I’ve been meditating lately in Psalm 11, as part of my effort this year to memorize a few key Psalms. (So far, 1, 2, 8, 11, and 14; next is 19, d.v.)
Psalm 11 is most well known for its third verse: “If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?”
I’ve heard that verse used as a call to action against evil—typically, social or political action against evil policy proposals, national or regional. Some years ago I even spoke at a Christian-school conference that had chosen that verse as its theme.
But I’d like to suggest that those friends and others have taken this verse to say the very opposite of the intended meaning.
Here’s the whole Psalm—
1 In the LORD put I my trust: how say ye to my soul, “Flee as a bird to your mountain! 2 For, lo, the wicked bend their bow, they make ready their arrow upon the string, that they may privily shoot at the upright in heart. 3 If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?!”
4 The LORD is in his holy temple, the LORD’S throne is in heaven: his eyes behold, his eyelids try, the children of men. 5 The LORD trieth the righteous: but the wicked and him that loveth violence his soul hateth. 6 Upon the wicked he shall rain snares, fire and brimstone, and an horrible tempest: this shall be the portion of their cup. 7 For the righteous LORD loveth righteousness; his countenance doth behold the upright.
I’ve modified the punctuation of the KJV text just a little: I’ve added quotation marks; I’ve changed the question mark at the end of verse 1 to an exclamation point; and I’ve added an exclamation point to the question mark at the end of verse 3.
It appears to me that the KJV translators viewed the quotation as ending in verse 1; that’s why they put the question mark there. (Note that there was no punctuation in the original manuscripts or in the early copies. All punctuation in the Bible is a later editorial decision.) What basis do I have for extending the quotation through verse 3?
Well, the first consideration in any such decision should always be the context. The contrast between verses 3 and 4 indicates a significant change of perspective—which is why all the major English translations that show paragraph breaks put one there, and all those that include quotation marks end the quotation at the end of verse 3. The fear and frustration expressed in verse 3 seems much more in tune with the quotation in verse 1 than the response in verse 4.
Since it’s always a good idea to run your ideas past experts, the next step is to check the commentaries. Of the technical commentaries I have at hand, Faussett, Keil & Delitzsch, Lange, Kidner (Tyndale), Futato (Cornerstone), Longman (Tyndale), and Motyer (New BC) all agree that the major break is between 3 and 4—in other words, that verse 3 belongs with verse 1.
Thus the psalm consists of two paragraphs, or more properly, two stanzas. In the first, David announces his life principle (“In the Lord do I put my trust”) and then questions those who question him. The words “what can the righteous do?!” are not David’s, but those of his questioners, his self-appointed advisors, who see the world as a much more frightening place than he does. They are words of fear, not of faith.
The second stanza is David’s reply to his fearful advisors. He answers calmly and logically—theologically—and gives reasons for his faith. The reasons are rooted in God’s person, his perspective, and his plan.
And in the face of that, the alarmed have nothing more to say.
I think this Psalm is timely for these days.
In the next post we’ll take a closer look at the words of both the fearful and the faithful. And then we’ll get to pick a side.
Photo by NASA. That’s Tropical Cyclone Eloise coming ashore in Mozambique on January 22, 2021.