Amiel’s Journal

April 21, 1855.—I have been reading a great deal: ethnography, comparative anatomy, cosmical systems. I have traversed the universe from the deepest depths of the empyrean to the peristaltic movements of the atoms in the elementary cell. I have felt myself expanding in the infinite, and enfranchised in spirit from the bounds of time and space, able to trace back the whole boundless creation to a point without dimensions, and seeing the vast multitude of suns, of milky ways, of stars, and nebulae, all existent in the point.

And on all sides stretched mysteries, marvels and prodigies, without limit, without number, and without end. I felt the unfathomable thought of which the universe is the symbol live and burn within me; I touched, proved, tasted, embraced my nothingness and my immensity; I kissed the hem of the garments of God, and gave Him thanks for being Spirit and for being life. Such moments are glimpses of the divine. They make one conscious of one’s immortality; they bring home to one that an eternity is not too much for the study of the thoughts and works of the eternal; they awaken in us an adoring ecstasy and the ardent humility of love.

Source: Henri-Frederic Amiel’s Journal. Tr. Mrs. Humprey Ward.


Psalms: The Believer’s Prayer Book

is a book about
in which God is

What Is Worship?

Worship is not music, but a posture of the heart. Etymologically, worship means worthship or worthiness; worship, then, declares his worth and our surrender to his good will.

What we worship ends up defining us. One definition of worship is “the reflection of the worshipped on the worshipper.” Our lives are a reflection of whatever we value most highly, whether that be an idol, a lover, or the Most High God.

Psalms: The Anatomy of the Soul

John Calvin wrote, “I have been accustomed to call this book [the Psalms], The Anatomy of All the Parts of the Soul. There is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.”

While it is common to try to exclude the emotional life from our spirituality, the Bible makes it clear that the whole man is to be involved. The warning God gives us about emotions is not that we should avoid them; it is that emotion can make a useful servant, but a terrible master.

Ways of Categorizing Psalms

What follows is an attempt to delineate the most important categories of psalms, first by theme; by author; by historical context; and lastly, by Messianic context.

By Theme: Psalms’ Pageant of Experiences

While the Psalms have a traditional division into five books, it can be more useful in study to compare them based on the experiences which they convey. Some psalms are very closely connected or have shared material, like Psalm 42 and Psalm 43 (written as one psalm in many ancient versions). Other ways of grouping psalms, like the so-called “penitential psalms,” have been given that name and grouping for many centuries, although they are not adjacent to each other in the Psalter.

Hymns: 8, 100, 103, 104, 145-150
Thanksgiving: 32, 75, 116, 118, 136
Trust: 23, 27, 91, 121, 131
Penitential psalms: 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143
Laments: 13, 42-43, 80, 120, 126

By Author

The psalms are unique in that many of them contain notes about their authorship, usage in worship, and sometimes the author’s circumstances. While these epigrams are sometimes considered later additions to the text itself, they appear to be very ancient and contain important information.

In the whole book of Psalms, David is listed as the author of 73 psalms. New Testament cross-references would add two more to the list: Psalm 2 (in Acts 4:25) and Psalm 95 (in Hebrews 4:7). Below is the full listing of psalms that are identified by author, although the remaining 48 are anonymous:

David wrote (or assisted in writing) at least 75 psalms: 2-9, 11-41, 51-65, 68-70, 86, 95, 101, 103, 108-110, 122, 124, 131, 133, and 138-145.
Asaph wrote 12 psalms: 50, and 73-83.
The sons of Korah wrote 11 psalms: 42, 44-49, 84-85, and 87-88.
Solomon wrote two psalms: 72 and 127.
Heman wrote one psalm, with the sons of Korah: 88.
Ethan the Ezrahite wrote one psalm: 89.
Moses wrote one psalm: 90.

Our understanding of some psalms is greatly enhanced, though, by knowing not just who wrote them, but when. Psalm 51, the greatest psalm of repentance, was written “when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” (ESV) We can go deeper by studying these contexts, especially the life of David.

By Context: Psalms with Jewish Contexts

A few psalms relate to specific aspects of Jewish life, like:

Torah wisdom: 1, 119, and 133
The temple: 24
God’s covenant: 78, 89 and 132

(See also, below, the “Songs of Ascents.”)

Other psalms are unique in their subject matter or require more contextual considerations for modern readers to understand their meaning. Imprecatory psalms, for example, implore God to intervene between the singer and his enemy. (While these might be difficult for believers living in power and influence, they are easier to understand when we are suffering persecution.)

