The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

The scene is familiar to most of us. We’ve lost someone we care about, so we gather together to share in our grief. At some point, someone may stand and recite these words:

The LORD is my shepherd;
I have all that I need.
He lets me rest in green meadows;
he leads me beside peaceful streams.
He renews my strength.
He guides me along right paths,
bringing honor to his name.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I will not be afraid,
for you are close beside me.
Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me.
You prepare a feast for me
in the presence of my enemies.
You honor me by anointing my head with oil.
My cup overflows with blessings.
Surely your goodness and unfailing love
will pursue me all the days of my life,
and I will live in the house of the LORD forever.

Many immediately recognize this as the 23rd Psalm. But no matter how many times we’ve heard the words before, they still have an effect on us. David’s expression of trust and confidence in his Shepherd somehow comforts and encourages us as well.

The first thing many of us learn about the Book of Psalms is that it’s the really big book in the middle of the Bible! If you’re trying to find a book in the Old Testament, it helps to know whether it comes before Psalms or after. But the psalms are much more than just a handy navigating tool. In fact, they’ve become some of the best-loved, most-remembered passages in Scripture. What is it about them that draws so many people to the psalms?

Prayers
To begin with, we need to recognize that the psalms are not teaching passages like the letters to the churches, and they’re not straightforward stories, such as in the Gospels and Old Testament history. The psalms are prayers. While, in most of Scripture we’re used to God speaking to his people, in the psalms his people spoke to God.

But these aren’t mere routine, go-through-the-motions prayers. These psalmists express overflowing joy and overwhelming sorrow. Because they prayed from their heart, conveying the depth of their emotions, their prayers still resonate with us. Their joy-filled words help us communicate our joy to God; their thankfulness helps us express our gratitude; the pain and confusion they share free us to cry out to God in our own pain and confusion. In speaking to God they speak to us, and help us to speak to God, too.

So, while the psalms do at times tell a story or refer to theological truths, this isn’t their primary focus. The psalms are much more centered on the emotional aspect of our relationship to God and our spiritual lives than they are delivering information. We should accept the psalms for what they are and not try to glean content from them they’re not intended to convey.

Poetry
The psalms are poetry, and we need to read them this way. They use a lot of colorful, descriptive language that we’re not intended to understand literally. When we’re told that God will “shelter you with his wings” we’re not to imagine God as a giant chicken, and when it says the mountains “skip like a calf” we shouldn’t assume some cataclysmic, geological event. This is the kind of poetic language we should expect in the psalms.

We also need to remember that the psalms are in the Old Testament. While some of the psalms look forward to Christ in amazing, prophetic ways, all of them were written long before Jesus was born. The people who wrote the psalms were still under the Old Covenant that God established with the nation of Israel, so they speak often of the Temple, sacrifices, the law, etc. Some of the psalms were used at special times, such as during Passover or the coronation of a new king. This doesn’t mean they can’t be meaningful to us now, but we need to understand them in their historical context.

Music
You’ll also notice they’re numbered. The psalms were prayers set to music, and the Book of Psalms was the songbook for the people of Israel. Each psalm is an individual unit and may focus on a completely different subject than the psalms before and after it. So when we’re reading the psalms, we don’t look at context quite the same as we do in other, more cohesive, books of the Bible.

Because the psalms are music, they’re structured in ways that show their lyrical nature. Many of the psalms have verses and a repeating chorus. Some are call-and-repeat type songs. All of them follow standard forms of Hebrew poetry. One of the most common forms (which we see throughout the psalms and in many other poetic sections in the Bible) is to have two lines say essentially the same thing in a slightly different, creative way:

The heavens proclaim the glory of God.
The skies display his craftsmanship.
Day after day they continue to speak;
night after night they make him known.
They speak without a sound or word;
their voice is never heard.
Yet their message has gone throughout the earth,
and their words to all the world.

Psalm 19:1-4

Do you see how each pair of lines is saying the same thing in slightly different ways? It’s helpful for us to know that this is a common way for Hebrew poetry to work. When the psalm says “the skies display his craftsmanship,” it’s saying essentially the same thing as “the heavens proclaim the glory of God.” If we try to contrast what’s happening “day after day” in verse 2 from what’s happening “night after night,” we’re missing the point—or better put, the poetry—of the psalm. When you read the psalms, read them the way you would song lyrics, sensing the emotional depth of what the psalmist is expressing.

