Early in Book I of the Psalms, Psalm 11 presents a microcosm of the way we ought to use the psalms to form hearts of trust. Psalm 11 is positioned in the middle of a series of laments about the wicked that extends from Psalm 10 through Psalm 14. They paint a very bleak picture of wicked people flourishing (Ps 10), God seeming to be far away (Pss 12–13), and the tragic reality that “there is none who does good, not even one” (Ps 14:3). The editors organized these psalms in a particular way for a particular reason, and so these laments are meant to work together to contribute to the image that God wants us to have of life under his rule in the midst of a wicked world. What are we to do? How can we praise the Lord when this is the reality?
Well, this is exactly the question Psalm 11 asks. Look at verse 3:
If the foundations are destroyed,
what can the righteous do?”
Now, what does David mean here by “foundations”? This is a metaphor. Psalms don’t just come out and state things like more prosaic passages of Scripture do, because the purpose of the psalms is to shape our image of reality—our hearts, and so psalms use imagery to do so. What does this image of “foundations” picture?
This image is often used in the psalms and throughout Scripture as a metaphor for the order of society, an order that God established at creation under the mediatorial rule of Adam. Even after the fall, God re-established those foundations of order in Genesis 9 to provide a system of righteousness that is the basis for the flourishing and civilized society that will work. Sin will be punished, as God intended, and righteousness will be rewarded, as God intended. Another way to say this is that the “foundations” of which Psalm 11 speaks is the proper image of blessedness under God’s rule mediated through just vice-regents.
This is how God designed things to be: when a society is built on righteousness, it will flourish. “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne,” the psalmist proclaims in Psalm 89:14. Proverbs 14:34 says, “Righteousness exalts a nation.” Proverbs 16:12 says a king’s throne “is established by righteousness. These are universal principles established by God that apply to all societies. And when societies destroy that foundation, they crumble.
This is exactly what this series of laments is describing. “In arrogance the wicked hotly pursue the poor” (Ps 10:2). “The faithful have vanished from among the children of man” (Ps 12:1). God seems to be absent (Ps 13). “There is none who does good” (Ps 14:1). Or as Psalm 11:2 describes it, “The wicked bend the bow, they have fitted their arrow to the string to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart.”
The foundations are destroyed; what can the righteous do?
God’s people have often lived through times like this, civilization after civilization. David lived through it, and the people of Israel experienced it in their exile. And do we not live in a similar age? At times various nations enjoy systems and laws that are consistent with the way God designed things to work, and as such, this nation has flourished. But the foundations are crumbling, are they not? All around the word, nations are being led by people who set themselves against the Lord and his Anointed. What can the righteous do? And perhaps even worse, like Psalm 12 says, it appears that the faithful have vanished. What can the righteous do?
The Wrong Answer
That’s what this psalm is seeking to address. But before we look at how the psalm answers that question correctly, notice the wrong answer to the question. In the second half of verse 1 through verse 3, David is quoting someone else. In verse 1, David says, “How can you say to my soul . . .” and now the quote begins. And here is the first answer that is given to the question, “What can the righteous do?”: “Flee like a bird to your mountain.” This is the advice being given to David. The foundations are crumbling, the wicked are shooting secretly at the upright in heart, so flee! Escape! Run away! Just get together and sing happy songs and pretend none of it is happening.
This is how God’s people unfortunately often respond to the reality of sin and wickedness around them—they seek escape. There are many ways this kind of escapism manifests itself, but it is perhaps no more evident in how many Christians worship today, especially what we sing. Much of the contemporary worship music in churches today ignores the reality of sin and wickedness, instead presenting a happy-clappy, escapist, feel-good image of our lives. If churches today use psalms at all, they usually use only snippets from the “exciting” psalms rather than all the psalms. Music in worship has become, for most Christians, an enjoyable diversion at best, meant to take our minds off of the hard realities of life. Poetry and music are treated merely as means to excite us about doctrine or make doctrine more interesting. Indeed, lament is all but absent from modern worship.
But that’s the wrong response. And that’s what we see in the Psalms—these songs don’t ignore the reality of crumbling foundations and wicked people, these songs acknowledge that reality but then lead us to respond in proper ways in the midst of that reality.
So what is the proper response, then?
Rebuild the Foundations
David presents three proper responses in this psalm that foreshadow the way the entire Psalter helps us to rebuild the foundations in our own hearts.
