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You Become Like What You Worship

Series: Psalms Book 4

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Aug 17, 2008

Psalm 97:1-12

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If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Psalm 97. We have been working our way through the Fourth Book of the Psalms, from Psalm 90 on our way to Psalm 106. For a number of weeks on Lord's Day mornings, we've said repeatedly that the Psalms show us the anatomy of all parts of the Christian soul. They express the whole range of Christian experience from gladness to despair, from worship to hopelessness. The Psalms give us the words to express the whole range of what we experience in life in this fallen world, even as believers in the living God.

And when we got to Psalm 95, we observed that especially from Psalm 95 to about Psalm 100, repeatedly these Psalms teach us important aspects of what it means to worship. There are significant things that we learn about how to worship and why to worship the living God from these Psalms. Interestingly, these Psalms often teach us what we are to do by pointing us to what God does, and then reminding us that what God does demands a response from us…elicits a response from us.

I won't review everything, but especially as we've looked at Psalm 95 and 96 leading up to the Psalm that we're going to study today, eight things have become very apparent to us in addressing the question of how we are to worship God. One thing that we said is that we are to worship God together. When God says in His call to worship, “Come,” He's beckoning us to corporate public worship. He's calling Christians to gather to himself in response to His gracious call. We said that we're to worship because of who God is and what He does, and that the very words that are used in the Psalms for worship remind us of the deference that we are to show to Him as we prostrate or bow down before Him.

We said that our worship is to be in faith and submission to His will, and that it is to be done with a missionary desire. We saw this especially in Psalm 96. When Psalm 96 calls all the nations to worship God, it reminds the believer that every time we gather in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, having been saved by grace, having believed on the gospel, it ought to be a part of our worship of God to desire that peoples everywhere would come to saving faith in Him. And so there ought to be a desire for conversion and for evangelism and for missions, even in our worship of the living God.

We said that we worship God because the Lord is great. In fact, we said that you cannot worship God as you ought unless you have an adequate sense of how due worship is to Him. If you don't realize how much He deserves worship, your worship will lack the passion and intensity that it ought to have.

And we said (and we saw this last week, and we’ll see it again this week) that when we worship, we always worship with a view to the end: that is, the end times when God will come and judge the world are repeatedly part of the worship of the people of God in the Psalms. If you look at Psalm 96 and how this is mentioned, it is mentioned in the context of being a reason for the people of God's joy — that God is coming, and when He comes He will judge and He will rule. And this is a matter for joy for the people of God. And very interestingly, that is exactly how Psalm 97 begins in verse 1.

But then if you look at Psalm 97:2-6, you’ll see that the darker side of God's coming (of what we refer to as the Second Coming of Christ)…the darker side is emphasized; that is, of God's judgment against the wicked.

Now before we read Psalm 97, let me outline it for you so that you can better understand what we are about to hear from the mouth of the Lord. This Psalm easily divides into three parts. Those parts are: the reign of the Lord over the whole world — that's asserted in verses 1-6; then, the reign of the Lord over false gods — you’ll see that in verses 7-9; and, finally, the reign of the Lord and the rejoicing and righteousness of His people. You’ll see that in verses 10-12.

Let me say that again a slightly different way, just to make sure that you are able to follow along easily. In verses 1-6, we see the first part of the Psalm, and it speaks of God's universal reign and of His coming judgment. Then the second part of the Psalm comes in verses 7-9, and it shows us God's sovereignty over all His competitors. God is true and sovereign; the idols are false, and they’re not. And then, thirdly, in verses 10-12, we see God's call to His people to love Him and hate evil.

This Psalm informs us how to worship, and it does this by reminding us of:
who we worship,
of the peril of idolatry,
and of how we are to live out our worship of God in the pursuit of holiness.

Let's pray before we read God's word.

Heavenly Father, this is Your word, and it is alive, and yet our hearts are often cold and dead, indifferent to Your word, uncomprehending and disobedient to it. We need Your Holy Spirit to enliven and enlighten us, not because there is any lack in Your word, but because our hearts are dull and so often distracted. Your word, O God, is more precious than gold. It is sweeter than honey, and man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from Your mouth. By Your Spirit, cause us to perceive and believe that, and to hear Your word accordingly. We pray this in Jesus' name. Amen.

Hear the word of the living God:

“The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice;

Let the many coastlands be glad!

Clouds and thick darkness are all around Him;

Righteousness and justice are the

Foundation of His throne.

Fire goes before Him

And burns up His adversaries all around.

His lightnings light up the world;

The earth sees and trembles.

The mountains melt like wax before the Lord,

Before the Lord of all the earth.

“The heavens proclaim His righteousness,

And all the peoples see His glory.

All worshipers of images are put to shame,

Who make their boast in worthless idols;

Worship Him, all you gods!

“Zion hears and is glad,

And the daughters of Judah rejoice,

Because of Your judgments, O Lord.

For you, O Lord, are most high over all the earth;

You are exalted far above all gods.

“O you who love the Lord, hate evil!

He preserves the lives of His saints;

He delivers them from the hand of the wicked.

Light is sown for the righteous,

And joy for the upright in heart.

Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous,

And give thanks to His holy name!”

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

This Psalm, like the two Psalms before it and like these Psalms that will immediately follow it, teaches us how to worship God. We worship God rightly, this Psalm says, when we are mindful of His present rule and of His coming judgment, when we see the peril of idolatry and the certain exposure of it, and when we understand the connection between our pursuit of holiness and the worship of God. I want to look at those three things with you today.

I. The reign of the Lord over the whole earth and His coming judgment.
First, in verses 1-6, where we see that God's coming just judgment is a matter of worship for the people of God. The Psalm begins by saying,

“The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice;
Let the many coastlands be glad!”

That makes perfect sense. The people of God are certainly glad about God's reign. God's reign, we said last time, is one of the reasons we're able to get up in the morning in this fallen world. We are not at the mercy of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. We are not at the beck and call of the enemies of God in this world. God reigns, and therefore I can get up in the morning and I can put one foot in front of the other because I know that my heavenly Father, who loves me and cares for me in Jesus Christ, will not allow one hair of my head to be touched apart from His eternal and good purposes for me. The reign of the Lord is always a matter of encouragement to God's people.

But this Psalm has the people of God not only rejoicing in the reign of the Lord, but at His coming judgment of the evildoers of this world. Now again, this is not surprising, too. If you were being oppressed by evildoers, you would rejoice if someone came and brought them to justice. No doubt there are peoples in the world who are oppressed by marauding invading countries who would love to have someone come and put things right and bring judgment against those who had unlawfully invaded their land. That's perfectly understandable. But here even the judgment of God against the peoples of this world who have rejected His rule is rejoiced in by the people of God. Again, look at verse 8:

“Zion hears and is glad,

And the daughters of Judah rejoice,

Because of Your judgments….”

And those judgments are described in graphic ways in verses 2-6. Look at them:

“Clouds and thick darkness are all around Him…

Fire goes before Him and burns up His adversaries all around.

His lightnings light up the world; the earth sees and trembles.

The mountains melt like wax before the Lord,

Before the Lord of all the earth.”

All of this is a picture of Judgment Day. It's a picture of God coming in just judgment against wickedness.

As I read this passage, I was reminded of a story that Douglas MacMillan told. Douglas MacMillan was the Professor of Church History at the Free Church of Scotland College for many years and was a faithful preacher of God's word. But as a young man, though he had grown up in a believing home, he had rejected Christ for a time. He came under the influence of a Communist teacher when he was in grade school, and for a period of time he wandered apart from the Lord. But even during that time, he could remember his father — or maybe it was his grandfather — who was an elder in his church and who would sometimes preach when there was no minister available to bring the word of God. And he could remember him preaching especially from the book of Revelation, which picks up this language of the mountains melting before the Lord. And he could remember his father (or his grandfather) pointing out the window at the mountains that surrounded them in the place where he grew up in Scotland, and saying, “One day men and women will ask those mountains to fall on them, they will be so terrified at the coming of the Lord.”

This picture is a picture of the coming judgment of the Lord when He brings to bear the due punishment for wickedness on those who have rejected Him, and it's a picture that is not only found in the Old Testament, it's a picture that is found in the New Testament. You don't have to go as far as the book of Revelation. You can look at Jesus’ own teaching. Turn with me in your Bibles to Matthew 24:30. There as Jesus is teaching His disciples about His second coming, He makes the very same point that's being made in Psalm 97:2-6. Matthew 24:30, Jesus says:

“Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man.”

[And then listen to what He says.]

“…And then all of the tribes of the earth will mourn...”

[Why? Because…]

“…They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with
power and great glory.”

Why will they mourn? Because they see the Lord coming in judgment, and they have not believed on the Lord, and they have rejected the Lord, and they have gone their own way. And so their only anticipation is the anticipation of a just judgment against their wickedness, and so they mourn.

Psalm 97 is saying that that expectation is a part of our worship as believers, that we expect God to come in judgment of the world and we worship Him for it. He is an awesome and a just God. There is nothing tame or domesticated about Him.

And, my friends, this in and of itself also motivates us to share the gospel, because if you believe that God is coming to judge the world, and if you believe that He will bring to bear a just and righteous judgment against all who reject Him, then you will be passionate about sharing the gospel of Christ.

A.A. Hodge, who taught for many years at Princeton University, once said, “A man who believes in hell won't shut up about it, but will speak about it with all tenderness and earnestness and urgency.” If you really believe that God is coming in judgment, in just judgment against those who have rejected Him, you will be passionate about sharing the gospel. You won't want anyone to fall under that judgment that you have not proclaimed the glories of God's grace to in Jesus Christ. And, my friends, even as we worship God for His just judgment, we long to share the gospel with those who do not know Him, so that they will come to Christ in faith and be spared the due penalty for their sin in the great Day of the Lord.

It's interesting that though not many of our hymns speak of this aspect of the worship of God's people in light of the coming of His judgment, some of them do. One of them is one of my favorite Christmas carols! It's hard to believe that a Christmas carol would have that theme in it, but it does. Some of you know Christina Rossetti's song, In the Bleak Midwinter. And in the second stanza of that hymn, she has us sing this. She's contrasting the Second Coming with the first coming, and here's how she describes the Second Coming:

“Our God, heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.”

It's a picture of the mighty power of God coming in judgment.

But we also sing about it in Wesley and Cennick's great hymn, Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending. Take your hymnals in hand and turn with me to No. 318. Look at the second and the third stanzas of this hymn. The second stanza is written by Charles Wesley himself; the third stanza by John Cennick…both of them great hymn writers, and listen to what Wesley and Cennick have you singing. I’ll bet you won't find many new songs being written that have this kind of language in them:

“Every eye shall now behold Him, robed in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at naught and sold Him, pierced and nailed Him to the tree,
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing, shall the true Messiah See.”

It's a picture of the coming of the Messiah, but the response to it instead of joy and gladness is deep wailing. Why? Because it represents the cry of a life that rejected and ignored the gospel of God in Jesus Christ.

Then Cennick has us sing in stanza three:

“Every island, sea, and mountain, heaven and earth, shall flee away;”

[You hear the echo of Rossetti's words there.]

“All who hate Him must, confounded, hear the trump proclaim the day:
Come to judgment! Come to judgment! Come to judgment, come away!”

Well, there you have it. God's coming just judgment is a matter of our worship, and it's a motivation to us to share the gospel.

II. God's judgment will expose the foolishness of idol worship.

But there's a second thing I want you to see in verses 7-9: God's coming in judgment will lay bare the foolishness of idolatry. Now we saw this theme in Psalm 96. If you take a peek back in Psalm 96, you see this mocking of idols. He is to be feared above all gods [verse 4], for all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the Lord made the heavens and the earth. So we have this declaration that all the idols of the peoples are nothings; they’re idols, they’re empty, they’re a sham, they’re false. Well, this theme is picked up in Psalm 97 as well. Verse 7:

“All worshipers of images are put to shame,
Who make their boast in worthless idols;
Worship Him, all you gods!”

And again in verse 9:

“For You, O Lord, are most high over all the earth;
You are exalted far above all gods.”

The psalmist is reminding us that when God comes in judgment, He will lay bare the foolishness of idolatry.

Now, in our mind there may be a variety of different types of religious people in the world. There may be those who worship the God of the Bible, and there may be those who worship idols and other gods, and there may be those who reject belief in God.

But from the standpoint of the Bible, there are only two types of people in the world
- there are those who worship the true God,
- and there are those who worship themselves.

Those who worship the true God are those who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ according to the Scriptures, as He is offered in the gospel. And there are those who worship themselves, no matter whether they say they don't believe in God or whether they say they believe in a thousand gods; in the end, they worship themselves. All worship except for true worship of the true God is in the end self worship, because all worship which is not true worship of the true God is in the end worship of something that we have projected on reality, because it corresponds to nothing in reality.

And interestingly, all worship leads to you becoming like what you worship, so you either worship the true God, and even as you give Him the glory that is due His name, you find your life being conformed to His image. God made us in His image, and as we worship Him, as we declare with all that we are and have that He is the one true God, we find ourselves becoming more truly human and bearing in our lives the character qualities of the One that we worship and admire. But if we worship ourselves, what happens is that we become corrupted by the worst aspect of what we are.

If you worship money, you will become greedy and stingy. Now, nobody sets out to worship money. You don't sit down one day and say, ‘You know, I think I’ll worship money.’ But you might start out by worshiping self-security. Or you might set out by worshiping finding material security in what you have, and it leads to the worship of money…which does not make you more human, it makes you less human. It doesn't make you more noble, it makes you greedy and stingy and ungenerous.

