The Lord, A God of Vengeance and Steadfast Love
Passage: Psalm 94:1–94:23
The Lord, A God of Venegance and Steadfast Love
I would like to start this morning by asking you a question, are you embarrassed to know that the Lord is a God of vengeance? Does it make you uncomfortable to read out loud that God repays the proud what they deserve?
The fact is that people (including ourselves) are not naturally inclined to see God as a God of judgment or vengeance. There are some who deny the existence of God altogether, to be sure. But there are many more who believing in some kind of God, make him to be a God who has no interest in actually holding people accountable for their sin. We are inclined to think that judgment makes God an arbitrary, unreasonable, and impulsive God.
But Psalm 94 shows us that without God’s vengeance on the wicked, there is no place for his mercy either. Apart from God’s commitment to uphold righteousness and justice, his covenant-keeping grace fails, and so do all his promises that rest on it. This is actually what Paul is getting at in Romans 9 when he writes that “God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy.” If you want to know the riches of God’s mercy you must know the riches of God’s justice also.
And that is what we see in Psalm 94, friends. Psalm 94 shows us two truths about God that are essential to the display of his glory in the salvation of his people. Two truths about God that are central to his covenant-faithfulness. First, in verses 1-15, we see that the Lord is a God of vengeance. And second, in verses 16-23, we see that that the Lord is a God of steadfast love. And most importantly I want us to see that these two truths about God are not inconsistent, but rather the one upholds the other.
We see the first truth about God in vv. 1-15, that the Lord is a God of vengeance.
The Lord our God is A God of Vengeance
The psalmist starts in v.1 with a petition for God to reveal his glory to his people. Israel’s present situation threatens to cloud what is true about God and therefore it threatens their faith in him. Look there with me in verse 1, the psalmist pleads with God that he may “shine forth” in his vengeance on the wicked.
Now, this language of shining forth comes from Israel’s experience of God’s glory when he gave them his Law at Mount Sinai. When God revealed himself in the thunder and in the fire. And this is how Moses speaks of that event in Deuteronomy 33: “The Lord came from Sinai and dawned from Seir upon us; he shone forth from Mount Paran.” Moses compares God’s glory to the dawning of a new day, to the shining of the sun. This language is also used in the Aaronic blessing in Deuteronomy 6:24, which some of you may know by memory, “May the LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.” The idea of God’s shining forth expresses the desire for God to rise up like the sun, and to show himself to his people as a God of grace in the fullness of his blessing. So when the psalmist asks God in v.1 to shine forth, he is asking him to reveal his glory and grace to his people.
He goes on in v.2 and asks God to shine forth specifically in his vengeance on the proud. Look there with me in verse 2, the psalmist asks the Lord to rise up as judge of the earth and to repay the proud what they deserve. And I hope you see the connection here, God’s grace on his people, and God’s judgment of the proud, are one and the same. As Spurgeon says, “It is the same sun which melts the wax that also hardens the clay.” God’s glory is gracious to one, but vengeful to the other.
Now, an important question for us to ask ourselves at this point is this, is the psalmist being presumptuous? Can we presume to tell God to judge the proud? And the answer is no, we cannot not and should presume on the judgment of God. But we can trust, as the psalmist does, the character of God and bank our lives on his promises. The psalmist is lamenting his present situation and petitioning God to remain true to his promise of salvation. The psalmist is not being presumptuous, but walking by faith in what he knows to be true about God.
It is also important to notice that he is not asking God to be capricious, but to actually repay the proud for what they deserve. He explains in vv. 3-7 why the proud deserve God’s vengeance. He appeals to God with strong evidence against them.
In verse 3, we see that the proud are evildoers, they are wicked the psalmist says, and they boast about their wickedness. Not only that, but apparently they have been doing this for a long time. “How long shall the wicked exult?” the psalmist asks. The wicked have become puffed-up in v. 4, “They pour out their arrogant words.” What’s more, they have crushed and afflicted God’s people (v.5); they have killed the widow and the sojourner (v.6); they have murdered the fatherless. And what’s worse, they boast about this before God. Look there with me in verse 7, what do the proud say? They claim that “The Lord does not see; that the God of Jacob does not perceive.” They claim that God has turned his back on their wickedness. Their arrogant words are a direct assault against the character of God as a faithful covenant-keeper.
They call into question God’s character, and they also undermine his Word. Remember that the Law in the Old Testament gave special provisions to care for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. But instead of caring for the sojourner, fatherless, and widow, the proud actually kill them, and they boast in the fact that they have broken the Law and rejected the Word of God. Their boasting is a direct attack against God’s character and his Word.
Do you see what is at stake here? If the wicked are not repaid but continue to exalt themselves in their wickedness and to boast over God, it shows that God is not truly who he says he is. His glory is diminished. So the psalmist’s prayer for deliverance is rooted in his desire for God to uphold his glory. Friend, do you treasure God’s glory in this way? May it be true about us that we treasure God’s glory in Christ above everything else.
Treasuring God’s glory like that leads to an unshakable confidence in God. Look with me in verses 8-11. The psalmist is confident that God will not let the proud have the final word. He argues to himself that if God created the eye for seeing and the ear for hearing, then surely his own eyes and ears will see and hear. Of course, the psalmist is speaking metaphorically here, but the metaphor teaches us something concrete and true about God. That is, that God will surely act to save his people. Moreover, the Lord disciplines and rebukes the nations and knows that the thoughts of man are but a breath.” The psalmist is reassuring us that the boasting of the wicked will soon be silenced. The nations may rise against God and his people, but the Lord will rebuke them. The thoughts and arrogant words of the proud are but a breath. But the Word of the Lord remains forever.
The proud say that God does not see or perceive, but it is they themselves who are dull of heart and foolish in their understanding. The psalmist calls out to them in v. 8, “Understand, O dullest of people! Fools, when will you be wise?” Their words are turned on themselves. They are the ones who actually cannot see nor perceive the true character of God.
And please notice that in calling out their foolishness, God is being gracious to the proud and the wicked. He is reasoning with them as a father would reason with an unruly child. He who planted the ear, does he not hear? He who formed the eye, does he not see? Yes, the Lord rebukes the proud, but he does so that he may teach them knowledge. He is providing for them an opportunity to acknowledge their error and to turn from their arrogant ways. The very of word of judgment is a means of grace to them. The proud have no excuse. They deserve the fury of God almighty, and yet he still calls them to understand. This is marvelous and patient grace.
But God’s discipline and instruction is also a means of grace for God’s people. Look there in vv. 12-13, “Blessed is the man whom you discipline, O Lord, and whom you teach out of your law, to give him rest from days of trouble, until a pit is dug for the wicked.” The Lord disciplines and rebukes the nations and teaches them knowledge from afar, but he walks with his people and instructs them from his Word. The Lord is near to his people, friends. If Psalm 94 teaches us anything, it teaches us to trust that God sees our situation and that he hears our cry for help. It teaches us that God is never too far from us to instruct us from his Word and to lead us into his rest. Brothers and sisters, as surely as the sun rises every morning, so God will rise up to save us. As one commentator puts it, ““There is nothing wrong with the sun, it’s just that the night is long.” Perhaps your night has been long, friend, but you must know and you must trust that God is near you and that his all-sustaining and hope-giving Word is not far from you.
That is what the psalmist means by God’s discipline of the blessed man here in v. 12. In contrast to God’s discipline of the nations in v. 11 which he uses to rebuke them, God’s discipline of his people is gracious and even comforting. God’s discipline in Psalm 94 is his using of all things, including our suffering, for our good. In other words, by comparing God’s corrective discipline of the nations and God’s comforting discipline of his people, the psalmist is saying that God leads his people not with the severe hand of his vengeance, but with the hand of a faithful father who uses all things for our good.
