Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 22, 2021
Psalm 34:15-23 Commentary
Welcome to Week 3 of Psalm 34. As noted before, the Lectionary for some reason devotes three consecutive Sundays to this relatively short psalm. What’s more, in the original Hebrew this is an acrostic poem, meaning it is meant to be memorized and seen as a unity. But despite via the Lectionary we have considered the first eight verses, the middle set of six verses, and now this final set of nine verses. A good bit of this last section of the psalm is very similar to the first section and so if you did not preach on this psalm two weeks ago, you could go back on the CEP website to read the sermon commentary article for Sunday, August 8, 2021. Because here I will take a different focus.
Most of this poem is about how God will deliver the righteous from every affliction. As noted two weeks ago, the promises seem a little overly optimistic and sunny considering that we know from experience that this does not always happen or at the very least it does not always happen very quickly. With the long look, we can believe that when the cosmic day is done, God will have delivered his people from every affliction and trial but in the meanwhile that is not always so easy to see.
Along the way, however, Psalm 34 like many similar psalms not only predicts the rescue of the righteous from every bit of suffering but that the wicked of the earth will go down in flames. That much of Psalm 34 is not unique. But there is a curious line in verse 22 that one does not see so often. The NIV translates it as “Evil will slay the wicked.” Other translations are pretty close to this indicating that evil will bring death. One looser translation says “The evil will self-destruct.”
This is an interesting way to put it. Usually—and you can read this also in Psalm 34—we read that God will slay the wicked or God will blot out their names from the earth (see verse 16). But here in verse 22 it is not God who is the primary actor but a kind of personification of the very evil that wicked people commit. Evil is the active subject of the sentence.
Is this just an anthropomorphism? Is this just a word play, a fanciful personification of a non-personal thing? If we wanted to make up an opposite line we could say something like, “Happiness will bring good people joy.” But happiness is not an entity unto itself. It’s not an agent. So is “evil” in verse 22 supposed to be synecdoche for the Evil One, for a devil or demon or Satan himself? That kind of seems unlikely. Even Jesus once said that a house divided against itself cannot stand and so Satan does not oppose Satan.
So perhaps instead we are to think of this as a version of the natural consequences of a certain manner of living. It may be along the lines of “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” Or the old adage that when you set out on a path of revenge, you had best first dig two graves: one for the person you are going after and one for yourself.
For now, we mostly rue the fact that all too often evildoers get away with it (and there are plenty of other psalms in the Hebrew Psalter that lament this very thing). But in the long run evil generates its own momentum, and it is most definitely a bad momentum.
Although the final scene of the last episode of the TV series The Sopranos remains a bit of a mystery, most viewers concluded that the meaning of the last and sudden appearance of a completely black, blank, and silent screen indicated that the show’s anti-hero, Tony Soprano, had gotten shot through the head and died. Over the years of the series viewers were simultaneously drawn to Tony and repulsed by him. But in the end Tony was a violent man whose violence led to his own demise. Evil will slay the wicked. The wicked self-destruct. So if Tony did indeed die a violent death at the end of the show—and in front of his whole family at that—well, then there is a sense in which one could say “What do you expect? You cannot spend your life murdering people and forever seeking vengeance and not expect it to come back to bite you eventually.” What Tony did unto others, others finally did unto him. What you sow, you reap.
Psalm 34:22 may indicate that as much as we may ponder the idea that God punishes the wicked and give it to them but good, perhaps it is more the case that God just lets the natural consequences of a certain way of being run their course. You choose evil and evil will find you out. You chose to engage in a form of living death and in the end perhaps eternal death will be the only sensible way to give certain people what they apparently wanted all along.
As C.S. Lewis once speculated, perhaps at the last day all those people who refused ever to say to God “Your will be done,” will hear God saying, “Very well then: your will be done. You wanted to have nothing to do with me all along and so we will now just make that permanent.”
Of course, let’s not preach on this with anything akin to lip-smacking Schadenfreude. It has to be our hope that the evil will repent or that maybe even Jesus can find a way in the end to save these people. Maybe Jesus took all their evil upon himself to make that possible. But short of that divine intervention and sacrifice, in the end verse 22 would have it right: evil people self-destruct. Only Someone outside of themselves can get them out of that inevitability.
In the Coen brothers 2010 remake of the movie True Grit, a young girl named Mattie sets out on a path of revenge to kill the man who killed her father. Nothing would stop her or slake her thirst for justice until she found and killed that man. Forgiveness was not an option.
In one of the final scenes of the film, Mattie fulfills her wish but immediately topples into a kind of grave—a snake pit with the skeletal remains of previous snakebite victims. In the end Mattie does not die but she will lose her arm eventually due to the poison that crept into her system after a snake bites her in the hand.
Earlier in this sermon commentary I suggested that Psalm 34:22 suggests that evil will beget evil, that revenge always yields two corpses, and this last scene of the vengeful young woman toppling into a veritable grave may be a good example of that idea.
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