Sermon preached on Psalm 149 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 9/25/2011 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
High Praises of God… and a Two-Edged Sword
At first glance this a psalm that might sit a bit uneasy with many people in our country today. This is a psalm that joins both praise and war together.
The first half of the psalm focuses on the praise. The second half on the battle. Verse 6 joins these two ideas together. Verse 6, “Let the high praises of God be in their mouth, and a two-edged sword in their hand.” Of course, our nation does have a history for seeing a connection between these two ideas. Some of you might remember the song sung during World War II, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” That was a similar joining together of praise and battle. When a military chaplain prays for the troops before they go into battle, there’s usually a related idea there too. Well, that is essentially what this psalm is. It’s a psalm that could have been sung before a military battle. And yet that doesn’t quite say enough about this psalm. This psalm isn’t just a prayer before a big battle asking for safety and victory. It’s a psalm that anticipates victory for God’s people. It’s a psalm that praises the victory in advance. Victory is a certainty in this psalm. That’s why this psalm calls for praise to the LORD.
And so this psalm could have been used by the nation of Israel before any number of battles that they might have faced. Now remember what Israel stood for; that will especially help us to set the context for this psalm. Recall that Israel as a political nation was also the visible church of God at that time. Back in those days, if you asked where God’s church was, you’d point to Israel. Now, sure we have evidence that God worked faith and worship in a few outside of Israel at that time. But for the most part, the nation of Israel, was the visible church. God had chosen to set them apart from the rest of the world. The rest of their world in their rebellion worshipped man made idols. So there was a clear antithesis between them and the rest of the world. They followed God. They were the place that worshipped the one true God. The rest of the world was full of their false religions. In the hostilities between God and man, Israel was on God’s side, and the rest of the world was against God.
Consequently, there were certain times in the Biblical history of Israel where they found themselves in what could accurately be described as a sort of holy war. This was not the normal operating orders for Israel. Don’t miss that. They in fact were not allowed by God to just go out war mongering and looking to attack anyone they wanted. The primary time when Israel was told by God to go out and attack a nation was when they were entering the Promised Land. There God told them that he would specifically use them to bring judgment against a few select nations because of their continued egregious sins. God at the same time gave them different instructions for a number of other nations around them, to instead try to make peace with them. Compare Deuteronomy 7 say with Deuteronomy 20, for example. Never did God tell Israel to just go wipe out every other nation. And yet God did use them as his arm of judgment on a few select groups of people. And so those are examples of battles where it would have been quite appropriate for them to have sung this psalm.
And so we’ll spend some time today understanding this psalm first for Israel, and then for us in the New Testament church. Psalms like this must be understood in light of the context we find ourselves in, within God’s overall plan for human history. And yet a psalm like this still has a very important message for us today. Ultimately, this psalm is a call for corporate praise by the church in light of the anticipated victory God will bring his people over all his and our enemies. Let’s flush this out and explain.
So let’s begin by analyzing this psalm and thinking about how it would have been most immediately applied among the nation of Israel. Notice it starts out in verse 1 with a call to praise God in the assembly of the saints. In other words, this specifically envisions a praise used in a formal corporate worship setting. In the assembly of the saints, this praise would be offered. Since the psalm goes on to talk about the imminent battle to take place, the basic idea of this psalm is understood pretty quickly. It’s something to be sung in a pre-battle assembly. On the eve of a great military battle, the people gather together in a holy convocation to praise God. It sees them about to take up arms in obedience to God’s word and so they praise God in advance with the sure hope of victory. That’s the overall context of this psalm. With that perspective laid, I draw your attention again to verse 6. This verse helps to connect the two halves of this psalm. The first 6 verses focus on a call to praise. The rest of the verses focus on a call to battle, battle in the name of the Lord. Notice that verse 6 is put in that way – as a command to both. Praise in the mouth and a sword in the hand! A call to praise and a call to battle!
