The Psalms on Guile

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

Our meditation on the Psalms, and on Psalm 26, has taken us through righteousness and trust in the Lord, to the depths of righteousness in the human heart (and kidneys!), and now into the reality of sin.

Psalm 26 presents a cry against sin:

“I do not sit with wicked men

Nor come together with deceivers

I have hated the coming together of those who do evil

And I do not sit with the impious.”

This long protestation is typical of the Psalms.  Notice that lines one and three speak of evil generically.  Line four speaks of evil specifically in relation to God, as if to summarize: the real heart of wickedness is the lack of love of God.

But the only specific sin listed is deception, or dissembling, or guile.  (There are a handful of Hebrew words around this topic, which the Vulgate gathers under the word “dolus,” or guile.)  I have written about this topic in the past, but here let us investigate it in the context of the Psalms.


We all know sexual sin is a problem – but it is not the central sin that the Psalms have us focus on.  Instead, the Psalms urge us to think specifically about guile – and of guile as a model of all other sin.

Guile is the combination of violence and untruth.  It is untruth specifically used to injure someone else.  It thus neatly ties together sin toward neighbor and sin toward God.

And it neatly defines each.  Sin towards neighbor ultimately consists not just in the breaking of a commandment, but in doing harm, the opposite of benevolence and love.

But sin against God consists not in injury – we cannot hurt God – but in rejecting reality as he made it: rejecting the truth.  The importance of truth brings a realism to our love of God: love of God is not just a vague feeling, but an embrace of his plan, his kingdom, the world that he made.  We love God by loving the truth.

(Indeed, it is argued that truth is the best definition of natural law.)


The Commandments – the Ten Commandments, and all the more specific moral teachings of the Church – mark out untruth and injury to neighbor, but they do not exhaust the ways we can fall short, nor do they exhaust the riches of true love of God and neighbor.

An “intrinsically evil act” is one that the Church, in her wisdom, has discerned always to be a kind of guile.  But the Psalms take us deeper, by helping us see the essence of sin.

Lust and sexual sin are a kind of guile.  They hurt our neighbor precisely by denying the truth of the person, the body, and sexuality.  And in so rejecting nature as God gives it, in so embracing untruth, they turn away from the God who created us.  They fail to love both neighbor and God.

But sexual sin is not the only kind of guile.  By focusing on guile, the Psalms teach us to see the essence of sin, and so to see both what’s wrong with the more obvious sins and, even more importantly, to see more clearly the less obvious sins.


The deepest sins of all, for example, are envy and pride.

Envy rejects the goodness of our neighbor.  Jealousy, not quite the same thing, wants what our neighbor has.  But envy hates him for his excellence.  Envy wants to do injury, to diminish someone else’s accomplishments, merely because we want to be superior.

Envy is rooted in untruth.  First, the untruth that sees injury to ourselves in another person’s excellence.  I hear that someone else has done what I can’t, and I react with anger!  But second, untruth that cuts down that person’s accomplishment.  Rather than giving thanks to God for what he has created in that person, envy tries to dismantle the truth.


Even more deeply, pride wants the world to revolve around us.  Pride is like envy towards God himself.  It does not want to receive, does not want to worship, but wants itself to be the center.

Pride is really the heart of sin: a straightforward failure to love God.  Pride wishes there was no God – like the “impiety” we saw in the Psalm above.

But pride is not easy to get at.  It’s not covered by the commandments.

Pride is not about injuring your neighbor, so it’s the one sin not directly covered by guile.  Yet by pushing us to think about the role of untruth in all of our other sins, the Psalms’ emphasis on guile helps us to see beyond the commandments, into the essence of sin, and of love.

Can you think of some ways guile attacks you, even when you aren’t breaking any rules?

The Evil of Guile

Thomas Sully (1783-1872). GossipThe Psalms speak constantly of the evil of guile. Indeed, the Psalms warn us much more about the evil of guile than of lust. Come to think of it, so does the Pope. One of my prayers for the New Year is that I will make headway against this evil in my own life.

Ramah, the Hebrew root of the word mirmah, refers principally to shooting, or throwing stones. Mirmah, then, means deceiving, fraud, treachery, falseness, guile. “Lo, the wicked bend their bow, they make ready their arrow upon the string, that they may in the darkness shoot at the upright in heart” (Ps. 11:2).

Let us define guile this way: it is (a) speech, that (b) is not true, and (c) aims to hurt. And let us discover how often we use it: “Examine me, O LORD, and prove me; test my kidneys and my heart. For thy lovingkindness is before mine eyes: and I have walked [or: I wish I had walked] in thy truth.  I have not sat with vain persons, neither will I go in with concealers” (Ps 26:2-4).


The purpose of speech is to bring people together by reference to something else: the topic of conversation. Guile undermines this, both by turning speech into a hurtful weapon instead of a tool of love, and by speaking about something that is not true, and so creating a bond over something that isn’t really there.

We can engage in this kind of speech in various ways. First, with different Gossippeople. The one we hurt can be the one we are speaking to, when we use speech to demean the person in front of us. We can also demean someone who is absent, as when we gossip and say bad things about people who aren’t there.

And guile can be part of our interior monologue – do other people talk to themselves as much as I do? I find myself imaginging conversations: I imagine telling other people how bad someone is, or how I would like to hurt that person with my own words to his face.

Oh, how much guile there is in my soul! How many of my conversations, and of my interior conversations!

Notice, too, that guile can affect our speech in non-verbal ways. The way we say, “yeah, right” can be aimed to hurt. Our tone of voice can so easily turn innocent words into weapons.


It is not always wrong to wound with words. If speech is meant to bring people together in the truth, then in fact there is a place for criticism. The problem is that so often our criticism is not true.

Here’s where I experience this most directly: when I say the words “you can’t just . . . ” to the kids. “You can’t just eat candy all day long.” Okay, well, that’s true enough. But were they asking to eat candy all day long? Were they asking to “just” eat candy? Was what they were asking for even candy?

Of course I must often tell my kids that they can’t eat what they’d like to eat. But when the words exaggerate, they create distance. I am being unfair, criticizing something they haven’t actually done. That unfairness, in fact, prevents my children from hearing the legitimate point I want to make – because the point I am actually making is not legitimate.

Exaggeration is untruth. It undermines what words are for. If I exaggerate about someone not present, I do harm in so many ways: I injure the person we are talking about, both by attaching a falsehood to their reputation, and by using my words to create greater distance between me and them, rather than love. And I also hurt the relationship in front of me, because I am building that relationship on sand, on untruth, that will not last; and on hatred, which can only come back to hurt every relationship.


How can we fight this? “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). The friends of St. Dominic said he spoke “only to God and about God.” If our interior conversation were directed toward God, I think we would be less inclined to speak untruth, because we know he knows it is untrue.

horse with bridleAnd as James says, “we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us” (James 3:3). Perhaps we can do a lot to steer our whole behavior by realizing that the words we speak are central to who we are. We might make a lot of progress just by taking the advice of so much of the Bible and the Tradition, and focus on our speech: make sure it is in love, and make sure it is true.


How does guile express itself in your life? Have you found any good strategies to fight it?