Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD, O my soul! I will praise the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish. Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The LORD will reign forever, your God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the LORD! (Psalm 146)
The first part of this remarkable psalm directs our attention to the only proper object of faith, hope, and love. God alone is worthy of our trust. In him alone we find our rest, dignity, and salvation.
The powerful of this earth hunger for praise, craving the trust of the people as they promise happiness and security. Drunk with self-importance, they imagine not only that they may be better than their competitors but that they can save us.
One thinks of Nebuchadnezzar, the braggadocious king of Babylon who, while reveling in his success (“‘Is this not the great kingdom that I have built for my power and glory?’”), was brought low by God (Dan. 4:30). Only after this period of humiliation did he finally come to see the world the way it really is. “‘After that time, I raised my eyes to heaven and my sanity was restored.’” Then he praised the God of heaven who ‘“does whatever he chooses with the kingdoms of man and the peoples of the earth. And no one can thwart his purpose or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” (4:34–35). The great ones of this age will promise anything to gain power. Yet the Sovereign God laughs in derision at their silly maneuverings as if they were but ants jockeying for position over a tiny mound of dirt.
So, he tells his people, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.” The greatest tragedy throughout Israel’s history was not oppression by foreign powers. God’s people often shift blame from themselves to their enemies. When Israel was sent into Assyrian captivity and Judah was carted off to Babylon, Jerusalem had already been evacuated by God’s Spirit. The temple was a hollow and common shell long before, while sacrifices were being offered, the people gathered in noisy assemblies purporting to be praise; and the people ignored and even killed the prophets God sent to them.
The greatest tragedy was not the forced exile by a foreign power, but that Israel had rejected Yahweh as its King. The motto, “In God We Trust,” was still embossed on their coins, but they had made covenants with other rulers out of a short-sighted obsession with temporal security. They were no longer concerned about holiness, righteousness, justice, and peace. They had changed, calling good evil and evil good. No longer was God and his kingdom their reference point; instead, they became their own lords and chose rulers who mirrored their own hypocrisy. They refused to raise their eyes to heaven. Israel demanded some political arrangement that would satisfy their narcissism. But there is only one problem, the psalmist registers: pompous rulers die, just like everyone else. Once their breath leaves them, their big plans come to an end.
Yet God has always preserved a remnant. By definition a “little flock,” they may in every other way appear to be the foolish, the losers, even the cursed. But they are blessed “whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God,” because he is not a fellow sinner, a petty ruler, but Creator of all things visible and invisible. But beyond this, he is the one “who keeps faith forever”—not one broken promise, nor can death quench his ambitious plans to work all things together for the good of his elect. “Blessed are those who mourn,” said the King, “for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4).
Furthermore, this God is not only all-powerful, but just and good. He is the ruler “who executes justice for the oppressed,” because he is actually the only sovereign who can accomplish it. He is the one “who gives food to the hungry,” because the earth and everything in it belongs to him. It is the Lord of the Jubilee who “sets the prisoners free” even when society is bent on simply isolating them from its awareness in forgotten zones of silence, violence, and even torture. This God “opens the eyes of the blind,” “lifts up those who are bowed down,” and “loves the righteous.” He “watches over the sojourners,” the migrants and asylum-seekers fleeing the cruel regimes of death; “but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin,” if not now, then at the last when the God of Israel, even Jesus of Nazareth, returns to judge the living and the dead.
When John the Baptist sent messengers to inquire of Jesus whether he was the Messiah, Jesus rather tersely replied, “‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me’” (Matt. 11:4–6).
In the Parable of the Tenants, Jesus represents the religious leaders as the heirs of those who killed the prophets whom their professed God sent to them. Finally, Jesus says that the owner of the vineyard sent his son, but they killed him, too. The difference is that this time their spite became God’s very means of bringing forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace even to those responsible for his death. After all, we are all responsible for his death. It was for us and our salvation that he became flesh, humiliated “for the joy that was set before him,” as the apostle Paul says (Heb. 12:2). And he was satisfied by what he accomplished. When he cried out, “It is finished!” and was raised on the third day as the firstfruits of the new creation, it was not another stump speech, another vain promise. It was an accomplished fact, his agenda that he fulfilled without our aid. His global plans do not fail, because as he said in the beginning of John’s Revelation, “‘Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades’” (1:17–18).
The present reader (and writer) of this meditation belongs to a different context from that of the original audience. There is no holy land or holy nation, except for the church spread throughout the earth. And yet, throughout this present age, believers are called to participate in common culture, to pray for the city in which we are temporary exiles, and work for its common good. We do so not because we can change empires (and then give up in exhausted defeat when we fail), but because we are commanded to do so by our King who sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.
As his adopted heirs we witness to and pray and work for the well-being of our neighbors, including the unborn as well as the poor and needy, regardless of their religion or even their attitudes toward us as believers in the Way. We labor for freedom, not out of chauvinism, merely for ourselves. After all, the gospel’s success doesn’t depend on Caesar’s favors. King Jesus reigns and sends his gospel wherever he chooses by his Word and Spirit. Paul may be in chains, but he says “the gospel remains unfettered.” No creature, constitution, or administration gives freedom for the spread of the gospel and Christ’s kingdom. Yet we pursue “liberty for all” so that our neighbors can have the freedom to come to Christ without political or social coercion.
Yet all of the kingdoms of this age, including the United States, are passing away. Their glory fades, their flags fall to pieces, and their armies are eventually conquered. In the meantime, we fulfill our callings and our responsibilities as citizens. We take it all seriously, but not too seriously. For the news has reached us of a kingdom that cannot be shaken. Indeed, we can witness to the world of a better country, singing with the psalmist, even during this election season,
The LORD will reign forever, your God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the LORD!
Michael S. Horton is founder of White Horse Inn, Editor-In-Chief of Modern Reformation, and J. Gresham Machen Professor of Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California.