So let’s look first at the call to battle in this psalm, and then we’ll look at the call to praise. The call to battle is verses 6-9. Verse 6 begins with the call to have the two-edged sword. This is a call to take up arms against an enemy. Who is the enemy? Verse 7 puts the enemy in general terms. The nations. The peoples. Let me give you another way the word “nations” could be translated here. The Gentiles. Those who are not Israel. In Scripture, the Gentiles are ultimately those who are not God’s people. This psalm envisions war against those who do not follow God.
This war it says in verse 7 is to execute vengeance and punishment. It’s a judgment that brings justice on these Gentiles who have not followed God. God could use Israel to bring judgment upon a people for their sins. That’s what God used Israel for in the conquest of Canaan. In verse 8, we see this judgment brought especially home to the leaders of these pagan peoples. To their kings and their nobles. They will end up in chains and fetters. You might recall back to Psalm 2 which talks about the nations wanting to break off the chains and fetters that the Lord has on them. You see, this is the age-old battle. Scripture paints this picture from cover to cover. There are two groups of people. Those who are God’s people. And those in rebellion against God. In the Bible at points, the labels of Jew verse Gentile are used. True Israel represents in Biblical language those who are on God’s side, the righteous, the redeemed, those saved by God. The Gentiles are those who live according to their own wisdom; live in sin and rebellion against God, and don’t seek to be reconciled with him. This is why in Biblical language, Gentiles who become Christian are begun to be referred to as the true Israel, grafted into the root of Israel. No longer Gentiles, in the Biblical sense of the word. In the same way, those ethnic Jews in Scripture who are not real followers of God are described as branches being ripped off from Israel and cast out among the nations. My point is that Scripture sees an antithesis among humanity. Those who call on the name of the Lord, and those who reject God. Two groups. You are either for God, or against him. You are either God’s ally or his enemy. There is indeed a war going on with God. Some humans are on his side, and some are not. If you are on his side, then those opposed to God are opposed to you. This psalm brought recognition of this fact to Israel. A fact that is still relevant today for Christians.
But it’s very important that we don’t miss verse 9. Verse 9 qualifies this call to arms. The people are to take up arms against God’s enemy, and use the physical sword, according to the constraint of verse 9. It says they are to execute the written judgment. In other words, they bring judgment on Gentiles only according to God’s Word. This is so very important. Don’t miss this. God is the one who defines the terms of engagement. Israel must never be presumptuous and just think they can decide who to go to war against as an arm of divine judgment. God would tell them when they should go to war and when they should not. It was by divine revelation that they would be an arm of God’s judgment. Such were extraordinary times. Even in the Old Testament, God didn’t make this a normal thing. That’s why God had some 400 years pass between promising Abraham the Promised Land and the Israelite conquest of the Land, because God said the people’s sins hadn’t yet come to their full measure. So, even Old Testament Israel could not just go to war on their own initiative and call it a holy war. That’s not what this psalm is about. This psalm is about the people of God going forth into a battle that God has specifically mandated. In some extraordinary circumstances God used them as a taste of final judgment on certain peoples. And yet when God does send his people into battle, they can be assured of the victory.
That’s the reason this is a psalm of praise. This call to battle first begins with a call to praise. To praise God for their special relationship to him, and for the victory that would imminently come. So let’s turn now to consider this call to praise. Begin in verse 2. It calls for Israel to praise God as their maker and as their king. God is both. It even refers to the people as children, in other words, God’s children. That God is there maker is something the unbelieving nations would not want to acknowledge. They certainly do not want him to be there king. And God does not call them his children. And so verse 2 praises God for the special relationship his people have with him.
