“Sorrowful, but Always Rejoicing”: Christmas Hope for Those Who Mourn

“Sorrowful, but always rejoicing…” Why does this phrase seem so strange to contemporary believers – particularly Evangelicals?

It would seem that especially around this time of year, the cult of nostalgic happiness rears its ugly head, and everyone, no matter your situation, is expected to smile and be “chipper” – after all, it’s Christmas! (Actually, it’s Advent – historically, a season of penitence and fasting as the Church prepares for the commemoration of the glorious Incarnation of our Lord; the season of Christmas begins on December 25th in the Western calendar).

Our favorite movies this time of year lead us to believe that at Christmastime, everything is magical… and everything works out in the end. I think of the ending of one of my favorite “Christmas movies”, Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life!” I’m not too worried about spoilers; the movie has been syndicated for the last several decades – if you haven’t seen it yet, the responsibility is on you. At the end of the movie, George Bailey, our hero, learns the lesson that “no man is a failure if he has friends”. All of the townsfolk of Bedford Falls come together and donate the money George needs to, basically, keep him from going to prison and to keep the ol’ “Building and Loan” from going under. Everyone is cheerful. The chronically stupid Clarence gets his wings. Everything works out.

But, what if it hadn’t? What if George Bailey had gone to prison? What if his friends had abandoned him to the long arm of the law? What if, as we see throughout the movie, George hadn’t “cast his bread upon the waters”,[1] earning friends through his kindly actions? What if, after all the lesson-learning intervention by a biblically unrecognizable “angel”, George had been sent off, Potter won, and the Bailey kids had to grow up without a dad? Some of you reading this are probably cringing as you do so.

You see, real life isn’t like “It’s a Wonderful Life!” Perhaps it has grown cliché to say “people don’t always get a Hollywood ending”; perhaps, but it is a cliché we need to learn full well. We don’t live in the consummated reality of the Kingdom fully come, “on earth as it is in Heaven.”[2] If we did, why would Jesus tell us to pray for it? No, for most people – and I’m using the correct superlative – things are hard, and that doesn’t change just because it’s Christmastime on the church calendar. Does the chronic cancer patient get a pass for Christmas Day? Is the woman who just lost her husband and now has to raise her babies without him suddenly gifted with a loss of memory? Would losing those memories even be considered a gift? Are the impoverished and homeless suddenly relieved of the burdens of their poverty and homelessness because December 25th rolls around? The cult of nostalgic happiness has nothing of any real substance to give to the hurting – but Christianity does.

I’ve recently been reading through Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermons on the Song of Songs. I was surprised when I came to Sermon 26 and Bernard broke off his theological exposition of the text to openly confess to the brothers that his heart was broken. Only days before, his brother, Gerard, had died – and Bernard had not shed a tear. Either through the stinging numbness of a new grief, or through a misplaced sense of ecclesial decorum, he had preached the sermon, said the prayers, and poured the dirt over Gerard’s lifeless frame, and all the while, he had shown no outward sign of grieving. And then – Sermon 26. “How long shall I keep pretense, while a hidden fire burns my sad heart, consumes me from within? A concealed fire creeps forward with full play, it rages more fiercely. I, whose life is bitterness, what have I to do with this canticle?”[3] He continues on, informing the brothers about just how much Gerard had meant to him, not only as a brother, but also as a helper and companion in the work of the Lord. “You are aware that a loyal companion has left me alone on the pathway of life: he who was so alert to my needs, so enterprising at work, so agreeable in his ways. Who was ever so necessary to me? Who ever loved me as he?”[4] Gerard’s death had left Bernard full of sorrow, and, saint that he was, he knew that it was dishonest to act like everything was okay when it wasn’t. He gave free reign to his sorrow in the words of this beautifully bittersweet sermon. It is a beautiful thing to hear a Doctor of the Church pour out his sorrowful heart before the throne of grace.

But, that’s precisely it, isn’t it? He comes before the throne of grace. Nowhere in all of Bernard’s sermon is there a hint of despair. Bernard communicates reality throughout – not in a hopeless cynicism, nor in a naïvely chipper singsong – but in a sorrow that still rejoices. “Flow on, flow on, my tears, so long on the point of brimming over; flow on, for he who dammed up your exit is here no longer. Let the flood-gates of my wretched head be opened, let my tears gush forth like fountains… When the Lord shall be appeased in my regard, then perhaps I shall find the grace of consolation, but without ceasing to mourn: for those who mourn shall be comforted.”[5] There are places in Bernard’s sermon in which he openly questions why this sorrow has come upon him, and, whether rightly or wrongly, assumes that he is being somehow punished for some sin. But, even in his sorrow, and even though he thinks he is being punished, he looks to the promise of the One Who strikes. He can rejoice in the promise that his mourning, though so bitter now, will not last forever. He can take comfort that he will be comforted by the One Who forsook comfort and willingly suffered for the souls of all the elect. He can believe, because the Word took our flesh at Christmas, that those who trust in Christ and sow in tears, no matter how bitter those tears might be, will reap with shouts of joy.[6]

You see, this is the real hope of Christmas. The Child in the manger should obliterate rather than reinforce superficiality; that Child is both the Man of Sorrows and the King of Kings. He will know the depths of darkness, pain, abandonment. He will bring salvation to His people and the Kingdom to the earth. He will endure the cross for the joy set before Him.[7] He is our comfort in sorrow. He is our everlasting joy. He is both, simultaneously.

