Reflecting on the Psalms: The scandal of belief

The relationship with the God of the covenant permeated every aspect of their lives.

Oct 22, 2021


By Msgr James Gnanapiragasam

Israel, a partner in the covenant with God, constantly reflected on the implications of this relationship in their everyday affairs. Being a theocratic state, nothing was purely secular for the people of Israel. The relationship with the God of the covenant permeated every aspect of their lives. Whether it was praising or thanking God or dealing with other members of this covenantal society, theological reflections found the way into the law, the prophets and the wisdom writings. Hence, it is not surprising that the psalms reflect the faith of the people.

The wise men continued further reflection on their belief and extended it to the new circumstances after the exile. One of the problems that always disturbed the Israelites was the problem of retribution. Why is it that the God of justice allows the wicked to prosper and the just to suffer? Coupled with this was the question of life after death since they believed that each person just sinks down into a Godless, forgotten place called Sheol. The problem was highlighted during the revolt of the Maccabees, and a solution came forth in the book of the prophet Daniel and finally in the book of Wisdom. Some psalms attempt to express in prayer this uncertainty as theological reflection was in progress.

Prayer for Living Psalm 72 (73) Week 4 Monday Office of Readings.

Verses 1-3: The psalmist begins with the firm conclusion of the Israelite faith that God is just. And yet this honest believer admits that he nearly stumbled in temptation because he saw how the wicked seem to be well off. In fact, he is struck with envy of these unfaithful people.

Verses 4-12: The wicked seem not to know pain, or troubles or suffering. They are even physically very healthy. This makes them proud, and they become violent as they plot and oppress the others since their minds and hearts are always planning evil. They are ready to speak whatever pleases them and do not hesitate to blaspheme. This makes the faithful people question the justice of their God and are tempted to follow these successful wicked people who seem to be amassing their wealth, quite untroubled in conscience.

Verses 13-20: The psalmist now meditates on his own status and sees the futility of being innocent as his life is toilsome day after day. His meditations remind us of the prophet Jeremiah and the questionings in the book of Job. However, he admits that if he were to imitate these unfaithful wicked, then he would be contradicting his own Yahwistic faith in the covenant. So, as he ponders on this incongruity, he begins to get some insight into the mysterious ways of God. There in the sanctuary or divine counsels (as some commentators say) God’s mystery is revealed to him. The fate of the wicked is clear now since they will plunge to their own destruction. Moreover, their downfall will come on suddenly when God, as if coming out of a dream, is aware of the situation and dismisses them without a trace.

Verses 21-26: The psalmist goes on to take a critical look at himself. He is said to be ‘cut to the quick’, that is, he becomes aware of his feelings and emotions, as he realises how stupid he has been. In fact, he considers himself a beast, the actual word he uses is behemoth, a hippopotamus, a Nile-horse, a stupid animal. However, he protests that he was always in God’s presence who guided him by his counsels to act righteously.

Verse 24b “and so you will lead me to glory” is the climax. It may not necessarily mean eternal life with God after death, yet there is already some indication of being with God in glory. And that is why he can joyfully say that God is his possession for ever.

Verses 27-28: The psalmist reaffirms his faith in the justice of God who will see that those who are not faithful will meet their ruin. He himself will not abandon God, as it gives him great joy to have God as his protector in all his actions. Consequently, he will go to proclaim God’s marvellous works at the public square near the gates of Jerusalem.

This psalm calls us to meditate on our own situation. We go through life experiencing many trials and suffering. We know that there are people who are godless who seem to prosper. There are faithful poor (the anawim Yahweh) who suffer from want of the necessities of life. While we work for the betterment of society, let us not lose hope in a God who sent his Son who died and entered into glory and who will raise our mortal bodies to be with him one day.

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