When I was a young child, I suffered from terrible nightmares. Every couple of months, I’d cry out in my sleep. My parents would rush in to comfort me, and I’d begin to calm down. Usually, at this point, my dad would return to bed and my mother would rock me to sleep. I can vividly remember the feeling of being safe in her arms, protected from the terrors that had filled my sleep. Psalm 131 uses such an image to convey what it’s like to have a calm and quiet soul.
Numbering comes naturally to human beings. It’s hard to imagine human society functioning without our ability to keep count… We’ve invented previously unimaginable technologies to expedite the process. It’s led to the ability to quickly calculate all sorts of measures for all manner of things. On the downside, this has enabled us to generate volumes of data which may be of little value. Today’s text reminds us that this need not be so. Counting and wisdom can go together. But how do we learn to count well as human beings?
The first line of Psalm 130 is one of the most frequently quoted of the Psalms: “Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O LORD” (130:1, KJV). Why is this simple line so commonly used in prayers, hymns, and spiritual songs? Because it expresses what it’s like to pray when we’re facing overwhelming challenges and hardships. Our hearts resonate with the psalmist when we pray not with joyful praise or quiet calm but with urgent desperation.
I know the idea of following your dreams often gets a bad rap. I know some people think it’s foolish to keep going after some things. But I always end up right back in the same place: I honestly believe God gives us the desires of our hearts. Not in some kind of “name it and claim it” theology. And certainly not in a way that promises life will be a bed of roses. But, if you’ve got something stirring in your heart, and it keeps agitating your hope and making it rise to the surface, I say pay attention to that thing. Keep offering that thing up to God.
As I was reading Psalm 129, the phrase “grass on the roof” caught my attention. That’s not something you hear every day. In ancient Israel, roofs of common homes were often made of beams and branches covered with thick mud. When the rains came, grass seeds embedded in the mud would sprout. But because its roots were shallow and its source of water temporary, the grass on the housetops wouldn’t thrive. It would wither and die even before it was fully grown.
The fourth and final verse of Isaac Watts’s hymn “Joy to the World” proclaims: “He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of His righteousness. And wonders of His love, and wonders of His love, and wonders, wonders of His love.” Like the rest of “Joy to the World,” this stanza is a poetic reformulation of Psalm 98 as understood in light of Jesus Christ. Christian themes and vocabulary are particularly present in the fourth verse.
Though we continue to live in a world tainted by sin, a world of sorrows and thorns, in Christ we begin to experience the life of the future. Yes, our work will still be painful and frustrating. But, through Christ’s grace, we will at times sense that our work is a blessing, a chance for us to partner with God in the good work of tending his creation. Thus, we will join creation in celebrating the coming of our redeeming, restoring Savior.
In Psalm 98, the Lord has made “his salvation known” (v. 2). He is the Savior. But he is also the Lord who reigns, the judge who assumes rightful authority over the whole world (v. 9). As the Lord brings his justice to the world, as his salvation restores the brokenness of the world, this will be an occasion for rejoicing, not just by human beings, but even in a sense, by the earth itself. Psalm 98 says, “Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy.”
The story behind the writing of “Joy to the World” is fascinating. I’ll tell part of that story in the devotions for the rest of this week. For now, I’ll simply note that this hymn was originally part of a collection written by Isaac Watts as reflections on the biblical Psalms. “Joy to the World” was Watts’s Christian rendition of Psalm 98, which proclaims, “Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.” Why should the world rejoice? The reason is given in verse 3 of Psalm 98.
This Sunday will be the fourth Sunday of Advent, the last Sunday before we celebrate Christmas. Increasingly, our hearts are being filled with joyful anticipation as we look forward to experiencing once again the good news of Immanuel, God with us. Advent is… a time in which Christians remember Israel’s hope for the messiah. And it is a time for us to get in touch with our own hopes, for the second coming of Christ and the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth.