To the choirmaster: according to Lilies. A Maskil of the Sons of Korah; a love song.
My heart overflows with a pleasing theme;
I address my verses to the king;
my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.
You are the most handsome of the sons of men;
grace is poured upon your lips;
therefore God has blessed you forever.
Gird your sword on your thigh, O mighty one,
in your splendor and majesty!
In your majesty ride out victoriously
for the cause of truth and meekness and righteousness;
let your right hand teach you awesome deeds!
Your arrows are sharp
in the heart of the king’s enemies;
the peoples fall under you.
Your throne, O God, is forever and ever.
The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness;
you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness.
Therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions;
your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia.
From ivory palaces stringed instruments make you glad;
daughters of kings are among your ladies of honor;
at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir.
Hear, O daughter, and consider, and incline your ear:
forget your people and your father’s house,
and the king will desire your beauty.
Since he is your lord, bow to him.
The people of Tyre will seek your favor with gifts,
the richest of the people.
All glorious is the princess in her chamber, with robes interwoven with gold.
In many-colored robes she is led to the king,
with her virgin companions following behind her.
With joy and gladness they are led along
as they enter the palace of the king.
In place of your fathers shall be your sons;
you will make them princes in all the earth.
I will cause your name to be remembered in all generations;
therefore nations will praise you forever and ever.
So that’s the psalm we’re looking at, today and next sermon and perhaps one sermon more. Which immediately brings us to a problem which could be expressed as: What on Earth!?!
You’ve come today to worship God and to get around people and to be encouraged. What you’re coming from is work, problems, worries, meetings, appointments, etc. Everything that taken together we call “real life.”
And what do we have before us today? A “love song.” A 3000-year-old poem describing an ancient wedding between the Israelite king and his chosen bride. A poem complete with swords girded to thighs, attending virgins, thrones, the handsome king riding on a steed, ivory palaces and plenty of other bling, nations praising the newly married queen forever and ever.
How far away from us does all this seem! We have the internet and iPhone and Alexa and fast cars! Also, we have rising inflation, mid-term elections, etc. Our oil tank needs to stay filled, and have you seen those prices? We’re concerned about how our children are turning out. We’re trying to reach level 37 on that video game…
Whatever our particular situation is, it seems far away from Psalm 45. This love song comes off as so irrelevant to where we live that it seems almost cruel to have us come together and listen to a sermon about it.
If you’re reading through the psalms at home, when you come to Psalm 45 you might be tempted to just skip over it to Psalm 46, which we looked at last week.
Of course, Psalm 45 isn’t the only section of the Bible that strikes us as very distant from us, quite irrelevant, utterly strange. Strange, that’s a good word. There are many sections of Scripture that when we come to them, we think: they did things strangely back then, and it’s strange that God would choose to include a passage like this in Christian Scripture, and it’s very strange that we’re still talking about it today.
If I could put the issue this way, we come to passages like Psalm 45, and we think: this is boring, and I’d like for my religious texts to be inspiring, and it’s mighty strange that so many of them are not.
This morning, I’d like to take us through some preliminary thoughts for approaching difficult passages. And again, much of the difficulty of sections of the Bible lies not in the fact that they’re hard to understand – for instance, I bet you understood most of this psalm – but in the pervading sense of “this is strange, and who cares” while reading it.
So how do we approach these kinds of passages?
I’ll begin with something that C.S. Lewis said, which I’ve found to be very helpful in reading the Bible:
“Besides being complicated, reality, in my experience, is usually odd. It is not neat, not obvious, not what you expect.…Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up. It has just that queer twist about it that real things have…” [Emphases mine]
Lewis is observing that reality, in fact, is strange. Which means, that when we open up the Bible which is purporting to describe reality to us, we should expect to encounter… some strangeness. Because reality is strange. Just look at the duck-billed platypus. Or, for that matter, the human nose.
We could keep going: Stutterers don’t stutter while singing. Lobsters taste with their feet. A flock of crows is called a “Murder.” A flock of ravens is called an “Unkindness.”
Yes, reality does turn out to be strange. So, expect strangeness when you open the Bible, since it is both describing and setting reality. Yes, expect in the Bible to find strange things included, like a love poem set around an ancient Near East wedding.
Lewis also said this about reality: “Reality is iconoclastic.”
Reality is iconoclastic.
The iconoclasts were those who, in the eastern church of the 8th and 9th centuries, were known for destroying any images or monuments depicting religious themes.
Reality is also iconoclastic. It destroys images.
Taken together, what Lewis was saying is that reality is both strange, AND, reality constantly upsets and destroys our vague ideas about God and religion.
