HELP IN HARD TIMES
Dr Alan C. Clifford
(Norwich Reformed Church )
‘A little that a righteous man hath is better than the riches of many wicked. For the arms of the wicked shall be broken: but the LORD upholdeth the righteous. The LORD knoweth the days of the upright: and their inheritance shall be for ever. They shall not be ashamed in the evil time: and in the days of famine they shall be satisfied’ (Psalm 37: 16-19).
‘A little that a righteous man hath is better than the riches of many wicked’ (v. 16). In every age people are divided into ‘rich’ and ‘poor’. Of course, especially today, recession or not, wealth and poverty can be relative. A ‘poor’ person in the ‘First World’ could be quite ‘rich’ by the standards of ‘Third World’. Yet there’s always a divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’.
As psalmist King David seems to assume, wealth and wickedness often seem to go together. Not surprisingly, there’s an uneasy attitude in the Bible towards wealth in general and money in particular. Our Lord Jesus Christ warns us against its dangers: “Take heed, and beware of covetousness! for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” (Luke 12: 15).
However, David is not saying that poverty in itself is better than wealth, or that laziness is more virtuous than work or that wealth is necessarily evil. The Book of Proverbs is a powerful antidote to such thinking (see 30: 8; 20: 13; 11: 25; 13: 11). What then is David saying? That it is better to be a poor believer than a wealthy unbeliever.
There have, of course, been wealthy Christians who were not corrupted by their wealth. Among the English nobility, Selina, the Countess of Huntingdon was a godly and generous Christian during the Evangelical Awakening of the eighteenth century. When she read Paul’s words that there were ‘not many noble’ people in Christ’s Church (1 Cor. 1: 26), she was glad he wrote ‘not many’ rather than ‘not any’! In the nineteenth century, wealthy Christian industrialists like the Cadburys of Birmingham and the Colmans of Norwich never prospered at the expense of the well being of their workers. On the contrary, they cared for them with Christian care. Do modern companies match up to this?
David is now reminding us that since the ‘wicked’ often prosper, it is better to be content with the ‘little’ possessed by the righteous than to enjoy the ‘much’ of the unrighteous. It all boils down to priorities, as the Lord Jesus reminds us: ‘But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness: and all these [necessary] things shall be added unto you’ (Matt. 6: 33). What makes the difference is the state of our hearts. If we have covetous or greedy hearts, we’ll never be content. If we have renewed hearts, we will be content with all that God provides. Human wisdom can be useful: ‘The best things in life are free’; ‘The happiest people are those who don’t want what they can’t get’.
We smile and say, “How true!” But God’s wisdom says ‘godliness with contentment is great gain’ and ‘we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out’ (1 Tim. 6: 6, 7). And did not our Saviour also ask, “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Matt.16:26). So a renewed or Christian heart trusts ‘not in uncertain riches but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy’ (1 Tim. 6: 17). Thomas à Kempis was right to say, “Use earthly things. Seek heavenly things” (The Imitation of Christ). With a true sense of values, the hymn writer said, ‘Change and decay in all around I see; O Thou who changest not, abide with me’ (H. F. Lyte).
‘For the arms of the wicked shall be broken: but the LORD upholdeth the righteous’ (v. 17). This is an amazing and comforting statement. When world, national or personal events such as unemployment fill us with anxiety, we should remember that ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble’ (Ps. 46: 1). However, a sense of our unworthiness might make us doubt whether David’s words could ever apply to us. We might say, “Yes, ‘the Lord upholds the righteous’ but my sins and failures surely disqualify me.”
However this is to misunderstand David’s language. Being ‘personally righteous’ is not always the same as being ‘actually sinless’ as David made clear in Psalm 32: 1-2 and as Paul argues in Romans 4: 5-8. Those who are conscious of their sins, yet—in true repentance and faith—trust in God’s mercy and pardon through our Lord Jesus Christ, are regarded by God as ‘righteous’ in His sight. Every sinner who trusts in Jesus is ‘righteous in Jesus’. As the guilt of our sins was taken by Him on the cross, so the merit of His sufferings becomes our own by faith! To be ‘justified by faith’ (Rom. 5: 1) is to be ‘declared righteous’ in God’s sight on account of Christ’s sacrifice alone (Rom. 5: 9). This is the Gospel truth David is pointing to. Of course, when God ‘justifies the ungodly’ (Rom. 4: 5), He also begins to purify them by His Holy Spirit. But since we are never without sin in this life, our righteousness before God is always the perfect sacrificial obedience of Jesus Christ.
