The Road Back: Psalms of the Sons of Korah, Be Still and Know

Psalm 46 contains one of my favourite verses for meditation: “Be still and know that I am God.” (verse 10) It also contains a verse that, as a lover of nature, troubles me. “Come behold the works of the Lord, how he has wrought the desolations in the earth.” (verse 8 NIV)

I’ve seen what happens when a mountain crumbles. I’ve driven past Turtle Mountain in the Crowsnest Pass many times. The remaining mountain, standing there by the highway like a badly chipped giant tooth, has been carefully observed for movement since The Slide that destroyed the town of Frank in 1903. I don’t want to be on that road if another chunk comes down.

Translators have had a problem with this verse. The Hebrew word causing the problem is transliterated ‘shammah.’ Comparing translations, it can read: Come and see the desolations, or devastation, awesome works, amazing things, ruins, marvels of God, horrific events, wasteland, places he destroyed, breath-taking wonders… and that’s only in English. Jeremiah used shammah a lot to describe what he foresaw coming to Israel and Judah if they didn’t listen and make a course correction. It wasn’t good for them. “Shock and awe” might be an apt modern paraphrase. And yet, God sent many of his own to plead with the people to change because they were on a dangerous path of self-destruction.

I had a dream. I was in a huge banqueting hall where people had filled their plates with the kind of delicacies we see in advertisements for the finest in cruise cuisine. There was so much fine food that people were skipping nutritious food, taking one bite of each rich pastry and throwing the rest in the garbage. While in the hall, I received a phone call from someone who I knew heard God’s voice more clearly than I did. To make this short, I was arguing with him over the placement of a book in the Bible. Suddenly I heard a very loud gunshot over the phone. It stunned me into silence. I dropped everything and ran to this man’s house expecting to find him dead. He wasn’t. He was sitting in the kitchen. A shotgun leaned against a cupboard.

“You did that!” I exclaimed. “You shot off a gun in my ear. I was in shock! My ears are still ringing! Why would you do something like that?”

“Got your attention, didn’t it? Now are you ready to stop arguing and listen?” he said.

God got my attention too. (The rest of the dream can be found in “Esther in Ephesians” here.)

When I think about it, I remember walking my young son to school. His younger siblings and a couple of other children I was caring for came along, of course. Suddenly our younger son stepped off the sidewalk in pursuit of some distraction. Usually there was no traffic on that road, and he was careful to stay beside me with a hand on the baby carriage, but this time he stepped out on the road just as a vehicle came up behind us. I yanked his arm hard to get him out of danger. I hurt him. He cried, but he was on a dangerous path that could have killed him. A good parent takes that risk when they need a child to pay attention immediately. That was the moment when I realized recurring ear infections left him unable to hear properly and he needed an ear specialist in a bigger city. I went home and made appointments. He now listens for a living.

Recognizing this psalm is about acts of God in the context of national and international conflicts and terrifying battles, changes the way I see it. That it was written by the clan of Korah (identified with one of the most terrifying responses to rebellion in the history of the Children of Israel) means “Be still and know that I am God” (verse10) is not merely a nice platitude. It comes in the middle of a poetic song that remembers that if he needs to, God will open the earth, crumble mountains, make a whip and toss tables, or yank your arm so hard he could dislocate your shoulder to save you from a destructive path if he has to.

But there is another way. I see the assurances when we respond too. He is our help and refuge in trouble. There is no reason to fear (and doesn’t fear provoke us to make some crazy decisions?). There is a river of gladness where God dwells. His voice is greater than the gathered nations’ might. He is the one who stops wars –however he chooses to do it.

In this current time of upheaval, the message of Psalm 46 is vital. It says essentially, let God be God. It may not look like he is coming to straighten things out, but he is –in his time. If you try to usurp his place and take on the role of God yourself, doing things your own way in your own limited wisdom, you are only going to mess up on some essential foundational truths.

Be still. Listen. Stop striving and you will know deeply and intimately who God is.

God is our refuge and strength,
    an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
    and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
    and the mountains quake with their surging.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
    God will help her at break of day.
Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
    he lifts his voice, the earth melts.

The Lord Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Come and see what the Lord has done,
    the desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease
    to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.


He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.”

The Lord Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.

A song needs a singer. I love Marty Goetz’ version of Psalm 46.

The Road Back: Psalms of the Sons of Korah, Psalm 44

The road back from rebellion requires courage – emotional courage.

A child can exclaim, “I did it all by myself!” and we are proud of her. But now a lot of us who once exclaimed with pride, “I did it my way!” mumble and limp as regret pulls at our steps and turns us around.

In experimenting with ways other than God’s to sooth our pain and anxiety we have simply discovered alternate methods that work splendidly for a while. Then we realize that our thoughts and actions do affect others, especially the next generation.

