This sermon is part of the sermon series "Really?". See series.
A few years ago I got an unexpected phone call from an old college friend. She had given up a promising medical career to get married, put her husband through medical school, and help start his practice. But he left her and their kids for a young secretary at the practice. Their large evangelical church did nothing about it. They wanted to make sinners—including her former husband and his new wife—feel welcome.
Recently our newspapers have been filled with stories about a man who should have died in prison, but because he received tax-funded medical care in prison, he outlived what was meant to be a death sentence.
From the 1970s until 1986, half of all hemophiliacs in the United States became infected with HIV through the use of a contaminated blood supply. The worldwide number of those infected in this way is still unknown, though some estimate it is in the tens of thousands. The companies responsible knew that there was a problem as early as 1982. Lawsuits continue to this day, but that doesn't bring dead people back to life.
From personal tragedy to national and global scandals, many people assume that there is no justice in the world. They point to this as proof that there is no God, at least no God worth trusting. Does the lack of human justice really prove that there is no God, or does it point out our need for God?
O God, the nations have invaded your inheritance;
they have defiled your holy temple,
they have reduced Jerusalem to rubble.
They have left the dead bodies of your servants
as food for the birds of the sky,
the flesh of your own people for the animals of the wild.
They have poured out blood like water
all around Jerusalem,
and there is no one to bury the dead.
We are objects of contempt to our neighbors,
of scorn and derision to those around us.
How long, LORD? Will you be angry forever?
How long will your jealousy burn like fire?
Pour out your wrath on the nations
that do not acknowledge you,
on the kingdoms
that do not call on your name;
for they have devoured Jacob
and devastated his homeland.
Do not hold against us the sins of past generations;
may your mercy come quickly to meet us,
for we are in desperate need.
Help us, God our Savior,
for the glory of your name;
deliver us and forgive our sins
for your name's sake.
Why should the nations say,
"Where is their God?"
Before our eyes, make known among the nations
that you avenge the outpoured blood of your servants.
May the groans of the prisoners come before you;
with your strong arm preserve those condemned to die.
Pay back into the laps of our neighbors seven times
the contempt they have hurled at you, Lord.
Then we your people, the sheep of your pasture,
will praise you forever;
from generation to generation
we will proclaim your praise.
This psalm is a corporate lament. It is spoken by the whole community, though authored by one man. It's an outpouring of grief, a lament after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C., dealing with real and difficult emotions. As we study it, think about the injustice that you've experienced or witnessed. What would it mean to you if God responded to this injustice?
The psalm contains three sections. First, in verses 1 through 4, we're confronted with the crime of Israel's enemies. Then verses 5 through 12, the main body of the psalm, tell us about our need. Finally, in verse 13, the psalmist proclaims God's praise.
The opening verses of this psalm are harrowing. They describe a city that has been reduced to rubble. Dead bodies are laying everywhere, and the vultures and scavengers are pecking and gnawing away at these dead human bodies. Gutters are running with blood.
There is a stench is awful. The wounded groan and call for help, but no one comes. Mothers hysterically cry for lost children. People wail over the dead. Inevitably the children are alone, bereft of parents, screaming in terror.
This would be a scene of great tragedy if it were just the result of a natural disaster, but an earthquake didn't do this; people did. This was caused by the Babylonian army, which was feared throughout the ancient Near East for its ruthless cruelty. Total war was not established in the world wars of the 20th century. It has been around for a long time, and this is what the psalmist describes.
When this psalm was written, enough time had passed since the city fell that outsiders had come to see what happened. But they're not Doctors without Borders. They're not the UN peacekeepers. They're gawkers, war tourists from surrounding nations that used to pay tribute to Israel. They haven't come to help. They've come to gloat and laugh at Jerusalem's fall, to scorn the misery of the dead and dying.
Civilian casualties may be the consequence of war, but that doesn't make them just. And in this case, civilian casualties were deliberate, not accidental. Even dead enemies deserve burial because they're human. Even the justly defeated deserve pity, not scorn. But the greatest injustice wasn't against Israel. According to the psalmist, the greatest injustice was against God. His temple was defiled and his inheritance was invaded.
The psalmist is unsparing in his description of this injustice. But notice that his complaint isn't addressed to the government, to the police, or to his lawyer. His complaint is directed against God. The world belongs to God. So when injustice is inflicted in his world, it's an affront to him. We feel injustice because God made a moral universe. He gave us standards of right and wrong. He is sovereign, and when injustice happens, it happens on his watch. Human injustice is always an affront to God, long before it is an affront to us. This is why we should address our complaint to him.
