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The Wise Fool (Psalm 14)

The Bible sets before us two different ways: the way of death and the way of life. Jesus describes them as the broad and the narrow way (Matthew 7:13-14). Solomon throughout Proverbs describes them as the way of folly and the way of wisdom. Yet how do we take comfort from this? There seems to be a danger of making it all abstract, something which makes little difference when dealing with the troubles of life. Yet Psalm 14 shows us that the righteous do in fact find comfort in the narrow way of the cross. The righteous do not serve God in vain.

This short psalm seems to have two sections within it: the problem posed by the wicked (verses 1-4) and the solution which comes from God (verses 5-7). Verse 7 may also be its own section, a thanksgiving to God as a result of verses 5-6, but I have attached them together.

To the choirmaster. Of David.

The fool says in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds. There is no one who does good.

The LORD looks down from the heavens on the sons of Adam, to see if there are any who have insight, who seek after God.

They have all turned aside together. They are corrupt. There is no one who does good. There is not even one.

Do they not know, all the committers of sin, devouring my people as they eat bread, not calling on the LORD?

The greatest temptation with this psalm is to make quick identifications within it. The “fool,” we are tempted to think, is always someone else. Because we often use the word fool to describe someone who is clownish or a buffoon, it is easy to place ourselves into the position of the afflicted. Yet a fool in the Biblical sense can be quite wise and well educated. The problem of the fool is that he makes a false assumption about reality. Nabal in 1 Samuel 25 (whose name is the Hebrew word for fool) assumes wrongly that David is a mere upstart and a rebel and refuses to help him. Therefore, the danger of the fool is not so much that he denies that God exists (though that is one of the problems). The problem is that he assumes, wrongly, that God will not act, whether because he thinks that God does not exist or because he thinks that God cannot see and judge. The greatest fool is not the atheist, but the man who professes to believe in God while living as if God did not exist.

Psalm 14 presents the fool in terms of his actions. Because he says that there is no God, his actions reflect his heart. The opposite of folly in the Biblical sense is not being intelligent. The opposite of folly is steadfast love. The fool’s actions show that he is faithless, that he is a covenant breaker. The wise man’s actions show that he is faithful, just as God is faithful. Yet just as the sons of the flesh persecute the sons of the promise (Galatians 4:29), the fool pursues the righteous and lives up to his name.

Paul uses this psalm to prove exactly this point in Romans 3. All men are fools, because before conversion they serve their own passions and do not glorify God. All are under sin, because no one is righteous in the sight of God. We cannot identify the fool with someone else, like the Pharisee did with the publican (Luke 18:11-12). In so doing, we become the fool, because we have turned away from the righteousness of God.

The Lord looking down to see if any are righteous finds a parallel in Genesis 11. As the Lord looked down on those building that tower, so He also looks down on us from on high to discern the ways of men. It is not as if His knowledge is limited. God knows all things. Yet this looking down emphasizes His judgment, like a judge sitting on a high bench. His expression of horror, fitted to our understanding, should emphasize the horrific character of sin. God seems almost astonished at man’s capacity for sin. Should we then regard it as nothing? The “corruption” of verse 3 is the picture of spoiled milk, curdled beyond use. All our righteousness is as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).

The most telling point here about the wickedness of man is how they eat up the righteous like bread. This should not be understood as greedily gobbling them, like a sadistic feast. Rather the imagery is rather mundane: they eat the righteous as if it were nothing more than going to their lunch hour. It describes how all their ways are so contrary to God that they regard it as nothing out of the ordinary. Joseph’s brothers, having cast him into a pit in order to kill him, then sit down as if at a picnic (Genesis 37:24-25). They drink iniquity like water (Job 15:16). Wickedness is their vocation, so to speak, and they engage in it as if going into work.

There they fear a fear [or fear greatly], for God is with the generation of the righteous.

You would shame the plans of the poor man, yet God is his refuge.

Oh that [or Who will give] salvation from Zion for Israel! When the LORD brings back the captivity of his people, let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad.

The duplication of “fear” in verse 5 intensifies it. The wicked will fear greatly, because God is with the righteous. Instead of eating up the righteous like bread, thinking that God will not do anything, God dwells with His people. Even a desire to shame the plans of the poor come to nothing, because He takes refuge in God. The “there” is either a point in time in the future, such as the Last Day, or a particular place where God will render judgment. Either way, it points to its certainty.

Thus, the two ways provide a real comfort in the midst of distress. Even if the way of destruction is broad and easy, it will come to an end. It is not a road that will go on forever. The oppression of the wicked may seem intense and overwhelming, but God will bring it to an end when He judges the world. The way of life may be narrow and hard, but it is a way that will give way to a joy which has no end.

This is why the psalm ends on a joyful note. The wish expressed here in verse 7 should not be understood as uncertain. It is the intense wish and hope of faith which clings to the certain promises God has made to His people. This is not the Babylonian captivity, but the general oppression which His people experience (Job 42:10; Amos 9:14; Hosea 6:11). The Lord will bring back the captivity of His people, because Christ has led captivity captive (Ephesians 4:8). Christ will set His people free from every oppression. Even if our deliverance is in the future, we may rest assured knowing that it will come as He has promised.

