1, In Yahweh I take refuge; how can you say to my soul, “Flee like a bird to your mountain,
2, for behold, 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, Yahweh is in His holy temple; Yahweh’s throne is in heaven; His eyes see, His eyelids test the children of men.
5, Yahweh tests the righteous, but His soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.
6, Let Him rain coals on the wicked; fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.
7, For Yahweh is righteous; He loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold His face.
To understand this poem David wrote, we have to understand its context. It was written during a time when David’s danger was so great that even his advisers instructed him to retreat (2 Samuel 15-17). Not taking their advice, David asks, “How can you say this to me?” His advisers were making apparent to David the abundance of their wicked enemies surrounding them, so it only made sense to retreat. If their foundations are destroyed, there is nothing they can do. The destruction of their foundations would lead to inevitable defeat.
How does David respond? He calls to mind God’s supposed distance, restating He remains interested in human affairs (“his eyelids test the children of man”). He continues to test our deeds.
When we read in Scripture God hating something, it is not “hate” in our sense of the word. When we hate a person, it is out of sin. We wish they were dead, or at least harmed in some way. Either way, their existence despairs us. Since God is sinless, obviously His hate must mean something entirely different.
As a holy God, He finds our wicked actions repugnant. When God hates something or someone, He is repulsed. He hates the wicked—they repulse Him. So, because David and his army are surrounded by people who repulse God, he calls on Him to give his army the strength to conquer them, and God answers his prayer with the affirmative.
Yet what does this mean for us today as Christians? Our faith is often tested, and we are often in want of something more. However, God’s mercy toward us never dwindles like our faith does from time to time. These tests, or temptations, may come from the Devil, the world, our our flesh (ourselves).
Sometimes, these tests sent upon us make our faith waver. The death of a friend or loved one may cause us to question God’s goodness, maybe even His existence. Financial troubles may do the same. Sometimes even God may test us for reasons known only to Him. It’s difficult to discern what His tests may be and even their purpose, which the purpose may forever elude us. To understand this, we should consider Paul’s thorn in the flesh:
So, to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)
It’s uncertain what Paul means by “a thorn in the flesh,” but there are two possibilities: it could be a recurring attack or temptation, such as a pattern of sin he suffered with. Or it could have been some sort of physical ailment. Paul is obviously writing this letter after the thorn had subsided, for he is writing in the past tense and he gives the reason for the thorn in his side: for God to keep him from becoming arrogant because of the revelations He was giving him.
So, some of us may be suffering some thorn in our flesh, such as addiction (e.g. drug addiction, sex addiction, or addiction to some sort of poor behaviour); a mental disorder (e.g. depression, bipolar disorder, Alzheimer’s, etc.); or some sort of physical ailment (e.g. the flu, ALS, bronchitis, cancer, infertility, miscarriage, etc.). Why God allows such thorns to persist are known only to Him, and He may or may not permit we learn why we suffer these thorns. He is not obligated to give us the answers we want. We need only to trust Him.
The point, however, is not that we suffer. The point is that in our weakness, God’s power is made perfect because only His power can remove this thorn, not ours. His grace is sufficient for us.
In Alcoholics Anonymous and Sexaholics Anonymous meetings, newcomers are forced to face the reality that they cannot face their addiction alone, and that they cannot walk on the road of recovery towards sobriety alone. Step one is to admit that you are powerless over your addiction, and you need to surrender this addiction over to the support group, your sponsor, and, ultimately, to God. In other words, these addicts surrender their addiction—their weakness, their thorn in the flesh—over to the power and grace of God.
Whatever our thorn may be, if we are suffering one, we cannot do it alone. We need the help of our loved ones and most of all the power and grace of God. God bringing us through these persistent weaknesses makes us stronger. It’s similar to the modern proverb, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” This is true for us Christians because God does not allow whatever thorn that’s stabbed into our side to kill us. Only God can remove the thorn and mend the wound. Even if it does kill us in the end, such as with cancer, as Christians we merely “fall asleep” in the Lord and receive eternal life (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14) until the Lord returns and gives us new bodies (1 Corinthians 15:35-38).
