Kathleen B. Nielson
. . . if the foundations are destroyed,
what can the righteous do?
For the LORD is righteous;
he loves righteous deeds;
The upright shall behold his face.
Psalm 11:3, 7
I wonder if you’ve heard Psalm 11 quoted recently--specifically that third verse. It’s often a despairing cry of Christians fearfully watching the biblically-based values of their society pass away. We hear and understand this cry in our present context. But what is this cry doing in this psalm?
Psalm 11 rebukes fearful despair that throws up its arms and retreats when threatened. Don’t we all know this tendency? I certainly recognize that alarmist voice the psalmist quotes in verses 1-3, telling us to “flee like a bird to your mountain.” The imagery vividly evokes the feeling of being surrounded, a target for the wicked. We picture enemies bending their bows, fitting their arrows, aiming “to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart.”
But the psalmist is actually rejecting the voice that urges God’s people to respond in fear and despair. “How can you say these words to my soul?” demands David--who knew quite literally the experience of being attacked. We know it, too, even though the attacks take various forms. With every new law or ruling that strikes at the heart of God’s established order, we understand this imagery better and better. We might despair for our society, our churches, our ministries, our families, our selves . . . and where will we finally flee?
In the psalm’s second section, David answers the question posed in the first. What can the righteous do if the foundations are destroyed? Actually, the opening line already gave away the answer; as often happens in the Psalms, verse 1 contains a nutshell of the poem’s whole point: “In the Lord I take refuge.” This point unfolds in the second section, where we turn our gaze from the surrounding enemies to the Lord God above.
Looking up (vv. 4-7), we see so much so quickly. We see that the Lord is the Holy One, not us! We see him in his holy temple and on his throne in heaven, seeing and testing all, including us. We see that he will deal with the wicked, finally and fully and awfully. And we see that he loves righteousness and invites the righteous into his very presence, to behold his face. What more secure refuge could exist!
How can anyone find that refuge, secure in him? Not by fearing or fleeing from evil around us. The Scriptures unfold the full answer: flee to the perfectly righteous Son of God, who himself suffered the wrath this psalm describes as due the wicked (which includes all of us). Because Jesus suffered that wrath in our place, we can find refuge in the Lord, even while walking through the valley of the shadow of death. We need fear no evil.
Like the psalmist, we can rebuke our fears and speak aloud our confidence in our righteous and redeeming Lord God. When we do this together as God’s people, our words become a song of praise.
Suggestions for Prayer
- Read Psalm 11 in its entirety. Praise God for his attributes revealed in verses 4-7.
- Lay your fears--the things that make you want to flee--before the Lord. Ask him to be your refuge.
- Reflect on Jesus, who suffered the worst onslaught--God’s wrath--on our behalf. Thank God for giving his Son, and ask God to help you and all his people bear witness to him faithfully and without fear.
Kathleen B. Nielson serves as the director of women’s initiatives for the Gospel Coalition. She is a popular conference speaker and the author of two volumes in the Knowing the Bible study series, co-editor of Word-Filled Women's Ministry: Loving and Serving the Church (with Gloria Furman), and a contributor to the ESV Women's Devotional Bible. Kathleen and her husband, Niel, have three grown sons, two beautiful daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.