Over the Easter weekend in 2015, Doug preached a three-part sermon series from the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The first sermon was titled, “Dear God, it’s Thursday.” The second was titled, “Oh, my God, it’s Friday.” The third was titled, “Thank God it’s Sunday.” I remember sitting next to my eldest daughter that Friday morning, who was eight at the time. When Doug mentioned the title of the sermon, she leaned over to me and, horrified, whispered, “Dad, Uncle Doug said, ‘Oh my God’!”
Like probably most parents in our church, we have taught her that that exclamation, which is almost omnipresent in the society in which we live, is a vain use of God’s name (a violation of the third commandment), and she therefore must not say it. She was mortified to hear Uncle Doug say the very words that we told her not to say.
I think it’s right to teach our kids not to use the word “God” in that unthinking way. Of course, the phrase can be used reverently, but that is not typically how it is heard in society. It can fairly be said that, more often than not, when the words “oh my God” are used, they are employed in a way that amounts to taking the name of God in vain.
But as good as it is to be aware of that, and to avoid it ourselves, and to teach our children to avoid it, we do well to remember that there are a whole range of other ways in which we can take God’s name in vain. One of those ways, believe it or not, is when we pray. Thomas Watson explains:
Faith is a grace that greatly honours God. But when we pray to God, but do not mix faith with our prayer, we take his name in vain. It is to dishonour God and take his name in vain; it makes him either an idol, that has ears and hears not; or a liar, who promises mercy to the penitent, but will not make good his word. Thus to pray and not believe, is to take God’s name in vain, and highly dishonours God, as if he were not such a God as the word represents him: “abundant in mercy to all those who call upon him” (Psalm 86:5).
David frequently experienced opposition from those who did not serve God as he did, and this is often evident from his writings in the psalms. Psalm 5 is one such psalm. As was so often the case, God-hating enemies opposed him. But what stands out in this particular psalm is David’s confidence that God would hear him. He expresses his confidence in vv. 1–3, and then explains the reason for his confidence in vv. 4–12. His goal was to give his readers confidence that the God to whom we pray is the God who hears.
The Expression of Confidence
Often, when I arrive at home at the end of the work day, my two youngest children hear the gate open and the car pull in. I then find them, having pulled aside the curtain, standing on the window sill, holding onto the burglar bars, and looking out into the front yard. As soon as I turn off the car engine and open the driver’s side door, they begin yelling excitedly to me, competing with one another to tell me about what happened that day.
It is a similar sense of excited anticipation that we encounter in the opening verses of this psalm.
Give ear to my words, O LORD; consider my groaning. Give attention to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you do I pray. O LORD, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch.
We will read in a moment of the reason that David lifted his prayer to the Lord, but for now it is important to notice that he did so, and that he did so with anticipation. David asked the Lord to “give ear” and to “give attention” to his prayer. Sometimes, he prayed with clearly articulated “words.” Sometimes, his prayer was simply the “groaning” of his heart. Regardless, as he lifted prayer to the Lord “in the morning,” he was confident that the Lord would “hear his voice.” He, therefore, prepared his “sacrifice” of prayer, and then stood to “watch.”
The word translated “watch” is important here. The word literally means “to lean forward,” and carries the implication of peering into the distance. It is used several times in the Old Testament of a city watchman, deliberately scanned the horizon in expectation of something or someone arriving. David lifted his prayer to God as a “sacrifice,” and then expectantly sat watching for the answer to arrive. He was fully confident that God would answer, and so he waited, as it were, with bated breath for the answer to arrive.
How often do we pray, but really only go through the motions, not believing that God will answer? It’s fair to say that the major reason we don’t pray as we ought is because we don’t believe God, but it is equally true that, even when we do pray, we sometimes pray faithlessly. And that says a lot about our understanding of and reverence for God. It is, as Watson said, to take God’s name in vain.
Do you pray with a sense of expectation that God will answer? We’ve heard testimony in recent weeks from the Wednesday morning prayer group about how God answers prayer—and how he does so in such a way that it is obvious to all that he is answering. And yet we far too often pray but then fail to “watch” for the answer.
But what gave David such confidence in prayer? His confidence lay in the person to whom he was praying: “the LORD”—Yahweh. “LORD” in all caps is a translation of, Yahweh, the covenant name of Israel’s God. Yahweh was David’s “King” and his “God.” David was confident that the God who had entered into covenant with him would hear and answer his prayer. He could therefore “watch” for the answer to his cry.
The Explanation of Confidence
In vv. 4–12, David essentially expands the reason for his confidence. At grassroots level, he was confident because Yahweh is a God of covenant. But in these remaining verses, he lists four characteristics of the covenant Lord that undergirded his confidence.
God is Holy
First, he recognises that God is holy.
For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you. The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies; the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.
Holiness is the cardinal characteristic of God. Everything else we know about God must be understood in light of his holiness. Sproul captures this well in his classic, The Holiness of God:
When we use the word holy to describe God, we face another problem. We often describe God by compiling a list of qualities or characteristics that we call attributes. We say that God is a spirit, that he knows everything, that he is loving, just, merciful, gracious, and so on. The tendency is to add the idea of holiness to this long list of attributes as one attribute among many. But when the word holy is applied to God, it does not signify one single attribute. On the contrary, God is called holy in a general sense. The word is used as a synonym for his deity. That is, the word holy calls attention to all that God is. It reminds us that his love is holy love, his justice is holy justice, his mercy is holy mercy, his knowledge is holy knowledge, his spirit is holy spirit.
