For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 36 and its interpreters. I have two items, which I will discuss and also use as pivot points to comment on other pieces of the Psalm.
1. Psalm 36:2 (in the Masoretic Text) has a puzzling statement. I’ll go with the King James Version’s translation of this verse because it communicates its awkwardness: “The transgression of the wicked saith within my heart, that there is no fear of God before his eyes.”
One approach to this verse, of course, is to emend the text. And, as Peter Craigie notes, other manuscripts and versions (such as the Septuagint and the Vulgate) say that the transgression of the wicked says within his heart, meaning the heart of the wicked person. So is the wicked person telling himself that there is no fear of God before his eyes? The Septuagint makes that point. But that does not make much sense to Peter Craigie, for he translates the verse: “An oracle. Transgression belongs to the wicked person; it is in the midst of his heart. There is no fear of God before his eyes.” The Hebrew word ne-um means “utterance”, and it often occurs within the context of prophetic oracles. Some believe that the utterance or oracle is actually from the transgression of the wicked, for the word ne-um is in construct with pesha, “transgression”, making “utterance of transgression”. Because such a usage of ne-um is “without parallel in the OT”, Craigie takes it as a word standing independently in Psalm 36. For Craigie, the ne-um here is a oracle from God about the attitudes and activities of the wicked.
The medieval Jewish exegete Rashi tries to get a slightly similar meaning of Psalm 36:2, only he does not emend the text. He accepts the MT, and yet he supplies words so that the verse makes more sense. He renders it: “There is in my heart knowledge that transgression—the evil inclination—says to the wicked that there should be no fear of God before his eyes.” (I base this on Mayer Gruber’s translation of Rashi.) The idea here is that the Psalmist is observing that there is no fear of God before the eyes of the wicked. That overlaps with Craigie’s interpretation, only Rashi’s understanding also resembles the Septuagint’s notion that the wicked is receiving a message about the fear of God not being before his eyes, and Rashi also (like the rabbis) brings in the evil inclination. Rashi does not think that the evil inclination is telling the wicked person that there is not fear of God before his eyes, however, but rather that there should not be.
The Orthodox Jewish Artscroll also interprets Psalm 36:2 to mean that David is aware of what the evil inclination is saying to the wicked. It translates v 2 as, “Transgression’s speech to the wicked is in my heart, that there should be no dread of God before his eyes.” The comment on v 2 says: “The Evil Inclination is personified here as Transgression. David knows exactly what Transgression advises the wicked.” As I look at those comments a second time, my impression is that they are saying that David just knew what the Evil Inclination was telling the wicked. When I first read them, however, I thought they were saying that David knew what the Evil Inclination was telling the wicked, because the Evil Inclination told him the same sorts of things! The Evil Inclination speaks to the Psalmist’s heart, not just the heart of the wicked.
Many Christian interpreters I came across tended to have the same view that I initially attributed to the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll (either rightfully or wrongfully), only they did not refer to an “Evil Inclination”, but rather the sin nature that all people (even Christians) have. Pastor Jon Courson, for example, waxed eloquent on how we should not follow our hearts, which are deceitful and exceedingly wicked (see Jeremiah 17:9—but I should note that there are many Christians who claim that this only applies to the hearts of the unregenerate, not to Christians, who have new hearts). Rather, for Courson, we should follow God and Scripture.
Although Psalm 36:2 is indeed awkward, I think that the idea that the Psalmist is struggling with an evil inclination—or at least is thinking about the impact of the evil inclination in people’s lives—fits other details of Psalm 36. I draw some of my thoughts from Peter Craigie and Bob MacDonald (see here). Psalm 36:6-10 (MT) talks about God’s greatness—in terms of God’s kindness, faithfulness, righteousness, and judgments. According to Peter Craigie, the wicked in Psalm 36 are not reflecting on God’s greatness, for they are preoccupied with devising mischief. And, according to Bob MacDonald, we need a light that is not our own in order to be delivered from our heart’s oracle. Vv 2-5 depict the wicked as in a dark place: they dismiss God’s justice, they flatter themselves, they avoid the good path, and they are evil privately and publicly. In God’s light, they would see light, but they choose to cut themselves off from God’s light—which may include moral instruction, but Psalm 36 also discusses reliance on God for life and satisfaction.