Imprecatory psalms: 35, 52, 58, 69, 109, 137, 140

A specific group of psalms, 120-134, are traditionally known as songs of ascents and related to Jewish pilgrimages to the temple in Jerusalem.

Songs of Ascents: 120-134

Many other psalms relate to royalty. As always, it is best to read these first in light of their ancient context, before applying any metaphorical meanings.

Royal psalms: 45, 93, 95-99, 110

Prophetic and Messianic Meanings

Prophetic passages often refer to Jerusalem’s king or David, and, by extension, Jesus. Jews do not only find prophecies in passages specifically marked as prophecy; they also found prophetic meanings in Psalms, and the Book of Ruth for example.

The Epistle to the Hebrews explains the Messianic meanings of Psalms 8, 45 and 110. Psalm 2 and Psalm 22 are also somewhat difficult to understand outside the story of the Messiah, so that is the primary lens through which Christians see them.

Psalm 8 is the Hymn of Creation, in which man is the apex of God’s Creation since he bears God’s image.

Psalm 22 is the Psalm of the Messiah’s Crucifixion.

Psalm 2 and Psalm 110 are the Psalms of the Messiah’s Coronation.

Psalm 45 is the Psalm of the Messiah’s Wedding Day.

The Importance of Poetry to the Spiritual Life

Poetry, in and of itself, has always had importance for the spiritual life. Nearly every book of the Bible includes some poetry, and some world religions rely heavily on poetic language. Poetry has been called “language distilled.”

Poetry always resists dogmatic or one-sided interpretations. The abundance of poetry in the Bible shows us that the Bible is more than a cerebral book. It exceeds the limits of our brains, and involves the whole spiritual person.

Interpreting Psalms

Understanding poetry can be difficult enough in English. Although believers have always expanded outward from the Psalms by interpreting some of them as prophecy, it is much more difficult to interpret them in narrow limits but plucking proof texts from them. Of all the Bible’s books, the Psalter resists this practice the most.

Parallelism is the primary source of “prosody” in Hebrew poetry; it also serves as a hedge for interpretation, since it almost never makes sense to introduce a radically new theological concept on only one side of a parallelism. (The Masoretic text included the parallel lines in two columns, so the parallels were clearly seen as you read the text.)

Recommendations for Further Study

For study of the Psalms, I recommend the following books:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has a very good devotional book called Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible.

John Calvin’s preface to his Commentary on the Psalms is a helpful introduction.

Dennis Bratcher’s website has a very helpful way of classifying the psalms, although there is no perfect way of dividing them. His list includes all 150.

John Owen’s Exposition of Psalm 130 (also called The Forgiveness of Sins) draws heavily on the Book of Psalms, although it ostensibly is written on Psalm 130. Owen deals with subjects related to depression, guilt, and the need for a continuing experience of grace.

Notes on the Psalms by G. Campbell Morgan gives a straightforward summary of themes in each psalm one by one.

Herbert Lockyer, Walter Brueggemann, Alexander Maclaren and C. S. Lewis all have books on the Psalms that I have not read yet! Brueggemann, in fact, has several, although most of his works are for a scholarly audience.

I also highly recommend the reading of devotional poets such as John Donne, George Herbert, William Cowper; or hymnwriters such as Isaac Watts and F. W. Faber. A hymnbook that you like is a great place to start.

New Edition on the Karen Revival!

In 1981, Don Richardson’s book Eternity in Their Hearts put into a systematic form the theology of missions that he had earlier expressed in his biography, The Peace Child (1974). Both books were considered revolutionary in the study of missions. But a major contributing factor in Richardson’s work is the story of missions in present-day Myanmar (previously the Kingdom of Burma)—and especially the story of the Judsons, the Boardmans, and the Wades among the Karen peoples of Burma.

The story of the Karen revival is detailed in a few obscure books of the mid-19th century, and Mrs. Macleod Wylie’s The Gospel in Burma is probably the most famous of those.  Wylie details how the Karen peoples—now seven million people speaking 13 different languages—had believed that a man would come from far away to bring them the truth about an ancient book that they had lost. They already had traditional concepts of the Creation and the Fall of Man.

This book deals mainly with primary sources like letters and journals, giving firsthand accounts of work among the Karen, the Burmese, the Mon people (then known as Talaings), and other people groups in the Kingdom of Burma.

Interestingly, a chapter is devoted to Arracan (Rakhine), today famous as the violence-torn region from which hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have been displaced.

