May 10, 2020
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts around 19:30 in the audio file.
Or, The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is the Lord Himself
One way to hear the Word but not do it is to run away when it gets hard.
Imagine a mechanic who trained for years at the best technical schools, who opened his own shop, who owned the finest tools in town, and then who, when anyone brought him a car for repair, shut the garage doors and went home. He explained to his wife, “You wouldn’t believe how badly the engine sounded! And the brakes were squealing like crazy. What could I do?”
Imagine a soldier who secured the best position on the battlefield, who rallied his fellow troops up to the line, who loaded all his weapons, and who abandoned the cause as soon as he heard the first shot fired. “But they were using real bullets. We could be killed. What could I do?”
A mechanic is meant to use his tools and fix the broken not ignore it. A soldier is meant to fight a real enemy when the rounds are live. He has live rounds, too. Neither one should fear when it’s hard or threatening.
Are not many in the modern Western church mostly men who run away? We believe as long as it doesn’t require us to be too bold, as if someone might disagree with us, let alone if they tried to hurt us. We live in a time and place where others have fought to secure the relative peace we enjoy, and we don’t really expect the foundations to crumble. We may not run, we just ignore. Things are getting harder to ignore.
Psalm 11 should encourage us. David was in a much more dangerous situation than we probably ever will be. But so was his situation more drastic than most of the Jews in Israel who were under his leadership. Yet this song, To the Choirmaster, was meant for corporate worship, these are lyrics to learn and to use.
There are two directions to look, and note, Where are the cameras focused? There is a lot of “seeing” in this psalm. The fearful say, “behold” (verse 2) the wicked who are ready to attack. The faithful, instead, see the LORD in His lordship (verses 4-6) and will see His face (verse 7). More than that, the Lord Himself sees all that’s happening, even the wicked in the dark.
The poem is about threat, but the threat wasn’t poetic. The threat was imminent and far-reaching.
In the LORD I take refuge;
how can you say to my soul,
“Flee like a bird to your mountain,
for behold, the wicked bend the bow;
they have fitted their arrow to the string
to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart;
if the foundations are destroyed,
what can the righteous do?”
(Psalm 11:1–3, ESV)
It would be helpful to know who was giving this counsel to David, also, that’s not context the Lord wants us to have; those documents were shredded.
Of course, without explicit context, the breadth of possible applications increases, both for the original assembly of Jewish worshippers, and for us as Christians who are called to speak to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.
We can also observe from the psalm itself that the counsel does appear to be someone ostensibly on David’s side. The wicked seem to be other, those who presumably would want David dead, not in hiding. The argument for this being an enemy’s mockery might be from the “flee like a bird,” but wouldn’t then the wicked be “we” not a them? “Run away from us like you’ve done before, little birdie.”
They are saying it, David says, to my soul, stimulating anxiety. They are contra Philippians 4:8, “if there is any sense of responsibility, if it could save just one life, think about all these dangers.”
It could be a friend, a trusted counselor, or maybe in effect it is the media and press, reporting so that we can be “safe.” Or maybe it’s medical experts, warning about risks to “public health.” Imagine politicians making their case for the “greater good.”
The urging is urgent. Flee like a bird to your mountain. Run and hide, Stay Home – Stay Healthy. The reasons follow but, if it really was this bad, it was already obvious to David. The mention of your mountain may be a reference to David’s own comment in 1 Samuel 26 when he called out to Saul after sneaking into the camp and taking Saul’s spear and jar of water:
let not my blood fall to the earth away from the presence of the LORD, for the king of Israel has come out to seek a single flea like one who hunts a partridge [a game bird] in the mountains.” (1 Samuel 26:20)
So David has run before. It seems like it’s time to flit away again because he’s being hunted.
For behold, the wicked bend the bow. Bows are bent like guns are unholstered. The wicked, plural, are preparing to attack. In fact, they have fitted the arrow to the string, a bullet is in the chamber, or the executive order is on the desk. Ready. Sign. The weapon is ready to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart. The attack won’t be obvious; it’s planned in secret and executed suddenly from the shadows.
How many times must David have heard this in a morning cabinet meeting in the palace oval office? He experienced some years of peace, but much of his reign saw difficulties and threats, if not from other nations, then from within, including his own son, Absalom.
The most dramatic, and presumably the most persuasive, reason for escape comes in verse 3. If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do? This is the central burden of the psalm and the most compelling counsel to the king personally.
The first half of the question: if the foundations are destroyed? assumes that this happens, not that it is avoided. Their models predict the collapse of civilization. This is a song for singing when it happens, or at least when it is “guaranteed” to happen by the pundits.
