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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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?

eric.m.johnston

One Comment

  1. your truthful words are so needed and appreciated by this elderly person… to have my blinded eyes opened more & more to see the TRUTHFUL & REAL God that created me & wants me; How much I struggle to surrender to His Love… thank you so much!

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