Sunday, November 26, 2006

God of Wonders, Pt. 7: "Great is Thy Faithfulness"


God’s faithfulness to me can be summed up by my wife’s grievance against me: “God drops everything on your lap for you - including me!” She was right. God gave me a godly, loving, smart and wonderful wife. On hearing me speak for the first time, my Ph. D wife told me she enjoyed and appreciated my preaching; if not I would still be intimidated by her and we could still be single! Whenever we reminiscence on how we met, she would always say, “It’s so unfair!”

I wanted to head East and Midwest for ministry after seven years in Los Angeles but God brought me back to Southern California after half a year looking over there. Basically, I was not Chinese or American enough over there!

Friends and pastors in the ministry are puzzled how an English-speaking person like me “unexpectedly” gained a foothold in training young Chinese-speaking preachers. The seminary invited me to preach in Mandarin at their chapel service. They suggested I could use both languages, so I reluctantly agreed. A few days before the date, they called me and asked me to speak in English instead because officials from the accreditation agency ATS (Association of Theological Schools) were visiting the seminary and also attending chapel the same day – to my advantage. By God’s grace, the sermon went well. After that, the school invited me to lecture on preaching. I said, “In English?” They said, “No, in Mandarin.” I said, “I’ll think about it.” So I asked my friends, who all agreed it was a great opportunity. The students and I are gaps apart in language but I have been the regular teacher for more than seven years now on a subject most pastors would love to have the opportunity to teach. Not bad for someone who attended an English-speaking school from grade one and learned Mandarin in America!

The saying “God/The Lord/He is faithful” is integral to the New Testament (1 Cor 1:9, 1 Cor 10:13, 2 Cor 1:18, 2 Thess 3:3, 1 John 1:9). In fact, there are more such creedal declarations of His faithfulness than of His glory and love.

Ethan the Ezrahite’s Psalms 89 is a beautiful psalm extolling God’s faithfulness. The wisdom of Solomon was greater than the wisdom of all the men of the East and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt. Next to him on the wisdom chart was Ethan the Ezrahite (1 Kings 4:30-31), the author of Psalms 89. Ethan the Ezrahite only penned one psalm but boy, was he a good songwriter and lyricist who spoke volumes on God’s faithfulness.

Why do we extol God’s faithfulness? What has He done? Who gets the benefit?

God’s Praise is Spoken from Our Lips
I will sing of the LORD’s great love forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations. (Psalms 89:1)

To Doris’ teenage nephew Joshua, food and singing are related. Born and raised in San Diego, he loves Chinese food, singing after a meal contentedly seating at the back of the car by himself. When he stayed with us when his mother was on a short-term missions trip, I did my best to shake him off his “Whatever,” “It’s OK” or “I don’t know” youth mentality. I asked the early teen then, “What do you want for lunch?” He said, “I don’t know,” which gives me more fuel to tease him. So I said, “Let’s eat American fast food.” He sobered up when he knew his love for Chinese food would be unrequited. Joshua then blurted and protested, “But we are Chinese! So we got to eat Chinese food!” His nice uncle and aunt (us) were happy to oblige.

Whenever Joshua’s family comes to visit, eating is their top priority. So off we go with Joshua’s family to Monterey Park or Rowland Heights. Once we went to a highly-rated but expensive shabu shabu restaurant in Monterey Park. The prices were exorbitant for thin slices of meat that one can get at the Chinese supermarket for a fraction of the cost. So we ate conservatively! Driving home after dinner we chatted for a long time until we ran out of conversation.

That’s when we realized something was wrong. Joshua was quietly sitting on the last row of the van, not saying a word throughout the conversation. Joshua’s parents said, “Oh-oh, Joshua is not singing. That means the food was so-so.” He shrugged his young shoulders. According to his parents, if Joshua does not sing, it means the food was merely mediocre or average, not good to great, or deserving praise or song.

God deserves our praise. His faithfulness is more than a statement of fact or a piece of information. God wants us to praise Him as well as proclaiming Him. He wants praise to be in our hearts as well as on our lips. He is not interested in head knowledge; He is after daily affirmation.

Singing is a wonderful way to liven up expression, perk up interest, cheer oneself up and brighten up others. Singing praises to God has always been a tradition in worship. The first vocal singer or praise leader in Israel was none other than Moses, who led the Israelites in song after crushing the Egyptians (Ex 15:1). The first soloist in the Bible was Miriam (Ex 15:21), who took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her, with tambourines and dancing (Ex 15:20)

Most of our singing is personal, but singing in the Bible is anything but personal. It is about God and not you, about the Lord’s greatness and not your mood, about what the Lord has done and not about how you are feeling today.

The early singers, including Moses and Miriam, were more experiential than theological. They described what literally happened to them. For example, Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD: “I will sing to the LORD, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea (Ex 15:1). They described a personal event, not make a theological statement.

