From Reflections on the Psalms
I think there are very good reasons for regarding the Christian picture of God’s judgment as far more profound and far safer for our souls than the Jewish. But this does not mean that the Jewish conception must simply be thrown away. I, at least, believe I can still get a good deal of nourishment out of it.
It supplements the Christian picture in one important way. For what alarms us in the Christian picture is the infinite purity of the standard against which our actions will be judged. But then we know that none of us will ever come up to that standard. We are all in the same boat. We must all pin our hopes on the mercy of God and the work of Christ, not on our own goodness. Now the Jewish picture of a civil action sharply reminds us that perhaps we are faulty not only by the Divine standard (that is a matter of course) but also by a very human standard which all reasonable people admit and which we ourselves usually wish to enforce upon others. Almost certainly there are unsatisfied claims, human claims, against each one of us. For who can really believe that in all his dealings with employers and employees, with husband or wife, with parents and children, in quarrels and in collaborations, he has always attained (let alone charity or generosity) mere honesty and fairness? Of course we forget most of the injuries we have done. But the injured parties do not forget even if they forgive. And God does not forget. And even what we can remember is formidable enough. Few of us have always, in full measure, given our pupils or patients or clients (or whatever our particular “consumers” may be called) what we were being paid for. We have not always done quite our fair share of some tiresome work if we found a colleague or partner who could be beguiled into carrying the heavy end.
Our quarrels provide a very good example of the way in which the Christian and Jewish conceptions differ, while yet both should be kept in mind. As Christians we must of course repent of all the anger, malice, and self-will which allowed the discussion to become, on our side, a quarrel at all. But there is also the question on a far lower level: “granted the quarrel (we’ll go into that later) did you fight fair?” Or did we not quite unknowingly falsify the whole issue? Did we pretend to be angry about one thing when we knew, or could have known, that our anger had a different and much less presentable cause? Did we pretend to be “hurt” in our sensitive and tender feelings (fine natures like ours are so vulnerable) when envy, ungratified vanity, or thwarted self-will was our real trouble? Such tactics often succeed. The other parties give in. They give in not because they don’t know what is really wrong with us but because they have long known it only too well, and that a sleeping dog can be roused, that a skeleton brought out of its cupboard, only at the cost of imperiling their whole relationship with us. It needs surgery which they know we will never face. And so we win; by cheating. But the unfairness is very deeply felt. Indeed what is commonly called “sensitiveness” is the most powerful engine of domestic tyranny, sometimes a lifelong tyranny. How we should deal with it in others I am not sure; but we should be merciless to its first appearances in ourselves.
The constant protests in the psalms against those who oppress “the poor” might seem at first to have less application to our own society than to most. But perhaps this is superficial; perhaps what changes is not the oppression but only the identity of “the poor.” It often happens that someone in my acquaintance gets a demand from the Income Tax people which he queries. As a result it sometimes come back to him reduced by anything up to fifty percent. One man whom I knew, a solicitor, went round to the office and asked what they had meant by the original demand. The creature behind the counter tittered and said, “Well, there’s never any harm trying it on.” Now when the cheat is thus attempted against men of the world who know how to look after themselves, no great harm is done. Some time has been wasted, and we all in some measure share the disgrace of belonging to a community where such practices are tolerated, but that is all. When, however, that kind of publican sends a similarly dishonest demand to a poor widow, already half-starving on a high taxable “unearned” income (actually earned by years of self-denial on her husband’s part) which inflation has reduced to almost nothing, a very different result probably follows. She cannot afford legal help; she understands nothing; she is terrified, and pays – cutting down on the meals and the fuel which were already wholly insufficient. The publican who has successfully “tried it on” with her is precisely “the ungodly” who “for his own lust doth persecute the poor,” (10:2). To be sure, he does this, not like the ancient publican, for his own immediate rake-off; only to advance himself in the service or to please his masters. This makes a difference. How important that difference is in the eyes of him who avenges the fatherless and the widow I do not know. The publican may consider the question in the hour of death and will learn the answer at the day of “judgment.” (But – who knows? – I may be doing the publicans an injustice. Perhaps they regard their work as a sport, and observe game laws; and as other sportsmen will not shoot a sitting bird, so they may reserve their illegal demands for those who can defend themselves and hit back, and would never dream of “trying it on” with the helpless. If so, I can only apologize for my error. If what I have said is unjustified as a rebuke of what they are, it may still be useful as a warning of what they may yet become. Falsehood is habit-forming.)
It will be noticed, however, that I make the Jewish conception of a civil judgment available for my Christian profit by picturing myself as the defendant, not the plaintiff. The writers of the psalms do not do this. They look forward to “judgment” because they think they have been wronged and hope to see their wrongs righted. There are, indeed, some passages in which the psalmists approach to Christian humility and wisely lose their self-confidence. Thus in Psalm 50 (one of the finest) God is the accuser, (v. 6–21); and in 143:2, we have the words which most Christians often repeat – “Enter not into judgment with thy servant, for in thy sight shall no man living be justified.” But these are exceptional. Nearly always the psalmist is the indignant plaintiff.
He is quite sure, apparently, that his own hands are clean. He never did to others the horrid things that others are doing to him. “If I have done any such thing” – if I ever behaved like so-and-so, then let so-and-so “tread my life down upon the Earth,” (7:3-5). But of course I haven’t. It is not as if my enemies are paying me out for any ill turn I ever did them. On the contrary, they have “rewarded me evil for good.” Even after that, I went on exercising the utmost charity towards them. When they were ill I prayed and fasted on their behalf, (35:12-14).
All this, of course, has its spiritual danger. It leads into that typically Jewish prison of self-righteousness which our Lord so often terribly rebuked. We shall have to consider that presently. For the moment, however, I think it is important to make a distinction: between the conviction that one is in the right and the conviction that one is “righteous,” is a good man. Since none of us is righteous, the second conviction is always a delusion. But any of us may be, probably all of us at one time or another are, in the right about some particular issue. What is more, the worse man may be in the right against the better man. Their general characters have nothing to do with it. The question whether the disputed pencil belongs to Tommy or Charles is quite distinct from the question which is the nicer little boy, and the parents who allowed the one to influence their decision about the other would be very unfair. (It would be still worse if they said Tommy ought to let Charles have the pencil whether it belonged to him or not, because this would show he had a nice disposition. That may be true, but it is an untimely truth. An exhortation to charity should not come as rider to a refusal of justice. It is likely to give Tommy a lifelong conviction that charity is a sanctimonious dodge for condoning theft and whitewashing favoritism.) We need therefore by no means assume that the psalmists are deceived or lying when they assert that, as against their particular enemies at some particular moment, they are completely in the right. Their voices while they say so may grate harshly on our ear and suggest to us that they are unamiable people. But that is another matter. And to be wronged does not commonly make people amiable.
But, of course, the fatal confusion between being in the right and being righteous soon falls upon them. In 7, from which I have already quoted, we see the transition. In verses 3 to 5 the poet is merely in the right; by verse 8 he is saying “give sentence with me, O Lord, according to my righteousness and according to the innocency that is in me.” There is also in many of the psalms a still more fatal confusion – that between the desire for justice and the desire for revenge. These important topics will have to be treated separately. The self-righteous psalms can be dealt with only at a much later stage; the vindictive psalms, the cursings, we may turn to at once. It is these that have made the Psalter largely a closed book to many modern church-goers. Vicars, not unnaturally, are afraid to set before their congregations poems so full of that passion to which our Lord’s teaching allows no quarter. Yet there must be some Christian use to be made of them; if, at least, we still believe (as I do) that all Holy Scripture is in some sense – though not all parts of it in the same sense – the word of God. (The sense in which I understand this will be explained later.)