Thursday, January 7, 2016

The moral order of the universe

On today, the seventh day of the year, a meditation on the seventh psalm.

One of things I've noticed, as I've been reading through the psalms, is that they presuppose a certain understanding of the moral structure of the universe. First of all, there is God, who is judge over the earth, and who can be petitioned to enact justice, to protect victims, and so on. He maintains the moral order, and the threat of punishment functions as a motivation for upright living. Then there are people themselves, some of whom are righteous and others of whom are wicked. The former have a favorable relationship with God, whereas the latter do not.

In Ps 7, we find David petitioning God for protection from his enemies. His principal reason for which God should protect him is this: judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me (v. 8). David is even willing to put his life on the line in defense of his own righteousness:

O Lord my God, if I have done this,
  if there is wrong in my hands,
if I have repaid my ally with harm
  or plundered my foe without cause,
then let the enemy pursue and overtake me,
  trample my life to the ground,
  and lay my soul in the dust (vv. 3-5).

Of course, the entire psalm is a petition to God to save him, so he doesn't imagine that this will actually take place. Rather, he is confident that God will see things clearly: David is in the right, and his enemies are in the wrong; therefore God must side with David.

As for the wicked, God himself will ensure that justice is met:

If one does not repent, God will whet his sword;
  he has bent and strung his bow;
he has prepared his deadly weapons,
  making his arrows fiery shafts.
See how they conceive evil,
  and are pregnant with mischief,
  and bring forth lies.
They make a pit, digging it out,
  and fall into the hole that they have made.
Their  mischief returns upon their own heads,
  and on their own heads their violence descends (vv. 12-16).

Yet, this confidence in the justice of God masks the real situation. David wouldn't have needed to write this psalm and put together this petition, if things were obviously going to be taken care of. The fact of the petition itself demonstrates that reality needed to be interpreted: when it seemed otherwise to him, David needed to be sure that things were not spiraling wildly out of control; he needed to reaffirm his conviction that the Lord rules over the earth, and therefore we can count on justice.

In other words, the psalm's theological assertions are an act of faith. David, out of his trust for God in a situation that seems to suggest otherwise, maintains with faithfulness that God will take care of the righteous in a world seemingly run by the wicked. So he ends his prayer with faith with thanksgiving:

I will give to the Lord the thanks due to his righteousness,
  and sing praise to the name of the Lord, the Most High (v. 17).

Probably Christ learned about prayer with faith by reading the psalms. The psalms regularly end their songs with the convinced, faithful consolation that the Lord will hear their prayer and that things will be made right. Though the circumstances of the psalmist never suggested it, yet out of their relationship with God, my God, the psalmists were convinced that they could trust God to grant them what they asked.

This is true for us, also: following this biblical example, we ought to pray that God work justice in the world -- if we can be convinced, of course, that we are in the right; otherwise, we ought to pray for forgiveness. And we ought to pray with faith and conviction that God will answer us, even if circumstances suggest otherwise.

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