David, the greatest singer in Israel’s history, introduced music, singing, choir and instruments into worship. He wrote the first singing psalm in the Bible (Ps 7) and put Levites (1 Chron 6:48) in charge of music in the house of the LORD (1 Chron 6:31-32).

With specialization came a rich collection of songs, reflected in Psalms, and the need for more theology and teaching. You will be surprised to know most of early songs were descriptive, not doctrinal, that is the singers described specifically why they were singing at that time but not generally why God’s people through the ages sing praises. For example, it was common in pre-David days to say, “I will sing to the LORD, I will sing” (Judg 5:3) or “I will sing praise.” They were spontaneous rather than systematic. Praising God for what and why was not exactly stated in theological terms. The lyrics were stated in vague and spontaneous terms, but not educational and instructional. The Psalms, on the other hand, were theological and poetical than emotional.

In the Psalms, the psalmist would occasionally sing praise for God’s strength (Ps 59:16), his wonderful acts (Ps 105:2) and the greatness of God’s glory (Ps 138:5), but the top reason for singing was the Lord’s “checed” (Ps 59:16, 89:1, 101:1), translated in verse 1 as “great love” by NIV, “lovingkindness” by NASB, “mercies” by KJV and” steadfast love” by RSV. Basically all translations have trouble with this word; when used in other context and verses the translators will supply either “goodness,” “kindness,” “mercy,” “love,” “favor” or something close, depending on text.

This word is used 247 times in the Old Testament, and is one of the most important words in the Old Testament. It is not sentimental love but steadfast love based on a covenant relationship with God. It is out of God’s loyalty, not man’s lovability. In some ways “checed” expresses agape more eloquently than even agape itself, because agape is a regular Greek word but “checed” is exclusive to Gods’ unconditional and unchanging love.

A casual reading of verse 1 suggests praising God’s faithfulness through all generations. The Hebrew text makes no mistake that it is not “God’s faithfulness through all generations” that deserves our praise, but that we should “make known to all generations His faithfulness.” The original text begins with, “To all generations will I make known they faithfulness with my mouth.”

God’s Power is Seen in the Skies
2 I will declare that your love stands firm forever, that you established your faithfulness in heaven itself. (Psalms 89:2)

A sojourner in his travels came upon three individuals working with stone. Curious as to what the workers were doing with the stones, the traveler approached the first worker and asked, “What are you doing with these stones?” Without the slightest hesitation, the worker promptly replied, “I am a stone cutter and I am cutting stones.”

Still unclear of the workers’ task and not satisfied with the answer, the traveler approached the second worker and asked the same question: “What are you doing with these stones?” To this the second worker thought for a moment, gazed briefly at the traveler and sought to explain, “I am a stone cutter and I am cutting stones to earn enough money to support my family.”

Perplexed by the two different responses to the same question, the sojourner approached the third and asked, “What are you doing with these stones?” Thinking for a moment, the worker stared at the stone and the chisel in his hand, then turned to the traveler and said, “I am a stone cutter and I am building a cathedral for God’s glory!”

What do you see in the sky? Do you see what the psalmist see? Maybe you are like mere scientists who see blue skies, dust clouds, and weather forecasts, but the psalmist saw the big picture. Like I always say, scientists can advice you on the “what” and “how,” but they can never tell you the “why.”

The idea that God’s faithfulness is etched, recorded and displayed in the skies is a persistent and ongoing theme, and not a new thought. Ps 36:5 says, “Your love, O LORD, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies.”

The heaven is rightly used to specify and qualify God’s faithfulness because it is as old as the earth or planet itself. When did the word “heaven” first appear in the Bible? Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” God’s faithfulness begins from day one even though man is slow to understand and quick to forget.

The Hebrew word “heaven” has such a great history, story and theology. When God made the heavens, He gave us the largest and biggest, widest and longest, highest and tallest blank piece of canvas possibly made - and more. Genesis tells us that God made the heavens, always plural in Hebrew, to signify its intensity and the impossibility of its duplication or multiplicity elsewhere. He hanged two great lights in the heaven or sky to give light on the earth (Gen 1:15-16) and let fly birds in the open skies (Gen 1:20). When God made the heavens he completed and complemented it with all its “host” (the first time the word “host” appears) or their vast array (Gen 2:1, Deut 4:19).

Other words directly associated with heaven are rain (Gen 8:2, Deut 11:11), stars (Gen 15:5, 22:17), brimstone and fire or burning sulfur - that rained on Sodom and Gomorrah out of heavens (Gen 19:24), the dew of heaven (Gen 27:28), the highest heavens (Deut 10:14, 1 Kings 8:27, Neh 9:6, Ps 115:16, Ps 148:4), hailstones (Josh 10:11), frost or ice (Job 38:29), snow (Isa 55:10) and clouds (Ps 147:8). Each one of these bears witness to God’s faithfulness.

