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Sometimes the most difficult problem isn’t open acts of evil, but hypocrisy.  When it seems like all the world runs on deceptions and lies, even in the Church, where is a Christian to turn?  Where can we find certainty in a duplicitous world?  David addresses this very problem in Psalm 12.

This psalm has three main divisions in its thought progression.  The first section, verse 1-4, describes the problem and the occasion for the prayer.  The second, verse 5, is a direct response from the Lord.  The last, verses 6-8, describe the confidence which David experiences as a result of this revelation.

[To the choirmaster.]  According to [the eighth].  A Psalm of David.

Regarding the expression, “to the choirmaster,” see the study on Psalm 4.  “The eighth,” or the Sheminith, is also an uncertain term.  It could be a tune name, but the specific number may suggest a musical direction, such as an octave.  It occurs here and in Psalm 6.

Save, LORD, for the godly one has come to an end.  For the trustworthy one has diminished from the sons of Adam/men.

They speak worthless things, a man to his fellow.  A lip of smoothness, with heart and heart they speak.

May the LORD cut off all lips of smoothness, a tongue speaking boastful things,

those who say, “According to our tongue, we are strong.  Our lips [are] ours.  Who is lord to us?”

The issue facing David, and all Christians in every time, is that hypocrisy seems to prevail.  The godly seem to be few in number, while those who claim to be Christians despite not living like one grow in number.  One can carry this spirit too far, of course.  Elijah imagined himself to be utterly alone, yet God preserved 7000 in Israel (1 Kings 19).  The word translated “diminished” occurs only here in the Old Testament, but the Greek Old Testament renders it with a word meaning “to lessen.”  The godly, despite Elijah’s despair and perhaps ours, may be hidden, but they are still there.

However, hypocrisy is still a real problem.  A hypocrite speaks “worthless things,” things which are inherently empty, because they are only external.  Like painted tombs, they are outwardly beautiful, but they hide the inward reality (Matthew 23:27).  Their lips are smooth, because they attempt to smooth away all difficulties and present their lies as truth.  They also have two hearts, because they have a double reality.  They are double-minded, unstable in all their ways (James 1:8).  They have two different sets of weights, one accurate, the other not (Deuteronomy 25:13-14).  The Old Testament even describes faithful soldiers as not having a heart and a heart in 1 Chronicles 12:33, because to have a single heart is to be simple, straightforward, honest.  There is no deception when one presents the truth of their soul.

Hypocrites speak “boastful things,” or literally “great things,” because they claim far more power for themselves than they really have.  Their forked tongue is their power, for they use it to tear down the godly, whether directly or through deception.  They imagine that they have no lord, because they have deceived themselves.

For the oppression of the afflicted, for the sighing of the poor, I will get up, says the LORD.  I will put him in the salvation/safety he [sighs] for.

David is not giving himself a false hope here.  David hears the voice of the Lord in answer to his prayer.  The psalmist has become the prophet.  Asaph, another common writer of psalms, is referred to as a “seer” in 2 Chronicles 29:30, which 1 Samuel 9:9 clarifies as being an ancient word for prophet.  1 Chronicles 25:2 also says that Asaph and his sons prophesied under the direction of the king.  The psalms are not merely religious poetry.  They are the living Word of God, the voice of God speaking through His prophets to His people then and now.

That word He brings is a word of comfort.  He has seen the hypocrisy of the wicked and how they have oppressed the godly.  When Israel put away their double-minded ways, the Lord became impatient over the misery of Israel (Judges 10:16).  So it is also now.  God hears our groaning and remembers his promises (Exodus 2:23-25).  He will give us the salvation we long for.  The name Jesus, which means God saves (Matthew 1:21), is related to this, and for good reason.  Our Lord Jesus Christ is our salvation and our safety in every distress and trouble.  God’s salvation is not a generic one, but is to be found in His Son.

The word translated as “sighs” here is the same word as “snorts” in Psalm 10.  Yet this is not a sigh of contempt, but of longing.  The word itself at its root involves breath in one form or another.  Whereas the wicked huff at God, the righteous sigh for Him.  The one breaths in contempt, the other breathes in longing.

The words of the LORD [are] pure words, silver refined in a [crucible] in/on the ground, purified seven times.

You, LORD, will keep them.  You will protect him from this generation forever.