And the Christian hope recognizes both sorrow and joy simultaneously. If we are to live with any kind of honesty in the world, we must acknowledge with deep, profound sorrow that a world in which children are molested, people are blown up just for walking down a street, men and women are shot because of the color of their skin, and human beings overcome with despair take their own lives, is a broken and misshapen world. In this world, George Bailey goes to jail and Potter sips scotch in front of his fireplace. In this world, Gerard dies, and Bernard is left wondering why.

But, if we are to live with any kind of honesty in the world, in light of Christmas and all that Christmas means, we must acknowledge with an unshakeable rejoicing that death will one day be swallowed up in victory, every tear will be wiped away, those who mourn will be comforted, injustice will come to an end, and the empty places that gnaw us from within will be filled with the eternal joy of the consummation of everything Jesus has accomplished. In this we can rejoice, no matter how plagued with sorrow – that Jesus Who came will come again and set all things right.

Be sorrowful, but not without rejoicing in the hope of eternal joy in Christ. Be joyful, but not without sorrow for this passing, broken world. Joy does not negate sorrow, but it will outlive it. So when we meet with others who are suffering this Christmastime, let us heed the words of our brother Bernard, “…my request to every good man is that he look on me with kindness, and in a spirit of gentleness which is spiritual support to me in my lament. And I implore you, let not mere conventional respect, but your human affection, draw you to me in my sorrow.”[8]


[1] Ecclesiastes 11:1

[2] Matthew 6:10b

[3] Bernard of Clairvaux, “Sermon 26”, Sermons on the Song of Songs, trans. by Killian Walsh OCSO (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1983), 60.

[4] Ibid., 61.

[5] Ibid., 67.

[6] Psalm 126:5

[7] Hebrews 12:2

[8] Bernard, 67-68.

Shall We Begin?

Once more I go to seek the words…

Shall I, novice that I am, stop before I have begun?

Let it not be so.

And have the thunders ceased,

those undiscovered depths

forsaken their low songs of truth

ere I could sojourn through the inner worlds?

No. I will not accept that,

though my place is finally found,

I am no more to roam the imagined cosmos,

the ever-turning spheres within

which sing as their counterparts sing

of He Who made them,

He Who made me.

I bid a panoply of words to aid me,

for there is no moving forward

without leaving the peace of the now.

The not-yet calls,

the din of timeless, bloodless war,

and the ship of poesy,

bedecked in golden sunsets

and the light through the leaves,

will carry me there.

Ink upon a sliver of a tree,

but here is me,


The sails catch wind,

and the deep resounds a welcome.

Grace Triumphant, or A Narrative of the Victory of Jesus Christ in the Life of J. Lucas Waters, Villain

One of my favorite lines in all of English literature are the first words of Dickens’ David Copperfield:

 Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.[1]

The novel is semi-autobiographical, and I imagine Dickens ruminating about his own life as he sat down to write these words. I wonder what was the conclusion to which the great author himself came. I wonder what would have been the conclusion had he written the work closer to the end of his life. Would he have deemed himself the hero of his own story?

I am not.

That is, I am not the hero of my own life. That station is certainly held by another, but has never been held by myself. If anything, in many ways, I have played the antagonist in this drama. I have done a great deal to make a mess of things, and though I may have been unconsciously the villain, even well-meaningly so, I have been the villain nonetheless.

That’s not to say that all the bad situations in my life have been of my own making. One who has lived but a brief time in this world swiftly comes to the recognition that there are many rotters out there. It is often the case that these intertwine with our own tales, black threads in the tapestry of our time. Perhaps, in thinking themselves to be the hero of their own lives, they have failed as utterly as we, and like two dark ships in the dark night, instead of passing, we have crashed.

Though it is a blow to my pride (thank God!), I cannot blame others for the majority of ruin in my life. They are not responsible for me. I am responsible for me. At the last day, it is not they who will stand before the Judge of all the earth in my stead, but I who will give account. Here we have the climax of it all, when the villain gets his due and all is set right? If this were all, what would life be but one long, despairing falling toward hell?

But this is not that kind of story. It is not simple. It is gloriously complex. It is not complex. It is gloriously simple. And though these seem contradictory, both are true.

There is a Hero of my life, and I am not He. In this story, the Hero has compassion on the villain. The comeuppance due the villain is known by the Hero, and though the villain is deserving of his fate, the Hero has come to save him. Indeed, the Hero defeats the villain by taking upon Himself the judgment owed to the villain by the Author.

I am defeated (thank God!). The Hero is triumphant through death, and I am His forever, changed from what I was, being written anew as something else, as the character I was meant to be. If I were to write the story of my life, I would gladly write to you that the station of the hero is held by Another. The title? Grace Triumphant, or A Narrative of the Victory of Jesus Christ in the Life of J. Lucas Waters, Villain.

