By Wes Hill
A few years ago, Episcopal priest and professor Lauren Winner wrote about how difficult it had been for her to pray the Psalms. “I must admit,” she said, “I have never much liked the psalms, they have never prayed easy to me.” She added:
It is, of course, absurd to offer this kind of jejune, self-referential assessment — what does it matter whether I like the Psalter or not, and how, really, can I find the psalms (which are, after all, both time-tested poetry and also the prayer book of the Jewish people, which is to say among other people the prayer book of Jesus) dull, but in fact I have found them dull for many years and mostly an occasion for woolgathering.
I had to look up woolgathering, which isn’t a word I use. It means “indulgence in idle daydreaming.” Winner is saying that hearing or saying the Psalms makes her eyes glaze over.
I can’t say that’s been my experience exactly, but I have had my own difficulties with the Psalms over the years, particularly ones like the psalm set for us today. Psalm 112 is the sort of psalm that readers of Scripture refer to a “psalm of innocence.” It’s about the goodness, the righteousness, the innocence of the one praying it.
“Happy are they who fear the Lord,” the psalm begins, and we’re meant to agree and, it would seem, to recognize ourselves as those who fear the Lord and experience the happiness that comes with doing so. “Light shines in the darkness for the upright,” the psalm continues; “the righteous are merciful and full of compassion.” And again, I think we’re meant to see ourselves in these phrases. Anyone who takes this psalm as a prayer is meant to identify with the “upright” and “the righteous.”
The psalm ends with a contrast between us who are praying it and other people, who are unrighteous. “[T]he righteous will be kept in everlasting remembrance,” it says, while the wicked ones “will gnash their teeth and pine away; the desires of the wicked will perish.” And that’s where the psalm ends.
For many years of my Christian life, I have struggled to pray psalms like this. I remember being in high school and beginning to study the Bible seriously for the first time in my life and encountering Psalm 18, another of the “psalms of innocence.” Here is how part of it reads:
The LORD rewarded me because of my righteous dealing;
because my hands were clean he rewarded me.
For I have kept the ways of the LORD
and have not offended against my God.
For all his judgments are before my eyes,
and his decrees I have not put away from me.
For I have been blameless with him
and have kept myself from iniquity.
Therefore the LORD rewarded me according to my righteous dealing,
because of the cleanness of my hands in his sight.
I recall reading that at about age 16, when it seemed like I was the worst version of myself I’d ever encountered — when anger or rage or lust or pride or selfishness seemed to lurk around every corner of my psyche — and I saw no way to pray this psalm with any integrity. My hands weren’t clean. I hadn’t kept the ways of the LORD. I most certainly had not been blameless, nor had I managed to keep myself from iniquity.
Those feelings were still there when I came to Wheaton College as a freshman. I remember waking up early in my room in Fischer Dorm and reading the Bible and feeling such a keen sense of unworthiness, of failure at living a godly Christian existence. No doubt a big part of this was the result of having grown up in a legalistic church environment, but I’m sure that wasn’t all of it — because every Christian tradition, whether Catholic or Anabaptist or anywhere in between, has its ways of reminding us that we all fall short of the glory of God, every day, all the time.
The confession of sin that my tradition gives me to say every morning includes these lines: “We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” And when you internalize that message, it can be hard to know what to do with a psalm like the one we’ve heard this morning. Can we, as the sinners we know ourselves to be, pray it? Should we?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theologian who became a martyr in Nazi Germany, wrote a tiny little devotional book about the Psalms called The Prayer Book of the Bible. In it he has a brief chapter about the “psalms of innocence” that gave me a breakthrough when I first read it, years ago now.
What Bonhoeffer, following St. Augustine and Martin Luther and others, emphasizes in his book is that, before the psalms belong to us to pray, they are first and foremost the prayers of — and prayers about — Jesus Christ. Jesus is the one whose voice we hear when we read the psalms. Jesus is the main character we encounter when we read the psalms. Tradition says that Israel’s greatest king, David, wrote most of the psalms, and Jesus, as great David’s greater heir, takes the psalms on his lips and makes them his own, orients them toward himself.
