Posts Tagged ‘psalms’

Enjoy this final guest post by Craig Altrock. My thanks to him for encouraging and inspiring us!

This is my last post in this series on Psalm 119.  The temptation is to keep writing, to keep producing more words about the Word.  But therein lays a fundamental impulse Psalm 119 pushes against underestimating the nature and significance of words.


I was struck early on in my 119 day journey through this psalm by the writer’s preoccupation with God’s word.  It’s not just that he felt Scripture was important.  No, when he thought of Scripture it made his mouth water and his tongue pant.  And while I wish my own response to God were so visceral, it does raise the issue of why one would be so passionate for ink and paper.


With that in mind it strikes me that words are frequently and easily cheapened today:

  • Words exist everywhere!  Think of how many words you will come across today.  They flood your computer screen, they scream at you from your mobile device, they leer at you from the billboards, and they pull at you from your child’s school work.
  • Words are so often used with such little thought.  Ideally words are meant to capture ideas, to contain truth, and to give voice to emotion.  But draping the proper words over these realities can be a delicate and wearisome activity.  Because we lack the discipline to find the right word, we cast on our ideas the first word that comes to mind, like a worn out jacket from our closet. Subsequently our speech and writing is devalued because we’ve lost the restraint needed to hold our tongue or pen until the right words can be crafted. 


As we cheapen words it becomes too easy to disassociate what we say from who we are:

  • It doesn’t bother us to lie because the word (lie) didn’t’ mean that much to us anyway; it was just a word.  What we say doesn’t reflect who we are (so we think!).
  • We don’t express appreciation to another because we incorrectly assume our words are simply words. What we say doesn’t reflect who we are (so we think!).
  • We make promises we can’t keep because the promise was made with lips, not our full intention.  What we say doesn’t reflect who we are (so we think!).


But psalm 119 calls us back to the recognition that words are so intricately linked to the heart which gave them impulse and the lips from which they slipped that we can no sooner separate the two than we could the sun from its light.  The psalmist loved God’s word because he loved God.  The writer rightly believed that when God speaks He is sharing part of himself-truth, character, and heart.


I think it is for this reason the psalmist sought desperately for God’s word.  To know God’s word is to know God.  To speak Scripture out loud is to let the very character of God pass over your tongue.  To meditate on a verse is to invite God himself into the chair of the heart.   As the incarnation teaches us so many years later, to receive a Word from God was to receive God himself.


Let us not be guilty of worshiping a book.  However, by the same token let us also not be charged with treating Scripture as just a book.  May God’s word be for us like Lewis’ dusty wardrobe was for the Pevensie children –– a doorway to a realm where not only hope and wonder exist, but one where the Great Lion himself awaits our company.


“I lift up my hands to your commands, which I love…”

Psalm 119:48

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Be encouraged with this guest post from Craig Altrock, senior director of projects at Let’s Start Talking Ministry. 

What practices do you engage in regularly that connect you with God’s word?  This question floated to the surface as I explored Psalm 119 for 119 days.  On the one hand it’s true that a simple practice or discipline means nothing.  Pharisees consumed God’s word but somehow seemed to escape the nourishment it was meant to bring.  On the other hand, sometimes it is a discipline which fuels heart-felt passion for God.  I believe one of the reasons the psalmist had such a fire for God is that he engaged God’s word through a number of creative practices.


I noted these disciplines in a prior post, but I’ll list them again so we have them in front of us for this conversation.  Here are the practices the psalmist mentions concerning his engagement with Scripture:

  1. A regular ASSESSMENT of his own life in relation to the way of God.
  2. A VERBAL RESPONSE involving PRAISING God for his word, SINGING to God about his word, or actually RECITING out-loud God’s word.
  3. MEDITATION on God’s word.
  4. ASKING God to be the primary teacher of His word.
  5. REMINDING God about his word and asking him to act in accordance with it.
  6. PRACTICING the Daily Offices (conducting any and all of these other disciplines at set times of the day and night – even at midnight!).


