Sermon for August 16th, 2020
To the leader: according to The Sheminith. A Psalm of David. 1 Help, O Lord, for there is no longer anyone who is godly; the faithful have disappeared from humankind. 2 They utter lies to each other; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak. 3 May the Lord cut off all flattering lips, the tongue that makes great boasts, 4 those who say, “With our tongues we will prevail; our lips are our own—who is our master?” 5 “Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up,” says the Lord; “I will place them in the safety for which they long.” 6 The promises of the Lord are promises that are pure, silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times. 7 You, O Lord, will protect us; you will guard us from this generation forever. 8 On every side the wicked prowl, as vileness is exalted among humankind.
Psummer of Psalms III: Psalm 12
A man is on an airplane flight from El Paso to Dallas, and he opens a bag of complimentary peanuts that come with every flight. Immediately, he hears a voice coming from the bag which says, "Hey man, you're looking great today!" The man looks around, but no one else seems to notice. Not wanting to be rude, he says "Thank you." The peanuts reply, "Also, I really love your outfit!"
"That's...uh...nice of you," says the man. Next, the bag of peanuts tells him, "You are one of the coolest guys I have ever met!" At this, the man is quite flattered. He waves down the flight attendant and tells her, "Ma'am, these peanuts are really nice and thoughtful!" The flight attendant replies, "Well, they should be. After all, they *are* complimentary."
Psalm 12 is about flattery, boasting, and other types of deceitful or reckless speech. There's an old saying that most of us grew up with: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me." Of course, the mere existence of that rhyme, the fact that children need words like this to comfort and console themselves, hints at the fact that words really do have the power to wound us deeply, to destroy relationships and reputations alike.
Psalm 12 says in the instructions at the beginning that it is a "Psalm of David" written to the leader (or the chief musician) to be accompanied by the Sheminith, which is probably an eight-stringed harp. A "Psalm of David" could mean that it was written by the famous King David himself, or by someone else "in the style of" King David. Whoever wrote this psalm was clearly having a bad day. Or a bad year, or a bad decade. There are no flowery, poetic words addressing God, just a simple and heartfelt cry: "Help, O Lord." If you need a good way to start a prayer on a bad day, that will do.
"Help, O Lord, for there is no longer anyone who is godly; the faithful have disappeared from humankind."
That part may sound like an exaggeration, but it's also a reminder that when you feel like the world has gone to hell in a hand-basket, that things have never been so bad as they are today...well, you're not alone. This Psalm was written about 3,000 years ago. Remembering this may not improve your situation, but it puts things in a larger perspective.
Verse two: "They (that is, everyone) utter lies to each other; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak."
The word translated as "lies" in Hebrew is שָׁוְא (shav) which literally means "emptiness" or words with no substance. The phrase "double heart" is like our modern expression "two-faced." People who say one thing in front of you, and quite another thing when you aren't around.
Verses one and two spell out the problem, while verses three and four are the psalmist's request to God: "May the Lord cut off all flattering lips, the tongue that makes great boasts, those who say, “With our tongues we will prevail; our lips are our own—who is our master?"
Basically, four different kinds of destructive speech that should be cut off:
1. Flattering lips. Think of how you feel when someone praises you, compliments you. Good, right? And then how do you feel when you find out later that none of those words were true, that they were only an attempt to gain something from you. This is the most innocuous kind of deceitful speech. We do this without thinking about it or realizing what we're doing. You might even flatter someone simply because you want them to like you--where's the harm in that? The harm is in the deception: Flattery pretends to say "I love you" but actually says "I love me." The scriptures teach that true love, true kindness, true generosity is never self-seeking, but rather self-sacrificing. The antidote to flattery is not to stop complimenting people, not to be brutally honest or rude, but resolve to mean (and to believe) your compliments, and then stand by them in the presence of others. Make your two faces, your two hearts into one, but always choose the kinder one.
2. The tongue that makes great boasts. If flattery is complimenting another person when you don't mean it, boasting is complimenting yourself when there's no need for it, when it doesn't build up or help another person. Here's a litmus test: Does what I'm about to say benefit me, primarily, or the people I'm speaking to? I'm not advocating false humility or selling yourself short. If you're in a job interview, speaking confidently about what you have done and what you can do is helpful to the person interviewing you. If someone is having a heart attack, saying "I'm a doctor" is not boastful, it's critically helpful. But saying "I'm a pretty big deal" when the purpose is to to make yourself feel good, or to make someone else feel small--that's the tongue the Psalmist (and pretty much everyone) would rather have cut off.
3. Those who say, "With our tongues we will prevail." Let me confess: I am so guilty of this one. There's not much difference between a person with strong muscles who punches you in the face in order to get his way, and a person who uses words to punch you in the face and get his way. I grew up in a family of six very smart people, and I learned early on how to argue effectively. I often use that skill to my advantage. I have considered that preaching a sermon every Sunday where I encourage everyone (and myself) to be nice, might be my eternal penance for the ways I use my words the other six days of the week. In any case, the litmus test is the same: Am I using my words to advance myself (so that I win the argument and you lose) or am I using my words to help both of of us win, or to help you win, in cases where I don't really need to (even though I *like* to).
4. Those who say, "Our lips are our own—who is our master?" This is the most destructive of all kinds of speech--unrestrained words from those who don't consider (or don't care) about the impact of their words on others. We have an expression for this kind of person--we say he or she has "no filter." Some people take that as a badge of honor: "I'm just being honest" or "It's a free country, I can say what I want." I believe passionately, as an American, in free speech. But just because you have a right to do something doesn't mean it's wise, or good, or helpful. As an American I am free. But as a Christian, I am not free. I have a master: It's the God who tells me to love my neighbor as much as I love myself--with my thoughts, my actions, and my words.
Verse five is God's response: "Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up,” says the Lord; “I will place them in the safety for which they long.”
The poor and the needy--in Hebrew: עֲנִיִּים֮ (aniyim) and אֶבְי֫וֹנִ֥ים (ebyonim) here refer not so much to financial poverty, but those who are on the wrong side of destructive speech--those who have been wounded by words. This is important to remember: When you use words destructively, God is automatically on the side of the other person. You may win your argument, but you lose in the sight of God.
Destructive words are empty and worthless, but by contrast the promises of God are (verse 6) "pure, silver refined" and "purified seven times." In other words, valuable, reliable, and true.
The next verse (7) seems like the perfect and typical ending for a psalm: "You, O Lord, will protect us; you will guard us from this generation forever." But that's not where the psalm ends. Instead, verse 8 ends right where things began: "On every side the wicked prowl, as vileness is exalted among humankind."
This is a reminder that even when you do what's right, even when your words are kind and uplifting, we still live in a broken, imperfect world, where self-interest and self-love usually prevail. Given that fact, why should we choose to be different?
Let me conclude with an illustration. I've shared this before, but one more time won't hurt.
A man was praying one day, and asked the Lord to explain to him the difference between heaven and hell. The Lord said to the man, "Come, I will show you hell." Together, they entered a room where a group of people sat around a giant, mouth-watering plate of food. Everyone was famished, desperate and starving. Each held a fork that reached the plate, but all of the forks had handles so much longer than their arms that none of the forks could be used to get the food into their mouths. The suffering was terrible. After awhile, the Lord said, "Come, now I will show you heaven." Together, they entered another room. It was almost identical to the first room - the same plate of food, the same long-handled forks, but a different group of people. Here, everyone was happy and well-fed.
"I don't understand," said the man. "Why are they so happy here when they were so miserable in the other room...and everything is pretty much the same?"
The Lord smiled and said, "Here they use their forks to feed each other."