Please join us as we continue our weekly Community Chapel “Summer Series” podcasts with a reflection on Psalm 89:1-18 by Dr. Ken Michell, Assistant Professor of Music (Undergraduate) at Tyndale. His message is entitled “Love & Justice: Together Forever”.
Along with his work at Tyndale, Ken is the Worship Director at Bridlewood Presbyterian Church in Scarborough and serves as Vice President of the Christian Conservatory of Music, Canada. He is currently working on a Psalms project, composing musical refrains to accompany readings of the Psalms for personal and corporate prayer. He lives in Scarborough with his wife Nicole.
I am grateful to have this opportunity to join so many who have shared their insights from the Psalms over this summer in our Chapel podcast series. Admittedly, it is hard to choose a favourite from the Psalms. For me, certain passages have taken on favourite status in different seasons of my life, most often, because they either helped me hear what I need to hear, or helped me say what I need to say, or both.
And that is one of the great gifts of the Psalms, they are God's Word. So we receive them as God speaks to us. But they are also uniquely structured in a way that they are words that we put on our lips, particularly in the context of worship. And so we say, and sing, and pray them, as God listens to us. In that sense, the Psalms both speak to us, and they speak for us. And so as I read from Psalm 89, let me invite you to listen, and if you have a copy in front of you, to read along. I'm going to be reading from the NIV version.
Psalm 89, verses one through 18.
I will sing of the LORD’s great love forever;
with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known
through all generations.
I will declare that your love stands firm forever,
that you have established your faithfulness in heaven itself.
You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
I have sworn to David my servant,
‘I will establish your line forever
and make your throne firm through all generations.’”
The heavens praise your wonders, LORD,
your faithfulness too, in the assembly of the holy ones.
For who in the skies above can compare with the LORD?
Who is like the LORD among the heavenly beings?
In the council of the holy ones God is greatly feared;
he is more awesome than all who surround him.
Who is like you, LORD God Almighty?
You, LORD, are mighty, and your faithfulness surrounds you.
You rule over the surging sea;
when its waves mount up, you still them.
- You crushed Rahab like one of the slain;
- And a quick aside, Rahab isn't a person it symbolizes a great sea creature. And as great as the sea creature is, God is greater.
with your strong arm you scattered your enemies.
The heavens are yours, and yours also the earth;
you founded the world and all that is in it.
You created the north and the south;
Tabor and Hermon sing for joy at your name.
Your arm is endowed with power;
your hand is strong, your right hand exalted.
Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne;
love and faithfulness go before you.
Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you,
who walk in the light of your presence, LORD.
They rejoice in your name all day long;
they celebrate your righteousness.
For you are their glory and strength,
and by your favor you exalt our horn.
Indeed, our shield belongs to the LORD,
our king to the Holy One of Israel.
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. Let's pray together.
Father with the psalmist we ask that you would show us your ways, that you would teach us your paths, that you would guide us in your truth and teach us, for you, our God, our Saviour, and our hope is in you all day long. And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, our rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
You may have noticed that the passage we read is, is kind of a summary Psalm. It is, in fact, the last chapter of the third book in the Psalms. All the chapters in the Psalms are divided up into five books, much like the books of the law that are divided up into five from Genesis through to Deuteronomy. And as the last chapter in Book Three, Psalm 89 concludes this section. And these first 18 verses, which is what we read together, describe or, or perhaps even prescribe, the rhythm or pattern of Christian worship, or the worship of God's people. In this passage, God's people celebrate God's love and faithfulness in song. They remember God's covenant promise and commitment. They acknowledge that God is the sovereign creator who is worshiped in heaven, and on earth, and to whom none can compare. And then we're told that worship takes practice, and that there is blessing for those who learn to acclaim God we're reminded that worship isn't limited to what happens on Sunday morning or Tuesday chapel. We are called to walk in the light of God's Presence, to rejoice in His name all day long, and to celebrate His righteousness. And then in the final two verses, the psalmist concludes this section, drawing our attention back to the one who is worthy of our worship, to the Lord, who is our glory, and strength. And right in the middle, where we, where we slow down in our reading, in verse 14, the psalmist draws our attention to a connection between love and justice, or more precisely the pairing of love and faithfulness, and the pairing of righteousness and justice. I don't know about you, but for me, that's not a connection that I would normally make. But here it is, taking center stage in these opening verses from Psalm 89, in the context of worship, and it's that connection that I'd like to explore together.
