(Photo credit – wikipedia – shofar)
(The following is my rather liberal paraphrase of a literary gem from the Hebrew Bible. It is based on David Stern’s translation in The Complete Jewish Bible.I have eliminated the verse separations to facilitate the flow of this shockingly relevant 3000-year-old discourse on the nature of human society in the eyes of a citizen who also happens to still believe in God and His ultimate justice.)
God is very good to Israel, to those whose hearts are pure before Him.
But I lost my balance and my feet almost slipped away when I became jealous of arrogant rich and powerful people and saw how much evildoers prosper. For when their death comes it’s painless, and they stay healthy all their lives, never having the troubles of ordinary people and cruising along untouched by sickness and pain.
They wear their pride brazenly and move along openly using violence and intimidation when it suits them. They grow fat with ease in their rich lifestyle, while their minds always devise new evil which infests their hearts and oozes out into their actions. They speak with malice and scoffing while they spew out threats. They even mock God and heaven while they strut and swagger boastfully here on earth.
Many people are taken in by them and their “success” and turn to them, swallowing their “how-to-get-rich” story whole and acting like them. Those arrogant swaggerers sneer, “I don’t see any evidence that there’s a God watching! Does he even exist?”
There they are, those evil scourges of humanity, always at ease, getting rich, swelled with self-importance and power. It seems to me these days as if I’ve remained good and innocent of wrongdoing for nothing. I know nothing but trouble every day, as if I’m being punished the minute I get up in the morning.
But when I talk like this, I’m betraying my children and grandchildren. Nevertheless, it’s very troubling to think about.
Then, as I come before God to worship and stay in His presence, I see the truth about their fate. You, God, have put them on a slippery slope sliding straight into the pit of destruction. In an instant they are destroyed and swept away by sudden terrors. There is nothing left of them but dream-mist when an aroused God shows how He despises the way they live.
For a while I was angry and bitter and deeply wounded. In my anguish, I became an utterly ignorant fool myself, like one of the brute beasts you’ve made. But you did not leave me or forget me. You took me aside by the right hand and counseled and guided me. You showed me that when I die, you will receive me into your glorious realm.
So, Lord, whom do I have in heaven but you? And as to here on earth, when all is said and done, I want nothing else but you.
My body will fail and my heart may give out, but God is my real strength and my eternal home.
Those who have already gone too far and those who are even now heading far away from you will perish; the unfaithful to you are as good as destroyed already.
As for me, the nearness of God is my true good and is all that is truly desirable and good. I am making Yahweh-Adonai my refuge so that I can tell everyone who will listen of all your works.
Lately, I feel as if I really connect to Psalm 73. Previously I have experienced trouble with this and other Psalms of similar sentiment because of what seems like God’s harsh attitude in categorically rejecting those who have gone astray from Him. I sometimes find the language of the Psalms towards rebels against God brutal and vengeful in my 21st Century years.
But there is a real dilemma for anyone who gets caught up in that semantic trap – for that is what it is, a semantic trap. It springs from our post-modern, enlightened, progressivist reinterpretation of what God should be like according to us rather than the reality of who God really is. We have remade God to suit our touchy-feely ideas.
Here is the internal dialogue we postmoderns typically recite along that route: “I want everyone who claims to be good to be nice and sensitive and forgiving of everything I do. Hmm – but that means we all need to be forgiving and non-judgmental of whatever anyone does. If I want that for me from everyone else, I guess I should be that way too. (But there are limits of course, especially when people mistreat me!)
“So, if God really exists, he/she/it/they would automatically have to be all-forgiving, no matter what!. (S)he would not harshly and brutally condemn people to hell, even if they do horrible things. In fact, hell shouldn’t exist at all – so let’s just declare it can’t, it doesn’t. If God is love, and hell is full of hate, well it just can’t be real! But heaven is a great place, or would be if we didn’t have to just do everything God says all the time. I mean, how much fun would that be? So, let’s just say that “heaven” will be perfectly adaptable, according to everyone’s idea of what it should be like to be heaven for them.”
The most economical postmodern solution to this disturbing dilemma of people actually doing for-real terrible deeds while we try to make sense of them in a universe that still has a God sitting above it, is to deny there is a God. Then we don’t have to deal with the moral conundrum the inconvenient Deity creates for us poor mortals living in a painfully unjust world. Without the Supreme Being, morality is just a social construct and not a real problem – unless, of course, you happen to be on the receiving end of the injustice. Then, it’s very hard to remember as you suffer that injustice doesn’t have a true reality, just the appearance and feel of it for the recipients. The random-chance universe of inanimate evolution is just a cruel, brutal place, so cruelty and brutality are just human attributions put on something that is not personal. But, oops! All that right and wrong talk still smacks of judgment and morality! So just where does that SO inconvenient apparently innate sense of justice and morality come from anyway if the universe is devoid of it. How moral are atoms and molecules?
