Psalm 65 is a typically beautiful hymn of praise of which there are a number in the Psalter. It speaks of God in his temple courts (vv. 1-4), in his vast dominion (vv. 5-8), and in the blessing he personally visits upon the natural life of the earth. As one commentator says of vv 9-13, “we almost feel the splash of showers, and sense the springing growth about us.” [Kidner, TOTC, i, 229] For our purposes this morning we are interested primarily in the first eight verses of the psalm.
v.2 “All flesh” is a reference to the nations; as so often in the OT Zion will become the rallying point for all mankind [Tate, 141]. This universal note is sounded again in vv. 5 and 8.
v.3 You’ll note that the first line has the singular, the second the plural. The one offering the prayer is doing so on behalf of the whole church.
v.5 As everywhere else in the Bible that the Lord is the “hope of all the ends of the earth” does not mean that all trust the Lord, but that they should. [Kidner, 231] For Yahweh alone is the God of both might and righteousness, both judgment and grace. He is the God of the entire world because, as we read in the next verse, he made it and rules over it.
v.9 Again a typically biblical thought: the God who is always near, nevertheless at particular times visits the world or his people to judge or to bless.
v.11 The image is that of a cart so heavily laden with produce that it is constantly dropping its contents into its tracks as it moves along.
v.13 In another typical biblical image the hills, meadows, and valleys are imagined as donning clothes and making merry before the Lord in their gladness at the beauty and the bounty the Lord has provided. The entire landscape has dressed in its very best to worship the Lord its maker! [Kidner, 232]
In David’s hymn of praise, delight is expressed in God as redeemer, creator, and provider. We know from the title that it was a song sung in the temple, certainly by the temple choirs if not also by the congregation. It was a hymn of worship about worship, as many such hymns are. It is a beautiful psalm, as all the psalms are beautiful, and well repays careful thought and meditation, but this morning I am interested only in these verses as a kind of general account of the worship of the people of God. Let me show you what I mean. Here in the temple, in the worship of God a psalm is sung. What does it contain?
- First, and obviously, God is praised and thanked for his works of creation, redemption, and providence. We do that in our worship every Lord’s Day.
- The mention is made of vows that are to be performed. In the OT context that would refer to the bringing of particular sacrifices or gifts to the temple to express both thanksgiving and consecration. We do that as well with our tithes and offerings. When we give gifts to God we are both expressing our thanksgiving for his goodness to us and declaring that our lives belong to him and that we intend to serve him with them.
- In v. 2 prayers are brought to God – the word refers to all manner of prayers, from praise to confession to intercession – because his people are confident that he will hear them, indeed, that he alone can hear them. And, of course, we have prayers of various kinds in our worship.
- Sins are confessed and forgiveness is received, as we read in v. 3. We have that, too, in our worship.
- The reference to “all flesh” in v. 2, to “the ends of the earth” in v. 5 and again in v. 8, sounds an eschatological note. In worship God’s people are found in medias res, in the middle of their own lives and in the middle of human history, but in worship their gaze is cast forward to the consummation, to the fulfillment of God’s plan and purpose for them and for the world as a whole.
- In v. 4 there is reference to communion with God, “the goodness of your house” may well be an explicit reference to the good food that was eaten there before the Lord as part of the peace or fellowship offerings. We also eat before the Lord in the continuation of that peace or fellowship offering which is the Christian Lord’s Supper.
- Dwelling in the courts of the Lord is, in the first place, to be regularly present in the temple and to participate in its worship, but by extension and figuratively it refers to a life of faith and loyalty to God. It is a beautiful way of speaking of a godly life of service to God. [Hakham, ii, 52] That thought is confirmed by the reference to being satisfied with the holiness of the Lord’s temple. The worshipper loves God’s holiness and one who truly loves that holiness always strives to put on that same holiness in his own life.
In other words, worship then was as worship is now and included long ago the very parts and elements that we take for granted in our worship here. There is a reason for that and it is important for us to have that reason clear in our minds. The reason is this: the parts of this worship are the thankful and faithful reflex of the gospel itself. Christian worship is what people do who have embraced the gospel of God. The worship of Psalm 65 and the worship of any well-ordered Christian Lord’s Day service is both a recapitulation of and a practice of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is why it contains the elements it does and always has.
