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The Scourge that Lays Waste

There are times when it seems like the Psalms are trying to talk themselves into something. Into a certain view of the world and how it works. Into a formula for avoiding suffering and attaining blessing. I know the right answer on the theology test is that the Psalms are the prayer book of the church and that they give us a language of prayer for the life of faith, but sometimes the Psalms just sound tone-deaf, at best, and utterly false and misleading at worst.

Take the words that greeted me in my morning prayers today, for example.

Those who dwell in the shelter of the Most High, and abide in the shade of the Almighty say to the Lord: “My refuge, my stronghold, my God in whom I trust!”

It is God who will free you from the snare of the fowler who seeks to destroy you; God will conceal you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge.

You will not fear the terror of the night nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the plague that prowls in the darkness nor the scourge that lays waste at noon.

A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand fall at your right, you, it will never approach; God’s faithfulness is buckler and shield.

Your eyes have only to look  to see how the wicked are repaid, you who have said, “Lord, my refuge!” and have made the Most High your dwelling.

Upon you no evil shall fall; no plague approach where you dwell.

Needless to say, these were not the words that my groggy, corona-weary ears needed to hear first thing this morning. These words sound a bit naïve at the best of times. They sound downright irresponsible during a time of pandemic. No evil shall befall the one who is faithful? Thousands will fall by your side, but you’ll be just fine because God’s on your side? The wicked are the ones who suffer while the righteous get a free pass (just open your eyes and look around! Duh!)? This sounds like precisely the kind of reckless theology that leads pastors to keep their (often quite large) churches open and teeming with parishioners, despite public pleas to physically distance ourselves from one another to combat our approaching plague.

And never mind the public health effects that such psalms might have—how do these words sound in the privacy of our own hearts and minds? You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the plague that prowls in the darkness, nor the scourge that lays waste at noon? So what does it say about us and our faith if we are a little afraid of the plague that prowls and the scourge that lays waste? What does it say about us if the plague is rapidly advancing upon the places we dwell?

Or, how about Psalm 26, from Maundy Thursday’s entry in the same prayer book:

Give judgment for me, O Lord, for I walk the path of perfection. I trust in the Lord; I have not wavered…

I never take my place with liars and with hypocrites I shall not go. I hate the evildoer’s company; I will not take my place with the wicked.

To prove my innocence I wash my hands and take my place around your altar, singing a song of thanksgiving, proclaiming all your wonders.

“Look at me,” the psalmist seems to be saying, “I’ve done all the right things, I love the right things, hate the right things! I’ve washed my hands! I’ve sung your praises with sufficient vigour!” The subtext seems to be, “So, I’ll be ok, right? You’ll spare me from the common lot of human suffering. Right?”

(An interesting aside, it’s fascinating to observe the shape our public moralizing takes in the time of pandemic. We broadcast the fact that we’re staying home, that we’re washing our hands sufficiently, that we’re wearing a mask, that we’re protecting the vulnerable, etc. We shame and ridicule those whose piety does not attain the heights of our own. We may not be trying to curry favour with God, but it certainly seems like we’re bargaining with something or someone!)

I suspect that in our more honest moments, most of us would admit that we wished the world and God worked like these Psalms seem to say they do. Righteousness = protection and wickedness = infection. We wish that there was a straight line between our piety and avoiding the plague. We wish that good things happened to good people and bad things happened to bad people and we could tie up the whole package in a nice bow and be done with it. But our eyes actually have seen a thing or two and they’ve noticed that this isn’t how the world works or how God works.

The Psalms know this, too, of course. Roughly two thirds of the Psalter gives expression to some form of lament at the injustice of the world. Evidently the ancient Israelites and the church that has used their prayer book ever since had more than a passing acquaintance with the indiscriminate nature of suffering. Why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer? Why are you silent? Are you asleep? Where are you? Rise, do something? Can’t you see that your people need you! The Psalms give us this kind of language for our prayers, too. Thank God.

And Christians should know better than any that this is not how God works. We are days away from Holy Week, the time of the year when Christians around the world once again fix their gaze upon our founding narrative and the source of our hope. It is the story of God as innocent victim, God as pious sufferer. It is the story of God who prays to avoid the pain but has to face it anyway. It is the story of God stubbornly taking his place with liars and keeping company with evildoers to the end. It is the story of God being laid waste at noon by the scourge of our plague.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Johnston #

    The tone-deafness and utterly false and misleading behaviors might just be yours.

    Seriously, Ryan what do you know of God compared to what psalmists and prophets of ancient times knew and had the audacity to declare. Name just one thought of yours written here, just one thought, of all the thoughts you’ve written, over all the years that you have written them, that you can claim God gave to you as, Word.

    Not words and quotes that please your intellectual and/or moral sensibilities but words you can claim unequivocally came from God to you, for you to share with God’s people?

    And if God doesn’t give you words to speak, what makes you think he entitles you to preach on His behalf?

    April 3, 2020
  2. David #

    Wow Paul! You suggest that you have read the Psalms but apparently not “Judge not that ye be not judged.” Thanks, Ryan, for a thoughtful piece.

    April 4, 2020
    • Glad the piece resonated, David. Thank you.

