"What Can Overcome God's Anger?"
March 12, 2006 Psalm 103
Frozen Hearts, Increasingly Cold-blooded
Crime doesn't pay. Sometimes though it's humorous how criminals are slow to find that out. Paul Harvey tells of the great escape attempted by Gary Tindle, who found himself in a California courtroom charged with robbery. He asked and received from Judge Armando Rodriguez permission to go to the bathroom. While the bathroom door was guarded, Mr Tindle climbed up onto the plumbing and opened a panel in the ceiling. Sure enough, it was a drop-ceiling with space between. He climbed up into the crawl-space, and headed south. He'd gone some thirty feet when suddenly the ceiling panels broke from under him and dropped him to the floor...right back in Judge Rodriguez' courtroom!
...While we may chuckle at such clumsy and thwarted criminal attempts, there's nothing funny about the violent crimes that have occurred in Canadian communities in the past few days. In Edmonton, a man was surrounded while riding a city bus and severely beaten by 4 youth, then died as a result of his injuries. Even bloody crimes are happening within families, between parents and their own children. In December, two teenage sisters in Mississauga were convicted of drowning their own mother after plying her with drugs and alcohol. Earlier this month, a Markham woman was charged with murdering her 3-month and 2-year-old daughters. Then last Sunday, an Aurora man was arrested after a high-speed chase on Highway 400 in connection with the slaying of his wife, daughter (7), and son (3). Shocking violence within families! This used to be the stuff of crime shows on TV (at worst), not the house up the street! What's happening to Canadian society?
Scripture keeps a sombre vigil, offering the lasting truth of God's word as societies come and go. It tells us that humans who reject God can be expected to become more and more in-humane. Romans 1(28-31) says, "since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done.They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity.They are full of envy, murder, strife...They are...God-haters, insolent, arrogant...they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents;...they are senseless...heartless, ruthless." So as society becomes more godless, crime can be expected to become more heartless, inflicting murder even within homes.
Similarly, Paul warned Timothy about the decline that can be expected before the Lord's return. He said, "But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves...proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful...without love, unforgiving...without self-control, brutal..." (2Ti 3:1-3) So brutal that even emergency personnel and police must be traumatized to some degree by what they find in these situations. Those who reject God to live for self cut themselves off from His love, find their hearts become frozen and uncaring; so the deeds that erupt will be brutal and cold-blooded. Such crimes offend, grieve, and anger the Holy One in whose image we are made. Choosing to forget God, we forget what it means to be human, capable of love, mercy, and forgiveness.
God's Permanence and Pre-eminence - We Perish
The Jewish hymn-book in the middle of the Old Testament, the book of Psalms, comes ringing down through the ages as a melody that can draw us back to regard and revere our Creator in whom is the source of life abundant, not frozen. Psalm 103 in particular is a beautiful sonnet capsulizing the most wonderful qualities of the Lord. Charles Spurgeon wrote, "As in the lofty Alps some peaks rise above all others, so among even the inspired Psalms there are heights of song which overtop the rest. This 103rd Psalm has ever seemed to us to be the Monte Rosa of the divine chain of mountains of praise, glowing with a ruddier light than any of the rest...It is man's reply to the benedictions of his God, his Song on the Mount answering to his Redeemer's Sermon on the Mount...There is too much in the Psalm for a thousand pens to write, it is one of those all-comprehending Scriptures which is a Bible in itself, and it might alone almost suffice for the hymn-book of the church."
If we 'back into' the Psalm from its final section, we find it broadens our perspective, setting our study of God's character in the context of His eternal sovereignty over time and space, in contrast to our minuteness. V19 says, "The LORD has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all." Nothing escapes His notice; the darkest corners of the universe are as plain and open to Him as the back of your hand. God is in control, over all; "rule" is a consequence of Lordship. V22, "Praise the Lord, all His works everywhere in His dominion." And vv20-21 remind us there is an entire invisible realm of beings eager and willing to carry out God's commands. "Praise the LORD, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word. Praise the LORD, all his heavenly hosts, you his servants who do his will." God has "armies of angels alert to respond to whatever He wills," angels that are "ready and able to fly at His bidding, quick to hear and do what He says." (MSG) We easily forget that; yet when we pray, such "mighty creatures" are "listening for each of His commands" (NLT). Jesus was very conscious of this when He was arrested, telling His disciples, "Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?" (Mt 26:53) But instead He chose not to resist, so the Scriptures might be fulfilled that called Him our sacrificial Saviour.