We have argued in a previous sermon that the specific purpose of the church’s Lord’s Day worship is the renewal of our covenant with the Lord. In the Bible a covenant is an ordered relationship. Ours is not just any relationship with God; whatever relationship we may wish it to be. It is a relationship that he has established and ordered in a very definite way; it is a relationship to which God himself has given shape and substance. And it is his will that this relationship, this covenant between God and his people, be regularly and often renewed, every Lord’s Day in fact. And so it is renewed in a specific, purposeful way, according to the nature of that covenant, in keeping with the nature of the parties of that covenant (the holy God and his sinful but believing creatures); according to the relationship between the parties that is established in it, and in keeping with the purpose of that relationship. That it is a ceremony or ritual of covenant renewal gives a very specific character, logic, order, and content to Christian worship.
But covenant is just one way to speak of our relationship with God and the renewal of that covenant; just one way – a very important way – of speaking of the high worship of the church. Another way to speak of the same thing is to say that worship is a renewal of the gospel. In many ways, in the Bible covenant and gospel are almost synonyms. They both concern the same salvation, they both create the same relationship with God, they both lead to the same new way of life, and so on.
“Gospel,” like “covenant,” is a loaded word as many most important words are! And like many loaded words, words in which so much meaning is compact, it can mean different things to different people. No doubt in both the Church of Scotland and the Presbyterian Church USA of late, people have justified the approval of ministers living in open homosexual relationships with reference to the gospel. Because of the gospel, they say, we are obliged to accept one another; because of the gospel people are set free to be themselves. Well, we know that isn’t right. God defines the gospel in his Word. The gospel is what he says it is and means what he says it means and in the Word of God the gospel never means freedom to live in defiance of the law of God.
But among evangelicals also we hear the term used in different ways and often without a clear definition. We hear Christian people say, for example, that they surmount their trials and sorrows by “preaching the gospel to themselves.” Well what message precisely is it that they preach to themselves? Or we hear ministers saying in sermons that what people need for this or that is simply “the gospel.” But what is the gospel that is the answer to all these problems? Sometimes the term is used polemically, as when someone says that such and such an idea is inconsistent with the gospel or when a church describes itself in contrast to others as “gospel centered.” No one knows precisely how the term is used in such statements until it is defined by the person using it. We know, of course, that “gospel” is an old English word meaning “good news,” which is the meaning of the Greek word found as the title of each of the four accounts of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of the Lord – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – and as a term summarizing the message of the Bible. In Greek the word is a compound, “eu” meaning “good” and “aggelion” meaning “message” or “news.” We find the word first in the LXX, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, in such a text as Isa. 52:7:
“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings…”
The verb, “to proclaim good news” and the noun “good news” occur scores of times in the New Testament. And I suppose most believers imagine that they know what the term means. But the fact is, “gospel” occurs in a variety of contexts with a variety of references. Consider, for example, these.
- In the Gospels we hear of the “good news of the kingdom of God.” That is, the good news is that Christ reigns as king and that he is building his kingdom in the world. I don’t think that is what most Christians think of when they hear the term “gospel,” the proclamation of the good news that Christ is king and reigning in the world. But that is a very common use of the term, especially in the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It is perhaps the distinctive use of the term on the lips of the Lord Jesus himself. Again and again we read of the “gospel of the kingdom.”
- Paul refers to the “gospel of God’s grace.” That is certainly the more familiar sense of the term for most of us. The good news is that God stands ready to be gracious to sinners, to forgive their sins, and to give them eternal life. We think of John 3:16 as the Bible’s simplest and most beautiful summary of the gospel: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” That’s the gospel! Or think of Paul’s statement in Romans 1 that he is not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” Or his statement in the opening verses of 1 Cor. 15 where he summarizes the gospel he preached to the Corinthians, viz. that Christ died for our sins, that he was buried, that he rose again, and that he appeared to many after his resurrection… The gospel is the news that the Son of God entered the world to save his people from their sins. Here and in many places the good news refers to the salvation that is offered to sinners through faith in Jesus Christ.
- But what of Paul’s remark in Romans 2:16 to the effect that “according to [Paul’s] gospel, God will judge the secrets of men’s lives at the last judgment. That use of “gospel” is like the one we find in Revelation 14:6:
“Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on earth…. And he said with a loud voice, ‘Fear God and give him glory because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.”
We don’t naturally think of the proclamation of divine judgment as “good news” but it is called the “gospel” in the Bible.
- Twice the apostle Paul speaks of the gospel as a message about the glory of God or of Christ (2 Cor. 4:4; 1 Tim. 1:11). In those instances, the good news is about the very nature of God himself and of Christ, the Son of God. It is good news to hear of the living God whose glory no man has seen or can see!
- In 1 Peter 1:25 the gospel is the truth of God’s Word that abides forever, in contrast to the temporality and transitory nature of everything in the world, including our earthly lives. The good news here is that there is truth about God and man and the future that we can absolutely count on.
- And in 1 Peter 4:6 we read:
“For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.”
So the gospel is also the proclamation of a new kind of life that believers live, the life that is what Paul calls “a life worthy of the gospel” in Phil. 1:27. Sinful men can begin to live as godly men, live like God himself in every way mere human beings are capable of. That is good news!
In other words, the gospel includes the whole grand message of the Bible, the news about who and what God is, about the salvation he offers to all men through faith in his Son, about a new kind of life, a life of love and goodness that the Holy Spirit creates in those who believe in Jesus, and about the future consummation of all things and the eternal destiny of human beings. All of that is the gospel, the good news, because all of it is necessary for us to find true happiness and goodness in life. The gospel is the truth concerning the life of mankind, his whole life from beginning to end. Or, in other words, all the subjects that are mentioned in the summary of worship we read from Psalm 65.
That is why a properly ordered service of Christian worship literally bristles with the truth and with the most important truth there is, the truth men and women need most to know, most to remember, most to believe, most to practice in their lives! And that is why so often it is the practice of Christian worship that first instills the truth in human hearts and then confirms it.
I have a PCA minister friend who was raised in an unbelieving Episcopal church, the church his parents attended and he attended every Sunday as a child. Few in the church had any serious interest in living for Christ, his parents weren’t what anyone with a Bible in his hand would call true Christians, he was never challenged to believe this truth and to live according to it, he was never encouraged to know that the Lord Jesus himself was standing at the door of his heart. But every Sunday they went through the properly ordered motions of true Christian worship. Perhaps the sermon undid what the rest of the service was supposed to do, but it was always short and no one pays much attention to the sermon in churches like that.
It was in College that he was confronted by Christians challenging him to consider Jesus Christ and the gospel and it was then he came to faith. But he would tell you that when the gospel was explained to him and when he was challenged to believe it, he knew exactly what they were talking about – sin, redemption, the cross, new life in Christ, the Holy Spirit, a life of godliness, he understood all of this – he understood what these Christians meant by what they said, and what the implications of faith in Christ would be for him if he chose to believe. He knew that because he had had all of that dinned into him every Sunday at worship. The whole ground was gone over every week. No one believed it then, but he came to believe it all later and realized that what he was now believing was precisely what the worship of his youth had contained every Sunday!
The other day I read of Paul Williams, a British professor of Philosophy. He was a typical Anglican in many ways. He was baptized as an infant, sang in the church choir as a boy, but his family was not particularly religious. As a young man he lost contact with the church as most Anglican young people do. At university and thereafter he developed an interest in Eastern philosophy and by the time he completed his doctorate at Oxford he was keenly interested in Buddhism. Soon he came to the realization that he was a Buddhist and formally became one when he “took refuge,” which is the language used in the Tibetan form of Buddhism that he joined. In time he came to hold a prominent role among Buddhists in Britain, teaching at university, doing radio programs, and participating in inter-faith dialogues.
Yet now Paul Williams is a Christian and in his autobiography, The Unexpected Way, he describes the various factors that led to his conversion. He had been, he said, unable to shake his early Christian roots, his baptism, and when he visited Christian churches he felt like he wanted to be part of what was happening in those churches, in those services. Then he began to wonder if he had really ever carefully considered the claims of the Christian gospel. He grew increasingly uneasy with his Buddhism; he came face to face with the fact that there was no hope in Buddhism and that Christianity was a religion brim full of hope, both for this life and the life to come. Given that we had a baptism this morning, I should also mention that Williams came to wonder if his baptism as an infant was a kind of tattoo, declaring that he belonged to God, and that God will always seek those with his tattoo.
“After a time he made a shift. An interesting one. He decided, in his words, to ‘switch my perspective, to see what things would look like if I saw them as if I thought Christianity were true. In that switch of perspective I now think I invited Christ to return. He came.” [All the above from G. Smith, Transforming Conversion, 167-169]
There are many interesting features of that personal history, but for our purposes this morning let me simply draw your attention to the fact that it was the power, the reach, the worldview communicated in Christian worship that Paul Williams found himself unable to escape, even as a practicing Buddhist! Christian worship had planted a seed in a young life that years later sprung to life.
And it is that that we want for ourselves and for our children: not, of course, the long years away in unbelief, but the deep, ineradicable impression of God, of sin and grace, of communion with God and walking with God, of the life of holiness, and of all of it bathed in the sunny prospect of a world of everlasting joy lying just ahead for those who are in Jesus Christ.
That is what we need, that is what our children need: the whole good news, the entire biblical gospel from beginning to end, being dinned into us every time we gather in this house, every time we come together to lift up the name of the Lord, to make an offering of our lives to him, to confess our sins once more and receive still again the forgiveness of our sins, to remember who he is and what he has done for us, to hear his instruction for our lives, and to be reminded of what indescribably happy things lie before us because of Christ’s conquest of sin and death. In hymns, in prayers, in confessions of sin and of faith, in offerings given, in a sermon heard, in the Lord’s Supper observed, in baptism witnessed or received, in the hearing of God’s benediction, all beautifully and faithfully done, all done together in numbers, all sincerely meant, I say, in such a service the gospel is not simply recapitulated but anew and afresh impressed upon the soul and the body until its mark cannot be removed. No wonder the Lord should have appointed worship as a gospel event and a gospel service.
Someone has described Christian worship as “the story of your life” in an hour and fifteen minutes. Well that is right because that is the gospel, the good news. You have a Maker, a Creator to whom you belong. That is good news. You are not on your own. You are not your own God. What a disappointment it would be to learn that you were! You are a sinner, fallen from God and now liable to his just punishment. That is not good news, but that truth prepares you for wonderful news: there is forgiveness with God that he may be feared. You have a new life to live, a life of high purpose, a life in which God himself by his Spirit will accompany you every step of the way. Throughout that life you may enjoy communion with the living God himself, the Maker of Heaven and Earth. You may eat and drink with the him, which is what we do at the Lord’s Table. Amazing! He cares for you and so he has devised a way to speak into your life through his Word and to hear you in reply in prayer. And your life is just beginning. That is good news! Now, it isn’t difficult to see that there are very specific and practical implications of the fact that a rightly ordered worship service will contain the very elements listed in Psalm 65, that is, will recapitulate and renew the gospel for us all.
If Christian worship is a gospel event, then it needs to have all of the gospel in it. A service without the praise of God’s grace and faithfulness would be a defective service because the gospel is itself such praise and contains such a view of God. A service without the confession of sin and the receiving of forgiveness would be a defective service, because it would leave our the heart of the gospel. A service without the offering of gifts would be a defective service. A service without communion with God in the goodness of his temple, without a meal enjoyed in God’s presence and fellowship would be a defective service. A service that did not challenge us with the holiness of the new life we are to live in Christ or set before us the beguiling prospects of the world to come or the necessity of the last judgment would not have been faithful to the gospel that is being recapitulated. And so on.
But I am more interested in this: that going over the gospel, renewing the gospel, having the good news, the whole good news, washing over us again is the very nature of Christian worship, its structure and its purpose.
Now, to be sure, we all wish, every serious Christian wishes that this experience every Sunday was as profoundly emotional and soul-stirring as some of our experiences of the gospel have been. We wish every Sunday we could repeat Blaise Pascal’s “night of fire,” those two hours the night of November 23rd 1654, when he encountered the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in his glory, found himself overcome by the profoundest peace, weeping tears of joy, and experienced a renunciation of himself and commitment to God that was “total and sweet.” It was for Pascal not an idea that he thought about, not simply truth that he realized, but an encounter of persons, himself and the living God in his glory and grace. [Smith, 162]
Would that every Christian service of worship were that for us! But we must live by faith and not by sight. We pray for the fire and the glory, but, whether or not these things are granted, we worship according to the gospel of God, awaiting the day when the fire and the glory will be ours forever, without interruption, and will consume our souls in perfect peace and joy. Now that is good news!