There is a scene in The Avengers in which Captain America puts on a parachute to follow Thor, Loki and Iron Man our the back of a Quinjet. Black Widow, piloting the jet, says, “I’d sit this one out, Cap.” Captain America replies, “I don’t see how I can.” Black Widow, referring to Thor and Loki, says, “These guys come from legend. They’re basically gods.” Captain America responds, “There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.” He then leaps out of the Quinjet in pursuit.
I love that scene. At the end of the day, though people may place their trust in all sorts of gods (people, nations, armies, ideals, etc.), there is only one Avenger: the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who reigns.
This is the theme of Psalm 94. It is a theological theme, which, if properly grasped, will equip us to do exactly what Jesus told us to do: stand firm and gain life.
In prophesying intense persecution that His disciples would face as the time of the destruction of Jerusalem drew near in the first century, Jesus said,
Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be great earthquakes in various places, and famines and pestilences; and there will be fearful sights and great signs from heaven. But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons. You will be brought before kings and rulers for My name’s sake. But it will turn out for you as an occasion for testimony. Therefore settle it in your hearts not to meditate beforehand on what you will answer; for I will give you a mouth and wisdom which all your adversaries will not be able to contradict or resist. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But not a hair of your head shall be lost. By your patience possess your souls.
Even as He prophesied intense times of persecution and hardship for His people, the Lord told them to persevere. The Judge of the all the earth would do what is right. He was instructing them to prepare to face injustice and unrighteousness. How could they do so fruitfully? When all of the world around them was apparently falling to pieces, when the wicked seemed to be prospering while the righteous were apparently floundering, when the assault on God’s people seemed to be relentless and even hopeless, when the foundations seemed to be destroyed, what could the righteous do? What, in fact, were they to do? What did God expect of them? And what does God expect of us today?
Jesus answers these questions in v. 19: “By your patience possess your souls.” The KJV reads, “In your patience possess ye your souls.” The ESV translates it, “By your endurance you will gain your lives.” The NIV somewhat helpfully puts it, “By standing firm you will gain your life.”
Jesus’ point is that His disciples were to endure to the end. As they did so, they would be saved (Matthew 24:13). Luke puts it this way: “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (21:28).
Yes, injustice and unrighteousness would surround them but they were to persevere. They were to faithfully and patiently wait on the Lord. The God who reigns (Psalm 93) would avenge His people. God, the reigning LORD, is the great Avenger.
The Lord who reigns is the Avenger. In fact, in the same historical context as Luke 21, the Lord Jesus made the following claim: “And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them?” (Luke 18:7). Keep this in mind as we study this psalm, which points us to the one who will certainly avenge His people and His purposes.
The setting of the psalm is uncertain. Perhaps it has reference to unrighteous leaders within the nation of Israel. (Israel certainly had a sordidly long history of these.) Perhaps it has reference to godless Gentile nations abusing the people of God.
Regardless, it is certain that it was written at a time when God’s faithful remnant were beleaguered and in need of His righteous avenging of the wrongs. Leupold suggests, “This is a psalm which prays to the Lord for relief in days when justice is miscarrying. The evil seems to have advanced to the point where it is beyond the power of man to rectify it.”1
VanGemeren makes the case for dividing this psalm into two broad sections: “A ‘national lament’ (vv. 1–15) and an individual lament, which bring together the individual and the community in their common concern.”2 The common concern is that God’s people will experience God’s righteous rule on earth. It is an old covenant Lord’s Prayer. Therefore it is always relevant to God’s people in any age.
I want to make the case that the psalm can be divided into four main stanzas, and we will consider it broadly in those four sections. Each can be titled in the form of a question.
How Long, O Lord?
The psalm begins with God’s people crying, “How long?”
O LORD God, to whom vengeance belongs—O God, to whom vengeance belongs, shine forth! Rise up, O Judge of the earth; render punishment to the proud. LORD, how long will the wicked, how long will the wicked triumph? They utter speech, and speak insolent things; all the workers of iniquity boast in themselves. They break in pieces Your people, O LORD, and afflict Your heritage. They slay the widow and the stranger, and murder the fatherless. Yet they say, “The LORD does not see, nor does the God of Jacob understand.”
