Our Psalm 26 next turns us from moral concerns to worship – and thus takes us to the heart of the Psalms.
The move already began in the section we considered last week.
I do not sit with the fraudulent
I hate the coming together of those who do evil
And I do not sit with the impious.
In Hebrew, “those who do evil” is “those who spoil things,” whereas “the impious” is a rhyming but unrelated word that means those who are just plain wicked. The Greek of the Septuagint, however, translates that wickedness as “impiety”: to be just plain wicked, rather than a ruiner of things, points more deeply, to one’s relation with God. The deeper problem is not just what we do, and what we ruin, but who we are, and how we relate to the Ultimate.
The next strophe addresses worship more directly:
I wash my hands in innocency
And I circle round your altar, o Lord
This is the verse the priest used to begin with as he washed his hands before offering the Eucharist, though in the reformed Mass he says only a loose paraphrase. From a glance at several other ancient rites of the Mass, it looks like those who do not use this Psalm do not wash their hands at all. In other words, the priest washes his hands because it goes with this Psalm.
It’s a nice image. We want to be prepared for worship. Jesus gives a parallel image when he talks about wearing wedding garments at a wedding feast. It’s simply a matter of fittingness. It is only right that we come to the altar “clean,” prepared, made right.
We could go a step deeper and say this kind of preparation is itself an essential part of our worship.
There is a parallel between the two verses we put above: “I wash my hands,” “I circle round your altar.” Worship is something we do. The “circling round” is itself worship, the person actively “entering in” (here, literally) to the praise of God.
Similarly, washing his hands is not just preparatory to worship. It’s part of worship, part of proclaiming who God is and how we stand in relation to him.
And we wash our hands “in innocency.” It is part of worship, to be sure, to include our bodies: to walk around, physically wash our hands, stand, kneel, turn to the altar, lift up our hands and voices, etc. Our bodies are part of us, and so they are part of our prayer.
But even more, our hearts are our inmost selves, and so as we lift up our hands and voices, we above all lift up our hearts. We truly lift up ourselves in praise of God.
And so we not only wash our hands in water, but in innocency. We offer our souls in worship. And central to offering our souls is our moral state.
The point of all this is that, in the Psalms, morality and worship are not two separate things. “I will wash my hands in innocency, and circle round your altar” means that my whole life enters into worship.
The Psalms root us firmly in the imagery of the Temple in Jerusalem. Going “round the altar” bespeaks the pride of the people of Israel in the house of God. It was somewhere you went with joy, somewhere you longed for, “the glory of Jerusalem, the joy of Israel, the fairest honor of our race.” (The phrase will later go to Mary, but Mary and Jesus are prefigured in the Temple.)
Worship is joy. The only thing more wonderful than getting ready to go to the Temple (washing our hands) is going to the Temple itself (circling the altar). Or: washing their hands as they entered the Temple was a time of great joy.
The question is sometimes posed whether worship is “for God” or “for us.” When people say, “worship is for God, not for us,” I think they are trying to make the point that worship means nothing if it is not focused on God.
But worship is for us. It is good for us to look to the Lord. It is good for us to enter in, liturgically (through ritual washings) and morally (through washing in innocency). This is our highest fulfillment.
One of the greatest glories of the Psalms is making vivid for us the goodness of worship. Indeed, the Psalms themselves manifest the point: by talking of all of life, but in the context of praise.
Are there parts of our life that would make more sense by thinking of them as on the way to worship?