This book is the most complete overview of early missions in Burma, and will continue to hold an important place for those interested in missions in South and Southeast Asia.

The new paperback edition of The Gospel in Burma is available for $19.99, and the Kindle edition is only $5.99.

New Compilation on Women in Missions!

“And afterward,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.”
Joel 2:28-30, NIV

March is Women’s History Month! And today we are pleased to announce that we haven’t missed our chance to brag on a few women in missions history. Our newest book is Sixteen Pioneer Women in Early Modern Missions. We love to bring to light biographies that have gone out of print, including stories of women in missions and indigenous peoples participating in missions. If you only believed the popular books on the topic, you would think that Protestant missions only involved white, English or American men until around 1960. We hope in time to restore some balance to the narrative of God’s glorious and global enterprise of building his church.

Thomas Timpson (author of The Angels of God) arranged this book in 1841 based mostly on previous memoirs, letters and journals of British women who had been missionaries. Of the sixteen women in the compilation, only eight of them reached the age of 35. In an era that preceded the steam engine, the telegraph, or modern medicine, these women “forsook all” to follow Christ to the ends of the earth. Timpson shows the height of their consecration and the depths of their humility through their personal letters and journal entries.

The narratives are challenging and profound. When Jesus taught in Capernaum, his disciples said, literally, “That’s a tough word.” (John 6:60, my translation) That is exactly how I felt reading these simple and frank narratives of triumph and tragedy on the mission field.

These memoirs focus on having a heart for missions. Each of these ladies is unknown today, but they had a chance to play a significant role in Protestant missions, and they took it. The time period extends from the late 1600s to 1840, and the scope of the book is global. Missionaries in this book reached out in the American colonies, Malta, Guyana, Jamaica, many parts of India, Sierra Leone, eastern Siberia, and many Pacific islands.

There is an introductory chapter—probably worth the price of the book—that surveys the conditions of gender inequality on a global scale, especially where Christianity had little or no influence. This chapter was arranged by Jemima Luke (née Thompson)—author of the hymn “I think when I read that sweet story of old”—when she was 28 years old. It conveys some sense of the influence of the gospel on gender relations in the past 200 years.

The entire book has been proofread, updated, and re-typeset into a new edition, released March 2018.

Now available in paperback: $11.99
Kindle edition: $5.99
(The Kindle download will be free with the paperback.)

Five Hundred and Fifty-five

Essay in Alarms and Discursions. G. K. Chesterton, 1910.

Life is full of a ceaseless shower of small coincidences: too small to be worth mentioning except for a special purpose, often too trifling even to be noticed, any more than we notice one snowflake falling on another. It is this that lends a frightful plausibility to all false doctrines and evil fads. There are always such crowds of accidental arguments for anything. If I said suddenly that historical truth is generally told by red-haired men, I have no doubt that ten minutes’ reflection (in which I decline to indulge) would provide me with a handsome list of instances in support of it. I remember a riotous argument about Bacon and Shakespeare in which I offered quite at random to show that Lord Rosebery had written the works of Mr. W. B. Yeats. No sooner had I said the words than a torrent of coincidences rushed upon my mind. I pointed out, for instance, that Mr. Yeats’s chief work was “The Secret Rose.” This may easily be paraphrased as “The Quiet or Modest Rose”; and so, of course, as the Primrose. A second after I saw the same suggestion in the combination of “rose” and “bury.” If I had pursued the matter, who knows but I might have been a raving maniac by this time.

We trip over these trivial repetitions and exactitudes at every turn, only they are too trivial even for conversation. A man named Williams did walk into a strange house and murder a man named Williamson; it sounds like a sort of infanticide. A journalist of my acquaintance did move quite unconsciously from a place called Overstrand to a place called Overroads. When he had made this escape he was very properly pursued by a voting card from Battersea, on which a political agent named Burn asked him to vote for a political candidate named Burns. And when he did so another coincidence happened to him: rather a spiritual than a material coincidence; a mystical thing, a matter of a magic number.

For a sufficient number of reasons, the man I know went up to vote in Battersea in a drifting and even dubious frame of mind. As the train slid through swampy woods and sullen skies there came into his empty mind those idle and yet awful questions which come when the mind is empty. Fools make cosmic systems out of them; knaves make profane poems out of them; men try to crush them like an ugly lust. Religion is only the responsible reinforcement of common courage and common sense. Religion only sets up the normal mood of health against the hundred moods of disease.

