January 14/15, 2017
Jason Meyer | Psalms 37:5-6
Commit your way to the LORD;
trust in him, and he will act.
He will bring forth your righteousness as the light,
and your justice as the noonday.—Psalm 37:5–6
I am going to do something really risky today. I am going to preach on social justice for Ethnic Harmony weekend. Let’s be frank right from the start. I have always been a little squeamish about social justice. I have always been a little suspicious of people who seem to talk too much about social justice. Why? I have a fear that people will get so caught up in the social that they will forget about the eternal. This fear is not irrational and it is not an excuse to avoid social responsibility. History teaches us that this is a legitimate fear. Many in the social gospel movement in the early 20th century emphasized the social and assumed the gospel and ended up denying the gospel.
But God did a new work in my heart this January. It all started with a simple word study from Psalm 37:6, which arose from what I thought was a somewhat technical question: What is the difference between “righteousness” (tsadiq) and “justice” (misphat)? Are these terms synonymous or parallel terms with slight nuances of difference? What I saw changed the way that I will read the Bible. We will work our way to that point when we get to verse 6.
But we have to do a little legwork to get to that point. Let’s start in verse 5. One can see an astounding dynamic in these two verses—faith followed by action. But it is not faith followed by our action. Look at the subject of the verbs: We trust and God acts.
Main Point: Trust God with your way and he will put it on display.
Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act.
We see two different words for faith in this one verse: commit and trust. Commit means to roll something upon someone else’s shoulders. Here we take “our way” and roll it onto God’s shoulders. It is important to commit our way to the Lord in Psalm 37 precisely because things don’t seem to be going our way. We struggle forward through a fierce fight of faith.
Let’s look at this fight of faith in a little more detail. The Psalms talk about two ways: the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked (cf. Psalm 1). It is disorienting when what we hear from God and what we see in the “real” world don’t line up. The way of the wicked will perish—chaff like the wind blows away. Blessed is the one who doesn’t join the wicked (walk in their counsel, stand in their way, sit in their seat). The wicked are breaking all the rules and are getting ahead. So why continue to fight a losing battle?
The psalmist must trust what God says more than what he sees. In fact, he needs God’s word to help him see. He needs the word to interpret what he is seeing and not seeing. So Psalm 37 is a call to walk by faith and not by sight. God says the way of the wicked will perish, but the way of the righteous will be blessed. The opposite appears to be true. It looks like the wicked are being blessed: They are breaking all the rules and getting ahead in the game of life.
You might remember back when I preached on this text the first time, I used the analogy of a monopoly game. Some of the kids were cheating and were getting ahead that way. And the father was watching it all on the couch and not doing anything about it. He just let it go. Even though he has explicitly told them not to cheat before.
The other players are getting tempted to either give up or start cheating as well. But the father will get up off the couch and put the monopoly game to right. All the stuff that the wicked cheated everyone out of will be restored. It will all belong to the righteous … in just a little while, so they must be patient.
But the wicked will perish; the enemies of the LORD are like the glory of the pastures; they vanish—like smoke they vanish away. ... Those blessed by the LORD shall inherit the land, but those cursed by him shall be cut off.—Psalm 37: 20, 22
There’s a theme in Psalm 37 that we did not have time to draw out last time. Notice that for the righteous, the doctrine of the future is not taught only to help us die well, but to help us live well. They don’t sound the retreat and hunker down in a foxhole while waiting for the end to come. The righteous (by faith) can and will make a visible difference here and now. They continue to walk in obedience and now God promises to do something with that obedience. That leads us to point 2: God acts.
Commit your way to the LORD;
trust in him, and he will act.
He will bring forth your righteousness as the light,
and your justice as the noonday.
The action is defined in verse 6. God is going to cause the way of the righteous to shine like the sun—they will be the light of the world in this present darkness. This verse powerfully assumes that faith cannot be separated from action. If we trust God, we will keep doing what he says. Therefore, this verse will not allow us to separate faith and social action. There are two ditches here.
The ditch on the right is dead faith (faith that is devoid of social action). The ditch on the left is faithless social action (social action that does not spring from faith). Staying on the biblical straight and narrow would combine the two in the right order: Trust in the Lord produces the organic outgrowth of social action.