As an addendum, the Septuagint (and thus versions based on it) occasionally inserts more verse after verse 3, specifically the same verses which follow the quotation in Romans 3. This is widely regarded as a late addition, for several reasons. First, very few Hebrew manuscripts contain it, and even those that do come much later. Second, Psalm 53, which is very similar to Psalm 14, does not contain them. Third, not all versions of the Septuagint contain them. Finally, it was rejected as an insertion even as early as Jerome and Bede, though some theologians, Cassiodorus in particular, regard them as genuine (at least by custom more than textual evidence). Could Paul have been quoting from an extended version of Psalm 14? Maybe. However, it seems far more likely that he is putting together a wide variety of verses to form one continuous whole to prove his point.

The Lord Will Triumph (Psalm 9)

How can a Christian find comfort in times of trouble? When the world seeks to marginalize those who belong to Jesus, where can the Christian turn? Psalm 9 answers these questions in no uncertain terms: The Lord who has delivered His people endures forever.

The Psalm itself presents a couple of unique characteristics. First, though it is impossible to see this in translation, Psalm 9 is the first of a handful of Psalms which has an acrostic structure. Acrostic poems start each line by following a pattern, sometimes spelling out words. In the Psalms, this is always the alphabet, beginning with the first letter down to the last letter. In this case, Psalm 9 begins every other verse with the next letter of the alphabet (though it sometimes misses a letter or two). This is important, because it forms the basic structure of the thought patterns in the Psalm as well.

The other unique thing about this Psalm is that it may have originally been connected with Psalm 10 in one. In Hebrew, they are two separate psalms, and I will treat them as two, but there are good reasons for considering them as one. First, the acrostic pattern continues into Psalm 10. Second, the use of Selah at the end of Psalm 9 is highly unusual, since that word appears everywhere else somewhere in the middle of a psalm. Third, Psalm 10 has no title, which is unusual in the first book of the Psalms, which range from Psalm 1 to Psalm 41. Indeed, the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, combines them into one, which explains why the numbering for many Psalms in Greek is different (and also for Roman Catholic Bibles based on the Latin Vulgate, which does the same thing).

To the choirmaster. According to Muth Labben. A Psalm of David.

“Muth Labben” can be rendered as “Death of a Son,” which has led some to speculate that it could refer to an event. However, it is most likely the name of a song.

I will praise the LORD with all my heart. I will make known all your miracles.

I will rejoice and I will exult in you. I will praise your name, Most High.

The main concern of the psalm is presented at the very end. Before David brings that petition, however, he begins with declaring why he can bring it at all. Even though the nations seem to threaten Israel, the Lord has proven Himself to be faithful in the past. While it is impossible for us to remember all the mercies of God, since they are infinite (Job 5:8-9), recalling as many as possible will lead to joy (Lamentations 3:22-24).

In the turning back of my enemies, they will stumble and they will be destroyed before your face.

For you have established my judgment and my claim. You sat down on the throne, judging righteousness.

Remembering the mercies of the Lord in general means remembering them in particular. In the past, the Lord destroyed the enemies of Israel. This is a cause for rejoicing, because it teaches us that God has not forgotten us (Isaiah 49:14-18), that God will bring justice (Luke 18:7), and that our righteousness is not in vain (Psalm 58:10-11). It is indeed good news, because the reign of Christ will be over His enemies, who will be crushed under His feet (1 Corinthians 15:24-26). If death, for example, is not destroyed, where is our victory?

You rebuked the nations. You destroyed the wicked. Their name you wiped out forever and ever.

The enemy came to an end in enduring ruins. The cities you pulled up. The memory of them has perished.

The name and the memory of the wicked has perished and will perish in the earth. This may seem odd to us, because we may assume that mentioning their name even in writing perpetuates their memory. Do we not have the ruins of those ancient civilizations and on occasion some of their writings? Yet their name has perished from the earth, because their generations no longer continue. If a man died in Israel, his brother was to take his wife, so “that his name may not be blotted out of Israel” (Deuteronomy 25:6). Ruined cities and archaeological scraps do not perpetuate a name. There are no longer any children to bear their name. The wicked will come to an end, because their generations will cease when the Lord judges the earth, but the righteous will go on forever.

And the LORD sits forever. He has firmly established His throne for judgment.

And He will judge the world in righteousness. He will judge the peoples in uprightness.

While the wicked perish and the world knows them no more, the Lord sits enthroned as king forever. Heaven and earth will pass away, but the word of the Lord will never pass away (Matthew 24:35). From everlasting to everlasting, He is God (Psalm 90:2). God’s enemies will be defeated. God will judge the world and bring justice to His elect.

And the LORD is a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge for times of distress.

And the knowers of your name trust in you, for you do not abandon your seekers, LORD.

Having declared that the wicked will perish and that God will remain, David makes a natural application to his situation. Those who trust in the Lord will find a sure refuge in Him. In the midst of all of life’s troubles, especially when the enemies of God seem to be ready to destroy us, God will not leave us or forsake us. The name of Jesus is our salvation (Acts 4:12). The works of God in the past teach us that He will not abandon us, even when it meant delivering his faithless people only for the sake of His good name (Isaiah 48:9-11; Ezekiel 20).

Sing to the LORD who dwells in Zion. Make known among the peoples his deeds.

For he who seeks bloods remembers them. He does not forget the cry of the wretched ones.

The Lord declared to Noah that He would seek vengeance for the shedding of blood (Genesis 9:5-6). “Vengeance is mine, and recompense” declares the Lord (Deuteronomy 32:35). Those who are oppressed by evil in this life will find a certain deliverance in the Lord, whether that comes now or in the life to come. It will come to an end.

Show favor, LORD. Look on our affliction from those who hate us, our lifter from the gates of death.

