Posted by: Keith Clark | April 6, 2011

Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Wrongs

Reading through Psalm 26 today, I encountered this proud declaration:

I do not sit with the deceitful,
nor do I associate with hypocrites.
I abhor the assembly of evildoers
and refuse to sit with the wicked.
I wash my hands in innocence,
and go about your altar, Lord,
proclaiming aloud your praise
and telling of all your wonderful deeds.

Almost instantly, I thought of the accusation recorded repeatedly in the gospels, “He eats with tax collectors and sinners.” Moments later, Jesus’s parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector came to mind, particularly the Pharisee’s proud declaration, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people….”

According to those in the know, the Psalms served as the hymnal, the songbook, for the first-century Jews as they gathered for worship. It’s not a stretch to imagine that many, if not most, Jews in Jesus’s day would have known by heart this psalm from their worship assemblies. The case can then be made that the accusation, “He eats with tax collectors and sinners,” and the proud declaration, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people,” arose from the worship of God’s people. One can perhaps argue whether this was the original intent of the psalm, but having sung these words their whole lives and taken them to heart, how could anyone possibly blame them for their accusations and declarations?

Jesus does not seem particularly interested in assigning blame; doing so would hardly have set him apart from anybody else in the world. He does, however, seem particularly interested in insisting with his words, and even more importantly with his life, that such accusations and declarations reveal their speakers’ serious misunderstanding of God’s desires for the world and for the people of God. Such misunderstanding was likely fostered in part by a song that was accepted and cherished by the people of God.

I can’t help but wonder whether some of the songs the church not only accepts, but cherishes, are fostering misunderstandings which might lead to the speaking of words or the doing of actions that are as opposed to God’s mission in the world as the accusations and declarations of Jesus’s contemporaries. If so, the question looms, “What do we do when psalms and hymns result in spiritual wrongs?”

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