Living between divine love and human iniquity (Psalm 36)

Why doesn’t this psalm start with “Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens” and end with “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light?” Those verses (5–9) are its heart, its center. They are the still place, the resting-place. They are beautiful. We would like to stay there and soak in the love, the peacefulness, the abundance, the light.

We can imagine being there always, undisturbed, in that place of love and light. We are encouraged, I think, by the whole of Scripture, the whole of the gospel, to think that is the long home toward which we are bound.

But there is danger in pretending that we are already there when we are not yet there. The danger arises from the persistent reality of wickedness, iniquity, mischief, deceit, arrogance. Sometimes we seem to think that if we pretend that it isn’t there it will not be there. No. If we pretend it is not there it will still be there. It will be all around us and we will lose our ability to discern it, to resist it. And it will seep into us, perhaps, and take us over. We may fool ourselves, which means making (moral and spiritual) fools of ourselves. Not the kind of fools who are obviously wicked, but pious fools—in Luther’s language, theologians of glory rather than theologians of the Cross.

We may succeed in pretending, with the “superapostles” encountered by St. Paul, that we are already resurrected, already ascended into glory—as in a sense we are (see Ephesians)!—but not in the sense of being already completely secure to the assaults of external wickedness, already immune to the enticements of internal wickedness. We are not already completely there. Scripture has Ephesians, but Scripture also has the Psalms (and the second half of Ephesians!). Scripture does not want us to fool ourselves, to try to fool others, to put on airs, to be all spiritual all the time, to imagine that “judge not” is a release from the necessity of exercising discernment, from the vital, urgent necessity of seeing and naming aloud both the wickedness in our environment and—what is more difficult and even more vital—the residual and resurgent wickedness in our own hearts.

The transgression that speaks to the wicked deep in their hearts wants to whisper sweet nothings to us also, and if we can’t see it outside ourselves, we will certainly not be able to see it inside ourselves, and it will have us. Clearer knowledge of God enables clearer perception of evil. Knowledge of God that does not yield clear perception of evil is faked knowledge of God.

So this psalm does not start with verse 5 and end with verse 9. The clear, blessed perception of the goodness of God enables us to see also, with greater clarity, the transgression of the wicked that is described in verses 1 through 4, and that twofold perception, of divine goodness and human wickedness, drives us past verse 9 to the prayer of verses 10 and 11: a prayer both for deeper awareness of God’s saving love and also for deliverance from the arrogant wicked. We pray not only that they will not be able to stomp us down, but also that they will not be able to drive us away from the secure place, the abode of verses 5 through 9.

And so we come to the closing vision in verse 12: the evildoers—who looked so strong in verses 2 through 4, who look so strong in the world around us—are, in the perspective that is formed by long abiding in God’s love, in the eternal perspective, utterly impotent. Oh, they are not impotent in current events—so we must repeatedly loop back through this psalm and through all the others. In our world they are active, and dangerous, and we ourselves are in danger of being infiltrated by their perspective and becoming like them—but in the end, which is already assured though not yet achieved—the wickedness is impotent, prostrate, unable to rise. Love wins. This is why clear perception of evil leaves us neither in bitterness nor in despair. We know that our long home is in Love.

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