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Praising God for the Righteous and the Wicked

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The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are attentive to their cry; but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil, to blot out their name from the earth.

The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

The righteous person may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all; he protects all his bones, not one of them will be broken.

Evil will slay the wicked; the foes of the righteous will be condemned. The Lord will rescue his servants; no one who takes refuge in him will be condemned.

(Psalm 34:15-22)

Whom are you better than? I know this is likely not the kind of question we intentionally ask ourselves, but sometimes I imagine it crosses our minds in one form or another. Isn’t much of our daily lives consumed with figuring out where we stack up in the world, on our jobs, within the social groups we inhabit? Have you ever thought about how much of your life centers around the need or desire to look, sound, act, or be considered better than someone else?

This idea of competing to be the best is not foreign to the life of the Church, either. Sometimes we operate from the position of thinking we need to be better than the church that meets down the street or has all the young, old, rich, middle class, affluent, whatever the particular people group it is that we don’t have, in order to get more of them to come be with us.

Please understand that I’m not saying any of this to point a negative finger at anyone. I just recognize that competitiveness is a part of our daily lives and, sometimes, it even seeps over into our spiritual lives. I think we see this idea in the final verses of Psalm 34. I think that competitiveness, and some of its aligning desires and outcomes, play a part in why David wrote Psalm 34. If you give me a few moments, I’ll explain what I mean.

If it wasn’t already clear to you over the past two columns on Psalm 34 (here and here), King Saul saw David as competition for Israel’s crown and the hearts of Israel’s people. Saul, the reigning king of Israel, was consumed with destroying David because he saw him as competition for the affections of the people and soldiers under his command. Why was Saul so worried about David? Because David’s reputation was greater than his. David had slain Goliath and had also led multiple campaigns against Israel’s most daunting enemy, the Philistines, returning victorious each time. Saul couldn’t bear seeing the legend that was David grow almost on a daily basis.

And whether it was due to only jealousy or a combination of jealousy and mental health concerns, Saul made it his life’s purpose to rid the kingdom of David. Over time, this desire clouded Saul’s mind as he attempted to make other decisions that were important for the livelihood of Israel. Eventually, Saul made decisions that were in stark contrast to what God wanted and commanded. Through the prophet Samuel, God eventually told Saul that, due to his wicked acts, he was no longer the chosen leader of Israel and God would replace him.

Those are some hard words to hear from God. You’re fired from being king because you are unrighteous. Saul’s life had essentially rolled off the rails in his pursuit of David, and it seems like there was no hope left for him in God’s eyes. But, this leaves me with a question: What was Saul like before all of this? Was he always this wicked, delusional, competitive king? Technically, no, he wasn’t. Saul started out as a righteous man. A man who was handpicked by God to become the first king of Israel. The people of God complained to the prophet Samuel that they wanted a king like every other nation. Samuel tried to talk them out of the idea, but they weren’t having it. They insisted, and God relented to give them what they were asking for.

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One day while Saul, the tallest and the most handsome man from the tribe of Benjamin, was unsuccessfully looking for his father’s lost donkeys, his servant told him to find Samuel and ask for a prophetic word that would give him directions for finding the lost animals. When Saul found Samuel, Samuel told him not to worry about the donkeys because God had something much grander in store for him. He was going to become the king of Israel. Saul was anointed and was filled with God’s Spirit. At this point, everyone called Saul righteous.

I would like to pause for a moment and make sure we all understand the Hebrew meaning of righteous and wicked. A righteous person was one who did not depart from the ways of God. Their actions and attitudes were morally right or justifiable because they were based on God’s desires. A wicked person did the opposite. In the beginning of his reign, Saul’s actions were considered righteous. His first feat as king was to lead a fledgling Israelite army against one of its foes. Saul, under the leading of God’s Spirit, led the Israelites to victory.  Because Saul followed the leading of God’s Spirit, he was called righteous.

But, it didn’t take long for that to change. The first time Saul was told to wait on the Lord to provide an answer for how to lead Israel, he became impatient and made an improper sacrifice. God, through Samuel, told him that because of his decision to not wait on God, he would not be king for very long. As a matter of fact, God had already chosen his replacement. In the matter of a few verses, Saul went from righteousness to wickedness. Saul’s unrighteousness became the hallmark of the remainder of his reign.

There are a couple of things that jumped out at me as I examined the final verses of Psalm 34. First, even the righteous don’t get a pass from trials. Even the righteous will experience difficulties, including the kind that are brought on by wicked people. That kind of drama is a reality of life. David learned this firsthand. It didn’t matter that he was the promised future king of Israel. All he knew was the current king of Israel wanted him dead and he had to figure out a way to stay alive.

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But, just because difficulties are a reality of life doesn’t mean they are the final reality of life. According to the psalmist, the works of the wicked will never overcome the righteous. The works of the unrighteous will not ultimately prevail over the righteous. God will make sure of that. Righteousness and wickedness have consequences, and even God’s children experience their effects equally. But, we can rest assured that as God will wipe away the unrighteous from the earth and wipe away any tears that have been shed due to their actions.

There’s a second thing that jumped out as I read the passage. There’s a certain irony to this psalm because, over time, David, the righteous replacement for the wicked Saul, eventually did similar wicked acts. That leaves me with the question, who was better than whom? Was David really more righteous than Saul? Did David become king because he was better than or more righteous than Saul? In some ways, we can say that David was a better king than Saul. But, in other ways David was more wicked than Saul.

In the end, we’re left to deal with the fact that a person can be as much righteous and wicked at the same time. On one side, we have people who stand for one good thing, but fall for another not so good thing. And on the other side, we have people who stand for this good thing, but fall for some other bad thing. It can be hard to tell the difference. We all have a certain level of righteousness and wickedness within us and our job isn’t to point out all the wicked acts of someone else, but to thank God that our sins have been paid through the sacrifice of Christ and to show the same type of mercy to others as has been shown to us.


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    Written by Terrell Carter

    Terrell Carter is assistant professor and director of contextualized learning at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas, and pastor of Webster Groves Baptist Church. He is the author of multiple books, including the forthcoming volume Healing Racial Divides: Finding Strength in Diversity (Chalice Press). You can follow him on Twitter @tcarterstl.