Psalm 26, Self-Righteousness, and the Company We Keep

For my weekly quiet time this week, I’ll be blogging about Psalm 26 and its interpreters.

Psalms like this used to give me problems because the Psalmist appears to be so self-righteous in them.  And they appear to give others problems as well.  John MacArthur makes clear that the Psalmist in Psalm 26:1 is not claiming to be morally perfect when he asks God to judge and to test him, but rather is saying that he’s innocent of legal charges that enemies have made against him.  While Christian scholars who have had issues with Psalms such as Psalms 26 have asserted that these sorts of Psalms foreshadow the self-righteousness that Judaism supposedly promotes, Jewish interpreters I’ve read also struggle with the apparent self-righteousness of the Psalms.  They may say that David is boldly asking God to test him, and then David falls flat on his face when God tests him with Bath-sheba and he fails.  The idea here is that David shouldn’t have been so presumptuous and self-righteous.  The medieval exegete Rashi actually interpreted parts of Psalm 17—in which the Psalmist appeals to his own righteousness—to mean that the Psalmist acknowledges his sinfulness and asks God to look only at the good things he has done, not the bad (see my post here).

I’ve encountered a similar approach among Jewish interpreters to Psalm 26.  In response to v 1, in which the Psalmist asks God to judge him, Rashi cites Psalm 143:2, where the Psalmist requests that God not enter into judgment with him, since no human being is righteous in God’s sight.  Rashi attempts to harmonize these passages, saying that David wants God to judge him in comparison with the wicked, not in comparison with the righteous.  David certainly feels that he is better than the wicked—for example, he doesn’t celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles with a stolen lulav (Rashi’s interpretation of Psalm 26:6)! But he doesn’t think that he’s as good as the righteous. He acknowledges his imperfection.

The nineteenth century German Orthodox rabbi Samuel Raphael Hirsch interprets tzarpah in Psalm 26:2 as “cleanse” rather than “scrutinize.”  According to this interpretation, David is not asking God to scrutinize him to see that he is righteous; rather, David wants God to cleanse him of his impurities.  And the root can have that meaning.  The root does mean to test or to try, but it can also relate to purging away dross (Proverbs 25:4; Isaiah 1:25).  When gold is put into the fire, two things happen: the gold survives and is shown to be gold, and dross is purged away.  Some biblical passages focus on the first, which implies that God is seeing that his servants are truly righteous when he puts them through the fire, and they pass the test.  Others prefer to highlight the second, which indicates that God’s servants have unrighteousness, and God is putting them through the fire to purify them.

(I should note that the same sort of issue may be going on in Psalm 26:6, where the Psalmist affirms that he washes his hands in innocence.  Is the Psalmist saying that he is purifying himself so that he can be innocent—which implies that he is a sinner who needs to be cleansed?  Or, by washing his hands, is he making a statement that he is already innocent—as Pilate may have been doing in Matthew 27:24, when he washed his hands and declared that he was innocent of Jesus’ blood?)

In Psalm 26:9, the Psalmist asks God not to take away his life along with the sinful and the bloodthirsty.  According to the medieval Jewish exegete Abraham Ibn-Ezra, David here is hoping and praying that circumstances won’t cause him to stumble into the company of the wicked.  For Ibn-Ezra, David is not being self-righteous, but he’s acknowledging that he’s vulnerable to sin and can easily fall into the company of the wicked if certain circumstances occur.  David is dependent on God, not on himself.

At the same time, Jewish interpreters appear to acknowledge that David, in some sense, was righteous.  The Psalmist says in Psalm 26:12 that his feet are on a just path.  And, as I look at the Psalm, I see that the Psalmist chooses to put himself in good territory: he dwells in the house of the LORD, where he can behold God’s beauty (v 8), rather than the assembly of the deceitful, hypocrites, evildoers, and the wicked (vv 4-5).  The Psalmist may have his imperfections, but he chooses to plant himself in good soil.

I’d like to comment on the Psalmist’s statements that he abhors the company of the wicked.  That appears to be rather snobbish.  Also, such a sentiment seems to contradict the example of Jesus, who associated with tax-collectors and sinners (e.g., Matthew 9:11).  But it overlaps in some sense with Paul, who declared that bad company corrupts good morals (I Corinthians 15:33), and that a Christian should not eat with a so-called brother who is a fornicator, covetous person, extortioner, idolater, drunkard, or idolater (I Corinthians 5:11).  At the same time, Paul also appears to assert that such a policy does not apply to how believers relate to the world, for they’d have to remove themselves from the world were they to avoid non-Christians who are idolaters, fornicators, covetous people, or extortioners (I Corinthians 5:9-10)!

