Here's something from a recent report in a Christian newspaper, about a pastor's visit to Nigeria:
"The day we arrived in Jos Plateau State in July a 13-year old girl had walked into a market with a bomb strapped to her chest, and committed suicide, killing over 30 others and injuring more… The churches' leaders were desperate … A few days later a woman was found murdered beside the road. An incident of one sort or another continues almost daily, certainly weekly … The church leaders' plea was that we do not lessen our concern, our support, our prayers and intercessions on their behalf."
And the report continues:
"The stunning, and immensely humbling, revelation to Western Christians is that despite the violence … the joy, the faith, and the courage of these Nigerian Christians is palpable, almost tangible, typified in the irrepressible joy of their leaders … in their Sunday gatherings … the Christians' prayer is passionate, their listening and response earnest, but their joy and laughter is ready at any moment to bubble to the surface."
How can that be? How can that kind of treatment at the hands of their enemies coexist with joyful faith and courage? Well, it's a hard school the Lord is putting them through. But it seems to me that our brothers and sisters have been learning the lessons of Psalm 37, which is our Psalm for this evening and the last in this current series of these 'Songs from the Heart'. My title is 'Trust In The Lord'. Psalm 37 starts on page 466 in the Bibles. Please have that open in front of you, along with my outline which is on the back of the service sheet. That'll help you to keep track of where we're going.
This is a long Psalm. In fact its an acrostic Psalm. That is to say, in the original Hebrew each new double verse begins with the next letter of the alphabet. We lose that in the English of course. It's too long for us to go through in detail. But in fact in any case this a Psalm with some themes that run through the whole thing, that we can pick out and take a look at. In some ways this Psalm is a kind of exposition in advance of the third Beatitude that Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount:
"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."
That's Matthew 5.5. In fact that thought is almost like a chorus that runs through the Psalm. So for instance take a look at verse 11:
"But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace."
And that thought is expanded right at the end of the Psalm in two verses that conveniently pretty much summarise the whole message of these 40 verses. So take a look at those verses 39-40. Here they are:
"The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord;
he is their stronghold in the time of trouble.
The Lord helps them and delivers them;
he delivers them from the wicked and saves them, because they take refuge in him."
This is a word, then, for believers in the time of trouble. Who does that mean for us? It could be our brothers and sisters in troubled parts of the world, such as those in West Africa; or those who we know personally facing trouble – that's maybe closer to home; or maybe this is directly relevant in some way for us at the moment – that's right at home!
I've tried to capture the essence of the Psalm in my three headings that are there on the outline. First, The Wicked Cause Trouble for the Righteous. Secondly, The Righteous Should React by Looking to the Lord. And thirdly, The Lord Brings the Wicked to Ruin and Rescues the Righteous. And you can see on the outline that I've got various questions we can use to tease out what the Psalm is on about. So let's take a look at these great themes.
First, The Wicked Cause Trouble for the Righteous
We need to understand who we're talking about here. So four questions to think about that'll help us to get to grips with this. Who are the wicked and what they like? Who are the righteous and what are they like? What are the wicked up to? And what are the righteous experiencing?
Who, then, are the wicked and what are they like? What can we glean from the Psalm? I won't give you every verse reference in case you get vertigo trying to keep up following them. The wicked are "evildoers", "wrongdoers". They are those who carry out evil devices – that is, they deliberately set out to do evil; they plan it; and they implement their plans. They are "transgressors" – riding roughshod over the boundaries of right and wrong that God has set up for our good. They live in abundance, borrowing but not paying back. They are ruthless and, as verse 35 says, spread themselves "like a green laurel tree". That is, they seem to be taking over everything, with nothing to prevent them. In New Testament terms and when we think about applying this to our own experience, we can see the wicked in three ways. First there are the supernatural powers of evil. The apostle Peter says in 1 Peter 5.8:
"Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour."
Secondly there are indeed the human enemies of Christ – and of his people – who do evil and persecute and oppress. Then thirdly – and it's very important to keep this in mind as we read this Psalm – there is our own sinful nature which still fights against the spiritual nature that God has brought to life within us by his Spirit through Jesus. So always remember that the fault line between the wicked and the righteous runs right through our own souls. In Christ, by grace, we can rightly identify with the righteous in a Psalm like this. But we also know what it is to be wicked as well. There is a fight to the death going on in our own hearts. Praise God that our wicked sinful natures are on the losing side. The day will come when we will be shot of them. But it's not yet.
