PRAYING THE PSALMS
The greatest prayer manual ever written is found in the Psalms. Much of it is the prayer journal of King David. The prayers we find in the Psalms will inspire and teach us how to pray more effectively. Nothing will prepare us more for the great things God has in mind for Briarcliff than to be fervent in prayer.
The Way of the Righteous and the Wicked
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
Trees are some of the most vivid symbols of life and death that we are invited to contemplate throughout scripture. In my study, I’ve noticed a contrast between two trees: the tree that represents eternal life and flourishing and a tree, or what is left of a plant or tree that dies, chaff, which represents death and transience. I come upon both trees in Genesis 1-3, I find truly everbearing and healing fruit trees in Ezekiel 47, and I see another mention of these trees in Revelation 22. In his lectures on Genesis 1-3, Dietrich Bonhoeffer argued that Jesus on the cross is the new tree of life, the tree from which we eat and gain eternal life.
The eternal, in-dwelling Holy Spirit makes us more like Christ. Therefore, I, like him, am a kind of tree. I have potential to bear fruit. Recently, a friend pointed out to me that a tree does not bear fruit for itself, but for others. This is the beauty of self-giving, a self-sacrificial love. A feeding of one another in love, because we too have been fed. There is no fear of scarcity here. “Will I have enough?” is not a question I have to ask. Because the believer is “planted by streams of water,” the believer “yields fruit in [their] season,” and the believer’s “leaves do not wither.” What a promise to make in the face of human transience!
The Lord Is My Shepherd
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
Psalm 23 has some of the most beautiful pastoral imagery of any of the Psalms. Through vivid poetic statements about Jesus, the good shepherd, this Psalm provides comfort that God is sovereign and present in every moment. I have always loved the beautiful imagery from nature in this Psalm. One of my pastors preached on this Psalm several years ago and something he said has remained with me: the valley of the shadow of death is a through place, not a to place. Another way of expressing this is by saying that believers walk through death’s shadow, not in it. When we walk on the path of Christ, death is just a doorway leading to eternal life. On this path, we need not fear, because our comforter is ever present. We are secure and safe, rich with the overflowing love of our God. We are sheltered from anything that could harm us ultimately, even if we are asked to endure suffering in this earthly life.
"TEACH ME THE NARROW WAY"
Teach Me Your Paths
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust;
let me not be put to shame;
let not my enemies exult over me.
Indeed, none who wait for you shall be put to shame;
they shall be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all the day long.
Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for the sake of your goodness, O Lord!
Good and upright is the Lord;
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way.
All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.
For your name’s sake, O Lord,
pardon my guilt, for it is great.
Who is the man who fears the Lord?
Him will he instruct in the way that he should choose.
His soul shall abide in well-being,
and his offspring shall inherit the land.
The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him,
and he makes known to them his covenant.
My eyes are ever toward the Lord,
for he will pluck my feet out of the net.
Turn to me and be gracious to me,
for I am lonely and afflicted.
The troubles of my heart are enlarged;
bring me out of my distresses.
Consider my affliction and my trouble,
and forgive all my sins.
Consider how many are my foes,
and with what violent hatred they hate me.
Oh, guard my soul, and deliver me!
Let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you.
May integrity and uprightness preserve me,
for I wait for you.
Redeem Israel, O God,
out of all his troubles.
At the time I worked to illuminate this Psalm, I was also studying Medieval labyrinths and their elaborate symbolism. One of the things that struck me about these labyrinths is that their path is singular. You cannot forge your own way through the labyrinth without missing the point of it entirely. There is only one path. In a sense, God teaches us this throughout our life. There is but one way to reach him, and he is the one way to reach true joy. The believer gains wisdom in life as they learn through relationship with Christ and other believers. These experiences shape us and should remind us to seek a heart of humility. We should look to God for guidance and mercy, asking him to teach us his ways instead of trying to forge our path, walking the one path, the one that leads to him.
"WHITER THAN SNOW; DELIVERED"
Create in Me a Clean Heart, O God
To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
build up the walls of Jerusalem;
then will you delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.
Your way was through the sea,
your path through the great waters.
Sin is universal to the human experience. We all make a mess of things in life, doing the things we don’t want to do and neglecting to do the things that we should do (Romans 7:19). Psalm 51 is a vivid portrait of David’s heart after he had committed sins of adultery and murder. He is desperate for the mess in his heart to be cleared away. I love that David does not ask for his heart to be healed. Instead he asks for an entirely new heart. The word “create” in verse ten is the Hebrew word bara, which is a verb that is used in Genesis: it is a creative act that can be done by God alone. This is David asking for a brand new heart, because he knows there is nothing in him that can be salvaged. He needs a clean slate, for everything to be wiped away so that he can be “whiter than snow.” In this painting’s imagery, I also considered God making way for the Israelites through the red sea. It was an act where Moses was God’s vehicle, a type (or a shadow) of Christ that was to come, through which God created a pathway to lead his people out of captivity.
“FORGIVEN, COVERED, BORNE AWAY”
Blessed Are the Forgiven
Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah
I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah
Therefore let everyone who is godly
offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found;
surely in the rush of great waters,
they shall not reach him.
You are a hiding place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with shouts of deliverance. Selah
I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
which must be curbed with bit and bridle,
or it will not stay near you.
Many are the sorrows of the wicked,
but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the Lord.
Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous,
and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!
