Foundations

If the foundations be destroyed / What can the righteous do? (Psalm 11:3)

What are we supposed to do if we feel the ground is being pulled out from under us? Such is the meditation on David’s heart in Psalm 11:1-7.

Someone is setting the situation before David, perhaps a well meaning friend: go and flee for safety (Psalm 11:1c). Such is necessary because the wicked lie in wait to attack the righteous, to overthrow all that is good and to persist in their behaviors (Psalm 11:2); if the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do (Psalm 11:3)?

Yet David already has made his decision; YHWH is his refuge (Psalm 11:1b). YHWH is in His holy temple and on His throne in heaven (Psalm 11:4). He examines all men; He tests the righteous; He hates those who live wickedly and love violence (Psalm 11:5). YHWH lays snares for the wicked; the awful consequences of a negative judgment will be theirs, for YHWH is righteous, loves righteousness, and promises that those who live uprightly will see His face (Psalm 11:6-7).

David makes no effort to deny the challenges of the situation which are presented before him. He does not deny that the wicked are devising plans against him; he does not deny that the foundations are being destroyed. Nor does David put much confidence in his culture, even the culture of the people of God, to reform itself; if the foundations are destroyed, he does not tell the people of God to petition their legislature to “fix” them or to begin a major societal campaign to rebuild the foundations. His confidence is not in men whom he knows well will do whatever it takes to obtain and press their advantage (Psalms 36:1-4, 37:7, 12-16, 94:3-7). Instead, David trusts in YHWH as holy, righteous, and ruling from heaven. YHWH will judge. It may not be today, it might not be tomorrow, and it most assuredly will not look like anything we would imagine, but that judgment will come. If nothing else, in the hereafter, the wicked and those who love violence will endure the penalty for their decisions.

The difficulty set before David was not unique to his time and place. The people of God are constantly confronted with the same challenge. The wicked are active and they find ways of getting the powers of the world to bend to their will. Foundational laws, customs, and norms may no longer be honored, and rampant immorality increases. What should the righteous do?

The grass withers and the flower fades (Isaiah 40:6-9). Isaiah has little concern about botany; he speaks about the nations of mankind. Regimes come and go; one generation’s crusade becomes the black eye of the next. Some generations get a front row seat to see the unraveling of the results of their labor; others are in the grave before their work is mostly undone. Such is why David puts no confidence in any attempt to reform society; he knows it is a fool’s errand. Nevertheless, this fleeting temporality goes both ways: the designs of the wicked are often undone before their very eyes. Purveyors of immorality get their comeuppance. They may have it done to them as they had done unto others; they also may see all their wickedness unraveled before their eyes. YHWH’s judgments are often sublime.

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of YHWH endures forever (1 Peter 1:23-25). When the foundations are destroyed, the righteous should take refuge in YHWH. Even when the foundations might seem strong, the righteous must still trust and take refuge in YHWH. YHWH is in His holy temple; YHWH sits on His throne. He has the power to save, not society (Romans 1:16); He maintains all authority and power, not the governments who are so often manipulated by the wicked to the latter’s advantage (1 Peter 3:21-22).

As Christians we are tempted to heed the advice given to David; we are tempted to “circle the wagons,” or attempt to “flee to the mountains,” and try to set up an alternative society or subculture. Yet we do well to consider David’s question: if YHWH truly is our refuge, why would we flee? Is YHWH not able to uphold us or sustain us in the face of wickedness and those who love violence? If we would be righteous, we must recognize that we will be tested and tried (Psalm 11:5): will we continue to trust in God or will we capitulate to the world, either by conforming to its norms or by escaping? If we would be the light of the world, we must recognize how exposed we will stand before the world, the wicked, and those who love violence (Matthew 5:13-16). Are we willing to trust in God so that we can endure those trials and thus reflect Christ to the world?

