Do You Delight in God’s Judgments?
A sermon on Psalm 97 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 7/13/03
At Desiring God Community Church we talk a lot about delighting in God. You don’t have to be around here very long before you hear someone quote Psalm 37:4 – “Delight yourself in the Lord!” Our ad in University City Magazine asks, “Do you know that God commands us to seek our happiness?” Our favorite evangelistic tract is entitled “Quest for Joy.”
When you hear ‘Delight yourself in the Lord” – what aspects of God’s character come to mind? What attributes of God bring delight to you?
The first attributes that come to mind for most of you will be His love, His grace, His faithfulness, and His mercy. After that, you’re most likely to think of His might or His power.
But how many of you think, “I delight in the Lord because He will avenge himself on all his enemies”?
When we read those passages from Revelation (11:15-18; 16:1-7, 19:1-6) earlier in the service, what emotions did you experience? Did you think, “This really leads me to delight in God – he makes the smoke of the great prostitute go up for ever and ever! Oh, joy!”
A few weeks ago we considered Jeroboam, the first ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel. And we saw how after his great sin, God gave him the opportunity to repent – just as he had given David the opportunity to repent after a similarly great sin. But Jeroboam did not respond to God’s grace – and in the end was turned away by God when he sought Him during a time of crisis. We used this story to challenge ourselves not to trifle with God.
This morning we look again at God’s judgments – but from a different perspective. Psalm 97 tells us that God’s people are glad BECAUSE OF GOD’S JUDGMENTS. If this should be a characteristic of God’s people, I would suggest that it is a characteristic we evangelical Christians in the US sorely lack. So let’s go through this Psalm carefully, to see what God is saying here. And in the end, let us all rejoice in the judgments of God.
Before we look at the verses individually, let’s consider the structure of this psalm. It begins in verse 1 with a summary statement of the theme: “God reigns, let the earth rejoice!” Then verses 2 through 6a answer the question, “Who is God?” through statements about His character and through the response of inanimate objects to Him. Verses 6b through 9 tell us of the reactions of two different groups of people confronted with God: one reacts with shame, the other with joy. Verses 10 and 11 address the question, “How should we then live?” emphasizing our hatred of evil. The psalm concludes in verse 12 with a return to the major theme: “Rejoice in the Lord!”
In our exposition, we will consider the introduction together with the conclusion at the end of the sermon. We will also combine the last two themes of the body of the Psalm. So we end up with three headings:
Before we even look at today’s text, note that Jesus Christ is One with God the Father. Who is God? Part of the answer: Jesus Christ. As Psalm speaks of God reigning, it is speaking of the reign of our Lord Jesus Christ.
So when Psalm 97 refers to God ruling and judging, remember: God the Son, Jesus Christ, is King and Judge.
Now consider verse 2:
Clouds and thick darkness surround him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.
Who is God? First, we have seen that God is Jesus Christ. Second, verse 2 tells us that thick darkness and clouds surround him.
This picture of God obscured by clouds is a common biblical image. The Israelites saw clouds over Mt Sinai when God was present (Exodus 19). Later, when Moses dedicates the tabernacle, we read:
Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. 35 Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. (Exodus 40:34-35)
Similar clouds appear when Solomon dedicates the temple several hundred years later (1 Kings 8:10-11).
What do these clouds picture? They tell us that God is incomprehensible. We can neither see nor understand God and His ways.
And yet this is not something to lament, as we see in the remainder of the verse:
righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne
God is Jesus Christ, God is incomprehensible, but God is also characterized by righteousness and justice.
What we can’t see can be frightening. Think of a dictator, like Saddam Hussein. He hides himself and his counsel from his subjects. They don’t know what he might do; they don’t know who might be his spies; they don’t know when they might be accused of opposing him. Indeed, even today Saddam remains a threat until he is caught, because the people of Iraq continue to fear him.
Like an earthly dictator, God can’t be seen by us; we don’t know what He might do. But unlike a dictator, God is righteous and just. He is worthy of all our trust. We need not fear that He will be cruel or unjust. We can’t see Him, we can’t understand Him, but we know that He is good. As the Psalmist says in verse 6a:
Creation itself declares his righteousness
Verses 3 and 4 bring out a fourth way to answer the question, “Who is God?”
3 Fire goes before him and consumes his foes on every side. 4 His lightning lights up the world;
Here God is described as a consuming fire. While this may not be the normal way you think of God, this description is used several times in Scripture. The phrase “consuming fire” occurs eight times in the NIV – and every time those words refer to God (Exod. 24:17; Deut. 4:24; 2 Sam. 22:9; Ps. 18:8; Isa. 30:27, 30; 33:14; Heb. 12:29).
Given that verse four begins with God’s lightening, I think “fire” in verse 3 also in this case refers to lightening. God’s lightening can consume His foes at any time.
