The wicked, God, and me (Psalm 5, day 1)

Psalm 5 sounds perennial themes. These themes recur throughout the Psalter, throughout the Bible, and throughout the life of the person who would follow God and live righteously: wicked people, God, and oneself. What happens if we try to take this psalm as a paradigm, a model, of how to relate these three constants?

The first section of Psalm 5: God and me

1 Give ear to my words, O Lord;
    consider my groaning.
2 Give attention to the sound of my cry,
    my King and my God,
    for to you do I pray.
3 O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice;
    in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch.

The first line of verse 1 begins with (a) “my words” or “what I say,”  (b) a plea: “Hear!”, and (c) an invocation of the revealed Name of the one addressed (represented in this and most English versions by the generic noun “lord” but in caps (LORD) to show that we’re dealing here with the Name. The second line (a) repeats the plea to hear with (b) a word that can be translated either “talk” or “groaning.” (I am relying here, as usual, on Goldingay’s commentary.)

Verse 2 repeats this thought with synonymous words, replacing the divine Name with what this name means to the psalmist: “my king and my god.”

Verse 3 makes clear that the Psalmist says these things in the morning. If we read the Psalms often enough to feel the rhythm of the flow of their language, we know the parallelism, we come expect it. When the first line of a couplet says “in the morning” we will expect the second line to say either “in the evening” (a contrasting or complementary pairing) or something like “at the break of day” (a synonymous pairing). We get something a bit less usual: not just a synonym but the same word, and it is emphasized in each line:

יְֽהוָ֗ה בֹּ֖קֶר תִּשְׁמַ֣ע / Adonai boqer tishma
קֹולִ֑י בֹּ֥קֶר אֶֽעֱרָךְ־לְ֝ךָ֗ וַאֲצַפֶּֽה׃ / qoli boqer a’arak leka va’atsafah

The first line of verse 3 begins with the invocation of the divine Name, then “morning.” The second line begins with “my voice” then “morning.” Lord, morning! My voice, morning! Not even “in the morning” (with the preposition that you would get in flat prose) but just the noun, starkly alone (as happens in Hebrew poetry). The Psalmist is emphatic that this—calling on the Lord—is the first thing. It is how his day begins.

God is the one on whom I first focus my attention.

We may draw from this that when wicked people in our lived environment are exerting such pressure on us that they come to mind first thing in the morning, we deliberately push them aside. They cannot come first. We do not begin with them. We do not act on them first. We do not even name them first. We begin with: Where do I stand with God? Who and what is God? God is the one on whom I first focus my attention. I begin by addressing God. If (as is the case for the psalmist this morning) the pressures of the wicked are impinging on me, that address may take the form of crying out for help. But this is a conversation between me and God. Not between me and the wicked. Not conversation between me and other people oppressed by the wicked. Not my words to the wicked themselves. Not any action on my part with regard to the wicked. The moment may be coming, perhaps soon, for all of those things, but first things first: I call out to God.

I call out not just to a generic god, but to the God designated by the Name that was given to Moses at the bush. I want the owner of this Name to hear my voice, my utterance, my cry. I acknowledge the owner of this Name as my king: the one whom I acknowledge as my ruler and the superior, the governor of all other people in my city or nation—the wicked don’t get to be that, at least not first thing in the morning. And I acknowledge the owner of the Name as my god: the one whom I worship, offering sacrifice and prayer, to whom I owe steadfast loyalty and devotion, the originator and owner of everything, the one upon whom I ultimately rely even if I cannot rely on anyone or anything else—neither the wicked nor righteous people get to be that either!

The second section of Psalm 5: God and the wicked

4 For you are not a God who delights in wickedness;
    evil may not dwell with you.
5 The boastful shall not stand before your eyes;
    you hate all evildoers.
6 You destroy those who speak lies;
    the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.

Having begun with the primary relationship, between himself and God, the psalmist now gets to the thing that was eating at him already when he first woke up this morning: those wicked people. But he does not begin with the relationship between the wicked and himself; he begins by pondering where the wicked stands with God. He considers the wicked thoroughly: What are their characteristics, or (in fewer syllables) what is their character? What is a wicked person, really? How can you tell one when you see one?

What is a wicked person, really? How can you tell one when you see one?

