Thomas Chalmers, noted leader of the Free Church of Scotland in the early 19th century, once preached a sermon entitled “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” The main thrust of the sermon can be summarized from Dr. Chalmers opening statement:
There are two ways in which a practical moralist may attempt to displace from the human heart its love of the world; either by a demonstration of the world’s vanity, so as that the heart shall be prevailed upon simply to withdraw its regards from an object that is not worthy of it; or, by setting forth another object, even God, as more worthy of its attachment; so as that the heart shall be prevailed upon, not to resign an old affection which shall have nothing to succeed it, but to exchange an old affection for a new one. My purpose is to show, that [this] method will alone suffice for the rescue and recovery of the heart from the wrong affection that domineers over it.
The world throws every possible temptation and allurement to entice the believer to set the affections on something other than God; something that will never bring ultimate satisfaction and joy to the soul. There are times when it is necessary for believers to “demonstrate the world’s vanity,” but the greater emphasis should be placed on setting forth God as more worthy of the heart’s attachment and affection.
The gospel is the primary means of godly change in the life of a believer. Faith in the gospel produces affection for God and neighbor. Obedience to God’s Word is the fruit born out of this affection. Righteous living needs to be done, not merely out of duty, but out of a heart of affection for God and others. Faith produced by the Word of God renews our mind and transforms our affections to love God more fully and more deeply, which enables and motivates us for acts of righteousness. Faith in the gospel produces in us an affection for God and a passion for his glory that results in a righteous life.
It seems such a strange request from a man who’s in the throes of grief over sins that he can’t deny and can’t take back. I would propose to you that it was exactly the right thing for David and each of us to pray whenever we’re confronted with our sins. But when you first read the word in Psalm 51, it does make you wonder, “What in the world is hyssop?”
Researching the plant won’t give you much help. It produces a delicate white flower and is thought by some to have medicinal qualities. But this is one time that wikipedia.com won’t help you. What you really need to know, in order to understand the grieving in David’s request, is Old Testament history. David’s mind goes to that original Passover, when the firstborn of Egypt were stricken dead and the houses of Israel that had blood on the door frames, were passed over. What does this have to do with David’s request? Here it is. God directed the Israelites to take a branch of hyssop and dip it in blood and paint the door frames with it.
Here is David, grieved by his sin and bowed before God between the “already” and the “not yet.” Already the blood of the first Passover had protected Israel from death and made their exodus to freedom and the land of promise possible. Already the Mosaic system of constant animal-blood sacrifices covered the sins of God’s people. But the promised Lamb had not yet come. Not yet had his blood been spilt, once and for all, in the final moment of sacrifice that forever ended any need for further sacrifice.
So, reflecting on the past, David’s words actually reach into the future. They form the ultimate backdrop to the future prayer. For embedded in this cry for cleansing that remembers the spilt blood of deliverance (Passover) and the shed blood of forgiveness (Mosaic sacrifices), David cries for the one thing that anyone who acknowledges his sin will cry for; cleansing.
When your sin really does become ugly to you, when it produces pain in your heart and sickness in your stomach, you celebrate forgiveness, but you want something more. You want to be clean. You long to be once and for all purified from all sin whatsoever. You want your sin to be once and for all washed away. You want to be free of every dark residue of sinful thought, desire, word, or deed.
Yes, you’ll love the fact that you can stand before God dirty and unafraid because of his comprehensive and freely given grace. You’ll love the fact that his forgiveness of you has been full and complete. But you’ll grow tired of needing and seeking forgiveness. You’ll mourn the hold that sin has on you. You’ll be frustrated with the way that sin seems to infect everything you do. And you’ll begin to plead for what the blood of Jesus alone is able to do; wash away your sin! In this moment of need and helplessness, you’ll cry, “Purge me with hyssop Lord, dip the branch of your grace into the blood of your Son and cleanse me once and for all!”
David never sang this great old hymn, but maybe he’ll hear it some day and remember the tear-stained prayer that followed the visit of Nathan. Maybe someday he’ll celebrate final cleansing with a chorus of the ages singing:
“What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
O’ precious is the flow,
That makes me white as snow.
No other fount I know,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
Understanding that God is great affects us in three specific ways. Firstly, it affects our minds in that we are called to come to God with thanksgiving. To come to God thankful for all he has done in our lives. Thankfulness requires thought. It requires that we stay consciously aware of the evidences of grace in our life. Moreover, it can aid us in staying aware of the evidences of grace in others’ lives. See God at work in ourselves and others is a key to thankfulness.
Secondly, it affects our emotions. We are called to make a joyful noise in songs of praise to God. “Joyful” is not a description of the style of music, but rather an expression of the emotion with which the song is to be sung. God is not a robot. God himself is described throughout the Bible as having a range of emotions. Humans, because they are made in the image of God, are meant to enter into and experience emotion, but more importantly, to glorify God in it.
Thirdly, it affects our wills. We are called to bow down and kneel before God. This is not a prescription for proper modes of worship as much as it is a call to bend our will and our volition to God’s. We are called to make our desires God’s desires. To make our will and our goal the glory and worship of God in all that we do.
The writer of Psalm 95 erupts in a song of praise to God on the basis of the greatness of God. The psalmist’s description of God is actually a three-fold description in one. In verse three, he says that God is great, a great King, and in verses four through five we learn the expression of this greatness of the King in God’s work as the great Creator. He says,
“Oh come, let us sing to the LORD;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
For the LORD is a great God,
and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land.
Oh come, let us worship and bow down;
let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!
For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand.”
