Psalm 55:16–19; Job 34:1–28; 1 Corinthians 7:25–40

Psalm 55:16–19: This passage (among others elsewhere in Psalms) disturbs many Christians because it wishes the very worst on the psalmist’s enemies: “May death come upon them./ May they go down to Sheol alive.” (16) And there’s no ambiguity that this is something other than a prayer to God: “For in their homes, in their midst, are evils./ But I call to God.” (16b, 17a).

So what are we to do with this (as the theologians call it) imprecatory psalm?  After all, Jesus told us to turn the other cheek and to love our enemies. Surely, the psalmist can’t be serious here? Do we just feel uncomfortable and move on?

I think the psalmist himself gives us a clue as to the nature of these curses wished upon his enemies when he says, “Evening and morning and noon/ I complain and moan, and He hears my voice.” (18) The psalmist knows that vengeance is God’s and not his, but that does not prevent him from “complaining and moaning” to God in prayer. These imprecations are the psalmist’s deepest emotions and there is no one other than God at whom he can shout and shake his fist. He knows that God can take it, and that whatever happens to his enemies is solely God’s affair. The lesson to us is clear: we can shout all we want to God, but when it comes to human relationships it is Jesus’ words that we must follow.

Job 34:1–28: Elihu lays out Job’s case before God, saying, “Let us choose what is right;/ let us determine among ourselves what is good.” (4) First, he neatly summarizes Job’s position: “For Job has said, ‘I am innocent,/and God has taken away my right;/ in spite of being right I am counted a liar;/ my wound is incurable, though I am without transgression.’” (5,6)

Then he summarizes God’s position: “far be it from God that he should do wickedness,” (10) and then, “Of a truth, God will not do wickedly,/ and the Almighty will not pervert justice.” (12) Therefore, Elihu argues, it’s logically impossible for God to be unjust: “Shall one who hates justice govern?/ Will you condemn one who is righteous and mighty,…who shows no partiality to nobles,/ nor regards the rich more than the poor,” (17, 19a) for the very simple reason that “they are all the work of his hands.” (19b)

As for the wicked, Elihu argues, “He shatters the mighty without investigation,/ and sets others in their place.” (24) and “He strikes them for their wickedness/ while others look on, /because they turned aside from following him,” (26), which seems a clear reference to Job and his friends. To use the modern idiom, Elihu is saying to Job, “God is punishing you, Job, for your wickedness; get over it.” 

So while Elihu has spoken more clearly and forthrightly than the three friends–and even Job–t=it’s still very much deuteronomic theology: Your punishment is a consequence of your sins. Sigh.

1 Corinthians 7:25–40: This passage gives us a sense of the urgency with which Paul preached. Urgency because I think he felt Christ’s return was imminent as he advises virgins and those contemplating marriage, “in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are.” (26) Then, Paul follows with his low view of marriage: “Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that.” (28b) in the name of sparing people “from distress.”

Why does Paul so dislike marriage? Because it is distracting form our focus on Christ: “The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord;but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife.” (32b, 33). Well, yes, that’s true. And this is certainly a proof text for the Catholic Church’s position on celibate priests and unmarried religious. Nevertheless, I think Paul is underestimating the drive of human nature (“let the two become as one”) and/or overestimating the reality that not everyone is blessed with his own superlative willpower.

Paul does eventually bow to reality, recognizing human nature will out, as long as self-control is involved (which is good advice): “if someone stands firm in his resolve, being under no necessity but having his own desire under control, and has determined in his own mind to keep her as his fiancée, he will do well. But he nevertheless sees marriage as a lower estate than singleness (which of course to him meant celibacy): “ So then, he who marries his fiancée does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.” (38). 

However, at the end of this passage I detect just a hint of defensiveness: “I think that I too have the Spirit of God.” (40). Paul is trying to say this advice is coming from the Holy Spirit, but there’s just that tiny note of uncertainty in “I think.”

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