Fears from around - Psalm 74
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
The year was 1956, and years of planning and praying were, it seems, about to be fulfilled. Five men sat singing a hymn together on a narrow beach by the waters of the Curaray River, in the heart of Ecuador, South America. They were waiting for the men of the Auca tribe to visit them. The five missionaries had had great success in recent weeks trying to make contact with this tribe which few white men had ever contacted before. These Auca tribesmen were fierce hunters and known killers, and no-one had ever taken the gospel to them before. But it had been on the hearts of these five young, bright American students to reach this tribe with the gospel of Jesus Christ. They had dropped gifts to the tribe from the air, and just recently they had had their first live contact with some members of the tribe. It had gone well. And the missionaries were expectant. Could this meeting on the beach that hot afternoon be the breakthrough they wanted? But just an hour or so after they had sung that hymn together, the waters of the Curaray River washed silently over their bodies, killed by the men they had come to reach. Time magazine called it a 'nightmare of a tragedy'. And the question we are all left asking is 'why'? Why should it turn out this way? It looks as if God has forgotten his people. 'Why have you rejected us forever O God?'
I wonder how often you have asked that question. Certainly when we look at what is happening in the world to God's people it must surely cross our minds. If you read Christian newspapers like Evangelicals Now you will find story after story of Christians being persecuted across the world for their faith. In fact in Evangelical's Now for this month you will read that in Ethiopia a Christian pastor has been martyred. In Nigeria a Christian policeman has been killed for asking Moslems to stop harassing Christians. And closer to home we read that in Sweden, lawmakers have given initial approval to a law which would ban preaching against homosexual practise. And we cry out, 'Lord why have you rejected us?' But it's not just away from Britain that there is disturbing news. In the same paper I read that one third of Church of England clergymen do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and only half believe in the virgin birth. One spokesman said: 'There are clearly two churches operating in the Church of England: the believing church and the disbelieving church, and that is a scandal.' And apart from events in the world, and in our country, there are things in our own lives which make us cry out: 'Why have you rejected us for ever O God?' It seems God has turned away from us and is not responding to our cries.
Well that question 'why have you rejected us O God?' is exactly the question the psalmist was asking in our Psalm we are looking at tonight, Psalm 74. And the reason he cries out in this way is because the people of Israel have just suffered the darkest day in their history, the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 BC and the subsequent exile into Babylon. They have lost everything: Their land, their city, their homes, their Temple, and for many their very lives. And it looks as if God has turned his back on his people and forgotten all about them. And so the psalmist cries out: 'Why have you rejected us forever, O God?' It's as if he's crying out, 'God, why don't you do something? Why don't you act?' And the great thing about many of the psalms is that they ask the difficult questions like this, questions we perhaps don't dare to ask of God. And in this Psalm, although we don't get all the answers we want, yet we will find some help in the face of these tough questions. For we find that although the psalmist begins with questioning God, yet he moves to remembering his power in the past and then trusting him for the future as he prays in faith. So let's look at this psalm in those three sections:
1) Questioning God's Actions (Vv 1-11)
2) Remembering God's Power (Vv 12-17)
3) Praying for God's Glory (Vv 18-23)
1) Questioning God's Actions (Vv 1-11)
So in the first section, verses 1-11, we see the psalmist questioning God's actions. Verse 1: 'Why have you rejected us forever, O God? Why does your anger smoulder against the sheep of your pasture?' And the reason for the psalmist's question is all that has happened to Israel. So he asks God in verse 3 to take a look around the ruins of Jerusalem: 'Turn your steps toward these everlasting ruins, all this destruction the enemy has brought on the sanctuary.' And then the psalmist reminds God of what took place in verses 4-8: 'Your foes roared in the place where you met with us; they set up their standards as signs. They behaved like men wielding axes to cut through a thicket of trees. They smashed all the carved panelling with their axes and hatchets.
They burned your sanctuary to the ground; they defiled the dwelling place of your Name. They said in their hearts, 'We will crush them completely!' They burned every place where God was worshiped in the land.' It was an act of total destruction when the Babylonians came into Jerusalem. They destroyed everything that lay in their path. You can imagine them carving their way through the city, taking pride in smashing everything that was precious in the Temple, the place where no-one except the priests were allowed to go. They make their way through the Temple destroying precious ornaments, hacking to pieces beautiful panelling, cutting down the priests who stood in their way. And then they get to the Holy of Holies itself, the place where only the High Priest could go once a year, and they rip down the curtain, smash up the ornaments, and walk off the with the gold plated ark of the covenant. How horrific it must have been. No wonder the Bible writers of the time were so horrified to see what was happening.
I guess we in our TV age are used to seeing such horrors on our screens. But if you've ever seen it with your own eyes, then it's very different. I have a friend who has spent a lot of time in Kosovo. And last time we met she was telling us about how she walked through some of the villages of Kosovo, and she saw with her own eyes the devastation caused by the invading armies. Houses blown to nothing. Homes burnt out and destroyed, people with no possessions and no family. That's the real horror of war. That's what had happened in Jerusalem. And to cap it all, and perhaps one of the hardest things of all to cope with, is that heaven is silent. Verse 9: 'We are given no miraculous signs; no prophets are left, and none of us knows how long this will be.' Heaven is silent. Isn't that often the hardest thing? When we suffer and wonder if God has rejected us, when we see the heresy and evil occurring in within churches, when we hear of persecution to Christians and we wonder if God will ever act, then the hardest thing of all is that there seems to be no answer. Heaven appears to be silent.