In the psalmist’s thought-world, wicked and righteous is not just a matter of them and us. When you look at a person, you note certain traits. From seeing what they do and hearing what they say you reach conclusions about who they are, and the most important thing about who they are is where they stand with God. Not with yourself or your side, but with God. You don’t decline or fail to draw conclusions, thinking “Who am I to judge?” Of course you are not their judge—not in the sense of our Lord’s command to “Judge not that ye be not judged.” I’m afraid we tend to be confused about this word “judge.” These are two things you are not and must not be: (1) God, the ultimate judge, decreeing the eternal destiny of others on the basis of your infallible insight and absolute authority; and (2) a fool, failing to see what is there and exercise spiritual discernment (a.k.a. judgment), which is not a religious affectation but a matter of practical wisdom. It is God’s gift to you and God’s expectation of you. Inevitably, necessarily—if not by an inner compulsion, then in fulfillment and obedience to the Lord’s own prediction, promise, and command (I think it is all three of those things), “You will know them by their fruit!” —This paragraph is a bit of an excursus, not explicating the psalm but drawing out what I think is simply taken for granted in this psalm and throughout scripture. I am not The Judge, and I do not get to assess other people on the basis of their relationship to me, but I am also not a moral fool who fails to make wise judgments about other people on the basis of the correlation of their speech and behavior with God’s law, which is to say, on the basis of the visible and audible evidence of their relationship with God.

Back to the words of the Psalm: notice how each line in verses 4 through 6 consists of a characterization of the wicked and an indication of God’s response to that element of their character.

Verse 4: in general terms, they are wicked, and God does not delight in them. Goldingay has “faithlessness” here rather than “wickedness”; he says (vol.1, p. 593) that to be resha “is to fail to keep one’s commitments to God and/or to other people.” A bad or evil person (rather than abstract “wickedness” as the ESV implies) is one to whom God will not extend hospitality (which the ESV flips around, making them rather than God the subject: “they may not dwell with you”). Notice that God’s response to these people is not expressed here in terms of active condemnation or punishment. It is expressed in terms of privation: God does not delight in them, does not welcome them into his home. What punishment could be worse than that? These spell out what it means to be righteous, to be in good relationship with God: he delights in you and welcomes you as his guest! This is how the psalmist understands God’s stance toward him. (Think of Psalm 23.) This is where the psalmist begins his day, where you and I are invited to begin our day if the wicked are impinging on our consciousness when we arise in the morning. Pity the wicked: they cannot bask the glow of God’s smile and relax in the warmth of God’s hospitality. But that is what we (and they, if they will repent) are invited to do.

Verse 5: If you hear someone who is boastful, you are probably hearing someone who is wicked and who fails to keep commitments to God and to other people. Goldingay colorfully calls them “wild people.” These are הֹולְלִים, flashy, shiny, self-glorying people. Is God impressed? No. They “cannot take their stand before your eyes” (Goldingay). To be able to stand in the presence of one’s superior (who is probably seated) is to be allowed to be recognized as legitimate, perhaps to be allowed to attend upon or serve that superior. With God, the flashy-shiny-boastful people do not have that honor. They are dismissed, disowned, scorned by God. If that is the case, will you honor them? Will you be swayed by their wild self-promotion? God is not. Will you be swayed by them or by God? What is their effect on the world? They are people who cause harm. This is Goldingay’s rendering of the phrase in the second part of verse 5 that ESV renders “evildoers,” resorting again to a more general word. Boasters are not helpers; they are harmers. God is against them and repudiates them (Goldingay’s translation and explanation of the term that ESV translates “you hate”). If God is against them, should we be for them?

Verse 6: Another characteristic of those who are wicked and boastful is that they speak lies (Goldingay: they “speak falsehood”). And what is God’s reaction to these liars? God destroys them! Is that a bit harsh? Well, no. Because as the second part of verse 6 recognizes, to be a liar—to be deceitful, or as Goldingay puts it, “fraudulence”—is to be bloodthirsty. False words, fraudulent speech, is not harmless. It is harmful. To be dismissive or destructive of truth is to destroy the fabric of society. In the plainer terms used by the psalmist here: liars are de facto murderers, because their false, fraudulent words mark them as bloodthirsty, as being deliberately destructive of other people. This is not an unintended consequence: it is intentional, it is what they are about. In the second half of verse 6, the psalmist backs off a bit from the divine violence implied in “destroys” to say (as in the second half of verse 5, with a different word) that God abhors them, or as Goldingay again clarifies, “repudiates” them. As with boastful people, so also with liars (and they are probably the same people): if God repudiates them, will we claim them as our own and give them our loyalty? And if so—who are we, and where do we stand with God?

Well, that’s more than I had time for today. Maybe another day I will work through the second half of this psalm.

May we not be sucked into the deceitful and destructive gravitational vortex of the glitzy, gilded people.

Meanwhile: May you and I be people who focus first on God, who find that God delights in us and welcomes us with divine hospitality. May we be people who find our meaning defined not by those who are against us but by the One who is for us and with us. And may we also be people who form wise, discerning estimates of the wicked in our world, based on clear insight into how what they say and what they do indicates their stance toward God, and God’s stance toward them. May we not be sucked into the deceitful and destructive gravitational vortex of the glitzy, gilded people whose trompe l’oeil self-depictions cover for their fraudulence and whose aim is our destruction.

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