I recently asked a group of people to choose words what they close, that they closely associate with love. And I gave them a list of words that included patience and faithfulness, justice, hope, righteousness, and trust. And predictably, faithfulness and trust were the top responses, and predictably, righteousness and justice were at the bottom. It's not an obvious connection for most of us. So naturally, I turned to the internet. I did a Google search on the themes of love and justice, and I just started by searching songs about love, of which there are many. And the first page of the search included links to a top 50 best love songs, top 51, 57, and even a couple of top 100 best love songs. So you get the idea, there are loads of good options to choose from. But when I did a similar search on songs about justice, I only found a link to a top 10. Clearly, love is a more popular theme for songwriters. But because Psalm 89 is a worship context, it raises a good question.
What if we looked at worship songs, songs of the church, would we find a better balance? So I went to the CCLI website, which is the the organization that provides licenses for churches, to use songs in their worship services that are protected by copyright. Now, typically, those are songs that have been written in the last 75 to 100 years, which of course includes most of the contemporary worship material that we sing. On their site, you can search by theme, and they have 13,739 songs with love, as the theme. And in their rankings by theme love is in fact, the second highest. The only theme with more songs listed is praise itself. And then I searched for songs with justice as the theme. And on the CCLI site, that represents the vast majority of contemporary worship material that is sung in your church in my church, there are only 295 songs listed with the theme of justice. And if we add the number of justice theme songs to the love theme songs, justice does not get the love. Songs with the theme of justice represent only 2% of the combined total. But wait. CCLI represents more contemporary material than traditional material, maybe history will tell a different story. Maybe hymns will offer a better, or more balanced, perspective. So I did the same search on hymnery.org, which as the name implies, is a database for hymns. And of the hymn texts that refer to love or justice, only 4% of them referred to justice. A slight increase, but not really a more balanced perspective.
Now, in fairness, these numbers don't tell the whole story. Songs don't account for everything that happens in our worship services. But to the extent that our songs represent, or reflect, the content of worship, I think we can acknowledge a pretty big discrepancy between the focus of worship that celebrates God's love, when compared with the emphasis on God's justice. And if that is the case in the church, then when we read from Psalm 89, we are much more likely to gravitate to those opening verses where we sing of the Lord's great love forever, and much less likely to even notice verse 14, where love and faithfulness, find their roots in God's righteousness, and justice. And to whatever extent the songs that we sing, are a reflection of what we believe, we seem to have a robust theology of God's love, but an impoverished theology of God's justice. And I may as well add here, since I think this is where these verses are taking us, if we have an impoverished theology of God's justice, we have an impoverished theology of God's love. And if that is the case in the church, then then when the conversation in society turns toward issues of justice, which it has increasingly in recent years and months, the church might be stuck for words, we might not know what to say, or sing, or pray, because we haven't practiced the repertoire.
Now, one of the great gifts of the Psalms is that they indeed address all areas of life. Athanasius, one of the early church fathers, said about the Psalms, "It is my view that in the words of this book, the whole of human life, its basic spiritual conduct, and as well, its occasional movements and thoughts, is comprehended and contained, nothing to be found in human life is omitted." And so we take the Psalms on our lips, and we taste them, and we, we choose and we digest them. And our speech, our song, and our prayer becomes infused by, and flavoured with, God's word. We practice the repertoire. And when it comes time for the performance, we are ready.
"Righteousness, and justice, are the foundation of your throne. Love and faithfulness go before you." Now while we read verses one to 18, for context, I want to focus on this verse, verse 14, and draw our attention to three ideas that emerge from this passage. The first is that God's love is connected to God's justice. The second is that God's love comes from God's throne. And if either of those ideas are a bit hard for us to reconcile, then hopefully our third observation brings clarity, and that is that God's love is revealed in Jesus.
The first observation is simply that God's love is connected to God's justice. We already read from the NIV translation of Psalm 89. But let me let me read from the Message translation as well, from just verse 14. It says "The right and justice are the roots of your rule. love and truth are its fruits." And while the NIV translation reminds us that God's love and faithfulness are built upon the firm foundation of righteousness and justice, the Message translation paints a more pastoral scene, with roots and fruits. Now, nobody who knows me, would ever describe me as a gardener, a garden person. So I readily, readily admit to a very limited knowledge of plants, and trees, and soil, and root systems, I can affirm an appreciation for what they produce, fruit, food. I enjoy a good meal. The connection between roots and fruits is not lost on me, even as a city dweller. As one writer puts it, the deeper the roots, the greater the fruits. And this verse tells us that the fruits of God's love and faithfulness are rooted in God's righteousness and justice. God's love is connected to God's justice. So what can we say about these roots of righteousness and justice. Well righteousness refers to, of course, to a right position or right standing. Someone who is righteous is "in right standing". That means there is a standard which they are upholding and adhering to. When we speak of righteousness in the Bible, we're talking about being in right standing with God, or upholding God's standard. That means we're following God's design for our lives, doing what pleases Him, and serving him in the way that He has called us. We love God, and we love what God loves. And maybe it helps us to understand what this means, by looking at the the opposite idea. Unrighteousness.
