Saturday, January 18, 2014

Psalm 143

I have two items for my blog post today about Psalm 143.

1.  I read an article by Richard B. Hays entitled “Psalm 143 and the Logic of Romans 3.”  It appeared in the March 1980 Journal of Biblical Literature.

Hays is talking in that article about a debate among scholars about the meaning of the “righteousness of God” in Romans.  Romans 3:21 states: “But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets” (KJV).  Romans 10:3 has, “For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God” (KJV). What is this righteousness of God in Romans?  Is it the righteousness that God imputes to the believer in Christ, or is it God’s own righteousness and faithfulness?

Hays notices that Psalm 143 and Romans 3 have a common theme, namely, the sinfulness of humanity.  Psalm 143:2 states, “And enter not into judgment with thy servant: for in thy sight shall no man living be justified” (KJV).  Hays also notes that Psalm 143 mentions the righteousness of God.  V 1 affirms, “Hear my prayer, O LORD, give ear to my supplications: in thy faithfulness answer me, and in thy righteousness” (KJV).  V 11 has, “Quicken me, O LORD, for thy name’s sake: for thy righteousness’ sake bring my soul out of trouble” (KJV).  Hays interprets the righteousness of God in Romans in light of Psalm 143: that God is righteous in that God is faithful to sinners.  God loves sinful human beings and is righteous in saving them.

I think that Hays is on to something, but I also believe that more is going on in Psalm 143.  Does the Psalmist in Psalm 143 want for God to be faithful to sinners?  Well, he desires for God to be faithful to him, and he acknowledges that he himself is a sinner.  But he also asks God to cut off his enemies, the ones who are afflicting him (v 12).  The Psalmist doesn’t want for God to be faithful to those particular sinners.

What is the difference between the Psalmist and those other sinners, since everyone sins?  I think that it is that the Psalmist in Psalm 143 thirsts for God and wants God to lead him into righteous paths.  Should Christians therefore desire for God to cut off the human beings who do not believe in God or desire God, or who are not particularly interested in conforming their lives to high moral standards (not that the two are the same, for there are plenty of moral atheists)?  I don’t think so.  In my opinion, there is something beautiful about the standard Christian truism that we should desire the redemption of everyone, wherever he or she may be spiritually.  But one has to remember the sorts of people whom the Psalmist is criticizing: they were afflicting him.  It is understandable that the Psalmist would want for God to deal with that problem.  Still, I tend to admire Jesus and Stephen even more: they prayed for their persecutors, asking God to show their enemies mercy.

2.  Psalm 143:3 states (in the KJV): “For the enemy hath persecuted my soul; he hath smitten my life down to the ground; he hath made me to dwell in darkness, as those that have been long dead.”

What the KJV translates as “long dead” is mete olam.  The LXX has vekroos aionosOlam and aionos are words that are frequently discussed in debates about hell.  They can mean eternity, and those who believe in eternal torment in hell maintain that the aionion punishment in such passages as Matthew 25:46 means eternal punishment.  Universalists, however, point out that olam and aionos do not necessarily mean eternal, for they can mean age, or simply a very long time.

In light of that debate, it was interesting to read about the different interpretations of mete olam or nekroos aionos in Psalm 143:3.  You can see that the KJV translates the phrase as “long dead”; in that case, it interprets olam as a long time, not as eternity.  Augustine, who himself believed in eternal torment, likewise does not interpret aionos in reference to eternity in Psalm 143:3, for he believes that the phrase is about the dead of the world (aionos can mean world), the sinful dead (see here).  According to Augustine, Psalm 143:3 is saying that Jesus was treated like the dead of the world in that he was crucified and buried and went down to Hades, and yet Jesus was not like the dead of the world because he himself did not deserve death.  The Targum interprets mete olam to mean the dead of this age (I draw here from Edward Cook’s translation).

Keil-Delitzsch refer to biblical passages that may illuminate the mete olam of Psalm 143:3.  First, there is Ecclesiastes 12:5, which refers to the beyt olam (house of olam) to which the dead go, while mourners travel the market.  Olam there may mean eternity, since the dead could conceivably be in that house of the dead forever, whether Qoheleth believed that the dead went to the grave and stayed there forever (Ecclesiastes 3:19; 9:5), or rather that the dead went up to heaven (Ecclesiastes 12:7).

Second, there is Ezekiel 26:20, where God threatens to send Tyre to the pit, where it will be with the people of olam.  The verse later mentions a low land that is like waste from olam.  The KJV and other versions understand the am olam to mean people of long ago, and the waste from olam to be places long desolate.  Brenton’s translation of the Septuagint for Ezekiel 26:20, however, refers to “everlasting desolation.”  Most likely, in my opinion, olam in Ezekiel 26:20 means ancient, not eternity, and it concerns people of old who were once mighty and renowned.  But I wonder if there have been interpreters who have regarded the olam of Ezekiel 26:20 as a reference to an eternal sentence for the wicked: that the people of olam are called that because they have been sentenced to be dead and in the underworld for all eternity.

Third, there is Jeremiah 51:39, which states regarding Babylon: “In their heat I will make their feasts, and I will make them drunken, that they may rejoice, and sleep a perpetual sleep, and not wake, saith the LORD” (KJV).  There, the idea seems to be that death will be perpetual for Babylon.  We don’t see eternal torment here, but we do see an eternal death from which Babylon will not awake.  Is the Psalmist in Psalm 143:3 afraid that he is on the brink of becoming one who is dead forever, with no hope of escape?

Keil-Delitzsch say that Psalm 143:3 means that the Psalmist feels as if he has been buried forever.  That could be.

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