The Blessing of Judgment
As most of you know, every summer we make our way through the book of Psalms. It’s one of my favorite periods of the year, for reasons that may be surprising.
Anyone who knows me knows I love theology. Theology, literally, means “words about God”; it’s taking what the Bible says about God, and his character, and how he works, and explaining those things. Because we’re dealing with God—a transcendent being—by nature, a lot of theology can be fairly complex. It’s fun, it’s challenging, it’s intellectually stimulating.
But the risk for people like me, and many of you—people who love theology—is that we spend all our time in the stratosphere. We spend all of our time thinking about, and talking about, big ideas; but those big ideas rarely hit the ground in any way that’s applicable to our lives.
In other words, we run the risk of becoming great Christian thinkers, while all the while being very poor Christians.
And the Psalms don’t let us do that.
The Psalms don’t give us a lot of complex theology. The Psalms are much more concerned with what happens when ordinary human beings, living in messy situations, meet the transcendent God of all things.
In other words, the Psalms do not allow us to stay up on our theological high horses; they get down to the dirty details of life, and they show us how God meets us in these details, and they require us to respond to him there.
And in today’s psalm, Psalm 94, the dirty detail in question is the original dirty detail—our rebellion against God, our moral corruption, or as the Bible calls it, sin.
This psalm is going to tell us how the God of the universe responds to our rebellion against him, our corruption, our fallen human nature. And the way God responds to our sin is unsettling for many of us.
The psalmist introduces his psalm in verses 1-2, in which he gives us an idea of the general theme:
1 O Lord, God of vengeance,
O God of vengeance, shine forth!
2 Rise up, O judge of the earth;
repay to the proud what they deserve!
So he’s not pulling any punches. God is a God who punishes sin, who judges the earth, who gives those who are so proud as to think they’re “good enough” exactly what they deserve. When we talk about God’s justice and judgment, we’re talking about his love for good and his hatred of sin.
After that harsh fact, the psalmist is going to talk about how that judgment works. And he’s going to structure his psalm in an interesting way. He begins and ends by speaking about what God’s judgment looks like when it’s pointed at those who reject him. He talks about this in v. 3-11, and in v. 20-23, giving us a set of bookends for his psalm.
And in between those bookends, he turns it around, and speaks about what God’s justice looks like when it’s point at his own people, in v. 12-19.
So let’s look at the bookends first—what God’s hatred of sin looks like when it’s pointed at those who reject him.
Sinners: Boastfully Wicked & Foolish (v. 3-11, 20-23)
Before getting to God’s judgment itself, he’s going to talk about why those who reject God—whom the Bible calls “the wicked,” or “sinners”—actually deserve his judgment.
Sinners are boastfully wicked
3 O Lord, how long shall the wicked,
how long shall the wicked exult?
4 They pour out their arrogant words;
all the evildoers boast.
5 They crush your people, O Lord,
and afflict your heritage.
6 They kill the widow and the sojourner,
and murder the fatherless;
7 and they say, “The Lord does not see;
the God of Jacob does not perceive.”
So if you’ve ever wondered why God’s judgment against sin is a good thing, you don’t need to look any further than here.
Sinners, the psalmist says, are boastfully wicked. They are arrogant; they are cruel; they kill those who can’t defend themselves, and they think they can get away with it, because God doesn’t exist and so he won’t see it.
When you put it that way, it’s easy to see why judgment is a good thing. We all hate arrogant people. We all hate those who exploit and abuse the weak and defenseless. We all get angry when we hear of people acting this way.
And that’s a good thing. That’s the right reaction.
The problem is that naturally, we are all that way; we are the “wicked” in these verses.
Oh, we may not have killed anyone, but the psalmist isn’t talking only about murder. He’s using murder as a stereotype of the extreme. Murder doesn’t just happen; murder is the offshoot of something corrupt in the heart, taken to its extreme. He’s talking about all sin here.
God loves righteousness; he hates wickedness. And because he loves righteousness so much, he must punish wickedness. His judgment against sin is actually proof of his love of everything
that is truly good—that’s why it’s objectively a good thing. Subjectively we don’t like his judgment, because it’s pointed at us; but objectively, his judgment is wonderful, because it proves his love of all that is good.
So sinners are boastfully wicked; and next, the psalmist says, they are simply foolish.
Sinners are foolish
8 Understand, O dullest of the people!
Fools, when will you be wise?
9 He who planted the ear, does he not hear?
He who formed the eye, does he not see?
10 He who disciplines the nations, does he not rebuke?
He who teaches man knowledge—
11 the Lord—knows the thoughts of man,
that they are but a breath.
We don’t often think of it in those terms, but we need to know it: sin makes us stupid.