The psalmist finds himself longing for deliverance. He does not doubt God’s reign (Psalm 93); rather, as Kidner points out, “Nothing has changed the Sun or corrupted the Judge: it is simply that the night is long (1b, 2a).”3 He longs for God to do His thing. He longs for the King to bring in the righteousness of His kingdom.
The Cry against the Wicked
Verses 1–3 record a cry against the wicked: “O LORD God, to whom vengeance belongs—O God, to whom vengeance belongs, shine forth! Rise up, O Judge of the earth; render punishment to the proud. LORD, how long will the wicked, how long will the wicked triumph?” The psalmist speaks twice in these verses of “the wicked.”
The anonymous writer calls to God for “vengeance.” In biblical terms, “vengeance” is not revenge, but is instead a cry for justice, for God’s standard of right to be acknowledged, honoured and recompensed. Dr. Samuel Johnson defines revenger as, “an act of passion, vengeance of justice; injuries are revenged, crimes are avenged.” Boice explains, “In other words, revenge is a response to personal injury while vengeance is a function of legitimate judicial authority.”4
This is therefore a prayer for the vindication of God’s standard and of God’s saints (vv. 13, 14, 21).
The psalmist prays because he understands that “vengeance” belongs to God, not to us. The New Testament makes this point clear:
Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Therefore, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
The psalm appeals to the Lord to “shine forth” or “show Yourself.” It longs for the Lord to make Himself known. Here, this is a righteous desire. The same prayer can, of course, be uttered in an unrighteous manner. The motive of the one praying is the issue.
Our prayer for “how long?” is to be motivated for love of God and love of our neighbour. When we read of babies being found in pit toilets, refugees being horribly persecuted and dying while desperately seeking refuge, children raped and killed, we quickly wish for justice. Anyone with a sense of morality wants justice in those situations. The question is, what motivates it?
Importantly, we should recognise that motivation will characterise application—consistency of application. For example, a righteous motive will dictate prayers for justice in the case of children both outside and inside the womb being killed.
God’s justice is neither partial nor localised. He is “Judge of the earth” (v. 2). He is the universal Avenger.
This kind of desire for God’s avenging is perfectly righteous. If you don’t believe that, read the book of Revelation! God is certainly glorified in displaying mercy, but He is equally glorified by the order that is established when He exercises justice. Texts that speak of the order that is produced through the exercise of justice (for example, Romans 13) should not make us uncomfortable. We should see the glory of God in both mercy and justice.
The Conduct of the Wicked
In vv. 4–7, the psalmist details the conduct of the wicked. They are insolent, iniquitous, ignorant and irreverent:
They utter speech, and speak insolent things; all the workers of iniquity boast in themselves. They break in pieces Your people, O LORD, and afflict Your heritage. They slay the widow and the stranger, and murder the fatherless. Yet they say, “The LORD does not see, nor does the God of Jacob understand.”
The wicked proudly spew forth irreverent impudence (v. 4). They crush God’s inheritance (v. 5). They oppress the vulnerable (v. 6). And they do all of this foolishly and irreverently, as though God is either ignorant or indifferent.
The proof of the depravity of man is this assumption that God is unaware of what we are doing. The truth is, God is providentially involved in all that occurs. He does see, for He has planned it!
Do you, Christian, ever feel this way? If you are honest,do you ever feel that God is ignorant of what is happening; indifferent to what is happening: impotent about what is happening? It is important that the how long question is never be motivated by any of these false and irreverent assumptions. Rather, we are to pray this question with a sense of submission.
So, how do we respond when the wicked seem to prosper? How do we respond to the false theologies which embolden God’s enemies? The answer, I trust, is that we hang on to the truth about God. We must patiently persevere in our theology. And by doing so we gain life.
