September 20, 2018 Chapel Service — Dr. Stephen J. Nichols

From Reformation Bible College | September 24, 2018

Stephen Nichols
“Reading the Psalms with Luther
—Psalm 118:17-29

Dr. Stephen J. Nichols is president of Reformation Bible College, chief academic officer for Ligonier Ministries, and a Ligonier teaching fellow.


In 1530, Luther and a small band set out from Wittenberg. They got in a little boat and headed down the Elbe River and ended up at the charming town of Torgau. Wittenberg was the castle from which the Dukes of Saxony ruled, but Torgau was their ancestral home. And so, Luther, two of his sons were with him, and a few faculty from Wittenberg, most notably Philip Melanchthon, go to Torgau and they spend a few weeks there. Over the course of those weeks, they hammer out what comes to be the content of the Augsburg confession. They are joined by more scholars and more nobles and the party grows larger, and the party sets out from Torgau on its way to Augsburg. Luther was not promised a safe passage, and from the time of the Diet of Worms, Luther was an outlaw, and this would take him outside of Saxony, Germany. So, not being granted safe passage and not having full protection, the better part of wisdom was for Luther not to go. He makes it as far as the Castle Coburg, it’s a charming place. It’s one of Germany’s largest castles. It’s the stuff of fairytales, you should look it up sometime, just don’t do it now. I hesitate to tell you how nice it is because you’ll start Googling on your phone.

They left Luther behind at the Castle Coburg, and they went on to the Augsburg Confession; that was difficult for Luther. If you know anything about Luther, he has to be in the room, he can’t not be in the room, and this was an important room to be in. If we start the German Reformation not at the 95 Theses, but at Worms, where things are sort of cemented, and post-Worms, where Luther returns to Wittenberg and begins establishing things— this enterprise is less than 10 years old. It’s an absolute infant. There are enemies all around. Remember that Luther the year before could not get along with Zwingli. Calvin is really not on the scene at this point, he’s a young guy still making his way. Luther and Zwingli, they did not get along. So, there is no coalition with the Swiss churches, it’s just the German churches. They are surrounded by Papists, and let’s not forget the Turks. So, it’s not exactly clear where all the princes are and where they line up theologically, so a lot hinged on Augsburg. To be at Augsburg, where the theologians, the church men, and the princes could come to together and have somewhat of a coalition, was to be in a little bubble while surrounded by all these challenges and all these enemies. For Luther not to be there— he’s given to anxiety. Luther, everything is extreme with him; the sky is always falling with Luther. And here he is in the Castle Coburg, this charming place, and he’s riddle with anxiety. He spends six months there. He could fret away the moments and hours by just simply being worrying and being anxious, and he did that, but he could also write. Over the course of those six months, Luther wrote somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 texts of varying lengths, some short, some long. That’s a lot in six months. And one of them was a treatise on Psalm 118.

Luther had begun a practice where he would read through the Psalms in two weeks. Took the practice from the Book of Hours, where you break up the day in three-hour segments, so you have eight times of prayer. Yes, you’d get up in the middle of the night, have prayer, and then go back to sleep. Luther dropped that one out, he reduced it down to seven times a day. And over the course of those seven times during the day, he would read through the Psalms in two weeks. A practice he carried on most of his adult life. It’s very safe to say Luther lived in the Psalter. In one of those readings he bumped into Psalm 118, and he stayed there long enough to write a treatise. And he comes to call Psalm 118, “My beloved Psalm.” Would you please look with me at Luther’s beloved Psalm?

Now this is one of those Psalms that has bookends, the beginning and the ending are the same, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!” It’s repeated again at the end of the Psalm, at verse 29. Not only is it important to see the bookends, but poetically in how things are structured, sometimes those bookends point us right to the middle. It’s important to see what is happening in the middle, and what is happening is the Psalmist’s absolute despair. Surrounded by enemies, the Psalmist says, “They are like a swarm of bees.”

