Another Look at How a Christian Reads the Psalms (and the rest of the Bible)
My friend Jeff asked a really good question about this post from last week. Specifically, he gently challenged the notion that OT saints didn’t (or couldn't) have the same level of awareness of their sinfulness as we do. I had written:
…these men and women didn’t have Romans 7 or Ephesians 2 to help them understand how truly awful they are without Jesus. Thus, we should not expect them to have the same level of intimacy with the wretchedness in their own heart as we have, viewing it through the lens of these later Scriptures.
In response, Jeff asked, “Even without the New Testament, shouldn’t these people have had a good grasp of their own sin anyway just from what they could read in their own Scriptures?”
It’s a great question especially when we remember that, when Paul wants to prove that the whole world is desperately sinful in the early chapters of Romans, what does he do? He quotes the Old Testament extensively! Romans 3:10-18 is a collection of OT quotations all demonstrating his point that Jews and Gentiles are alike under sin. He writes (with OT references added in parenthesis):
10 as it is written: "None is righteous, no, not one;
11 no one understands; no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside;
together they have become worthless;
no one does good, not even one.” (Psalm 14:1-3)
13 “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” (Psalm 5:9)
“The venom of asps is under their lips." (Psalm 140:3)
14 "Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness." (Psalm 10:7)
15 "Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 in their paths are ruin and misery,
17 and the way of peace they have not known." (Isaiah 59:7-8)
18 "There is no fear of God before their eyes." (Psalm 36:1)
So obviously, these readers of the OT had plenty of material to show them their sinfulness. Paul sure thought so anyway! But I still contend that they failed to see the depths of their depravity clearly, even with passages like these right before their eyes. Why? Because the average believer—both Old Testament era and New Testament era alike—would read these passages and assume that these words do not apply to them.
Why not? Context. If you’re an especially diligent sort, go back and read the OT passages I referenced above, and notice who these descriptions are applied to in their original context. If you don’t have the time or the inclination to go read them all yourself, I’ll give you one example.The very last line Paul quotes is from Psalm 36:1, which says: “Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart; there is no fear of God before his eyes.” Who has no fear of God before his eyes? "The wicked.” And this example from Psalm 36 is representative of the context for every one of these OT quotations: a description of “the wicked” or “evil men” or the writer’s “enemies” or those in outright rebellion against God.
Interesting then, isn’t it, that Paul takes these passages and applies them to everybody, not just those we would traditionally consider “the wicked”? In Romans 3, Paul is writing to moralists and lechers alike. He’s got the whole world in his sights, and he’s spraying inspired buckshot from the Old Testament all over everybody! In other words, Paul calls ALL OF US the wicked, evil men, and the enemies of God.
There’s another very important lesson for us here in how to read, not just the Psalms, but the entire Bible. In every passage we read, we need to see ourselves as the wicked, blind, broken, and helpless. We are the lame man in need of healing. We are the bloody mess by the side of the road in need of a Good Samaritan. We are the harlot, the tax collector, the Pharisee, the complaining Israelites, the wicked kings of Israel. In the story of the crucifixion, I am Judas, I am Pilate, I am the religious leaders, and I am the angry mob. In Genesis, I am Cain when he murders and Abraham when he lies and Jacob when he deceives.
It is the gospel itself that tells us to read the Bible this way. Paul shows us this by how he applies these passages from the Old Testament. In essence, he is saying, “There is no fear of God in the eyes of the wicked, and that means YOU!” The gospel reminds me that I am a sinner in need of a Savior. It commends to me one attitude and one alone: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Only when I begin there can I even hope to emulate, by God’s grace, the Good Samaritan or the great King Josiah or the faith-filled harlot Rahab.
This matters to me right now because I am studying for a sermon on the story of Ananias and Sapphira, the deceivers in Acts 5 whom God struck dead for their hypocrisy. I am convinced that the first way to read this passage is to see myself as the hypocrite, and the first way to preach it is to help my church family see themselves that way, too. And then, enter the gospel of God’s grace, where not all hypocrites and liars are stuck dead (a la, Peter, who stood there with these dead people at his feet, knowing that only months earlier he himself had lied three times about being a follower of Jesus Christ! Incredible.). Breathtaking justice forms the perfect backdrop for breathtaking mercy.
All this reminds me of Caedmon Call’s great song “Mystery of Mercy”:
I am the woman at the well, I am the harlot
I am the scattered seed that fell along the path
I am the son that ran away
And I am the bitter son that stayed
I am the angry man who came to stone the lover
I am the woman there ashamed before the crowd
I am the leper that gave thanks
But I am the nine that never came
My God, my God why hast Thou accepted me
When all my love was vinegar to a thirsty King?
My God, my God why hast Thou accepted me
It's a mystery of mercy and a song, the song I sing(lyrics by Andrew Peterson and Randall Goodgame, from the album Back Home)