The Psalms, Cool-Hand Luke, and the Pursuit of Happiness in a Fallen World

Introduction: The movie “Cool-Hand Luke” has become a classic. It starred Paul Newman as Luke and George Kennedy won an Oscar for best supporting actor. The film is laden with obvious theological themes. Harry Dean Stanton plays one of the chain-gang prisoners, and sings “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” on the guitar when Luke is visited by his dying mother. After Luke eats fifty hard-boiled eggs in the space of an hour (on a bet), the camera shows an overhead shot of Luke lying on the table poised with arms spread-wide and ankles crossed depicting a crucifix. During a rain storm Luke looks up to heaven and calls out to God to show Himself, defiantly he challenges God to strike him with lightening—anything that would prove that God is actually there. Nothing happens and Luke says, “Just as I thought, I’m talking to myself in the rain.” When Luke learns his mother has died, he sits alone and strums a banjo and sings about “plastic dashboard Jesus and the Virgin Mary.” The final scene shows Luke (having escaped again) in an old abandoned church, calling out once more to God (he calls Him “Old Man”) to reveal Himself—but there is only silence. After Luke is shot and killed, the film ends with an over-head camera shot of the chain-gang chopping weeds by the side of an intersection of two roads that form a cross. Cool-hand Luke is a Christ-figure who rallies the members of the chain gang around him like so many disciples and ends up as a sacrifice. The message of the movie, however, is not inspirational.

On the contrary, the film conveys just the opposite message—we are alone and there is no one “up there” looking after us. The Psalmist echoes a refrain very similar to that expressed by Cool-hand Luke. “To you I call, O Lord my Rock; do not turn a deaf ear to me. For, if you remain silent, I will be like those who have gone down to the pit (Ps. 28:1). The saints throughout the ages have been subject to similar experiences. The expression “cast down” is how the man of God describes his condition in Ps. 42, and 43. Unlike Cool-hand Luke, the Psalmist was a man who knew God and was faithful in his worship. But circumstances have robbed him of his joy and elation. Sometimes the saints of God experience a desperate struggle not only for the assurance of their acceptance with God, but like Cool-hand Luke, they struggle even with the very existence of God. The late Welsh physician turned preacher, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in dealing with these two Psalms makes this very important observation, “Very briefly at this point, the first thing we have to learn is what the Psalmist learned—we must learn to take ourselves in hand. This man was not content just to lie down and commiserate with himself. He does something about it; he takes himself in hand. But, he does something that is more important still, which is he talks to himself. This man turns to himself and says: ‘Why art thou cast down O my soul, why art thou disquieted within me?’ He is talking to himself, he is addressing himself.”[1] I am using the case of the Psalmist as an illustration of the point the Apostle Paul is making in Romans 6—that freedom from sin’s dominion, the transformation that justification brings of necessity implies that the reign of grace does not imply antinomianism—Christians still deal with the presence of sin in the lives (as in the case with the Psalmist), but they do not and cannot live in sin.

I.          Contributing Factors to the Psalmist’s Discouragement:

A.        Other People Taunted Him:   “Where is your God?” (Ps. 42:3) What good is your theology now! The Psalmist is perplexed and this only made matters worse.

B.        Re Remembered Better Days (Ps. 42:4):

C.        His Location Was Changed and so Were His Circumstances (Ps. 42:6):  He is not in Jerusalem, but away on Mt. Hermon.

D.        His Memories Only Made Him Miserable and More Depressed About the Future:

II.         How Depression Manifested Itself:   The Psalmist was, as Robert Horn points out, “dejected one moment, elated the next. Before him lay majestic scenery, with the cascading mountain stream rushing down nearby. But this reminded him of his own misfortune at God’s hands: ‘all thy waves…have gone over me’ (42:7). He felt he was going under for the last time, until suddenly he remembered that ‘the Lord commands his steadfast love’ (42:8). Then he could even sing and pray. His moods fluctuated constantly up and down.”[2]