Have any of you ever been attacked by a swarm of bees? I was attacked by a swarm of hornets once. Three homes back, we had a little porch on the side of the house with a roof, and above that porch was a window with shutters. And I, for some reason was banging on these shutters with a hammer. I don’t know why, I can’t remember. That’s what I was doing, and apparently there was a hornet’s nest behind that shutter. They don’t like being hammered, they don’t like the noise of a hammer and the vibrations. So, about 20 of them shot out of there; they were angry, and they identified me as the object of their anger. I’m standing on our roof and we had a sloped driveway, so it was about a 20-foot drop to a paved driveway, and the other was about a 10-foot drop onto a sidewalk. My wife is watching all of this, and she is watching me get stung, and she’s thinking that I’m going to enter into some state of hysteria, or shock, and face plant myself on my driveway, and she will be left with providing for three young kids for the rest of her life. But low and behold, I was ready; I’m always ready. I slowly went over to the ladder and just let myself down, but it was not fun.

The Psalmist says, “They surrounded me,” verse 11, “They surrounded me on every side, they surrounded me like bees.” Listen to this line in 13a, “I was pushed hard, so that I was falling.” What a terrible feeling, isn’t it? When you have the dream that you’re falling, and you better wake up before you land so you don’t die. Is there anything more unsettling than falling? The chair that, you know, has the loose screw, and you’re sitting in it, and all of a sudden you just go back, and you think you are going to fall over. There is nothing more unsettling than not having terra firma underneath you and feeling like you’re falling. Luther felt like this. I don’t know how many times in his life, Luther felt like the world was closing in on him. Before he saw the beauty of the gospel, he thought God was out to get him, that God had made it His agenda to squash him like a bug.

Luther tells us there are three ways the read the Psalms. The first way is to read the Psalms personally. These aren’t someone else’s experiences, these aren’t Israel’s experiences, these are your experiences. Every high and every low is in here of the human spectrum of emotions. Utter despair is in the Psalms. The Psalms rival any of the great blues men and women. Utter despair is in the Psalms, utter joy is in the Psalms, and everything in between. Success and victory are in the Psalms, defeat and desolation are in the Psalms, the full spectrum of human experience and emotion is the Psalms. And Luther says, “Find yourself there.”

And here’s what Luther latched onto. I don’t think Luther had a life verse. We needed, you know, like the Billy Graham crusades, decision cards, life verses, and altar calls for that. But if Luther had a life verse it would be Psalm 118:17, “I shall not die, but I shall live.” Now on the one hand, spoiler alert: the Psalmist dies. The Psalmist is not saying, “I will never die, I’m invisible. Keep the kryptonite away— not an Übermensch.” The Psalmist has come to the realization that he is squarely and fully in God’s hand, and squarely and fully hedged by the protection of Almighty God. I won’t die one second sooner than God has determined it for me; nothing will befall me that my Heavenly Father has not ordained, orchestrated, and brought to pass, and in that I have confidence. Surrounded by enemies like a swarm of bees, I shall not die, but I shall live. This is not human bravado, this is trust in God. This is exactly what Luther needed at Coburg while he was fretting away, wondering if this whole thing was about to fall apart, thinking what would come on his beloved Church and his beloved Germany. He needed this, and he latched on to this, and he said, “I shall not die.”

Now Luther always thought he was going to die, as we see in his great letters from the end of his life, where he’s always talking about his death. He’s always talking about it, he’s talking about his death in 1520s, and he’s talking about his death in the 1530s. Luther had a classic case of the man cold. You get a man cold, what’s going to happen? You’re going die. The men here know exactly what I’m talking about and so do the women. This is Luther, his asceticism in the monastery caught up with him. Anybody who lived into their 40s and 50s, in this moment in history, is going to have intestinal parasites, is going have poor eyesight, is going have gout, and arthritis. Anyone is going to be beset by these things, and if you’re Luther and you’re prone to exaggeration; you’re dying all the time. This is exactly what Luther needed to hear, “I shall not die. But I shall live.”

