September 20, 2009

Psalm 12: The Promise of God

1 Help, LORD, for the godly man ceases!
For the faithful disappear from among the sons of men.
2 They speak idly everyone with his neighbor;
With flattering lips and a double heart they speak.
3 May the LORD cut off all flattering lips,
And the tongue that speaks proud things,
4 Who have said,
“With our tongue we will prevail;
Our lips are our own;
Who is lord over us?”
5 “For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy,
Now I will arise,” says the LORD;
“I will set him in the safety for which he yearns.”
6 The words of the LORD are pure words,
Like silver tried in a furnace of earth,
Purified seven times.
7 You shall keep them, O LORD,
You shall preserve them from this generation forever.
8 The wicked prowl on every side,
When vileness is exalted among the sons of men.
In Psalm 12, David struggles with the attitudes and actions of people of God—not just anybody, but the people who called themselves God’s people.

The time is about approximately 1000 B.C. We all know the story of David—how God chose him when he was a shepherd boy to become king over Israel, how he defeated Goliath, how he showed so many human faults, and how he seemed to be tormented a lot of his life by enemies, even his own son. We know of his victories and his faults, and we see David as he struggles between his ambition and lusts and his desire to serve God. Yet he still is called a man after God’s own heart.

God made room for our own struggles between self-centeredness and God-centeredness by providing the Messiah to suffer the punishment otherwise due us. His grace is seen in the Old Testament, too, as He cares for His prophets, protects His people, and forgives their sins.

In Psalm 12, David laments the sin of Israel. He is not talking about individual sins of people who know better but slip up sometimes; he is talking of a whole country, a whole society of people God had chosen for His own who had turned their backs on their Lord. He is writing about a society which largely is characterized by wickedness, greed, lies, oppression of the poor, and given to its lusts.

Yet Israel was strong militarily and had the respect of the nations around it. Israel had become but one of many people in world history who, as it gained strength and stature among the other nations, saw its moral and spiritual values declining.

David looked to God when people let him down (1)

He opens this psalm with a plea for help or rescue. The word means help, salvation, or deliver me. Its root word is “Hosanna” in Hebrew—salvation, savior, rescue. Another Hebrew term related to this root word is “Messiah,” the deliverer and savior.

David looked for God to be the redeemer because people had let him down. He looked around and felt like he was all alone. He is in despair and declares that there are no more godly people and there are no faithful people left in the land. By and large, the people have turned away from God; they no longer worship Him, they no longer obey Him; they are no longer faithful.

Verse 1 reminds me of Elijah in 1 Kings 19. Elijah lived and ministered in Israel just a couple of generations after David’s rule. Elijah, after a tremendous victory over the prophets of Ba’al, fled from Jezebel. Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Phoenicia, married Israel’s King Ahab. Ahab and Jezebel allowed temples of Ba’al to be built in Israel, and the pagan religion received support from the king and queen. Ahab allowed the worship of a foreign god within the palace, building a temple for Ba’al and allowing Jezebel to bring a large entourage of priests and prophets of Ba’al and Asherah into the country. The queen uses her control over Ahab to lead the Hebrews into idolatry and sexual immorality, and the king subjects them to tyranny.

After Jezebel orders the prophets of Yahweh slaughtered, the prophet Elijah challenges 450 prophets of Ba’al to a test (1 Kings 18), exposes their god as powerless, has them slaughtered (1 Kings 18:40), and incurs Jezebel's furious enmity. After running from Jezebel for 40 days, Elijah arrives at a distant cave, where the Lord confronts him:

9 And there he went into a cave, and spent the night in that place; and behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and He said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
10 So he said, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life.”—1 Kings 19:9-10.
David felt somewhat the same way. In despair, he laments that there are no godly people left; that all the faithful people of God have disappeared.

Description of a faithless people (2-5)

David begins this Psalm with a description of those who have failed around him, those who have allowed wickedness to overwhelm them emotionally. The ending of the psalm shows us the contrast between the uncommitted and sinful people compared to their faithful God, who is committed to the deliverance of His people.

David is distressed with the wickedness of the people around him. To David, it seems that everyone has become faithless, and it distresses him. In verse 2, he starts listing their characteristics: “They speak idly everyone with his neighbor; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.” David is describing deception—people lie to the people around them, and a prominent part of the deception was false praise or flattery. (The word means smooth or smooth sounding—false praise or approval that softens someone else’s resolve.)

