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 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.