Category Archives: psalms

A psalm for Monday

First published October 15, 2012

I’ve never talked with you about Psalm 121. It’s a song that strengthens me. When my heart sings it, I am encouraged. It has been shaping me for several decades but I’ve never talked with you about it.

“The sun will not smite me by day, nor the moon by night.” That’s not exactly how the NIV reads, but it is how Bernstein included this Psalm in “A Simple Song“. I started singing those words, the phrases from Psalm 121 in college. Not out loud, for to me to sing outside my head encourages no one. But the musical blend of dissonance and resolve in this piece reflects the lyrical dissonance and resolve in the Psalm itself. Somehow, singing the lines strengthens me.

When Eugene Peterson writes about that passage (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction), he asks, “How can the moon smite you?”, then talks about the struggles we have in the dark, the doubts that creep, the questions that rob us of sleep. Peterson’s explanation of the lyricist’s imagery makes sense. And comforts.

I realized why I haven’t talked about this song. It’s easy to treat it as an assertion and to offer counterexamples. When the psalmist says, “The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life,” it is possible to say, “But what about the time that evil hurt my friend, my daughter, me?” When the psalmist says, “He will not let your foot be moved”, we say, “But what about the time my friend did slip?”

And so, to avoid the argument, I’ve not mentioned the song. In the process, I’ve not pointed you to this pilgrim song, sung for generations on their way to Jerusalem. I apologize. We need anthems that teach large truths even while we sort out specific events.


I woke up too early. It was still dark. The longest day of the year was already slipping away into a distant memory, so the light that normally seeped around the edges of the bedroom curtains wasn’t there. I wasn’t sure what time it was, so I looked at my bedside watch. It has a dial that lights up when I push a little button. Aaah – it was late enough that I didn’t have to try to get back to sleep again.

Then I went to the kitchen to brew a pot of coffee. The clock on the kitchen stove was 5 minutes slower than my watch. Which was right? I turned on my smartphone, because it constantly goes to the internet to find the correct time. It proved the stove’s clock was right. I realized it had been too long since I checked the accuracy of the time on my bedside watch.

Our lives are like that. We need to recalibrate by going back to a source we can trust to see what’s right. “Your word is a lamp to guide my feet and a light for my path.” That’s Psalm 119 verse 105, from the longest chapter in the Bible. And that chapter is about the Bible. The writer shows many values of God’s word. Here are two of my favorites:

  • “Keep me from lying to myself; give me the privilege of knowing your instructions” (verse 29). The more I am reminded of the truth, the harder it is to wander.
  • “I weep with sorrow; encourage me by your word” (verse 28). Using God’s word as a source of encouragement is perfect for those times when I wake up to early to talk with anyone about my sorrows.

Explore the chapter for yourself. Which is your favorite verse?

(Paul Merrill writes here every First Friday.)

a blessed life.

(First published July 13, 2014)

When you pick up a book of poetry or a book of song lyrics, you have to work.

You cannot read Gerard Manley Hopkins or W.H. Auden or Bono the same way you read Malcolm Gladwell or Donald Miller. With poems, you have to stop often, read out loud at times, look in your heart for images and understanding.

The book of Psalms is a book of poetry. It takes time to read and reread. But that what keeps people going back.

Here’s a reflection on the first of the psalms.

Psalm 1

It doesn’t make a lot of sense, now, does it
if a person wanting to live a blessed life
gets all his advice from people who are against God
or walks along a path that leads away from God
or sits on the sidelines being snarky all the time.
Instead, think what would happen if she decided
to focus on God’s words
like words from a lover
and day and night reflected on them.
It’d be like a planting a tree right by a river,
roots well watered,
branches bearing great fruit.
The things people like that do, they prosper somehow.
A person who is against God isn’t going to grow this way.
Without the water of life, you end up more like chaff,
the hull on the outside of a grain of wheat,
blowing away in the harvest wind.
At the end of everything, when considering how life was lived,
the ones who chose to be wicked
will find their legs collapsing under them.
And the ones who joyfully wanted “sinner” as their pursuit
will find no room in the “righteous” section.
Those who trail along after God
find protection along the way.
Those who are committed to avoiding that path
will find themselves among the ruins.

think what would happen if she decided to

From strength to strength

The mom of my friend died the other afternoon. We talked together a few hours before.

He knew it was coming. He was anticipating the arrangements, the conversations, the travel. He was feeling weary. I knew the feeling. Some of you do, too.

A couple hours before we met, I had been reading a prayer. I came across it, I confess, by opening my Bible to Psalms. No reading pattern, no plan.

“Blessed are those whose strength is in You, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.”

That’s us, you and me, those of us who are on this journey, this pilgrimage, this process of learning about following Jesus. That’s us, you and me, driven by our weakness.

“As they pass through the Valley of Baka,
    they make it a place of springs;
    the autumn rains also cover it with pools.”

It’s a valley near Jerusalem, a valley of dryness. People on pilgrimage bring water to dry places.

They go from strength to strength,
    till each appears before God in Zion.

This is the sentence that stopped me, that made me reflect. Because on my pilgrimage there are many moments that don’t feel like strength. Moments like the one sitting with my friend.

But what if this is us, you and me, though we often don’t realize it. That’s us moving from oasis to oasis, with long stretches between. That’s us, moving from time of healing to time of healing, with need of healing between. What if the moments of strength are what sustains us in the in-between? What if the walk of faith is characterized, as Paul wrote by “striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.” What if the strength is a series of texts in the moments we need it for when we need it rather than the whole book, a drip rather than a reservoir.


Bittersweet fun

A new person that came into the group, and she fit a certain stereotype to a T. Her clothing reflected a style that passed out of vogue about 20 years ago.

I was powerless. I knew a friend in that group would completely agree with my judgment and be equally amused. So after a tiny hesitation, I texted my friend. We exchanged a knowing smile.

“Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you,” Jesus said in Matthew 7:12. Though this is one of the most quoted verses in the Bible, I still seem to have a hard time applying that concept to my life.

A very simple way to stop myself from stepping across the line is to ask, “Could I say that directly to the person I am talking about?” If the answer is no, then I should not say it to anyone else.

It was such fun to share my judgment and laugh about that person – for a brief moment. Then I was overwhelmed with a wave of guilt.

The Fashion Violation Lady will never know about my little text. But God did. And that’s where forgiveness comes in. “Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7). Then, “He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). So once I ask for forgiveness, it’s gone.

And I learned my lesson. Hopefully for at least a few days.

Things get really complicated when we say things we regret to a person face-to-face. Then the damage is harder to undo. It may take significant work to dig ourselves out of a hole. For the future, ask for protection ahead of time: “God, help me love others today!”

(Paul Merrill writes here every First Friday.)