Tag Archives: injustice

Psalm 55-A Desperate Prayer from an Unsafe Environment

Apophysis-Betrayal (1footonthedawn at deviantart.com)

Psalm 55

To the leader: with stringed instruments. A Maskil of David.
1 Give ear to my prayer, O God; do not hide yourself from my supplication.
2 Attend to me, and answer me; I am troubled in my complaint. I am distraught
3 by the noise of the enemy, because of the clamor of the wicked. For they bring trouble upon me, and in anger they cherish enmity against me.
4 My heart is in anguish within me, the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
5 Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me.
6 And I say, “O that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest;
7 truly, I would flee far away; I would lodge in the wilderness; Selah
8 I would hurry to find a shelter for myself from the raging wind and tempest.”
9 Confuse, O Lord, confound their speech; for I see violence and strife in the city.
10 Day and night they go around it on its walls, and iniquity and trouble are within it;
11 ruin is in its midst; oppression and fraud do not depart from its marketplace.
12 It is not enemies who taunt me — I could bear that; it is not adversaries who deal insolently with me — I could hide from them.
13 But it is you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend,
14 with whom I kept pleasant company; we walked in the house of God with the throng.
15 Let death come upon them; let them go down alive to Sheol; for evil is in their homes and in their hearts.
16 But I call upon God, and the LORD will save me.
17 Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he will hear my voice.
18 He will redeem me unharmed[1] from the battle that I wage, for many are arrayed against me.
19 God, who is enthroned from of old, Selah will hear, and will humble them — because they do not change, and do not fear God.
20 My companion laid hands on a friend and violated a covenant with me
21 with speech smoother than butter, but with a heart set on war; with words that were softer than oil, but in fact were drawn swords.
22 Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved.
23 But you, O God, will cast them down into the lowest pit; the bloodthirsty and treacherous shall not live out half their days. But I will trust in you.

This Psalm is filled with unusual Hebrew words that account for the differences in wording among translations. Although individual words may present challenges the overall message of the words are clear. This is a desperate prayer for deliverance from an unsafe environment where human relationships have failed, trust has been violated, and the psalmist feels unsafe. It is a petition for God’s help. It is a cry for God to condemn those who have brought such pain. It bears witness to the psalmist grasping to their faith in God’s justice when others have proven faithless.

Many people can reflect on moments in their life when they can identify strongly with the words of this Psalm. For me, the words of this psalm take me back to a time when a dream had died, I was leading a congregation that was splitting apart due to conflict, and even home was no longer a healthy place as I attempted to deal with a betrayal by one I loved. It was a time where it felt like all the things that defined me had rejected me. My hopes for the future, my work, my place of worship, and even my family all had been impacted and the only thing I had left to hold on to was the faith that God would hear my cry in that moment, that the pain would eventually end, and that God would save me in a time when I could not save myself.

Perhaps the reason that the words in this Psalm are so difficult to translate is that the poet has to grasp for words in the midst of their pain which seem just out of reach. Deep pain seems to shatter our ability to narrate what is happening, the events become unspeakable. Yet, it is precisely this inability to speak about the trauma that one endures which can trap us within it. One of the gifts of scripture, particularly the Psalms and the prophets, is honest language which attempts to bear witness to the pain and suffering that are often a part of the life of the faithful. Being a religious person does not prevent one from experiencing conflict, betrayal, anxiety, fear, and even desiring to run away from one’s home or one’s vocation.

The Psalm begins with four verbs asking God to pay attention to the desperate prayer (Give ear, do not hide, attend, and answer) followed by a long list of troubles caused to this faithful one by the actions of the enemy/wicked. The righteous one is troubled, distraught, experiencing anguish in their heart and the terrors of death, fear, trembling. and horror overwhelm them, and their desire is to flee from the city, their home, and their responsibilities to some wilderness retreat. These early descriptions of the psalmist’s current condition seem in tension the affirmation later in the Psalm that “the LORD…will never permit the righteous to be moved” but they need to voice the full extent of their affliction before they can enter into the trust in God’s provision. J Clinton McCann highlights that many of the things the righteous one is experiencing are exactly what those opposed to God’s way and experiencing God’s judgment have experienced in the past:

“Terrors” (v.4) and “trembling” (v.5) are what the Egyptians experienced as a result of opposing God (see Exod 15: 15-16), and overwhelming horror is what Ezekiel promises as a result of God’s judgment (see Ezek 7:18). (NIB IV, 898)

Now in a world turned upside down by violence and betrayal the righteous are experiencing this at the hands of the wicked and only God can reestablish justice in this unjust environment. The psalmist, like the prophet Jeremiah in Jeremiah 9:1-6, desires to be away from this place of betrayal and pain.

