Years ago when my kids were little, I punished one of the boys for something. My wife Sue told me later, “You know, he didn’t do that.” I still cringe when I remember that. He was just a little guy, and I went to him and apologized.
After my son was an adult I told him once, “I still feel terrible about that. I’m so sorry.” He just laughed. “Dad, I don’t even remember what you’re talking about. Besides,” he added, “I got away with all kinds of stuff.”
Well, he made me feel better, but it’s important for us to recognize injustice when we see it, and to take steps to right our wrongs.
You see this throughout Scripture. Psalm 139 is particularly well known in the history of spirituality and prayer, but it also contains a startling plea for God to punish evildoers.
That plea is found in verses 19-22. It can be tempting to skip over these verses because they’re not politically correct; in fact, although there is no textual evidence for this whatsoever, some commentators claim that these verses were not written by the Psalmist. Others claim that these verses teach a sub-Christian message that was later contradicted in the New Testament:
O that You would slay the wicked, O God;
Depart from me, therefore, men of bloodshed.
For they speak against you wickedly,
And Your enemies take Your name in vain.
Do I not hate those who hate You, O Lord?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against You?
I hate them with the utmost hatred;
They have become my enemies. (Psalm 139:19-22)
These verses reflect the deepest heart cry of all of Scripture. God’s justice, far from being merely an Old Testament theme, is touched on repeatedly in the New Testament.
The Scriptures encourage us to long for justice.
Think, for example, of Revelation 6, when the saints beneath the altar cry out,
How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10)
The saints beneath the altar are those who have followed the Lord Jesus Christ and have suffered or been put to death because of their obedience to Him. They long for justice.
The Scriptures do speak of a day of justice. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, long for the righteousness of God. They long for God to intervene in a cruel and unjust world, and to vindicate those who have trusted in God and have spoken out for Him and been abused for it.
That’s the heart cry of all of Scripture. It’s the heart cry of Israel and of all those who are in exile. It’s the heart cry of anyone who has suffered for the cause of Christ. Jesus says “Rejoice and be glad… for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:12) He didn’t say ‘rejoice and be glad when you are persecuted for my name’s sake because you’re going to enjoy it.’ No! He told His followers to rejoice when they identified themselves with him. Justice will one day come.
God’s justice and mercy are inseparable.
Of course, the Psalmist also cried out for mercy. Only in the hands of God could you ever expect to find justice and mercy flowing mingled down together, as the hymn writer says. There is neither justice nor mercy apart from God’s all-seeing and all-searching eye. That’s why Paul can say in Romans 3 that God has revealed Christ who is a representation both of his justice and of his justifying mercy. God is just, and the justifier of the one who is of the faithfulness of Jesus.
The Psalmist didn’t know what would later happen through Jesus Christ. Even so, the demand for justice in Psalm 139 is a heart cry that covers not only Old Testament theology, but also New Testament theology. Maybe the Psalmist is in exile, or maybe, if this is David—it’s described by tradition as a Psalm of David—maybe pagans in his court are attacking him, wanting to malign him.
Whatever the circumstance, the Psalmist wants justice. There are a lot of words here that refer to justice, like “examine me,” “test me,” “try me” and “vindicate me.”
Read these final verses in light of that:
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Try me and know my anxious thoughts;
And see if there be any hurtful way in me,
And lead me in the everlasting way. (Psalm 139:23-24)
Compare this with verse 1: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.” The Psalmist is saying, in other words, “Lord, You’ve done this before. I’ve been through your wringer before. You’ve examined me, and you know everything about my behavior and thinking. You scrutinize my path, my ways, my lying down. You are intimately acquainted with all my deeds, with all my ways. Lord, you’ve enclosed me. You’re behind me, and you’re in front of me. Lord, you’ve laid your hand upon me, I can’t fathom how you understand all these things—such knowledge is too wonderful for me. Who could possibly understand this?”
The Scriptures tell us that God will one day judge all the earth. In the midst of wrath, He will remember mercy. Our work here and now is to live out the truth, the justice, and the mercies of God, revealed through Jesus Christ.
The preceding was adapted by Rachel Motte from a sermon Dr. Sloan delivered at Kingsland Baptist Church on May 12, 2013. A video of his original address may be viewed here.