Cry out against oppression: Psalm 94

The 4th book of Psalms

The first rule of public speaking or writing is “Do not insult your audience.” To that end we do not say, “You are wrong,” but we signal that we will not entertain the other person’s opinion by saying, “let us agree to disagree,” closing down any debate. This psalm is not like that, it comes straight out and insults.

Chained hands, open towards God in prayer

The 4th book of Psalms, those 17 religious songs between psalms 90 and 106, have a theme, God is above us.

The layout is like this:

Book 1: Psalms 1 – 41: God is beside us.
Book 2: Psalms 42 – 72: God goes before us
Book 3: Psalms 73 – 89: God is all around us.
Book 4: Psalms 90 – 106: God is above us.
Book 5: Psalms 107 – 150: God is among us.

Book 4 answers the questions of Books 1-3 with the message that God is king.

O Lord, God of vengeance,
    O God of vengeance, shine forth!
Rise up, O judge of the earth;
    repay to the proud what they deserve!
O Lord, how long shall the wicked,
    how long shall the wicked exult?
They pour out their arrogant words;
    all the evildoers boast.
They crush your people, O Lord,
    and afflict your heritage.
They kill the widow and the sojourner,
    and murder the fatherless;
and they say, “The Lord does not see;
    the God of Jacob does not perceive.”
Understand, O dullest of the people!
    Fools, when will you be wise?
He who planted the ear, does he not hear?
    He who formed the eye, does he not see?
10 He who disciplines the nations, does he not rebuke?
    He who teaches man knowledge—
11 the Lord—knows the thoughts of man,
    that they are but a breath.
12 Blessed is the man whom you discipline, O Lord,
    and whom you teach out of your law,
13 to give him rest from days of trouble,
    until a pit is dug for the wicked.
14 For the Lord will not forsake his people;
    he will not abandon his heritage;
15 for justice will return to the righteous,
    and all the upright in heart will follow it.
16 Who rises up for me against the wicked?
    Who stands up for me against evildoers?
17 If the Lord had not been my help,
    my soul would soon have lived in the land of silence.
18 When I thought, “My foot slips”,
    your steadfast love, O Lord, held me up.
19 When the cares of my heart are many,
    your consolations cheer my soul.
20 Can wicked rulers be allied with you,
    those who frame injustice by statute?
21 They band together against the life of the righteous
    and condemn the innocent to death.
22 But the Lord has become my stronghold,
    and my God the rock of my refuge.
23 He will bring back on them their iniquity
    and wipe them out for their wickedness;
    the Lord our God will wipe them out.

Psalm 94 ESV UK

Let me be clear, I have a strong dislike for parts of the Bible where people call for revenge, which is all the more reason to look at it. The first commentary I looked took the normal route of saying that the psalmist was calling down God’s revenge on the surrounding countries, but you don’t need to look at the psalm too hard to see that that is, of course, wrong.

The psalm is clear that the problem is internal, people who kill widows, foreigners and orphans to get their way are the government. The context says the same. This group of psalms is a compilation from the time of the Jews returning from exile.They have been away from their home land because king after king did not heed God’s call to the prophets to not only follow God but uphold the rights of these very people, the widow, the foreign visitor and the orphan. It is written in their law: “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.

You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry. Exodus 22:21.

But this is also a song for all time, especially any era of crippling austerity, soaring rates of homelessness  and inequality, and a marked increase in racism and xenophobia. You only have to look at the news to see that these issues do not go away. The psalm is in three parts, The cry of the people who have no justice, the answer of God to the leaders and God’s answer to those who are oppressed.

The cry of the people

I have already covered verses 4 – 7 in introducing this. But the call for revenge? The Jewish law forbids taking revenge, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against any of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the LORD. Leviticus 19:18.” Part of the verse Jesus quoted as one of the two most important, love your neighbour as yourself, forbids not only vengeance but also grudges. But that does not mean letting unfair governments have their way, but it means praying to god on behalf of the oppressed and standing against the oppressor.

God’s answer to the oppressors

In verses 8 – 11 God says to oppressive leaders that if they think they will get away with their schemes that only benefit themselves then they must be fools. God knows what they are doing, even the things said in private that they thing no one can see or hear. The idea of an open government was unknown at that time, governments were not transparent back then, nor have they ever been. But God knows what they are doing, he sees what they do, he hears what they say, and he will act. They will not get away with it. Compared to God the most powerful of people on Earth are nothing. And while this is addressed to the oppressors it is also good news to the poor and oppressed.

God’s answer to the oppressed

Verse 14 has the answer. God has not abandoned the poor people and the oppressed people, and God will never abandon them. God is a god of justice and good people will follow justice. In fighting for justice we will make mistakes, but that is not the thing that matters for God forgives. “When my foot slipped,” says the Psalmist, but God held him up. In his reply God does not say he will take revenge, but God says that he sees, he cares, and that justice will be done

God stands against injustice on our behalf. Who will stand with him? Is it you?

< Psalm 93 | Psalm 94 | Psalm 95 >

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