Calvary Psalms: God, Death & Judgment
In Anglican spirituality, it is part of the regular pattern of worship to read aloud the Psalms; they are printed in the prayer book for easy access. There are some confronting passages in the psalms, especially those that are called imprecatory psalms, and in some older versions of the prayer book those parts that seemed harsh were printed with brackets around them, making the saying of those parts optional. Christians at times approach life and thought about life that way – we put brackets around the “unthinkable” and “unspeakable.” We bracket out God’s involvement in difficult and troublesome events. We only want a God of good things. We try to tame God.
And behind that we are also trying to avoid, to bracket out, some truths about ourselves. We like to see ourselves like Holbein’s ambassadors – out in the world, making a mark, gaining knowledge and competence, doing generally good, growing in stature. But the death’s head is still in the picture – even if we’ve bracketed it out, are not looking at it at the right angle and it seems like some strange enigma.
There is none of this bracketing out in this psalm. This psalm is searingly honest about the reality of death. But it does not simply pass off death as a sad reality that happens despite God’s best wishes. It is searingly honest that death happens because God Himself returns human beings to the dust (vv. 3-6.) “Death is not a matter of man’s paying his debt to nature. God has a hand in it…” And it is searingly honest as to why God returns humanity to the dust – it is His judgment on our sins, it is the expression of His anger and wrath for our turning from Him (vv. 7-9.) “Life could not be the futile thing it is if God were not thoroughly displeased with man. No other force could reduce life to the level on which it is lived.”
We do well to learn – to seek God to teach us – to consider the power of God’s wrath, to number our days, and, so, to get a heart of wisdom (vv. 10-12.). This searing and searching honesty about the matter is possible only because this God who acts this way in the world is the faithful God of covenant. The judgments of God on human sin are the judgments of mercy. This God who judges the world is the God in whom humanity have lived and moved and had our being all our history (vv. 1-2.)
And so knowing that moves us to the first step on the journey of wisdom – the prayer that God would renew us in the reality of His steadfast love and that the favour of God would be upon us (vv. 13-17.)