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How firm our foundation.
Where to look when everything feels unsure.
A version of this article originally appeared on 1517.
In Psalm 11, we’re given an instance of King David on the receiving end of some incredibly pitiful counsel. The three opening verses constitute the bad advice his so-called “friends” are apt to offer after looking around at their present situation, which, in their estimation, is so dire that he might as well “flee like a bird” to some place else. “For behold,” they groan, “the wicked bend the bow; they have fitted their arrow to the string to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart; if the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Ps. 11:2–3). The sentiments from David’s peers focus only on the devastating potentiality if all the familiar mainstays of life were to crack and crumble. They express little hope of ever refastening such moors if they should ever be displaced, which, in a way, makes these Davidic counselors more like Humpty Dumpty’s inept repair men, who, for all their might, “couldn’t put Humpty together again.”
All that was strong now proves unsure…
In many ways, our present moment can feel very similar to David’s. We have all witnessed, to varying degrees, the continued, gradual “great fall” of seemingly every aspect of society. The apostle Paul was right on the money when he said, concerning the End of Days, that “evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse” (2 Tim. 3:13). That “waxing” is very much present in our day, perhaps leading us to better sympathize with the shaken nerves of Rohan’s stalwart king, Theoden. In J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers, the people of Rohan have been pinned-in after a night of war with Saruman’s army of Uruk-hai warriors at the fortress of Helm’s Deep. As the conflict proceeds, reaching insurmountable heights, King Theoden laments his people’s fate: “The world changes, and all that once was strong now proves unsure . . . How shall any tower withstand such numbers and such reckless hate?” (144). Or, as it is here, “What can the righteous do?”
Reckless hate riddles our days, making them appear entirely chaotic and messy and grievous, with reasons and resources slipping through the ends of our fingers. What can the godly do in such a scenario? What can the upright do if all the foundations of society are plunged into ruin? What hope do the righteous have when all the moorings of this life are disintegrated? If the counsel of David’s friends is to be believed, there’s nothing to be done. Their words are defeatist and fatalistic. In fact, these “friends” sound as if they’ve already resigned themselves to the ruin that’s coming at the hand of the wicked (Ps. 11:2). “The foundations are being destroyed!” they clamor. “The sky is falling!” Such is the rhetoric of our times.
What David expresses in Psalm 11 isn’t likely all that foreign to us. Interestingly enough, there are no textual details that might give us a clue as to when this counsel was uttered in David’s ear. Some have situated it within the waning days of King Saul’s time on the throne of Israel, in which David sees, first-hand, the growing corruption of Israel’s society and seat of authority. In particular, 1 Samuel 22 and 23 see David flee like a fugitive from the very kingdom he was anointed to rule. Saul pursues the king-in-waiting like a crazed madman, even executing the priests of Israel by his own command. These chapters have all the makings of a moment in which “the foundations are (seemingly) destroyed.”
However, whether accurate or not, I prefer to overlay this psalm against an earlier event in the life of David, perhaps the most formative one of all. That is, when he stood up against the champion of the Philistine army, the giant Goliath (1 Sam. 17). This, of course, is one of the most famous Bible stories of all time. Everyone’s familiar with the “David vs. Goliath” scenario, from talking vegetables to sports analysts. What’s intriguing, though, is that this ubiquitous story becomes even more animated when viewed through the lens of Psalm 11. For example, as the foreboding figure of Goliath is retraced, we’re given every last sinister detail (1 Sam. 17:1–11). His towering, sinewy frame looms large on the horizon, striking fear in the heart of every Israelite infantrymen. As he brandishes his massive spear and shield, he is representative of a future of defeat and bondage, leaving the ranks of Israel’s army to quake in their sandals. “All the men of Israel, when they saw the man, fled from him and were much afraid” (1 Sam. 17:24).
The situation in the Valley of Elah is very reminiscent of David’s words in Psalm 11, complete with some pitiful counsel from David’s own brother (1 Sam. 17:28–30). But what do we find David doing in both passages? How does the “man after God’s own heart” react when calamity seemingly stares him down? In both instances, we find him confiding and trusting and hoping in God Almighty. “In the Lord I take refuge,” he prays (Ps. 11:1). Both Psalm 11 and 1 Samuel 17 have much to say to you and me about the state of the world we see all around us. They reveal an array of comforts which, when held close, assist us in counteracting the “bad advice” that everything’s falling apart.