In Psalm 44, the Sons of Korah remember the stories they were told of the great days of old. They recognize that those great victories were not just lucky breaks. They were God’s doing.

It was not by their sword that they won the land,
    nor did their arm bring them victory;
it was your right hand, your arm,
    and the light of your face, for you loved them.

You are my King and my God,
    who decrees victories for Jacob.

Through you we push back our enemies;
    through your name we trample our foes.
I put no trust in my bow,
    my sword does not bring me victory;
but you give us victory over our enemies,
    you put our adversaries to shame.
In God we make our boast all day long,
    and we will praise your name forever.
(Psalm 44:3-8 NASB)

But it’s complicated. Most of the rest of the Psalm is a cry for understanding. Why would God do this? Here we had things figured out and now he takes us into circumstances where the formulas of the old agreement don’t seem to hold up. The deal was this: we follow the rules and you, God, favour us and give us victory in everything. What are you doing? Where are you?

They protest their innocence:

All this came upon us,
    though we had not forgotten you;
    we had not been false to your covenant.
Our hearts had not turned back;
    our feet had not strayed from your path.
But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals;
    you covered us over with deep darkness.
(verses 17-19)

What if this is more than a trading relationship? What if God wants us to wrestle with him? What if the only way to go deeper into understanding his heart is to expose ours even if it means beating on his chest in frustration? What if the victory he wants us to experience is not just victory over our rivals, but victory over the enemy whose every moment is absorbed with schemes and distractions to keep us from our Creator — and the consequences of our choices to follow him. What if real victory requires real accounting and expression of real pain without defensiveness? What if God wants to root out the lies that separated us from him in the first place? What if he wants to rid us of self-reliance and pride?

What if facing those scary dark corners of our lives feels too much like being out of control? What if it feels like stepping off a plank balanced on the peak of whatever accomplishments we have gained in life and taking the risk of plummeting into the pit of despair?

But what if this dark night of the soul is the road to the light of his face?

Psalm 44 is a difficult read for those of us who want assurances and pretty promises of a healthy, prosperous life with perfect families, material wealth, and a great reputation to wave in the face of our detractors. What do we do with gut-wrenching cries like this?

I live in disgrace all day long,
    and my face is covered with shame
at the taunts of those who reproach and revile me,
    because of the enemy, who is bent on revenge.
(verses 15 and 16)

Dare we join the Sons of Korah who are also the Sons of Israel? God renamed Jacob (the supplanter) who had relied on sneaky ways to become a self-made man. After he dislocated his hip giving Jacob a permanent limp, the angel of the Lord told him his new name was Israel — “one who wrestles with God.” Dare we wrestle with God ourselves, crying out to him for help when nothing makes sense in any construct we can come up with on our own?

Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?
    Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
Why do you hide your face
    and forget our misery and oppression?

We are brought down to the dust;
    our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up and help us;
    rescue us because of your unfailing love.
(verses 23-25)

What if, for some people, the way down is the way up?

The Road Back; Psalms of the Sons of Korah, Psalm 43


 

Have you ever experienced the cold judgment in this statement? “Oh. You’re one of those.”

The Sons of Korah knew what it was like to be maligned as descendants of a disgraced ancestor.

In Psalm 43, they plead for vindication. They have been falsely accused. They know what it is like to be misunderstood. When others rejected them, particularly people who carried religious authority, they may have felt that God rejected them too. When it happens often enough, the subjects of dismissal may start to question their own perceptions. Sometimes they may doubt their value and place in society. At other times they protest their innocence. It’s confusing. They need clarity on their journey to the place of worship. They write:

Plead for me; clear my name, O God. Prove me innocent
    before immoral people;
Save me from their lies,
    their unjust thoughts and deeds.


You are the True God—my shelter, my protector, the one whom I lean on.
    Why have You turned away from me? Rejected me?
Why must I go around, overwrought, mourning,
    suffering under the weight of my enemies?

O my God, shine Your light and truth
    to help me see clearly,
To lead me to Your holy mountain,
    to Your home.

Psalm43:1-3 The Voice

I wonder if this is why one of the first people to whom Jesus revealed his true identity as Messiah was a shamed, rejected woman from an ethnic group held in contempt by Jews – the Samaritan woman at the well. He told her that soon the place of worship would not be a physical location, but in spirit and in truth. What a difference that encounter made in the way she saw herself! That joyful moment instantly transformed her into a bold missionary. “Come and see!” she urged neighbours back in the town. She was no longer avoiding anyone.

Hiding is a characteristic of people who carry shame. It’s hard to be yourself among those who would judge you for your associations. Worship that is pure and holy requires a level of trusting candour. It makes us uncomfortably aware that others have said they don’t consider members of a shamed tribe as acceptable. It’s easy to subconsciously wear their judgment after years of disrespect.