Who, then, are the righteous and what are they like, according to Psalm 37? Well they are the ones being addressed by this Psalm for a start. They have within them a kind of embryonic righteousness and justice that needs to be drawn out. They are poor and needy – if not materially, which they may well be, then spiritually. They are those whose way is upright; who are blameless. In contrast to the wicked they are generous – they are givers. They know the Lord's blessing and he calls them his saints, and his law is in their hearts.
What are the wicked up to? They plot against the righteous and gnash their teeth at them – that is they have kind of gut level hatred. They are violent against the poor and needy and kill the upright. We've already noted how that can work out in a very literal way as Christians are blown to bits by bombs. And we mustn't be under any illusions that this is Satan's stance against the disciples of Christ. He is ruthlessly seeking to destroy them utterly. And he has his human agents in that endeavour. We need also to be clear that there can be no common ground between our sinful and spiritual natures. When we choose sin, that is never neutral in its effect. Our sinful nature wants our spiritual nature dead. Our sinful nature wants Jesus gone from our lives. It is our sinful nature that we must learn to put to death.
What then, in the light of all that, are the righteous experiencing? One of the key experiences of the righteous that Psalm 37 highlights is not perhaps what you might expect. It's envy. Envy of the wicked, because they seem to be doing so well. So the righteous fret about this, says the Psalm. They are envious of the wicked. They are angry because they see the wicked seemingly getting away with it, getting the best of everything. Can you identify with that? Do you even sometimes wonder what is the point of being a disciple, when others seem to have it all and you just get trouble? Then this Psalm is for you. It says the righteous see the wicked spreading like that laurel tree, and putting their lives in mortal danger. And it doesn't always go well for the righteous. There are times when they fall. So verse 24 speaking of the righteous says: "…though he fall…" This is not moral failure we're talking about here. This is some calamity in life when we fall flat on our faces. And when that happens to us, no doubt the wicked are delighted. Such is the experience of the righteous. Enough to make any believer fretful and angry. Any believer, that is, who has lost the God-centred perspective that Psalm 37 is seeking to restore. But one thing is clear for all that. The wicked cause trouble for the righteous. That's the first big theme. So what should we do about it?
Secondly, The Righteous Should React by Looking to the Lord
If we go through Psalm 37 carefully we can piece together a rather wonderful picture of what it means to look to the Lord when we're in a time of trouble. Quite a few of the pieces we need for this picture are in the early part of the Psalm. So let's take a look at verses 1-8. And as we hear this, bear in mind the question on the outline: What are the different aspects of this – of looking to the Lord? And ask yourself what it will look like in your own life to look to the Lord as an antidote to the trouble that the wicked cause. From verse 1 then:
"Fret not yourself because of evildoers;
be not envious of wrongdoers!
For they will soon fade like the grass
and wither like the green herb.
Trust in the LORD, and do good;
dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.
Delight yourself in the LORD,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the LORD;
trust in him, and he will act.
He will bring forth your righteousness as the light,
and your justice as the noonday.
Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him;
fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way,
over the man who carries out evil devices!
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!
Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil."
Don't fret. Don't get hot under the collar. And if that seems easier to say than to do, then remember why we shouldn't fret. If we do fret, we're liable to be drawn towards evil ourselves. Instead, take the long view. Look ahead. With that perspective there really is no reason to be envious. So don't be. Rather, trust in the Lord. Look up. I quote:
"An obsession with enemies and rivals cannot simply be switched off, but it can be ousted by a new focus of attention…"
(Derek Kidner, Commentary on Psalms 1-72)
So rather than being preoccupied with our enemies, we are called to be preoccupied with the Lord himself. Do good. That's there in verse 3 and repeated later on in verse 27. Do good. Persevere with that. Be constructive and not destructive like the wicked. Overcome evil with good. That is God's way. Remember that Jesus said (this is Luke 6.27):
"But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you."
I quote again:
"A conflict with evil too often tempts one to fight the enemy with his own weapons."
(Derek Kidner, Commentary on Psalms 1-72)
But that is not the way of the righteous. That is not the way of Jesus. That is not to be our way. "Dwell in the land," says verse 3. That is, settle to what God has given you to do, where God has given you to do it. Befriend faithfulness. What a great phrase. In the midst of a culture such as ours in which the virture of faithfulness seems ever-increasingly to be regarded as a vice, and unfaithfulness to be celebrated and encouraged - befriend faithfulness. And verse 4 is wonderful, even astonishing, and certainly life-transforming in its implications:
"Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart."