Round about, the wicked walk back and forth.  For [vileness] is exalted among the sons of Adam/man.

Having heard the Word of the Lord in answer to his prayer, David is now confident.  This confidence is not a false bravado, putting on the same painted face as the hypocrites.  Rather, this is the answer to his initial question.  When the world seems full of wickedness and hypocrisy, it is not to be trusted.  The Lord alone speaks words which are absolutely trustworthy in every time.  Friend or foe, man may lie, but God will never lie.

God’s Word is compared to refined silver.  The word translated as “crucible” occurs only here, but it seems clear enough from the context that a smelter of some kind is in mind.  Solomon ordered the casting of the bronze utensils of the temple near the Jordan River using the clay there (1 Kings 7:46).  In those days, and even in some parts of the world today, a furnace may be built of clay and fired even for casting metals.  It is possible that this crucible could be in the ground, but the point is the same.  The silver is melted, the slag is removed, and the process begins again.  A seven-fold purification would remove, even in the imprecise methods of ancient days, virtually all of the impurities.  God’s Word is like pure silver, which we still value above many things today.  How much more then the words of the living God?

God also will protect His saints from the assaults of the wicked.  The wicked walk back and forth, like an animal stalking prey.  “Vileness,” another unique word, is exalted.  The world loves its own, even the hypocrite.  Yet the righteous has no reason to be afraid.  The psalm is not ending on a dark note.  Frequently in the Bible, the main thought of a passage comes in the middle.  If you compare the last verse with the first of this psalm, you can see a similar idea at play.  The middle, and therefore the main point, is the prophecy of the Lord in verse 5.  God will arise and defend His Church, and both foe and traitor will receive the due reward of the evil when He comes to judge the earth.

What should we do when evil threatens?  Should we flee from it, seeking refuge somewhere else?  Should we stay and face it head on?  What would the Lord have us do in that moment?  These are the questions David wrestles with in this psalm.  The psalm is divided into two main sections.  Verses 1-3 present the main question, and verses 4-7 answer it.

[To the choirmaster.]  Of David.  In the LORD I take refuge.  How can you say to my soul, Flee [to] your mountain [like] a bird?

For behold, the wicked bend the bow.  They notch their arrow on the string to shoot in darkness at the upright in heart.

If the foundations are destroyed, the righteous, what can he do?

The psalm opens with a conversation.  David, as happened frequently in his conflicts with Saul, is in danger.  Saul threatened to kill him over and over, so the question in David’s mind is what he should do when threatened with death.  This conversation has three possibilities.  First, David may be talking to himself, carrying on an internal monologue about his next course of action.  Second, some friends of David may be offering him advice, telling him to flee from Saul and seek refuge somewhere else.  Third, some enemies of David may be taunting him, and verse 2-3 would be David’s response to them.  Any of these options are valid, but I prefer the second and will continue in that vein.

David certainly used the mountains as a refuge from time to time (1 Samuel 23:24-29, for example).  This was not new advice or an unprecedented course of action.  Yet David on this occasion rejects this advice.  The question at hand is not whether fleeing from danger is acceptable.  The question is where one puts his trust.  Are you trusting in the mountains to save you, like the wicked foolishly do on the day of judgment (Revelation 6:15-17)?  Or is your trust in the Lord, who made heaven and earth?  David’s friends seem to be trusting in the hills rather than in God, so David reproves them.

To flee like a bird is to attempt to get away from a larger predator, like a smaller bird flying away from a larger.  The word translated “flee” can also be render as “flutter” or even “wander,” since it is the same word used to describe the punishment of Cain in Genesis 4.  Cain would “wander” because he feared being pursued, just as David’s friends  now fear.

The wicked seek to destroy David.  Here, the imagery of an archer provides a colorful illustration.  They bend the bow (literally “step on the bow,” since stringing a ancient recurve bow, like many today, involves using your legs to bend it), nock an arrow, and shoot at the upright.  This could either be “in darkness,” which would mean while being hidden, or it could even be “into darkness,” meaning that there is no place for the righteous to hide.

But this danger is not merely a personal one.  “Foundations” is a rare word, but it may be related as an idea to Ezekiel 30:4.  The foundations of the whole society are at risk, David’s friends say.  If David is dead, what will happen to Israel?  In such a case, what can the righteous do? 