Many successful salespeople know the power of flattery to get the customer to make a purchase. In Israel, the people would lie perhaps to gain a financial advantage or to gain in some other way. They lied in the marketplace with false claims and false weights and measures. They lied in court and bribed judges to judge in their favor. David was so distressed and discouraged about the widespread deception among his people, that he felt like he was the only faithful person left.

Have you ever been so frustrated with some other Christian that you felt like that?

In verses 3 and 4, we find not only did people have flattering lips, but also they were boastful. They set their own standards of behavior. They, not God, were number one. They were proud of their wealth, proud of Israel’s military strength and position among the nations around it, proud of their homes and land . . . proud and boastful. Their value system became centered on their needs and their wants, and achieving those, rather than serving their Lord, became their standard of success and happiness.

Verse 4 does a good job of summing up their attitude: “With our tongue we will prevail; our lips are our own; who is lord over us?” The way that question is asked, the expected answer is “no one is lord over us.” From the opening of the psalm, we know that David was fed up with all this. He was angry and mournful that God’s people had turned away from their Lord. And as verse 4 demonstrates, they had not only turned away, but had forsaken their Lord with the attitude that “We can say what we want and nobody can do anything about it!”

Verse 5 adds another charge to the list: oppression of the poor. Israel even in this early time (1000 B.C.) consisted of the haves and the have nots. There was a very small middle class—either you and your family were rich, well-clothed, and well-fed, or you were existing day to day on starvation wages as a day laborer. The attitude of the wealthy in ancient Israel became the same as the pagan cultures around it-—he poor exist to serve the rich. The poor were often cheated out of wages Many lived a nomadic existence around the cities and the countryside, being unable to afford housing, or got temporary shelter with the animals in the stables of the rich landowners for whom they worked day to day After the harvest, they picked the fields clean of any grain left behind, because there was little opportunity for employment after the harvest season.

The poor often begged and were scorned by the wealthy as a lower class of existence. And in the last part of verse 5, God promises to rescue them: “I will arise; I will set him in the safety for which he yearns.” Once again we run into a word related to that ancient Hebrew root word, “Hosanna”—the promise to bring safety—salvation, rescue, redemption—to the oppressed poor among His people.

The promises of God are sure (6-7)

David tells us the word of the Lord (to redeem the poor, v. 5) are pure, meaning truthful and sure to come true. Like silver, cleansed of all impurities in the refiner’s fire—cleansed a number of times to remove every last bit of impurity. The Lord’s perfect words are in marked contrast to the words of the arrogant, boastful, deceptive people in Israel. David testifies to God’s dependability in verse 7—if God says He will redeem the poor, then He will do it and care for them both now and in the future.

Wickedness prevails when mankind sets the moral standards (8)

David ends the psalm with a proverb: “The wicked prowl on every side when vileness is exalted among the sons of men.” Among those who do not know God, the prevailing standards are determined by mankind rather than from a devotion to the standards of God. Paul in the book of Romans draws a distinction between the “natural man” and the people of God. The natural man—who is in rebellion against God—sets his own standards of morals and behavior.

And as we can see around us, when mankind sets the standards, vileness is usually exalted. People cheat, lie, and steal. And as we have seen in recent months, that can be on a colossal scale—with a small group of people in New York City swindling more than $50 billion while leading seemingly respectable lives.

It’s not just in the world, but it happens among Christians. From my days as real estate broker, I could tell you that several of the Christians I dealt with served the world’s standards of greed and dishonest gain rather than the standards of their faith.

I think David’s observation here confirms what we see around us. In western culture the default standard of success involves money, position, and power; whereas in the kingdom of God, Jesus set the only real standard of success: in Matthew 22:11, Jesus tells the disciples: “He who is greatest among you shall be your servant,” and in Mark 9:35, Jesus says, “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.”

Psalm 12 does a good job of describing not only the culture in which David lived, but also our own culture, which has turned from its beginnings, when the freedom to worship motivated the earliest settlers to arrive on our shores, to a condition in which riches and status are usually the primary ways our culture measures a person.