[1] David Copperfield is public domain, and can be found in numerous editions, or for free online. I commend to you the hardcover Everyman’s Library edition; I have found it superior to other editions both aesthetically and as pertains to comfort of reading.

The LORD of Hosts

Perhaps the most well-known verse in Psalm 46 comes in the tenth verse – the oft-quoted imperative to “Be still and know”. There is a refrain, however, that is repeated twice in Psalm 46 that is often overlooked, our attention instead given to the more famous v.10. That refrain is “The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.” We find it in v.7 and repeated in v.11. In this refrain, we find two monikers given to God by the psalmist: “the God of Jacob” and “the LORD of hosts”. The “God of Jacob”, of course, points to the national relationship of Israel with their covenant God. Jacob, whose name would later be changed to “Israel” (Gen. 32:28), was the father of the twelve tribes. Our particular concern in this brief article, though, is “the LORD of hosts.” What is meant by this appellation? Why was it used instead of another of the names often used for God?

“The LORD of hosts” is used in much of the Old Testament (with the exception of the Pentateuch), but its overwhelming usage (approximately 1/3) is found in the books of the post-exilic prophets: Zechariah, Haggai, and Malachi. Of these three, Malachi uses it most. The question that should arise in our minds is “Why do the post-exilic prophets use this term more than the other writers of Scripture?” When Judah returned from exile in Babylon under the edict of the Persian king, Cyrus, the so-called “glory days” of Israel had long past. Imagine the dismay of the returning exiles – the walls of Jerusalem had been torn down, the Temple of Solomon had been burned and left a ruin, the land had, essentially, been laid waste by the great hosts of Babylon. There were only a few who might remember the former glory of Jerusalem and her Temple (Hag. 2:3), but all would have looked upon the present dilapidation with grief, even if all they had heard about this land of their fathers were stories told them by their parents and grandparents. Not only was Jerusalem a ruin, but the returning exiles were returning to a land that was surrounded by enemies (e.g., Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite, etc.; see Neh. 2:17-20).

Had God lost to the Babylonians? Were the promises made during the times of Moses and David now defunct? What of the promises made through the major prophets of God’s blessing upon the returned remnant? No doubt, questions like these would have entered the minds of the returning exiles. Even after the wall of Jerusalem had been rebuilt under the governance of Nehemiah, and the Temple finished and dedicated under the eye of Ezra the priest, the minimized state of Judah – now a provincial state, as it were, of the Persian Empire – would have been disheartening to a once great people. As a provincial state, also, Judah had no army of its own. Seemingly, they were defenseless against the world.

But, the postexilic prophets remind them that the God of Jacob, their covenant God, is the LORD of hosts. The God of their fathers is the God Who leads scores of heavenly armies and Whose hand sovereignly directs the armies of the earth. Indeed, the reason they were exiled to begin with was that God had disciplined them for their covenant unfaithfulness, and to do this He had used the means of the armies of Babylon. God had not lost to the Babylonians; He had wielded them as a weapon of judgment against His sinful people (Jer. 25:8-11). Not only this, but it was He Who later brought judgment upon Babylon by means of the Persians (Jer. 25:12-14; Is. 45:1-7). By referring to God as the LORD of hosts, the postexilic prophets were reminding the returned exiles that, even in the midst of world powers that dwarfed Judah, the covenant God of Israel was still sovereign. Though their position had been diminished, their sovereign God had not changed. “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” (Mal. 3:6). Far from being subject to world powers, the covenant people were called to be subject to the LORD of hosts, to take refuge in the God of Jacob. By using the moniker, the LORD of hosts, the postexilic prophets were calling the people to look beyond what their mortal eyes could see.

In this, the postexilic prophets were recalling by their own words and actions an earlier prophet, Elisha. A narrative is related in 2 Kings 6:8-23 of a time when Syria was warring against the nation of Israel. Elisha, the successor of Elijah, warned the king of Israel concerning the tactics of the king of Syria. In a rather humorous account, the king of Syria turns upon his own servants, concerned that one of them had leaked Syrian battle plans. One of his servants speaks up and assures him that it hadn’t been any of them, “but Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel” who “tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedroom.” (2 Kings 6:12). In response, the king of Syria sent a great army to the city of Dothan, where Elisha was staying. Elisha’s servant awakes early in the morning only to see the city surrounded by the army of Syria; his first reaction seems to be one of panic. But the prophet assures him, saying, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” (2 Kings 6:16). After Elisha prays that the LORD would open the eyes of his servant, the servant looks again, “and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots or fire all around Elisha.” (2 Kings 6:17). The heavenly hosts of the LORD of hosts were far mightier than the armies of the nations arrayed against God’s prophet.

In the New Testament, the understanding of God as the LORD of hosts is continued. In the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus was being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, “one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear.” (Matt. 26:51). Immediately, Jesus reprimands him and commands him to put his sword away. Why? Jesus answers rhetorically, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt. 26:52). In other words, “My Father is the LORD of hosts. I don’t need you to defend Me.” The phrase, the Lord of hosts, is used only once in the New Testament, however, in the epistle of James, in which he warns the wealthy that the cries of those whom they are oppressing “have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” (James 5:4). Again, we see that the LORD of hosts is He Who takes the part of His powerless people. This is a terror to those who array themselves against God’s people, but it is a great comfort to those who are His.

