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.

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