All of God’s Word is of course profitable and applicable to our lives. But this psalm is particularly relevant to our contemporary condition, and is worth our careful attention. The great Puritan writer William Gurnall once said that just as one tap can drain a whole cask of wine, so one promise can obtain for us all the blessings of the covenant. Let this psalm be that one tap. “Help, LORD; for the godly man ceaseth; for the faithful fail from among the children of men . . .” (Psalm 12:1-8)
This psalm is a cry for help in wicked times (v. 1). The reason for this assessment is that every man flatters his neighbor, and does so from a double heart (v. 2). But God will intervene and cut off all flattering lips, and cut out the tongue of the boaster (v. 3). These are the men who have claimed they will triumph, who say their lips are autonomous, and that they have no lord (v. 4). The poor and needy are vindicated by God; He will arise on their behalf (v. 5). The words of God are pure, like refined silver (v. 6). God will therefore keep His word, and will save His people from a wicked generation (v. 7), but the wicked strut when vile men are promoted (v. 8).
The context is prevailing trouble for the godly. The first words are “Help, Lord!” This is a cry for deliverance or salvation (v. 1). The psalmist wants God to help him at a dead lift, to intervene entirely. The godly have ceased; the faithful have failed (v. 1). This is not necessarily because they have gone apostate, or even that they have all been killed. Rather, the meaning appears to be that the godly are still within that society, but they have clearly lost any influence over the customs and laws of public life. The salt is without its savor, and has become worthless. So consequently what is the prevailing manner among the children of men? They are double-hearted flatterers (v. 2).
This sets the stage for the Lord’s salvation. Those who need deliverance are described as being poor, needy and oppressed (v. 5). God will arise in order to vindicate them, and He will rescue them from those who boast that they could blow the oppressed down with a mere puff. These are the men who have claimed that their words are mighty (v. 4), that their words are autonomous—they are great advocates of “free speech” (v. 4). They recognize no authority over themselves, and so the Lord will judge them. The judgment will fall with particular severity upon their big mouths (v. 3).
The words of the Lord are contrasted with the words of men. In the first part of the psalm we see that men are duplicitous, but the words of God are like silver refined seven times. In other words, God’s words are altogether pure, just as the words of men are altogether corrupt (v. 6). God’s words can be believed and trusted, while the words of man cannot be.
These oppressed people that God will save will be saved from their own generation (v. 7). In some instances, this is the basis for realizing that certain men were, as we say, “ahead of their time.” They were completely at odds with their generation, and were hounded in that generation. A century later, everyone is engaged in building monuments to them.
But nevertheless, the wicked strut. The last verse of the psalm gives us a summary of the problem again (v. 8). When vile men are appointed to the Supreme Court, when scoundrels are elected to Congress, when petty thieves infest the state legislatures, when crooks make their way to the highest places, the wicked promenade around the country with their chins in the air.
Once again, our applications of our psalm are straightforward.
First, God is our Savior, and our only Savior. Under such conditions, we are to pray for deliverance in the words of this psalm, which is not the same thing as trying to save yourself. This prayer is short and effective. It is better to have few words and a great heart than a great number of words and no heart. “Help, Lord!”
Second, avoid flattery. When godless men are wild beasts, tyranny is their crime. When godless men are domesticated beasts, their sin is one of flattery. Flattery is a counterfeit of honor, but differs from it as much as ditch water differs from wine. Experienced pastors will tell you that ardent opponents of their ministries are regularly recruited from the ranks of ardent flatterers.
Third, God hates hypocrisy or double-heartedness. The sin of hypocrisy is here condemned in the strongest terms. There is a certain kind of man who wants to sail with every wind. If he has the cloak of godliness, then his deceitful actions can always be interpreted as though they were right. If he is greedy, he is thought industrious. If miserable, he is thought temperate. If merry, it is thought to be spiritual joy. And so on.
Fourth, prominence is not virtue. Thistles can grow chest high. Apes can get to the top of the tree. Gargoyles on a cathedral are like many men in high office: high up, ugly, and hard to knock off.
And last, we may be saved from our generation. We will be delivered from this generation if we return to the first verse. Help, Lord.