My joy - Psalm 132

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 23rd July 2000.

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One of the things I most enjoyed about being a child was going on journeys. Journeys were always exciting and my mother used to tell us that the holiday would begin when we left the house. We would play all sorts of games to keep ourselves amused in the back of the car. Or there would be the exiting prospect of going on a different form of transport- perhaps a boat across the channel, maybe a train, even a plane, and most recently a camel. But of course the thing that makes journeys is not so much the journey itself, as the destination. Journeys are pointless without a destination. The whole point is that you are going somewhere.

Now these psalms that we are studying together tonight are written for people on a journey. If you’ve been with us these past five Sunday evenings you’ll know we’ve been studying Psalms 120-134, and they are known in the Bible as the Psalms of Ascent. They come in blocks of three and were sung by Jewish pilgrims as they made their way from the countryside of Judea up to Jerusalem for the festivals in the capital city. And the goal of the pilgrim heading for these festivals was not only the city but the very heart of the city, the Temple which was where God was said to dwell. So these Psalms if you like chart the journey of the pilgrims from the furthest parts of Judea till they reach the Temple in Jerusalem. And tonight we reach the climax, the entry into the Holy city and coming to the Temple. The journey is at its end, and the hopes of the travellers are fulfilled.

But compare for a moment these Jewish pilgrims with today’s world. What seems to be important today is not so much the destination as the journey itself. Often I come across people who say they are on some sort of spiritual journey, but they don’t know where they are going, and they have no idea where that journey will take them. They are just vaguely journeying on. As Robert Louis Stevenson said: "It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive." Now that, it seems, is not only a motto of the Rail network but also the world in which we live. Few people it seems have a clear destination in life. Just getting by is enough.

But that is not the Bible’s view. The Bible is clear that there is a very definite end to the journey for the Christian. Like those Jewish pilgrims we are going somewhere. We are heading home to a better place, to the Holy city, not the earthly Jerusalem, but the heavenly Jerusalem, heaven itself, to be with God face to face. That’s our journey’s end. That’s our final destination. But how easy it is to be caught up into thinking that this life is the all important, that the journey itself is what we live for. It is certainly very easy to be bogged down by troubles, by worries, by pain and fear, all the things that we have to live with in this world. And that is why we need to lift our eyes to the far horizon, to be reminded that we are heading somewhere, and that the journey is worth it. We need the Bible’s perspective of the final destination, the ultimate goal, because without it we are in danger of giving up the Christian journey altogether.

So these songs are written for travellers, Jewish pilgrims first of all, but also Christians as we look forward to our final destination, God’s heavenly city. Like a cool oasis by a hot, dusty road they refresh the weary traveller by reminding him or her about that final destination. And in particular tonight we learn three things:

1) God’s City is where God’s King rules

2) God’s City is where God’s People are united

3) God’s City is where God is praised forever

 

1) God’s City is where God’s King rules (Psalm 132)

Now at first sight this psalm seems pretty baffling. But a good way to understand it, indeed a good way to understand any OT passage is by what I call the hill climbing principle. I guess many of us will have climbed a few hills in the past. I’m sure you’ll be able to sympathise with this illustration. Imagine that you are wanting to climb a particular mountain, and so you set off after a healthy breakfast and estimate, having looked at your Ordinance Survey map that you’ll be able to have lunch on the top. The weather is bright and sunny and things couldn’t be better. And about coffee time you are nearing what you think is the summit. But when you get to the top, you realise that actually it is only the top of the foothills of the mountain you want to climb, and in fact the peak is still some way off. So you revise your lunchtime and set off again. Well a few hours later you finally get to what you think is the summit, but again you are amazed to find that there is still a further peak to climb which you didn’t see before. And so you set off again having eaten your packed lunch and this time around tea time you finally reach what is really the summit, and the view is the best of all, because the other two peaks were really mini summits on the way up the top.

Now that is an illustration of how to understand the OT. The first peak is on the level of the individual, in this case it is David. He has certain experiences which the psalmist tells us about. But the second peak brings us to the whole people of Israel, and what they made of the psalm. They used it as a song which taught them about God’s purposes and his thoughts about Jerusalem, and they sang it as they went up to the Holy City. But the third peak and the most important is what is means in the context of the whole Bible. How does the psalm fit in to God’s plan for the whole world, as described in the Bible, and we’ll see that there some vital things for us to learn here. So we move from the individual, to the nation of Israel, to the big picture, God’s plan of salvation for the world. We’ll see that the core meaning of the psalm does not change. The central truth remains the same, but as we peel back the layers of God’s plan from an individual to his world wide plan, then we see there are different implications.

So let’s begin at the first peak with the individual, King David. It is likely that the psalm was written after David’s time, during the reign of his son, Solomon. And it relates the story of David’s keen desire to build a house for the Lord. In the OT God was represented by what is known as the Ark of the Covenant. If you’ve ever seen Raider’s of the Lost Ark you’ll know what it looked like! It was said that God’s presence was with this ark. And David was the King who brought the ark into Jerusalem after he had captured the city for God. But he longed to build God a decent house. For years the ark has lain in a tent. Now David thought it was about time God had a permanent residence. We can see that in verse 3 and 4. David vows that he will not sleep until he has built the Lord his house. He longs to build the Temple for God. And so he brings the ark to Jerusalem and there is much rejoicing. God is with his people in his city as the psalm record in verse 13 and 14. "This is my resting place forever." God’s city you see is where God’s King, David, rules.