So that I may recount all your praises/praiseworthy deeds. In the gates of the house of Zion I rejoice in your salvation.

Having laid the groundwork for his petition, David now calls on God to look upon his situation. God has delivered from evil in the past, so therefore God will also deliver from evil in the future. Like so many of the psalms, David promises to give thanks to God as a result. God’s action leads to man’s reaction, so to speak, when the elect will tell others about what God has done. To be in the “gates of the house of Zion” is to be in God’s house, declaring to the congregation all the mighty works of God. Thus, while praising God is important for our own faith, it is equally important for building up the faith of others. This is not merely a personal favor or an individual deliverance that David has in mind.

The nations have sunk in the pit they made. In the net which they hid their foot has been caught.

The LORD makes himself known. He has made judgment. In the work of his hand the wicked is trapped. Higgaion. Selah.

The Lord rules over all things and shows His power by using the very evil planned against His people for the destruction of the wicked. Haman was hung on the gallows built for Mordecai (Esther 7:10). The dogs licked up the blood of Ahab in the place where Naboth had been slain (1 Kings 21:19). The wicked lay their own trap, and the Lord brings justice to His people in that way. Higgaion is an uncertain term, but it is related to the word translated “meditate” in other places. This is the muttering or reading in a low voice that Psalm 1 connects to a godly man, and the muttering or plotting in Psalm 2 of the wicked. I am of the opinion that its use here, connected with Selah, is a call for us to especially meditate on these two lines. “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me” (Psalm 118:6)?

The wicked will return to Sheol, all the nations who forget God.

For not forever shall the needy be forgotten. The hope of the afflicted shall not perish forever.

Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning (Psalm 30:5). The wicked will come to an end, and their name will perish from the earth. The afflicted saints of the Lord may suffer for a time, but they will persist in the Lord. Even if evil seems overwhelming, it will crumble into nothing.

Get up, LORD. Do not let man defy/be strong. Let the nations be judged before your face.

Set fear on them, LORD. Let the nations know they are men. Selah.

This psalm closes with another call to God. Do not let the nations imagine themselves to be strong, when in fact they are mortal. The word for “man” in these two verses carries the extra suggestion of mortality. They are but “mortal men.” Though they imagine themselves to be strong, they will perish. “Man in his pomp yet without understanding is like the beasts that perish” (Psalm 49:20). The word translated here as “fear” is unique and a little uncertain. Most translators translate it as “fear,” which would then mean something like “bring them to realize their weakness, Lord, for they are but men.” The Septuagint, however, rendered this word as “law-giver.” The Vulgate, Luther in his German Bible, and even some English translations, also translated it this way. The sense in that case would be something like “teach them to fear you, Lord, so that they recognize their weakness.” I think “fear” is the most likely, since it fits well with the rest of the psalm. God certainly sets fear and dread upon the enemies of Israel, because He fights for His people (Deuteronomy 2:25).

Christians certainly have no fewer enemies than Israel did. Jesus reminds us that if they hate us, they hated Him first (John 15:18). This psalm is a wonderful prayer in the midst of that turmoil, because it reminds us to remember all the mercies of God. If God has preserved you until now in so many ways, He will not forget you in the new day of trouble. Let the enemies of the world rage against us. God remains our fortress forever.

Second Sunday in Advent: Luke 21:25-36

Jesus, with the Temple in view, speaks about the coming of the end. Those who marveled at the building regarded it as enduring and noble. They had evidently forgotten that this was no less than the third sanctuary of the Lord. The Lord rejected Shiloh, the tent of the tabernacle, and cast down the temple of Solomon (Jeremiah 7:12-15). Even the foundation of this temple met with grief, since it was the sin of the fathers which had caused the Lord to cast the first one down (Ezra 3:10-13). Putting trust in the building itself missed the point entirely. This temple also would be pulled down, so that one stone would not be left upon another.

The pericope for the Second Sunday in Advent opens in the middle of this prophecy. The world will be in turmoil and confusion on the great and terrible day of the Lord. These signs will be the breaking of the fixed order of the world at the coming of the Son of Man. The nations will be in emotional distress because they will be perplexed, seeing no way out of what is coming upon the world. They will be gripped in the indecision of fear, because of the roaring of the sea and the waves and the breaking of the world. Everything is breaking forth from its appointed boundaries and casting all into confusion. It was God who set the boundaries of the sea (Genesis 1:9-10), commanding its proud waves to stop at His command (Job 38:8-11). The Lord shut its waves in, no matter how much it rages (Jeremiah 5:22), so that it would no more cover the earth (Psalm 104:8-9). But now the old order is passing. The sea threatens to overwhelm all again, because heaven and earth are passing away.

Fear is the only possible response for the godless. They will faint away as though dead, just as the soldiers did at the tomb of Christ (Matthew 28:4) or John did at the vision of Christ (Revelation 1:17). A sense of dread will overtake them, even before the Son of Man appears, because the heavens will rot away and the skies will roll up like a scroll (Isaiah 34:4). They will try to hide, but in vain, because the great day of the wrath of the Lamb has come (Revelation 6:12-17). All the heavens, which seemed so firm and immovable, will be shaken, and nothing will be left upon anything else.

In that hour, they will see Christ, the Son of Man, returning in power and majesty. As the Son of Man, Jesus has dominion over all heaven and earth (Daniel 7:13-14). He will come on the clouds, because they are under His feet. Just as the sky is depicted under the feet of God (Exodus 24:10), so also is the earth His footstool (Isaiah 66:1). Jesus is exalted above all, and all will see Him in the fullness of His glory.

