Monday, September 08, 2008

Crying for Help - A sermon preached in St Elizabeth's Dundonald on Sunday 7th September 2008 - Psalm 109

Sticks and stones my break my bones but names will never harm me. Would you agree with that? We find that words have a way of getting under our skin, especially the hateful, spiteful words intended to harm us. How do you respond when people are nasty to you? Or when they go out of their way to make your life miserable? It might be hard enough if it is people we barely know, but what if it is our close friends?

In our Psalm this evening, David is under attack. He has been the victim of an attack – not physical, but verbal. Lying lips surround him, wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against him. But what makes it harder to bear is the fact that they are his close friends who are attacking him. These are people he knows well, and they have turned on him.

Notice, first, that the Psalmist starts in the right place, with the initial cry in verses 1-4. From the outset, he knows who he is addressing, as he cries out for help. This is the God of my praise. The one that he has cried out to before, the one who is worthy to be praised. And what is it that the Psalmist wants God to do? ‘Be not silent.’ It was bad enough that the evil men were surrounding him with lies and evil words, but then it seemed as if God were silent. The crown on the assault. Voices of hate around him and silence from God.

The argument is saying – look, if they’re speaking all this evil against me, will you not speak up in my defence? Speak and act to prevent this assault. As we’ve already thought about, the ones who attacked him were his closest friends. Look at verses 4 and 5 – there’s a frustrating exchange going on there. ‘In return for my love they accuse me … so they reward me evil for good, and hatred for my love.’ He keeps giving and giving and giving good and love, while they pour out accusations, evil and hatred.

Yet in the midst of all that is going on, ‘I give myself to prayer.’ The NRSV expands this to say ‘even as I make prayer for them.’ It’s this sense of seeking their welfare, even while they attack him.

But if this is the case, then how do we understand the central section, verses 6-20. The psalm quickly changes from third person to second person – from ‘they’ to ‘him’. As we read the psalm, the requests can seem brutal or barbaric. Even a quick scan shows the brutality – ‘may his days be few … may his children be fatherless and his wife a widow … may his children wander and beg … let there be no one to extend kindness to him, nor any to pity his fatherless children.’ What do we make of this passage of Scripture?

Verse 6 brings to mind the image of a court. The Psalmist wants his attacker to be tried for his actions. He wants his day in court, and for a guilty verdict. Do you see in the second half of verse 6 – ‘let an accuser stand at his right hand’ – an accuser is the word ‘Satan’. A friend’s wife is training to be a barrister in Dublin, and her position at present is ‘a devil’ – one who files motions and appears in court to argue cases for their barrister.

This serves to remind us of what the devil’s business is. Satan is, according to Revelation 12:10 ‘the accuser of our brothers and sisters.’

For some, it is unseemly for David to have expressed these words. So, for example, the NRSV inserts two extra words into verse 6 to make it ‘they say …’ The long litany of doom is then presented as the words of his attackers. The ‘him’ is then David. This seeks to make sense of the change of person, up to verse 19, but even then, verse 20 is presented as the words of the Psalmist, in seeking to turn all these things back on the accusers.

But the Psalm lacks the two words ‘they say.’ So how can we presume to include them? We should always be careful to sit under Scripture, listening to it, not sitting in judgement over Scripture, imposing our own standards.

It seems to me that the words of verses 6 – 20 must be seen as the heartfelt condemnation of the guilty. This is the cry of the oppressed. In at least one instance, God is seen to honour this very cry. Turn with me to Acts 1 (page 1095). It’s the ten days between Jesus’ ascension and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. The Twelve have become the Eleven, with Judas’ suicide.

Peter clearly links the words of our psalm with the situation of Judas. Look, more than that, he states ‘Brothers, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus… For it is written in the book of Psalms, “May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it”; and “Let another take his office.”

David is seen to have prophesied the betrayal of Judas and his subsequent removal from his privileges. This is why we cannot see it as the curses of David’s attackers coming down on his head.

It is clear that the feelings are very strong for the Psalmist. His desire is for vengeance and justice for his cause. The strong calls for punishment are based on the immorality of the people involved. Look at verses 16-18. Here we have a string of evil practices, deserving justice. Failure to show kindness, and instead exploiting and persecuting the poor and needy. Clothing himself in cursing.