But in verse 11 we read that God makes an oath to David. You can read all about it in 2 Samuel 7, a very important passage in the OT. There God swears, through the prophet Nathan, that He will build David a house, in fact it will be a house that will never be destroyed, not a literal house, but a kingly line of descendants who will always be on the throne. So David is not the one who will be building, God is! Now sure enough God also says that David’s son, Solomon, will build the Temple, as indeed he does. In fact it is interesting that Solomon quotes bits of this psalm when he dedicates the Temple (2 Chron. 6). But the most important thing is God’s promise about David’s line. And verse 11 tells us that it is a promise that God will not revoke. So David receives an incredible promise. And the end of the psalm shows just what blessing is coming to David’s line. Verse 18: "I will clothe David’s enemies with shame but the crown on his head will be resplendent." No wonder there is much joy.

And it’s no wonder the people of Israel picked up this psalm in later generations and used it as they went up to Jerusalem for their feasts, as we move now to peak 2. For them they could now rejoice that God was with them in the city. The Temple that David had longed to build was now finished and everything looked brilliant. Israel in subsequent generations would know at least some of those blessings that are mentioned in verse 15- abundant provisions, food, salvation and joy.

But it is when we come to the third peak and look at the psalm from the perspective of the whole Bible, that we realise there is a serious problem. And the problem is in verse 12. Ironically, the problem is with the covenant. Did you notice it as we read it? There is a condition to the covenant. "IF your sons keep my covenant and the statutes I teach them……". And how long did that last? Well not very long. In fact, by the time David’s grandson was dead, the country was split in two and within a few hundred years, the country was destroyed. What about the promises? Where is God? What about his city, what about the King? By then there was no city, no ark, no Temple and only a puppet King. But the third peak also helps us to see the solution to the problem. Because whilst mankind constantly breaks God’s covenant, God never breaks his word. He keeps his promise and he has put his king on the throne. And who is that King? Well of course it is great David’s greater Son, Jesus Christ. He is the King who Nathan spoke of in 2 Samuel 7. He is the One who is the final fulfilment of this psalm. And so verse 18 comes into brilliant clarity. Jesus’ enemies will one day be defeated and the crown will be upon his head. And best of all for us is the fact that God’s city is where God’s true King reigns, and that is heaven. Here says God in verse 17 will I make a horn grow for David. And verse 14 finds it’s ultimate fulfilment in heaven. God is not present in some earthly city, rather the heavenly city, where he has put his King, Jesus, to reign. And so when we Christians say verse 7, then we are saying that we are longing to be with him, in our true home. For God’s city is where God’s King reigns. It began with David in Jerusalem, but it ends with great David’s greater Son, King Jesus in heaven.

Now if the Jewish pilgrims got excited about going to see a Temple they could not enter, then how much more should we be excited about finishing our journey by entering heaven and seeing the King face to face! The Jewish experience is not a patch on what God has planned for his people. In heaven verse 15 and 16 reach their ultimate fulfilment. Yes we experience some of those blessings now as NT Christians, but their ultimate fulfilment will be in heaven. We will never be in need, we will experience full salvation with no more sin and tears, eternal security, a face to face relationship with the King, and will be singing for ever more. Isn’t that a great journey’s end? And if God has kept his promise to David about his line, then is not God completely trustworthy and faithful. He will complete the job and bring us to heaven. Certainly the journey is hard sometimes, but God can never be doubted, because he keeps his promise. We are heading to heaven where God’s King reigns. Isn’t it worth the journey? God’s city is where God’s King reigns.

 

2) God’s city is where God’s people are united (Psalm 133)

And we’ll spend less time on these other two psalms. Now it’s pretty clear that this psalm is about unity. It is said to be a psalm of David, and it probably reflects a time when the whole kingdom of Israel was united under David. And then the next generations took up the psalm and used it as they approached the great city on their pilgrimage. And it must have been a great thing for those pilgrims as they neared the Holy City with all their fellow Israelites congregating on Jerusalem. "How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity." There is nothing better than being with God’s people together doing the same thing. The psalmist gives a beautiful illustration of unity in verse 2. "It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes." Now we might think that this is pretty grim! Pouring nasty vegetable oil, or Castrol GTX on someone’s head is what they do in weird Japanese game shows. But that is not what the psalmist means here. The oil referred to is a fragrant perfume which was used to anoint the High Priest. There are instructions in Exodus as to how to make this special oil, and so it is a beautiful picture of God’s blessing. And notice there is not just a little bit of oil, but an abundance of it. It flows all down Aaron’s beard, he was the first High Priest, and all down his robes. It shows the wealth of God’s blessing that comes to his people when they are united in him. Furthermore it is like the dew of Mount Hermon falling on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Hermon was the highest mountain and was far in the north of the country whereas Jerusalem was further south and could be very hot. So the psalmist likens the unity of God’s people to refreshing dew falling in Jerusalem. Two great illustrations. For the people of Israel, God’s city was where God’s people are united.