But there is this about such ghastly empty enigmas, that they always have an answer to the obvious answer, the reply offered by daily reason. Suppose a man’s children have gone swimming; suppose he is suddenly throttled by the senseless—fear that they are drowned. The obvious answer is, “Only one man in a thousand has his children drowned.” But a deeper voice (deeper, being as deep as hell) answers, “And why should not you—be the thousandth man?” What is true of tragic doubt is true also of trivial doubt. The voter’s guardian devil said to him, “If you don’t vote to-day you can do fifteen things which will quite certainly do some good somewhere, please a friend, please a child, please a maddened publisher. And what good do you expect to do by voting? You don’t think your man will get in by one vote, do you?” To this he knew the answer of common sense, “But if everybody said that, nobody would get in at all.” And then there came that deeper voice from Hades, “But you are not settling what everybody shall do, but what one person on one occasion shall do. If this afternoon you went your way about more solid things, how would it matter and who would ever know?” Yet somehow the voter drove on blindly through the blackening London roads, and found somewhere a tedious polling station and recorded his tiny vote.

The politician for whom the voter had voted got in by five hundred and fifty-five votes. The voter read this next morning at breakfast, being in a more cheery and expansive mood, and found something very fascinating not merely in the fact of the majority, but even in the form of it. There was something symbolic about the three exact figures; one felt it might be a sort of motto or cipher. In the great book of seals and cloudy symbols there is just such a thundering repetition. Six hundred and sixty-six was the Mark of the Beast. Five hundred and fifty-five is the Mark of the Man; the triumphant tribune and citizen. A number so symmetrical as that really rises out of the region of science into the region of art. It is a pattern, like the egg-and-dart ornament or the Greek key. One might edge a wall-paper or fringe a robe with a recurring decimal. And while the voter luxuriated in this light exactitude of the numbers, a thought crossed his mind and he almost leapt to his feet. “Why, good heavens!” he cried. “I won that election; and it was won by one vote! But for me it would have been the despicable, broken-backed, disjointed, inharmonious figure five hundred and fifty-four. The whole artistic point would have vanished. The Mark of the Man would have disappeared from history. It was I who with a masterful hand seized the chisel and carved the hieroglyph—complete and perfect. I clutched the trembling hand of Destiny when it was about to make a dull square four and forced it to make a nice curly five. Why, but for me the Cosmos would have lost a coincidence!” After this outburst the voter sat down and finished his breakfast.

Tremendous Trifles

Titular essay of Tremendous Trifles. G. K. Chesterton, 1909.

Once upon a time there were two little boys who lived chiefly in the front garden, because their villa was a model one. The front garden was about the same size as the dinner table; it consisted of four strips of gravel, a square of turf with some mysterious pieces of cork standing up in the middle and one flower bed with a row of red daisies. One morning while they were at play in these romantic grounds, a passing individual, probably the milkman, leaned over the railing and engaged them in philosophical conversation. The boys, whom we will call Paul and Peter, were at least sharply interested in his remarks. For the milkman (who was, I need say, a fairy) did his duty in that state of life by offering them in the regulation manner anything that they chose to ask for. And Paul closed with the offer with a business-like abruptness, explaining that he had long wished to be a giant that he might stride across continents and oceans and visit Niagara or the Himalayas in an afternoon dinner stroll. The milkman producing a wand from his breast pocket, waved it in a hurried and perfunctory manner; and in an instant the model villa with its front garden was like a tiny doll’s house at Paul’s colossal feet. He went striding away with his head above the clouds to visit Niagara and the Himalayas. But when he came to the Himalayas, he found they were quite small and silly-looking, like the little cork rockery in the garden; and when he found Niagara it was no bigger than the tap turned on in the bathroom. He wandered round the world for several minutes trying to find something really large and finding everything small, till in sheer boredom he lay down on four or five prairies and fell asleep. Unfortunately his head was just outside the hut of an intellectual backwoodsman who came out of it at that moment with an axe in one hand and a book of Neo-Catholic Philosophy in the other. The man looked at the book and then at the giant, and then at the book again. And in the book it said, “It can be maintained that the evil of pride consists in being out of proportion to the universe.” So the backwoodsman put down his book, took his axe and, working eight hours a day for about a week, cut the giant’s head off; and there was an end of him.

