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Lord's of Misrule: The Christian Experience of Seeking God's Rectification of Injustice

Series: Psalms Book 2

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Feb 18, 2004

Psalm 58:1-11

If you have Bibles I'd invite you to turn with me to Psalm 58, as we continue to work our way through the Second Book of the Psalms. David is still on the run, and David is reflecting on the injustice of those who are leaders, judges, rulers, people who are elders amongst the people of God, people who were to be administrators of justice, people who were to see that God's law was established and was administered rightly in the land–these very people David is commenting upon were actively engaged in wrongdoing against him and against his friends in this time. And so David is reflecting on that in this Psalm. He complains about it in the first half of the Psalm. You’ll see that in the first five verses, David's complaint. And then in verses 6-11 you will see David's rather direct prayer. This is one of those Psalms which is called “an imprecatory Psalm,” a Psalm in which the Psalmist prays an imprecation against his enemies, against the wicked, against the enemies of God. And David minces no words in this Psalm. The words are very, very strong.

The words are so strong that it may cause you to ask some questions, “Boy, doesn't this sound like some of the things we hear and recoil from in, say, the Koran, in its bloody calls for vengeance?” Well, that's a very good question, and we're going to look at that question together tonight. Before we do, let's hear God's word read. And before we hear God's word read, let's look to Him in prayer and ask for His blessing. Let's pray.

Heavenly Father, we bow before You, thanking You for Your word. We thank You even for Your word when it is hard and it makes us uncomfortable. We know that You have something for us to learn, for this is the word of truth. It is all good. It is all true. It is all right. It is our unfailing, our infallible rule for faith and practice, for faith and life. And so teach us to learn from it tonight even as we study a hard passage. We ask, O God, that Your word would not depart from our lips, that we would receive it in our ears with gladness, and that by Your Spirit we would take it all the way into our hearts and be transformed by it. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.

Hear God's word. Psalm 58:

For the choir director; set to Al-tashheth. A Mikhtam of David. 1 Do you indeed speak righteousness, O gods?Do you judge uprightly, O sons of men? 2 No, in heart you work unrighteousness; On earth you weigh out the violence of your hands. 3The wicked are estranged from the womb; These who speak lies go astray from birth. 4 They have venom like the venom of a serpent; Like a deaf cobra that stops up its ear, 5 So that it does not hear the voice of charmers, Or a skillful caster of spells. 6 O God, shatter their teeth in their mouth; Break out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD. 7 Let them flow away like water that runs off; When he aims his arrows, let them be as headless shafts. 8 Let them be as a snail which melts away as it goes along, Like the miscarriages of a woman which never see the sun. 9 Before your pots can feel the fire of thorns He will sweep them away with a whirlwind, the green and the burning alike. 10 The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance;He will wash his feet in the blood of the wicked. 11 And men will say, ‘Surely there is a reward for the righteous; Surely there is a God who judges on earth!’”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

David is complaining against injustice in Israel. David is complaining about injustice in high place amongst the judges, amongst the rulers, amongst the leaders of Israel, and he is seeking God's rectification of their injustice. He is complaining about the lords of misrule, and he is asking the Lord of heaven and earth to bring judgment upon these lords of misrule. David had seen and had experienced the injustice of the leaders of his people, and it would not be difficult for us to point out many parallels in history and today of those who have been given positions of authority but who have used those positions of authority not for good but for evil, not to be terrors to evildoers but to be troublers of the righteous. And the parallels will become apparent to us as we work through this Psalm together. I want to look at the Psalm in the two parts that I've already mentioned. The first part of the Psalm is David's complaint against the injustice of the judges of Israel. That's in verses 1-5. The second part of the Psalm is in verses 6-7, and there we see David's prayer against the injustice of the judges of Israel.

I. The sin of unjust judgment and rule (1-5). David's complaint against the injustice of the judges of Israel
First of all, looking at verses 1-5 and David's complaint. We’ll note that this complaint is focused on the sin of unjust judgment and rule. He states the charge in verse 1, “Do you indeed speak righteousness, O gods?” If you have your King James Version open in front of you it perhaps translates this as “the congregation”: “Do you speak righteousness, O congregation?” The word is a word which is typically used not for the people of the congregation but for the leaders or the rulers of the congregation. It is a word not unlike the word that is used in Psalm 8 which in some cases is translated angels, and in other cases is translated gods, as in the sense of the gods of the nation. And the reference in this passage is to those who are rulers.

There are some examples of how this term is used even in English. For instance, in Scotland in the days of Mary Queen of Scots who was a Catholic ruler, the Protestant rulers who had gained control of the nation during her time were known as ‘the lords of the congregation.’ And this is the very same kind of language which is being used by David here. He is speaking to the lords of the congregation–not just the common folk of Israel but the people who are in charge, the people who were in positions of judgment, of rule, and of leadership. And so he asks the question, “Do you speak righteousness?” ‘Those of you who are ruling in the land, those of you who are administering justice, those of you who are in charge of establishing the law of God in Israel, do you speak righteousness? Do you judge uprightly?’

And in verse 2 you see his verdict. The verdict is, “No, in heart you work unrighteousness; On earth you weigh out the violence of your hands.” And so here is his charge: injustice, abuse of justice, misrule. And that can come in various forms. In this case it may have been these rulers of Israel aiding and abetting Saul's unjust charges against David and his companions. These may have been, as it were, justices of the peace who were swearing out warrants for David's arrest, making false charges and accusations against him in the land. But whatever the case is in David's circumstance, the application of this complaint is certainly much broader.

This complaint applies to tyrants, those who are in positions of political authority, of governmental rule who commence reigns of terror. And we don't have to think back in history to think of the names of tyrants. We don't have to go back to biblical times to think of the Nebuchadnezzar's or the Nero's. We don't even have to think in terms of ancient history or medieval history. Right in our own time we have seen some of the greatest tyrants in the history of the world, whether it be Mao or Stalin or Saddam Hussein or Amin. We could list many right from our own time who have been tyrants who have commenced a reign of terror.

And David's complaint against misrule in this Psalm certainly would apply to those in that category. It could also apply to those who are rulers who embezzle, those who rule in self-interest, who use their position of power for their own gain, for the gain of money, or for the gain of various other types of power. It could refer to usurpers, those who for whatever reason overthrow justice. It could refer to unjust judges, those judges who manipulate the law and actually break down the rule of law in the land. This is certainly on many of our hearts and minds right now. Judges and rulers in four states in our nation in just the last few weeks–in Massachusetts, in California, in New Mexico and in New York–have taken it upon themselves to overthrow an institution as old as humanity, one established by God, one obvious to all men and women in the natural order, one revealed to us in Scripture, and yet these folk have taken it upon themselves to turn the rule of law on its head. We see this happening everywhere we turn in our day and age. And David's words of complaint certainly apply to such situations: “In heart you work unrighteousness; On earth you weigh out the violence of your hands.” Notice that heart and hands in verse 2 go together to show that what is in the heart comes out in the deeds of these who are judging. So it's not just that they think this way or believe this way, but it actually comes out in their actions–heart and hand, the internal and the external expressions of their hearts.

Now having spoken of this charge of injustice and abuse of justice and misrule in verses 1 and 2, David goes on to reflect on their character in verses 3-5. Now that character, he says, reveals to us the source of their sin but does not give them an excuse for their sin. Notice what he says, “The wicked are estranged from the womb; These who speak lies go astray from birth.” In other words, he says that the source of their problem is not their circumstance; it's not their situation; it's not bad company–the source of their problem originated from their birth. He is actually articulating for us the doctrine of total depravity here.

Now, of course, in this case David does not extend this to everyone and he certainly could. But in the case of these who are manifesting their wickedness he's saying, ‘This wickedness that we're seeing displayed in their injustice is actually something which has a root in them as old as they are.’ He is speaking of the biblical doctrine of total depravity. We had an interesting conversation at staff meeting this last Tuesday in light of this heart-breaking event which has happened in our own backyard in Mississippi, this terrible murder of the Hargon family. And one of our ministers said with a bit of dark humor, “But you know, we know that all people are basically good.” And see, he was making this point: So often we hear people talk about people being basically good, and yet it is deeds like those of the tyrants in this passage and deeds like we have seen in our own backyard in these last few weeks which reveal the heart of man unchecked by the restraining work of God's common grace. “There but for the grace of God go we.”

Now there are many people that are very uncomfortable with that doctrine. They think that it goes too far. “No, there's good and there's bad in all of us, and you know in some of us it equals out, and in some of us we're a little bit better than…We don't like the doctrine of total depravity.” But here's David saying, ‘The sins in the hearts and the actions of these men have a root in them as old as their birth.’ They are born in sin. David will say this of himself in Psalm 51, not blaming his mother, but saying that his own sin was rooted deep in himself. He needed a divine deliverance from this sin. And so David announces the source, but doesn't announce the source of their sin as an excuse, no, but rather to show the depth of their moral corruption. This wasn't a superficial corruption; this wasn't an accidental mistake of judgment along the way; it was deeply rooted in their character. And so he makes this charge and then he draws out the character of these unjust leaders in Israel, and he complains against them.

But David doesn't just complain. Let me just pause to note that God allows David to complain about this. David is complaining that this is the state of things. The Psalms, the Old Testament, are wide-eyed to the fact that all human government is going to have aspects of corruption in it, but the Psalms never allow us to become complacent about that and to shrug our shoulders and just say, “Well, that's just the way it is.” The Psalms, in fact, encourage us to be outraged at injustice. They encourage us to complain about injustice in high places. And the Lord allows and encourages David to express this complaint. David looks at these rulers who have been appointed by God for the welfare of His people, and he sees them carrying out things which are not in their interest and not in the interest of the order of God, and he complains loudly about that. And that's a lesson to us. We may be realistic about the fallen world that we live in, but we may never become complacent, aloof, detached about the injustice that we see in high places. God expects us to be outraged. He expects us to complain.

II. The sentence against unjust judgment and rule (6-11). David's prayer against the injustice of the judges of Israel
Now David then turns that complaint into a prayer, and, as you've already heard, it is a very strong prayer. You see it in verses 6-11, and again there are two parts to it. There is the imprecation, the calling on God to bring to justice these who are unjust, but it is in very strong language; it's in very physical language. And then in verses 10 and 11, the second part of this second section of the Psalm, we see a meditation on how the righteous are going to react to God's judgment.

First, let's look at the prayer itself. It's an imprecation. It's a calling for God to curse the wicked, and it is motivated by a sense of just, of right outrage at the injustice of these rulers. “O God, shatter their teeth in their mouth; Break out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD.” Again, that's a very strong, physical, violent image, but you see in the context of the whole verse it's depicting the wicked as if they are devouring young lions, hungry young lions getting ready to come in and prey on the people of God. And so the language of “break out their teeth” simply means, ‘Lord, defang them.’ They’re using the fangs…they’re using the power which they have been vested by the government, and they’re using it for evil, so defang them.

This is not calling upon us to take justice in our own hands in some sort of vigilante way and beat people up. It's a calling on the Lord to defang those who are using their powers wrongly. “Let them flow away like water that runs off; When he aims his arrows, let them be as headless shafts. Let them be as a snail which melts away as it goes along, Like the miscarriages of a woman which never see the sun.” You see the strong language that is being used to describe how David wants these evildoers to evaporate, to be defanged, to be dissipated in their ability to do evil, to be removed from the scene. The call is for God to remove them. The call is for God to judge them. The call is for God to protect those who are righteous from their evildoing and to keep them from having the capacity to inflict their evil on the people of God.

And then in verses 10 and 11, David reflects on how the righteous will respond to this. Look at his words, “The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance;He will wash his feet in the blood of the wicked.” That may be the strongest phrase in the whole Psalm. “He will wash his feet in the blood of the wicked. And men will say, ‘Surely there is a reward for the righteous; Surely there is a God who judges on the earth!’”