However, the next verse helps us with our expectation management. Don’t expect instantaneous results. Psalm 37:7 is the call to train for a marathon and not a sprint:
Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him;
fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way,
over the man who carries out evil devices!
Righteousness and Justice
Now we are ready to turn to a word study of the two specific words the Psalmist uses. What will light up the night: “your righteousness” and “your justice.” For the sake of simplicity, I am going to start with my conclusion and then show you some of the evidence. I believe that the two words are related, but not synonymous. In fact, when they appear together they give a fuller picture of biblical reality than when they appear separately. The first word “righteousness” refers to doing what is right. We are going to see that “doing what is right” is inescapably relational and not mere conformity to a legal code. The word touches upon all of our day-to-day living in which a person conducts all his or her relationships in family and society with fairness, generosity, and equity. The second word almost always refers to correcting what is wrong (punish the wrongdoers and help the victims of their oppressive and unfair treatment).
Can you see a relationship between the two? The first refers to doing what is right, while the second refers to dealing with what is wrong. One could say that the first (righteousness) is a call to avoid the wrong and do the right; the second (justice) is a call to right the wrongs already done.
Here is another way to visualize the relationship between the two words. The more widespread the first is (righteous behavior) the less the second is needed (punishing wrongdoers and caring for victims). But righteousness is the more umbrella term because justice (correcting what is wrong) fits under the umbrella of righteousness—because correcting what is wrong is commanded as the right thing to do.
Now the question begging to be answered is this: What does biblical righteousness and justice look like in Psalm 37? One of the ways to answer that question is to scour the psalm for a few places where the contrast between the righteous and the wicked shows up. Verse 14 addresses violence against the vulnerable:
The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows
to bring down the poor and needy,
to slay those whose way is upright.
Verse 21 addresses financial exploitation:
The wicked borrows but does not pay back,
but the righteous is generous and gives.
It is instructive here that the righteous do more than avoid wrongdoing—they move forward in righteousness. The coach would do way more than say to his running back: “Don’t fumble” or “Don’t lose yards.” The point is to keep the ball and gain positive yards—move the ball down the field. The righteous have more than an “avoidance” ethic (avoid the wrong—borrowing without paying back) and they go further in what is right (they are generous and give).
When you look elsewhere in Scripture you see the same dynamic. The Bible often calls our attention to vulnerable groups or classes of people. Perhaps the most common grouping has been called the “quartet of the vulnerable”: the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor” (Zechariah 7:10). God says far more to us than “don’t oppress or take advantage” of them. His people are called to move the ball of justice forward for them. That is doing righteousness and justice. Listen to Job 29:12–17:
When the ear heard, it called me blessed,
and when the eye saw, it approved,
because I delivered the poor who cried for help,
and the fatherless who had none to help him.
The blessing of him who was about to perish came upon me,
and I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy.
I put on righteousness, and it clothed me;
my justice was like a robe and a turban.
I was eyes to the blind
and feet to the lame.
I was a father to the needy,
and I searched out the cause of him whom I did not know.
I broke the fangs of the unrighteous
and made him drop his prey from his teeth.
The vulnerable become the prey of the unrighteous—the righteous do more than avoid preying on them too. They are called to rescue the vulnerable from the fangs of the unrighteous. Job 31:16–19 was even more convicting because failing to do these things is serious. Don’t think of doing justice as extra credit on the exam of righteousness. It is a crucial part of the exam itself:
“If I have withheld anything that the poor desired,
or have caused the eyes of the widow to fail,
or have eaten my morsel alone,
and the fatherless has not eaten of it
(for from my youth the fatherless grew up with me as with a father,
and from my mother’s womb I guided the widow),
if I have seen anyone perish for lack of clothing,
or the needy without covering …”
Job says failing to do these things would be living falsely before God and deserving judgment (vv. 23, 28). In other words, the Bible says we are sinning when we think of our goods as belonging only to ourselves. If Job did not “share his bread” and his resources with the poor, he would be sinning against God. Sharing is not extra credit; it is an essential part of what God commands.
