Songs of a Warrior Poet

Battle Hymn of the Selfless Heart

Psalm 94
O Lord, you God of vengeance,
you God of vengeance, shine forth!
Rise up, O judge of the earth;
give to the proud what they deserve!
O Lord, how long shall the wicked,
how long shall the wicked exult?

They pour out their arrogant words;
all the evildoers boast.
They crush your people, O Lord,
and afflict your heritage.
They kill the widow and the stranger,
they murder the orphan,
and they say, “The Lord does not see;
the God of Jacob does not perceive.”

Understand, O dullest of the people;
fools, when will you be wise?
He who planted the ear, does He not hear?
He who formed the eye, does He not see?
He who disciplines the nations,
He who teaches knowledge to humankind,
does He not chastise?
The Lord knows our thoughts,
that they are but an empty breath.

Happy are those whom you discipline, O Lord,
and whom you teach out of your law,
giving them respite from days of trouble,
until a pit is dug for the wicked.
For the Lord will not forsake His people;
He will not abandon His heritage;
for justice will return to the righteous,
and all the upright in heart will follow it.

Who rises up for me against the wicked?
Who stands up for me against evildoers?
If the Lord had not been my help,
my soul would soon have lived in the land of silence.
When I thought, “My foot is slipping,”
your steadfast love, O Lord, held me up.
When the cares of my heart are many,
your consolations cheer my soul.
Can wicked rulers be allied with you,
those who contrive mischief by statute?
They band together against the life of the righteous,
and condemn the innocent to death.
But the Lord has become my stronghold,
and my God the rock of my refuge.
He will repay them for their iniquity
and wipe them out for their wickedness;
the Lord our God will wipe them out.

“Rise Up, O Judge of the Earth!”

A popular theme of Christian devotional literature has been the revelation of God through His Names in Hebrew scripture. Many beautiful words have been penned on Yahweh’s identity as El Shaddai, the All-Sufficient One, and Jehovah-jireh, the One Who Provides. There have been many inspiring meditations written on Jehovah-nissi, the Lord My Banner, and Jehovah-raah, The Lord My Shepherd. To be sure, there are wonderful truths in these Names that genuinely strengthen and deepen our understanding of our God. But in Psalm 94, David calls on a Name rarely mentioned in worship songs or devotional books: El N’Qamah, the God of Vengeance.

Some have recoiled at language like this in the Psalms, thinking it harsh, primitive, and somehow “unchristian.” It reflects a different view of God, they would allege, than the God of grace and mercy and love offered by the New Testament. How could Christians ask God for vengeance, they wonder, when Jesus taught us to pray for our enemies? Even among some self-described evangelical teachers, Psalm 94—along with many other passages like it—has been pushed back on some dusty shelf reserved for scriptures that are inspired in some different (and presumably lower) sense than the Sermon on the Mount or the Letter to the Romans.

This view is dangerously wrong.

Rather than judging God with our feeble reason, shouldn’t we renew our minds by judging our thoughts with the standard of God’s word? Instead of trying to trap God in a theological box of our own construction, shouldn’t we allow Him to tell us who He is? If we pick and choose the aspects of God we are willing to accept, we are trying to make God in our own image. We should be submitting ourselves to be re-formed in His image. Believers must believe! We should approach any passage of scripture, even a so-called “hard saying,” with open hearts and minds. We should begin with the solid conviction that “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). If we consider Psalm 94 in that light, our lives will be enriched by its hidden treasures.

In truth, only those who see the Lord as a God of Vengeance can truly learn to forgive; only those who see Him as Judge of the Earth can live sane, stable, and fruitful lives on such a fallen planet.

What does Paul, who quite literally wrote the book on grace, have to say about God’s vengeance?

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them…Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:14-21).

We read here a beautiful exhortation telling us how to respond to persecution. We must never become embittered, hateful people. Our minds must be filled with nobility and our mouths with blessing. We must live peaceable and generous lives, no matter how badly we have been treated. But notice what lies at the heart of this response: an affirmation that our Lord is a God of Vengeance.