The LORD [is] in his holy temple.  The LORD, in the heavens his throne.  His eyes behold, his eyelids test the sons of Adam/man.

The LORD tests the righteous, and the wicked and the lover of violence his soul hates.

Let him rain upon the wicked charcoals.  Fire and brimstone and a whirlwind the portion of their cup.

For the LORD [is] righteous.  Righteousness he loves.  The upright behold his face.

David answers their fears with a clear profession.  He will not flee to the mountains this time, because his salvation does not come from them.  He will not run away from danger, because the Lord reigns as king over all things.  God is in His holy temple (Habakkuk 2:20; Micah 1:2).  This is likely in two ways: in heaven as the King of all creation and in His Church as the faithful God, who keeps His promises forever.

 The word translated as “test” is instructive for understanding the second half of this psalm.  It is used to describe testing metals, like a goldsmith who would test the purity of the gold before him.  Such a test invariably involves fire, since the only way to prove metallic purity in those days is by melting it, a process called cupellation.  The Lord tests men to prove their worth (Job 23:10).

Such a test will only refine the righteous, since it is in the fire of adversity that the Lord chastises his children.  “He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord” (Malachi 3:3).  The discipline of the Lord shows our status as sons, for were we not disciplined by our earthly fathers for our good (Hebrews 12:3-11)?  David’s present distress is therefore not a cause for alarm, but a recognition that we must bear the crosses laid upon us.  To run away from the cross is cowardly.  To take it up, even at the cost of our life, is the way of Christ.  Just as He was glorified, so we too will be glorified with Him in His suffering.

Fire, however, is also destructive.  The fire of the Lord’s judgment will rain down upon the wicked (Amos 1-2).  Sodom and Gomorrah and the other cities of the valley were destroyed in a rain of fire (Genesis 19:23-29).  The “whirlwind” is a hot wind, a destructive wind like the storm which destroyed the ship carrying Paul (Acts 27:14).  The wicked will receive the full measure of their sins on the day when the Lord sends fire in judgment.  The “cup” is the cup of their judgment which they will have to drain down to the dregs (Psalm 75:8).

However, the Lord will not destroy the righteous, because He loves righteousness.  Those who walk in His ways shall see His face (1 John 3:2; Revelation 22:4).  Therefore, let us not put our trust in the things of the world.  Whether it is time to flee from danger or whether it is time to bear the cross, put your trust in the Lord.  He will sustain you.  He will never let the righteous fall (Psalm 55:22).

One of the most difficult problems which any believer must face is the problem of evil, and specifically of evil men.  Functional atheism, to live as if there was no God, is not limited to those who are professed atheists.  What can a Christian do when evil men pursue the righteous?  How should a Christian respond to those who live without restraint?

As mentioned in the previous study, Psalms 9 and 10 may have been originally one psalm.  However, they each have their own tone which makes it appropriate to separate them.  Whereas Psalm 9 mostly praises God and gives thanks for His mighty works in the face of evil, Psalm 10 is more of a cry of the oppressed for deliverance.  Additionally, the acrostic pattern (see the previous study) is still present and begins more or less where Psalm 9 left off, but it is harder to see in this psalm.  Therefore, it is probably best to treat them as two separate psalms, perhaps composed at the same time.

Why, LORD, do you stand far off?  Why do you close [your eyes] in times of distress?

In arrogance, the wicked burn after the poor.  Let them be seized in the plots which they have devised.

David opens this psalm with a clear cry of distress to the Lord.  There are certainly times in any believer’s life when God seems to be distant.  This is, of course, only an expression.  If God were truly far off, David would not pray.  That he prays to the Lord in his distress is a sign of faith, because he knows that God will answer.  Yet God seems to have shut His eyes to trouble.  Why is this happening to me?

The word translated here as “burn” can also mean to pursue, but it carries with it the idea of a fire.  Like a wildfire burning across the land, the fire of the wicked pursues the godly.  Nebuchadnezzar attempts to burn the three young men in the exceptionally hot furnace (Daniel 3).  One can also think of the many martyrs burned in more recent centuries at the stake as another example of this.  Yet David calls on God to turn their evil back on their heads.  Give me justice, O Lord!

For the wicked praises on account of the desires of his soul, and blesses the robber, spurns the LORD.

The wicked according to the height of his nose does not seek [him].  “There is no God” [are] all his schemes.