Remember how Paul described sinners to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3.6-7? He says that sinners are burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.
Sin makes us stupid.
So can you see what the psalmist is doing in these verses? He’s talking to us like we’re children. And not just children, but little children, trying to play hide-and-seek by simply covering their own eyes. “Do you really think I can’t see you just because you can’t see me?”
It’s fun to play that game when a kid is one or two; it’d be a lot less charming if the child was thirteen, still convinced that if he just closes his eyes, he’d become invisible.
So the psalmist crouches down in front of the stupid kids we are and says, “Do you really think that because you can’t see God, he can’t see you? that just because you can’t hear God, he can’t hear you? He created sight. He created hearing. He sees everything, he hears everything. And he created knowledge. God doesn’t just see what you do—he sees what you’re thinking.
Now of course we know that; but strangely, no matter how well we know that, every time we want to sin, we sit down like a little child, cover our eyes with our hands and go, “You can’t see me!”
And the psalmist just can’t believe it. Like, how stupid can you be? “You’ve got God watching you; do you really think you’re going to get away with anything? Of course not, you fool!”
God sees sin, in action, in desire, and in motivation—and that is bad for us, because God hates and judges sin.
Go down to v. 20.
Certain judgment for sinners
20 Can wicked rulers be allied with you,
those who frame injustice by statute?
21 They band together against the life of the righteous
and condemn the innocent to death.
22 But the Lord has become my stronghold,
and my God the rock of my refuge.
23 He will bring back on them their iniquity
and wipe them out for their wickedness;
the Lord our God will wipe them out.
In other words, he says in v. 20, there is no way that the wicked can stand with God. Those who persist in rejecting God cannot expect him to be their ally.
The New Testament gives an open invitation to anyone to repent of their sins and come to God, no matter how far from him we have strayed; but unfortunately, because it’s a question of our heart and our desires (and not just our behavior,) many people will continue to reject God until the end.
And if we do persist in rejecting God, the Bible is clear: God will punish us for our rejection of him; he will punish us for our wickedness. And he will be absolutely right to do so, because he is a loving God—he loves what is good and hates what is evil. He has the right and authority to punish that which is abhorrent, and it is a good thing that he responds to evil so strongly.
The question is, will we be on the receiving end of that judgment? Or will we take the means he has given us to escape it?
Or to put it another way: what happens when God takes his hatred of sin, and directs it toward his people?
God’s Children: Discipline & Protection (v. 12-19)
The answer is Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ came to earth, fully God and fully man. He lived the perfect life God commanded us all to live. He took the sins of all of his children on himself, and voluntarily let himself be punished in our place, for our sin.
Christians talk about forgiveness a lot, and we assume that when God forgives us of our sin, that means he chooses not to punish our sin. But that’s not true at all. He does punish our sin, in the person of Christ.
So it’s not that God doesn’t punish sin; it’s that he doesn’t punish sin twice.
If he punished Christ for our sins, he won’t punish us for the same sin again. God is just; and if sin is punished, it is punished, once and for all. It’s done. It’s finished. That is his grace to us.
But here’s the thing… Even if Christ has been punished for our sins, and we have been declared righteous in him, justified by faith in him…we still sin, every day. We still have thoughts and motivations and behaviors which dishonor God. Jesus was punished for those sins before they happened…but they still happen.
So what else—besides Jesus—does God’s hatred of sin produce when he directs it toward us, his children, who have placed our faith in Christ?
The psalmist’s answers to that question are surprising.
The psalmist describes three distinct ways in which God directs his love for justice toward his people.
First: when God directs his love for justice toward his people, he disciplines them, to teach them to love justice as well.
12 Blessed is the man whom you discipline, O Lord,
and whom you teach out of your law,
13 to give him rest from days of trouble,
until a pit is dug for the wicked.
So here’s what he’s getting at. The Bible is very clear that if we have faith in Christ, that faith will change the way that we live. God will continually bring us to repentance. He will teach us to love what he loves and hate what he hates. He will make us like him.
But many Christians make the mistake of thinking that this change in our lives—the transformation of our desires and our loves and our thoughts and our acts—is something that will just happen. That since God is the one changing us, we just need to wait for him to “do his thing” in us, and then we’ll obey.
And in the meantime, we just keep on living the way we always lived, enjoying the sins we’ve always enjoyed, and we excuse our sin, saying, “God just hasn’t done that work in me yet.”
I’m sorry, but that is one of the greatest cop-outs ever to see the light of day.
The Bible gives us the will of God, gives us God’s commandments on how we are to live our lives, and it calls us to obey those commandments. Yes, God will change us, to enable us to do that (cf. Ezekiel 36.26-27), but God changes us in a vast variety of ways.
