Arise, O Lord my God in the decree which You have commanded, and the assembly of the peoples will surround You; over it take Your seat on high.
The Lord shall judge the people; give me justice, O Lord, according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me.
O let the evil of the wicked come to an end, but establish the righteous, You who sound the depths of hearts and reins, O righteous God.
My righteous help is from God who saves the upright in heart.
God is a righteous judge, strong and patient, who does not make his wrath felt every day.
If you will not repent, God will whet His sword; He has bent His bow and made it ready
On it He has fitted instruments of death; He has fashioned His arrows for those who rage.
Behold, the wicked man conceives evil, and is pregnant with mischief, and brings forth lies.
He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole which he has made.
His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own pate his violence descends.
I will give tho the Lord the thanks due to His righteousness and I will sing praise to the name of the Lord, the Most High.
Psalm 7: 6b to end [monastery translation]
One of the matters weighing on my heart when I came to the monastery was my inability to help my Protestant friends understand what the wrath of God is and isn’t. From an Orthodox perspective, God does not get angry. Of course when I say that, my Protestant friends immediately quote verses like those found in Psalm 7 above. The only compromise I have been able to find is that they will agree that God is not angry in the same way that fallen human beings are angry.
However, it dawned on me this morning that perhaps part of the confusion lies in the different ways that Orthodox and Protestant Christians have traditionally read the Bible, especially the Psalms. The Orthodox read the Psalter as a continuous prayer. They read it out loud in large sections, reading through the entire Psalter every week (and twice a week in Lent, in the traditional pattern). They read it as a sort of narrative of the soul, as actual conversation and communion with God. Protestants, on the other hand, have the tendency to read the Bible as a source of proof texts, a source of information about God to be understood and fit together like a puzzle, and sometimes even as a source of promises to be claimed. This is a huge over generalization, I know. Nevertheless, as historic tendencies, or emphases, I think my generalization is close.
This is, at least, what I experienced when I spoke to my Protestant friends last week. When I suggested that the wrath of God had nothing to do with God venting His anger, their response was to quote individual verses, as though that should have ended the discussion–unless I could respond with counter verses. But generally speaking, Orthodox Christians do not read the Bible as a collection of verses to be quoted to make theological points. Consequently, I could not engage my friends in any useful way because to attempt to challenge verse with verse would have been a kind of betrayal for me.
In this essay, I would like to take a look at Psalm 7 as the Orthodox Church encounters it as prayer–or at least as I have come to encounter it in the Church as prayer. My hope is that those who have come to understand God as angry, wrathful and even vindictive, will come to see that there is another reading of the Bible that is, I believe, more faithful to the God we have come to know in prayer. This is a reading that is traditionally Orthodox and consistent with the God we know in Jesus Christ through the Gospels.
The section I quote above begins with a resurrectional verse that is quoted in the Pascal Liturgy: Arise, O Lord my God in the decree which you have commanded, and the assembly of the peoples with surround you. From the Resurrection we move to the Ascension: Over it [the assembly] take your seat on high. Then God reveals the Judgement: The Lord shall judge the people. Judgement is the theme of the next several verses. These verses are understood eschatologically. That is, they are understood as referring to the Kingdom of God that is already and not yet; the Kingdom that will come and that we already begin to encounter.
We, with the psalmist, pray that God will judge us according to our righteousness and integrity–a righteousness that both is ours in Christ and is becoming ours in Christ–becoming ours as we cooperate with the Grace of God through repentance. We pray that the evil of the wicked will come to an end. Notice that it is not the wicked as people who must pass away, but the evil of the wicked people. And only God Himself can judge this, who sounds the depths of hearts and reins. Further, this Judgement comes out from God who is able (righteous and Strong), and who is also patient and does not make His wrath felt every day (Septuagint reading). This not making His wrath felt is then explained: If you do not repent…. Already God could allow His Wrath to be felt, but He is giving humanity time to repent–in fact, that is a large part of what time is: a reality in which change is possible. God has prepared all of the instruments of death (His sword, His bow). Yet God is waiting.
What, then, is this wrath resulting in death? Is it God finally losing control of His anger, a passionate anger like fallen human anger, and finally lashing out and killing all who offend Him? No, the next verses explain.
Behold, the wicked man conceives evil, and is pregnant with mischief, and brings forth lies. What the wicked man experiences is the fruit of what he himself has conceived. He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole which he has made. Man creates his own hell. The pit of hell he falls into is the very pit he spent his life digging for himself. His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own pate his violence descends. The wrath, death in all of its forms, that falls on the head of man is the direct result of his own mischief. His violence is the recompense that descends on him.
This verse reminds me of the words of Lanza del Vasto, a Roman Catholic philosopher of the 20th century, who said something like this: If you throw rocks in the air, do not blame God for casting stones on your head. Yes, I could say that the stone that falls on my head is the wrath of God–for God created a universe in which rocks thrown in the air fall back down–but the direct cause of this wrath of God is not God, but my own stupidity. And more than this, in as much as I share in a common humanity, I also share in the common consequence of human sin. The particular suffering and death I experience is not necessary the result of my particular sins (my particular rocks thrown in the air), but may be the rocks of my ancestors and neighbours–as if some rocks like meteors in descending orbit gather together and fall in showers for no apparent reason.
The last verse of the Psalm offers God thanks for His righteousness. And this is what we give thanks for: even in judgement, God is righteous. God has so structured the universe that humanity reaps what it sows. God knows the heart; God even withholds the consequences of sin, what we call His wrath. God withholds His wrath out of love. God gives us time to repent, to turn to Him and be radiant so that our faces will not be ashamed, as it says in another Psalm. God shines on those who turn to Him, and this radiance is experienced as Glory. But God’s light cannot be hid, and those who cling to empty vanity experience that same radiance as torment, as wrath, because the empty things that they have loved are shown to be just that: empty.