Beckett: Psalm 7 – In You Do I Take Refuge

1, O LORD my God, in You do I take refuge; save me from all my pursuers and deliver me,
2, lest like a lion they tear my soul apart, rending it in pieces, with none to deliver.
3, O LORD my God, if I have done this, if there is wrong in my hands,
4,  if I have repaid my friend with evil or plundered my enemy without cause,
5, let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it, and let him trample my life to the ground and lay my glory in the dust.
6, Arise, O LORD, in Your anger; lift Yourself up against the fury of my enemies; awake for me; You have appointed a judgement.
7, Let the assembly of the peoples be gathered about You; over it return on high.
8, The LORD judges the peoples; judge me, O LORD, according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me.
9, Oh, let the evil of the wicked come to an end, and may You establish the righteous—You who test the minds and hearts, O righteous God!
10, My shield is with God, who saves the upright in heart.
11, God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day.
12, If a man does not repent, God will whet His sword; He has bent and readied His bow;
13, He has prepared for him His deadly weapons, making His arrows fiery shafts.
14, Behold, the wicked man conceives evil and is pregnant with mischief and gives birth to lies.
15, He makes a pit, digging it out, and fall into the hole that he has made.
16, His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own skull his violence descends.
17, I will give to the LORD the thanks due to His righteousness, and I will sing praise to the name of the LORD, the Most High.

Verses 1-2

This psalm is longer than the others I’ve commented on so far, which means this commentary will be a bit lengthy as well. Personally, I can relate to the words in these first two verses. David is likely talking of his military enemies since he was often at war with pagan nations and even within his own family (when his son Absalom attempted to usurp his throne). I’m no longer a soldier in the Army, so I can no longer relate to these words in the more literal sense, but I am at war within myself.

In my commentary on Psalm 6, I mentioned I was recently diagnosed with depression due to a vast history of abandonment and rejection (and other reasons too personal to share publicly). As part of my depression, I convince myself that I am unlovable and unworthy of being loved, further convincing myself that no woman would dare to love me enough to have me as her husband and that even my friends find me repugnant. That is how I mean that I’m at war within myself. I know these are all lies, but the Devil nevertheless berates me with these lies and convinces me they’re true.

No doubt we all face such inner demons and temptations that pursue us. These come in a myriad of shapes and sizes. In tangible forms, they may be militant atheists, gay marriage advocates, terrorist organisations like ISIS, and so forth. In intangible forms, they may come in various shapes and colours of depression, anxiety, self-hatred, guilt, shame, and so forth. It seems as if there is no hope. 

“Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). The Devil is constantly on the hunt, and we are his prey. In the most insidious and subtle ways, he works diligently to tear our soul asunder. But as we continue reading the psalm, we will find that there is someone much more powerful on our side.

Verses 3-5

I see these next three verses as a prayer for sin David was unaware of. He’s essentially praying, “Lord, if I have done any of these things, I deserve Your just punishment.” He’s unaware if he has done these things or not. All of us can relate to this. As David writes in a later psalm, “Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults” (Psalm 19:12). Who can know every sin he or she has committed? No one can. It is not within our human ability to recount every sin we’ve committed. Our only hope is for God to forgive our “hidden faults”—these sins we cannot remember or fail to recognise.

This is why the Lutheran liturgy is so beautiful. After the invocation and the opening hymn, most Lutheran churches begin the Divine Service with the sacrament of Absolution. The pastor begins quoting from 1 John 1:8-9, saying, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” And the congregation recites the remaining Word, “But if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

There is then a moment of silence for reflection on God’s Word and self-evaluation. This is the time every Christian present has to confess before God sins they know they’ve committed, and even to admit unawareness of sins they have committed. Martin Luther suggested we go through the Ten Commandments and consider our vocations throughout the week, and confess any sins we may have committed in our vocations. That’s the recommendation I take. Since I go to church weekly, I’ll consider my vocations throughout the week and will ask God to forgive me for taking His name in vain/misusing His name, being a poor son or brother, a lazy student, and some personal sins. Then I’ll say something like, “Whatever else I have failed to recount or fail to recognise, please forgive me for these hidden sins as well.”

After the pastor says, “Let us then confess our sins to God our Father,” confessing what we are unaware of is especially seen in the following congregation’s confession:

Most merciful God, we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean. We have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undoneWe have not loved You with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves. We justly deserve Your present and eternal punishment. For the sake of Your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in Your will and walk in Your ways to the glory of Your holy name. Amen.

The words I put in bold are key. This is the admission that we have committed sins against God in thought, word, and deed both with things we know we have done and have not done, whether we’re aware of them or not. Then comes the words of Absolution, where the pastor speaks the words of forgiveness as if Christ is speaking them Himself, “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (cf. John 20:23).

