You, me, them: the moral mindset of Psalm 26

Worship and prayer depend on a certain self-location vis-à-vis the divine “You” and the profane “they/them.”

In the attached display of the ESV text of Psalm 26 I have used blue highlighting for the divine “You,” green for the worshipful and morally resolute “I,” and yellow for the profane “they/them.”

It would be a mistake to read this “I” over against “they/them” as exaltation of self and denigration of others. Maybe some of that was there for the human person who wrote this psalm, but boasting-cum-disparagement is not what the Holy Spirit wants to actualize in us.

Rather, the Spirit wants us to align ourselves with the resolution of the psalmist to walk in integrity, to trust the Lord unwaveringly, to avoid allying ourselves with falsehood/hypocrisy/evildoing/wickedness, to make the pursuit of innocence central to our worship, and in so doing to focus not on ourselves but on the wondrous works of the Lord, which focus we achieve through constantly talking about, and giving public thanks for, what the Lord has done.

“They/them” is the exile to which are consigned falsehood, hypocrisy, willingness to destroy others’ lives and to accept benefits for ourselves (“bribes”) as the reward for doing so. I cannot be a worshiper of God without dissociating myself from those things.

Which means, in practice, being deliberate about the “I do not sit,” the “nor do I consort.” We can learn a lot about ourselves by noticing who were are sitting with. The moral “I” is not achieved in a vacuum. Association with God and with good entails and depends upon deliberate dissociation from evil, and in the concrete of human life, dissociation from evil means refusing to cooperate with, to take as allies, actual human persons and collectives that practice hypocrisy and corruption.

Is is not striking that in the opening prayer of this Book of Praises the way of wisdom and righteousness is characterized first by “who walks not . . . nor stands . . . nor sits,” before it gets to the positive “his delight, he meditates”?

The Psalms do not want to train us in arrogance. They do want to train us in holiness. In practice it is easy both for the actor and for the observer to confuse the two.

But the psalmist wants me to know: I do not dare to say “Vindicate me!” or “Prove me and try me!” or “Redeem me and be gracious to me!” to the Lord if I am meanwhile making common cause with, assenting to the speech and actions of, those “in whose hands are evil devices, and whose right hands are full of bribes.”

I can say “I will bless the Lord” only if I am also clear about “I do not sit . . . nor do I consort . . . I hate . . . I will not sit.”

We can’t get squeamish, evasive, or self-deceptive about these dissociations.

How is a Christian to achieve such dissociations in a world such as ours? We have to bear in mind St. Paul’s clarification in 1 Corinthians 5:9–13 and conclude that the Psalmist does not want us to be refusing to be around elements of “the world” that practice wickedness, because then we would have to leave the world. Rather, we are required to distance ourselves from—to refuse to worship with, to expel from our fellowship—people who claim to be our fellow Christians but who practice wickedness.

This is a hard teaching, but it is a vital teaching for our moment.

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