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The crux of Paul’s appeal to the Colossians is the cross of Jesus Christ: his death, resurrection, and sovereignty over all things created, by the design and will of God the Father. God transferred the Colossians from death to life, from the dominion of darkness to the Kingdom of the Son of his love. In Christ, the Colossians died to their old body of flesh and were made alive in the new body of Christ. Their belief in Christ has great repercussions that affect their entire lives and beings.
The structure of Paul’s Letter to the Colossians has always been difficult for me to grasp. His Greek sentences are long; the paragraphs are long; his transitions are brief and often hard to spot. Topic sentences don’t stand out. Concepts seem densely packed and alternate back and forth. Most of the first two chapters read like a summary of Christian theology, rather than a letter. To me it seems that Paul writes in one long string, rather than following a cohesive 3-point outline based on clear organizational blocks. The good news is that I think I’m finally starting to get it, and I want to share my thoughts with others who may be struggling as I have been (2). I’ve come to see Paul’s letter as a piece of woven fabric in which certain themes, like colors, appear, then disappear, then reappear. This way of structuring Paul’s letter helps me recall its content–I’m not saying it will work for everyone.
The total picture that appears is a dramatic snapshot of God’s kingdom, the kingdom of the Son of his love (1:13). God the Father is the fabric’s foundation and backdrop. The Son stands in bold relief as the Sovereign King over all. His cross, the battle scene where his victory was won, stands central to the whole. The Colossians are dispersed throughout the tapestry as the primary fill color, while Paul is a single, strong strand that occasionally appears to bind the whole together. The dark overtones of dangerous enemies give swirls of vignette to all the borders.
Nevertheless, Paul’s tapestry is a letter. A suitable subtitle might be, “Welcome to Christ’s Kingdom! Here’s what you need to know.”
A first step in understanding Paul’s letter is to begin with the author. Who is Paul? Why is he writing? The important thing is how Paul sees himself. The following verses explain that.
Romans 1:1 Paul, a servant [slave, bondman] of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God,
Romans 15:15b … the grace given me by God 16 to be a minister [administrator; priest] of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
Colossians 1:1 Paul, an apostle [a messenger delegated by the Lord, one who had personally seen and spoken with Jesus Christ] of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,
To summarize, Paul sees himself as God’s specially chosen servant, minister, and apostle to the Gentiles, among whom are the Colossians to whom he is writing. In his letter to the Colossians, he specifically refers to himself as an apostle.
Second, we need to understand how Paul views the followers of Christ. In the epistles, or letters, which he writes, he most often refers to the church in one of three ways.
Ephesians 5:27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
Colossians 1:18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.
1 Timothy 3:15 if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household [a family related by blood] of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.
Summarizing, Paul uses various terms to reference the followers of Christ. Often he refers to the group of believers in their entirety as Christ’s church, his body, or the household of God. In Colossians, Paul calls his listeners and readers the church, the body of Christ.
Finally, where does Paul consider that the body of Christ, the church, lives? Well, readers of this may say, some live in Colossae, some in Rome, some in Philippi, etc. And it is true that the household of God, Christ’s family, his church, live in all these places and more. But spiritually, Paul places believers in the kingdom of God and of Christ, the Son of God’s love (3).
1 Thessalonians 2:12 we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.
Colossians 1:13 He has delivered us from the domain [jurisdiction, realm, kingdom] of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son,
The above is sufficient background for the reader to understand why I give Paul’s Letter to the Colossians the subtitle, “Welcome to Christ’s Kingdom–Come, I’ll Show You Around.” As an apostle directly contacted in person and commissioned by Jesus (Acts 9:3-7), Paul sees himself as chief household administrator to God’s family among the Gentiles, those to whom Jesus specifically sent him (Acts 9:15). As such, he is the servant who meets and welcomes the new believers from Colossae at the (spiritual) gate of Christ’s kingdom and proceeds to give them the grand tour, telling them everything they need to know in order to live their new kingdom lives. Colossians is a welcome letter of orientation into the kingdom of God’s Son. Therefore, the theme verse is Colossians 1:13–
Colossians 1:13 For he has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son, (New Living Translation)
“Welcome!” Paul says, “Now that you’re here, this is what you need to know.”
Outline of Colossians/English Version
I. Address (1:1-2)
II. Inhabitants of the Kingdom
A. Paul the Greeter (1:3-12)
B. God the Father (1:13-14)
C. The Son of His Love (1:15-20)
D. The Colossians in Relationship with God, Father and Son
E. Paul as God’s Chief Steward to the Gentiles
III. Do’s and Don’ts of Kingdom Living
IV. Paul’s Team (4:7-14)
V. Final Instructions (4:15-17) and Sign-off (4:18)
Chapter 1 Overview
(Verses 1-12a) In Chapter 1, Paul meets the Colossians just inside the gates of the kingdom, welcoming them with open arms, telling them how glad he and his friends are that they have arrived. They are not completely unknown to him, although he has never met them. Epaphras, his dear friend and fellow worker, has given them a very good report. Paul continues his greeting by conveying with thoughtful words how he has been praying for the Colossians, that they will grow in wisdom, knowledge, good works, strength and endurance, love, joy, and thankfulness in their hearts (1).
(Verses 12b-20) Paul wants the Colossians to know everything about the Father by whose grace they are here. He turns to the Son, sparing no words of exuberant praise for this magnificent being, the God-man to whom the Father has given the keys and authority of everything in all creation, in heaven and on earth. The Son is worthy and able to manage all this, ever so willing to glorify his Father in heaven.
(Verses 21-23) Paul then addresses the Colossians themselves, explaining to them who they are in God’s eyes–formerly enemies, now friends. There is one condition: they must continue in the faith of the gospel which they heard and gladly received. Faith in the gospel message of Christ is why they are in the kingdom.
(Verses 24-29) Finally, Paul explains himself, his identity, why he is there to meet and welcome them. Paul is God’s specially chosen minister to the Gentiles, for whom he suffers. His assignment is to bring to light the mystery long hidden for ages and generations. This formerly unknown word of God is that Christ now dwells among the Gentiles, sharing with them all the glory that is his. Paul struggles with every ounce of the powerful energy God has placed in him to exhort everyone everywhere concerning the fullness of God’s gift expressed in the glory of Christ. His goal is to bring them all mature and whole in Christ into God’s presence.
Chapter 2 Overview
Paul begins Chapter 2 (1) with a recap (verses 1-7) of the content of Chapter 1, adding the additional information about Laodicea. Verse 7 functions a a transitional glide between the who’s who portion of the letter presented in Chapter 1 and the prescriptive admonitions to the Colossians. The enemies of the kingdom are first mentioned in verse 4 (which was unspoken but hinted in Chapter 1) and given greater detail in verses 8 and 16. While the enemies are not inhabitants of the kingdom, they hover like insects around the cultivated plants of a garden or grow like weeds among the fruitful plants themselves. Paul gives three warnings against false teachers in Chapter 2. These are in the verses just mentioned: 4, 8, and 16. Paul provides the Colossians their shield of protection by reemphasizing to them the splendor and sovereignty of Christ the King. He emphasizes the death, burial, resurrections, and triumph of the King over all enemies. The Colossians are to receive their orders from Christ alone, because everything he achieved in death, burial, resurrection, and triumph, they also achieved in Him by (spiritual) circumcision, baptism, and faith. The Colossians are free from all religious traditions regarding physical substances because they spiritually died to these and were raised with Christ.
Chapter 3 Overview
Paul builds upon the foundation laid in Chapter 2 with his opening statement in verse 1. He says in effect, Since you have been raised with Christ, now act like it. He reminds them of their strong position in Christ in verses 3 and 4, 10 through 11, and 12. The first portion of the chapter contains the don’ts and do’s of their personal lives, followed by their lives with one another. The second portion of the chapter deals with specific household relationships, including family, slaves, and masters. This section extends to the opening of Chapter 4 and includes a petition by Paul for their prayers for him and his gospel message. Finally, in verses 4:5-6, Paul gives orders on how they should conduct themselves toward those not in the church.
Chapter 4 Overview
Chapter 4, as previously mentioned, continues without interruption what Paul began in Chapter 3. After the conclusion of the prescriptive material, Paul begins to close his letter by introducing the rest of his team. He commends them specifically by name and mentions details about them that relate to the Colossians. Finally, Paul signs off his letter in a single verse.
Details of the Letter
I. Address (1:1-2a)
Just a few, short comments about the address of Paul’s Letter to the Colossians.
First, why does Paul introduce himself as an apostle only, rather than also including his role as servant? I believe he’s looking ahead to the portion of the tour in which he deals with enemies of the kingdom, the false teachers. By naming himself solely as, “an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God,” he immediately asserts his authority.
Second, Paul includes Timothy as part of the welcoming committee. Paul usually doesn’t work alone. He most often has other Christians with him. By including Timothy in his greeting, Paul shows the importance of other Christians to himself, to his ministry, and to the body of Christ.
Third, “To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ,” establishes the Colossians as believers. Therefore, the purpose of the letter is not to evangelize the unsaved.
II. Inhabitants of the Kingdom (1:2b-2:23)
A. Paul the Greeter: His Welcome, “We’ve been praying for you!” and Overview of the Letter’s Cast of Characters (1:3-12)
This first section is an overview of the entire letter. The inhabitants of the kingdom primarily presented are: 1) the Colossians, 2) Paul, 3) God the Father, 4) God the Son, and 5) Epaphras, one of the team. In this section of the letter, Paul, as chief administrator/servant of the Gentile portion of Christ’s kingdom, is eager to lay a foundation that truthfully examines the presence of the Colossians within this kingdom. What he says here is crucial for what he will say later. The two sections can be paraphrased, “Welcome! We’re glad you’re here. You’re off to a good start. Now let me explain how you got here and the significance of your being here.”
Paul opens his greeting with the welcoming words, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father.” This is Paul’s joyful benediction, his happy pronouncement of blessing. Grace is God’s pleasure freely bestowed upon his children. Peace is God’s newly declared treaty with his former enemies, who are now sons (and daughters), all because of what God’s own Son did on the cross. Lastly, because of this same work on the cross, God is now the Father of all believers. “Father” is a term that was rarely used of God in the Old Testament, even as regards his own people. Christ changed that. I cannot hear Paul naming God as “Father” without also hearing his heart singing with joy. Further, by saying “our” Father, Paul, who is himself Jewish, establishes the unity of the body of Christ, which now includes both Jews and Gentiles living together in God’s grace and peace.
Paul continues welcoming the Colossians. His letter occurs at some point in time after they entered through the spiritual gate, or door, of the kingdom, yet while they may still be considered newcomers. A simple paraphrase of this section might be, “Welcome! We’ve been praying for you.” Paul divides his prayer for the new believers into two distinct portions: thanksgiving (verses 3-8) and supplication (verses 9-12).
1. Thanksgiving (3-8)–Subtitle: Let me explain to you the significance of your “ticket in.”
Paul relates to the Colossians that he and others have been thanking God for their presence in Christ’s kingdom. Within the thanksgiving portion, Paul, always the teacher, clarifies for them how it is they arrived inside Christ’s kingdom (vv 5-6). He acknowledges that their ticket in, so to speak, is on account of their faith in Christ and love for all the saints (vs 4). The first is an inward action, and the second an outward. These developed because they have hope in the promise of the eternal salvation (vs 5; see also vs 23) being stored up and protected for them in the heavens. This hope is part of the truthful gospel message being preached in all the world. It grows and bears fruit for everyone, just as it does among themselves. In other words, welcome to the crowd. Their riches of hope are based on the grace of God (vs 6). Implied in Paul’s words are the facts that the Colossians entered the kingdom just as everyone else did–they are no more special than anyone else, nor are they less. Also, there’s only one way in for everyone–genuine faith in Christ, who is their hope of eternal inheritance (2:27), as spoken in the gospel message of truth. Their hope bears the fruit of love for all the saints, which is the external evidence of the genuineness of their faith (4). In the closing verse of the thanksgiving portion, he emphasizes again their love (vs 8).
Summary: In Paul’s thanksgiving for the Colossians, he lays the groundwork for his later warnings concerning false teachers. He draws attention to the only truthful things of great importance to their wellbeing: their hope of eternal inheritance solely through the grace of God in Jesus Christ and their faith and love for all the saints. Additionally, he spends two verses (7-8) extolling Epaphras and verifying with his seal of apostolic approval the truthful teachings of God’s grace that this fellow-servant of Paul had given them. This, also, is ballast against the false teachers.
2. Supplication (9-12)
Paul continues greeting the Colossians, further welcoming them into the kingdom by informing them of the second way in which he has already been praying for them since the time he first heard from their mutual friend Epaphras of their faith and love. He prays that they “may be filled with the knowledge of his will.” This knowledge of God’s will comes through “all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” The purpose of the knowledge is so that they may “lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him.” Paul communicates in this passage his prayers for their relationship with God–Father and Son (5). He has already indicated that there is no kingdom without Father and Son. The Colossians came into the kingdom by God and Christ, and now that they are here, Paul wants them to please Him in everything. They will do this by “bearing fruit in every good work” and continuously increasing “in the full knowledge of God” (vs 10).