The city itself has become unsafe because of the actions of the wicked. There is no safe time and there is no safe place. Morning to night and from the walls of the city to the marketplace and even in the heart of the city the enemy cannot be avoided. The features of the city that are supposed to bring security are occupied by the enemy, commerce has been corrupted, and there is no place to go where violence, strife, and ruin have not transformed the city which was once a home into a prison for this petitioner. God must act in the midst of this injustice and the psalmist echoes God’s judgment of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9 where the languages of the city are confused.

It is only in the middle of the psalm that we learn that the betrayer who has made their world unsafe is, “my equal, my companion, my familiar friend.” This intimate friend who has shared times both mundane and sacred with the speaker has become their oppressor. The transformation from friend to enemy has broken the petitioner’s world and they cry out for God to judge them like God judged Korah and his company that were taken alive into the realm of death. (Numbers 16: 30-33) Although Sheol as a place of the dead does not have the same meaning as Hell in much Christian thought, the injustice committed by this former close friend and companion has damaged the petitioner so deeply they want them removed from the sphere of the living. As uncomfortable as these words crying out for judgment may be, they need to be spoken and lifted up to God so that they can leave the speaker’s heart. Like Jeremiah 9:1-6 mentioned above, it is neighbors and kin who bring about, “Oppression upon oppression, deceit upon deceit!” (Jeremiah 9:6) and now the fate of these friends turned enemy belongs to God. The companion who laid hands on the psalmist and violated their covenant now finds themselves in the hands of the God who is faithful to the covenant.

God will judge the wicked and restore the just. The redemption which the psalmist longs for is not merely a removal of the wicked but also a relief from their anxiety and a complete return to wholeness and happiness. The only life after this experience of betrayal and oppression can come from the LORD who sustains the righteous. Ultimately for the healing to begin the environment must change and the only way the petitioner sees for that to happen in their current state is for the violent betrayer to be removed. There is no trust in one whose speech was smoother than butter and whose words were smoother than oil which hid a heart set on conflict and actions which cut deeply.  For the psalmist human beings have proven untrustworthy, and it has driven this righteous one towards God. Perhaps in a place and time where the poet’s center of life has been returned to peace and wholeness there will be a space for reconciliation and forgiveness, but in the immediate aftermath of betrayal as the poet lives in fear and anxiety their horizon can only embrace a future without their betrayer.


[1] Literally “he will ransom in shalom (peace-wholeness) my nephesh (soul-center of life)” As Beth Tanner notes, “my very life will be protected, not just from harm, but will be restored to complete wholeness and happiness. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford 2014, 475)

Psalm 52 The Wicked Will Not Prosper Forever

Ancient Olive Tree in Pelion, Greece

Psalm 52

To the leader. A Maskil of David, when Doeg the Edomite came to Saul and said to him, “David has come to the house of Ahimelech.”
1 Why do you boast, O mighty one,[1] of mischief done against the godly? All day long
2 you are plotting destruction. Your tongue is like a sharp razor, you worker of treachery.
3 You love evil more than good, and lying more than speaking the truth. Selah
4 You love all words that devour, O deceitful tongue.
5 But God will break you down forever; he will snatch and tear you from your tent; he will uproot you from the land of the living. Selah
6 The righteous will see, and fear, and will laugh at the evildoer, saying,
7 “See the one who would not take refuge in God, but trusted in abundant riches, and sought refuge in wealth!”
8 But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever.
9 I will thank you forever, because of what you have done. In the presence of the faithful I will proclaim your name, for it is good.
The basic question of the injustice that is present in the world when the boastful, deceptive, and wicked prosper while the righteous are persecuted informs the narrative of Psalm 52. This short poem or song which contrasts the wicked ‘mighty one’ and the righteous compares two opposing views of life and the poem pivots on God’s judgment of the mighty one in verse five. Although the superscription of this Psalm refers to a specific incident in the life of David, the big shot boaster who the first four verses describe can be found in any context. The way of the wicked may often appear to provide security in the moment, but the way of righteousness sinks deep roots of trust into the steadfast love of God.