Psalms to fit every need
Just as there are many different emotions involved in our spiritual lives, so there’s more than one kind of psalm. There are psalms of celebration:

Shout with joy to the LORD, all the earth!
Worship the LORD with gladness.
Come before him, singing with joy.
Acknowledge that the LORD is God!
He made us, and we are his.
We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving;
go into his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the LORD is good.
His unfailing love continues forever,
and his faithfulness continues to each generation.

Psalm 100

There are psalms of worshipful adoration:

O God, you are my God;
I earnestly search for you.
My soul thirsts for you;
my whole body longs for you
in this parched and weary land
where there is no water.
I have seen you in your sanctuary
and gazed upon your power and glory.
Your unfailing love is better than life itself;
how I praise you!
I will praise you as long as I live,
lifting up my hands to you in prayer.
You satisfy me more than the richest feast.
I will praise you with songs of joy.

Psalm 63:1-5

There are psalms of repentance:

Have mercy on me, O God,
because of your unfailing love.
Because of your great compassion,
blot out the stain of my sins.
Wash me clean from my guilt.
Purify me from my sin.
For I recognize my rebellion;
it haunts me day and night.
Against you, and you alone, have I sinned;
I have done what is evil in your sight.
You will be proved right in what you say,
and your judgment against me is just. . . .
Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Oh, give me back my joy again;
you have broken me—
now let me rejoice.
Don’t keep looking at my sins.
Remove the stain of my guilt.
Create in me a clean heart, O God.
Renew a loyal spirit within me.
Do not banish me from your presence,
and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and make me willing to obey you.
Then I will teach your ways to rebels,
and they will return to you.
Forgive me for shedding blood, O God who saves;
then I will joyfully sing of your forgiveness.
Unseal my lips, O Lord,
that my mouth may praise you.
You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one.
You do not want a burnt offering.
The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit.
You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.

Psalm 51:1-17

There are psalms to help us cry out to God when we’re confused and discouraged:

O LORD, low long will you forget me? Forever?
How long will you look the other way?
How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul,
with sorrow in my heart every day?
How long will my enemy have the upper hand?
Turn and answer me, O LORD my God!
Restore the sparkle to my eyes, or I will die.
Don’t let my enemies gloat, saying, “We have defeated him!”
Don’t let them rejoice at my downfall.
But I trust in your unfailing love.
I will rejoice because you have rescued me.
I will sing to the LORD because he is good to me.

Psalm 13

Notice how David (the author of this psalm) asks God, “How long will you forget me?” and “How long will you look the other way?” Does this mean God was actually forgetting him or looking the other way? No, it doesn’t. Remember these aren’t God’s words to David (and us), they’re David’s words to God. They tell us movingly how David felt. And this speaks to us because we’ve felt the same way. This encourages us that we can express to God exactly what we’re feeling. We can pour out our sorrow and frustration to God.

But also notice that David doesn’t give up on his faith in God. After crying out with such anguish—and probably contrary to everything he was feeling and experiencing—David chooses to cling to his hope in God: “But I trust in your unfailing love. I will rejoice . . . I will sing to the LORD . . .”

We even see in the psalms that we can express our anger to God:

Bring shame and disgrace on those trying to kill me;
turn them back and humiliate those who want to harm me.
Blow them away like chaff in the wind—
a wind sent by the angel of the LORD.
Make their path dark and slippery,
with the angel of the LORD pursuing them.
I did them no wrong, but they laid a trap for me.
I did them no wrong, but they dug a pit to catch me.
So let sudden ruin come upon them!
Let them be caught in the trap they set for me!
Let them be destroyed in the pit they dug for me.

Psalm 35:4-8

Is this what God wants for David’s enemies? Not necessarily. This doesn’t tell us God wants to harm or destroy these people anymore than Psalm 13 tells us God forgot David. This is David’s prayer to God, not God’s answer. This perfectly reveals to us the heart of David, not the heart of God. And we can’t forget we now follow the perfect example of Jesus who taught us to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us, the one who prayed, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” But these psalms do show us we can express and confess our anger to God. After all, he already knows how mad we are. We can’t hide our anger from him! Better to pour out our feelings to God, than to vent our rage at someone else.

The psalms are a beautiful example of God meeting us where we’re at. No matter what emotions or circumstances we’re struggling with, God has provided us examples of other believers wrestling with the very same things. This should comfort us that we’re not alone in our experiences; other children of God have felt the same things, and God has faithfully brought them through to the other side. And these psalms should encourage us to do as they did: pour out our highest praise, deepest anguish, and most intense longings to the One who loves us more than we can possibly imagine. He is our Shepherd, and he will lovingly care for us.

