For over a decade, I have been associating the message of Old Testament psalms to their corresponding calendar year. As our nation prepares to enter the 13th year of the current millennium, I consequently pose the following question: “What does the 13th Psalm have to say to the 13th Year of the 21st Century?” More specifically, “What does the 13th Psalm have to say to a nation wrestling with the effects of global wickedness?”
The horrific shooting of children and adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut is a national tragedy that elicits grief, outrage and inquiries into what can be done to avert the likelihood of similar heartbreaks. The shooting is the prevalent topic of politicians, media pundits, educators and pastors throughout the country as community leaders try to offer comfort and understanding to their respective constituents.
While passionate arguments can be advanced that convincingly sustain their respective ideologies, quick-fix surveillance, mental health, and 2nd Amendment gun control remedies are, unfortunately, not sufficient to curtail future acts of wickedness. No matter how genuine a solution to such impasses might at first appear, it must, by necessity, pass the rigor of responding to repressed root spiritual causes and not only to the most perspicuous of summary symptoms.
If the Columbine, Virginia Tec, Aurora, and Sandy Hook massacres have taught the American nation anything – it is that evil exists and that no one is immune from its foul effects. While some suggest that these episodes are the direct result of economic and inter-generational changes, the urge to describe such acts of wickedness as societal phenomena that have only recently come into being should be firmly overruled!
Striking patterns have emerged among recent mass shootings that provide valuable insights to their origin. The infamous perpetrators cluster as troubled, adolescent and sometime middle-aged white males who are often described as intelligent, quiet, yet abnormally aloof. Tragically, these increasingly isolated individuals have expressed their bitterness towards life through violent acts of irrational wickedness.
Although thoughtful conversations concerning assault weapons, school security, and mental health are indeed reasonable and necessary, any attempt to resist the urge to also include a discussion concerning the nation’s persistent spiritual decline would be irresponsible! Americans deserve a comprehensive and mature exchange concerning their nation’s current bout with wickedness. However witty, Facebook and Sesame Street styled punditries should be relegated to the sideline of more extensive reflections. Alternatively, the counsel of past leaders who were forced to contend with similar circumstances should be reviewed. The personal memoirs of King David are a wonderful place to start!
Analysis of the 13th Psalm quickly reveals the personal consequences of wickedness. Together with fame and glory, King David’s biography is filled with tragedy, sorrow and anguish. Apart from having problems with his father, his mother is curiously never mentioned in Scripture. David had three wives, multiple concubines, and committed an affair that included the murder of the woman’s husband. Shockingly, his own son Absalom tried to take his life. Finally, as a result of familial dysfunction, one son murdered another, after the first was found guilty of raping his half-sister!
These and other painful national circumstances most certainly filled David with uncertainty and confusion about the reality of God. Significantly, while Psalm 13 could have been inspired by any of the aforementioned difficulties, David did not reach out to his legislators, economists, or soldiers for counsel, solace, or security. Nor did he curse the apparent absence of God. On the contrary, Psalm 13 records his prayerful supplication. The psalm is therefore best understood as an intimate canticle expressed while David wrestled with national wickedness and the heartbreak of personal misfortune.
The most famous scriptural passage concerning spiritual wrestling involves the Patriarch Jacob (Gen 32:22-32) – a life-changing event that provided a new walk, new name, and, most especially, a new character to the Old Testament leader. If nothing else, David’s own wrestling match, underscores the fact that evil cannot be pinned-downed by our own brawn. The compelling advice that this Jewish King provides the 13th year of the 21st Century is that political, military, and economic strengths do not adequately provide the muscle for effectively grappling with the nocuous effects of wickedness. One must also seek the sturdy sway of the Divine – a source Greater and Other than our own knowledge, expertise, and sinew to suppress it!
David uses two significant Hebrew words, ‘estah (advice, plan, opinion) and nephesh (soul, character) to describe his rendezvous with wickedness. The psalm’s exact wording reveals how the monarch struggled to reconcile his inner thoughts and opinions with the wisdom of God. Accordingly, David is telling his readers that there is no rest for those who look for a definitive answer to the question of wickedness from their own reasoning. Here, as in other psalms, David is adamant. Without the direct contact and counsel of the Divine, personal efforts are unreliable and can, at best, only produce the mirage of temporary solutions.
