The United States of America was recently assaulted by the most awesome terror in generations. The terrorist attacks of September 11 not only killed thousands of people, but created serious disruptions in transportation, communications, the economy, general freedoms, and who knows what other elements of our life. Bill Shishko, an Orthodox Presbyterian pastor on Long Island, writing of those events, said that the emotions in the aftermath ran the same gamut as they do in the unexpected death of a loved one. First there was shock. Then anger set in. Then the realization of the chaos of changed relationships dawned and grew to be overwhelming. Recent polls have indicated that two-thirds of Americans felt depressed after the tragedies.
We saw and heard and felt the shock, anger, and grief of our countrymen. Anger was expressed in threats of retaliation and revenge. Sadness was felt for the thousands who lost husbands, wives, parents, children, and friends in New York and Washington. Tears were brought to Mr. Shishko's eyes when he met a schoolgirl whose parents both worked in the top stories of the World Trade Center. We share the sorrow of thousands in similar situations. Let us be quick to share people's sadness and grief.
But what else should our perspective be in the light of these shocking events-and considering that other terrorist acts may follow, perhaps even involving horrific biological or chemical agents?
Our president has said that the United States is at war. Traditionally, war is armed conflict between nations. But in this war, the identity of the "nations" that are involved is rather murky. Our enemy may be "terrorism," but who exactly are the terrorists-and where are they?
Each of us has struggled with the enormity and the complexity of the issues involved here. To get a better perspective on these events, let's consider what God has to say in Psalm 2.
"Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?" (vs. 1). The King James Version renders this verse, "Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?" In the Old Testament, the "nations" are usually the Gentiles-the "heathen" in that time period. "Rage" is probably a better translation than "conspire." The verb has a sense of turbulence. The nations (the heathen) are not just thinking about conflict (as "conspire" might suggest). They are involved in it. They are in tumult and turmoil. Things are already churned up.
Verse 2 delineates the forces that are involved against one another in this situation. "The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One."
This brings us to the key question: Who is on which side of the conflict? In our experience, it is usually "us" versus "them""the "good guys" (us, presumably) versus the "bad guys." For a long time, the two sides were represented by the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R."capitalism and freedom versus communism and totalitarianism. Before that, it was the Allies versus the Axis powers. In each case, the two sides occupied geographical areas with more or less clear boundaries. But these delineations between nations are only relative. The conflict envisioned in Psalm 2 is not between earthly nations or kingdoms.
Here is where many people need a clearer understanding. I am afraid that the majority of U.S. citizens see the U.S.A. simply as the "good guys" and the terrorists as the "bad guys." Indeed, there are relative degrees of goodness or wickedness between nations (leading to conflicts between them). But we have to recognize that the ultimate conflict on this earth is the opposition between all the kingdoms of this world, to one degree or another, and the kingdom of God, the rule of Jesus Christ.
This is the fundamental conflict into which the entire world-with all its people-has been brought as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve. There is a great antithesis between God and sinners, and between those whose saving faith is in the Son of God and those who do not know God in a saving way. Many people are ignorant of this conflict. They are indifferent to God. At bottom, they assume that if they are not blatantly warring against God, they are not guilty of living in opposition to him. They assume they are not guilty of cosmic treason against him.
But they are! Psalm 2 reveals the unreasonableness of man's opposition to God in its very first word: "Why ...?" The senselessness of rejecting God's rule and order is astonishing. Why would the world gather in opposition to the Lord God, who created and sustains it? In the final analysis, it is the most irrational thing that one could do.
Verse 3 quotes the people of this world as they contemplate their opposition to God: " 'Let us break their chains,' they say, 'and throw off their fetters.' " It's easy for us to picture Osama bin Laden saying that. He openly expresses his hatred of Christianity. He wants to exterminate all Christians. The Taliban rulers in Afghanistan have arrested both natives and foreigners working with aid agencies and charged them with trying to convert people to Christianity. The foreigners are supposed to be expelled and the natives are to be executed for promoting Christianity.
It's harder for us to realize that, in a much more civil way, every non-Christian is at war with God. In every area of education and of life, people are trying to break the chains and throw off the fetters that tie them to an infinitely righteous God. Secular humanism and evolutionary thinking permeate not only biology and astronomy, but anthropology and history and our culture generally. It is an attempt to rule God out, to say "Let's make God obsolete. Let's leave him out of every equation. Let's eliminate God and his Anointed One from every part of our life."
But now, verses 4-6 reveal how God reacts to the arrogance of man: "The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. Then he rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, 'I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill.'"
The New Testament frequently quotes Psalm 2. We find one of these quotations in Acts 4. Peter and John, in their prayer after their confrontation with the Jewish Sanhedrin, quote Psalm 2:1-2 and then say, "Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed" (vs. 27). Then listen to this: "They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen" (vs. 28). The quiet sovereignty of God is very clear. No matter what tragic events occur in this world-even in the life of the Son of God, nothing happens that God in his power and will did not beforehand decide would happen.
But in spite of the cruel and senseless action of men in crucifying the Lord Jesus, God still triumphs over the rebellion of man. The efforts of Jesus' enemies to destroy him actually turn out to produce the redemption of all whom God has ordained to save. The Lord scoffs at the arrogance of proud mankind. The Lord has the final word. He has installed his Son as the head of a kingdom that began with the ministry of Christ and is growing throughout the earth as the years unfold until his return. Until the Lord returns in power and glory, however, the struggle between sinful mankind and the righteous Lord will continue. As Jesus said, "wars and rumors of wars" will occur throughout the years of human history (Matt. 24:6).
Verse 7 states that God the Father has given sovereignty and authority to the incarnate Son of God. Then in verses 8-9, God reveals what will be the ultimate outcome of all these wars and struggles. The Anointed One-the Messiah, the Christ-will triumph! All who have rejected God will be punished-dashed to pieces like crockery. Not just the Stalins and Hitlers and Osama bin Ladens, but everyone who does not humble his heart before Christ will experience final judgment.
Is there any hope? Yes. Look at the final three verses. Be warned. Verse 10 says that the kings and rulers of the earth should be warned. But the warning goes out to all people-not just to rulers. Be wise. True wisdom is to serve the Lord with fear and to rejoice with trembling. "Kiss the Son" (vs. 12). This is the language of the time when this psalm was written. This kiss is not an expression of affection or romance. It is one of humility and surrender. When nations conquered other nations, the leaders of those who were defeated had to prostrate themselves and kiss the feet of their conqueror as a sign of submission. Subdue your pride, surrender your spirit to the Lord Jesus. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow him. That is your hope of refuge-your only hope of refuge.
Now, that's the big picture. But how do the things that have happened and may continue to happen fit into this big picture? Let me make a few observations.
"Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save" (Ps. 146:3).
1. Do you remember the name originally chosen for the U.S. response to the terrorist attacks? Frankly, I was shocked: "Operation Infinite Justice." That was blasphemous! (This name was changed, but not because it was viewed as an offense against God.) How can any finite people presume to uphold an infinite level of justice? Only God is infinite! There will be infinite justice meted out, of course, but not by the U.S. government or by any other human authority. Infinite justice will come from God-in his timing and in his way. It is baldly presumptuous to arrogate to ourselves the exercise of a degree of justice that only God can maintain. We are pridefully exalting ourselves to the level of God as we try to respond to those who have attacked us.
2. Can we eliminate all terrorism from the earth? It is arrogant to presume that we can. Terrorism is sin. No efforts of finite, sinful, rebellious mankind can ever eliminate sin of any sort. We cannot be our own Savior. To the contrary, we must confess that we ourselves are terrorists. We possess totally depraved hearts, which contain the seeds of every possible sin. Christians have been redeemed from that depravity, and hopefully even non-Christian citizens have been brought up to be civil and magnanimous. But, in the final analysis, we are all subject to the temptations of pride, hatred, meanness, and violence. It is deplorable that some American citizens have terrorized people of Middle Eastern or Asian origin supposedly in order to oppose terrorism.
3. Is vengeance legitimate? Vengeance is God's, not ours. Yet God's Word does present principles of justice-even if human justice will always be finite. For example, "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed" (Gen. 9:6). The masterminds who conspired and plotted the attacks on September 11 ought to be brought to justice for their deeds.
The Bible also tells us that the state possesses the authority of the sword. God says that he has established the governmental authorities that exist. This authority is his servant to do good. Governments do not bear the sword for nothing, but are God's servants, agents of wrath, to bring punishment on wrongdoers (Rom. 13:1-5). Although the exercise of personal retaliation must be curbed, governmental administration of justice in this situation is clearly warranted.
4. Will American life ever get back to normal? Well, that depends on what "normal" is. I think we have been deceived, deluded. We have enjoyed a detachment from the relationships between peoples that most of the rest of the world has experienced all through history. We are unappreciative of the benefits that Western civilization has received as fruit of the gospel. We have been coasting on moral and ethical standards that were fueled by the Christian consensus of our forefathers. But we have run out of gas. We are almost dead in the water. Read the history of Israel in the Bible. America has enjoyed an "abnormal" lifestyle for generations. If we define "normal" as what life has been like in North America during the last 150 years, then I suspect we are not going to return to that. If "normal" is the life of Northern Ireland or Palestine, then yes, American life may correspond to that.
