What to Do When Evil Prospers

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Introduction. How do we react when evil seems to prosper.

How is a Christian supposed to react when someone powerful abuses their position of strength to destroy others and no-one seems able to do anything to stop them? As I said those words, what situation springs to your mind? You work hard, but your boss asks you to lie to your client about the number of hours you've worked on your project. You gently refuse to lie because of your faith in the God of truth. Your boss is not happy and so you miss out on a promotion. Or you are a Christian living under a wicked and unjust government and leaders or your church is attacked by terrorists.

Tonight in our journey during these summer weeks through the Psalms, we come to Psalm 52, which teaches us how to react when evil seems to prosper. To begin with, look at the first few lines under the title. This tells us about the event that first prompted these words to be penned by King David.

"To the choirmaster. A Maskil of David, when Doeg, the Edomite, came and told Saul, 'David has come to the house of Ahimelech.'"

We heard about that event in our first reading from 1 Samuel 21 and 22, but let me summarise. David was on the run from King Saul, who wanted to kill him. Without even taking the time to pack provisions, David fled. Famished and tired he stopped for a rest at the house of a family of priests and sought help from Ahimelech, the Priest. He needed food and weapons. They helped him. But watching them was Doeg who later reported what had happened to Saul, his master. Saul summoned the priests, accused them of treason and ordered his guards to kill them and every man, woman and child in their city for helping David. The guards refused. So Doeg, eager to please King Saul stepped in and brutally slaughtered them all and then went and massacred all the men's wives, and children and friends and neighbours.

So David is distraught. Those who plan evil and destruction seem to have won. They seem to have the upper hand. How will David – who trusts in God – react? That is what Psalm 52 is all about. What we have in front of us is the divinely inspired response of David to the dark, wicked deed of a brutal and seemingly successful enemy.

Psalm 52.8 sums up where he gets to: "I trust in the steadfast love of God". This psalm will teach us how to respond when we face injustice in this fallen world and I have three headings:

1. Be Real with God (v1-4)
2. Remember Evil Does Not Pay in the End (v5-7)
3. Trust in the Steadfast Love of God (v8-9)

1. Be real with God (v1-4)

Perhaps you think that God wants you to react by not complaining; that a godly response means to 'grin a bear it'. If so, then these verses might surprise you. The image that the opening verses present is of David, speaking directly to Doeg – who was responsible for terrible evil. The language is full of anger and emotion. You can't imagine them being said in a cool, calm voice, can you. Surely, this is the cry of someone rightly devasted by an atrocity that has been committed. Look at verses 1 to 4:

"Why do you boast of evil, O mighty man?
The steadfast love of God endures all the day.
Your tongue plots destruction,
like a sharp razor, you worker of deceit.
You love evil more than good,
and lying more than speaking what is right.
You love all words that devour,
O deceitful tongue."

So is that how we should react? Is this how we should process and respond when evil prospers? Is this encouraging us to go and vent our anger to those who are and who do evil? What about the reality that we too were once enemies of God, but are now redeemed and called by Jesus himself to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us?

The pastor and theologian Don Carson wrote a biography of his Dad Tom Carson (called Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor) and in it, he tells of a time when Tom had to take a principled stand – I won't go into all the details because that's not the point. It led to Tom being brutally and publically attacked by the leader of his denomination. He spread damaging lies about Tom, and took action that harmed both him and his ministry.

Now here's the thing that struck Don Carson most. He was a young man when this all happened and he says: "I heard not a whisper of these events at home". He cannot remember a negative word being said about the leader whose actions had caused all that damage. Later, when in Bible College, Don discovered all that had happened and asked his dad why they had never heard about it. His dad said: "[Your mum] and I decided that we needed to protect our own souls from bitterness. Therefore, we took a vow that neither of us would ever say an unkind thing about [him]. And we have kept our vow."

Incredible, isn't it. But was Tom Carson right? Isn't this psalm and David's example suggesting it would have been healthier to find the one who had done wrong and let rip! Or is the godly response to say nothing and 'grin and bear it'?

Now I think there are most certainly times when we do need to speak out about injustice – especially when that injustice is against those who cannot speak for themselves. And evil should be opposed publicly especially when committed by those in public positions especially in a country like ours where that is not only possible but part of how we govern ourselves. So, for example, it's not wrong to challenge an unjust decision by an employer or the government. However, I don't think that is what is going on here.

