For several years now at BBC, we have promoted a “prayer psalm of the week.” We simply follow the Psalms systematically, and each week we encourage the church to use the psalm for that week as a means to pattern their prayers.
In August 2014, to help the church understand how the psalms can guide our prayers, we made the decision that, when one of our own elders preached a Sunday evening service, we would preach from the prayer psalm of the week. I began on 17 August 2014 with Psalm 37. On 18 June 2017 we came full circle. We did not cover every psalm in that period, because there were times when there was no evening service, or we had a guest preacher, or some other event demanded preaching from another text. But we covered most of the psalms.
Psalm 36 was the last of the psalms covered regularly in this way, and this study is based on the very brief message that I brought on that occasion.
Psalm 36 highlights the reality of pervasive and perverse evil, but it also encourages us in the Lord, who prevails over pervasive and perverse evil. It encourages to know our God, who reigns over the evil of men and guards and preserves his people.
A Painful Revelation
In vv. 1–4, David offers us a painful revelation:
An oracle within my heart concerning the transgression of the wicked: There is no fear of God before his eyes. For he flatters himself in his own eyes, when he finds out his iniquity and when he hates. The words of his mouth are wickedness and deceit; he has ceased to be wise and to do good. He devises wickedness on his bed; he sets himself in a way that is not good; he does not abhor evil.
These verses speak of the wicked man who loves evil, and therefore does not abhor it. The NKJV speaks of “an oracle” having been given to David. Other translations translate these words quite differently. The ESV, for example, talks of transgression speaking to the wicked. What David seems to be saying, however, is that God had given him a special revelation of what the wicked were thinking.
And how did the wicked think? David notes that “there is no fear of God before his eyes.” The wicked do not dread God. Think about radical Islamic groups, who will sell young girls into sex slavery for the cost of a carton of cigarettes—or less! Terrorists murder people and behead Christians, all because there is no fear of God before their eyes. But, of course, we need not look to radical Muslims to see this truth. Many in our own, more comfortable Western circles pursue their sin without shame. They devise wickedness on their bed and set themselves in a way that is not good (v. 4). They hate what is good and love what is evil.
All of this can be deeply disturbing for the people of God. It can cause great distress. In fact, if we are not careful, it can lead us to unbelief. David was given some form of special revelation—an “oracle”—of the sinful intentions of the wicked person’s heart, but he doesn’t focus on that. Instead, he quickly moves to a powerful remembrance of God’s mercy.
A Powerful Remembrance
David would not allow the sinfulness of the world to lead him to unbelief. Instead, he writes,
Your mercy, O LORD, is in the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the great mountains; your judgements are a great deep; O LORD, you preserve man and beast.
How precious is your lovingkindness, O God! Therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of your wings. They are abundantly satisfied with the fullness of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your pleasures. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.
These verses offer a stark contrast to the preceding verses. The Lord’s mercy, which is in the heavens, and his faithfulness, which reaches to the cloud, stands in opposition to the sinfulness of those who love evil and hate good. God’s righteousness, “like the great mountains,” is immovable and dependable. His “judgements are a great deep,” for in his wisdom, he has ordered the universe. He trusts that the Lord, even amidst overwhelming evil, is able to “preserve man and beast.” He refuses to stay discouraged. Instead, he looks up to his faithful God, who is merciful, truthful, faithful, righteous and wise.
He goes on to make the point that this is not mere theory to him. He knows in a deep, experiential way, of God’s “precious … lovingkindness.” “Lovingkindness” translates the Hebrew word hesed, which speaks of God’s covenantal, loyal faithfulness. Because of this covenantal love, “the children of men put their trust under the shadow of [his] wings.” Like a mother hen or eagle, who gathers her chicks under her wings to protect them from the coming storm, so God, in his faithfulness, gathers his people under his wings (cf. Matthew 23:37–39).
As David knew experientially, God’s people are “satisfied with the fullness of [his] house,” for he offers them “drink from the river of [his] pleasures.” In other words, even in the midst of overwhelming evil, God is able to provide full for his people, and they are able to find safe haven in his presence. God is trustworthy, and even though it might seems like the evil ones are gaining the upper hand, God is in control.
