Praying the Psalms

by Mary Okkema

Bless the LORD, O my soul, And all that is within me, bless His holy name. Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget none of His benefits; Psalms 103:1-2

When life is a challenge and we don’t know how to pray we can turn to the Psalms for the words that fail us. You can start by reminding yourself who God is and think about His wonderful attributes.

Drink in these words from Psalms 103:

In the opening verses, we are reminded of the many ways we benefit by His presence everyday: “Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits”.

What is it that you need today? Are you feeling like you need forgiveness before you start the day? … “who forgives all your sins” … or maybe you are encountering an illness because of unconfessed sin, “and heals all your diseases.” (“When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.” Psalms 32:3)

Perhaps you have been dealing with depression, “who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion,” Do you need some encouragement? Verse 5 says, “who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”

Having compassion for others is a challenge we often face as well. We can learn from the example in verse 13:”As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him”.

The words of verse 19 remind us who is in charge, “The LORD has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all.”

So even when we don’t know how to pray, we find that by turning to the Psalms, we can be guided, encouraged, and blessed by the words of those who have gone before us. Can we help but join with them and all creation by saying:

Praise the LORD, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word. Praise the LORD, all his heavenly hosts, you his servants who do his will. Praise the LORD, all his works everywhere in his dominion. Praise the LORD, O my soul.

Indeed, how great is His love! “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him!” Blessed be the Name of the Lord!

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Sharing Our Grief

by Mary and Holly Okkema

“A good name is better than fine perfume, and the day of death better than the day of birth.” Ecclesiastes 7:1

Jewish GraveWhy is the day of death better than the day of birth? As sad as the death of a pre-born or young child may be, the death of one who has lived a longer life is of greater sadness. The longer one lives the better we know their character. This quote from Mendele Mokher Seforim says, “Among the Jews, a birthday is no holiday, but the anniversary of a death, that a Jew remembers.” (1)

What can we learn from this? In the Jewish tradition, there are four points of mourning (Avelut). The first point of mourning is Anilut, which is the burial. After the burial, the first meal eaten is called Seudat Havra’ah or meal of recovery. The second period of mourning is Shiva, which lasts for the seven days following the burial (Gen 50:10). The mourning does not stop after seven days; a third stage of mourning called Shloshim continues for 30 days (Deut.21:13), though most daily activities resume. Finally, each year the anniversary of the death is observed, called Yahrzeit. The local community remembers this anniversary at the conclusion of each Shabbat service. The surviving family is also encouraged to remember their deceased during the pilgrim festivals every year. (2)

Compare this with our current tradition. In a church funeral loving words are spoken of the deceased and the gospel is preached; that is, they proclaim that Jesus is risen, and insist that those who died in Him shall be risen too. From there, for about two weeks, the church shows how much they care with casseroles and consolation calls. After those two weeks, the community goes back to normal life. How can they forget, while the mourner is still in a great state of grief? Can it be that Christians do not know how to lament? (2)

We have strong examples of lamenting in the Psalms. According to one set of statistics, of the 150 Psalms, 43 of them are personal laments and 14 for communal lament. (3) In reading the laments of the psalmists, we see the writers expressing their grief and anger to God honestly, and we can be encouraged to do the same.

Although we are lamenting we are still called to praise, and this is reflected in Jewish practices. In every religious service in Judaism, the Mourner’s Kaddish is read. Kaddish is a curious collection of four verses which does not speak of mourning, but is a prayer about God, describing Him as magnified, sanctified, and worthy to be praised. Individuals are forbidden to pray Kaddish alone; they are commanded to pray with people, in the community of God’s faithful. (4) This tradition teaches that even as we mourn together, we are to praise together. Furthermore, as the community mourns, we are reminded that God is present, bearing our sorrows with us.

Looking to the New Testament, we read in Romans 12 and 13 general guidelines Paul set for becoming a united community. Within those guidelines, he wrote, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). This is a concept from the Gemara (Part II of the Talmud, 3rd to 5th century C.E.), which says, “A person should share in the distress of the community” (Ta’anit 11a). (5) Messianic Jews from Paul’s day knew that they were to continuously mourn together as a community, and Paul was communicating that to the trans-cultural community, and thus to us today.

Therefore, learning from the Jewish traditions of Avelut and everyday worship practices, let us, in our current culture, reach out to those who are grieving not just at the time of the death, but throughout the first year and each additional year. As the mourner’s grief plateaus, subsides, and turns to memories, let us continually join in remembering those who have gone before us.

