Knowing a just God

A sermon on Psalm 94

A plaque on the wall of Pastor Ralph Williams’ study at Immanuel Gospel Church, New Britain, Connecticut, bears this inscription: “When the Lord looks me over he will not judge me by the degrees I have earned or the awards I have won but by the scars I have incurred.”[1]

I don’t know what the author had in mind as he wrote that sentence. Perhaps he was thinking of both physical and emotional scars, earned in the heat of battle, on the shop floor, in the boardroom. 

God certainly sees the moral and emotional scars, as well as the physical signs of trauma, that we incur as we pass through life, through life’s dark valleys, through life’s unfriendly crowds. The suffering we incur for the sake of righteousness and justice will have its own reward in eternity. The Judge of all the earth will do right.

But sometimes there is a gap, a big gap, between what we know about God and God’s ways, and what we experience day by day. The Old Testament narratives, and especially the Psalms, serve as a mirror on this uncomfortable aspect of the human condition, this struggling with human-induced adversity, the blatant injustice that arises out of greed and envy and blindness to the face of God in my neighbour.

Take a moment to think of a few of the things that puzzle you about God, or God’s ways – things that perplex you, or make you shake your head in confusion or disbelief at the wrongness of it all: things such as the prosperity of the wicked; the success of ungodly social policy; disadvantage in employment because of your Christian witness; poverty, hunger, disease; systemic evil; unanswered prayer.

Psalm 94 responds to these thoughts and feelings we all share. 

Verse 1a is a statement of fact: “The Lord is a God who avenges.” God avenges injustice. The living God is not only our Creator, Redeemer and King, but our Judge. God will one day judge everyone, on the basis of their actions, and “the thoughts of their heart,” with perfect knowledge and justice. As Abraham confidently affirmed: “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18:25).

Verse 1b is a prayer to this God, by someone in the dark, in the midst of undeserved suffering, crying out to God for justice. Verses 3-7 outline the plight they face. Perhaps there is an echo here of the cry of the Israelites long before, cruelly enslaved and mercilessly oppressed in Egypt (see also v. 16). 

But there is no indication in the psalm that the injustice is perpetrated by foreigners. These are God’s people, fellow Israelites, who are oppressing the vulnerable and voiceless in the community. And that makes the injustice all the more sickening.

These people have some knowledge of God, but they tell themselves that God is blind to their actions, and takes no notice of injustice (v. 7). So the oppressed cry out: “O God who avenges, shine forth. Rise up, Judge of the earth; pay back to the proud what they deserve” (vv. 1b, 2).

Faithful Israelites affirmed that their God was the living, gracious, personal, universal God; he was also the just God who avenged wrong. The psalmist cries out to this God: “Shine forth! Rise up! Pay back!” Faithful Israelites remembered God’s promise to them through Moses, as they prepared to cross the Jordan river into the Promised Land: 

“It is mine to avenge; I will repay [the unjust, the wicked]. In due time their foot will slip; their day of disaster is near and their doom rushes upon them” (Deut 32:35).

Faithful Israelites also remembered the blessing Moses pronounced on Israel before his death, on the wrong side of Jordan, how he reminded the people of their emancipation from slavery in Egypt forty years before, and how God had blessed them in so many ways in the desert: “The Lord came from Sinai and dawned over them from Seir; he shone forth from Mount Paran…” (Deut 33:2).

This is the living God, the God of love and light, who sees and knows everything, who understands what is wrong, and who will set it right. To those who recklessly assure themselves that God pays no heed to their theft, their oppression, their violence, their injustice, God says, “Pay heed yourselves, you fools!” (v. 8). See also verse 14.

And yet, it is not always easy to pray to a God of vengeance, pleading for him to act in judgment on other people and their families.

Vengeance is a primitive, uncivilized way of solving social and ethical problems. It leaves no place for forgiveness, for reconciliation, for the righting of wrongs, for a second chance. The old law of “an eye for an eye” leaves the whole world blind. But as Richard J. Clifford observes, when applied to God, “vengeance means something quite different: redressing wrongs when ordinary means fail.”[2]

Verses 1-7 are a prayer to God; verses 8-11 are an exhortation to persevere in the darkness until the dawn, until God’s light shines forth and God’s justice triumphs.

As we trust in the living God, and anticipate the dawn, we echo the Apostle Paul’s words: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor 4:8-9).

God does not always take away the injustice, or the suffering. His governance unfolds in a hidden way, not according to my timetable or yours. But God cares for us, and gives us his peace, and grants us resilience, fortitude, patience, endurance and perseverance as we seek him.

For those of us who have so far escaped such wrongs, God calls us to prayer on behalf of those who suffer injustice and oppression. God is active in vengeance and in judgment, but he is above all active in love and mercy and grace; and because this is his nature, you and I can know him personally as our Fortress, our Rock, our Refuge (v. 22). Although the arrogant wicked out in the secularist desert, or here among the people of God, have significant power for evil, they also have a certain fate.

The prayer of verse 2 is a fact by verse 23: “He will repay them for their sins and destroy them for their wickedness; The Lord our God will destroy them.” Leave the vengeance to God.

But there is other important work to do. Verses 17-19 remind us of the need for moral education, for the teaching of theology and ethics as a foundation for good living. And verses 1-3 remind us that our faith in God is not a private benefit but a public good.

We need people who have a confident trust in God, and a good understanding of God’s truth, willing and able to step out in to the public arena, and speak out against injustice and oppression, and speak up for the vulnerable and voiceless (vv. 5-6), so that “judgment will again be founded on righteousness, and all the upright in heart will follow it” (v. 15).

That too is part of what it means to pray to a God who avenges injustice, calling on him to “shine forth.”

That too is part of what it means to be an active participant in a community of faith, committed to extending the reign of God in individual hearts and minds, in families and local communities, in national and international contexts, until “justice rolls on like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream” (Amos 5:24).

Sermon 636 copyright © 2015 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 20 September 2015. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).

[1] Quoted in William L. Lane, Call to Commitment: Responding to the Message of Hebrews (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985), dedication page.

[2] Richard J. Clifford, Psalms 73-150 (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), p. 115.

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