How to Read Psalm 119

October 28, 2011

To be a Bible reader is to read poetry. Someone has estimated that sixty percent of the Old Testament is in poetic form. Poetry also occurs in the New Testament. The basic marker of Hebrew poetry is parallelism. The two parallel lines will say the same thing in different words, or say contrasting things, or sometimes the second line will build on the first.

The longest poem in Psalms is Psalm 119. I have to admit in the early days of my Bible reading I would feel a little dread of Psalm 119. It is so long! It is twenty-two stanzas and 176 verses long. Even then, it was easy to recognize some high points in the psalm:

How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. Psalm 119:9, ESV

I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Psalm 119:11, ESV

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. Psalm 119:105, ESV

Yet 176 lines is a long way to go for a few choice nuggets. I recognized some familiar trees, but I didn’t have a sense of the beauty of the entire forest.

I wasn’t alone. Some unkind things have been said about the psalm by commentators through the years. Some have felt that the poem is disjointed. Yet to be a Bible reader is to read and to read again. In time, I’ve come to appreciate the psalm as a whole and to see its beauty.

Psalm 119 is a tightly structured poem. It is an acrostic poem. The twenty-two stanzas of the poem are usually marked in English with each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Hebrew has only twenty-two letters in its alphabet. That means that each of the eight lines in the stanza begin with that letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Eight lines beginning with the same letter and a stanza for each letter of the alphabet is a challenging task. The poem uses the word law (Hebrew torah which also means instruction) and seven synonyms for law. Likely the reason for 8 lines per stanza is the fact that the psalm uses 8 words for law. One of these 8 words for law occurs in every line except four, but in five lines of the poem a synonym for law occurs twice.

What helped my reading of this psalm? Read through the psalm and look for the circumstances of the psalmist. Read through the psalm and look for the petitions of the psalmist. Read through the psalm and look for the things he says about law or instruction and its benefits. Read through the psalm and look for praise of God. Do this and I think your appreciation for the psalm will grow. You will see its lament, wisdom, and praise. You will see how the whole psalm fits together in a wonderful way.

Is Mormonism a Cult?

October 22, 2011

I have no interest in the political aspects of this question, and I have no political recommendations for you. I’m interested in the question because I’m fascinated by words and by the media’s inadequacy in dealing with religious questions.

The problem with the question is that the word “cult” has several meanings. I can think of a number of different usages, but only two are germane to the current question. The popular meaning of cult today is a religious group often with a charismatic leader who is authoritarian and uses mind control techniques on his followers. Think Jim Jones and the mass suicide of his followers in Guyana or David Koresh and the Branch Davidians who died in Waco. Is Mormonism a cult in this sense? I think the answer is no.

But there is another definition that is relevant. The late Anthony Hoekema, a former Calvin College professor, wrote a book called The Four Major Cults. The four are Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, and Seventh Day Adventism. He had a very specialized meaning of cult in mind. His definition is that which is unorthodox and breaks with historic Christianity.1 The World Christian Encyclopedia is a social science reference book that attempts to classify all Christian denominations, but they break all of them down into six major groupings. One group is “marginal,” and that is where Mormonism is placed. Why marginal? Again, it is because of their break with historic Christian beliefs.

How different is it? Latayne C. Scott is a convert from Mormonism. Her book, The Mormon Mirage, was published 32 years ago by Zondervan and is still in print. When asked whether Mormonism is Christian, she answers with a series of questions.

Do you believe that God the father was once a man and grew to adulthood on another earth and achieved godhood? Do you believe you can become a god or goddess? Do you believe that the Bible is so flawed and in error that it gives Satan power over people who read and believe it? Do you believe that Jesus didn’t keep his promise to protect his church against the gates of hell?2

Mormonism does not believe in God as trinity, but rather the Father Son, and Holy Spirit are three gods. Doctrines and Covenants teaches that the Father has a body of flesh and blood (130:22). Human beings have the potential of becoming a god. Mormons have a wonderful emphasis on family and a notable missionary zeal, but they frequently use Bible terms with entirely different meanings. Are they a cult in the sense that they break with historic Christian teaching? The answer is yes.

1Anthony Hoekema, The Four Major Cults, p. 374


Being Punctual

October 12, 2011

I will confess at the outset that I like to be on time, which for me usually means being early. So this amounts to my rant on a pet peeve. Being punctual means we adhere to arriving at the appointed time when we keep social engagements. It is closely related to etiquette and good manners. When I arrive on time, I’m indicating that I value the social relationship, and I value other people’s time.

Recently, I officiated at a wedding. The experience of this wedding is typical for today. People were arriving late — after the processional had started. People were arriving and entering as the bride was coming down the aisle. People were arriving and entering late after the ceremony had started.