Here the acrostic pattern breaks down until verse 12, but I will treat these verses mostly in pairs as I have been doing.  David begins a lengthy description of the wicked man until that point.  The evil man feels no shame for his actions.  He even boasts in his wickedness as if it was good!  More than this, he also gives his approval to those who also reject the Lord (Psalm 50:18; Romans 1:32).

The colorful expression “according to the height of his nose” is an indicator of pride, since we too speak of someone turning up their nose at someone else.  In Hebrew, the nose is also frequently used for anger, since an angry man tends to huff through his nose.  But here it is a sign of pride, since he lives as if there is no God.  In his mind, God will not call him to account for his wickedness, either because he imagines that it is godly, that God will not judge, or that God does not exist.  Whatever his thoughts, the outcome is the same.

His ways prosper in every time.  Your judgments are on the height from before him [i.e. not in front of him].  All his enemies, he snorts at them.

He says in his heart, I will not be staggered.  From generation to generation [I will] not [be] in evil.

The greatest difficulty for the believer, and an idea that is encountered frequently in the psalms, is the apparently prosperity of the wicked.  Why do those who hate God seem to prosper when the righteous suffer?  Why does the thief become a millionaire when the godly man can barely make ends meet?  David will address this question later in the psalm.

As before, the evil man imagines that God’s judgments are either nonexistent or far off.  They are on the height, out of his sight.  He “snorts” at his enemies, because it is a sign of contempt.  One can imagine huffing contemptuously at something or someone we don’t like.  In Malachi 1:13, the priests snort in a similar fashion at the sacrifices God had ordained for them.  The contempt arises from an imagined security.  Things seem secure for him, so there is no reason to fear.  “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry” (Luke 12:19).

With a curse his mouth is filled and tricks and oppression.  Under his tongue trouble and disaster.

He sits in ambush in the settlements.  In secret places he kills the blameless.  His eyes lie in wait for the [helpless].

It would be one thing for a wicked man to live as if there was no God.  Yet, just as Ishmael persecuted Isaac, the sons of the flesh do the same to the sons of the promise (Galatians 4:29).  This should not surprise us; if they hated Christ, they will also hate us (John 15:18).  This is still, however, a difficult cross to bear.  The evil which comes forth from the mouth of the wicked bubbles out of his heart (Matthew 15:18-19).  These things are “under his tongue” because he delights in them, like a delightful food which we keep in our mouth to enjoy it longer.

He hides in secret places to assault the righteous.  He is not in the wilderness, where it is unlikely he will meet anyone.  Rather, he sits in secret near the towns where he can ply his evil trade, like a robber hiding in an alley.  His eyes are “hidden” either because he cannot be seen, or because he is squinting, like someone aiming to throw who squints in order to see better.  The word translated “helpless” occurs twice in the Old Testament and only in this psalm, and it is a little uncertain what it exactly means, but this seems the most likely from the context.

He lies in ambush in secret places like a lion in his thicket.  He lies in ambush to snatch the poor.  He snatches the poor in his drawing in his net.

And he crouches, is bowed down, and the host of the weak ones falls into his claws/mighty ones.

He says in his heart, God has forgotten.  He has hidden his face.  He will never see it.

These three verses compare the wicked man to a lion on the prowl.  Like a lion hiding in the grass, crouching down in the way that cats do when they are prepared to pounce, so the evil man seeks after the righteous.  The word translated as “claws” is more literally “the mighty ones,” like a band of warriors or an army.  Here, in the imagery of a lion, they refer to the “band” of his “mighty ones,” that is, his claws.  David then closes this description of a wicked man with a repetition of the main problem: his functional atheism.  God, he thinks, will never see what he is doing.

Arise, LORD.  God, lift up your hand.  Do not forget the poor ones.

Why does the wicked spurn God?  He says in his heart, He will not seek.

You see, for you look upon trouble and grief to put it in your hand.  With you the [helpless] leaves himself.  [To] the fatherless you have been a helper.

These three verses form two parts of the acrostic pattern, since verse 14 is one part all by itself.  They deal with more or less the same plea.  The wicked pursue the righteous, so now it is time for the Lord to act.  Do not forget, O Lord, your righteous saints who suffer in this life!  Even the martyrs cry out for the Lord to remember His people in their trouble (Revelation 6:9-11).  However, the righteous would not cry to God if they did not think that He could do anything.  He takes our troubles into His hand, because He will act and be our helper in distress.