Our great God-King displays his greatness in the beauty and majesty of creation. “In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also.” From the top of the mountains to the bottom of the ocean God is maker of it all. All the beauty you see is a minute reflection of the beauty of God.
Notice that in the opening verses the writer of Psalm 95 uses the first person plural; come let “us” sing, let “us” make a joyful noise. He doesn’t say “I.” Learning to worship God happens in the context of community. Because only in the context of community do we see a fuller expression of God. We cannot prize, value, love and worship that which we do not know. Isolating ourselves from fellowship in the body of Christ is dangerous because it gives us an unrealistic and sinfully skewed view of God. We are all made in the image of God, but we are all different. When all God’s people come together in an eclectically beautiful (though not perfect) expression of the goodness, kindness, mercy, grace, love, greatness and glory of God we get a fuller (though not complete) picture of the beauty of God. And as a result, our hearts cannot help but be irresistibly drawn to prize, value, esteem and treasure God. This eclectically beautiful gathering is what Christ calls his “Church.” It is what Christ calls each of us to participate in as a full expression and the practical outworking of true worship.
The writer of Psalm 42 and 43 desperately wants to be near God. But why? There are very good reasons that he gives for finding his soul’s satisfaction in God. The psalmist opens his song with the following verse:
“As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?”
The structure of Psalm 42:1 is type of Hebrew poetry called a “simile.” The first part (a) of the first line indicates a simile (metaphor) and the second part (b) of the first line will employ something literal. So, in the NASB, it reads:
“As the deer pants for the water brooks (a) , So my soul pants for You (b), O God.”
In the same manner that a deer pursues the water brooks for survival and refreshment, so too, the psalmist’s soul “pants” for God. He pursues God for real safety and refreshment.
It is not merely the physical body that yearns for God, but the very soul of man. God’s power and ability to touch the deepest part of a person are described vividly. When we remember the wonders of God, our souls are utterly and completely “poured out,” as it were, “completely spent.” It is God who is ultimately responsible for the waves of trial, so it is to God that the psalmist turns for eternally satisfying relief. As Matthew Henry says,
“When the soul rests on itself, it sinks; if it catches hold on the power and promise of God, the head is kept above the billows. And what is our support under present woes but this, that we shall have comfort in Him.”
Light and Truth (Christ) are what the author longs for; the Word of God alone can bring him into the place of worship. Psalms 42 and 43 communicate a stubborn tenacity on behalf of the author to trust in God regardless of the darkness of the circumstances, remembering his kindness, and thereby trusting in an expectant hope.
The third and final stanza (Psalm 43) concludes with hope and confidence, desiring to return to God’s house for worship, he says,
“Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling! Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God.”
This hopeful expectation allows the psalmist to conclude his song with confidence “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God”; rejoicing that one day he will praise God unhindered by his present trials. In the midst of mocking taunts from enemies there still remains a trust in God as deliverer. Whether walking in the day or sleeping in the night, God’s lovingkindness is trustworthy (42:8). It is almost a natural spontaneity to trust in God during this time; an eagerness to return to the joy of true worship of God through trusting him.
In I Thessalonians 1:6-7, 9 Paul praises the Thessalonian church for an evidence of grace he sees in them. He says,
“And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia … For they themselves report … how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.”
Paul’s praise is a response to the Thessalonians turning from idolatry to the “living and true God.” The description of God as “living and true” is a direct and intentional contrast to the dead and false pagan idols of the day. Isaiah contrasts dead and false pagan idols to the living and true God this way:
“To whom then will you liken God,
or what likeness compare with him?
An idol! A craftsman casts it,
and a goldsmith overlays it with gold
and casts for it silver chains.
He who is too impoverished for an offering
chooses wood that will not rot;
he seeks out a skillful craftsman
to set up an idol that will not move.
Do you not know? Do you not hear?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to dwell in;
who brings princes to nothing,
and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.”
It is as ridiculous as it sounds. Men using dead materials to create dead idols who cannot speak, cannot hear, and cannot move. They are utterly powerless to do anything, yet people bow down their hearts before them and put their trust in them. Fast-forward to modern day and the situation hasn’t changed very much. There are still many people groups all over the world who still worship dead and dumb idols. Western civilized nations worship at the altar of status and stuff. Both people are equally guilty of trusting in things that promise everything and can deliver nothing.
Contrast that with God. He is above the whole earth ruling with immeasurable power and able to do anything and everything. With a wave of his hand and a spoken word, God spreads out the sky and hangs the stars each by name. God rules in power and majesty as the only true and living King over all the nations of the world.
Far too often we allow our hearts to live like Pharisees; content to put on a show of love and affection for God that does not really exist. We feel obligated to perform out of fear of criticism and rejection from others, or even from God. Many times we perform to gain the admiration and respect of God and others. The modern remedy says to “suck it up” and do it whether you “feel” like it or not. But God is not impressed with how well we can perform, and our performance will never change us from the outside-in. “Doing the right thing” will never change our heart.
Praising God with eloquent lips will never give us affectionate hearts. Rather, trusting God by faith for all that he is and all that he has done for us in Jesus Christ will give us an affection for him that cannot be contained. A heart of love will erupt in a life of joy and words of praise to our great and good God.
Nebuchadnezzar was the proud king of Babylon who ignored the God of Israel and saw himself as greater than God. But God humbled Nebuchadnezzar:
“He was driven from among men and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers, and his nails were like birds’ claws. At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’”
Nebuchadnezzar no longer saw himself as the source of his greatness, but he saw the God of Israel as the truly great One and the only One worthy of being treasured and receiving praise. Once Nebuchadnezzar was humbled and understood and treasured God for who he truly was, his heart could not help but burst into praise to God the Most High.