To the leader. Of David.
1 In the Lord I take refuge; how can you say to me,
“Flee like a bird to the mountains;
2 for look, the wicked bend the bow,
they have fitted their arrow to the string,
to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart.
3 If the foundations are destroyed,
what can the righteous do?”
4 The Lord is in his holy temple;
the Lord’s throne is in heaven.
His eyes behold, his gaze examines humankind.
5 The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked,
and his soul hates the lover of violence.
6 On the wicked he will rain coals of fire and sulfur;
a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.
7 For the Lord is righteous;
he loves righteous deeds;
the upright shall behold his face.
There’s a great song by Kenny Rogers that pretty much every knows–his most famous song, called “The Gambler.” The refrain of the song offers advice that is, on the surface, about poker, but also pretty clearly advice about life. Anyone remember the words? Sing it with me?
“You got to know when to hold ’em. Know when to fold ’em. Know when to walk away, know when to run. You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table; there’ll be plenty of time for countin’ when the dealin’s done.”
I think Psalm 11 could be the gambler’s Psalm. It’s definitely a Psalm about knowing when to run away, and when to make a stand. But first, speaking of running away…
Did you hear the one about the old church out in the country, where Satan himself showed up for worship one Sunday morning? Immediately recognizing the prince of darkness (likely the horns and the pitchfork were a dead giveaway) most of the congregation members ran screaming right out the church door, jumping through the windows, trampling over each other in a frantic effort to get away. All except for one elderly gentleman, who sat calmly in his usual spot, with a determined look in his eye.
Not used to this response, Satan walked up to the man and said, “Don’t you know who I am?” The old man smoothly responded, “Yep. Sure do, Mr. Devil.” “And you’re…not going to run?” asked the Devil. “Nope, sure ain’t Mr. Devil.” Perturbed, Satan asked the man, “Why aren’t you afraid of me?” At this, the man turned to face the Devil, looked him straight in the eye and said, “You don’t scare me. I’ve been married to your sister for over 48 years now.”
So today we’re talking about knowing when to run away, and when to make a stand. Psalm 11, in the inscription at the beginning of the psalm, tells us that it is addressed to the leader (most likely the chief musician, the music director, or the worship leader in the temple) and that it is a Psalm of David. We have no way of knowing whether King David himself actually wrote this Psalm, or whether it was simply a Psalm “in the style” of David. But either way it rings true.
Young David knew a thing or two about when to run away, and when to make a stand. In 1st Samuel 17, when all of the Israelites are running away from Goliath, the Philistine Giant, young David (against all odds) makes his stand. Armed with nothing more than five smooth stones and a profound trust in God, David defeats Goliath and becomes the hero of Israel.
And then he runs away. Not immediately, but because of David’s popularity with the people, the King of Israel at the time (King Saul) becomes insanely jealous of David, and tries on multiple occasions to have him killed. So this time, rather than making a stand, David runs to the mountains, lives for a time as an outlaw, and gathers other outcasts and wanderers to himself. Eventually, Saul’s kingdom falls and he is defeated by the Philistines. David gathers the people of Judah to himself, makes a stand against the Philistines, defeats them, and becomes King of Judah and Israel.
He rules for many decades…and then he runs away to the mountains again. This time, it is because his son Absalom has gained popularity with the people and rises up against him. Rather than fight his rebellious son, David runs away and hides in the mountains. Eventually David is restored to the throne, and defends his kingdom against his enemies until he dies in old age.
Why am I telling you the story of David’s life? To show that sometimes David stood fast against his enemies, and sometimes he ran to the mountains. We should keep this in mind when we read the opening lines to Psalm 11, and hear the Psalmist (we’ll go ahead and presume it’d David) indignantly say:
“In the Lord I take refuge; how can you say to me,” –and here he quotes those whom we might presume are advising him, his followers, saying to him:
“Flee like a bird to the mountains; for look, the wicked bend the bow, they have fitted their arrow to the string, to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart. If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”
In other words, you’re outnumbered, David. Your days are numbered. You’re righteous, you have a good cause, but if you don’t have the support of the people, the foundations…what can you do? Run, David, Run.
The second half of the Psalm is David’s response, but I think it’s also his method, and one we can learn from.
He begins by putting his precarious position into a higher perspective. Yes, there are enemies and dangers all around me…BUT…
Verse 4: “The Lord is in his holy temple, the Lord’s throne is in heaven.” And that’s the only one who really matters. Notice here where God is–because it’s actually two different places simultaneously.
The Lord is in his holy temple–that would be the temple in Jerusalem. This is another way of saying, “The Lord is down here, with us. The Lord is with us.
And then the second part of verse 4: “The Lord’s throne is in heaven.” God is with us, but also transcends us, is above us, higher than us, his reign is over us, his throne (or his power) is in the heaven, the highest possible place it could be. And that means it is over and above me as well as my enemies.
What is God doing up there in the heavens while simultaneously down here with us? The third part of verse four: “His eyes behold, his gaze examines humankind; the Lord tests the righteous and the wicked.”
Here we are introduced to two different categories of people–the righteous, and the wicked. They’re probably not exactly what you’re imagining based on our modern understanding of those words, but more on that later. First, I want to point out that God, according to this Psalm, already knows which is which–who is righteous and who is wicked–but he also gives us an opportunity to show our true colors. That’s the “test.”
But what do those words mean, “righteous” and “wicked?”
Let’s start with wicked. For starters, where does that word even come from in English? It’s an Old English word, wikko, that is also where we get the words wicca and wizard. Now before you start thinking of magic and wizardry, the word goes back even further than that — before it evolved into English, it was the proto-Germanic word weyk, which means to separate or divide by casting lots (that’s what wizards actually did–divination). Rolling the dice…or…gambling. (I told you this was the gambling psalm, right?)
The problem is, there are plenty of words in Hebrew for casting lots (which they did) or gambling, or even wizardry and sorcery. But none of those words are used here in this passage. Instead, it’s the Hebrew word רָשְׁע (rasha). So if it doesn’t mean wicked, or wizard, or rolling the dice, what does it mean? The answer is actually right here in the Psalm, the second half of verse 5: The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked, and his soul hates the lover of violence. The Hebrew word רָשְׁע (rasha) shows up over 300 times in the Bible and the vast majority of those instances involve some kind of violence or striking out. There’s a possibly related word רָשַׁשׁ (rashash) which means to beat down or to shatter.
So that means wizards and gamblers are off the hook here. But the רָשְׁע (rasha), those who delight in the destruction of others? Verse 6: On them, God will “rain coals of fire and sulfur; a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.” Notice that this judgment is handed out by God, incidentally, not by David.
Now on to the other category: The righteous ones, or in Hebrew, צֶדֶק (tzedek). The word means just, upright, righteous, sure enough. But the origin of the word comes from the language of weights and measurements, the kind you would use in a marketplace to make sure you’re being fair. An exchange that is צֶדֶק (tzedek) is one that is perfectly balanced, with the thing being sold (grain, spice, whatever) perfectly matching the weights on the other side of the scale.
Why is this important? To be righteous in God’s eyes doesn’t mean that you have to be perfect, flawless, without error. It means being balanced–that you are what you are supposed to be, who you were created to be, what you claim to be, without deception–the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful–all held in perfect balance.
When we achieve that balance–in our lives, in our hearts, in our minds–God is pleased. Verse 7: For the Lord is righteous; he loves righteous (or balanced) deeds. The upright shall behold his face.
Do you remember the old ride they used to have in playgrounds called a see-saw? Or a teeter-totter? It worked best when you had two people about the same weight. If one person is significantly lighter or heavier than the other, one stays up, one stays down. No fun. And there is no “correct” weight you have to be, no such thing as too heavy or too light–it’s all about being balanced with the person on the other side.
And if you achieve that balance, this amazing thing happens when you are going up and down, up and down. About halfway through, you come into perfect balance, and for just a split second, you can see the huge smile on the face of the person right across from you, face to face, in balance. That’s what I imagine when I hear verse 7. For the Lord is righteous; he loves righteous (balanced) deeds; the upright–those who come into balance with the world around them–shall behold his face.
How do you come into balance with God? By coming into balance, or harmony, or loving empathy, with the people around you, the people in the world who (like you) carry in their faces the image of God their creator.
So. Back to David’s method. How to tell when to hold ’em, when to fold ’em, when to walk away and when to run. Or at least when to run and when to stand your ground.
Step 1: Put the situation into a higher perspective, a God perspective, an eternal perspective. Is what you’re fighting for really important in that bigger, greater perspective?
Step 2: Determine what side you are on. Don’t even think in terms of righteous or wicked, because we’re all pretty capable of convincing ourselves that our cause is righteous, while their cause is wicked. They’re convinced of the same thing, only the other way around./ Instead think in these terms: Am I on the side of destruction or balance? Am I striking out, causing harm, tearing down another person for my own gain? Or am I seeking balance–elevating the needs of others until we come face to face? What side am I on?
Step 3: (and this is the hardest part) Trust in God as your refuge. Whether you stand or whether you run, in the end doesn’t matter so much–David did both throughout his life. What does matter is Who stands with you when you stand, and Who shelters you when you run. May the answer to both of those questions be the Lord God who created you, the one who loves you, the one who protects you, when you’re sittin’ at the table, and when the dealin’s done.