where we take in His word (Lk. 10:39). At His feet where we pour out the perfume of adoration and worship (Jn. 12:3).

Look and listen. Sometimes that’s what the light’s for. Not to process and perform. Not to decipher and do. Not to take in and then put out. But just to be still and be attentive.

“Go, lie down, and if He calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for Your servant hears.‘”

(1Samuel 3:9 ESV)

Look and listen.

By His grace. For His glory.

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