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us [see above]

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

Every now and then in a class or Bible study, someone will emphasize that Christians must faithfully obey the Ten Commandments. Now, part of the job of the teacher is to challenge the people they’re teaching, to get them wrestling with vital concepts, to facilitate a certain amount of creative tension. Often we need to spend more time questioning answers than answering questions. And I certainly cause some head-scratching when I ask: “Are we supposed to obey the Ten Commandments?”

“Of course, we are!” a few people will say confidently.

“Why?”

This usually leaves the people more than a little nonplussed. Finally, someone will say, “Because it’s in the Bible. It’s God’s law.”

“So, you keep the Ten Commandments?”

“I do my best to, yes.”

“Do you keep the Sabbath?”

“Well, I . . . um . . . I try to reserve Sunday for worshiping God and spending time with my family.”

“That’s great,” I’ll say, “but that’s not keeping the Sabbath. If we’re going to follow God’s law, we can’t alter it or adjust it. The Sabbath is the seventh day, which is Saturday. And keeping the Sabbath didn’t have anything to do with going to church. It was having a day of total rest. No work, no chores around the house, not even any cooking or traveling. Nothing that would cause you to exert yourself. Do you faithfully do this every Saturday?”

At this point, another believer may jump in and ask, “But aren’t there passages that say we don’t need to observe the Sabbath anymore?”

To which I’ll often respond, “Yes, let’s take a look at a few of them.”

In the same way, some think one day is more holy than another day, while others think every day is alike. You should each be fully convinced that whichever day you choose is acceptable.

Romans 14:5

You are trying to earn favor with God by observing certain days or months or seasons or years. I fear for you. Perhaps all my hard work with you was for nothing. Dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to live as I do in freedom from these things, for I have become like you Gentiles—free from those laws.

Galatians 4:10-12

So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality.

Colossians 2:16-17

I also have them look at the example of the early church in the New Testament and see that there’s no place where Christian believers are taught to observe the Sabbath. Finally, I’ll ask, “So, are Christians required to keep the Sabbath?”

“No,” is usually the answer from everyone.

“Okay, then I guess that means that Christians are supposed to obey the Nine Commandments . . . right?”

And now they’re grappling with the issue again! Do you see where the confusion is coming from? We have a tendency to open the Bible anywhere and, because it’s all God’s Word, assume that everything applies to us. In previous studies, we’ve discussed how this causes a lot of confusion and error. We know instinctively that not all of the Old Testament applies to us now. But surely some of it does. Wouldn’t this include the Ten Commandments?

Some have tried to solve this by distinguishing between moral laws and ceremonial laws. There’s only one problem. We don’t find even one place in the Bible—either in the Old Testament or the New—where it categorizes the law in this way. Instead it consistently refers to “the law” in its entirety. To say ‘this isn’t a moral law, it’s a ceremonial law,’ is really just a fancy way of saying, ‘I don’t think this law should apply to me.’ If we don’t have any biblical basis for making this distinction, we’re right back where we started.  (And James is very clear that if we’re going to keep the Mosaic law, we have to keep all of the laws [James 2:10].)

So let’s apply some common sense here:

When were the Ten Commandments given?
When the people were at Mt Sinai, after God had delivered them from slavery in Egypt.

What was the context?
The Ten Commandments were part of a much more extensive law given to the people by God. This was part of God establishing his covenant with the people.

With whom was God entering into this covenant, and to whom was this law given?
The nation of Israel.

Are we part of the nation of Israel?
Many of us are not. We would fall into the same category as the new Gentile believers in the early church, who were not required to become Jews and obey the Old Covenant law.

So the Old Covenant is not our covenant,
and the Old Testament law is not our law.

But what of Jewish followers of Christ today? Are they obligated to observe the Old Covenant law? The Old Covenant (the formal relationship established between God and the people of Israel), with it’s laws and sacrifices, pointed forward to and anticipated Jesus. He established a New Covenant—a new way for any of us to enter into relationship directly with God.

This New Covenant in Christ fulfilled the Old Covenant (and its laws and sacrifices) and superseded it. All followers of Christ—Jews and Gentiles—are New Covenant people of God. We’ve been freed from the Old Covenant law and are no longer under its jurisdiction. (Some Jewish followers of Christ still observe their traditional laws and customs, but this is because they choose to; they don’t follow the old law to earn God’s favor.)