Each of these topics is worthy of separate posts, but here are my thoughts about two of them.


The psalmist who writes Psalm 119 is verbally engaged with God’s word.   For example, while there may be a number of songs in his repertoire, he specifically mentions singing God’s own word; not singing about God’s word, but actually using God’s own word for lyrics (119:54, 172).  However, his recitations don’t stop with a song.  He intentionally and verbally speaks God’s word –“With my lips I recount all the words that come from your lips” (119:10).


In the days since I finished my 119 day experiment I’ve watched to see how often I, my Bible class, or even my church family actually spoke God’s word out-loud.  I didn’t keep any records of this informal survey but I was astounded at how infrequently Scripture floated off our tongues and across our lips.  We read it.  We heard it.  We even wrote it.  But speaking Scripture–that rarely happened.


A second practice woven through this psalm is what many call the Daily Office.  For those of us who think “liturgy” sounds like a Hungarian dessert, this simply means praying at set times of the day (and often with the same set of prayers).  At one point the psalmist mentions praising God seven times a day (119:164), which evidently even involved waking at midnight (119:62).  I actually tried this for a while.  I set my phone to signal me at set times of the day so I would pray (to be honest, that midnight appointment slipped of my schedule pretty quickly!).


Can reciting Scripture out loud become dry?  Certainly.  Can praying at set times feel forced? Sure.  However, you have to wonder if it’s just a coincidence that the person who practiced these kinds of disciplines also confessed “I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands (119:131).

A group of us at my church organized a public reading of Scripture on Good Friday this year.  For almost an hour and a half a number of us shared in the out-loud reading of Matthew’s account of the Passion Week.  We worried people would get bored.  We fretted that we’d lose focus.  However, the #1 comment we heard afterwards was, “That was powerful.”


I wonder what kinds of thoughts and feelings you might experience if you picked one of these two disciplines and experimented with them this week.  Set your phone’s alarm to go off at 9 a.m., 3 p.m., and 6 p.m. At those hours this week stop and pray.  Or, pick a text like the Sermon on the Mount, find a quite place, and read a little of it out loud each day.  Post your reactions so we can learn together!


“I rise before dawn and cry for help; I have put my hope in your word”

Psalm 119:147

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This is the third in a series of guest posts by my friend and co-worker Craig Altrock. Craig and his wife Leslee have been active with LST  for 20 years now! 

 We are driven to act in accordance with the heartbeat of Scripture only in as much as we are led to THINK the right way about Scripture.  This became convincingly clear to me as I huddled around Psalm 119 for 119 days recently.   Like the luminous outline of a city at night, the importance of right thinking frames the psalm.  And, like the soil nourishing a plant, it is a way of thinking about Scripture that energizes this psalmist’s great love for God.


As I noted in my last post, here are six beliefs about Scripture which fuel the psalmist’s passion for it:

  1. It is a PATH toward joyful living, not a roadblock to your desires.
  2. It is a LIGHT to illuminate your way.
  3. It is a DOOR to freedom, not a sentence of imprisonment.
  4. It is a COMPANION that guides us toward heart-felt passion for God.
  5. It is a REFLECTION of God’s character.
  6. It is NOURISHMENT to sustain the journey.


While it’s tempting to spend a post on each one of these, I’ll pick just two.


The Path— Scripture for this psalmist is not simply an instruction manual on how one is made right with God, as though that act were somehow unconnected to the rest of the way we live.  For many people Scripture is the place we turn when we have “spiritual” questions. It’s the shelf on which we find the ingredients for knowing God better.  It’s the pantry where we keep all things related to “my spiritual life.”


But, when you conjure up images connected to the word path you get a different idea altogether.  When you are bombarded with daily advice on how you should live, Scripture silences those voices and provides the one true way of living. Scripture isn’t just a rest stop, it’s the road!  It isn’t just a road sign, it’s the entire map! Scripture is meant to guide us into healthy, joyful, fruitful ways of engaging each other and God – the road-surface of life!