At the end of the day, Luther is a preacher, it’s all he did. He started at 1513 at the Marienkirche, the Stadtkirche, not the castle church, but the state church that was Mary’s church. He started in 1513, and preached right up until his death, 1546. And so, look how verse 17 goes on, “And recount the deeds of the Lord.” It’s what a preacher does; he stands up and recounts the deeds of the Lord. This is Luther’s life verse, “I shall not die. I am firmly in God’s hand, He’s in control of my life; every single tick of the clock is controlled by Him in His sovereign goodness, and He will accomplish His purpose, and I have my job to do. And every moment that I have breath, I shall recount the deeds of the Lord.” This is Luther’s life verse, and he needed it and he saw himself in it. And if he was standing here, he would tell you this, “When you read the Psalms, you read them for yourself. They’re your Psalms, this is you.”

The second way we read the Psalms is that we see Christ in the Psalms. You know Luther had that wonderful, doctrinal distinction we make when we come to the Doctrine of God. To say that God, at once is simultaneously hidden, absconded, the hidden God and the revealed God; Luther would say both are present in the Psalms. Luther, in his psychology, comes at it saying the hidden God is there and He is ready to crush you. His justice demands it, His righteousness demands it, and His power that enables Him to do it. God is ready to crush you with the power of His right arm, but for Christ. So, as Luther sees the hidden God in the Psalms —the God shrouded in glory and mystery, the God who dwells in light inaccessible, the God of pure holiness, justice, and righteousness, and the God who is unapproachable— he sees Christ.

In verses 19-26, we enter into one of the most Messianic texts of the Old Testament, “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.” This is the gate of the Lord, the righteous enter shall through it, and therein lies the problem. We’re not righteous, and so how do we enter through a righteous gate into the presence of the righteousness of a righteous God? Luther is just going to stop right there; he can’t. This is the invasion, this is safety, and this is the security into the righteous gate, in the presence of a righteous God, but an unrighteous person can’t do it. You know what a love-hate relationship Luther had with this word, “righteousness,” and this concept of the righteousness of God? He’s the one who says, “I hated the righteous God.” That’s the problem.

And then we have this, verse 21, “I thank you that you have answered me and [you] have become my salvation.” Where does this salvation come from? Verse 22, see if this rings any New Testament bells in your head as I read it, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Five times it occurs in the New Testament, it’s one of the most quoted texts. Luther says, when we read the Psalms, we must see Christ, because otherwise God will crush us. But for this stone, but for this Christ. Now these next two verses, 23 and 24, we take them out of context all the time. Look at verse 23, “This is the Lord’s doing, it is marvelous in our eyes.” Every day I come on campus I take a moment and go to the back of the building, and I just look at the construction site for a while. Initially, there were trees, and then there were no trees. And for a long time, there were just no trees, and then all of a sudden, a concrete pad, then blocks, then walls, then trusses, and then support beams, and every day I stand there, and say, “This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in His eyes.” And that’s true, but Luther would say, “ah, ah, there is something specific here.” It’s Good Friday, it’s the cross, it’s the rejection of the stone, and Luther sees this as a specific reference to the cross, and he says with the Psalmist, “This is the Lord’s doing, this providing for a way of salvation, and it is marvelous in His eyes.”

And then, we take this out of context all the time, don’t we? Verse 24, “This is the day– This is the day.” This day in which the faculty may, after five years, be victorious on the soccer field. “This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” You know the song, the call and response song, the very annoying song that’s supposed to make you feel happy? You’re grumpy, you get out of bed with your little, grumpy face, and then you hear the song; you sing the song, and then you’re a happy, happy Christian again. We do this all the time with this verse, don’t we? It’s the cross, it’s the day of salvation, is how Luther reads this. This day in which God provided a way for us to go through a righteous gate and into the arms of a righteous God. This is the day that the Lord has made. We wept because all we had was the strong, right arm of God to crush us, but now we rejoice because we have the strong, right arm to scoop us up like a little lamb and hold us to Himself. This day of our salvation is the day that God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.