The hope of God’s dominion.
In direct response to the notion that “the foundations are being destroyed” — beyond repair and beyond hope — David focuses his attention elsewhere. “The Lord is in his holy temple,” he declares, “the Lord’s throne is in heaven; his eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man” (Ps. 11:4). In his dismay, David’s eyes look upward, where, by faith, he sees a throne that is occupied. Yahweh is seated there, ruling and reigning with everlastingly perfect authority. And, to be sure, this image of the Lord on his throne isn’t one which should indicate his supposed indifference. There are some who make such assumptions. After all, what good does it do the likes of you and me to believe in a God whose abode is in heaven? That’s so far away! “He’s too distant, too unapproachable, too impersonal to notice or care about me,” some conclude.
David’s testimony, however, affirms just the opposite is true. Yes, Yahweh’s seat is in his heavenly temple, but don’t for a second assum that this means he doesn’t notice or care about you and your plight. “That throne,” notes Dale Ralph Davis, “is not the place of inactivity but of supremacy; it does not suggest distance but dominion” (129). As the psalmist himself says, “his eyes see, his eyelids test the children of men.” These words are indicative of God’s close and intense interest with our world. That his eyelids are said to “test” suggests the actions of one who squints at something in order to scrutinize and perceive it fully. “Nothing can be done in heaven, or earth, or hell, which he doth not ordain and over-rule,” Charles Spurgeon comments (1:1.130). Young David was, likewise, aware of this heavenly Examiner. Notice:
When the words that David spoke were heard, they repeated them before Saul, and he sent for him. And David said to Saul, “Let no man’s heart fail because of him. Your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” And Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him, for you are but a youth, and he has been a man of war from his youth.” But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God.” And David said, “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” And Saul said to David, “Go, and the Lord be with you!” (1 Sam. 17:31–37)
David was sure that God’s dominion encompassed lions and bears, and, surely, would encompass “this Philistine,” too. His hope and trust was rooted in the supremacy of Yahweh, which extended over all things. And the same is true for you and I, as well. After reading some online resources, both secular and sacred, you might be led to believe that this world of ours is going to “hell-in-a-hand-basket.” I can’t tell you how many blogs I’ve read and podcasts I’ve listened to, from Christian sources, no less, that seem to suggest that “the sky is, indeed, falling.” If I didn’t know better, I might be led to believe that there is no hope for the righteous. That everything is falling apart. That I should “flee like a bird to the mountains.” That heaven’s throne is unoccupied.
But, rest assured, David’s hope is ours, too. The faith that remains when everything feels like it’s falling apart sees the Lord not as aloof to our present calamity but as actively and authoritatively involved in every bit of it. The seat of heaven’s authority is not vacant. Neither is it filled by a nonchalant or indifferent sovereign. Heaven’s throne is inhabited by none other than the King of kings himself. And he has not, nor will he ever, abdicate his seat.
The assurance of God’s deliverance.
Furthermore, David resists the idea that the only proper response to the mayhem of the moment is to flinch in disbelief. Even though the enemy might already have an arrow notched on the string, ready to loose, his faith clings to the overwhelming might of the almighty God. “The Lord tests the righteous,” he affirms, “but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence. Let him rain coals on the wicked; fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup” (Ps. 11:5–6). Such, too, was David’s testimony when he went down to the Valley of Elah:
And the Philistine moved forward and came near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. And when the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was but a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. And the Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field.” Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head. And I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give you into our hand.” (1 Sam. 17:41–47)
God had delivered him and he will deliver him. David’s confidence resided in the assurance that God was going before him, “for the battle is the Lord’s.” Yahweh, and Yahweh alone, would make David victorious over that malevolent monster Goliath. Notwithstanding the vicious assaults that that giant threw at him, the young king-to-be’s faith found assurance in the righteous justice of Jehovah God, which to the unbeliever looks like “fire and sulfur and a scorching wind” (Ps. 11:6). This is another passage of which the skeptics delight to remind us, continuing their argument that the God of the Old Testament is nothing but a mean, vindictive deity who relishes in cruelty, violence, bloodshed, and genocide. The church, of course, knows and believes differently, however, because of the revelation of Scripture. But what are we to say when such aspersions are thrown our way? What should we make of this assurance David finds in God’s fierceness?