On whether or not the Psalmist struggles with his own Evil Inclination in this Psalm, I lean in the “no” direction. In v 11, the Psalmist asks God to be kind towards those who know him, the upright in heart. That verse, in my opinion, is not exactly a confession on the Psalmist’s part that he, too, is vulnerable to the temptation to think and to do evil. In v 12, the Psalmist prays that the foot of pride might not come against him, but I don’t think that he’s asking to be delivered from the sin of pride itself, but rather from the proud, who seek to destroy him. The parallel in that verse says (in the KJV) “and let not the hand of the wicked remove me”.
But maybe the Psalmist is both conscious of his own vulnerability to sin, as well as judgmental towards the wicked. The Psalmist knows all about what the Evil Inclination is telling the wicked, for the Evil Inclination tells him the same things: that one need not fear God. The Psalmist, however, tries to resist the Evil Inclination, as he contemplates God’s glory and blessings. The wicked, by contrast, not only say “yes” to the Evil Inclination, but they dive right into evil, to the point that they actually develop mischievous schemes when they are in bed at night.
2. Psalm 36:3 is another odd verse. Here is my literal translation: “For he makes smooth to him in his eyes, to find his iniquity to hate.” There are different ideas about what this verse means. Peter Craigie says that the wicked person is flattering himself so much that he has reached the point where he does not find and hate his iniquity. (This may be consistent with needing God’s light to see light.) Keil-Delitzsch says that self-flattery leads the wicked person to hate, and a Targum states that the wicked person is hating instruction. Rashi says that v 3 means that the wicked person’s sin leads him to be hated by God. The Septuagint has an interesting rendition, which I translate as, “for he falsified before him, to find and to hate his iniquity”. I did not perform a comprehensive search on the Greek word dolo-o (“falsify”), but it appears to carry the connotation of deception in Psalm 14:3 and II Corinthians 4:2 (though it could mean “adulterate” in the latter passage). Could the Septuagint be saying that the wicked person pretends to be conscientious about avoiding iniquity, when he actually is not, perhaps as a means to stab people in the back?
Personally, I have disliked Christians criticizing self-flattery, as if I am supposed to be down on myself on a continual basis, or beating myself up while I’m on a spiritual tread-mill of identifying my flaws (or graciously allowing other Christians to point them out to me) and trying to correct them. I have found that this sort of outlook does not help me to correct my flaws. In many cases, being charitable to myself and cutting myself some slack are a path to me becoming better—for, in my opinion, me becoming a better me is consistent with me being at peace with myself.
But, at the same time, there are things that I do wrong, and it’s good for me to be aware of that. For me, it’s not a matter of “I need to get this right, or God won’t love me anymore”, as much as that voice still lingers within me (much like the Evil Inclination!). Rather, it’s a matter of me being aware—and perhaps, with God’s help, and the advice (but not the “Thus saith the Lord” commands) of others—I can take steps to become better—not perfect, but better. Not like Jesus, the perfect human being, but a better me. But is God’s mercy and goodness and righteousness a model to me of how I should live my own life? I think so. At least I try to make it so! I can abstractly believe that God loves each and every human being and regards him or her as a person of value, but that doesn’t necessarily eliminate my own resentful thoughts. It lessens them, or creates a dam for them, but it does not eliminate them. I think that, sometimes, I need to remind myself that there is a God who upholds a moral standard—not so much to threaten myself, but rather to remind myself that I am not the ultimate voice in the universe, and that there is some moral standard outside of myself.