1 the reality
I become increasingly depressed at the situation our society is facing. In the political world, we seem to have too many politicians who don’t seem to care about building a better society but rather they care about being in power and making politics. We have a ‘news’ media that have surprisingly little interest in the news, but rather are interested in gossip, slander and building mistrust, division and grief. Our educational establishments teach atheism and have lead the current and next generation into moral darkness. Truth no longer seems to be valued, in fact often those who speak truth can lose employment or reputation. How do we respond, as Christians to such a mess?
Karl Marx famously stated that religion is the ‘opium of the people.’ A context of Marx’s statement is as follows: Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. What Marx seems to be saying is that religion is akin to a medicament that insulates the religious from reality, creating an illusion of happiness in a world in which there is no happiness (Marx presumably believed that his political philosophy was the real route to happiness – a belief that history has demonstrated to be optimistic in the extreme).
Is it fair to characterize religion in general and Christianity in particular as a means to anaesthetise our problems away? I believe that Psalm 31 confronts the reality of a broken world and its impact on the individual – no anaesthetic is offered, but more importantly a viable solution is offered, an ultimate solution to living and dying in this world.
There is one key phrase in Psalm 31 that is quoted six times by Jeremiah. The phrase is ‘terror on every side.’ Jeremiah uses this phrase to describe the horror facing nations, Egypt, Edom, Judah and Jerusalem. Whilst Jeremiah was describing impending divine judgment, the picture nonetheless seems appropriate to our times. We do indeed seem to face terror on every side (as well as an impending divine judgment). David was in a similar position: his family, his people and many of his friends had turned against him, he was a hunted man: there was indeed terror on every side. Likewise, the Lord Jesus Christ faced terror on every side, his people had rejected him, his disciples had deserted him, he faced death and the burden of the sin of the world. This is the situation that this Psalm speaks to. It does not offer a draught of opium or a mind technique or an easy remedy, but it offers the only viable solution that this world can ever know.
2 two ways
Jonah wanted God to do what he wanted: he wanted a wicked people to be punished, but God wanted to offer them forgiveness! And Jonah was to be the man to preach the message to the wicked people of Nineveh! He foolishly tried to run away from God and found himself at the mercy of the stomach of a whale! Now that’s a nasty reality to face! How did Jonah face that reality? He quoted Psalm 31! Verse 6 of this Psalm says ‘6 I hate those who cling to worthless idols; as for me, I trust in the Lord.’ Whilst in the belly of the whale he said ‘Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them….I will say salvation comes from the Lord!’ The first statement is a negative statement about idols. Both David and Jonah are saying that when the chips are down, don’t expect idols to rescue you from the terror that is on every side. We can all heartily agree with that can we not. The trouble is that whilst few, if any of us have a collection of idols on our mantlepiece, we sadly have other ‘idols’ to which we cling. I think a broad bible definition of idol is anything other than God in which we place our trust. What’s your idol? In our 21st century British society it’s likely to involve money and the security that money brings. Is your pension, your house or your possessions your idol? I have saved for almost 40 years into a pension, in fact I have several pensions associated with the companies I have worked for over the years. I can look forward to retiring and deriving the benefits of saving over the years, but a change in the financial climate, a crash in the stock market and much of the value of 40 years saving could be wiped out in a few days. We must not trust in idols – they will let us down, they were no use to Jonah in the whale, they were no use to David on the run and they were no use to Jesus as he hung on the cross. Facing terror on every side? Don’t expect idols to be of any value.
3 hope and refuge
In what or in whom can we have real hope as we face the terrors on all sides? Both Jesus and Stephen (the man who was stoned to death for declaring that Israel had committed the ultimate failure in rejecting the Lord Jesus) quoted Psalm 31 before death. The gospels record that Jesus spoke no fewer than 7 times whilst dying on the cross. His final words were from Psalm 31: ‘Into your hands I commit my spirit.’ Luke records the event in chapter 23 of his gospel thus: 44 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, 45 for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last. When Stephen was being stoned to death by the same people who forced Jesus to the cross, he said ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. (Acts 7: 59).
What is this telling us? Surely this, that when there is terror on every side, terror that brings the end of life, we can commit our lives and our spirit into the hands of the God of the Universe. We must all one day reach the end of life for these physical bodies – that event somewhat concentrates the mind, idols, wealth whatever are of no value, but to be able to commit our spirit to God gives us all the certainty and hope that we could ever need.
It’s not unreasonable to say however that we don’t face death every day – there are more mundane (and some not so mundane) issues that we deal with in our lives. David describes the reality of some of these experiences in verses 9 to 13. His days were characterized by distress, sorrow, grief, anguish, groaning, affliction, weakness, and dread. That is quite a list! Most of us are not about to die, but all of us have difficult days to face, days that sometimes are absolutely fine and others that feel as though hope has gone. Does David have anything to say to us under these circumstances? He most certainly does and in some ways the Psalm begins and ends with David’s message to us for each day of our lives. In the first 4 verses he describes the Lord as a refuge, one who delivers, a fortress, a rock, one who rescues, and one who saves. Whatever life throws at us, we have one who is with us and who has an interest in our wellbeing. Interestingly David says in verse 15, that ‘my times are in your hands.’ On the face of it, this rather sounds as though God decides everything and we must just accept whatever has been set out for us. But David makes this statement in the context of a series of requests: deliver me from the hands of my enemies (verse 15), save me in your unfailing love (verse 16), Let me not be put to shame (verse 17). Rather than David accepting that he could do nothing about his circumstances because his life was in God’s hands, David recognizes that because his life is in God’s hands, that he can pray to God to bring about good things! There is power in prayer! Note however that David’s requests are a model for us – he did not pray for an easy life and a lottery win!
Finally, if God is to be our refuge we can take courage and strength from this. David closes the Psalm with this: Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord. Whether we are facing day-to-day trials or whether we are facing the end of life, we can be strong because of the one in whom we place our trust. This is no opium to anaesthetise our woes, but rather a sustaining and enhancing connection to the ultimate author of light and life.