“The difference between being a Christian and not being a Christian is not one of degree, it is one of essence and quality, so that the most unworthy Christian is in a better position than the best man outside Christianity. Perhaps the best way of understanding all this is to think of it in terms of relationship. It is a question of blood, if you like; the humblest and the most unworthy member of the royal family is in a more advantageous position from the standpoint of social arrangements in most countries than the greatest and most able person outside that family. A man outside the royal family may be much more cultured, may be a finer specimen of humanity in every respect, yet on all state occasions and great occasions, he has to follow after the humblest and the least worthy member of the royal family. How do you assess his position? You do not assess it in terms of ability and achievement, you assess it in terms of blood relationship. Now that is precisely what the New Testament says about the Christian. He is one who had become a partaker of the divine nature; he is in an entirely new relationship; he has a new nature and quality; a new order of life has entered into him.” —D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Assurance of Our Salvation, (Crossway, 2000) pp. 137, 138
11 As for you, O LORD, you will not restrain your mercy from me; your steadfast love and your faithfulness will ever preserve me! 12 For evils have encompassed me beyond number; my iniquities have overtaken me, and I cannot see; they are more than the hairs of my head; my heart fails me. —Psalm 40:11–12
The 40th psalm opens in praise and morphs into petition. Or, we might say we have a petition prefaced by praise, but not in a forced, unnatural, manipulative way. The petition doesn’t betray a hypocrisy in the praise, rather, the sincere praise speaks to righteousness of the plea. Laud is a good warm up for lament. Just as it was a lament heard that let birthed laud (v. 1), so laud now lays the way for lament—the kind of lament that is heard. Petition has led to praise and now praise prefaces petition.
From praise for past deliverances David will turn to petition for his present distress. The experience of previous deliverance prepped David to plea with praise on his lips. Deliverance in this life isn’t prep for a life of ease. It is prep to meet the next trial with grace. The result: praise doesn’t simply follow petition answered, it is mingled with petition given.
In Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy we find said boy, Shasta, exhausted from completing one good and hard work quickly be given another. At this, we’re told Shasta’s heart grew faint and he was in turmoil at the cruelty of such a demand. The narrator explains, “He had not yet learned that if you do one good deed your reward usually is to be set to do another and harder and better one.” Here, David, no longer a boy, receives such a trial with greater dignity. Where did David learn such grace? Through the grace of trials. The cycle of petition and praise led to their blurring of lines and the mingling of one with the other. This is a cycle that will persist in this life as we say, “Praise be! Jesus has come!” and “Come Lord Jesus!” This cycle will persist until that ultimate lament gives birth to eternal laud.
“What matters, we are told, is that a man should have ‘the spirit of Christ’ and that he should desire to imitate Christ’s example. That makes him a Christian! Doctrinal correctness, they maintain, has been over-emphasized in the past. A man may be shaky on the very Person of Christ may not believe in the doctrine of the Atonement, or in the Virgin birth, or in the literal physical resurrection of our Lord, but if he has an open mind, and is tolerant of other opinions, and is kind and friendly and ‘gracious’ and concerned about others, and especially about suffering and need and anxious to right all wrongs, political and social, he is a true Christian. What a man is, and does, we are told, is of much greater importance than his doctrinal views. Moreover, it is argued, nothing but a demonstration of this so-called ‘Christian spirit’ will have any effect upon those outside the Church who have no interest whatsoever in doctrine. Indeed, to hold doctrinal views strongly and to criticize other views is virtually regarded as sinful and is frequently described as being ‘sub-Christian’. This is how the phrase ‘speaking the truth in love’ is being commonly interpreted.
It would be very easy to give some remarkable and almost astonishing illustrations of what I am saying. For instance, it is quite amusing to notice how a well-known reviewer of religious books, when he comes across any criticism of other views in the book he is reviewing, immediately criticizes the spirit of the author. That seems to be his one test of scholarship! ‘Scholarship’ has come to mean that you find all views very interesting, and that there is something to be said for all points of view. If you want to be regarded as scholarly you must not say that one view is right and the other wrong; you must not criticize, for to criticize is to deny the spirit of Christ, and to be entirely devoid of love. ‘Speaking the truth in love’ has come to mean that you more or less praise everything, but above all, that you never criticize any view strongly, because, after all, there is a certain amount of right and truth in everything.” —D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Christian Unity, (Baker Book House, 1987) p. 243
1 I said, “I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with my tongue; I will guard my mouth with a muzzle, so long as the wicked are in my presence.” 2 I was mute and silent I held my peace to no avail, and my distress grew worse. 3 My heart became hot within me. As I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue: —Psalm 39:1–3
In the 39th Psalm we see David both silent and speaking under the Lord’s discipline. That is clear. The question is, when is he sinning? The easy answer is to say that David was saintly when he was silence and sinful when he was speaking. But remember that David’s son would later say, “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent” (Proverbs 17:28). Mere silence can be mistaken for sanctification, but it is not always so. A silent mouth doesn’t always indicate a quiet soul. It was while David was silent that his heart burned and it was while he spoke that he came to a place of renewed silence (vv. 7–9).
