The Psalms on Our Hands

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

“Do not abandon my soul with sinners

And my life with men of blood

In whose hands is crime . . . .”

Our Psalm 26 has considered the joy in God’s tabernacle, and now expresses the fear of sin. It walks a careful middle line: it is not clear whether we fear more what the men of blood will do to us, or that we will become one of them. Who is worse off, the violent man, or his victim?

Our line for today starts to examine the men of blood themselves: there is crime in (or on) their hands.

***

We are reminded of the famous scene from Macbeth:

“What hands are here? Ha! They pluck out mine eyes.

Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood

Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather

The multitudinous seas incarnadine,

Making the green one red.”

All the oceans of the world cannot wash the blood from Macbeth’s hands. The world itself will be stained in blood before it can wash the murderer clean. And so the crime that has stained his hands plucks out his own eyes, destroys his whole ability to relate to the world.

***

The hand, said Aristotle, is the “tool of tools.” We use a hammer to drive nails and a screwdriver to drive screws – but we use our hand to drive the hammer and the screwdriver.

The hand is a sign of our interaction with the world. It is “exterior” to us, in that it is our main tool for interacting with other things, whether by touch or by manipulation. But it is also “interior,” in that the hands work intelligently, not dumbly kicking, but dexterously interacting.

Thus the hand is, for the Psalmist, a sign of the encounter between our interior and our exterior, between our soul and our actions.

***

To say our hands are “stained with blood,” or that “on their hands is crime,” is to say that our interaction with the world touches us. Macbeth can, in fact, wash the physical blood off of his hands.

What he cannot wash away (at least not by all the oceans of this world) is the stain of his free choices. Precisely the intelligence of the hands signals that what we have done with them is truly us.

Macbeth’s hands didn’t kill Duncan, Macbeth himself did. But the hands, both for Shakespeare and for the Psalms, signal that our free, intelligent choices really bring our interior in contact with the exterior world. The hands are a sign that there is no deep divide between the outside world and our interior: we are our actions.

***

We should note that alongside the Psalms’ endless references to hands (about 150 times: our hands, the hands of the wicked, the hands of God), they speak often too of the lips (about 35 times), the tongue (another 35 times), and the mouth (almost 70 times).

Like the hands, the mouth is bodily and spiritual, a point of contact with the outside world but profoundly tied to our intelligence and free choice. What we do with our hands and what we say with our lips is truly us. These are profound signs of the reality of our word and deeds.

***

What is our real fear, then, with bloody men and sinners? What they do to us?

Truly the crime-stained hands are a reminder that sinners sin. Haters, the new expression says, are going to hate. If we entrust ourselves to the world, we should not be surprised if the world treats us the way the world is, with its crime stained hands.

Hollywood is not out to make you a better Christian. To say it is an instrument of the devil would be too strong – unless we mean that the world is in the power of sin.

Even our loved ones, even if they are good Christians, are still sinners. They are going to sin. We should love them, profoundly. But we should entrust ourselves to the One who will treat us well. We should not look for sinners to treat us with perfect mercy. We should not be surprised when the world hurts us.

***

But even deeper, when we pray, “Do not abandon my soul with sinners,” we pray not only that God will care for us among the sins of others. We beg even more deeply that he will rescue us from sin itself. Because the greatest punishment of sin is precisely the staining of our hands, the staining of our souls, the plucking out of our eyes by our own hands, when we give ourselves over to corruption.

Think of a little sin that you don’t take very seriously. How does it affect, not others, but you yourself?

eric.m.johnston

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