By Chuck Griffin
Psalm 149 (NLT) Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song. Sing his praises in the assembly of the faithful. O Israel, rejoice in your Maker. O people of Jerusalem, exult in your King. Praise his name with dancing, accompanied by tambourine and harp. For the Lord delights in his people; he crowns the humble with victory. Let the faithful rejoice that he honors them. Let them sing for joy as they lie on their beds.
What a lovely little psalm. There is singing and dancing, the air alive with the sound of instruments. Day and night, the people rejoice. The psalm continues, too!
Let the praises of God be in their mouths, and a sharp sword in their hands— to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples, to bind their kings with shackles and their leaders with iron chains, to execute the judgment written against them. This is the glorious privilege of his faithful ones. Praise the Lord!
Hmmmm. Suddenly, Psalm 149 is a little less lovely. Swords, shackles and vengeance bring a kind of darkness to this psalm we might not have expected.
The Bible is full of sudden turns like this. A lot of devotionals and sermons deal with these startling disparities simply by stopping short, ending the selection of verses before the disturbance brought on by the new thought begins. I understand why—for the sake of brevity, and in an effort to get one clear point across without muddying the devotional or sermon too much, stopping short is sometimes necessary.
We still need, however, to learn to deal with these incongruities, so we are better equipped as believers to help seekers who naturally may be put off by such passages.
Perspective is important. Remember, these texts are very old, meaning they were written in a time when a lot of our ideas about what constitutes civilized behavior had yet to develop. The psalm we’re reading today is at least 2,500 years old, and maybe older.
Understanding this, we’re starting in the wrong place if we critique these texts from a modern viewpoint. Texts like our psalm carry within them what were at the time new revelations about how God’s people should relate to their creator and to one another.
Many of those ideas grew to become the basis of what we now think of as modern, civilized behavior. We should not be critical of the people who first began to comprehend revelations of God’s holiness and God’s desire to save a remnant from the effects of sin.
As Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
When Jesus came on the scene centuries after this psalm to expand our understanding of God’s love and grace, he was not afraid to draw on what had been taught through his Jewish culture thus far. God is over all things and above all things. God redeems his people, and Jesus came as God in flesh to prove this point.
And yet, even in gentle Jesus’ teachings, it is clear that what is opposed to God ultimately will face God’s wrath. God has never wavered on that point.
Jesus used a metaphorical sword, and he expected us to pick it up and use it against the enemies of God. I am talking about speaking the truth of who God is and what God is doing through Jesus Christ to restore a broken world. This truth cuts through the political machinations and outright lies of the worldly nations.
This “sword of truth” imagery is most vivid in the final book of the Bible, Revelation, where the author has a vision of Christ completing his work in the world.
“Then I saw heaven opened, and a white horse was standing there. Its rider was named Faithful and True, for he judges fairly and wages a righteous war. His eyes were like flames of fire, and on his head were many crowns. A name was written on him that no one understood except himself. He wore a robe dipped in blood, and his title was the Word of God. The armies of heaven, dressed in the finest of pure white linen, followed him on white horses. From his mouth came a sharp sword to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron rod. He will release the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty, like juice flowing from a winepress. On his robe at his thigh was written this title: King of all kings and Lord of all lords.” (Revelation 19:11-16.)
The ancient Israelites felt called to take up their swords and impose shackles in obedience to God, delivering primitive lessons about holiness in what we now consider primitive times. We are called to do similar work with restorative words and sacrificial acts, following Jesus’ lead as the bringer of truth. And God’s truth shall reign.
Lord, thank you for the revelations you have given humanity about your nature since before recorded history began. May the truth of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior be evident to all very soon. Amen.