In other words, the psalmist says, God doesn’t just snap his fingers and make us into perfectly obedient Christians. He teaches us to be like him.
When you have children, you have an idea in mind of the kind of person you want those kids to grow up to be. For example, you want them to develop a certain work ethic when they’re adults. Now, of course you know that your five-year-old won’t have the wherewithal to see the value in a healthy work ethic. He won’t understand that until he’s older.
But does that mean you’re going to wait until his eighteenth birthday to start teaching him about work? Of course not. While he’s young—especially while he’s young—you’re going to start giving him chores, things to do, to teach him the value of work over time. You’ll discipline him with love when he does it poorly, and you’ll encourage him when he tries to do it well.
Brothers and sisters, God does not make us perfect before giving us commands and expecting us to obey them. Those of you who are waiting to obey until you feel “able” to obey are going to be waiting forever. He gives us commands, and expects us to obey them, now. He walks with us in our imperfect obedience, watching us fumble and stumble as we try to be like him, lovingly disciplining us when we fail, and lovingly encouraging us when we make our baby steps towards holiness.
God hates sin, and loves justice; and because he loves his people, he shapes us into his image, and teaches us to obey him.
We see this even better in v. 14-15:
14 For the Lord will not forsake his people;
he will not abandon his heritage;
15 for justice will return to the righteous,
and all the upright in heart will follow it.
It’s really important to see the way this works—God is not faithful to his people because they are obedient; he isn’t faithful to his people because they are just or upright in heart.
The obedience of God’s people, their upright hearts, are proof of God’s faithfulness.
When my son was little, he fell in love with Legos. He’s great at them now, but at the beginning he could barely get two pieces to stick together. So I would do it with him. I’d tell him what to do, I’d put my hands over his hands and guide the pieces where they needed to go. And then when we were finished, he’d run up to Loanne and say, “Mommy, look what I did!”
The nerve! He didn’t put those Lego sets together; I put them together, with his hands.
Whether we realize it or not, this is what happens when we live in obedience to God. It feels like we’re doing everything; it feels like we’re the ones fighting, like we’re the ones resisting temptation. But all the while, behind the scenes, the Holy Spirit is pushing us, shaping us, giving us new desires, to produce that obedience.
If we are righteous, it is not because we are good people. If we manage to live in obedience to God, it is because God has not abandoned us.
Secondly, when God directs his love of justice toward his people, he protects them.
He protects us from enemies (v. 16):
16 Who rises up for me against the wicked?
Who stands up for me against evildoers?
17 If the Lord had not been my help,
my soul would soon have lived in the land of silence.
Just like we saw a couple weeks ago: for God’s people, no threat can come against us which can do us any ultimate harm. The worst they can do is kill us—after which, we get to enjoy an eternity of joy in his presence. No enemy, no evildoer, no wicked person, can pose any real threat to the child of God, in any ultimate way.
He protects us from unjust danger (v. 18):
18 When I thought, “My foot slips,”
your steadfast love, O Lord, held me up.
If you’ve ever been hiking, you know this feeling. The ground is on an incline, and there are pebbles under your feet; your feet slip on the rocks and there seems to be no way to get any purchase.
That’s the image here: danger or pain that seems to come from nowhere. There’s no persecution here; this isn’t a consequence of your sin or anyone else’s. It’s just something that happened, and it hurts.
If you’ve ever heard that God will absolutely protect us from every unseen or senseless pain, I’m sorry to disappoint you—the Bible never makes that kind of promise. The psalmist never promises that our feet won’t slip; he promises that when we feel our feet slipping, God grabs us. His love holds us up. He keeps us from being crushed by the danger threatening us.
Finally, he protects his people from having to carry their own worries (v. 19):
19 When the cares of my heart are many,
your consolations cheer my soul.
I love this verse. The psalmist is honest enough to not pretend that he has no worries. He even admits that the cares of his heart are many.
But at this point, God does something surprising: he consoles him.
It doesn’t seem like a very “Godlike” thing to do. A doting mother consoles, not an all-powerful judge.
But this judge understands what it is to bear the worries of life; this is part of the reason why Jesus Christ became a man. He experienced what we experience; he felt what we feel. So he is sympathetic to our worries, and consoles us.
He reminds us of what is actually true—that we belong to him; that our work does not determine our identity; that nothing comes to us that do not first pass through his hands; and that because we belong to him, he causes all things to work for our good.
That’s what God does; but the psalmist does something too, something that many Christians neglect to do—he listens to God’s consolation.
This is nothing new. It’s not some hidden gem that you need a seminary degree to decypher. The Bible is filled to the brim with encouragements and consolations from God. The difference here is that the psalmist actually listens to those consolations.