The call to praise God is then given a rationale in verse 4. Verse 4 tells the reason this psalm thinks we should praise God. Verse 4, “The LORD takes pleasure in his people, he will beautify the humble with salvation. Israel was the object of God’s delight. God loves his people. But this love for his people is here connected with salvation. God would save his people. It’s his love and delight expressed in their salvation that stands as the reason here to praise God. Now let me be clear about this salvation. God’s salvation means a lot in Scripture. You can be saved from lots of things. Here, in context, it seems to refer to salvation from God’s enemies. Victory in this imminent battle. It’s something he will be doing. So recognize the faith and conviction here at this point. The gist of this is that they are praising God now because he will save them. He will give them victory. We’d probably normally pray first for victory, and then praise him after the victory. Here the praise precedes it. It anticipates it. It believes that they will have victory. And so they start in praise.
As we think about the call to praise, realize then how important the corporate dimension is to this psalm. I already mentioned verse 1. It describes this praise as something done in assembly. In the assembly of the saints, or the faithful. The word “assembly” here is a word of formal gathering. It’s the word when translated into Greek is translated as ekklesia, the Greek word for church. And so this is a corporate praise experience prior to the big battle. And this idea of corporate praise is carried through this psalm with the word for saints here. Three times the word for saints appears in this message, spread out in each of the main sections, verses 1, 5, 9. The usage of saints in verses 5 and 9 connect us with this assembly of saints in verse 1. The usages in verses 5 and 9 talk about the glory and honor bestowed upon the saints. They are glorified in the joy God has to give them victory. They are honored to be used by God to bring his written judgment to the nations. Thus, the saints are to praise God together in holy assembly. They do that before the battle, and certainly afterwards as well.
Understanding all of this, helps us to make sense of verse 1’s mention of a new song. We see the mention of a new song at different points in Scripture. What’s this new song all about? Well, keep in mind that the songs in Scripture often have a lot of history in them. They typically recount God’s saving works in the lives of his people. Often they are written specifically in light of some saving work of God. Think about the Song of Miriam in Exodus 15. There she sings about how God saved the people from the Egyptian chariots when he parted the Red Sea for Israel and then washed away the Egyptians afterwards. It describes there how the other women joined with her with timbrels and dancing. And so new songs were made and sung by God’s people when God did some new work of salvation in their lives. This psalm, sung on the eve of battle, foresees the people singing a new song. A song of how God will save them and give them victory in this military battle.
And so all of this points to a picture of the people of God together in formal assembly praising God for the victory and salvation he would provide through a military battle. The question then becomes, how does this song relate to the church today? How does this apply to us today? Let’s point out a few important facts to set our context for application. First, today, the church is no longer identified with a political nation. There is no one civil nation that is God’s people. No, now God’s visible church on earth is made up of people from every tongue, tribe, and nation. There may be some nations more supportive of Christianity than others, but there is not one single nation that is identified as the visible church. That’s different than during Israel’s days, and must inform our application. Realize, that this is by God’s design as he has sent the church out now to the nations to bring the gospel of salvation to the ends of the earth.
Next, realize that the fundamental battle still exists. Back then there was a clear antithesis between God’s people and those who were not God’s people. That age-old opposition still exists. There is a fundamental enmity that Christians have with the rest of the world, because we follow God and they refuse to. But if even Israel back then could not presumptuously just physically attack any unbeliever, we all the more must not do that. No, just like any war, you must know the current rules of engagement. God is the King of his armies; chief in command. He tells us how to engage his and our enemies. Just because in the Old Testament he had his people fight some physical battles, doesn’t mean he calls us to do that today. In fact, he doesn’t. At least not as a church – if our nation believes we must go to physical war for a just cause, then that’s within its responsibilities to decide that – as citizens we then fight. But the New Testament church has been given very specific rules of engagement from a religious perspective. As members of the church, the New Testament Scriptures has helped the church to see the spiritual dimension to this battle we are in. Consequently, we have been told to wage the battle spiritually at this point. Ephesians 6 says we still have a sword, but it’s the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. Hebrews 4:12 says that the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword – contrast that with verse 6 here. So we are still in the battle, we still fight against unbelievers. But the way we do it now is with God’s Word. God’s Word is indeed two-edged. On the one hand, it can serve to convert. On the other hand it can serve to condemn. We don’t decide which in any case. We just bring God’s Word to people and call to them to be saved by the gospel of Jesus Christ. At this point in redemptive-history, that’s the rules of engagement with the enemy. That’s how this age-old battle is fought right now. There will come a time where this war will get physical again, when Christ returns he will cast both body and spirit of his enemies into eternal hell fire. But for now, he calls the church to wage a war with the weapon of the Word. We praise the Lord with our mouth and hold the sword of the spirit with our hands.
