What to do when the foundations are destroyed

November 11, 2020

Bruce Murray

Psalm 11
To the choirmaster. Of David.
1 In the Lord I take refuge; how can you say to my soul, “Flee like a bird to your mountain,
2 for behold, the wicked bend the bow; they have fitted their arrow to the string to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart;
3 if the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”
4 The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven; his eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man.
5 The Lord tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.
6 Let him rain coals on the wicked; fire and sulphur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.
7 For the Lord is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face.

Trembling foundations

This is a psalm for a time of crisis so severe that the very foundations of normal life are no longer holding. As a psalm ‘of David’, the most likely setting was the period in his life when he was in mortal danger from King Saul’s jealous and murderous pursuit (1 Samuel 18-27). As a psalm ‘to the choirmaster’, it was taken into the prayers of God’s people as a way to respond to God in their own times of crisis. As a psalm in our Bible it can serve us likewise.
In fact, the description of the crisis in terms of the foundations being destroyed (v.3) suggests a magnitude beyond David’s personal experience, and more akin perhaps to such things as a global pandemic. There are some parallels: the threat to David’s life, wellbeing and security was coming from an unseen enemy which could potentially strike at any moment (v.2). Of course, coronavirus is an impersonal and indiscriminate disease affecting everyone to some degree, not a personal enemy motivated by malice against one particular target; but responsibility for its origin, spread and impact has been closely linked with the direct or indirect actions and decisions of people, systems and leaders whose wisdom, motives and virtue may yet be called to account. And, though not specifically targeted, some individuals are particularly vulnerable.

The destruction of foundations seems to refer to the collapse, overthrow or falling apart of ‘the established institutions, the social and civil order of the community’ (Briggs), ‘the ground rules on which society operates’ (Motyer). It refers to a time when ‘all the normal protections and securities … disappear … when the social fabric of life is disintegrating’ (Davis). In other biblical texts the language of foundations refers to the stability and order of the natural world which God has created, establishing the heavens and laying the foundations of the earth (Isaiah 51:16). Such foundations represent solidity and permanence: He set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be moved (Psalm 104:5). Even so, the prophets envisaged times when even the foundations of the earth tremble because of human behaviour: the earth lies defiled under its inhabitants (Isaiah 24:18,5). The current pandemic appears to be exposing or threatening the foundations of both the natural environment of our planet and the social and economic structures of our societies. The foundations appear to be trembling, and there is no shortage of secular prophets who attribute the cause primarily to human behaviour.

What we can do

In such critical times, most people want to know what can be done, whether by medics in treating the sick, scientists in developing tests and vaccines, politicians in giving clear and wise leadership, financial institutions and employers in protecting income and jobs, or citizens in following guidelines for social behaviour. Psalm 11 asks a slightly different question: what can the righteous do? (v.3). The righteous, or upright in heart (v.2), are neither faultless nor self-righteous, but they are those who know and love God and who seek to live with integrity according to God’s will. They are contrasted with the wicked who feel neither desire nor obligation to seek or obey the will of God, and act accordingly. The question posed in this Psalm is not what people in general can do, but what God’s people can do, when the foundations are being destroyed. During the current coronavirus crisis, there is much we can do along with other people, but what can we do in particular, and distinctively, as God’s people?

The advice David received from his friends (v.1-3) was well-intentioned and entirely reasonable. To flee like a bird to your mountain (v.1) was to take immediate steps to self-isolate until the danger was past. The story in 1 Samuel shows that this was something David often did in such circumstances. But not this time.

Sometimes the decision not to follow even well-intentioned and reasonable advice is because a better strategy is available, or a higher priority prevails. In the current pandemic, alternative strategies have been followed by different countries, and there may be times when guidelines are imposed, relaxed or modified according to shifting health, social and economic circumstances, scientific knowledge and technological capability. Strategies may change for pragmatic reasons.

But the issue for David seems to have been one not of strategy but of assumption, not of action but of attitude. The assumption behind the advice he received was that his personal safety was paramount, and that it was his action that would achieve it. No reference to God. No prayer.

What David asserts strongly is that, when the foundations are destroyed, the righteous turn to God: In the Lord I take refuge (v.1). There may be times when ‘fleeing’ is right (as Jesus indicated, Matthew 10:23), and times when it is not (as Nehemiah realised, Nehemiah 6:10-13), but what makes any action right for God’s people is that it expresses faith rather than fear, trusting in God for our security rather than in our own resources, seeking the will of God not just our self-preservation.

What we discover

A crisis that shakes or removes foundations reveals a great deal about the foundations themselves that we have built our lives on, whether by choice or default, and about our own attitudes and assumptions about what we value and what we imagine can be different. We confront what can no longer be ignored or denied; we become aware that what we have taken as unchangeable should not, or simply cannot, continue as before.

