To celebrate Easter when Jesus Christ defeated sin and death, I offer the great contemporary hymn by John Mark McMillan, “Death In His Grave.”
The following is the first essay from my new eBook on the Kindle format, Delivered from All My Fears: Devotional Readings on Psalm 34.
The stories, prayers, and poetry in the Bible overflow with the theme of salvation. God lifts people out of danger and oppression and transports them to safety and freedom. God brings people home from exile. God forgives sin and sets people on a new path. We love these stories because we long to see salvation brought into more areas of our lives and our world. We have also experienced similar deliverance and can relate to the need to express gratitude to God. While the Bible describes salvation in exceptionally beautiful terms and we know its sweetness, we cannot neglect the dark side of salvation, the fact that there is some evil or injustice from which we need to be saved. In the Bible, the thanks to God for salvation never comes easy—it is hard-won, emerging from a place where defeat and death seemed assured.
This little guide will help you prayerfully read through Psalm 34 in twenty-two days. The people of Israel and the Church have used the Book of Psalms as their prayer guide and hymnal throughout history. The Psalms have much to teach us about prayer if we simply slowed down and allowed their poetry to usher us into a world that deals directly with the joys and sorrows of life as well as the God who is immediately available.
There are psalms that praise God when life is good and ordered (e.g., Psalm 1). Then there are psalms—laments—that cry out to God when things go wrong (e.g., Psalm 88). There are also psalms that thank God for deliverance from evil or harm. These thanksgiving psalms do not deny the tragedies, losses, and disappointments of life. They follow lament, but only after the speaker has been rescued. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann calls these Psalms of thanksgiving or testimony, “Psalms of new orientation.” I like the term “new orientation” because deliverance does not necessarily return the world to what it once was—the loss and pain still happened. Instead, God reaches into the pain and establishes something original, creating an altogether new order in which that pain is redeemed, not eliminated. Psalm 34 is one of those psalms of new orientation. It is an incredibly powerful and beautiful psalm born out of an experience of deep terror and magnificent rescue. Yahweh serves as the hero and delivers the psalmist from fear and trouble. Psalm 34 does not deny the reality of terror. Rather, it vividly recalls the fear the writer felt and praises a God who rescues people.
As you read and pray, bring your whole life forward. Bring your memories and plans, your doubts and certainties, your fears and hopes, your losses and victories, your questions and conclusions. Like the writer of Psalm 34, place them before God with honesty. If you have been rescued from trouble, let thanksgiving flow. If you long for the ability to thank God again you could prayerfully allow Psalm 34 to shape your desires, or perhaps it would be more helpful to spend time with a psalm of lament. The Psalms invite us to be real before God. So come, pray with God’s people, giving praise to the God who saves us from fear and trouble.
 Walter Brueggemann, “Psalms and the Life of Faith: A Suggested Typology of Function,” in The Psalms and the Life of Faith, ed. Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 13ff.
Eddy Ekmekji has written a terrific eBook for spiritual growth, Because God is Great: an Effective Model for Christian Living and Maturity. The book follows the movements found in the story of Psalm 48—pondering, witnessing, and proclaiming—which Eddy argues are the movements disciples of Jesus Christ are to make as they grow in their faith. Because God is Great is a wonderful gift to the body of Christ in that it gives us a rich exploration of a psalm as well as twenty-five practical exercises that will stretch readers and foster their spiritual growth.
I should admit Eddy is a very good friend of mine and one of my favorite people in the world. We have been friends for over fifteen years. I admit I am biased. I do not believe my bias, however, is unfounded. I know first hand how deeply Eddy takes his commitment to serving God and others. He truly wants to see people grow in Jesus Christ, especially the college students he ministers to as an InterVarsity staff worker. Because God is Great comes from Eddy’s firm belief that a life spent with and devoted to God is the fullest expression of what it means to be human.
Now for the nuts and bolts of the review. Because God is Great is broken into five main chapters. The first is a brief overview of Psalm 48—the book includes a more thorough commentary as an appendix. This overview grounds the reader in the psalm. I admire Eddy’s creativity in picking a psalm that is not well known. Because God is Great displays how God speaks through any piece of Scripture, and not just the greatest hits like Psalm 23 or John 3.16. Choosing a lesser-known psalm is also a shrewd choice because readers will not likely have heard many sermons or have done many Bible studies on it. It comes to us as a fresh piece of Scripture, with little baggage.
For the next three chapters Eddy follows the movements of the psalm. In the first movement the psalmist ponders God’s steadfast love and the majesty of the Temple in Jerusalem. Readers are called to reflect and ponder their experience of God’s love and greatness.
The next movement is to witness. Eddy tells us that witnessing is both passive and active. We watch something happen or someone else work, but to pay attention requires effort on our part. So often we go through life unaware. The psalmist calls us to open our eyes and pay attention. This is the work of the explorer who walks around the city of Jerusalem and sees firsthand the walls, towers, and Temple.
The final movement is to proclaim. After pondering God’s love, after witnessing God’s purposes, we are to tell others about God’s character and works. Through proclaiming to others, faith is passed on and strengthened. We are not only to proclaim to others, but to ourselves as well. Reminding ourselves of God’s greatness is a fascinating idea and absolutely necessary in a world where many voices tell us that God is not real, and following Jesus is foolish, if not dangerous to humanity.