He doesn’t wait for his circumstances—all those things that are worrying him—to change. Rather, when the cares of his heart are many, when he is worried sick, he listens to what God says is true, and places more stock in those consolations than in his own worries.
So we have two possible scenarios.
For those who reject him, God’s love of justice will produce judgment and certain punishment for their sin (the bookends of v. 1-11, 20-23); for his people, God’s love of justice produces discipline, and obedience, and protection (the middle section, v. 12-18). That’s how the psalmist structures his psalm.
But while it’s useful to divide the psalm in this way, it could be risky to try to divide ourselves along those same lines.
What I mean is, it’s dangerous to say, “I need to pay attention to verses 12-18, because those verses are speaking about God’s people, and I’m a Christian. Verses 1-11 and 20-23 are about God’s judgment against unbelievers, so they don’t apply to me.”
The reality is that the application of this entire psalm is the same for believers and unbelievers alike.
What have we seen?
God hates sin and loves righteousness. So the only hope any of us have is to give our sin to Christ, clothe ourselves in his righteousness, and put our sin to death through faith in him. If we do not, we are under his judgment; if we do, we are taught and protected and consoled.
That means we are called to repent of our sin daily, to remind ourselves daily of the truth of the gospel, and put our sin to death daily through faith in Christ.
I tremble when I preach this kind of sermon. Because the reality is, every man, woman, boy and girl will one day stand before God and give an account. And my job is the help prepare you for that day, that it might be a wonderful day, and not a terrible day.
So I’ll be honest, when I was preparing this sermon I was tempted, at this point, to simply say, If you are God’s people, then ACT like God’s people.
I’m not naïve. I know the reality that many Christians, and many Christians in this church, keep on indulging in the same sins they’ve always indulged in, and simply don’t care. They feel nothing except perhaps a mild disappointment that they’ve screwed up yet again.
(And to be clear, I’m not talking about those Christians who struggle with sin—we all struggle with sin. I’m talking about those who don’t struggle: who call themselves Christians and then barely lift a finger to put their sin to death. You know who you are.)
I can tell you that if you persist in such an attitude you’re in danger of proving that your faith is a fiction. I can tell you that if you persist in such a lifestyle, you are in danger of suffering the judgment the psalmist promises to unbelievers. I can tell you that until I’m blue in the face (and I just did).
But it’s not enough to tell you that. You know that already; you’ve heard that before. And it hasn’t worked.
The simple truth is that threats of judgment are not enough. Sam Storms spoke at the conference I attended this week in Florida. And he mentioned that he was concerned that the tools we are using to arm ourselves against sin are woefully inadequate. If your only weapon against sin is the fear of consequence, the fear of judgment, the devil will eat you alive—you simply will not be able to stand if that’s all you have.
And that is why God couples his threats of judgment with promises of care. God created us. He knows better than we do that if we want to fight sinful desires, we need better, holy desires to come and take their place.
So with his very real threats of judgment, God promises to take his hatred of sin, and his judgment of sin, and to put that hatred of sin to work for his people. God doesn’t just say, “I hate sin, and you should too, so get on with it and live better.”
No—God says, “I hate sin, and I love righteousness, and you should too. But I know you don’t. So I will show you what hatred of sin looks like. I will send my Son to be punished instead of you, and I will apply the supreme sacrifice of my Son to your life, so that I might spare you.”
Do you see the difference?
How good is God, to use his hatred of sin to kill our sin, rather than killing us? How good is God, to hate sin so much that he would rather give his own Son to suffer the consequences of sin, rather than punish the children he loves!
In light of that reality, you and I are called to repent of our sin daily, to remind ourselves daily of how good God is, and how he has proven his love for us in the gospel, and to put our sin to death daily through faith in Christ.
And if you are an unbeliever, God gives these threats of judgment and these promises of care for exactly the same reason. He wants you to know how serious it is to reject him, how dangerous it is to persist in willful rebellion against him; and he wants you to long for the benefits of belonging to him. He wants you to understand that he teaches us out of his law (v. 13) to give [us] rest from days of trouble.
In short, he wants you to see how dreadful life is without him, and how gloriously wonderful life is with him.
So no matter who you are today, or what you are going through, the message of this psalm is the same for you all.
God hates sin and loves righteousness. And the only hope any of us have is to give our sin to Christ, clothe ourselves in his righteousness, and put our sin to death through faith in him. If we do not, we are under his judgment; if we do, we are taught and protected and consoled.
So repent of your sin; give it to Christ. Put on the righteousness of Christ, which he gave you. And put your sin to death through faith in him, by the power of his Holy Spirit.
Know that if we are his people, the Lord will not forsake us; he will not abandon his heritage; for justice will return to the righteous, and the upright in heart will follow it.