Psalm 32 is the first Psalm I ever illuminated years ago, so it was fun to come back and illuminate it a bit differently. While studying the Psalm and reading commentary from Charles Spurgeon’s Treasury of David, I read a section where Spurgeon expounded on the three levels of sin mentioned in the Psalm and the ways that Christ eradicates all three. Because Christ paid our debts, our sin nature, called iniquity, is not charged to our account. Because Jesus shed his blood as a sacrifice on our behalf, our heart’s tendency to place its hope in anything other than God, called sin, is covered and utterly hidden from sight permanently. And because Jesus lived the life we could never live, perfect, sacrificial, and sinless, even to the point of death on the cross, our transgressions, or acts of omission and commission, are borne away forever.
When I read this Psalm and really allow myself to feel the weight of it, I often find myself in tears as I consider the way that Jesus so completely paid my debt. He suffered and died so that I can rejoice. He felt the heavy hand of justice as it crushed him, and I get to feel freedom and joy. And all of this is for God’s eternal glory. At times my own sin feels like an impossible obstacle, but when I read a Psalm like this I remember that through repentance, my sins are utterly blotted out forever by the precious blood of Jesus Christ. What greater hope could exist in the world?
Taste and See That the Lord Is Good
Of David, when he changed his behavior before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away.
I will bless the Lord at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
let the humble hear and be glad.
Oh, magnify the Lord with me,
and let us exalt his name together!
I sought the Lord, and he answered me
and delivered me from all my fears.
Those who look to him are radiant,
and their faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him
and saved him out of all his troubles.
The angel of the Lord encamps
around those who fear him, and delivers them.
Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!
Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!
Oh, fear the Lord, you his saints,
for those who fear him have no lack!
The young lions suffer want and hunger;
but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.
Come, O children, listen to me;
I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
What man is there who desires life
and loves many days, that he may see good?
Keep your tongue from evil
and your lips from speaking deceit.
Turn away from evil and do good;
seek peace and pursue it.
The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous
and his ears toward their cry.
The face of the Lord is against those who do evil,
to cut off the memory of them from the earth.
When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears
and delivers them out of all their troubles.
The Lord is near to the brokenhearted
and saves the crushed in spirit.
Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
but the Lord delivers him out of them all.
He keeps all his bones;
not one of them is broken.
Affliction will slay the wicked,
and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.
The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.
I read recently that wisdom is something that can only be gained through life circumstance and relationship. Therefore, it is in part through this process of being tested, suffering, and experiencing adversity that we grow in our love and fear of the Lord. For it is in these circumstances that we remember what we may have forgotten: God is the keeper and holder of all things seen and unseen. The wisdom literature in the Bible regularly tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom (Proverbs 9:10).
We are told in scripture that God is transforming us from a transient, earthly soul to a glorified, immortal soul. This is the only ultimate circumstance for those who are delivered by God, adopted into his family. If we know God and rely on him fully through Jesus, then we will be delivered. Jesus received the punishment of those who do evil not only so that we will lack nothing in eternity, but also so that we would begin to feel his transforming power while we are still on earth.
“CROWNED, WITH ALL THINGS UNDER HIS FEET”
How Majestic Is Your Name
O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouth of babies and infants,
you have established strength because of your foes,
to still the enemy and the avenger.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
There is something in the vast beauty of nature that reminds me of the God I serve and inspires me to worship. When I behold the glory of the stars undimmed by city lights, there is a part of my soul that “remembers” what it felt like to perfectly bear his image in communion with him. This memory is intense but it is hard to see the real shape of it: it is a homesick longing for a place I’ve never actually been. Yet, it manages to feel more real than anything I have ever experienced. The Germans have a word for this feeling: Sehnsucht. This longing drives mankind to create and seek beauty, to recite poetry, to dream deeply. I believe this longing inspired David to write this Psalm.
The ancient Greeks used the term Mikros Kosmos to describe the human soul. This phrase, translated, means “little world.” Since ancient times, mankind has lived with the paradoxical feeling that they are transient and small, and yet immense and immeasurable. That God would make mankind in his image is mysterious and wonderful: we seem so ephemeral compared to the stars and the seas and the creatures that live in these places. What kind of God sets his glory above the heavens and yet makes earthbound beings his image-bearers?
Jesus, fully God and fully man, is the crowning glory of mankind: he is called the last Adam and the firstborn of all creation. He was crowned, too, with thorns. Charles Spurgeon called the Crown of Thorns the “Crown of Sin” and said that this crown represented Jesus’s usurping of the power of sin and death. Having conquered sin, he now wears its crown for all eternity in glorious majesty. He is the true Son of Man, and he has dominion over all things.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Kelly Kruse (b. 1985, Iowa) uses her work to explore the painful, beautiful experience of human transience and suffering. She developed a visual devotional practice as a response to her battle with depression, through which she wrestles with beauty, longing, and faith. Kruse describes her work as contemporary illumination. Like the medieval monks who perfected the art of illuminated manuscripts, she seeks to awake in the viewer a sense of spiritual contemplation. Her first exposure to the idea of illumination came when she studied Medieval and Renaissance music in Italy. Her background in classical music and opera puts her in a unique position to explore the intersection between scripture, poetry, musical works, and the visual arts. She has exhibited her work at galleries and institutions across the country and her work is featured in collections around the world. In addition to her painting practice, Kelly is an active classical musician and maintains a private studio as a member of the National Association of Teachers of Singing.WEBSITE