Although the runes are read in different ways, of course, many sympathise with the suggestion made from lockdown that mother nature has sent us to our rooms to think about what we’ve done to her, and the experience of cleaner air and water and quieter urban environments makes us wonder how it could have got so bad and how to avoid this in future. One marine ecologist described nature as taking a breath while the rest of us hold ours.

A recent Guardian article suggested that ‘It turns out that we can function without celebrities or star athletes, but we really cannot function without nurses, doctors, care workers, delivery drivers, the stackers of supermarket shelves or, perhaps unexpectedly, good neighbours.’ An Independent article about the fashion industry concluded that ‘it has become crystal clear just which brands we should seek to support. Businesses whose response to a global crisis has been to leave workers struggling are no longer worthy of our custom.’

Another Guardian article suggested that coronavirus ‘has magnified existing social crises… Millions are only ever one pay packet away from destitution; the self-employed and gig economy workers lack security and basic rights; private tenants are at the mercy of their landlords; our welfare state is woefully inadequate; and many designated “key workers” are desperately undervalued and badly paid. Who, in good faith, can now blind themselves to these grim truths?’ We might add that the current crisis is also exposing other grim truths, including the extent of domestic abuse and mental health issues in our society.

Examples could be multiplied, but two messages in particular keep being repeated from many quarters: the current pandemic is a wake-up call to realities we can no longer ignore; and we don’t want to simply go back to how things were. According to a recent YouGov poll, only 9% of Britons want things to revert to ‘normal’, more than half want to make changes in their own lives, and more than a third are more in touch with friends, family or neighbours. The professor leading the research has commented that ‘there is a real appetite for change, and for the nation to learn from this crisis. People are trying new things and noticing differences, at home, in their work and in communities.’ The chief executive of the research commissioning body commented: ‘we must use this time to imagine a better future … the British people are increasingly aware that the health of people and planet are inseparable and it’s time for radical environmental, social, political and economic change.’

The word translated foundations in Psalm 11:3 is elsewhere (2 Samuel 10:4; Isaiah 20:4) translated ‘buttocks’, so perhaps we are not far astray in regarding the removal of these foundations as a kick up the bottom. Those who have witnessed previous foundation-removing crises know how easy it is, in fact, for people to revert to how things were, to return to sleep-walking after the wake-up moment. The righteous will surely be as keen as anyone else to make the most of the opportunity while it lasts to imagine a better future and make significant changes for good. But what might that future look like, what makes a potential change good, and to whom do we look to bring this about?

What God’s people can do

Albert Camus wrote that ‘What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well… It helps men to rise above themselves.’ But what we rise to is as significant as what we rise from. We reveal our attitudes, assumptions and values as much by where we turn when the foundations are destroyed as by their removal. This is where the question of Psalm 11:3 bears especially upon us: what can the righteous do – those who know God, love God and seek God’s will?

Some people will put their trust in political and economic leaders, though concerns are already being raised about their will, ability or trustworthiness. Perhaps more people are putting their faith in scientific and technological experts. This would not be surprising in view of the most recent (2018) survey of British social attitudes, which found that ‘The majority of the public believe that science and technology are a force for good both now and in the future, and, in contrast to faith and religion, feel at ease with science and technology having an influence in both public and private spheres.’ Even so, World Health Organisation officials are suggesting that some testing procedures are ineffective, vaccines may not be available for a long time, the fight against coronavirus may erode the global fight against other diseases, tracking apps raise questions about civil liberties, and the WHO itself has come under fire for its relationship with brutal regimes and its need of reform along with other United Nations agencies.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, William Beveridge said that ‘A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching’. Economist Milton Friedman has said that ‘Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change.’ But he added that ‘When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.’

When the foundations are destroyed, the righteous can do more than patch up or look to the ideas that are lying around. They can look to the Lord, and take refuge in him (v.1). But what does that actually mean in practice?

Perhaps most fundamentally (we are, after all, considering foundations), we can recover a true belief and confidence in the God David depicts in Psalm 11, and to live more fully into the implications of this.

First of all, The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven (v.4). Not only is there, in the words of Keith & Kristyn Getty’s song, ‘a higher throne than all this world has known’, there is a firmer foundation than all this world can offer. The heavenly nature of God’s throne does not denote his location far away from our troubled world, but rather that he is unassailably transcendent and sovereign over it all. The author of Psalm 102, who sought God’s face (that is, his presence and help) in a time of distress (102:1), concluded that of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment … and they will pass away, but you are the same, and your years have no end. The children of your servants shall dwell secure (102:25-28; Hebrew 1:10-12). God is the unshakable, indestructible foundation when all other foundations are destroyed. If the Lord is our refuge, then we are secure whatever happens.

