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A Song for Redress


*Psalm 17:1-15
June 30, 2019
Lord’s Day Worship
Sean Higgins

The sermon starts at 15:40 in the audio file.



Or, Deliverance from Those Satisfied Too Soon

Series: The Soundtrack of the Righteous

I’ve been reading through, and really enjoying, the Wingfeather Saga books and (hopefully without giving any spoilers) I appreciated this conversation (in book 4) between the Armulyn the Bard and the Sara Cobbler (about something that happened in book 1):

“And the sea dragons?” Armulyn asked. “What about their songs?” “I don’t know how to put it,” Sara said. “But they made me feel like I could see better—farther, for a thousand miles. And closer, too, like I could count the veins in a butterfly’s wing.” “Did the music make you brave?” “Yes sir,” Sara said. “Brave and—homesick.” “Exactly,” (Andrew Peterson, The Warden and the Wolf King)

This is not a novel idea. There are some songs that enable and ennoble, that open up our eyes and lift up our heads. They fill up our heads, and they also cause our hearts to beat a little bit braver. The best songs put things into perspective, including helping us to process and enjoy, or at least face up to, the present better.

This is one of the reasons we need the Psalms. The Psalms are inspired, in a technical sense, referring to their source; they are God’s revelation through His poets of choice. But they are surprisingly earthy, that is, these songs deal with imminent things, both problems and praises. We’re given God-breathed lyrics about His eternal, omnipotent glory, and about fruit and friends and sleep and sickness. As we sing, or as we hear the way God’s people ought to sing, we are made brave in the now and homesick for His presence.

Current Christians are bad at this, and Christians are bad at it in the name of Christianity. We are not good disciples on earth, which is where He want us to obey. It’s like an actor who has his lines nailed in the bathroom but who avoids going on stage by principle. Consider this worldview observation by a conservative with sympathy for religion:

“Christianity, like all religions, focuses on the spiritual to the exclusion of the physical. And that failure to take into account the drive for betterment in the physical world would be used as a club wielded against Christianity itself before long.” (Ben Shapiro, The Right Side of History, 71)

There is some truth that Christianity “focuses on the spiritual,” but we ought to learn how to focus on the spiritual to the integration of the physical, not “to the exclusion” of it. There may be no better place to learn it than our songs.

Psalm 17 is not the only, probably not even the ideal, song for sake of harmonizing our steward-soldier-sojourner status as spiritual men on earth. But it is the next psalm to study after Psalm 16 a few years ago. I think of this study in the Psalms as “The Soundtrack of the Righteous,” starting in Psalm 1 with the contrast between the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked, ways which are picked up in Psalm 17. These are the songs to play in our minds “day and night.”

The heading of Psalm 17 tells us that this is a Prayer of David, but we don’t know the circumstances in which he wrote other than clues from the content of the song itself. He’s dealing with “deadly enemies” (verse 9), those without pity (verse 10), who desire his humiliation (verse 11). So it is a prayer for redress, part lament and part appeal. David cries to Yahweh for “vindication” (verse 2), as well as protection (verses 8-9), and ultimately satisfaction (verse 15). There are three levels in the song, increasing in intensity: Attend (verses 1-5), Answer (verses 6-12), and Arise (verses 13-15).

Attend, O LORD (verses 1-5)

When David was under pressure from criticism, when his reputation, and even his life, was attacked, he wrote a poetic and lyrical plea for the Lord to judge who was right. What should you do when someone is lying about you? Sing for redress. Sing to the Lord that He would see and set things right.

By faith David calls for Yahweh to hear and look. Hear a just cause, attend to my cry, Give ear to my prayer, Let your eyes behold the right. He prays for vindication, for the Lord’s justice to come forth. David wants his name cleared.

He sings in hope because he sings in honesty. He has nothing to hide, not just from men, but from God. Verses 3-5 are his acknowledgment of the Lord’s scrutiny and his commitment to the path of the righteous. The LORD tried and tested him, images familiar when refining metals and cross-examining a suspect in a courtroom. The inspection went from his heart to his mouth to his steps, through thought, word, and deed (Gerald Wilson).

David was loyal to the word of your lips, to God’s Word. Through that word he knew which ways to avoid, that is, the ways of the violent, and could say, My steps have held fast to your paths. “The LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish” (Psalm 1:6).

One reason why we do not sing, why we do not call for the Lord to attend to us, is because we do not want Him looking too close. This is not about perfection, nor is it about obligating Him to respond because of our works. But it is trusting Him, hearing His word, submitting to His standards, and therefore being bold to pray accordingly.

Answer, O God (verses 6-12)

There are two types of persons in this next stage of the song: those who are loved by the Savior and those who are adversaries of those loved by the Savior.

The second round addresses God directly again, I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God. David moves from describing the Lord as the one who sees what is right to the one who provides refuge.

God’s steadfast love, His chesed, is one of the most repeated attributes in the psalter. “Lovingkindness” (KJV, NAS), “faithful love” (HCSB) is God’s covenanted, committed affection for His people. David sings a prayer for God to wondrously show your steadfast love; make it obvious how marvelous it is. God is the Savior of the dependent.