But, Jesus says, lift up your head. Lift your eyes to the hills. The Lord comes as Your Helper (Psalm 121:1-2). Though the believer is in the pit, they can look up to find their deliverance in the coming of the Lord. This is why the return of Christ is a joy for the faithful, even though it is a terror for the ungodly. The Lord sets us free from the waterless pit (Zechariah 9:11-12). In the hour that Jesus judges the living and the dead, He will give justice to His elect speedily (Luke 18:7). All the workers of lawlessness will depart, because all will be set right forever. The violent rhetoric of every imprecatory psalm looks toward this glorious hour, when God will remember every injustice done against His people and bring the due reward of the wicked on their heads. We will rejoice in that hour, because the Lord has not forgotten His people.

Jesus then uses a parable to explain His meaning further. A fig tree bears fruit once or twice a year. The first appearing of its fruit comes in late spring and early summer. When this early fruit appears, it is a sign that the heat of the summer is coming near. Likewise, the signs in sky and sea are a herald of the coming end, not the end itself. The coming winter wind will come and shake the stars from the sky like the late figs from the tree (Revelation 6:13). Thus, these early fruits are the signs of the coming wars and persecutions which Jesus said will come before the end (Luke 21:10-11).

This generation, Jesus says, will not pass away before all these things take place. Generation here does not have to refer to a single group of people in the way we typically use it today. It can also have a broader application, as it does in some of the Psalms and elsewhere (Psalm 14:5; 24:6, for example). Jesus may also be referring to the signs which herald the end, which that specific generation certainly saw before the judgment on Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

However, the key point here is that, even though heaven and earth will pass away and be found no more, the Word of the Lord will never pass away. It is the one enduring and everlasting reality, because it is the Word of the living and eternal Lord. Earth and heaven will perish, but God will remain (Psalm 102:26). The heavens will vanish, and the earth will wear out like a garment, but the salvation of our God will be forever (Isaiah 51:6). Do not put your trust in anything of this world, because they belong to God, and God will destroy them with fire (2 Peter 3:7). But put your trust in the Lord, who is our stronghold in trouble. He will never let the righteous fall (Psalm 55:22).

But watch for that day! If we become bogged down in the anxieties and cares of this world, giving into the works of the flesh, that day will catch us like a thief (1 Thessalonians 5:1-4). Drunkenness and anxiety are the works of those who fear the future, who seek refuge in the things of this world. But that day will come like a trap upon all who are alive. Stay awake! Ask the Father in holy prayer to be counted worthy (or to have strength) to escape. Only through asking, that is, only through prayer will we be found worthy, because prayer relies on God alone. We will stand before the Son of Man on that day because we rely on Him for all things. It will be a fearful day to see the fixed order of the world broken before our eyes, but it will be the last violent pangs of a world reborn through Jesus.

Mercy and Judgment

Mercy, like its divine companions love, justice, and righteousness, is frequently subject to creaturely appropriation. Easily mistaken for mere kindness (or worse, niceness), acts of mercy tend to be measured by the feelings they produce. Feelings are not irrelevant, but the object of mercy is something much more objective: need.

The story of the Rich Young Man in Mark 10 illustrates vividly the relationship between mercy and feelings. It becomes abundantly clear in the Gospels that Jesus is mercy incarnate – whenever he sees need, he is moved to compassion, and he acts to help. But our sensibilities about how that should look are disturbed when we observe that Jesus sees the young man’s need, is moved to compassion (“Jesus, looking at him, loved him”, v. 21), and then acts in such a way that the man departs sorrowfully. With no apparent regard for the young man’s feelings, Jesus gives him a task that he finds to be impossible. Or perhaps you could say it this way: with every regard for the young man’s feelings, Jesus gives him a singular opportunity to experience godly grief.

As much as the story cautions us against identifying mercy with niceness, it evokes an additional caution. You and I are not in the business of feelings, good or bad. The point is not that Jesus was wise to discern which kind of feelings would best suit the fellow. The point is that Jesus was wise to discern his need and acted to help. Jesus certainly possesses the key of knowledge. He knows what feelings to evoke and when, but that is not given to us. Instead, we ought to pray that we have eyes that see need and hearts that are moved to compassion and wills that choose to act accordingly.

It’s here that we can observe another, perhaps more subtle case of mistaken identity. Just as mercy is easily mistaken for niceness, judgment is easily mistaken for unkindness.  It’s the same problem of feelings – something that evokes negative feelings must be some measure of judgment and, therefore, cannot be mercy. But the relationship between mercy and judgment is not so inversely linear as you would assume.

Consider this remarkable pattern in Amos, in which acts of judgments are dealt to Israel time and again in an effort to stave off the graver, impending, final judgment. “I gave you cleanness of teeth … yet you did not return to me” (Amos 4:6). God withholds the rain, sends blight and mildew, inflicts pestilence, and overthrows the people, yet they did not return to him. “Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel; because I will do this to you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel” (v. 12)! All along, every momentary affliction, every momentary judgment is, in fact, also an act of mercy in view of Israel’s most desperate need. It’s a desperate need of which they seem to be completely unaware: “Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! . . . Is not the day of the LORD darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it” (5:18, 20)? They hit the accelerator, not blindly, but aiming towards this fatal collision with God’s justice. Whether they fail to take his judgment seriously or they consider themselves to be righteous, the mercy of God intervenes. Paradoxically and scandalously his intervention is in the form of a temporal judgment.