And so as a Christian, we praise God. Think specifically of the new song that we can sing since this psalm was written. Think of the new song of Christ’s salvation for us! It’s a song whereby God showed grace on we who are Gentiles. Verse 7 reminds us that God would have been just to execute vengeance on us. The written word of judgment had come upon us when the law was written and we had ignored it. But God delighted to save us. He delighted to make us too part of his chosen people. To bring us into his family. To change our hearts to hail him as king! But justice still had to served. That written judgment of verse 9 still stood against us, for we were lawbreakers. And so Christ stood in our place. He took the written judgment due upon us; he took it upon himself. He paid the price. God executed our punishment on him. It was Jesus delight to receive that, not because the cross was easy – no he had to endure its shame. He delighted to do that, because he delighted in us. This is our new song of salvation. God has saved us from sin and death. We continually sing of this and praise him for it! We were God’s enemies, and he has made us his friends!
And yet for now the battle wages on. It’s a battle over people’s souls. We’ve been tasked to go out looking to convert people from enemies to friends with the testimony of Jesus Christ. There will be more new songs yet to sing as we see the consummation of Christ’s salvation when he returns. When we see how it all works out in the end. That will be a glorious new song of God’s final triumph at the end of all things. Revelation 1:16 describes Christ as one having a sharp two-edged sword coming from his mouth. He will secure our ultimate victory and salvation on that great final day of the Lord.
Saints of God, we are in a spiritual war. Verse 6 calls his people to take up arms in this war. The war waged in the Old Testament, and it wages today. And God has given us the sword of the Spirit to use at this point. We are called to battle. We are called to fight. We must not sit on the sidelines. Use the Word of God to call people to faith in Christ.
But don’t go out into battle without the wisdom of this psalm. Start with praise. Not just petition. Start especially with praise. We must start in praise to our God as we go out to battle with his strength. This passage not only calls us to battle, but it calls us to praise in light of the battle. And so in our praise we glorify him in general for our relationship with him. He is indeed our maker and king. We are his children. But we also celebrate how he has saved us and how he will save us. With regard to this battle we are in, we praise him in advance for the victory.
So do you see what we are saying? Do you see how this applies to what we do here each week at church? Each week we begin the week’s battles here. We begin here in praise to God. We begin here in the formal assembly of the saints to praise him for our certain salvation; for our sure victory. We are going to be fighting this spiritual battle in so many ways each week. Not just when we evangelize. But every temptation to sin is part of this battle. Every opportunity to do the right thing is part of this battle. There are so many battle fronts to this war. We face fierce struggles with the world, with the devil, and even with our own flesh. And so, before you go out into battle each week, start here. Not just in prayer for victory and salvation. But moreso, in praise for the certain victory. Realize, that this is this psalm’s promise, and it’s Scripture’s promise. “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
So let us then not forsake this assembly together. No, let us see how crucial it is. Think of all those powerful moments you see in the movies or in the history books on the eve of a great battle. Where the leader gets up and gives some powerful speech to the soldiers to give them hope and encouragement as they go into battle. That’s a sense of what we do here each week. We praise God on the eve of our next spiritual battles and he encourages us with the certainty of victory. Be encouraged today, saints of God. The battle belongs to the Lord. Let us all praise him together each time we gather in holy assembly, and let us take up his Word as we go forth in spiritual battle each day. Amen.
Copyright (c) 2011 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.