Monday, November 2, 2015

Lord, May Your Extravant and Loyal Love Continue: Learning to Pray Psalm 36

Psalm 36 offers two ways of life. The way of the wicked (36:1–4) and one rooted in the love of God (36:5–9). These pathways stand in stark contrast. These contrasting portraits of life exist side–by–side in our prayer without any transition between the two. We’ve encountered the two ways in a couple of ways already during our study. Pss 1 and 146 described the ways of the righteous and the ways of the wicked. We’ve also see the voice of the psalmist through the lament psalms claiming personal innocence and connection with God. Ps 36 enriches and deepens these previous black and white modes of thinking. Ps 36 invites those who will learn to pray it to take a look inside and decide whether to align with a life rooted in self or with the expansive love of the LORD.

I have a message from God in my heart
    concerning the sinfulness of the wicked:
There is no fear of God
    before their eyes.
In their own eyes they flatter themselves
    too much to detect or hate their sin.
The words of their mouths are wicked and deceitful;
    they fail to act wisely or do good.
Even on their beds they plot evil;
    they commit themselves to a sinful course
    and do not reject what is wrong.
Your love, Lord, reaches to the heavens,
    your faithfulness to the skies.
Your righteousness is like the highest mountains,
    your justice like the great deep.
    You, Lord, preserve both people and animals.
How priceless is your unfailing love, O God!
    People take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house;
    you give them drink from your river of delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
    in your light we see light.
10 Continue your love to those who know you,
    your righteousness to the upright in heart.
11 May the foot of the proud not come against me,
    nor the hand of the wicked drive me away.
12 See how the evildoers lie fallen—
    thrown down, not able to rise! (NIV)

Verse 1 announces that the psalmist has received a message from God. The psalmist shares the content of this message in vv. 1–4. It is a description of what drives a persons to commit sin. The vocabulary of sin and evil is rich in vv. 1–4. English translations struggle to capture the nuances. The psalmist uses just about every Hebrew word for sin available to paint a broad and jarring picture of life apart from faithfulness and love.

Verse 1b roots sin in a lack of fear or dread of God. What is lacking in the a person who embraces the way of wickedness and rebellion is a sense of one’s place in creation. We might say that the person needs a “reality check.” God does not desire us to be terrified of him. Instead, we are to show a respect and submission to God as ruler and judge of creation. The wicked live without regard for any force, person, or power outside of themselves.

Verse 2 continues the description. We find the second occurrence of “eyes.” This points to the cause of sin. The wicked justify their actions apart from any external reference point. We would call this being self-centered. The heart of sin is living out of our own thoughts, plans, will, and talents. When we set our own standards and are accountable only to ourselves, we lose the ability and self-awareness to detect our brokenness and sinful desires. When this reality manifests itself in the masses, chaos ensues as every individual act only out of self-interest rather than in a way of life shaped by a love for God and others.

Verses 3–4 focus on the mess created by unfiltered and unbridled self-will and self-centeredness. There is a loss of wise living and speaking. A sense of the common good is nowhere to be found. Their plans and intentions flow out of their selfishness. This makes it impossible for them to walk in a good pathway. If there is a choice for good or evil, they gravitate toward the way of wickedness.

If verses 1–4 paint picture of self-centered human ugliness, the portrait found in vv. 5–9 is stunning in its description of the beauty and majesty of God. There are two ways of living described in Psalm 36, but there is really no choice. Read through verses 5–9 again. The imagery is breath-taking. When we close our eyes and imagine how we would describe a good and kind God, it would be a challenge to exceed the wondrous description in these five verses.

First, the psalmist addresses God personally as “LORD” for the initial time in this psalm. The psalmist does not want us to forget that he is not talking some generic god. He is talking about the LORD.

Then, the psalmist voices four core attributes of God (vv. 5-6a): love, faithfulness, righteousness, and justice. The stress is on the breadth and immensity of these. The LORD possesses an immeasurable and limitless quantity of them. The God to whom we pray acts out of a loyal love that is faithful to all of God’s commitments and relationships. God always does the right thing at the right time every time. These virtues and attributes describe the world that God is bringing about through his mission. Notice the focus on relational qualities. Love, faithfulness, righteousness, and justice all manifest themselves in relationships between God and others. This is the exact opposite of the mode of life of the wicked. Their focus is on self; the LORD’s focus is on good of creation.

Verse 6b declares the full implication of the LORD’s love, faithfulness, righteousness, and justice. Our translation reads, “You, LORD, preserve both people and animals.” The word preserve is more often translated save or deliver. The LORD is a god who preserves and/or saves people and animals. God’s commitment to relational wholeness means that God cares about people and animals.

This truth is life-giving. “Unfailing love” is the same word as “love” in v. 5. This is the core dimension of the God of Scripture. It is affirmed in both Old and New Testaments that God is love (cf. Exod 34:6 and 1 John 4:16). Humanity can find true refuge and protection in the “shadow of your wings.” This is a reference to the Jerusalem temple. This does not mean that God’s protection is confined to one place. The temple is a symbol of God’s refuge that is universally available to all who know him.

Verses 8–9 emphasize the extravagant abundance available to those who seek refuge in the LORD. The vocabulary invites us to imagine that we are feasting and drinking at God’s table. The portions are endless and the very best that are available. If the portrait of wickedness is dark and pointless, the abundance of God is about life and light. The LORD is love. Life as God intends is beautiful and rich. In John 10:10 Jesus puts it this way, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

The psalmist now reaches the point of decision. Up to this point, Ps 36 has described two distinct and contrasting ways of living.

Vv. 1–4 center life on decisions and whims of each individual. In the world of verses 1–4, there is a temptation to believe falsely that each man or woman can cut his or her own path through the world as he or she pleases. This is the root of idolatry and injustice. The biblical vision for authentic living flows out of a love for God, people and all creation. In other words, life moves away from self to focus on relationships. Sin and wickedness results from attempting to shape the world to serve and please us. This is what self-centeredness mean. We attempt to live as God. To work out of this framework is to work against the beautiful and just world that God desires and is working to create.

Vv. 5–9 offer a robust and stunning counter-cultural alternative to the way of the wicked. This way of life centers on the one true God–the LORD. The LORD embodies and models relational wholeness by acting in love, faithfulness, righteousness, and justice. God’s mission involves saving and preserving all life. God offers all creation security in the present and for all eternity.

So the question turns to us who pray Ps 36? In what mode of living will we find our center? Is life all about us? Or does true life arise out of a dynamic relationship with the LORD of Love, faithfulness, righteousness, and justice? At some level this decision is obvious. But will we consciously take this decision and align our lives with the LORD.

In verses 10–12 the psalmist models a prayer in favor of the way of the LORD of Infinite Love. Verse 10 makes the psalmist choice clear. He recognizes the LORD’s way and asks the LORD to continue to cause love and righteousness to abound for those in relationship with the LORD. In other words, he prays, “LORD, continue to be God of abundance that you revealed to me in vv. 5–9.”

This is a counter-cultural choice and remains so today. It is risky to live freely for the sake of others. To privilege a love for God and neighbor over the self-centeredness of the modern (and ancient) world puts us into a position where we can be hurt, used, or manipulated by those who choose the pathway of self-will (vv. 1–4). This is the reason that Ps 36 shifts to a pray for protection from the wicked in vv. 11–12. This is not a prayer against the world as much as it is a prayer for those who desires to live a self-giving life of love and justice in alignment with the character of God (vv. 5–9) and modeled by Jesus in the Gospels. The goal of our witness is to invite the world to experience this truest expression of human life.

© 2015 Brian D. Russell

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