Faith acknowledges injustice. It doesn't try to protect God from it. There's an evangelical movement known as Open Theology. It's an attempt to rescue God from the problem of human injustice. Those who believe in the openness of God say, "God would have prevented injustice if he knew the future. He must not have known it was going to happen, so he couldn't prevent it." But there's little faith in that position. God is sovereign, and this is his world. We shouldn't try to protect God from the problem of human injustice because we recognize that we live in a fallen world filled with fallen people.
People are the problem. People are the reason we experience injustice. People either perpetrate evil, or they fail to prevent it. Christians understand that people do evil things because of sin and rebellion against God.
How do non-Christians explain injustice? Christians explain it by pointing to people in rebellion against God. If people are basically good, where does injustice come from? If it's environment, a problem of education and deprivation, why are the biggest crimes usually committed by the most educated and privileged. There are obviously many crimes in the ghetto, but the atrocities that end with international war crimes trial come from people who have the most privilege, the most education, and the most opportunity. This is why I think human injustice demands God's existence.
Turning from the crime, the psalmist focuses on our need. The psalmist begins verse 5 with a question: "How long, O Lord?" In this question, he fundamentally captures our experience of injustice. Injustice needs an answer from someone who is responsible, from someone who can give an answer. But it's not just one question. There are three ways the psalmist articulates this need. The first need is the most obvious: the need for justice to be served. That's the burden of the opening question in verses 5 through 7. The psalmist asks how long this injustice will go unanswered. In verse 6 he bluntly asks for God to visit justice on those who have committed this crime. He doesn't just make a passionate request like a lawyer does before a judge. The psalmist is aggravated.
Despite their own sin and guilt, Israel calls on God. Israel acknowledges that there is a God. But as the psalmist points out in verses 6 through 7, those who don't recognize God are getting away with murder. Verses 6 through 7 are almost identical to Jeremiah 10:25. Jeremiah was the prophet who witnessed the fall of Jerusalem. These words are chilling: "Pour out your wrath on the nations that do not acknowledge you, on the kingdoms that do not call on your name." This is a prayer for God's retributive justice.
In the modern West, we don't think about justice that way. Many of us are used to thinking of justice differently. We send people to prison, but one of the goals of prison is to rehabilitate and reform prisoners. Justice, therefore, is rehabilitative. When a judge pronounces a sentence, nobody thinks that this is precisely the sentence that the crime deserves. Rather, in our juris prudence and legal system, it is the sentence that we feel is reasonable to impose: an administrative justice.
But that's not how the psalmist prays. That's not how he thinks about justice. He asks for judgment, for God's wrath. He uses similar language in verse 12. He wants Israel's enemies to be paid back. God's justice is not rehabilitative. God's justice is not administrative. God's justice is just, in the most absolute sense of the word. It always fits the crime—never more, never less. God's justice is retributive, and that's a terrifying thing to consider. Since every injustice is an affront to an eternal and holy God, not just an affront to man, the Babylonians deserved—just like every sin deserves—God's wrath.
How do you view your relationship to God on the last day? Give up the folly of thinking that you've been good enough, that the scales of justice are somehow going to balance, that God's going to weigh your good deeds and your bad deeds, and that one is going to outweigh the other, and that he will let you into heaven. A single offense against an eternally and infinitely holy God deserves a judgment that will take eternity to repay. And who of us has committed only one offense? I've lost count of the number of offenses I've committed against God. How many eternities will it take for us to begin to pay back God? The way to God is not through our meeting his standards of justice.
"Pour out your wrath," is a prayer. Can we pray that prayer? Is this a Christian psalm? It's certainly a Jewish psalm, since it's in the Old Testament. But can Christians pray for God's justice? Aren't we supposed to love and forgive our enemies? Yes, we are commanded by Christ to love our enemies, to pray for their forgiveness. But we do so not because the God of the New Testament doesn't judge, but because the God of the New Testament is precisely the same as that of the Old Testament. God is Judge. So we pray for their forgiveness, and we forgive because we know we are not the judge. Christians give up the right to vengeance. We forgive because we have been forgiven. But who wants to live forever in a world characterized by injustice? If you do, you haven't lived long enough. No, we want the wrongs set right. Christians should pray that God would set the wrongs right, because we know that only he can.
