Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 13, 2021
Psalm 92:1-4,12-15 Commentary
What’s in verses 5-11? This lection from Psalm 92 is one of many RCL texts that clearly skips a certain section of a passage, forcing the curious Bible student to wonder why a chunk gets leapfrogged over. Psalm 92 is hardly too long for a single reading or sermon. Yet the Lectionary deletes almost exactly half of the poem.
And a quick glance reveals the reason and it is the same rationale that applies in most every such case: we’d rather not look at passages about the wicked and hear sentiments about their ultimate downfall at the judging hands of God. The fact that the writer of Psalm 92 saw no disparity between the eight verses the Lectionary assigns and the seven it deletes seems unimportant. We know better than to consider such darker, more judgmental broodings. It’s best, then, just to look away from the middle section of this short psalm.
Of course, there are some sentiments in the Hebrew Psalter (and elsewhere in the Old Testament) that the followers of the Prince of Peace need to handle with care and just possibly not adopt as their own. The imprecatory psalms are the primary example of this. Jesus throughout the gospels and the apostles throughout their writings (see especially the end of Romans 12 for instance) make clear that all the punishment for sin has fallen on Jesus. It is not up to us now to go around and curse people or actively to pray for their arms to be broken, their teeth to be smashed in, and other unpleasantries that the psalmists often do call down upon their enemies. “You leave all those things to God,” Jesus and the apostles said, “and for your part, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you and just generally try to exude the same grace toward others that God has extended to you. (And by the way: You didn’t deserve it either!)”
But that is not what is happening in the middle part of this psalm. Instead we read first a lament that fools cannot see or appreciate what God has made in the creation. Then there is the honest admission that for now, the wicked often prosper quite nicely, thank you very much. Their way of getting ahead in the world surely looks like the wise way to live if you want a comfortable life. Finally, however, there is the ultimate reckoning that because they vandalize God’s shalom, they will not prosper forever but will reap the reward of their anti-creation ways of living and be destroyed when this creation is made new. The wicked did not appreciate the creation when they could and did not live according to the norms of this creation as established by the Creator so why should they get to stick around and enjoy a restored creation one day?
Once the psalmist is finished with all that, he returns to consider his own lot and that of all the righteous not just now but eternally. Although the Lectionary would have us skip the ultimate fate of the wicked, it has no problem with us considering the obverse of that particular coin in the depiction of the felicity and the evergreen status of the righteous once God brings in God’s judgment and sets all wrongs to right. For this poet, this really is just a single coin. You cannot ponder the restoration of the righteous—who did not flourish at all times in a world where instead the wicked too often flourish—without considering the opposite fate of those who oppose God. Indeed, one suspects the psalmist would suggest that you cannot have one without the other.
Again, as Christians who follow Jesus, we are right to hope and pray for the redemption of even those who for now do not believe in or follow the ways of God. Whether that sentiment would have been foreign to someone like the writer of Psalm 92 is not clear. Whether praying for the redemption of—instead of the destruction of—our “enemies” would even be a welcome thought for the ancient Israelites may also be an open question. There are fruitful things to ponder in this line of thought. Although I personally do not like the Lectionary’s attempts to edit the Bible—and they even do so in New Testament lections with the very words of Jesus now and then—if behind such editing there is a desire to keep Christians from too quickly moving to the language of vengeance, then that can be seen as a good thing.
But it might also be useful to ponder the logic of this psalmist’s way of thinking. Behind most of this language there is, I believe, less a desire to see enemies and the wicked get smacked and more a fierce enthusiasm for the things of God. That is, this poet is so gob smacked by the wonders of God’s creation that it simply baffles and even infuriates him to see those who ignore it all, to see fools who can never see past the tip of their own nose. And this poet is so in love with the law of God that shows us how to live prudently and well in the world God made that to see those who rip up this world and who rearrange this world’s moral boundary fences to give themselves maximal benefit in ways that make others suffer . . . well it all creates a scenario that a true lover of God cannot abide.
Something’s gotta give eventually. For the psalmist, this all coheres.
Perhaps, then, although caution is called for when handling texts of vengeance and retribution, we do well as modern Christians to make sure that following Jesus more closely is the reason for our looking askance at the verses the Lectionary would have us skip. If that is our rationale, it can be a noble one. However, we likewise need to make sure that the reason is not that we are insufficiently in love with God, with the works of God, and with the ways of God. If our enthusiasm for all that is so mild that we cannot quite register disappointment or even a bit of holy anger when we see people riding roughshod over God and God’s creation, then we have a different problem and one in need of spiritual examination.
If we can gush over God and God’s works the way the first four and final four verses of Psalm 92 do, then we ought to be able to see with some clarity the logic of even this poem’s less than happy middle part. It’s nothing we ought to smack our lips over in prospect. But if we never feel this way at all when we see God’s creation and God’s ways trashed, then something may be amiss in us after all.
In a sermon Barbara Brown Taylor told a story related to the African American nanny who used to care for Barbara and her siblings when they were young. They liked their nanny just fine but she could be a bit reserved and sometimes they wished she would engage them more. Well, one day they begged her to do an activity with them. She agreed, somewhat to the surprise of Barbara and her siblings. The nanny told them to get out their crayons and some blank sheets of paper and draw their own house.
So the children did so, sketching their nice two-story home, the front yard, the tire swing, the requisite white picket fence. Then the nanny urged them to grab their orange and red crayons and draw fire coming down from the sky and starting to consume their nice house and yard. “Because that is what’s gonna happen to y’all then the Lord comes again!”
Well it was rather startling and sobering for the children. But the look on the nanny’s face said that for her part, she took great comfort at the prospect of that kind of reckoning coming down from heaven one day by and by.
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