Now for us the same is true. When we finally reach God’s heavenly city, then his people will be finally united, and that will be a great day. The book of Revelation speaks of a great multitude of people gathered around God’s throne giving him praise. And that is where we are heading. For heaven, the place where God’s King rules and the place where God’s people are finally united. And yet for the time being, we here in Hull are a colony of heaven. We are pilgrims on the journey, citizens of a different country, and we are to act as citizens of that far country to which we are heading. So it means that unity will be the marker of God’s people here on earth. Now it is certainly not unity at any cost. Sadly with some people who claim to be Christians we must distance ourselves, because they appear to be distorting the gospel or not teaching it according to the Bible. But it does mean that we as a church body need to be committed to unity in the gospel. And that says the psalmist is when God’s blessing comes. Verse 3: "For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life for ever more." So here at St. John’s the gospel must be the main priority and other things which we may disagree on must take second place. There is nothing better than a group of Christian who are completely united in wanting to share the gospel with people around them. But it is also all to easy to be divided over secondary matters.

You may know this little story from the USA: Walking through the city late one evening I came upon a man about to jump off a bridge and take his own life. I said: "Wait a minute, don’t you believe in God?" He said: "I do believe in God." I said, "Really? Are you a Christian or a Jew?" He said: "A Christian." I said: "Me too. Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?" He said: "I’m a Protestant." I said: "Really? What denomination?" He said: "Baptist." I said: "Me too. Southern or Northern?" He said: "Northern." I said: "Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?" He said: "Northern Conservative Baptist." I said: "Me too. Northern Conservative Reformed Baptist or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist?" He said: "Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist." I said: "Me too. Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Eastern Region?" He said: "Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region." I said, "Me too, this is incredible! Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879 or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?" He said: "Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912." I said: "Die heretic!" and pushed him off the bridge.

Perhaps one of the greatest tricks of the devil is persuading us that disunity is necessary, or that issues which are really less important are very important. We must guard our unity here at St. John’s and as individuals pray for the wisdom to discern from God’s word what is important and what is not. And when brothers and sisters live together in unity around God’s truth then God will bless us richly, and it is a little picture of what heaven will be like, when all those squabbles and disagreements are forever put aside. And that is another reason why it’s worth pressing on the in the journey. Because God’s city is where God’s people are united.

 

3) God’s city is where God is forever praised (Psalm 134)

Well we come finally to Psalm 134 to see that God’s city is where God is forever praised. The pilgrims have at last entered Jerusalem and they have approached the Temple. Their pilgrimage is at an end and all their hopes fulfilled. And their first reaction to finishing their journey is praise. "Praise the Lord all you servants of the Lord who minister by night in the house of the Lord." And one day our journey will come to an end, and we’ll discover that the heavenly city is a place where God is forever praised. The priests in the Temple in Jerusalem were always on duty because it reflected that constant service and praise in heaven. There was a 24 hour rota. And that is what we will be doing when we finally come home. So if think you will be bored in heaven, well let me encourage you, there will be no time to get bored. Because we’ll be constantly serving and praising God. There will just be too much to do to get bored. We’ll have come home and we’ll be welcomed with open arms.

And that service and praise can begin now. We can know in part what one day we will know in full, and we can begin a lifetime of service and praise of God. So for the Christian, life does have a meaningful purpose. We’re to be storming home in God’s service, praising him for all his goodness and longing for that day when we will serve him and see him face to face.

Well let me ask, how is the journey going? It may be that you’re on an uphill struggle at the moment. Things are pretty tough and maybe you have lost sight of the end goal. Well be encouraged. God is faithful and he will get us there. Look at the end and trust in God’s promise. Or maybe you’ve wandered off the path and need to come back. Well don’t delay coming back lest you wander too far and refuse to come back. Or maybe you have never started the journey. You have never committed yourself to Christ. Well why on tonight? Why not begin that journey tonight and which will end in eternity. God longs for you to come back to him. Wherever you are, take heart in these psalms for travellers. For it is vital we have the right perspective as Christians, to know where we are heading.

Florence Chadwick was the first woman to swim the channel. But the next challenge was to swim from Catalina Island off the coast of California to the mainland. It was considerably further. On the first attempt it was a foggy day and the visibility was very poor. She could never see more than a few metres in front of her. They pulled her out of the water exhausted just a few hundred metres from the finish. When she was asked why she gave up so close to the end, she said: "I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t see the end." But two weeks later on a clear day, she swam the whole distance with ease. Well it is vital that we keep our eyes on the goal. For the Christian that means remembering where we are heading. Without that perspective we run the risk of becoming so entrapped by this world that we lose any hope we ever had, and forget why it was we ever started following Christ. But the psalmist has reminded us why it’s worth pressing on. We’re heading to God’s city: It’s the place where God’s King reigns, where God’s people are united, and where God is forever praised.


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