Well, for one, we don’t need to temper or tone it down, even though we might be prone to do so. There is a severe storm of judgment on the horizon for those “who love violence” (Ps. 11:5), for those, as St. John reckons it, who “love the darkness rather than the light” (John 3:19). Everyone who enters eternity stiff-arming God’s grace are set to receive a miserable “portion” (Ps. 11:6). But the point is, the assurance of salvation only comes by way of judgment, and we can’t get around that. God’s deliverance was opened and gifted to us precisely because his Son took on himself the judgment we deserve. Which means that if you are uncomfortable with the idea of “deliverance through judgment,” then you’re uncomfortable with the gospel itself.
Hoping and believing in the Lord who “rains coals on the wicked” doesn’t mean that the church is sadistic or that it relishes in brutality. It means that those who’ve been brought near to God by the blood of his Son likewise know that the Father’s holiness is as unflinching and unwavering as his love. And in both of these infinite attributes, we are introduced to the Christ of God, in whom “steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other” (Ps. 85:10). Both now and forever, the bruised and crucified Lord nailed to a cross is our assurance of deliverance.
The blessing of God’s delight.
The ultimate component of David’s confidence, though, was the delightful blessings of which he was sure because of who his God was. “For the Lord is righteous,” he sings, “he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face” (Ps. 11:7). The Lord of the heavens is the Righteous Lord who “loves righteous deeds.” He rejoices in those who conduct themselves in the ways of righteousness, which, as we know from the rest of Scripture, is only possible because this Righteous Lord fills those he loves with his righteousness. The “righteous” and “the upright” in whom the Lord delights, then, are those whom he makes to stand upright and righteous. Which is just to say that all we have and experience is entirely, one-hundred-percent gift. David’s victory over Goliath was owed to one reason, and one reason only: because “the Lord was with him.”
Saul was afraid of David because the Lord was with him but had departed from Saul. So Saul removed him from his presence and made him a commander of a thousand. And he went out and came in before the people. And David had success in all his undertakings, for the Lord was with him. And when Saul saw that he had great success, he stood in fearful awe of him. But all Israel and Judah loved David, for he went out and came in before them. (1 Sam. 18:12–16)
Such is our hope and peace and confidence. We stand in righteousness because the One on the throne declares us righteous. The King we serve and believe in delights to dispense his blessings on those he loves, chief of which is the fact that we will “behold his face.” The epitome of Christian hope is that we who are now seeing him “in a mirror dimly” will one day see our beloved King “face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12). Such is the ultimate blessing that you and I have been given in the gospel — namely, the promise of God’s unending presence. When all other moors are shaken, that message prevails. “The ‘foundations’ may be torn down but this foundation remains,” concludes Dale Ralph Davis. “Despair is managed by keeping Yahweh himself at the centre of your vision . . . That is all that anchors you when the foundations turn to slime” (126, 131).
No matter how flimsy the fabric of governmental and social order appears, it isn’t outside the bounds of God’s authoritative reach. He’s still on his throne. Even if the analysis of the moment is spot on, there’s a truer reality and truer hope that lives and abides for us, forever. “The enemy may have fitted his arrows to the string, but there is another bow bent which will be drawn before his,” declares Alexander Maclaren. “The foundations are not being destroyed, however many and strong the arms that are trying to dig them up” (104). When you are given to conclude that life’s foundations are quaking, look to the heavens, and to the One on the throne.
Dale Ralph Davis, The Way of the Righteous in the Muck of Life: Psalms 1–12 (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2020).
Alexander Maclaren, The Psalms, Vol. I: Psalms I—XXXVIII (New York: A. C. Armstrong & Son, 1904).
Charles Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, Vols. 1–3 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1988).
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Two Towers: Being the Second Part of The Lord of the Rings (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1965).