Psalmist and apostle alike assure us that God will repay the wicked for their crimes. Expecting Him to take vengeance on our persecutors is the only way that we can release the need to avenge ourselves. Just as human beings are born with physical needs, they are born with social needs. There are factors that must exist in their relationships with other people if they are to remain safe and sound and rational. One of these needs is for justice. People long deprived of it descend into a twisted rage. Even perceived injustice can breed vigilante actions, blood feuds, and outbursts of violence.

But disciples of Jesus are free. They believe and know that their loving Father is also Judge of the earth. Just as they can trust Him for their physical needs—“What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?”—they trust Him with their need for justice. They no longer have to run after any of these things like the Gentiles. They are liberated to “strive first for the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” trusting that all these things will be given to them as well (Matthew 6:25-33).

To one persecuted church, the Thessalonians, Paul wrote,

We ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring. This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, and is intended to make you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering. For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus (2 Thessalonians 1:5-11).

According to Paul, the focus of mistreated Christians should be steadfastness and faith, with a firm hope that even the most painful of trials can hasten their growth into worthy citizens of God’s kingdom. They should know and trust that their Lord is both a Loving Father and a God of Vengeance, and that in His time He will repay their persecutors for their crimes against His beloved ones. They can unapologetically take courage in that truth.

It is certainly right in this sense for a believer to look to God for justice. Even our martyred brothers and sisters who already enjoy the presence of Jesus pray with words quite reminiscent of David’s psalms. In his revelatory vision, the apostle John heard them and recorded their words:

I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?’ They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow-servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed (Revelation 6:9-11).

So it is hardly “mean” or “harsh” or “unchristian” for a persecuted believer in this life to implore the Judge of the earth to rise up and judge the wicked. It is an act of faith, and it frees the heart to be peaceful, worshipful, and untainted by selfishly vengeful thoughts. In fact, our conviction that God’s wrath will be poured out on our persecutors makes us pity them and truly hope that they will repent and escape their coming judgment. We are freed to ask Father to lead them into a valley of decision, to give them one more chance to repent. We are able to weep over our Jerusalem, as Jesus did, rather than simply call down fire on it in anger.

A word of encouragement, then, to our persecuted brothers and sisters throughout the world: let’s not be afraid to believe that our Father will act justly on our behalf when we feel helpless at the hands of our oppressors. Let’s not be ashamed to cry out to the God of Vengeance and Judge of the earth for both justice and relief. Then let us rise from our knees ready to move forward with renewed, cleansed minds so that we can focus on our responsibilities to seek first God’s Kingdom and His righteousness, confident that His wrath and His mercy will together accomplish His work.

“The LORD Will Not Forsake His People”

One strong piece of evidence in favor of the righteousness of David’s prayer is its utterly unselfish character. In other psalms he poured out his personal agony to God, and it was right for him to do so. But in Psalm 94, he paid little attention to his own sufferings. David’s deep concern was for the Lord’s people, for God’s heritage. He looked around him and saw arrogant, boastful evildoers crushing and afflicting God’s people. He was horrified to see them attacking the most vulnerable in Israel—the widow, the stranger, and the orphan.

Sadly, it has been our observation as well that persecutors in our day often single out the most vulnerable as targets for their oppression. Without conscience, they try to pressure mothers who have been abandoned by their husbands to deny their convictions, coercing them with threats to their financial resources. They quite literally take food and clothing and shelter from fatherless children. They target believers residing in difficult situations overseas and through manipulation and lies attempt to separate them from needed Christian relationships. They even stoop to spreading slander to unbelieving parents and siblings of Christians, cutting them off from their best chance to hear the Good News of Jesus. God “sets the lonely in families.” Satan incessantly works to isolate them through flattery, fear, and innuendo.

