Unimaginable Justice…(Psalms 9-11)
November 3, 2010
Psalms 9-11 begin quite differently; Psalm 9 sings “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart” but 10 begins with much less confidence; “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?” but by 11 we’re back to “in the Lord I take refuge…” Blimey, make up your mind!
Despite their contrasting beginnings, these psalms communicate a common dependence on a righteous God. They are confident in the ultimate justice that He will deliver. I too want to be confident of this justice, and I am, to a certain extent. I find it hard believe that, with all the abuse and oppression in our world, God will just give all the warlords and corrupt CEOs a big hug when their time comes. “Oh don’t worry about all that rape and murder stuff come on in, make yourself at home!” But, as is typical of me, I find the constant talk of enemies and “the wicked” (a constant target in these 3 psalms) very difficult.
The psalmist is confident enough to assert God’s justice in a way I am not. He is sure that oppressors will be dealt with harshly, that the ‘wicked’ will have coals of fire and sulphur rained down on them (11:6). Eek! I want to believe in a God who won’t let violence and injustice go on without intervention, but these texts raise many questions for me.
The first, and perhaps the hardest, is who are the wicked? We’re none of us perfect, the Bible makes that very clear, so where is the line drawn? Is it simply through our actions we are judged? The answer from scripture seems to be no; from the Israelites creating cities of refuge for those who had killed people by mistake (in Joshua) to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that puts emphasis on the internal workings of the heart, they paint a more complex picture. The ‘wicked’ of Psalm 10 are guilty no only by their actions but by their remorselessness. They have no fear of God, no sense that they will ever be subject to higher justice (11:4&11). Perhaps, then it is this that makes them wicked, an abject amorality in contrast to the incomparable righteousness of God.
But that doesn’t really cut it for me. Often those who live without any sense of righteousness do so because they have had it taken away from them. Child soldiers, for example grow into men who commit unthinkable atrocities. Are they to be judged as wicked?
For the psalmist here the wicked seem to be those who oppress, though often enough they are simply David’s enemies. Who is he, an adulterer and murderer, to judge? Is it his profound repentance that restores him to this place?
This brings up my second question; what about forgiveness? It seems to me that one of the most radical if not the most radical of Christian teachings is that of forgiveness. Jesus asks us to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. Are we asked to forgive and not to judge because that is a right reserved for God or because by offering reconciliation we are demonstrating a small morsel of what God offers? It is a wonderful truth that there is nothing we can do that can separate us from God, but is there a way we can be that does that? And will it have eternal consequences?
There are more questions too, I’m sure you have more. I am not sure whether to be jealous of the assurance of God’s justice in these psalms or inspired by it! I have a quiet confidence in a final triumph of righteousness but nothing to this level, but then I’m not sure I’d want it. A “you’re in, you’re out system” seems to stark, so unjust in many ways. No wonder purgatory has been a popular belief.
What comforts me is remembering that I’m probably not supposed to understand these things. If I could conceptualise God’s plan then it wouldn’t be very God-like. Psalm 9 ends with the entreaty; “Put fear in them, O Lord ‘ let the nations know that they are only human.” This is something we all need to remember. Whether we think we can do what we like and get away with it, or we want to understand all the ‘big questions’ of life, there is a tendency among us little bipeds to get a bit big for our boots. Not that we shouldn’t wrestle with these questions; it’s a beautiful pursuit, but we shouldn’t expect to solve them. I don’t think we have to be at ease with them either; where would my sense of justice be if I read about the Congo, for example, and thought “oh well, God will sort it out one way or another!”
The real hope comes from the possibility that God’s justice is more wonderful and all-encompassing, more redemptive and healing, than any of us can imagine. Surely, the Prince of Peace would have nothing less…