Mercy and Justice in Psalms and Proverbs
Psalms and Proverbs depict the experience of living with God in the common things of life, not just in times of worship or in other religious activities. While the book of Proverbs offers a range of practical wisdom—from relationships and families to business and government—Psalms is a collection of songs that cover a variety of emotions and spiritual experiences from laments to exultant praise and everything in between. It is easy to see that our faith should make a difference in every aspect and experience of our lives, because God cares about every aspect of our lives.
Meanwhile, any reflection on life in this fallen world could hardly ignore the injustice that so permeates the human condition. In fact, injustice is repeatedly described as something that our Lord cares about and seeks to relieve. It is He who is the hope of the hopeless.
Though we can only touch on what these books say about this topic, perhaps this lesson might inspire you to be more proactive in ministering to the needs of the poor, the oppressed, and the forgotten who exist all around us and whom we are obligated to help.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, July 27.
As we have already noted, God sees and hears people who are in distress and trouble. Most often in the Psalms we hear those cries from people who have trusted in God but are not seeing justice done. The affirmations of the goodness, justice, and power of God can seem overwhelmed by the injustice and oppression that the voices in these songs experience or observe.
Yet, these are the songs of those who are still singing. Neither their life nor their faith has been quenched. There is still hope; and the urgency is for God to act before it is too late, before evil triumphs, before the oppressed are destroyed by the weight of the evil brought against them. In this way, the writers of the Psalms try to bridge the gap between the affirmations of their faith and the trials and tragedies of life.
Throughout the Psalms, the repeated answer to this tension is the hope and promise of God’s good and just judgment. Evil and injustice may seem triumphant for now, but God will judge the evildoers and the unjust. They will be punished, while those they have hurt and oppressed will be restored and renewed.
In Reflections on the Psalms, C. S. Lewis describes his initial surprise at the excitement and longing for God’s judgment as expressed repeatedly in the Psalms. Observing that many Bible readers today consider judgment something to be feared, he considers the original Jewish perspective and writes, “Thousands of people who have been stripped of all they possess and who have the right entirely on their side will at last be heard. Of course they are not afraid of judgment. They know their case is unanswerable—if only it could be heard. When God comes to judge, at last it will.”—C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1958), p. 11.
In the Psalms, we see hope for the oppressed, even now, even amid their present sufferings and disappointments.
Despite the ordering and rules of society that God gave to them, at various times in their history the Israelites failed to live up to this plan. They too easily became like the nations around them, living by a pattern of injustice and oppression. Leaders and judges looked after only themselves, and their favor could be purchased with bribes. Without courts to protect them, ordinary people, and the poor especially, were subject to exploitation.
Psalm 82 is a response to such a situation. It describes God’s role as Supreme Judge, and it depicts a scene in which He judges the leaders and even the judges of the people. This psalm emphasizes that those who fill such roles in society “are appointed to act as judges under Him.”—Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 198. They hold their position and conduct their work as representatives and subordinates of God. In the psalmist’s view, the justice of God is a model for how earthly justice should function, and it also provides the measure against which such justice or injustice—and those who dispense it—will be judged.
The psalm concludes with a specific call for God to act (Ps. 82:8), to intervene and to stop the injustice that is so prevalent in the nation. Like many of the psalms, this one gives a voice to the voiceless and to the oppressed, those whose voices have been silenced by the unjust systems in which they live and work.
Psalm 82 makes an appeal to God in His position of Supreme Judge and Sovereign Ruler of the universe and of all the nations. There is no higher court or authority to which such an appeal could be made. The assurance comes that when earthly courts do not hear or uphold the cries of the poor and oppressed, which is so often the case here, there is still an undeniable opportunity to call for help.
At different times in our lives we might find ourselves as victims of injustice, but at other times we might be the one committing or profiting from injustice. In passages such as Psalm 82, we can find insight and wisdom, whether we are the oppressed or the oppressor. God is concerned for the unjust judges, too, describing them as His children and wanting them to choose to live better (see Ps. 82:6). Thus, there’s hope even for those on the wrong side of oppression, if they will allow themselves to be changed.
Psalm 101 is a text for leaders. It is thought that these verses were composed by David in the early days of his reign as king of Israel. They may even have been adapted from vows that he made at the time of becoming king. In his experiences as a warrior for Saul and then a fugitive from him, he had witnessed for himself how a king who loses his way could damage the nation and his family. David determined that he was going to be a different kind of leader.
Few of us might be political or national leaders, but we all have roles in life in which we have the opportunity to influence and encourage others. These might be in our working life, community involvement, family, or church. As Ellen G. White comments on one of these settings of leadership, “the vows of David, recorded in the 101st psalm, should be the vows of all upon whom rest the responsibilities of guarding the influences of the home.”—Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students, p. 119.
As we have opportunity, we should be prepared to suggest and uphold these principles to those who fill positions of leadership over us. And all of us, in our leadership and places of influence, have the opportunity to apply David’s leadership principles in order to help us be a blessing to others.
