In our study of the book of Psalms we come to a quite remarkable psalm – Psalm 129. It has been called "one of the summits of Old Testament poetry". Its literary merits, of course, are not the issue for tonight. For we come to the Bible not as coming to Shakespeare, where we sit back rightly amazed at Shakespeare's wizardry with words. No!
We come to the Bible to hear what God is saying to us from words uttered centuries ago, whatever their literary merit. And I believe that God is saying, by his Holy Spirit, from these words of this psalm some very important things we all need to hear at the beginning of the 21st century. And my headings are: first, "THE KINGDOM, THE POWER and THE GLORY"; secondly, "FEARFULLY and WONDERFULLY MADE"; and, thirdly, HATRED - RIGHT OR WRONG?
First, "THE KINGDOM, THE POWER and THE GLORY"
When you say those words at the end of the Lord's Prayer, what do they mean to you? What do those songs mean to you that are sung in heaven, according to the book of Revelation, like the one in Revelation 4.11: "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power. What is the "glory and honour and power" that is a being affirmed and celebrated? Well, that song in Revelation 4.11 says it has to do with God's creative power: "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being."
But God's creative power didn't stop with the creation of this universe of space and time. You see, he continues to govern it and that power is still at work. The theologians talk about God's "providence". That is short hand for what God is doing creatively in his world now. The initial Creation was the result of God's divine power according to his intelligent design and plan. Providence is God's continuing exercise of that divine power that keeps the created order in being. So he involves himself in all its events and he steers all things to their appointed end. Providence means that God is sovereign over all and with "hands on" control. The hands may be hidden, but God's rule is certain. And this "providence" is what our Psalm is really all about.
So look at verses 1-12. These first twelve verses are telling you two things - first, that God is all knowing, and, secondly, that he is always every-where. He is omniscient (all knowing) and omnipresent (present everywhere and at all times). And that is so vital to remember. Let's think about these two truths.
First, God is all knowing and he knows you inside out. On the one hand, he knows you on the inside. Look at verses 1 and 2b: "O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. ... you perceive my thoughts from afar."
And, on the other hand, he knows you on the outside, so to speak. Look at verse 2a and verse 3: "You know me when I sit and when I rise ... You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways."
And God knows what you are going to say before you've even said it. Look at verse 4: "Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD." So God is all-knowing (or omniscient).
But, secondly, he also is always everywhere (or omnipresent). There is nowhere where you can get away from God. If you could take the Space Shuttle and end up in another galaxy, God would be there. If you could go down and "journey to the centre of the earth" (à la Jules Verne) God would be there also. Look at verse 8: "If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there."
And you can get up in the morning in the East, "on the wings of he dawn", and then, verse 9, travel (BA and strikes permitting) and "settle on the far side of the sea" - and God is there too. Now, for the Psalmist (writing in the Holy Land) "the sea" meant the Mediterranean Sea. So "the far side of the sea" meant the West. He is saying, therefore, that God is in the East and the West.
And look at verses 11 and 12: "If I say, 'Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,' even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you." Nor will night and day - the darkness and the light - keep God away. He is there everywhere and always. He is omnipresent. To think about all this was so staggering for the Psalmist. His mind boggled to the "N"th degree - or in his more elegant way he said, verse 6: "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain."
But this human knowledge of God is not to be just knowledge of cold facts. It is also knowledge of good news. And that gives the Psalmist encouragement and hope. It leads him to trust God when the going is hard. Look again at verse 10:
"even there [in the West or in the East] your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast."
What do we know about this Psalm? Very little. First, you are told in the preamble, it was "for the director of music". He (as Ian Garrett suggested last week) was the Chris Edwards of the Temple. Then you are told it was a psalm "Of David" - the great Israelite King. But you are not told anything about what the background was in David's life or when it was written. You can, therefore, apply it to any and every situation that fits. And this psalm applies to very ordinary situations as well as to what could be called more strategic ones.
David was one of the most powerful men in the world of those days and would have applied these truths to public life. So this Psalm is a great encouragement to any believer to trust God when the going is hard and when there are confusions or worries in private or public life. The psalm says that God is not only all knowing and always everywhere, but, if you are a believer, he will give you guidance in your confusion and protection when you are worried - verse 10 again: "even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast."