But note: there is no danger for God’s people. Remember in verse 2, a possibly frightening view of God in the first half of the verse – He is enveloped in clouds, we can’t see Him – is followed by a comforting idea – He is righteous and just. Just so in verse 4: Fire goes before Him, but it consumes His foes on every side – it does not consume His people.
Verses 4b to 6a show the response of inanimate creation to God’s majesty:
The earth sees and trembles. 5 The mountains melt like wax before the LORD, before the Lord of all the earth. 6 The heavens proclaim his righteousness,
What is the first verse in the Bible? “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Here in this section we have the reaction of the heavens and the earth – in reverse order - to God’s power. These verses don’t add new characteristics, but underline some of previous points through the reaction of creation. When creation sees God as a consuming fire, how does it respond?
The earth trembles! The mountains melt!
Think about melting for a moment:
Mountains are way beyond our power. Yet before God, the mountains melt, and the entire earth trembles. This is power indeed.
Verse 6a gives the reaction of the heavens. While the earth trembles before Him, showing His power, the heavens show his righteousness. What does this mean?
The Hebrew word at its root means “conformity to a standard.” The heavens declare great conformity to God’s standards through their movements! Day follow night; night follow day; the moon rises and sets at different times, repeating the cycle every 28 days; the stars move over the course of a year and return (almost) to the spots they were in before; summer follows spring, fall follows summer, winter follows fall. There is a continuous conformity to a standard.
God as the creator of the heavens shares this characteristic: continuous conformity to the righteousness of His Law, of His moral order.
So: Who is God? God is Jesus Christ. God is incomprehensible. God is both righteous and just. And this righteous and just God is a consuming fire – the moral authority in the universe who will see that every sin is punished.
How badly we need this picture of God today! How badly we need this picture of Jesus Christ!
Verse 6b tells us that “all the peoples see his glory.” Yes, all do. But people react in two different ways to that glory.
The witness of creation is powerful. As Paul says in Romans 1:20:
For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.
All have this revelation; but how do they respond? The next verses tell us:
7 All who worship images are put to shame, those who boast in idols-- worship him, all you gods! 8 Zion hears and rejoices and the villages of Judah are glad because of your judgments, O LORD.
People are divided into two categories here: Idol worshipers and Zion; those who worship the true God and those who worship anything else; God’s people and God’s enemies.
The enemies have been boasting in their idols - that is, whatever they have put in the place of God. Not many of us bow down to wooden statues. But we are all tempted to idolatry, we are all tempted to make something other than God our deepest desire and our greatest source of power and satisfaction and security. That might be:
NONE of those in the end will protect you. None is of any power or consequence compared to God. None provides more than a fleeting pleasure apart from God’s grace. If you rely on these, you will be put to shame. What you depend on will break. You will fall.
The idea of verse 7 can be captured in a little story: An architect name Joe claims that he is skilled in designing and building bridges. He goes to every bar, every organization in town and tells everyone how lucky they are to have him in town. He will design a bridge that will bring fame to the entire region. Thousands and thousands will come to the community because of the beauty of the bridge.
So he builds the bridge. And Joe, the architect and builder, takes the honorary first drive across the bridge. But right when he reaches the highest point, all the spectators hear a rumbling and cracking – then with a giant crash the bridge collapses into the river. Joe himself dies and is put to shame. All that his boasts are proven to be worthless.
Such will happen to all who put anything else in the place of God.
So the Psalmist declares that the other “gods” – any of these idols that actually are sentient – should reject the worship offered to them and turn their worship to the true God! That is the only way not to be put to shame.
But some people are NOT put to shame. There is another category of people: Zion.
8 Zion hears and rejoices and the villages of Judah are glad because of your judgments, O LORD.
“Zion” refers to Jerusalem, and “villages of Judah” to the surrounding area. Thus, this is a picture of God’s people. What is their reaction to the message proclaimed by the heavens? What is their reaction to the trembling of the earth and the melting of the mountains?
They are not put to shame! Rather, they hear and are glad! For their trust is in this One who is righteous; their hope is in this One who is powerful.
But note what particularly gives them joy: They are glad because of what? “Because of your judgments, O LORD.”
Here is the problem with which we started: Are we glad because of God’s judgments? Should we be?
To understand what the psalmist is saying, not that the Hebrew has a wider range of meaning than our word “judgments.” We think of “judgment” as a judicial term: A judge in a courtroom pronounces judgments. But the Hebrew term covers not only the work of judges, but all the work of government.
How many this morning remember the three branches of the US government, and what each does?
The work of all three branches is wrapped up in the Hebrew term translated “judgments”. Thus, the idea here is closely related to the first words of Psalm: “The Lord reigns!” He does not reign as the highest executive only; he does not reign as Judge only; He does not reign as legislator only.