In His boundless wisdom and mercy, if hearing these words is not enough for us, Jesus has given us His very body and blood in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. In the Absolution, we hear Christ’s efficacious words of forgiveness. In the Lord’s Supper, we get to taste the sweetness of Christ’s forgiveness. When you drink the Lord’s blood and eat His body, you have His forgiveness on your lips, your tongue, into your stomach, and throughout your whole body. You literally get to touch the Lord’s forgiveness both inside and out of your body. This is truly a remarkable gift to have!

In verse 5, David pleads for justice against himself if he has wronged his friend and even his enemy. Much like our confession at the beginning of the Divine Service, David admits he deserves God’s eternal punishment. But God doesn’t give it to him. God doesn’t deal with His children in this way. The only judgement befitting God’s children is justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Verses 6-7

Here, David is calling upon the vengeance of God, drawing it from the Torah: “Vengeance is Mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and their doom comes swiftly” (Deuteronomy 32:35; cf. Romans 12:19). By “swift,” this verse does not mean the calamity of God’s enemies will happen soon. It is not a verb of nearness of time. Rather, it is a verb denoting passage of time. That is, when their calamity comes, it will occur suddenly, without warning, or hastened. This verb is used to denote a sense of urgency, thus, “Come quickly,” or, “Make haste.” The verb is never used to describe the nearness of a future event.

After all, we find that the wicked are often successful whilst God’s people suffer. This is because God “makes His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). Why would God bless the wicked and not just destroy them immediately? This concept confounds us, so we create theodicies based on human speculations to defend God’s actions when they don’t need defending. That is, we speculate at the hidden things of God, which is absurd because how can we ever know what is hidden from us unless God first reveals it to us?

Thus, lest we attempt to justify God who does not need justification, let’s see what God does reveal in His Word. We know only this, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not  rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23). And God repeats Himself, “Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:11). And centuries later, Peter repeats this, “The Lord is not slow to fulfil His promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

Apparently, then, God does not immediately destroy the wicked because of His desire that they turn from their ways, come to know Him, and thus live. Let us not forget, too, that you and I were once wicked enemies of God; and that as Peter notes, God was patient toward us to reach repentance of our former wicked ways, know Him through Christ, and thus live.

However, this Deuteronomy verse also says the calamity of the wicked “is at hand,” or more literally in Hebrew, “near.” This could completely contradict everything I just said, thus jeopardising the inerrancy of the Scriptures. Remember, however, that “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8).

God exists outside of time; He is not bound to the laws of time. So, from our finite perspective, the calamity of the wicked is not near. But from God’s infinite perspective, their calamity is near because it’s already done, just as when God promised the salvation of mankind at the Rebellion (Genesis 3:15), God had already done it whereas it hadn’t happened in the realm of human history and experience yet.

The best analogy to better understand this is a supernova. Most of the stars we see in the night sky are dead stars—they imploded a long time ago, and it takes an inordinate amount of time for that event to travel all those light-years to Earth to the point that we no longer see the light. The supernova already happened; we just haven’t seen it or experienced yet (that is, no longer seeing the light it used to emit).

Likewise, with God, whatever He has declared, He’s already done it. When God declared to save mankind through the Seed of Eve, He already did it; we just hadn’t experienced it in our history yet. In the same way, just as God has declared us perfect and holy by virtue of Christ’s perfection and holiness that He imparts to us by faith on the cross, we are not perfect and holy in this world, per se, but we already are in the world to come. We’re not perfect because we still sin, but God nevertheless considers us perfect because of what Christ has done and the ultimate perfection He will give us in the new heavens and the new earth.

But I digress. I imagine David was writing this psalm at a time in which he was being pursued by his enemies (as it seems to be a common pattern with him), whether it was during King Saul’s pursuit of him or Absalom’s attempt to usurp his throne, or some other war recorded or unrecorded during David’s reign in the Bible. As 21st century Christians who live comfortably in our first-world homes—and practically all of us are not rulers of nations—this is difficult for us to relate to. How can we relate to this part of the psalm?

First, in the literal sense, we can’t. Unless you’re a soldier at war, you can’t relate to this. Simple.

Second, we can consider the war every single one of us is in as Christians. It’s not a physical war, but a spiritual war. 

For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). 

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12).

We are at war with Satan and his dark forces. We experience this in every form of temptation, every self-inflicted negative thought, and every negative word and action our enemies throw at us. This is a spiritual war, yes, but lest we become Gnostic and think the material world unimportant or inferior, let us not forget that spiritual forces and problems have an effect on the physical as well.

Consider my depression I mentioned earlier. The self-hatred I am battling with is arguably spiritual, but physically it caused my depression, which physically affects how I treat myself, others, and every day life because I am often physically fatigued. This spiritual war affects us both spiritually and physically, but we do not wage war against these dark forces in normal physical ways. We wage war with nothing but the Word of God—the sword of the Spirit. It is the very Word of God in which God literally created everything out of nothing, the Word of God that counts no sin against us by faith, and the Word of God that has declared us God’s holy and blameless children with the promised inheritance of eternal life.

Verses 8-11

Here, David petitions God to judge him according to his righteousness, but we have no righteousness of our own. “All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment,” or as the KJV translates, “are as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). So, it appears as if David is actually petitioning for his just, eternal punishment. Is that really what David is saying? Here, we must employ the second of six principles of interpretation: Scripture interprets Scripture. So, let’s go to the Scriptures.

Fortunately, this isn’t too difficult to interpret. Just two psalms before this, David begins Psalm 4 with, “Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness” (v. 1)! That’s easy enough. David knows YHWH is the God of his righteousness, acknowledging the only righteousness he has comes from God. David, then—after confessing his just and eternal punishment before God—petitions to God not to judge him according to his just condemnation, but according to God’s righteousness, which He gave to him. In other words, David is clinging to the promise of God.

We Lutherans call this justification by faith, which is God declaring us righteous because we believe His promise, particularly the promise given to us in Christ. This is the same justification by faith Abraham had (Genesis 15:6).

Moving on, David eagerly waits for the evil ways of the wicked to come to an end. I’m sure many of us can relate to this. Mass shootings are on the rise, liberal theologians are redefining marriage and sexuality, and so on. Many of us are praying for these wicked things to end. It is interesting to me that in connection to David’s prayer for God to end the wicked, instead of going on about his anger against this evil, he exalts God as his defence—as his shield.

We see this same shield imagery in Ephesians 6:16, to “take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one.” Remember, we’re at war. Yet it becomes easy to think this is our work. Rather, it is God’s work. David calls God his shield, “who saves the upright in heart”—that is, the righteous, whom God makes righteous. Just as God is the one who gave us faith, and is not something we came up with on our own, so God is the defender of our faith. As evil increases, we can always run to God, our refuge and our shield. I cannot say what this may look like, for God is the final decision-maker on that.

In verse 11, David makes the valid point that God is the righteous judge. The word “righteous” has lost its meaning in our world today. To be righteous means to be in the right. So, because God is righteous, this means He is always right, and He is always in the right. God can never be wrong; He always know what is wrong because He is always right.

We are righteous in the sense that God makes us right before Him (passive/alien righteousness). That is, as Paul says, God has reconciled us to Himself. He has restored friendly relations between us and Him—the hostility has ended (2 Corinthians 5:18-19). We are only righteous in the world (active righteousness) in that we are in right relationships with other people by loving our neighbour, which has no bearing upon our salvation.

Verses 12-16

God’s Word turns us back to Him. The first part of repentance is acknowledging the truth of what God has told us about ourselves—that the conscience knows it has sinned and is terrified of God’s judgement and wrath (contrition). A whetstone was used to sharpen a sword in preparation for battle, so God’s sword is not idle against the unrepentant. “For the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). In today’s language, we could say the Word of God, as a sword, cuts to the heart of the matter. It cuts down deep inside of us and tells us what is deeply wrong with us.

The second part of repentance is faith, which the conscience believes and trusts in the promise of God that one’s sins are forgiven (Ap XII, 28-38). By contrition, we know we have wronged God and fear His judgement. By faith, our fear comes to an end and we trust in the sure promise of God’s forgiveness in Christ.

Verse 17

Like David, we sing praises to God for His righteousness. We sing hymns like God’s Christ, Who is My Righteousness“God’s Christ, who is my righteousness, My beauty is, my glorious dress; Midst flaming worlds, in this arrayed, With joy shall I lift up my head. Lord, I believe Thy precious blood, Which, at the mercy seat of God, Forever doth for sinners plead, For me, e’en for my soul, was shed.”

Psalm 7 Prayer

Father, protect me from the evil one and his dark forces. Protect me also from the evil ways of the world—from lustful desires, from the dark attractions of gossip, from those who wish to take my religious freedom, and those who wish to take my life for Your Son’s sake. I pray also for my brothers and sisters who suffer persecution at the hands of evildoers for Your Son’s sake. Be with them, give them strength, be their refuge and shield as You are mine. Forgive me for my sins, Lord [feel free to be specific]. Whatever sin I fail to recall or recognise, please forgive me for them also. I trust in Your steadfast love and Your providence. Please give me the strength to war against my fleshly desires and against the evil one who desires to consume me in the fires of Hell. Build my faith; please lend me Your strength and wisdom always. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, forever and ever. Amen.

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