Such is the severe yet salutary history of Paul. But Peter, oddly enough, made exactly the opposite request; he said he had long wished to be a pigmy about half an inch high; and of course he immediately became one. When the transformation was over he found himself in the midst of an immense plain, covered with a tall green jungle and above which, at intervals, rose strange trees each with a head like the sun in symbolic pictures, with gigantic rays of silver and a huge heart of gold. Toward the middle of this prairie stood up a mountain of such romantic and impossible shape, yet of such stony height and dominance, that it looked like some incident of the end of the world. And far away on the faint horizon he could see the line of another forest, taller and yet more mystical, of a terrible crimson colour, like a forest on fire for ever. He set out on his adventures across that coloured plain; and he has not come to the end of it yet.

Such is the story of Peter and Paul, which contains all the highest qualities of a modern fairy tale, including that of being wholly unfit for children; and indeed the motive with which I have introduced it is not childish, but rather full of subtlety and reaction. It is in fact the almost desperate motive of excusing or palliating the pages that follow. Peter and Paul are the two primary influences upon European literature to-day; and I may be permitted to put my own preference in its most favourable shape, even if I can only do it by what little girls call telling a story.

I need scarcely say that I am the pigmy. The only excuse for the scraps that follow is that they show what can be achieved with a commonplace existence and the sacred spectacles of exaggeration. The other great literary theory, that which is roughly represented in England by Mr. Rudyard Kipling, is that we moderns are to regain the primal zest by sprawling all over the world growing used to travel and geographical variety, being at home everywhere, that is being at home nowhere. Let it be granted that a man in a frock coat is a heartrending sight; and the two alternative methods still remain. Mr. Kipling’s school advises us to go to Central Africa in order to find a man without a frock coat. The school to which I belong suggests that we should stare steadily at the man until we see the man inside the frock coat. If we stare at him long enough he may even be moved to take off his coat to us; and that is a far greater compliment than his taking off his hat. In other words, we may, by fixing our attention almost fiercely on the facts actually before us, force them to turn into adventures; force them to give up their meaning and fulfil their mysterious purpose. The purpose of the Kipling literature is to show how many extraordinary things a man may see if he is active and strides from continent to continent like the giant in my tale. But the object of my school is to show how many extraordinary things even a lazy and ordinary man may see if he can spur himself to the single activity of seeing. For this purpose I have taken the laziest person of my acquaintance, that is myself; and made an idle diary of such odd things as I have fallen over by accident, in walking in a very limited area at a very indolent pace. If anyone says that these are very small affairs talked about in very big language, I can only gracefully compliment him upon seeing the joke. If anyone says that I am making mountains out of molehills, I confess with pride that it is so. I can imagine no more successful and productive form of manufacture than that of making mountains out of molehills. But I would add this not unimportant fact, that molehills are mountains; one has only to become a pigmy like Peter to discover that.

I have my doubts about all this real value in mountaineering, in getting to the top of everything and overlooking everything. Satan was the most celebrated of Alpine guides, when he took Jesus to the top of an exceeding high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the earth. But the joy of Satan in standing on a peak is not a joy in largeness, but a joy in beholding smallness, in the fact that all men look like insects at his feet. It is from the valley that things look large; it is from the level that things look high; I am a child of the level and have no need of that celebrated Alpine guide. I will lift up my eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help; but I will not lift up my carcass to the hills, unless it is absolutely necessary. Everything is in an attitude of mind; and at this moment I am in a comfortable attitude. I will sit still and let the marvels and the adventures settle on me like flies. There are plenty of them, I assure you. The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.

Review: To Die Is Gain (Morgan)

Rating: ★★★

Who: G. Campbell Morgan, prolific English expository preacher, known as the Prince of Expositors.

To Die Is Gain is a scarce booklet made from a conference address by G. Campbell Morgan in 1908.

Overview: The first half of the sermon was a straightforward explanation of Paul’s words, showing why death is in fact “gain.” This part was interesting: Jesus (and Peter) call death a “departure,” implying that it is in no sense a completion, but more of a beginning. Morgan compares several interesting poems and hymns with opposing views of death.

Later in the booklet, Morgan begins discussing what it means that believers will “serve the Lord” day and night in heaven. He speculates for several pages on this topic; however, the Greek word for “serving” in that passage seems to imply a kind of worship, and not that believers in heaven could in any way do what we might call “Kingdom” ministry or earthly ministry.

Bones: I was surprised, first of all, that an expository preacher like Morgan would waste time on such a topic, and secondly, that someone cared to publish it. Morgan has dozens and dozens of sermons much better than this one, preached near the beginning of his pastoral ministry.