Psalm 8: Crowned with Glory and Honor

1 O LORD, our Lord,
How excellent is Your name in all the earth,
Who have set Your glory above the heavens!

2 Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants
You have ordained strength,
Because of Your enemies,
That You may silence the enemy and the avenger.

3 When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained,
4 What is man that You are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You visit him?
5 For You have made him a little lower than the angels,
And You have crowned him with glory and honor.

6 You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under his feet,
7 All sheep and oxen—
Even the beasts of the field,
8 The birds of the air,
And the fish of the sea
That pass through the paths of the seas.

9 O LORD, our Lord,
How excellent is Your name in all the earth!

When he was young David kept sheep. He was with his sheep on the hills at night, and the sheep were safe with him. No doubt at night David must have contemplated the enormity of God’s creation: the moon and the stars in the sky. God made them all, and looking at the stars and moon and all creation, David knew that God is strong and powerful.

But in this psalm David also acknowledges that God had enemies. These enemies fought God. They also hurt the people of God, and David felt very small when he looked at what God had made. Contemplating the creation around him and above him, David felt that he was not that important; he felt very small compared to the earth and the heavens. But David also knew that God would make His people strong.

There are many Psalms that have the praise and worship of God as their central theme. The one for us today is Psalm 8.

God is worthy of our praise. We read in Revelation 4:11: “You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power; for you created all things, and by Your will they exist and were created.”

Notice that Psalm 8 is bracketed at either ends by the same assertion “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.” David is asserting that our God is awesome, amazing, wonderful, beautiful, and awe inspiring. When David says “how majestic is your name in all the earth” we need to understand that for David to speak of God’s majestic name this means that David personally knows and experiences God, a relationship between him and God exist.

Why does David proclaim the majesty of our God? The center part of Psalm 8 makes it clear why David wrote that God is so wonderful, amazing, majestic, and excellent and therefore praiseworthy.

God’s Majesty Above His Creation (1)

In Psalm 8, David praises the greatness of God. We know from the context of the rest of the psalm that he is referring to God’s majesty as evidenced by His creation.

“O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth” David proclaims. Why? “You have set your glory above the heavens”—as glorious and majestic as the created heavens are, how much more majestic is God, who created them.

David uses the term “Yahweh,” which means “the existing one,” that is, the only existing God, when he says “O Lord.” “Yahweh” in Hebrew has no vowels and no one knows how the name for God should be pronounced. In fact, the name of God is still a mystery. In the Jewish tradition, the fact that it cannot be accurately pronounced is considered a gesture of respect, that mere man should not even pronounce the name of God. We get the pronunciation of “Yahweh” because the tradition was to combine the unpronounceable name with the vowels from another reference for God, “Adonai,” my lord or master. The reason for this was that by using the vowels from another word, one could refer to God in speech without actually speaking His name, which would be disrespectful.

David uses this term “Adonai” in his second reference to God: “our Lord.” So the opening of the psalm literally reads “O God, our Lord” or “O God, our Master.”

God’s Strength in Dealing with His Enemies (2)

Verse 2 seems out of place, as David goes from talking about the majesty of God to this reference in verse 2 to children’s praises and God silencing His enemies. But verse 2 does describe something of the majesty and power of God: “Out of the mouths of babes and nursing infants You have ordained strength.” This verse may also be translated “You have perfected praise” or “You have established praise.”

One evidence of God’s majesty is His strength. He is able to silence the enemy 100 percent of the time. God is more powerful than all those who oppose Him and more powerful His chief enemy, Satan, who seeks to take us from God for himself. And verse 2 also is a prophecy fulfilled in Matthew 21:14-17:

14The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. 15But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple area, "Hosanna to the Son of David," they were indignant. 16"Do you hear what these children are saying?" they asked him. "Yes," replied Jesus, "have you never read, 'From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise'"? 17And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night.

God’s Majesty Is Seen in His Creation (3)

David speaks in verse 3 of the majesty of God as seen in His created heavens. We can only be more in awe today, knowing so much more about the vastness of God’s creation. When we look up at the night sky, we know there is far more out there than anyone can see or really comprehend. In our galaxy alone, there are more than a billion stars, and we are just an average-sized galaxy among billions of galaxies!

There is an inconceivable number of stars and planets. They are traveling at speeds beyond our ability to understand and are at distances from us that are barely imaginable . . . and all of it is a tribute to the majesty of God the Creator and Sustainer.