Let's see what's going on in the upside down. In the Bible, the term for unrighteousness is associated with a dishonest standard, being applied to things like measurements, or weights, or quantities. If you come to the marketplace to buy 10 pounds of bricks, there would be a balanced scale with two sides. And on one side you have a counterweight that is equal to 10 pounds. That's, that's your standard. And then on the other side, you would add your bricks until the scale is balanced. In Leviticus chapter 19, God gives instruction to his people. He says do not use dishonest standards when measuring length or weight or quantity. And that term here for dishonest is the same one that is translated as unrighteous, or even unjust, in other places in the Bible. And then on the other hand, God affirms the actions of the righteous person saying "You shall maintain honest scales and weights, an honest ephah and an honest hin." An ephah was a measurement for grain, and a hin was a measurement for liquid. So we have this picture, that righteousness is connecting us to the right measurement, honest standard, which is God's standard. And if righteousness reflects the right measurement, an honest standard, then justice reflects the movement that brings us in line with that right measurement, or honest standard. The movement toward righteousness. Think of righteousness like our home with God. Being in right relationship and right standing with God when we are away from home, justice is the movement that brings us home.
Isaiah 51 says that God's justice will become a light to the nation's, presumably a light that guides them along the path home, back to righteousness, back to right relationship, right standing, right position with God. In Micah six. Micah six, eight reminds us of God's requirement of us, to act justly, to love mercy and walk humbly with your God. Again, justice is pictured as a as a walkway, the movement back to the path where we walk with God. Justice brings us home. And if we can say that justice is the movement or pathway that brings us back toward God, toward being in right relationship, and in right standing with Him, then we might say that love is the movement that reaches out to us, when we are away from God, presumably not in right relationship or right standing with him. When God moves toward us, and he reaches out to us, and meets us in our brokenness, this is the action of God's love. And when he doesn't just leave us in our brokenness, but by his spirit moves us toward obedience and faithfulness to him, this is the action of God's justice. And he writes says that because of God's great love, we can come as we are. But because of God's great love, we don't stay as we are. And if the great themes of our songs in Christian worship, primarily emphasize the love of God, where he reaches out to us where we are, but neglect the justice of God, where we are called back to where He is, we are only telling ourselves half of the story. God's righteousness is where it all begins and ends.
Right standing, and right relationship with God is where God reaches out from, and where he draws us back to. God's love, and God's justice are connected, because they emanate from, and return to, God, as characterized by His righteousness. God's love comes from his righteousness, the standard of right relationship that already exists within the Godhead. The Father who loves the Son who loves the Spirit, who loves the Father, God is love. His very nature is self giving, loving community, right relationship. And of course, when He reaches out to us, He indeed meets us where we are, we experience His presence, and we know His comfort. But He doesn't leave us there. He lifts us up, He restores, He heals, so that we can move, presumably toward Him, and usually toward a work that He is doing and inviting us to join. And in that sense, God's love extends from his righteousness, of right relationship, right standing, and God's justice draws us toward his righteousness. And if we recognize that right relationship with God moves God toward us, and moves us toward God, it helps us understand justice as a redemptive action rather than primarily a punitive one. And I think that's important in our world where the term justice is used a lot. The cries for justice in our society are not always aimed towards redemption. We tend to employ the legal definition of justice as retributive justice, where we, we aim to assign blame and administer punishment. Studies have shown that where punishment is the aim, retributive justice has a hard time distinguishing motives of justice as equity and fairness, or justice as vengeance. But if God's righteousness is the starting point of God's love, and the ending point of God's justice, we have a very different perspective. Now I want to be careful, not to be overly reductionistic, or get too lost on semantics like, love can only be seen as this sort of out-reaching movement. And we should only think of justice as this movement that brings us back. There's a ton of overlap. Love and justice are inter connected, and I think that connection helps us see that we, we don't really have one without the other. We pursue and promote God's love and justice that comes from, and leads to, God and His righteousness. When I asked the survey question about which word people associate with love, I think we land where we do, because we generally connect love with a heart response. And when we talk about God's love, I think we come with a similar expectation, that God's love comes from God's heart, and we tend to characterize the heart as the emotional centre of a person. But when we explore the fruit of God's love and faithfulness that are rooted in righteousness and justice, we're invited to consider a second observation, that God's love comes from God's throne.
"Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne. Love and faithfulness go before you." It's not that God's love doesn't come from God's heart. But here the mention of the throne adds another dimension to our understanding. The Throne has Kingdom implications, and kingdoms have kings. And that means being submitted to the King. God's way, and the way of his Kingdom, extend from his righteous, and just, rule. If we are to love in the way that God loves, we need to be submitted to God's way, rather than our own. We need to be submitted to God's view of love and justice, and not just our own. That's one of the reasons why historically, the church has included times of confession in worship. We embrace humility before God because we know that His way is best. We say yes to God, and no to what is not of God. And God says a big yes to us. Being forgiven, and being forgiving is the way of God's kingdom. And we pray for God's kingdom to come, and for his will to be done. His kingdom rule and reign is founded on righteousness and justice, where the love of God flows from the throne of God. And God's throne, the seat of his power and authority, is built on the foundation of His righteousness and justice. And this is closer to a biblical view of the heart, not so much as the emotional centre of our lives, where our feelings and affections come from, but the centre of our being where everything comes from. When we say that worship is aimed at the heart, we're not just saying that worship shapes our emotional responses. We're saying that in worship, God is doing heart work that shapes all of our lives in faithful response to him. And when we speak of the foundation of God's throne, we recognize that the foundation is fixed in place, it's not a moving target.
In Ancient Near Eastern cultures, people believed that gods were fickle. They could bless you just as quickly as they could mess with you. Ritual actions or worship practices were often aimed at pleasing the gods, so that people would have a little less mess, and a little more bless. But God declares that His love and faithfulness are not based on His emotional centre. They are based on the immovable certainty and unshakable foundation of His good standard for us. This is why we have hope, and not just wishful thinking, we have confidence in the love of God, now, and always. So what does this look like, if we apply it to ourselves? Do, do we operate in a similar way? Do we have our own view of what right standard and right relationship look like? And is this the place that we reach out from? Is this the foundation where our love comes from? And when we reach out to someone, and they behave in a way that is outside of our standard or expectation, do we feel like an injustice has occurred? Think of the people in your life who you love and who love you. Take your family, for instance. Most of us grow up with expectations for, or from, our families, most likely both. And hopefully, those expectations, or standards, are in place to bring out the best in all of you. And our loving behaviour flows out of those expectations and standards, and also aims to keep us in line with those expectations and standards. That's kind of what we've been describing as this movement of love and justice at work. We might even think it's a justice issue when someone's behaviour is outside of that standard, and we take steps, hopefully loving steps, to remedy the situation. We may even use the term "tough love" when we feel, when we feel compelled to take action, that while difficult, will hopefully help bring that person back to centre. When I grew up, when I did something wrong. Notice I said when, not if, I was disciplined. This was an act of love from my parents, extending from the standard, or the rightness that they believed was for the flourishing of our family. The Bible says the Lord disciplines the one he loves. And that discipline comes from the root of justice that seeks to bring us back to the right standard and into right relationship. But not all of our standards conform to God's. Not all of our expectations are God shaped. And when that is the case, our loving action, and our calls to justice, can become self serving, feeding self righteousness. There is a standard of rightness that undergirds the seat of power and authority, the throne where love comes from.
God's love comes from the throne of God, from the foundation of His righteousness. And we can draw the parallel to our own experience. The love of "insert your name here" flows from the throne of "insert your name here". Whatever, or whoever, is seated on the throne of your life will dictate what you stand for, what you reach for and what you fight for. And the question for you and me is not only what standard of righteousness are we fixed upon, but who is seated on the throne of our lives? Maybe it helps to think of a different metaphor. When we're not in the middle of a pandemic, and you would normally give someone a hug, you reach out with your arms to embrace them. And although I may be stating the obvious, your arms tend to be attached to your body. Verse 14 tells us that God's love and faithfulness are like the arms that extend to embrace us, and the body that they are connected to is the body of righteousness and justice. For the, for the full hug experience, arms and body are connected. Similarily, we can't disconnect God's love and faithfulness from his righteousness and justice.