I want to call attention to four writers that have affected me in terms of application at this point: Jonathan Edwards (Duty of Charity to the Poor), Martin Luther King Jr. (Letter From a Birmingham Jail), Tim Keller (Generous Justice), and Andy Crouch (Weak and Strong).
1. The Who (What Vulnerable Groups Do We Have in These Cities)?
What would it look like today to do righteousness and justice in these cities? The Psalmist lived largely in an agrarian society. We certainly have the widow, the fatherless, the immigrant, and the poor. Women were often vulnerable in that day as today (especially by physical or sexual assault and even abuse in the home by those who vowed to cherish them). Today, we also have many more single parents who struggle to provide for their children. Elderly people can be much more vulnerable in our day than in a culture like Israel where the elderly where given much more honor and dignity. God will judge whether or not we are doing righteousness and justice based in large part in terms of how we are treating or helping these groups.
But in this Ethnic Harmony Weekend sermon, I want to draw your attention to non-majority culture ethnic groups. And don’t just think of ethnic harmony as being about harmony between white and black. Ethnic harmony needs to have eyes for refugee and the migrant worker.
2. Ethnic Injustice
Injustice is easier to perform against non-majority culture groups. Andy Crouch has been more helpful here than any other writer living today on this point. He says, “Injustice is a social system in which some people have authority without vulnerability at the expense of other people having vulnerability without authority.” Vulnerability means exposure to great risk. He looks at the fabric of our world and notes that in a fallen world you cannot get rid of vulnerability, you can only relocate it (temporarily and usually sinfully).
Therefore, injustice is always part a wider story. It is a story about a group of human beings who somehow acquire enough power that they can temporarily realize this dream of authority without vulnerability but it is always at the expense of others who are loaded with vulnerability that is not theirs to bear.
Planters who arrived from Europe (especially England) realizes there was a tremendous potential for profit with certain cash crops—cotton and tobacco (high wealth potential, but also highly labor intensive). The right response could have been viewing this cash crop as an invitation to combine authority and vulnerability in just ways. “Let’s do the hard work together—you and your family and those whom you hire”—share the vulnerability and share the profit.
But what happened next is a national tragedy, a thing of unspeakable evil. The planters found a vulnerable group of people (off the coast of Africa) and robbed them of all dignity and authority, and vastly increase their vulnerability (exposure to risk) in order to achieve massive levels of wealth. They can never get it without relocating the vulnerability elsewhere—the only way that you can sustain that kind of system is through violence and threat.
How could people (many of whom claimed to be Christian) possibly participate in or defend such a travesty of injustice? It is because injustice and idolatry are always intertwined. The two can become so enmeshed together that one becomes blind to the deeper idolatry and what one is really worshiping. That observation made the biblical prophets come alive to me like never before. They preach so fiercely against injustice (horizontal) because it is the expression of unbelief and false worship. People had slaves because they were bowing before the idol of mammon (money).
And predatory economic practices are still common today. There are loan companies, for example, that prey on the poor and elderly by using dishonest practices that exploit them. When some of the pastors were at a multi-ethnic church conference, we heard one black pastor talk about giving politician Bernie Sanders a tour of their neighborhood. They took him to the “financial district” and asked him what he saw. There were no banks, just payday loan sharks. They went to the retail and grocery district and asked him what he saw. There were no large discount grocery stores, there were only some corner grocery stores with inflated prices. Bernie Sanders saw example after example and then declared: “It is really expensive to be poor.”
3. The Heart of God
One of the problems I had with talking so much about social justice was the sense that it was something in addition to the theology of God we cherish. Would all of this focus on social justice cause us to downplay and minimize our theology of God? To answer that question, I am going to let Psalm 146:6–9 speak. The psalmist says that God “made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them” (v. 6). Yes, all of Bethlehem said, “Amen—God is the Almighty Creator. God is faithful—he “keeps faith forever” (v. 6). Yes, amen. Great is thy faithfulness. Then we come to verse 7–9:
[God …] who executes justice for the oppressed,
who gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets the prisoners free;
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
the LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the sojourners;
he upholds the widow and the fatherless,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
God not only does these things, he wants us to see them as defining. The fact that he does them shows us who He is. Listen to Psalm 68:4–5:
Sing to God, sing praises to his name;
lift up a song to him who rides through the deserts;
his name is the LORD;
exult before him!