Point being, when we open up the Bible, we should be prepared, not only to be constantly surprised, but also to be constantly rebuked in our mistaken thoughts about God and self and the world. Rebuked about reality.
You’ve been wrong: Strawberries aren’t really berries. That’s reality.
And we’ve also been wrong in thinking that reading a love poem set around an ancient Near Eastern wedding wasn’t exactly what we needed to draw near to God.
So, let me summarize that: in approaching the Bible, you shouldn’t be surprised to find sections that are deeply strange to you, that you wouldn’t expect, because that’s how reality is.
The Gospel of John records that after Jesus fed the 5000, the crowds then chased him down, hoping that they could keep him around as a “gravy train,” a constant free source of food. To this hungering crowd, Jesus said something really interesting:
“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” And the crowds responded, “what must we do, to be doing the works of God?” And Jesus said, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:27-29)
“This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” I’ve often thought about this sentence. There are a lot of obstacles to believing God’s word: some of those include obstacles we meet in Psalm 45: that sense of distance, the seeming irrelevance, the strangeness of it all.
So, what do we have to do in the face of these obstacles? Work at removing them! Work at believing that God’s Word, which is expressed most fully in Jesus, is true, that is, relevant, urgently needing to be heard, setting the table of reality.
Believing takes work. Trusting God involves fighting through the ignorance, the emotion of boredom, the sometimes-overwhelming feeling of “who gives a flip”… because you have come to realize that “every word of God proves true/ he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.” (Proverbs 30:5)
Finding refuge in God comes by saying: the Word of God is going to be the problem I’m working on for all my days, because it’s true, and my initial responses to it – underwhelmed, bored, weirded out etc. – aren’t.
To reiterate: when you come to the Bible, expect to find hurdles to believing, many of those arising from your first, instinctive reactions to the text. But don’t be dismayed by your boredom etc. but get to work toward believing. You’ll always find attention to God’s word eventually to be worth the effort.
I’ve had this ongoing argument with most of my kids as they pass through their teenage years: is beauty objective or subjective? Tess and I are going at it now. We don’t need to get into that argument now, but I wanted to raise one of my favorite illustrations that carries one of my obscure points, since it does relate to the issue of approaching difficult biblical passages. It’s actually a question: What is better music, Bach’s “St Matthew’s Passion” or “Shut Up and Dance with Me”?
Of course, many young people will say that St Matthew’s Passion is boring, and “Shut Up and Dance with Me” is much more appealing, exciting, moving…and therefore it’s gotta be better music.
Just look at the numbers, they might say: Many more people listen to “Shut Up and Dance with Me” now. More and more people are turning away from “St Matthew’s Passion.” That’s gotta say something about the music’s quality.
But here’s my point: St Matthew’s Passion is objectively better music. It possesses more beauty, more ingredients of beauty, including the trait of durability.
So, if it seems boring, the problem is not with St Matthew’s Passion, the problem is with the listener. The fact that someone’s bored by it is no slight on the song, but rather says something negative about the listener’s ability to interpret and appreciate the true and beautiful. He needs to learn… even how to feel about it. In other words, the song isn’t boring; the listener is boring.
Ok, those might be fighting words, and you can take up that argument with me afterwards, knowing that my kids either are on your side or used to be on your side. But I want to make the application in the way we read and react to parts of the Bible: the problem isn’t with the Bible; it’s with us.
When we’re bored with the Bible, I repeat, it says something negative about us, and not about the Bible.
And just by reading the Bible and feeling the boredom, the Bible becomes to us a rebuke and correction and instruction. That’s ok, that’s how it’s supposed to work. The Bible is meant to shape you at a deep level, to change your interests, your feelings.
So, sit before the Bible, all of it, including the boring passages, work at understanding and believing, until you come to see that it’s saying exactly what needed to be said, that it wasn’t strange, but rather you’ve been the strange one.
Those were some general thoughts about approaching strange texts. Now, how do we approach Psalm 45 in particular, in order for us to come to hear it as God’s word for us that we urgently need to receive? We’ll just start to answer that question today. Warning: this sermon will feel incomplete.
How do we approach Psalm 45 in particular? First of all, start with general observations. So, don’t skip over the fact that Psalm 45 is basically a love song describing a wedding.
And then consider how thus it so easily resonates with us, the reader. Think about it: it’s rather heartening to come upon this celebration of love and marriage in our Scriptures! We need to celebrate marital love, we love to celebrate it.
It somehow makes sense to make much of marital love. Love and romance and weddings have been an important thing, an interesting thing, throughout human history, up until today. The coming together of man and woman is unfailingly relevant and interesting.
Why are they still making Hallmark movies? Why am I still watching Hallmark movies?