Without abusing God’s grace or having a light view of our sins, the question is: “Do we forsake our sins and flee to Jesus?” Besides vividly illustrating what David writes here, the example of Samson also reminds us that our salvation is all of God’s grace. Though not very ‘saintly’ in his earlier life and behaviour, Samson is viewed as a saved man of faith (see Heb. 11: 32). When he destroyed the Philistines and asked God to ‘remember’ him (Judges 16: 28), were not ‘the arms of the wicked broken’ and ‘righteous’ Samson ‘upheld’? Yes, he lost his physical life but his soul was saved. Like the thief on the cross who asked Jesus to ‘remember’ him (Luke 23: 42-3), Samson also enjoys paradise and the promise of everlasting life—including a restored body (see Phil. 3: 21)! These and other examples remind us that our righteousness is all of God’s wonderful, undeserved grace.
‘The LORD knoweth the days of the upright: and their inheritance shall be for ever. They shall not be ashamed in the evil time: and in the days of famine they shall be satisfied’ (vs. 18-19). The example of Samson also reminds us that God’s people are not promised an easy time in this world. Besides Hebrews 11, the New Testament teaches the same truth: ‘We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God’ (Acts 14: 22). So we must not be deceived by the ‘health, wealth and prosperity’ gospel, popular in some circles today.
What then is our ultimate comfort as Christians? The promises of God! First, David tells us that the Lord knows all about us. Since ‘knowing’ sometimes means ‘loving’, this could also mean that God never ceases to love us all our days, both ‘glad’ days and ‘sad’ days. Paul tells us that nothing ‘shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Rom. 8: 39). Second, whatever disappointments we experience, the ‘upright’ are never losers in the end. While getting everything we want is not always good for us, our heavenly Father promises to ‘supply all our need’ from his resourceful ‘riches in glory by Christ Jesus’ (Phil. 4: 19). We are not promised immunity from pain or financial and other losses, but ‘all things’ are working for our ultimate good (see Rom. 8: 28). Has a poet not rightly said, “Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal”?
David further reminds us that our Christian inheritance is assured. Earthly and material security can be lost but God’s promise of adequate care in this life and complete and lasting happiness in heaven is sure and certain. Thus Peter writes that Christians have ‘an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you’ (1 Pet. 1: 4). But not only is our inheritance kept for us. We—by God’s keeping grace—are kept for it (v. 5)!
God’s guaranteed care is reliable even in ‘evil times’. When we are outnumbered by the ‘wicked’ and also despised and devalued by them, we shall not be ‘ashamed’. True, merely nominal Christians might deny Christ. To avoid ridicule and rejection they will ‘go with the flow’. But those who love the Lord will not be forgotten by Him.
This is wonderfully illustrated by Christ Himself. Of the many widows in Elijah’s ‘evil time’, only the godly widow of Zarephath was miraculously fed during the terrible famine (see 1 Kings 17: 8-16; Luke 4: 25-6). She was doubtless ‘satisfied’ spiritually as well as physically. When idolatrous Baal worship was popular in Israel, the widow continued to worship the Lord. This reminds us that of all famines, the worst kind is ‘a famine … of hearing the words of the LORD’ (Amos 8: 11).
While the life-style of many reveals their true appetites, may we be ‘satisfied’ by Jesus the ‘bread of life’! In a discontented world, He alone can meet our deepest needs, which are spiritual. Did not Jesus say, “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled” (Matt. 5: 6)? Feeding on Him, we ‘shall never hunger’ and believing on Him we ‘shall never thirst’ (John 6: 35). Reader, if you are going through hard times, ask God to enable you to trust in Him and begin to prove the truth and reality of this message from His Word.