Do we see this in Scripture? The letter to the Galatians was written about this very issue, so let’s begin there:

Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised.

Galatians 3:19

Before the way of Christ was available to us, we were placed under guard by the law. We were kept in protective custody, so to speak, until the way of faith was revealed.

Let me put it another way. The law was our guardian until Christ came; it protected us until we could be made right with God through faith. And now that faith has come, we no longer need the law as our guardian.

Galatians 3:23-25

Corresponding to Paul’s teaching in this letter are the many references to us no longer being “under law, but under grace.” The book of Hebrews also makes clear this change:

The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves.

Hebrews 10:1

When God speaks of a “new” covenant, it means that he has made the first one obsolete. It is now out of date and will soon disappear.

Hebrews 8:13

So, does this mean that we can do whatever we want? That we’re not bound by any law at all? Not at all! Paul makes this clear as well in 1 Corinthians 9:20-21:

When I was with the Jews, I lived like a Jew to bring the Jews to Christ. When I was with those who follow the Jewish law, I too lived under that law. Even though I am not subject to the law, I did this so I could bring to Christ those who are under the law.

When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law so I can bring them to Christ. But I do not ignore the law of God; I obey the law of Christ.

Did you notice how he clarifies this? He is not subject to the old Jewish law, but he is still under the law of Christ. James makes the same distinction in James 2:8-13 when he speaks of the “royal law” of love and the “law that sets you free.” Now we can see how significant it was for Jesus to tell his disciples that he was giving them a new commandment (John 13:34).

What is this new commandment of Christ? “Love one another.” When we truly love God and love each other—in faith in Christ and through the power of the Spirit—we fulfill the law. Not only that, but when we view the Old Testament legal instructions through the lens of Christ’s law of love, we’re able to distinguish easily between the unchanging moral requirements of God and the temporary civil and ceremonial laws for the people of Israel.

If you love someone, will you murder them? Of course not. In fact, Jesus says we won’t even have hatred in our hearts toward them. If you love your spouse, will you commit adultery? No. We won’t even entertain lustful thoughts about someone else if we’re truly loving. If we love God, will we worship something or someone in his place? Definitely not.

If we love God and others, will we keep the Sabbath? This isn’t simply a question of love anymore, is it? The Sabbath was intended to set apart the nation of Israel as God’s people. Keeping the Sabbath was a temporary ordinance, not an eternal moral imperative. The same is true of laws prohibiting the eating of pork, marking of one’s body and mixing different kinds of fabric. When we look at the Old Testament law through Christ’s law of love, we’re able to clearly distinguish between the eternal and the temporary, the moral and the ceremonial. But we’re not making this distinction purely on our own, but by seeing everything through Christ’s New Covenant law of love. And it’s not a coincidence that most of the unchanging moral requirements are reiterated in the New Testament, while the temporary civil and ceremonial codes are not.

So are we supposed to obey the Ten Commandments? We follow many of these same commands: we don’t worship other gods, we don’t murder, we don’t steal, etc. But we don’t follow them because they’re in the Ten Commandments. We follow them because we follow the way of Christ and his law of love. To fail to observe these laws would be to fail to love God and each other. But we must keep clear in our minds that we are not the nation of Israel, and we are not under the Old Testament law. We follow Christ and his New Covenant law of love.

We strive every day to love as Jesus loves, and hopefully we’re continually growing in this life of love. One day we will perfectly love as God perfectly loves us. Then we will be truly human as God always intended us to be. And when we are completely transformed by the love and power of Christ, then we will perfectly fulfill the law of God. Because all he requires from us . . . is for us to be who he created us to be.

Related post:

Are Christians supposed to tithe?

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law [see above]

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

Are Christians supposed to tithe?

I can still remember the hair standing up on the back of my neck. I was sitting next to my father, listening to the pastor during a Sunday evening service. He had just finished reading Malachi 3:8-10 from the King James Version:

Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings. Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation. Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.

The look in the pastor’s eye told us that he was deadly serious. Do you want to be guilty of robbing God? Absolutely not! I don’t know what kind of effect he was having on the rest of the congregation, but I was one ten-year-old kid who was going to make sure he faithfully brought his 10% into the storehouse—whatever that was.

Next to the topic of prayer, most of the questions I’ve received since beginning our Taking Root emails have been regarding tithing. Are New Testament believers supposed to—according to Scripture—give 10% of their incomes to their churches? This is a question that requires us to explore some of the historical background and biblical context to really understand what we’re talking about.

