What God Actually Does

One of the reasons we love the Psalms is because they give us clear and practical reminders of truth even when we’re in difficult and confusing circumstances. This is why the Psalms are worth memorizing and holding onto — not just for ourselves, but also for others. For example, if you were to get the sudden news that you have a brain tumor that requires emergency surgery, and if you were rushed to the operating room, and your spouse or friend or someone from your family is left waiting in the lobby during the procedure, and if I was able to show up and be there and pray with them, the first thing that I’d want to pray is Psalm 46:

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble at its swelling.

Psalm 46 tells us we don’t have to be afraid because God is a “very present help in trouble.” And that’s a truth we want to remember in the moment of crisis, right? It’s clear and practical truth. The Psalms give us that.

But then the Psalms also give voice to the whirlwind that can be our hearts. The Psalms are able to put into words our confusion. And that’s what we see in Psalm 10. Listen to verse 1:

Why, O Lord, do you stand afar off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

Now wait a minute: Psalm 46:1 says that God is a very present help in trouble. But Psalm 10:1 asks God why he hides himself in times of trouble. So which is it? Is God present in trouble or distant in trouble? Is God near or is he far?

Reality vs. Felt-Reality

I think the answer to this question is the difference between reality and felt-reality. Pastor Joe introduced these categories to us back in Psalm 3. He explained that reality is what is actually happening, but felt-reality is what is happening from our vantage point — it’s your experience of reality.

When it comes to reality — objective, true reality — God is a very present help in times of trouble. When it comes to felt-reality — your experience, your vantage — sometimes it can seem like God is distant.

And what exacerbates that felt-reality in Psalm 10 is the prosperity of the wicked. That’s the problem of this psalm. That’s what the psalmist cannot make sense of.

If God is really present then how can the wicked live like he’s not and live so well? If God is really present then how can the wicked persist in their wickedness with no consequences?

Those are the kinds of questions that try to mess with us. And to add insult to injury, or to deepen the disconnect, in Psalm 10 the psalmist shows us how the wicked actually think. There are four quotations in this psalm of what the wicked think and say to themselves — and we don’t find this anywhere else in the Bible. This is profound.

Psalm 10 takes us into the actual thought-life of the wicked, and what we see there is bleak and unacceptable. The wicked think in a way that people ought not to think.

And so here’s the key summary of Psalm 10. Here’s what’s going on: it’s that the felt-reality of God’s distance is intensified because the thinking of the wicked seems to be unchallenged. That’s the main thing we see first.

But then Psalm 10 ends by answering that wrong thinking. The psalmist digs in his heels in God’s reality over and against his felt-reality. And we need to see that too.

So those are the two parts of the sermon.

Part One is what the wicked think about God; Part Two is what God actually does.

Let’s pray:

Father, we believe that the unfolding of your word gives light, and that the light we most need is your face shining upon us. And so we ask for that in these moments. Speak to us, and accomplish all that you will, in Jesus’s name, amen.

Part One: What the Wicked Think About God

Okay, so look at this. We see four different times in this psalm what the wicked are actually thinking:

  • First, verse 4: all his thoughts are, “There is no God.”

  • Second, verse 6: He says in his heart, “I shall not be moved; throughout all generations I shall not meet adversity.”

  • Third, verse 11: He says in his heart, “God has forgotten, he has hidden his face, he will never see it.”

  • Fourth, verse 13: [the wicked] says in his heart, “You will not call to account.”

These are four quotations here from the thought-life of the wicked, and they are connected to four topics more broadly:

  • First, verse 4, there’s Reality in general

  • Second, verse 6, there’s Control

  • Third, verse 11, there’s Compassion

  • Fourth, verse 13, there’s Accountability

So Reality, Control, Compassion, Accountability — every single human being on this earth thinks something about the relationship between God and these topics, and in Psalm 10 we get to see what the wicked think.

With Reality in verse 4, it’s pretty straightforward. The wicked say there is no God. And this is really the linchpin topic for all the other topics. Because the wicked’s general take on the reality is that there’s no God then that explains why they think the way they do in everything else.

