Eternal Joy

Psalm 134 | A Song of Ascents.

[1] Come, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord,
who stand by night in the house of the Lord!
[2] Lift up your hands to the holy place
and bless the Lord!
[3] May the Lord bless you from Zion,
he who made heaven and earth!

This is the word of God in Psalm 134.

 

A few days ago my son Micah and I [Micah, raise your hand] were riding together in the van — just Micah and me out running some errands; and we had been talking, and listening to the radio, and then he asked me, almost out of nowhere — he said, “Dad, can people change?”

That’s all he said — Can people change? — which is kind of a broad question, but also a great question. And you know, as a parent, in situations like that, you have about three seconds to start your answer before there’s no more interest. So I’m doing this mental scramble, trying to hurry. Where’s he coming from? What will I say here? Can - people - change?

Meet Psalm 134

Well, when it comes to this question, Psalm 134 doesn’t answer it straight on, but I think it does help us. And this morning Psalm 134 is the place we’re going to be. 

Check out verse 1 right away. It begins simply: “Come, bless the Lord.” Which means, the psalmist is calling us to worship. That’s what’s happening in verses 1 and 2. Remember that this psalm is part of a section of psalms called the Songs of Ascents. They start back in Psalm 120 and ends here in Psalm 134, and like most psalms in this section, Psalm 134 is short and simple. There are just two main parts: 

  • Part One, there’s this Call to Worship (verses 1–2); 
  • Part Two, there’s the Benediction (in verse 3). 

 

And this morning, the plan is to take a few minutes to look closer here at Psalm 134, and then see where it belongs in this section called the Songs of Ascents. Let’s start with Part One, the Call to Worship. 

1. Call to Worship (verses 1–2)

In this Call to Worship, we are commanded to bless God, and so the main question we should ask is: What does that mean? What does it mean to bless God?

The word “bless” is not uncommon to us. We use it all the time in conversation. Just think about all the ways. When someone compliments you about your family or your house or your Christmas tree, and you say, “Thank you, we’re blessed.” What do you mean? 

Or if you drive a nice car with a license plate that says “BLE$$ED” with dollar symbols instead of “S’s”, what do you mean? 

Or you’re out Christmas shopping, taking stuff back [because you didn’t like the 100% wool sweater that your husband got you], and you’re standing in a line, and the person next to you sneezes, and you say “Bless you,” what do you mean? 

These are all different scenarios, but in each case, when we say “bless,” overall, we’re either referencing or wishing some kind of goodness that is outside ourselves. That’s what we mean. We use the word “bless” to reference or wish some kind of goodness outside ourselves.

[That even goes for sneezing. [You may have heard this before…] But I think saying “bless you” after sneezing originated a long ago when people equated sneezing with sickness. [Have you guys heard this?] So a long time ago if you would sneeze it would mean that you’re getting sick, and that would have been dangerous, and so people would say, after you sneeze, “God bless you” — or in other words, they were saying: “I hope God helps you and you don’t die.”]

 

Now I don’t know whether that history is true or not, but the idea is still the same: “Blessing” is equated with goodness. To be blessed is to receive good from outside ourselves. That’s what we mean when we say it, and that’s basically how the word is used in the Bible. 

What Does “Bless” Mean in the Bible?

The word “bless” in the Bible is used over 400 times, and there are usually three main relationships in view:

  • God is said to bless people (which is most obvious); 
  • people are said to bless people (which can make sense); 
  • and then people are said to bless God (which is a little confusing to our categories) 

 

Because we all know that we don’t bless God the same way he blesses us. For example, God can bless us with good health (or he can bless us with no head lice) [Last year at Christmas time one of our kids brought home head lice from school and shared it with our family; and I don’t think I mentioned it last year because would have been awkward, but we had lice for a couple days and we had to go get that taken care of, and we’ve been lice-free for a year now, thank God. God has blessed us this year with no lice — that’s the way I think about that.] 

But, we don’t bless God with no head lice. We don’t bless God with good health. You get the point. We’re never in a position to give some good thing to God that would somehow make him be in our debt. God never needs to tell us “thank you.” 

