We have all heard it. Some of us have even said it: “We are only human.” Typically, what we mean by that is “cut me some slack, I’m not perfect.” I must confess that I used to be a perfectionist but gave it up because I found it too depressing. I needed to cut myself some slack. Now I am only a perfectionist while working on home renovations. The weather has to be perfect and I have to be perfectly in the mood otherwise renovations are put off for another day!
There are none of us perfect. None of us were perfect students in school. Those of us who are parents know there is no such thing as a perfect parent. There are no perfect teachers. There are no perfect prime ministers. Sometimes we need to cut each other some slack. But do we maintain this attitude toward people like the leaders of ISIS and Boko Harum who are also not perfect? After all, they along with Hitler and Stalin are only human. Do we cut some slack to the people involved in things like human trafficking? Or is there not a place for higher expectations, for saying enough is enough?
The Psalmist writes “they are only human” but it means something quite different to what we normally mean:
19 Rise up, O Lord! Do not let mortals prevail;
let the nations be judged before you.
20 Put them in fear, O Lord;
let the nations know that they are only human.
(Psalms 9:19-20 NRSV)
In Psalm 9 there are some people who could say “I am only human, cut me some slack.” They are less than perfect. In fact they are oppressive, they are murderous. They are destructive and wreak havoc in the lives around them:
9 The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed,
a stronghold in times of trouble.
10 And those who know your name put their trust in you,
for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you.
11 Sing praises to the Lord, who dwells in Zion.
Declare his deeds among the peoples.
12 For he who avenges blood is mindful of them;
he does not forget the cry of the afflicted.
13 Be gracious to me, O Lord.
See what I suffer from those who hate me;
you are the one who lifts me up from the gates of death.
(Psalms 9:9-13 NRSV emphasis mine)
The theme of rescue from evil men runs through Psalm 9 and also Psalm 10 which many scholars believe were once one Psalm. We may not be as bad as the oppressors spoken of in these Psalms, we may never bring another person to “the gates of death.” But we may, like them, wreak havoc in the lives of those around us. This Psalm has something to say to us also. Let us look especially to verses 19 and 20:
“Do not let mortals prevail”
This prayer of the Psalmist is very much like a prayer that our Lord taught us to pray: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.” Not the oppressors’ empire come, but God’s kingdom. Not the oppressors’ will be done, do not let them prevail, but the Lord’s will. How often do we pray “Thy kingdom come” then strive to build our own empires and to have our wills prevail. Oh Lord, I am mere mortal, do not let my way prevail, may Your kingdom and Your purposes prevail in my life.
“Let the nations be judged before you”
We do not like to hear about judgement. But we do like justice. Justice does not happen without judgement. God’s sense of justice is impeccable:
4 For you have maintained my just cause;
you have sat on the throne giving righteous judgment. . .
8 He judges the world with righteousness;
he judges the peoples with equity.
(Psalms 9:4,8 NRSV)
God’s judgement is right and good. In fact it should not escape our notice that this Psalm calling for God to act in judgement is actually a Psalm of praise:
1 I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart;
I will tell of all your wonderful deeds.
2 I will be glad and exult in you;
I will sing praise to your name, O Most High.
(Psalms 9:1-2 NRSV)
That God will bring judgement to evil men is something that should inspire praise. Oh Lord I am mere mortal, while I depend on Your grace, may I be aware of those things you would judge in my life.
“Put them, in fear, Oh Lord.”
A better translation of fear is ‘terror’. Things would be better for the oppressed of the world if the oppressors of the world were terrified by the thought of the judgement that is looming over them. People do not have an appetite for hellfire and brimstone sermons any more. Yet we still need them for people think they can get away with murder. Many people need to be very afraid. Oh Lord, I am mere mortal. May I never think I can get away with murder, but may Your Holy Spirit convict and unsettle my heart.
“Let the nations know that they are only human.”
Now that we know the context we can see that “Let the nations know they are only human” is no “cut them some slack Lord” kind of prayer. Rather this is ”let them know they are only human and that therefore they need to seek You in repentance.” Since we are only human we should be turning to God. We should be turning to God for ethics, our sense of right and wrong. We cannot come up with that on our own. After all we are only human. We should be turning to God for salvation, for redemption from our sin. That is something we can not attain on our own. We are only human. God brings His perfect justice and grace together through Jesus at the cross. Since we are only human we ought to turn to God in repentance, going our own way will not get us very far. Oh Lord, I’m only human. So I turn to You and turn my life over to You.
When we say “I’m only human” we are usually trying to get off the hook. But knowing we are only human, we should be getting onto God.