“Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God.”
I try to read a Psalm a day. The Psalms, it seems, are fit for daily study in that they each may stand alone. Other books in the Bible may demand a more comprehensive approach – a consideration of broad context and language – but each Psalm is a story or drama unto itself.
So many of the psalms are attributed to David. Some of those are beautiful devotions, like the 23rd, whose metaphor for God as shepherd is surely one of the high points in the whole book. But many of David’s psalms are shot through with cursing and complaint. In reading the Psalms, we discover that, for David, life was a battle. He is constantly in trouble, surrounded by enemies, suffering betrayals and the consequences of his own wrongdoings; in fear of destruction. Undoubtedly there is value for the modern man or woman in David’s perspective. So many of us are insulated from the rough and tumble of life that David lived. We are not encamped on a desert mountain and wakened by the lion and the bear that threatens our sheep and ourselves. We are not being chased by a lunatic king who is insanely jealous and out to kill us. We move from air-conditioned summers to comfortably-heated winters. Our larders are generally full and our homes secure.
What David’s psalms may do for us is awaken us to the fact that, in spite of the comforts we know, life is a battle. There is something real at stake; something great that may be lost or gained. To lose sight of this is to surrender to the status quo: life simply goes on as ever before, each day is more of the same, and we lift our feet from the ground and simply let the earth spin beneath us. What difference does our effort make, anyway?
Some may fall into such a defeatist, fatalistic view of life as a result of repeated disappointment and failure. Some may come to see life as not only unfair, but insurmountably unfair, and finally satisfy themselves with those little pleasures that may be found along the primrose path of least resistance.
This morning’s Psalm for me was number 55. It is in many ways a typical David psalm. He is in desperate straits (of course) and is pouring his soul out to God; half wishing for complete escape from life (Oh, that I had wings of a dove; then I would fly away into the wilderness and be at peace) and half wishing for immediate victory in the conflict.
As is his wont, he curses his enemies. For the most part, there is nothing new here, but as I followed along this morning, one phrase did stand out. David says of his enemies:
Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God.
What can that mean? What does it mean to “have no changes?” This reading is from the King James Version which is my starting point for reading the Psalms. The Psalms are poetry, after all, and there should be a certain majesty, ambiguity, mystery and meter about them. I looked at several newer translations. There are lots of variations in the translation of this verse. NIV: “. . . [they] never change their ways and have no fear of God.” Some translations seem to attribute the modifier suggesting a lack of change to God. This is from a newer version of the NIV: “God, who is enthroned from of old, who does not change—he will hear them and humble them . . .”
Other translations render the verse to say that the change referred to is that change of heart associated with repentance.
As is often the case, I am far more satisfied and intrigued by this unusual and at first ambiguous rendering in the old King James. “They have no changes!” Not that they haven’t repented; not that God is unchanging. (Those two things are true, but this verse is saying something other than that.)
What the verse says to me – and this distinguishes it from the others – is that the enemies of whom David here speaks walk in false security. The security of wealth and worldly power. They are comfortable and consequently feel no need of God. For them, life is not a battle.
How is that relevant to me? Well, I am not about to sell the house and by a tent and start keeping sheep. But I might be a little better at recognizing the realities of life. Life brings us changes. They are inevitable. It is not so much that David’s enemies had no real changes. They were subject to the vicissitudes of life like every other mortal. But they had done their best to ignore them. They filled their lives with insulation and diversion and forgot themselves and their real lives.
I don’t have to search for changes, and neither do you. They are on our plates every day. Every day we age. We may grow wiser or simply duller. Every day our fortunes change. Look at those who surround us. How have their circumstances changed and how completely may we have ignored those changes? What opportunities are lost and which are gained?
A sober assessment of our own changes will indeed teach us new priorities and of our need for God. Something real is at stake. Something great may be lost or gained and, although we are active players in this drama, we in our own strength are insufficient to meet the challenge.