For my weekly quiet time this Sabbath, we will study Psalm 12.
I’ll open this post with a quote from the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll on the Book of Psalms. I often like how the Artscroll summarizes particular Psalms.
“Only God protects and saves. People who profess friendship and loyalty are often treacherous, but Divine assurances are pure and enduring.”
V 6 says (as I draw from the King James Version) that “the words of the LORD are pure words, as silver tried in the furnace of the earth, purified seven times.”
What’s this talking about? The Bible, as the Psalmist understood it? I have mixed feelings on this. On the one hand, my reaction is rather negative, for I wonder if the Bible is perfect and actually “works” in people’s lives. Does it work in the life of a struggling homosexual, who tries in vain to subdue her desires and feels that she must remain celibate for the rest of her natural life, on account of what a book says? And then I wonder how pure and tested the Bible really is when its alleged inerrancy can be so easily challenged—by science, by archaeology, by reading the Bible and seeing its contradictions, and even by real life. For example, throughout the Hebrew Bible, we see a belief in divine retribution among its authors, and Job’s friends express that view as they attempt to account for Job’s suffering in light of their own religious mindset—which contains views that have made their way into Deuteronomy, Proverbs, and the Psalms. But, as Job points out in Job 21, in his experience of the world, wicked oppressors have lived full, happy lives, and have died without anything bad happening to them. The words of the LORD are pure and tested? Not according to Job, who did not see evidence of divine retribution in the world!
As I read v 6, I thought about the “imminent eschatology” passages in the synoptic Gospels. Jesus says in Matthew 16:28 and Mark 9:1 that some of his disciples will not taste death, before they have seen the coming of the Son of Man in his kingdom. In Matthew 10:23, Jesus tells his disciples to flee to another city when they are persecuted, and he encourages them that the Son of Man will come before they have gone through the cities of Israel. Matthew 24:34, Mark 13:30, and Luke 21:32 say that the Son of Man will come before “this generation” has passed away. Yet, all of these things have passed, and Jesus is still not ruling on earth! Some may argue that Jesus’ coming is not necessarily the Second Coming of Christ, but can refer to God’s judgment of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. (see Genesis 11:7 and Exodus 3:8, where God’s coming refers to an act of divine judgment in history, not an eschatological event) or to the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. But, in the synoptic Gospels, the coming of the Son of Man refers to the Son of Man coming and judging the entire earth in righteousness, which is an eschatological event—one that surpasses the judgment of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. and the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 (Matthew 25). Some try to redefine “this generation” as something other than the generation of Jesus’ day, even though “this generation” throughout the synoptic Gospels refers to the generation of Jesus’ day (e.g., Matthew 11:16; 12:41-42; Mark 8:12; Luke 11:30-32, 50-51; 17:25). The words of the Bible are pure and tested? I can understand why some people may look at these promises of Jesus and conclude that they have failed the test!
On the other hand, the teachings of the Bible have worked in the lives of many people. They have made many people happy, serene, and loving—even though that doesn’t seem to have been the case for everyone. And, although the Christian insistence that one should have sex with only one person throughout his natural life (except when that person’s spouse dies, or he gets a legitimate, biblically permissible divorce) appears unrealistic, it’s obvious to me and others that our current culture of cheap sex is problematic—and is often harmful to children (see Retriever’s comment under my post, Wired for Monogamy). Perhaps the Bible has been tested in that many people throughout the ages have benefited from applying its precepts. There’s something to be said for a literature that survives throughout the ages—something must be keeping it going! It must be working for enough people, if they’re continuing to believe in it and to draw wisdom from it! I can identify with a relative of mine, who does not see the Bible as inerrant, but who thinks that it contains a lot of common-sense wisdom. Is it wise to casually dismiss the insights of anybody—which he or she has gained from the experience of living life and seeing what works, and what doesn’t? The Bible is a compendium of those insights. Sure, one can arrive at different conclusions, but I think that it’s good at least to listen to the wisdom of the ages.
Many commentators whom I read said that the Psalmist is contrasting the pure, tested words of God with the deceit, the insincere flattery (with an intent to harm), and the slander that were rampant around him. The Psalmist is looking for something solid—something that he can trust. But is the Bible free of speech that deceives or that harms? The Bible has been used to put down women and slaves and to uphold unjust power structures. While some may argue that this is an indictment of the misuse of the Bible, and not of the Bible itself, what if the biblical writings themselves emerged from attempts to justify the ambitions to power of certain groups, who claimed to be carrying out God’s will? Historical critics claim to see this behind certain biblical writings—such as those that address competition for the priesthood. And the biblical writings themselves emerged from societies that were patriarchal and that condoned slavery. In the medieval Midrash on the Psalms, there is a view that interprets Psalm 12:6 to mean that the Lord’s words concerning purity are committed to people who are as pure as silver (Malachi 3:3). One can point out that the biblical writings did not originate from people who were pure, and that there are people who handle them who are not pure. But there are good things in the Bible—which promote love and compassion—and perhaps teachers who are loving and compassionate can use the Bible in a manner that is good, not evil.
But many commentators argue that Psalm 12:6 is not even about Scriptures, but rather a direct revelation from God in the temple. The Psalmist is lamenting about the evil speech and the oppression that are rampant in his society, and then, in v 5, God in the first-person promises to arise and to vindicate the oppressed poor. The Psalmist regards God’s words in v 5 as pure, and maybe even tested—even though he may be saying that he can trust this word of God because all of the words of God are trustworthy. But I wonder if the Psalmist is wholly convinced by God’s promise, for, although in v 7 he expresses faith that God will preserve the oppressed poor in that wicked generation, he notes in v 8 that the wicked are everywhere, and the vile are exalted. I often have problems with Christians who tell people to disregard their experiences and their senses and to accept what the Bible says. “Women are just as intelligent as men? Big deal! The Bible says they must be submissive to their husbands, and that they can’t be pastors!” “You know unbelievers who are good people? So what! The Bible says that humanity is desperately wicked!” But I think there are cases when faith needs to trump sight, for us to have any hope at all—to believe in a good God, even when he appears to be silent.
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