As a Christian, I want to forgive those who have sinned against me, because I myself have been forgiven and am not the judge. Paul says in Romans, "Leave room for the vengeance of God" (12:19). But as Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote from that Birmingham jail, "Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly." We don't live by ourselves; we live in a world that God made. Injustice against others demands that we work for human justice now. We should get involved—locally, nationally, and internationally—to promote human justice in the best way possible. That brings glory to God. But ultimately, we know that those efforts will not transform the world. God alone can do that. So we pray for God's judgment day, when God as Judge sits down in his courtroom and holds the entire world accountable and sets all things right. Every wrong will be answered, and every crime will be repaid. We long for that because we're made in God's image.
Not only do we long for justice to be served; we need mercy. The opening question in verse 5 speaks of Israel's unfaithfulness to God, which provoked his righteous jealousy. That's why God ordained the Babylonian invasion in the first place. Even as the psalmist prays for justice, he prays for mercy for God's people. Psalm 78 describes the sins of the fathers, 500 years worth of sin and unfaithfulness. By the time Psalm 79 is written, almost another 500 years have passed. The psalmist is describing nearly a millennium of sin against God.
How, then, can the psalmist pray for judgment on Israel's enemies but forgiveness for Israel? Verse 9 explains: "Deliver us and forgive our sins for your name's sake." From the very beginning of the biblical story, God is determined to have a people for himself, a people in a relationship of love and joy with him, who worship him. How can a holy God live with an unholy people? God provided sacrifices for the sins of his people that would satisfy his justice and allow him to show them mercy.
In the Old Testament, that sacrifice took the form of sheep and goats. If Israelites sinned, they sacrificed an animal. God would accept that animal as a substitute for their sin. The psalmist is counting on God's remembering his covenant, keeping his word. That's why he appeals to God's glory. He appeals to the reputation of God's name: "God, you promised to forgive; not because we deserve it but because you provided the sacrifice, you provided the substitute. O God, don't forget."
But even in the Old Testament, everyone knew that animals could not pay the penalty that human sin deserves. Thus, God sends the Babylonian invasion. They longed for the day when God would send the Messiah, the Savior, the one who would finally and fully deliver them from their sin and the problem of injustice. That Messiah is Jesus Christ. Jesus came to earth and he lived a just and righteous life, one without sin. And then Jesus, the perfect Lamb of God, offered his life as a substitute for sinners. His sacrificial death took on the punishment that we deserved.
In the Old Testament, people would lay their hands on the animal before it was sacrificed. This symbolized that the animal bore the sins of the person. In the New Testament, we are called to identify with Jesus in a similar way. We don't do this by physically laying hands on him. We do this by turning away from our sin in repentance and laying hold of Christ by faith, trusting that he represented us on the Cross. We die on the Cross. That is what we deserve, and Jesus took it for us. Faith is trusting in Christ's death for us. This is how God can be simultaneously just and merciful.
Paul says in Romans 3:23, "God presented him, that is Jesus, as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, so as to be just, and the one who justifies those who have faith in him." This is the good news of the gospel: the Cross satisfies God's justice, fully and completely. The entire criminal rap sheet against us is paid for. Our sins were paid for as God's wrath was poured out on Jesus. When we ask for mercy, like the psalmist, we're not telling God to turn his head and hope that he doesn't notice, thinking it's not a big deal. No, the Father looks at Jesus. He doesn't turn a blind eye. He looks fully at Jesus and what he accomplished for us. Our injustice is paid for. The sentence has been served. There is nothing left to be done. We are dependent upon Christ. The gospel is not a denial of justice, but an affirmation of its perfection. We can have a place in the new world that God has created.
If you're not a Christian, please consider what I just explained. Give up your hope that somehow you're going to be good enough, and realize that you've been given something far better in Christ. He gave himself for you. Put your trust in him.
Are you more concerned about your own guilt or the guilt of those who have sinned against you? What makes you angrier: your own sin or the ways that people have sinned against you? Jesus said, "The hypocrite is concerned with the speck in someone else's eye. But repentant sinners are most concerned with the plank in their own eye" (Matt. 7:3-5).
This is also the motivation for forgiving others, one of the hardest things we do. People sin against us, and it's not make-believe, it's not pretend. It hurts. How do we forgive when we want to get angry and bring judgment down on the person that has hurt us. The way we begin to forgive is by giving up the right to judge. The anger of vengeance is my claiming for myself the right to be the judge and jury over sin. As I begin to give that up and realize justice is God's prerogative, I can trust him to account for things correctly, and I can begin to respond differently because I see how much I have been forgiven. Then I can extend pity and forgiveness to those who have sinned against me. I can stop trusting myself to execute justice, leave justice to God, and leave it relatively to the other authorities that God puts in place, whether in the home or in the church or in the state. And can we forgive because we have been forgiven by God.
