Psalm 147:6, 11
Sometimes the words we read in the Bible don’t mean what we expect them to mean. At least not exactly. This is not to say that we can’t learn real things concerning God and ourselves with the language we understand. (After all, what alternative have we?) But the Bible often means different things by certain words that we use commonly, and we do well to recognize it.
Let me give two examples, both from Psalm 147. The first is the word fear, from verse 11—“the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.” The New Oxford American Dictionary defines fear as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.” This definition of fear is certainly part of what it means to fear God—even Jesus told his disciples to “fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matthew 10:28). But that is hardly adequate in what it means to fear God, especially God who we call Father. The psalm fills it out for us, insofar as it lets us know that fearing God also includes hoping in his steadfast love. It would go too far to say that fearing God and hoping in his steadfast love are the same thing, but we misunderstand fearing God if we don’t understand that we don’t fear him rightly if we don’t trust his love for us. And that gives fearing the Lord a different sense entirely. A believer does not fear God in the same way he fears an angry bear, and living before God cowering as if He might at any time strike is hardly what it means to know Him. Rather, the fearer of God fears the One who has determined to do him good. In fact, it is precisely this conviction that the Lord is willing and able to do us good that enables the believer to fear him—to walk in obedience when the road ahead is fearful. Consider, for instance, Abraham, or Jesus.
Another example can be found in verse 6: “The LORD lifts up the humble; he casts the wicked to the ground.” Again, the New Oxford American Dictionary defines humble as “having or showing a modest or low estimate of one’s own importance.” And, of course, that is part of what it means to be humble. But, again, it is hardly adequate. The parallelism in the psalm again lends definition. Because the psalm contrasts lifting up and casting down, which are clearly opposites, we might expect the psalm to use opposites, antonyms, to say that the Lord lifts up the humble and casts down the prideful (the opposite of humble), or that the Lord lifts up the righteous (the opposite of wicked) and casts down the wicked. But the psalm actually pairs words that are not, strictly speaking, antonyms. And by so doing, it tells us something about the humble—not only do the humble have a modest estimate of themselves, but they are righteous. The humble know something of the greatness of God, and seek to live accordingly. In other words, there is more to humility than just thinking lowly or modestly of oneself, as important as that is. Daniel or John the Baptist comes to mind.
The Bible has its own language. The words we read in the Bible, while helpful and necessary, may not by themselves give us as faithful a picture of God and what it means to please him. The solution? To continue to read and meditate upon the Scriptures, letting the Scriptures themselves fill out the meanings of the words they use. And, in so doing, fill out our understanding of the God who inspired them.
Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness; let him rebuke me—it is oil for my head; let my head not refuse it (Psalm 141:3).
Here is the godly response to correction. The wise will seek it, and listen. Only the humble of heart, the one who understands the depth of his sin and his need of God for righteousness, will be able to receive rebuke as kindness. Not only will such a heart accept correction, it will welcome it, for correction is an opportunity to grow in likeness to Christ, which is the believer’s great desire (for falling short of godliness is a source of mourning for him). Therefore, rebuke is received—gladly received—not in a spirit of offence, but of thanksgiving. The proud heart, the heart that believes it is good or the heart that cares much of itself, will abhor such a rebuke, and respond in wrath, defensively, much like a wild animal when its nest is threatened.
Do not despise correction. The cost of so doing is too great.
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs (1 Timothy 6:10).
Times have changed, but mankind has not. Paul knew about the love of money. So did the psalmist: “the idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands” (135:15). And both warned of the destructiveness of money so loved.
The psalm gives two reasons to support Paul’s claim that the love of money draws one away from God. First, idols are vain—they cannot speak, see, hear, or breathe. In other words, they are ultimately of no use to those who trust them. That is not to say money is of no use—it is very useful, a blessing even, which is precisely why it is tempting to ask too much of it, so that it and not God becomes our trust. But it will always fail us in our times of real need.
The second reason idols draw one from God is at least as sobering—that those who trust in idols become like them. In other words, the love of money changes us. And how are we changed? We have been told—idols cannot speak, see, hear, or breathe, and neither will those who trust them. Truly this is a picture of death. We are made like God, in his image. To exchange this glory, so that we might become like a useless idol—how can one describe it?
Especially in light of what the psalm reminds us concerning God. The Lord is great, above all gods. He does what he pleases—he forms the clouds and the lightning and the winds, he redeems his people, bringing them into a good and plentiful land. The Lord will vindicate his people, and have compassion upon them.
Jesus did not mince words in this matter: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24). If there is a deadness in your life in God, this may be an area to attend to.
If anyone returns evil for good, evil will not depart from his house (Proverbs 17:13).
(A disclaimer. The following meditation goes beyond the plain meaning of the proverb, but is I trust a biblically faithful meditation on an issue that I believe the proverb raises, and an issue that is relevant to many of us.)
The Proverbs are not always moral lessons, in the sense that they explicitly tell us what to do. They do direct us, but often not by exhortation, but by speaking of how things are. For instance, there is moral instruction in Proverbs 15:1—“A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger”—but the power of the proverb comes from simply stating what is, and what we know to be true but of which we need to be reminded.
In looking at the proverb above, however, I want to suggest something more general, suggested to me by what the proverb does not say. It does not say that he who returns evil for good cannot be forgiven. Nor does it say that God does not love such a person, or that his grace is unavailable to him. (If that were the case, how could any of us be forgiven, given that Adam’s sin, and ours, consists in returning evil for God’s good?) Rather, describing the way things are, it says that evil will not depart from the house of one who does so. The implication is that it is entirely possible that one may be forgiven, and that the evil consequences of sin remain. The life of David in the Old Testament is a good example of this very thing.
That consequences remain is a hard truth. A man who steals may be forgiven, and may even repay his debt in full, but still may never regain the trust of the one he robbed. God can forgive sexual sin, but the consequences often persist, whether in emotional distress or particular diseases or custody battles or whatever. A harsh word may be forgiven, but the relationship may never recover. A lying tongue may become truthful, but not trusted. Whether taking a life or speaking a word, what is done can rarely be undone. And God does not promise to undo the effects of our sin. At least not yet.
The point is this: do not think that God has forgotten you if you are dealing with the consequences of sin. God may not remove them. If he does not, do not take that to mean that he has not or cannot forgive you, that he doesn’t love you, and that one day he won’t set everything right. If you come to Jesus, he will not turn you away, despite what your circumstances may seem to tell you. We see through a glass darkly, and rarely completely understand his ways. But we trust that he is good.