The absentee God?(Psalm 10)



There’s a powerful moment in Exodus 20:18-21 where the people of Israel cower at the foot of Sinai, afraid to come any closer.

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not let God speak to us or we will die.’  Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.’

 The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.”

What a picture of the Otherness of God – aloof, powerful and possibly angry. A bit like my High School principal. No wonder “The people remained at a distance”! And sometimes, it’s true, God seems distant simply because He is utterly holy and so different from us.  How can He possibly share in the tiny concerns of our small lives?

In Psalm 10, however, something different is happening. It’s rather the case that sometimes God seems distant because we are distressed and we don’t sense his presence in our lives.

“Why, Lord, do you stand far off?
    Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”

Do you see the point? It’s the presence of the “trouble” that accentuates the writer’s sense of the absence of the Lord. But what about the choice of the verb “hide”? That seems a step further. Not only is God absent, but He is actively ignoring their cries for help.

You’re bound to think, “Is it something I’ve done?” God sometimes seems distant because He really is so – because He has pulled away from us due to our unrepented sinfulness. Proverbs 15:29 makes that point:

“ God keeps his distance from the wicked;
    he closely attends to the prayers of God-loyal people.”

God can even be far from “religious” people, whether they sense it or not. That happens whenever we “worship Him with [our] lips” but our “hearts are far from Him.” (Matt 15: 8f; Luke 18:11-13).

But the sense of distance in Psalm 10 is critical. God is -or seems- afar off. And into the vacuum of that absence has come one described as “the wicked man.” Though he is definitively human, (according to v18), there are some traits that seem super-human, even demonic.

“In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak,
    who are caught in the schemes he devises.
 He boasts about the cravings of his heart;
    he blesses the greedy and reviles the Lord.
 In his pride the wicked man does not seek him;
    in all his thoughts there is no room for God.
 His ways are always prosperous;
    your laws are rejected by  him;
    he sneers at all his enemies.

He is arrogant, predatory, manipulative, powerful, immoral and God-denying. “In all his thoughts there is no room for God.” As the psalm goes on, however, the picture of “the wicked man” assumes monstrous  proportions:

“He lies in wait…
    He murders the innocent.
His eyes watch in secret for his victims;
   like a lion in cover he lies in wait…
    He catches the helpless and drags them off in his net.
 His victims are crushed, they collapse;
    they fall under his strength.”

It sounds very much like the New Testament picture of Satan, who “goes about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” But whether Psalm 10’s picture of “the wicked man” is literal or figurative, human or satanic is not quite the point (One might argue that Hitler – or any serial killer- is at the same time both human and satanic); the point is that Evil is abroad, and the writer is calling on God to step in.

“Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God.
    Do not forget the helpless.

    you consider their grief and take it in hand.
The victims commit themselves to you;
    you are the helper of the fatherless.
 Break the arm of the wicked man;
    call the evildoer to account for his wickedness
    that would not otherwise be found out.”

This is  the claim of the Psalmist; he stakes it upon the revealed character of God which stands in diametric opposition to the character of “the wicked man.” He acts out of mercy, consideration and insight- the very opposite of arrogance, power and control. He helps, heals, judges and executes justice (“Break the arm of the wicked man”!); and he exposes secret evil.

And there the Psalm finishes. In one sense, that’s where the Old Testament ends too, with the faith-filled assurance that God will right all wrongs, and reach out to secure the wellbeing of every poor and helpless victim. But the Old Testament often carries a sense of frustration about God’s timing: “How long O Lord?” (Psalm 13; Habbakuk 1:2 etc.) How long until justice prevails?

But though occasionally we may echo that frustration (Have a look at 2 Peter 3:9 or Revelation 6:10 for example), our perspective has undergone a radical shift. Christ has come!

The day is coming, God had said to the Serpent (in Genesis 3), when you will be defeated and removed from the earth. The offspring of the woman will crush you (Romans 16:20; Heb 2:14). That decisive blow was struck by the perfect offspring of the woman, Jesus Christ, when he died on the cross. This is one of the reasons why the eternal Son of God had to become a man — because it was the offspring of the woman who would crush Satan.

Col 2:14-15 describes what God did for those who trust his Son, when he died on the cross: “[The record of debt that stood against us] he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” When Christ died for our sins, Satan was disarmed and defeated. The one eternally destructive weapon that he had was stripped from his hand — namely, his accusation before God that we are guilty and should perish with him. When Christ died that accusation was nullified. All those who entrust themselves to Christ will never perish. Satan cannot separate them from the love of God in Christ (Rom 8:37f).

So in one sense we do not say “How long O Lord?” Instead, we ask the practical question: How then should we relate to evil? How should we think and feel and act about Satanic evil — in whatever form it takes, but especially as we confront it in our own lives? Here’s John Piper’s summary answer (from his sermon on the Fall of Satan). Eight things to do with evil. Four things never to do.

Expect evil.Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12).

Endure evil. “Love bears all thing, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7; cf. Mark 13:13).

Give thanks for the refining effect of evil that comes against you. “Give thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20; cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:18;Romans 5:3-5).

Hate evil. “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good” (Romans 12:9).

Pray for escape from evil. “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13).

Expose evil. “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Ephesians 5:11).

Overcome evil with good. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).

Resist evil. “Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).

But, on the other hand:

Never despair that this evil world is out of God’s control. “[He] works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11).

Never give in to the sense that because of random evil life is absurd and meaningless.How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! . . . For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever” (Romans 11:3336).

Never yield to the thought that God sins, or is ever unjust or unrighteous in the way he governs the universe.The Lord is righteous in all his ways.” (Psalm 145:17).

Never doubt that God is totally for you in Christ. If you trust him with your life, you are in Christ. Never doubt that all the evil that befalls you — even if it takes your life — is God’s loving, purifying, saving, fatherly discipline. It is not an expression of his punishment in wrath. That fell on Jesus Christ our substitute. “The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Hebrews 12:6).

Lord, I turn again to the cross, as the complete picture of what evil looks like, and the complete destruction of its endemic power in the resurrection of your son Jesus Christ.

In whose name we pray.

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