The depiction of God in his holy temple, as well as on his heavenly throne, speaks of God’s moral character (he is holy, v.4, and righteous, v.7), majestic beauty (Ps. 96:6), and accessible presence to those who seek him. Habakkuk’s response to God in his holy temple was to recommend that all the earth keep silence before him (Habakkuk 2:20). David’s was meditative or inquiring prayer (Ps.27:4). In one way or another, the distressing emotions and bewildering challenges we face when the foundations are destroyed are brought before God in an attitude of trust in his goodness, greatness, graciousness and wisdom; and we both bring our requests and listen for what God might say to us, in a spirit of reverent worship and receptive willingness to do God’s will.

The first thing the righteous can do, then, is to allow the crisis of foundation-removal to awaken us to any ways in which we have been living without reference to God as our Lord, any things we have been finding hope or security in other than God, any values we have been accepting that contravene God’s holy and righteous character, any patterns of lifestyle that have kept us from attending reverently to God’s voice, any goals that have distracted us from the priority of seeking his presence and favour (to behold his face, v.7). The first thing we can do is to renew our devotion and allegiance to God, and to look to him for our security and direction. Now reference to God. Now prayer. Then whatever else we do, whatever practical actions we take, however these fit with the actions of others, will emerge from a foundation of God-centred security, values, discernment and hope.

Making God our refuge

Shortly after the end of the Second World War, theologian Paul Tillich gave a series of talks entitled ‘The Shaking of the Foundations’. He suggested that in such times people are forced to look beneath the surface of life to its depths, but they find this so challenging that they ‘would rather return to the shaken and devastated surface of their former lives and thoughts.’ In particular, they continue to look to scientific progress to save us from the destructive power to which humans have been using scientific progress.

‘But man is not God; and whenever he has claimed to be like God, he has been rebuked and brought to self-destruction and despair. When he has rested complacently on his cultural creativity or on his technical progress, on his political institutions or on his religious systems, he has been thrown into disintegration and chaos; all the foundations of his personal, natural and cultural life have been shaken. As long as there has been human history, this is what has happened; in our period it has happened on a larger scale than ever before. Man’s claim to be like God has been rejected once more; not one foundation of the life of our civilization has remained unshaken.’

Tillich went on to ask what it was that enabled the biblical prophets to speak such a different message: ‘It was because, beyond the sphere of destruction, they saw the sphere of salvation; because, in the doom of the temporal, they saw the manifestation of the Eternal. It was because they were certain that they belonged within the two spheres, the changeable and the unchangeable. For only he who is also beyond the changeable, not bound within it alone, can face the end.’

He concluded with this appeal: ‘in these days the foundations of the earth do shake. May we not turn our eyes away; may we not close our ears and our mouths! But may we rather see, through the crumbling of a world, the rock of eternity and the salvation which has no end!’

Tillich’s words underline the crucial importance of making God our refuge, and of understanding that this is where all human hope lies, not just the hope of Christians. This is God’s world, designed to work according to God’s will and ways, and when human beings reject these in favour of any alternative there are unravelling consequences which eventually strike at the foundations of life.

Salt and light

But this is a message that surely those who align themselves with the righteous need to acknowledge and respond to first. Many years ago John Stott, commenting on Jesus’ charge to his followers to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16), suggested that if the world seems a dark and decaying place they should look to themselves rather than the world for the reason.

Tillich’s words also highlight how those who do make God their refuge may act as salt and light in times of foundation removal. This is the second thing the righteous can do, beginning with some reflection, with Psalm 11, on how God may be at work in such times. David tells us that God’s eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man (v.4). Transcendently sovereign over the world, God is also actively present in it, in every life and circumstance. Nothing escapes his notice, any more than it evades his power.

God’s active presence in the world is not so obvious that it cannot be missed even by those who do not welcome it, nor so hidden that it cannot be found by those who do. Often we may only dimly discern the ways God may be acting in mercy or judgment in times when foundations are destroyed, but we may be confident that God who observes everything about us is evaluating the quality of what we are, say and do (which is what his ‘testing’ indicates). We may be less ready than David to invoke God’s judgment on the wicked, but need be in no less doubt than he was that eventually the wicked will face sudden and final judgment (as in Genesis 19:24, to which fire and sulphur, v.6, allude) while the righteous will experience God’s presence and favour (behold his face, v.7).

It would be a complete misreading of this Psalm, and of God’s character and will more generally, to suppose that God’s testing of people through times of foundation removal is cruel, as it would be to suppose that his final judgment will be unjust or his not acting sooner or otherwise is unmerciful. To the contrary, the testing (v.4) ‘gives opportunity to both righteous and wicked to show what they are made of’ (Kidner). Sometimes it is only when the foundations are destroyed that people are able or willing to see their need of God. Tillich observed that God ‘revealed Himself through Israel’s pain as the God Who is the first and the last, the beginning and the end, of history. A complete national breakdown alone made the remnants of Israel ready to receive this revelation in its universal significance.’

So the second thing the righteous can do when the foundations are destroyed is to receive the experience, distressing as it is, as an opportunity for prayerful self-examination or, better, God-examination of self, and spiritual renewal both individually and as communities of believers. It is a time for discerning, as best we can, through God’s eyes, and coming to hate what he hates (wickedness and violence, v.5) and love what he loves (righteous deeds, v.7).

It is not difficult to find clear biblical descriptions of what this looks like. Psalm 82, for example, speaks of shaken foundations due to human injustice, and calls on those in leadership to give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. (Ps.82:3-4).

Perhaps most strikingly, Hebrew 12:27-29 (quoting Haggai 2:6) speaks of the removal of things shaken – that is, things that have been made – in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, for our God is a consuming fire (alluding to the fire and shaking that accompanied Moses’ experience of God in Exodus 19:18). Here we have the same focus as Psalm 11: finding security in God’s unshakable rule and giving God our reverent love and allegiance. What is interesting is that the immediately following verses (in Hebrew 13) address issues of loving Christians like family members, welcoming strangers into our homes, caring for prisoners, honouring marriage and sexual purity, managing money with contentment not greed, and leadership by example. The expectation is that this will result in reproach from others, but that is to be borne because here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come (Hebrews 13:14).

All the specific examples Hebrews 13 gives of righteous deeds that God loves (Ps.11:7) are likely to cause reproach from people in our own society, perhaps even the kind of hostility David faced from the violent wicked in his day. But there is no suggestion in Hebrews that we should either retreat into a ghetto, castigate opponents or compromise faithful allegiance to God. Jesus called his followers to be, like himself, fully involved in the world without sharing its values, goals and methods (John 17). At times when foundations are destroyed, what the righteous can do is to be fully involved along with every other person of goodwill and to play our part in whatever promotes wellbeing and justice for all, but to do so as those whose security, identity, trust and allegiance are focused on God alone. This is not a small distinction; it is radical one, based on completely different attitudes and assumptions. And sometimes it may lead to quite different actions as well.

Tomas Halik says that ‘When Rome fell on the threshold of the fifth century, there were instant explanations from many quarters. The pagans saw it as punishment of the gods for the adoption of Christianity, while many Christians saw it as God’s punishment on Rome. St. Augustine rejected both those interpretations. At that watershed moment, he developed his theology of the age-old battle between two opposing cities, not of Christians and pagans, but of two loves dwelling in the human heart: the love of self, closed to transcendence and love that gives of itself and thereby finds God.’

Renewed foundations

Psalm 11 begins with the confidence of taking refuge in God, and ends with the confidence of beholding his face. When the foundations are destroyed, the righteous deepen their dependence on God and their devotion to God, their discernment of how God sees things and their practice of the righteous deeds that God loves. This opens fresh possibilities for the renewal of God’s people, and for their being the salt of the earth and the light of the world as Jesus intended, embodying the love and justice of his way and pointing to the saving truth of his gospel.

This spiritual renewal is likely to lead to institutional change as well, since new wine has a tendency to burst old wineskins (Mark 2:22). The withholding of church services at times in the Middle Ages (under ecclesiastical interdict) encouraged some Christians to develop their own relationship with God and to form non-clergy-led fellowships, which contributed to the developments leading to Reformation in the sixteenth century. The current restriction on church gatherings and activities might offer not only a rest from church busyness and a pause to reflect, but also an impetus to deeper individual spiritual life and new kinds of mutual relationships.
A recent Time magazine article speculated on what the post-pandemic world might look like, including continuing forms of social distancing, clothing designed for easy disinfection, a new intolerance of greed and privilege, stronger ties to community but also more tribalism, a search for answers through religions old and new or through strong leaders, a desire for order and stability. Who knows how much of this will prove accurate? After all, it was only a few months ago that our Prime Minister predicted a year of prosperity. Most people seem to be expecting a future marked by very big difficulties economically, politically, environmentally and socially, in addition to public health and disease control.

Whatever the future actually looks like when we get there, those whose security is in God, whose devotion is to God, who discern what God sees and do what God loves, are best placed to adapt inherited forms of Christian community as needed and to serve the wider world as Jesus’s salt and light. Some are already doing it: developing spiritual practices at home, connecting with others in new ways online, getting more involved with neighbours and local community, and taking into their homes for the lockdown period vulnerable or homeless people. One Anglican vicar in London announced before Easter that his church doors would remain open on Good Friday for the homeless, the vulnerable and the fearful; the reason he gave was that ‘the leaders of my church have taught me what it really means to follow Jesus Christ.’ It’s one example of what the righteous can do when the foundations are destroyed.

These seven essays were written, in this order, between March and September 2020. Inevitably, a few of the facts and figures will be out of date by the end of the year.