That’s because he’s God! He doesn’t need anybody or anything, and so then how in the world can we bless him

That’s the main question here in Psalm 134 because that’s what the psalm tells us to do. Verse 1: “Come, bless the Lord.” Verse 2: “Lift up your hands to the holy place and bless the Lord.” How do we do that?

Well, in the Bible the word “to bless” can be a little broader than how we use it. The most basic idea is simply a positive acknowledgement. It could be verbal or it could be something as simple as a gesture. In the Bible “to bless” means to acknowledge or to grant something good (and that’s close to how we use the word — maybe just a little more basic). The late commentator on the Psalms, Derek Kidner, is really helpful here. He explains how our blessing God is different from God blessing us. This is what he says: 

For man to bless God is to acknowledge gratefully what he is; but for God to bless man, God must make of him what he is not, and give him what he has not.

Acknowledging Who He Is

In other words, when we bless God the difference is that we’re not adding anything to God, we’re just recognizing who he is.

That’s different from how God blesses us. When we bless God we’re not giving him something that will improve his situation, or make him feel thankful. We’re not doing him a favor or meeting any kind of need. To bless God is to simply look at him, to think about who he is, and to say: Wow!

To bless God is to recognize that God has everything and is everything, and that there’s nothing I can do or say to make him better. I cannot help God. God does not need me. 

To bless God is that moment of worship in our hearts when we put our hands over our mouths and just remember what it means for God to be God. 

That’s what the psalmist is calling us to here in Psalm 134. Bless the Lord. 

Come, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord,
who stand by night in the house of the Lord!
Lift up your hands to the holy place and bless the Lord!

Recognize who he is. See him, acknowledge him, and know that he is God. We’re talking about worship here. That’s what the psalmist is calling us to do. 

And when we do that, at some moment as we bless God, in some moment as we acknowledge who he is, we will find that he is the one who has blessed us. I think that’s how verse 2 turns so easily into verse 3. This is the Benediction, Part Two.

2. The Benediction (verse 3)

Verses 1 and 2 is this call to worship. We’re told to bless the Lord, and then verse 3, just like that, the psalmist says, “May the Lord bless you.” The psalmist says: Hey, readers, servants of the Lord, bless the Lord. And may the Lord bless you.

Now, what does that mean? What does it mean for the Lord to bless us?

Well, remember: “For man to bless God is to acknowledge gratefully what he is; but for God to bless man, God must make of him what he is not, and give him what he has not.” Our being blessed by God means we are receiving good from outside ourselves.

And therefore, for us to be blessed, it means:

First, God’s grace is unending. 

So let’s think about this. If God blessing us means that “God must make of us what we are not, and give us what we have not” then it means that for God to bless us presupposes his grace. It has to be a gift.  

God blessing us is God giving us something we don’t have. It means he’s doing a creating work. He is making a good thing happen that apart from him would not exist. And get this part — he does this because he wants to. 

The blessing of God is stunningly gratuitous — which means it’s never required.

The Nuance of Means

Now, without getting too complicated, let me say a little more about how this works. 

There is such a thing as means in the Christian life. 

There are things we can do, paths we can take, decisions we can make, that put us in a position to receive God’s blessing.

For example, if you read the Bible daily you will experience a blessing from God that you will not experience if you don’t read the Bible daily. That’s just true, and there’s all kinds of things like this. They’re called means of grace (or habits of grace is what Pastor David Mathis calls them in his book). And God has set things up this way because he is a covenant-keeping God. That’s why he can be trusted. God doesn’t just arbitrarily do whatever. He’s not unpredictable or capricious. But God has revealed himself to us; he’s made a covenant with us. 

God has given us his word about who he is and how he acts, and therefore we can count on his word and live in light of it. That’s really important. God has told us what pleases him and what displeases him, and we live in that reality. There are ways that we can live that put us under the blessing of God. BUT — we should never ever think, not even for a minute, that God somehow owes us anything.