Persecutors’ attacks on those they perceive as “strong” are usually indirect, through slander and rumor and electronic media. Often the attacks on the widow, the stranger, and the orphan are quite direct, however. As the deeds of persecutors prove, there is a huge difference between malice and courage.
Adding to David’s indignation was the sheer egotism of the oppressors. They acted as if their crimes had no consequence. They may have been religious for all we know—persecutors often are—but they were practical atheists. They had no fear of God. They arrogantly assumed that God would not notice their oppression, or if He noticed He would not care, or if He cared He would not act. They blasphemously treated God as if He were deaf and blind.

But they were wrong. Dead wrong.

God cares deeply for the vulnerable in His kingdom. Hear how Moses described Him: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:17-18).

It is a fatal mistake for persecutors to ignore a God like that! He warned the Israelites,

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to Me, I will surely heed their cry; My wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans (Exodus 22:21-24).

Similarly, one of the twelve curses the Israelites were to recite when they entered the Promised Land was this: “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice” (Deuteronomy 27:19). And once they were established in the land and had planted orchards, vineyards, and fields, they were told not to harvest all of their crops. They were to leave some olives on the trees, grapes on the vine, and wheat in the field for “the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow” (Deuteronomy 24:19-21).

The New Testament writings echo these same priorities. James summed up the topic well when he wrote, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). Yes, God cares for the vulnerable!

Lest we misunderstand, Jesus explained that this care for the orphan, widow, and stranger extends beyond physical needs only. Once He called a child into the midst of His disciples, put His arms around it, and warned them soberly: “If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in Me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).

This God is perfectly aware of any oppression or injustice against the “least of these.” In his psalm David exclaimed, “Understand, O dullest of the people; fools, when will you be wise? He who planted the ear, does He not hear? He who formed the eye, does He not see?” He does hear. He does see. He does care. And He does act. Anyone who forgets those truths really is a fool.

David knew what life should look like in Israel for the outwardly strong and vulnerable alike: “Happy are those whom you discipline, O LORD, and whom you teach out of your law, giving them respite from days of trouble, until a pit is dug for the wicked.” That is true justice. The birthright of every citizen of the kingdom, David believed, was to know God and be taught by Him. He likewise wanted to see them protected from oppression until punishment could be meted out for their persecutors. He committed himself to seeing “justice return to the righteous,” in the knowledge that “all the upright in heart would follow it.”

David’s underlying conviction was that “the Lord will not forsake His people; He will not abandon His heritage.” If that was God’s commitment, then David believed it needed to be his also. It must be ours as well. In this way, our vision will be raised beyond ourselves; our purposes will be joined with God’s.

A brother long ago gave this analogy. Suppose a boat needs to sail down a river, but the rocks in the water are too high. There are two solutions to the problem: you can remove the rocks, or you can raise the level of the water. When we are suffering, we are prone to ask God to remove the rocks. There is nothing wrong with that request, but it may be even more glorious if He leaves the rocks but increases our supply so that we can rise above them. In the same way, when we are persecuted, we are apt to ask God to remove our oppressors. Again, there is nothing wrong with that prayer, and in general that is His desire. But first He may wish to raise the level of our supply so that we can strengthen, protect, and nurture those around us who are likewise suffering. God will eventually restore justice to our lives. How much greater the miracle if He also teaches us to lay those lives down for our brothers and sisters.

Like David before us, we who are persecuted in our day have to find the Provision to rise above our own suffering. Loving others as ourselves, looking to their interests and not just to our own, is a foundational lesson for Jesus’ disciples. One of the most important decisions we will ever make when we are persecuted is to look up and look around us and see who else is suffering, and then to make it our goal to help them not just to survive but to thrive. Let us commit to Jesus and to each other to be free men and women who use our freedom to serve others in love!

In Psalm 94, David’s voice cries out to us across the centuries and summons us to action: “Who rises up for me against the wicked? Who stands up for me against evildoers?” He had found himself in that lonely place where all human help had vanished. God’s support alone had stood between David and death. Only God’s steadfast love had kept his foot from falling. Paul’s experience in prison would be heartbreakingly similar. He would later write, “At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth” (2 Timothy 4:16-17).