Will You Not Be Wise, O Foolish One?
The second question has to do with an appeal to the foolish to be wise.
Understand, you senseless among the people; and you fools, when will you be wise? He who planted the ear, shall He not hear? He who formed the eye, shall He not see? He who instructs the nations, shall He not correct, He who teaches man knowledge? The LORD knows the thoughts of man, that they are futile.
These verses form a kind of theodicy; a “defence” of God. It may have as its audience those among God’s people who have been influenced by the wicked to question God’s intentions and involvement in what is happening all around them. If so then Kirkpatrick is correct when he comments, “Those Israelites are addressed who lack the spiritual discernment to realise that in spite of the temporary triumph of the wicked Jehovah still rules.”5
Even while the wicked claimed that God did not perceive or understand, the psalmist appeals to them to “understand.” They needed to perceive the truth. Kidner offers his own paraphrase: “They say, ‘… the God of Jacob pays no heed.. .’ Pay heed yourselves, most brutish of the people.”6
Those who believed that the Lord did not see were “senseless.” The word means brutish or beastly. Leupold notes that it “connotes a lack of intelligence rather than cruel behavior.”7 Those who think of God in such an irreverent and ignorant way reveal their own ignorance. The psalmist argues that “it is absurd to suppose that the Creator of the organs of sense does not Himself possess faculties corresponding to them.”8 The one who designs the ability to perceive is reflecting His own ability to perceive. “A man would have to be a fool to think that the all-seeing God does not see or that the Judge of all the earth will not judge justly at the proper time.”9 Look around! Look at each other. Intelligent design reveals the intelligence of the Designer!
In vv. 10–11 he presents the same basic argument but with a different emphasis. The God who chastens the Gentile nations will do the same to His own nation. The emphasis upon “knowledge” highlights that God is fully aware of what is going on. And He is quite able (and willing) to intervene to chastise.
He concludes his appeal in v. 11: “The LORD knows the thoughts of man, that they are futile.” Yes, God is well aware of all that is taking place. The wicked are not flying under the radar of God’s perception. In fact, not only is He aware of all that is taking place, He has appropriately evaluated it as vanity, uselessness, the substance of vapour. And He will respond to it appropriately. He will eventually blow it all away. God will chasten the corrupt. You can ruin and you can run, but you cannot hide.
What Should You Do, O Believer?
The third question is directed to believers.
Blessed is the man whom You instruct, O LORD, and teach out of Your law, that You may give him rest from the days of adversity, until the pit is dug for the wicked. For the LORD will not cast off His people, nor will He forsake His inheritance. But judgement will return to righteousness, and all the upright in heart will follow it.
In vv. 1–7 the psalmist implores the Lord to intervene. In vv. 8–11 he informs those who question God’s knowledge and involvement of what is happening. Now, in vv. 12–15, the writer gives encouraging instruction to believers as we wait on the Lord who will avenge.
The Blessing of Inspiration
In v. 12 we learn that a proper relationship with God’s Word is key to “possessing our souls” in the midst of injustice. “Blessed is the man whom You instruct, O LORD, and teach out of Your law.” As Kirkpatrick highlights, “Happy is the man who is taught by God to endure patiently until right once more triumphs.”10
The key to fruitfulness in the midst of the prospering of the wicked is to be instructed by God’s Word. In other words, we must live by faith. We must be in the Scriptures so as to be instructed in times of trial.
Consider, for example, the testimony of James:
My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways….
Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.
(James 1:2–8, 12)
And in the light of what Scripture teaches,
Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.
God’s law gives us order in a world of disorder. It is the only way to make sense of the chaos of corruption. It is the only way to make sense of God’s delay to avenge. It helps us to understand and affirm that “the secret things belong to the LORD our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29).
The Blessings from Inspiration
In vv. 13–15 we read of three blessings that flow from v. 12.
First, we read of the blessing of rest: “that You may give him rest from the days of adversity, until the pit is dug for the wicked.” God’s people had experienced a measure of rest previously (cf. Joshua 11:23; 2 Kings 11:20; Job 37:17), but this pictures a greater rest.
