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 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.
In Psalms as Torah, Gordon Wenham explores the ethical imperatives of the psalms and how a canonical interpretation of the psalter ought to lead to a changed life. The book divides nicely into two sections: a review of historical Psalm interpretation and theoretical implications of worship for ethics; and a look at the specific ethical content of the Psalms (mainly looking at its focus on the tongue and language).
Naturally, the theoretical implications fascinated me the most. I remain the worst kind of theory nerd – an ignorant one. Wenham uses speech act theory to claim that the Psalms act both as speech and as act. The best example of this are wedding vows. These are words but they are also acts that change the lives of those who say them. Likewise, when you sing “My soul will praise the Lord” that is both a virtuous sentiment and an actual act of praise. It commits you to a future act and thus recommits the worshiper to the central ethical position of the psalms: reliance on God. Similarly when you ascribe virtues to God, you commit yourself to practicing those same virtues. There is a rich overlap here between some fun linguistic theory and liturgics (which, on reflection, was probably there in Pickstock’s After Writing, if I had the eyes to see it).
Wenham emphasizes that the historical memorization of the Psalms for worship further embeds the worshiper in the ethical world of the Psalter. By keeping these songs before our minds we can transform ourselves more into the image of God – we constantly reconfess our dependence on God and our desire to become more like him.
This further encourages me in the peculiar practice of the RPCNA to spend so much energy in singing the Psalms a cappella. It forces us to continually reflect on God’s word and, in a way, embody the virtues contained in it. Also, it aids memorization amazingly. I’m not entirely sure that exclusive a cappella psalmody is the only acceptable practice (according to the regulative principle of worship) as the traditional RP position holds but I have found it to be a very healthy spiritual practice thus far.
Wenham’s look at the specific ethical content of the Psalms is appealing because he doesn’t attempt to stretch his point further than it can go. While much of the Ten Commandments can be found in the Psalms he doesn’t force them all to be found there, rather showing that the main focus of the psalms is against sins of the tongue. Still, the overall theology of the psalter reinforces the core ethical position of the absolute dependence of humanity on God. Human self-sufficiency is the chief mark of folly in the psalms as in life.
In Psalms as Torah, Wenham manages to provide a decent introduction to the psalter together with a look at it in a specifically ethical context. This gives me a good deal to think about for the service tomorrow. My actions rarely reflect the Psalms’ guarded language or dependence on God. O my soul, trust in the Lord!