The Door— This image isn’t actually used in Psalm 119, but it comes closest to what I think is one of the most significant ways of thinking in the psalm –freedom.  It is to the detriment of countless numbers of would-be disciples that they have somehow come to understand Scripture as something which confines us.  For too many, the pages of Scripture morph all too quickly into the bars of a cell.  Their belief is that all the fun is “out there” so why would I want to get trapped in the confines of God’s law?


But not so the psalmist.  I love 119:32, 45;  “I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free…I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts.


Freedom is not something we discover the farther we remove ourselves from Scripture.  Instead it is an experience we uncover as more and more of our life comes into alignment with God’s way.


Well, there’s so much more to say.  However, better than my trying to capture the right words to communicate these critical thoughts is YOU planting these seeds in your mind and letting the Spirit nourish them through prayer and meditation.


Which image speaks most powerfully to you?  Which one seems harder to connect with?  Pick one this week to mediate on and let us know what God does in you through that exercise.


“The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.”

Psalm 119:130

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This is the second in a series of four guest posts by my friend and co-worker Craig Altrock. He and his family are currently in Rwanda on an LST mission trip. 


From October of last year until April of this year, I spent 119 days journeying through one psalm – Psalm 119.  Now, if you count up the number of days in those months you’ll get much more than 119 days.  I didn’t say I spent 119 days in a row!  However, it was my goal to spend a day for every verse in the Psalm.  And, over the course of those 7 months I met that goal.


One thing that becomes crystal clear if you stay in Psalm 119 long enough is that this writer has, to put it mildly, a passion for God’s word.  He delights in God’s word, he is consumed with longing for it, and he puts his hope in it.  Scripture is what he thinks about, it gets him up at night, and it’s what he sings about.  In fact, if we were honest, this writer is probably one of those guys that would make us feel slightly awkward if we invited him over for dinner.  His passion for God’s law is so all-consuming that our own concern for the Bible might dim in the light of his enthusiasm.


Where does this heightened passion for God and His word originate?  In short, the psalmist thought about God’s word in ways we might not normally think, and he practiced Word-centered disciplines that might not be normal for us.  I’ll simply list these here in this post, and then dig a little more deeply into them in future postings.


[Before you read the following you might stop and consider how you would answer these two questions:

  • “What words or images guide your own understanding of what Scripture is and how it functions?”
  • “What disciplines do I practice regularly that connect me to God’s word?”

I think in many cases you will find the answers the psalmist gives to these questions differ from our own in both intensity and form.]


Beliefs about Scripture that fuel this psalmist’s passion for it:

  1. It is a PATH toward joyful living, not a roadblock to your desires.
  2. It is a LIGHT to illuminate your way.
  3. It is a DOOR to freedom, not a sentence of imprisonment.
  4. It is a COMPANION that guides us toward heart-felt passion for God.
  5. It is a REFLECTION of God’s character.
  6. It is NOURISHMENT to sustain the journey.


This is what the psalmist believes about God’s word.  Scripture for him is not a static recounting of historical events.  Nor is it simply a collection of moral standards.  It is something much, much more.


However, thoughts about God’s word are not the only thing heightening the psalmist’s passion for Scripture.  He’s taken to doing something things about it as well.


Disciplines the psalmist practices in relation to Scripture that ignite his zeal for it.

  1. A regular ASSESSMENT of his own life in relation to the way of God.
  2. A VERBAL RESPONSE involving PRAISING God for his word, SINGING to God about his word, or actually RECITING out-loud God’s word.
  3. MEDITATION on God’s word.
  4. ASKING God to be the primary teacher of His word.
  5. REMINDING God about his word and asking him to act in accordance with it.
  6. PRACTICING the Daily Offices (conducting any and all of these other disciplines at set times of the day and night – even at midnight!).


What do you think about God’s word?  What images and metaphors guide your thinking?  Would anything change for you this week if you adopted a few of the images above and mediated on their implication for your walk with God?