The blood-bought brothers and sisters in our lives deserve better from us. Let us resolve to lay aside our own troubles and courageously stand by them in theirs!

“The LORD Has Become My Stronghold”

In the last few lines of this prayer, David turned his attention to a fact of life that we have yet to consider in this writing: the role of civil government in persecution. David asked God, “Can wicked rulers be allied with you, those who contrive mischief by statute? They band together against the life of the righteous and condemn the innocent to death.”

Normally rulers do not start persecutions of God’s people without some prodding. Rulers tend to be pragmatic. If something increases the stability and security of their reign, they are in favor of it. God’s people are not troublemakers. They have no “philosophical” problem with submitting to human authority. Paul urged the believers in Thessalonica “to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly towards outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12). Presidents and princes long for citizens like that! And when God’s children find themselves in positions of civil service, they carry out their duties efficiently, with wisdom and integrity and self-discipline. They make their bosses look good. Think of Joseph, so trusted by Pharaoh, and of Daniel, so respected by Nebuchadnezzar and appreciated by Darius. No, rulers of civil governments usually value what genuine believers can do for them, whether as citizens or servants. They have no reason to persecute them.

That is, they have no reason to persecute God’s children until ambitious people manipulate them into it.

In any institution of society—whether it be civil or religious in nature—there are ambitious people who wish to use their position to gain prestige or power or wealth for themselves. Once they have a stake in the system, they jealously guard their position against perceived threats, all the while scheming to take away someone else’s position. These opportunists almost invariably view God’s children as enemies. They know exactly where they themselves lie on the organizational chart, and they feel threatened by believers below them and jealous of those above them. They watch with envy as God’s people, who have no selfish ambition at all, receive promotions and new responsibilities because of their competent, steady achievements. The ambitious people have a lust for power, but they lack the character and ethical standards to compete with the child of God in the area of practical service. These “wicked rulers,” as David accurately calls them, invariably frown suspiciously at any tightly knit group of believers. They correctly sense that the group owes its highest loyalty to Someone above all human authority. They wrongly perceive this fact to be a threat to their power. Usually these ambitious people lack either the authority or the courage to destroy the objects of their malice directly. They must somehow convince the one at the top of the power pyramid to do their dirty work for them.

There are many examples of this phenomenon in the scriptures.

Daniel comes readily to mind. Darius the Mede had organized his government around one hundred and twenty administrators called satraps. He appointed Daniel as one of three presidents to oversee the satraps. What happened next was actually quite predictable.

Soon Daniel distinguished himself above all the other presidents and satraps because an excellent Spirit was in him, and the king planned to appoint him over the whole kingdom. So the presidents and the satraps tried to find grounds for complaint against Daniel in connection with the kingdom. But they could find no grounds for complaint or any corruption, because he was faithful, and no negligence or corruption could be found in him. The men said, “We shall not find any ground for complaint against this Daniel unless we find it in connection with the law of his God” (Daniel 6:3-5).

We know the rest of the story. They conspired to manipulate Darius into a proclamation that they knew contradicted God’s law, and when Daniel disobeyed it, they moved to destroy him. God of course delivered Daniel miraculously, but not before Darius spent a very anxious night!

Another clear example is the intended extermination of the Jews by Haman, the second in command to Ahasuerus, a later Persian king. Mordecai, one of the Jewish exiles, was a loyal subject of Ahasuerus. In fact, he had once learned of a plot against the king and had acted quickly to save his life. That loyalty was not enough to satisfy Haman, however. He wanted the honor that came with his rank in government, but Mordecai failed to bow to him.

All the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate bowed down and did obeisance to Haman; for the king had so commanded concerning him. But Mordecai did not bow down or do obeisance. Then the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate said to Mordecai, ‘Why do you disobey the king’s command?’ When they spoke to him day after day and he would not listen to them, they told Haman, in order to see whether Mordecai’s words would avail; for he had told them that he was a Jew. When Haman saw that Mordecai did not bow down or do obeisance to him, Haman was infuriated. But he thought it beneath him to lay hands on Mordecai alone. So, having been told who Mordecai’s people were, Haman plotted to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus (Esther 3:2-6).

