Our Psalm 26 now takes a key turn. We have been discussing the joy of God’s presence:
I love the dwelling place of your house, oh Lord
And the place of the tabernacle of your glory.
But now we begin to consider the struggle:
Do not abandon my soul with sinners
And my life with men of blood
This is an important juxtaposition; to get Christianity right, we have to see both sides, and their connection. The Christian life is not only a battle against sin. It is above all love of God, a desire to be with him. This is the only reason the battle is worth fighting. Hatred of sin without love of God . . . well, it would not even be true hatred of sin, since sin is truly only a negation, a loss of God. There’s no reason not to join the sinners unless we love God. Love must come first.
But battle inevitably follows. It is love which animates the battle, which makes us struggle for goodness. It is love that shows sin to be sin: that shows the horror of not loving. To know the glory, the beauty, of the presence of God is to learn to hate what can cover it up.
The “sinners” hold an interesting place here. The Psalms often speak of what crowd we want to be part of: we want to dwell with the righteous, not sinners. But let us understand rightly what is being said.
In the line we have before us, the Psalmist does not cry for the destruction of sinners. Nor does he even refuse to reach out to them. My students often raise concerns that the Psalms don’t allow us to evangelize. But that isn’t what it’s saying.
It isn’t saying that I will never associate with them, it’s saying that I don’t want to be associated with them. I do not want to be one of them.
Why put it this way? Our Psalm makes things very vivid. Just saying, “I don’t want to be a sinner” is good, but a little vague. The Psalm goes a step further, and says: see those sinners? See what sin looks like? See how people sin? That is what I don’t want.
It is important to be aware of the possibility of sin, of the “congregation of sinners.” We need to be aware of the radical possibility of life without God. People do it. Gazing into that abyss leads us to say, “help me, God! Let me not become like that!”
We discover there is a battle by discovering that things really can go horribly wrong. In fact – without condemning anyone, or presuming final judgment – we need to be aware that most people, most of the time, and even ourselves, much of the time, live as if God was not beautiful, as if they did not love to dwell with him. That is the struggle of the Christian life.
The battle belongs to the Lord. Part of our recognition of the possibility of sin – the reality that life without God is, for reasons it is hard to fathom, the ordinary way of man – is our further recognition of our own weakness.
There are many battles in the Psalm. But the Psalmist never says, “don’t worry, God, I’ll take care of this.”
To the contrary, one of the constant images of the Old Testament is of the tiny, helpless nation assailed by vastly more powerful enemies. Moses does not escape Pharaoh by trying really hard, or coming up with a clever plan. Moses escapes Pharaoh through the strong arm of the God of Israel.
This is the heart of what we mean by salvation, and the necessity of Christ. We must be ever more aware of this. It is not that man is basically okay, and Christ adds a little something. It is not even that we can handle most of it, and Christ helps a little. When we discover the reality of sin, we discover too our radical need to depend on the Savior.
The words of the Psalm, then, go to what seems an extreme. They do not say, I will cling to you. They do not say, fight beside me. They say, “do not abandon me.”
Without Christ we are lost. Free will is an important theological concept. We do have free will. But the Psalms remind us, over and over again, that the most important act of will is not ours, but that of Christ who saves us. We cling to him above all by realizing that it is he who clings to us.
When have you been particularly aware of your need of a Savior?