III.        The Knowledge of God:   What was it that kept the Psalmist’s head above water? Why is he different from Cool-hand Luke? Even though his present experience was pulling him down, he knew there was a God and this God, had not forgotten him (42:8). This is the exact same emphasis the Apostle Paul seeks to drive home in Romans 6. In answer to the question “How do we deal with sin in our lives?” The answer: “By knowing what God has done for us when he joined us to Christ.” We are going to look at the meaning of that even more in the next study, when we consider verse 11. But I hope you have noticed, as we studied verses 5-10, that the important word know, which I have called the key to this entire matter of sanctification, is here again and not only once, but twice. We saw it first in verse 2: “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Here it appears in verse 6: “For we know that our old self was crucified with him,” and in verse 9: “For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, He cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over Him.” As Boice concluded, “What is true of Jesus is true of us. His relationship to sin, while He was in this life, has passed forever. It is true of us as well, since we are joined to Him. The key to holiness is to know this and to press on.” [3]

IV.       Back to Basics: Finding himself in darkness he did the only thing he could do—he prayed for light (Ps. 43:3). He was in ignorance, so he sought truth. What Happened? He reflected on the worship of God—especially the importance of the altar of God (Ps. 43:3, 4). This is the OT way of speaking about the sinner’s access and acceptance with God. In other words, the Psalmist is looking at how he is justified. When he considered the absence of the peace of God, he directed his attention to how he has peace with God. Instead of simply living on the memories of happier days, he reminded himself of the fact and basis of his acceptance with God. Obadiah Sedgwick, one of Westminster divines, wrote, “Brethren, no man can be free from strong fears and doubts who thinks to be acquitted or condemned by what is in himself. If a man thinks this: “The Lord will, or does, enter into judgment with me, and I find nothing to satisfy Him. All the powers of my heart and of my graces are insufficient; and, therefore, there is now no hope but that I shall be cast and condemned.” You see, here are grounds of doubting, yet, if a man could look out of himself and know that his righteousness is to be found in Christ, and God has appointed it so, that I am to be justified by that righteousness only, now, the soul may have a stay to rest on. Yet my Savior’s righteousness was perfect, was accepted; and He is mine, and His righteousness, mine.”[4]

Conclusion:   The major difference between Cool-hand Luke and the discouraged Psalmist lay in the recognition of how a sinner can be acceptable to God. Cool-hand Luke demonstrated no real awareness of his sinfulness, or of God’s holiness and was thus indignant that God would not respond to him in some miraculous fashion. The Psalmist on the other hand, did understand his sinfulness and God’s holiness and therefore, saw the basis for his acceptance (justification) with God in terms of the altar of God, i.e., sacrificial atonement. “Justification is not an eraser to rub out depression on the spot. Without proper understanding of it, however, depression deepens. We need to get such a hold on justification that in the dark day we shall find it holding us. And if it strengthens us in times of spiritual desolation, will it not also help us in all the other experiences and problems of the Christian life?”[5] Tragically much of evangelicalism today has fallen prey to a secular value-system and as such is preoccupied with a decidedly different agenda.

In the June 6, 2005 edition of the Arizona Republic (the section entitled Arizona Living) highlighted two of the best-selling books dealing with the theme “In pursuit of happiness: Researchers seek secrets of joyful life.”[6] These two books, sadly, will be devoured by evangelical pastors who are consumed with preaching “felt needs” therapeutic sermons. As most of you know I despise the health, wealth, and happiness teachings of the American televangelists that dominate TBN, as scandalous blasphemy.[7] The idea that Christianity, at whose center stands the Suffering Servant, the man who had nowhere to lay his head, and the one who was obedient to death – even death on the cross – should be used to justify the idolatrous greed of affluent Westerners simply beggars belief. Indeed, so contemptible is this school of thought that I cannot vilify it enough. Nevertheless, there is a real danger that these heretical teachings have seeped into evangelical life in an imperceptible, yet, devastating way, affecting not so much our theology as our horizons of expectation. We live, as the two books mentioned above, in a society whose values are precisely those of health, wealth, and happiness—the three modern obsessions, the three modern idols. Where does the church stand in all this? Where do we as individual Christians put ourselves in relation to what is going on? We have bought into the idolatry of the secular values of health, wealth, and happiness, and until we all, on both the individual and corporate level, realize this, repent of it, and give ourselves in painful, sacrificial service to the Lord who bought us, we will see no improvement. How do we start? Carl Trueman offers this Biblical observation. “First, read the Psalms over and over until you have the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax necessary to lay your heart before God in lamentation. If you do this, you will have the resources to cope with your own times of suffering, despair and heartbreak, and to keep worshipping and trusting through even the blackest of days; you will also develop a greater understanding of fellow Christians whose agonies of, say, bereavement, depression, or despair, sometimes make it difficult for them to prance around in ecstasy