God’s miraculous intervention again saved His people. But the event is a classic case of civil persecution fueled by ambition.

Not all government-sponsored persecution can be traced to frustrated bureaucrats, however. Much of the time it springs from the jealousy of clergy and officials in the religious institutions of society. We could multiply examples, both from scripture and from the sad history of human civilization. But the most telling example is the crucifixion of Jesus Himself.

The religious leaders in the Jerusalem establishment were insanely jealous of Jesus. Even very early on after He appeared to Israel, we learn that “the crowds were astounded at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:29; Mark 1:22). This fact—and the crowd’s reaction to it—did not escape the scribes’ notice. After a while, “So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them” where Jesus was staying (Mark 2:2). It was there that the grumblings and whisperings against Jesus began among the religious elite (Mark 2:6-7,16,24). They began stalking Him, trying to find some grounds to accuse Him. They seized on the issue of healings on the Sabbath. But Jesus refused to back down, even calling a man in need of curing into their presence so they would have to witness the miracle (Mark 3:1-5). After this public embarrassment, “the Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against Him, how to destroy Him” (Mark 3:6).

The elites began by launching a vicious slander campaign (Mark 3:22). Jesus again refused to be intimidated, publicly rebuking the Pharisees and scribes to their faces for their hypocritical religiosity (Mark 7:6-16). The Pharisees began to test Him, trying to trip Him up with their doctrinal subtleties (Mark 8:11; 10:2; 11:28; 12:13,18), but Jesus always seemed to sniff out the trap and seize control of the situation. When all their efforts to discredit Jesus to the crowds failed, the religious leaders became desperate. “They kept looking for a way to kill Him; for they were afraid of Him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by His teaching” (Mark 11:18). As Passover neared, “The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill Him; for they said, ‘Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people’” (Mark 14:1-2).

The religious leaders finally realized that they would need the help of the Roman civil authorities if they hoped to be rid of Jesus once and for all. So they arrested Jesus at night, held a mock trial in their religious court, and then dragged Him before the Roman governor, Pilate (Mark 15). Their trumped-up charges failed to persuade the governor. But he did feel backed into a corner. He was convinced of Jesus’ innocence, but he lacked the courage to act on that conviction. Like all government officials, Pilate feared disorder. Eventually, against his better judgment, Pilate capitulated to the Pharisees’ and priests’ demands. He handed Jesus over to be crucified.

Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, and judicial murder set the pattern for countless episodes of religious persecution throughout the ages. Jealous religious leaders, insecure in their hold on power, perceive a genuine child of God to be a threat to them. They begin with whisperings, move on to public criticisms, take aim at character assassination, and if that fails, turn to the civil government. They call in old favors, make veiled threats, or appeal to the paranoia of government officials. It may not end in physical death; the result may simply be harassment of the believer. Yet the persecution is real. The children of God suffer. And the believer’s only “crime” is exposing a religious leader’s pretense or thwarting his ambitions.

So what are we to do if we find ourselves subjected to persecution from “wicked rulers”?

David has been there, and he offers us this inspired advice. We must get our eyes off of our own personal troubles, and look to strengthen and uphold the children of God around us who are most vulnerable to this persecution. As for ourselves, we must cling to God as our Stronghold and the Rock of our refuge. And we may take courage that our Father, the King of the Universe, is Judge of the Earth. We should remain fully confident that “He will repay them for their iniquities and wipe them out for their wickedness.” The satraps who accused Daniel found themselves thrown in the lions’ den. Haman found himself hanged on the gallows he had built to kill Mordecai. And the Jerusalem religious elite found themselves staring at an empty tomb, on the wrong side of the greatest miracle in history.

By trusting El N’Qamah, the God of Vengeance, our hearts will find strength for the present and hope for the future!

Next Page
Back to Contents