‘Now then, my children, listen to me; blessed are those who keep my ways… Blessed are those who listen to me, watching daily at my doors, waiting at my doorway. For those who find me find life and receive favour from the LORD. But those who fail to find me harm themselves; all who hate me love death’ (Proverbs 9:32,34-36).
‘Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God’ Psalm 146:5
I love the story of Jacob, the young trickster son, who met with God as he fled in fear from his brother’s vengeance. Far from home, and laying his head down to sleep at a place called Luz, he had an awesome dream of a stairway between heaven and earth with angels ascending and descending on it, and the LORD above it, promising to watch over him and go with him. (Gen 28)
‘Surely, the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it,’ he says on waking, ‘How awesome is this place… this is the gate of heaven’ (v16-17). So Jacob calls this place Bethel, pledging that if God will go with him, ‘the LORD will be my God.’ (v21)
Later, when he eventually sets out to return to his homeland, he meets with a mysterious figure who wrestles with him through the night. Jacob refuses to let go of this man until he is blessed by Him. The stranger touches Jacob’s hip and causes him to limp for the rest of his life, also renaming him Israel. In this mysterious encounter, Jacob recognises that he has met with God face to face, and has been spared. And at long last he learns to stop relying on his own cunning and begins to lean on God’s strength. (Gen 32)
When I headed off to Newcastle University at the age of eighteen, I had no idea that this place would become my Bethel, the place where I would meet with the living God. I knew something about God from my mother’s faith and my years of church attendance, but I had never encountered God as a living reality in my own life.
As an intensely shy young man, I covered over my chronic social anxiety, by dressing as a heavy rocker, with long hair, leather jacket, rock t-shirts and studded wristbands, relying on a strategy of getting drunk out of my head, and living a life of lies to cope with my shyness.
In my early days at Newcastle I met with gospel Christians who invited me to Bible Studies. I happily accepted the invitation, believing myself to be a Christian, but I soon found that these people’s beliefs were very different from my own. Yet I did not tell them this, just tried to avoid them for a while. In my second year I remember telling my flatmates, ‘Believe me, I will never become a Christian.’ I guess God had other ideas.
In my third year, my accommodation fell through, and the only folk who would take me in were my Christian friends. During this time I got to see them up close and realised that they were not religious nutters, but very sincere in their faith. At the same time, I started going along to their church regularly to keep up the pretence of sharing their faith.
However, I was still living a double life, regularly getting drunk with my other friends, and lying to my Christian friends. On one occasion, when I was back living in a hall of residence, I was so drunk that I did not realise that I had fallen down a flight of eighteen stairs, coming out of a nightclub. On another occasion I was caught up in a public disturbance at Newcastle. I was so drunk that I failed to get out of the way of a police car which arrived rapidly on the scene, and rolled across the bonnet, shouting and swearing at the driver.
At the same time I was being strongly challenged by the preaching of the gospel at Heaton Baptist Church. One evening, however, the minister stood up and said, ‘I have nothing to preach this evening.’ Instead, he invited everyone to go through to the church hall to pray in repentance together. To my horror, most of the large congregation got up and followed him through. As a non-believer, I had no idea what was going on, and felt that if I went through to the church hall my ignorance would be exposed. So I stayed in the main sanctuary, pretending to pray. Over the other side of the building there was one other couple who stayed, praying where they were. Apart from that I was on my own. Yet with my eyes closed, I heard God speak to me with an audible voice. ‘Martyn, you cannot run away from me forever.’ I opened my eyes and looked around, but it was clear that the other couple had heard nothing. I was really shaken that evening.
At this point I began looking at the evidence for the Christian faith, and discovered that there was a good case for the historical reliability of the gospels, and the truth of the resurrection. I decided that maybe I would become a Christian in ten year’s time.
However, one Sunday afternoon, I had a strong impression that if what these people were saying was true, then Satan was using me to infiltrate God’s church. On my way to church that evening, I stopped and asked God to show me if He was real. That evening the preacher was speaking from Acts 5 about Ananias and Sapphira, who thought they were lying to the church, but were actually lying to the Holy Spirit and were struck down in judgement. I was already seriously challenged by this sermon, when the preacher stopped and said ‘I believe God is saying that Satan is using someone here to infiltrate God’s church!’ These were the exact same words that had been impressed on my heart earlier that day! Deeply convicted of sin, I went forward, and after the service confessed that I had been lying to the church about my Christian faith. In the next few days, as I read John’s gospel, it spoke to me as never before. Now that I had seen that God was real, I could no longer ‘demythologise’ the words of Jesus, and by the end of the week I had fully surrendered my life to Him.