Singing ‘Jesus wants me for a sunbeam’ on a Sunday morning; and you will have more credible things to say to those shattered and broken individuals – be they burned out bank managers or down and out junkies – to whom you may be called to be a witness of God’s unconditional mercy and grace to the unloved and the unlovely. For such, as the Bible might put it, were some of you…Second, seek to make the priorities of the biblical prayers the priorities of your own prayers. You can read all the trendy sociology and postmodern primers you want, and they may well give you valuable technical insights, but unless your studies, your preaching, your church life, your family life, indeed, your whole life, are soaked in prayer and reflect the priorities of the Bible, they will be of no profit to you or to anybody else. And finally, as regards personal ambitions and life-plans, ‘Your attitude should be the same as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross.”[8]

References:

 


[1] D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression: Its Cause and Its Cure (Eerdmans, 1965), p. 20.

 

[2] R. M. Horn, Go Free! The Meaning of Justification (IVP, 1976), p. 88.

 

[3] J. M. Boice, Romans: An Expositional Commentary II (Baker, 1992), p. 672.

 

[4] Obadiah Sedgwick, The Doubting Believer: A Puritan Treatise on Assurance (rpt. Soli Deo Gloria, 1993), p. 37.

 

[5] Horn, p. 92.

 

[6] The two books are: David Meyers, The Pursuit of Happiness (Perennial, 2005), and Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness (Simon & Schuster, 2005).

 

[7] Bruce Wilkerson’s bestselling The Prayer of Jabez although not as crass as the likes of Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, still had the same kind of emphasis.

 

[8] C. Trueman, The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historic & Contemporary Evangelicalism (Mentor, 2004), pp. 162-163. This is one of the most significant books I have read this year.

Commentary on the Psalms

by John Calvin; abridged by David C. Searle

John Calvin was a practical and pastoral theologian. Like the Apostle Paul he worked tirelessly ‘for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness’ (Titus 1:1). For him knowledge of the truth was for living, and living was for the glory of God. All of Calvin’s preaching, teaching, and writing was directed to this one great end, to serve the church of Jesus Christ so that all ‘may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory’ (2 Tim. 2:10).

This book is an abridgement of Calvin’s commentary on the Psalms, reducing it to about one quarter of its original size. It is the result of a labour of love undertaken by one who has for some years used Calvin on the Psalms in his devotional reading of Scripture, and who has grown to appreciate Calvin’s method of exposition, his faithfulness to the biblical text, and his practical application of the truth to daily living.

But why abridge Calvin? The sad fact is that few teachers and preachers of the gospel today ever use any of Calvin’s commentaries. Some busy pastors and ministers balk at the sheer scale of Calvin’s five-volume commentary on the Psalms, (which forms part of a much larger twenty-two-volume set). Others tend to shy away from Calvin’s writings, mistakenly thinking that such are the preserve of academics and theologians, and not of the whole church. Alas, nothing could be further from the truth!

This abridgement has been made with such people in mind. It is not intended to deprive readers of the full benefit of Calvin’s unabridged text, but to edify those who otherwise might remain strangers to Calvin’s practical and pastoral wisdom. Indeed, in the view of the publisher the editor’s noble aims have been fully met, that in this single volume ‘something of the unsurpassed excellence of Calvin’s instruction will have been preserved and made available to a wider public than would ever have made use of the original massive and magisterial work.’

Here, then, is a treasure chest containing a choice selection of the wonderful riches to be found in Calvin’s commentary on the Psalms.

Hardback; 684 pages

 

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