Our mothers taught us as very young children that to be polite and considerate we need to keep some parts of ourselves hidden in good company. I am in no way advocating public nudity! I’m just saying there is no point to wearing metaphorical masks or costumes in God’s presence. It’s not as if he doesn’t know everything already. In a sense honest, humble prayer means praying naked (metaphorically!).

When we invite God to shine his pure clarifying light on our lives, it will expose things we need to acknowledge, confess and allow the Lord to clean up. It shows us how to change direction. That purifying light will also expose lies we have believed. It reveals the difference between false identity and true identity. We are not who the accuser says we are. We are who our Heavenly Father says we are. We have nothing to hide. This is freedom. It is a freedom the Sons of Korah long for. Verse 4:

Then I will go to God’s altar with nothing to hide.
    I will go to God, my rapture;
I will sing praises to You and play my strings,
    unloading my cares, unleashing my joys, to You, God, my God.

Psalm 43 ends with the same declaration as Psalm 42. I’ll leave verse 5 here in The Voice paraphrase.

O my soul, why are you so overwrought?
    Why are you so disturbed?
Why can’t I just hope in God? Despite all my emotions, I will hope in God again.
    I will believe and praise the One
    who saves me and is my life,
My Savior and my God.

The journey continues.

The Humble Flower

If a little flower could speak, it seems to me that it would tell us quite simply all that God has done for it, without hiding any of its gifts. It would not, under the pretext of humility, say that it was not pretty, or that it had not a sweet scent, that the sun had withered its petals, or the storm bruised its stem, if it knew that such were not the case.

-Therese of Lisieux

Humility is seeing ourselves as God sees us. No more. No less.

Dark

Even when I don’t see it, You’re working.

Even when I don’t feel it, You’re working.*

Now this expression, “He ascended,” what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, so that He might fill all things. (Ephesian 4:9,10 NASB)

*From “Waymaker” by Osinachi Kalu Okoro

Creative Meditations for Lent, Prompt word: Dark

Truth

Truth, real truth, total truth is like a burning laser light. Most of us can’t handle the truth.

When the prophet Isaiah encountered God in a vision, he encountered Truth. He cried out, “Woe is me for I am a man with unclean lips.” The blindingly holy light of truth revealed that he (like most of us) had spoken things that were untrue. I wonder what would have happened if God had not ministered mercy by sending an angel to purify his lips with a hot coal. I’ve also noticed that sometimes truth leaves scars.

Here’s the thing. Truth without love is harsh. Very harsh.

Have you ever watched two people fall in love? When most couples go on a first date, both put great effort into creating a good impression. The truth is, they don’t always look this good, smell this good, or act so thoughtfully. They keep some important information to themselves and may add a sheen to unavoidable details if they want a second date. As time goes on, they begin to test the interest level by gradually revealing minor unappealing aspects about themselves to see if the other will stick around. Love grows in an atmosphere of safety and acceptance. More truth can be told. Sadly, some people keep up a false image until the effort half kills them and everything falls apart. The truth will eventually come out.

Many of us are still vainly attempting to impress God while concealing aspects of ourselves that trigger shame. Hiding stuff doesn’t work. He knows. That fact alone sends millions into metaphorical sewing of fig-leaf wear whilst hiding in the shrubbery like Adam and Eve.

For those who don’t read social cues well and are whole-truth-and-nothing-but-the-truth tellers, this whole dating thing is a mine field.

“You told her she needed a better deodorant?” I exclaimed with shock when my neuro-divergent friend told me about meeting a girl he liked. “I was only telling her the truth. I care about her. She should know.”

My explanation to him involved caring truth-telling about the way neuro-typicals perceive information. (At least I hope he perceived it as caring.) He was telling her the truth, but how was she to know he cared? How did he demonstrate that? Telling her she needed better deodorant could have felt a bit hurtful even if it was true. Most people can’t handle the truth, especially truth about themselves. Truth must be wrapped in communicated love, or it feels like a frying pan to the face and that’s the end of that.

Before Jesus was taken away to be killed, he told his friends, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.”  (John 16: 12,13)

The disciples were not ready to bear all the truth Jesus wanted to tell them. Jesus is The Truth, but he is also Love. Love doesn’t lie, and Godly truth gives us only as much truth as we can handle. He understands out frailty, but he also wants us to grow. Without a solid understanding of who God is, and that his lovingkindness and mercy endure forever, all of us, including the extremely narcissistic, tend to mix our truth medicine with a spoonful of denial, if not a cup of outright fantasy. Maturity is being able to appreciate the whole truth without being blown away by it. We need help getting to that point, but God provided for that too.

J.B. Phillips phrased it this way in his paraphrase of Ephesians 4:11-16

His “gifts to men” were varied. Some he made his messengers, some prophets, some preachers of the Gospel; to some he gave the power to guide and teach his people. His gifts were made that Christians might be properly equipped for their service, that the whole body might be built up until the time comes when, in the unity of the common faith and common knowledge of the Son of God, we arrive at real maturity—that measure of development which is meant by the “fullness of Christ”.

We are not meant to remain as children at the mercy of every chance wind of teaching and the jockeying of men who are expert in the craft presentation of lies. But we are meant to hold firmly to the truth in love, and to grow up in every way into Christ, the head. For it is from the head that the whole body, as a harmonious structure knit together by the joints with which it is provided, grows by the proper functioning of individual parts to its full maturity in love.

The Holy Spirit guides us into all truth, but patiently, not by dumping it all on our heads all at once. He is kind. Sometimes it’s a wonderful warm experience and sometimes it feels like receiving a father’s concerned discipline, but it always carries the scent of merciful lovingkindness.

Like many aspects of spiritual maturity, the ability to comprehend truth and see the way God sees is a process. I am learning that being Christ-centered and acknowledging Jesus in everything means becoming as intentional about a deepening relationship as he is.

It’s all about getting to know him.

Creative Meditations for Lent, Word Prompt: Truth

Aroma

Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God. (Ephesians 5:2 NLT)

I love the scent of poplar trees when the sap begins to flow. It reminds me of paddling down a sun-dappled river with my friends when I was a teenager. I have to stop in a pine forest just to breathe the fragrance in the air. It carries memories of carefree Saturdays in the mountains with my family when I was a child.

My friend feels differently. The aroma of spring sends her to the pharmacy for tissues and antihistamines in preparation for allergy season. I understand. Personally, I hate the smell of motor oil. It reminds me of the disappointment of a broken car being worked on in the garage instead of taking us on another adventure. I’m obviously not a mechanic who enjoys hours tinkering under the hood.

Many passages of scripture tell us that certain aromas carry a sweet fragrant aroma of a sacrifice which is pleasing to God. I wonder if it the aroma metaphorically carries the attitude of worship to him, the way the aroma of freshly baked bread carried the message of motherlove to me.

Some passages of scriptures continue the metaphor of aroma and tell us some smells are good and some are bad. Evil rebellious people are like a bad stink to God:

All day long I opened my arms to a rebellious people. But they follow their own evil paths and their own crooked schemesThese people are a stench in my nostrils, an acrid smell that never goes away. (Isaiah 65:2 & 5)

A life filled with sacrificial love is pleasing aroma to God. False love (aka manipulation) smells, well, off. We say something smells fishy when we are around people whose services seem self-serving. Something is off. We detect a stink under the rose water. In contrast, the kind of love Christ demonstrated is a pleasing aroma. God discerns the attitude of the heart.

In dream symbolism the nose often represents discernment. It’s that sense that detects what usually cannot be seen. Some people have told me they can discern what spirit is operating behind the scenes in room by pleasant and unpleasant smells. Apparently demonic spirits can stink like latrines or decaying flesh.

I once detected the beautiful scent of orange blossoms while in worship with friends. No one was wearing that fragrance. It was wonderful! Have you ever sensed something like it? Let me know in the comments.

Creative Meditations for Lent, Prompt Word: Aroma

Flow

On the final and climactic day of the Feast, Jesus took his stand. He cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Rivers of living water will brim and spill out of the depths of anyone who believes in me this way, just as the Scripture says.” (He said this in regard to the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were about to receive. The Spirit had not yet been given because Jesus had not yet been glorified.) 

(John 7:38, 39 The Message)

Creative Meditations for Lent, Prompt word: Flow

Peace

“I leave behind with you—peace; I give you my own peace and my gift is nothing like the peace of this world.” – Jesus (in John 14:27, Phillips paraphrase)

Most people think of peace as the absence of hostilities or of war. Even when we talk about personal peace, we often mean the absence of things like annoying interruptions, chaos, lack of resources, or worries that something will interfere with our priorities. I wonder if the peace that Jesus offers is not like that. I wonder if his peace is not the absence of something but the presence of something.

What if peace is more like completeness? What if the peace he left us means having all the tools necessary for a task, or being so convinced that God will provide everything we need that we can not only survive storms, but walk into them with assurance that it’s going to be alright?

What if this perfect peace creates an appreciation of divine priorities. What if this peace that passes understanding comes with complete trust that God loves us and allows us to engage with him in his purposes? What if we become aware of perfect peace flowing through us and allow it to help us to perceive the direction of the wind of the Holy Spirit?

What if the peace that is nothing like the peace of the world means Christ has made more available to us than we ever imagined?