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In the Psalms: A peculiar argument to win God’s favor…

In the Psalms: A peculiar argument to win God’s favor…

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bioarticlesemail ) | Apr 19, 2024

In the Psalms, one of the arguments used with some frequency by those who feel abandoned by God runs like this: First, a rhetorical question is asked about whether the dead can praise God—the presumed answer being “No”. Second, the conclusion is drawn that God should aid the one who calls upon Him—so that the one aided can sing God’s praise. This rhetorical questioning is so similar to traditional Jewish humor that one might wonder about its theological sincerity, but I believe the popularity of the argument derives from the early Jewish ambivalence about the nature of what we call “the after life”.

The reader will remember that even in Our Lord’s time on earth, the Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead but the Sadducees did not. St. Paul actually used this disagreement on one occasion to escape persecution by his fellow Jews, declaring: “Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead I am on trial” (Acts 23:6). As the next three verses explain, “When he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided”, so that the Pharisees declared “We find nothing wrong in this man.”

The Old Testament is relatively silent about what happens after death. It does testify to man’s destiny of life with God in various ways, and Our Lord pointed out that this message should have been understood as implicit since the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the God of the living, not of the dead. But before Christ the Scriptural witness to eternal life with God, and to the resurrection of the body in particular, lacks the clarity we associate with the New Testament and the Church. This enables us to recognize the poignancy of prayers like the one in Psalm 88, in which the Psalmist cries out that he is under duress, shunned by his companions, and feeling the weight of God’s wrath:

For my soul is full of troubles,
  and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
  I am a man who has no strength,
Like one set loose among the dead,
  like the slain that lie in the grave,
Like those whom you remember no more,
  for they are cut off from your hand.
[Ps 88:3-5. Sheol is the abode of the dead.]

And so the rhetorical argument follows:

Do you work wonders for the dead?
  Do the departed rise up to praise you?
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
  or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
  or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?
But I, O Lord, cry to you;
  in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?
[vv. 10-13. Abaddon is a place of destruction associated with the bottomless pit, and often linked with Sheol.]

There are a good number of Psalms in which those in distress use this sort of argument to urge God to grant them relief. The Christian will regard the argument as very weak, though it may not be quite as weak as it seems at first glance. For while it is true that God has no need of our praise and thanksgiving, and still more true that it presents no threat to God that we might one day be unable to offer it, the Jews had been carefully and forcefully taught that God desires their praise. They may not have known—just as Christians with far less excuse may not know—that this desire is for their good, not God’s. Nonetheless, God demands praise and worship from His chosen ones, and it seems a fair point to impress upon the Almighty that neither His Person nor his policies have anything to gain by His consigning to the Pit those who are willing to offer it.

Figuring it out

To inject a bit of humor into this situation, we might quote the famous line from George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, which was turned into the musical My Fair Lady, in the scene where Eliza Doolittle’s scurrilous father is seeking compensation from Professor Higgins: “I’m willing to tell you. I’m wanting to tell you. I’m waiting to tell you.” Just so might we speak to God in the hope of not being cast into the Pit. But the humor is probably appropriate only in retrospect. When we are in distress, we might even as Christians occasionally forget both our own comparative insignificance and the power of the Cross. In a burst of that human self-centeredness that is so difficult to avoid, we may suggest to God that He will gain nothing by our suffering, but only from our thanksgiving. Why ask for our tears, Lord, when you can have our praise?

The deeper reality is that without having suffered, it is very difficult to learn to praise God, for it is suffering that teaches us we are not self-sufficient. It is suffering that forces us to reflect on the the ultimate meaning of human existence. And it is suffering that makes us realize how much we need help. Psalm 88 closes, quite literally, on a dark note, though it cannot be totally dark to the Christian who applies the words to Christ:

Your wrath has swept over me;
  your dreadful assaults destroy me.
They surround me like a flood all day long;
  they close on me together.
You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;
  my companions have become darkness. [vv. 16-18]

Nonetheless, the key to understanding had already been given at the very beginning of the psalm:

O Lord, God of my salvation,
  I cry out day and night before you.
Let my prayer come before you;
  incline your ear to my cry! [vv. 1-2]

It is this opening context that makes the desolation of the closing lines perfectly acceptable, for the psalmist expresses misery not in despair but in prayer to the God of salvation. In Hebrew, the name Jesus means “God saves”, and so we might expect a fuller grasp of these realities in the gospels of the New Testament than in the psalms of the Old. But if we read Scripture the way we are supposed to—by which I mean reading the Old Testament forward in light of the New, and reading the New Testament backward in the light of the Old—then we will find the Psalms resonant with Christian experience precisely because they are resonant with human experience—experience in the care and service of one and the same God.

This is how we perfect our understanding and witness to a truth not yet fully grasped in the period when Psalm 88 was written—though of course, it can hardly be said that we grasp every aspect of it now. But we know now that God’s steadfast love really is declared even in the grave, and His faithfulness even in Abaddon—though they are declared by some only in fruitless mockery. His wonders are known in the darkness, and His righteousness even in the land of forgetfulness—for it is precisely in that land where, through the grace of repentance, we are purged of our sins, that we may remember them no more in the glorious Presence of God.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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