Sinners, judgment, and fear in Psalms 25

I knew something was missing from my spiritual rhythm the last two weeks and this morning I realized what it was: Wednesday morning prayer, which a very small group of dedicated prayer warriors celebrates together each Wednesday at 8:30 am. In addition to liturgical and extemporaneous prayer, we always read a psalm responsively as part of our routine. Two months ago, this small prayer meeting got flat-out Pentecostal. For a month after that, the Spirit was breathing all over the place every time I opened the Bible. I went through a dry spell for a month and a half largely because of my lack of discipline but the breath of God came roaring back today as we read Psalm 25 and encountered sinners, judgment, and fear in a quite surprising form.

I was drawn to three verses of Psalm 25 in particular. First, verse 8: “Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.” This is such a beautiful depiction of God’s patient compassion as a teacher. The word for sinners, חטאים, carries the connotation of a boundary that has been violated. The Greek word for sin αμαρτία, in contrast, means simply missing the mark. In the Hebrew חטא we’re not just talking about vices that make people miss the bullseye but trespasses in which a violation or even violence has occurred and a debt has been accrued.

So how does God respond to these violators? Not like the Roman goddess Iustitia who shapes the Western European conception of justice with her scales and blindfolds, dispassionately assessing exacting mathematical penalties. God is rather a loving teacher who “instructs sinners.” Our lives are filled with cold, faceless bureaucrats who say on the phone, “Sorry. It’s nothing personal. We just have to follow the policy,” when we call them pleading for leniency with parking tickets, incorrectly filed insurance claims, late utility bills, and so forth. But God is nothing like that. Why? Because He is “good and upright.” I love the “therefore” in that next sentence, as if to say that it should be self-evident that a “good and upright God” looks upon our sin as a teacher who values learning over punishment.

Verse 9 seems to anticipate a discomfort that might be in our minds about God’s response to sin not feeling robust enough: “He guides the humble in judgment; and he teaches the humble his way.” The word for humble ענוים shares the root ענה with the word for “answer” or “report back.” A humble sinner is one who faces and bears the shame of answering God’s question: “Why did you do what I told you not to do?” An insolent sinner who talks back and self-justifies is not going to receive God’s patient instruction, but God will teach and correct humble, clumsy boundary violators all day.

Look at the way “judgment” is used in verse 9. It is a measure of the ethical nihilism of evangelical Christianity that “judgment” has come to have a purely negative connotation for us as something that Jesus died to rescue is from (instead of something Jesus’ blood empowers us to receive with dignity). One of the more asinine linguistic games I’ve heard is the attempt to make an extra-Biblical distinction between “judgment” as God’s punitive everlasting wrath against the unsaved and “discipline” as God’s pedagogical use of difficult circumstances to teach His people. Well in Hebrew, the judgment/justice of משפט is always something we want and it’s something that the holder of infinitely perfect mishpat is willing to teach us. God judges us because He wants us to be people with good judgment.

The last verse that caught my eye was 14: “The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him; and he will reveal to them his covenant.” What a strange thing to say! God befriends those who fear Him. It’s only if we understand the Biblical meaning of fear that this makes any sense. I have written about my journey of understanding Biblical fear. It’s not dread; it’s wonder. It’s the realization that God is not a metaphysical construct invented to anchor an ideological system but rather a strange, living, infinite Someone who is always talking to us. To fear the Lord is to expect Him to make unpredictable things happen that might cause you to tremble.

It’s not self-evident to fear God in a world of science. Before modernity, natural disasters were reasons to dread God and not just be awestruck by Him. But nowadays it’s very easy to ignore the Creator who never stops creating realities around us all of which we plug into that comprehensive explanatory system that we call “nature.” But if you listen for the whisper of יהוה, whose name is the sound of wind, and if you search for that whisper beneath the rude world’s cacophony with fear and trembling, then God will let you be His friend.

The word סוד which the NRSV translates as “friendship” is rendered by the Jewish Tanakh as “counsel.” The connotation is that God lets those who fear Him into His circle of trust to share the secrets of His heart. It’s interesting that here God’s “covenant” is something that He only “reveals” to His trusted friends. I am used to thinking of covenant as a very clear public agreement. If that were the case, why would it have to be something that is revealed? Perhaps ברית means more than just a public agreement. Could it be the deeper wisdom beneath the pacts of God that He only shares with those who have reached a certain level of intimacy with Him? It remains a mystery but it gives me more respect for the word covenant to think that it contains the possibility of mystery.

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