Who needs to remind themselves of these great promises tonight? Who is going through a really tough time tonight in one way or other? Well, trust God, for his is the kingdom, the power and the glory and he will guide and protect you.
Secondly, "FEARFULLY and WONDERFULLY MADE"
God's omniscience (the fact that he is all knowing) and his omnipresence (his being always everywhere) is not the end of the story. No! Just as amazing is God's creation of you and me - the creation of human life. Look at verses 13-16:
"For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be."
This past week the Human Fertility and Embryology Authority has launched a public consultation on whether it is right to screen human embryos for genes linked to breast, ovarian and some colon cancers. Carrying these genes, however, does not guarantee that disease will develop. But the HFEA is asking if it is appropriate to test for them. The embryos can then be aborted.
We now have a culture of embryonic and foetal destruction in this country. Not only are there record numbers of abortions. There is now a programme of "therapeutic cloning" and here in Newcastle. And that is in spite of the United Nations earlier this year voting in favour of banning all forms of human cloning because of the serious ethical problems.
The great problem is that therapeutic cloning seems to involve the deliberate creation of human life only to destroy it. Of course, the motives and the objectives are very good - the desire to cure currently incurable diseases through stem-cells. But is it always right to do anything to achieve your goals in life? The answer is, No!
The Bible makes it clear that you may not, in Paul's words, "do evil that good may result" (Romans 3 verse 8). The end does not always justify the means. This is not being anti-science. It is following a fundamental moral principle. The Nazi Germans had to learn that at Nuremberg in the trials after the Second World War. They had to learn the hard way that some genuinely scientific and useful experiments, performed by medical doctors on Jewish patients, were murderous. They seem to have learnt the lesson. Certainly Germany is stricter than this country regarding therapeutic cloning and there are fewer abortions in Germany per 1000 live births than in the England.
The key issue, of course, in the debate over abortion and experiments on the human embryo is simple - "is the human embryo human?" So what does the psalmist teach us here in Psalm 139? Well, it tells us that what is created in the human womb is "fearfully and wonderfully made" (verse 14).
And it adds that there is a human instinct that knows you should treat human life (and in this context that includes human embryonic and foetal life) with awe. The psalmist says "I know that full well" (verse 14), namely that we are "fearfully and wonderfully made". And the psalmist tells us that God knew all that was going on "in the secret place" and "the depths of the earth" - referring to when he was developing in the womb (verse 15). He tells us that God's care and concern was on him - David - when he was "unformed" - that is, before he appeared with any human characteristics (verse 16): "Your eyes saw my unformed body."
In fact God's care and concern started before that first fertilization of an ovum (or egg). Look at verse 16b: "All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be." And "all the days" could be translated as "all the many stages" (that is of my embryonic life). The New English Bible translates it as "day by day they were fashioned".
So God knows that - genetically speaking - we were unique when we were no larger than a full stop on a sheet of paper. That was when there was an initial fusion and fertilization of your mother's ovum (or egg) by your father's sperm. God knows that your history as a discrete item in space and time began at that point. And God cares for that new human life as this psalm shows. So surely we can't treat it as sub-human? Oh, there are arguments about when human life begins. Some argue that it doesn't begin at conception but later. Much could be said on this and I preached on Life Issues in our morning series last Sunday. But let me just respond to three of these arguments that I didn't mention last Sunday.
First, some say that human life doesn't really begin until implantation in the womb. But, surely, implantation is only a matter of the right environment. All human life needs a right environment. All human infants and adults and older people need the environment of oxygen - as those Russian submariners learnt last week-end. But the presence or absence of oxygen doesn't determine anyone's human status or value. That status and value comes from God's creation of us in his image (see Genesis 9.6).
Secondly, some say that twinning (some embryos become twins) - twinning means that human life doesn't begin until after that twinning process is no longer possible. But why? Why should we not respect embryos as human because some are going to divide? It simply means that "God's works are wonderful" in more ways than we might have imagined. And in the animal world there are no problems, physical or philosophical, over flat worms. The flat worm is a discrete part of God's creation; but when cut in two, it becomes two new worms. You may not then say that the original worm was not a worm!
Thirdly, some others say there are so many early natural miscarriages. The early embryo cannot, therefore, be treated as human. But in many developing countries there are high infant mortality rates. We don't then treat new-born children as sub-human. Sadly, there are modern ethicists who are doing just that and saying it is sometimes right to kill new born children. That is why these issues are so serious. And how does it follow that because nature may spontaneously abort an embryo, we may deliberately kill one? Just because earthquakes happen, it doesn't mean massacres are justified.