In order for them to accomplish this, Paul tells them that he prays that they “may be strengthened with all power” (δύναμις). The purpose of this power, according to the passage, is so that they might endure and patiently, joyfully prevail in their lifelong walk of faith in Christ. Paul is not speaking here of their using God’s power to perform healing wonders and other miracles. He doesn’t mention those. Rather, he prays for the patient endurance of their faith throughout all their suffering, all the way to the end of their lives. They will do this by the might of God’s glory. Paul also wants the Colossians to be giving thanks to the Father. He reminds them that it is the Father who qualified them to enter and live in Christ’s kingdom and to receive their portion of the inheritance waiting for all the saints. In Paul’s eyes, the Colossians are included among the “saints in light” (vs 12). That is a great cause to rejoice.
Verse 12 is a transition. It straddles two sections in this outline. Paul had been informing the Colossians that their presence in the kingdom is through their relationship with God the Father and Christ the Son. He wants that relationship to grow by means of an increase in their understanding of the full knowledge of God’s will. This knowledge will lead to fruitful obedience. He has reminded them who to thank and why. Now, with verse 12, he begins to move his focus away from the Colossians and solely onto God the Father and then Christ. He brings the Colossians’ relationship with God back into focus in verse 21.
B. God the Father (1:12-14)
“The Father” is the one who qualified the Colossians to share the inheritance of the saints in light (12). They owe him their worship, thanksgiving, and allegiance for such an unfathomably, graciously, awesome gift (vs 12 and picking up the prayer of supplication from the previous section.)
In verse 13 Paul presents God the Father as the Power and Authority who undergirds and endorses his Son. It is the Father who rescued the Colossians, Paul, and all the saints from the power, or authority, of darkness and transferred them into the kingdom of the Son of his love (see footnote 2).
Grammatical Transition from the Father to the Son: Paul does not include a transition, but effortlessly glides into his presentation of the Son by means of a mere prepositional phrase, “in whom,” which functions as a relative clause (vs 14) (6). Verse 14 is the transition from the Father to the Son. As such, it belongs to both sections, God the Father and God the Son.
C. The Son of His Love (1:14-20)
1. In the Son we (Paul speaks of himself, the Colossians, and all the saints) have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. Implied is that no one can willingly, knowingly bypass the Son thinking to reach the Father without him. The Son is essential to salvation (1:14).
2. Verse 15 states directly what is contained in the phrase in vs 13, “the Son of his love.” The Son is the image of the invisible God, pre-eminent and above all creation. I believe this phrase implies that the Godhead knew from all eternity past that there would be a physical creation of which Christ would be the Sovereign manifestation of the one divinity.
3. The Son created all things:
- in heaven
- on earth
–all things both through him and for him were created (vs 16).
4. But the Son himself is excluded from the “all things” created, because he is before all things. He holds it all together. (vs17)
5. Paul calls the church, “the body.” The Son is the head of the body. In today’s language, he is the command center, the source of the body’s direction, the one to whom the body reports in all things (18).
6. As the fully-human (incarnated), fully-divine being, he is the first ever to resurrect from the dead. He is the beginning of the resurrection for all creation and for humans in particular. The purpose for this is that the Son will be pre-eminent, supreme, in all things (vs 18).
7. All the above points are true of the Son because all the fullness of God is pleasantly, agreeably, suitably, and comfortably situated in him. This is by choice of the triune God (vs 19).
8. Through the Son of his love, God will reconcile, or reconnect, all things (the whole creation in heaven and on earth and specifically humanity) to himself. He will do this by means of the blood of the Son’s cross.
Significance of this passage:
1. The will and actions of the Father are inseparable from the will and actions of the Son.
2. God–the triune deity–is invisible, but as regards the entire created universe, the Son alone makes him wholly visible (see also John 1:18).
3. Although Paul has not yet mentioned the false teachers, in this passage he uses the rhetorical equivalent of a nuclear bomb to demolish their arguments concerning angels and fabricated Gnostic spiritual intermediaries.
D. The Colossians in Relationship with God, Father and Son (1:23a)
“And you…” (the opening words of 1:21), is the phrase Paul uses to reintroduce the Colossians in their relationship to the Son of God’s love, whom he introduces as such in verse 13.
A brief synopsis of verses 1:12 through 21 would be:
“12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us [or you] to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. 13 He [the Father] has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of [the Son of his love], 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (RSV). Now let me tell you about this Son…(see verses 15-20) “21 And you, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him,” (RSV).
Verses 21 and 22 restate in somewhat different words verses 12-14. The high Christological passage of verses 15-20 is structurally a parenthesis, or a sidebar. In content and significance, however, it is equivalent to a rhetorical nuclear bomb, as already stated above.
I will paraphrase the synopsis just given.
Verses 12-14: Give thanks to the Father. He cleaned you up and got you ready to share in the eternal inheritance with all his children. He rescued you from the kingdom of darkness and transferred you to the kingdom of the Son of his love. Let’s step aside for a minute and consider just how great this Son is…(Paul’s sidebar about the Son–verses 15-20)…Verse 21: Now I’ll repeat what I said before this sidebar about the Son–You were in the jurisdiction of darkness, cut-off from the Father and hostile in your minds, doing the evil deeds that belong to the kingdom of darkness, when he–the incarnated Son–died on the cross in order to get you cleaned up and ready to receive your new orders from himself, God’s highly favored King, and to present you, fully righteous, to God.
Notice that Paul has passed the baton of action from the Father in verses 12-13 to the Son in verses 21-22. This is because, as he presents in his sidebar, the Son and the Father are inseparable. We, in the visible world of creation and especially as human beings, relate to the Son, and only through him, to the Father. The Father’s purpose for us is fully realized in the Son.
Verse 23: Paul gives a caveat to the Colossians concerning their new status within the kingdom of the Son of God’s love. They must “continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel,” which they heard. This is the same gospel, Paul repeats from verse 6, “which has been preached to every creature under heaven,…” And so he has come full circle, leaving off where he began with the universality of the gospel they themselves received.
Transition: Paul closes the section concerning the relationship between the Colossians and the Son by introducing himself as one who became a minister of the gospel, “which has been preached to every creature under heaven.” This makes the last point of verse 23 transitional between the section whose focus is the Colossians in relationship to the Son and the section in which Paul in his ministry to the Gentiles is the focus.
Significance of this passage: The relationship to Father and Son that Paul describes in this section he repeats again and again as he develops his arguments against the false teachers in Chapter 2 and the behaviors of kingdom living he prescribes for the Colossians in Chapter 3 and the beginning of Chapter 4. Everything Paul has to say to the Colossians has their death, burial, resurrection, and victory in Christ as the new foundation of their lives. Just as the cross was essential to Christ, as co-partakers with him in it, so the cross is essential to the Colossians. (The teacher in me wants to add that the cross is also essential to all of us as Christians.)
E. Paul as God’s Chief Steward to the Gentiles
Paul’s presence permeates the entire letter, sometime in the foreground and most often in the background. Occasionally he asserts himself as the active character. It is because of his stewardship to the Gentiles that Paul writes the letter. As steward, Paul has the responsibility of being the chief servant of Christ for the Gentiles, answerable to him as Lord. It is because of Paul’s stewardship that he prescribes the do’s and don’ts which form the bulk of chapters two and three. However, for purposes of coherent organization, I have put these “rules of kingdom living” in a separate section, which is Item IV in the outline.
1. Paul’s credentials and dedication (1:23b-29)
“…the gospel which you heard, which has been preached to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.”
Paul communicates in this section–
a. his suffering, afflictions, and toil (1:24 twice and 1:29)
b. his afflictions are Christ’s afflictions (1:24)
c. the church is Christ’s body (1:24)
d. Paul sees himself as a divinely appointed steward and minister to the church, and his duty is to make fully known the word of God (1:25)
e. God had a purpose hidden for ages and generations which is now disclosed to his people (1:26)
f. God has now made known to the church (his saints) how “great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory” (RSV) of his previously hidden purpose. This is Christ among the Gentiles, the hope of glory (1:27)
g. Paul’s gospel ministry is to every man, or every person (πάντα ἄνθρωπον) (1:28)
h. Paul labors, struggling, with the powerful energy of God in him (1:29). This “power” is the same power Paul prayed for the Colossians in 1:11. Here again in this verse, God’s powerful energy, presence, operating within Paul is not so that Paul can perform miracles, but that he might fully proclaim Christ to every person in order to present them to him in maturity (7).
2. Paul’s goals for the Colossians
a. stated as his prayers for the Colossians (1:3-12, see above Section 2A “Paul the Greeter”)
b. stated as his struggles on behalf of the Colossians (1:23b-4:6, and see this section just above in segment 2#1, “Paul the Chief Steward”)
c. stated as behaviors he prescribes for the Colossians (2:6-4:6, see Section III below, “Do’s and Don’ts of Kingdom Living”)
III. Do’s and Don’ts of Kingdom Living (2:6-4:6)
A. Paul’s Recap of What He Has Said So Far
Paul in verses 2:1-7 summarizes the entire first chapter. These three verses, especially verse 1, are transitional between Paul’s more universal ministry to all Gentiles and his more specific ministry to the Gentiles of Colossae and Laodicea.
2:1 For I want you to know how greatly I strive for you, and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not seen my face (1:24-25, 29), 2 that their hearts may be encouraged as they are knit together in love (1:3-8), to have all the riches of assured understanding (1:9-14) and the knowledge of God’s mystery, of Christ, 3 in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (1:15-20, 26-28). 4 I say this in order that no one may delude you with beguiling speech (new material). 5 For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ (1:3-9a). 6 As therefore you received Christ Jesus the Lord (1:4-7), so live in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith (1:5-6), just as you were taught (1:23a), abounding in thanksgiving (1:12).
B. A Series of Warnings and Antidotes Against False Teaching
1. Warning 1 and encouragement (2:4-7)
i. Paul gives his first heads-up against those who “delude…with beguiling [deceptive] speech (2:4)”.
ii. He quickly follows this warning with praise (2:5) and encouragement (2:6-7).
2. Warning 2, followed by well developed encouragement (2:8-15)
a. Paul’s second direct warning is a fuller description of the “beguiling speech” of warning 1 (2:8). “See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ” (8).
b. His corrective is extensive and detailed, developing the theology of 1:12-22.
i) Christology (2:9-10), summarizing 1:15-20.
ii) Analogies (2:11-15) of 1) showing how the Colossians were made fit to enter the kingdom (see 1:12 and 22) and 2) how God transferred them from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light (see 1:13-14).
- spiritual circumcision of Christ (2:11)
- burial in baptism and spiritual resurrection(2:12)
- spiritually resurrection from the dead (2:13a)
- forgiveness of sin (2:13b)
- legal justification (2:14)
- Christ’s disarming and triumphing over the spiritual enemies, the “principalities and powers” (2:15)
3. Warning 3 (2:16-17) specifies what the “philosophy,” “empty deceit,” and “human tradition” of Warning 2 are. It also gives the antidote. The warning is against making food, drink, and religious holidays items of concern to the faith (2:16). The antidote is Christ, who is the “real deal,” the substance, as opposed to shadow (2:17).
4. Warning 4 (2:18-19a) is against “self-abasement,” “worship of angels,” and “visions.” The antidote again is to cling to Christ the Head of the church. He will nourish and grow his body with the blessing of God.
5. Paul’s Summary of his statements of warning (2:20-23). Everything in Warnings 3-4 refers back to the “elemental spirits of the universe,” mentioned in 2:8. Paul states this explicitly in verse 20. In the remaining verses of this passage he explains what exactly is wrong with these deceptive practices.
a. They are of the world, as opposed to the kingdom (2:20).
b. They belong to the dead way of life the Colossians left behind (2:22).
c. They deceive, because although they have an appearance of wisdom, dead flesh cannot change dead flesh. Implied is that the Colossians need the Spirit of Christ “in checking the indulgence of the flesh” (2:23).
C. True Teaching on Kingdom Living
The crux of Paul’s teaching is that Jesus Christ died, was buried, is resurrected, and reigns as Sovereign of the Universe, according to the will and blessing of God the Father. As regards the Colossians, they were raised with him and are in him “with Christ in God (σὺν τῷ Χριστῷ ἐν τῷ θεῷ)” (9). As to how they should behave, they should behave in ways that are true to Christ and true to their position in him. He states this as his opening to this section. Rhetorically, these verses function as a grand conclusion to everything he’s said so far and a grand introduction to what remains.
1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4 RSV)
1. Put these behaviors (internal and external) to death (3:5-9a) and why (3:9b-11).
2. Put on these behaviors and why (3:12-17).
3. Precepts to govern specific familial and household relationships (3:18-4:1).
4. Pray (4:2-4).
5. Conduct toward outsiders (those not within the church, i.e., nonbelievers (4:5-6).
IV. Paul’s Team (4:7-14)
In this section near the end of Paul’s letter, he says a few words about certain men who work with him in the faith. Some of what he says concerns greetings; some concerns future visits from a number of them.
V. Final Instructions (4:15-17) and Sign-off (4:18)
1. Paul’s final instructions concern:
a. specific greetings from himself to a Christian woman named Nympha (4:15)
b. trading letters with the church in Laodicea (4:16)
c. an admonition to Archippus (4:17)
2. Paul signs off (4:18).
a. He tells them that he is writing this very last portion himself, in his own handwriting, without the help of someone doing the writing for him (amanuensis), or what we might call a secretary.
b. He asks that the Colossians would remember that he is in prison.
c. He closes his letter with the words, “Grace be with you.”
Some Personal Words and Conclusion
During the first portion of my Christian walk, I admit that I was not fond of Paul. I thought him cold and arrogant. I was a child in Christ, and I certainly didn’t know Paul. I think part of my difficulty involves the style in which the New Testament letters themselves are written. In my own writing of emails and text messages, I use exclamation points all over the place. As a female, I include words that describe feelings. Paul wrote two thousand years ago in the style that was common to his day. The style of letter writing in Paul’s milieu was much more formal than our style today. It was also rhetorical, in the sense of educated speech. Additionally, the letters are written in a foreign language–Koine Greek. Our English Bibles are translations which have come to us filtered through centuries and centuries of church culture.
Today’s Bible reader has many recent versions which attempt to transfer Scripture into our own vernacular. Some of these are: The New Living Translation, The Passion Bible, The Bible in Basic English, The New International Version, the New English Translation, and a number of others. It is good to consult many different versions of Scripture to help gain an understanding of what is being said. In my experience I find that Scripture is often difficult to understand simply because the language itself, even though I am reading a Bible in English, is difficult to follow. Let’s face it–few of us talk and speak like Paul in Colossians.
It is for this reason, because of its level of difficulty for me, that I have spent so much of my personal time these last few weeks working on this mini Bible study of Colossians. I feel that after so many years of fearful animosity towards this particular letter, I have finally been able (by God’s grace) to understand what Paul has written here. And let me tell you, it is AMAZING!!!!! If only in my day to day living I could fully grasp the enormity of the full implications of my life in Christ! This includes an appreciation of who he is–my words are too limited to describe him–but Paul did a fantastic job in Colossians 1:15-20. But I sense that even with all the superlative phrases Paul uses (10), even those fall short of the infinite greatness of who this Person is. And, according to Paul, I am IN him, with him IN God!!!!! I am someone who needs Paul’s prayer, that I “may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, to lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him,…” and to fully understand on a practical, daily living level, just what is my “inheritance of the saints in light.” If I got all that, I think it would make a difference.
In a total non sequitur, Bilbo Baggins and Frodo were tiny people, little people, Hobbits, who did huge things. I believe that compared to God, all Christians are like this. I know I certainly am. But Christ is our mediator. He is God–i.e., enormously huge in power, splendor, and hundreds of other words all heaped up–AND, he is one of us, a tiny human being. Unlike myself, Christ is the perfect image bearer of God, unmarred by sin. God sent Christ to explain himself and his requirements to us. And to bring us back to himself. Christ is the open door to God. That is what Paul is saying. And the point of this paragraph is that through Christ God has poured an enormous quantity of rich treasure into tiny vessels. The treasure is so big that we have to work hard at understanding it. It’s beyond our experience.
Spending many hours in Paul’s letter to the Colossians has helped me understand Paul better, the Lord better, and myself in Christ better. I’ve grappled with the structure of Colossians many times now, and this time around, I was blessed by reading it along with a group of wonderful Christian women (thank-you, Gaye Austin! and everyone). And so I hope what I’ve shared in my outlined presentation above can help someone else who is reading Colossians. “Grace be with you!” –Christina
1 Readers should be aware that the original text in Greek does not contain either chapters or verses. These divisions were imposed by later editors of the English versions to allow for easier reference and reading.
2 My personal journey here: It’s taken years for me to get here. I was a young Christian when I first studied Colossians in a ladies’ Bible study led by our pastor’s wife. This group never discussed; we listened. In that first pass through, Colossians appeared to me cold and hard, impenetrable, like a statue of chiseled marble not interested in conversation. I definitely missed the good news in that first round. The second pass through Colossians was with a ladies’ Bible study I taught. I would say I failed–I never really understood the structure nor Paul’s message. I did pick out a wonderful passage for memory, 1:13-14. My third pass through is happening right now. I’m studying with a very fine group of women on Zoom, led by Gaye Austin, who heads the Facebook page of Bible.org. She is a prolific writer herself, and she enjoys and encourages discussion. What I’m presenting in this blog is what I have garnered on my own at home, as a product of reading through the entire letter in one sitting, many times over. Each time I read, I see something new. The outline I’m presenting is my own; it’s simple, and it works for me. Oh yes, I nearly forgot, I need to add that I now like Paul, the letter, and God himself–Father, Son, Spirit, as presented in it.
3 See the article, “Son of His Love: Colossians 1:13″, available on this site by following the given link, for an exposition of the word choice, “Son of his love.”
4 Many but not all translations place the “hope” as being the cause of both the faith and love. However, Paul tends to write linearly, stringing his phrases together one after another. Therefore, it is not clear beyond a shadow of doubt whether the hope stimulated both the faith and love, or just the love, which the phrase, “on account of the hope,” directly follows. Exploring this further would go beyond the scope of this article. The solid point, however, is that knowledge of an eternal inheritance safely being stored up by God does produce the fruit of love in the lives of believers.
5 Paul uses the names “Lord” and “God” almost interchangeably in verse 10.
6 There is at least one whole sermon, or lesson, in the brief treatment of the Father followed without transition by the extensive treatment of the Son which follows.
7 In my professional work as a public school teacher of under-privileged children, I definitely needed and drew upon God’s energizing “power” and strength to perform my task. I also wanted to bring the children in my care to maturity when I presented them to their next year’s teacher.
8 This is a difficult verse, one for which comparison of many translations would be useful. By consulting a variety of translations, the reader may gain a better sense of Paul’s intended meaning.
9 The Christian reader should stop and meditate upon this phrase, “with Christ in God.” Paul wanted his readers to realize how great are the riches of the glory of this mystery. There is no stronger position anywhere in the universe than “with Christ in God.” Do you think God will take care of you? Is there need to look anywhere else but Christ?
10 Some believe that Paul in 1:15-20 was quoting a common creed of his day. No matter, it was Christian faith that wrote these words.
The Point: Colossians 1:13b is a unique phrase in all of Scripture. Wow! For this reason, however, translators aren’t quite sure what to do with it. As you read below, you will see my reasons for suggesting that all of the translations capture a portion of this segment, while only an exactly literal translation captures the totality. Jesus is the embodiment, the exact image, of everything anyone could ever say about the love of God. Christ is the object of God’s love, as well as the subject. He is the recipient as well as the giver. Everything we know about Christ reveals (expresses) the love of God his Father, both for Christ and from Christ and towards us, his people. (Disclaimer: It gets a bit technical, so that is why I’ve summed it all up here as, “The Point.”)
Most translations of Colossians 1:13b read, “kingdom of his beloved Son,” as in the ESV, or, “kingdom of the Son he loves,” as in the NIV and NET. Alternatively, both the NKJ and and the much older ASV (1901) read, “kingdom of the Son of his love.” The interlinear, literal translation portion of Marshall’s Greek-English New Testament reads, “kingdom of the Son of the love of him,” an exact correspondence with the Greek. My thesis is that the translation, “Son of his love,” though older, still recommends itself as a strong possibility based on evidence from context and comparison with the Greek structure of other biblical verses concerning God’s love and his Son.
The phrase in Colossians 1:13b reads in Greek, “τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ υἱοῦ τῆς ἀγάπης αὐτοῦ.” This phrase is unique to the entire Bible, as well as the portions that read, “τοῦ υἱοῦ τῆς ἀγάπης,” and “τῆς ἀγάπης αὐτοῦ.” The phrase “his beloved Son” in English translations, including the ESV, NAU, and “dear Son” in the KJV, occurs only in Colossians 1:13. The English phrase Son he loves occurs only in Colossians 1:13. That this Greek construction is so unique accounts for the imprecision in its translation.
The English phrase “my beloved Son” occurs nine times in the KJV and seven times in the ESV. The corresponding “my Son, whom I love” (NIV) occurs eight times, all in the New Testament, and only in the NIV. The Greek construction corresponding to “my beloved Son” differs entirely from the Greek construction of “the Son of his love.” “My beloved Son” with a capital “S” is “ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός” in six of the seven instances of its occurrence in the Bible, all of which occur in the New Testament (1). There is also one occurrence of the same construction in the accusative (Luke 20:13). “The Son of his love” in Greek, as noted above, is “τοῦ υἱοῦ τῆς ἀγάπης αὐτοῦ,” and also as noted above, is unique to all of Scripture.
In the genitive, the Greek word for love, “ἀγάπης,” occurs twenty-one times in the Bible, three of these in the Septuagint and the remaining eighteen in the New Testament. Two of the Septuagint references occur in Song of Solomon and the third in Jeremiah. All of the New Testament occurrences are in the epistles. Of all the occurrences of “ἀγάπης,” the one in Colossians 1:13 is the only one that occurs in close proximity to mention of Christ as God’s Son. Of the eighteen New Testament occurrences of the phrase “ἀγάπης,” only that in 2 Corinthians 13:11, “ὁ θεὸς τῆς ἀγάπης καὶ εἰρήνης,” displays a structure similar to the phrase in Colossians 1:13, “τοῦ υἱοῦ τῆς ἀγάπης αὐτοῦ.”
Wallace in Greek Beyond the Basics (107) identifies 2 Corinthians 13:11 as a possible example of a genitive of product, that is, a product which is produced by the head noun. If this is so, then the phrase could be translated as, “the God who produces love and peace,” which suits the context nicely. Since the Greek phrase in 2 Corinthians is the only phrase in all of Scripture that uses ἀγάπης in a structure similar to that found in Colossians 1:13–and both verses are Pauline–it appears reasonable to consider that the genitive in Colossians might carry a meaning similar to the one found in 2 Corinthians. If this were the case, the translation might read, “the Son who produces his [the Father’s] love.”
There is another quite different sense for the phrase, “of the Son of his love,” a sense which is also rare in Scripture. The phrase “the son who is characterized by such-and-such a quality,” captures the essence of this further meaning. Illustrations are found in John 17:12 and 2 Thessalonians 2:3, where the phrase in question is, “the son of destruction,” or, “ὁ υἱὸς τῆς ἀπωλείας.” Acts 4:36 provides another example in the phrase “son of encouragement,” or “υἱὸς παρακλήσεως.” Such a meaning for “τοῦ υἱοῦ τῆς ἀγάπης αὐτοῦ,” or paraphrased, “of the Son who is characterized by and embodies the love of the Father,” fits well with the meaning of the entire verse in which the domain of darkness is contrasted with the kingdom of the Son of God, who is characterized by and embodies the Father’s love.
Summary: For all of the above reasons, I prefer to translate Colossians 1:13b as, “He delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of the Son of his love. (Colossians 1:13 NET, except for the underlined portion)
1 The seventh KJV occurrence of “my beloved Son” occurs in Luke 9:35. It is ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἐκλελεγμένος, or my Son, the chosen One.
This is a “throwback” article I wrote ten years ago. It was published December 11, 2010 on a website which is no longer available. I haven’t edited it significantly.
Psalm 88 — The Sorrows of Our Lord Jesus Christ
One of the greatest recent blessings of my Christian life was a spiritual crisis I experienced over an extended period of time a few years back. The crisis brought about an intense dying of self infrequently experienced by me as a Christian. But it was what happened during the recovery from the crisis that brought me such great blessing.
Because my self-image had been so thoroughly slaughtered, I was in a state of extreme daily dependence upon God and His good comfort in my heart. One harsh word from Him would have shattered me completely, but He was very gentle and very kind. ( “Your hands are steady, Your knives and needles sharp and clean, Your poultices soaked in soothing balm. You are amazing, Lord. There is none like You. You inflict the deepest wounds with steady, compassionate hand. When morning comes, I see Your work is perfect, even from the beginning. I look but cannot find at all where the festered splinter had been.” — from a piece of my own writing about Psalm 119, not yet posted on users.bible.org)
It was during this exact period, during my spiritual recovery, that I came upon a small copy of just Psalms and Proverbs, NIV, written with extremely few notes, and no references. Just text. As the title of the book is “31 Days of Wisdom and Praise” (1), and the point of the book is to read through it all in one month, that’s just what I did, repeatedly, many times over, in the course of a single year.
During the third straight through reading, a great blessing came. The Psalms began to open up in my heart. I knew without a shadow of a doubt that God is good; He loves His people; and He loves me.
But during this time and since, I began to hear the voice of my Lord within the Psalms. I hear the voice of Christ, prophetically spoken through the psalmists, to the extent that I would agree with Robert Hawker, “the whole of the Psalms are of him, and concerning him, more or less, and he is the great object and subject of all”. (2) I pray that the Holy Spirit would open the Psalms this way in the hearts of all believers.
This brings me now to the actual subject of Psalm 88. This is what Robert Hawker says of Psalm 88, “The Psalm hath this striking peculiarity in it, namely, that it not only hath reference to the Lord Jesus Christ, and him alone; but that he himself is the sole speaker from the beginning to the end.” (3)
The above statement by Hawker is enormous, but it’s one that we so very seldom, if ever, hear today. Just by way of encouraging other readers of the Psalms, and hopefully not of vainglory (forgive me, Lord, for I know my eye is not yet single), I did not need Robert Hawker to tell me his above statement in order to enlarge for me this identical
apprehension of Psalm 88, for I understood the same simply by reading the Psalm itself, well before I ever encountered the statement by Robert Hawker. I do so truly believe that the Holy Spirit in our days wants to recover for us what has been lost in the years since Robert Hawker. Hawker was a well known and dearly beloved vicar of an Anglican church in England, at the the turning of the 18th century. (4)
If you are like I am, we tend to read the Psalms, as we also read other parts of scripture, from our study Bible editions, frequently glancing to the bottom of the page to see what the famous theologian has to say about this verse and that verse, and so often we miss the very plain and simple prophetic meaning of the text.
The study notes have been written, sometimes, with the theologian’s peculiar doctrines in his heart, to which he must be faithful and consistent. We all of us have our own editorial biases through which we view scripture. But the famous theologian who writes the study notes doesn’t blatantly say, “This is my overarching doctrinal bias, and all my notes must be consistent with that.”
I say this with all humility, as a nobody–we need to read the Psalms in particular not with our study notes, but in a quiet space of our own heart, with just the text before us, the Holy Spirit within us, and our hearts and minds fixed on Christ. “How does this
relate to Christ?” should be the question we are ever asking the Lord to answer in us as we read. We can always look at our study notes at some other time, for verification, correction if applicable, or further observation.
But what happens when we see Christ in the Psalms in a way not verified by our study notes? Do we toss out as “incorrect interpretation” or “private interpretation” what we so blessedly received of Christ through what we thought was the hand of the Holy Spirit upon the understanding of our heart? Do we believe the word of scripture as opened by the Holy Spirit upon our heart, or do we believe the bias of our famous theologian, who perhaps believes that the Holy Spirit no longer interacts with believers as He did in the days the scriptures were written?
Do we believe the experiencing of the Holy Spirit blessedly opening scripture in our heart, or do we mistrust our intimate perception of Him whom we think is the Holy Spirit in favor of the highly educated, famous theologian with his authoritative voice in the notes of the well-known study Bible opened before us?
Yes, many people make many mistakes, especially nowadays, “The Lord told me such and such…”, and “I heard the Lord tell me…”. But, are we guilty of throwing out the proverbial baby with the proverbial bath-water?
The two sets of verses below show us that one of Satan’s greatest tactics is to try to drown the truth in a torrent of lies.
Revelation 12:15 Then the serpent spouted water like a river out of his mouth after the woman in an attempt to sweep her away by a flood,
Matthew 13:24 He presented them with another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a person who sowed good seed in his field.
13:25 But while everyone was sleeping, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away.
13:26 When the plants sprouted and bore grain, then the weeds also appeared.
13:27 So the slaves of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Then where did the weeds come from?’
13:28 He said, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the slaves replied, ‘Do you want us to go and gather them?’
13:29 But he said, ‘No, since in gathering the weeds you may uproot the wheat with them.
13:30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At harvest time I will tell the reapers, “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned, but then gather the wheat into my barn.”’”ares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn.”‘”
Yet God Himself is ever faithful to Himself and to His people.
I am so extremely delighted with God as I mull over Jesus the Christ’s conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. She was ever so sinful, ever so foolish, ever such a no-count, ever such a woman rather than a man. You could not find a more unlikely candidate as she for a great theological revelation from God Himself. And yet our precious Savior directly revealed more of Himself to her in a single conversation than He did to Nicodemus the erudite teacher in the previous chapter of John’s gospel, or perhaps to anyone else in all the gospels.
When we approach God’s word in prayer, with a beggar’s heart, not pompously, but in simple, repentant submission to Him and to His word, we can expect that God the Holy Spirit will reveal Jesus Christ to us in just the way He did to the Samaritan woman at the well.
NAU 1 John 2:27 As for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him.
NAU Psalm 81:16 “But I would feed you with the finest of the wheat, And with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.”
Psalm 88:1 O Lord God who delivers me!
By day I cry out and at night I pray before you.
88:2 Listen to my prayer! Pay attention to my cry for help!
88:3 For my life is filled with troubles and I am ready to enter Sheol.
88:4 They treat me like those who descend into the grave. I am like a helpless man,
88:5 adrift among the dead, like corpses lying in the grave,
whom you remember no more, and who are cut off from your power.
88:6 You place me in the lowest regions of the pit,
in the dark places, in the watery depths.
88:7 Your anger bears down on me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves. (Selah)
88:8 You cause those who know me to keep their distance;
you make me an appalling sight to them.
I am trapped and cannot get free.
88:9 My eyes grow weak because of oppression.
I call out to you, O Lord, all day long;
I spread out my hands in prayer to you.
88:10 Do you accomplish amazing things for the dead?
Do the departed spirits rise up and give you thanks? (Selah)
88:11 Is your loyal love proclaimed in the grave,
or your faithfulness in the place of the dead?
88:12 Are your amazing deeds experienced in the dark region,
or your deliverance in the land of oblivion?
88:13 As for me, I cry out to you, O Lord;
in the morning my prayer confronts you.
88:14 O Lord, why do you reject me,
and pay no attention to me?
88:15 I am oppressed and have been on the verge of death since my youth.
I have been subjected to your horrors and am numb with pain.
88:16 Your anger overwhelms me;
your terrors destroy me.
88:17 They surround me like water all day long;
they join forces and encircle me.
88:18 You cause my friends and neighbors to keep their distance;
Thoughts on the Text
A possible application of Psalm 88 is that it is prophetic of our Lord Jesus Christ. Objectively, it is prophetic of the Messiah’s death and burial in the grave; subjectively, it is prophetic of His suffering as a “man”.
Hebrews 2:17 For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
Hebrews 13:12 And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.
(See also Hebrews 5:8, 1 Peter 2:21 and 1 Peter 4:1-2)
NIV 1a…O LORD, the God who saves me…
Verses 1 and 2
Verse 1 opens with a blessing, “O LORD, the God who saves me,”. The phrase identifies very specifically to whom the psalmist is speaking. He’s speaking to God, but such a wonderful God! He’s speaking to God, but such a personal God! Again, he’s speaking to God, but to a God he knows so very well from all His interactions with himself, that he is filled with hope just by crying out to that blessed name–“O LORD, the God who saves me.”
Other translations say, “O LORD, God of my salvation”. I prefer the sense of the NIV for my own daily meditation, because of the verb nature of the psalmist’s relationship with His God. “God of my salvation” is a cumbersome phrase to my ear. As a noun, it’s abstract–I’m not sure at what moment in time the word “salvation” refers to–the past, when God first made Himself known in the psalmist’s life? the future, when God will save again? or might it be the entire process of salvation from start to finish, like something of a theological concept? Most likely all of these are true.
But, “O LORD, the God who saves me,” includes all of the above with the immediacy of the present strongly emphasized. There’s action involved. God is active, neither idle nor passive. He’s personal, as the subject of a strong verb, and He is now. The verb is present tense. God is He who saves me–right now! Now is when I need Him. In the past, at all those specific moments when God saved me, it was always “right now”, though those moments are memory in my current present.
God is also the do-er of “my salvation”. He is the actor, the perpetrator. One could say that He is the psalmist’s friend. He is the God who saves the psalmist. There is a strong relationship of trust implied.
This is the God to whom the psalmist addresses his prayer–his cry. By addressing God as the one who saves, the psalmist implicitly excludes all others. God is his only hope, his only help. There is no one but God who can save him. All his hope is placed in God and God alone.
1b…day and night I cry out before you.
But something appears to be wrong as the psalmist continues his plea. Where is God now? “Day and night I cry out before you.” The psalmist’s suffering has continued for some time; he has been crying out for some time, constantly. But where is God? He hasn’t answered.
2 May my prayer come before you; turn your ear to my cry.
Hebrews 5:7a During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death…
Verse 2 of Psalm 88 above continues by telling us that it is as though God is not hearing. It’s as though the psalmist’s prayers have not reached the ear of God, or that God’s ear, his attention, his caring, is metaphorically turned away from the
psalmist. We sometimes say that so-and-so turned a deaf ear to someone’s pleading. So it seems here. But God is omniscient and sovereign. Any deafness of ear on God’s part would be by choice. It’s as though the psalmist were outside the presence of his LORD, His God, pounding on the door, screaming to get in. But God would not hear him. God would seem to be ignoring him.
NAU Psalm 22:1 …My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning.
2 O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer; And by night, but I have no rest.
How like the first two verses of Psalm 88 are the above two verses from Psalm 22. Psalm 22:1 is quoted in the New Testament, Matthew and Mark, as coming from the lips of Jesus Himself, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34)
So, here in the first two verses of Psalm 88 we see the suffering Messiah, in His Passion (the rest of the psalm identifies the time frame for us), crying out to God in His manhood. But God appears to not be listening. How terribly awesome this is.
How needful of silent meditation on all the nuances of Christ’s suffering, in particular on the differences between myself and Christ–He, the Son of God, son of man, suffering such rejection by God His Savior, His Father, His one true love–I, in my sinfulness, being the object of His suffering. He being willing, I receiving the blessing of His pain.
Verses 3 through 6
88:3 For my life is filled with troubles and I am ready to enter Sheol.
88:4 They treat me like those who descend into the grave. I am like a helpless man,
88:5 adrift among the dead,like corpses lying in the grave,whom you remember no more, and who are cut off from your power.
88:6 You place me in the lowest regions of the pit, in the dark places, in the watery depths.
These verses define the time frame in the life of Jesus to which the entirety of Psalm 88 points. It has been said by commentators that of all the psalms, this psalm is unique in the unmitigated intensity and duration of its lament–that is, from beginning to end–without hope, without light at the proverbial end of the tunnel. (5)
Once again, we are reminded of Christ’s cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)
Verse 3 would appear to be from the cross itself, just before death.
In verse 4a, the soldiers and bystanders have totally given up on Him as coming through this alive. They count, or reckon Him, as being dead. There was indeed counting, or reckoning, at Skull Hill that day, since there were three being crucified.
In verse 4b, there is nothing the man Jesus can do. He has no strength to save Himself from death. Indeed, hecklers molested Him with their jeers, recorded for us in the gospels–
Matthew 27:39-40 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!”
But the psalmist in 88:4b says, “I am like a man without strength.” No, Jesus did not come down from the cross.
In verse 5a-b, we see Jesus being set apart with the dead, removed from the cross, wrapped in grave clothes.
5a-b I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave,…
5c…who are cut off from your care.
Verse 5c is very typical of the Old Testament attitude towards the dead. An immediate afterlife is not a strong theme in the Old Testament. Job’s glorious statement below is in part made so glorious because it is a quick, extremely direct and unusual parting of the clouds for an ever-so-brief look at what lies beyond the grave in heaven.
Job 19:26 And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God;
But generally, in the Old Testament, the dead are dead. They are in a category all by themselves, separated and apart from those who are still alive, just as Psalm 88:5 says.
5 I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care.
[Interlinear Hebrew] 5 free among the dead, as pierced ones lying in the grave, whom You remember no more; yea, by Your hand they are cut off. (6)
Note: The verb “pierced” in the verse above is in large quantities of Old Testament scripture translated as “slain”, as in our text here in Psalm 88. But, when we think about it, we can see why the Hebrew verb for “slain” is actually “pierced”–use of spears and swords were the most common means of fighting in Old Testament days. Enemies were slain by piercing them with a sword or spear. Jesus, however, was crucified on a cross, not killed with a spear (although His dead body was later pierced through by a Roman soldier to verify that He was already dead). The hands and feet of our Lord were pierced, however, by the nails of the cross. Indirectly, it was these piercings that led to His death.
The word “free” in the interlinear version above doesn’t signify what we today think of as the positive value “freedom”. Rather, it signifies the concept of not having any ties, neither to friends and relatives among the living, nor to God Himself. The very next clause, “…whom You remember no more…” (5b) confirms this sense of the verb “free”.
6 You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths.
Verse 6 seems to speak both of the metaphorical pit, the land of the dead, from which men do not return, and the actual pit, the hewn out cave in the rock in which Joseph of Arimathea placed the dead body of Jesus–
Mark 15:46 So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb.
Jesus the man was very, very dead.
Sidebar Note Concerning Applications of the Psalms
[Please bear in mind as we go through this psalm that we are making an application of the first person voice of the psalmist to a prophetic rendering of the voice of Jesus Christ Himself. My reasons for feeling that it is scriptural to do so are written below.
I. First, this is the precedent established by many of the New Testament writers. For example, In Acts 2:25-35, the Apostle Peter explains in great detail the prophetic role of David in Psalm 16.
NAU Acts 2:25 “For David says of Him, ‘I SAW THE LORD ALWAYS IN MY PRESENCE; FOR HE IS AT MY RIGHT HAND, SO THAT I WILL NOT BE SHAKEN.
26 ‘THEREFORE MY HEART WAS GLAD AND MY TONGUE EXULTED; MOREOVER MY FLESH ALSO WILL LIVE IN HOPE;
27 BECAUSE YOU WILL NOT ABANDON MY SOUL TO HADES, NOR ALLOW YOUR HOLY ONE TO UNDERGO DECAY.
28 ‘YOU HAVE MADE KNOWN TO ME THE WAYS OF LIFE; YOU WILL MAKE ME FULL OF GLADNESS WITH YOUR PRESENCE.’
29 “Brethren, I may confidently say to you regarding the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.
30 “And so, because he was a prophet and knew that GOD HAD SWORN TO HIM WITH AN OATH TO SEAT one OF HIS DESCENDANTS ON HIS THRONE,
31 he looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that HE WAS NEITHER ABANDONED TO HADES, NOR DID His flesh SUFFER DECAY.
32 “This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses.
33 “Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this which you both see and hear.
34 “For it was not David who ascended into heaven, but he himself says: ‘THE LORD SAID TO MY LORD, “SIT AT MY RIGHT HAND,
35 UNTIL I MAKE YOUR ENEMIES A FOOTSTOOL FOR YOUR FEET.”‘
36 “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ– this Jesus whom you crucified.”
All of the capital letters above are quotations from the Septuagint version of the Old Testament. (This was a very common Greek version at the time the apostles lived. Our own versions sound very similar, just not word for word.)
Verses 25 through 28 are a quotation from Psalm 16:8-11b. Then in verse 29 above, the Apostle Peter begins to explain why the quotation from Psalm 16, even though written in first person, does not refer to David, the immediate author of the psalm. He gives the very simple reason that the prophecy in it did not come true with regard to David. Therefore, since biblical prophecy always comes true, this prophecy cannot be about David. This is how he proves it.
First, the verses prophesy that the soul, or life, of the speaker will not be left in Hades, the place of death, the grave, nor will the body of the first person speaker rot, or see decay. Next, Peter continues his argument with confidence by saying that very clearly David, the immediate author of the psalm, died (that’s well-attested in scripture); furthermore, he was buried, and, if anyone wants to check up on the condition of his body–whether rotted or not–the answer would not be hard to find, because David’s tomb was still with them in a well-known location. Therefore–this conclusion is implied rather than directly stated–the prophecy, being the word of God, which never fails–was not about David.
In verse 30, Peter tells his audience that David was in fact a prophet. As a prophet, he knew that God was speaking of one of David’s descendants, whom God had sworn to seat on David’s throne. Peter, in verse 30 of Acts 2 above, is drawing from a combination of Psalm 132:11, 2 Samuel 7:12f, and Psalm 89:3f. (Note: “f” means “forward”; that is, just keep on reading starting with and continuing from the verse preceding the “f”.)
In Acts 2:31 above, Peter reveals that the prophet David, even though using his own first person voice, was in fact looking ahead to one of his descendants, who is Jesus Christ. David had been speaking of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, not his own. Peter in this verse from Acts, repeats Psalm 16:10, which he had quoted previously in Acts 2:27, at the same time proclaiming the fact of Christ’s spiritual and physical resurrection. That is, Christ in His entire being had been resurrected from the grave.
Peter’s great and tremendously wonderful point is that David had never been talking about himself, not even in his own historical context. As a prophet he had always been speaking in these verses from Psalm 16 about one of his own descendants in the flesh. This prophecy, Peter declares, has now been fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, who died, was buried, and resurrected. He says in verse 32, “we are all witnesses” of this.
Verse 33 continues the narrative of Jesus Christ in His exaltation and subsequent fulfilling of the promise of God to send forth the Holy Spirit. The phenomena which accompanied the sending of the Holy Spirit, described in Acts 2:1-13, forms the context of Peter’s gospel declaration.
But Peter is not yet finished. He continues in verses 34-35 of Acts 2 above, with a quotation from Psalm 110:1–
NAU Psalm 110:1 A Psalm of David. The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at My right hand Until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.”
Peter declares in verse 34 that it was not David who ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father, but that the verse from Psalm 110 refers to Jesus Christ.
Second in Acts 2:36, Peter sums up the whole point of his argument–it’s all about Christ! The entire point of Peter’s talking to the crowd was to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, yet he used the Old Testament to do so. “…God has made Him both Lord and Christ– this Jesus whom you crucified.”
Jesus Himself applied Psalm 110:1 to Himself well before Peter understood the argument.
NAU Matthew 22:41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question:
42 “What do you think about the Christ, whose son is He?” They said to Him, “The son of David.”
43 He said to them, “Then how does David in the Spirit call Him ‘Lord,’ saying,
44 ‘THE LORD SAID TO MY LORD, “SIT AT MY RIGHT HAND, UNTIL I PUT YOUR ENEMIES BENEATH YOUR FEET “‘?
45 “If David then calls Him ‘Lord,’ how is He his son?”
Jesus’ reasoning runs like this: David is the author of Psalm 110, and the first verse is written in first person. The first LORD is Yahweh, the God of Israel. The second Lord, Adonai, refers to David’s personal Lord–his Adonai. Adonai, however, is another word for God Almighty. One God, two different words for Him. Clearly, however, there are two beings referred to. The first one is readily understood as being Israel’s national God–Yahweh. But who is the second?
This is the wonderful mystery of Old Testament prophecy that Peter speaks of in 1Peter 1:9-12 and Paul in Colossians 1:26-27. If the second “Lord” of whom David spoke was merely his son according to the flesh, then why would David be calling him Adonai–God? Clearly, he is so much more than David’s genealogical son. In other words, Jesus is saying that David’s prophecy goes way beyond both David and his “son”, if, as the Pharisees apparently had been thinking, this son were thought of as a mere man. In other words, the point of David’s prophecy is Christ, not humanity.
Paul gives another example of how the New Testament writers extended the strictly literal interpretation of Old Testament prophecy.
NAU 1 Corinthians 9:9 For it is written in the Law of Moses, “YOU SHALL NOT MUZZLE THE OX WHILE HE IS THRESHING.” God is not concerned about oxen, is He?
10 Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake it was written, because the plowman ought to plow in hope, and the thresher to thresh in hope of sharing the crops.
Although the example I just gave is not about Christ, it illustrates the general principle we are discussing–it is entirely scriptural , when considering Old Testament prophecy, to take the highest ground conceivable.
II. Why am I hammering this point? To answer that, I will give my second reason for giving an application of Psalm 88 as the first person voice of its author, Heman the Ezrahite, speaking prophetically about Jesus Christ. By way of summary, reason one, which has consumed all the writing in this particular blog post so far, is that it is in keeping with scripture to do so. Reason two is that the spiritual benefits are so much greater than a merely literal, historically bound application, as we saw with Paul’s example about oxen above.
I am also seeking to hammer the point, because my daily study Bible which I use at home makes not one single reference to the Christ, my Lord, in all the notes it contains on Psalm 88. Not one. The study notes in this Bible of mine were written by a very famous, well-respected preacher and pastor. I am saying that many of us are taught to be too tight in how we allow the Holy Spirit to minister to our hearts as we read certain passages of scripture.
Yes, there is value in considering the trials of the psalmist from the point of view of his enduring faith in God. Yes, there is value in applying some of the psalms to the nation of Israel and to the church today. Yes, there is value in applying many of the psalms to our own lives. But for me, the greatest blessings of all have come as the Holy Spirit has been pleased to open to my heart an application of a psalm such as Psalm 88 to the very person of God’s own beloved Son Himself.
Peter and Paul in the verses cited above (Peter speaks of in 1Peter 1:9-12 and Paul in Colossians 1:26-27), express their own wonder and amazement at the revealed mystery of the identity of the person of whom so many prophecies they cite were speaking!
NAU 1 Peter 1:10 As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries,
11 seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow.
12 It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven– things into which angels long to look.
They were excited to meet this person of whom the prophets had spoken! Do you think God, the author of communication Himself, wants to keep from us this same excitement of first hand discovery?
We today have available to us the learning and wisdom of so many wise and intelligent scholars. By a long shot, I most definitely am not saying that we should ignore these gifts of God to His church. But, I do fear that by relying upon them as extensively as we so often seem to do, that we may be robbing ourselves of the joy of fellowship that is available to us by our spending quiet time alone with just the word of God and His Holy Spirit to apply that word Himself directly to our hearts, that is, without the immediate help/interference of study aids. Study aids are great! But most especially, after the Holy Spirit has had opportunity to fellowship alone with our hearts.
Put it this way, if given the opportunity, would you rather have a conversation with Jesus Christ? Or, would you rather have a conversation with a gifted scholar telling you all about Jesus Christ?
III. Briefly, there is yet a third reason why I have the personal freedom to apply Psalm 88 as a prophecy of Jesus Christ. Here it is. My Bible study notes have a chart by Thomas Nelson, Inc., which lists 20 messianic prophecies in the psalms. Neither the chart nor my Bible study notes’ author claim that this list is exhaustive, so why should I?
Further, New Testament scripture does not explicitly state that its writers have exhaustively cited all Old Testament passages that may refer to Jesus Christ. However, the New Testament does give indications that its citations may not be exhaustive.
NAU Luke 24:25 And He said to them, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! 26 “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.
NAU Luke 24:44 Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”
The two passages above contain the words of Jesus. The context of both are after His resurrection–the first, on the road to Emmaus, and the second, His appearance to the disciples when they had gathered together and were hiding out in the upper room. From Jesus’ words in both passages, we can gather that both these conversations took some time, especially since eating a meal followed the conversation in the first passage and preceded the conversation in the second passage. Yet, neither passage tells us a single detail as to the content of the specific Old Testament passages Jesus used in opening His followers’ understanding.
Then, there is the following statement by Jesus to His disciples before His death.
NAU John 16:12 “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.
13 “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.
Was the Holy Spirit poured out just upon the disciples and apostles? No. Was He poured out just upon the theologians? No.
NAU 1 Corinthians 12:13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
I strongly feel that in centuries past, pilgrims of the Way, such as the famous pilgrim Christian, created by John Bunyan in The Pilgrim’s Progress–that Christians generally received more of their discipling and teaching straight from the hand of God by means of the Holy Spirit using the written word of God, the Bible, than by intermediaries claiming authoritarian dictatorship over accurate interpretation and application of God’s word. The Roman Catholic Church before the Reformation claimed authority over scripture, and along came Luther to restore biblical freedom to us.
I know my words are very strong, so please take them with a healthy dose of salt. I am exaggerating somewhat for emphasis. However, in some circles of the church and in some scholarly circles, often overlapping, there is such a fear today of Christians misusing the word of God, of Christians falsely claiming to have received a word from God by the Spirit of God, that I fear the proverbial baby is being thrown out with the bath water.
If Jesus had shared this current fear of the misuse of His Holy Spirit, the promise of the Father upon all believers, upon all children of God in Christ, then why would He have given this gift to the church in the first place? Further, I cannot believe that God intended the many blessings of spiritual fellowship with Himself through the Spirit and the word to be applicable to only highly educated scholars and apostles.
I am NOT saying that God gives new scripture today to anyone. That would indeed be heresy. But I am saying that God by His Spirit does reveal afresh, over and over again, the heart of His marvelous Son Jesus Christ, by means of His Spirit directly applying the written word of God, today, to the hearts potentially of all believers.
So, if my heart tells me, prayerfully, gratefully, humbly, that Psalm 88 refers to my most precious Lord and Savior Jesus Christ at the time of His death upon the cross and burial in the tomb, and if that application is in keeping with all of scripture, not violating any specific passage of scripture anywhere, nor adding to it, then I will most gladly believe and trust what my heart is telling me. An alternative belief would be that the absence of any mention of Jesus Christ in my Bible study notes under Psalm 88, does in fact mean that a correlation between Psalm 88 and Jesus Christ would be incorrect.
Blessedly, there is at least one saint, now deceased, Robert Hawker, who left writings to show me that the Holy Spirit shed light in his heart concerning Psalm 88 the same way He is shedding light in mine. So, I prefer the Christ-centered application of Psalm 88, rather than any which might leave Him completely out.
Summary of my reasons for being confident in the Lord that Psalm 88 can be understood as a prophecy in first person voice of Jesus Christ:
1. This reading is entirely in keeping with many New Testament examples which apply certain passages of Psalms to Christ.
2. Jesus claims in Luke 24:44 that He is written about in the Psalms.
3. Reading Psalm 88 as the words of Christ leads us to the highest ground of contemplation.
4. Nowhere in the New Testament is it claimed that the Old Testament citations in it, those which are prophetically speaking of Christ, are exhaustive.
5. God said the He would pour out of His Spirit upon all flesh.
NAU Acts 2:17 ‘AND IT SHALL BE IN THE LAST DAYS,’ God says, ‘THAT I WILL POUR FORTH OF MY SPIRIT ON ALL MANKIND; AND YOUR SONS AND YOUR DAUGHTERS SHALL PROPHESY, AND YOUR YOUNG MEN SHALL SEE VISIONS, AND YOUR OLD MEN SHALL DREAM DREAMS;
The Holy Spirit has freedom to reveal the Lord Jesus Christ in scripture to the least of all His saints as well as to the greatest.]
End of Author’s Sidebar Note
7a Your wrath lies heavily upon me; …
Have you ever wondered how we as Christians know that it was God’s wrath which Jesus Our Lord suffered on the cross? I have wondered that. The gospels tell us of the mighty compassion and awesome deeds of our Savior, His zeal for all things that belonged to His Father. But in the gospels, doesn’t it appear to be the Jewish authorities and Roman soldiers who crucified Him? How do we know that God was pouring out His wrath for our sins upon the Lamb of God? Could it be we have this knowledge, at least in part, because this and other psalms tell us?
“Wrath” is not an unusual word in the Old Testament, nor in the whole Bible. It is present many times over from Genesis to Revelation. Once in a while, human wrath is spoken of in the multitude of verses containing the word “wrath”, but far and away the largest number of uses of this word refer to the intense anger of God in a judgmental sense against those who have offended Him. Here the psalmist is experiencing the judgmental wrath of God against sinners.
7b you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. Selah
The imagery of the words in this portion compare the wrath of God with strong billows of the sea breaking upon the psalmist in full force, weighing him down and keeping him low, afflicting him, repeatedly, again and again. This imagery of God’s wrath being expressed as mighty billows of the sea is not unique to this psalm.
Psalm 42:7 Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.
Why would the speaker of Psalm 88 say that the wrath of God and the waves of God were against him? Isn’t the speaker a righteous man, a man who loves and worships God? He refers to God as, “O LORD, the God who saves me” in verse 1. In verse 9, he says, “O LORD, every day; I spread out my hands to you.” Verse 13–“But I cry to you for help, O LORD; in the morning my prayer comes before you.” We know from all the psalms that the wicked do not cry out to God for help; in their pride of heart they always reject God, no matter what their circumstances. Only the righteous humble themselves in turning to God to seek His help and mercy.
Clearly, this man speaks as the righteous in the Psalms do; yet, he has an extremely clear knowledge that it is God whose wrath is being poured out upon him. Why is God’s wrath against him? The psalm does not say, nor even hint at any wrongdoing on the speaker’s part. Contrast this with Psalm 51. Psalm 51 is the heart-cry of a righteous man (according to the portrait of such a one in all the Psalms–see footnote), who has grievously sinned and now knows it. He repeatedly confesses and asks for God’s cleansing mercies.
This, however, is not the portrait of the man in Psalm 88, which gives us no hint of sin. So why was he suffering God’s wrath? The Apostle Paul gives us the answer–
NAU 2 Corinthians 5:21 He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
Isaiah likens this “man of sorrows” to a sacrificial lamb–
NAU Isaiah 53:7 He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth.
Lambs chosen for sacrifice were innocent, clean, spotless, without blemish, and without fault. Yet they are sacrificed for the wrath of God, in place of people, whose sins are placed upon them.
NAU Numbers 6:14 ‘He shall present his offering to the LORD: one male lamb a year old without defect for a burnt offering and one ewe-lamb a year old without defect for a sin offering and one ram without defect for a peace offering,
NAU Leviticus 9:7 Moses then said to Aaron, “Come near to the altar and offer your sin offering and your burnt offering, that you may make atonement for yourself and for the people; then make the offering for the people, that you may make atonement for them, just as the LORD has commanded.”
NAU 1 Peter 1:19 but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ.
And concerning the breakers of the sea, we find the answer in Jonah and in Christ’s own commentary upon that prophecy–
Jonah 2:1 From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD his God. 2 He said: “In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry. 3 You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me. 4 I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’ 5 The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. 6 To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you brought my life up from the pit, O LORD my God.
Jonah in the verses above was being punished by God for his refusal to obey Him. And Jesus Himself likens His death and burial to the time Jonah spent in the belly of the whale–
Matthew 12:39 He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
But Jesus, as we just saw in Corinthians, had no sin. Therefore, as a sacrificial lamb, He was being punished for the sins of others.
In summary, the speaker in Psalm 88:7 was being overwhelmed and beaten down by the judgmental wrath of God against sinners. He experienced God’s wrath as the crushing weight of myriads of waves beating him down, drowning him.
Verse 7 ends with the word, “Selah”. Let us all stop, catch our breaths, pause, and prayerfully consider what it must have been like for our Savior, Jesus Christ, to experience God’s wrath as He hung upon the cross for our sins.
By way of review, our thesis as we proceed is that this Psalm, written by Heman the Ezrahite, has a major application that is prophetic of the lamentation of our Lord Jesus Christ during His Passion. The voice of the psalmist can be understood as being prophetically the voice of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ was fully man and fully God. The voice in this Psalm is the voice of a man; I propose it is the voice of “the man”.
NIV 8a You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. (1)
NAU Psalm 88:8 You have removed my acquaintances far from me; You have made me an object of loathing to them; (1)
Which of us can be content to live without friends and acquaintances? We sometimes grieve greatly over the loss of dear friends, and interacting with companions and acquaintances frequently serves to cheer us on our daily paths. Our triune God Himself is a God of fellowship, and having been created in His image, we also were created for friendships.
[The following verses are all from the NIV.]
Genesis 2:18 The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”
Genesis 3:8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden.
1 Samuel 18:1 After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself.
Proverbs 27:10 Do not forsake your friend and the friend of your father, and do not go to your brother’s house when disaster strikes you– better a neighbor nearby than a brother far away.
Ecclesiastes 4:7 Again I saw something meaningless under the sun: 8 There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. “For whom am I toiling,” he asked, “and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?” This too is meaningless– a miserable business! 9 Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: 10 If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! 11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? 12 Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
Luke 5:18 Some men came carrying a paralytic on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. 19 When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus.
John 19:26 When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son”.
John 15:9 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love…13 Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.
Acts 10:24 The following day he arrived in Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends.
Acts 27:3 The next day we landed at Sidon; and Julius, in kindness to Paul, allowed him to go to his friends so they might provide for his needs.
Philemon 1:1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker,
James 2:23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend.
3 John 1:14 I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face. Peace to you. The friends here send their greetings. Greet the friends there by name.
NIV 8a You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them.
The details of Jesus’ life are well known from scripture, how His friends failed Him in His greatest hour of need.
Mark 14:33 He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. 34 “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.” 35 Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. 36 “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” 37 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? 38 Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” 39 Once more he went away and prayed the same thing. 40 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. They did not know what to say to him. 41 Returning the third time, he said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.
Matthew 26:47 While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48 Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.” 49 Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. 50 Jesus replied, “Friend, do what you came for.” Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him.
Mark 14:49 Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me. But the Scriptures must be fulfilled.” 50 Then everyone deserted him and fled. 51 A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, 52 he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.
Mark 14:66 While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came by. 67 When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him. “You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus,” she said. 68 But he denied it. “I don’t know or understand what you’re talking about,” he said, and went out into the entryway. 69 When the servant girl saw him there, she said again to those standing around, “This fellow is one of them.” 70 Again he denied it. After a little while, those standing near said to Peter, “Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.” 71 He began to call down curses on himself, and he swore to them, “I don’t know this man you’re talking about.” 72 Immediately the rooster crowed the second time. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows twice you will disown me three times.” And he broke down and wept.
Psalm 88:8b I am confined and cannot escape;
From the moment of His arrest until the moment of His resurrection, Jesus’ body remained confined, imprisoned, shut up, without escape. First, He was arrested by the Roman guard; He was bound when taken to Pilot, he was flogged, handed over to be crucified, mocked, struck, and spat upon, nailed to the cross, crucified, dead, his body wrapped–confined in a linen cloth with spices, and placed in a tomb that had a great stone rolled against the opening, a seal placed upon it, and a Roman guard to keep the tomb secure. (Matthew 27) That’s pretty confined.
9 my eyes are dim with grief. I call to you, O LORD, every day; I spread out my hands to you.
Perhaps more than anything else, this verse characterizes the life of our Lord, the man of many sorrows.
Isaiah 53:3 He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Isaiah 53:4 Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.
Isaiah 53:10a Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering,…
Psalm 22: 6 But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people. 7 All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads:
Isaiah 50:6 I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.
Hebrews 5:8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered
There are many, many more verses of scripture applicable to the sorrow and sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ, among them Psalm 69. When God the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to seeing Christ in the Old Testament, we find that there are references to Him everywhere! Isaiah is full of passages which refer to Christ, but in the Psalms themselves, a major theme is the theme of the suffering and sorrows of Messiah.
Verse 9 also characterizes the Lord Jesus in the second portion, that of constant prayer. As I think of Christ, so frequently I see Him praying. As a child, I once asked my pastor, “If Jesus is God, then who was He praying to?” Jesus the man on earth prayed heartily and often.
Mark 1:35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.
Luke 6:12 One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. 13 When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles:
Mark 9:28 After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” 29 He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”
Matthew 14:21 The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children. 22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. 23 After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. 25 During the fourth watch
of the night [3-6 a.m.] Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake.
Mark 14:32 They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.”
Hebrews 5:7 During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.
Verses 10 through 11
10 Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do those who are dead rise up and praise you? Selah
11 Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction?
12 Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?
Verses 10-12 are spoken by a person contemplating death. As applied to Jesus, these verses indicate that His death was real.
A real man was about to die a real death.
Clearly the speaker at this point did not wish to die. Death was repulsive to Him. Why? God would not be there, at least not as the living experience Him.
Verse 10a: “Do you show your wonders to the dead?” Implied answer, “No.” No miracles in the grave.
Verse 12a: “Are your wonders known in the place of darkness?” Again, no. No miracles by God. In fact, death is here considered a very dark place; God is not active there. He makes none of His righteous deeds known. The words “darkness” and “oblivion” (other translations say “forgetfulness”) signify that the mind, or what we experience as human understanding, has been turned off. This is the point of view of one who is now alive and contemplating what death must be like.
Secondly, not only would God not be there, but there would be no praise of God in death, either. Clearly, praise and worship are very precious and necessary to the Psalmist’s well-being. Verse 10b: “Do those who are dead rise up and praise you?”
Verse 11: “Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction?” Again, the implied response to these questions is, “No.” The grave would destroy praise, worship, and all declarations of God’s love and faithfulness.
So clearly, the Psalmist expected to die a real death, a human death, and death would not be pleasant, due to its separation for those there from the knowledge and worship of God.
Verse 13 to the End, Verse 18
13 But I cry to you for help, O LORD; in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 Why, O LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me?
15 From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death; I have suffered your terrors and am in despair.
16 Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me.
17 All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me.
18 You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.
Verse 13, as applied to the life of Christ, reminds us of Mark 1:35 — “Now in the morning, having risen a long while before daylight, He went out and departed to a solitary place; and there He prayed.” In fact, prayer characterized the life of Christ. Just by way of example, we see Him in the gospels always lifting His eyes to heaven and praying. We see Him praying all night before choosing His disciples; we see Him praying for His disciples and all believers in John 17; we seeing Him praying at Lazarus’ tomb; we see Him teaching prayer and fasting concerning the demon in the young man who would throw himself into the fire. And, we see Him praying in the garden.
Verse 14: “Why, O LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me?” This verse is so reminiscent of both Psalm 22:1 and Matthew 27:46.
Psalm 22:1 “…My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning.”
Matthew 27:46 About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
Verse 15a: “From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death;”
This verse, as applied to Christ, reminds me of Isaiah 53:3 “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
15b …I have suffered your terrors and am in despair.
16 Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me.
17 All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me.
Verses 15b through verse 17 of Psalm 88 again speak of the wrath and terrors of God against the Psalmist. We saw similar statements in verses 6 and 7. As I mentioned at that time, as a lay person, I have had to dig and search to find places in the New Testament that tell me explicitly that Jesus died on the cross as punishment for my sins. Since earliest Sunday school days, we are taught this truth, but where in New Testament scripture does it directly say so? Indeed, Paul does spell it out in the letter to the Romans, but it’s a fairly lengthy treatise there.
I am thankful to the genre of gospel tracts, because they sum up in plain, concise speech the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. I myself cannot find a clear, simple expounding of such in the New Testament. (Am I stupid?) But as applied to Jesus Christ, this psalm explicitly teaches in verses 15b through 17 that it was the wrath of God that was poured out on Him.
Isaiah 53 does the same thing in far greater detail, very thoroughly. As a Christian, I am so very thankful for the Old Testament, because without it, so much that is in the New would remain sketchy and incomplete.
18 You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.
Finally, verse 18 ends on a quiet note of darkness. As commentators write, Psalm 88 has a single tone of lament throughout. The Psalmist does not, as in most or all of the other psalms, include thoughts of hope, encouragement, praise, and worship. In verse 18, we find the Psalmist alone. It’s not that he had never had had friends and loved ones. Worse than that, he had had them, but he ascribes to God Himself that God took them from him. As applied to Jesus Christ on the cross, we find this to be true.
First, His disciples were His friends. John 15:15 “…I have called you friends…”
His disciples were also His family, His loved ones. Matthew 12:49 “And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Behold My mother and My brothers!”
It was part of God’s plan to remove all these from Christ at the time of His crucifixion. Although some were standing there, they were not close to Him at that hour. There was an impassable gulf between Him and them.
The darkness described in Verse 18b is so thick and dark as to be palpable. This, too, is an accurate foretelling of Christ’s death. Luke 23:44 “It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour.” Eclipses of the sun never last three hours. This was a deep darkness of a supernatural sort.
Why would the Psalmist call this deep darkness His friend? May I venture that in His complete abandonment by humans; suffering the wrath and terrors of God, His God, His Father, there was nothing left Him. The darkness was all that remained. It covered His sorrows and sufferings, His deep pain, like a blanket. Conclusion: Making an application of Psalm 88 to the life of Jesus Christ opens to me His heart of love and the heart of the Father’s love towards His lost creation. I am able to identify with Christ as a man. He becomes concrete and real to me. In my own moments of loss and pain, I am able to get something of a fellow feeling of His. Even so, I am enabled by God to thank Him for my moments of loss and pain, simply because they help me to better appreciate the great gift of God in sending His Son.
When applied to Jesus Christ, Psalm 88 shows me that God is not far off. He is very close. Having given His Son in such a dramatic, real, and totally painful way, I believe Him when He says to lost sinners, such as I was and am, “Come!” Verses such as the following make great sense to me in light of Psalm 88 —
Matthew 11:28-30 “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. 29 “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 “For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
Romans 8:32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?
Hebrews 4:15 For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. 16 Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Appeal to Unsaved Readers
Dear Reader, If you have never personally spoken to this great God of love concerning His dear Son, please do so today. It’s very simple. Just talk to Him in your own voice from your own point of view. Confess your sins to Him; tell Him you believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for those sins. Thank him for what he did on the cross, and ask if you can be his disciple. (If that’s too much for now, just tell him that you want to believe in Christ. If even that is too much for this moment, then just tell him that you are interested and you want to learn more. “God, will you show me?” Then obey whatever he gives you.) Continue to read your Bible; continue to pray (talk to God); and look for a body of like-minded believers. Meet with them regularly to live out with them all the aspects of your new-found faith!
Father, Please accept my offering today. Use it for Your glory. Thank-You, dear Creator-God, for the cross of Your love.
In Jesus name, Amen.
1 31 Days of Wisdom and Praise, Copyright C 1990 International Bible Society, Zondervan, “with Special Thanks to R. Dean Jones”
2 Treasury of David, Volume Two (Part 2) Psalm LXXXVIII to CX, page 18, Hendrickson
4 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Hawker , Wikipedia
5 Neale and Littledale, found in The Treasury of David, Volume Two, Part 2, Psalm the Eighty-Eighth, page 9, Hendrickson Publishers; “This Psalm stands alone in all the Psalter for the unrelieved gloom, the hopeless sorrow of its tone. Even the very saddest of the others, and the Lamentations themselves, admit some variations of key, some strains of hopefulness; here only all is darkness to the close.”
6The Interlinear Hebrew-Greek-English Bible, Second Edition, copyright 1985, by Jay P. Green, Sr.
This is a reprint from 2016.
No Virtue Will Get You In! No Defect Will Keep You Out!
Saint Augustine, it is said, had written out and pinned at eye level four psalms on the wall beside his bed. These he could read and reread as often as he liked, as he lay there dying. These four psalms became the core of the seven later known as the Penitential Psalms. Although the Penitential Psalms played a significant role in the medieval church, as witnessed by many paintings of the period, during the Reformation and beyond, they diminished in importance and liturgical practice. In the evangelical church today, few have even heard the phrase “penitential psalms,” let alone know which they are or why they are called that.
Association of penitence with seven particular psalms is rather a misnomer and a mistake. The seven particular psalms considered “penitential” as a group are Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143. As the centerpiece, Psalm 51 is indeed penitential. Psalm 51 supposedly records David’s heartfelt remorse for his sin of adultery with Bathsheba and his later murdering of her husband as a coverup when it became known that David had caused her to become pregnant. David expresses genuine and merited sorrow for his reprehensible sins. However, Psalm 6 and Psalm 102 carry no mention of sin at all. In fact, in each of these the speaker attributes his suffering to the persecution of his enemies. Enemies are a persistent theme throughout these seven psalms. Psalms 32 and 51 are the only ones which make no mention of enemies.
What is the reader to make of these inconsistencies of theme? Why group seven psalms which vary in such basic ways? One possibility is to consider that the traditional understanding of the word “penitent” is at fault. The use of the word penitence to represent a sorrow and suffering over one’s own sin follows a Latin language tradition. There is, however, a Greek semantic pathway using the base syllable “-pen-“, which corresponds to a meaning of extreme sorrow born of deep humility and humbleness of state. The core of this semantic pathway does not require a sense of guilt for sins committed. Rather, the humility can be a response to any number of physical or situational causes, such as poverty, lowliness of social estate, or physical distress. And sorrow born of suffering is in fact a theme which unites the seven penitential psalms. When one considers that the earliest church Bibles were written in Greek and that the Septuagint was the Old Testament of the early church for several centuries, this explanation of the grouping of the penitential psalms seems reasonable.
But the question remains: why does the psalmist maintain his innocence and righteousness, while at the same time grieving and mourning over his sins? Apart from Christ, there can be no reasonable explanation for unity among these psalms. Christ alone, as a human being, can maintain complete righteousness and innocence. This characteristic of the actions of his incarnated life, combined with his sinless divine nature, are what qualified him to be the lamb of God. The sacrificial lamb of Old Testament tradition needed to be one without spot or blemish of any kind. Only Christ qualifies. And yet, five of the seven penitential psalms carry confession of sin in greater or lesser extent.
The answer is simple. “God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God.” (2Corinthians 5:21 NET) The hermeneutic key that unlocks the Psalter is Jesus Christ. The New Testament teaches everywhere that Christ the man suffered, and that he suffered for our sins. Christ the man is the voice of the psalmist throughout the penitential psalms and so many others. As prophecy, these seven psalms foretell in first person the sufferings of the innocent, righteous Christ as he bore the sins of the world in his own person. Only with Christ does the psalmic paradox of the righteous sinner disappear. So, Christ is the dramatic speaker persona of the penitential psalms.
Before closing, one further word about why these seven psalms as a grouping have fallen into disuse and even disfavor. For all but the earliest history of the church, the majority opinion has not recognized that Christ is the voice of the psalmist. Further, the Latin textual tradition overran and trampled the Greek in all but the Orthodox churches. The Latin concept of penitence, as a kind of mournful wailing over sin that self-flagellates the heart of a penitent over and over again throughout the life of the penitent, no longer dominates our churches, especially evangelical ones. It appears as though the lesson was learned–yes, we all begin in universal sin. However, we repent once and then in Christ we move on. The Bible teaches forgiveness of sin and new life in Christ. Joy in salvation and holy living replace guilt for sins committed. Fresh sins are confessed and forgiveness is received. There is no need to wail over one’s past for the remainder of one’s life. The Christian life is lived out through the Spirit of Christ who indwells each and every believer. Joy replaces sorrow.
Nonetheless, the Christian heart will always benefit from considering the depth of sorrow in the heart of Christ as he endured the persecution of his enemies, which culminated in his physical sacrifice upon the cross. Doing so can only increase appreciation for the love of God for us expressed through Jesus our Savior and Lord. The seven Penitential Psalms will always be useful for this contemplation.
Links to the complete Penitential Psalms series:
How constantly grateful I am to know as certainty that Jesus God’s Son–and through him, God Almighty–has been here and experienced everything we as humans experience, in person, himself. He knows all our trials and tribulations, our triumphs and joys.
I lived most of my life in that exact part of the US where the recent mass gun slaughter occurred in what was considered by all a “safe place.” The very next day, while grief and shock were still stabbing hearts, vicious and ferocious fires broke out. My heart and mind have been with dear friends and family in that area all this past week. In the gun slaying and fires we see both evil and love at work.
When people kill other people because of hatred based upon their appearance or beliefs of any kind, that is evil. “Judge not,” the Bible teaches, “so that you will not be judged (condemned.)” Humankind’s first sin was siding with God’s enemy. The second sin was brother killing brother. All humans are brother/sister one with another. We are not to kill our brothers and sisters because we do not like them or because we disagree with them.
God knows the evil in the human heart. He’s always known everything that lies in our collective hearts. Yet he chooses to love us anyway, laying his own life as incarnated human on the line. God knows firsthand the effects of evil. Apart from whether or not you believe in Christ as the Son of God, the facts of his life as recorded in the Book show him as a good and loving man, someone who went around doing only good for others. His enemies killed him mainly out of jealousy. It’s not about race. It’s about what lies in every human heart.
God also knows firsthand what it is to love others. He loved others in Jesus his Son, when he sent him to us in the first place. Jesus voluntarily lay his life down for all humanity. He died a painful death, the innocent for the undeserving.
In the gun slaying, we saw a police officer who lay his life down for strangers. In the recent fires, and in every fire, we see firemen and other public servants laying their own lives down for people they haven’t met; they do this because these are human beings. Firefighters sometimes die. They know the dangers before they go out, yet they go out anyway. A huge thank you to all of these. “John 15:13 “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” (NKJ)
In this post, post-modern world we live in, it is time to get back to calling evil, evil. It is wrong to kill another human being out of jealousy or hatred for who they are or what they represent. Both vengeance and judgment belong to God alone.
In Psalm 17, the psalmist, whom I read as the prophetic voice of the incarnated God–by that I mean Jesus–this psalmist cries out to God for help from his enemies, who are extremely powerful and who have marked him for death. The fact of history is that Jesus did die. We might say, “He died anyway, even though he prayed for God’s help.” The other fact of history is that he rose from the dead. Notice Jesus’ faith in his resurrection in verse 15–
And I–in righteousness I will see your face; when I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness. (NIV)
One of the very best things about believing in Jesus as God’s anointed, his Son, is that his resurrection from death into life produces a resurrection from death into life for all who believe. Often we pray for a trial to go away or to not happen in the first place. Often it happens anyway–God alone knows why. Bottom line, there is a resurrection into life eternal. This life will end, and eternal life in Christ will last forever. God’s love has triumphed over all the evil this world and its people can possibly throw at us. Blessed are those who choose the side of love.
Psalm 17:1 A prayer of David. Hear, O LORD, my righteous plea; listen to my cry. Give ear to my prayer–it does not rise from deceitful lips.
2 May my vindication come from you; may your eyes see what is right.
3 Though you probe my heart and examine me at night, though you test me, you will find nothing; I have resolved that my mouth will not sin.
4 As for the deeds of men–by the word of your lips I have kept myself from the ways of the violent.
5 My steps have held to your paths; my feet have not slipped.
6 I call on you, O God, for you will answer me; give ear to me and hear my prayer.
7 Show the wonder of your great love, you who save by your right hand those who take refuge in you from their foes.
8 Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings
9 from the wicked who assail me, from my mortal enemies who surround me.
10 They close up their callous hearts, and their mouths speak with arrogance.
11 They have tracked me down, they now surround me, with eyes alert, to throw me to the ground.
12 They are like a lion hungry for prey, like a great lion crouching in cover.
13 Rise up, O LORD, confront them, bring them down; rescue me from the wicked by your sword.
14 O LORD, by your hand save me from such men, from men of this world whose reward is in this life. You still the hunger of those you cherish; their sons have plenty, and they store up wealth for their children.
15 And I–in righteousness I shall see your face; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with seeing your likeness. (NIV, 1984)
Drama from the Past
* God the Son endangered, the ropes of death ensnared him, squeezed his breath away. A tsunami of destruction crashed upon his head. He couldn’t breathe. Hell’s net pulled him tighter, under. Death held its vise-like grip. There was no way for him to escape. In gasping anguish he cried out loud; he called to his Father for help.
“Papa! Help me! Save me! Death must not win forever!”
God in his holy temple heard his Son’s voice; the pleading cry of desperation reached the Father’s ear. Though his Son lay buried, three days in the grave, Almighty Papa roared and pierced the sky to save.
The earth reeled and rocked; foundations of mountains trembled. The royal Papa’s anger shook, an earth-quaking gush of love. Smoke rose from his nostrils; devouring fire consumed, glowing coals of flame no dragon ever produced.
God bowed the heavens descending, thick darkness under his feet. He rode a cherub and flew swiftly on wings of wind. Almighty Papa in darkness cloaked, a canopy surrounds him. Thick clouds dark with water cover his form from view. Bursting through this darkness, his brightness once concealed, with flashes of fire and brimstone, his golden light breaks through. He thunders in the heavens, blasting out his voice, hailstones and coals announcing–Papa on the move.
Scattering forth his arrows, flashing out his lightnings, God routed the enemy, death…(and here the Son breaks in…)
“The channels of the sea you exposed, the foundations of the world laid bare. You rebuked them, O Lord, my Father, when your nostrils blasted your breath.”
“Did you see all this, my people? Were you watching? Did you see? When he came from on high and took me and pulled me from the waves? He rescued me from my strong enemy, from those who hated and surrounded. They were too mighty for me, confronting, that one single day. But he, the LORD my Papa came through. To this broad place he brought me. He heard my cry and rescued, because he delights in me.”
*This poem draws heavily from the English Standard Version of Psalm 18:4-19
Good and evil, life and death, pleasure and pain are a paradox as old as human history. Why are these opposites so intertwined, even in the fabric of existence itself? The Bible answers this question for those who will receive: God created good, while his enemy brought evil.
Psalm 13 reveals the heart cries of God’s Son incarnate , even as he falls victim to the inescapable paradox of humanity. It is a short psalm. Verses 1-4 present the bad and ugly of his seeming abandonment by God, while verses 5-6 present the equally real blessings of God’s faithful love.
1 To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David. How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
3 Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
4 lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,” lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
5 But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
6 I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me. (Psalm 13, ESV)
The life, death, resurrection, ascension, and reign of Christ perfectly exemplify the human paradox. Psalm 13 prophetically expresses the complete humanity of Jesus Christ, God’s anointed, as he lives and dies through this paradox. God the Father could never know experientially what Christ knew. It was necessary for him to send his Son in human flesh, living through the basic paradox all humans experience, so that he could perfectly represent them before God’s throne of grace. Jesus lived and died in suffering. He rose, ascended, and reigns in blessed triumph. What he did, all humanity can now do through him. Truly his sufferings lead us to life .
 These posts on Psalms presuppose that they are written about Christ and express his feelings and prayers during the time of his incarnation. For more information on this theme, consult this author’s Annotated Bibliography, https://onesmallvoice.net/2018/03/22/psalms-2-annotated-bibliography/. See also this author’s former series, Christ in the Psalms, https://onesmallvoice.net/2018/01/19/psalms-contents-second-go-round/.
 Other psalms written in the same pattern as Psalm 13 include Psalms 43, 73, and 143. Each of these displays the human paradox of pain and blessing combined.
Have you ever been stabbed in the back? Betrayed? Ratted on? The psalmist in 52 just has. This is his response.
Typical to Psalms, there are two groups of people in this one: the good and the evil. Within the framework of Psalms, who is good and who is evil? In Psalms God judges according to the intent of the heart. God is good; someone who follows God and wants to please him is good. A good person wants good for other people; he or she does not initiate harm. A wicked person, by contrast, hates God and opposes him in all he speaks, thinks, and does. A wicked person in Psalms plots and carries out harm toward others, especially toward the followers of God. (Just as the bad guys do in your favorite adventure movie, right?)
This principle is so important I want to repeat it. In Psalms, people are not judged as good or wicked according to whether or not they commit certain sins, but according to their allegiance. Everyone who pledges allegiance to God is called good, and everyone who pledges allegiance against God is called wicked. Enemies of God, those who willfully oppose him and oppose his principles, are wicked. Friends of God are good. Psalms paints people black or white. Unfortunately for us, there are no gray zones with God. His vision is sharp and clear–not fuzzy like ours. God knows who his friends are and who his enemies are, just as a shepherd knows which sheep are his and which are not.
Psalms are real life. Just as in our own experience, some people in Psalms pretend to be on God’s side by pretending to be on the side of God’s friends. But they lie. In their hearts, they are false friends who speak falsely and lead others down a wrong path. Often the deceit of these people is found out; they are discovered, and their duplicity becomes apparent by their actions that seek to harm someone who is good. Psalm 55:12-14 gives an example of this kind of person. A good person in Psalms always tells the truth, even when that truth means confessing his own sin. Psalm 51:1-17 is an example of a good person confessing his sin to God. Remember, a good person is someone who wants to please God. Good people do not become wicked people by sinning, but by betraying God. To betray God is to fully and finally join the enemy’s team. God is always kind and gracious to forgive everyone who asks him with a true heart. By the standard of Psalms, a good person may sin perpetually, but he or she also always wants to do better and to please God. Wicked people never truly want to please God; they hate him.
So with that as background, what about Psalm 52?
Though not necessary, a bit of history may help to understand this psalm. The superscription of verse 1 reads, “To the choirmaster. A Maskil of David, when Doeg, the Edomite, came and told Saul, “David has come to the house of Ahimelech.”
David, the servant of Saul the King, was running for his life from Saul, who had gone mad and wanted to kill him. Doeg was Saul’s chief shepherd (1 Samuel 21:7). David most likely knew Doeg, since David was also a shepherd. Ahimelech was an innocent priest who was unaware of the full situation between David and Saul. When David in his flight from Saul asked for food and a weapon, Ahimelech provided these, because he believed David’s lie that he was on a secret mission for the king. Doeg happened to see David at the priest’s tabernacle that day, and reported to Saul. Saul, not in his right mind, ordered his servants to kill Ahimelech and his whole household. When they refused, out of respect for the priesthood and knowing that Ahimelech had done no wrong, Saul ordered Doeg to do so. Doeg gladly slaughtered 85 innocent, unarmed priests, plus women, children, nursing infants, oxen, donkey, and sheep–all that lived in the nearby town of Nob, a city of priests. Patrick Reardon writes at length concerning Psalm 52 that Doeg was worse than Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus Christ. (Reardon, 101-102)
If Psalms were a play and I was the director, I would have the sole character in this scene pacing back and forth in barely contained fury and anxiety in order to reflect the back and forth movement between the poles of good and evil in the psalm. The psalmist is clearly angry when he speaks these words,
Why do you boast of evil, O mighty man? The steadfast love of God endures all the day. 2 Your tongue plots destruction, like a sharp razor, you worker of deceit. 3 You love evil more than good, and lying more than speaking what is right. Selah 4 You love all words that devour, O deceitful tongue. 5 But God will break you down forever; he will snatch and tear you from your tent; he will uproot you from the land of the living. (Psalm 52:1-5 ESV)
Notice in verse 1 the contrast between the evil man and the good God, whose “steadfast love…endures all the day.” Then again, after the diatribe against the wicked, the psalmist switches back to consider the fate of the good people in verse 6 which continues, “The righteous shall see and fear, and shall laugh at him, saying … ” Verse 7 takes us back to the fate of the wicked, as spoken by the righteous of verse 6, “See the man who would not make God his refuge, but trusted in the abundance of his riches and sought refuge in his own destruction!” Then the psalmist considers his own situation in verse 8, “But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever.”
Finally, the psalmist quits his pacing back and forth and settles his vision fully on God, where it fixedly remains as he speaks the final verse directly to God, “I will thank you forever, because you have done it. I will wait for your name, for it is good, in the presence of the godly.” (Psalm 52:9 ESV)
Prayer is like Psalm 52. In the spiritual battle of prayer, the human heart is torn between consideration of the painfully dangerous situation at hand and faith in the steadfast love of God that endures forever and works its goodness forever in perfect reflection of the eternal goodness of God. In prayer, our hearts and minds pace back and forth between the poles of the power of what is bad and the greater power of God, who is good. May we always, as the psalmist does, align our hearts fully and fixedly on the goodness of God, whose power and judgment win out in the end.
Psalm 52 is a highly passionate psalm, yet we don’t want to leave it without considering the technical aspect of how speech functions within its nine verses.
There is one actor throughout the psalm. Nevertheless, he speaks in more than one voice and variously addresses more than one audience.
- In verses 1-3, the sole actor speaks his words directly to the “mighty man.” He describes this evil man’s words, his tongue, and his heart. There is a pause at the end of this block, written as “Selah.”
- In verses 4-5 the same actor addresses the wicked man’s tongue, “4 You love all words that devour, O deceitful tongue. 5 But God will break you down forever; he will snatch and tear you from your tent; he will uproot you from the land of the living.” In verse 5, although the psalmist still appears to be addressing the tongue, it seems apparent that the tongue is a metaphor for the man as a whole. The technical words for this figure of speech are synechdoche (part for the whole) and personification (assigning personality to an object). A second Selah pause ends the address to the tongue.
- In verses 6-7, the addressee is not specified. The psalmist appears to be talking to the air, to himself, or perhaps to an invisible audience placed somewhere beyond the bounds of history and viewing its final outcomes, “The righteous shall see and fear, and shall laugh at him, saying…”
- In verse 7, the same actor quotes the words of the righteous, but again, the addressee to whom the righteous speak are not specified. The righteous do seem to be in a position of being able to know and see final outcomes.
- In verse 8, the psalmist appears to be speaking to himself, “But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever.”
- Finally, in verse 9, the psalmist addresses God directly, using the second person, “you,” “I will thank you forever, because you have done it. I will wait for your name, for it is good, in the presence of the godly. (ESV)
Why is this important?
Today’s readers can appreciate the content and passion of Psalm 52 without thinking much about the dialogue within it. Noticing the changes in speech and addressees, however, prepares the reader to encounter other psalms in which such changes clarify meanings of content that may be more obscure. Examples of such psalms are Psalm 110 and Psalm 118.
Well, folks, here it is.
Psalm 137:7 Remember, O LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. “Tear it down,” they cried, “tear it down to its foundations!”
8 O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us–
9 he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks. (NIB)
Yuk! Did you read that? And it’s right there in the middle of the Bible.
People deal with seemingly sanctioned biblical violence in different ways. Here are just a few.
- Skim over and ignore.
- This was a very long time ago in a different culture. At that time, the cultural norm was different than today. Things are changed now.
- God is sovereign. He judges whom and how he pleases.
- They were given their chance to repent.
- They earned it.
- The psalmist doesn’t represent the heart of God here.
Can you spot the common thread in all of the above responses? There’s one thing they all have in common. Waiting…waiting…Ok time’s up. All the above responses are defensive. If you are reading this, then most likely you are the sort of person who would try to defend, gloss over, or somehow explain away the presence in Scripture of this offensively violent vengeance. It does offend us. There’s no getting around that response. Believers feel they must explain and defend God for including these words right in the middle of the Bible. How uncomfortable. What a great spot for critics and skeptics to attack Christians, and they do. Because, in fact, these words challenge us in our gut.
So here’s my take on this at this point in my life: We read it because it’s here.
When I was still young in the Lord, but growing, I worshiped with a small congregation. The format of the services included songs, Scripture reading, and communion. Each of these was congregationally led. Some used to call it Spirit led. That is, there was no preplanned program for the day. There were no predetermined songs, readings, or specified time for communion. Someone would lead out and others would join in or listen as appropriate.
I used to enjoy reading from Scripture at these services. Psalms were often read by myself and others. Over time, I noticed that whenever I selected a psalm to read, I tended to select only portions of psalms. Many if not most of the psalms have a sentence or two of judgment and/or punishment concerning the “wicked” in them. Because I felt that our Sunday worship services were meant to be joyful, I only read the happy verses in Psalms. Eventually, the burden became too great. My own censorship piled up to an enormous height, so large that I could no longer bear it. The result was that in my personal devotions, I began reading all of Scripture. I quit censoring. I quit cutting out large segments because I could not deal with them.
My discovery? That God is a God of judgment. And not just in the Old Testament. Not just in the “old days” before Christ came. It’s often quoted that Jesus talked about hell more than anyone else in all of Scripture. “There men shall weep and gnash their teeth.” That’s the phrase that kept gnawing at my heart so miserably before I converted to Christ. It dug into me and ate my insides out like a worm. I hated that phrase. As an unbeliever in great need, I used to open my Bible as a desperate, frightened beggar lost in life. I hoped I would find comfort, but instead I repeatedly found, “There men shall weep and gnash their teeth.” And I would slam my Bible shut.
Eventually, my need for help won out, and I turned to the God of the Old Testament, confessing my need and total ignorance of him. Interesting…he didn’t meet me with condemnation. He met me with love, a strong love that continues to this day.
So what do we as believers in Jesus do with Psalm 137:7-9 and similar statements sprinkled like salt throughout Psalms? We read them and admit that they are there and that God intends those words to be there and that he hasn’t changed his mind, because God never changes.
Several decades ago, I realized that the God of creation is the same God who loves me. What a privilege and blessing that is! Think by name of all the evil dictators in the whole world over all time. God could have been like one of those. But he isn’t. When I think of God, I see his Son hanging on a cross to save the world. “If you have seen me,” Jesus said, “you have seen the Father.” I believe that God is both a God of judgment and a God of love. But what good does that love do you if you don’t know about it and haven’t received?
If you remove heat, you have cold. If you remove light, you have darkness. If you remove love, you have pain. If you remove mercy, you have judgment. So turn towards the heat, turn towards the light, turn towards love, and turn towards mercy. In short, turn towards God. He loves you.