Similarly, what disciplines are you practicing that are word-oriented?  Would anything change for you if you adopted one or two of the practices above for a week?


My bet is that, like me, if you shift your focus and perhaps even some of your practice to mirror that of the psalmist, your own passion for God and his word might find renewed vigor.  I pray that it is so! In my next post we’ll dive a bit deeper into some of these thoughts and practices.


“Blessed are they who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart.”

Psalm 119:2

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This is the first of four guests posts by my friend and co-worker Craig Altrock.  He’s a man of God, and I know you will be blessed by his series on Psalm 119.  I will be back after his series finishes.

I recently completed a 119 day journey through Psalm 119.  I say that not so much to wow you, but simply to say that I finished what was for me a pretty serious commitment.

If you’re like me, spending 119 days on anything is significant.  Our schedules run so full these days that most of us are fighting just to scratch out a few moments of quiet every few days of the week.  I didn’t do a lot of thought on the front end of this exercise, and it definitely wasn’t the product of long and extensive planning.  I just felt prompted to camp out in this psalm for a season, so I did.

It might not surprise you that I came away with a few observations after this journey.  So, as a guest contributor to this blog I thought it might be helpful, to at least some of you, for me to share some of these musings prompted by Psalm 119.  I’ll stay pretty general with this post and then get more specific in future ones.

Two insights I gained from camping out on one piece of Scripture for an extended season:

  1. There are levels of spiritual understanding and experience you only gain from consuming God’s word slowly and deliberately.  For many of us, Scripture reading is something akin to a visit to the drive through window of a fast food restaurant.  We may do it regularly, but we accomplish it as quickly as possible– chew, swallow, slurp, done.   But to truly stop and savor the word– this is an altogether different experience.  The psalmist says, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth” (119:103).  As with fine food, there are certain flavors, textures, and nuances that we only experience when we slow down enough to actually taste the word we are consuming.  This moves us past the reading of Scripture strictly for information and into the realm of reading for formation.
  1. Soaking in one piece of Scripture teaches us the value of engaging God’s word in creative ways.  One of the plain hard truths about camping out this long on one psalm is that if you don’t get creative with your approach, you might get bored!  There are only so many times you can read the same piece of Scripture.  So, while I did in fact read through the 176 verses of this psalm many, many times, I was eventually pushed to read it in other ways.  For example, while I’ve not done much before in terms of Scripture memorization, I found great joy in memorizing pieces of this psalm.  While I’ve not used Scripture to form the words of my prayers much in the past, I discovered new vitality in allowing pieces of this psalm to voice my response to God.  Though I don’t journal as much as I’d like, I uncovered wonderful insights from writing my own version of this psalm, one stanza at a time.

Well, you may not want to commit to 119 days on one piece of Scripture, but I bet you could take one week and pledge to read the same passage every day that week.  If you do that this week, I’d love to hear what YOU learn!

“Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord”

Psalm 119:1

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We used to sing lots of songs that drew on nature to praise God, much as David did in his psalms. I have been trying to think of modern praise songs that draw on the beauty of nature as the illustration of God’s goodness and power, but haven’t thought of many whose primary metaphor is nature! Some, like Shout to the Lord, use the psalms as a basis for their lyrics and would certainly fall into this category. You probably know many more.

Some great hymns like How Great Thou Art, This Is My Father’s World, For the Beauty of the Earth, All Creatures of Our God and King, Fairest Lord Jesus, The Spacious Firmament, The Heaven’s Declare the Glory of God, even Eternal Father, Strong to Save have been sung by Christians for decades, if not centuries, because the creation was intended to not only show us but to convince us of the divinity of the One Creator God! Science has stolen nature from Christianity in the last hundred years, as if beauty and majesty were an accident.  But you and I don’t believe that. We believe that every single wildflower, every sparrow, every grain of sand on the seashore is the expression of God’s gracious love and of his absolute and ultimate power! Perhaps Christians should reclaim nature for its own hymnody again!