Again, caution is warranted at this point. Although we do well to understand that mercy may come in the form of judgment, it’s not given to us to execute God’s judgment. It is given to us to announce his judgment, but always and only ever in the service of mercy. This commitment to mercy is exemplified by Amos. Even as he announces God’s final judgment and as God himself declares his intention to execute, Amos intercedes on behalf of the people: “O Lord GOD, please forgive! How can Jacob stand? He is so small! The LORD relented concerning this; ‘It shall not be,’ said the LORD” (Amos 7:2-3). Following that saintly example, every Christian has enough merciful work to do in prayer for the rest of his life.

God Gives Justice to the Righteous (Psalm 7)

What is a Christian supposed to do when someone brings a false accusation against them?  What can be done when justice seems distant?  David faced just such a situation that prompted him to write this psalm.  Cush, a Benjaminite, appears to have accused David of some unnamed injustice.  This Cush appears nowhere else in the Bible.  David certainly fought with Benjaminites many times, as Saul was of the tribe of Benjamin (2 Samuel 16:5; 20:1).  Therefore, even if the specific situation occurs only here, it certainly accords with the general history of David.

This psalm appears to have four major sections.  The first of these sections, Psalm 7:1-2, opens with a prayer for deliverance from this attacker.  The Lord is the refuge of His people in every circumstance, and David relies on this in the midst of his trouble.  Notably, he shifts from the plural in verse 1 to the singular in verse 2 (though some translations miss this).  While he is generally persecuted, the immediate cause of his cry is a specific man.  Christians should cry to God at all times, but above all when something is especially pressing!

A false accusation, such as David faced, is a violent one.  He prays to be delivered from being pursued and captured, like an animal being chased by a lion.  The imagery is intense:  like a lion ripping and tearing apart an animal, so the soul suffering a false judgment!  The wicked are not content until the righteous perish.  There is also a connection here with the ultimate adversary Satan, who is compared to a roaring lion in 1 Peter 5:8.  Like their father the devil, the wicked seek to devour.  Christians ought to remember that as Satan will not rest, neither will the world rest in its attempt to destroy the righteous, even if the accusation is utterly false.

The second major section, Psalm 7:3-5, is a plea of innocence in the face of these accusations.  David knows that the charges against him are baseless, and he is willing to base everything on his innocence.  He invokes an oath as a testimony.  If he is actually guilty, then may everything he fears actually happen.  If he is guilty, may he be pursued and caught.  If he has done it, then he deserves everything that the wicked threaten to do.  Yet he is not guilty, and therefore lays his innocence before God.

This claim of innocence seems unusual, for who is righteous before God?  But David does not claim an absolute righteousness when he makes his appeal to God.  Blamelessness is not the same thing as sinlessness, though the two are frequently conflated.  Paul, for example, is not setting up an impossible standard by requiring overseers to be above reproach and blameless (1 Timothy 3).  It is the difference between a relative righteousness, in which no one can make a legitimate claim against you, and an absolute righteousness, which no man may justly claim.  I can be innocent with regard to this accusation while still standing accused of sin before God.  Therefore, David protests his relative innocence, because he is by no means guilty of the accusation at hand.

Christians may in fact just claim such innocence.  Keeping yourself above reproach is not an impossible ideal.  If the world brings a false accusation, then there is recourse.  The Lord knows the hearts of men.  He knows the truth of every situation.  If justice seems far away, then justice will still come, and the righteous will be vindicated.  We would do well to be sure that our cause is godly, of course.  Calling God as judge when we are in fact guilty will not yield the desired outcome!

The third major section, Psalm 7:6-11, further shows this point.  David calls on the Lord to arise in anger and judge his cause.  Let the nations stand as witness before the court of the Lord!  Let the Lord judge!  He will see the truth of the matter, that David is in fact innocent.  In fact, this appeal is only possible because of the righteousness of God.  David can be relatively righteous only because the Lord God is absolutely righteous.  God’s justice means that justice will prevail in all things.  God’s holiness means that we also can be holy.  David lays his case before God, because He knows that the Lord will judge rightly.

Psalm 7 also helps us understand imprecatory psalms in general.  David is not vindictive, seeking the destruction of his enemies.  He cries out, “Let the evil of the wicked now come to an end, and may you firmly establish the righteous, you who put to the test the heart and the kidneys [that is, the deepest parts of man], O righteous God!”  It is their evil that is the problem.  Further, David leaves the judgment to God.  Only God can bring their evil to an end.  Only God can establish the righteous.  Only God knows the innermost parts of man.  Only the righteous God can judge!

The final section of this psalm, Psalm 7:12-17, describes the final end of the wicked and the righteous.  God Himself readies the judgment for the wicked, like a warrior sharpening a sword and stringing a bow.  The battle looms near, because the Lord is getting ready to fight.  The evil is likewise compared to childbirth.  As a woman conceives and bears a child from within, so the evil of the wicked comes forth and bears fruit.  “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts.  All these things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:21-23).  Yet the Lord brings this evil back on the wicked.  They fall into their own traps which they laid for the righteous.  God’s justice is not limited to the final judgment.  God frequently frustrates the plans of the wicked by giving them the due rewards of their deeds even in this life.