(1) Telushkin, Joseph. Jewish Wisdom. New York: W. Morrow, 1994.

(2) Winner, Lauren. Mudhouse Sabbath. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2003,
p. 27-36.
(3) Catalao, Rosann. “Praying at the Edge.” The Institute for Christian and Jewish
Studies. (
(4) Bokser, Ben Zion. The Prayer Book. New York: Behrman House Publishers, 1983,
p. 202-3.
(5) Stern, David. Jewish New Testament Commentary. Clarksville, MD: Jewish New
Testament Publications, 1996.

Please also see the related article: Praying the Psalms, by Mary Okkema

Photo: Utilisateur:Djampa

Noah Was a Righteous Man

Noah releases dove

by Mary Okkema

He named him Noah and said, ‘He will comfort us in the labor and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the LORD has cursed.'” “These are the records of the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his time; Noah walked with God. – Genesis 5:29, 6:9

Noah releases doveWould that each of us could have an epitaph as the words spoken of Noah. Recently our daughter performed a vocal solo of epitaphs by Slonimsky. They ranged from stirring and amusing to thought provoking. It helped us think of what would be said of us after we die. But listen to the these words spoken of Noah: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his time; Noah walked with God.”

The hope of Noah was that through him God would comfort the race and alleviate the effects of the curse that was brought about by the fall of man. One could believe that Noah was the new Adam, the answer to what had happened in the previous chapters of Genesis and the wickedness that surrounded Noah. He was quite a contrast with those who lived around him as the phrase “blameless in his time” infers.

Noah’s father, Lamech named him with the foresight of the comfort to be brought through him. His name has the root meaning of “comfort.” It is said that “when a righteous person comes in to the world, goodness comes in to the world.” (Talmud: Sanh. 113b) Can this be said of each one of us? The following scripture verses describe righteous people during life and not just as an epitaph. Pray that they can be said of us:

The righteous is a guide to his neighbor, But the way of the wicked leads them astray. – Proverbs 12:26

You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. – Deuteronomy 6:5

You shall love your neighbor as yourself. – Mark 12:31

Learning to Read

Child reading

by Mary Okkema

Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 18:3

Child readingBecoming like children has a different meaning for each one of us. It can mean playing on the floor, being spontaneous with sounds, learning to see things with childlike eyes, and many other things.

For me, learning to read Hebrew feels a lot like becoming a little child again. Since this language is new to me, there are still so many words that are unfamiliar, but those I do recognize seem to jump off the page. I want to study them in great detail, much like a child wants to look at every bug and stone and leaf while taking a walk.

Taking a closer look at Genesis in Hebrew, brings questions to mind like, “Haven’t we heard this word somewhere else in scripture?” It helps us understand how the disciples would have heard and recognized when Jesus was quoting Old Testament scripture, as He so often did in His teachings.

Familiar words like “ruach” (wind/spirit), “ha-aretz” (earth/ground), and “ha-shamaim” (heavens/sky) from Genesis 1 enhance our appreciation of the creation story. Adam’s rib gets a second glance knowing that the word for “rib” can also mean “one side.” We see the word “basar” (flesh) used for the filling in of Adam’s side, is the same word used for the substance of beings used for sacrifices like a bull or ram (as in Deuteronomy 12:27).

The story of the first temptation in Genesis 3 can also be so familiar in our minds, yet when we read it again we see that the word “nahash” (snake, serpent) is repeated over and over as the one doing the talking, and “Satan” is not mentioned. Could other animals speak too at this point?

Sometimes the Hebrew language can be much stronger as in the case of Genesis 3:15:

“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.” (NASV)

In English a “bruise” is a minor injury but the Hebrew word here, “shuph,” has the action of pounding, which is much more violent.

So as we begin to see, it can be a wonderfully rich experience to go back to the beginning and look for the Lord like a little child again.

Photocred: GMR Akash

Brightness of His Presence

by Mary Okkema

Now when Solomon had finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the LORD filled the house. The priests could not enter into the house of the LORD because the glory of the LORD filled the LORD’S house. All the sons of Israel, seeing the fire come down and the glory of the LORD upon the house, bowed down on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshiped and gave praise to the LORD, saying, “Truly He is good, truly His lovingkindness is everlasting. – II Chronicles 7:1-3

During our recent trip to Jerusalem we were privileged to visit the Temple Mount. We stood on paving stones which were bright white. The sunny day made it so that it was almost impossible to see without covering our eyes. We discussed the construction materials of the Temple, its courts and the fact that when a pilgrim would surface from the dark tunnels leading up into the Temple courtyard the contrast would be blinding.