The superscription of Psalm 52 places the words in the context of David’s flight from King Saul and the punishment of Ahimelech and the rest of the priests of the LORD. David, now fully convinced of Saul’s murderous intentions towards him, is fleeing Israel and arrives at Nob, a short journey away, where the tabernacle is. David seeks both food and a weapon from the priest Ahimelech, who is unaware of Saul’s intentions toward David, and after receiving these departs. Doeg the Edomite, the chief of Saul’s shepherds,[2] was also at the tabernacle and reports on these actions to Saul. Saul then gathers Ahimelech and the priests, accuses them of treachery, and then orders his guards to kill the priests. When the guards refuse this order from King Saul, Doeg the Edomite carries it out killing eighty-five priests and then putting the city of Nob, the city of priests, to the sword.

The psalm makes sense within the context of the narrative of 1 Samuel 21-22, as David can see the damage a violent and deceptive one has done to the righteous ones. Doeg could be viewed as one who does violence against the righteous, who plots destruction, whose words are sharp and who loves evil more than good. Doeg’s words and his sword have caused many deaths for those who offered David kindness and served the LORD as priests. In this moment, the suspicion of Saul and the deceptive words of Doeg are creating a world of injustice and violence.

Reading the Psalm in a more universal context, we can find many contemporary examples that fit the description of this ‘mighty one’ who ironically becomes the villain in this story. This ‘big man’ is one prospers at the expense of those attempting to live according to God’s will. They are schemers whose actions undercut the security of others and whose words are weapons that often cut deeper than a blade might. I’ve often parodied the old saying about ‘sticks and stones’ changing it to: ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will send me to therapy.’ When a person desires economic gain or power above the good of the community, deceitful words are often used and may do more damage to the life of the community than any action could. These devouring words once unleashed can seem to take up a life of their own, and the deceitful tongue that bears the sharp lie may produce great evil as it cuts into the trust which is the lifeblood of the communal life. As Beth Tanner can state:

We all know the damage of words. In a media-saturated world, lying words still cut like a razor. Indeed, we are surrounded by a culture that encourages us to be out only for ourselves and believes that our only protection is the wealth and possessions we amass behind gates that lock out the rest of the world. Words of advertisers and terrorists reduce our lives and diminish our delight. Abusive words by one we love and trust can do as much damage as a fist of knife. We know just as these ancient ones do that this way leads only to alienation and death. Any sane person would not choose this way to live, but instead grow slowly and surely as a great tree that flourishes in the house of God. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford 2014, 462-463)

Yet, in our media saturated culture which amplifies the boast of the mighty one and seems to thrive on the blood spilt by razor sharp words there are a plethora of instances where words demonized a group, split a community, and often destroy lives. Yet, the Psalmist states that this way will not stand, that God will not allow the mighty one who speaks evil and plots destruction to escape destruction forever. God will be the one who intervenes and balances the scales by removing the mighty one’s house from the people, who breaks down their defenses and walls, and who uproots them from the ground where the righteous remain planted.

Once God has acted to restore justice by uprooting the wicked, the psalm turns to the response of the righteous ones. Psalm 52 carries similar themes and imagery to Psalm 1 and in both psalms “the way of the wicked will perish.” (1:6) Yet, Psalm 52, instead of ending on the theme of the wicked perishing, now turns to the reaction of the righteous. The righteous see, and fear, and laugh. The righteous ones see and understand that the actions that uprooted the unrighteous one come from God. Fear in this context is the proper response to God, it is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 110:11, Proverbs 1:7) and fear of God is understood throughout the Hebrew Scriptures mainly as reverence and awe. But the reaction to the ‘mighty one’ who has now fallen is laughter. The mighty one who trusted in the power and wealth gained through their deceitful ways and lying words has now become the fool who illustrates that wickedness and foolishness are ultimately the same thing. The way of the foolish may prove successful in the short term but in a world where God’s justice eventually levels the scales they find themselves uprooted while the wise/righteous endure like a green olive tree in the house of God. The wise know that the violence and deception of those who aggregate wealth and power will not endure, instead it is the steadfast love (hesed) of God which proves trustworthy and enduring. The injustices of this world and those who profit from them are real but they are not permanent.

[1] The Hebrew gibborim typically denotes a mighty warrior or hero. Here the context makes clear the ‘mighty one’ may be a big shot at the moment but is not in the Psalmist’s view heroic.

[2] Shepherds in the scriptures may be literally those who watch sheep, but the term is often used metaphorically to refer to a leader.

Life May Be Good…

Dosso and Battista Dossi, Democrito (1540)

Dosso and Battista Dossi, Democrito (1540)

Life may not be fair but it can still be good
Taking the moment to savor food and drink
The embrace of a friend or the lover’s kiss
To enjoy the quest for knowledge and wisdom
Or to delight in the produce of one’s hands

Life may not be fair but it can still be good
When one doesn’t obsess about one getting more
And another getting less than their works deserve
When one doesn’t let fame or prosperity define
The enjoyment of the day or the measure of life

Life may not be fair but it can still be good
When one accepts the gifts one has with gratitude
And celebrates the relationships one has in life
Remaining thankful for all that the seasons bring
For life can be good even when it isn’t fair

This is the poem inspired by the day 8 prompt of intro to poetry (pleasure) using anaphora (repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a verse). This was also inspired by book of Ecclesiastes which I’ve been working my way through over the last several weeks

Ecclesiastes 8 Wisdom in an Unjust World

Still Life with Glass Bowl of Fruit and Vases from the House of Julia Felix in Pompeii around 70 CE

Still Life with Glass Bowl of Fruit and Vases from the House of Julia Felix in Pompeii around 70 CE

Ecclesiastes 8

1 Who is like the wise man? And who knows the interpretation of a thing?
Wisdom makes one’s face shine, and the hardness of one’s countenance is changed.
 2 Keep the king’s command because of your sacred oath. 3 Do not be terrified; go from his presence, do not delay when the matter is unpleasant, for he does whatever he pleases. 4 For the word of the king is powerful, and who can say to him, “What are you doing?” 5 Whoever obeys a command will meet no harm, and the wise mind will know the time and way. 6 For every matter has its time and way, although the troubles of mortals lie heavy upon them. 7 Indeed, they do not know what is to be, for who can tell them how it will be? 8 No one has power over the wind to restrain the wind, or power over the day of death; there is no discharge from the battle, nor does wickedness deliver those who practice it. 9 All this I observed, applying my mind to all that is done under the sun, while one person exercises authority over another to the other’s hurt.

 10 Then I saw the wicked buried; they used to go in and out of the holy place, and were praised in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity. 11 Because sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the human heart is fully set to do evil. 12 Though sinners do evil a hundred times and prolong their lives, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they stand in fear before him, 13 but it will not be well with the wicked, neither will they prolong their days like a shadow, because they do not stand in fear before God.

 14 There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. 15 So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.

 16 When I applied my mind to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how one’s eyes see sleep neither day nor night, 17 then I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out.

Life is not fair, justice is often skewed towards a privileged group or individual, and the wicked may prosper while the righteous suffer. Bad things do happen to good people and one would have to shut one’s eyes tight to the world around them not to perceive the unfairness of the world. No one, not even the greatest president, king or official will be able to by their own wisdom alleviate all the suffering and injustice of the world. Oppression does occur and sometimes is sometimes even praised. Wisdom has to figure out how to live in the world as it is and not in the world as one imagines it should be.

Wisdom making one’s face shine may be a reference to the starting place of all wisdom, to God’s own wisdom. As Ellen Davis can say, “A shining face is, then, a sign of God’s benevolent presence; it shows forth the light of the Holy Spirit.” (Davis, 2000, p. 206) The wisdom in the shining face that reflects God’s benevolent presence is also coming from a softened face. A part of this wisdom that fears God and can place one’s trust in God precisely in the midst of an unfair and unjust world is the ability to find joy and celebration even in the midst of the seasons of the world one cannot control. It is finding peace in the midst of the oppression, joy even in the midst of suffering, and enjoying the food and drink in the moments of prosperity and want for they all come (ultimately in Ecclesiastes view) from God. Wisdom seems to reflect the ability to trust God even when one cannot riddle out the interpretation of a thing. Wisdom is willing to let go of the quest for certainty and is willing to reside in the humility of one’s own knowledge and power. Wisdom fears God and knows that we are at every moment of our life caught up in the movement of things that we have no control over. We cannot control when the time of birth or death is or war or peace or even whom we receive love from and who we might receive hate from. No one, not even the wisest sage can understand all that is going on under the sun.

J.K. Rowling’s character Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series may be an interesting figure to contemplate as one explores Ecclesiastes description of a wise person. In the novels he is a complex character who often has to put people he cares about into situations that may bring about suffering for them or even death and yet he rarely in the novels displays a hard countenance. His face is often light, he seems to enjoy the moments of levity and celebration even when they are brief. He is unafraid to tell the difficult truth that other may want to obscure or hide and he refrains from the certainties that many of the other characters want to cling to. Even for all his wisdom and power there are many things he is unable to prevent and close friends he is unable to protect and yet in his life and death (in the story) he becomes a character who models what wisdom might look like in that fictional world with all its struggles.

As a person who served in the Army I understand the need to follow orders that may be unpopular and the times when unquestioned obedience was called for. In the royal court, in government and in society there are times where we simply have to follow the commands we are given. There are certainly times where one will have to resist and illegal or unjust command or attempt to work with the system (or sometimes oppose it) to work towards a more just system. Yet, most of our lives we live with rules, laws and boundaries that we have to work within.

As a preacher I attempt to invite my congregation into the struggle with the texts and to teach them to wonder what it may speak to them rather than confidently claiming to have all the answers. God’s mysterious ways often elude me and in Ecclesiastes the interpretation of the thing often eludes the author in all their wisdom. In the United States there are a number of preachers and traditions that seem unwilling to allow for this type of wisdom which can reside in the places of uncertainty and instead they fill in the gaps with their own interpretation of the mind of God. “The dangers of overly confident preaching are felt particularly in the homiletic temptation to discern God’s retributive justice in situations of human suffering. In this respect, some preachers seem to have the whole divine road map spread out in front of them and so are in a position to give the rest of us confident progress reports. Qohelet, by contrast, reminds us the wisdom about God’s mysterious ways in the world regularly elude us.” (Pauw, 2015, p. 185) Wisdom could lead us to a homiletical humility, a willingness to acknowledge the limits of our knowledge and to acknowledge the gaps rather than to explain them away. To help oneself and one’s community to learn the wisdom of finding joy precisely in the midst of an unjust world, and the wisdom of trusting God event when one cannot make sense of the senselessness of life. As Søren Kierkegaard said, “It takes moral courage to grieve; it takes religious courage to rejoice.” (Pauw, 2015, p. 189)

Psalm 10: Calling Upon God to Be God

The Hebrew Alphabet. Hebrew reads right to left so it begins with Aleph and ends with Tet

The Hebrew Alphabet. Hebrew reads right to left so it begins with Aleph and ends with Tet

 Psalm 10

1 Why, O LORD, do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
2 In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor—
let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.
3 For the wicked boast of the desires of their heart,
those greedy for gain curse and renounce the LORD.
4 In the pride of their countenance the wicked say, “God will not seek it out”;
all their thoughts are, “There is no God.”
5 Their ways prosper at all times; your judgments are on high, out of their sight;
as for their foes, they scoff at them.
6 They think in their heart, “We shall not be moved;
throughout all generations we shall not meet adversity.”
7 Their mouths are filled with cursing and deceit and oppression;
under their tongues are mischief and iniquity.
8 They sit in ambush in the villages; in hiding places they murder the innocent.
Their eyes stealthily watch for the helpless;
9 they lurk in secret like a lion in its covert;
they lurk that they may seize the poor;
they seize the poor and drag them off in their net.
10 They stoop, they crouch, and the helpless fall by their might.
11 They think in their heart,
“God has forgotten, he has hidden his face, he will never see it.”
12 Rise up, O LORD; O God, lift up your hand; do not forget the oppressed.
13 Why do the wicked renounce God, and say in their hearts,
“You will not call us to account”?
14 But you do see! Indeed you note trouble and grief, that you may take it into your hands;
the helpless commit themselves to you; you have been the helper of the orphan.
15 Break the arm of the wicked and evildoers;
seek out their wickedness until you find none.
16 The LORD is king forever and ever; the nations shall perish from his land.
17 O LORD, you will hear the desire of the meek;
you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear
18 to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed,
so that those from earth may strike terror no more.
As I mentioned when writing about Psalm 9, these two psalms were probably one psalm originally but we now have them as two separate psalms and in this portion of the acrostically assembled (although imperfectly) poem in Hebrew we have a very different tone. In contrast to Psalm 9 which mainly praises God’s power and justice Psalm 10 resides in the place where that power and judgment seem unseen and ineffective. It is one of the central dissonances of faith, seeing the wicked prosper while the righteous ones stumble and fall under the weight of oppression. When bad things happen to good people and good things come to the wicked how does one make sense of a very worldly faith that believes in an active and present God who is an active part of the Psalmists world? The Psalmist responds by calling on God to be God, challenging God to come to action, to pay attention to what is going on in God’s world and to bring about change. Christians pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ And this is, like the Psalms, a very worldly prayer. It asks for God’s activity not in some distant heaven or some spiritual reality separated from the day to day reality of our lives. It doesn’t ask for God’s action after our death but precisely within the day to day activity of life. It is a risky faith because there will be times in life where God’s justice and God’s action seem far off and God’s very reality is questioned by the distance between our present reality and God’s promise. Yet this is the faith of the bible and the psalmist in particular that continues to hope in the midst of what may seem like hopelessness that God will act in God’s own mysterious way.

Perhaps this is one of the more dangerous and at the same time more pertinent Psalms for our time with its continual focus on the adversaries schemes to take advantage of the poor and to increase their own wealth and power. In our age we often live with one of the American myths that anyone can be successful with enough hard work and dedication but that myth does not match the reality of our own day where the gap between rich and poor has widened to an alarming level. As I was reading through the Psalm the lines that Rakim raps in Linkin Park’s Guilty All The Same echoed in my head:

Can y’all explain what kind of land is this when a man has plans of being rich

But the bosses plan is wealthy?

Dirty money scheme, a clean split is nonsense

It’s insane

Even corporate hands is filthy

They talk team and take the paper route

All they think about is bank accounts, assets and realty

At anybody’s expense,

No shame with a clear conscience

No regrets and guilt free,

It is easy to be skeptical in the world in which we live and turn inward and only worry about ensuring our own survival or our own interests. But the Psalmist calls on God to turn the tables, to see and act and prevent those who are powerful from preying on the weak, to prevent the rich from deceiving and devouring the poor. In a godless world might makes right, my security trumps anyone else’s interests and the one with the most toys wins. In a world that the psalmist envisions where God is active this is not the case, but instead the orphan and oppressed are cared for and the meek are heard and protected. In this case the poet becomes the prophet who cries out to God for God’s justice when it seems absent and calls us to have the courage to call upon God to be God. To pray the difficult prayers in the times where it seems like the wicked prosper and we are suffering. To retell the stories of the way God has acted in the past and to imagine a new future where God’s kingdom has come to be among us. It is perhaps the easy way to take the path that modernity did, consigning God’s operation to the spiritual realm and removing God from history, but the psalmist calls for an active faith which calls upon God to be God precisely within the moments of history where God seems absent.

Psalm 7- The God who Judges

Les Tres Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Folix 46v- David Beseeches God Against Evildoers, The Musee Conde, Chantilly

Les Tres Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Folix 46v- David Beseeches God Against Evildoers, The Musee Conde, Chantilly

Psalm 7

<A Shiggaion of David, which he sang to the LORD concerning Cush, a Benjaminite.>
 1 O LORD my God, in you I take refuge; save me from all my pursuers, and deliver me,
 2 or like a lion they will tear me apart; they will drag me away, with no one to rescue.
 3 O LORD my God, if I have done this, if there is wrong in my hands,
 4 if I have repaid my ally with harm or plundered my foe without cause,
 5 then let the enemy pursue and overtake me, trample my life to the ground,
 and lay my soul in the dust. Selah
 6 Rise up, O LORD, in your anger; lift yourself up against the fury of my enemies;
 awake, O my God; you have appointed a judgment.
 7 Let the assembly of the peoples be gathered around you, and over it take your seat on high.
 8 The LORD judges the peoples; judge me, O LORD,
according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me.
 9 O let the evil of the wicked come to an end, but establish the righteous,
you who test the minds and hearts, O righteous God.
 10 God is my shield, who saves the upright in heart.
 11 God is a righteous judge, and a God who has indignation every day.
 12 If one does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and strung his bow;
 13 he has prepared his deadly weapons, making his arrows fiery shafts.
 14 See how they conceive evil, and are pregnant with mischief, and bring forth lies.
 15 They make a pit, digging it out, and fall into the hole that they have made.
 16 Their mischief returns upon their own heads, and on their own heads their violence descends.
 17 I will give to the LORD the thanks due to his righteousness,
and sing praise to the name of the LORD, the Most High.

Within the Western church there is a long history where a lot of the focus has been upon the individual Christian’s sins and the way those sins would impact the individual’s afterlife. God’s judgment was removed from the sphere of everyday life and confined to a later time far removed from the actions in question. This has allowed our confession and guilt to be isolated from those who have borne the consequence of our individual or corporate sin, but this is not the world of the Psalmist. The Psalmist expects God to act upon the wrongdoer, to punish the sinful one because sin can never be separated from the victim of the sin. So the Psalmist can appeal to God for deliverance, a deliverance that is not separated from the reality of their oppressor. The Psalmist boldly trusts that, “If God is for us who can be against us.” As Paul states in Romans 8.31 or as Isaiah can state, “It is the LORD God who helps me, who will declare me guilty” (Isaiah 50.9a). The Psalmist appeals to God’s sense of right and wrong, justice and injustice, righteousness and wickedness.  The Psalmist cries out from their peril with the LORD standing as the righteous judge between the Psalmist and their accusers. For many Christians the Psalms seem impious, since they come from a different view of reality than most Christians are used to, but the Psalmist dares to boldly enter God’s presence declaring that the punishment they are receiving is far greater than whatever guilt they have incurred.

For a person who was brought up in a tradition of ‘judge not, lest ye be judged’ (paraphrasing Matthew 7.1) it is necessary to also realize that sometimes in withholding judgment I have allowed either the wickedness I have done or others have done to continue to perpetrate harm. As impartial as I may try to be, there are times where I am ill equipped to be the righteous judge and I need a God who can be. I need a God who cares about the victims, the powerless, the oppressed and those wrongly accused and can intervene for them. A God who does act to shield and protect. Who allows the guilty to fall into traps of their own design or who can, in God’s anger, have them put away their weapons whether real or metaphorical.

The Psalms are poetry and not dogma, they are evocative and cry out from the experiences and emotions of the author and they raise as many questions as they may answer. They are songs of faith, a faith that deals with the uncertainties and troubles of life in the hope that God is active and does intervene. Perhaps the Psalm echoes our own experience of being oppressed and crying out for God’s action, or as Rolf Jacobson asks helpfully, “Are there people today who could be praying this Psalm with me as their enemy? Are there victims of my sin who could cry to the righteous judge for recompense?” (Nancy de Clarisse-Walford, 2014, p. 119) But the dynamic of the Psalms is that the bear witness to the active faith of their author who struggles with God, calling forth for God’s action and judgment. There is the trust in a God who does see, does hear, and does act in the world, bringing forth God’s judgment and righteousness even in the experience of torment, oppression and fear.

Rhetorical Overkill: Jeremiah 2: 20-37

Apophysis-Betrayal (1footonthedawn at deviantart.com)

Apophysis-Betrayal (1footonthedawn at deviantart.com)

Jeremiah 2: 20-37
20 For long ago you broke your yoke
and burst your bonds, and you said, “I will not serve!”
On every high hill and under every green tree
you sprawled and played the whore.
21 Yet I planted you as a choice vine, from the purest stock.
How then did you turn degenerate and become a wild vine?
22 Though you wash yourself with lye and use much soap,
the stain of your guilt is still before me,
says the Lord GOD.
23 How can you say, “I am not defiled, I have not gone after the Baals”?
Look at your way in the valley; know what you have done—
a restive young camel interlacing her tracks,
24 a wild ass at home in the wilderness, in her heat sniffing the wind!
Who can restrain her lust?
None who seek her need weary themselves; in her month they will find her.
25 Keep your feet from going unshod and your throat from thirst.
But you said, “It is hopeless, for I have loved strangers,
and after them I will go.”
26 As a thief is shamed when caught, so the house of Israel shall be shamed—
they, their kings, their officials, their priests, and their prophets,
27 who say to a tree, “You are my father,” and to a stone, “You gave me birth.”
For they have turned their backs to me, and not their faces.
But in the time of their trouble they say,
“Come and save us!”
28 But where are your gods that you made for yourself?
Let them come, if they can save you, in your time of trouble;
for you have as many gods as you have towns, O Judah.
29 Why do you complain against me?
You have all rebelled against me, says the LORD.
30 In vain I have struck down your children; they accepted no correction.
Your own sword devoured your prophets like a ravening lion.
31 And you, O generation, behold the word of the LORD!
Have I been a wilderness to Israel, or a land of thick darkness?
Why then do my people say, “We are free, we will come to you no more”?
32 Can a girl forget her ornaments, or a bride her attire?
Yet my people have forgotten me, days without number.
33 How well you direct your course to seek lovers!
So that even to wicked women you have taught your ways.
34 Also on your skirts is found the lifeblood of the innocent poor,
though you did not catch them breaking in.
Yet in spite of all these things
35 you say, “I am innocent; surely his anger has turned from me.”
Now I am bringing you to judgment for saying, “I have not sinned.”
36 How lightly you gad about, changing your ways!
You shall be put to shame by Egypt as you were put to shame by Assyria.
37 From there also you will come away with your hands on your head;
for the LORD has rejected those in whom you trust, and you will not prosper through them.

One of the things you will see if you spend much time with the prophets is what I and others have called rhetorical overkill. Not only is the person unfaithful, but they are having sex under every green tree, they are like a wild ass in heat, etc….that is the language and it is what it is. You can try to explain it away, you can say it is a metaphor, you might find it offensive, it might work differently in different cultures, but it is using figurative language to express the depth of pain of the betrayed by the betrayer. In this case God is the betrayed one and out of the language of God’s pain comes this set of metaphors shifting from sexual to agricultural and back to sexual to cultic and legal and back to sexual. This is the language of a person in pain trying to make sense of how their view of a person could be so different from the reality. What is the offense that caused this level of pain and disillusionment? Two are lifted up in this section: idolatry and injustice.
Idolatry may constitute a whole range of things from people at this time going out and doing practices which honor other gods, conducting worship of other nations gods, conducting practices which are not approved by God or they may not be worshipping God correctly (away from the temple in Jerusalem or it may be worship without justice). Somehow there has been a distortion of the vision that God had for God’s people. Injustice is lifted up when the prophet says : 34 Also on your skirts is found the lifeblood of the innocent poor, though you did not catch them breaking in. Justice in the ancient world, even more than in the modern world, often depended upon one’s social standing, wealth and power more than any modern understanding of guilt or innocence, and yet this was not the society that the Lord envisioned.
The vine and vineyard image is one that recurs several times throughout scriptures because the vine was one of the most important and common agricultural images. In Isaiah 5, Isaiah morns of a vineyard that the vineyard’s owner did everything for and yet it does not produce, in Mark 12: 1-10 and parallels the image is once again brought up with a vineyard and unfaithful tenants and here in Jeremiah it is a choice vine which goes wild. People would have understood the agricultural imagery because this was an agrarian society.
One additional thing to consider is that we have a theological interpretation of reality going on, which we should expect from the prophets. This is not the world of power politics which the kings and princes are dealing with, they are trying to appease Assyria and Egypt, the powers that could conceivably invade and conquer Judah and they are attempting to maintain security through political alliances, military power and economic policy. Judah is a very desirable piece of property because it is at the trade crossroads between Assyria, Babylon, Persian and the far East and Egypt and Northern Africa and as N.T. Wright notes over the course of its history of 4,000 years on average every 40 years another army will march in or through it. (Wright 1992, 3) The prophets, kings and people are all looking at different strategies of survival and security. Security becomes the most important thing, more important than justice, more important than God, more important than freedom.
Security is perhaps the greatest idol that many in America face. We want to ensure that we have enough for ourselves at the exclusion of a societal concern for others and this runs headlong in contrast with the prophet’s and by extension God’s vision of shalom and justice. While many would read these words and be immediately drawn to condemn personal immorality as a method of societal corruption the prophet reverses this societal corruption, the loss of justice and trust in God’s way, is pointed to using a rhetorically inflated image of personal immorality where the woman in this image represents Judah.

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