David was not delusional; he recognized the danger posed by the wicked and those who love violence. But he maintained greater confidence in YHWH as the God of righteousness who loves the righteous and hates the wicked. He made YHWH his refuge; he did not seek to build his own. He knew YHWH would judge the wicked and condemn them; YHWH would vindicate his trust. Will we share in David’s trust? Will we prove willing to make YHWH our refuge and to trust in Him and His power when the foundations are strong or shaken? May we follow the way of God in Christ, trusting in His power and authority, and represent Christ to a lost and dying world!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Responding to “Hot Takes”

Now there were some present at that very season who told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.
And [Jesus] answered and said unto them, “Think ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they have suffered these things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all in like manner perish. Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and killed them, think ye that they were offenders above all the men that dwell in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5).

These days it feels as if we are being consumed by the “hot take.”

Between 24/7 cable news stations and the Internet we feel awash with information and news. Information about events is distributed in real time; confusion often spreads before anyone can make any sense of what is transpiring. Since so many have access to both information and the means by which to respond to it, we are often made to feel as if we must respond so that people know we are aware and where we may stand on any given issue. So much seems to happen, and we get overwhelmed very quickly. We yearn for a more wise and reflective view of current events. And yet, most of the time, whatever might be the big news story today is often forgotten about by tomorrow. We are chasing the next big story; those who have to suffer the consequences of the last big story have to sort their lives out as everyone else has moved on.

We might imagine that such things are new to us in our hyper-connected digital age, but “hot takes” and responses to them are as old as humanity. Jesus Himself was confronted with a “hot take” in Luke 13:1, a fresh Roman outrage against the Jewish people: Pilate, procurator of Judea, evidently ordered some Galilean Jewish people to be slaughtered, and their blood mingled with that of the sacrifices offered on their behalf. The Jewish people already did not like Roman rule and felt that the Romans, like the Greeks before them, would attempt to suppress their ability to practice their faith without hindrance. And here is the Roman procurator killing Jewish people offering sacrifices! Was the time not coming when YHWH would deliver His people from these oppressive pagans? Was it not being claimed that Jesus was the Messiah of God? What would He have to say about such things? Surely He would take the opportunity to condemn the Romans for what they had done. Surely He would identify with His people against those who oppressed them!

Yet Jesus is not taken in by the “hot take.” It is not as if He is unaware of what happened, nor is He unaware of His audience’s expectation. In fact, He referenced another recent “hot take,” news involving the death of eighteen people when a tower fell on them in Siloam (Luke 13:4). He does not take the opportunity to condemn the Romans; instead, He spoke to the very basic and primal response to such “hot takes” and news. He asked if these people who have suffered in this way, be it from Pilate’s men or from a terrible accident, were any worse sinners than others. He wanted to make it clear that unless those to whom He spoke repented, they would likewise perish (Luke 13:2-5).

What does that have to do with these events? While we often speak of the Jewish people who live in the time of Christ in different ways than those who lived in Old Testament times, they are all being shaped by often consistent cultural expectations. One such expectation, seen frequently in wisdom literature, is that people get what they deserve. The righteous and industrious are wealthy and blessed; the wicked and lazy are poor and suffer indignity. Sometimes this happens; as we can see in Job and Ecclesiastes, however, sometimes the wicked obtain wealth, and the righteous suffer indignities. Even so, it seems that the Jewish people easily defaulted to the view that people get what they deserve: thus, it must have been that God willed for those Galileans to be killed because they were sinners, and God allowed that tower to fall on those eighteen because they were sinful. It also provides a nice comfortable cushion and barrier between the observer and the observed: since these things did not happen to me, but it happened to them, I must be in a better situation than they are. They must have been worse off; they must have deserved it; I do not, and therefore I will not have to suffer such indignity.

