Psalm 40 and the normal Christian life

What if we were to try to see the Psalms as a description of what Watchman Nee called “the normal Christian life”? Psalm 40, for example.

I. Followers of the Lord have their own story of deliverance. They were goners but God saved them. They sing for joy. They are quite open about letting others see what has happened to them. In consequence others are also drawn to put their trust in the Lord.

I waited patiently for the LORD;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the LORD.

II. The other path—the path of not trusting in the Lord—is the path of following the Proud People and the Liars. Why is it always pride and lying? Why do these two things go together so consistently? What makes them archetypal human evils, the sure tickets to doom? But for those who trust the Lord, the deliverance never stops happening. And those who experience it are not merely open about letting others see: they never stop talking about it.

Blessed is the man who makes
the LORD his trust,
who does not turn to the proud,
to those who go astray after a lie!
You have multiplied, O LORD my God,
your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us;
none can compare with you!
I will proclaim and tell of them,
yet they are more than can be told.

III. Followers of the Lord understand that their religious practices have no intrinsic value. God ordains them, and God’s followers practice them, but their value lies not in the external acts—going to church, singing and kneeling and rising, saying the right things at the right time. No. These specifically religious acts are like putting an animal on the altar. Followers of the Lord know that they are to be followers of Jesus: putting their own lives on the altar. (When the writer of Hebrews imagines Jesus uttering these words [10:5], the enigmatic “you have given me an ear” becomes “you have prepared for me a body”—a body to be sacrificed on the altar.) With that understanding in place, the church-going and so on are wonderful. But if Christians are following after pride and lying, the Lord is not delighted with their church-going and singing and praise-the-Lording.

In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted,
but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt offering and sin offering
you have not required.
Then I said, “Behold, I have come;
in the scroll of the book it is written of me:
I delight to do your will, O my God;
your law is within my heart.”

IV. Followers of the Lord do not settle into accusing and condemning others. Their observations of what does not delight the Lord have implications that others should heed, but they are themselves compelled—they can’t help it—they keep telling about the great things God has done for them. To do otherwise would feel like hiding something! They speak out. And when they do, it is clear that they aren’t tooting their own horn. Hearers don’t hear them talking about themselves; what they hear, what they will remember, is the steadfast love and faithfulness of the Lord.

I have told the glad news of deliverance
in the great congregation;
behold, I have not restrained my lips,
as you know, O LORD.
I have not hidden your deliverance within my heart;
I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness
from the great congregation.

V. The reason why the Lord’s deliverance never stops happening is that it never stops being needed. Followers of the Lord don’t only tell others of the Lord’s faithfulness; they tell the Lord. They sometimes feel that the Lord needs reminding! Or are they reminding themselves? It is both at the same time. Again, again, again, they find themselves overwhelmed by adverse external circumstances—and also by their own bad choices, their own lapses in wisdom and goodness. Here is what authenticates their clarity of vision in perceiving the evils surrounding them: that same clarity of vision enables them also to see and confess the evil oozing out from their own heart.

As for you, O LORD, you will not restrain
your mercy from me;
your steadfast love and your faithfulness will
ever preserve me!
For evils have encompassed me
beyond number;
my iniquities have overtaken me,
and I cannot see;
they are more than the hairs of my head;
my heart fails me.

VI. Does this self-accusation seem too high-minded? Does it look fake? You know it is not fake but heartfelt because the same transparency that enables the followers of the Lord to admit their own failings enables them also to be open about hoping for disappointment and shame for the evildoers who are out to get them. The saints are vividly aware of their enemies’ taunting, and they hope it boomerangs on them.

Be pleased, O LORD, to deliver me!
O LORD, make haste to help me!
Let those be put to shame and disappointed altogether
who seek to snatch away my life;
let those be turned back and brought to dishonor
who delight in my hurt!
Let those be appalled because of their shame
who say to me, “Aha, Aha!”

VII. But vindictiveness is not what they are about. That moment passes. Even in that moment when they are hoping for the downfall of the wicked they are seeing beyond, to the the restoration of their own normal state, which is not complaining about others but rejoicing and being glad in the Lord. Their normal state is not the health and wealth of the self-satisfied. It is the gratitude of those who know that in themselves they are poor and needy—but the Lord, their deliverer, has never yet forgotten them and will certainly not forget them now.

But may all who seek you
rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who love your salvation
say continually, “Great is the LORD!”
As for me, I am poor and needy,
but the Lord takes thought for me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
do not delay, O my God!

(Psalm 40 is quoted here in the English Standard Version.)

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