If verses 19-22 celebrate God's pre-eminence over everything in space, verse 17 refers to His Permanence throughout time: "But from everlasting to everlasting the LORD's love is with those who fear him..." "Everlasting to everlasting" refers to the whole scope of time, "ever and always" as Peterson's The Message puts it. Time itself is His invention, our fishbowl; God's at home in eternity, infinitely broader than the narrow book-ends of our life-span. Vv15-16 describe our human fleetingness and frailty for the sake of contrast: "As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more." The snow has receded around the south end of our houses to reveal last season's grass, now long dead and brown. Soon it will green up, grow tall, and flourish for a few brief months, then die back again. Compared to eternity - even compared to the life-span of some of earth's oldest trees such as the giant firs and redwoods - our few decades are just as fleeting as last year's lawn. Other translations say, "Like wildflowers, we bloom and die." (NLT) "A storm snuffs them out, leaving nothing to show they were here." (MSG)
Recently my wife and I were watching an advertisement for a 2-DVD collection of all sorts of John Wayne movies. It even had some of his early black-and-white ones including Jimmy Stewart. You could see a change in the actor over the decades. In a 1979 interview with Barbara Walters, John Wayne, then age 71, explained that he sometimes had difficult moments watching his old movies. He said, "It's kind of irritating to see I was a good-looking 40-year-old and suddenly I can look over and see this 71-year-old...I'm not squawking...I just want to be around for a long time." Even 'The Duke' was aware of his transience. We hear you loud and clear, Mr Wayne! Only God is permanent and pre-eminent - we're "just dust".
God's Righteous Wrath and Marvelous Mercy
Psalm 103 is beautiful partly because it paints such a full portrait of God's character. It's important that we have a picture of God in our mind that jives with how He reveals Himself in Scripture, not according to people's ideas. God is NOT an old man with a beard in the sky. (In our Wild At Heart / Captivating study, we're being reminded that God created humans in His image, male and female; so we can't impose one particular gender on God, yet we shouldn't de-personalize Him to the point He becomes an "it".) The inspired writers of Scripture were less concerned with describing the details of God's physical appearance than they were with recording His unchanging character qualities. (Perhaps how God chooses to appear is somewhat flexible anyway, if Jesus' disguise and transformation at Emmaus is any indication.) So what are the key qualities of which the Psalmist sings?
It's not a cardboard cut-out but complex character with real depth. Not sugar-coated but multi-dimensioned, appropriate for the Creator and Judge of the universe. Of particular interest is what the Psalm says about God's ANGER. God is absolutely perfect and holy, in His essence totally other than our fallen sinfulness. For God also to be perfectly righteous and just judge, He must bring to bear punishing consequences for evil-doers. So other pagan religions (such as Greek or Norse) portrayed their chief god as an angry hurler of thunderbolts on those who displeased him. How does God resolve this tension by what He reveals about Himself in Scripture?
Let's recall that anger itself is not sin. Anger can be good, healthy, an appropriate response to evil. Anger may be an indicator of godly jealousy, caring about what happens to the one loved. In 2Cor 11(2) Paul talks about being jealous for the Corinthians "with a godly jealousy", having promised them as a pure virgin to one husband, Christ. Consequently Paul got riled up if some in the church were practising or advocating sin. He asked, "Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?" Because he loved them so much, he did not want to have to take a disciplinary stance when he arrived, and "be grieved over many who have sinned earlier and have not repented..." (2Cor 12:21)
It's not sinful to be angry - as long as it's handled appropriately, and not allowed to linger. Paul quoted Psalm 4(4), "In your anger do not sin," then advised us not to let the sun go down on our anger (Eph 4:26).