I know how every Hallmark movie is going to go: the girl from the city visits the country town where her mom and dad live. She initially looks down on the country folk and is embarrassed that she used to be one of them. But lo, she comes across a handsome guy, either one that she knew from her high school or who has moved into town. At first, they clash, but then start to fall in love. It all looks promising. But hold on, she gets a call from her job in the city, and she’s going to be promoted – but she’ll have to commit to leaving the town with the handsome guy, maybe she’ll have to move to an even bigger city. What will she do? She chooses the man and the simple life and – bonus – can use her skills from the big city to start a business in the small town…
I came home at 9 on Thursday night and watched a Hallmark movie. I turned off the Cardinals vs Saints to watch it.
Even though I knew how it would turn out, there’s still something about watching the man and woman falling in love and coming together that is so entrancing!
But not just to watch this coming together, even better to be a part of it. It’s not uncommon for people who are 60, 70, 80, who might’ve been married previously and their spouses have died or they’ve been divorced – and even in their advanced years and after experience with marriage, even bad experiences, they’re still hoping to fall in love and be married. This isn’t true of everyone, but it’s true of many. Romance, love, weddings – this is a very human thing.
So, yes, my first observation is that Psalm 45 is speaking of something quite contemporary and…plain ol’ human. Who can honestly say he knows nothing about the thrill of love?
Speaking of objective beauty, everyone knows that the best love song of all time is Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are.” Just listen to these lyrics:
Time and again I’ve longed for adventure
Something to make my heart beat the faster
What did I long for? I never really knew
Finding your love I’ve found my adventure
Touching your hand, my heart beats the faster
All that I want in all of this world is you
You are the promised kiss of springtime
That makes the lonely winter seem long
You are the breathless hush of evening
That trembles on the brink of a lovely song
You are the angel glow that lights a star
The dearest things I know are what you are
Some day my happy arms will hold you
And some day I’ll know that moment divine
When all the things you are, are mine.
Some day, I’ll know that moment divine – yes there is something divine about genuine love that ends in a great celebration feast of marriage (that’s what the next sermon is about!) – when all the things you are, are mine.
I’m not crying; you’re crying!
Psalm 45 is exalting romantic love and marriage. The people of God in their walk before God aren’t lifted above such things! As the king’s wedding is so joyously described, we non-kings are given the permission to think much, to make much of weddings, to surround them best we can with pageantry, to rate highly marriage and the joyful hope of childbirth and raising the next generation.
Even its placement in the middle of other types of psalms has an effect on us; it kinda jolts us into thinking: oh yeah, marriage. Then, yes, how hard it would be to overrate love and marriage! How central this is to human existence! We might even be tempted to conclude, maybe everything really is all about marriage (that’s next sermon!).
And the rest of the Scriptures would agree with the exaltation of marriage we find in Psalm 45: Just look at Song of Solomon!
And in the prophetic books, when the speakers of judgment want to encapsulate what the scene will be when God’s judgment descends on a people, they’ll sometimes say something along the lines of: the sound of the bridegroom has gone out of the city. The end of weddings is a signal of God’s judgment.
Or how about in Isaiah 4: 1 – Seven women shall take hold of one man in that day, saying, ‘we will eat our own bread and wear our own clothes, only let us be called by your name; take away our reproach. The end of marriage, the collapse of the family unit, is the form that judgment takes.
Whereas, on the other hand, scenes of restoration and blessing are rendered in marital and familial terms: Zechariah 4:3, 4: Thus says the Lord: I have returned to Zion and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem, and Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the Lord of hosts, the holy mountain. Thus says the Lord of hosts: Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.
Long marriages. Children. Grandchildren. At peace within and without. What a portrait of God’s blessing that is only extending the great theme we find in Psalm 45.
I’d like to conclude with just one question of application, directed to married men:
Brother, do you value marriage? Do you value your marriage? Husbands, do you love your wife, are you focused on attending to her, learning about her, planning ahead and working so as to not be harsh with her?
Not harsh and overbearing and complaining, but rather you’ve set her apart in your heart, your presence is a helpful and bracing presence to her. You’re grateful. You prize her before your children. You encourage her. You are still nourishing and cherishing, delighting in her, many years after you made public vows to do just that.
Let the pageantry and joy surrounding the king’s marriage in Psalm 45 recall you to the great thing that is romantic and marital love. Amen.
But we’ve just scratched the surface in even approaching Psalm 45! After today’s sermon in which we’ve tried to just appreciate the centrality of marital love in the human condition, in next sermon we’ll recall that, actually, marriage is the theme and goal of God’s ways with us. I could put it this way – our instinctual interest in marital love is well-founded: the meaning of history is marriage. And then, that the marriage of the King of Israel specifically was key to all this.