Executing Justice, Psalm 140

Psalm 140 begins darkly, but ends in the light. It was written by David, who was persecuted and maligned by Saul and his counselors as well as betrayed by Doeg. It applies to believers today who are persecuted and betrayed, not only in other lands, but also in our own society where evil flourishes and deceit thrives—sometimes existing even within dysfunctional homes or flawed church communities.

David’s prayer plainly shows the scheming nature of evil men (Psalm 140:1-3, ESV): 

Deliver me, O LORD, from evil men;
   preserve me from violent men,
who plan evil things in their heart
   and stir up wars continually.
They make their tongue sharp as a serpent’s,
   and under their lips is the venom of asps.
                         Selah

The evil man schemes in his heart and stirs up discord. His tongue is a weapon and his speech drips with poison. His evil thoughts and speech lead to evil actions (4-5, ESV):

Guard me, O LORD, from the hands of the wicked;
   preserve me from violent men,
   who have planned to trip up my feet.
The arrogant have hidden a trap for me,
   and with cords they have spread a net;
   beside the way they have set snares for me.
                         Selah

Evil men snare their victims in craftily hidden traps. In his commentary on this Psalm, John Calvin explains that the Hebrew word describing these men (geim) “signifies proud or lofty” indicating that “he does not speak of common men, but of men in power, who considered that they would have no difficulty in crushing an insignificant individual” (Commentary on the Book of Psalms, Vol. IV, Baker Books 2003, p. 228).

In the face of this overwhelming trial, the psalmist immediately turns to God in total dependence (6-8, ESV): 

I say to the LORD, You are my God;
   give ear to the voice of my pleas for mercy, O LORD!
O LORD, my Lord, the strength of my salvation,
   you have covered my head in the day of battle.
Grant not, O LORD, the desires of the wicked;
   do not further their evil plot, or they will be exalted!
                         Selah

“In these words,” writes Calvin, “he shows that his prayers were not merely those of the lips, as hypocrites will make loud appeals to God for mere appearance sake, but he prayed with earnestness, and from a hidden principle of faith. Till we have persuasion of being saved through the grace of God there can be no sincere prayer” (p. 229).

The believer who genuinely prays from the heart remembers God’s mercies in the past, how God protected him or her during a previous difficult time, and draws comfort from that memory. Recalling God’s past goodness, the true Christian prays that God will thwart the evil person’s current schemes. Calvin again: “When, therefore, it is found impracticable to bring our enemies to a right state of mind, we are to pray that the devices which they have imagined may be immediately overthrown and thwarted” (p. 229). Calvin describes these men as “entirely overlooking a divine providence, and considering all events as subject to their control, and the world placed under their sole management” (p. 230).

We can join David in praying that such evil men will not succeed; that their desires will not be fulfilled, that their plots will not be furthered, and that they themselves will not be exalted.

If the wicked had repented, David would have had mercy. But “David cuts off the reprobate from the hope of pardon, as knowing them to be beyond recovery” (p. 231). He asks God to execute judgment in an imprecation litany (9-11, ESV):

As for the head of those who surround me,
   let the mischief of their lips overwhelm them!
Let burning coals fall upon them!
   Let them be cast into fire,
   into miry pits, no more to rise!
Let not the slanderer be established in the land;
   let evil hunt down the violent man speedily!

The ungodly cannot escape divine retribution. Calvin writes that “the more they look for impunity and escape, they only precipitate themselves more certainly upon destruction” (p. 232).

Under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, David definitely speaks of more than his personal concerns in the final two verses:

I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted,
   and will execute justice for the needy.
Surely the righteous shall give thanks to your name;
    the upright shall dwell in your presence (12-13, ESV).

The Lord maintains the cause of the afflicted; he will execute justice for the needy. We will see it and give thanks to his name. We will dwell forever in his presence.

“Though the godly may be silenced for a time, and though the force of trouble may not raise the praises of God,” writes Calvin, “David expresses his conviction that what was taken away would be speedily restored, and they would celebrate the lovingkindness of the Lord with joy and alacrity” (p. 232).

Hope falters when we writhe in affliction’s thumbscrews. But knowing that God cares for us every day and has already provided our eternal security enables us to celebrate his goodness even in our trials.

“For to dwell before God’s face is to be cherished and sustained by his fatherly regards,” writes Calvin (p. 233).

Our Father God has sustained you in the past and he will sustain you in your current trial. Thank him for his goodness in your previous struggles and for the goodness you will soon see in your life. We dwell with God now and we will live with him forever in glory. Trust him with your whole heart! He will execute justice!

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