Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Sermon Series: Psalm 73, A God-Centric Life, Part 3

The Characters
In a story character is what produces action and the action of the character moves the plot. In every story there is a central character called the protagonist and any character that is set against them is referred to as the antagonist. Also, antagonists often function as foils for the main character. In other words, the antagonist’s function is to accentuate or clarify or reinforce the qualities of the central character by presenting something like the photographic negative. One more point about characters: the protagonist’s experience is presented in a story as an “experiment in living” and is “representative”. Storytellers use the main character to teach something true about life. In this case what a real relationship with God is like. Let’s look at the protagonist and the antagonist of the story.

The Pure-in-heart person (vv. 2, 13, 28). The main character of the story is the author himself. He uses the first-person throughout the song. We should take the terms in verse 1, “Israel” and the “pure in heart”, to be a self-identification: The author is a member of the people of God and is faithful to the covenant. He says as much in fact in verse 13 although sardonically: “All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence”. The storyteller’s most encompassing description of himself is as one who is “near God” (v. 28).

The Arrogant-wicked person (vv. 3, 4-12, 27). By comparison however, the songwriter says a great deal more about the antagonist in the story, the “arrogant-wicked” person. The songwriter paints a profile of the arrogant-wicked person with a litany of poetically tailored phrases in verses 4-12. 
  • v. 4a – They are described as “having no pangs until death” (ESV). In other words they don’t suffer in this life.
  • v. 4b – They are “fat and sleek” (ESV); another translation renders this “their bodies are healthy and strong” (NLT).
  • v. 5 – They are not “in trouble as others are” and not “stricken” like everyone else; their carefree. As the NLT usefully translates, “They’re not plagued with problems like everyone else”
  • v. 6b – “Violence covers them like a garment”
  • v. 7 – “Their eyes swell out through fatness”. The NJB more graphically renders this “From their fat oozes malice”. In other words, their obesity results in sin.
  • v. 8 –  “They scoff and speak with malice and “threaten oppression”. 
  • vv. 9-10 – The Hebrew text behind verse 10 is uncertain. Translations vary from our ESV to the NET, which reads Therefore they have more than enough food to eat, and even suck up the water of the sea”. Given the context I’m persuaded that the NET Bible’s got this one right. Therefore, verses 9 and 10 are saying that the wicked hoard and consume all the natural resources; they perpetuate injustice by their insatiable appetites.
  • v. 11 – “They say ‘How can God know? Is there any knowledge in the Most High?’” They are unbelieving.
The songwriter rounds his description off with a summary: “These are the wicked: always at ease, they increase in riches” (v. 12).

In presenting such a comprehensive description of the “arrogant-wicked” person, I’m compelled to reflect on what the author is trying to say. Has the songwriter’s intention been to present a  profile of a real person or group of people? Does such a kind of person exist in reality? Can anyone, save the rare exception, be described by this profile? Well some interpreters will no doubt take the depiction as accurately presenting those far from God. But I’m not so sure.

If fact, I’m inclined to think that if we do—if we take the writer’s description at face value, we’ll miss his point at best and at worst will come away with a sectarian attitude toward those who are not in a relationship with God that is false. Mishandling a text like this can undermine our relationships with those outside the church. It is not uncommon for some conservative Christians to see the people in only binary terms. It can be surprising and disturbing when we meet people who are not Christians, who have no interest in God or the church, who are, nevertheless, wonderful people.

If this is not to be taken as a straightforward description, what does it mean? Let’s consider the arrogant-wicked character through a narrative lens: what is the function of the “arrogant-wicked” person in the story? When the Psalm is viewed as a story the antagonist is obviously the foil to the protagonist. Thus, there is a literary purpose for the lengthy and comprehensive profile of the “Aarogant-wicked person”. It is not however to be a taken as a true or real description of any particular person or group. The profile serves to accentuate and clarify the nature of the “pure of heart” person. The antagonist represents the photographic negative of the protagonist.

The function of the profile is to expose the nature of the “Pure in heart person”. The person who has a real relationship with God lives a certain kind of lifestyle and it is seen in contrast to the portrait of the wicked. Let’s go back through the list. A person in relationship with God is
  • humble,
  • vulnerable,
  • frugal,
  • trustful,
  • just,
  • peaceful,
  • satisfied, and 
  • persevering.
The characters in the story, then, have given us our second characteristic:

Characteristic Two: A real relationship with God is characterized by a life of justice, humility, faith, peace, frugality and perseverance.

John Chyrsostom, the late fourth-century church father, who had the nickname “golden mouth” because of what a fine preacher he was, believed this deeply. He once sold the golden chalices that were used during the Eucharist to give the proceeds to the poor. He declared: “you make golden vessels, but Christ himself is starving”. He believed that one cannot be rich without keeping others poor: “To grow rich”, he said, “without injustice is impossible”.

Now turning finally to the plot. 

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