The psalmist speaks of the Lord granting “rest from the days of adversity.” This does not mean that all troubles will cease. Rather, it means that, as we learn from God, about God, through God’s Word, we will be at peace in the midst of the storm. It means that we will rest in the Lord, knowing that the wrongs of this world will be punished and the wicked will be recompensed. Their schemes will not prevail (Proverbs 26:27; 28:10; Ecclesiastes 10:8).
The New Testament portrays martyred saints praying for similar vindication:
When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed.
God is concerned to vindicate His people as they suffer. He will do so. Until then, He tells them to “rest a little while longer.”
The second blessing that flows from v. 12 is reassurance: “For the LORD will not cast off His people, nor will He forsake His inheritance.” (v. 14).
God’s Word informs and instructs us that we are safe with Him, that He will never leave or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5–6). We need this reassurance in the midst of what seems to be an inactive response from God.
Believer, learn to wait upon the Lord. When all seems hopeless, perhaps the sun is about to break through. The gospel informs us that we are in the grip of God’s grace. The Scriptures inform us that we are God’s inheritance, and this encourages us that He will care for us. He will guard His property.
The third and final blessing that flows from v. 12 is God’s righteous rule: “But judgement will return to righteousness, and all the upright in heart will follow it” (v. 15). This is a wonderful promise that the righteous will rule. “The right must in the end prevail as the right. The Hebrew says literally, ‘Judicial decision shall again turn to justice.’”11 Or, as Kirkpatrick simply says, “Sooner or later, Right must have its rights.”12
Eventually, the righteous will be God’s righteous rule on earth. And those who are righteous will heartily embrace it.
This is a hope-filled and hope-fuelling statement. We know this is true. It is to be expected because the law (God’s Word) teaches this. God’s Word instructs us that this will be the case.
Importantly, this is not merely a promise for the future age but for times like ours as well. We need to pray and labour for such a time. This is the heart of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18–20).
How Do You Know, O Christian?
Finally, in vv. 16–23, the psalmist shows who the Christian can trust.
Who will rise up for me against the evildoers? Who will stand up for me against the workers of iniquity? Unless the Lord had been my help, my soul would soon have settled in silence. If I say, “My foot slips,” Your mercy, O LORD, will hold me up. In the multitude of my anxieties within me, Your comforts delight my soul. Shall the throne of iniquity, which devises evil by law, have fellowship with You? They gather together against the life of the righteous, and condemn innocent blood. But the LORD has been my defence, and my God the rock of my refuge. He has brought on them their own iniquity, and shall cut them off in their own wickedness; the LORD our God shall cut them off.
The psalm ends with a personal testimony. The psalmist testifies that this is not some airy-fairy counsel but that his confidence in the Lord as Avenger has been vindicated in his own life. Sometimes a personal testimony is a wonderful encouragement when we are facing inequities from iniquities. We have one here.
An Important Question
In vv. 16–19, the writer asks and answers an important question.
Who will rise up for me against the evildoers? Who will stand up for me against the workers of iniquity? Unless the LORD had been my help, my soul would soon have settled in silence. If I say, “My foot slips,” Your mercy, O LORD, will hold me up. In the multitude of my anxieties within me, Your comforts delight my soul.
Who will stand for us when we are opposed? There really is no question about it!
There are many important questions in this psalm but none more than this one: In whom or what will you trust? You will trust someone or something. Make sure it is a sure thing. Kirkpatrick helpfully summarises this passage: “I gave myself up for lost, but the right hand of love had hold of me all the time.”13
The writer had confidence that the Lord would stand for him because he had experienced past deliverance (v. 17). This was not the first time he had faced opposition, but he could trust that the Lord would be with him because the Lord had proven to be with him in the past.