However, the righteous fare differently.  Because they trust in God, they are able to sing praises to God who has delivered them.  He keeps them safe from all the violence of their enemies.  David here promises to give praises, since by the end of the Psalm he does not yet know the exact outcome of this situation.  Will it go on, or will it come to an end suddenly?  He cannot be entirely sure.  But he is sure of one thing:  God will give justice to His elect, and even when the accusations of the wicked ring hollow, the living God will vindicate His people.

Habakkuk the Prophet


What do the minor prophets, especially Habakkuk, have to say to us today? Understood in his historical context, Habakkuk speaks clearly to the Church today, especially when he asks the Lord about the nature of His justice. How does concern for the Lord’s justice differ from the way justice is discussed in our day? How can a Christian find comfort when undergoing the Lord’s discipline? The Lord answers him powerfully: the righteous shall live by faith.

Hosts: Rev. Willie Grills and Rev. Zelwyn Heide
Regular Guest: Rev. David Appold
Episode: 21

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The King of Zion (Psalm 2)

The sovereignty and lordship of God forms the backbone of the entire Psalter.  In the midst of the troubles and uncertainties of life, the Lord reigns as king.  When the righteous seek after God and pray to Him knowing that He will hear, the Lord reigns as king.  No matter the circumstances, the Lord remains firmly in control of all things.  Psalm 2, therefore, may be considered as a second introduction to the whole book, because it powerfully introduces this recurring and important theme.

This Psalm may be divided into four sections with three verses each.  In such a division, the Psalm moves in a clear thought pattern:  (1) the nations conspire against the Lord and His anointed king; (2) the Lord establishes this king nevertheless; (3) this king reigns victorious over his enemies; and (4) the nations should repent and submit to the king.  This pattern also gravitates toward the middle, where the focus is on the coronation.  The Lord establishes the reign of this king, and he reigns triumphant for this reason.

In the first section, therefore, the Psalmist describes the conspiracy of the nations.  They are “restless,” a word used only here in the Old Testament, and the peoples “plot in vain.”  As noted in the study on Psalm 1, this word translated as “plot” means something like “muttering.”  The righteous man in Psalm 1 mutters the Word as he focuses on it.  The wicked here mutter among themselves as they seek to cast off this king from ruling over them.  Yet they are not merely muttering against the Lord’s anointed king, but also against the Lord Himself.  As Moses told the Israelites who complained:  “Your grumbling is not against us but against the Lord” (Exodus 16:8).  To grumble against those whom the Lord establishes is to also grumble against the Lord who established them in the first place.

However, the Lord responds to their muttering with laughter.  This is not the laughter of happiness, but the laughter of derision.  The Lord laughs at the wicked who conspire against Him because they imagine that they can actually fight against what the Lord establishes.  In His burning anger, the Lord will make the conspirators flee in a panic.  They will not be able to accomplish what they desire, because what the Lord causes to happen will happen without question.  The Lord sets His king, more literally “pours out,” likely in an act of consecration.  Zion, the holy hill of the temple, also shows that this consecration is not merely a worldly event.  The Lord establishes this king in the very place of His presence, for Zion is holy because the Lord is there.

Out of all of the sections of this Psalm, the third section most clearly reveals the identity of this king.  The Lord says to this king, “You are My son, this day I have fathered you.”  Few other Psalms are quoted as often as this one in the New Testament.  It is cited directly in Acts 13:33, Hebrews 1:5, and 5:5, all in reference to Christ.  The Gospel writers also allude to it at key moments within the earthly ministry of Christ, notably His Baptism (Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22) and His Transfiguration (Matthew 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35).  Jesus reigns as king in Zion even in the midst of His enemies, all of whom will finally be placed under His feet.  His judgment against them means the destruction of those who oppose Him, shattering them like a pot.  Every knee will bow at the name of Jesus (Philippians 2:10-11), whether to their shame or to their joy.  Establishing the kingdom of God is as much about extending who belongs to that kingdom as rendering justice on those who do not.

Additionally, the promise of the nations as inheritance and the “ends of the earth” as property show that this is not an ordinary king.  Even apart from the clear testimony of the New Testament, this passage alone shows that a greater than Solomon is here.  Solomon’s kingdom had definite, if expansive, borders (1 Kings 4:21).  He ruled over the earthly kingdom in its greatest extent, but even he could not claim to rule over all the nations.  This is not hyperbole, either.  Christ reigns and will reign over all the nations of the earth, because He is the King of Kings without peer or rival.

The final section of the Psalm exhorts the same nations to submit to the king.  Kings and judges of the earth, the heads of the nations, should gain insight.  “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Proverbs 9:10).  Serving this king means walking in the way of the Lord.  Yet this service and joy comes with fear and trembling, because the fear of the Lord means fearing Him who can cast both body and soul into hell (Matthew 10:28).  Christ will return as judge, and the coming wrath means that the wicked will perish.  But Christ is also our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Those who fear Him as their King fear no man because Jesus is their Savior.

Christians can pray this Psalm confidently as a testimony to the kingship of God.  Even when the enemies of God seek to overwhelm, they are not able to overturn anything which the Lord does.  Further, just as this Psalm centers on the coronation of the king, so also the coronation of Christ, so prominent a theme in the New Testament, comforts us.  His reign as king means not only that He is in control, but also that there will be justice for His people.

The Law in 1 Corinthians 10

Among the many causes of the divisions at Corinth, one of the most prominent questions dealt with meat offered to idols. Paul clearly says that the meat itself is not the issue. “We know,” he says, “that ‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one'” (1 Corinthians 8:4). The primary issue is how those who recognize this truth deal with those who are still struggling. Knowledge which causes one to look down on his brother is not knowledge at all, but merely what appears to be knowledge. Knowing God rightly walks in the way of love, forsaking even what is lawful in order to build up the knowledge of another. Food does not commend us to God any more than not partaking in that food. “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (1 Corinthians 10:24).