5. Will God deliver us if we pray? There are many reports of widespread prayer in this country. September 14 was designated as a day of prayer and remembrance. Many photographs in the media showed people in prayer. An especially popular prayer, the widely sung and spoken "God Bless America," became ubiquitous. But I find it ironic that a country which has so ignored God and so disapproved of prayer should so suddenly become so earnest in promoting it. Churches have opened for informal prayer and have scheduled special services of prayer. Local reports say that high school students meeting at the flagpoles before school have turned out in record numbers. A poll says that 50 percent of Americans have been praying more since the terrorist attacks occurred.
Is that a good thing? Yes, it is good that people feel a need to pray. However, prayer by itself is worthless. Prayer is effective only under certain conditions. The prayer "God bless America" and all other prayers uttered in the recent past are not necessarily equally effective. Three questions must be answered in order to know how dynamic prayer is: To whom? By whom? For whom?
To whom? We must pray to the living and true God, the God who really is. Not to Baal or Dagon or other Old Testament idols; not to statues or Buddha; not to dead saints, ancestors, or the Virgin Mary; not to Allah-but to the infinite, eternal, unchangeable, triune God of the Bible.
By whom? Prayer cannot be effective unless the person praying is right with God, a redeemed sinner, who has been forgiven and adopted into the family of God through faith in Jesus Christ. If you are not a born-again Christian, your phone line to heaven just doesn't go anywhere.
For whom? Prayer for other people must be only for the living. Prayer for the dead is both unscriptural and unreasonable. Once a person's soul has left his body, his eternal destiny is fixed. It is no longer open to change. All the prayers for the victims who died in New York and Washington have been in vain. Instead, pray for wounded victims. Pray for the bereaved. Pray for relatives and friends. Pray for all who are left. But do not pray for the dead.
Recent interest in prayer is commendable if people are coming to realize that their destinies are not in their own hands. But it is important that people know to whom and for whom they should pray.
6. Is there any hope for America? Yes, under certain conditions. When the people of Israel broke God's covenant and turned to wickedness, he used pagan nations-Philistia, Moab, Assyria-to terrorize Israel. When the people recognized that the afflictions were God's chastening, they sometimes repented. Then God raised up deliverers and brought peace and prosperity to the land again.
America is not a parallel of Old Testament Israel; Christ and his church is. But America has enjoyed many benefits that were produced by the gospel, especially as it was rediscovered and clarified in the Protestant Reformation. So what this country now needs is a spiritual awakening.
How can we get that? First we have to realize where we are-before the eyes of God. We are among the heathen who conspire and rage before God, who set ourselves against God and his Anointed, seeking to cast off his bands and throw off the fetters that bind us to him. We have a sinful culture. We have worshiped all sorts of false gods-political power, material gain, lust, greed, comfort, ease, personal advancement, etc. We have to recognize our sinfulness. We have to realize that it is reprehensible to the living and true God.
When we realize that we are not righteous, and that we stand convicted of all our sin before the holy God, then the key is repentance and faith. Unhappily, I hear little about repentance in this country. At the National Cathedral service of remembrance and prayer, Billy Graham did clearly present the gospel, including the need for repentance. But it has not been heard enough from other sources. There has been a lot of talk about seeking justice against the perpetrators of the terrorism. But there has been little talk about our true position before God.
When we repent, we recognize how terrible our sin is to God. When we repent, we hate our sin and turn away from it. Repentance and faith in Jesus Christ always go together. When we truly repent, we turn away from sin to Christ.
Every American Christian should have a burden to bear witness to the truths of the gospel (including the need for repentance and faith) to their neighbors and acquaintances who are upset by recent events. Pray that God will use the preaching of the Word and the testimony of his people and of his churches to promote the gospel. Seek to capture the attention of people who have been driven to prayer. Perhaps they do not really know what true prayer is, but have been driven to it by circumstances that are so clearly out of their own control.
Above all, we should pray that the recent tragedies would be the springboard for a great spiritual awakening. Osama bin Laden has clearly and openly professed his desire that Christianity should be wiped out, erased, and obliterated from the earth. Pray that God will use the terrorists' actions not to destroy Christianity, but to start a great revival. Pray that God, who sits in heaven, will laugh at the terrorists' efforts to break his chains and throw off his fetters. Pray that God will demonstrate his derision by using the terrorists' opposition to produce a great spiritual awakening. Pray that this country and the world will repent of their arrogant sinfulness and turn to God in great numbers. Pray that the Holy Spirit will cause the flame of the gospel to be kindled afresh and blaze brightly across all the nations.
May our leaders be wise; may our rulers be warned. May we and they serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling. May God teach and lead us to submit to him-to kiss the Son, lest he be angry and we all be destroyed, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. "Blessed are all who take refuge in him" (Ps. 2:12).
The author is a ruling elder at Pilgrim OPC in Bangor, Maine. Reprinted from New Horizons, December 2001.