Warning: Danger Ahead! - Reflections on Psalm 66:8-20
by Dr. John Holbert on Monday, May 8, 2023
Warning: Danger Ahead!
Those of us who claim to be religious progressives, liberal Christians, left-leaning lovers of God, or whatever moniker we prefer on any given day, too seldom take with seriousness the obvious dangers presented by an ancient text that is rife with ideas thoroughly and dangerously out of touch with modern rational, scientific sensibilities, not to mention thoroughly at odds with our progressive natures. We know full well that the God we worship in no way sanctions any war, nor chooses sides in any conflict when wars begin, as they too often do. Yet, our Bible is replete with statements that say clearly that “YHWH chooses sides,” either Israel against all its enemies or the poor and weak against those who oppress them. In fact, it is a part of our progressive natures that God makes such choices for the poor since it is a central claim that we regularly make about our convictions about God. I suggest that we need to listen to ourselves more closely when we utter claims like these if we are to be taken seriously as Bible teachers and preachers.
Ps.66 presents us with such a dilemma. This poet unabashedly proclaims to all who would listen that because he/she is the right sort of believer, God has listened and rescued her/him from the multiple tests that the ancient world throws up. It should also be noted that the poet believes that it is exactly God who has sent these tests (Ps.66:10). Thus, the psalmist would have us aver that the God who tested her in the first place with horrid and dangerous realities is at the same time the God who saved her from each of them. I must admit that such a belief sounds to my ears faintly ridiculous, and smacks of the substitutionary theory of the crucifixion of Jesus where God decides to kill Jesus in order to cleanse the world of the sins that God has made possible for each sinner. God tempts us, kills Jesus to save us, and then blithely goes on to run the universe in this seemingly bizarre manner. Yet, that activity appears to be what this poet proclaims.
God, he says, “brought us into the net, laid burdens on our backs, let people ride over our heads,” sent us “through fire and water” (Ps.66:11-12). But despite all those tests, it was this same God “who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip” (Ps.66:9). As a direct result of this God who both tests and saves, the poet promises God to “come into your house with burnt offerings,” further promises to “pay you my vows, those that I spoke, and what my mouth promised when I was in trouble” (Ps.66:13-14). In other words, when I was undergoing the nasty tests of my life that you sent to me, God, that forced me to cry out to you that I will, if I escape all these horrors, “bring burnt offerings of fatlings, along with the smoke of sacrificial rams,” not to mention “an offering of bulls and goats,” I now fully expect you to act on my behalf.
And thank God, God did so act! "Come and hear, all you who worship God; I will tell you what God has done for me. I cried aloud to God, extolled God with my tongue.” Not only has the psalmist blackened his hands and fingers with countless sacrifices of screaming beasts, he has also matched the smoky pyres with loud exclamations of praise and thanks. And he is convinced that all this worked to his advantage because he has been oh so sincere through it all: “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, YHWH would not have listened” (Ps.66:18).
And that final announcement brings us to what may be the most dangerous idea of all. God only answers those who cry without sin, those who are pure, and those who in effect are in control of God by means of their own sanctity. As a pastor, how often did I hear people say to me, “If only I had been a better person, God would have spared my child!” If only I had not had that affair; if only I had stopped my drinking. If only, if only, if only, God would have answered my prayer. This entire psalm is based on a truly pathetic understanding of just who God is for us. God does not answer only the prayers of the righteous, however “answered prayer” may be understood (and that is a wildly complex subject!), and however the “righteous” are to be determined (an equally complex question). Whatever prayer may be, it is decidedly not a piously simplistic request to God to give us what we ask for, because we are so pure as to be able to make the request. God is far more than the gumball machine in the sky, doling out the red and green candy to those who ask rightly and remain forever pure.
I must say that Ps.66 is a relic from a theological time that I hope has passed away, but that I know sadly has not. God is larger, more mysterious, more inexplicable than we all can imagine, and because that is true, we are in no position to know precisely what God is about in our lives at every moment, in every occasion. The fact that I am saved or not from what life tosses my way is not contingent either on my pious and pure-hearted supplication or on God’s acceptance of my extravagant sacrificial acts, whether smoke-enshrouded or not. We pray because we wish connection to God, not immediate and determined response. We worship God, not because we are absolutely certain that because we do, we can fully expect God to supply our every need. I cannot believe that God’s world operates like that, precisely because I have often seen that it plainly does not!
I am happy to read a Psalm like Ps.66, but I must see it as representative of a religious viewpoint that I can no longer share. Give me instead the mysteries of Job, the sharp-angled questions of Qoheleth, and the story Jesus tells of tower builders whose piety had nothing whatever to do with their fate. There I find the world I live in, a world where I can worship a God who moves radically beyond my manipulations and simplistic requests.