Categories. Distinctions. Our brains love them. They help us navigate the world and “know” what to expect. But there’s a reason for the scare quotes around the word “know.” The process of forming these categorical ways of thinking is largely invisible to us, and because of that, our categories have a taken-for-granted and obvious quality to them, even if they’re demonstrably wrong. We don’t give them up easily, and this is at the root of countless conflicts with people who have formed other ways of looking at the world.
Categorical ways of thinking can even influence the way we read Scripture. I’ve heard people say, for example, that they don’t like reading the Old Testament, because it’s all about law and legalism, while the New Testament is all about grace. And even that’s not enough. I’ve had people complain to me for doing a sermon series on Paul; shouldn’t I only be preaching from the gospels and the words of Jesus?
It’s this or that, it seems, rather than both-and.
Old Testament versus New Testament? Law versus grace? Categorical distinctions don’t work here. Before we leave Psalm 40, I want to illustrate this by pointing out the subtle and beautiful way that the grace and mercy of God break into what otherwise could be a black-and-white approach to the life of faith.
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Throughout this series of posts on the Psalms, we’ve seen various categorical ways of thinking. There is the worldview of Psalm 1 itself, which draws a hard and fast line between the two paths of righteousness versus wickedness, and the consequences of each: blessing and prosperity for the former, destruction for the latter. Indeed, in the psalms of lament, the psalmist often seems bewildered: I’m following the right path; I know I am. Then why am I suffering? And why are the wicked the ones who are prospering? What’s going on here?
Despite the seemingly clear-cut promise of Psalm 1, the psalms themselves paint a much more nuanced and complicated picture. Against the background of the way things should be, lament psalms struggle with the way things are. Songs of lament sometimes modulate into songs of praise, and some praises descend into lament, as happens in Psalm 40. There, the psalmist begins with gratitude for divine deliverance, and tells others about God’s faithfulness. But the latter half of the psalm, as we saw previously, goes back to crying out for God’s help. By the end of the song, the situation is left open-ended, as the psalmist waits for God to act.
The psalmist seems to assume that his troubles are not just because of the wickedness of his enemies. His own sin has a role to play: “My wrongdoings have caught up with me” (Ps 40:12b, CEB). He is overwhelmed by what he takes as the direct or indirect consequence of his own iniquity; his courage has evaporated (vs. 12c).
You’d think this would be a good time for a prayer of repentance, or at least for the wisdom to get back on the right path. Psalm 51 is a good example of this kind of penitence. But what the psalmist says instead is, “Favor me, LORD, and deliver me! LORD, come quickly and help me!” (vs. 13), followed immediately by a prayer that God would rain shame and dishonor on his enemies (vss. 14-15).
Is the psalmist being insincere in recognizing his own culpability?
Or is it that he already trusts that he can lean into the steadfast love of God, no matter what?
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Parents teach their children the difference between right and wrong. When children disobey, they may have to face their parents’ displeasure, disapproval, or even discipline. But hopefully, that temporary disruption to the relationship doesn’t change the fact that the parent will be right there if the child needs help.
Mom and Dad, for example, don’t stand by and watch their child wander out into the middle of a busy street. They don’t say, “Well, maybe that will teach him a lesson.” Whatever else may be going on, whatever other lessons a child may still need to learn, the loving parent still cares for the child’s safety and well-being. And children learn this about parents early on; even if their parents have a right to be mad about something, they can still be trusted as a source of comfort and safety when danger threatens.
Kids don’t get to do whatever they want, whenever they want, without consequences. Sometimes, those consequences come naturally, as when the child teases the cat and gets clawed. That’s a lesson that teaches itself; wise parents must sometimes let children learn from their own mistakes.
But all of this is within the context of the child’s certainty of the parents’ love.
The psalmist is secure enough in his relationship to God, confident enough in God’s love and faithfulness, to cry out for help even when he knows his troubles are partially his own fault. This isn’t “grace” in the more developed and technical sense found in the apostle Paul’s teaching on justification — but neither is it legalism, despite the psalmist’s sometimes black-and-white view of the world.
At root, it is a sure sense that God can be trusted to care, no matter what, even when God seems mute or absent. Such graciousness has been there from the beginning; it suffuses the story of God from Genesis to Revelation.
How could it be otherwise? Grace and lovingkindness are of the very goodness of God.