No. God makes laws, He puts them into effect, and He decides who is a lawbreaker. He Himself exercises ALL the functions of government.
Why then should we be glad? Because He reigns! He maintains order. He is the moral force - He HAS to deal with evil. If He doesn’t, no one else will. Praise God that He will put a final end to evil.
Rejoicing in God’s judgments results from our understanding that He is in control, and that He is good.
Verse 9 then explains further why verses 7 and 8 are true:
For You are the LORD Most High over all the earth; You are exalted far above all gods.
There is a strong emphasis here on the word “you.” We might capture that emphasis by translating it, “You and You alone”:
Doesn’t it make sense to delight in the judgments, in the rule of one like this?
Consider the last 3 verses:
10 Let those who love the LORD hate evil, for he guards the lives of his faithful ones and delivers them from the hand of the wicked. 11 Light is shed upon the righteous and joy on the upright in heart. 12 Rejoice in the LORD, you who are righteous, and praise his holy name.
We should hate evil:
We must hate it and desire to see it abolished! We must hate evil and long for the day when every sin is punished, when all wrongs are righted!
Now: Why do people NOT hate evil? Why instead do some people pursue evil? Two reason:
Reason 1: Fear that others will take advantage of us: As the saying goes, “Do unto others before they do unto you.” We are tempted to think, “If I act that way, everyone else will just mow me down. I’ve got to play the game!”
In verse 10 God says, “NO, that is not the case. It might look that way from your perspective. But remember who I am! I am the one before whom the mountains melt! I am righteous! And I will guard the lives of my faithful ones! I will deliver them from the hand of the wicked!”
God uses the history of the people of Israel to make this point. Time and again, Israelite kings make alliances with heathen powers for protection. What is the outcome? Time and again, they are defeated. The supposedly powerful alliance ends up harming them, in the long run if not in the immediate future. But, on the other hand, when the kings approach the Lord in weakness and humility, when they fall on their faces before the Sovereign Lord, then God rescues them from even the most powerful foes.
Just so with us. If we try to protect ourselves through evil we will be put to shame. If we use wrong business practices, if we rob others, if we lie on our tax returns, we will be put to shame. But if we do what may not seem logical, we may seem to lose initially, but God promises to guard our lives and protect us. We can be confident that He will not forsake us, but will bring us safely to His heavenly kingdom.
Reason 2: Fear of missing out on life: We think, “If I act the way God wants, I’ll miss out on all the fun stuff in life! Christians can’t do this, can’t do that. I may live but I won’t have any fun!”
Verse 11 answers this fear:
“Light is shed upon the righteous, and joy on the upright in heart.”
The word “light” is frequently used in the Old Testament for joy or happiness; indeed, this same Hebrew word is translated by the NIV as “happiness” in Esther 8:16. So it’s not too much of a stretch to translate this verse:
“Happiness is shed upon the righteous, joy on the upright in heart.”
God says, “You want joy? Then quit pursuing all those dead ends! Your desires are too weak! Go after the greatest joy imaginable – knowing me!”
Far from being a victim of evil, far from missing out on joy, the righteous man comes under the protection of the most powerful being in the universe, and receives the greatest joy there is.
Verse 12 then gives our proper response, echoing verse 1:
12 Rejoice in the LORD, you who are righteous, and praise his holy name.
If you look at a number of English translations, you will find that the word here translated “praise” is sometimes translated “give thanks”. The Hebrew word is sort of a combination. It is never used of giving thanks to a person, only to God. But it does connote the ideas of confessing God’s attributes, and thanking God for working mightily for our good.
So the idea is this: Rejoice in Him, recognizing who He is and what He has done. God reigns!
So how do you react to God’s judgment? Do you avoid those biblical passages that refer to God punishing evildoers?
In his commentary on verse 2, Charles Spurgeon writes:
Righteousness is His immutable attribute, and judgment marks his every act. What though we cannot see or understand what he doeth, yet we are sure that he will do no wrong to us or any of his creatures. Is not this enough to make us rejoice in him and adore him? Divine sovereignty is never tyrannical. Jehovah is an autocrat, but not a despot. Absolute power is safe in the hands of him who cannot err, or act unrighteously. When the roll of the decrees, and the books of the divine providence shall be opened, no eye shall there discern one word that should be blotted out, one syllable of error, one line of injustice, one letter of unholiness.
Remember again: The King of Kings is Jesus Christ Himself. He is the ruler, He is the moral authority, He is the one who returns to establish justice, to punish evil, to judge the earth.
For His people He comes as the bridegroom – with joyful anticipation of the marriage.
For His enemies He comes as the mighty general – with power much greater than Bradley fighting vehicles and Abrams tanks.
So put away all your idols. Find your delight in Him. And delight in God’s judgments.
This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 7/13/03. The Spurgeon quote is from The Treasury of David.
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