Jesus knew they thought these things, and so Jesus corrected them. In so doing Jesus opened up the very terrifying prospect to them that is all too real: bad things happen to people, and many times it has nothing to do with the type of person they are. Sometimes the righteous suffer and die; sometimes the wicked prosper. People become victims of random violence, the oppression of the state, or calamitous events. It was easier to believe, and hope, that such things happen to other people, and not to “us,” because we do not deserve it, and thus somehow they do. No, Jesus says; they are no worse than you. They did not deserve to have such things happen to them. They suffered tragically; nothing stops us from suffering as tragically.

It has always been almost comically easy to learn of “hot takes” and news about other people and remain entirely disconnected. Such terrible things happen over there to people like them. Such things would not happen here or to people like us. We have to find some reason to explain why they must suffer so and yet we should not; it is very comforting that way. And yet Jesus still says no. They are no worse than us. They did not deserve to have such things happen to them. They suffered tragically, and we could as well. We may live our lives watching bad things happen to “them,” and think it will never happen to us, until that day when “we” become “them.”

Thus we do well to learn Jesus’ lesson: we do better to identify with those who suffer than to try to find internal reasons to keep them at arm’s length. We are not guaranteed to go through life without suffering tragedy or becoming the next “hot take.” What happens to the other today may happen to us tomorrow. Our trust must not be in our righteousness or good fortune but in God in Christ. May we all change our hearts and minds to align our will to God’s so they we may not perish but obtain eternal life in the resurrection!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Blessed Are the Righteous

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the wicked / nor standeth in the way of sinners / nor sitteth in the seat of scoffers:
But his delight is in the law of YHWH / and on his law doth he meditate day and night.
And he shall be like a tree planted by the streams of water / that bringeth forth its fruit in its season / whose leaf also doth not wither / and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.
The wicked are not so:
But are like the chaff / which the wind driveth away.
Therefore the wicked shall not stand in the judgment / nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.
For YHWH knoweth the way of the righteous / but the way of the wicked shall perish (Psalm 1:1-6).

You certainly cannot judge the book of Psalms by its cover.

The book of Psalms features so many wonderful songs and prayers praising YHWH and extolling His greatness while also giving voice to the pain, suffering, distress, and questions of the people of God. Yet the book begins with a psalm which would not be out of place in the book of Proverbs.

Psalm 1:1-6 is without a doubt a wisdom psalm, well crafted with sharp and vivid imagery. The Psalmist pronounces blessings on the righteous: he does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers (Psalm 1:1). Notice how the Psalmist intensifies the imagery: walking / standing / sitting would denote ever greater comfort and association, and wicked / sinners / scoffers features a progression from bad to worse! Instead the righteous delights in the law (Hebrew torah) of YHWH, and meditates upon it day and night (Psalm 1:2). He has taken the way of YHWH, not the way of sinners.

The Psalmist then describes the righteous in terms of a tree planted by a river (Psalm 1:3). In a semi-arid or arid climate like Israel, riverbanks are one of the few places where water will be found in dry times. Thus a tree planted by the river will produce fruit, will not wither, but will prosper, and so it will be with the righteous (Psalm 1:3).

Tree by River Dee - geograph.org.uk - 792040

The poetic flow of the psalm is sharply interrupted in Psalm 1:4, and for good reason: whereas the righteous prosper, it will not be so with the wicked! The Psalmist compares the wicked to chaff, the cases or straw of grains which provide no nutrition and are left to blow in the wind as worthless (Psalm 1:4).

The Psalmist assures us that the wicked will not stand in the judgment or in the “congregation of the righteous” (Psalm 1:5). YHWH knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish (Psalm 1:6). Thus Psalm 1 is a pure exhortation to wisdom, representing “proverbial orthodoxy” to the full: blessings and prosperity come to the righteous, but the wicked will perish.

Psalms 1 and 2 have no superscription; throughout time they have been understood as the “introduction” to the Psalms. This means that Psalm 1:1-6 was deliberately placed here as the beginning of the Psalter. Why should we expect the Psalms to begin with such a message, especially since the message of many of the psalms would challenge this “proverbial orthodoxy”?

Perhaps that is the very reason God directed the Psalter to begin the collection with Psalm 1. The world of the Psalms is full of sacrifices, kings, glory to YHWH, but also pain, suffering, doubt, and questions. The Psalmist grapples with the prosperity of the wicked and the struggles of the righteous. The Psalmist tries to make sense of a world in which the people of God suffer under the rule of pagan overseers. And yet Psalm 1:1-6 remains.

Psalm 1:1-6 reminds the reader, singer, or prayer of the Psalms of the two ways, the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked, and of their ends. It always goes best with the righteous: if not in this life, then in the next one. The Psalms in many ways must begin with a full exhortation to righteousness so as to remind Israel that sacrifice alone has never been and is not sufficient to please God. Likewise, Psalm 1:1-6 in many ways serves as an anchor for the whole Psalter: no matter how bad it gets, no matter how terrible it looks, it goes better for the righteous than it will for the wicked. In a world where Israel might be tempted to see too much grey God wants to remind them of the black and white.

We do well to recognize the value of Psalm 1:1-6. If we take it absolutely and expect the righteous to always prosper in this life and the wicked to always perish in this life we will be disappointed; as with all wisdom literature we must understand that many times the author is telling us the way things ought to be and will be when the Lord returns. On the other hand we can easily get discouraged when we see the complications in life, the seeming prosperity of the wicked, and the trials which accompany standing for righteousness. Psalm 1 reminds us of the way things should be, the way things stand before God, and that in the end the righteous will be the ones who are planted by the river and will prosper. The wicked will not endure!

Blessings still attend to those who seek to follow God’s instruction; they will prosper before God. We do well stand firm in God in Christ, as a tree planted by the water, and not be moved!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Desiring God

Nevertheless I am continually with thee: Thou hast holden my right hand. Thou wilt guide me with thy counsel, And afterward receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides thee (Psalm 73:23-25).

The Psalms begin with a wisdom psalm affirming the way things should be: the righteous prosper while the wicked fade away in transience (Psalm 1). The third book of the Psalms attempts to come to grips with the feeling that this is not always so (Psalm 73).

Asaph does not deny God’s goodness to Israel and those who are pure in heart (Psalm 73:1). Yet he was prone to stumbled for he was envious of the arrogant on account of the prosperity of the wicked (Psalm 73:2-3). These are not the “good people” who “deserve” what they have; they are arrogant, foolish, impious, oppressive, the rich people only fellow rich people tolerate (Psalm 73:4-12). Asaph is left to wonder if his righteousness has gotten him anywhere or anything (Psalm 73:13-14).

Asaph wants to know what we all want to know: why do the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer? He sees it is a wearisome task to consider the question (Psalm 73:16). But while he goes to stand before the presence of YHWH in the Temple he gains a critical insight (Psalm 73:17). To what do the wealthy wicked look when they see the future? Asaph sees their worst case scenario: they lose all their wealth and fall into ruin, and all that in but a moment (Psalm 73:18-19). They are left with nothing; they are exposed as naked and helpless through calamity and disaster.

Asaph feels pricked in heart based on this insight; he recognizes the surpassing value of what he has by being continually with God, who holds His right hand, guiding him with His counsel, ultimately to receive him to glory (Psalm 73:24). Asaph then cries out a notable declaration: whom does Asaph have in Heaven but God? Asaph desires nothing on Earth besides God (Psalm 73:25). His flesh will fail; God will be his strength forever (Psalm 73:26). The wicked will perish, but Asaph knows that YHWH is his refuge and will proclaim His works (Psalm 73:27-28).

There is little pretense in the Psalms; in them life is exposed for all that it is, both what is beautiful as well as what is ugly. The Psalms do not tolerate the pious fictions we like to tell ourselves, knowing that since we should feel in certain ways and not feel in other ways, we will not speak publicly when we fall short, and all pretend that all is well. Asaph makes his admission: he was stumbling in his trust in YHWH because he was envious of the wealth of the wicked. If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that we at times have been guilty of the same envy. Like Asaph, we want to know why; we always seem to want to know why.