Please take time to think about that, and let it burn itself on to your soul. This is to be branded on to our spirits. Of course this is not saying that everything we wanted before we started delighting in God we'll get. No, Jesus wonderfully transforms what we want the more we get to know him. But nonetheless, that doesn't empty this of its meaning. The truth is that the more you put God first, and seek his kingdom, and long for his glory, and get preoccupied with him above all else, and deliberately redirect your emotions towards him – the more you will find that you get what you want. God plants Godly, God-centred desires in our hearts. And that's not to tease or taunt us. He plants them. And he fulfils them.
Commit your way to the Lord. Entrust your career if you have one, and indeed the whole direction of your life to God. Place it in his hands and trust him for it. Trust in the Lord. Be still before the Lord. Not inactive in the world. But still before God. And wait. Wait patiently for him. That's verse 7 and that too is repeated – down in verse 34:
"Wait for the Lord and keep his way…"
Refrain from anger. Turn away from evil. Take careful note of the righteous – watch them and learn from them. Above all, of course, the righteous man is Jesus. Watch him, and you certainly see one who was troubled by the wicked – to the uttermost extent of torture and execution. But we can see beyond that too – to his resurrection. That is the ultimate destiny of the righteous. Take careful note of that, and you won't be envious of any short term gains of the wicked. And above all, take refuge in the Lord. Hide in him. As the great old hymn says:
"Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee."
So what should the righteous do when the wicked cause trouble? The righteous should react by looking to the Lord in every way possible. And when we do that, what is the long term outcome? That is my final heading:
Thirdly, The Lord Brings the Wicked to Ruin and Rescues the Righteous
Three questions on this, as you can see on the outline. First, when and how does the Lord bring the wicked to ruin? As to when, look at the start of the Psalm again:
"Fret not yourself because of evildoers;
be not envious of wrongdoers!
For they will soon fade like the grass
and wither like the green herb."
"Soon" is when. Of course that's from the perspective of eternity. From that point of view our times of trouble are brief, and the ascendancy of the wicked doesn't last long at all. And what will happen to them? They will be cut off – a phrase that's used to sum up the consequences of being under God's curse. They will have no future. They will be no more. Even if the righteous were to send out a search party for the wicked, they wouldn't be able to find them. So the Lord laughs at them in their pride, because he knows that the day of judgement is coming. Then verse 15 says:
"their sword shall enter their own heart, and their bows shall be broken."
That is, their violence will end up turning in on itself and become self-destructive. The violence once meted on the righteous will end up destroying the wicked. I quote:
"Resourceful minds, fanatical hatred, and overwhelming force have repeatedly combined against the godly, only to destroy their own cause sooner or later."
So the Psalm says the wicked will perish. They will simply vanish like a short lived crop, or smoke blown in the wind. They will pass away. They will be altogether destroyed. Such will be fate of the wicked and the righteous must never forget it. How then could we dream of envying them? Then the next question: when and how does the Lord rescue the righteous? As to when, verse 18 has the only answer we need:
"The LORD knows the days of the blameless…"
As to how, well, rest assured, this Psalm tells us. God will act. Verse 6:
"He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday."
God upholds the righteous. He helps and delivers and saves them. They are not put to shame but instead have abundance – which will be material or spiritual as God sees fit. When the righteous do fall, it will not be fatal or final, but the Lord will pick them up by the hand and put them back on their feet. They won't go short. God will provide. The Lord will not forsake them. They will not be condemned. Because God is their stronghold. The apostle Paul understood all this so well. Romans 8 is full of it:
"There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…"
Such is the Lord's rescue of the righteous. He rescues us from the wicked as we put our trust in Christ Jesus. But lastly – our final question: to what does the Lord rescue the righteous? What's their destiny? This is how the Psalm describes it. The Lord gives the righteous the desires of their hearts. They shall inherit the land. Over and over again that is emphasised – verse 9, 11, 22, 29 and 34. Five times. And I quote:
"Our Lord [Jesus] put this promise into a larger setting: by a similar judgement the meek will inherit, not the land only, but the earth."
And with that will come abundant peace, and an eternal heritage. The children of the righteous become a blessing. They will live eternally. They will themselves see the fall of the wicked. So the righteous have a good future. And that is the greatest understatement ever. The best is yet to come. That is what we need to know when it looks like the wicked are winning and they are giving us trouble. Don't fret. Don't give way to envy. How could we, when we have the perspective of this Psalm?
If we learn well the lessons of this Psalm, maybe we too, like our faithful brothers and sisters in such troubled parts of West Africa, can know that irrepressible, passionate, earnest joy that is constantly ready at any moment to bubble to the surface. Because we too will know that the Lord brings the wicked to ruin and rescues the righteous.