So in verse 6, on Control, of course the God who doesn’t exist is not in control. And if God is not in control, then guess who is? It’s me. That’s what the wicked think. I shall not be moved. I will not be stopped. I am my own captain. I control my destiny. I set my own standards. I get to be and do whatever I want to be and do — because God is not in control, I’m in control. So the wicked think.

Then in verse 11 is Compassion. The wicked say that the God who doesn’t exist also turns a blind eye to injustice. The wicked will crush the helpless and oppress the weak because they think God doesn’t really care. He’s got his back turned on the helpless. His hands are in his pockets. The wicked believe that the God who doesn’t exist is absent-minded and disconnected when it comes to the hurting.

And then in verse 13 there’s Accountability. The wicked believe that the God who doesn’t exist will not call their wickedness to account. They do not believe that there will be any personal consequences for their actions. So they will continue to pursue the poor, and devise their schemes, and boast in their wealth, and renounce God, and curse and lie, and murder the innocent, and seize the poor, and crush the helpless because they think God won’t do anything about it. God will not stop them. …

The wicked think: Because God is not real; he’s not in control; he’s not concerned for the needy; and he doesn’t hold people accountable.

If you want to know why there is wickedness in this world, it’s because there are people who think like that.

Idolatry and Injustice

And it’s really interesting here. Each of these four quotations in Psalm 10, and these four topics, are about God. We see how the wicked think about God. But most of the descriptions of the wicked in Psalm 10 — like everything in between verses 3, 6, 11, and 13 — that’s all about how the wicked treat other people.

And this goes back to what we saw last week in that what we think about God impacts how we treat others — the vertical affects the horizontal. Wicked people oppress other people because they forget that they are just people; they think that they are god.

This is a theme we see throughout the Bible on the link between idolatry and injustice.

Where people get God wrong (idolatry), they will always treat people wrongly (injustice). So let’s talk about that …

When it comes to idolatry, one the best definitions I’ve read is that idols are anything that “offers transcendent beliefs while demanding ultimate allegiance.” Idolatry is when we take created things — things created as good — but we look for them to do more than their God-given purpose. Idolatry is when we basically make created things into gods, which then make us feel like gods.

In the book, Playing God, Andy Crouch says that every idol makes two promises: the idol says, first, “You shall not surely die” and then second, “You shall be like God.”

And, of course, we’ve heard that before, going back to the Garden of Eden. These are the twin lies of hasty invincible power — and as humans, that kind of power is attractive to us. I know that about you. … every single one of you in this room. We all like the idea of power.

Think about it: if we had that kind of power then we’d be able to fulfill our deepest hopes. Whatever you want, you got it. If we had that kind of power we’d be able to guard against our deepest fears. Whatever you don’t want, you stop it.

Idols are the gods we make that make us feel like gods — and on all kinds of different levels. For example, consider greed and pornography. Before both of these sins are about the empty promise of pleasure, they make the empty promise of power.

Greed says that more and more money puts your happiness into your own hands. Just buy it. Greedy says more money is power for boundless joy.

Pornography says all your sensual longings will be fulfilled. Just click here. Pornography gives you the power to make gratification your reward for every sexual desire.

It’s the promise of power that turns money into greed and sexual desire into pornography; it’s the promise of power that takes good things and makes them into idols, and when those idols dig themselves into our hearts, that’s when it leads to addiction.

Addiction is our enslavement to our idols. It’s when our idols demand a higher price than we were at first willing to give, but now can’t help but give. Addiction is when our idols “demand more and more while giving less and less until they demand everything and give nothing” (see Crouch). See, idols don’t make worshipers, they make addicts — and all idolatry is trying to take you there.

It’s all empty promises and lies, and when we fall for them — the reason we fall for them — is because they make us forget that we are just people, they make us think that we are gods: that we create reality, that we are in control, that we answer to no one. And when we think that way, other people will get hurt.

Anytime some humans play god, other humans will be oppressed and abused — and the examples of this abound. Every injustice on this planet is connected back to some kind of idolatry. And that’s exactly what’s going on in Psalm 10.

The injustice of the wicked comes from how the wicked think about God.

Our Godless Social Imaginary

And here’s the thing: we can read these verses and see how they think, and of course we all know it’s wrong. On any True/False quiz, we’re going to knock this out of the park:

  1. God doesn’t exist; False.

  2. God is not in control; False.

  3. God doesn’t care for the needy; False.

  4. God won’t judge evil; False.

We all know the right answers here; we will ace this quiz; but listen: Psalm 10 isn’t about rational atheism, it’s about functional atheism.

The wicked are not making reasonable arguments that deny the existence of God. They are simply establishing, advancing, and operating within a kind of world as if God did not exist — and that is way more subtle and insidious than any argument.

And that’s how Satan works. He is always more subtle and insidious than we first think. Look, Satan doesn’t really care if you believe that God exists or not; he just wants you to live like God doesn’t exist.

He wants you to function that way, and one of the most challenging issues of our day is that godlessness has become part of our social imaginary.

A social imaginary is basically the beliefs and values that a social group holds in common that then influences how they live. It’s a society’s default take on reality that’s just in the air. It’s what we’re breathing in culturally and don’t even realize it. And the social imaginary of 21st century mobile America largely ignores God. Our social imaginary is what makes us functional atheists, and a lot of times we can’t even tell.

If you can walk outside your house on a sunny August morning — like some of the days we had this past week — if you walk outside in that sunshine with the birds singing and not give thanks to God, you are a functional atheist. If you can eat a spoonful of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate fudge brownie ice cream and not lift up your hands in praise to God, you’re a functional atheist. If you can go about your entire day and never acknowledge the presence of God — like if it never crosses your mind that the word of Jesus is what makes your heart beats, if you never think about God —you’re a functional atheist.

Psalm 14 tells us that it’s the fool who says in his heart, “There is no God.” Well, how much of a fool is the person who lives each day never thinking about the God they say they believe in. I don’t want to be a fool. I don’t want us to be a church of fools.

I want us to think about God first thing each morning when we wake up; I want us to think about God the last thing each night before we fall asleep; and I want us to think about him a thousand times in-between. I want us to see his glory in everything. I want us to know his presence everywhere. I want us to have more of God. Because that is reality.

Everything else is make-believe. Everything else is how the wicked think. And we must live in defiance to that thinking. God is most real, and I want us to live like he is.

That’s what we see in the rest of Psalm 10.

We’ve seen what the wicked think. The psalmist is struggling to feel God’s nearness in his time of trouble, and when he looks around at the wicked, he wonders why their wrong thinking of God seems to be working. Well, Part Two of this psalm confronts that thinking by showing us what God actually does.

Part Two: What God Actually Does

In answer to the thinking of the wicked, the psalmist gives us four affirmations about God and his action in this world — it’s really a dialogue between reality and felt-reality.

Four Affirmations

First, in verse 14, the psalmist says, “But you do see, for you note mischief and vexation …”

“But you do see” is the voice of reality that is confronting the way things appear. It can seem like God doesn’t see, that God has turned his back on us — and the wicked certainly think that. They think God is completely removed and checked out on what’s happening here. But I know. I know. I know. God, you do see. You are aware. You are taking note.

Look at the second half of verse 14: “to you the helpless commits himself; you have been the helper of the fatherless.”

So not only does God see, but God helps. God is compassionate to the needy; he draws near to the brokenhearted; he saves he crushed in spirit; he heals their wounds (see Psalm 34:18; 147:3).

Then look at verse 15. The psalmist makes this imprecatory petition: “Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer; call his wickedness to account till you find none.”

Now in verse 13 the wicked had said that God will not call them to account, but here the psalmist is asking God to do precisely that. And his boldness in such a petition is rooted in his assurance that God will do it. …

The psalmist knows that the God who does see, and the God who does care, is also the God who will hold every human accountable for their every action. Every action, big or small. Every sin. Even every idle word. God sees it, and he will call every human to give an account until there is nothing left for which an account could be given. Now look at verses 16–18:

The Lord is king forever and ever; the nations perish from his land.
O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted;
you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear
to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed,
so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.