No, this psalm says that God's care and his hand are on human life at all stages in the womb. The clear implication is that we should care, too. The beginning of life on this earth is conception - as Jesus himself proved. The end is death. And because of God's care and commitment even to the embryo, God's thoughts - his plans - his providences - are not only wonderful, says the psalmist, but precious - verses 17-18:
"How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. When I awake, I am still with you."
Thirdly, and finally, HATRED - RIGHT OR WRONG?
This past week we were all praying for a safe return of the Space Shuttle, Discovery, as it re-entered the earth's atmosphere at unbelievable temperatures of 3000 degrees. From, so to speak, the purity of the void that is space, on the return a shuttle is luminous and would be incandescent without the heat shield.
Well, in this Psalm David is a bit like a Space Shuttle without a heat shield. From meditating on the purity of the power and the glory of God in terms of his providence and his creation of the human individual (with its microscopic beginnings), the Psalmist now looks at the adult world around him. And he is incandescent with anger as he sees wicked, bloodthirsty men who hate and blaspheme God.
Now remember, the Old Testament is inspired scripture. Jesus upheld it. Paul says it is "useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3.16). So you have to take it seriously when the Psalmist writes in verses 19-22 these words:
"If only you would slay the wicked, O God! Away from me, you bloodthirsty men! They speak of you with evil intent; your adversaries misuse your name. Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD, and abhor those who rise up against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies."
But you also must remember that when David was writing, Christ had not yet died on the Cross. Christ had not yet born the punishment for the sin of the world. David simply knew that God would judge all sin. He knew that God is sovereign over all; but mortal men and women are still free and responsible for what they do. Yes, this also is "knowledge too wonderful" for our finite minds. But he knew that God is all holy, as well as all knowing and all present always and everywhere. He knew that God does hate evil and sin. But as we heard in Romans 12 verse 9, first we are to be sincere in our love, and then "hate what is evil".
In Old Testament times God particularly had to underline that he was moral and righteous and hates evil and so punishes those who sin. In New Testament times Jesus came to underline that truth but also to underline and expand the good news that our God is also all loving as well as all holy. And he so loved the world that he sent Jesus Christ, the Divine Son, to bear that punishment the Old Testament underlined, in our place for we all have dinned. Using the words of this Psalm, he, Jesus, would be slain for the wicked. So that prayer of David that God "would slay the wicked" was answered at Calvary in a way David, necessarily, could not see.
Now in this present time, the other side of Calvary, you and I must pray positively for our enemies and urge them to repent and receive the forgiveness that Christ offers. But God will not withhold his punishment ever. One day Christ will return and for judgment as well as finally to establish God's kingdom for ever and ever. We were thinking about that two Sunday evenings ago when we looked at 2 Peter 3.
So who needs to receive that forgiveness tonight from Christ? Perhaps you have been challenged by the Holy Spirit recently. And remember no one is too bad to be saved and no one is too good to need saving. And if you genuinely confess, God will always forgive. That is the good news. And he will give you the Holy Spirit to help you start to live a new life.
David, however, was so right to be concerned. He was right to show hatred. But as we read in Romans 12, from this side of the Cross of Christ, we should hate what evil, and not hate the evil doer. But hate what is evil, we must. All this is why this proposed "Religious hatred" bill is so pernicious. For you must hate religion where it is false, but not the follower of that religion. So pray against this bill, argue against it and write against it.
I trust I will always hate things that are seriously wrong in the Christian religion. In the Christian church I hate the denials of those who deny the virgin birth of Jesus and his empty tomb. In Islam I hate the denials of the death of Christ (which are patently false); and Tony Blair himself is encouraging everyone to hate the violence in some parts of Islam. And I hate in the religion of secular humanism the promotion of immorality and blasphemy.
But I am very conscious that human hatred of evil can be tinged with venom and vengeance which is so wrong, as we heard in Romans 12 verse 19. In this period between the first and second coming of Jesus only the State can use force on God's behalf in executing justice. No individual can. Paul makes that clear in Romans 13. And that is why it is so essential, not only that we try to hate what is evil, but also pray regularly as David prayed for pure motives, and with this I conclude - verses 23 and 24:
"Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting."