Sunday, November 14, 2010

Psalm 58

Psalm 58 is a hard one. I know you probably won’t go read it right now just to see what I’m talking about, and it’s too long to quote the whole thing in a blog entry. So I’ll summarize. It starts out like this:
Do you indeed decree what is right, you gods (or mighty lords)?
Do you judge the children of man uprightly?
No, in your hearts you devise wrongs;
Your hands deal out violence on earth.

After this the psalmist launches into a verbal attack on the wicked men who poorly rule and judge. They are like venomous snakes, they speak lies, and they have fangs like young lions. He calls to Yaweh, the covenant God of Israel, to tear out these fangs from their mouths, to let the wicked be like a snail that dissolves into slime or a stillborn baby who never sees the sun. To top it off, the psalmist declares that the righteous will rejoice to see such vengeance and will “bath his feet in the blood of the wicked.”


There are some immediate red flags that go up when we encounter such disturbing imagery in the scriptures. First, we get angry with the arrogant psalmist. “Who is this guy to be thinking of himself as righteous and everyone around him as wicked? Hasn’t he heard of original sin? Doesn’t he know that he is wicked too?” Second, there is the apparent contradiction between the Old and New Testaments. “Jesus says to love and pray for your enemy, but this psalm is basically calling down violent curses and wishing for the death of other people.”

How do we make sense of these kinds of questions? Are they the right questions to ask? Can such a passage possibly speak to us about the God we call to and follow today? Or are we better off to leave it behind and stick with the New Testament and milder Old Testament passages like psalm 23 and psalm 120? Here are a couple observations that can help us understand the place of this psalm and similar ones in the life of the scripture-reading church.

1.The last couple lines. Part of the answer lies in the last lines of the psalm, which (to be fair) I haven’t talked about yet. This is how the psalm finishes:

Mankind will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous;
Surely there is a God who judges on earth.”

This assertion forms a kind of bookend. It places God the righteous judge against the present judges and lords who are violent liars. This comparison helps us to see that at the core of all the distracting imagery, the psalmist is calling out and looking forward to a day when Yaweh will work his good judgment on the earth.

2.On earth. This is an important little phrase because it reminds us that the whole Bible tells the story of God’s saving work upon the earth. The widespread idea of salvation as something that happens to an individual’s spirit after he or she dies simply does not fit with the scriptures. Rather, the Lord’s acts of creation, the formation of Israel, and the giving of the Law and the prophets are all part of his work on earth. All of these led up to the incarnation of Christ on earth, and it is in the person of Jesus Christ (his ministry, death, and resurrection) that the God of the scriptures dealt with evil and began his kingdom on earth. Hence, the promise and hope of God’s people in the church age is the full coming of this just kingdom, the bodily resurrection, and communion with the Father on the renewed earth.

Until that time, part of what we do is observe the evil and injustice around us, as the psalmist does, and call out to the Lord. Our crying out demonstrates our belief that he has worked and is working still to bring about salvation and righteous judgment of evil on earth (as opposed to the present flawed judgment exercised by corrupt human lords).

3.One more thing, which is not an observation but a digression. Many people these days find themselves unable to call out to the Lord in earnest as the spirit of this psalm beckons us to do. This is a problem because, regardless of their speech or reasoning, such an incapability or unwillingness reveals unbelief. Young, disenchanted postmoderns observe evil in the world and, rather than calling out to a just, compassionate, and powerful God, they change God into an absentee creator—a watch-maker who wound things up and walked away at the beginning of time. He cannot be reached now, they say, so what would be the point of calling to him? We might as well work for the bettering of the world through our own community-based undertakings, which also happen to be hip and trendy.

On the other hand is a group of people whose over-spiritualized version of Christianity has left God just as impotent. This kind of Christianity (from which many of the disenchanted postmoderns have fled) makes few concrete demands about how its adherents function on the earth because it understands belief God as an individual and subjective matter. God is a spiritual being, they reason, so he mostly cares about what happens in the “spiritual” realm. Of course, such an attitude bars them from even entering into the kind of indignation voiced by the psalmist as he observes the outworking of evil on the earth.

The irony is that both of these attitudes are but two sides of the same coin of Enlightenment thought. The Enlightenment is the thought movement that began in Europe after the Reformations and laid the foundation for modernism by removing God from the default worldview the masses. Its voices include people like Voltaire, Hume, and Thomas Jefferson. According to scholar N.T. Wright, the Enlightenment’s basic goal was this: “Kick ‘God’ upstairs, make religion a matter of private piety, and then you can organize the world to your own advantage.”

Such an attitude has survived in various forms for centuries, and in many cases the church simply re-voices this message while mixing it with select passages of scripture.

Continuing with the examples above, the first group says, “God is a distant creator who is not involved in the activities of the world; therefore, I’m not bound to his moral imperatives. I can order my life however I want” (a.k.a pursue social justice through mostly human ends while tipping my hat to ‘God’ and sleeping with whomever I please.)

The second group says, “God is a spiritual being mostly concerned with spiritual happenings; therefore, I will be okay as long as I make a regular appearance at church activities because these are the places where spiritual things are dealt with. Other than that I can order my life however I want” (a.k.a. make war on or otherwise oppress whomever I want in order to maintain the way of life on the earth to which I am accustomed.)

Both of these approaches come quite naturally to many professing Christians today, but they are each a far cry from the kind of faith to which the Lord, through the scriptures, calls his people. If we do not work hard to do business with the Bible as a whole, including difficult passages like psalm 58, our inherited-values will be what truly guide us and shape our view of God, his world, and his desire for his followers.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Disciples and the Shame of the World

Bonhoeffer was a serious dude. I want to be like him. I like what he says here about the role that Jesus’ disciples play in taking on the shame of the world as they follow him. It comes from Cost of Discipleship. (Please forgive all the sexist pronouns, I’m just quoting the guy.)

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”

These men are without possessions or power, these strangers on earth, these sinners, these followers of Jesus, have in their life with him renounced their own dignity, for they are merciful. As if their own needs and their own distress were not enough, they take upon themselves the distress and humiliation and sin of others.

They have an irresistible love for the down-trodden, the sick, the wretched, the wronged, the outcast and all who are tortured with anxiety. They go out and seek all who are enmeshed in the toils of sin and guilt. No distress is too great, no sin too appalling for their pity. If any man falls into disgrace, the merciful will sacrifice their own honour to shield him, and take his shame upon themselves. They will be found consorting with publicans and sinners, careless of the shame they incur thereby.

In order that they may be merciful they cast away the most priceless treasure of human life, their personal dignity and honour. For the only honour and dignity they know is their Lord’s own mercy, to which alone they owe their very lives. He was not ashamed of his disciples, he became the brother of mankind, and bore their shame unto the death of the cross. That is how Jesus, the crucified, was merciful. His followers owe their lives entirely to that mercy. It makes them forget their own honour and dignity, and seek the society of sinners.

They are glad to incur such reproach, for they know that then they are blessed. One day God himself will come down and take upon himself their sin and shame. He will cover them with his own honour and remove their disgrace. It will be his glory to bear the shame of sinners and to clothe them with his honour. Blessed are the merciful, for they have the Merciful for their Lord.