When was David sinful? I think it was both while he was silent and while he was speaking. When was David saintly? I believe it was both while he was silent and while he was speaking. Before you write off David’s words following verse 3 as complaint consider two things:
First, David doesn’t blaspheme God in the presence of the wicked. He lifts up this cry in the presence of God. David isn’t silent, but he is still guarding his lips and thus at least partially keeping his vow.
Second, these words that David spoke were given to Jeduthun, a chief leader in Israel’s worship (2 Chronicles 25:1). This psalm isn’t a historical record. It is a song. It is not just poetic expression. It is a song given by Israel’s king to a priest who is a choirmaster of Israel.
So what are we to make of these words? I believe it is clear that as David speaks, he still guards his words. What you have here is a lament for when your soul wants to complain. Here is a lament that walks right up to the edge of complaint and then stops. The complaint is understood, but it is a lament that is spoken. The complaint is suppressed. The lament is expressed.
Oh what a grace is here for us saints. When our hearts burn and sin is present within, here is grace. Grace for us to have something to sing and to pray that will guard our hearts from further sin. Here is a lament for our lips to guard us from complaint when it is in our heart. Here is a prayer to keep you from grumbling. Here is cry to keep you from blaspheming.
There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me. —Psalm 38:3–4
In Evangelical, prosperity gospel-eschewing churches one may speak of sickness and offer comfort and one may speak of sin and aim at conviction, but should sin and sickness be mentioned together, we squirm. Fear of being misunderstood cripples us in communicating what we should. And what we should confess is this: all sickness, indeed all sickness, sorrow, and suffering are rooted in sin. They are the fruit of sin. Now, that does not say everything, but this much must be said.
Not all sorrows are due to a particular sin your life, but all your sorrows are rooted in sin. We can even say they are rooted in a particular sin—Adam’s. As sin multiplied, so did our misery. Look around. What you see is not just sin proliferated, but the woes of sin multiplied. True, many of your sins result in no personal sickness, at least as far as we can observe. But this fact allows us to draw this sobering conclusion: there is not a soul among us suffering even a billionth of what our own sins deserve. On this earth men do taste of judgment, but even in the worst judgment in this life, there is still a degree of mercy. Thomas Brooks warns, “He that hath deserved a hanging hath no reason to charge the judge with cruelty if he escape with a whipping; and we that have deserved a damning have no reason to charge God for being too severe, if we escape with a fatherly lashing.”
This connection makes us uneasy for how it can make us uneasy. Every time we get sick we might question whether or not our sickness is due to sin. As I see it, there are only two ways to know this information.
- The sin itself makes you sick. This can be more immediate, like a hangover due to drunkenness. Or it can be more removed from the sin, as with a history of drunkenness leading to cirrhosis of the liver.
As I already spoke of eschewing prosperity gospel heresies, I’ll take it you can understand why I’m not going to run with number 2. Even so, sickness can act like a smelling salt to rouse us to perceive sin that we have been ignoring. This is not to say that perception implies causality. You shouldn’t worry about sickness as though it were a puzzle to solve. You should repent of any clear sin. Done.
All this has been a set up for us evaluate yet another kind of sickness that is related to sin. In regard to the 38th psalm, some believe David is sick due to his sin—that the sickness is punishment for sin. I don’t buy that. I do believe David is ill. But David feels sick, not due to some virus as punishment, but due to conviction. God’s hand is so heavy on his soul, his body bows. The arrows of conviction so pierce that his bones ache. Child of God, have you never experienced conviction of sin so sharply, that you lose you appetite? Have you never felt like vomiting because of your sin? Such is the sin-sickness of David’s soul.
In our therapeutic age this kind of soul-sickness is too often chalked up to brokenness in the body or the mind. Sin has indeed broken the body and the mind. There is common grace to be had in medicine. But there is a kind of soul misery that we try to mask. Common grace is no substitute for special grace. Special grace will not heal your cold. Common grace cannot heal your soul. Sometimes man should feel miserable. There is a misery every soul outside of Christ should know. Many a man’s greatest problem is that he has not yet been made miserable enough to truly deal with his misery. We want to get over deep sorrows as quickly as possible to enjoy superficial joys. Try anything else, and whatever cure you may think you find, only makes you worse. And the worst cure is the one that makes you feel best, while your sin remains.