“Save us, we pray, O Lord!” Look at that, an alter call in the middle of the Psalm. Does this verse sound familiar, verse 26, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” This is Palm Sunday, and as the palm branches are going in front of the procession, this is what they are shouting. Thousands of them lining the streets, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” This is heavily, Messianic real estate, these five verses, and this is what we must see.

Well, once we see ourselves in the Psalms, and we see Christ in the Psalms, then Luther tells us we get the third thing; now we can see God in the Psalms. And so, we come to verse 27, “The Lord is God.” That’s a redundancy. You could say, “God is the Lord,” “The Lord is Lord,” or “God is God.” Why is the Psalmist saying this? It’s all through the Psalms. Let me suggest that what the Psalmist is saying here is pointing us to the God-ness of God; “The Lord is God” is a way of stressing God in the infinite perfections that is before us. The Psalmist will use the expressions “Glory,” “Holy,” “Majesty,” and “Transcendent.” This is the God that we see, a God who is above all, the God as the ancient philosophers told us, who is the “Pure act, pure being,” or as that wonderful Latin expression has it, ens perfectissimus. Now, we can’t talk that way in English, we don’t pile on superlatives in English. Muhammad Ali did, and if you don’t know who he is see Dr. Tweeddale afterwards, and he’ll give you a tutorial. But we don’t say, “the mostest,” we don’t say, “the bestest,” and we would never say, “the perfectedest,” or “perfectest,” but Latin does. Ens perfectissimus is a piling on of superlatives, “the most perfectest being,” that’s who we are talking about. This God is who we see, the God who now reveals Himself because we have come to Him through Christ.

“The Lord is God,” and, how is this not our Reformation text, “And He has made His light to shine upon us.” Prepositions are important; it’s not against us, it’s not away from us, it’s upon us. One thing you never want is when you read in the Old Testament that the face of the Lord has turned against you. We know how that’s going end, but what about when the text says God has caused His face to shine upon you? Is there anything more beautiful than that? That’s what we see in the Psalms, we see God in His splendor, in His majesty, in the eternality of His being, and in the infinitude of His perfections, shining His face upon us. Now this is possible, because of a sacrifice. God stayed the hand of Abraham as Isaac was bound, but God did not stay the hand as His own Son was bound and put on the altar, given for us. That’s how God can cause His face to shine upon us. There is no skirting of justice here, there is no sweeping under some cosmic rug our sinfulness so that we can somehow just sneak into the presence of a righteous God. Make no mistake about it, God poured out His wrath on His Son, in our place, and then He clothed us with His righteousness. That’s how He can cause His light to shine upon us, and that all of this causes the Psalmist to come to this final reflection, “You, the ens perfectissimus, you are my God.” How beautiful is this? “And I will give thanks to you. You are my God.” This is classic Hebrew parallelism, and why is there parallelism? To emphasize, “you are my God; I will extol you. Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; for His steadfast love endures forever!” This is the God we see in the Psalms.

Can you just think this through with me very quickly, and then we’ll close? God is a pure being, the Lord is God. What does Aquinas call Him? Necessary being; Aristotle before that. And we sometimes wonder are these just theological abstractions as we get into these deep waters of the Doctrine of God? They’re not. Let’s think this through, the opposite of necessary being are contingent beings, and that’s you and that’s me. We need other beings to be. And contingent beings are mutable. One of the stanzas that we did not sing from the hymn was number 6, “Time, like an ever-rolling stream bares all its suns away. They fly forgotten as a dream, dies at opening day.” I’m going watch you this afternoon, running around with an infinite amount of energy on the soccer field, while I’m gasping for oxygen over on the sidelines. Someday, you too will pass 40. Contingent beings are mutable beings, and mutable beings are not faithful, they’re not promise keepers, and they don’t have the shoulders to sustain us. But God’s a necessary being, He’s an immutable being, and He’s a faithful God. His steadfast love, His covenant loyalty, His unflinching, unceasing faithfulness flows from a storehouse of abundant mercy, kindness, goodness, grace, love, and strength. That is our God. That is our God and that is the God we see in the Psalms.

Transcripts are lightly edited.