Read: Psalm 36
Your steadfast love, O LORD, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your judgments are like the great deep; you save humans and animals alike, O LORD (Psalm 36:5-6, NRSV).
My grandmother had a favorite phrase that she only used while cleaning the house. When confronted with a forgotten corner of the refrigerator or a neglected closet, she would wrinkle her nose and dub it a “den of iniquity.”
It’s a useful phrase that the author of Psalm 36 would have appreciated. Indeed, when we pry open the door of Psalm 36, all manner of wickedness spills out at our feet. It’s such a mess, one wonders whether anyone will ever be able to clean it up.
The psalmist pictures sin whispering into the ear of the wicked, who are only too open to suggestion. They have no fear of God, and they flatter themselves into believing that their deeds will never be discovered. “The words of their mouths are mischief and deceit; they have ceased to act wisely and to do good” (v. 3). They lie awake at night dreaming up vile things to do the next day.
Does this description remind you of anyone? While I hesitate to mention any names, I have to admit, these verses do make me think of certain politicians who can always be counted on to do the wrong thing. I read the headlines each morning and wonder, “Seriously? Did you lie awake at night concocting that tweet—that policy—that lie?”
If Psalm 36 is any indication, this is not a new problem. (Except for the tweeting. I suppose that part is new.) Wickedness—whether in the form of individuals or systems—has always loomed large, and the faithful of every age have cowered beneath it and been tempted to despair.
The psalmist is not naïve about the problem, but he/she is quick to put it in perspective. Wickedness may loom large, but God’s steadfast love looms a lot larger. In fact, it extends to the heavens. God’s faithfulness reaches to the clouds. God’s righteousness is like the mighty mountains.
That mountain metaphor is particularly powerful for me these days, perched as I am on the side of a mountain in the Cottian Alps. Some days the mountains are crystal clear, and it’s easy to see why the psalmist would choose them as symbols of God’s towering righteousness. But even on a misty morning, one knows they are there—steadfast and immovable, beautiful and dangerous. The people who live here know not to mess with them.
There is great comfort in this, of course, as the psalm goes on to say. But I wonder if comfort may not be the only take-away. How might we read this psalm differently if we acknowledged that some of the wickedness dwells within us?
It’s hard not to ask that question when racial tensions call our attention to the virus that has plagued the USA for a lot longer than the one that’s causing the current pandemic. How, then, should we read the prayer at the end of Psalm 36?
O continue your steadfast love to those who know you, and your salvation to the upright of heart!
Do not let the foot of the arrogant tread on me, or the hand of the wicked drive me away.
There the evildoers lie prostrate; they are thrust down, unable to rise.
This reversal at the end of the psalm is brutal—especially with the image of George Floyd’s murder so fresh in our minds. It presents us with a promise that all manner of wickedness will someday be punished—that the brutal will feel the effects of their own brutality. But if some of that wickedness is inside of us, then there is less comfort here than confrontation.
It is fun to mock the pretentions of the wicked, until we realize that there is a “den of iniquity” somewhere within all of us. First we have to see it. Then we need to get someone to help us clean it up. Maybe we should look for Someone whose righteousness is as high as the mountains.
Ponder this question from Denise Kingdom Grier: “What’s the secret sauce that permits hatred of injustice and ‘it’s too controversial’ to co-habitate?”
Pray: Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting (Psalm 139:23-24).
Listen to Dan Forrest’s arrangement of the hymn, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” for choir, brass, percussion, and orchestra. The visuals in this mix make the most of the mountain metaphor.
“The View from Here” Series
As many of you know, I am spending my sabbatical in Italy. After living for several months in the heart of Rome, I recently made a move to the mountains. (The Italian side of the Cottian Alps, to be precise—southwest of Turin and very close to the French border.) The transition was tricky, what with the pandemic and Italy’s tight restrictions on travel. But I am grateful for the spectacular change of scenery after being locked down in a two-room apartment. While the view has changed, I will continue to offer what I hope is a unique perspective on Italy—and the world—right now.
And yes—the picture above really is the place where I am living. Now you know why I’m calling this series, “The View from Here.” I hope that you will be able to enjoy that view vicariously, as well as some of the deep peace of this place.