David elaborates on this point in the opening verses of Psalm 19:

1 The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

2 Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.

3 There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.

4 Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun, 5 which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion, like a champion rejoicing to run his course.

The beauty and the complexity of the created order ought to lead us into the praise and worship of God.

God’s Care for His People (4)

In verse 4, David’s point is that despite the vastness of creation and the seeming insignificance of people, God still takes care of His people: “What is man that you are mindful of him…?” David uses the word that means “mortal man” or an “individual” or single person. “…And the son of man that You visit (care for) him?” David uses another term for “man” in this phrase that means “mankind,” a people or a nation of people. His point is that God takes care of His people, who seem so small and insignificant compared to the vastness of His creation.

God's Love for His People (5)

Despite the vastness of His creation and the seeming insignificance of mankind, God created us only a little lower than the angels. “A little lower” refers to our inherent abilities; unlike the angels, we cannot appear and disappear at will; we are different in that we lack the powers God has given to His angels.

The Bible never defines what an angel actually looks like or list angels’ powers and abilities. It does tell us, however, what their functions are, as we see in Psalm 103:20–21:

20 Praise the LORD, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word. 21 Praise the LORD, all his heavenly hosts, you his servants who do his will.

So we know that angels “do His word,” are His ministers (servants), heed His voice, and do His pleasure. Because of His love for His people, God sends His angels to minister to us, guide us, and protect us. Hebrews 1:14 calls angels “ministering spirits sent forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation.” Psalm 91:11 further defines angels’ purpose: “For He shall give His angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways.” From Psalm 91 we get the idea of the “guardian angel.” Jesus furthers this idea in Matthew 18:10: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you, that their angels in heaven continually behold the face of My Father who is in heaven.”

God Delegated Authority to Mankind to Exercise Dominion Over His Creation (6-8)

As a people who bear God’s image, whom God loves and cares for, and to whom God has given dominion over the earth, we have an incredible responsibility. God has entrusted to our hands an amazing task, along with some pretty amazing abilities as human beings. As God exercises careful and holy dominion over the whole universe, we who bear his image and who inhabit this earth are to emulate Him, within the scope of our abilities, in the way He exercises His dominion.

Dominion means management or stewardship; the responsibility to lead and care for. Taking care of this world is our job as humans. Because of sin human beings have not been perfect at this task. Many would say we have been failures in the assignment of managing the earth and its resources. Perfect dominion over the earth will exist only when Christ returns to rule. Meanwhile, in our exercise of dominion over this earth we must turn to Christ and his wisdom and strength. In Jesus alone can we fulfill the incredible creation mandate that God has given to us.

God’s Majesty (9)

Once again, David turns to his expression of God’s majesty (verse 9): 9 “O LORD, our Lord, How excellent is Your name in all the earth!”

David opens and closes with this expression of God’s majesty. And in between his opening and closing, he explains what he means by “How majestic is Your name”:

1) He is above His creation

2) He deals with His enemies with strength

3) His majesty is seen in His creation

4) He takes care of His people

5) He demonstrates His love for His people in that He created us a little lower than the angels and has crowned us with glory and honor

6) And He has given us the responsibility of managing the earth, a part of His creation.

Finally, whenever anyone disparages us for taking God’s word literally, remember Psalm 8:6-8:

6 You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under his feet,
7 All sheep and oxen—
Even the beasts of the field,
8 The birds of the air,
And the fish of the sea
That pass through the paths of the seas.

In the mid-19th century, Matthew Maury, an American scientist, was intrigued by the last part of verse 8: “And the fish of the sea that pass through the paths of the seas.” Maury was appointed the superintendent of the United States Naval Obseratory in 1842. He believed in Scripture literally and wanted to find these “paths of the seas” in order to help ships’ captains in their navigation. In the course of his duties, he uncovered an enormous collection of thousands of old ships' logs and charts in storage in trunks dating back to the start of the Revolutionary War.

Maury pored over these documents to collect information on winds, calms, and currents for all seas in all seasons. In 1847 and 1848, Maury published wind and current charts of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. He was the first to identify and chart the ocean currents, including the Gulf Stream. He was convinced that these are the “paths of the seas” he read about in Psalm 8. His publication, Pilot Charts of the United States Navy, is still in use.