San Juan Mountains

Here in Colorado, the mountains have overwhelmed us. I’ve been thinking today about the song Unto the Hills which has been a favorite of mine for almost my entire life—pretty strange, growing up in the flat plains of Texas, but it’s true!

Here are the words of the song, which, of course, is taken from Psalm 121:

Unto the hills around do I lift up
My longing eyes;
O whence for me shall my salvation come,
From whence arise?
From God the Lord doth come my certain aid,
From God the Lord, who heaven and earth hath made.

He will not suffer that thy foot be moved:
Safe shalt thou be.
No careless slumber shall His eyelids close,
Who keepeth thee.
Behold, He sleepeth not, He slumbereth ne’er,
Who keepeth Israel in His holy care.

Jehovah is Himself thy keeper true,
Thy changeless shade;
Jehovah thy defense on thy right hand
Himself hath made.
And thee no sun by day shall ever smite;
No moon shall harm thee in the silent night.

From every evil shall He keep thy soul,
From every sin;
Jehovah shall preserve thy going out,
Thy coming in.
Above thee, watching, He whom we adore
Shall keep thee henceforth, yea, for evermore.

And don’t you love the verses in The Psalms that use the mountains and rivers to express extreme praise for God—like Psalm 98!

Let the sea resound, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it.
8 Let the rivers clap their hands,
let the mountains sing together for joy;
9 let them sing before the LORD!

When you visit the Konigsee in Germany, a large alpine lake surrounded by huge mountains, the little electric boat stops in the middle of the lake and one of the crew pulls out a trumpet and begins to play a simple melody—pausing after every phrase for you to hear the mountains echoing every single note of the song—not just once, but several times.  The mountains multiply the music!

I think of this when I think of the mountains singing as the rivers clap their hands. The mountains are multiplying the music of the saints, sending it up to God from the highest places.  And the rivers are clapping their joyful accord! Now that is praise!

We leave Colorado tomorrow and are on the road for a couple of days, so it will be sketchy as to whether I can get online. If not, I will see you again Sunday or Monday and we’ll catch up!

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When I was in the first grade, our class memorized this poem and recited it over the loudspeaker system to the whole school during the morning devotional time.  (Public schools were different then!) It is a poem, you know, not just a psalm. Remember how Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon were the division of the Bible called the Books of Poetry! The Spirit of God is a prolific poet.

Add to the pure poetry then the lyrical words of songs that Moses sang, Miriam, Deborah, and all Israel together with the Magnificat of Mary and the probable hymns of the early Christians reflected in Paul’s writings. I think God really likes poetry!

I think you will like poetry better, if you learn the technique of close reading. Let’s read this favorite poem of mine together and I will record my thoughts as I do a close reading so that you can see a concrete example of what I’m talking about.

A close reading of a biblical text for me means that the reader looks more closely at the detail of the text, but probably does not do a historical or linguistic analysis.  Let me show you what I mean. Stay with me and let’s read the text together. It may feel a little disjointed, but the goal is to experience the poem and understand it in a meaningful way.

The LORD is my shepherd; To claim the Creator of the Universe with the word my is pretty audacious! Either the speaker is a pompous fool or he has an extraordinary sense of relationship with his God! And why does he choose the shepherd metaphor? Why not king or mountain or ocean or sun? Or if he’s choosing a profession, why not carpenter or farmer or winemaker? Probably in this case, the poet wants to reveal the relationship that the shepherd establishes with the sheep. The writer puts himself in the position of being a sheep by calling the LORD his shepherd.  Is being a sheep a good thing? Aren’t sheep a little dumb? Oops, maybe that’s part of the poem?  Well let’s go on.