      April 4, 2020
    • Paul Johnston #

      How do you see my response as, “Judgement” David? I do not, but very likely how we define the word can lead us to draw different conclusions. I will not persue that line of thought here but will respond thoughtfully to any response you wish to make in that regard.

      As for us as followers in the here and now, the questions I put to Ryan are the same I would put to you, the same I put to me, the same I would put to any one who dares to speak on behalf of the kingdom, at any time, in any place.

      “Fear of the Lord” is the starting point of all understanding and by extension the foundation of all service in His name.

      Anyone who uses the adjectives, “tone deaf, false and misleading” to describe the author’s of sacred scripture speaks heresy. I say so because I have discerned it to be so by the will of God. It please him that I say it is so, I would share the in the sin if I did not rebuke, Ryan for speaking in this manner. I claim prophetic Word in this regard. You are free to make of that statement what you will.

      My first concern is not to offend God. My second concern is to warn a brother and or any other brothers and sisters who would speak similarly.

      Clearly my judgement here, my understanding, my discernment is different from yours. Speak to me how God informs your understanding and I will listen. The ego is always at mischief with the self. My understanding here may be incomplete and might require a Word through you to broaden it.

      I have faith that if you do speak truly, I will recognize the Spirit and deepen my understanding. I 🙏

      April 5, 2020
      • The Spirit tells me that wrestling with the apparent gap between the words of Psalm 91 and the world of human experience is an example of what we see in Scripture itself. Job struggled mightily with a worldview that said that good people get good things and bad people get bad things. The prophetic witness of prioritizing justice and mercy at the expense of ritual observance and the Deuteronomic theology of the priestly tradition (obedience = blessings; disobedience = curses; ritual observance = protection; failure to do so = trouble) sometimes seem at odds with one another (or, at the very least, in conversational tension). And, of course, the Spirit directs me to Jesus who upends time-honoured biblical interpretations and who inhabits the Hebrew Scriptures in ways that would have seemed scandalous at the time (and still do). The Spirit tells me that engaging with the Bible in this way is not only permissible but can be a sign of integrity and honest faith.

        (And note well that I said “apparent,” just like I uses words like “seems” and “sounds like” throughout my post to underscore the fact that I am speaking about how Psalm 91 sounds at this time and place, not rendering some kind of theological judgment that the words are false or uninspired or that my words are better or whatever other bewildering assumption you seem to be making.)

        The Spirit tells me that God is not offended or affronted by the earnest attempt to understand how a passage that seems to speak inaccurately about how God and the world actually work. The Spirit forces me to acknowledge that the righteous do suffer and the wicked do prosper—that faithful obedience does not guarantee (and has never guaranteed) that the plague will not approach where we live.

        (It’s interesting that in your initial comment you didn’t engage with the substance of my post and chose to attack the implicit view of Scripture that you believe it demonstrated or my own worthiness to speak publicly as a result. Do you think that Psalm 91 reflects reality accurately? How? Do you think it is possible that this Psalm takes its place among all the others in reflecting the full range of human hopes, fears, expectation, joys, and sorrows honestly before God without having to bear the weight of speaking the only and final word upon how God and suffering go together?)

        The Spirit tells me that God would rather that we seek to interpret Scripture in light of our experience honestly, and acknowledging that we could be wrong, rather than blithely sailing past apparent contradictions or difficulties for the sake of preserving some kind of pristine piety.

        The Spirit reminds me of the many conversations I have had with people over the years who express gratitude when I acknowledge these difficulties and tensions publicly as an act of faith, rather than ignoring them or making it seem like faithful people don’t ever have questions.

        The Spirit tells me that you throw around words like “heresy” far too easily, condemn too casually, and lack humility in your judgment of a Christian brother.

        So, evidently the Spirit seems to be saying different things to us. What now?

        April 5, 2020
  3. Paul Johnston #

    What I have told you, I have always told you, in love, for love. May your conversion, as well as mine, continue to deepen.

    Don’t be so hard on the psalmists, they did not know Christ. They sought to avoid material suffering and death, thinking it was the pinnacle of God’s love for them. Little did they know of eternity and everlasting life in communion with the King of Creation and the Lamb. Had they known they would have readily traded the former for the latter. They had a commitment to our faith that ought to shame us.

    Why some might even call us tone-deaf, misleading and utterly false by comparison.

    April 7, 2020
    • You should look at this comment and your first comment side by side and see which one of them more accurately reflects the tone of “in love and for love.”

      For what it’s worth, I prefer this one. Instead of hurling insults and assumptions, you make a good point that is worthy of reflection.

      April 7, 2020
      • Paul Johnston #

        There is a fine line between rebuke (love) and insult, to be sure…assumptions are measured by their reasonableness or lack there of, we all make them and will continue to do so. Sometimes a reasonable assumption is all you’ve got.

        If there are grounds for what is perceived as insult, I do better to perceive it as rebuke. Closer to God I think, if I prioritize what could very well speak a necessary truth to me, rather than I focus on my ruffled/hurt feelings.

        Still, you give me something to reflect on also. Divorcing ego/pride from Spirit/grace is no trifling matter. Prayer and peacefulness before speaking of God’s word….always….I believe. 🙂

        And I can always do better in this regard.

        April 7, 2020

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