The 13th Psalm of David recommends an alternative model for wrestling with wickedness, as the management of malice must not be based on self-devised effortless answers. The canticle wisely suggests that efficacious solutions should focus less on physical weaponry and more on the factors that drive depraved individuals to load the inner firearms of bitterness long before they indiscriminately focus a deadly aim on outward targets. Consequently, if future mass shootings are to be prevented, the wisdom of the psalmist-king obliges a nation entering the 13th Year of the 21st Century to take a frank and honest look at its underlying, and often unaddressed, spiritual as well as legislative social ills. Simply placing individuals into neat psychologically challenged categories and/or making assault rifles harder to obtain will not, in themselves, solve the problem of violence. To adequately neutralize the effects of wickedness, a comprehensive examination is required that considers the pandemic of social isolation in the light of its root cause – profound spiritual emptiness.
As previously observed, David faced many trials in his life. Psalm 13 may have been composed during such times of political, economic and/or familial crises. Whatever the situation, the psalm provides a valuable scriptural paradigm for healing the wounds of a fragmented heart crying out for camaraderie and understanding. Accordingly, wrestling with wickedness involves three interlocking phases: (a) analysis, (b) acuity, and (c) assurance.
The initial couplet of Psalm 13 (verse 1-2) provides a glimpse into the first phase of David’s process for spiritual wrestling, namely honest analysis. During this stage, self-generated advice/opinions are allowed to wrestle with current realties. Accordingly, the inner voices of contemporary leaders most certainly echo the cry of the psalmist: “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts, O Lord . . . how long will my enemy triumph over me?”
David’s cry for meaningful understanding of unfortunate circumstances encapsulates our own nation’s frustration concerning the most recent school shootings. "Look on me and answer, O Lord my God . . . give light to my eyes, lest my enemy and my foes rejoice when I fall!" As arduous as this step might be, it is precisely during such moments of humble entreaty that the dusk of honest analysis spawns the the dawn of worthy acuity.
Unfortunately, humanity’s current model of secular analysis is too often characterized by petulance rather than honest self-assessment. However, as successful leaders have discovered, persuasive analysis is not built upon the shifting sands of peevish ideologies but on the willingness to humbly search for unbiased solutions to life’s complexities.
In his insightful book, "God of the Valleys (2000)," Mark Rutland, president of Southeastern College, suggests that life is safely viewed from the vantage of mountaintops. Life is lived, however, in the valleys of difficulty. Rutland insists that the valley is where great lessons are learned, where “we stretch, grow, and mature.” Unlike the peak, the valley is not a place of idle laziness, nor a place where leaders abandon effort. On the contrary, it is a place of vigorous wrestling that includes analysis, acuity, and, finally, confident assurance.
“I trust in your unfailing love,” insists King David, “my heart rejoices in your (God’s) salvation” (Psalm 13: 5-6). In other words, when the acuity of sincere analysis is brought before God the blessing of an assurance that passes all understanding ensues. This, perhaps, is the most valuable insight provided by Psalm 13. One might say that this anchoring insight is not a new discovery but actually a “re-discovery” of David’s prior experience of God’s trustworthy character. Assurance, David suggests, is found in past rather than future actions of God! As such, David concludes his lament with a song of hope. No matter the circumstances, the God who holds our hand today is He who will guide our tomorrows . . . "because God HAS BEEN good to me” (Psalm 13:6).
The assurance that results from honest analysis and humble acuity is the differentiating factor of David’s 13th Psalm. Rather than centering attention solely on legislative, economic, and/or technological remedies, a grieving nation might consider re-focusing its analytic eyes within its own soul, and herein gain a firmer grip on its current valley experience. Only then can we regain our spiritual footing and resume our ascent to future peaks of achievement!
A middle-aged wife once asked her husband why they no longer sat next to each other in the car. “When we were dating,” she lamented, “your arm was always draped over my shoulder as we drove. What happened?” “I am not certain,” her husband responded. “The only thing I know for sure is that I am still sitting in the same spot. I am not the one who moved!”
The time has come for America to re-assess her positional arrangement to God, as ongoing decisions to shift the nation further and further away from its former spiritual moorings appear to have yielded calamitous consequences. Contemporary society should not be timid when wrestling with the wiles of wickedness. However, until we regain the desire to accept the firm embrace of the Divine, all tactical solutions will prove futile!
This, in the end, is the primary counsel of the 13th Psalm to the 13th Year of the 21st Century.