Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Psalm 18: For Christians, a caricature of God’s mercy?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 12, 2024

Reflecting on Psalm 18 the other day—and indeed, attempting to pray this psalm—I suddenly realized how easy it is to read it in a way that is purely worldly, with the result that the text becomes something of a caricature of God, and of those who appear to be blessed and protected by God. This is a psalm of David, but it is clearly not the chastened David who recognized his own sins (as with Bathsheba and in taking a census of the people). It is rather the song of a David who sees the explanation of God’s blessings in terms of his own essential righteousness and the equally essential unrighteousness of his enemies.

I will not deny that there is significant truth in David’s assessment. But a Christian must adopt a different perspective. Indeed, even in Old Testament terms, David’s point of view does not make it easier to understand the dilemma explored in the Book of Job (see my February 9th commentary, On the nakedness and temerity of Job—and ourselves). In Job, God gives the lie to the notion that worldly success is a sign of a righteousness that has earned God’s favor, and that worldly trials come upon us only as a just punishment for our sins.

With these very legitimate concerns in mind, consider the following extracts from Psalm 18:

In my distress I called upon the Lord;…
Then the earth reeled and rocked;
  the foundations also of the mountains trembled
  and quaked, because he was angry….
The Lord also thundered in the heavens,
  and the Most High uttered his voice,
  hailstones and coals of fire.
And he sent out his arrows and scattered them….
He sent from on high, he took me;
  he drew me out of many waters.
He rescued me from my strong enemy
  and from those who hated me,
  for they were too mighty for me….
The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness;
  according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me.
For I have kept the ways of the Lord,
  and have not wickedly departed from my God….
So the Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness,
  according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight….
You made my enemies turn their backs to me,
  and those who hated me I destroyed.
[Ps 18:6-7, 13-14; 16-17; 20-21; 24; 40]

We are, of course, supposed to be very grateful to God whenever He extracts us from harsh human troubles, but the Christian is also supposed to understand that if God chooses to relieve our suffering, it is not owing to our own righteousness. In the first place, it is just as likely—nay, certainly more likely at some point—that He will ask us to bear a cross; in the second place, honesty compels us to admit that it is not only our opponents and our enemies who have sinned.

What we do know

It would seem that we Christians must take this kind of Psalm with a very large grain of salt when it comes to our position in this world. However, this is not quite the right way to express the point. Rather, the Christian must read this kind of Psalm in terms not of worldly success or failure but of spiritual success or failure. God’s historically concrete and socio-political dealings with Israel under the Old Covenant were an earthly foreshadowing of the spiritual relationship with God through Christ that was revealed through the New Covenant. The victory for which we must thank and praise God is not a worldly victory, for such a victory may well turn rapidly into a moral and spiritual disaster. Rather, our deepest praise and gratitude are now to be reserved for spiritual success, and particularly for the way in which God’s grace allows us to turn worldly trials into spiritual victories—that is, our growth in holiness in response to each and every suffering we are called to endure.

In other words, we are not under any circumstances to interpret our worldly “success” as a sign of our closeness to God. That would simply be another version of the prosperity gospel which misleads so many. It is as useless to identify position, power, strength and health with closeness to God as it is to think that way about “triumph” over our enemies. This is so true that we are called always to evaluate material success in terms of spiritual opportunity. We should desire a worldly triumph over our enemies only secondarily, as a natural human benefit when in accordance with God’s will. What we must desire primarily is the conversion of our enemies, even as we seek an ever-deeper conversion to Christ ourselves.

For this reason, the essential Christian goal for enemies is that they may come to know and love God, either initially or more perfectly. It is more salutary for us to offer our sufferings at their hands for this end, than it is to win any worldly victory. What we must seek, and certainly pray for, is the incorporation of our enemies into any spiritual victory our sufferings at their hands may enable us to win. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:42-45).

Children of your Father

This idea of becoming sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father is called “Divine filiation”. It is the very first point made by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Prologue, Section 1, Paragraph 1), and it is the whole purpose of God’s having made man in His own image. Or perhaps it is even better to recognize this essential point in the earliest Scriptural reference to Trinitarian love, found in the very first chapter of the Book of Genesis, when there remained only one thing for God to do to complete His astounding work of Creation: “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (1:26).

Now, after the Fall and before God the Father sent His only-begotten Son to pay the price of our sins, God wished to prepare the whole fallen human race for renewed friendship with Him by selecting one particular people to be His chosen people. This chosen people, by recognizing the one only God and accepting His covenant, would be a light to the Gentiles (see, for example, Isaiah 60) even as they prepared the way for the entry into human history of the one true light, as St. John explains from the very beginning of his Gospel:

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him…. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. [Jn 1:9-13]

It is precisely this dignity as children of God that constitutes the destiny of Christians, that is, of all those who are ultimately joined to the Body of Christ that is Christ’s Church.1 But the servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him (Jn 13:16). Therefore if we are suffering at the hands of others, our first response must be to take our share of the Cross, indeed, to make up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of His body, the Church (Col 1:24). Even so, this is not a sacrifice for the sake of excelling at sacrifice, as if those who sacrifice most deserve the greatest reward: That would be to fall into the same old trap, and to claim friendship with God based on our achievement rather than our acceptance of His mercy and love.

No, we are speaking here of the sacrifice of ourselves for the sake of mercy for others, which is what God truly desires of us all (Hos 6:6). The Christian vocation is to join our sufferings to those of Christ, as a living sacrifice of praise to the God of mercy. This God is the Father who is willing to sacrifice even His only begotten Son, the Spirit who is willing to advocate for the sinners who reject His Son, and the Son who is willing to die, so that our hearts may be softened within His heart. For within the limits imposed by that freedom without which love cannot exist, our God seeks not our own worldly victory, but simply to win the love of every man, woman and child He has made.

1 Catholics should note here that being joined to the Church is not the same thing as what we might call juridical membership in the Church. In St. Paul’s theology, for example, being joined to Christ means being joined to the Church, and being joined to the Church means being joined to Christ. The Church has always recognized that the human person can be joined to the Church without going through the normal procedures of “becoming a Catholic”. For details, see my explanation in 2010, Salvation for Non-Catholics and Limbo.

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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