The starting point for David is honoring God for His mercy and justice (Ps. 101:1), which became the foundation for everything David sought to uphold by his leadership. He sought to learn and practice these same characteristics in his life and work. To do this, he must resist the temptations toward wrongdoing, corruption, and dishonesty, all of which are particular traps for those in positions of power and leadership.
Knowing how important good counselors were to help him to do right, David pledges to seek out trustworthy advisers and to appoint honest officials. Justice and mercy were to mark his leadership, even among those who worked with and for him.
As we near the end of the book of Psalms, the exclamations of praise seem to grow in crescendo after crescendo. The final five psalms begin with a simple and direct command to “Praise the Lord!” but the first of these—Psalm 146—has a particular focus on God’s concern for the poor and oppressed as a primary reason for such praise.
As surely as God is Creator of this world (see Ps. 146:6), this psalm describes God’s continuing work in the world as judge, provider, liberator, healer, helper, and defender—all of these focused on people in specific need of these kinds of help. It is an inspiring vision of what God does and seeks to do in our lives, in our communities, and in our world. Sometimes we think of caring for the needy as something we ought to do because God said so. But Psalm 146 says this is something God already does—and we are invited to join with Him. When we work against poverty, oppression, and disease, we are truly working with God and His purposes. What greater privilege can there be than partnering with God in fulfilling something as inspiring as Psalm 146?
But there also are benefits for us. Christians often talk about their search for God and their desire to have a closer relationship with Him. Yet, verses such as Psalm 146:7–9, and so many others throughout the Bible, indicate to us that one way to find God is to join in with what He does. So, if He is working to lift up the poor, sick, and oppressed, as Psalm 146 says He is, we should be working with Him, as well. “Christ came to this earth to walk and work among the poor and suffering. They received the greatest share of His attention. And today, in the person of His children, He visits the poor and needy, relieving woe and alleviating suffering.
“Take away suffering and need, and we should have no way of understanding the mercy and love of God, no way of knowing the compassionate, sympathetic heavenly Father. Never does the gospel put on an aspect of greater loveliness than when it is brought to the most needy and destitute regions.”—Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 7, p. 226.
As a collection of wisdom sayings, the book of Proverbs touches on a diverse range of topics and life experiences. Among these are reflections on poverty, riches, contentment, justice, and injustice— and sometimes from differing angles. Life is not always simple and straightforward, and Proverbs alerts us to the different circumstances and choices that influence how life is lived, even among those who are faithful to God.
Proverbs emphasizes the concern and attention God has for the poor and vulnerable. Sometimes people are poor because of circumstances, poor choices, or exploitation, but whatever the causes of their situation, the Lord is still described as their Creator (see Prov. 22:2) and Defender (see Prov. 22:22, 23). These people are not to be oppressed or taken advantage of, whatever their mistakes.
While Proverbs does offer a better life through choosing wisdom and obeying God, riches are not always the result of God’s blessing. Faithfulness to God is always seen as more important and ultimately more rewarding than material gain: “Better a little with righteousness than much gain with injustice” (Prov. 16:8, NIV).
Another concern in Proverbs is honesty and fair dealing in business, government, and in administering justice (see Prov. 14:5, 25; 16:11– 13; 17:15; 20:23; 21:28; 28:14–16). Proverbs is not only concerned with the lives of individuals but also offers insight as to how society as a whole should function for the benefit of all, particularly for those who need protection. We are reminded again that at their best, those who govern and lead do so with the help of God (see Prov. 8:15, 16) and should be acting as agents of His grace and compassion toward those in need.
Further Thought: Read Ellen G. White, “The Last Years of David,” pp. 746–755, in Patriarchs and Prophets; C. S. Lewis, “ ‘Judgment’ in the Psalms,” pp. 15–22, in Reflections on the Psalms.
“The psalms of David pass through the whole range of experience, from the depths of conscious guilt and self-condemnation to the loftiest faith and the most exalted communing with God. His life record declares that sin can bring only shame and woe, but that God’s love and mercy can reach to the deepest depths, that faith will lift up the repenting soul to share the adoption of the sons of God. Of all the assurances which His word contains, it is one of the strongest testimonies to the faithfulness, the justice, and the covenant mercy of God.”—Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 754.
Referring to the wisdom in the book of Proverbs: “These are principles with which are bound up the well-being of society, of both secular and religious associations. It is these principles that give security to property and life. For all that makes confidence and cooperation possible, the world is indebted to the law of God, as given in His word, and as still traced, in lines often obscure and well-nigh obliterated, in the hearts of men.”—Ellen G. White, Education, p. 137.
Summary: Psalms and Proverbs are two books particularly tuned to the challenges of living faithfully amid life’s common experiences and trials. Both offer insights into God’s vision for society and His special concern for the poor and oppressed. The cry of the Psalms and the wisdom of Proverbs are that God does notice and will intervene to protect those too often ignored or exploited. And if that’s what God’s about, it’s what we should be about, as well.