May 14, 2010

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

What the psalms say about God’s judgment

John F. Fink(Fourteenth in a series of columns)

Last week, I noted that, when the psalms were written, the Israelites didn’t believe in life after death. Since the writers of the psalms didn’t expect a heavenly reward, they thought about God’s judgment differently than we do.

Christians tend to fear, or at least dread, God’s judgment. Perhaps it’s that “Catholic guilt” we sometimes hear about.

When we pray in the Nicene Creed that we believe that Christ “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” I think it is the rare Catholic who looks forward to it.

We think of ourselves much as defendants in a criminal court. Or we think of Christ’s parable of the sheep and the goats in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel and hope that we can be among the sheep.

The Israelites, though, prayed for God’s judgment against their enemies and expected God to be on their side: “Defend me because you are just, Lord; my God, do not let them gloat over me” (Ps 35:24).

They viewed themselves more as plaintiffs in civil courts and they, themselves, of course, were innocent: “Grant me justice, Lord, for I am blameless, free of any guilt” (Ps 7:9).

Granted, this is not always true. Psalm 143, for example, prays, “Do not enter into judgment with your servant; before you no living being can be just” (Ps 143:2). And the Miserere (Psalm 51), prays, “I have done such evil in your sight that you are just in your sentence” (Ps 51:6), certainly like a defendant in a criminal case.

But these are exceptions. Generally, the psalms assume that God’s judgments will always benefit the individual or the nation.

Many of the psalms call on God to judge the nations that are Israel’s enemies and wonder what is taking God so long: “God, do not be silent; God, be not still and unmoved; see how your enemies rage; your foes proudly raise their heads” (Ps 83:2-3), and, “How long, Lord? Will you be angry forever? Will your rage keep burning like fire? Pour out your wrath on nations that reject you, on kingdoms that do not call on your name” (Ps 79:5-6).

The Israelites believed, at least for a period, that the pagan gods were subordinate divine beings to whom Israel’s God delegated oversight of foreign countries. Psalm 82 says that God is arising in the divine counsel to judge those subordinate gods for judging unjustly: “I declare: ‘Gods though you be, offspring of the Most High all of you, yet like any mortal you shall die; like any prince you shall fall’” (Ps 82:6-7).

Jesus used these verses (see Jn 10:34) to show that those to whom the word of God is addressed can appropriately be called “gods,” and, therefore, he could not be accused of blasphemy when he said, “I am the Son of God” (Jn 10:36).

The psalmists firmly believed that they had nothing to fear from God’s judgment because “God is a just judge” (Ps 7:12), he “judges the peoples with fairness” (Ps 9:9), and he will “give the proud what they deserve” (Ps 94:2). †

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