Having become a Christian, I made an amazing discovery. I no longer needed to live a lie, or get drunk to cope with my shyness. I was accepted, and loved, by God and His people. And I gradually learned that I could rely on the Spirit’s power to overcome my fears. In the next few years I met my beautiful wife, and began to experience a call to preach. Like Jacob working for fourteen years in all for Rachel, it took many years for this calling to be recognised, but in due time the way was opened for me to study at Oak Hill, and eventually to become full-time minister at Allington Baptist Church.
Looking back now, I can see that God has been with me every step of the way, strengthening me and blessing me with His saving presence. So like Jacob at the end of his life I can happily testify to ‘the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day’ (Gen 48:15).
‘Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God’ Psalm 146:5
This psalm begins and ends with a call to praise the LORD (v1,10)
We are encouraged not to put our trust in human leaders, who are unable to save us (v3,4). Instead we should put our faith in the LORD, ‘the Maker of heaven and earth’ (v6), who ‘upholds.. the oppressed,’ and ‘sets prisoners free’ (v7), who ‘lifts up those who are bowed down’ (v8), and ‘remains faithful forever’(v6).
Blessed indeed are those who hope in Him.
‘Praise the LORD, my soul. I will praise the LORD all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.’ (v2,3)
‘Blessed is the people of whom this is true; blessed is the people whose God is the LORD’ (Psalm 144:15)
VE DAY, May 8th, 1945
King George VI broadcasts to the nation:
‘Today we give thanks to Almighty God for a great deliverance. Speaking from our Empire’s oldest capital city, war-battered but never for one moment daunted or dismayed – speaking from London, I ask you to join with me in that act of thanksgiving…. In the hour of danger we humbly committed our cause into the hand of God and He has been our strength and shield. Let us thank Him for His mercies and in this hour of victory commit ourselves and our new task to the guidance of that same strong hand.’
Apparently, churches on that day were packed full as people gave thanks to God for His goodness in bringing an end to the horrors of the last few years. St Paul’s Cathedral had to put on ten services in a row to accommodate all the worshippers. Sadly it is hard to imagine such a response today.
How appropriate then is today’s psalm.
‘Praise be to the LORD my Rock…. He is my loving God and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer, my shield, in whom I take refuge…’ (Psalm 144 v1,2). It is God who enables His people to win the victory.
In verses 3-4, David recognises the frailty and transience of humanity; ‘LORD, what are human beings that You care for them… they are like a breath, their days are like a fleeting shadow.’ So he comes to God not in arrogant self-confidence, but in humble supplication. Rather than trusting in his own strength, he cries out for the LORD’s help. ‘Part Your heavens, LORD, and come down… Send forth lightning and scatter the enemy; shoot Your arrows and rout them. Reach down Your hand from on high; deliver me and rescue me from the mighty waters’ (v5-7)
War is a terrible thing. It brings hardship and weeping. But David is confident that God’s deliverance will result in flourishing, and great blessings of abundant provision, bringing to an end the breaching of walls, fear of captivity and distress in our streets (v12-14).
So David promises, ‘I will sing a new song to You, my God… to the One who gives victory to kings, who delivers His servant David’ (v9,10)
How we will rejoice in our own day if and when Covid19 is finally defeated, when we can breathe again and begin to rebuild our lives. But will we remember to give thanks to God? Can we say like King George that we have humbly committed our cause into His hands and that He has been our strength and shield? Let us seek His mercy, and commit ourselves and our ways into His hands. That is the way to a flourishing future.
And let’s remember that the conflict of yesteryear, and the pestilence of today point to a far greater problem, mankind’s struggle with sin in a fallen world, and our consequent liability to terrible judgement. But we can rejoice that many years after David, one of his descendants, Jesus Christ, won the decisive victory in the battle with sin, death, and the devil, on behalf of all His people. At the cross he defeated death once and for all for those who trust in Him. So if we believe in Him, and look to Him for saving mercy, we can truly rejoice in the one who has won the decisive victory for us.
For now, the battle goes on, as the enemy refuses to recognise His defeat and wars against Christ’s people. So for the moment we are called to soldier on, to fight the good fight of faith (1 Tim 6:12), strong in His armour and strength (Ephesians 6:10-18), and seeking to win the nations for Christ. But all the while we can know that the ultimate victory is assured.