All Grace Always

You could be the most humble, obedient servant of God alive, and his blessing to you is always grace. (And in fact, your humility and obedience are part of his blessing.) All of God’s goodness to us is a gift. It’s something he gives us not because of what we’ve done, but because of who he is. We cannot earn his favor. He is never in our debt. And I’m saying this as someone who used to be stuck in a works-based religiosity, and some of you know what I mean. 

See, I heard the gospel often as a kid, but for a long time it was never clear to me. I didn’t get it. For a long time, up until college, I lived like God’s blessings were the wages owed to me for my good conduct. I thought that if I did enough good and stayed out of trouble, then God owed me good things. And let me just say, there are thousands and thousands of religious people in this country who live by that idea. 

And it can seem to go fine for a lot of people, in fact, it might go okay for most people — until the first hard thing comes. See, suffering messes this idea up. Think about it: if you’ve been operating under that kind of contract with God (that you do good and he pays you for it), then when bad things happen you’re going to respond one of two ways: 

  1. Either you’ll start working harder, trying to impress God and get him to fix things for you;  
  2. You’ll get angry and eventually cynical, because you feel like you’ve done your part but that God isn’t doing his, and if he’s going to be like that, you’d rather not have anything to do with him. 

An both responses are dead-wrong. . . .  until God breaks through to tell you that you’ve misunderstood him this whole time. 

Every kind of good that God gives you, every single blessing, is by grace. It’s because of who he is, not what we’ve done, and that means that if God is going to continue to bless you, his grace must be unending. God’s blessings are only as eternal as his grace is immeasurable.

And the last thing to see here is that God’s blessings are eternal. 

Second, God’s blessing is eternal. 

Verse 3 is simple: “May the Lord bless you from Zion, he who made heaven and earth!” Now remember: this psalm is part of a larger section of psalms, the Songs of Ascents, and the end of Psalm 134 sounds like the end of Psalm 133. The last sentence in Psalm 133 says, speaking of Zion, of the new Jerusalem, we read: “For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.” 

Life forevermore means eternal life. That’s what Psalm 133 is saying. The blessing of the new Jerusalem is eternal life. The city of the new Jerusalem is heaven. The new Jerusalem is the end-of-time reality when God’s people will live in his presence under the reign of his Messiah. And that, of course, is what the Songs of Ascents have been pointing toward this whole time. That is the eternal blessing: God with his people forever. That is life forevermore. And that’s the place we’ve been headed since Psalm 120. 

The Songs of Ascents in Review

Remember back in Meshech and Kedar. “Woe is me that I sojourn in Meshech, that I dwell among the tents of Kedar!” The psalmist starts in Psalm 120 tired of living so far away from the place God has promised to bring him. But then, in Psalm 121, the psalmist turns our eyes to God. We’re looking to God, and we know that God doesn’t just care about where we end up, but he cares about the details on the way. God keeps our going out and our coming in. 

  • And the focus in Psalm 122 turns straight to Jerusalem — and it’s a peaceful Jerusalem. 
  • Then Psalm 123 reminds us again that our hope is in God. 
  • Psalm 124 assures us of God’s faithfulness in the past. 
  • Psalm 125 gives us another vision of that restored Jerusalem. 
  • Psalm 126 is this longing to be in that restored Jerusalem. 
  • And then Psalm 127 answers that longing with the promise of children, referring to God’s promise to David about a son who would reign as king forever. 
  • Psalm 128, again, gives us another vision of that restored Jerusalem. It’s a Jerusalem of peace. 
  • And Psalm 129 says its a Jerusalem of peace because God’s enemies will be no more. 
  • And Psalm 130 says, “Amen!” We trust God. God is going to do this. 
  • And Psalm 131 shows us what it looks like to trust that God will do this. 
  • Psalm 132 then stands up straight and gets glaringly honest about the Messiah’s role in this restored, new Jerusalem. God’s anointed one will reign in this new city of God’s presence. 
  • Then Psalm 133 continues this vision of the new Jerusalem, which will mean God’s people are united, and are eternally blessed. 
  • And then Psalm 134 calls us to worship. Worship God. Praise him. Be still for a minute and rejoice in who God is. Lift your hands to God and bless him. That’s the calling here at the end of Psalm 134 — bless God, and may he bless us. 

