Brethren Archive

The Psalms of Judgment.

by G.F. Trench

THE revelation of God in Christ, as the Fountain of Grace, overflowing in streams of mercy to men, possesses for our minds so powerful an attraction, and is, moreover, so perfectly adapted to our condition of helplessness and guilt, that no one can wonder much if other less tender aspects of the Divine character are viewed with little sympathy, if not wholly rejected as articles of faith.
I have sometimes considered the throne of God, as presented in the words of Psalm Ixxxix. 14, as high and lifted up upon the four pillars—Justice, Judgment, Truth, and Mercy—and fancied that I stood watching while a number of curious visitors inspected the wonderful structure and commented upon the relative merits of the parts.  
And first, they view the column, Mercy.  Its beauty and grace are unanimously commended. Not a voice is raised to question its fitness as a basis for the throne of the King.  Its quality has been the theme of our greatest poet and commends it to the sense of all the King’s subjects.
Next comes the column, Truth.  This too, is admired, not so warmly as the first, it is true, but yet on the whole, it is pronounced good and fitting.  That the King should keep His word is admitted to be an element essential to the value of His mercy.  Each is necessary to the other. No doubt, truth in the character of the King, if it be too unqualified and too rigid, may have some unpleasant consequences for offenders; for if He be ever unchangeably true to His promises, there may be danger of His being true also to His threats, which would be terrible to contemplate.  But let this pass.  The absence of the pillar, Truth might on the whole, be worse for us than its presence and let us hope that Mercy may so qualify and soften it as to render it harmless.
Next in order, the column Justice comes under examination, and draws out much surprise and keen criticism.  From the first, its shape, form, and proportions are found unpleasing.  It is too high, too solid, too severe, too plain, too angular; not graceful, not beautiful, or at least not suitable for its position beneath the throne of the God of sinners.  Besides, it does not correspond with the first of the pillars.
It is a different style of architecture.  It is quite out of place.  Some mistake has occurred.  It is insufferable that such anomalies should be introduced into a structure where all should be harmonious, and all should be adapted to the views of the subject, not merely to those of the King.  In time, the spectators condemn the pillar unanimously, as unfitted for its position, however much may be said as to the correctness of its proportions theoretically.
Lastly, the company moves round to the fourth column, Judgment, but it must come with little predisposition for approving it, so deeply have their feelings been wounded by the last discovery.  And now they are at first dumb-stricken—to be face-to-face with the pillar of Judgment in the King’s throne.  Words cannot utter their dismay.  To be so rudely disturbed from dreams of universal mercy by this revelation, is too much for mortal man.  Judgment! What! a throne founded upon Judgment?  That may suit earthly sovereigns, ruling their subjects with rigour for their rebellion, executing vengeance on their enemies, punishing with banishment, servitude, or death, the lawless and criminal.  Possibly kingdoms would fall which failed so to do.  Possibly thrones would totter were crime unjudged and criminals unpunished.  Judgment is very well on earth, among men.  But that God should adopt such a principle in government is incredible.  The pillar must come down.  The architect must be reprimanded.  Fetch men to work with the pickaxe and shovel of criticism, with the powder and dynamite of blasphemy, but let not a moment be wasted in destroying such a hideous monstrosity, such an outrage on nineteenth century notions.  This is their instant and indignant demand as the visitors turn disgusted away.
But as they go, I notice the guide approach and thus reprove their impetuosity: ‘‘Gentle sirs, you approve the column ‘Mercy’ in the front but doubt the wisdom of placing ‘Truth’ so near it.  Can you not see that mercy without truth would afford no security to man, for the promise might be broken, or the temper of the King might change, but God’s truth secures the operation of his mercy?
“Again, you question the fitness of Justice as a foundation for this structure.  But it is manifest that truth and justice are twin sisters.  A character of truth cannot be devoid of justice.  For justice is simply truth in the field of government.  Therefore, the three pillars are congenial and mutually dependent.  And as for Judgment, which you desire to overthrow, justice without judgment would be a mere name, a word, a shadow.  Judgment is the executor of justice, it enforces her decrees.  A court of justice without a prison of judgment would be powerless.  Thus, the presence of justice as a pillar involves that of judgment, even as the presence of mercy involves that of truth.  And, indeed, mercy itself would have no meaning were judgment to be upset.  It is the fear of judgment that makes men sue for mercy and value it when given.  The throne itself, its stability, security, authority, benefit, and terror, depend upon the four pillars each and all being maintained.”
This little parable may serve to illustrate the nature of the complaint against the Psalms of Judgment.  Is it not simply the familiar one of the criminal against the law that condemns him?  Take, for example, Psalm cix.  It is a prophetic Psalm of David, referring, as Peter has told us, to Judas (see Acts i. 16).  “Men and brethren, the Scripture must needs be fulfilled which the Holy Ghost by the mouth of David spake before concerning Judas.”  It cannot, therefore, be charged against David as an utterance of vulgar vindictiveness.  It is spoken by the Holy Ghost.  It is prophetic of the betrayal by Judas, and the words are the words of the Lord Jesus, invoking woe upon his head. Terrible indeed, are the twenty-five successive “Lets” and “Let nots” with which is pronounced the condemnation of those who, amid abounding light, love darkness, and in the presence of proffered grace, choose wrath.  Terrible, too, to think that souls, forewarned by such prophetic imprecations, continue to this day to trample under-foot, the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.  But can we safely or wisely, because of these terrors, reject them as human inventions?  Let us view the matter calmly in two respects—present and prospective.
