I worked my way through college as a carpenter’s helper. My boss’ name was Kevin, and he was one of the greatest guys I have ever known. He died from cancer a few years ago.
One summer we were painting a house. In the back of the house, at the highest point of the house, was an overhang that was extremely difficult to get to. Finally, after trying everything, we set up three sets of scaffolding as close to the overhand as we could get. Then, we extended a 2 x 12 off the scaffolding. Then, I stood on one of the 2 x 12 as my boss scooted out on the end to paint that last two or three feet of the overhang. He was easily bouncing up and down on a 2 x 12, twenty-feet from the ground. The only thing keeping him from falling was my slender build (it was a long time ago) standing on the board. When he got out on the end, I asked him for a raise.
Extended out like he was, he was completely vulnerable. If I, at any time, lost focused, or moved just a little bit, or no longer cared what happened to him, or decided he should have never made such a bad decision, he would be seriously injured. It was not very smart, and it was not OSHA approved (Occupational Safety and Health Administration). It was something like the first picture, but not as stupid as the second picture. This is also the reason women live longer than men.
Unlike my boss, or the people in the two pictures, who put themselves in vulnerable positions, there are many people in our society who are vulnerable for no fault of their own. And even if they are vulnerable because of bad decisions, that still doesn’t mean that society should withdraw support so they plunge to their demise. The Bible makes it clear that we, who claim to follow Jesus, have the responsibility to look out for the vulnerable among us.
Who are the vulnerable in our society? Obviously the most vulnerable in our society are the unborn. Recently the state of New York passed a law expanding abortion rights all the way up till the time of birth. (Virginia is considering doing the same thing.) The Bible clearly teaches that life begins at conception. Thus, abortions end the life of a human being. But being pro-life is far more than being anti-abortion. The vulnerable in our society would include those without health insurance, the elderly, the addict, the alcoholic, the poor, the sick, the mentally ill, the immigrant, the prisoner, the homeless, and those who are mistreated and abused because of their sexual orientation.
Proverbs 31:8 reads, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” In the Old Testament the “destitute,” the extremely vulnerable, were categorized into four groups: (1) The widows. The Hebrew word, almanah, denotes not just a woman whose husband had died but also a once-married and now divorced or abandoned woman who is need of financial and legal support. (2) The orphans. The Hebrew word, yathom, means “fatherless.” Thus, a child of a single mom was also an “orphan.” (3) The immigrants. Sometimes called “alien,” “stranger,” or “sojourner.” (4) The poor. The Bible is full of verses about our care for these “destitute” and vulnerable people. Here is just a sampling:
- Deuteronomy 10:17-18 – “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow…”
- Deuteronomy 27:19 – “Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow.”
- Psalm 35:10 – “Who is like you, O Lord? You rescue the poor from those too strong for them, the poor and needy from those who rob them.”
- Psalm 72:4 – “He will defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; he will crush the oppressor.”
Then, in the Gospels, Jesus addressed all four categories, plus more in His parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46. Jesus says how we treat the vulnerable in our society is a difference between eternal life and eternal death. Jesus said, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:35-35). In those verses are the social sins of hunger, homelessness, abuse of immigrants, poverty, inadequate healthcare, and mass incarceration. Jesus makes it clear that His sheep will address those things. Then, to help us not forget what the Old Testament teaches us, Jesus’ brother, James, writes, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).
Let me give you a real-life example of what I am talking about.
Several days ago, I received a phone call from a concerned neighbor about one of the homeless guys we try to take care of. This guy was in horrible shape from either drugs or alcohol, or both. He had passed out in the street, and had nowhere to go to get out of the cold. I went and talked to the gentleman. He said he was ready to get help, so I took him to the emergency room.
Now, under normal circumstances, the hospital would have taken this guy in, evaluated him, placed him in the psychiatric unit for up to seven days, then referred him to a rehab hospital for thirty-days. In fact, after I went in and explained to the staff what was going on, they assured me he would be taken care of. Well, within about twelve hours, I received another call from the neighborhood that a grey, hospital van, and stopped, and literally dropped the homeless guy off in the street. They did not admit him! He spent the entire night in the Emergency Room! The hospital did absolutely nothing because he was homeless, dirty, and uninsured!
That is immoral! And it happens every day.
I immediately got on the phone and called everyone I knew, and every rehab place I could think of. Either everyone was full, or because he did not have insurance, no one had room for him! I called a brand-new detox center in Brentwood. They said they could take him but without insurance it would cost $850 a night! I’m still trying to place him, but I am not very optimistic.
But what does all this have to do with Psalm 41?
This psalm of David begins, “Blessed is he who has regard for the weak…” (Psalm 41:1). The meaning behind the Hebrew word translated “Blessed” (esher, Strongs 835) means to be made right, or to make progress, to be on the straight path, or to lead. The idea is that a person who has “regard for the weak,” is living a good and upright life and has the qualities to lead others. The Hebrew word translated “weak,” (dal, Strongs 1800) refers to a person in great need. Thus, the King James Version reads, “Blessed is he that considereth the poor.” The New American Standard Bible reads, “How blessed is he who considers the helpless.”
“Weak,” “poor,” “helpless.” The people on the margins of society. The people who are the most vulnerable in our community. Those who the rest of society wants to push away and forget about. Those society would rather put back on the streets instead of in rehab because they don’t have insurance. God says that those who “regard” such people, those who “consider” them worthy of dignity and respect, those who watch out for them and speak up for them, those people who do such things, will be truly blessed and will be truly happy. Those people who do such things, those are the ones you should consider worthy of following.
In the next few verses, to those who care for the most vulnerable, God gives five promises. First, God promises deliverance. “Blessed is he who has regard for the weak; the LORD delivers him in times of trouble” (Psalm 41:1b). Who of us hasn’t seen trouble? Who of us hasn’t needed deliverance? God promises if you look after the weak, He will deliver you when you are in trouble.