Father of the fatherless and protector of widows
is God in his holy habitation.
Tim Keller gave a powerful explanation of this verse. When people ask him how he wants to be introduced, he suggests this:
“This is Tim Keller, minister at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.” Of course, I am many other things, but that is the main thing I spend my time doing in public life. Realize, then, how significant it is that the biblical writers introduce God as “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows” (Psalm 68:4–5). This is one of the main things he does in the world. He identifies with the powerless, he takes up their cause.
Hopefully you can see the direct link from God to giving to the poor. Listen to Jonathan Edwards and the link between the heart of God and our money that comes from God. “Your money and your goods are not your own. They are only committed to you as stewards, to be used for him who committed them to you” (Jonathan Edwards, The Duty of Charity to the Poor).
When we do righteousness and justice, we put the heart of God on display. When they see our good works, they glorify our Father in heaven. We also put the heart of God on display as seen through the cross of Christ. “What would become of us, if Christ … had been as ready to excuse himself from dying for us, as men commonly are to excuse themselves from charity to their neighbor?” (The Duty of Charity to the Poor).
4. The Way Forward
How can we have the heart of God for the vulnerable and how can we put that heart on display in these cities and around the world? This will require us to move along a continuum from apathy to awareness to action.
There are many vulnerable people—even some inside these church walls right now, and we don’t even see them. They feel invisible and to many they are invisible. Now let us be clear that lack of awareness is not the same as apathy. “Don’t know” is not the same as “don’t care.” The real question is this, “When awareness moves in does apathy move out or does it stay?” It is a sign of a toxic heart if awareness moves in, but apathy does not move out.
One place this lack of awareness shows up and acts as an unintentional barrier for ethnic harmony is our arrogant tendency to equate what is and what should be. This was a breakthrough moment for Tim Keller. He had a close friend (non-majority culture) who said, “You’re a racist, you know.” This was at Keller’s kitchen table. It is a good thing to have honest and hard ethnic conversations. His friend continued, “Oh, you don’t mean to be, and you don’t want to be, but you are. You can’t really help it.” He said, for example, “When black people do things in a certain way, you say, ‘Well, that’s just your culture.’ But when white people do things in a certain way, you say, ‘That’s just the right way to do things.’ You don’t realize you really have a culture. You are blind to how many of your beliefs and practices are cultural.” Keller said, “We began to see how, in so many ways, we made our cultural biases into moral principles and then judged people of other races as being inferior” (Generous Justice).
We also have special areas of emphasis: groups against sex trafficking and abortion, and we also have Safe Families and a Disability ministry. There is an opportunity to grow in greater awareness on one set of issues and focus there instead of feeling paralyzed because you can’t do everything. Moving beyond awareness to action means a continuous commitment to use whatever authority you have and share the vulnerability. We are talking about more than occasional action—we are talking about a life of action, which could be called advocacy. You can become an advocate for the vulnerable. Perhaps your small group could pray about a vulnerable group and become advocates together. The church really can put God on display and work for justice. It is part of our historical birthright. Listen to Martin Luther King Jr.
Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But they went on with the conviction that they were a “colony of heaven” and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest. Things are different now. The contemporary Church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the archsupporter of the status quo [I inwardly flinched when I read that—ouch]. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the Church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the Church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.― From Letter From the Birmingham Jail
Injustice is completely anti-gospel. Injustice says, “You give yourself for my benefit.” In the gospel, Christ says, “I will give myself for your eternal benefit.” The One who had all authority and no vulnerability completely gave up the bliss of heaven in order to expose himself to every kind of vulnerability and injustice (poverty, hunger, thirst, shame, rejection, ridicule, nakedness, torture, death). But in so doing, he defeated them all. The hope of the gospel gives all injustice an expiration date. He purchased for us a place with him where none of these things or the possibility of these things even exist. In the new covenant, he took out the heart of stony apathy so that we would have a heart that beats like his for the vulnerable. Let’s entrust our way to him and ask that he would cause us to shine as the lights in the world.
Sermon Discussion Questions
Main Point: Trust God with your way and he will put it on display.
Pray for a grace to commit your way to the Lord, and pray that God would act and put that way on display for his glory.