There is only one remedy for the sin-sick soul. You must cry out to the Great Physician; the very one who as a surgeon is causing your pain. If you are His child, those are not His arrows, they are His scalpel. He hurts to heal. He makes the scalpel feel like an arrow that you might fear God and cease ignoring your Father. God has told you how you must position yourself for Him to heal and until you bow on your knees in repentance, He will persist in causing pain of soul, precisely because He is good and He refuses to allow you to destroy yourself.
“The history of the Church shows clearly that her great and glorious periods, such as during and after the Protestant Reformation, always follow the mighty preaching of doctrine. It is unintelligent to admire great heroes of the faith such as the Covenanters unless you understand them. What made those men the men they were was the fact that they knew the great doctrines of the Christian faith. This is the protein and the iron which give strength. The great doctrines of the faith must be the basis of the Christian diet. Following the doctrine must come the teaching which applies the doctrine.” —D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Christian Unity, (Baker Book House, 1987) p. 205
1 Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers! 2 For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb. 3 Trust in the LORD, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness. 4 Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
The 37th Psalm is:
- An acrostic: with only a few exceptions, each double verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
- A wisdom psalm: one scholar said that this psalm is so steeped in the wisdom tradition that it could be included in the book of Proverbs. Whereas we typically think of psalms as addressing God, this one addresses man.
- A theodicy: that is to say it speaks concerning the perceived problem of evil, specifically, the prosperity of the wicked.
Therefore, the 37th psalm gives us the ABC’s of wisdom concerning the problem of evil. It is a memorable catechism justifying the Judge’s justice. Which brings me to this conclusion: when the saints wrestle with the problem of evil, it is not simply that their intellect needs instruction, but that their whole souls that need to be addressed. The theodicy of this psalm, the answer to the prosperity of the wicked, isn’t so much truth that solves the riddle, but revelation that fosters faith in God. You are not told why the wicked prosper now. You are told that it will not always be so.
In Ephesians 5:19–21 Paul commands,
“And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
Here is a psalm for us to admonish and encourage one another to live wisely unto the Lord. Fret not. Trust God. The righteous will inherit the land. The wicked will be cut off. We don’t simply need these truths taught to our minds. We need them sung to our souls by wizened saints who can testify that they have “not seen the righteous forsaken” (37:25).
In the face of the prosperity of the wicked, David’s first counsel is obedience. Fret not. Trust God. Our confusion is no excuse for disobedience or unbelief. And then, to propel that obedience, precious promises are held out. The answer to our soul’s struggle with the problem of evil, as offered here, isn’t truth that unlocks the past so much as truth that unfolds the future. The righteous will inherit the land. The wicked will be cut off.
Fret not. Trust God.
“It is possible for us to read the Scriptures in an utterly profitless manner. If you only read the Scriptures mechanically because you believe it is right and good to do so, or because you have been told to do so, you will probably derive little benefit. You may have an immediate sense of self-satisfaction and self-righteousness because you have read your portion for the day; but that is not to read the Scriptures. Every bit of intelligence we possess is needed as we read the Scriptures; all our faculties and propensities must be employed. Even that is not enough; we must pray for the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” —D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Unsearchable Riches of Christ, (Baker Book House, 1988) p. 266
Your steadfast love, O LORD, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the mountains of God; your judgments are like the great deep; man and beast you save, O LORD. Oh, continue your steadfast love to those who know you, and your righteousness to the upright of heart! —Psalm 36:5–6, 10
The 36th psalm is one of stark contrast. The psalms are constantly doing presenting such contrasts, but normally we expect to see the righteous on one side and the wicked on the other. Here the contrast is greater because opposite the wicked we find not the righteous, but the Righteous One.
Now, knowing that is the case, what of God would you expect David to set in contrast to the wickedness of the wicked? His righteousness? Justice? Holiness? Instead David’s emphatic is the covenant love of Yahweh. I would argue that it is his exclusive focus. For example, I believe it is clear that the “righteousness” of God that is like the mighty mountains (v. 6) is made parallel to the steadfast love of Yahweh in verse 10.
This, the covenant love of God, is where the fundamental contrast lies. The saints know that the distinction between the righteous and the wicked is not one that we cause to come into being. The only reason we stand apart from sinners is because of the mighty and free grace and mercy of God to us in the new covenant of Jesus’s blood whereby we are made a new creation and given a new heart. Yahweh’s word to Israel through Joshua made this clear, “Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan, and made his offspring many” (Joshua 24:2–3, emphasis mine). They served other gods. There was no contrast. And then there was. Why? Because God took their father Abraham.