Notice the downward spiral in 17. ‘He loved to curse; let curses come upon him! He did not delight in blessing; may it be far from him!’ David is praying here that the natural consequences of his enemies’ life be fulfilled. So that if we are bitter and resentful, then we’ll become more bitter and more resentful. Or if we spend our life in cursing others, then we will in the end, be cursed. CS Lewis once wrote that those in hell are those who have consistently said to God, ‘my will be done’, and God has honoured their wish. We must be careful of the patterns we put in place in our own lives. (Galatians reminds us that what a man sows, that shall he reap).

We’ve been thinking about the string of evil practices committed by the attacker. No doubt these are sins that are deserving of punishment. But the question is – should we follow in the footsteps of the Psalmist? When we are the victims of attacks, should we recite these curses against them?

How does it all fit with the command for us to ‘bless those who persecute you: bless and do not curse them’? (Rom 12:14). Well, we have to view the Psalm through the lens of the cross. Things are not the same. Jesus has dealt with sin, and even while he was being crucified, he did not revile – he was silent like a lamb before its shearers. Rather, he prayed ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ (Luke 23:34).

As a result of the cross, the Day is coming when God will finally deal with sin, on the great Day of the Lord, which we were thinking about this morning. As Peter writes in his second letter, ‘The Lord is not slow to fulfil his promise as some count slowness, but is patient towards you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.’ (2 Peter 3:9). On that Day, God will punish sin, all sin, and justice will be seen to be done.

And in the meantime? We have a mission. Our task is not to call down judgement on our oppressors, but rather to call our oppressors to escape the judgement – to pray for them to be saved. How much harder this is, than to call down fire and brimstone on them – yet it is not our job to judge. In this matter, we must let God be God – who will surely punish sins.

Rather, with the Psalmist, we should flee to God, looking to him to save us. Notice that from verses 21 on, David returns again to God. He knows that God will act ‘for your names’ sake’. His focus moves from his accusers to himself, to his God. Twice he reminds himself of the Lord my God’s steadfast love, calling on God to act according to it.

And what will it look like when God acts for his servant? ‘Let them curse, but you will bless!’ Despite all the words of his accusers and his attackers, despite their lies and words of hate, God will have the last word. Rather than heeding the curses, God pours out blessings on his servants. This is why, in the end, we have nothing to fear, if we are trusting in the Lord Jesus. He has the final word.

It doesn’t matter what the devil accuses us of – if we are trusting in Jesus, our sins are wiped out, paid by the death of Christ on the cross, and we are granted a clean slate. We thought about this earlier today, in 1 Corinthians, when we were reminded that the church of God is a holy church, sanctified in Christ Jesus.

So let the devil accuse us, or our enemies hurl curses at us – ‘let them curse, but you will bless!’ I’m reminded of Balaam in the book of Numbers. Balaam was a diviner, one who, for a fee, would bless or curse. Barak, the king of Moab, was afraid of the Israelites, who had come out of Egypt, and were on their way to the Promised Land. So he brought Balaam along, promising great wealth if he would curse Israel. Three times, Balaam begins a prophetic speech, but can only bless Israel, time and again. Here’s just a few words from his first oracle: ‘From Aram Balak has brought me, the king of Moab from the eastern mountains: Come, curse Jacob for me, and come, denounce Israel! How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce whom the Lord has not denounced?’ (Numbers 23:7-8).

If you’re trusting in Jesus tonight, then this could be spoken of you. God’s verdict of you is one of blessing, not one of cursing. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). Oh how we need to revel in these glorious words! Spend some time in Scripture this week drinking in the wonder of God’s word towards you. Blessing, not cursing.

Building on this theme, as we come to the last couple of verses, we see that not only does the Lord bless those who serve him, he also stands with them. Verse 30 is the pledge of the saved – to sing and praise the Lord, giving him thanks and praising him in the midst of the throng. (Worship is a corporate activity!)

Why this outburst of praise? ‘For he (the Lord) stands at the right hand of the needy, to save him from those who condemn his soul to death.’ Earlier we saw in verse 6 the accuser, the Satan, standing at the right hand. Here, there’s no room for the accuser, because the Lord stands at the right hand of the needy.

While we can perhaps see the reason behind the outpouring of curses in verses 6-20, we do better to flee with the Psalmist to God when we are under attack. By doing so, we find the Lord’s protection, we hear his word towards us, and we know the Lord is with us. And, in the end, we can leave our attackers in his hands – praying for them, so that perhaps the Lord will have mercy even on them.

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