God gets refractory, haughty brought down

I really admire people who are always on an even keel, don’t you? They are grounded, centered. They know who they are, which means they know where they stand vis-à-vis God: lower, but accepted and loved. They tend to know, as well as any of us can, where they stand with other people, and they know that matters less than where they stand with God, so they aren’t anxious about it. That gives them a certain equilibrium, out of which they can treat everyone with patience and kindness. They don’t flip out in anger or fear when others around them are behaving badly. They understand. They forgive. They can be hurt, but being hurt doesn’t cause them to lash out.

From reading Just Mercy, I get the feeling that Bryan Stephenson is this kind of person. Even when facing insults and offensive behavior against himself, he is not quick to accuse or think the worst of people. When facing outrageous injustice against people on whose behalf he has chosen to intervene, he is not out to get the perpetrators in an angry or vindictive way. If they lie, cheat, steal, threaten, and so on against him or his client, he does not respond in kind. He remains who he is, grounded, patient, persistent. He does not describe himself in these terms! But this is what I pick up from the whole story line of that book.

Is a person like that a moral genius? Or an imitator of, a participant in, the goodness of God? When the Letter of James urges “let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath,” it is urging imitation of the God who Moses says is “longsuffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression.” This God is not going to lash out in anger. This God is surely not going to respond to crooked dealing in kind.


Psalm 18 is the third-longest in the psalter (after 119 and 78). It includes a passage in which the ESV feels compelled to do some cleanup. It’s a passage that causes me a bit of perplexity as well. Here are snapshots of this passage from John Goldingay’s The First Testament (on the left) and from the ESV (on the right).

Goldingay is following the Hebrew text closely. In verse 25a, the translations of the first phrase seem quite different, but they are following the same text: “commitment” and “mercy” are both aspects of chesed, God’s covenantal faithfulness. When a human person displays this faithful/merciful character, God in turn shows himself faithful/merciful. So also with integrity or blamelessness: when a human person displays this quality or virtue, God in response also shows himself blameless. So also with purity. In each case, the natural reading is not that God is a chameleon, play-acting or pretending in order to mirror a human quality. No. God is the very source of covenant faithfulness and lovingkindness, and of integrity, and of purity. God “shows himself” to be those things—does those things, acts out those qualities—because God really is those things.

But then what happens when God encounters a twisted, devious person? Here instead of repeating the same Hebrew word—taking the adjective that describes the human person and turning it into a verb for divine action, or divine self-presentation—the psalmist uses a different word. But it is closely synonymous. So now we have God showing Godself refractory, tortuous—just as crooked as the human to him he is responding!

This is going a bit too far for the ESV translators, who are unwilling to run the risk that we may conclude that God is refractory, tortuous, crooked! So they throw in “seem”: “you make yourself seem tortuous.” Where did they get “seem”? Out of thin air. Or rather, out of their comprehensive theological understanding. The Bible can’t possibly say anything that isn’t exactly right, and it wouldn’t be exactly right to say that God shows himself to be tortuous, because tortuous is bad and God can’t be anything bad. Hence: “seem.”

This is what happens when you flatten scripture into a list of inerrant factual propositions. You have to just quietly fix the ones that aren’t quite right. Some of us would say that the Bible is not a flat list of factual and abstract propositions, and this passage wasn’t meant to provide an analytic description of the divine essence, and the Bible doesn’t need to be rescued by translators operating (haha! this irony just dawned on me) with a marked deviousness of their own.

What do I draw from this? A certain kind of piety might want to turn God into a cardboard cutout with a fixed, serene smile. But the God described by the biblical writers who have been the Holy One’s wrestling partners and have the limps to show for it doesn’t always give even-keel, patient, merciful answers. The God described by the biblical writers knows how to thunder from Sinai, how to denounce through the mouths of enraged prophets, how to answer a fool according to his folly, and how—with the crooked—to show himself refractory. As Moses says in the rest of the sentence quote above: “he will not leave the guilty unpunished.” As this Psalm says: “the haughty eyes you bring down.”

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