This recognition brings us back around to the refrain in Psalm 46:7 and 11. “The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.” What is being conveyed in this repeated line of Hebrew poetry? For the covenant people of God, assurance and security is never to be found in earthly power; they are not to seek these things. Instead, they are to seek to make the LORD of hosts, the covenant-keeping God, their refuge. They are to put their trust in His power which is always exercised according to His nature. If this is true for the Old Testament saints, it is true likewise for Christians presently. We do not fear the world because we know that the LORD of hosts is our covenant God; He is our refuge and strength. It is not in the exertion of worldly power that Christians are to witness to their Lord; rather, it is in our weakness that His strength is made manifest in and for His people.


The Escape

I ran.

Through the muck and the mud,

Through the thousand little thorns,

Red-lining my legs…

Little lines of pain

To remind me I was scared.

I could hear the dogs rambling behind,

Hounds of hell,

Blood-bespecked, hungry, tireless.

I struggled,

My muscles striving like a messed-up engine;

The gas, the blood, the…

What was I saying again?

Hungry like the dogs behind me,

Thirsty for more than water,

I ran, I ran,

I hit the unseen riverbed,

And my running was finished.

I lay on the dry rocks,

Encrusted-with-once-wet-earth rocks.

I’d played this escape like an Errol Flynn movie

Over and over again behind my eyes;

Looked like the real film

Ended different.

I looked toward the heavens,

Praying for rain to fill the trench

And wash me clean

Away from here.

And I shed a clear, crystal tear

That washed away the scales.

Psalm 103

Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. The LORD works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed. He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel. The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments. The LORD has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all. Bless the LORD, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, obeying the voice of his word! Bless the LORD, all his hosts, his ministers, who do his will! Bless the LORD, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless the LORD, O my soul! Psalm 103


BLESS THE LORD! This is the call to praise our King that echoes throughout the entire universe. “The Music of the Spheres”, as the ancients called it, found its lyric in these words. “Bless the LORD!” cries every raven, along with its young, whom the LORD has filled with food; “Bless the LORD!” roars the lion, its young filled with the prey brought home to the den.[1] “Bless the LORD!” says the cool breeze that whispers to the thirsty trees that the rain will soon come; and the trees respond, their leaves blowing freely and happily in the wind, “Bless the LORD!” The heavens declare His glory; the sky above proclaims His handiwork. “Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.”[2] And what is the speech that the day pours out, that the night echoes continually but “Bless the LORD!” We have a distinct perception problem when we view the world itself as an unhappy place. The universe and all the created order is not unhappy, but expectant, awaiting the day when all the sons of God will be revealed, when all will be made new at His coming![3] The universe which God created, He sustains down to the last molecule; and the only proper reply to His loving Providence is “Bless the LORD!” When you go out into the woods, or sit atop some mountain beholding the beauty of His creation, does not that beauty entice you to join in its song of praise to the LORD? When the skies are blue and sunny, when the fields are white with snow, when the rain brings life to the dry ground, shall we not rejoice along with the rest of the created order, and bless the LORD? All of creation blesses the LORD for its preservation; shall we remain silent? Indeed, if we do not praise Him, the very stones will cry out His praise![4]

But of all God’s creatures, man is most indebted to His goodness. Upon we rational beings is placed the greatest impetus to bless the LORD! In fact, it is our duty to rejoice in Him. For to whom in all of creation has God given so much? When the Word became flesh, He did not take on the flesh of beasts or birds; Christ did not become a rock or a river; no, the eternally begotten Son of God took on the flesh of human beings, and lived as one of us! Christ Jesus, “who though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”[5] Of all beings in the universe, we are most loved by our God, and yet, it would seem, that often, in the grand chorus of the cosmos the only voice missing in the praise of the LORD is ours. David realized this, and Psalm 103 calls us to realize and rectify this atrocity.

Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! When we come to call others to worship, the first person we need to call is ourselves. Listen to the way David preaches to his own soul! How often do we do this? Our culture teaches us to be tight-reined in our physical exercise programs. Some of us wake up in the morning and the first thing we do is start exercising. We need to fit into those slacks for a friend’s wedding, so we begin watching how much we eat, sometimes down to the last calorie. My grandmother was a wonderful woman, but she was so careful about keeping the house clean that often she would walk through the house with a rag in her hand wiping down furniture she had already wiped down a few minutes earlier. We are constantly preaching some kind of message to our hearts – get fit, get thin, keep clean, do well on a test, etc. We have become the strictest of athletes in the matters of the world, but so often we neglect to preach the message to our forgetful being – “Bless the LORD!” David is an exemplar here, and we should follow his example. We need to wake up from our culture-laden, and culture-formed stupors and cry out to our deafened hearts: BLESS THE LORD!!! We are always being formed by something, and we need to pay more attention to what is forming us. We have to become more intentional about being formed into worshipers of God, and the first step is forming the habit of worship.

Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits… Again, David points to one of our biggest hindrances in the Christian life: forgetting God and His goodness toward us. Forgetting God is the downfall of so many throughout Scripture. In Hosea, the LORD speaks through His prophet concerning the idolatry of Israel, “And I will punish her for the feast days of the Baals when she burned offerings to them and adorned herself with her ring and jewelry, and went after her lovers and forgot me, declares the LORD.”[6] Whenever we forget God, to worship Him and adore/bless Him, we necessarily become idolaters. The truth of the matter is, we were made for worship and we will worship something (or someone), and if we’re not worshiping God, we’re probably worshiping something else as though it were a god, devoting our time, money, lives to a creature rather than the Creator. The surest protection against idolatry is to daily remind your soul to bless the LORD; and, though God is infinitely worthy of praise in Himself, He condescends to give us reason after reason to worship Him – for we are the beneficiaries of His great love!

He is the great God who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. David knew the darkness of sin. One need only peruse Psalm 51 to know the truth of this. After he had committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband, the honorable Uriah, killed on the battlefield, David was confronted by Nathan, God’s prophet. Realizing his sinfulness, David penned these words: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”[7] But, here, in Psalm 103, he writes again, that God forgives all our iniquity. Why does he trust that this is so? He looks to God’s Word and covenant! The LORD works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed. He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel. The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Who is the God who forgives all our iniquities? Who is the good Physician Who heals our every wound, and one day will heal us perfectly? He is the same God Who revealed Himself to Moses at Mt. Sinai. He is the same God that delivered the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. He is the God Who is willing to move heaven and earth, and to trample false gods beneath His feet for the good of His people. He is the LORD, the LORD, “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”[8] This is how God had revealed Himself to the people – not as a hateful judge waiting to smite someone, but as a forgiving God Who loves and wishes to restore His people. This is the God of Scripture, the God Who is patient with His people, “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”[9]

He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heaven are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. It is quite possible, and indeed likely, that some within the sound of my voice believe that they have done something so terrible, committed a sin so heinous, that God cannot forgive them. To you, the Scriptures say, “God forgives all our iniquities”; that is, not just some, but all; no matter what you have done, if you come to Christ in repentance, confessing your sins, and trusting that He has paid for them on the cross, no matter what they were, you are forgiven! Fulgentius, a Church Father, writes, “What, I ask, do we think cannot be forgiven us when the Lord forgives all our iniquities? Or what do we think cannot be healed in us, when the Lord heals all our diseases? Or how is there anything still lacking to the healed and justified person whose desire is satisfied with good things? Or how is he not believed to gain the benefit of complete forgiveness to whom a crown is given together with love and mercy? Therefore, let no one despairing of the physician remain in his infirmity; let no one, downplaying the mercy of God, waste away in iniquities. The apostle calls out that ‘Christ died for the ungodly.'”[10] God does not deal with us according to our sins, but according to His great love for us in Christ; this love is beyond anything we could comprehend. Notice that David writes that God’s steadfast love toward those who fear him is “as high as the heavens are above the earth”; Isaiah would write the same concerning God’s ways and thoughts being above our ways and thoughts.[11] What we should draw from this truth canonically is that God’s love is so far beyond our understanding that the only appropriate reaction to His love is to accept it, stand in awe, and bless the LORD! If we will come to Him in true repentance, no matter what we’ve done, He will forgive and restore. But, because we are so apt to think that God might be like us, forgiving only in name, while still harboring an “I’m going to get you in the end for what you’ve done” attitude, David tells us that not only is the sin forgiven, but it is completely removed from us; it can no longer be held against us in the heavenly courts! But where has the sin gone, if it has been removed from us? How far is the east from the west? A better question – how far is God from man? But God Himself bridged that distance in the Incarnation. Our sins have been removed from us, and Jesus has taken them upon Himself. “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way, and the LORD has laid upon him the iniquity of us all.”[12]

As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. To those who “fear” God. What does this mean? The Reformer Martin Luther distinguished between two kinds of fear: servile and filial. The first kind, servile fear, is the kind of fear that a prisoner has for his jailer, or a man condemned to die has for his executioner. It’s the kind of dread and anxiety someone has toward another who is perceived as a present threat. The second kind, filial fear, is the fear that a child has for his father. It is the fear of a child who has such tremendous respect and love for his father or mother that his desire is to please him.[13] The fear of God is this second kind of fear, because He is the Father Who shows compassion to His children. Through Christ, we have been made the children of God; because the Holy Spirit has united us to Christ, we now cry “Abba! Father!” We enjoy the same Father-Son relationship that Christ has with the Father because we are united to Him.[14] And God the Father is compassionate to His frail children, For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. In fact, His very act of becoming our Father, in electing us to adoption and justification in Christ, is an act of His grace. Fulgentius writes, “For not as a father has compassion on his children unless becoming our father through grace, he deigned to make us his children.”[15]

