July 26, 2016

Horse 2139 - Ten Things I Like: No.2 - I Like Psalm 38

I almost feel like some kind of monster by writing this but my favourite Psalm isn't something sweepingly happy like Psalm 8 or as praiseful as Psalm 46. No, my favourite Psalm is one which I can pretty much guarantee will not be read at the beginning of a church service as a call to worship and nor will it be read as a closing thought before the congregation goes out through the doors and into the week ahead. My favourite Psalm is one of the saddest and quite frankly brutally honest Psalms of all - Psalm 38.

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
    or discipline me in your wrath.
Your arrows have pierced me,
    and your hand has come down on me.
Because of your wrath there is no health in my body;
    there is no soundness in my bones because of my sin.
My guilt has overwhelmed me
    like a burden too heavy to bear.
- Psalm 38:1-4

I very much doubt that Psalm 38 has inspired many hymns to be written. I also doubt whether a major publishing house would even dare to publish a song based upon Psalm 38. Could such a thing even considered to be a song of praise? I'm not sure about that.
If Psalm 38 isn't a Psalm of praise, then it obviously serves a very different function and therein lies the reason why I think it's my favourite of all.

I work in an accountant's office and part of our specialty is to provide forensic valuations for the courts. This dovetailed nicely with my previous job when I was working inside the courts as a bookkeeper and court recorder. What this has meant is that I've seen lots of people who are literally at their worst and this is doubly compounded by the influence of money upon their actions.
You might think that this would leave me jaded about the human condition but I don't know if it's technically possible to be jaded in an opinion if your initial starting point was pretty low to begin with.
When people take each other to court, they have long passed beyond the point where they have suffered or perhaps have caused wrong or injury. Naturally this means that people as emotional beings, are likely to be spitting seven kinds of bile and acid and the atmosphere around such people is generally a weird sort of fug. This isn't the fault of the courts though. The law in such instances can only provide opinions post event. The court's job is to provide remedies and punishment for actions which have already caused wrong and injury.

Enter Psalm 38. This Psalm speaks about the author's own feelings after he has caused wrong and injury but more importantly it speak towards the underlying cause of why.
One question which is often put forward to people of faith, especially after something disastrous has happened, is "Why do bad things happen to good people?". I don't particularly think it a divine perspective, considering that the evidence very much all points in one direction, that there are no good people to begin with. The question is therefore wrong and should read "Why do good things happen to bad people?"
Ah but you might say. What makes me the arbiter of who are good and bad people? Doesn't this make me sit in a point of arrogance from atop a tower made of smoke? One puff of wind and I'll easily admit that I'm not objectively a good person either.

Remove all hint of faith and talk of the divine from this and you'll find that many people writing to the world of economics, political science and philosophy generally, have also arrived at the same conclusion.
 Adam Smith who wrote "The Wealth Of Nations" in 1776, meant that work to be read in conjunction with his previous book "The Theory Of Moral Sentiment" which was finished in 1759. His opening line, which serves as the premise of his inquiry was "However selfish mankind is supposed to be" and that's the starting point.
People like  Nikolay Chernyshevsky and Henry Sidgwick  in the nineteenth century, wrote and expanded upon the idea of rational egoism and in the twentieth century, Ayn Rand couldn't even conceal her open praise for selfishness and went on to argue that even altruism was ultimately self serving.
This standpoint was helpfully turned into a three word slogan by the 1987 film "Wall Street" when Gordon Gecko succinctly asserted that "Greed Is Good".

Don't get me wrong here, I don't think that all people are all evil all the time. Demonstrably we live in a world which is reasonably well organised and so to some degree, there must be people who work and do things for others. However, I do think that one of the consequences of living within one's own body and never being able to see the world from any other perspective than our own, does create some pretty savage blinkers and they very much frame our perspective on the world. Not only do we not see the world from any other perspective than our own but due to laziness and inactivity, most people don't think about other people's perspectives. Never attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity and clumsiness.

What then is Psalm 38? Psalm 38 speaks from the point of someone who knows that they have screwed up. The description of lying on a bed of tears and physical pain as a result of the realisation that one is indeed faulty and guilty as charged is, I think, proof that they have genuinely reached the point of contrition. The first half of the Psalm is basically a lament that I have done this, this is my fault, my actions have consequences and that the suffering that I am currently undergoing is indeed just. I don't know exactly what the thing that the author has done is but the consequences even extend to his friends and family steering clear of him and leaving him alone.
The end of the Psalm is not without hope though. Those last two lines say:
Lord, do not forsake me;
do not be far from me, my God.
Come quickly to help me,
my Lord and my Savior.
This indicates that even when someone is at their absolute worst, they can still look upwards. The entreaty for God as Lord and Saviour to come to one's aid, is a position of hope; even from something that looks like hopelessness but not after they've taken responsibility:

This brings me to ask the question of what the point of the Psalm actually are. If you were to do a scan of the Top 40 songs in the charts in any given week, I'd hazard a guess that at least 35 of them would be about some sort of relationship and going out and having a good time. This isn't exactly unique to just the music industry; most movies have some sort of love story or romantic entanglement in them somewhere and the Psalms after all are an historical record of the lyrics of some songs written in reference to the relationship between someone and their creator.

Given what I know about human nature, that everyone is demonstrably selfish and invariably clumsy (if not outrightly callous), then it makes perfect sense that at least one Psalm should express the contrition and sadness which someone who has caused hurt, will feel. It's not that much of a leap to imagine that I am the one who causes that hurt and that I should rightly feel bad about it.
Psalm 38 is my favourite Psalm because someone has taken responsibility for their actions and is demonstrative that I should too.

No comments: