As somebody once said, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.
When you read the psalms, you encounter the first kind of people. It’s a mindset quite at odds with the modern assumption that everybody is a mixture of good and bad, all behavior is on a spectrum, and you should never judge anybody.
I’ve been reading the psalms trying to understand the architecture of their thoughts, which is a way to unmask the architecture of my thoughts. The psalms were written within a very ancient culture very remote from us. Yes, some of it has flowed down through the transmission of Bible-based religion, but a lot has not. There’s some truly alien material, and perhaps nothing more alien to our times than the treatment of the righteous and the wicked.
Really, people don’t use words like that any more, or words like them. If we refer to “bad guys” we do it elliptically, or maybe ironically. We take pleasure in the “bad guys” on our TV shows and movies. We don’t think they are real.
Possibly if we lived in Syria today, we would think differently. Perhaps even if we lived in a really rough neighborhood, we would know that there are good people and bad people. However, we generally don’t see them at all. As several people in my Bible study group pointed out, we are likely to see the “wicked” as portrayed in the psalms–heartless, cruel–closely aligned with the behavior of some corporation executives. But we don’t talk about them as wicked leaders, or others as righteous. The terminology is repellant to us.
“The righteous and the wicked.” Is there any place in our modern vocabulary for words like these? Should there be?
As I’ve studied the psalms, I’ve had several surprises. One is, everybody is a mixture of good and bad. At least, nobody stands up to close scrutiny as perfectly good.
Yet the alignment of righteous and wicked stands, and it is an important frame for looking at the world. The psalmists often claim–while asking God to help–that they are the good people who have not betrayed God or their neighbors. And they also claim that they know who the bad people are.
Another surprise is that, though God is often called on to punish the wicked and vindicate the righteous, there are few signs that he does so in the present. What seems to stand in the present is God’s presence. He knows his people. He watches closely what goes on. He is a presence in the life of the righteous, and they are attentive to him. (In Psalm 1, they delight in the Torah.) Whereas the wicked think God is nothing to worry about. Their destiny will, at some point, catch up with them. Either they will be caught in their own traps, or (what may amount to the same thing) God will judge them.
Therein lies the chief distinction: how the righteous and wicked attend to God, and where their pathway leads. This may be a subtle difference. Perhaps looking from the outside, one could not even be sure of it. But it is a crucial difference, and in the long run it will show itself so.
In case you are interested in this subject, here is a Bible study that my group used last Sunday. You are welcome to copy it and pass it along.
The Righteous and the Wicked
We are accustomed to thinking of people in shades of gray. Nobody is all good, nobody is all bad. For the psalmists, and for the Bible writers in general, however, there is a fundamental division between the righteous and the wicked. The two kinds are at odds with each other, and ultimately God is on the side of the righteous and will destroy the wicked. How do we gray thinkers understand this?
- What does the blessed person not do? Why?
- What does the blessed person do? Why?
- What is the law (Torah) of the Lord? What does it mean to delight in the law? Why should it be the key mark of the blessed person?
- The opposite of a well-watered tree would seem to be a drought-stricken tree. How is chaff different?
- How does v. 5 explain/illustrate that? What can the wicked not do?
- According to v. 6 what is God’s role?
- According to v. 1, what is God’s role? Does this accord with 1:6?
- The description of the wicked in vv. 2-11 is very strong. What strikes you most?
- Do you know anybody who meets this description? Where in the world might you expect to find people like this?
- Does verse 11 accord with v. 1? What is the difference?
- What, according to the psalmist, does God do? List the activities attributed to him.
- According to verse 18, what is the aim of what God does? What does this say about God’ interventionist goals? How closely does he want to be involved in everyday affairs?
- Assuming the NIV is right, that vv 1b-3 quote a skeptic, what is this skeptic’s view of the righteous and the wicked?
- What is God actually doing?
- What will God do?
- What does it mean that God is righteous? (v. 7)
- Given what we have discussed, what does it mean that he loves justice?
- What is the reward for the righteous?