Author Topic: A Voice of Rebellion: Reflection on Psalm 36  (Read 2304 times)

Richard Johnson

  • ALPB Administrator
  • ALPB Contribution Leader
  • *****
  • Posts: 10657
  • Create in me a clean heart, O God.
    • View Profile
A Voice of Rebellion: Reflection on Psalm 36
« on: March 18, 2006, 04:03:35 PM »
The Voice of Rebellion: A Reflection on Psalm 36

I love the Psalms. Often a Psalm that I’ve read a hundred times or more suddenly takes on a new meaning for me. I see something in it that is new, something I’ve never seen before. The Psalm takes on new life for me, and becomes a favorite.

Psalm 36 has been on my list of favorites for a few years now. It is not an easy Psalm. It seems to change course right in the middle—so much so that a few scholars have suggested the first four verses may have originally been one Psalm, the rest of it another Psalm. The second part of it is very beautiful, and much loved. The first part is harsh and difficult. But the parts belong together, of that I am convinced, the work of David himself, according to the title given in the Bible.

The problem people have with the first verses is that they seem to be so terribly cynical about those whom the David calls “the wicked.”
There is a voice of rebellion
deep in the heart of the wicked;
there is no fear of God before his eyes.
He flatters himself in his own eyes
that his hateful sin will not be found out.
The words of his mouth are wicked and deceitful;
he has left off acting wisely and doing good.
He thinks up wickedness upon his bed
and has set himself in no good way;
he does not abhor that which is evil.

Yes that’s a pretty harsh diagnosis of the wicked. Whatever happened to interpreting people’s actions in the kindest way?

But the key to understanding this is to realize that David isn’t just talking about “the wicked” as “those people.” No, he’s talking about himself. Think about David's wonderful prayer of confession in Psalm 51: “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” When he thinks of the wicked, he’s easily includes himself.

And includes each of us. This is precisely how St. Paul understands it when in Romans 3, he describes the general sinfulness of all humanity, the sinfulness of all human beings. He quotes this Psalm to help bolster his argument. As Patrick Henry Reardon has put it, “We do not need to go outside of our own souls to discover the identity” of “the wicked.”

When we read it like that, then these opening verses become a stark indictment of just what sin is, and how it operates within us. We can sketch out its framework:

First, it arises from “a voice of rebellion.” Sin can be described in many ways, but at its root it is rebellion against God. It is our demand to have things our way, to follow, as an old prayer of confession put it, “the devices and desires of our own hearts.” Or, to paraphrase Luther, we don't want God to be in charge; we want to be in charge ourselves. And so we rebel against God. This rebellion is “deep in our hearts”—often we are unconscious of it, so deeply does it whisper within us. We often are not even aware of how rebellious we are.

Then it says that there is “no fear of God before their eyes; they flatter themselves in their own eyes that their wickedness will not be found out.” Well, that’s always the way with sin, isn’t it? If we knew we were going to be found out, we’d be too ashamed to do what we do. The thief doesn’t expect to be apprehended, of course; but it goes deeper than that. If I knew that people could read my thoughts, half the time I’d be mortified, embarrassed. We conveniently forget that all our sins are known to God; or, if we acknowledge that in the abstract, we often don’t live as if it were true. We think we can hide; but there is no hiding from God.

Continued on next post
The Rev. Richard O. Johnson, STS

Richard Johnson

  • ALPB Administrator
  • ALPB Contribution Leader
  • *****
  • Posts: 10657
  • Create in me a clean heart, O God.
    • View Profile
A Voice of Rebellion: Reflection on Psalm 36 cont.
« Reply #1 on: March 18, 2006, 04:05:45 PM »
continued from previous post

Then the Psalmist skips through the three ways we sin: In thought—“he thinks up wickedness upon his bed.” In word: “The words of his mouth are wicked and deceitful.” In deed: “He has left off acting wisely and doing good.” I find especially troubling the phrase “thinks up wickedness upon his bed.” It points to the fact that very often our sin is deliberate, well-considered, plotted out. We like to think of sin as just a minor slip up here and there, an inadvertent mistake. The Psalmist will have none of this. We human beings sin, and we do it intentionally, deliberately, and often without remorse.

Now there are Psalms that contrast the behavior of the righteous person and the unrighteous person. Psalm 1 is a good example; the Psalmist sketches out what the righteous are like, and then says, “the wicked are not so” and tells us how the wicked are different. But not Psalm 36. As Paul interprets it, all of us are in bondage to sin. The terrible things said in these first verses apply to all of us. That’s not an unfamiliar idea in the book of Psalms; Psalm 14, for example, tells us that God looks down at humanity and sees that “they have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.”

But you know, when we read the Psalms, when we pray the Psalms, and the words talk about sin and rebellion, the purpose is not to make grandiose theological pronouncements about original sin; the purpose is really to help us see into our own hearts. I can say that “all have gone astray,” but really the point that concerns me is that I have gone astray.

And to show me the truth of this, David doesn’t compare the wicked to the righteous. Rather he compares the wicked—that’s all of us—to God. That’s what happens in verse 5, where he abruptly stops talking about the wicked and turns his eyes to the Lord. “Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens, and your faithfulness to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the strong mountains; you save both man and beast, O God.”

David is saying that the rebellion, the wickedness, the sinfulness in our own hearts melts away in the face of the faithfulness of God. It may be that human beings are rebellious and sinful, that I very personally am rebellious and sinful—but God is faithful. It may be true that I am unrighteous, but God’s righteousness is like the mountains. I know full well that I am in bondage to sin and cannot save myself, but God saves both man and beast.

And that is grace, in its most eloquent and fundamental form. When the voice of rebellion stirs within us, then there is one place to take refuge, and that is under the shadow of God’s wings. When our strength is dried out and we don’t know where to turn, God gives us to drink from the river of his delights. When we stumble around in the darkness of our own sin, in God’s light we see light.

Then David concludes with a simple prayer, and an observation. “Let not the foot of the proud come near me.” I read that to mean something like, “Do not let my own pride keep me from you, O Lord. Do not let my own wickedness push me aside.” And he concludes with an admission that the wicked, those who do not turn to God, are cast down, fallen. It is, in a sense, a kind of prayer: Do not, O Lord, let that happen to me. Rather “continue your lovingkindness to me, and your favor.”

So we have it: an honest appraisal of the rebellious heart that beats within each of us; and a marvelous expression of God’s faithfulness, God’s mercy, which can forgive and strengthen and embrace even us rebels. That love takes its ultimate form in the cross, where that merciful God gives himself for us. I’ve always loved a hymn by Charles Wesley, not one, unfortunately, in the Lutheran repertoire, but I’ll share it with you:

O love divine, what hast thou done!
The immortal God hath died for me!
The Father’s co-eternal Son
Bore all my sins upon the tree.
The immortal God for me hath died:
My Lord, my Love, is crucified.
Is crucified for me and you,
To bring us rebels back to God.
Believe, believe the record true,
Ye all are bought with Jesus’ blood.
Pardon for all flows from his side:
My Lord, my Love, is crucified.

by Richard O. Johnson, associate editor
Copyright 2006 ALPB
The Rev. Richard O. Johnson, STS