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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).

David, harassed by enemies around him, sets aside the warlike imagery of the previous psalm.  In Psalm 4, the distress of the godly flies away, because the Lord hears the prayers of His people.  God is not far from His own.

For the first time, David seems to give specific instructions regarding the psalm’s use.  The word often translated “choirmaster” can also mean “to supervise” or “inspect,” as it does in Ezra 3:8-9, 2 Chronicles 2:2, and 2 Chronicles 34:12.  It is used in 1 Chronicles 15:21 in connection with the temple music.  Therefore, the common understanding is a musical supervisor, i.e. a director.  However, this is not certain, and the ancient translations of the Septuagint and the Vulgate rendered it as “to the end,” though probably by taking it as a different word altogether.  Regardless, the inscription is clearly meant to give some sort of direction, especially since it is coupled with “stringed instruments.”

“Answer me in my calling, God of my righteousness.  In my narrowness you have made me wide.  Show favor to me and listen to my prayer.”  David thus begins the psalm by crying out to God in the midst of trouble.  It is not a cry of despair, because the godly man who cries out entrusts himself to God.   The silent man regards God as not being able or willing to help, and therefore his nonexistent prayers show the state of his heart.  Even a prayer of anger still recognizes that all things come from God.  David recognizes this.  God has taken him out of a tight spot and widened him, gave him room of relief.

“Sons of men, how long [will] my glory [be turned] to an insult?  Will you love vanity?  Will you seek falsehood?  Know that the Lord treats the godly specially for Himself.  The Lord hears in my calling to him.”  David’s persecutors seem to mock his godliness.  As they will go on to say later in the psalm, they insult the goodness of the Lord, and consequently also call into question the glory or honor of David.   Against these lies, David rebukes his accusers for their pursuit of vanity and falsehood.  God has in fact answered David’s prayers.  He has an unmistakable proof before him, not in subjective emotions, but a concrete example.  Such an example shows these lies for what they are, and thus persisting in them is folly.

“Tremble and do not sin.  Speak in your hearts on your beds and be silent.  Sacrifice a sacrifice of righteousness and trust in the Lord.”  David continues his speech to his detractors by calling them to repentance.  A living fear of the Lord would cause us to tremble before Him, for no one living is righteous in His sight!  Like the tax collector who humbled himself and called upon God in a way only audible to himself (Luke 18:13), repentance does not seek attention.  Where else would one be more alone than in one’s bed in the dark watches of the night (Matthew 6:6)?  Then one will offer a righteous sacrifice, the sacrifice of a broken spirit (Psalm 51:17).

“Many who say, ‘Who will show us some good?  Lift up over us the light of your face, Lord.’”  However, it seems that David’s rebuke has not been taken to heart.  His detractors continue to mock him and God alike.  The sense of the verse is likely negative.  Show us your face, Lord!  Then we will believe in you.  Then we will turn to you.  But not until then.  “He saved others; he cannot save himself.  He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him” (Matthew 27:42).

“You give [more] joy in my heart than when their grain and their must increase.  In peace I will both lie down and sleep, for You alone, Lord, cause me to lie down in safety.”  Yet it ultimately does not matter.  Even if the riches of the wicked increase, the godly have a still greater treasure.  The coming of the harvest is an occasion for joy, certainly.  The labor of a year has come to its fruition.  Must, the juice of unfermented wine, contains the promises of still greater joys to come.  Yet all of these are nothing in comparison to the peace which surpasses understanding.  David’s detractors will not find peace when they go to rest.  The anxiety and cares of this world often take their peace from them, for these things which they have, whose will they be (Luke 12:20)?  “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil, for He gives to His beloved sleep” (Psalm 127:2).

Christians can pray this Psalm confidently, knowing that the Lord hears and answers prayer.  Even when others mock them and utter all kinds of evils against them, the Lord shows forth His favor in His own Son.  Christ is proof that the Lord answers the prayers of His people.  Answer evil with good.  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  Even if those detractors still pursue vanity, the Lord remains the certain and sure reward of His people.

The book of Lamentations does not clearly identify its author.  It is concerned with the fall of Jerusalem, which occurred in 586 B.C.  Therefore, it had to have been written at least after that point.  But the vivid grief over the city it expresses suggests that Jerusalem had recently fallen when it was written.  Thus, the author probably witnessed the destruction firsthand.  The most likely and the traditional author of Lamentations is Jeremiah, who fits those parameters.  2 Chronicles 35:25 also notes that Jeremiah composed a “lament for Josiah,” which were “written in the Laments.”  Because Jeremiah also composed several such “jeremiads” or lamentations in the book of Jeremiah, it is thus very likely that this was another such composition (Jeremiah 12:1-4 is one example).

Lamentations is a structurally magnificent series of poems.  The book itself is broken into five chapters, and note that each has 22 verses, except for chapter 3 which has 66.  This is not an accident.  The first four chapters are all acrostic, which means that each line begins with a letter of the alphabet in sequence.  Since there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, this explains why there are 22 verses.  Chapter 5 is not acrostic, though it retains the same number of verses.  Chapter 3 intensifies the pattern, so that the acrostic pattern is a group of three verses instead of a single verse.

This is also worth noting because of another Hebrew thought pattern which tends to place the emphasis toward the middle rather than at the end.  If this is the case here, that would make this reading for the Fourth Sunday of Easter the main point of the whole book, since it falls to nearly the numerical middle according to the versification.  This would go far to explain what is otherwise a tone of seeming despair in the face of the destruction of Jerusalem.

While there is not time here to consider the whole book, it is enough to note the beginning of this chapter to bring out the contrast.  Jeremiah says “I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of His wrath; He has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me He turns His hand again and again the whole day long” (Lamentations 3:1-3).  It is the Lord who is against him, which makes his lament much like that of Job (such as Job 6:4, though there are many examples throughout that book).  The Lord has brought this disaster against His faithless people.  “He is a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding; He turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces; He has made me desolate; He bent his bow and set me as a target for His arrow” (Lamentation 3:10-12).

This, then, sets the reading for this Sunday focused on comfort into proper perspective.  Lamentations 3:22-33 is not a generic kind of trusting in the Lord, a sort of platitude about how it will “all be right.”  This is a hope which trusts in God’s mercy even in the face of God’s wrath.  It is a hope which knows that “the Lord will not cast off forever” (Lamentations 3:31) those to whom He has brought grief.  It is a hope which clings to the promises of God even while it seems that everything has gone wrong.  Even though everything is taken away which had been given, yet the Lord remains faithful and true.  “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in Him’” (Lamentations 3:22-24).

Date: March 17, 1935

There are many devices in a man’s heart; nevertheless the counsel of the Lord, that shall stand.Proverbs 19:21

AMERICA is hope-hungry. Millions, shaken by the heartquakes of despondency, have stood by helplessly as one after the other of their cherished hopes has collapsed. Millions are still dragging themselves through a wearisome wilderness, following the will-o’-the-wisp of politicians’ promises, pursuing fantastic rainbows that dissolve into impenetrable fog, chasing the mirages conjured up by scheming agitators and ignorant demagogs, only to find that these elusive shadows always vanish into thinnest air.

So deep-seated and ingrained is this yearning for permanent and abiding surety that any promise of personal security and stability, no matter how impossible it may be, never needs to seek far afield for enthusiastic support. Let any self-styled benefactor of the race advance the most irrational program; as long as he claims to provide a permanent anchorage amid life’s shifting tides, millions will immediately shout unqualified approval. Let fortune-tellers, astrologers, or spiritist mediums boast that they can offer a fast and firm solution to the problems of life by unveiling the future, charting human destinies in the sky, or invoking the counsel of the dead, and eager, expectant multitudes will clamor for appointments. Let rank impostors, male or female, don clerical robes and begin to preach a creed founded on fraud and forgery, bolstered up with bold denials of our Savior’s Gospel, and no matter how grotesque their new religions may be, however absurd their claims to cure cancer and consumption, however ill conceived and unwarranted their intrusion into political affairs; as long as they offer any pledge of hope and permanency, multitudes will reach down deep in their pockets for the funds required to erect massive temples of deceit. So intense, so insistent, is the cry for something fast and firm, for an unshakable and immovable foundation upon which the security of happiness here and hereafter may be built!

Would to God that in this crisis the hearts and minds of men could be opened to the glorious conviction that there is an unfailing and unchanging counsel for every human problem! Would to God that all men could find what I now offer you:—

THE IMMOVABLE HOPE

recorded in these inspired words of the Old Testament sage: “There are many devices in a man’s heart; nevertheless the counsel of the Lord, that shall stand.”

HUMAN DEVICES ARE DESTINED TO FAILURE

I need not stop to convince you of this first truth of our text, that there are many devices in the human heart today. For men have never been so resourceful and versatile in formulating and promoting human projects and proposals. Indeed, if our national prosperity and happiness could be regained by our own initiative and ingenuity; if we could build our hopes according to specifications of human architects, the harrowing sorrows that have swept through the nation would have been checked long ago, and we would now bask securely in a real paradise.

After half a decade of crucial experiences has come the conviction that, when men disregard God and callously formulate their plans as though there were no Director of human destinies in the high heavens, the choicest and most elaborate counsels are often short-lived and destined to abrupt and disheartening failure. Go back with me through the long catalog of innovations that have sprung up within our country during the last decade. How many of the fervently acclaimed proposals for relief and employment are operated today in their original forms? How many of the widely heralded propositions for financial and commercial improvement have remained uncontested and intact? By the token of these past experiences we wonder disconsolately what permanent pledge we can find in the best of our present-day proposals.

We have learned how vain and fleeting are those glittering plans that seek security before the grinning idol of wealth. The $79,000,000,000 in security values that passed out of existence almost in a single day; the 1929 millionaires who are 1935 paupers; the breakdown of our financial and industrial system that too frequently has robbed the American worker of whatever investment or reserve he may have had and reduced his opportunity for earning even a modest livelihood,—these everyday tragedies demonstrate to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear the truth of the Scriptural warning: “Riches certainly make themselves wings; they fly away as an eagle.” The dirge of past failure has shown us that there can be no permanent reliance upon human treasuries and monetary plans; that we cannot discover a money formula to banish distress and solve problems overnight that have been years in the making.

We have also lost our confidence in the abiding truth of our technical advisers. With bitter irony we now read the predictions that were uttered,—not by dabbling amateurs, but by leaders in governmental offices, mentors of the nation’s industrial and commercial activities, who soothingly promised that happy, prosperous days would be here two, three, four years ago, but whose sugar-sweet auguries have turned to bitter gall. As we survey the charts and graphs that today would lead prosperity around its elusive corner, must we not pause and wonder if all this is not as futile and fallacious as the past errors of our experts?

Now, it is depressing enough to find in all these calculable issues of business and finance, as in many other branches of human thought and endeavor, a long procession of devices that are here today and gone tomorrow. But it is doubly disheartening to realize that our modem theology offers only hazy codes of conduct and a vague system of generalities that may be revised every hour and revamped every day. As soon as any church or any preacher or any religious teacher—and I do not care how brilliant their intellectual endowments may be, how lavish their financial support, how persuasive their presentations—forsakes the faith of the fathers and champions a religion that people like to hear, because it slides over sin and puts a theological veneer over the sordid passions of men; just as soon as the devices of men amend and nullify the eternal counsels of God, we witness the deplorable spectacle that so unfortunately and unfairly helps to bring the Church into disrepute: these ever-changing, sensation-craving pulpiteers, who turn their sanctuaries into theaters where barefooted ballet-dancers gyrate in the name of Christ’s holy religion; the pulpit performers, who preach sermons on the characters of our comic strips or who break into first-page publicity by telling American parents that they should not permit their children to pray at bedtime lest these evening prayers provoke dark, apprehensive thoughts or even nightmares.

These devices of the weather-vane pulpit are as froth that is blown away with every change of the wind; and these chameleonlike preachers, who can change their color to match every shade of popular favor, only lead men more deeply into sloughs of despair. A high priest of Modernism is honest enough to make this significant confession, which I quote verbatim: “You see, we Modernists pare down and dim our faith by negative abstractions until we have left only the ghastly remainder of what was once a great religion. Then seeing how few our positive convictions are and how little they matter, we end in a mush of general concession.” He admits: “In comparison with the hard-headed candor and fearlessness with which the old theology faced the terrific facts of this world our Modernism often seems soft and lush and sentimental. We fair­weather Modernists, with our too easy Gospel, would rather salute these old Christians. They did not blink at facts; instead, they achieved a faith able to rise above the facts and carry off a spiritual victory in the face of them, and at their best, in the darkest hours that ever fell on human history, they stood like houses built on rock.”

If only the same candor and honesty were shown by those clerics who, instead of focusing their entire attention upon the sacred promises of the Gospel, despise their holy calling and, instead of distributing to famished souls the living water and the Bread of Life, come with the stagnant water and the moldy morsels of elusive theories and private, ill-founded opinions, all of which will not last long enough to be remembered! You can make this test for yourselves. Today I ask you to record this prediction (which requires no prophetic foresight, but which comes as a direct conclusion from common sense, past experience, and the holy Word of God) : Within a few short years every one of these fervently advocated proposals, which disregard the demands of God and substitute human devices for the eternal counsels, will be doomed to failure and to oblivion. Within a single year much of the present shouting and the tumult will have died in its own failure; or if it has been perpetuated by a fanatical appeal to irresponsible masses, it will only have added confusion to confusion; the one evil which it had sought to banish will have returned with seven others for far deadlier destruction.