Josephus describes the materials used in the Temple construction this way. “Now the temple was built of stones that were white and strong,” (1) And another of his writings says it this way. “But this temple appeared to strangers, when they were at a distance, like a mountain covered with snow; for as those parts of it that were not gilt, they were exceeding white.” (2)

Bright white and glory of the Lord are synonymous in the history of this place. In 1 Timothy 6:16 we read, “who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light,” referencing Psalm 104:1 which says,” Bless the LORD, O my soul! O LORD my God, You are very great; You are clothed with splendor and majesty, covering Yourself with light as with a cloak,”

Even though the Temple no longer stands, we had a brief glimpse as to how it would have looked to pilgrims as they approached this holy place of “exceeding white.” We look forward to the time when in the new Jerusalem there will be “a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes,” (Rev. 7:9) But in that day it will be said: “I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.” (Rev 21:22)

We will then experience the brightness of His presence. “the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God has illumined it”! (Rev 21:23)

(1)  Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, Book 15, Chapter 11
(2)  Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book. 5, Chapter 5, Section 6

Makor – Source

by Mary Okkema

The fear of the Lord is the source of life. (Proverbs 14:27a)

The Hebrew word makor means “source, fountain, or spring.” When I began learning Hebrew, this word sounded very familiar. I knew I had used it or read it before. It is found in a book that many have read: The Source, by James Michener. The setting of this book is a fictitious location called Tel Makor. A tel is a mound that has been built up over centuries as a result of a city being rebuilt many times on the same location.

The Source weaves a story about the archaeological digs at this fictitious tel which has a source of water — the reason for its name. In Michener’s distinct style, as artifacts are discovered from each time period, the story explains how the artifact came to be in a particular location. I found it to be a great play on the word makor, because there were so many hints at its meaning. What does a tel have to do with the word “source”? A source of fresh water is a critical need for all civilizations; so where there is a tel, there will be a water source.

Interestingly, the Bible presents a frequent image of God as the makor of living water, which is often pictured as flowing out of Jerusalem:

My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring (makor) of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water. (Jeremiah 2:13)

How priceless is your unfailing love! … you give them drink from your river of delights. For with you is the fountain (makor) of life; in your light we see light. (Psalm 36: 7-9)

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day. (Psalm 46: 4-5)

And we will finally find the source at God’s throne in heaven!

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations… (Revelation 22:1-2)


Further reading:

See Listening to the Language of the Bible, by Lois Tverberg and Bruce Okkema, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004. This is a collection of devotional essays that mediate on the meaning of biblical words and phrases in their original setting.

For a friendly, bite-sized Bible study of five flavorful Hebrew words, see 5 Hebrew Words that Every Christian Should Know, by Lois Tverberg,, 2014 (ebook).


by Mary Okkema

“Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” – Deuteronomy 6:5

“There are some words which no one should attempt to translate from Hebrew,” to quote my current Hebrew teacher. Sometimes the meaning is so rich, to translate it into one or two specific terms greatly diminishes it. Such is the case for the word me’odeka (mem aleph dalet chaf-sofit). In this portion of the second phrase of the Shema found in Deuteronomy 6:5 we are told to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” … but what is all (your) me’odeka?

A local teacher threw out this challenge a few years ago and I took it personally. The challenge was, “if your body is flabby your faith tends to be flabby.” We had learned how hard it was to live in the land of Israel where everything seems to be uphill. As a result of this teaching and as I began preparing to live in that environment for awhile, I took up the challenge of trimming the flabby body. During this journey I learned many things, but the main thing I learned is the meaning of the word me’odeka. If you have ever undertaken a fitness regimen like Body for Life, you know the challenge of lifting that weight for just one more repetition or adding just one more pound to your weightlifting routine. The result can bring tears to your eyes. This kind of straining with all of your being is to experience what the word me’odeka means. Some people describe what it means as “umph.” The definition in the biblical glossary is: “exceedingly, much, force or abundance,” but it means so much more!

So take up the challenge! Hebrews 12:11 & 13 says, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful… Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees…” and love the Lord with all (your) me’odeka.


Further reading:

See Listening to the Language of the Bible, by Lois Tverberg and Bruce Okkema, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004. This is a collection of devotional essays that mediate on the meaning of biblical words and phrases in their original setting.

For a friendly, bite-sized Bible study of five flavorful Hebrew words, see 5 Hebrew Words that Every Christian Should Know, by Lois Tverberg,, 2014 (ebook).