C.S. Lewis has an excellent chapter on this topic in Reflections on the Psalms.  It’s entitled “Connivance”.  When I first read this chapter over a decade ago, it didn’t mean much to me.  But I could definitely relate to it this time around!  Lewis talks about how many of us try to associate with people whom we know to be scum-bags—simply because those scum-bags happen to be prominent and influential.  On page 72, Lewis describes the attitudes that one might encounter among such an elite:

“We shall hear vile stories told as funny; not merely licentious stories but (to me far more serious and less noticed) stories which the teller could not be telling unless he was betraying someone’s confidence.  We shall hear infamous detraction of the absent, often disguised as pity or humour.  Things we hold sacred will be mocked.  Cruelty will be slyly advocated by the assumption that its only opposite is ‘sentimentality’.  The very presuppositions of any possible good life—all disinterested motives, all heroism, all genuine forgiveness—will be, not explicitly denied (for then the matter could be discussed), but assumed to be phantasmal, idiotic, believed in only by children.”

Lewis acknowledges that navigating such a social wilderness can be quite delicate.  A Christian may not want to laugh at jokes at such an occasion, because then she’d be communicating that she approves of those types of attitudes.  On the other hand, she doesn’t want to continually express disagreement throughout the conversation, for then she’d be seen as a prig.  Lewis suggests that silence may be a good policy in those sorts of situations.

I can understand the point that bad company can corrupt good morals.  I wouldn’t necessarily say that the solution is to hang out with Christians all of the time, for even Christians can have the attitudes that C.S. Lewis criticizes: judgmentalism, betraying secrets, cynicism about those who may be trying to do good, a snide attitude towards “sentimentality” (or, for them, political liberalism).  But what about the friendly womanizer who isn’t really a bad person, but who is obsessed with sex?  Surely Psalm 26 and Paul are not talking about him when they refer to bad company, are they, since they’re discussing those who deliberately seek to hurt others?  People who don’t save sex for marriage aren’t necessarily evil—for they can be nice people.  And yet, Paul criticizes fornicaters.  And, according to biblical scholar Patrick Miller, Psalm 26:10 refers to evil devices (zimmah), a term that often (but not always) concerns acts of sexual immortality (Leviticus 18:17; 19:29; 20:14; Job 31:11; Jeremiah 13:27)—such as sleeping with a mother and her daughter, or prostitution, or adultery. I’m reminded of Galatians 6:1, which exhorts Christians to restore those who have been overtaken in a fault, in a spirit of meekness, and yet to be careful lest they themselves be tempted.  There seems to be a fine line between being careful about habits and attitudes that we can pick up in our company, and (on the negative side) acting like judgmental snobs.

I said at the beginning of this post that Psalms like Psalm 26 “used” to give me problems because, in them, the Psalmist came across as self-righteous.  Why don’t they give me a problem anymore?  I think that a big reason is that the Psalms are not monolithic.  Some express what appears to be self-righteousness, and yet, at least sometimes, that may just be the Psalmist declaring that he is innocent of charges leveled against him.  Psalm 26 seems to be a declaration of innocence, for v 6 mentions innocence, and yet the Psalmist is also affirming that he has lived a just life—and he invites God to scrutinize him and see that this is so.  At other times, however, the Psalmist does not appeal to his own righteousness, but he throws himself completely on the love and mercy of God.  And then there are times when he confesses his sinfulness and his need for forgiveness.  Some homileticists have argued that the Psalms in which David appeals to his righteousness reflect the time when he was on the run from Saul—when Saul was acting as if David were evil, when David was actually trying to do the right thing: he was not seeking to usurp the throne of Israel, he loved Saul, etc.  The Psalms about David throwing himself on God’s mercy, however, are attributed by some to the time when David was on the run from Absalom: David could not appeal to his own righteousness then, for he realized that he was being punished for his sin concerning Bath-sheba and her husband, Uriah.  And so, at that time, he threw himself on God’s mercy.

Psalms like Psalm 26 do not give me a problem nowadays because I recognize that they are a part of a larger picture of the Psalmist’s attitude.  Sure, there are times when we feel that the world is treating us unfairly, even though we are trying to do the right thing.  We want recognition for the things we do right, and, because the world does not always give us validation, we seek it from God.  But there are other times when we look at ourselves and see bankruptcy, and we acknowledge our need for God’s forgiveness.  In both cases, we’re seeking God’s love.

A final point: after looking at the whole debate about whether Psalm 26 manifests an attitude of self-righteousness or not, I want to look at v 3.  There, the Psalmist affirms that he has been mindful of God’s unfailing love and has relied on God’s faithfulness.  There is a degree of justification by grace through faith in Psalm 26!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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