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. What confidence in the shepherd! Can a human shepherd provide everything for the sheep as well as protect them from all harm? Not really, but the poet says his shepherd can—the LORD can.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters. I must admit, this sounds pretty good. Green pastures for eating and still waters for drinking—but, in fact, it doesn’t seem to me that creature comforts are not what the writer focuses on. No, he is describing a place of quiet rest—perhaps just a place of contentment where the sheep don’t have to worry about their needs because they can just look around and see that everything is there that they need—so they can relax.

He restoreth my soul. Yes, that seems to be the whole direction of this poem so far—restoration. Not just meeting physical needs, but feeding and watering the soul is what the poet means when he says, “I shall not want.”

He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness .  . . The word righteousness gets in the way for me. It’s too churchy, too theological. Would it be just as right to say, “He leads me down the right path,” or, “He makes sure that I stay on the path?”

. . . for his name’s sake: Then the poet just reminds us that while the shepherd is doing so much for the care of the sheep, ultimately the sheep are there for the benefit of the shepherd! It is the shepherd’s will for the sheep that will ultimately be done, not the sheep’s will for themselves. They will be petted, they will be shorn, some may be eaten—they belong to the Shepherd, not to themselves.  The Shepherd cares for the flock for his own sake!  And that seems to be OK with the poet.

4Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: I know that it is a misreading of the text, but I can’t help but love the Yea, because it sounds like “Yay!!” or maybe YES!! Sometimes poets use words to mean one thing, but to suggest other things. I wish that were the case here, but I don’t think it is.  Well, that is probably a sidetrack.  Not being afraid as one is threatened with death is not normal! But the poet didn’t say he wasn’t afraid; rather, he said he would fear no evil! His fearlessness is certainly because of his confidence that he is being led along the righteous path where evil does not prevail.

For thou art with me! One of these words is shocking!  It’s OK to talk about the Majestic God of heaven as the Shepherd, even though it is a lowly image. It was bold to call Him my Shepherd, but at least the poet is still speaking metaphorically and positions himself well below the Shepherd, but suddenly here, the poet switches voices and addresses Almighty God directly—with one of the most common words in the English language—and one of the most familiarly intimate words:  YOU! Most languages have forms of address for royalty, for class or gender differentiation. In English, the poet just says, “YOU” to God. I don’t think a Muslim could be so familiar with Allah.

Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.  Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. The rod and staff are for protection and rescue mostly, I suppose, therefore to know the shepherd has all he needs to protect and rescue me is comforting.  But to spread a picnic in the middle of a battlefield, that’s a peculiar image—unless his enemies were not yet active, not yet aggressive, still his enemies, however.  We too live in a world of intrigue. Think about your family drama, the tensions at work—or at church as people trample others to get what they want or where they want.  OK, I’m getting a better picture of sitting down to eat among people who are after me, but without fear because . . .

Thou anointest my head with oil! Because I’m a sheep of the Almighty Shepherd and I have been chosen, anointed, so the Shepherd and I stand together.

My cup runneth over! My cup of wine or cup of blessing or cup of joy or cup of thanksgiving—any of those work for me.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, It’s all based on this relationship between the Shepherd and the sheep. If the Shepherd is as good as He seems, then surely that sheep need not worry one day of his life that he will be left to evil and judgment—the opposites of goodness and mercy!

And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever. Sheep in the house?? I don’t know about that. I think with the shift to YOU, the poet starts giving up the sheep metaphor and is wrapped up in the goodness of his own relationship to the LORD.  And the house of the LORD could be just where He is, but it could be the metaphorical temple—which was the house of the LORD! And could it be the household of the LORD or His family?

Don’t you love the word forever! There is no forever to anything that we know in the physical universe. So by using the word forever, the poet carries himself and us with him far beyond anything that we know! That says to me that anything we even conceive of in the image the house of the LORD is wrong and whatever it is, it is so much more than we can imagine—and I shall dwell there forever!

I love to read closely—to read poetry closely, but especially to read God’s poetry closely because the richness is completely satisfying—but never exhausted.  I’m glad my English teachers taught me to love poetry. I’m quite sure we will do poetry readings in the house of the Lord forever!

Are you ready?




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