The double experience of trusting God for justice and forgiveness leads to the third need that the psalmist focuses on: vindication. Verses 10 through 12 say,
Why should the nations say, "Where is their God?" Before our eyes, make known among the nations that you avenge the outpoured blood of your servants. May the groans of the prisoners come before you; by the strength of your arm preserve those condemned to die. Pay back into the laps of our neighbors seven times the reproach they have hurled at you, Lord.
Victims of injustice long for vindication. That's universal. They long to be declared innocent, to be declared in the right. But that's not exactly what's going on here. What the psalmist longs for is what the Christian should long for: God's vindication. What we want to be vindicated most is our faith and trust in him. That's the point of the question in verse 10. Why should the world look at all of this injustice and wonder whether or not there's a God? The psalmist does not ask for revenge, but for a public vindication. Note a little transformation that's gone on. In verse 4 he says, "We are objects of reproach to our neighbors, of scorn and derision to those around us." But by verse 12, he understands that the reproach has actually been hurled against the Lord. It's a reproach that cannot stand with his glory, one that must be answered fully. That's the point of the sevenfold language there. It's the image of a complete answer, a thorough answer to the reproach against God.
Christian, this is our hope, not that we will be proved right, but that God will. Not that we will be vindicated as innocent, but that God will be vindicated of every charge of unbelief hurled at him. On the last day, our hope in Christ will be seen publicly, and it will be proved worthwhile. On that day, every sin, every wrong, every injustice, will be accounted for, either through the Cross or through the judgment of the wicked, so that God will be vindicated and glorified in all things. We will see the salvation of sinners and the damnation of the ungodly. It will all boil down to his glory. We should long for that day. Do you have that kind of zeal?
I was talking to somebody earlier this week, and he noted that in our community, we are looked down on as a church, even pitied. In a highly progressive city on the forefront and the cutting edge of all sorts of public justice measures, people look at a church like this and think, There is nothing of any account going on there. Don't be offended that the world thinks little of us. Be offended that the world thinks little of God, and for that reason thinks little of his people. Let's pray that God would even now vindicate our faith in him. Let us pray that God would stir up in us a zeal, not for our greater respect in the community, but a zeal for his greater respect in the community, for his glory, for his vindication. Let's pray that God would be seen publicly, to be great in our midst, great in mercy, great in power as he rescues sinners, as he transforms lives. There may be many days when we feel like those prisoners in verse 11. So let's also pray for one another, that God would strengthen us and preserve our faith.
All of this leads finally to the great irony of the psalm, a conclusion in God's praise. Verse 13 says, "Then we your people, the sheep of your pasture, will praise you forever. From generation to generation, we will recount your praise." The NIV makes it sound like the psalmist is cutting a deal with God: God, if you'll pay them back then we'll praise you, but if you don't pay them back, we probably won't.
But that's not what it says. I'm not sure why they translated the word "then." That word should probably be translated "and," or even better, "but." They, unbelievers, have reproached you, but we who have experienced all this injustice, we who are suffering, we are the sheep of your pasture. We are your people who you have forgiven, and we will praise you. We praise you because we know that suffering and justice are not the final word on our lives. Not because we can see the end, but because we know you and your promises. We praise you because justice has been served by Christ on our behalf, and we have benefited from it in ways we don't deserve. We praise you because we know the day will come when you will set all things right. In the midst of injustice, it is easy to think that it's all about me, poor me. But it's not. The injustice that we know for a time is just an opportunity for God to show himself to be exactly the kind of God who shows mercy to sinners, but does not leave the guilty unpunished.
This is the fuel for worship: not a me-centered, "how great I feel" kind of worship, but a longing for the day when God will set all things right, because God has first set me right with him through Christ. We long for that day. Have no illusions that we can bring that day about. Even as we work for justice now, it's not ultimately our job to transform the world. God will do it. He's the only one who can. Until that day, we long for it. We long for it unafraid because of the gospel. We long for it with passion because of the gospel. We long for it with joy because of the gospel. The gospel guarantees that when that day comes, it will know no end. From generation to generation, for all eternity, we will praise our God who made justice and mercy meet in Jesus Christ.
Michael Lawrence is pastor of Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon, and author of "Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church" (Crossway).