Almost every verse begins with "you", so in the language, it is addressed to Doeg. But this psalm is actually a prayer and so these words are directed to God, not Doeg. We see that from the final verse 9. The psalm ends with David speaking to God directly. But he doesn't just turn to God at the end. He's been speaking to God all along. And as he processes what has happened and as he works towards a position of trust in God, we see him venting his anger and processing his hurt not to Doeg but to God.

Which is why I think the first lesson this psalm teaches us about responding to such trials is to be real with God. We know that Tom Carson never spoke badly about the leader who had acted so badly with his kids. But who knows what he said, in his private conversations with God as he processed all that had gone on. Perhaps he too, like David here, rehearsed in God's hearing what he would have loved to say to the man who had caused such devastating damage. That's the right way to react – to speak to God about your hurt and rage against the injustice to him. And so the first lesson of this psalm is 'Be Real with God'.

So, pour out your heart to the Lord. Tell him of your trials, of your suffering, of your sorrow, of your doubts. To do so is not an act of faithlessness, but an act of faith.

Here are some words from a wonderful book on prayer called A Praying Life by Paul Millar. It's a great book (and as he says in the blurb), "full of nitty-gritty tales of surviving and thriving in a world of stress and disappointment" and as you would expect is available from the resources area at the back. He picks up this theme:

"Why is it important to come to God just as you are? If you don't, then you are artificial and unreal, like the Pharisees. Rarely did they tell Jesus what they were thinking. Jesus accused them of being masked actors with two faces. They weren't real… The only way to come to God is by taking off any spiritual mask. The real you has to meet the real God. He is a person."

Your heart could be, and often is, askew. That's okay. You have to begin with what is real. Jesus didn't come for the righteous. He came for sinners. All of us qualify. The very thing we try to get rid of – our weariness, our distractedness, our messiness – are what get us in the front door! That's how the gospel works. That's how prayer works.

In bringing your real self to Jesus, you give him the opportunity to work on the real you, and you will slowly change. So be real with God. That is where David begins. That too is where we should start.

2. Remember Evil Does Not Pay in the End (v5-7)

When faced with appalling evil and apparently unstoppable oppression the psalm reminds us of a truth that will prevent us from despair and keep us from the temptation to join what looks to be the winning team. David has already exposed to us the man who he ironically calls "a mighty man". That might be how Doeg views himself. But David mocks the wickedness of the man who slaughters the innocent and the defenceless, his pride, his self-centeredness, his trust in his own cleverness, rather than God. Verse 1 to 4 exposes the character of a wicked man. Then David goes on (in v5-7) to point out what God will do about that.

The consequences are that God will, in the end, bring about the total and final ruin of those who despise and ignore him. He will, sooner or later, right all wrongs. There will be nowhere to hide. Evil will be dealt with. There will be a day of reckoning.

Look out for the two very powerful images of this in verse 5. The first is of the mighty being evicted from their home. They will be torn away from where they feel secure. And the second image is of a tree being pulled up and destroyed. Uproot is what you do to weeds: you pull them out of the ground and remove them. Look at verses 5 to 7:

"But God will break you down for ever;
he will snatch and tear you from your tent;
he will uproot you from the land of the living. Selah
The righteous shall see and fear,
and shall laugh at him, saying,
'See the man who would not make
God his refuge,
but trusted in the abundance of his riches
and sought refuge in his own destruction!'"

At the end of the day, the result for the so-called "mighty man" of not making God his stronghold will be to bring on himself God's judgement. He may not fear God now, but one day he will. He may be laughing now, but the last laugh belongs to the people of God as they see the unexpected but gloriously just, divine plan of God unfolds.

So, how does remembering that help you when you face situations like David faced?

First, it is a reminder that revenge is not ours to take. It would be natural for him to have gone on from verses 1 to 4 to say…
So I will bring you down to everlasting ruin.
I will snatch you up and tear you from your tent.
I will uproot you from the land of the living.

But he doesn't. Deuteronomy 32.35:

"Vengeance is mine, and recompense,
for the time when their foot shall slip;
for the day of their calamity is at hand,
and their doom comes swiftly.'"

