Psalm 58

On Mondays for the last several years, I’ve been trying to post a meditation on a psalm and today’s the day for Psalm 58. Interestingly, Bible Gateway’s “Book of Common Prayer” reading plan for today (March 17, 2014) includes Psalm 58.

Almost four years ago, I looked at Psalm 58 in a post titled “Broken Teeth & Torn Fangs” that talked about its vivid imagery and imprecatory language.  I noted how this psalm thrusts into overdrive Psalm 57’s image of wicked liars as lions.

We see this particularly in verse 6 (ESV):

O God, break the teeth in their mouths;
    tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord!

I noted that the editors of the Literary Study Bible use the term “satiric” four times in their brief introduction to Psalm 58 and avoid the use of the word “imprecatory” all together. Reading my original post nearly four years later, I’m still not sure warrior David viewed this as satire when he wrote it. If you want a somewhat graphic description of David’s forceful character when he became angry at Nabal, read the King James Version of 1 Samuel 25.

People tend to avoid talking about the imprecatory Psalms, perhaps because they don’t know what to say about them or are embarassed by their apparently vindictive words. But we know from 2 Timothy 3:16 that all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. And that includes imprecatory (or satiric, if you prefer) Psalms.

Psalm 58 pulses with vivid pictures of the wicked who “go astray from birth, speaking lies” (v. 3), comparing these liars to poisonous snakes:

They have venom like the venom of a serpent,
    like the deaf adder that stops its ear,
so that it does not hear the voice of charmers
    or of the cunning enchanter (verses 4 & 5, ESV).

Lies are poison. Liars are like devious snakes who will not listen to charmers or enchanters. Intent on their malicious purpose, they will not listen to reason. They refuse to be controlled by anyone other than their own desires.

After David compares liars to young lions, asking God to break their teeth and tear out their fangs (see v. 6 above), he continues to pray for their destruction with disturbing descriptions (verses 7-9, ESV):

Let them vanish like water that runs away;
    when he aims his arrows, let them be blunted.
Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime,
    like the stillborn child who never sees the sun.
Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns,
    whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away!

Because some of these phrases carry weighty emotional freight, these verse are difficult to read.  And they’re immediately followed by this graphic image:

The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance;
    he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked (verse 10, ESV).

How are we to understand such disturbing language and graphic imagery?

We must first realize that the vengeance depicted here is not our own, but God’s. He has executed it in his perfect and righteous judgment.

In Heart Aflame: Daily Readings from Calvin on the Psalms, John Calvin writes about verse 10: “It might appear at first sight that the feeling here attributed to the righteous is far from being consistent with the mercy which ought to characterise them; but we must remember that…there is nothing absurd is supposing that believers, under the influence and guidance of the Holy Spirit, should rejoice in witnessing the execution of divine judgments. …when wilful obstinacy has at last brought round the hour of retribution, it is only natural that they should rejoice to see it inflicted, as proving the interest which God feels in their personal safety” (p. 142).

Christians who seek to show Christ’s compassion shouldn’t cringe when reading imprecatory Psalms. These Psalms are not calls for us to perform violence, but are assurances that God will certainly judge and completely destroy those who thwart the cause of his righteousness. Their destruction will witness to the entire world (verse 11, ESV):

Mankind will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous;
    surely there is a God who judges on earth.”

This verse implies that we don’t have to wait until the final Day of Judgment to see the wicked destroyed. We may wait that long to see some forms of justice, but God will also make his justice obvious while people still inhabit the earth.

While we might be tempted to cringe at or reject scriptures expressing imprecation, we can view them correctly when we remember Romans 12:19 (ESV):

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

We are not to seek vengeance. Rather we must rest in God and trust that he will see justice done. We can be thankful that God is a righteous judge who will not allow wickedness to triumph forever. He may destroy evil on this earth, and we can be sure that he will finally eradicate it forever.

And that’s reason to rejoice!

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In God We Trust, Psalm 56

DSCN3686Ever wonder where the phrase engraved on American coins comes from? Contrary to the prevailing national culture, money made in the United States still says: In God We Trust.

Regardless of how many Americans actually put their trust in God, he cares for those who do. And despite the failure of many to acknowledge him, he remains sovereign over all people and all nations.

In Psalm 56, David confesses his unequivocal trust in God. A notation in the ESV tells readers that David wrote this psalm when the Philistines seized him in Gath.

Bear in mind that the giant, Goliath, who died when David flung a stone that embedded in his brain, was from Gath. Imagine how Philistines from Gath felt about the man who killed their gigantic and previously unstoppable hero. I wouldn’t have wanted to be in David’s sandals.

And the Philistines weren’t David’s only enemies. He was constantly on the run from Saul, the king of Israel, whose place he was destined to take.

Feeling overwhelmed, David begs for God’s gracious mercy and confesses his trust in him(Psalm 56:1-4, ESV):

Be gracious to me, O God, for man tramples on me;
    all day long an attacker oppresses me;
my enemies trample on me all day long,
    for many attack me proudly.
When I am afraid,
    I put my trust in you.
In God, whose word I praise,
    in God I trust; I shall not be afraid.
    What can flesh do to me?

Despite David’s acknowledgement of trust (head), he continues to feel beleaguered. These enemies never let up (verses 5-7, ESV):

All day long they injure my cause;
    all their thoughts are against me for evil.
They stir up strife, they lurk;
    they watch my steps,
    as they have waited for my life.
For their crime will they escape?
    In wrath cast down the peoples, O God!

Rather than exercise personal vengeance, David asks God to act. Then he again professes his trust in God, couching that confession within the context of a beautiful image of God’s intimate care (verses 8-11, ESV):

You have kept count of my tossings;
    put my tears in your bottle.
    Are they not in your book?
Then my enemies will turn back
    in the day when I call.
    This I know, that God is for me.
In God, whose word I praise,
    in the Lord, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I shall not be afraid.
    What can man do to me?

Each time I read this psalm, I’m floored by the picture of a personal God who tracks my night-time tossings and counts my heartfelt tears. Four years ago, I blogged about this image.  I’ve also written and spoken about it in other venues. Still, it never fails to smack between my blind eyes with renewed awareness of God’s deeply personal love.

David concludes this psalm with a vow to worship God and walk in his ways (verses 12-13, ESV):

I must perform my vows to you, O God;
    I will render thank offerings to you.
For you have delivered my soul from death,
    yes, my feet from falling,
that I may walk before God
    in the light of life.

DSCN3697Citizens of the eternal kingdom have been delivered from death for a purpose—to walk before God in the light of life.

May we each take the American national monetary motto to heart, showing by every action that we trust in God!

Clean heart, Psalm 51

clean heartKing David wrote the well-known penitential Psalm 51 after the prophet Nathan confronted him with his sins involving Bathsheba and her husband, Uriah (whose death in battle he’d arranged). You can read the sad sequence of self-centered actions in 2 Samuel 11. Nathan’s confrontation and the beginning of consequences are recorded in 2 Samuel 12.

God’s judgment included the death of the son born to David and Bathsheeba. I wrote about the child’s death in my book, Little One Lost: Living with Early Infant Loss, noting that while this particular loss was a consequence for sin most infant losses are not. We know from Job that suffering is not always a result of personal sin. I also wrote about David’s confidence in regaining fellowship with this little child someday in heaven (2 Samuel 12:22, 23).

Dr. R.C. Sproul makes the same points in an excellent lecture I found this morning. You can listen to the lecture on David’s great repentance and many others about David’s life here.

Psalm 51 demonstrates the genuine repentance in David’s heart, broken over his sin, in words that echo down through the centuries. Each winter’s first snowfall brings to mind the words of verse 7:

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Those words are especially striking to me this morning, as I sit in a warm office on a bitterly cold morning after yesterday’s significant snowfall.

David begins the psalm by reminding himself of God’s mercy and steadfast love. He begs God to blot out his sins, confessing:

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
    and blameless in your judgment (Psalm 51:3, 4, ESV).

This is not a story of David’s overpowering love, but of his overpowering lust. He realizes the extent of his sin and it weighs so heavily on his heart that he can think of nothing else. He confesses his primary offense was against God, but he definitely sinned against other people. He broke up a marriage by stealing a man’s wife and making sure that man was killed.

Bathsheba had little–if any–choice in the alliance. Yet she loses a husband and a son. Although the Bible focuses far more on David’s responsibility than her feelings, we know she grieved. Second Samuel 12:24 tells us that David comforted her.

All sin is primarily an offense against a holy God, but we must not ignore those who’ve been hurt by our actions. David comforted his grieving wife, and whenever possible we need to foster healing and restoration.

David has heard Nathan proclaim calamities that will come upon him as a result of his sin, and he acknowledges God’s justice. The truly repentant person is willing to face up to the consequences of personal sin.

Genuine repentance is more than a verbal declaration. David realizes that God sees the deepest recesses of his heart:

Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
    and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart (verse 6, ESV).

Only God can cleanse him and transform his heart:

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and renew a right spirit within me (verse 10, ESV).

David pleads with God to uphold him with His Spirit and restore to him the joy of salvation. But restoration carries responsibility.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
    and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
    O God of my salvation,
    and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
O Lord, open my lips,
    and my mouth will declare your praise (13-15, ESV).

The restored sinner cannot be silent. David promises to teach his people about God’s ways so other sinners may return to the Lord. He vows to sing and speak about God’s righteousness, to verbally share the good news of salvation and praise the Giver of it.

Repentance is more than remorse. Saying you’re sorry is not enough.

For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
    you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise (16, 17, ESV).

God doesn’t want external religious practices that fail to reflect internal repentance. He desires a spirit broken over personal sin. He will not despise a contrite heart willing to face consequences and work toward restoration. These are the sacrifices that please God.