If you worship sex, you’ll become more and more self-obsessed and narcissistic. Now nobody sits down one day and says, ‘I think I'm going to worship sex.’ But they may start out by saying, ‘I desire gratification for myself above other concerns,’ and suddenly they find themselves, whether they realize it or not, worshiping sex. And they don't become better people, they become self-absorbed people.

If you worship power, you’ll become scheming and heartless. And we could go on and on down the list. What you desire determines what you will become. And if you set your desires on anything other than the true God, you will become like that, and it will not be pretty. Desire that is set on the right object — the one true God — ennobles and grows a human being. Desire set on the wrong thing corrupts us and debases us.

Isn't this the story of Romans 1? Instead of worshiping the Creator, Paul says, they worship the creature. And as a result what happened? Did they become more noble? No. They became like creeping things that go on all fours. Worshiping themselves didn't ennoble them, it made them less human. God in His coming judgment will lay bare the foolishness of idolatry, and we will become like what we worship. True worship declares God to be great.

You know, in the last week or so, a former political candidate for a high office in this land has been compelled to make a very embarrassing self-revelation. Very embarrassing. The point I want to make today has nothing to do with his party or with his actions or with his person other than this: everything will be laid bare one day. I think we can all imagine the embarrassment that that individual has felt.

Everything will be laid bare one day. Are we hiding in Christ? Have we been clothed in His righteousness? Have we learned not to trust in the sweetest frame, but wholly to lean on Jesus' name? Are we trusting not that we won't get caught? That it will never be disclosed? But are we deliberately trusting in something, someone, other than ourselves for our eternal well-being and communion with the living God?

Oh, my friends! The very truth that God coming in judgment will lay bare the foolishness of idolatry behooves us to trust in Christ.

III. God's coming in judgment ought to motivate us to do right.

A third and a final thing is this. Look at verses 10-12. God's coming in judgment ought to motivate us now to do right. The reaction of the believer to the truth that God is coming to judge this world in justice is not, ‘That's wonderful…so I don't have to worry about it!’ No. If God is coming to judge justly, it means that we're called to live in righteousness and justice and holiness now, and to pursue righteousness and justice and holiness now. Look at the call of verse 10: “O you who love the Lord, hate evil!” The call is for us who worship God to pursue righteousness.

We live in a day and age all around us where the very idea of evil is called into question. That very relativizing of evil, my friends, is evil. Just in the last 24 hours I've heard a spokesman for a political candidate being interviewed, and in the course of that interview, the interviewer asked this spokesperson whether she believed in absolute evil. Her response was, “Well, I believe that evil is unrefined good.” The interviewer went on to say, “So do you think Hitler was unrefined good?” And her answer was, “Well, I do think he has a lot of questions to answer.” There is always, friends, a chasm between good and evil that cannot be crossed. They are not of the same kind. And God calls on those who love Him to hate evil. That means that in our lives we are to pursue what is right. This is part of responding to the grace of God in the gospel. We worship God in such a way as to pursue His righteousness.

Now, my friends, it's very easy for us to point our finger at others who are evil, but this too reminds us to rest and trust in the grace of God alone. I've been haunted by that quotation from Alexander Solzhenitsyn1 that I shared with you last week. All week long, it keeps coming back to me when he reminds me that the line between good and evil is not between political parties, and it's not between classes of people, and it's not between nations: it cuts right down the center of every human heart. And that means, my friend, that we will not be able to pursue good in this world until our hearts are changed. It takes a divine and sovereign work of the Holy Spirit to change a heart which is totally depraved, affected in all its parts by evil. It takes a work of God's Holy Spirit regenerating us, giving us new birth.

God tells us that we must see ourselves and our sin and look to Christ in faith to receive a grace that pardons us and accepts us, and adopts us, and ultimately will change us. We can't pursue good and we can't hate evil in this world until God has done that work in our hearts. And that means that if we're going to worship God rightly…well, then we're going to have to embrace Him in the gospel. Because only God the Holy Spirit can take a human heart that is evil and give it new life, and make a hard stone soft.

Let's pray.

Our heavenly Father, we ask that by the grace of Your Holy Spirit we would believe the gospel, and so worship You in light of Your present rule and coming judgment, and worship You, the true God, and not idols; and pursue Your holiness as we worship You in all of life. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.

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1. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago.

“It was granted to me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil, and how a human being becomes good. In the intoxication of youthful successes, I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties, but right through the center of every human heart, and through all human hearts. And that is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me, ‘Bless you, prison.’ I have served enough time there. I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation, ‘Bless you, prison, for having been in my life.’”

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