PSALM 36 For the leader, the servant of God, for David
The sin of wicked people tells my heart
That there is no fear of God in their eyes;
For in their own eyes they look good
Until their vile crimes are detected.
The words of their mouths are crime and deception,
They have abandoned wisdom and good deeds,
Plot crimes in their beds,
Take up position on the road of no-goodness,
Do not turn away from evil.
Lord, your lovingkindness is as high as the heavens
Your faithfulness touches the clouds.
Your justice is like the mighty mountains
Your judgements like the great deep.
Humankind and wild beasts, Lord, are in your care.
God, how precious your lovingkindness is:
Adam’s children can shelter in the shade of your wings;
They take their fill of the fat of your house;
You let them drink from the river of your delights.
For the spring of life is with you;
In your light, we see light.
Lengthen your lovingkindness to those who know you
And your justice to honest hearts.
Do not let arrogant feet trample me
Nor wicked hands remove me from my place.
There the evildoers have fallen;
They have been thrown down
And could not rise again.
This is a wisdom psalm with a difference for usually the contrast is made between the good and the wicked, the wise and the foolish; whereas here the contrast is between the evil of wicked people and the goodness of God. This is justified by the description of evildoers who set themselves up in arrogant opposition to God. These are not people to whose better nature you might appeal. They are committed to getting what they want by any means and have no fear of punishment. In spite of their actions they maintain a good opinion of themselves: they are doing well, thank you; they are respectable citizens until their crimes are exposed.
The psalms are not mealy-mouthed about this kind of person. Our greedy bankers, vicious CEO’s, fundamentalist killers, and violent criminal thugs, are simply designated as evil people whose rebellion against the goodness of creation will be their downfall, sooner or later. The key phrase is that “they take up position on the road of no-goodness”, which means that they have made a choice about where they want to be now, which will inevitably lead them further into evil in the future.
God’s goodness by contrast fills all the dimensions of the universe: lovingkindness and faithfulness rise into the heights; justice occupies the solid earth; judgement reaches into very depths of chaos. All creatures, including the evildoers, are within the comprehensive provision of God’s goodness. Wise people know this and value the protection of God as chicks under the wings of the mother bird. Committed to God’s wisdom, they are able to enjoy all the goodness of the created world. The word “fat” stands for the totality of all nourishment, the “river of delights” for the constant fruitfulness of life. Yes, these belong in God’s House, the Temple, but we should remember that the temple itself is only a miniature model of the whole creation, teaching its devotees how to enjoy God’s gifts. In God’s light (The light of his face, his smile) his faithful ones see light (the clarity of God’s goodness in the world). This passage is a powerful and beautiful expression of the heart of Jewish faith.
It is typical of this faith that it does not gloss over the fate of the evildoers; their power is broken, they are put down, and will not get up. Jewish wisdom believed that over time, virtue would be rewarded and evil punished, by the way God’s world worked. It took the author of the book of Job to challenge this belief, substituting a vision of God’s creative justice as beyond all human comprehension. Christian faith adds the revelation of God’s own suffering in the suffering of his human son and in all his children, while still keeping alive the hope of saving goodness that rescues all who want to be rescued and leaves those who refuse it in the darkness they have chosen.