GOD’S COUNSELS STAND FOREVER

How timely and reassuring, then, to know in the words of our text that, though “there are many devices in a man’s heart,” it is only “the counsel of the Lord that shall stand.” If with all your heart you can turn to Him who is “the same yesterday and today and forever,” the changeless Christ of this changing world; if with repentant, believing souls you heed the Lenten call and follow your suffering Savior along the pathway of His sorrows to the sanctuary of all ages, to Calvary, where He, as both High Priest and sacrificial Lamb, offered His own holy body as the atonement for all human sin, you have made a holy pilgrimage to Heaven’s unchanging truth. Human ordinances may be changed; the American Constitution may be amended; governmental promises may be suspended, as the recent repudiation of gold payments has demonstrated; but of God’s Word and of His divine counsel we read: “Forever, O Lord, Thy Word is settled in heaven.” Jesus pledges: “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away.” Enraptured Isaiah prophesies: “The Word of our God shall stand forever.” Inspired Peter reechoes this promise: “The Word of the Lord endureth forever. And this is the Word by which the Gospel is preached unto you.”

Sometimes, it may seem, the counsel of the Lord does not stand, as our text promises. On all sides our Savior is assailed by bitter, cut-throat attacks. The Modernist denies His deity. The Communist attacks His sacred ordinances. The libertine assails His morality. The campus infidel ridicules His atonement. The atheist denies His existence. And as their hymns of hatred chant, “Away with Him! Away with His Bible! Away with His Church!” we may wonder whether our faith must surrender to the growing hatred of organized hostility. We may ask why God does not answer with the rumbling thunder of His wrath the furious sarcasm heaped upon “the bleeding Head and wounded,” why the jagged thrusts of His vindictive lightning do not strike down the clenched fists that are raised against Him. God may delay in establishing His counsels. He may postpone. He may appear to suffer the taunting rebukes that men hurl against Him. But the divine will for us and for our Church must prevail in the face of unbelief’s mobilized battalions. “The counsel of the Lord, that shall stand,” finally, universally, perpetually.

In this age of broken promises, crushed hopes, misplaced confidences, thwarted ambitions, surrounded as we are by the frauds and falsehoods with which men have deceived their fellow-men, I ask you to accept the unchanging counsel of God for your salvation. The Christ whom these radio services would bring into your homes and into your hearts is not a fluctuating, changing figure, who needs a new interpretation with each age; not an elusive, shadowlike concept that must be rediscovered and continually altered. He is rather the almighty God, who cannot change, who from eternity to eternity is, was, and always will be the unalterable Christ.

The creed and counsel of this Christ, the faith that I ask you to accept, if you have not yet accepted it, the grace in which you must grow daily if you have come to Christ, are not based on any evolution of religious ideas; they are rather the everlasting mercies of God, renewed unto every one of us every morning of our lives, which offer the blessed merits of Christ’s suffering and death by mercy, not by merit; by faith, not by deeds. Just as Abraham in the patriarchal days believed in the Lord “and He counted it to him for righteousness,” so today, in our modern advance, the same message appeals to our hearts: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved and thy house.”

The blessings of this Christ, to whom these radio messages are dedicated, are not subject to change and alteration. Every prophecy of His grace in the Old Testament, every pledge of His mercy in the New Testament, every evidence of His love in the entire history of His Church, holds with undiminished force and with unweakened power for this age and for every subsequent age, as long as the sands of time trickle through humanity’s hour-glass. No one has ever made a mistake by trusting in these gracious pledges of God’s mercy, and those who have taken God at His word know the power of His permanence and His perpetual love.

My appeal to you this afternoon is pointed and direct. If, as many of you know and believe, this Bible of ours is God’s Word with its unchangeable counsels of eternity; if, as the pages of history demonstrate and all human experience corroborates, the divine counsels stand where human foibles and frailties fall, will you not resolve with me today to accept more fully the counsel of God in the direction of your own life? Will you not in the spirit of this solemn Lenten season declare that, God helping you, His Word will be a stronger and more decisive force in your heart and in your home, in your thoughts and in your words? Will you not give God a greater opportunity for showing the immovable power of His grace by strengthening your souls through daily reading of the Scriptures, by establishing the family altar in your home, and by supporting the work of the Church as it proclaims the Gospel?

Your individual welfare, the happiness of your home, the future of your country, depend upon the answer which you and your fellow-countrymen will give to this question. God grant that we may look with faith-filled eyes to the everlasting verities of the Cross and Christ’s open grave and, rising over doubt, fear, and selfishness, cry out: “The counsel of the Lord shall stand!” Amen.

Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.