David meditates on this theme of our frailty for a moment. As for man, he writes, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. What are we but passing, temporal beings? We are born into this world, tiny, slimy, and crying for help. We live until some accident or disease or old age which makes infirm takes us to the grave where we return to the dust from which we were created. A flower in a garden may give its beauty for a while, but it will not last. How much less the grass and flowers of the field, which are not tended so closely! The harsh winds blow, the flower withers and dies and disappears to be remembered no more. Such we are if we’re honest. It makes us ask, “What is man that You are mindful of him? The son of man that you care for him?”[16] Compared to the universe, we are not even a perceivable dot. It should become a daily practice of ours to think about our smallness and our mortality. We’re not that important in the long run of things. We’re insignificant in a lot of ways even in the short run! But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments. Where do we find our significance? Is it in the fleeting pleasures of the world? Do we seek significance in being praised by other withering flowers? Does my art make me significant? my work? my family? my wealth? No. All of these are as fleeting as I am. But the steadfast love of the LORD is from eternity past and will continue forever. How long has God loved me? Forever. How long will God love me? Forever. My eternal significance is being found in Him. His love gives me value forever, and I need seek it nowhere else. If the world hates me, my God loves me. Even if my closest relations and dearest friends forsake me, my God loves me. “Though my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me.”[17] And His covenant is not to me alone, but to all generations that will seek Him! His love is for you and for your children and grandchildren if they will enter His covenant through the blood of Christ. Thus, it is my joy to obey Him, for He loves me so, and I love Him because He first loved me!

The LORD has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all. Bless the LORD, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, obeying the voice of his word! Bless the LORD, all his hosts, his ministers who do his will! Bless the LORD, all his works, in all places of his dominion. How then, must we conclude? We have every reason to bless the LORD. And He is king over all the universe, and thus, while we ourselves bless the LORD we should encourage everything that exists to do that same… even the ever-praising angels in heaven! Let us spur one another on with the truth of God’s loving benefits to us, and may the Church and the world never be found silent of God’s praises! But, we must conclude as we began, just as David does in Psalm 103. For, it does no good to encourage others to bless the LORD when our own souls bear no praise in them for His goodness toward us. Let us pray, then, that in His mercy, God would give us thankful hearts that seek to bend the knee before Him, and let us never forget the joyous duty of delighting in our God. Let us make a habit of continually preaching to our souls the great benefits God has shown to us, especially in His grace manifested in our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us meditate on His goodness more than the fleeting things of this world. Let us join in the praise song of the universe as we encourage our own selves, Bless the LORD, O my soul!


[1] Job 38:39-41

[2] Psalm 19:1-4a

[3] Romans 8:19

[4] Luke 19:40

[5] Philippians 2:6-7

[6] Hosea 2:13

[7] Psalm 51:3-5

[8] Exodus 34:6; Nehemiah 9:31; Numbers 14:18

[9] 2 Peter 3:9

[10] Fulgentius of Ruspe, Letter 7.4; Romans 5:6

[11] Isaiah 55:8-9

[12] Isaiah 53:6

[13] R.C. Sproul, “What Does It Mean to Fear God?”, 2016,  found http://www.ligonier.org/blog/what-does-it-mean-fear-god/

[14] Romans 8:15

[15] Fulgentius, Letter to Monimus, 1.21.3

[16] Psalm 8:4

[17] Psalm 27:10 NIV

I Called to You

In helplessness I called to You.

Your answer came like morning light

That through a dewy canopy

Brings life to all weighed down by night.


In hopelessness I called to You.

My lips knew nothing but Your Name.

And as the watchman’s fire burns,

Hope blazed, an unrelenting flame.


In fearful shame I called to You,

My hands still wet with hatred’s blood,

And from a purer Fountain flowed

Your love in overwhelming flood.


In poverty I called to You,

Confessing all my emptiness.

Your promise came, Your love remained,

And never will You love me less.


O LORD, my help through all my life,

My hope for life still yet to be,

Who makes me bold and fills my soul,

Make me to daily trust in Thee.


Satisfied in God

The trees were all extravagant,

Arrayed in fruit like silken gowns

Upon the lovely waltzing girls

That flood with mirth the happy towns.


There was no commandment there,

Except that simple, humble one:

“Of all this beauty eat your fill,

But keep your hand from this, my son.”


But they believed the serpent’s lie,

And with our mouths destruction ate.

They hid from God who had held back

This death from them –

it was too late…


They chose to be without the Lord,

But in His grace He loved them still.

He sent them out, but with them went,

And taught the man with sweat to till,

And gave him skill to sow and grow

What once had grown so easily

On every tree, extravagantly…


If ever I, by folly filled,

Am tempted by the ripened pod

That hanging from the tree of death,

Seducing like some golden god –

Deadly, beautiful,

Dripping false,


Sweet –


O Lord, my eyes to Thee withdraw,

And, Christ, withdraw this fruit from me,

For I would live in happy love,

And life eternal gladly see,

With Thee,

And all in Thee, my Treasure.


For life is all extravagant,

Arrayed in Heaven’s golden rays,

And greater are the fruits we find

Upon Your paths, and in Your ways,

On either side

Of Zion’s river.

Preservation of the Saints

Preserve me, O God, for I’m hiding in You,

And in You is all my good.

Guard me like a fortress wall,

And guide me to Yourself.

Guard me from the lies,

The ones I tell myself,

The thousand little idols my heart churns out




You are the Way away from sin,

And the thousand little tuggings within,

That would lead me from You.

Lead me to You,

My Strong Tower,

My Refuge,

For only in You am I free.

Lead me from the tyranny

Of the “wide-open” world,

To the freedom of Your chains.

And never let me part again,

From You –

My only Joy in heaven above,

And on the earth beneath,

My only Love.

Both present. Both now,

Though still to come –

I walk to You,

My hand in Yours.

Psalm 16

Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the LORD [YHWH], “You are my Lord [Adonai]; I have no good apart from you.” As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight. The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply; their [that is, the gods’] drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names on my lips. The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance. I bless the LORD who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I have set the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption. You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. –Psalm 16


Brennan Manning writes, “In essence, there is only one thing God asks of us – that we be men and women of prayer, people who live close to God, people for whom God is everything and for whom God is enough. That is the root of peace.”[1] I think he might be onto something in this simple understanding of the Christian life. He isn’t the first Christian to state it this way. St. Augustine, St. Francis, St. Ignatius Loyola, Luther, Calvin, and many others have put it in similar terms. Perhaps the most hard-hitting statement of this truth actually pre-dates the Incarnation. In the Old Testament, the prophet Micah writes, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”[2] Micah, in three imperatives, sums up the Christian walk. Psalm 16 is itself a look at what it means to truly “walk humbly with God”. But, if you’re anything like me, you quickly find that walking with God isn’t always easy – not because there is anything lacking in Him, but because there is something lacking in us. I have come to believe that the single greatest issue facing us as Christians is not our morality, not the refugee crisis, not the billions of unreached people – all of these things are important issues, and by no means should you take this as me making light of them. But, as important as they are, they are not the most important. The single greatest issue facing Christians today is knowing God. And, I believe that Psalm 16 can help us to truly know God as we ought to know Him, if we will live into it.

David begins his Psalm with a cry of utter dependence and desperation. “Preserve me, O God, for you I take refuge. I say to the LORD, ‘You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.’” The weight of that word, “preserve”, is more literally, “guard, protect, etc.” David is crying to God like a lost sheep cries to his shepherd. “Help me! Help me!” Perhaps some of you have heard this cry coming from your children. In the middle of the night, while you were fully-nested and dreaming in the land of Nod, all of a sudden a cry comes from your child’s room. “Dad! Mom! Help me! Help me!” In a split second you’re up and down the hall. You know it’s probably nothing; he probably just had a bad dream. But that doesn’t matter, does it? He’s yours and he’s scared. And he’s crying to you for refuge and help. David, King of Israel and mighty man of war, who had “slain his ten thousands”[3], who had brought down Goliath of Gath with a single stone[4] was crying to God like a child in the night cries for his father; no matter his prowess on the battlefield, or his kingly power, David never failed to recognize his need. “Preserve me, my refuge. You are my Lord, my Protector, and I have nothing good apart from You. You alone are the One I need now and always. If You don’t help me, no one will.”

David isn’t an only child, though. He notes that there are many who call upon God’s Name in the land, and he delights in his family. But he contrasts them with the others in the land – the idolaters. In almost tragic language, David points out that those who do not seek good from the only Source of good will only know ever-increasing sorrow. You see, David and the saints of Israel know that there’s only one well in this desert – and what a blessed well it is! But those who go after other gods are like madmen who try to squeeze water from sand. There is no good anywhere else but in God. It reminds me of the words of Peter; when Jesus asked the disciples if they too wanted to abandon Him, St. Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You hold the words of eternal life.”[5] The believer is completely dependent upon God, “from Whom all blessings flow.”[6] A Christian takes to heart the words of St. James who said, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…”[7] But, how often do even believers seek their good somewhere other than in the Lord? We turn to television, to popular opinion, to our wealth and our jobs, to our families. As often as we look to anything or anyone else for our highest good, we have become idolaters, and we’re only setting ourselves up for sorrow and pain. Remember Jerusalem, brothers and sisters! In her desolation she cries out, “She took no thought of the future, therefore her fall is terrible; she has no comforter.”[8] Jerusalem has turned to idols rather than to her God; she had sought water from sand, and when the heat grew too much, she died of thirst. Wives and jobs and money and all the delights of this world can be good gifts, but they make terrible gods.

Rather, David directs us to our good. “The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.” David ruled all of Israel; in fact, he ruled more of Israel than any leader before him. He had riches and family. He had power and prestige. But none of the gifts he was given compared with David’s real treasure – he knew God. God Himself was David’s inheritance. As another Psalmist would write, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And on earth there is nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”[9] My chosen portion. My cup. My inheritance. David was crying out in joy that God alone was His wealth. This hearkens back to God’s decree to Aaron and the Levites in the book of Numbers. When all the land was being apportioned out, God said to Aaron, “You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them. I am your portion and your inheritance among the people of Israel.”[10] David controlled all of Israel as king, but all of Israel was not the portion he desired. David saw it all as too little. C.S. Lewis writes, “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”[11] David would not be contented with the earth. He knew God as the greatest Treasure in all the universe, and he would possess Him, or, rather, be possessed by Him in loving relationship.