And yet for the writer of this Psalm, the horrors of the invasion and the silence of God are not his biggest problem. His biggest problem is that God's name has been dishonoured. So he says in verse 9: 'How long will the enemy mock you, O God? Will the foe revile your name forever?' Your honour is at stake God. How long is this offence going to last for? And in verse 2 he asks God: 'Remember the people you purchased of old, the tribe of your inheritance, whom you redeemed- Mount Zion, where you dwelt.' Lord, these are your people. Why is this happening? And he ends up by saying in verse 11: 'Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand? Take it from the folds of your garment and destroy them!' 'Lord why won't you do something?' he asks. 'Your honour is at stake. People are walking all over your name and treating it like mud.' Do you see his concern? This isn't a question of despair. It's not as if the psalmist has lost all hope in God. It's that is so desperately concerned for God's glory that he wonders why God is acting in this way. 'Why has he let these things happen? God why don't you something?' That's his question. And he questions God's actions because he's concerned above all for the glory of God's name.
Isn't that what gets you so outraged when you hear of church leaders denouncing the Biblical truth, when you hear of Christians unjustly treated in other countries. Doesn't your heart burn with jealousy for God's name that he is allowing it to be dragged through the mud? Do you love him so much that you hate it when these things happen? I would suggest that if you are not jealous for the glory of God's name as the psalmist was, then you don't really love God that much at all. For when we love him deeply, then we hate it when his name is dishonoured. That was why the psalmist questioned God's actions. Because he was jealous for his name. He could not bear for God to be dishonoured.
2) Remembering God's Power (Vv 12-17)
So does he receive any answer? Well he does, and the answer comes as he looks back to what God has done in the past, so let's turn to our second point as we see the psalmist remembering God's power in verses 12-17. Verse 12: 'But you, O God, are my king from of old; you bring salvation upon the earth.' The psalmist was able to look back at what God had done in history and that would give him confidence that God was truly in control and God did know what he was doing. God is the King and that's what gives him confidence. Do you notice how in the first section of the psalm the psalmist is focusing on the enemies all the time? He's always talking about them. They did this, they did that, they did such and such. But now he's focusing on God. You O God are my King. It was you who split open the sea, it was you, it was you, it was youThirteen times in six verses, the psalmist says you or yours. His focus has entirely changed. And that's what gives him renewed confidence. He never finds out fully the answers to his questions of why God acted in such a way. But he is certain that God can be trusted.
And that same perspective, that focus on God as King, is absolutely vital to our stability in the Christian life. In a week when we have remembered September 11th, what hope can we have in such an unstable and unpredictable world? Only that God is on his throne and he will do what is right. In a world where Christians are persecuted, where churches are beset with problems, where leaders flout the Bible's teaching and teach false doctrine and live ungodly lives, where our own personal lives are often troubled by all sorts of difficulties, what confidence can we have? Well hear this great news about God tonight: 'You are my King from of old; you bring salvation on the earth.' So what is it in particular that gives the psalmist such confidence in the face of terrible events in Jerusalem. In reverse order, we can see God's power in:
a) Creation- Verse 16: 'The day is yours, and yours also the night; you established the sun and moon. It was you who set all the boundaries of the earth; you made both summer and winter.' Often in the midst of hardship, it is easy forget how awesomely powerful God is. But take a moment, as the psalmist does, to think about God's power in creation. God is the one to whom the day and night belong. For us they just exist, yet God is the one who brought them into being. And God said: 'Let there be light, and there was light.' For us to create anything it takes endless hours of planning and preparation, and gathering of materials, especially if you're someone like me, and that's just boiling an egg! But when God creates he simply speaks his creation out of nothing. That is awesome power. The scientist Stephen Hawking in his book 'A Brief History of Time' which incidentally has been described as the most bought and least read book of our generation, gives some figures about how big the universe is. They make interesting reading. He says that our galaxy is an average sized spiral galaxy that is about 100,000 light-years across, that's about six hundred trillion miles, a touch further than from here to Grimsby. We know, he says, that our galaxy is only one of some hundred thousand million that can be seen using modern telescopes, each galaxy containing some one hundred thousand million stars. It is commonly held that the average distance between these galaxies, each six hundred trillion miles across, is about 3 million light years. And the Bible tells us that God made them all by the power of his word. He just spoke them into being. Incredible. And it's not simply that God created, but he sustains and orders his creation too, in verse 17: 'It was you who set all the boundaries of the earth; you made both summer and winter.' God put everything in order. He keeps the seasons ticking over. Don't you think that is awesome power?