There were tremendous celebrations on VE day 75 years ago. Singing and dancing in the streets, soldiers and sailors kissing girls. Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, secretly joining the revellers in the Mall. Imagine the joy they must have felt! But that is nothing on the great celebrations which are coming one day soon! What wonderful songs will be sung by all true believers when we stand in Christ’s presence and celebrate His great victory over all sin and evil through His redeeming work (Rev 5:12). When that day comes, the battles and struggles of this life will be over for ever ‘Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; He will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes’ (Rev 7:16-17)
‘Blessed is the people of whom this is true; blessed is the people whose God is the LORD.’
So as we celebrate our nation’s merciful deliverance in 1945, let’s remember the greater deliverance and victory which are ours in Christ. ‘I will sing a new song to You, my God… to the One who gives victory…..’ Amen.
‘Blessed are they who have learned to acclaim You (worship You with a joyful shout), who walk in the light of Your presence, LORD’ Psalm 89:15
‘Lord, You are more precious than silver,
Lord You are more costly than gold,
Lord, You are more beautiful than diamonds,
And nothing I desire compares with You'
This song will always be special to me.
I had been a Christian for about a year, and it was a week after I had been baptised. I was on a student retreat, in a prayer meeting. There had been no hype, no working up our emotions. But in the quiet of that prayer meeting I felt led to pray, ‘Lord, I’m sorry that I have failed You, but if You can forgive me, please take me and use me however You will.’
At that moment I had the most amazing sensation. It was like a waterfall of light pouring down within me, filling my soul with peace and joy, purity and the assurance of God’s love. And there was a beautiful fragrance. All I wanted to do was worship, singing the above song over and over. (I am told that I was praising God even in my sleep later that night). For the next few days it felt like I was walking on air, supercharged with joy in the glory of Christ. I even managed to overcome my intense shyness and sought to share my faith with a stranger in the student union.
Some would say I was baptised in the Spirit. Personally I believe that we are all baptised in the Spirit when we first believe in Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13). But there was no denying my experience of the Spirit’s power.
Other people’s experience will be different. And I should make it clear that my faith is grounded in the reality of God’s word, not in emotional experiences, but I do believe that I was truly blessed by the Spirit, filling my heart with joyful worship, on that occasion.
Of course my life isn’t all about mountaintop experiences. But as I went on in my Christian life I discovered that I could ask God to fill me with His Spirit, and then step out in faith, trusting that He had done so, whether or not I felt anything. This was revolutionary for someone who was so bound by social anxiety. By repenting of my sins, and asking God to fill me with His Spirit (as He commands – Ephesians 5:18) I was able to overcome many of the crippling fears which had held my life in bondage for so long.
Through God’s Spirit in my life I have learnt the joy of worshipping God with all my heart, and of keeping short accounts with Him, walking in the power of His Spirit. I don’t always do it, but it is a principle which has transformed my life.
‘Blessed are they who have learned to acclaim You, who walk in the light of Your presence, LORD.’ (v15)
And it goes on: ‘They rejoice in Your name all day long; they celebrate Your righteousness. For You are their glory and strength…’ (v16,17). Yes indeed!
That’s how this verse speaks to me, but it’s wider context in Psalm 89 gives a larger message. Early on it praises God’s sovereign power. ‘Who is like You, LORD God Almighty? You, LORD, are mighty, and Your faithfulness surrounds You.’ (v8)
From verse 19 till verse 37 the psalmist speaks of the Davidic covenant, the promise of a Messiah (which he has already mentioned in verses 3 and 4).
But then in verses 38 onwards, it takes a surprising turn, accusing God of not being faithful to His covenant promises.
‘How long, LORD? Will You hide Yourself forever? How long will Your wrath burn like fire?…LORD, where is Your former great love which in Your faithfulness You swore to David?’ (v46,49)
It’s important to recognise that this is not the voice of bitter cynicism, but that of wounded faith, calling on God to be faithful to His covenant promises. So despite being tempted to despair, the psalmist ends with ‘Praise be to the LORD forever! Amen and Amen!’ (v52) – a phrase which brings a fitting end to this section of the Psalms.
Although the psalmist could not understand what God was doing, we can see from a New Testament viewpoint that God’s Davidic covenant was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
The fact is there will be times when we can’t understand what God is doing. And I think it’s alright to voice our doubts and fears to Him, even as we cling to Him in faith. The fact is that we will not always feel like acclaiming God. And we will not always feel like we are walking in the light of His presence.
But we can still walk by faith, asking Him to fill us, and trusting in Him.
Whether we feel it or not we are truly blessed in Him, if we have trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation.
So as for me, ‘I will sing of the LORD’s great love forever; with my mouth I will make Your faithfulness known through all generations’ (v1)
Amen and Amen!