[Note: This is the prepared text for a sermonette given to the United Church of God congregation in the Dalles on Sabbath, June 11, 2022 and in Portland, Oregon on Sabbath, June 18th, 2022.]
I would like to begin today’s message with a thought experiment. Imagine that you are dealing with a know-it-all who is giving you some well-meaning advice about how you should live your life believing that they know better than you do about what you are doing. How do you feel about it? From personal observation and experience, even if we are this sort of people ourselves, we tend not to take the rebuke and correction of other people very well. As is often the case, though, our own feelings and opinions do not tend to matter very much when it comes to God.
Let us turn to our first scripture today and we will look at a particular scripture that deals with precisely this matter, and which points out that our own native response of resentment to the rebuke of the righteous is, as is often the case, precisely the opposite response that we should have. Let us turn to Psalm 141. This whole psalm is a short one at only ten verses, and I wish to focus on a small selection of these verses, but it is worthwhile to get the whole context of the psalm, especially since it is not a common psalm for us to talk about. Psalm 141 reads: “Lord, I cry out to You; make haste to me! Give ear to my voice when I cry out to You. Let my prayer be set before You as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice. Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips. Do not incline my heart to any evil thing, to practice wicked works with men who work iniquity;
and do not let me eat of their delicacies. Let the righteous strike me; it shall be a kindness. And let him rebuke me; it shall be as excellent oil; let my head not refuse it. For still my prayer is against the deeds of the wicked. Their judges are overthrown by the sides of the cliff, and they hear my words, for they are sweet. Our bones are scattered at the mouth of the grave, as when one plows and breaks up the earth. But my eyes are upon You, O God the Lord; in You I take refuge; do not leave my soul destitute. Keep me from the snares they have laid for me, and from the traps of the workers of iniquity. Let the wicked fall into their own nets, while I escape safely.”
This is a short psalm, but it deals with a great many of the concerns we have as human beings living in an evil world. Our prayers to God, especially if we are leaders or people in the public sphere, should involve a set of related concerns to communication. We should pray that our words are guarded and protected by God and that our prayers are fit to be as incense before God. We then ask God to protect us against evil inclinations and encourage others to exhort us and point out where we fall short, and then after that we pray that we are kept secure from the traps that evildoers set before us. The central part of this related set of concerns is our relationship with other people. Those who point out the truth to us, even unpleasant truths, are doing us a favor. Those who are truly our enemies will be content to let us go astray and will even seduce us into evil. Those who point out how we are falling short of God’s ways are doing us a favor by bringing to our attention something that could separate us from God.
And David had more reason than most people to focus on that particular matter. David was, we may all agree, not a perfect man, and if we had more time and more space to discuss the matter we could discuss several major times in his reign where his behavior fell short of God’s ways and standards and where He was called to account for it. What is striking about these situations is the way that David accepted the rebuke that he was given. Let us look at once famous example of this, in 2 Samuel 12:7-14. God sent the prophet Nathan to David to rebuke him of his sin in committing adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, one of his loyal soldiers. After telling a story David was prompted to give a harsh punishment to the evildoer in question. It is what follows this condemnation that is of interest to us. 2 Samuel 12:7-14 says: “Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord God of Israel: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your keeping, and gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if that had been too little, I also would have given you much more! Why have you despised the commandment of the Lord, to do evil in His sight? You have killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword; you have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the people of Ammon. Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised Me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.’ Thus says the Lord: ‘Behold, I will raise up adversity against you from your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel, before the sun.’ ” So David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” And Nathan said to David, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. However, because by this deed you have given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also who is born to you shall surely die.” Then Nathan departed to his house.”
When we think of the bravery of the prophet Nathan in rebuking David for his wickedness, we often do not think of how dangerous a position he was in. Not all kings or people in authority have taken very kindly to other people bringing rebuke to them. Yet Nathan, for all of his harshness, was doing David a favor. His job was not to condemn David, but rather to bring David to an awareness of sin. This he did, and the result was to bring David to an acknowledgment of his sin and to repentance. We can read of the seriousness and depth of this repentance when we look at Psalm 51, for example. Yet when we think of the worth of the prophet’s rebuke to a king who had behaved wickedly and corruptly in abusing his authority to gratify his own selfish lusts, that worth was principally to David. David could have found himself condemned to death, separated from God’s favor and good graces, and cast out of God’s kingdom, had he not repented of his sin. Yet to repent of that sin, he needed to be confronted with his evil. He needed to be rebuked by the righteous, for that bracing rebuke shall be a blessing.
What is the benefit of the rebuke of the righteous? When David praises the righteous striking him as a blessing and the rebuke of the righteous as anointing oil, what does this mean? It is very easy for us all to be trapped in our own perspectives, and to be surrounded by people who flatter us and tell us that we are good and smart and beautiful people when we all fall short in many ways. A recognition of the gulf that exists between where we stand and where God’s way stands is necessary for us to repent and to overcome the corrupt aspects of our human nature. Those who bring us to an awareness of what we need to struggle against, regardless of the motives that lead them to do so, are doing us a favor. Anything that gives us knowledge of how we need to do better is good for us, and not something we will get from lying flattery. Let us therefore praise the truth, and celebrate those who bring it to us, for we live in a world full of lies.