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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.

Imprecatory, or cursing, psalms sometimes distress Christians.  Why would we call upon God to curse, when the New Testament seems to say the opposite?  After all, Romans 12:14 says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”  Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).

What is often forgotten about the imprecatory psalms is that they are not a case of personal vengeance.  Our tendency is to see the assaults of the wicked as intensely personal, and therefore cursing is likewise personal.  However, the wicked man does not fight against other men, but against God.  Imprecatory psalms therefore call upon God to defend His own honor and glory against the wicked.  Vengeance belongs to the Lord, after all, and should be left to Him alone.  A Christian may in fact pray imprecatory psalms as an expression of a deep trust in the Lord, even in the face of great evil.  The Lord will vindicate His holy name.

Psalm 5 opens with an intense prayer.  “Listen to my words, Lord.  Pay attention to my sighing.  Listen carefully to the voice of my cry for help, my king and my God, for to you do I pray.”  The word translated as “cry for help” suggests a series of shouts, like someone in distress.  Further, the form of the world translated “pray” may also suggest that it is continuous.  The psalmist is in a deep distress and calls upon God.  Such a cry for help is not a case of doubting, but intense trust, for who would call upon God thinking that He would not answer?  Even if He seems distant, God hears the prayers of His people.

“Lord, [in the morning] you hear my voice.  [In the] morning I set in order to you and watch.”  “Set in order” is the language of sacrifice, just like in Leviticus 1:8, 12, where the word describes laying out meat in order for a burnt offering.  Prayer is the spiritual sacrifice of the New Testament, the daily sacrifice of the priesthood which all believers hold.  Not only are we to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), but we should also turn to God as our first act of each day.  “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4-5).

“For you are not a God of delighting in wrongdoing.  Evil does not sojourn with you.  The senseless will not take their stand in the presence of your eyes.  You hate all the doers of wrongdoing.  You destroy the speakers of falsehood.  A man of bloods and fraud you abhor, O Lord.”  The psalmist testifies to the holiness of God here as a way of contrast with the next section.  An evil man cannot stand before God.  Note that there is also no distinction between the sin and the sinner.  Sin is not an alien act, but an expression of one’s inward nature.  “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speak” (Matthew 12:34).  For the righteous man, sin is something which is in fact foreign, and he sins out of weakness rather than deliberate intention.  But we cannot distinguish between sin and sinner out of a desire to make excuses for sin.  The all-holy Lord cannot abide the presence of sin, as this psalm so clearly testifies.

“And I, in the greatness of your steadfast love, will enter your house.  I will bow down to your holy temple in the fear of you.  Lord, lead me in your righteousness on account of my enemies.  Make straight your path before my face.”  The righteous man does not enter the house on account of his own righteousness, but on account of the steadfast love of the Lord.  It is the Lord who leads him.  It is the Lord who straightens his way before him.  God alone leads a man out of the ways of wickedness.  The psalmist is able to pray to the Lord confidently because of what the Lord has done for him.  It is true that he here alludes to his own righteousness, because without holiness, no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).  Yet this should not be understood as self-righteousness in the negative sense, attempting to stand before God on the basis of one’s perceived righteousness.  The psalmist clearly testifies that he stands before God only because of God’s love and mercy.  He is truly and actually holy in a real way, but only because of God.

“For there is not firmness in his mouth.  [In his] inward parts destruction.  An open grave their throat.  With their tongue they smooth out [or flatter].”  Paul uses part of this verse to declare that all have sinned in Romans 3:13.  It is a clear description of the deeds of wicked men.  “Firmness” has to do with what is in the mouth, that is, the words one speaks.  The wicked man is a liar (John 8:44).  He seeks destruction from deep within his heart (Psalm 36:1).  Their throat is an “open grave” because it is insatiable.  Their greed and evil desire know no limits (Proverbs 27:20; 30:15-16).  Finally, they flatter by smoothing out with honeyed words.  “For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many” (Matthew 7:13).

“Make them bear their guilt, God.  Let them fall from their own counsels.  In the greatness of their crimes, scatter them, for they are rebellious toward you.”  This is the most direct expression of cursing within the psalm.  Note that it is God who will bring the judgment upon the wicked, not the righteous man.  Note further that they rebel against God by their crimes.  There is also a poetic parallel here, for as the Lord abounds in steadfast love above, so the wicked man abounds in his sins.

“And all who take refuge in you rejoice.  They rejoice loudly for a long time.  You shut them off, and the lovers of your name rejoice loudly in you.  For you bless the righteous, Lord.  Like a large shield [with] favor you surround him.”  The righteous man has nothing to fear, because the Lord will judge the world in perfect righteousness.  Even if he has to suffer the assaults of the wicked now, God will bring them to an end, causing him to rejoice.  To “rejoice loudly” or “sing for joy” is an expression of the volume of this cry.  An overwhelming joy causes us to shout at the top of our lungs, much like a cry of victory at the end of a battle.  The Lord also “shuts off” the righteous by sealing them off from outside danger, like a large shield surrounding them.  Even if some things continue to assault us by God’s will for our discipline, He will not suffer the righteous to fall.  There is safety in the Lord even in the midst of great danger.