b) Salvation- But perhaps more amazing is that the God who created this incredible universe in all it's beauty and grandeur, is the same God who is interested in you and me, who shows his power also in salvation. And that's what the psalmist is talking about in verse 13-15. He's actually replaying God's rescue of the people of Israel from Egypt, but he uses poetical language to do so. The monster and the heads of Leviathan is Egypt, whom God destroyed in the desert as they chased the Israelites. Verse 13 describes how the Egyptian army was drowned in the Red Sea. Verse 15 describes how God fed and watered his people in the desert, and how God pushed back the waters of the River Jordan to allow his people to cross into the Promised Land. Yes, the very same God who created the heavens and the earth is the same God who rescues and cares for his people. The same power that is at work in creation, is the very same power in work in re-creation, as God rescues his people. What a wonderful relief that must have been to the psalmist, remembering all God's acts and realising just what an awesomely powerful and gracious God his God is. Yes the world may be a confusing place, and he may not get all the answers; it may seem that God's people are hard pressed and rejected, even by God, but don't forget God's power in creation and salvation.
And yet for us, living the other side of the cross, there is far more reason to have confidence in God's power. Because that exodus from Egypt, that destruction of the powers of evil in the Red Sea, that bringing of the people of God to Canaan, was only a small foretaste of the far greater Exodus that God has performed through his own Son Jesus Christ. When Jesus died on the cross God's power to save was seen in all it's amazing techno-coloured glory. For it was there that God destroyed the powers of evil for good. It was there that God made it possible for sin to be forgiven and lives to be transformed. It was there that God made it possible for every human being to rescued from this filthy, stinking, sin ridden world, to be given a fresh start, to be cleaned up and to be set on the road to heaven. The cross of Christ is the greatest rescue known to mankind. And if ever doubt that God loves you, if you ever doubt that God is working his purposes out in the world, if you ever doubt God has got things a little wrong, look at the cross. For it's there that we see God's saving power in all its glory. 'You, O God, are my King from old; you bring salvation on the earth.' Don't doubt it, believe it. Remembering God's awesome power to create and to save.
3) Praying for God's Glory (Vv 18-23)
So how does the psalmist react when he remembers God's power in creation and salvation. Well he turns to pray for God's glory, and that brings us to our final point in verses 18-23. You see no longer do we find the why questions in this final paragraph. We don't find a man beset with fears and worries. We find a man confidently praying that God will uphold the glory and honour of his name, that God will remember his covenant and his promises, that God will act and do something to defend his cause. It's not that all his questions have been answered. Rather he has come through his doubts to realise that God is the King and he does have all things in his control. Whilst it may seem that God's enemies have won the day, yet God will triumph, and so the psalmist prays to that end.
So in verse 20, the psalmist prays: 'Have regard for your covenant, because haunts of violence fill the dark places of the land.' You see, the psalmist knew that what God had promised, God would stick to. God had made a covenant and had sworn on his name that he would stick with his people and rescue them and be their God. That's the kind of God he is. He's the kind of God who says one thing and does it. And in his promises, God is primarily concerned for the glory of his name, so the psalmist prays in verse 18: 'Remember how the enemy has mocked you, O Lord , how foolish people have reviled your name.' It's not that God has forgotten, rather that the psalmist is calling God to be faithful to who he is and defend his name.
So did God answer the psalmist's prayers? Well yes he did. For although the exile was a disaster for the people, yet God was working his purposes out through it. God's judgement was being executed on a nation who had turned away from him. And yet God did not forget his promises. He brought his people back and a small remnant remained faithful to him. But that's not the end of the story. For God will ultimately uphold his promises and glorify his name when Jesus returns. That's when God will finally execute his judgement on all who have mocked him and ignored him. And that's why if any of us have not turned back to Jesus for forgiveness, then we must. Otherwise Jesus will deal with us justly when he comes again. And that's the perspective we need to have when we see evil happening all round us, when God's people seem rejected and crushed. God has not forgotten his promises. He will remain faithful and we can trust him because he is the king. And so we like the psalmist need to pray that God would uphold the honour of his name and fulfil his promises.
Time magazine called the loss of five young missionaries in 1956 a nightmare of a tragedy. But was it? With God at the helm, even losses such as that can be turned to good. Do you want to know how God used that tragedy to glorify his name and promote his gospel? Well as a result of those five deaths, thousands of young men and women offered themselves to mission organisations across the world in the late fifties and early sixties. And countless thousands of people have come to Christ as a result. And what happened to the Auca tribesmen? Well the five widows of the missionaries vowed not to give up the cause. One of them Elizabeth Elliot, the wife of Jim Elliot, took her young daughter and lived with the Aucas, and in time after much hard work, the Auca tribesmen were led to Christ. Two years ago at a conference for evangelists in Amsterdam, an Auca tribesman was on the stage giving his testimony. He was one of the men who had killed the five missionaries. And who was interviewing him? A man called Steve Saint, the son of Nate Saint, one of those five missionaries. If that's not a miracle of grace, then I don't know what is! The world called it a tragedy. In God's providence it's a victory. No we may not always be able to fathom God's ways. But yes we can trust him absolutely, for he is in control. We may question his actions, yet we must come to remembering his power and then praying for his glory and his will to be done. And he who is faithful will do it.
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