Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Psalm 5 — The Holiness of God and the Power of Words

When you see the evildoers planning to lie in wait for you, and you wish your prayer to be heard, get up at dawn and say Psalm 5.
Athanasius, On the Interpretation of the Psalms 15

There is an emphasis on the power of words here which really struck me — from the beginning where the psalmist beseeches, "Hear my words, O Lord" and toward the end where the enemies' mouths are compared to an open sepulchre.

Jewish sepulchre, 1st century

 5:1 Hear My Words, O Lord

God Weighs Our Words, and So Should We. Asterius the Homilist. God judges your cry: whether you have cried out against anyone unjustly, whether you have trumpeted unjust anger with your cry or whether you, overcome with such wrath, have called for the striking down of the innocent, like those who stoned Stephen: "Shouting with a loud voice, they covered their ears and in one spirit united against him they rushed him." And their shout became a vehicle of murder. God, therefore tests your words ... Homilies on the Psalms

Psalms 1-50 (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture)

There is something about the shout being a vehicle of murder that really brings home how careful we should be before we speak.

5:9 An Open Sepulcher

By telling lies and employing seductive flattery, people draw to themselves those whom they entice to sin, and they swallow them, so to speak when they make them turn to their own style of life. When this happens the flatterers die through their sin, and so it is right to refer to those by whom they are drawn in as open graves; indeed they themselves are somehow lifeless in that they lack the life of truth , and they gather into themselves the dead whom they have slain by lying words and empty hearts, making their victims into copies of themselves.

St. Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms

This seems like a horror novel, doesn't it? The undead swallowing up those they have enticed to them and making them into clones? We think of slander or gossip as a fairly benign sin but this helps see below the surface to the unholy horror that can come from using words wrongly.

 5:4-6, You Are Not a God Who Takes Pleasure in Evil
5:7-8, But I By Your Great Mercy

The psalmist begins with a phrase that describes the essential nature of Yahweh from which human consequences flow: God is incompatible with evil. Where God is, evil cannot coexist. ...

It is this understanding of the essential nature of God that informs Israel's unique perception of the holiness of Yahweh. In general, the ancient Near Eastern concept of holiness was devoid of any essentially moral element. Holiness was defined by reference to the gods; to be holy was to be what the gods were. Morally, the ancient Near Eastern gods demonstrated no clear distinction from humans. they acted in anger, in lust, or for personal gain. ... Their chief distinction from humans was that they were powerful and lived forever. Thus they were considered the source of both good and evil in human experience ... often completely unrelated to any human responsibility.

Israel's understanding of the character of Yahweh broke with this longstanding tradition. As the psalmist's statements imply, Yahweh's holiness was defined by his essential character. Yahweh is eternal and powerful, but he is also essentially good and incompatible with evil. As a consequence, those who align themselves with evil will suffer the consequences of divine rejection. ...

Yahweh's holiness has two sides. Not only is it incompatible with evil, ... it is also characterized by his relentless goodness" toward his creation and those humans who live in it. ... Yahweh's holiness is not just the basis for his judgment on sin but is at the same time the foundation for his work of salvation.

Psalms Volume 1 (The NIV Application Commentary)

I do love the fact that the Hebrew worldview is reflected so thoroughly in something like this psalm. Of course, it is liturgical and so should, of course, show us something of God. But I never thought of it in just this way when reading this psalm before.

Sources are here and an index of psalm posts is here

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