These modern wedding goers might have a hard time understanding the parable of wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). In Jesus’ story, once the bridegroom arrived and the guests had entered, the door was shut. When the foolish virgins arrived, they did not gain entrance, but were told by the bridegroom, “I do not know you.”

But there are etiquette expectations even in modern times for weddings. You can google it for the answer. The expectation is that a guest will arrive fifteen minutes prior to the wedding time. You will need time to sign a guest register, and the seating may be ushered. All of this takes a few minutes, and with the crush of guests arriving, the time is needed.

But problems with being punctual are not just issues with weddings. I’ve seen funeral home directors also fret with attempting to start a funeral on time as they watch a number of cars pull into the parking lot late. People may not realize that funerals involve the scheduling of a number of things (fellowship time after the funeral and coordination with the workers at the cemetery for the grave side service and interment), and that the funeral home director may have more than one funeral that day.

I also have the same concerns for being punctual for church gatherings. (I do recognize that Wednesday nights are a bit of exception, because we have people rushing home from work and attempting to make it for our time together. Not everyone’s schedule is exactly the same.) I’m concerned about the message we convey to students in classes and visitors to our assemblies when so many people are late. It is especially important for teachers to be in the classrooms to greet students. If you have a special function or are a church leader, it is good to be early, so that guests and members can be greeted.

It is frustrating to teachers to have students coming in 10 to 20 minutes late. Now obviously, we would rather the student come than not come, but I don’t think we would tolerate this kind of tardiness in our students secular education. In our faith, we claim that the eternal is greater than the temporal. Are we living out that commitment, or are we demonstrating carelessness?

When we start talking about punctuality, someone will often bring up the fact that Christians in third world countries don’t worry about the time so much. In other words, punctuality is just so much cultural baggage that maybe we should jettison it too.

Yet most moderns only want to partially jettison the cultural baggage of punctuality. They still want events to end on time. In the third world situation, the start time may be fluid, but they usually spend a long time together when they assemble. The end time isn’t as important to them either.

I think there is a case for punctuality for us. We live with careful time keeping and most of us are not far from a watch or clock. We live with calendars and even appointment alarms on our smartphones. We live with busy schedules. Most of us receive rewards or punishments for being on time or late for things like work or school. So punctuality is something that we practice for at least certain events in our life.

Being punctual is a way of communicating to others that we value the time of everyone involved in a social activity. Being punctual communicates that we value the social engagement that has been scheduled.

Why Be Baptized?

October 7, 2011

The practice of baptism in the New Testament is immersion in water, but why be baptized? Some view baptism as a mere symbol of something that has already taken place in a person’s life. In other words, a person becomes a Christian, and then he or she is baptized. Baptism, then, is non-essential to becoming a Christian. Others view baptism as the place where God has promised to give the benefits of salvation. Which view fits the teaching of the New Testament?

  • Mark 16:15-16. Both “believes” and “is baptized” are linked with “will be saved.” Some object to the linkage because of the phrase “whoever does not believe will be condemned” doesn’t mention baptism. But no one is arguing for baptizing the unbelieving. Without faith no one is scripturally baptized.
  • Acts 2:38. In this passage “repent” and “be baptized” are linked with “for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Forgiveness and regeneration are reasons for baptism.
  • Acts 22:16. “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (ESV). Baptism is said to be the place where sins are washed away. Baptism is also linked to one’s confession or appeal to God. The phrase “calling on his name” is an allusion to Joel 2:32.
  • Romans 6:3-5. Baptism unites us to Christ and to his death. After being raised from the waters of baptism, we have the blessing that “we too might walk in newness of life” (ESV). This last phrase also links baptism to regeneration.
  • 1 Corinthians 12:13. “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free- and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (ESV). Baptism unites us to the church, the body of Christ. Note again that baptism is linked with regeneration—“to drink of one Spirit.”
  • Galatians 3:27 “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (ESV). It is in baptism that we put on Christ.
  • 1 Peter 3:21 “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (ESV). Baptism saves. Peter is clear. The reason baptism saves is because of what Christ has done for us.

Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) is responsible for the Reformed doctrine of baptism, which views baptism as a mere symbol. He argued that no physical act could have a spiritual effect. The problem with such an argument can be seen in one simple question. What about the crucifixion? Zwingli was influenced by a philosophical dualism that does not have its roots in the Bible. Although baptism has symbolism (death, burial, and resurrection), the New Testament teaches that something real and spiritual takes place at baptism.

Why be baptized? Forgiveness of sins. Salvation. Regeneration. Union with Christ. Putting on Christ. Union with the body of Christ.