A Meditation on Psalm 11
In the Lord I take refuge;
how can you say to my soul,
“Flee like a bird to your mountain,
for behold, the wicked bend the bow;
they have fitted their arrow to the string
to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart;
if the foundations are destroyed,
what can the righteous do?”
The Lord is in his holy temple;
the Lord's throne is in heaven;
his eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man.
The Lord tests the righteous,
but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.
Let him rain coals on the wicked;
fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.
For the Lord is righteous;
he loves righteous deeds;
the upright shall behold his face
Before He accomplished His departure, Jesus warned the people of Jerusalem of an impending disaster: “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” (Matt 24.15-16). The catastrophe will be so great that Jesus literally tells the disciples to “run for the hills.”
The eleventh psalm is centered on a catastrophe that carries a similar warning, “Flee like a bird to your mountain, for behold, the wicked bend the bow,” but the psalmist rejects this warning. “How can you say [this] to my soul?” he asks. His rejoinder: “The Lord is in his holy temple.”
The righteous man has nothing to fear under normal circumstances, because the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob reigns from His throne in heaven. One does not need to flee to some other mountain; God watches from His holy mountain, from His house where He causes His name to dwell. Psalm 11 is a psalm of confidence. “In the Lord I take refuge,” the psalmist declares.
This gives us a sense, by the way, of how serious things are in Matthew 24. Jesus knows that the Father intends for the destruction of Jerusalem, and so He issues the warning, Flee to the mountains. The coming destruction was not the run-of-the-mill aggression. Jerusalem faced more than Rome; she faced her God whose Son she had murdered. He came with the legions of Rome and encamped around the rebel city. Had Israel fled to God’s mountain in truth and not in pretense, things would not have come to this.
Blessedly, it was not always so for Jerusalem. The psalmist could encourage God’s people not to flee for the mountains. But this confidence rests on an assumption about Israel’s righteousness. “His eyes see,” the psalmist warns. “His eyelids test the children of man.” Will God’s people pass the test?
The psalmist does not promise that everything will be peaches and cream for the righteous. “The Lord tests the righteous.” He allows trouble to come to them. One could even say that He sends it Himself. The wicked do indeed bend the bow, and not just for show. The psalmist admonishes the faithful to take courage as the wicked shoot at them in the dark. Faith is not for the faint of heart.
In the end, though, it is the wicked who need to run for the hills. The psalmist’s vision concludes with the Lord raining down coals, fire, sulfur, and a scorching wind. Psalm 11 is a fire and brimstone sermon of sorts, but the wicked are not the intended audience. The psalmist does not mean to make the faithful of Israel, his true audience, uncomfortable. They are rather to be comforted: “The upright shall behold his face.”
The psalmist’s admonitions are true for us today. “His eyelids test the children of man.” Are you among the righteous? “There is none righteous, no not one, …for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3.10, 23). If none are righteous, then how shall any escape the fire, sulfur, and scorching wind the psalmist promises?
Shortly after He warned the people of Jerusalem to flee for the mountains, Jesus gave Himself as a sacrifice on the cross for our sins. The gospel tells us that we “are justified by [God’s] grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3.24). Take refuge in Christ. “The Lord is in his holy temple,” and Christ is at His right hand, for death could not hold Him. He is risen, and we shall be too, if we are faithful. “The upright shall behold his face.”