How God Stops the Wicked

Beyond seeing, and caring, and holding the wicked accountable, God will also do justice. And we kind of see all of this combined in verses 16–18.

First, the psalmist knows that God does hear. God sees and he hears he desire of the afflicted, and he strengthens them. God helps them. God leans in toward them, inclining his ear toward them — Why? To do justice for them. To give justice to the fatherless and the oppressed — Why? So that “man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.”

And there are two things here that stand out: first, notice how justice and accountability are together. Justice for the orphan and oppressed is for holding the wicked accountable. It’s: do justice for the fatherless so that the wicked strike terror no more. And this is different from what we might think. It makes more sense to stop wickedness in order to care for the orphan — right? But here it’s care for the orphan in order to stop wickedness.

Second, notice that stopping the wicked means shutting the wicked down in this life. I don’t think verse 18 is talking about last judgment. This is right now, in this world. God stops the wicked from striking terror here. Now again, how?

By doing justice for the fatherless and oppressed.

Psalm 10, verse 18 tells us that justice for the orphan stops the wicked from doing wicked things.

And that truth in this verse changed my life.

God Works Through His People

So earlier this year when the pastors were trying to figure out who would preach what in the Psalms, I wanted to preach Psalm 10 mainly because of this verse, verse 18. Because a long time ago, at the Caribou Coffee in Minneapolis off Washington Avenue and 5th, I read this psalm and heard it as God’s calling on my family to care for endangered children.

Because I’m just reading the Bible and asking questions. I asked my kids these questions a few nights ago after dinner. We read these verses together, and I pointed out the logic: God stops the wicked by helping the orphan. And then I asked, How does God help the orphan? And the kids said, By caring for them. And so I asked, How does God care for them? And the kids said, By bringing them into a home. And I said, Whose home?

They said, Our home. … The homes of Christians.

And that’s right. God stops the wicked by doing justice for the fatherless — and he does that justice through his people!

God’s action in the world is through means — which is why our grasp of reality is so important. What is God’s heart? What is his will? What is he doing in the world? — there’s no more relevant question we could ask for our own lives. In fact, our lives are evidence of God’s work in the world. And I’m not talking about how we get to serve as a means in God’s work — I’m talking about God’s work in us.

We Have Been Rescued

There are some amazing things the Bible says about our co-labor with God. In 2 Corinthians 5–6 Paul talks about how Christian ministry, and especially evangelism, is our working together with God (see 2 Cor. 6:1) — God makes his appeal to the world through us his people (see 2 Cor. 5:20). But before we get to be part of that action, we are the recipients of that action. Before God works through us to extend his rescue, we are the ones who are rescued. That is a decisive acton in history.

Going back, remember that the key summary of Psalm 10 — or really, the key problem — is that the felt-reality of God’s distance is intensified because the thinking of the wicked seems to be unchallenged. That’s what it seems like, but what does God actually do?

Well, God isn’t distant, he’s actually near. He’s so near, in fact, that he came here and put on human flesh. Jesus lived in this world, he walked on this dirt, and he overcame every temptation — even the temptation of hasty invincible power. Wickedness was no longer unchallenged because Jesus confronted it head-on, and in the most important point of his life — when he was crucified — Colossians 2:15 says that Jesus disarmed the wicked rulers and authorities of this world and put them to open shame by triumphing over them.

And exactly how did he triumph over them? By saving you.

Jesus shut down the Accuser of your soul by forgiving all of your sins. Jesus stripped our Enemy of his power by nailing our debt to his cross. Jesus came here to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8) — so he saved you.

We were dead in our trespasses and sins, following the course of this world, living in make-believe — we were dead and lost — but God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, he made us alive together with Christ (see Ephesians 2:1–5).

That is reality. That is what Psalm 10 is pointing to. That is our hope.

God has acted in this world, and he is at work even now, which is what brings us to the Table.

The Table

Each week when we come to the bread and cup, we come as those who have been rescued by Jesus. When we eat the bread and drink the cup, we are testifying to God’s action — we are saying that indeed Jesus died to save us, and we hope in his salvation.

And this morning, if you would say that, if you’ve put your faith in Jesus, we invite you to eat and drink with us.