The writer had been a situation that, unless the Lord intervened, would have found settled in Sheol. But the Lord had delivered him, and so he knew that the Lord would do so again. Past deliverance (v. 17) ensured future confidence (v. 18). He knew that if he slipped (cf. Psalm 73:2), the Lord’s benevolence would undergird him. All of this worked to create in him present solace: “In the multitude of my anxieties within me, Your comforts delight my soul” (v. 19).
“The multitude of my anxieties within me” can be literally translated “the host of my thoughts.” “Comforts” speaks of consolations. VanGemeren observes, “He was nearly overwhelmed with despair (v. 19). Disturbing thoughts had nearly crushed the spirit within him. But the Lord came to his rescue, transforming doubt and death into ‘consolation’ and ‘joy.’”14 The Jerusalem Bible paraphrases it, “His mind is at peace thought times are bad.”
We all struggle with anxieties, but when we are convinced of God’s righteous rule we are consoled. We are confident that it really will all be right and well.
The word translated “delight” is a strong one, which means “to indulge in.” Those who trust in the Lord are privileged to indulge in comfort, to immerse themselves in the ocean of God’s peace, which passes all understanding.
An Important Contrast
The writer closes with an important contrast in vv. 20–23.
Shall the throne of iniquity, which devises evil by law, have fellowship with You? They gather together against the life of the righteous, and condemn innocent blood. But the LORD has been my defence, and my God the rock of my refuge. He has brought on them their own iniquity, and shall cut them off in their own wickedness; the LORD our God shall cut them off.
Allies with God or Axis of Evil?
The unrighteous sit on a “throne of iniquity” from which they “devise evil by law.” They must be contrasted with “the righteous,” whom, when they persecute, they “condemn innocent blood.”
Will the unrighteous have fellowship with the Lord? The question is obviously rhetorical. He is making the point that God is not on the side of the wicked, even though at times it may appear that the wicked are prospering. Kidner puts it this way, “‘On the side of … oppressors there was power’ (Ec. 4:1), and on the side of ‘mischief’ the prestige of law. Together, unopposed, these may well begin to look normal, as if God Himself accepted them as facts of life.”15
In fact, it is by the providential rule of the Lord that they are prospering. But it is not for their sakes, and not forever. God has His purposes and believers need to rest in that.
It should be noted that, though at times it appears that the hand of God is on the unrighteous (and against the righteous), in fact His hand is against the righteous and on the righteous. He is allowing them to dig their own pit (v. 13). We see this in what follows.
The psalmist concludes, “But the LORD has been my defence, and my God the rock of my refuge. He has brought on them their own iniquity, and shall cut them off in their own wickedness; the LORD our God shall cut them off” (vv. 22–23). “The last stanza of Psalm 94 gets back to where it started, with God as the Judge of all the earth.”16
The writer had learned by experience that the Lord was His stronghold, his lofty place affording him shelter (“defence”). He had every confidence that the Lord would avenge His enemies; He would cut them off.
This is strong language. And it should be viewed as encouraging language. Just as the psalm opens with a double reminder that the Lord avenges, it closes with the assurance that the Lord cuts off the wicked.
We would do well to learn from history, from the testimony of God avenging His elect in the past, and be encouraged in our own situations. Trust God to ultimately avenge His cause and His people. Avoid the smugness of this idea by remembering that God poured out His vengeance on His Son for your sin. Preach the gospel to yourself and humbly draw near to the Avenger.
- H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1969), 668. ↩
- Willem A. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 5:610. ↩
- Derek Kidner, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, 2 vols. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 2:341. ↩
- James Montgomery Boice, Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 2:769. ↩
- A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms (Cambridge: Scripture Truth, n.d.), 568. ↩
- Kidner, Psalms, 2:341. ↩
- Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 671. ↩
- Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, 568. ↩
- Boice, Psalms, 2:770. ↩
- Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, 566. ↩
- Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 673. ↩
- Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, 569. ↩
- Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, 570. ↩
- VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 5:615. ↩
- Kidner, Psalms, 2:343. ↩
- Boice, Psalms, 2:773. ↩