What are the foundations themselves? The word sometimes describes the base or bottom of a mountain. What if the bottom falls out? The dependable things in society, the written and unwritten agreements, fail. Covenants, and constitutions, are broken. It is a lawless situation.
Who destroys the foundations? It seems personal, it’s the “wicked,” not an “act of God.” The foundations are ruined by men’s choices, not by chance. You could insert your favorite conspiracy theory here, done in the dark. But it doesn’t have to be well coordinated by competent people.
In our current context, I’ve thought about taking up the talking points: “I never thought this could happen here. I can’t believe this is happening now.” But of course, none of our foundations are guaranteed.
The second part of the question, What can the righteous do? is appropriate, it is pressing. They appear to be helpless and the situation is hopeless, at least according to the news. The question is also not answered directly.
There is no exhortation for them to “do” anything. Think of the crew at St. Anne’s in That Hideous Strength, waiting for deliverance. The answer to the panicked counselor is that God is a better mountain. The worship of God is our reaction.
The LORD is in his holy temple;
the LORD’s throne is in heaven;
God governs the world. God is in His palace, but not unaware. The LORD is in his holy temple, His palace. All those days we’ve worshipped…nothing’s changed; God is still among His people. The LORD’s throne is in heaven. Above it all, over it all, He reigns more than any earthly king.
his eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man.
The LORD tests the righteous,
but his soul hates the wicked
and the one who loves violence.
His eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man. He’s watching, so the reference to his eyes. He’s scrutinizing, so his eyelids. We usually squint when we’re really focusing on something. The wicked plan to shoot in the dark so that they cannot be seen. They are the ones, in fact, who can’t escape notice.
The LORD tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence. Note that all men are watched and tested. The first group mentioned are the righteous. God tests, He “examines,” a reference to the process of refining metals by fire. It starts with those who do righteous deeds (see verse 7). So how David responds to the wicked is part of the process.
but his soul hates the wicked
and the one who loves violence. Let him rain coals on the wicked;
fire and sulfur and a scorching wind
shall be the portion of their cup.
Again, his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence. As for the wicked themselves, the soul of Yahweh hates the wicked. We’ve gotten happy with saying, “God loves the sinner but hates the sin.” But the two are not that easily divided. Sin is personal. Persons commit sin. And so the punishment will be on persons.
Let [Yahweh] rain coals on the wicked; fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup. First, with a reference to the punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah: it rains fire and sulfur. Then the scorching wind brings heat that destroys anything living, or the source of food for living things. There will be judgment from the righteously sovereign God. It is what they deserve. The portion of their cup is what they have coming to them.
For the LORD is righteous;
he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face.
The attitude toward, and reward for, the righteous is different. For the LORD is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face. He loves when men don’t panic. Isn’t that part of the righteous reaction in the song? In the middle of threat, they don’t give up or run away. Those who seek the Lord will enjoy fellowship with Him. The upright shall behold his face.
So, worship of God, in His temple, on His throne, is the foundation. Worship in the middle of a panicdemic, is not tone-deaf. Those who won’t worship the LORD are tone-deaf. They don’t hear the music playing that signals their judgment.
When, therefore, deceit, craft, treachery, cruelty, violence, and extortion, reign in the world; in short, when all things are thrown into disorder and darkness by injustice and wickedness, let faith serve as a lamp to enable us to behold God’s heavenly throne, and let that sight suffice to make us wait in patience for the restoration of things to a better state. (John Calvin)
We are no less tempted to despair at foundation crumbling and sky-is-falling prophets who observe the evils in our culture and predict the coming of worse. We are so small, what can we do?
Sure, there is more work to do than this psalm says. Load your browser tabs up for a link war. Amp up your meme game. Know what you’re talking about. Write to your representatives.
But begin with the fiery furnace defense:
“our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Daniel 3:17–18 ESV)
In the opening paragraph of Franklin Roosevelt’s inaugural presidential address in 1933, about four years into the Great Depression, he said “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” It’s catchy, but not true. There are many things for the wicked to fear, but for the righteous, the only thing we have to fear is the Lord Himself.
We are not told at the end that the situation has resolved. We are told, from the beginning, where to take refuge.
If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do? They can just conquer. It is our faith that overcomes the world, it is our laughter that the devil hates, it is our love that leads to fruitfulness. Our faith and our labor is not in vain. Beloved, Christ is building His church, believe it.
Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love. If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. Our Lord, come! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. (1 Corinthians 16:13–14, 22–23, ESV)