Spoiled rotten

Every summer, when he was in graduate school, my son would move home to save a few months rent. I would help him move his furniture into storage, then we would clean his apartment and get it ready for inspection.

One year, I was cleaning out his refrigerator. There wasn’t much in it, and most of what was left went in the trash — including some unidentifiable something I found in the vegetable crisper. It had, at one point in its life, been produce; it was still in its flimsy plastic bag from the grocery store. But whatever it had been, it was now a black viscous liquid resembling used motor oil.

It’s a wonder that it was still in the bag instead of all over the drawer. For that matter, it’s a wonder it didn’t evolve into something that could walk away on its own power.

I showed the bag to my son. He had no idea what it was, nor how long it had been there.

Right. We threw it out, taking care not to rupture the bag.

You may have your own story of discovering something nasty in your refrigerator. How did you react? As human beings, we almost universally experience a nose-wrinkling sense of disgust when we encounter something noxious, like a mystery vegetable that’s decayed into primordial ooze.

And sometimes, as I read the Psalms, I wonder if we should also see disgust where we typically see anger and fear.

. . .

Many psalms of lament are the psalmist’s complaints to God about being unfairly persecuted. The tone can be despairing (“If you don’t help me, I’m done for!”), or angry and vengeful (“They’re bad people — go get ’em, God!”), or even penitent (“Am I being punished for something I did wrong?”). The psalmist, however, tends to describe emotions rather than naming them as we might, so it’s possible to read psalms in more than one way.

I suspect that sometimes disgust and sorrow would be the appropriate words to name the psalmist’s emotions, even if our first reading might suggest anger at one’s enemies. Here again, for example, are the opening words of Psalm 14, this time from the Common English Bible:

Fools say in their hearts, There is no God.
    They are corrupt and do evil things;
    not one of them does anything good.

The LORD looks down from heaven on humans
    to see if anyone is wise,
    to see if anyone seeks God,
        but all of them have turned bad.
        Everyone is corrupt.
        No one does good—
        not even one person!
(Ps 14:1-3, CEB)

The psalmist’s enemies seem to be attacking or besieging the people (53:5), and the psalmist is looking for God’s deliverance to come from Mount Zion (Ps 14:7; 53:6). The enemies are labeled “fools” and “evildoers” (14:1,4; 53:1,4). The psalmist even asks, “Are they dumb?” (14:4; 53:4), citing the fact that God is with his people as their refuge (14:5,6) and will put their enemies to shame (53:5).

In such situations, the psalmist is not the least bit shy of calling curses down upon his enemies, as the sons of Zebedee did when they were miffed about the way the Samaritans treated Jesus. But the language of “corruption” here suggests something more than anger at being attacked.

The two Hebrew words that the CEB translates as “corrupt” are not the same, but they are synonymous. And as we’ve seen, the word “evil” here, which the New Revised Standard Version translates as “abominable,” suggests something detestable or abhorrent. Taken together, the words seem to suggest something spoiled, decaying away, both inside and out.

In other words, something disgusting.

. . .

There is no way, of course, to know what emotion or emotions the psalmist was experiencing. But entertaining the possibility of both disgust and sorrow here is important to how we identify with and enter into the psalmist’s words. And it’s important to how we understand what the Bible teaches about sin. Though we often think of sin as rule-breaking. There’s some truth in that, but it’s not the whole truth. Sin is also corruption.

Think about what it means to be a corrupt politician. Someone who holds public office is supposed to act for the public good. Many who seek office do so with good and noble intentions, and know that there will necessarily be some trade-offs and compromises made to achieve their goals. But somewhere along the way, the compromises begin to reach more deeply into the politician’s character. To be corrupted by power doesn’t just mean doing bad things or running afoul of an ethics committee. It means that something that was once good has begun to rot and decay, and may eventually become loathsome.

Similarly, humans were created in God’s image and meant to reflect his character. Sin has spoiled God’s good creation, and the consequence is corruption and decay. God looks out over humanity: where there should be wisdom, he finds foolhardiness; where there should be good, there is evil. This is abhorrent to a righteous God, as detestable as the idolatrous religious practices his people were always tempted to pursue.

To the extent that the psalmist shares God’s perspective on the sinful state of humanity, he should experience not only anger, but disgust, and perhaps a godly sorrow that things have come to such a sorry state. No one does good — not even one person. This is not how things should be, and the psalmist grieves at the disgusting state of affairs.

But wait — does he really mean no one? Or is he just talking about his enemies, the ones he calls fools and evildoers?

We’ll see what the apostle Paul has to say about that in the next post.