David recognizes that God is present at all times. “I bless the LORD who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I have set the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.” The Lord is more than just a pretty thing to set up in a glass cabinet for lookers-on to come and behold your treasure. This view of God as Treasure is deficient. Instead, David sits at God’s feet, learning from Him and leaning on Him. Like Mary of Bethany in the Gospel of Luke, David has chosen the one thing necessary, he has chosen the “good portion” and it will not be taken from him.[12] David listens to the counsel of God; he has a teachable heart, and even when he is lying on his bed, the things he learns from the Lord are on his mind, sweetening his conscience before he drifts off to dream. And there is an intentionality to it all. Knowing God is not for idlers. Rather, like David, we must “set the LORD always before [us]”. We have to be intentional in growing in our relationship with God, intentional about what we’re setting before us. It’s a shame that when a preacher proclaims that we should be constant in prayer and Scripture, so many raise shouts of “legalism” and “moralism”; but, when a person bombards themselves with the filth of our culture through television, the internet, music, etc. no one seems to object, though that person is destroying his mind and defiling the image of God. Think of the future. Be intentional. If it will weigh you down in your walk with God, get rid of it – no matter how precious it may seem at the time. Even good things can be weights. Set God before you, not simply good. When it comes to sin and weights that so easily ensnares us[13], we must show them no mercy. If it would keep you from God, put it down. I know it sounds like I’m repeating myself, and that’s because I am. I’m intentionally trying to help you realize the necessity for intentionality in your relationship with God. No relationship grows when one of the parties is idle. “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.”[14]

David then goes on to rejoice in the assurance that comes from knowing that God is with him. “Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices…” but he does not stop there. David goes on to say, “my flesh also dwells secure.” Knowing God has lead David to understand that God’s love does not stop with the death of David’s body. David was not a Sadducee. He knew God, and he knew that God’s love would preserve him. “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.” What a hope is this! David has seen many people die. Samuel, Saul, Jonathan – all dead[15]. His first baby through his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba – dead and buried.[16] And Absalom, Absalom – hanged by his hair from a tree and filled full of javelins.[17] Their bodies were buried and rotting. How, then, could David be so confident that his flesh would somehow be saved from corruption? Peter, in Acts 2, recognizes this promise as a prophecy of the coming Messiah. “Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses.”[18] David’s flesh saw corruption in the grave; but he also saw, in the faithfulness of God, that though his body may decay, God would not abandon him. Rather, through David’s greater Son, Jesus Christ, the resurrection of the body would be obtained. I don’t think David prophesied by having an exact picture of what would happen in the New Testament Gospels. No, he prophesied trusting in God to love him past death into resurrected life. As St. Paul writes, “If we have been united to [Christ] in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”[19] Through the love of God made manifest through the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Christ, we may all share David’s confidence that though we die, yet shall we live.[20] Or, as Job so boldly proclaimed, “And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God.”[21] God doesn’t just want to be in relationship with you through your life on earth, but for eternity. Be confident in His love for you.

So far, I have stated what I see in this Psalm about knowing God in intimate relationship. But, I would be remiss if I left it at this. The truth of the matter is, most of us do not keep the Lord always before us. We often stray to other idols and end up courting sorrow instead of being wedded to joy. So often we ignore God’s counsel, and instead of crying out to Him in our time of need, we remain silent and try to push through on our own steam, hoping for a favorable outcome. But, I don’t think that God included this Psalm in the canon just to shame us and discourage us. I don’t think God wants us to look at this, throw up our hands, and say, “Good for David! But I’m not David! I can’t do this!” Instead, I think we should pay more careful attention to how this Psalm begins. “Preserve me.” Psalm 16 begins with a cry of desperation to the only One Who can help. It begins where we all begin – with the necessity of God’s grace. And in the Christian life, we never outgrow God’s grace; we must daily call out to Him, humbly recognizing that we are utterly dependent on Him; even to know Him is an act of His grace. God grants us strength to know Him. He works in us by His Holy Spirit to empower our intentionality to set Him always before us. He gives us His Scriptures and tells us to take up and read that we might learn from Him. He bids us come to the table, and then carries us their Himself. Day by day, He draws us to Himself by His sovereign grace. Let us pray with all the more confidence and fervency, then, to see His glory as David did, to know God as the all-valuable Treasure that He is. Lord God, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah, 2005), 46.

[2] Micah 6:8

[3] 1 Samuel 18:7

[4] 1 Samuel 17

[5] John 6:68

[6] Thomas Ken, “Doxology”

[7] James 1:17

[8] Lamentations 1:9b

[9] Psalm 73:25-26

[10] Numbers 18:20

[11] C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”

[12] Luke 10:42

[13] Hebrews 12:1

[14] James 4:8

[15] 2 Samuel 1

[16] 2 Samuel 12:18

[17] 2 Samuel 18:14

[18] Acts 2:29-32

[19] Romans 6:5

[20] John 11:25

[21] Job 19:26