 

That’s the final psalm in the Songs of Ascents, but notice that the theme continues. 

The Three After-Songs

In the next three psalms there’s no superscript. There’s no intro description before the psalm begins, and usually when that’s not there it implies that the psalm is connected to the one before it. That’s exactly what is happening here. Psalm 134 is a call to worship, and look at Psalm 135: it’s an answer. Psalm 135 is all praise. It’s a response to Psalm 134. And then Psalm 136 is the same thing. It’s another response of worship. 

This is like an encore. Psalm 134 calls us to worship, and the next two psalms respond in worship. And we’re reading this and we get caught up in this worship — the Messiah is on this throne, and God’s people are with him in his presence and we’re adoring him and being satisfied in him, and then there is Psalm 137, verse 1: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.”

Wait a minute. This sounds like Psalm 120 all over it. It sounds like we’re still in Meshech and Kedar.

And well, that’s because we are. 

See, the Songs of Ascents give us a glorious vision of the new Jerusalem — end-of-time reality when God will be with his people and his Messiah will reign, but, it’s still a vision

It’s not reality now. Reality now is still in Meshech. For now we still live in Kedar. We’re looking to this new Jerusalem; we’re living our lives with our eyes set there, but we’re not there yet. And we should remember this. 

Remembering Our Ultimate Goal

A couple years ago, before Cities Church became a church, in December 2014, we had a little worship gathering over in the Campus Room [some of you were there?]. It feels like a long time ago. But at that time, end of 2014, we were still dreaming and working to get this thing started. We didn’t really know what to expect. We had a mission, we had plans, and we felt like we were taking some big steps, and well, during that worship gathering, for whatever reason, I preached a short sermon on Psalm 137. And I want to just read a little part from that sermon (because I think I said what I did then so that I could say it now). This is from that sermon:

Church plants can be high-adrenaline work. Many of us have been meeting since August, others since March, and some have been dreaming of this thing for more than five years, and we are getting close. This event right now [the worship gathering] feels like a testimony of God’s faithfulness to us, and a blessing on our vision for the Twin Cities.        And with all this waiting and anticipation, with Cities Church just about to get off the ground, let me remind us (and myself), that we have not arrived. 

That is the temptation, of course. As God blesses us, and we pray he does, there is going to be this subtle thing that happens where we will think that we have finally made it. We’re going to feel like we have accomplished something. That this is the dream. 

But no, it’s not. Because our ultimate goal is not a new church plant; it’s a new Jerusalem. And we’re not done until we’re there.

That feels more true today than it was two years ago. And it will be more true 30 years from now than it is today.

We are looking to this new Jerusalem. That is our hope. That is the eternal blessing.

Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Revelation 7:15–17)

And everything that we’re doing now, we’re doing with that in view. Our mission to make disciples means that we want to be shaped, and we want to shape others, for the new Jerusalem that is to come.

Back to the Question

And Micah asked me if people can change. Just like that. That simple. Dad, can people change?

And the answer is: absolutely. And really, that’s what Christmas is about. That’s why Jesus came.

See, if we’re going to be in that new Jerusalem, in God’s presence, under the reign of Messiah Jesus, then we must be changed. And the way Jesus changes us is by first becoming like us. 

 

And Christmas, today, is when we remember that. 

 

Jesus came here, God with us, made human just like us, to rescue us from our sins and bring us back to God forever. That’s what Jesus did. He lived life in your shoes, he experienced what you experience, except he was perfect. He was always faithful. And because of his great love, he went to the cross in your place, in our place, and he absorbed the punishment we deserved. Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried. And then on the third day he was raised. Alive, ascended, reigning, and coming again. And coming again with the new Jerusalem.

Christmas has that in view. 

The Table

And I want us rejoice in that here at the Table. The bread and cup is Jesus inviting us to fellowship with him, and to remember what he has done to save us. The band and servers can go ahead and come up. We do this meal each Sunday for our members, but if you are here and you trust in Jesus, we want to welcome you to enjoy this meal with us this morning as we celebrate Christmas and look forward to the new Jerusalem.