In the last chapter of the book Eddy provides a thoughtful discussion of what a life looks like following all three movements as well as what a life would look like if it only follows one or two of the movements. Without all three, we do not truly grow into the people God wants us to be. I am most comfortable with pondering—sitting and just thinking about life and God comes pretty easily to me, hence this blog. Witnessing is a bit more challenging because it is easier for me to read a book about God’s faithfulness than to look for signs of that faithfulness in my life. The most difficult challenging movement for me, however, is to proclaim. The exercises Eddy suggests here, such as actually going out and telling people about God’s greatness got my pulse racing. This may sound odd for someone who has served as a pastor and who has a public blog, I know, but the kind of evangelism Eddy advocates requires a conversation. I get to control where a sermon or a blog post goes. Conversations are altogether different.
Eddy includes exercises at the end of each chapter. These twenty-five disciplines are extremely helpful. I used Because God is Great as a devotional guide over a season, but I made the mistake of trying to do all the exercises at the end of a chapter at once. There is a great variety of exercises that will fit or stretch different personalities. I would encourage people to go through the book and pick one or two exercises at the end of each chapter that most easily resonates with them. Then, at a later time, return to the book and choose an exercise that is the most challenging. One of the great strengths of Because God is Great is it encourages doing the exercises in community, for the purposes of encouragement and accountability. I am glad it includes the Ignatian prayer of examen in the exercises as this one practice requires pondering, witnessing, and proclamation, especially if done with others.
The appendices include a more complete commentary on Psalm 48, a guide to help readers write their own psalm of praise, and a group Bible study. This book is a terrific personal guide, but it would be especially rewarding to explore the psalm and do the exercises in community with others.
A couple of years ago I wrote about my need for prayer guides. For most of my life I had this ideal picture of what it means to be a prayerful person as someone who sits and talks to God for long periods. But that picture has never really manifested itself in my life. I have found great help in podcasts that lead people to pray, praying with others, and books of prayers. I wrote Delivered from All My Fears: Devotional Readings on Psalm 34 to be one of those aids to help people pray.
Years ago I was challenged by Eugene Peterson’s book, Working the Angles to look to the Psalms to learn to pray. Peterson argues that until the 19th century the people of God learned to pray through the Psalms. They were the original prayer guides, and are still the best, covering virtually all human emotions and expressing all types of speech to God. Peterson reiterates an oft-cited paraphrase of the 4th century theologian, Athanasius: “most of Scripture speaks to us; the Psalms speak for us.” (55)
A fuller quotation from Athanasius is worth considering. The notion of the Psalms speaking for us comes from his Letter to Marcellinus, which is the first known Christian writing on the Psalms. Note, the language might sound a bit archaic, but the ideas are wonderful and beautifully expressed.
And, among all the books, the Psalter has certainly a very special grace, a choiceness of quality well worthy to be pondered; for, besides the characteristics which it shares with others, it has this peculiar marvel of its own, that within it are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul. It is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed and, seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given. Elsewhere in the Bible you read only that the Law commands this or that to be done, you listen to the Prophets to learn about the Saviour’s coming or you turn to the historical books to learn the doings of the kings and holy men; but in the Psalter, besides all these things, you learn. about yourself You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries. Moreover, whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you do not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill….
And herein is yet another strange thing about the Psalms. In the other books of Scripture we read or hear the words of holy men as belonging only to those who spoke them, not at all as though they were our own; and in the same way the doings there narrated are to us material for wonder and examples to be followed, but not in any sense things we have done ourselves. With this book, however, though one does read the prophecies about the Saviour in that way, with reverence and with awe, in the case of all the other Psalms it is as though it were one’s own words that one read; and any one who hears them is moved at heart, as though they voiced for him his deepest thoughts.
I have ventured into the world of self-publishing with a short guide, Delivered from All My Fears: Devotional Readings on Psalm 34. The eBook takes readers on a twenty-two day journey through Psalm 34, a powerful poem-song of fear, terror, and ultimately incredible rescue. Each day’s exercise involves reading the psalm in its entirety, meditating on one verse, and pondering questions for reflection and prayer. Many people will be familiar with verse 34.8a: “O taste and see that the LORD is good.” In my own time spent in Psalm 34, I discovered that proclamation contains much greater power when seen in the context of the whole psalm, which thanks God for deliverance when defeat seemed assured.
Along with the daily readings and reflections, Delivered from All My Fears also contains brief essays that explore the role of thanksgiving in the Psalms, explain the method of devotional reading I advocate and how it differs from other important ways of reading the Bible, and recount my story of learning to delight in God again, partly because of Psalm 34. An appendix at the end of the guide describes some of the textual, cultural, and historical details of the psalm, while maintaining a devotional posture toward the Scripture.
Delivered from All My Fears is available at Amazon.com for $1.99 on the Kindle format. A free preview is available on the product page. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can still purchase and read the guide by downloading the free reader app that works on smart phones, tablets, PC’s, and Macs.