What does “tithe” mean?
It’s not uncommon to hear people say that they tithe 5% of their income, or 20%.  While having a planned approach to how you give can be a good thing, this isn’t really a “tithe” the way the Bible uses the word. The word translated tithe in Scripture means “tenth.” So if we want to speak of the biblical idea of tithing, we’re talking about giving 10%.

Early examples of tithing
The first time we see tithing in the Bible is in the 14th chapter of Genesis. Abram’s nephew Lot had been living in the city of Sodom. Enemies had wiped out Sodom’s army, plundered their city and taken captives as slaves, including Lot and his family. God enabled Abram to overtake and defeat the enemies of Sodom, and to recover the captives and plunder. The king of Sodom offers all of the loot to Abram, but he refuses. He takes only food for his men to eat, a share for his allies, and he gives a tenth of all the goods to Melchizedek, who is described as the king of Salem and priest of God Most High.

We should first notice that Abram wasn’t giving a tithe of his own goods, but of the recovered plunder belonging to the city of Sodom. Was this tithe a one-time event, or a regular practice for Abram? We have no way of knowing from the text. And it also seems that Abram’s gift is voluntary, not in response to a command from God. So this story only tells us what happened in this one occasion, doesn’t show a command from God concerning tithing, and doesn’t even have to do with Abram’s personal possessions. This shows us an early example of someone voluntarily giving 10% but not much else.

The next example of tithing is found in Genesis 28. Jacob was on his way back to his own people to find a suitable wife. One night, in a dream, he sees a stairway going up to heaven, angels going up and down the stairway, and he sees God. Overwhelmed, the next morning Jacob vows that if God will be with him and protect him on his journey, provide him with food and clothing, and return him safely to his father’s home, then he would give back to God a tenth of everything that God gives him. The way this vow is emphasized in the story, it seems that tithing was not a normal practice at this time. (Notice that Jacob had not been tithing prior to having this dream of God.) And again, the tithing is voluntary, not in response to divine instruction regarding tithing.

Some have stressed that these examples come before the Mosaic Law, and this is true. But there is nothing in these passages instructing God’s people to tithe, or even showing that the people of God regularly tithed at that time. We don’t want to base a command to believers on unclear examples from narrative accounts. That’s not a proper use of Scripture. (Actually, there’s a clearer pattern in Genesis of returning to one’s own people to acquire a wife—but I don’t know of anyone suggesting this as a model we should follow today!) We can choose to emulate Abram and Jacob in their voluntary tithing, but this would be a personal choice, not a biblical command. For clear instructions on tithing we need to look to the Old Covenant Law.

Tithing under the Old Covenant
Many Christians have an idea the people of Israel regularly gave 10% of their income to God. This isn’t entirely accurate. There are actually three different tithes the Israelites were to observe:

Levitical tithe
Because the tribe of Levi was to be dedicated to serving the Lord and his temple, they were not allotted any land among the other tribes. Instead of actual land, the other Israelites were to bring a tithe of everything the land produced for the Levites (see Numbers 18:20-21). This would have included meat, crops and wine.

Celebration tithe
The people were to set aside another tithe of all their crops—grains, olive oil, wine, and the firstborn males of all their flocks and herds, bring this tithe to a designated place of worship, and “Then feast there in the presence of the Lord your God and celebrate with your household” (Deuteronomy 14:22-27). This tithe was set aside for a big feast! Eating, drinking and celebrating as a form of worship to God. What an idea! But don’t laugh this off as just an excuse for a big party. This was a sacred obligation, and the people still had to set aside this additional tithe for this annual celebration.

Charity tithe
Every third year, the people were to collect another tithe for the care of Levites, orphans, widows and foreigners living among them. (See Deuteronomy 14:28-29.)

So, rather than 10%, the combination of different tithes actually equals an annual 23.3%. This was essentially the early tax system for the nation of Israel to support their national priestly tribe and their poor. A couple of other things worth noting: The people didn’t give money; they gave a tithe of their crops and herds. These tithes weren’t voluntary as was the case with Abram and Jacob; they were mandated by Law. So the Old Testament idea of tithing looks very different from the traditional concept most of us have been taught.

