With some frequency you run across such sentiments in the Psalms if not in the wider Scripture. God is praised for being compassionate and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Language to this effect pops up in Psalm 86 too when you get to verse 15. But look closely: this is only partly a source of praise and happiness to this particular poet. Mostly, this has a bit of a Jonah-esque feel to it.
Jonah, of course, is the prophet who fled God’s call to preach repentance to the Ninevites not because—as is too commonly thought—he was afraid of failure. No, Jonah fled out of fear that he would be successful. Those rotten Ninevites would repent. And God would forgive them, more or less inviting them to be members of Israel’s otherwise Members Only Club of people who worship the one true God Yahweh. Well, one near shipwreck and one giant sea monster later and God gets Jonah to Nineveh after all where, sure enough, Jonah’s preaching is effective and also sure enough God relents from frying them all in some divine BBQ of judgment and wrath.
Jonah is fit to be tied about it and when God next catches up to him to ask “Why the long face, Jonah?” Jonah spits back at God that divine reputation he has for being compassionate and slow to anger and abounding in love and all that jazz. Long about the moment you wish God would have a bit of a short fuse to fry off Israel’s enemies and God instead relents. “I just knew you would be nice to those people” Jonah as much as says. God’s being “slow to anger and full of compassion” is not a counted-cross-stitch wall hanging of Christian encouragement. It’s an accusation on Jonah’s lips. It is nearly a lament!
Psalm 86:15 is not infused with that kind of angry bile. But, neither are these words about the divine character singularly being expressed here as a positive. The psalmist, after all, has just noted that there are ruthless people intent on ruining his life. He is asking for God’s protection from these people at a minimum but more than that, he’s asking that God flex some holy muscle here and smack these people around a bit so that the faith of the psalmist can be vindicated and the threat from this particular group of enemies may be quelled.
In this sense you can read Psalm 86:15 this way: “Look, O Lord, I know you can put up with a lot from even rotten folks like these ruthless and relentless enemies and all. You are hard to rouse in anger. You have got a lot of patience in your crankcase. I get that. But this time can you suspend all that for a bit and get moving against these people. My honor is at stake. Don’t just sit there and be all compassionate—DO SOMETHING!”
Deep down I suppose Jonah knew and this psalmist knew and we all still know that if the God of Israel, now revealed as also the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, really is full of compassion, mercy, and grace; if this God really is abounding in steadfast love, then this is cosmically good news for every one of us. It’s good news for every one of us because most of the time we are on the receiving end of all the saving and forgiving goodness this makes possible. Take away these divine character traits and we none of us would have too much reason to be certain we can be saved from our own sinfulness.
We know that. But when the sauce for the goose that we like when we are the goose becomes sauce for also the gander when the gander is someone we don’t like . . . then it gets a little tougher to accept (it might even make it a bit more likely for a time that we will forget that we need the same saving sauce in the first place). When we watch wicked people prosper without consequences, we seethe a little. Why doesn’t God do something to upend them and their plans and schemes?
When we seem to get in trouble each time we so much as utter a little fib but then when we see powerful people lie constantly with nary a ripple of consequence, we get a little upset. Where is God’s justice in all this? “If I did something like that even once, I’d be fired, my reputation would be in tatters, I’d be ruined. But THAT guy over there does stuff like that repeatedly and it seems only to enhance his life. Look, God, I know you are gracious and all but honestly . . .”
Maybe the psalmist knew this a bit more keenly than we sometimes do (or than old Jonah seemed to know it). After all, in verses 11-12 this poet asks God to show him God’s faithfulness so he can follow it and to give him an undivided heart so he can serve God. That would seem to indicate that the psalmist knows he cannot achieve righteousness or a holy lifestyle on his own. He will need infusions of help from his ever-patient, always-loving God to make it as a believer. Even so, when watching his enemies get away with stuff . . . well, he just has to ask God that despite all those good traits God has, please don’t let these people get away with this stuff forever, OK?
In the end we never are very good at figuring out just how God administers God’s own justice. We often hear a line quoted from Martin Luther King, Jr.—and it has gotten quoted a lot in early 2020 in the wake of the racial reckoning that has come following especially the murder of George Floyd—that the arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice. Most of the time when that line gets quoted, though, the emphasis falls on the “long” part. We hope things are bending toward justice but in the meantime . . . it’s taking a while.
The psalmist may say something similar in the psalm’s last line: “Just give me a sign that you are on duty, O Lord” is what he essentially writes. Sometimes seeing a sign here and there is enough to bolster our faith. We live every day off the riches of God’s compassion and patience and grace and if all of that goodness sometimes means God is patient with also some people with whom we’d be OK with God’s not being so patient, well, we can deal with that perhaps so long as we see encouraging signs now and then, here and there, that things are headed the right direction.
One of the jobs of us preachers is to spotlight those signs when we find them in this world. We spotlight them in our preaching as part of our proclamation that God is on the move, that Christ is Lord, and that in the end God will be all in all.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the “Fellowship of the Ring” consists of four Hobbits, two men, one elf, one dwarf, and one wizard. The Hobbit Frodo Baggins is the ringbearer who has to do what he can to get the dreaded and evil Ring of Power back to the only place where its evil can be unmade: the evil land of Mordor. But early on in their quest this Fellowship gets fractured and two of the Hobbits, Frodo and Sam, leave the rest of the group and disappear for months on end. The rest of the Fellowship, including the wizard Gandalf and the other Hobbits, Pippin and Merri, have no idea where Sam and Frodo are or even whether they are still alive. It had been ages since they had any clue of their whereabouts. There had been no news, no signs they were still OK and trying to fulfill their quest.
But there is a wonderful moment—captured nicely in the Peter Jackson film—when Gandalf and the Hobbit Pippin run into Faramir who had only just recently encountered Frodo and Sam out in the wild. When Faramir catches sight of Pippin, the glint of recognition in his eye tells Gandalf and Pippin that this was not the first Hobbit Faramir had encountered recently. Indeed, he had just seen two other Hobbits named Frodo and Sam and for Pippin and Gandalf, this is the first sign in many weeks that Frodo and Sam were still alive. The look on Pippin’s face at this revelation is one of profound joy and wonderment.
So it can be for believers when we, too, now and then encounter signs that Jesus is on the move, that the kingdom is advancing. The poet at the end of Psalm 86 prays that God just give him a sign. And when such signs of hope come, our joy is great!
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 19, 2020
Psalm 86:11-17 Commentary