Do The Psalms Read Like Fox News?

The Crossing’s church-wide Bible reading plan seems to be going well in that people of all ages (many for the first time) are systematically reading through the New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs. One of the benefits of reading widely in the Bible is that you are exposed to parts of Scripture that you haven’t read before. Of course that can produce all kinds of responses ranging from excitement about discovering a promise from God to comfort from seeing God’s love in a more profound way or even confusion when you come across passages that don’t seem to fit your expectations.

I was working out in the gym recently when a friend from church stopped to visit for a second. After saying that he was “caught up” on his Bible reading, he said that he didn’t like the Psalms at all. I have to admit that I was a bit surprised to hear that. Usually people love to read the Psalms because they express many of the emotions that we feel in our own life. When I pressed him, he said that he felt like they contained a self-righteous attitude that he found off putting. In fact he said, “I haven’t seen self-righteousness like that since the last time I watched Fox News.”

While I have no desire to enter into the highly charged debate about which network(s) you like to get your news from, I do think that it’s worth thinking about whether the Psalms are self-righteous. If they are, that’s a pretty serious issue because the rest of the Bible has some very harsh words about self-righteousness. Let’s start with why my friend might make such an assertion. Here’s one example…

Psalm 18:20-24 (ESV)
The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness;
according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me.
21 For I have kept the ways of the Lord,
and have not wickedly departed from my God.
22 For all his rules were before me,
and his statutes I did not put away from me.
23 I was blameless before him,
and I kept myself from my guilt.
24 So the Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness,
according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.

The first thing that you can say is that my friend asking the question isn’t crazy. I mean it’s reasonable to ask whether in this Psalm King David is self-righteous. I’m confident that the answer is no but I have to give him credit for reading carefully enough to ask a good, intelligent question.

So why am I confident that this isn’t a case of sinful self-righteousness and how can you find answers to your similar questions without trying to find a pastor in the gym? A good place to start is in getting the ESV Study Bible. You can get them from Barnes and Noble, Amazon, or The Crossing’s bookstore. If you look at the note on those verses, you find out 2 important pieces of information.

First, this Psalm was written by David (2 Samuel 22) after some of his most infamous sins against God namely adultery, murder, and family chaos due in at least part to his failures as a father. So surely David wasn’t thinking that he was perfect or sinless. Surely David wasn’t thinking that God was going bless him because he’d always done the right thing. David had owned up to his sin (see Psalms 32 and 51). He knew his own frailty.

Second, what a lot of new readers of the Old Testament miss is that grace and forgiveness were built into the law of God. In Exodus 34:6 God reveals himself as a forgiving God. And of course the law’s sacrificial system was a way of dealing with sin before God. So when David says that he “kept the ways of the Lord” or was “blameless before him,” part of what he’s saying is that he’s sought God’s mercy and forgiveness. We might say that we feel like we are walking with God or are in a season of real spiritual growth. Now when we say that, we are not saying that we have arrived spiritually or are without sin. At least in light of 1 John 1:8 I hope that’s not what we mean. Instead I hope that what we mean is that we are seeking to believe God’s promises and obey his teachings. And of course part of believing and obeying is confessing our sin and our great and unending need for God’s grace and mercy in Christ.

So do the Psalms smack of self-righteousness? No, not if properly understood. But kudos to anyone reading carefully enough to get confused, ask questions, and pursue answers.

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