Prior to these words through Joshua, Moses explained to them, “Moses reminded them, “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 7:6–8).
God loves them because He loves them, keeping covenant. The source of God’s covenant love flows from His own depths. It is not dependent on us. This is why it is inexhaustible and infinite and free. It extends to the heavens. It reaches to the clouds. It is like the mighty mountains and the great deeps. How precious is your covenant love, O God!
For without cause they hid their net for me; without cause they dug a pit for my life. Let destruction come upon him when he does not know it! And let the net that he hid ensnare him; let him fall into it—to his destruction! Then my soul will rejoice in the LORD, exulting in his salvation. All my bones shall say, “O LORD, who is like you, delivering the poor from him who is too strong for him, the poor and needy from him who robs him?” —Psalm 35:7–10
What are we to do with the imprecatory psalms? I’m afraid the most common answer is to be embarrassed by them. Hide them in the closet. And should any nosey guest pry, pull them out, hold them up with disgust and ask “What is this?”, then respond with profuse apologies. Excuse them saying “Oh those! Those are Old Testament. We don’t use them anymore.”
I hope you find such embarrassment embarrassing. This may be what many do with the imprecatory psalms, but what should we do with them? Sing them! If that thought makes the modern church uncomfortable I’m certain the reason isn’t because she’s become so loving but because she’s become so soft. As odd as it may seem to some, what a soft church needs is more poetry; more of what James Adams calls the War Psalms of the Prince of Peace (highly recommended).
The problem is that we don’t know how to read poetry anymore. Luckily for us, Hebrew poetry doesn’t major on meter rhyme. God in His wisdom laid down a structure that translates well. It is the thought that rhymes. We call this thought rhyme structure parallelism. Translatable as this is, we still can’t read the stuff. Something more significant than a tire alignment is needed. The ignition timing is off. If you’re uneasy with the imprecatory psalms, your heart is off rhythm with the meter of heaven because your thoughts are inharmonious with the wisdom from above.
So how are we to read God’s poems? Less us. More Him. Poetry is meant to evoke strong emotion. Where we go wrong is that we make it more about expressing our emotion rather than that which is to evoke the emotions. The psalms are meant to train the affections. If there is a rub, your affections are off. You need training. Your heart must be timed. We read the psalms the same way we read modern worship lyrics off the screen. We never get past the warm up. “Do-Re-Me, me, me, me, me, me, me.” Our eyes are on our expression. Theology hasn’t given rise to doxology. We’ve become experience-expression junkies.
To read God’s poetry we must read it covenantally, and the chief covenant in view is the Davidic covenant. When you take up the psalms, think king and kingdom. The second psalm sets you up to understand all the imprecatory psalms.
Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” —Psalm 2:1–6
If we are embarrassed by the “war psalms of the Prince of Peace” the reason is that we are more concerned for our own name than we are zealous for the Name of our God and His King. The name of Christ is blasphemed, do you not long for this ultimately to be righted?
When a serial rapist or a molester of children is justly sentenced, and just sentencing would mean the death penalty, would you say it is categorically wrong for the victims to rejoice?
When Nazi leaders involved in the Holocaust were charged guilty and sentenced to death by hanging, was it wrong for survivors to rejoice at justice?
Should the pro-choice movement be exposed for the lie that it is and humiliated, the Democratic party seen to be bowing before the god Molech, and the abortion of fetuses recognized as the murder of the innocent children made in the image of God so that abortionists are charged with multiple counts of first degree premeditated murder—saints, should this be so, and God that it would be, would it not be righteous and holy and good for the saints to rejoice at such a thing?
When God’s King was humble and man was proud, would it have been wrong to long for resurrection and vindication?
With God’s King risen from the grave and now seated in glory, is it wrong to rejoice at the thought of Him returning in majesty to inflict “vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” so that “they will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away form the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:5)?
Is it wrong for God to be God? Is it wrong for the saints to long for God to be God?
No! May all of our bones say, “O Yahweh, who is like you?” (Psalm 35:10).
Yes, we should long that every enemy might come to know the salvation of our Lord. Yes, pray that the persecutor may become a Paul. Pray that the abortionist may repent like Manasseh of his worship of Molech. Pray that when the justly executed criminal breathes his last, he, like the thief on the cross, awakes to paradise in the presence of Christ. But let none of this curb your desire for God to be fully God, to manifestly be all who He has revealed Himself to be—“Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6–8). With all your bones say, “O Yahweh, who is like you?”