Verse 8 uses two earthy analogies to show how precious His refugees are.

Keep me as the apple of your eye;
   Hide me in the shadow of your wings,

The apple of…[one’s] eye, the center or the pupil, is perhaps the tenderest spot on a human (though from an internal standpoint, the kidneys have a lot of feels about tenderness, too). It’s not just that the apple of the eye is important, but that the rest of the body reflexively protects it; we don’t even need to think about it, we cherish the apple. The shadow of [His] wings is another protective illustration, and another emphasis on the affection God has for His people. Like a mother hen draws her chicks in close, so God is the shield and defender.

There is similar imagery in the “Song of Moses” when Israel was about to enter the Promised Land.

He [the Most High] found him [Jacob, His people] in a desert land,
   and in the howling waste of the wilderness;
he encircled him, he cared for him,
   he kept him as the apple of his eye.
Like an eagle that stirs up its nest,
   that flutters over its young,
spreading out its wings, catching them,
   bearing them on its pinions,
the LORD alone guided him,
   no foreign god was with him.
(Deuteronomy 32:10–12, ESV)

Such attention from God is good, because those who are not loved by Him are seriously opposed to those who are. They are wicked, they do violence, they are deadly. In verse 10 they close their hearts to pity, which could be translated: “they are inclosed in their own fat” (KJV), or “their fat they close,” as in, they become calloused and insensitive like fat wrapping around the heart, deadened to the outside.

In Deuteronomy 32 “Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked,” he rebelled and “forsook God who made him and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation” (verse 15).

Are these enemies foreigners or are they ungrateful fellow citizens? Either way they do not acknowledge God as the one who gave them their prosperity.

They set their eyes to cast us to the ground refers to their desire to see the righteous brought down, whether in reputation, or in success, or perhaps even in physical life. “This form of expression signifies the continual and unwearied ardour by which the ungodly are impelled to turn all things upside down” (John Calvin). Such an enemy is likened to a lion ready to pounce on and pull apart his prey.

Arise, O LORD (verses 13-15)

The final and most intense round of the song calls for the Lord to take action. Arise, O LORD! Confront him, subdue him! “Bring him low” (NASB). Get involved and defeat the enemy, and so Deliver my soul from the wicked by your sword. Give the wicked what is coming to them.

It’s interesting, though, to see the description of the wicked in verse 14. David seeks redress:

from men by your hand, O Lord,
   From men of the world whose portion is in this life.
You fill their womb with treasure;
   They are satisfied with children,
   And they leave their abundance to their infants.

But isn’t that what we want? Aren’t children a sign of God’s blessing? When we sing Psalm 128, “Blessed the Man the Fears Jehovah” it is, and when we sing about arrows in our quiver it is as well, Psalm 127:3-5.

It may be possible that David wrote this song as a single man, on the run from Saul, and so not having experience with the affection of a father to his children. And yet the truth stands: there is common grace that God gives to His enemies wherein He lets them have and enjoy the treasure of wives with full wombs and healthy, growing children running around the house, even with an abundance of prosperity left as an inheritance to those offspring, and it is not enough. It is good, and it is also a kind of judgment if they do not receive it as good from God. They are men of the world whose portion is in this life only.

Those who regard “the word of [the Lord’s] lips” (verse 4) have portion not only in this world.

As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness;
   When I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness.

There are some questions about the lyrics, as is usual with poetic effort. When does this beholding happening, as in, when will David awake? Is he sleeping at night, waiting for the morning, or is he sleeping in the grave, waiting for new life, or is it more figurative, a reference to the wearisomeness of the affliction? And is David saying that he’ll be satisfied when he sees the Lord or that he will be satisfied when he sees that he is made into the image of the Lord?

We know from other inspired Words that in the resurrection, which is likened to an awakening, we will see God face to face, and then we will be made complete in His likeness (1 John 3:2-3).

And that is true, and it may be implied in this song, but it is not what David is singing for. He is not singing for resurrection redress, he is singing for redress “in this life.” He isn’t asking for protection from his enemies by getting to heaven, he’s asking for protection from his enemies, “from the men of the world” while they are all still in the world. If the things of earth was all he had, that would not be enough. But David’s spiritual expectations and spiritual hope had temporal expectations and worldly application.

Conclusion

In our day, our most aggressive enemies don’t even care about children. They abort the “treasure” in their wombs. They are so upside down in hating those who are loved by God that they reject even God’s common gifts of good. Their portion is in this life, but their portion is more like their imagined importance. They have made their hearts fat, they have made their heads fat. They are real fatheads.

As believers we ought to sing lyrics like these to remind us that by comparison, nothing is more important than beholding God’s face. And when we seek refuge in Him, then all the things in this life are integrated as reasons to trust Him and hold fast to His paths. Such songs make us braver, and homesick for His presence.


Charge

Listen to, meditate on, some songs this week (like Psalm 17) that will put your present pains and profits into perspective. May God be your all in all. Receive what He gives you in this life with thanks, and do your work heartily, as for the Lord, and not for men.

Benediction:

Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. (Philippians 3:19–4:1, ESV)