God’s holiness means that he stands apart from “wickedness” and “evil.” We can be tempted to trivialise and acclimatise to evil, but God never “delights in wickedness,” and “evil” never “dwells with” him. If we are honest, we will admit that we are tempted to be entertained by that which God hates. But God never delights in wickedness and evil never dwells with him.
God’s hatred for evil and wickedness is not a detached irritation. On the contrary, he so hates “evildoers” (note that he hates “evildoers,” not only the evil that they do!) that they will “not stand before” him. In fact, God will “destroy” them, for he “abhors” them and the evil that they do.
Do we really understand how much God hates evil? If we do, at least two things will result. First, we will “cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). If we call ourselves children of God, we will certainly hate what God hates—to such a degree that we will avoid it.
But, second, we will grow in our appreciation for the gospel. As much as God hates and abhors and is determined to punish wickedness and evil, it is “while we were still sinners” that “Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8–10). What amazing grace! The God who “hate[s] all evildoers” gave his Son to save evildoers!
God is Love
Second, David recognises that God is love.
But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house. I will bow down toward your holy temple in the fear of you. Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me.
David’s confidence in these verses highlights the covenant love of God. “Steadfast love” translates that great covenant word hesed, which describes God’s determined kindness to those with whom he is in covenant.
It is evident that David’s reliance was on God’s hesed and not his own merit, for he had just said in v. 6 that “the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.” David, of course, had murdered Uriah (“bloodthirsty”) and had lied (“deceitful”) to cover it up. And yet he distances himself (“But I”) from the bloodthirsty and deceitful. Clearly, God’s “steadfast love,” and not his own inherent righteousness, was his hope. His confidence resided in Yahweh’s “righteousness,” not his own.
James Johnston notes that we can reject God’s “steadfast love” in two ways. On the one hand, we can choose to live as antinomians, as those who throw off all restraint of law and openly embrace sin. Irreligion is a rejection of God’s “steadfast love,” and is easy to spot.
But there is a second, more insidious means of rejecting “steadfast love,” and that is by legalism. We can fall into the trap of thinking that our religion—church attendance, Bible reading, prayer, etc.—secures our favour before God. But to stand secure means to confess that God has a standard that we cannot keep, to acknowledge that Christ kept that standard on behalf of those he came to save, and to therefore cast ourselves wholly on him for mercy. We must find our confidence in his mercy, not our merit.
God is Just
Third, David reflects on God’s justice.
For there is no truth in their mouth; their inmost self is destruction; their throat is an open grave; they flatter with their tongue. Make them bear their guilt, O God; let them fall by their own counsels; because of the abundance of their transgressions cast them out, for they have rebelled against you.
David has already shown that Yahweh hates evildoers and the evil that they do. Now he states the character of those who opposed him: They exemplify everything that God hates. The evidence of v. 9 speaks for itself.
In light of the evidence, David appeals in v. 10 to the Lord to declare them guilty and to execute justice against them. He asks this, not because he seeks personal vengeance, but because “they have rebelled against you.”
It is easy for us to fall into the trap of praying against evildoers because pf the inconvenience or hurt that they cause us. We do well to remember that personal vendettas have no place in the prayers of the saints. But when we are moved by God’s glory, and by the good of God’s people, it is not always wrong for us to ask for justice. While we should not gloat at the fall of our enemy (Proverbs 24:17), it is not wrong to rejoice when righteousness is exercised (Psalm 58:10–11) and to therefore pray for justice—for God’s glory.
The Bible reveals God to be a God of justice, who will exercise full and final justice at Judgement Day. To pray for justice is perfectly in line with the character of God—so long as we are motivated by God’s glory and not (exclusively) our own comfort.
God is Kind
Finally, David acknowledges God’s kindness.
But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy, and spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may exult in you. For you bless the righteous, O LORD; you cover him with favour as with a shield.
The glory of the gospel is that, although he is holy and hates sin, and is just and punishes sin, God is also loving and kind to forgive sin. Everyone who will “take refuge” in God has cause to “rejoice.” Moabites, according to Deuteronomy 23, were forbidden access to God’s people and God’s covenant. Ruth was a Moabite who was a recipient of God’s covenant love. How could she, a Moabite, experience God’s favour when God had explicitly rejected the Moabites? It was because she took refuge under the wings of the God of Israel (Ruth 2:12). God receives all who come to him for refuge. Those who “take refuge” in him can “rejoice” and “sing for joy” because they know that he has “spread [his] protection over them.” They are counted “righteous” and are privileged to have Yahweh “cover [them] with favour as with a shield.”
Of course, this protection and favour is found in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, who died to save sinners and rose again for their justification. Those who love their sin and rebel against him are destined for ultimate justice—for destruction at the hand of God, who is a consuming fire. But those who love his name and take refuge in him have the promise of forgiveness and eternal life.
David was confident that God would hear and answer his prayer, not because he was so inherently righteous, but because he was one who, though sinful, took refuge in the God of the Bible. Though he lived a thousand years before Christ, he believed God’s promise that the seed of the woman was coming to crush the head of the serpent. Through faith in the seed of the woman, he received God’s covenant love, and he knew that the covenant God, who had lavished covenant love on him, would hear and answer his prayer.
Have you taken refuge in the God of the Bible through the person of his Son, Jesus Christ? If so, you can rejoice and exult in him, and when you pray, you can offer to him a sacrifice—and “watch.” After all, “the LORD is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous” (Proverbs 15:29).