Why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer? From the ancient Near Eastern world until today the assumption has been that people prosper when righteous and suffer when wicked. The book of Job is all about Job and his friends having to come to grips first with the possibility that a person might suffer illness or indignity but not as a result of sin and then by extension that wicked people prosper despite their evil. Yet no explanation is really given. The Preacher considers questions of this sort as vanity (Ecclesiastes 8:14). These days we tend to point to God’s “common grace,” that God gives rain to the just as well as the unjust (Matthew 5:45), or we just put off the question, as in the song “Farther Along,” presuming that we will understand everything at some point in a future realm.

Yet for Asaph the question does have an answer; it is a real and present one, but it only could be discerned in the presence of God. The whole question presumes that material wealth is true wealth and material lack is true poverty, health is true wealth and illness is true poverty, or favor is true wealth and adversity is true poverty. Asaph sees that reality is not that simple. It is easy to be envious of the wealthy because we want what they have; nevertheless, their wealth can be their own prison. Asaph describes the greatest fear of the wealthy: the deprivation of all they have (Psalm 73:18-19). That fear motivates them to continue to accumulate wealth, to keep God and/or their fellow man at a distance lest they lose their wealth, and in general maintain great fear and apprehension about maintaining or increasing what they already have. After all, they are but a major economic collapse, a war and its deprivation, or an incurable illness away from losing everything! And they are filled with fear and terror. The wicked do not have true wealth; what they have causes them great fear and apprehension. In a strange sense they suffer because of their prosperity.

Asaph, on the other hand, has true wealth: God. Whether Asaph has material wealth or prosperity, God is with him. Whether Asaph maintains good health or is struck with illness, God holds his right hand. Whether he is quite popular among his people or derided and persecuted, God guides him by His counsel. When it is all said and done, and Asaph goes the way of all flesh, God will receive him into glory.

We do well to consider deeply Asaph’s cry. Whom is there in heaven for Asaph but God? No one, of course, and that is the same with us. So Asaph makes a confident declaration, one I dare say we could not make as confidently: there is nothing on earth [he] desire[s] besides [God] (Psalm 73:25).

The reason for our lack of confidence is that we like God’s blessings more than God. We like material prosperity; we like comfort, both physical and spiritual; we like having good people in our lives who care for us and we for them. God, on the other hand, is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24, Hebrews 12:29). Those who would draw near to Him must sanctify Him and His name, and many have suffered and perished for not thus honoring God (e.g. Leviticus 10:1-3). God is the Other, far above mankind; He cannot be manipulated or controlled. God has questions for our certainties. We all see the value of His blessings, but as for God Himself? We feel it is wiser to keep our distance.

Yes, God demands holiness from those who would draw near to Him; many times those closest to Him have suffered the greatest deprivations and trials, both to test their faith as well as to suffer on behalf of the Name and for others (Hebrews 11:1-40, 1 Peter 2:18-25). Nevertheless, Asaph has it right: we must desire God, not what God gives. That which God gives are but an extension of Himself and His love for us; on their own they can often distract people as they clearly did for the wicked. While God has questions for our certainties, He remains the Certainty in the midst of our trials and challenges.

In the end that is why we must desire God and not what God gives: only God can be our refuge, and only God will receive us to glory (Psalm 73:24-25, 28). In times of trial wealth, perhaps even friends, and popularity fail. In life we are given reason to question or challenge the goodness of this creation and the things within it; we sometimes may even question if there will be anything beyond this life, any great reckoning, any ultimate goal. The Lord YHWH is the Creator; Jesus is the Author and Finisher of our faith (Genesis 1:1, Hebrews 12:2). The life of faith is not just about what happens after death; the life of faith is about trusting in and desiring God. If we want God, we will want to be where God is; if we want God, then the resurrection will be glory, because in the resurrection He will make His dwelling place with us (Revelation 21:1-7). God’s blessings cannot compare with God Himself; why do we suffer from such a lack of faith so as to covet the lesser good when God wants us to have the greatest Good of all?

