Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Salvation and redemption in the Psalms, and in our hearts

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 22, 2024

The Book of Psalms is a remarkable collection of sung prayers which probe nearly every aspect of both the evil and the good that we do, and of our dependence on God for deliverance from the evil. But the themes can vary from concern about the trials of this world to concern about our eternal destiny. And while God is always the source of deliverance through His mighty power, the concept of redemption—that is, of God paying a price to free us from captivity to evil or death—is mentioned only sparingly, and with little or no development of what the word implies.

This is hardly surprising. Our natural awareness of sin and guilt suggests that we should have to pay for our own sins. The idea that God will not extract full payment of the debt of sin from us, but instead will take it upon Himself, is never explicit in the Old Testament. To be understood and believed, it required a living demonstration in Jesus Christ, the Son of God Himself. That God might “redeem” us by force, through His mighty power to rout those who do evil, is a common expectation in the psalms. But that God might pay a price for our sins is not.

Similarly, there is greater emphasis in the psalms on the difference between evildoers and those who keep God’s covenant, with the latter needing rescuing from the former, than there is on the recognition that we all sin and must all repent. Nonetheless, personal responsibility for sin and the need for repentance among those who take God’s ordinances seriously does find sufficient expression to get our attention. Those who pray the psalms reflectively are unlikely to come away oblivious to their own sins, or proud to be among the elect. But all of this is part of the preparation for Christ.

The psalms are quite capable of prompting contrition, and they are at once beautiful, touching, encouraging, and inspiring, but the real price of redemption is not disclosed.

Preparatory reflections on redemption

Perhaps the most chilling of all the psalms is Psalm 39, which is a plea from one who believes he has tried to be upright yet feels as if he is always being punished: “Deliver me from all my transgressions. Do not make me the scorn of the fool! I am mute; I do not open my mouth, for it is you who have done it. Remove your stroke from me; I am spent by the hostility of your hand” (Ps 39:8-10). The psalm ends with a remarkable plea from one who feels the weight of God heavy upon him: “Look away from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more!” (13). I think it is possible for someone to feel this way, continually distressed rather than consoled by God’s presence, and interpreting all as punishment and nothing as mercy. But to the degree to which it is possible, it is heart-breaking. There is too much that is not yet understood.

Greater understanding is reflected in the few psalms that express the idea of Divine redemption, but this is redemption in a worldly sense through God’s exercise of power over one’s enemies. Thus in Psalm 44, there is a frustration with God for not acting to rescue His people from trials even when they have been faithful: “Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever…. Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!” (23-26) In Psalm 107, there is a similar worldly notion of redemption. This psalm proclaims: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever! Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, whom he has redeemed from trouble” (1-2). But it goes on to describe four different worldly perils in which the people found themselves, each followed by this refrain: “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress” (6, 13, 29, 28).

Justice in the world and Divine longing

Several other psalms emphasize Divine justice, usually in terms of the destruction of the wicked and the rewarding of the righteous, without entering into the concept of redemption. A stellar example of this type is Psalm 37, which begins:

Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers! For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb. Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness. Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. (1-4)

The psalm explains that the evil of the wicked will recoil on themselves, and its confidence that the Lord will deliver the good from the wicked seems still to be a worldly confidence. For example: “The Lord helps [the righteous] and delivers them; he delivers them from the wicked and saves them, because they take refuge in him” (40).

At the same time, some psalms focus on the interior response to troubles in ways that show a remarkable understanding of human nature. In Psalm 42 the psalmist captures an aspect of being human that all those who have advanced a little in the interior life can recognize—namely that our overall feelings are not always in tune with the convictions of our soul. It is as if the higher region of our soul needs to speak to the lower region, or what we call our “heart” (to which the psalmist refers with the same word “soul”):

As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God…. Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you…. Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. (1-2, 5-6, 11)

Different fates for the wicked and the good

There is often a very strong moral sense in the psalms, a distinction between those who do evil and those who do good. Sometimes their respective fates are described as worldly results, a point of view which the Book of Job rejects (see my commentary last month, On the nakedness and temerity of Job—and ourselves). Indeed, under the Old Covenant, God did often deal with His chosen people in this way, sometimes dramatically singling out and punishing those who had violated His injunctions. At other times, however, the whole people suffered, and there is a deeper sense that the scales will not be balanced until after death—but that they will very definitely be recalibrated then.

Among the psalms that suggest an ultimate reckoning which is not necessarily reflected in this world are these:

  • Psalm 73 at least implies an otherworldly judgment. It is a lament over how the wicked multiply and prosper, and the psalmist admits that “as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (2-3). And there follows a long description of how the wicked prosper, until the psalmist records how he came to a fuller understanding: “But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end…. How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors!” (16-19)
  • Psalm 92 makes no bones about this question of the difference between the ultimate fate of the good and the evil: “The stupid man cannot know; the fool cannot understand this: that though the wicked sprout like grass and all evildoers flourish, they are doomed to destruction forever.”

In Psalm 92 the eschatological perspective has come fully into play—that is, the perception of what we call the last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. The writer has reached an understanding of how God ultimately balances the scales, not necessarily in this life, but in the final analysis.

Life with God

Some psalms reflect a higher understanding still, an understanding of what it means to love and worship God in spirit and in truth, rather than just through prescribed rules and rituals, and in these we come to the very edge of the Christian vision. One of them, Psalm 49, also incorporates the concept of redemption that we saw earlier in some psalms that had a more worldly perspective. Consider verse 12, repeated in verse 20, which ends the psalm: “Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish.” But then consider verse 15: “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.”

Interestingly, there is no discussion of exactly why God will ransom some souls and not others. But the psalmist insists that he has no reason to fear “in times of trouble, when the iniquity of those who cheat me surrounds me, those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches” (5-6) because, no matter how wealthy, “no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live on forever and never see the pit” (7-9). No, “their graves are their homes forever” (11). But in contrast to the fate of “man in his pomp”, the psalmist knows that God will ransom “me”, that is, a different sort of man entirely—or so he believes.

Clearly we have not yet arrived at the Christian understanding that we are all sinners. The psalmist’s worldview still divides all of humanity into two parts, whereas the Christian view is that all are ransomed by Christ—but some simply refuse to accept the blessing. In any case, Psalm 50 begins to distinguish more helpfully between those who worship God through their way of life, and those who do not, and the different fates of each: “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me” (14-15). But to the wicked God says: “What right have you to recite my statutes or take my covenant on your lips” (16)? In this psalm the idea of Divine deliverance is also very strong, though it does not quite capture the concept of redemption that we saw elsewhere.

Scaling the heights

I have been drawing here on the instances in the psalms that I have especially noticed in the past; doubtless there are many others. But among those I recall, I think the full heights are scaled in Psalm 51, in which the text reflects most profoundly the relationship between our own unworthiness and God’s transforming love—if only we will accept it, if only we will desire it with all our hearts. Truly, the Book of Psalms includes something appropriate for each of us, in all our different moods, in all our different levels of understanding, in all our different troubles, and in all our different weaknesses. So I will close simply with a portion of Psalm 51, one of the loftiest of them all:

Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow…. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me…. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. [7-12, 17]

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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  • Posted by: loumiamo4057 - Mar. 23, 2024 7:14 AM ET USA

    So many of us today have family and friends who have left the church and when we try and speak to them about returning they like to do a John 3:16 and act like that verse is all they need. And so my question is, can someone who has left the church claim "a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise" as a sort of Old Testament John 3:16? A sort of put them both together and play some Frank Sinatra. After all, My Way is a good tune.