The translation we used this morning was gender-inclusive, in which the singular references and pronouns were converted to plurals. That makes good sense in a setting for liturgical prayer, but listen again to Psalm 112 as I read it in Peter Levi’s translation, which uses the original Hebrew singular forms. See if you can see Jesus Christ in the words of the psalm:
I bless the man who fears God,
who has pleasure in his law:
his seed will be mighty on the earth,
the upright generation will be blessed.
His house will have riches and precious things,
and his justice will continue for ever.
Light for the just has risen in the darkness,
which is good and merciful and upright.
The good man is decent and generous,
he furthers his affairs rightly.
He will never be shifted,
the just man will be remembered for ever.
He will not fear wicked talk,
his heart is strong and he trusts God:
his heart is fixed, he is not afraid,
he will see the shame of his persecutors.
He scattered his goods and gave to the destitute,
his uprightness continues for ever,
his head shall be gloriously lifted up.
The wicked man shall see it and be sorry,
he shall grind his teeth and wither,
the wicked man’s wishes will come to nothing.
According to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, this is a psalm that belongs to and is about Jesus Christ before it belongs to you or me or is about us. Jesus is “the man who fears God,” who takes pleasure in God’s law. Jesus is the one whose justice will endure forever. Jesus is the one whose heart is strong, who trusts God and will not be afraid. Jesus is the one who saw the shame of his persecutors when he rose from the dead, triumphing over hell and the grave and leading captivity captive. Jesus is the innocent one who scattered his goods and gave to the destitute. Jesus is the one whose head was lifted up and crowned with glory and honor as he took his seat at the Father’s right hand.
But Bonhoeffer wants us to see that, insofar as Psalm 112 is about Jesus, it is also and because of that about us too, because through our baptism into Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have been united to him — as in a marriage — so that everything he is and has and does is ours as well. Bonhoeffer says it this way:
It is characteristic of the faith of the Christian that through God’s grace and the merit of Jesus Christ he has become entirely justified and guiltless in God’s eyes, so that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). And it is characteristic of the prayer of the Christian to hold fast to this innocence and justification which has come to him, appealing to God’s word and thanking him for it. So not only are we permitted, but directly obligated … to pray in all humiliation and certainty: “I was blameless before him and I kept myself from guilt” (Psalm 18:23); “If thou testest me thou wilt find no wickedness in me” (Psalm 17:3). With such a prayer we stand in the center of the New Testament, in the community of the cross of Jesus Christ.
If your spirituality is anything like mine, this can be a hard word to accept, particularly, perhaps, at a place like Wheaton. The spiritual lives you think your fellow students are leading can seem like an ideal you could never hope to attain. The life your church expects of you can feel impossible to embody. Your conscience accuses you of never measuring up. Your GPA reminds you that you’re not quite good enough. Your search history on your browser tells you that you are definitely not “pure.” Your body tells you that you aren’t fit or attractive enough. With all these voices vying for your attention, how can you pray with the psalmist, “Happy are they who fear the LORD” and ever think that happiness is meant to include you?
But if Bonhoeffer is right: we are not only permitted — we are commanded — to pray the psalms of innocence. Not because of our track record or spiritual prowess, but because Jesus Christ has made us one with himself. We are innocent because God says so. God’s Word has come to us in Jesus Christ, and it is a word of promise.
God has spoken his judgment over us, and this is the decree: There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Jesus has become for us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. From now on, we dare not give our conscience the last word. We must not give any credence to the accusations of our Enemy. We dare not trust the verdict of any other voice but his. The risen Lord, who is alive among us, commands us to call upon him, the LORD our righteousness, and to hold our heads high and proclaim to any who would condemn us,
Jesu, thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress;
Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,
With joy shall I lift up my head.
When you lift up your head like that, you will see the love that Jesus has called you to share in — and to share with others, with your neighbor, even with your enemy. We need not live for our innocence, to try to attain it (because it’s already ours by gift), but we can now live from it. We can live out of it, we can live it out — we can live in the freedom of the innocence that has become ours in Jesus Christ. We are now liberated to love, to serve, to scatter our goods and give to the destitute, just as Jesus has freely given to us.
The Rev. Wesley Hill is associate professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, and an assisting priest at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Pittsburgh.