In 1939, as Adolf Hitler launched his blitzkrieg into Poland and the world stood on the precipice of war, the well-known evangelist, pastor, and Bible expositor Arno Gaebelein identified these ancient words of the psalmist as “the burning question of our day”: “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Ps. 11:3).
More than a half century later, the question still burns. What can the righteous do when self-serving, sinister actions of unrighteous people systematically dismantle the moral and spiritual foundation on which a society is built? What can we do when books on atheism become overnight sensations while the Bible is increasingly discredited and dismissed as myth or, at best, historically and culturally irrelevant? What can we do when terrorist threats grow more ominous each day? What can we do when what we thought were the sure foundations of our own lives, families, communities, and churches show signs of stress, weakness, and failure? What can the righteous do?
This was the burning question posed by David’s counselors, and perhaps by David himself, during a time of crisis. His enemies, most likely King Saul or even David’s own son, Absalom, were bearing down hard. They were bending their bows and setting their arrows against the strings (v. 2). David faced imminent and intense threats from all sides. His counselors advised him to “flee like a bird to your mountain” as his adversaries lay in wait, ready to “shoot from the shadows” (vv. 1–2). Those enemies were strong, they were clever, and they were everywhere. David wouldn’t even see their arrows coming. Conventional wisdom told him to head for the hills, or, as we say in my neck of the woods, to “git while the gittin’s good.”
Despite the “practical” advice of his advisors, David knew of only one place where he could flee and find true safety—not to the mountains, but to the One who forged them. And so David confidently asserted that it was “in the Lord” that he would “take refuge” (v. 1). Anchored by three timeless truths, he knew he could trust God as his safe haven, his mighty fortress in the midst of life’s bruising battles.
First, David remembered where the Lord sits (v. 4). In this unpredictable world David reminds us that the sovereign Lord of the universe resides “in his holy temple,” seated “on his heavenly throne” (v. 4), with earth as His footstool. Nothing is outside His jurisdiction, nor is any force or person bigger, stronger, wiser, or more formidable. David realized that the kings of this world, despite their political power and military might, were nothing compared to the King of kings who “reigns forever … enthroned in Zion” (9:7, 11). From God’s heavenly “mission control,” David knew that the Lord would hear his distress cries and save him from his enemies (cf. 18:3, 6).
Like David, we have our own front-page issues. From national headline news events to our own difficulties—leaky roofs, hormonal teenagers, job cutbacks, shattered marriages, or failing health—we face challenges that require us to remember that the Lord God omnipotent reigns. Our confidence in God’s presence and His power causes fear to flee and solidifies faith in the midst of an unstable world.
Second, David remembered what the Lord sees (11:4–5). From His heavenly throne, God “observes the sons of men; his eyes examine them” (v. 4). His loving gaze falls on “the righteous, but the wicked and those who love violence his soul hates” (v. 5). He sees everyone and everything; nothing escapes His notice.
He sees us when we’re sleeping, He knows when we’re awake, He knows if we’ve been bad or good. And on top of all that, He cares and comforts and helps and forgives—for Christ’s sake! We have no better recipe for peace in this distressing, uncertain world than to remember that God’s divine approval rests on those who love Him and who remain faithful to Him, come what may. In the midst of great difficulty, David found comfort in the fact that the Lord God omniscient sees all, knows all, tests all, and rewards the righteous.
Third, David remembered what the Lord sends (v. 6). Pop culture makes “white collar” bad guys look cool, sophisticated, and successful. The ongoing threat of violence around the world makes the really bad guys seem invincible. David lived in an equally unstable and cruel world, yet he lived with the confidence that the just and holy God would ultimately prevail, declaring that “on the wicked He will rain fiery coals and burning sulfur; a scorching wind will be their lot” (v. 6). While the bad guys may appear to have the upper hand, though they may prosper for a season, though they may slander and scheme against and even slay God’s people, in the end their evil injustices will yield to the righteous verdicts of the sovereign Judge of heaven and earth. Knowing that God will ultimately make all wrongs right enables us to live boldly and victoriously in the world despite the presence and power of sin.
What do we do when the foundations are being destroyed? Like David, we can take refuge in the Lord, knowing where He sits, what He sees, and what He sends. Because He “is righteous” and “loves justice,” those who are “upright in heart” will one day “see his face” (v. 7), enjoying the blessed privilege of unrestricted access to God, unending fellowship with God, and unequaled joy in Him.
And David’s story has a P.S. Several thousand years after he wrote this psalm, we have an even clearer picture of the One in whom he sought refuge. Those who know the One who sits at the right hand of the Father have the surest foundation of all—one that will never change, never disappoint, and never be destroyed. His throne is one of mercy and grace, from which He invites His children to draw near in time of need. When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do? David’s counselors advised him to fly to the heights, but David knew fleeing to the mountains is for the birds. In a world in which the burning questions remain unchanged, so does the faithfulness and stability of our Lord.
Scott Brinson (MA[BS], 1986; ThM, 1989) serves as executive director of Children’s Bible Mission (CBM) Ministries of the Great Southwest. He lives in Edmond, Oklahoma.