Why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer? Actually, both the righteous and the wicked prosper and suffer in various ways to various degrees at different times. Sometimes the prosperity is a cause of suffering; sometimes suffering leads to true treasure. Asaph has learned true wisdom: God is true wealth, because despite all the trials, tribulations, suffering, and righteousness necessary to be in relationship with God, God is the Certainty by which we can continue to live, our Sustainer and Redeemer whether we have much or little, health or illness, fame or infamy. God’s blessings do not compare with God Himself; let us declare, as Asaph did, that there is nothing on earth we desire besides God, and grow in faith accordingly!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Asaph and the Wicked

“For, lo, they that are far from thee shall perish: Thou hast destroyed all them that play the harlot, departing from thee. But it is good for me to draw near unto God: I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all thy works” (Psalm 73:27-28).

Psalm 73 describes Asaph’s meditations on one of the more challenging realities of this world: the wicked oftentimes prosper while the righteous do not.

At first, Asaph is led to envy and distress. He sees the condition of the wicked: they are strong, without trouble or plague, proud, violent, fat, with abundance of possessions, scoffers, blasphemers, and at ease (Psalm 73:1-12). Asaph begins to envy them and wonders why he bothers living a righteous life, trying to do the right thing, while all these others who cut corners and do wickedness prosper (Psalm 73:13-14)!

Asaph understands that such thoughts are treachery against himself and against his descendants, and he recognizes that dwelling on the whole matter causes pain (Psalm 73:15-16). And then he enters the sanctuary of God and receives comfort (Psalm 73:17).

Yes, the wicked may prosper now, but the day is coming when they will get caught in their wickedness. It may be during this life, or it may be in the life to come, but desolation comes upon them all (Psalm 73:18-20, Romans 2:5-10).

Asaph then recognizes how brutish he was, and foolish in his thinking (Psalm 73:21-22). He recognizes that his trust is in the LORD, and that God will guide him with His counsel (Psalm 73:23-25). Even though the flesh fails, God will be strong (Psalm 73:26). And, in conclusion, Asaph sets forth the two paths: the one that is far from God, and those therein will perish, and the one drawing near to God, where there is true strength and value (Psalm 73:27-28).

Three thousand years later things have not changed significantly. There are still plenty of people who make a very good living through sinful behaviors. It seems that those people who are trying to be responsible and who do the right thing are the ones being punished, and many wonder if it is worth it to do what is right and to follow God.

We can learn much from Asaph and his meditations. Yes, the wicked prosper. But their prosperity will not last forever. Times of distress will come upon them and there will be no Refuge in which they can trust. They may mock and deride God in their words and deeds, but all of that will come upon them one day (cf. Romans 2:5-10, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9)!

Those who attempt to serve God and do His will may look at the wicked and get envious at how “well” they are doing, but they must never forget what they have. As believers in God they are able to call upon God as their trust and refuge. Believers in God are guided by His counsel and enjoy the opportunity to be in the presence of God (cf. Matthew 28:20, Hebrews 4:16). And, ultimately, God will redeem those who are His and they will spend eternity with Him in glory (cf. Psalm 73:24, 2 Thessalonians 1:10-11, Revelation 21:1-22:6).

Why do the wicked prosper? We do not know, cannot know, and it would be too painful to really know. But let us not envy the temporal prosperity of the wicked when we have the opportunity to have the true riches indeed– to call upon the One True God, to be guided and sustained by Him, and, ultimately, to receive glory from Him. Let us draw near to God and make Him our refuge!

Ethan R. Longhenry