What David is saying there is that when the righteous who have been outraged by the injustice, by the miscarriage of justice, by the doing of evil deeds by those in positions of authority–when God brings His temporal judgments, the righteous will see those judgments and will rejoice that God has done what is right in bringing justice against them. This is not petty, vengeful, mean-spirited, angry, human-hating thinking that's going on here. No, this is the righteous seeing God's justice done in time, recognizing that God's justice done in time is a foreshadowing of God's justice done at the last day, and rejoicing that God is indeed a rewarder of the righteous and a punisher of the wicked.

As I was reading through various commentaries in preparation for this in the last couple of weeks, I ran across Calvin's comments. Now this commentary of John Calvin's was written over 400 years ago, but you know, his had the most contemporary ring of any of the commentators. Listen to what Calvin says about this verse: “It might appear at first sight that the feeling here attributed to the righteous is far from being consistent with the mercy which ought to characterize the righteous, but we must remember, as I have often observed elsewhere, that the affection which David means to impute to them is one of a pure and well-regulated kind. In this case there is nothing absurd in supposing that believers under the influence and guidance of the Holy Spirit should rejoice in witnessing the execution of divine judgments. That cruel satisfaction which too many feel when they see their enemies destroyed is the result of the unholy passions of hatred, anger, or impatience inducing an inordinate desire for revenge. So far as corruption is suffered to operate in this kind, there can be no right or acceptable exercise of it. On the other hand, when one is led by a holy zeal to sympathize with the justness of that vengeance which God may have inflicted, his joy will be as pure in beholding the retribution of the wicked as his desire for their conversion and salvation was strong and unfeigned.”

In other words, Calvin is reminding us that the believer simultaneously longs to see sinners turn from their sin and converted unto God and to receive the blessings of God, but when that sinner refuses the grace of God offered and God in His inscrutable providence brings just judgment, the believer also recognizes that the God of heaven and earth never does wrong. He always judges rightly. His justice is fair; it is precise; it is appropriate; it is proportionate; it is perfect. And therefore, the believer also says, “Lord, You have brought Your judgment and I rejoice in Your judgment that You have shown that You will not allow injustice to go on forever without it being judged.”

I fear, my friends, that we will in our own days and in the days to come have to resort to that realization more and more, as our nation turns itself away more and more from the rule of law, as we see the law used to force people of good conscience and of uprightness to do that which is evil. You know there was a very interesting ruling just passed down in the last week. Our Roman Catholic friends were ruled by a federal court to be required to distribute or to provide for birth control against their consciences in the distribution of healthcare to their employees in a particular region. That's an encroachment, perhaps, that doesn't relate to most of us. It's not part of our church teaching and such. But when you begin to see the courts willing to make those kinds of judgments, you will begin to see the courts make more and more judgments which interfere with the exercise of conscience in religion and in morality. And we have seen this…It's not only in the decision with regard to the pledge of allegiance; it's not only in the decision about the Boy Scouts; it's not only in the decision about marriage; it's not only in the decision about prayer in the schools–we are seeing a systematic erosion of foundational principles, and we may have more and more reason to with David pray that God's judgment would be revealed against wickedness in high places. Do not think that this Psalm, well-over 2500 years old, maybe closer to 3000 years old–do not think that it is not relevant to our situation today. Let's pray.

Our heavenly Father, we bow before You thanking You for Your word, thanking You for the perennial freshness of Your word. We ask, O God, that You would make us both to love sinners and to long for their conversion and to desire to see sinners’ ways reformed, and at the same time to be ready to rejoice when we see Your judgment brought against those who are wicked and in high places and who are undermining Your principles and order woven into the very fabric of creation. We ask, O God, that You would make us to be both wise as serpents and harmless as doves, to be able to love the world and to long for the world's conversion, and at the same time not to love the world and the ways of the world. We pray, O God, that You would protect us and that You would make us bold, in Jesus' name. Amen.

Would you stand for God's blessing? Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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