Author Archives: Bryan Cribb
How does the old adage go? If you want a barometer for the spiritual health of a Christian, check his or her checkbook. Perhaps this is true. But let me propose another barometer, this time for the spiritual health of Western Christianity—the Amazon.com top-selling Christian books list. And its measurements are not encouraging.
This list’s array of Amish romance novels, mend-your-life manuals, and tales of heavenly-experiences present a picture of popular Christianity that is, well, shallow, superficial, and self-centered. One has to look far down the list to find any thoughtful, theological treatises. For better or worse, we, as believers, are what we read.
The books on the best-seller list that are most indicative of this dangerous narcissistic drift are the “how-to” volumes, dealing with the keys to the “blessed” Christian life—infamously telling you how to “your best life now.” Even those words betray the evident egoism and self-absorption so common in our culture.
Yet, when you look at the Scriptures, one finds a much more simplistic and selfless understanding of the key to “blessedness”—an understanding that is less focused on materialism and “under the sun” profit and one that perhaps doesn’t need book after book to address it.
The most well-known of these descriptions is found in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5—The Beatitudes. But another clear, though lesser-known set of “Beatitudes” is found in Psalms 1 and 2.
When you read these two psalms together (as they should be, since they provide a dual-introduction to the entire Psalter), you find that the two compositions are framed by a repetition of the word “blessing” (1:1 and 2:12). In other words, these psalms focus on blessing as the foremost theme.
Two questions emerge upon noticing this.
First, what does it mean to be “blessed”? And second, what is the means of receiving the “blessing”?
The word “blessed” in these psalms is often translated “happy,” which frankly is a poor translation, since in English, “happiness” is a feeling. For the Hebrews, blessedness is more a state. It is a state of being in a right relationship with God in covenant—that deep, committed, loving, redemptive relationship between God and his people. Just as the wisdom is something grounded in the fear of the Lord, blessedness is something grounded in right relationship with the Lord.
But how does one achieve/receive this right relationship?
Psalm 1 asserts that blessing comes not by living life (walking, standing, sitting) as those who consciously and constantly rebel against God and his precepts, but instead by consciously and constantly delighting in and meditating on Torah. For the Hebrew people, the path to right covenant relationship and covenant blessing must necessarily follow the way lighted by the Word of God (Joshua 1:8). Just as marital joy happens when spouses faithfully keep their vows to one another in covenantal love, so also the believer finds peace with God when, in response to his love, we love him by keeping his commandments (John 14:15).
Psalm 2 adds a second element to the equation. This messianic psalm begins with a statement about the kings of the earth raging futilely against God’s Anointed (2:1-2). And it closes by promising blessing to those who give homage to and take refuge in this messianic King (2:11-12). In other words, to have blessing found in right covenant relationship, one must submit to the Lord of the covenant relationship.
But one must remember that these psalms are not meant for merely individual consumption. And neither is God’s relationship with us in covenant meant to “happen” individually, as “Lone Ranger” Christians. Psalms 1 and 2 are corporate songs and communal confessions, and so biblical blessing is only achieved when a believer is in right fellowship with fellow believers. Such a community—where members of the Body sacrifice for each other, love each other, encourage each other—presents a ready remedy against the secular self-love saturating our society.
So, believers should not ultimately look to popular books for the blueprint for blessing. Instead, they should meditate and delight in one Book in particular. They should submit desires, hopes, and happiness to their benevolent new covenant Lord. And they should do each of these while in fellowship with other Christians in a local church community.
If they do this, they will “be like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers” (Psalm 1:3).
I don’t believe any little boy could emerge from the 1970s and 80s without being a certified stargazer. Star Wars, Battlestar Gallactica, Star Blazers, and Buck Rogers filled our collective childhood imaginations with speeding spaceships and epic interstellar battles, tapping into our innate desire for galactic gallantry and space swashbucklery. Even today, on clear nights outside, I still find myself wondering and wandering about the heavens, posing on my porch like that iconic Star Wars image of Luke Skywalker gazing wistfully at the twin setting suns of Tatooine.
So when I came across a recent Hubble image published by NASA and reported by QZ.com, I couldn’t help but be drawn to it as if caught in some Death Star tractor beam—being transported back in time to galaxies far away and childhood adventures rapidly fading into memory.
The remarkable picture of the Andromeda galaxy—at some 1.5 billion pixels—is hailed as the most detailed space image ever and provides a partial glimpse into the vastness of one of the Milky Way’s nearest neighbors. Incredibly, as you zoom in on the picture, the 100 million visible stars become clustered and dense as sand, perhaps giving new meaning to God’s promises to Abraham in Genesis 15. And this is just one of billions of galaxies!
Admittedly, the immediate and human reaction to such immensity is an overwhelming feeling of “smallness.” As the QZ article states, “The vastness of space is so expansive, so inconceivable, that frankly, it makes humanity’s lot in the universe seem pretty tiny and pointless.” Similarly, secularist author and scientist Carl Sagan once wrote, “As long as there have been humans we have searched for our place in the cosmos. Where are we? Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.”
However, for Christians, our perception and vision of the vastness is, well, different. For me, the best text in the Bible through which to filter such feelings is Psalm 8.
What I love about this psalm of David is its perspective. David doesn’t just leave the created world to one’s imagination, but he interprets it and gives it meaning and purpose. We are also able to trace out some of David’s own thought patterns—some 3000 years after the fact.
Reading the Psalm, we note first that David too was struck by the “big” of creation and the “small” of humanity. No doubt, when David looked up at the thousands of visible stars from the Palestinian countryside, he had to marvel at the wonder of the universe. Indeed, how could David not note the stark contrast between the vast star-filled heavens and a ruddy, shepherd boy turned king?
In Psalm 8, he asks the rhetorical question, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (vv. 3-4). The two terms used for “man” (not adam, but enosh) here denote weakness and frailty and mortality. David knew his relative significance.
Then an amazing thing happens. As David goes to his knees, in prostrate humility before God, he begins meditating on the Word of God.
And here is the key to the entire text and the entire dilemma of our “smallness” in light of creation: David interprets general revelation (creation) through the lens of special revelation (Scripture).
First, in verse 4, David remembered about how the God who creates is also the God who “remembered” (or “was mindful of” in the ESV) His people.
God had “remembered” the Israelites while they were in bondage in Egypt. God had “remembered” the promises to the Patriarchs. God had “remembered” His commitment to His covenant.
Then David began to meditate on how God “visited” (or “cared for” in the ESV) His people.
This term comes straight out of the Exodus account. And any Hebrew reader would immediately think of how God had delivered His people out of slavery.
So David is thinking, “Here is a God so much more sovereign than us, so much more transcendent and holy, so much more ‘other,’ and yet He is a God who has condescended to know us and love us and involve Himself in our lives in a salvific manner.”
Then at this point in the psalm, David’s mind drifts back to the beginning of the biblical story—to creation itself.
He writes, “Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings, and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.”
The reference here in Psalm 8 is clearly to Genesis 1:26-31. David thinks, “Not only has God saved us, He has given us a role to play. He has created us with a special dignity and crucial role to play in His creation.” In both Genesis 1 and in Psalm 8, the Bible describes humans as being made by God Himself with special nobility and having a special status (as imagebearers).
The imageness talked about in both passages has to do with rule and rank. God gave us to be His vice-regents in creation. His princes and princesses, if you will. God gave humanity the needed qualities to govern creation on His behalf as if He were physically present. In this regard the Israelites’ view of status was starkly different compared to that of their ancient Near Eastern neighbors, who reserved the status of “image of divinity” for kings/priests. The Bible democratizes “imageness.”
Finally, all of these thoughts lead David back to his initial thought—“O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.”
One thing even a casual reader will notice about this psalm is its clear structure. It begins and ends with the same idea—a Hebrew poetic technique called “inclusio,” but what I will call “bookends.” And if you begin and end with the same theme, it should tell you all you need to know about the theme of the middle.
What then is the theme of this psalm? What is David wanting us to see in all of this psalm and in all of his musing? What reaction should God’s people have in the face of the vastness of creation? Praising the majestic name of God in creation.
In other words, God does not do these things (visitation, remembrance, bestowal of imageness) for us so that we might be praised. We do not experience the unexpected grace of God for our own glory. He does it so that He might be glorified.
So, as you gaze up at the heavens tonight, or as you look at these Hubble images, think of His creation of trillions of stars. Also think of God’s visitation of you, His remembrance of you, His giving you the status of imagebearer. But ultimately may your passions be engaged to praise Him who displayed His splendor in the heavens.