The dark turn of Psalm 106

Psalms 95 through 101 utter the praise of the Lord in an unobstructed way. The Psalmist focuses on the Lord’s mighty acts of deliverance on behalf of his people, and joy wells up and overflows as the natural response to the goodness of God. Psalm 102 drops down into a place of suffering and distress, “but you, O LORD, are enthroned forever, you are remembered throughout all generations, you will arise and have pity on Zion”: the stored-up and oft-meditated-upon memories of God’s goodness carry the psalmist across the day of need. And then Psalms 103, 104, 105 are back on track with 95 through 101: joyful thanksgiving for all God’s mercies.

But then Psalm 106. It begins in the same voice:

(1) Praise the Lord!
Oh give thanks to the Lord,
for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!
(2) Who can utter the mighty deeds of the Lord,
or declare all praise?

Does that question signal a bit of a turn? The introduction of a note of doubt? Why is it not again just straightforward exhortation to praise, as in the opening verses of Psalm 105 and the preceding psalms? Why a question now? A question of this sort is also in its way a call for a response. But—what kind of response does it expect? Wouldn’t a perfectly natural answer be: “No one! It is not possible to recount ALL the mighty deeds of the Lord. It is not possible to declare his praise adequately”? Or another answer might be, “I can!” or “We can” followed by another lengthy recital of the “magnalia dei,” the great doings of God.

But in fact what follows is:

(3) Blessed are they who observe justice,
who do righteousness at all times!

Doesn’t the fact that verse 3 follows verse 2 imply that verse 3 answers the question posed by verse 2? Who can praise the Lord? Those who observe justice. Those who do righteousness. At all times.

And with that “at all times,” again an ominous twist: a sensitive reader, reaching those words, might say “uh oh”—at all times? Like the question itself, this answer seems to sound a note of doubt.

Verses 4 and 5 then bring a prayer for the Lord’s favor, a prayer of the individual who wants to be included when the Lord saves his people, who wants to rejoice—signals that the psalmist and his nation are in a place where they now need saving, need something to rejoice about. And then in verse 6 the other shoe finally drops with full force, naming the dark thing that has been foreshadowed:

(6) Both we and our fathers have sinned;
we have committed iniquity; we have done wickedness.

And the rest of the psalm is then a historical recital, like Psalm 105, but in a minor key, a recital not of the mighty acts of God but of the perfidious response of his people: ingratitude, faithlessness, idolatry, hideous crimes offered up as perverted worship to alien gods. “Many times he delivered them, but they were rebellious.”

We read the psalms from where we are. Where am I? Where are you? Where are we? Reading them, we find ourselves in them: we find where we are in relation to God. And that finding can take various forms. There can be instant recognition: Yep, that’s me, or yep that’s us! Or there can be a slow dawning of recognition: Strange, that’s not me/us; but wait, is it? Oh, no—I’m afraid maybe it is? And there can be a realigning, which may be the main point: in reading the words of the psalms trustingly and obediently, in letting the words probe and direct us rather than passing critical or defensive judgment on the words, we can find ourselves adjusted, relocated, reoriented; lifted out of the miry clay and set on a solid rock; or turned around from our resolute march in a wrong direction and set on our way to Zion. But who can respond to the psalms in this way? The openness, the trust, required for such a manner of reading has to be already a gift of the Spirit.

For me, in this moment, it is impossible to read anything in Scripture without constantly thinking about the national we, the national us, by which I mean not the nation as such but the church of Jesus Christ within this nation. Chasing down a few marginal references in places where the language of Psalm 106 is striking and strange, I come to other passages in the former and latter prophets that spell out the unfaithfulness of the leaders and people of Israel. I come to Ezekiel 16, one of the most elaborate and galling parables of infidelity in Scripture. Idolatry is depicted as adultery.

The words of Ezekiel 16 are hard to read. In our own cultural moment, the gendering of the faithfulness of God and the faithlessness of God’s people can—must—strike us to some extent as an offense and a provocation even before we read the details. I think there is something wrong with anyone who does not experience the slightest impulse to critique this text when reading it in our own day, in our own situation. And yet: if we can acknowledge and reckon with the offensiveness in the text, and see through it and beyond it, the text can still speak. And I find that it reads very naturally, and depressingly, as an indictment of American Christianity in this year of our Lord 2020. How do you read it?

Who can utter the mighty deeds of the LORD,
or declare all his praise?
Blessed are they who observe justice,
who do righteousness at all times!

God help us.

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