This is the kind of semantic game philosophers who deny there is a God or say that God is irrelevant must play to escape the trap they’ve created for themselves and everyone else who ignores or excludes God, especially a Personal God, from their understanding of life and the Cosmos. Therefore, the denial of God, and of real (in)justice and actual good and evil in the Cosmos as it is, is nothing more or less than a semantic trap. It has no exit. Only God provides an exit, but we can no longer admit that exit into public discourse and polite society. As Stephen Hawking said about the best resolution for the enigmas of how evolution could ever have happened, and time come into being, “The simplest and most elegant solution is God. But we do not have need of that hypothesis.”
Hawking was of course dead wrong; we desperately need not only the “God-hypothesis” but the actual living, Personal God, Yahweh-Adonai, the One who identifies as “I AM WHO I AM: I WILL BE WHOM I WILL BE,” “The God Who Is There!” as Francis Schaeffer put it in a book of the same title.
In ancient times, the polytheists understood this when they began to consider the nature of the gods they had fallen into worshipping and appeasing. They realized that the way they attributed frivolous human moral ambivalence and pettiness to them simply would not do. Gods who could whimsically be benevolent one day and downright malicious the next could not be worthy of worship, except out of fear. But no amount of appeasement seemed to make them any more or less benevolent. So why bother?
But few ancients were willing to say that no such thing as morality and justice really existed. They needed to make the gods more just in order to hang onto truth, so gradually they did. There were a few open atheists, like the Roman Lucretius. But he was considered rather blasphemous and certainly impious by his contemporaries. To the chagrin of his great Medieval admirer, Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, often considered the greatest ancient philosopher, if not the greatest of all time, was ambivalent about the God question. He rejected the Greek pantheon as unworthy of esteem, but, unlike his mentor Plato, was agnostic about there being a single Supreme Being. Plato concluded there must be such a Being.
In the ancient world, most everyone innately understood and accepted that there truly is good and evil at work, and that right and wrong are everyday choices to be made even in the most banal and certainly in the most significant issues in life. If we scratch enough below the surface of the regular John and Jane in the 21st-Century, I suspect the situation is little changed from our ancient progenitors. Such stubborn persistence of moral absolutism related to a belief in God may be the despair of the radical progressive set. They would dearly love to make morality as plastic and redefinable as possible in order to keep everyone moving towards full acceptance of the next crusade’s new value on the ever-morphing WOKE agenda. They can’t understand how, after setting the educational agenda for decades now in the West, ordinary folks still hold onto the “God-hypothesis” as the only logical answer to that most basic of all childhood questions, “WHY?”
This “stubborn persistence” is closely aligned to the deep malaise at work among hundreds of millions of unhappy regular citizens whose anger about fundamental inequalities and moral follies being ignored and even sanctioned as “good” is approaching boil-over temperature. John and Jane Doe see endless demands to stretch their lifestyles and values while removing their hope of economic betterment in order to suit the latest enlightenment revelations about “truth”. Outrage, we are discovering, is a two-way street. In the early 2000s, the left seemed to be the righteous outraged faction. Now the right has their own version of righteous anger. Neither faction likes it when the other takes to the streets and the barricades in wrathful outpourings. Shades of Germany in the early 1930s!
Psalm 73 is actually remarkably close to what we are discussing here, yet it was composed (as a song!) 3000 or so years ago by an Israelite worship leader named Asaf. As King Shlomo (Solomon) (an Israelite ruler close to Asaf in time) observed, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
Before we close this episode, and to prepare for our next one, let us briefly set up the discussion Asaf is embarking on in his 3000-year-old “protest” song (shades of Barry Maguire, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Neil Young!). He wasn’t a hard-swearing rapper, but he is scathing nonetheless!
Asaph, our ancient Protester (Protestant?) is talking about the conscienceless ultra-rich and powerful oppressors of the underclasses of his time. He asks all the sorts of question which any person with a still functioning conscience and sense of justice and right and wrong would ask today. He might even have been looking at the oppressive rule of Israelite Kings as he wrote this, or at least at some of his oppressive officials who, like the bloatedly opulent Kings, were using their high offices and trade and business connections to grow richer and richer while oppressing, over-taxing, and gouging the poor farmers and laborers.
Sounds like the obscene plutocratic system we see in this age, eh?
TO BE CONTINUED