The Secret Of Christian Growth
Mr. Jerry Clark makes his home in Morrison, Tenn. This article is the first of a series of fifteen studies on a group of Psalms called “Songs of Ascents.”
A song of the goings-up:
1. Unto the Lord in my distress I called, and He answered me.
2. O LORD, deliver my soul from a lip of falsehood, from a tongue of guile.
3. (What shall He give to you, and what shall He add to you, O tongue of guile?
4. Arrows of a mighty-man, sharppened, along with coals of juniper.)
5. Alas, for me! that I have sojourned in Meschech, I have tabernacled with the tents of Kedar.
6. My soul has long tabernacled itself with the one hating peace.
7. I am peace, but when I will speak, they are for war.
Going Up — Where?
Hidden away like rare jewels in the heavenly jewel case of the Psalter are fifteen brief songs connected with each other by a single phrase: “the goings up.” There are many theories regarding the origin and purpose of this group, one of the most unusual in the entire Psalter. The more popular theories connect them with either fifteen steps in the Temple (the Hebrew ma’alah, “going up,” is used in this way in Ex. 20:26) or suggest that they are Pilgrim songs used by those going up to Jerusalem for the three annual festivals (the root word is found in this fashion in Ex. 34:24). Perhaps the single most satisfying explanation, however, is that which refers the songs to the fifteen degrees which the sun went back (2 Kings 20:9-11; Isa. 38:8). The psalms can certainly be applied to circumstances in Hezekiah’s life, remembering that some were probably composed by Hezekiah himself, while others were already-written psalms compiled by him for this special collection. (See Arthur G. Clarke, Analytical Studies in the Psalms, John Ritchie, Ltd.).
For the Christian today, however, a more practical approach is that which sees in them various situations and circumstances which are paralleled in the life of the believer. These are not necessarily presented consecutively, but a moral order can certainly be discerned. The principles contained in these psalms have an abiding application, the understanding of which may help us to comprehend many of the experiences through which we are called to pass as we are “going up” the Christian pathway, from glory to glory (see 2 Cor. 3:18), as Christ is being formed in us by the action of the Holy Spirit, in response to our submission to His leadership and control.
The Preface (v. 1)
Like many of the psalms, this one is a prayer for deliverance. The first verse, however, constitutes a preface: “I called … He answered.” This is an eternal truth; whenever we call the Lord out of a sincere heart, He does answer us. The word “distress” is tsarar, meaning tribulation, trouble, literally, being in a tight place (cf. Psa. 50:15, where the same word is used). This fact stands not only as a preface to the psalm, coloring and conditioning the distressed cry, but also is an abiding conclusion reached by the psalmist after numerous experiences of God’s merciful intervention on his behalf. Such experiences give him confidence for the future (cf. the progression in Rom. 5:3-5); since God has answered us in past distresses, we know that He will do so now.
The Prayer (v. 2)
The prayer is for deliverance from the present persecution at the hands of enemies who were both lying about him and lying to him, through flatteries. “Deliver” is natsal, to draw out, pull out, take away, hence, to pluck or snatch away (as in Zech. 3:2), and is the Hebrew equivalent to harpazo, the word used to describe the Rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. The word suggests a picture: the lies of his enemies have created a situation in which there is no way to turn but up. This he does and implores the Lord to snatch him “up and away” out of the midst of his enemies, leaving them gaping in consternation.
The Parenthesis (vv. 3 and 4)
These two verses constitute a parenthesis as the psalmist turns aside for a moment from his prayer and sees, by faith, what the ultimate end of his adversaries will be (cf. Psa. 73:17). Even though they may appear to have the upper hand momentarily, yet the man with true vision (based on knowledge of God) knows that they will pay for their sins and that their payment will be, in effect, appropriate to the sins they have committed. Lies and flatteries are like sharp arrows and burning coals in the pain which they bring to righteous persons sometimes, but such men will eventually get their “just desserts” (cf. Psa. 140:9-10; Prov. 25:18).
The Plaint (vv. 5-7)
This section connects with the prayer in verse 2 and serves to intensify the psalmist’s request by indicating the extremity of his circumstances. He describes his condition metaphorically: though living among his own people (the psalm may have a literal fulfilment in the experiences of the Jewish remnant, of course, but the principle is abiding), he is like a man dwelling among barbarians. Meshech and Kedar (dwellers on the Black Sea and the Arabian Desert, respectively) were considered heathen “savages” by the Hebrews. Dwelling among liars and flatterers was similar to dwelling as a stranger in another land.
No matter how hard he tried to live at peace with those around him, they were always against him. Why? Because of his God! He was different, he dwelled as a “lily among thorns,” as a man of God among ungodly men.
The first stage in “going up” (in many lands occurring immediately upon open profession of faith in Christ, though perhaps more subtly in Western countries) is, strangely enough, persecution and diversity, slander and ridicule from those with whom we cannot associate in worldly practices (cf. 1 Pet. 4:3-4). It is a hard but necessary fact to learn that since the world hated Christ, they will hate us as well (John 15:18).
Why does God allow this to happen, particularly at such tender stages of our Christian life? For Christian growth to take place, there must be separation from sin and worldliness. A man in India once found a baby tiger whose mother had been killed. He took the tiger home, fed it with a baby bottle and raised it as a pet. Eventually, it became a full-grown tiger, much more powerful than the man himself, but still a pet. One day the man accidentaly wounded himself. That night, while he slept, the tiger approached him, his natural instincts awakened by the scent of blood. The man awoke just in time to snatch a revolver from his bedside table and shoot his “pet” before it devoured him.
Sin may sometimes seem harmless, but it will devour us if allowed in our lives. Persecution and affliction, more than anything else it seems will drive us away from sin and to the Lord. It brings into bold relief the ugly and deadly nature of that which once seemed pleasant to us. God allows such suffering to help us, not hurt us. The surgeon may bring pain, but he does so to heal, not to kill. The scalpel may hurt, but not nearly as much as will cancer which will ultimately destroy us if not removed. “Before I was afflicted, I went astray” (Psa. 119:67) is a principle which still applies today.
This psalm, then, is a picture of the man who is in the world but not of the world (John 17:15), and is therefore hated by the world. Persecution is allowed by God as a sanctifying agent; it brings to light the deadly nature of sin, shows us the resources available in God, causes us to turn to God, shows us the fate of those who live wickedly (which is what our fate would have been but for Jesus Christ), and brings glory to God when He delivers us out of our afflictions.
The “secret” of Christian growth is to realize the purpose of such processes, to submit to God and to learn from the afflictions. “In the world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
I journey through desert, drear and wild,
Yet is my heart by such sweet thoughts beguiled —
Of Him on whom I lean, my strength, my stay
I can forget the sorrows of the way.