We can't claim to be faithful, loving Christians if we abandon God's standard for righteousness and justice. Neither can we trumpet justice while we trample love. The love of God comes from the throne of God. And this kingdom language helps us remember that we're not the centre of the universe, we're part of a bigger story. Righteousness, and justice are not self serving. And biblical justice doesn't begin with putting ourselves first. It focuses on the needs of others, particularly the needs of the vulnerable, and the oppressed. The way of God's kingdom, and His justice, pursues dignity, for what Nicholas Wolterstorff calls the quartet of the vulnerable. Widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor. When that becomes the root of the tree that produces the fruit of love, it is indeed life giving. That is when love is self giving and self sacrificing, preferring the needs of others before our own. And none of that is to say that we don't experience benefits in loving relationship that meet our needs and improve our lives. But that isn't the source of our love, and faithfulness. We seek God's kingdom first, and His righteousness. And not only will these things be added to us, but the overflow of our love will more closely resemble the love of God. When we pray that we would show God's love for others, we can pray that we will know God's righteousness and justice for that person. God's love is connected to His justice. God reaches out to us and draws us near, back to Him. God's love comes from his throne. He doesn't only love us when He feels like it. His love builds up from the firm foundation of His sovereign rule, and reign. And if we're still trying to figure this out, we need to look no further than Jesus.
And our third and final observation. God's love is revealed in Jesus, who perfectly fulfills the righteousness and justice of God. Jesus Christ, the Son, in right relationship with God, the Father, comes to us in love, dies to pay the penalty of our sin, is raised to life and returns to the Father, making the way for us to come to God. He comes in love, and returns having satisfied God's justice, so that we can be restored to right relationship with God. When Jesus is baptized, he says, "Let it be so now. It is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness." Jesus announces that, His life given for us, will meet God's standard, the way of God's kingdom, and in so doing, make the way for us to come to the Father, to be saved, to be reconciled. First John, chapter four tells us this is how God showed his love among us. He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love. Not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
God reaches out to us in love, sending His one and only Son, and Jesus died on the cross to atone, or pay the penalty, for the sins of the world, to fulfill the standard of God's righteousness. And through His resurrection, breaking the power of sin and death, He restored the broken relationship between God and His creation. Through the cross, God made a way for us to return to Him, because His justice has been satisfied. So God's love is revealed in Jesus, who comes to us. And God's justice is satisfied in Jesus who makes a way for us to come to God. And John goes on to explain that we are then given the Holy Spirit who lives in us, and that our acknowledgment of Jesus as the Son of God is proof of God's life within us. In other words, when Jesus sits on the throne of our lives, and we declare His lordship, God's love lives in us.
The foundation of God's love is His righteousness and justice. And the fulfillment of God's love is His righteousness and justice. We've come full circle. God's love for you and me is shown in the gift of Jesus, who has done for us, what we could not do for ourselves. We proclaim the good news of our forgiveness, and restoration to right standing, and right relationship with God, because of Jesus.
Finally, while we recognize that the foundation of God's justice and righteousness are fixed, his love and faithfulness are moving, they go before us, they reach out, they are the arms that extend to embrace us, they proceed into the places, into the people where there is need, where there is loneliness, where there is oppression and vulnerability. And this is our challenge as God's Church, we are called to love. And that means we will need to go and be the hands and feet of Christ, reaching out to bring comfort and healing. And, we are called to promote justice, which means, when we go, we are to be ministers of reconciliation, who encourage movement toward God's standard, all the while pursuing righteousness, celebrating righteousness in the church, and in our world. It won't do to call people to a standard that we aren't faithful to. And so we look at ourselves first, and we ask the hard questions. Where does our love come from? What standard or expectation do I reach out from? Is it self giving, or self serving? And because love and justice are so closely connected, a great place to double check where your love comes from, is to ask yourself, what makes you angry? What ticks you off? Because what inspires your indignation, and sense of injustice, will often point directly back to the foundation of your love. And I'm pretty sure, if you're like me, you'll have some work to do to connect love and justice, that come from and return to God's standard of righteousness.
Psalm 89 affirms that God's great love is the theme of worship. And we have the repertoire to back that up. But Psalm 89 also reminds us that God's love is connected to God's justice, and we may still need to develop some of that repertoire. And Psalm 89 also affirms that the worshiping life of God's people, personally and corporately, is a, is the training ground for us to pursue righteousness, to learn in love, and to understand God's justice.
May our love for God, for each other, for all of God's creation proceed from the foundation of God's righteousness and justice. And may we seek first God's kingdom, and the way of his kingdom, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Spirit. Amen.
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