Second, God promises protection. David continues, “The LORD will protect him…” (Psalm 41:2a). Third, God promises preservation. “…and preserves his life…” (Psalm 41:2b). It seems that “security” is the cry of the day. We want national security, border security, and home security. But you don’t get those things by harming and abusing the vulnerable. Your life is not preserved by protecting your life. Rather, your life is protected and preserved when you give it away in service of the least and the last.
Fourth, when a person looks out for the vulnerable, God promises him/her favor. David sings, “..he (God) will bless him in the land and not surrender him to the desire of his foes” (Psalm 41:2c). True blessing, and true happiness, comes from God. To be “bless(ed) in the land” means to be respected, and to “not surrender…to…foes” is favor bestowed upon a person only by God.
The fifth promise is healing. “The LORD will sustain him on his sickbed and restore him from his bed of illness” (Psalm 41:3). Carrying for the most vulnerable is not easy. It can be exhausting. You may get physically sick. There will be times where you want to quit. Depression and discouragement can set in. You can easily burn out. But here, God promises to sustain you, to restore you, and to heal you.
Right after these incredible promises, the psalmist moves into a time of deep sorrow and lament. David continues, “I said, ‘O LORD, have mercy on me; heal me, for I have sinned against you” (Psalm 41:4). David doesn’t tell us what his sin is, but somehow, after being reminded of the importance of looking out for the most vulnerable, and right after promises from God, David is moved to confession. Maybe he realized he wasn’t caring for the vulnerable. Maybe he realized his own shortcomings and how much more he could be doing. But I don’t think that it is. I think it goes far deeper than that.
There is a strange and mysterious connection between aligning yourself with the poor and the weak and the vulnerable and noticing your own poverty and weakness and vulnerability. You realize you are no better than the person you are “ministering” to. You realize, “yet for the grace of God, there go I.” You realize they have more to offer you then you have to offer them. You realize behind the addiction, behind the locked doors of incarceration, on the other side of the border, underneath the dirty clothes, and underneath the hospital sheets, is a beautiful human being, created in the image of God.
But you know what? The more strive to do good, and the more you strive to minister in the margins, the more people will try to tear you down, do you harm, and hope you fail. Psalm 41 continues, “My enemies say of me in malice, ‘When will he die and his name perish?’ Whenever one comes to see me, he speaks falsely while his heart gathers slander; then he goes out and spreads it abroad. All my enemies whisper together against me; they imagine the worst for me, saying, ‘A vile disease has beset him; he will never get up from the place where he lies.’ Even my close friend, whom I trusted, he who shared my bread, has lifted up his heel against me” (Psalm 41:5-9).
Do you ever wonder why more people don’t strive to do good, to serve humanity, and to show “regard for the weak?” In those verses you just read, you have your answer. They don’t do it because the price is to high. People will talk about you. They will spread rumors and lies and slander and will spread it all over town. When you walk into crowded rooms, you will hear people whisper about you and think the worst of you. And even worse, your closest friend will betray you. And what have you done to deserve all this? You have looked after, spoken up for, and defended the most vulnerable people you know. But through it all, God says you will be blessed.
How can you possibly be blessed in the middle of such hatred? You are blessed because it drives you to your knees where you pray along with David, “But you, O LORD, have mercy on me; raise me up, that I may repay them” (Psalm 41:10). I love the way The Message translates verse 10, “God, give grace, get me up on my feet (apparently David really was sick when he wrote this psalm) I’ll show them a thing or two.” You do know, don’t you, that the best revenge is a life well lived?
Next, notice David’s confidence, “I know that you are pleased with me, for my enemy does not triumph over me” (Psalm 41:11). I pray for that kind of confidence, don’t you? No matter what is going on around you, and no matter what others are saying about you, to know you are in God’s will, doing what He has asked you to do, and that He is pleased with you, is a confidence that circumstances cannot shake. The secret to this kind of confidence is walking in integrity. David continues, “In my integrity you uphold me and set me in your presence forever” (Psalm 41:12).
David ends Psalm 41 with a beautiful doxology: “Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Amen and Amen” (Psalm 41:13).
This past week, in the middle of January, three-year-old Casey Hathaway, wandered from his grandmother’s house in North Carolina into the woods. Two days later, after a massive search, and after spending two nights in below-freezing weather, Casey was found by a woman out walking her dog. Casey was hungry, but relatively unharmed. Casey told his family and rescuers that he was protected and kept warm by a black bear.
I admit that I have my doubts about this story, but I wasn’t there. One article I read did some research and uncovered that this is not the first time such a thing has happened. In 1888, the New York Times reported the disappearance of a two-year-old girl who was found in a deep valley, where she claimed she had slept by a bear that kept her warm that night. Then, in 1955, two-year-old Ida Mae Curtis went missing in Kootenai National Forest in Montana. She was located after enduring two days of pouring rain, and explained that she had been cuddled and comforted by a bear during her time away. After hearing reports of people doubting the story, Casey grandmother said, “It may not have been a real live bear but an image or a dream sent by God to keep that baby moving and to keep him from giving up.”
Who knows what really happened, but supposing the story is true, and that a bear actually did protect Casey, what does that teach us about what it means to be human, much less to be a follower of Jesus Christ? If a bear’s instinct was to protect a little boy, how much more should our instinct be to care for the least vulnerable among us?
Who are the vulnerable people around you?
Who are the people you need to be looking out for?
In your family, in your community, where you go to school, where you work, who are the people that you should stand up, and speak out, for?
Do you want to be blessed?
“Blessed is he who has regard for the weak” (Psalm 41:1a).
 Parenthesis added by author as commentary.