(Latest in a short, unprofessional, series of Psnippets reflecting on Psalms)
Psalms like this combine brutality and grace. We open with a simple question: who can dwell with God. This feels double-barreled: asking both who gets to live in the Temple and who gets to experience closeness with God.
Thankfully, the psalmist quickly answers: people who speak rightly (avoiding lies and slander), who discern rightly (praising and condemning correctly), who act with integrity and who embrace economic justice.
This gives us a snapshot of what is important to cultivate closeness to God but also, if we are honest with ourselves, it oppresses us. I can’t even tell the truth fully to myself, much less my neighbor. I get priorities misplaced all the time. Throughout the list, I see how I fail.
But Jesus. (classic Sunday School answer)
He fulfills all these requirements. And he dwelt with God, enjoying complete communion within the Trinity. But he gave that up, entering into our world so that through union with him we can be united to God. We can dwell on God’s holy hill because we are in Jesus and he is in us. His righteousness counts to us, through no benefit of our own. What would condemn becomes a way to praise Jesus.
Psalm 14 shows us the intimate connection between morality and knowledge through its breakdown. We trace the results of lack of knowledge leading through corruption to judgement.
The psalm opens by telling us how a fool acts: they tell themselves that there is no God. Folly is connected to a certain self talk – a deliberately lying to yourself. This deception leads to more immoral behavior: “abominable deeds.”
Then the scene shifts to heaven, where God checks out the situation – tries to find anyone who understands. The gloss on understanding is to seek after God. Knowledge, in other words, is a form of spiritual curiosity rather than the self-limiting closure of options that we saw in verse 1.
But instead of seeking understanding/God – “there is no-one who does good, not even one.”
This foolishness directly causes a violation of the twofold commandment: all evildoers “eat up my people as thy eat bread” and “do not call on the LORD.” These two are so interlinked that we can’t discuss them separately.
God doesn’t just let his people be destroyed but will rescue the poor from the corrupt fool. Our willful lack of knowledge cannot stand in light of the wisdom of God which finally will restore his people.
Obviously, this feels relevant to our current situation in which it feels like some of our political leaders embrace folly and turn away from God. This means they exploit the poor. But Psalm 14 has a reminder: God will be the refuge of the poor, even in the face of the fool’s plans.
I think this is a repeat – I wrote about time (& God) in Psnippet 9. Luckily, I didn’t exhaust the topic and we are back at it in Psalm 13.
God’s time is incomparable to ours but in Jesus, God experiences the fullness of humanity, including how time feels.
In the first two verses of this Psalm, we have five questions: all asking how long until God intervenes in this situation and rescues David.
Then we move swiftly into everyone’s favorite topic: the fear of finitude. David demands that God rescue quickly – otherwise David will face the ‘sleep of death’ and his enemies will triumph over him.
The Psalm turns to the history of God’s faithfulness to him. In the past, God has “dealt bountifully” with David – surely he will do so again.
We always remain completely within a human idiom. God doesn’t measure time like us, isn’t concerned about death (as the story of Lazarus teaches) and is outside of history.
Amazingly, in Jesus, God ontologically enters our time. David’s fear and faith reach their full expression in Jesus, who is God made human. It is a Sunday School cheat but it’s true: Jesus is the answer.
The sins that folks really don’t like hearing about (besides most of them) is flattery or other language sins. We like to think that words don’t actually matter or that misusing them doesn’t rise to the status of other, real sins.
Right now, I’m reading Proverbs and that completely overturns that idea. Psalm 12 does as well. In verses 2-4, the wicked are defined as those who flatter and lie, while in verse 5 we are told the Lord will act because the poor are being oppressed. How can we make that move?
Flattery always implies an agreeableness to power – a willingness to bend the truth to please someone in authority. If this is the case, then we shouldn’t be surprised that a flatterer would misuse their authority to oppress.
More than that, though, sins are never solo. Things grow together, and habits in language show someone’s character. Like the parable says, faithfulness in small things leads to faithfulness in big things.
Two takeaways: First, trust that how someone talks reflects who they are. Second, watch how you talk. Don’t avoid the awkward self-reflection, like I usually do, of examining words as well as deeds. Like this Psalm shows, flattery matters.
“The Lord tests the righteous,
but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.
Let him rain coals on the wicked;
fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.”
One of the reasons I love reading pre-modern texts, especially the psalms, is that they are usually drenched in irony. Above is a great example of that, of something that I couldn’t say with a straight face: God hates violent people so much that I’m going to ask him to be violent against them.
This is weird, and we should acknowledge that. At the same time, it clearly distinguishes between God’s ‘violence’ and ours in a way which we would do well to pay attention to.
A human violence is one which violates the just created order – one which oppresses people, which ‘destroys the foundations’ and shoots arrows in the dark.
God’s violence, on the other hand, is one which searches and which judges. He sets up the right order again and protects the innocent from oppression.
This distinction isn’t the entire answer and it doesn’t make excuses for odd language in the Psalm. But it does help to say that God’s actions and ours are not in the same category, even if they both are superficially ‘violent.’
I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the psalms but have always had trouble with the imprecatory psalms. I could never quite understand how God was OK with people calling down curses on their enemies. Or, if he condescended to our weakness in our prayers, how he endorsed it enough to include in revelation.
Psalm 10 helps a little. Rather than cursing his personal enemies, the psalmist is attacking those who attack the poor. They directly hurt those who should be protected, those who have a special claim on God’s people.
The wicked man actively exploits and takes advantage of the vulnerable. He “lurks that he might seize the poor” so we can understand why the Psalmist asks God to “break the arm of the wicked and evildoer, call his wickedness to account until you find none” (v 9; 15).
I’m still not certain how to understand this violent language – and how we can use it. It feels as if it isn’t an option for those of us living after Jesus’ teaching – despite how Jesus attacks the wicked himself (see Mt 23, among other places). This Psalm sets some context for how this language can be legitimate.
Hebrew poetry can do odd things with time. Psalm 9 is no exception – we shuttle between looking back and anticipating and, at least in English, usually remain fuzzy on which direction we are actually facing. Rather than just being sloppy, as would be if I were writing it, here the poet is making a point.
The psalmist says: “I will give thanks … I will recount all of your wonderful deeds” (v1). Similarly, he calls on God to “be gracious … that I may recount all your praises” (vv 13-14). The psalm gives thanks for blessings already provided but it is written so we can’t tell if the blessings are in the past or are still to come. David seems to be giving thanks for things which haven’t happened yet.
Like most of the psalms, this gives us a model for prayer and how to function in the already-not yet (to embrace my reformed roots). We can use a perfected, action-completed, tense to describe God’s future blessings because they are certain. Looking backwards, we must faithfully recall how God has blessed us, especially when it seems far away or implausible.
Time is complicated and the God who created it doesn’t change. That’s why David can speak in the odd language that he does.