It is within this context that Paul addresses the wider question of idolatry in 1 Corinthians 10. Meat sacrificed to idols is nothing in itself, but that does not give free license. Even the conscience of an unbeliever comes into view. Partaking of meat sacrificed to idols, especially when those who offer it are explicit about this, carries with it the potential of destroying another. “But if someone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience” (1 Corinthians 10:28). Participating with the unbeliever means participating in the table of demons, not the meat all by itself, but some were not able to make such a distinction in their minds because of their former experience.

It is for this reason that Paul uses the example of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. They lacked nothing in terms of the gifts of God. Were they not delivered from Egypt, baptized into Moses in the Red Sea, eating the bread of angels (Psalm 78:25)? Did Christ not sustain them in the great and terrifying wilderness where there was no water (Deuteronomy 8:15)? What did they lack which the Lord had not given them (Deuteronomy 8:4)? Yet they too indulged in their false knowledge which puffs up rather than builds up, and God destroyed them in the wilderness. “Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than He” (1 Corinthians 10:22)?

All of this, therefore, helps clarify one of the purposes of the Law. The Holy Spirit does not record the judgments of the Lord as a way of merely informing us. The Old Testament is not a history lesson that gives us bits of trivia to remember. “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). Their judgment has become our lesson. The Law of God builds up and instructs the Christian, even in the examples of God’s wrath. You who would tear down rather than build up, look to your fathers. Will you be any different than they?

But it is also worth noting that such instruction is not merely negative. The fear of the Lord is not fear of punishment, but the fear of a son toward his father. Using the Law as an example in this way is not using a rod, but a guide, for “these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Corinthians 10:6). The examples of God’s judgment, held before us in the Scriptures and in the present age, build us up in holiness, because they call us away from the works of darkness. More than this, they are occasions for joy, because as David says, “The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked. Mankind will say, ‘Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth'” (Psalm 58:10-11). “Moreover, by [the rules of the Lord] is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward” (Psalm 19:11).

Third Sunday in Advent: Matthew 11:2-10

John the Baptist began his work of proclaiming the coming of Christ shortly before he baptized Jesus in the Jordan River.  Matthew relates that Herod imprisoned John shortly after this Baptism (Matthew 4:12) over the matter of Herodias (Matthew 14:3).  That a prophet should suffer for bringing an unpopular message to a ruler is nothing new.  Micaiah had done the same hundreds of years beforehand (1 Kings 22).  That a prophet should suffer at the hands of a vindictive woman is also nothing new.  Elijah and the prophets whom Obadiah saved suffered the same fate (1 Kings 18).  That a prophet should die for his message is also nothing new.  From Abel to Zechariah, many of the prophets perished for the sake of the Word (Luke 11:49-51; Matthew 23:34-35).

Much ado is frequently made about whether John sent his disciples to Jesus to ask this question for their sakes or for his own.  Whether John had personal doubts or whether he sought to quell his disciples’ doubts is, frankly, a minor question.  Jesus’ point in His answer is the same either way.  “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  Jesus answers with a general reference to passages like Isaiah 35.  In the day of the judgment upon the nations who had oppressed Israel (Isaiah 34), then the Lord will bring back the captives (Isaiah 35).  Jesus applies this prophecy to Himself, thereby demonstrating that He is the promised one, the servant of the Lord who suffers on our behalf.

The signs themselves also demonstrate the purpose of the Lord’s miracles.  He is not attempting to work wonders for the sake of making men marvel.  Satan himself can work such “miracles” (Revelation 13:13-14; also the magicians working by his power in Exodus 7-8).  Rather, miracles bear witness about His identity.  As John says regarding the miracle at Cana, “This, the first of His signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested His glory.  And His disciples believed in Him” (John 2:11).  Miracles build up faith and confirm Jesus’ divine identity.  The apostles also worked miracles, such as Peter’s shadow healing the sick (Acts 5:12-16), and the prophets, especially Elijah and Elisha performed many signs (1 Kings 17:17-24, for example).  But in those cases, the miracles also built up faith and demonstrated, not that the apostles and prophets were divine, but that the One who sent them was trustworthy and true.  “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”

Offense at Christ working miracles can be understood somewhat generically, which is offense at Christ’s mercy toward those whom we regard as not deserving mercy.  But Christ, judging by similar statements throughout the Gospels, seems to mean something rather more pointed than this.  Jesus is a rock of offense and a stone of stumbling specifically for Israel.  “And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (Isaiah 8:14).  Paul cites this very verse in Romans 9:33, as proof that Israel, despite the promises to their forefathers, have been rejected because of unbelief, and the Gentiles, despite having no such promises, have been accepted because of faith.  Therefore, the offense is seeing the promises fulfilled and seeing that righteousness is truly by faith and not by works, something that His own people had failed to grasp (John 1:11-13).  The signs of healing, bearing witness that Christ has come, only emphasize this, because Jesus continually says to those He heals, “Your faith has saved you” (Luke 7:50).