Take Refuge in the Lord
The first one is found in the first phrase of the psalm: “In the Lord I take refuge.” When God seems far away, and the foundations of righteousness are crumbling, and the faithful have vanished, and there is none righteous, no not one, the correct response is this: In the Lord I take refuge.
The Lord is in his holy temple
David gives a second response in verse 4:
The Lord is in his holy temple;
the Lord’s throne is in heaven;
his eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man.
When you look around and the foundations of society seem to be crumbling, and you know that this is going to lead toward chaos in the society, the correct response is this: “The Lord is in his holy temple.” The thrones of men may be crumbling, but God is still on his throne.
The Lord has determined the destiny of the wicked and the righteous.
And then look at David’s third response, beginning in verse 5:
5 The Lord tests the righteous,
but his soul hates the wicked
and the one who loves violence.
6 Let him rain coals on the wicked;
fire and sulfur and a scorching wind
shall be the portion of their cup.
7 For the Lord is righteous;
he loves righteous deeds;
the upright shall behold his face.
When you look around, it often looks like the wicked are always prospering (Ps 10:5). Psalm 12:8 says that “vileness is exalted among the children of man.” Psalm 13 describes the enemies of God exalting over his people. When you look around and there is nothing but corruption around you, the correct response is this: The destiny of the wicked is certain: “fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.”
And when you look around, it often looks like the righteous are being destroyed—Psalm 10:10 says, “The helpless are crushed, sink down, and fall by his might.” Psalm 12:5 says that the poor are oppressed. Psalm 13 expresses the fact that for the righteous, it seems like God is absent. Consider how Psalm 14:4 describes it: “Evildoers . . . eat up my people as they eat bread.” Do you ever feel that way? The correct response is this: “The Lord is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face” (11:7). The destiny of the righteous is certain.
So David presents three correct responses of God’s people when the foundations of righteousness around them are crumbling:
- In the Lord I take refuge.
- The Lord is in his holy temple.
- The Lord has determined the destiny of the wicked and the righteous.
Now, notice that these are not arbitrary responses that David uniquely expresses in Psalm 11. These principles have already been introduced in the foundational Psalms, Psalm 1 and 2, as key themes that are developed throughout the Five Books.
“In the Lord I put my trust.” Where do you see that in the foundational psalms? The end of Psalm 2:
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
Psalm 2 predicted that all of human history would be characterized by vain imaginations, by nations raging and setting themselves against the rule of God, so when that happens, why are you surprised? Why would your response be to flee? Take refuge in the Lord, just like the psalm says.
Second response: “The Lord is in his holy temple.” Where do you see that in the foundational psalms? Again, Psalm 2:
4 He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
6 “As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”
The Lord already set his King on Zion. It’s done. He’s King.
Third response: The Lord has determined the destiny of the wicked and the righteous. Where do you see that in the foundational psalms? Psalm 1:6:
For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
So why are these responses in Psalm 11 the appropriate responses to the reality of crumbling foundations around us? Because in Psalm 11, David is reaffirming the foundations that God set out in Psalms 1 and 2. He’s readjusting his image of reality with God’s image of reality. The foundations look like they’re crumbling, and they may be in the societies of men, but those foundations are still there because God laid those foundations, and they shall never be moved. God’s foundations are the bedrock upon which men build their foundations and construct their societies; man’s foundations may crumble, but the bedrock foundations that God laid are established forever.
This is the foundation of all our hope and all our expectation. God is in the heavens; his rule is untouched by what is taking place on earth. Nothing is altered in heaven where God rules over all things. The end is determined; it was written in stone before the foundations of the earth were laid. And those who take refuge in him can be assured of true, eternal blessedness.
So, if the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do? The foundations are not actually destroyed. The fundamentals that God has established will never be moved. And if you shape your image of reality by that foundational reality—if you muse on the music of God’s Word so that your image of true blessedness is shaped by the Word rather than the vain imaginations of the wicked, then you will be blessed, even as the righteous foundations of the society crumble around you. You will be able to say, “The Lord is king forever and ever; the nations perish from his land” (Ps 10:16). You will be able to say, like Psalm 12:6–7, “The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times. You, O Lord, will keep them; you will guard us from this generation forever.” You will be able to say with Psalm 13:5–6, “But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.” You will be able to say with Psalm 14:5–7, “God is with the generation of the righteous. . . . The Lord is his refuge. . . . When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people, let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad.”