Are we supposed to follow the Old Covenant practice of tithing today?
After seeing what the Old Covenant practice of tithing entails, most of us would respond: “How can we?” Are we supposed to all acquire fields and herds so we can set aside a tithe of our produce and bring it once a year to the, um, temple so that the . . . Levites can have food and wine? And should Christians today set aside another 10% of their crops and herds to gather with the people of Israel in a designated place and celebrate together? (If we’re worried the Malachi passage above is warning us not to rob God, then this is what we need to start doing because this is what the passage is talking about.)

Some who are reading this right now are thinking of ways to apply these ideas to the church, but be careful. We can’t change the Law that God gave to the people of Israel. It is very specific about the nature of these tithes, what was to be set aside and how it was to be distributed. We don’t have the right to alter these commands. But are these commands given to us?

To whom was this law given? To the nation of Israel. Are we part of the nation of Israel? No, we’re not. We still study the Old Covenant because it teaches us about God, how he interacted with his people, and how his grand plan developed in the Old Testament period. But the Old Covenant isn’t our covenant. We are part of the New Covenant people of God. Christ accomplished the purpose of the Old Covenant law (Matthew 5:17) and superseded it (Galatians 3:19-25; Hebrews 7-10). We are no longer under the Old Covenant Law of Moses, but the New Covenant Law of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:19-21; Matthew 22:34-40).

In the New Testament, Jesus and the apostles affirm the unchanging moral requirements of God (not worshiping other gods, not murdering, not committing adultery, etc.). But the legal requirements that were peculiar to the nation of Israel are now obsolete (keeping the Sabbath, dietary laws, etc.).

The life of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels is a time of transition, when the Old Covenant is coming to an end and the people are being prepared for the New Covenant. The New Covenant isn’t actually established until Jesus’ death on the cross (Luke 22:20). This is why, though Jesus seems to go out of his way to flaunt the traditions of the Jewish leaders, he never violates the Old Covenant law itself during his earthly ministry. We have to understand that his teaching to the Jewish people is still in an Old Covenant context. If we don’t realize this, we’ll misinterpret many passages.

This explains why Jesus would give instruction on offering one’s sacrifice at the Temple altar (Matthew 5:23-24), why he would tell those whom he had healed of leprosy to go show themselves to the priests (Luke 17:14), and why he would tell the people to listen to the Pharisees because they ‘sit in the seat of Moses’ (Matthew 23:1-4). This also sheds light on Jesus’ comment to the Pharisees that it was good for them to carefully tithe, but that they should be more focused on the weightier matters of justice and loving God. We have to remember he was speaking to people still under the Law of Moses.

But beginning with Acts and throughout the letters to the churches, we don’t find even a hint of tithing as a practice of the New Testament churches. It seems clear that mandatory tithing was an Old Testament requirement for the nation of Israel that is not affirmed as a requirement for the New Testament church. Instead, the principle seems to be, as expressed by Paul in 2 Corinthians 9:7:

You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. “For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.”

So is tithing wrong?
There’s nothing at all wrong with setting aside 10% of your income to give back to God. But it’s simply not biblical for us to teach that Christians must meet this requirement. Our monetary-based system is very different from the agrarian society of the Old Testament. Some believers today are not able to contribute 10%, and many others could be giving much more. Giving is a scriptural mandate, but it’s between the individual believer and God how much they should give. If we try to suggest a standard that all Christians must meet, we’re reestablishing the law for our brothers and sisters, and this is something we are not to do.

What of the common instruction to give to God first, before anything else, whether you’re in debt or not? I know many of you have amazing stories of how you committed to give a certain amount or percentage of your income to God and how he blessed you by meeting your needs. I’ve also heard stories from some of you how you honored your commitment to God, took money that was needed to pay bills and gave it to the church, and suffered serious consequences when the funds you needed didn’t miraculously appear. We need to be careful not to base our practices—or our urging of others to follow these practices—on anecdotes or even our own experiences, but on the clear teaching of the Word.

As a general principle, I would suggest that if you’re past due on money owed to someone else, then this is no longer your money to freely offer to God. It already legitimately belongs to someone else. Is God honored if we steal money from our landlord to give to him? Of course, if God has somehow, clearly directed you to contribute the money anyway, then he will provide the funds needed to pay your debts.

I realize this has been somewhat technical this week. I’ve tried to make it as painless as possible! We’ve discussed the intricacies of the Old Covenant practice of tithing, but we haven’t really looked at how we should give as Christians. There’s a lot more to discuss so, next week, we’ll look at New Testament principles of giving.

Related posts:

New Testament principles of giving

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law