I have recently completed a reading of The Revelation and have begun a new series which will look at the Psalms, or at least the first book of them, that is Psalms 1-41. I am even less of an expert in Hebrew than I am in Greek, but I will study the Hebrew and usually give the reader my own translation of the Psalm for the day. The Psalms collected in the Hebrew bible were written over a period of perhaps 800 years, and are difficult to date. Probably none of them were written by King David and their true authors are unknown. They were used in the worship of the second temple in Jerusalem and have been used in most traditions of Christian worship, including that of the Church of Scotland, in which they were versified into such international favourites as “The Lord’s my shepherd” and “All people that on earth do dwell”. They are poetic songs and should be appreciated as such. They are also not free of prejudice, (they hardly mention women) and inappropriate emotions (they ask God to smash the faces of enemies). In other words, they speak my sinful language.
NORTH KOREA CELEBRATES ITS RULING CANNIBAL
To the chief musician. A psalm of David
The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are rotten
they have done shameful things
None of them does any good.
The Lord looked down from heaven
On the human race
To see if any of them
had gained understanding
And turned towards God.
But they have all turned away
They are all alike putrid
None of them do any good
Have they no sense
Who gobble up my people like bread
And do not honour the Lord?
They will struck with terror
For God is with the honest people
And their children.
You despise the wisdom of the poor
Because they make
the Lord their refuge.
May Israel’s liberation
issue from God’s sanctuary
on Zion hill!
When the Lord brings his people home
Jacob will dance
And Israel will be glad.
(translated emmock 2015)
This is a famous psalm, because over the years it has been interpreted as a response to atheism, as if it was a rebuke to Richard Dawkins and the British Humanist Society. It certainly isn’t that. Theoretical atheism was not an option amongst the ancient people of Israel. No, the whole point is that the fool has denied God in his heart, that is, in the place of decision-making: he acts as if there were no God, or any rate, no God with a concern for justice.
I’ve mentioned in connection with Psalm 1 that when the bible makes a clear dichotomy between wise and foolish, good people and bad people I see the dividing line going through me rather than between me and others. The stark contrast helps me identify that aspects of my life that require change.
So here, I recognise the times I’ve denied God because I thought that her/ his judgement was irrelevant: it wouldn’t happen now and perhaps not ever; and in any case, I could always repent. These episodes of practical atheism, of what the psalms call folly, have been many over the years. I would like to say, mostly when I was a young man, but that would not be true..I still haven’t gained enough understanding.
That’s why the psalm is useful, reminding me that these denials of God lead to shameful words and actions, and render me incapable of any good; that they reveal my lack of self-understanding and my need of God. Above all they show my dangerous relationship with people I genuinely detest: those who devour the poor like bread.
I want to protest that I am not guilty of this; that charitably and politically I am on the side of the poor and opposed to the rich. Maybe so, but when I lapse into selfish follies, careless arrogance, or casual cruelty, I place myself perilously near those who will be struck with terror when God reveals her/ his preference for honest people.
The psalm uses two kinds of language which are of special interest. The first is the language of decay/ putrefaction used to describe the nature of carelessly evil people. Not only are they not like the tree planted by the waterside (Psalm 1) they are rotting. If we do not put ourselves in the place of God’s nourishment as indicated by the commandments, we deprive ourselves and may become wholly corrupt.
The second is the language of “eating the people” meaning that evildoers consume the lives of others. The average pious 18th century Scotsman involved in the slave trade would have despised cannibals yet if you’d cut open the comfortable guts of his estate, the gnawed corpses of countless human beings would have tumbled out. Mark in his Gospel has a wonderful contrast between King Herod who consumes his people (almost literally in the case of John the Baptist’s head), and King Jesus who feeds 5000 of his people.
In societies where consumer capitalism is rampant, the crime of eating people like bread is committed not least by those who buy goods which are cheap for them, at the expense of those who labour for next to nothing in exploitative factories elsewhere. No wealthy person gets fat without eating people.
Jesus said that God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked, whereas this and many other psalms say that God is on the side of decent people and opposed to evildoers. Who is right? My view is that God’s kindness to evildoers is expressed not only in his patience, his warnings, his provision of sunshine and rain, but also in his penetrating judgement on their evil and his rigorous punishment which is meant to cleanse them. Unlike Dante I think of all God’s punishments as purgatorial, as means of restoration, although I do not deny that there may be some who do not want restored. Part of God’s kindness to me will be to burn out whatever evil is left in me when he gets his hands on me. I hope I can welcome that outcome. When God brings his people home the victims of evil will dance, while some of the rest of us may have to dance on hot coals until we’re purified.