How does this relate to the psalm? Paul said he’s content with “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities” as a result of his thorn, which is only possible because God used his thorn to destroy his pride. Christ’s grace is sufficient for him. That is, Christ makes him strong through his weaknesses, the insults he receives, the hardships he endures, the persecutions he suffers, and the calamities he experiences.
David was undoubtedly surrounded by calamity, since he was at war. Being surrounded by his enemies, he probably felt weak, heard insults from his enemies against himself and his God (possibly those in his army who doubted him as well), and no doubt this was a hardship. Yet what did he do? He remembered God’s greatness and His ability to deliver him from all these things. God has a habit of reversing worldly revulsions into something beautiful and great.
What evils surround us today? ISIS—the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—used to be a major threat to the United States. Whilst the war is not over, President Trump has had progressive victories over ISIS. There has been a rise in the frequency of mass shootings, which we recently found out that Muslim extremists have been training kids in mass shootings at a compound in New Mexico.
Evil is on the rise, but remember Jesus has defeated the works of the Devil. “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8b). “[God] disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in [Christ]” (Colossians 2:15). “Since, therefore, the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death He might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14).
Throughout this commentary I have mentioned some failures of American Christianity. One of those other failures is what Pastor Bryan Wolfmueller describes as the “evangelism crisis.” American Christianity holds the belief that the Devil still has power over the world. Thus, there is an “evangelism crisis.” Wolfmueller describes it this way:
Scare tactics are used to motivate and move people, to get them busy doing churchy, evangelistic stuff. American Christianity often invites worry and even fear over the lost condition of sinners… Every conversation must be about “sharing Jesus,” every act of love must be motivated toward conversion, and the normal stuff of daily living is put on the back burner to serve the urgency of the mission (205).
This is a failure of American Christianity for three reasons. First, if the Devil is still in charge of this world, this means Jesus did not complete His work on this earth and the cross comes to null. Wolfmueller says the next two reasons well:
Jesus has not authorized us to worry. He has not sanctioned us to be afraid. He has told us to pray, to love, to fight against the devil, and to trust that He rules and reigns all things for the sake of His Church (see Ephesians 1:22-23)… “Thy kingdom come” is a confession that the coming of the Kingdom and the growth of the Church is the Lord’s work, not ours (205-206).
In other words, the second failure is that American Christianity evangelises with a spirit of fear, panic, and crisis. But “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7). And the third failure is that conversion and building God’s Church is not our work, but God’s work. God uses us as His instruments, but there is no need for a sense of urgency because the Devil is no longer in control of the world and the Lord will do His work through His Spirit as He so chooses and at His own pace, not as we choose.
If Jesus defeated the works of the Devil, why is evil on the rise? Don’t forget Jesus warned us that things would get worse until He returns. False Christs will come, we will hear of wars and rumours of wars, famines and natural disasters will rise, Christian martyrdom will increase, false prophets will be on the rise, and lawlessness will increase (disregard for sin and God’s Word) (Matthew 24:3-14). God is in control of everything, and all these things are leading up to the greater glory to be revealed: Jesus Christ descending from the clouds with glory, judgement for the unrighteous and salvation for the righteous.
Hebrews 2:7-8, ” ‘You made Him for a little while lower than the angels; You have crowned Him with glory and honour, putting everything in subjection under His feet.’ Now in putting everything in subjection to Him, He left nothing outside His control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to Him” (emphasis added). The Devil’s works are destroyed, and everything is now in subjection to Christ, even though it may not look like it to us.
Remember, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).
Psalm 11 Prayer
I wrote the following prayer for anyone who may be struggling with a sin like a thorn in the flesh:
Father, this sin/trial [name it] persists as a thorn in my flesh. Like Paul reflected in Romans 7, no matter what I seem to do, I continue to do the evil I do not want to do rather than the good I desire to do. Lord, have mercy. I am weak. Please lend me your strength so You may remove this thorn from me. teach me what I need to know to better serve You. With all the evil going on in the world, show me how to be content in Your promises. Give me the strength to advance Your kingdom in this world, as Your will be done. Teach me to boast in my weaknesses so Your power may abound. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.
Wolfmueller, Bryan. Has American Christianity Failed? Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2016.