That verse is quoted in Romans 12.19:

"Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'"

Second, it keeps us from the temptation to side with evil which seems to be winning the day. David is not just gloating over the end result of the wicked in this world. Remembering it strengthens his resolve that their lifestyle is not the way to go. To live like that is foolishness. He imagines what could be said at the funeral of such a man in verse 7:

'Here now (lies) the man who would not make God his refuge, but trusted in the abundance of his riches and sought refuge in his own destruction!'

3. Trust in the Steadfast Love of God (v8-9)

It doesn't come without a struggle, but the final climax of the psalm is of trust in the only one who can right such terrible wrongs. David is real with God, and remembers that evil will not pay in the end and then finds himself in a place of trusting in the God whose love is unfailing and constant – it never ends. Look at verses 8 to 9:

"But I am like a green olive tree
in the house of God.
I trust in the steadfast love of God
for ever and ever.
I will thank you for ever,
because you have done it.
I will wait for your name, for it is good,
in the presence of the godly."

In contrast to the image of a tree that is uprooted, is the image of an olive tree flourishing in the house of God. In other words, the difference between these two men is that David trusts in God's unfailing love rather than his own cleverness, his own plots, his own tongue, his own wealth. Doeg trusts in himself and in Saul; David trusts in God and waits for God to bring judgment in his own time. These two men are trusting in two different things.

Even though evil things happen and the righteous will experience persecution and rejection from the world, we must continue to trust in God's unfailing love. We must continue to believe that God is with us, cares about us, will never abandon us, and will work out things to his glory. That is the response of faith, to remain confident that God is in total control and is totally loving even when evil appears to have won.

The ultimate example of that of course is Jesus's death on the cross. You see that in the prayer of the believers in Acts 4. They had been arrested and imprisoned for doing nothing more than healing a sick man and speaking about Jesus. They looked back and remembered that it was the same pattern on the day Jesus died on the cross. It looked like the forces of evil had won on that day. But God was not taken by surprise. He took their opposition and weaved it into his great plan of salvation. He turned what was apparently a defeat into a victory. And whatever we may be facing, or face in the future, we can be confident that no opposition can possibly stop his purposes from being carried out. Their prayer is a wonderful example of trusting in the steadfast love of God.

Let me end with an account of someone who, like David, came to trust in God's unfailing love after horrendous suffering. I hope it will help each one of us to do the same.

Helen Roseveare was a missionary in the Congo in the second half of the 20th century. The Congo became independent from Belgium in 1960, and civil war broke out in 1964. All of the medical facilities they had established were destroyed. Helen was among ten Protestant missionaries put under house arrest by the rebel forces for several weeks, after which time they were moved and imprisoned.

She describes the horror of what happened after she tried to escape:

"They found me, dragged me to my feet, struck me over head and shoulders, flung me on the ground, kicked me, dragged me to my feet only to strike me again—the sickening searing pain of a broken tooth, a mouth full of sticky blood, my glasses gone. Beyond sense, numb with horror and unknown fear, driven, dragged, pushed back to my own house—yelled at, insulted, cursed."

Her captors, she wrote, "were brutal and drunken. They cursed and swore, they struck and kicked, they used the butt-end of rifles and rubber truncheons. We were roughly taken, thrown in prisons, humiliated, threatened." On October 29, 1964, Helen Roseveare was brutally raped. She later recounted:

"On that dreadful night, beaten and bruised, terrified and tormented, unutterably alone, I had felt at last God had failed me. Surely he could have stepped in earlier, surely things need not have gone that far. I had reached what seemed to be the ultimate depth of despairing nothingness."

She was certainly real with God. She later pointed to God's goodness despite this great evil:

"Through the brutal heartbreaking experience of rape, God met with me—with outstretched arms of love. It was an unbelievable experience: He was so utterly there, so totally understanding, his comfort was so complete—and suddenly I knew—I really knew that his love was unutterably sufficient. He did love me! He did understand!"

Like David, she too came to the point where verses 8 and 9 were her response to evil. May it be ours too.

"But I am like a green olive tree
in the house of God.
I trust in the steadfast love of God
for ever and ever.
I will thank you for ever,
because you have done it.
I will wait for your name, for it is good,
in the presence of the godly."

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