The fearful combinations of Psalm cix. and others, need present no difficulty, as coming from the lips that were full of grace, to those, first, who notice the providential dealings of God in this present day of grace, wherein He occasionally affects with each one of these curses, those against whom His righteous judgment awakes; and secondly, to those who believe that the occasional and uncertain punishment of sin in this world will be deepened into certain and eternal punishment hereafter.  To such, they only prove what spiritual instincts had before taught them—that our Lord’s Divine righteousness of soul in condemnation of sin was not for an instant invaded by His love for His persecutors and desire for their salvation.  To finite and sin-stricken minds, such a combination of characteristics as perfect grace and undiminished justice may seem incompatible, but in God, and especially in Him who, in order to find issue for His boundless, unsearchable love to sinners, was to endure in His own person, the full force of the justice of God in judgment against them, the union is intelligible, compatible, and essential.
And here it is worthy of notice that the language of this Psalm cix. indicates, even in its strongest denunciation, the prevailing tone of the Lord’s mind of grace and forgiveness.  As for example, when, in verses 14 and 16, He says, “Let the iniquity of his fathers be remembered with Jehovah, and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out . . . because that he remembered not to show mercy,” &c. This is the utterance of One, the purpose of whose life and death were that “iniquity’’ should be ‘‘remembered no more,” and that “sin” should be “blotted out,” and that so definitely and emphatically, that it is needful here to raise a protest, and to except from the operation of the current of merely which He Himself had, so to speak, released and set flowing in full volume to all around Him, those who should despise the message and conspire to destroy the bearer of it.  The words of the 16th and 17th verses, moreover, carry our minds forward at once to the warning so often uttered by our Lord in the days of His flesh, “For if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you your trespasses.”  “As he loved cursing, so let it come unto him; as he delighted not in blessing, so let it be far from him.”  The words may differ, the form of utterance may change from prayer to prophecy, from curse to threat, but the sentiment is the same.
What do men mean to suggest when they point to our Lord’s prayer upon the Cross, ‘‘Father, forgive them,” and contrast it with these Psalms of David?  Will they show that where our Lord was forgiving David, was vindictive?  Let them take heed of using blasphemies, for who was it who said, ‘‘Woe unto that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed!  It had been good for that man if he had not been born” (Matt. xxvi. 24).  Could words better be found to condense into a single verse the whole of Psalm cix.?
Was it a sudden access of vindictiveness that drew forth from the well-spring of love the eight woes of Matthew xxii. against the opponents of Christ’s teaching?  Oh! Let men beware how they reject the counsel of God against themselves!  God’s “righteous Servant” vindicates that title by words of terrible judgment, no less than He vindicates His name Jesus by words of grace and salvation; and those who deny that the Perfect Man could have pronounced the less awful denunciations of the Psalms should pause, and ask themselves, who it was that warned men in language of overwhelming reiteration of the ‘‘worm that dieth not,” and “the fire that can never be quenched.”
But an attempt has been made to sustain the charge of imperfection in these Psalms of David by connecting them with certain acts of his life, notably with that of the sentence on Shimei, in which, as it is alleged, he manifested a spirit of vindictiveness and revenge. Now, nobody will for a moment contend that David’s actions were in every case free from blame or were entirely in accord with his inspired writings.  Neither is such an argument necessary in the attempt to defend those writings from charges of imperfection, for otherwise every part of the Old and New Testaments would need to be similarly sustained.  God chose to use sinning men as His instruments of communication with the world, and their occasional failures no more affect the truths they taught than the bends in a tube affect the quality of the stream that it conveys.
But in this particular case, David is not open to the charge made against him.  Intelligently studied, the story of Shimei sustains David’s long proved character for generous, forgiving grace; and it shows that he had not, while so acting in accordance with the dictates of his heart, forgotten his duty to the state as its ruler in righteousness.
For when one demanded the death of the traitor because he had cursed Jehovah’s anointed in the day of adversity, he refused to allow it (2 Sam xix. 21, 22), thus recalling his repeated successful efforts to protect his arch-enemy Saul, from the stroke of vengeance; recalling to mind his anger and grief when he found that Abner, the rebel against his throne, had been treacherously killed (2 Sam. iii. 28-39).  And so Shimei was permitted to enjoy all the liberties of the worthiest in Israel to the end of David's life; lest any should charge him with personal vindictiveness.  But at his death, mindful of the evil effect which open rebellion, such as Shimei’s if still unpunished, would certainly involves against the public peace and order, he gave a solemn charge to Solomon to execute righteous judgment against him.  Thus, with more than human wisdom was David guided by the Divine Spirit how to manifest personal grace, and yet not to sacrifice governmental righteousness,
In a word, this very incident in David’s history, instead of constituting an argument against him for lack of grace, becomes the key, when rightly handled to solve the apparent discrepancy between the psalms of grace and the psalms of malediction, between the blessings and the woes uttered by Jesus Christ, and between His offers of universal pardon to believers and His threats of eternal punishment against the rejecters of grace.
If those who resent the painful side of truth presented in these Scriptures, would pray God by His Spirit, to unfold to them the meaning of the words, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for therein is the righteousness of God revealed,” they would perhaps cease to question the harmony, the unity, of all the Word of God.
Righteousness is the foundation of the throne.  Only in the sacrificial satisfaction of righteousness, can any Gospel of Christ be published, and failing man’s consent to come to terms on the basis of righteousness victorious in the Cross, he must inevitably fall under the terrible sentence of righteousness victorious outside the Cross.  God's nature requires it. God’s throne demands it.  God would not be God were it otherwise.
“The Christian” 1885 


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