Modern or post-modern society may find the idea of anger in God to be repugnant; but let's allow God the freedom to decide what's suitable and healthy when it comes to character, particularly HIS own. God is not an impersonal, uninvolved Supreme Power like that of the Deists - winding up the universe like a clock then taking an indeterminate vacation to a beach in Florida. Without cell phone. God cares about His creatures, He's involved in our lives, He is a (properly speaking) JEALOUS God, like Paul caring about what happens to the Corinthian church. And godly jealousy carries the prerogative to become angry when sin happens. In Exodus 20(5), at the heart of the Ten Commandments, God forbids worship of idols saying, "for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God..." It's even more emphatic in Ex 34(14), "Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God." Not long after the famous 'Shema' in Deuteronomy 6(15) we see the direct link between jealousy and anger if the people rebel: "for the LORD your God, who is among you, is a jealous God and his anger will burn against you, and he will destroy you from the face of the land." This came to pass in the days of Ezekiel, when God allowed Jerusalem to be destroyed and the nation exiled as punishment for their pursuit of other gods. God said through the prophet, "Then my wrath against you will subside and my jealous anger will turn away from you; I will be calm and no longer angry." (Ezek 16:42)
Is this just an Old Testament view of God, as some might insist? Is this jealousy/anger dynamic somehow magically removed so the New Testament God is just love and peace, a harmless smiling octogenarian 'gumming it' with no teeth? Do those murderers and thugs who kill children and others we mentioned earlier not really have anything to fear from the God Jesus preached? Far from it! Romans 1(18) warns, "The wrath of God [or, anger, indignation] is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness..." Paul adds in the next chapter, "But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God's wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed...But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger." (Ro 2:5,8)
Because God is righteous and holy, He must 'settle the score' in terms of universal justice eventually. His essence as just Judge requires that sinners and evildoers "get their due" - in the next life, if not in this. So Psalm 103 describes God in vv6&8 as being "slow to anger...The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed." Justice requires punishment; so what hope can there be for anyone, as we have all sinned and fallen short of what God requires?
Vv9-10 astoundingly speak of a marvelous mercy that counterbalance God's righteous wrath: "He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities." David must have marveled how that could be; it seems a contradiction to fairness. But here the events around Jesus' life, death, and resurrection in the New Testament provide us with the rest of the missing equation. A holy God can be merciful because the perfect Son bore our sins and voluntarily became the target of divine wrath. Paul writes in Romans (5:6,8f), "You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly...God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him!" Hear that? There's the answer to the anger dilemma - Jesus saves us from God's wrath by taking the 'hit' for us.
So the Psalm can move beyond the negative to all the benefits of God, in vv 3-5,8, and 11-13. There are largely two groups of benefits: spiritual and physical. Spiritual would include "forgives all your sins" in v3 - we've been talking about that already, accomplished through the blood of Jesus. V11, "As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us." The Message translates this, "As far as sunrise is from sunset, he has separated us from our sins." It says God is "abounding [rich] in love...as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great [strong] is His love for those who fear Him." And Yahweh is "compassionate and gracious...As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him."
This is the big question: does God have compassion? Does the infinite, almighty God who runs the universe actually care about me? One day, Mark records, a man with leprosy came to Jesus and begged Him on his knees, "If you are willing, You can make me clean." Mark notes that Jesus was "filled with compassion" as He reached out His hand and touched the man, saying, "I am willing; be clean!" and the man was cured. (Mk 1:41) No less, at the end of His ministry after the Triumphal Entry, do we see Jesus filled with compassion as He actually weeps over Jerusalem and laments, "If you, even you had only known on this day what would bring you peace..." (Lk 19:42) God is a loving, compassionate, caring God, "as parents feel for their children" (MSG). This is what society's missing that would help counter these awful crimes we're hearing about involving parents' heartlessness to their own children!
The Psalmist also lists several physical benefits. God "heals all your diseases...redeems your life from the pit...[He] satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's." Eagles moult annually, so the image may be that of the new set of feathers each year. We who are 'made of mud' (14 MSG) need that renewal - even John Wayne noticed that! Peterson translates this section rather loosely but poetically, "He forgives your sins - every one. He heals your diseases - every one. He redeems you from hell - saves your life! He crowns you with love and mercy - a paradise crown. He wraps you in goodness - beauty eternal. He renews your youth - you're always young in His presence." Isn't that great? Such blessings from our heavenly Father, in every area of need in our life!
Remember His Ways
Remembering plays a key role in this Psalm. The place of the wildflower "remembers it no more" but God "remembers that we are dust" (13,16). The Psalmist urges his soul to "forget not" all God's benefits; the Lord's love is with those "who keep His covenant and remember to obey His precepts" (2, 18). As we forget not God's marvelous mercy and benefits, and remember to walk in His ways, His Spirit active in us reconstitutes us as Christ's hands and legs: sort of re-membering us to be Jesus' caring, compassionate body in the midst of a world of hurt.
Michael Yaconelli tells how every month a certain youth group visited a local nursing home to hold church services for the residents. Daryl, a reluctant middle-aged youth group volunteer leader, didn't like nursing homes. For a long time, he had avoided the monthly services. But when a flu epidemic depleted the group of sponsors, Daryl agreed to help with the next month's service, as long as he did not have to be part of the program. During the service, Daryl felt awkward and out of place. He leaned against the back wall between two residents in wheelchairs. Just as the service finished and Daryl was thinking about a quick exit, someone grabbed his hand. Startled, he looked down and saw a very old, frail, obviously lonely man in a wheelchair. What could Daryl do but hold the man's hand? The man's mouth hung open, and his face held no expression. Daryl doubted whether he could hear or see anything.
As everyone began to leave, Daryl realized he didn't want to leave the old man. Daryl had been left too many times in his own life. Caught somewhat off-guard by his feelings, Daryl leaned over and whispered, "I'm...uh...sorry, I have to leave, but I'll be back, I promise." Without warning, the man squeezed Daryl's hand and then let go. As Daryl's eyes filled with tears, he grabbed his stuff and started to leave. Inexplicably, he heard himself say to the old man, "I love you," and thought, Where did that come from? What's the matter with me?
Daryl returned the next month and the month after that. Each time, it was the same. Daryl would stand in the back, Oliver would grab his hand, Daryl would say he had to leave. Oliver would squeeze his hand, and Daryl would say softly, "I love you, Mr Leak." (He had learned his name, of course.) As the months went on, about a week before the service, Daryl would find himself looking forward to visiting his aged friend. On Daryl's sixth visit, the service started, but Oliver still hadn't been wheeled out. Daryl didn't feel too concerned at first, because it often took the nurses a long time to wheel everyone out. But halfway into the service, Daryl became alarmed. He went to the head nurse. "Um, I don't see Mr Leak here today.Is he okay?" The nurse asked Daryl to follow her and led him to room 27. Oliver lay in his bed, his eyes closed, his breathing uneven. At forty years of age, Daryl had never seen someone dying, but he knew that Oliver was near death. Slowly, he walked to the side of the bed and grabbed Oliver's hand. When Oliver didn't respond, tears filled Daryl's eyes. He knew he might never see Oliver again. He had so much he wanted to say, but the words wouldn't come out. He stayed with Oliver for about an hour, then the youth director gently interrupted to say they were leaving. Daryl stood and squeezed Mr Leak's hand for the last time. "I'm sorry, Oliver, I have to go.I love you." As he unclasped his hand, he felt a squeeze. Mr Leak had responded! He had squeezed Daryl's hand! The tears were unstoppable now, and Daryl stumbled toward the door, trying to regain his composure.
A young woman was standing at the door, and Daryl almost bumped into her. "I'm sorry," he said, "I didn't see you." She replied, "It's all right, I've been waiting to see you.I'm Oliver's granddaughter.He's dying, you know." "Yes, I know." "I wanted to meet you," she continued. "When the doctors said he was dying, I came immediately. We have always been very close. They said he couldn't talk, but he's been talking to me. Not much, but I know what he is saying. Last night he woke up. His eyes were bright and alert. He looked straight into my eyes and said, 'Please say goodbye to Jesus for me,' and he laid back down and closed his eyes. He caught me off guard, and as soon as I gathered my composure, I whispered to him: 'Grandpa, I don't need to say goodbye to Jesus; you're going to be with Him soon, and you can tell Him hello.' Grandpa struggled to open his eyes again. This time his face lit up with a mischievous smile, and he said as clearly as I'm talking to you, 'I know, but Jesus comes to see me every month, and he might not know I've gone.' He closed his eyes and hasn't spoken since. I told the nurse what he'd said, and she told me about you, coming every month, holding Grandpa's hand. I wanted to thank you for him, for me...and, well, I never thought of Jesus as being as chubby and bald as you, but I imagine that Jesus is very glad to have had you be mistaken for Him. I know Grandpa is.Thank you." She leaned over and kissed Daryl on the forehead.
Oliver Leak died peacefully the next morning.
By a simple act of holding a hand and returning faithfully month after month, Daryl mirrored God's love and compassion to a frail, elderly man. He re-membered Jesus, becoming His limbs on earth, and so discovered still more of God's abundant blessings for those who remember His ways. Let's pray.