Not too long ago, NASA’s $150 million WMAP satellite, launched in 2001, released a report. The report says that “normal matter, the stuff of people and planets, is only about 4% of the combined matter and energy in the universe. Dark matter, invisible and exotic physical particles, and dark energy, a gravity-defying force behind the continuing expansion of the universe, makes up the rest” Stanford University physicist Leonard Susskind explained further, “The universe is vastly bigger than we ever imagined. It’s so big that we no longer have any reason to believe that our tiny patch of it is representative of the whole thing, And all we can see, are at most a tiny dot in an unimaginably large sea of space and time.” (“Big Bang Unfolded in the Blink of an Eye” USA TODAY 3/17/06)

The theology of heaven by and large is undertaken by the Psalmists. They were the ones who noted the heaven’s theological relationship with God and testimony to Him. When you look at the heavens you see its Maker (Ps 115:15, 121:2, 124:8, 134:3, 146:6), the work of His fingers (Ps 8:3) and hands (Ps 102:25), His glory (Ps 8:1, 19:1, 113:4, 148:13), His mercy (Ps 36:5, 57:10, 108:4), His righteousness (Ps 50:6, 97:6) and His faithfulness (Ps 89:2).

God’s Promise is Shown to His People
3 You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to David my servant, 4’I will establish your line forever and make your throne firm through all generations.’”(Psalms 89:3-4)

In the words of an old hymn:
“God has not promised,
Skies always blue
Flower-strewn pathways,
All our lives through;

God has not promised,
Sun without rain,
Joy without sorrow,
Peace without pain.

But God has promised,
Strength for the day,
Rest for the labor,
Light for the way;

Yes, God has promised,
Grace for the trials,
Help from above,
Unfailing sympathy, undying love.

The biggest testimony to God’s faithfulness is that He still perseveres with us despite our mistakes, weaknesses and sins.

The case of David is a good study of how God has established His faithfulness to His people. David was the greatest king of Israel. He was a good friend, a great king and an excellent warrior. The chosen one (v 3), however, is not a term restricted or original to David. Others chosen included Jacob or Israel (Ps 105:6, Isa 45:4), Moses (Ps 106:23), the Israelites (1 Chron 16:13, Ps 105:43), the Messiah (Isa 42:1) and even Saul (2 Sam 21:6). Which goes to show God’s chosen one is an act of grace and faithfulness. Saul, the first king, and not David, could have been the chosen one.

The Hebrew word “established” (v 4) means fix, prepare, apply. That’s the same word for verse 2, about God’s faithfulness established in the heavens. God’s faithfulness to David is as sure as the heavens, as “the moon and the stars” God have “set in place (establish)” (Ps 8:3), as the established “sun and moon” (Ps 74:16) and the established “moon.” (Ps 89: 37). It is also used in regard to the “established” earth (Ps 119:90), the established “earth that endures” (Ps 147:8), the “heavens” (Prov 3:19, 8:27), the “world” (Jer 10:12, 51:15) and as “sure as the sun rises” (Hos 6:3).

In his young age David could do no wrong, but later he committed adultery with Bathsheba and killed her husband. David’s children were a bunch of spoilt brats, idol worshippers and failing kings. Only eight “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.” Surprisingly the same phrase or term was applied to David the righteous father but not Solomon his idolatrous son. The eight kings doing right were Asa (1 Kings 15:11), Asa’s son Jehoshaphat (1 Kings 22:43), Jehoash (2 Kings 12:2), Amaziah (2 Kings 14:3) and his son Azariah (2 Kings 15:3), Jotham (2 Kings 15:34) and his grandson Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:3) and the last one, Josiah (2 Kings 22:2).

Readers know that only three were faithful and godly to the end. I call them the three J’s - Jehoshaphat, Jotham and Josiah. Two of the eight good southern kings – Joash the priest-killer and Amaziah the idolater - were so disgraced before God and in the Scriptures that they never made it to Jesus’ genealogy, even while bad kings were listed there. Three were above average but short of excellence, including Asa – due his bitterness, Uzziah – his pride, and Hezekiah – his naiveté, and they all had a bad ending.

Conclusion: Only the good Lord is Faithful and True (Rev 3:14, 19:11), merciful and faithful ( Heb 2:17), but we are called to be faithful and wise (Matt 24:45, Luke 12:42) and to be good and faithful servants (Matt 25:21). Everything in the air and in the sky points and testifies to God’s faithfulness, from the gas molecules to the ozone layer, from sunlight to snowflakes, from sunrise to sunset, from hemisphere to horizon, from rain to dew, from clouds to rainbows, from lightning to thunder, even the occasional snowstorm and thunderstorm. Are you faithful to God? Faithfulness does not mean perfection or sinless-ness; it means dedication, dutifulness, dependability. When we look at the heavens we do not ask what they are, we ask why they’re there. We do not ask about the objects, but their objective; not its identity but its intention; not the results but the reason. Have you thanked God for His faithfulness in providing you a way out in times of temptation (1 Cor 10:13)? That He has strengthened and protected you from evil (2 Thess 3:3)? Most of all, that He will forgive you when you confess your sin to Him (1 John 1:9)? Finally, let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful (Heb 10:23).


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