After John’s disciples leave with His message, Jesus begins to speak to the crowds regarding John.  His first two questions seem to be essentially rhetorical.  The crowd did not go out seeking a reed shaking in the wind, nor a richly dressed man.  John is not one to be blown about, nor soft and effeminate.  But John is a prophet, or as Jesus says, more than a prophet.  Referring to the majestic prophecy of Malachi, Jesus identifies John as the messenger who prepares the way before the coming of the Lord.  Who can endure the day of the coming of the Lord?  “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and 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 3:1-4).  Because John is Elijah who is to come (Matthew 11:14), he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers (Malachi 4:5-6).  John prepares the way for the coming of God’s mercy upon His people, a mercy shown in His Son.  John’s call to repentance, therefore, is not empty or merely rhetorical.  The one who refuses will find God’s wrath stored up for him on the day of wrath (Colossians 3:5-6; Matthew 3:7-10).  But the one who repents will be spared as a man spares his son (Malachi 3:17).

Jesus thus identifies Himself as the coming Christ by testifying that John is the messenger of God.  But His reason for doing so is not a generic “Here I am!”  Those who should have received Him did not need generic identifiers.  They knew that He had come, and yet they suppressed that knowledge in unrighteousness.  They maligned John and slandered the Son of Man, “yet wisdom is justified by her deeds” (Matthew 11:19).  Therefore, it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon and Sodom, whose wickedness was done in ignorance, than for those who reject the One whom they recognized (Matthew 11:20-24).  Jesus identifies John as Elijah who is to come, and Himself as the One who is to come, not merely to make this truth clear, but to highlight the guilt of those who sin knowing the Law.

Second Sunday in Advent: Luke 21:25-36

How beautiful were the stones of the mighty temple!  The work of forty-six years, the product of the rich offerings of so many (Luke 21:1)!  Yet all this, spectacular as it was, would be thrown down.  “The days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Luke 21:6).  Jesus’ words struck a nerve.  When will these things happen?

Jesus, in true prophetic fashion, points to several things at once.  The closest, of course, was the destruction of the temple at the hands of the Romans in 70 A.D., and so thorough was their work that this temple no longer stands.  This judgment fell upon the Jews, who were partially hardened through faithlessness (Romans 11:25) and also for crucifying the Lord of glory (Acts 2:36; 1 Corinthians 2:8).  This hardening can also be seen here in Jesus’ own words, since those who faithfully persevered would be delivered up also to “synagogues” (Luke 21:12), Israel according to the spirit persecuted by Israel according to the flesh.

But this destruction of Jerusalem is a sign of the far greater judgment.  Israel is judged for a time, until the fullness of the Gentiles comes in, at which point her partial hardness will be healed.  But the judgment coming upon the world is like the days of Noah (Luke 17:26-27).  They were hardened for a judgment they could not escape, and only through the mercy of the Lord were Noah and his immediate family delivered.  It is worth noting that, in Genesis, (1) out of all of the sons and daughters of the line of Adam to Noah, only Noah and his family were spared.  So many descendants of the great patriarchs, and yet so few were saved.  When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith in the earth (Luke 18:8)?  (2) God’s mercy is further emphasized by the wickedness of Ham toward his father Noah (Genesis 9:18-29).  There will be no such mercy in the coming judgment, for then wickedness will have no place to run.  God’s patience, shown even to Ham in the flood, will finally come to an end.

The signs Christ gives for the coming of the end are somewhat and intentionally vague, which only emphasizes His primary message of watchfulness.  A call to watch for one specific sign ironically leads to laxity, because then all else is excluded.  But a call to watch for a specific event preceded by a wide range of signs increases vigilance.  The fig tree puts out its leaves as a sign of the approaching heat.  It is one sign among many, and not the only sign.

Even so, the signs to which Christ points are unique enough that they are likely closer to the end rather than a continual series throughout history.  It is true that wars and rumors of wars are continual and signs of the end.  But the “distress of nations in perplexity” here seems to be a distress brought about by the intensity and the unmistakable character of these signs.  The shaking of the heavens, the roaring of the seas, the signs in heaven and earth–all of these things point to the “Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27).  Further, this distress among sinners arises from their being unprepared.  There will be no “last minute conversions” when Christ descends in majesty to judge the living and the dead.  The sight of Christ returning is the final proof that the time of grace is at an end.

Those who are vigilant, not weighed down with drunkenness and debauchery, will find that day to be an everlasting joy.  For while the sight of Christ’s majesty is the first glimpse of the everlasting judgment for the reprobate, Christ Himself will be the herald of the coming joy for the faithful.  They, like the faithless, must stand before the judgment seat, and Christ commands us to pray for the strength to stand before Him on that day (Luke 21:36).  But it is the same strength which bears them up in the midst of persecution.  “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives” (Luke 21:16-19).  Our endurance in the face of persecution is Christ, and our defense before the judgment seat is also Christ.

As a final note, Christ says quite clearly that “this generation will not pass away until all has taken place” (Luke 21:32).  The following verse that “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” serve as a confirmation of this.  But they also, I think, clarify what He means.  Heaven and earth passing away, a clear reference to the end, seem to suggest that it will happen within the bounds of “this generation.”  Generation, therefore, here seems to be broader than how we might typically use it.  In an earlier passage of Luke, Christ says that the queen of Sheba and the men of Ninevah will rise up at the judgment “with this generation” and condemn it for its faithlessness (Luke 11:29-32).  Perhaps, then, as the faithless “generation” died in the wilderness, this faithless generation will also perish in the wilderness.  But as the children of the old generation entered the promised land, so also will the next generation, one man out of two, be healed and enter into the great Sabbath rest.