As a church, we recently watched one of the Dispatches from the Front films, in which Tim Keesee, executive director of Frontline Missions, travels to some of the most dangerous countries for Christians in the world. It is a blessing to watch those films and see Christians, under a very real threat to their lives, gathering to sing God’s praises and study his Word together. They remain faithful in their worship because they know that their faithful God rules over the evil that opposes them. Even in the places of greatest gospel hostility, God is bringing in his elect and building his church. God is king.
David was not blind to the evil around him, but he was also not blind to the glory of the God in whom he trusted. I am grateful that I, in South Africa, do not (yet) face the onslaught of militant Islam, which seeks to destroy the church. At the same time, I am not blind to the reality that South African Christians face their own struggles. If we are not careful, we can so focus on the darkness that we fail to glory in the faithful God who preserves his own. When things are bad, we must look up to the God who provides and cares for us. The word translated “pleasures” in v. 8 is the same Hebrew word translated “Eden” in the early chapters of Genesis. The God whom we serve is able to give us some taste of heaven on earth.
A Prayerful Response
Having received a painful revelation of the evil surrounding him, and having responded with a powerful remembrance of the mercy of the Lord, David now turns to the Lord in a prayerful response:
Oh, continue your lovingkindness to those who know you, and your righteousness to the upright in heart. Let not the foot of pride come against me, and let not the hand of the wicked drive me away. There the workers of iniquity have fallen; they have been cast down and are not able to rise.
David knew that he could run to the Lord in the midst of overwhelming evil, and so he asked the Lord to continue showering him with lovingkindness, as he had always done in the past; that he would continue responding in righteousness to those who were upright in heart.
David asks that “the foot of pride” and “the hand of the wicked” would not prevail against him. He is speaking here of those he described in vv. 1–4—the wicked, who were seeking to destroy him. He prays, therefore, for God’s protection and preservation.
As we reflect on a psalm like this one, ought we not to be praying for our brothers and sisters in countries where opposition to the gospel is openly hostile? Yes, we pray for protection ourselves, but what about Christians who are actively suffering in countries like Iraq or Afghanistan? Let us pray that they will know of God’s lovingkindness. Pray that God would preserve and protect them, that he would encourage them as they live in the midst of deep darkness, and that they would continue to walk faithfully before him even as they are hostilely opposed.
If we understand the evil that surrounds us and the glory of the God to whom we belong, surely it will drive us to pray for a continued experience of his lovingkindness, and for his protecting and preserving hand in our lives, all for his own glory.
David knows that a day will come when evil will be completely defeated: “There the workers of iniquity have fallen; they have been cast down and are not able to rise” (v. 12). Perhaps this would be best translated as an interjection: “There! The workers of iniquity have fallen!” This is an anticipation of the Lord’s positive answer to his prayer. Surrounded by those who hate the Lord and love evil, David looked for a time when God would indeed put them down, when they would be unable to rise again before him and his people. He understood that Yahweh was sovereign, that he was in control of all things, and therefore he had no doubt that the day was coming when evil would be fully and finally destroyed.
This realisation gives God’s people the courage that they need to keep on keeping on. It encourages us to keep pursuing God, to keep looking up to him, to keep praying for the manifestation of his covenantal faithfulness to his church.
I recently read Martin Dugard’s Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley and Livingstone. Dugard tells of a time when Livingstone survived a brutal lion attack. His arm was permanently damaged, but he faithfully continued his ministry. By his own testimony, Livingstone never again feared death after that lion attack, because he figured that, in the sovereign hands of an all-wise God, he was invincible until God was done with him.
David shared Livingstone’s faith. He could see a time in the future when God would decisively deal with sin. Until then, he trusted the Lord to protect and preserve him. He knew that evildoers could do nothing to him while God protected him, and so he could face an evil world with great confidence.
Let us take Palm 36 to heart. Let us keep looking to our sovereign God, trusting in his protection and preservation. Let us keep looking to him, keep praying to him, keep preaching his gospel, believing him for the glorious day in which all evil will be put away and everything will become completely new.