Break the arm of the wicked and evil one.  Seek his offense/injustice [until] you do not find.

The LORD is king forever and ever.  The nations perish from his land.

As with every imprecatory psalm, the call to destroy the wicked or bring their plans to nothing is not self-serving.  Vengeance belongs to God and God alone.  Rather, the call for justice is a plea of the righteous to a king who will bring it.  Unlike every earthly king, who will eventually die like any other man, the Lord reigns as king forever.  His justice is also eternal as a result.  It is not a paltry justice, shot through with uncertainty and coming to an end.  It is a firm justice and a sign of God’s steadfast love for His people.  Their troubles will end and they will know the justice of the Lord in that day when He acts.

The desire of the poor you hear, LORD.  You will make their heart firm.  Your ear will listen attentively

to judge the fatherless and oppressed.  The mortal man from the earth will not add again to trembling [i.e. will no longer cause fear].

This, then, is the answer to the original problem.  The libertine and the wicked should not alarm us.  Functional atheism will meet its end when God judges the earth.  On that day, they will know that there is a God who judges (Psalm 58:11).  The righteous need not fear, because the Lord promises to hear them when they pray to Him (John 14:13-14).  Even if we suffer now, that suffering will come to an end.  The Lord will deliver His people and give them justice.

The Corinthians, Paul says earlier in 1 Corinthians 5, tolerated an egregious evil in their midst.  One of the men still within the congregation had “his father’s wife,” a relationship clearly forbidden in passages like Leviticus 18:8 and Deuteronomy 22:30.  Engaging in sexual activity with one’s own mother-in-law horrified the sensibilities even of the pagans around them, which is especially noteworthy considering that they condoned homosexual activity (Romans 1:26-32).  Yet the Corinthians tolerated such evil!  “And you are arrogant!  Ought you not rather to mourn?  Let him who has done this be removed from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:2).

Paul therefore rebukes the Corinthians in the Epistle lesson for Easter.  They boasted of their love in tolerating such a man in their midst, possibly imagining that they welcomed sinners as Jesus had done.  Yet the difference between the two could not be greater.  When Christ ate with sinners, they did not continue in their sin, but were called by the Holy Spirit to turn away from sin and to walk after Christ.  When the Corinthians ate with this man, he continued in his sin and was even strengthened in it, because grace and forgiveness are not the same thing as tolerance.  Tolerance of evil leads to more evil.  “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.”

Paul’s exhortation to “cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump” therefore first refers to this situation.  The leaven of evil which the Corinthians tolerated in their midst must be swept out.  Yet it applies also to evil of all sorts, because just as yeast causes the whole loaf to rise, so also evil affects the whole body.  Christ Himself warned against the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, clearly connecting this imagery to false teaching which would lead away from God (Matthew 16:11-12).

Paul refers to Passover as a way of proving his point.  During the observance of Passover, after all, all leaven and leavened things had to be put away.  “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall remove leaven out of your houses, for if anyone eats what is leavened, from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel” (Exodus 12:15).  Eating anything leavened within the seven days meant being cut off from Israel (Exodus 12:19).  Through this symbol, the Lord taught Israel about the seriousness of sin.  It was the Lord who delivered Israel from Egypt and it was the Lord who passed them over in the judgment.  To keep physical leaven transgressed the covenant.  How much more the leaven of sin!

Passover, however, pointed forward to the greater Lamb of God.  Christ is our Passover lamb, whose blood perfectly atones for sin.  The Corinthians, being in Christ, were set apart to God and made a new, unleavened lump in Christ.  Paul therefore calls for them to put away the old leaven, “the leaven of malice and evil,” the leaven which tolerated sin in their midst.  Instead, they are called to keep the festival with the “unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”  Evil has no place within the body of Christ.  “For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you” (Psalm 5:4).

On the celebration of Easter, as the Church remembers the resurrection of Christ the Passover Lamb, Paul’s words should resonate in our ears.  Being a Christian is not a matter of personal conviction only.  As the body of Christ, Paul calls for us to also put away the leaven of evil from our midst.  Evil is not something trifling or trivial, but should be resisted.  Yet in striving to put away the old leaven, Paul also reminds us that in doing so, “his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:5).