Discouragement strikes when we observe ingrained wickedness. The discouragement may grow into resentment and anger when apparent absence of justice shocks us. Fear and terror swell in our minds as we contemplate the victory of evil over righteousness. We consider surrender to what seems a most determined foe.
Psalm 36 contemplates this type of ingrained wickedness:
“Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in their hearts; there is no fear of God before their eyes. For they flatter themselves in their own eyes that their iniquity cannot be found out and hated. The words of their mouths are mischief and deceit; they have ceased to act wisely and do good. They plot mischief while on their beds; they are set on a way that is not good; they do not reject evil” (Ps. 36:1-4 NRSV).
Victims of crimes like spouse abuse, rape, or identity theft know those of whom the Psalmist speaks. They felt pain as people who believed that they would not be discovered or held responsible struck against them. They have seen the arrogance of the determined sinner, arrogance and determination so entrenched that the perpetrator may have forgotten the distinction between good and evil. Certainly such offenders seem not to fear God, or the authorities God has empowered to administer justice. The Apostle Paul notes: “…if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrong doer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience“(Romans 13:4,5).
The wicked of Psalm 36 have lost the fear of God and the restraint of conscience. Aware of the threat they pose to him, the Psalmist prays:
“Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your judgments are like the great deep; you save humans and animals alike, O Lord. How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light. O continue your steadfast love to those who know you, and your salvation to the upright of heart! Do not let the foot of the arrogant tread on me, or the hand of the wicked drive me away” (Psalm 36:5-11).
The nature of God gives us hope when it seems there is no reason for hope. When people we love betray us, or people we trust defraud us, God’s reliable love shines in contrast to the darkness of their acts; “in his light we see light.” God’s love is concrete; the prayer resonates with awareness of the depth and generosity of God’s provision for his people. The emotionally and spiritual dehydrated drink from the river of his delights. God provides the refugee from wickedness with secure refuge.
The Psalmist, having described the force of wickedness, calls for fire against its attack: “O continue your steadfast love to those who know you and your salvation to the upright of heart!” He cries for rescue from the arrogant and the wicked. In his faith, he proclaims the results of God’s anticipated support: “There the evildoers lie prostrate; they are thrust down, unable to rise.”
The prayer’s assertion that “all people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings” echoes an earlier biblical prayer, that of Boaz for the Moabite widow Ruth, who had come to Israel with her Israelite mother-in-law after both their husbands had died. In Ruth 2:12, Boaz notes that Ruth had come under the protective wings of the Lord, the God of Israel, for refuge. The prayer of Psalm 36 also notes, “You save humans and animals alike” (Ps. 36:6b). God’s merciful love reaches across divisions of ethnicity, gender, and species.
We want to surrender when under steady attack. The prayer of Psalm 36 reminds us that we pray to a God whose love and care remain constant. The prayer encourages us to know God and to remain among those who seek righteousness and justice. Some acts against us wreck our trust in anyone, including God. This prayer reminds us that God’s love is infinite, that he will exact justice on behalf of his people.