For my entire life, I’ve heard fellow followers of Jesus complain about what they read in the newspapers and see on TV. “The world is going to hell in a hand basket!” they complain. “Our biblical values are being shredded and discarded and we really, really don’t like it.” And from time to time, I’ve joined in.
This kind of whining among the so-called faithful is nothing new. David wrote his Psalm 11 prayer in response to similar complaining in his day.
A spoken discontent with the world is always accompanied by an often unspoken discontent with God who allows things to go badly.
But David starts the psalm with an unadorned but personally relevant statement of faith: “In the Lord I take refuge.” This isn’t a distant observation: “The Lord is a refuge.” This is personal and immediate trust.
The biggest threat to this faith isn’t a band of thugs out to get him. The biggest threat is the band of the so-called faithful who have gone all anxious and blubbering, focusing on the threatening world around them and not on our refuge-giving God.
How then can you say to me:
“Flee like a bird to your mountain.
For look, the wicked bend their bows;
they set their arrows against the strings
to shoot from the shadows
at the upright in heart.
When the foundations are being destroyed,
what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:1b-3)
“Run away! Run away!” they say. “The wicked are like hunters set to shoot us down.” But, again, their focus is on perceived threats hidden in the shadows and not on the God who is this very moment their refuge.
It’s their final whiny line that’s the kicker: “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” I can’t count how many times I’ve heard variations on that one line. And honestly, I’ve said similar things far too often. It sounds like something the faithful would say, but David puts it in the mouth of the faithless.
Against this pious sounding plea, David insists on true piety.
The Lord is in his holy temple;
the Lord is on his heavenly throne. (Psalm 11:4a)
The hidden enemies in the shadows are matched against the reality of God. The ark in the most holy place in the heart of the temple was considered to be the throne of God or at least a representation of it. Turning toward the temple, turning toward worship is David’s response to fear.
Worship keeps us from whining. For only in worship do we see things as they really are. Contrary to what others say, worship is the real world.
The throne of God doesn’t just express his royalty, it is the primary image of his justice. For from his throne, the Lord issues his judgments. And David notes the keen insight of the Enthroned One: He observes everyone on earth; his eyes examine them. (Psalm 11:4b)
God’s seeing is itself an act of judgment. The first page of our Bibles taught us that. “And God saw that it was good” is the repeated phrase with each day of creation; each seeing an act of judgment, with God determining the goodness of what he had created.
In Psalm 11:5, the Lord first examines the righteous. But then he quickly moves on to the wicked, those who are addicted to violence. And they turn his stomach.
Unlike us, God’s seeing something is not divorced from his actions. Where we read the news and shake our heads without doing anything about what we read, God refuses to see without acting. And so the judgment of his seeing what the wicked are doing is followed up by actions to stop them. Those who love violence end up with it rebounding on them. And so verse 6 pulls from the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24) as an image of God’s dealings with the wicked. Remember, this is poetry and David is sketching a quick word picture, not engaging in predictive prophecy. Still, the point is clear: God will deal with them fully and with finality.
How do we know that God will deal with what’s wrong in the world and we needn’t go about whining? David tells us with a final statement of faith: “For the Lord is righteous, he loves justice” (Psalm 11:7).
Justice has less to do with retribution on those who do wrong than on stopping their oppression and restoring the good life to those who have suffered. This is the justice God loves.
But even better than those two sides to justice is the promise of the final words of Psalm 11: the upright will see his face.
We get what we’re looking for. If our eyes are filled with all the sights and sounds and news reports of what’s wrong in the world, we’ll be filled with anxiety that comes out in whining and hand-wringing. But if we turn around and our eyes are filled with God, engaging with him in worship, we get what we are looking for as well. We get God. We get refuge. We get peace. For we see his face.
Questions for reflection
- What is the ratio between the time I spend consuming the news and the time I spend in prayer and worship? What does that ratio reveal about where I place my eyes?
- What are Christians whining about most right now? Would things get any worse if we stopped whining? In other words, are we making things better or worse by whining about them?
- How comfortable am I with the image of God on his throne as Judge?
- What is it like to see God’s face?
Amid the worries of your people and the wrongs being done in the world, I take refuge in you, Lord. You are righteous. You love justice. Turn my heart to worship, for I would see your face. Amen.