1-3 “God is well-known in Judah;
in Israel, he’s a household name.
He keeps a house in Salem,
his own suite of rooms in Zion.
That’s where, using arrows for kindling,
he made a bonfire of weapons of war.
4-6 Oh, how bright you shine! Outshining their huge piles of loot!
The warriors were plundered and left there impotent.
And now there’s nothing to them,
nothing to show for their swagger and threats.
Your sudden roar, God of Jacob,
knocked the wind out of horse and rider.
7-10 Fierce you are, and fearsome!
Who can stand up to your rising anger?
From heaven you thunder judgment;
earth falls to her knees and holds her breath.
God stands tall and makes things right,
he saves all the wretched on earth.
Instead of smoldering rage: God-praise!
All that sputtering rage: now a garland for God! ” (Psalm 76 MSG)
“Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee!” That’s the old King James version of the last line. The phrase is so utterly memorable. Even the things that we wave and tout about as symbols of our own strength are “left there impotent, and now there’s nothing to them…” The cruel gossip of enemies, the sly voices of your critics…it’s just “swagger and threats” silenced by the “sudden roar” of the God of Jacob. Sounds very much like C.S.Lewis’ picture of Aslan in the Narnia stories, doesn’t it?
And of course, that’s not all, as v10 indicates. The very weapons that come against God –or against God’s work in our lives- become the spoil-heap of his victory. In the Psalm the warriors are silenced and their weapons become a glittering pile of loot… almost part of the shining of God’s glory. The enemy’s arrows are kindling for the bonfire of peace celebrations when “God stands tall and sets things right.”
It’s an astonishing reversal that is seen, supremely, in the cross of Jesus. When Jesus was lifted up tall on a 1st Century execution block, the potency of evil seemed at its most devastating. Evil was seen to triumph and a good man was silenced forever in the cruelest, most vicious way imaginable. So it seemed.
But God was in fact exposing wickedness in order to destroy it, like opening a wound in order to begin treatment. Paul described it as God making “a public spectacle” of evil. God was holding evil up and insisting that we look at it. Look: this is what it looks like when anger and cowardice, pride and the ugliest forms of self-seeking triumph. It kills what is good. It abuses what is innocent. It crushes what is beautiful. Paul goes on (in Colossians 2:14-15) that God has –as it were – “nailed it to the cross… having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in the cross.”
It’s very much the same reversal of Psalm 76, isn’t it? In Ephesians, Paul adds these verses: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12). That is to say, we live amidst this very warfare. There is a spiritual dimension to the daily conflicts in which we engage. But take heart! Even the wrath of man will be turned into praise for God. The worst that we could do –in killing an innocent man, in defiling the life of God in man…. the very worst that we could do just served to show up the best that God could give. Jesus is a picture of God’s heart for the world. And the deeper the darkness of the cross, the brighter the intensity of his love and glory.
And the psalmist saw it, not by way of a prophecy of a future event but because it is a human paradigm: it’s the way we always live. The Lamb was “slain before the foundation of the world”. The cross is engraved upon the fabric of the universe as the way God lives towards us.
But what is the best God gives? The psalmist could only guess at it. He described it in terms of military conquest: the glory of a warrior king who has defeated all his enemies and who stands proudly on the piles of loot. But that’s only his contemporary analogy. He was really describing universal glory, power, integrity and rule. He was describing the Kingdom of God. In his life and teaching, as in his death and resurrection, Jesus painted a powerful picture of “Kingdom”, characterized by mutual love, trust, and social justice under the authority of a loving father. And “pray this way” he said –so simply that we might miss it-: “Let your kingdom come.”
Right now we live in the shadow of the cross. I say this with great sadness, because the evidence of our world would seem to point to the triumph of evil over good. The spectres of war, disease, famine and corruption stalk our lands. But the Psalmist is stating his trust in the ultimate victory of God. He’s declaring it out loud. And so I can live in the shadow of the cross with great joy too. Because Jesus said “It is finished.” Because the resurrection points to the possibility of life where there only seems death.
Because “surely the wrath of man shall praise thee”!