An Ethics of Presence & Virtue (Psalms 9-11)

Hands of hopeAs I worked my way through the early chapters of the Psalms, it seemed to me that Psalms 9-11 had a different character to those which had preceded them. Certainly they retained common features of devotion, and a common theological stance, affirming the sovereignty of God and the necessity of human faithfulness and trust. Nevertheless, it seemed that they encouraged ethical reflection, providing a moral vision for how the people of God are to conduct their lives in the midst of a hostile environment.

Perhaps the editors of the Psalter intentionally placed these psalms after Psalm 8 in which humanity is portrayed in exalted terms, crowned with glory and honour. I noted, in my exposition of Psalm 9, that the theme of the psalm concerns humanity in its fallen state, humanity without God and against God, and so humanity that perpetrates injustice, violence and oppression. Thus the psalmist cries out that God would arise and establish his sovereignty, that he would judge the oppressor and remember the afflicted. In New Testament terms, it is as though the psalmist is praying, Thy Kingdom Come!

Psalm 10 continues this theme. It suggests that without God and without ‘spirit’ there will be no enduring justice or peace. The pride, greed and violence of the wicked emerges from a practical atheism which lives according to the dictum, “there is no God.” The psalm suggests that a godless secularity will always issue in a brutal world of violence, abuse and uncaring consumption. The man who is of the earth is one who brings terror into the lives of others. And so the dialogue partners in Psalm 11 plaintively ask, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”

In the modern west we excel at doing. When threatening circumstances arise we want to do something. We like to react or respond, take charge and take control. We want to be busy, to enact building programmes and preventative strategies against the failing foundations and those who are destroying them. And to be fair, I would rather have a bias toward action than a craven passivity that fears to do anything.

Or perhaps the righteous should take the counsel of the psalmist’s dialogue partners: “Flee as a bird to your mountain!” Instead of taking charge, and instead of doing nothing, perhaps we should flee, seeking refuge in safe places, protecting and delivering ourselves from evil. Maybe we can relocate to safer suburbs and more pleasant environments. It may be possible to put a safe distance between ourselves and the spreading evil. Surely firmer and more enduring foundations are to be found elsewhere?

But David rejects the prescription of his advisors: “In the Lord I take refuge; how can you say to my soul, ‘Flee as bird to your mountain?’” Even in the face of threatening conditions and dangerous circumstances David is convinced that the Lord reigns, that God will ‘arise’ to judge the wicked and put an end to their evil. And so David trusts and David stays.

Together, these psalms commend an ethics of presence and virtue. That is, they provide the people of God with a vision of life and instruction for uncertain times. How should we live? What should we do? What is God’s will for us now, in these circumstances? The role of ethics is to help us find answers to these kinds of questions.

What, then, is the positive vision of life in these psalms for the people of God? First, the psalms present a vision of hope in the present and eschatological triumph of God. This in turn generates faith and trust, and so prayer, patience and courage. Second, the psalms present a picture of God’s character as one who is merciful and just, who favours the vulnerable and lowly, the oppressed and afflicted, and who stands against the violence and pride of the wicked. Third, the psalms hold forth the promise that God will indeed be a refuge and stronghold for his own people, and that they shall experience his protection and reward; the Lord loves righteousness and the righteous will behold his face. Finally, the psalms presuppose a faithful community, the community which preserves and sings these psalms and prays these prayers and remembers these promises and lives this hope.

What, then, might this positive vision of life look like? I will unpack this a little more in Tuesday’s post.

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