And this leads us to the second truth about God. The Lord our God is not only a God of vengeance but he is also a God of steadfast love.
The Lord our God is A God of Vengeance
Notice the transition or the connection in vv. 13 and 14. The Lord will give his people “rest from days of trouble, until a pit is dug for the wicked.” And then the psalmist gives us the reason why he is so confident in this truth. “For the Lord [he says in v.14] will not forsake his people, he will not abandon his heritage.” That is the steadfast love of the Lord, friends. Remember that the steadfast love of God is literally his covenant faithfulness to his people. How can we know that God will save his people and bring them into rest? Because he is faithful to keep his promises. He will not forsake his people but hold them fast in covenant faithfulness and love.
But look in v. 15, essential to God’s faithful presence with his people, and essential to him remaining true to his promise to not forsake them is the restoration of justice so that the upright in heart may follow the Lord. For the Lord not to forsake his people he must restore justice to the righteous by repaying the proud for their wickedness. You cannot have God’s rest without God wiping wickedness out and establishing justice on the earth.
Now, in v.16 the psalmist shows us what it looks like for the Lord not to forsake his people. He asks two rhetorical questions, “Who rises up for me against the wicked? Who stands up for me against evildoers?” And the answer is the Lord. The Lord rises up for his people and stands by them. Brothers and sisters, the Lord our God stands with his people in steadfast love. And by the way, this is what it looks like to preach the gospel to ourselves in times of need. We remind ourselves of God’s promises in Christ by asking ourselves these kind of questions and remembering that it is the Lord who rises up for us and who stands by us.
And God’s promises for his people are not merely general promises. No, they are personal to you and me. In v.17 the psalmist reflects on his personal experience of God’s present help for him, “If the Lord had not been my help”, he says, “my soul would soon have lived in the land of silence.” The Lord has answered his prayer from v.1. The Lord has risen up and he has shone forth to save him from death, from “the land of silence.” This is the testimony of every believer. If the Lord had not been our help, we would have soon lived in the land of silence.
We see the stark difference between the wicked in vv. 4-7, who do not understand the true character of God, and the psalmist’s confidence in God. He knows God’s faithful character and understand that his promises are irrevocable. In his moment of greatest need he turns to God by embracing and believing his Word. Look with me in vv.18-19. “When I thought, ‘My foot slips,” your steadfast love, O Lord, held me up. When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul.” How is the psalmist so sure of God’s steadfast love for him even when the circumstances of his life are so baffling? The answer is that he knows the Word of God. God’s consolations, or comforting promises, work as a balm and joy for his soul in the midst of suffering. The psalmist has so immersed himself in the promises of God that he can say that they cheer his soul. Brothers and sisters, I know we make this application often from this pulpit, but it is never a waste of time for us to remind ourselves that God has provided sufficiently for our every need in his Word. Brothers and sisters, God’s Word is sufficient to cheer our souls even in the darkest of times.
These verses give us an intimate window into the heart and mind of the inspired writer. They helps us understand that the prayer at the beginning of the psalm is not a vindictive appeal to God, but the cry of one whose mind and heart are weighted down by the anxieties and cares of this world. They are the desperate prayer of one reaching out to God to be held up by him. And so we can identify ourselves with the psalmist. The reality is that we are all well acquainted with the crippling and consuming experience of an anxious mind and a heavy heart. Aren’t we? Whether it be uncertainties about the future, or a relational fracture, or the crippling experience of hopelessness or depression. We all know how far our minds and hearts can go into the darkness of fearful and anxious thoughts, so that we think, “my foot is about to slip, I cannot hold on any longer.” But it is precisely in those dark moments, when the thoughts of your mind and the cares of your heart are too much to bare, that the Lord stands by you and shows you his steadfast love. It is precisely in the moment when we can no longer hold on to what we know is true that we realize that God has been holding us fast to himself all along. Friend, when you fear your faith will fail it is Christ who holds you fast.
Finally, the psalmist knows that God has proven his trustworthy character and faithfulness. He knows God’s steadfast love and righteous character. Look there in v. 20, he asks, “Can wicked rulers be allied with you, those who frame injustice by statue?” And the answer is absolutely not. The people of God may be suffering under the unjust rule of their leaders, but the psalmist knows that he can rest on the righteousness and justice of God. He knows that God will shine forth and come to their rescue. In v. 21 these wicked rulers “band together against the life of the righteous and condemn the innocent to death.” But in v.22 the psalmist puts his hope in the fact that “the Lord has become his stronghold, and my God the rock of my refuge.” Brothers and sisters, the steadfast love of God is a refuge and a stronghold for his people during times of trouble. The steadfast love of the Lord is not whimsical, but strong, and mighty. The steadfast love of the Lord is his commitment to uphold the righteous, it is his faithfulness to save his people from dead and to repay the wicked what they deserve. And it is only in knowing God as a God of vengeance that our faith can truly rest in his steadfast love. For as we have seen, apart from God’s commitment to justice and righteousness, his promises for us fail.
Now, as we come to the end, I hope this question has been in your mind all along. If the steadfast love of God for his people depends on his upholding his justice and righteousness in the destruction of the wicked, then what hope is there for you and me. The obvious truth in all of this is that the wicked are not only the proud and wicked ruler out there framing injustice as their statue. No, the wicked are here in this room. The wicked is you and me. Preparing for this sermon reminded me of one of the most powerful moments in Corrie Ten Boom’s recounting of her experience in the Nazi concentration camp of Ravensbruck. In her recollections she writes this:
As the cold increased, so did the special temptation of concentration-camp life: the temptation to think only of oneself. It took a thousand cunning forms [like prisoners skipping the food lines to get double portions while others would starve because the food rations would run out]… Selfishness had a life of its own… And even if it wasn’t right – it wasn’t so very wrong, was it? Not wrong like… murder and the other monstrous evils we saw in Ravensbruck every day. Oh, this was the great ploy of Satan in that kingdom of his: to display such blatant evil that one could almost believe one’s own secret sins didn’t matter…”
It is tempting to read Psalm 94 this morning, with its display of blatant evil, and almost believe that one’s own secret sins don’t matter. It is tempting to look at the wickedness of the proud in their murder of the defenseless and their boasting over God, and think, well, I am not as bad as them. But don’t forget the secret sins of your heart. Don’t forget what the apostle Paul says in the book of Romans, that we are all under sin, and that we have all turned aside from God. That there is no righteous person, not even one, because the Law of God condemns all of us. For we have all sin and fall short of the glory of God. We have rejected God’s Word and boasted before him in our pride.
If all we were left with this morning was the last verse of Psalm 94, we would be hopeless before God’s just and righteous vengeance. Yes, God will wipe out the wicked from the earth. He must, in order to uphold his glory. But that is only bad news for you and me, unless God’s vengeance and steadfast love can meet in one place without undermining the glory of God.
And that is the good news of the gospel, is it not, friends? For now the righteousness of God has been revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. God has dealt with our sin by sending his Son, God in the flesh, to die on the cross on in place of the wicked. So that God remains just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. At the cross, both the justice and mercy of God are uphold as the Son of God himself takes on the vengeance of God that we deserved. It is at the cross that God has shone forth and has fully displayed both his vengeance on the wicked and his steadfast covenant love towards his people. It is in the gospel that our cries for God to shine forth are finally answered.
Let me finish where I began. Are you embarrassed or uncomfortable to know that God is a God of vengeance? You should be, if you were left to your sin. But, brothers and sisters, God has done in Christ what we could not do for ourselves. He did not push our wickedness under the rug, but he dealt with it at the cross. It is finished, the Lord says. Instead of being embarrassed we should rejoice that God’s justice and mercy have been reconciled in the Lord Jesus Christ, to whom we look for grace by faith as we rest in his finished work on our behalf. Amen.