May 5: Psalm 36

May 5: Psalm 36

Wickedness of man and the lovingkindness of God

Common meter 86.86             Azmon (O, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing), p. 49
St. Anne
(O God, Our Help in Ages Past), p. 39
Dundee (God Works in a Mysterious Way), p. 40

An oracle is in my heart about the wicked man.

No fear of God before his eyes—in sinfulness he stands.

Because himself he flatters so in his own blinded eyes,

That he in his iniquity sees nothing to despise.

The words he utters with his mouth are wickedness and lies;

He has refrained from doing good and ceases to be wise.

His thoughts and plans upon his bed iniquity invent;

He sets himself in ways not good, from evil won’t relent.

Thy mercy, Lord, extends to heav’n; Thy faithfulness, the sky.

Thy righteousness like mountains high, Thy judgments depths defy.

Lord, Thou preservest man and beast. How precious, God, Thy grace!

Beneath the shadow of Thy wings men’s sons their trust shall place.

They with the bounty of Thy house shall be well satisfied;

From rivers full of Thy delights Thou dost their drink provide.

Because the fountain filled with life is only found with Thee;

And in that purest light of Thine we clearly light shall see.

To them that know Thee, evermore Thy lovingkindness show,

And still on men of upright heart Thy righteousness bestow.

Let not the foot of pride crush me, nor wicked hand detain.

There evildoers fall; thrust down, they cannot rise again.

Psalm 36 is a meditative prayer contrasting humanity’s wickedness with the mercy of God. The psalm commences with the sinner’s perverse delight in evil—those things traditionally called “the devices and desires of our own hearts.” People do not simply fall into evil. The psalm says that the wicked lie awake at night figuring out new ways to work evil: “He devises wickedness on his bed.” Using seven expressions (the biblical number of totality), the psalm describes the wicked one (verses 1-7). The biblical view of sin includes, not just human weakness, but human rebellion. The one here called the “lawless one” is in revolt against God. This free agent has declared his moral independence. The “fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom” is not part of his composition. In Romans 3, Paul says that we are all rebels against God. The contrast in Romans 3 is not between human evil and human goodness, but between human evil and divine mercy. This is also true of Psalm 36. Here, the characteristics of the lawless one are contrasted, not with those of a just man, but with the boundless divine mercy. This is not a psalm about human morality, but about the metaphysics of mercy. The sole cure for the rebellion in our hearts is the divine gift of mercy. Only God can heal our blindness: “For with You is the fountain of life; in Your light, we see light.” (Reardon, p. 69-70)

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