Commentary on Psalm 36:5-10
Psalm 36 draws a sharp and startling contrast between existences that either incorporate or lack a conscious knowledge of the God of Israel.
In order to reap the revelatory rewards this contrast offers for the season of Epiphany, the preacher will need to go outside the bounds of the lectionary, which only includes the six central verses of the psalm. Indeed, commentators have struggled at times with the marked differences between verses five thru ten, and the verses that begin and end the psalm. Solutions have gone so far, albeit unnecessarily so, as to suggest that we have here a later conflation of two separate psalms. In any case, there is no compelling evidence to prevent us from reading the psalm as a unity.1
After the initial superscription, which is common to the psalter, the psalm proper begins to draw out the contrast to be revealed with the very first word. The Hebrew term (ne’um), translated by the NRSV as “speaks,” is a term that is almost always attached to the sacred name of God. For example, many of the prophets are fond of the phrase to indicate an “utterance” or “oracle” of the Lord.
Here, however, ne’um is not attached to the Holy Name, but instead to the term “transgression.” And this utterance of transgression speaks to the heart, to the very inner being, of the wicked. As a result, “there is no fear of God before their eyes” (verse 1, English). Without the ne’um of the Lord and the fear it inspires, there can be no knowledge of the Lord.2
The following verses of the psalm highlight the resulting marks of an existence void of the ne’um, fear, and knowledge of the Lord: self-flattery (verse 2), words of mischief and deceit (verse 3), and the plotting of mischief on paths that lack good (verse 4). The psalm will end with both a petition to God and a confession of trust that such a mode of existence will not be the kind which holds sway in the world.
The lectionary portion of this psalm, verses five through ten, supply the crucial pieces which are missing from and needed by the lives described in the surrounding verses. Knowing God means knowing of the Lord’s “steadfast love” and “faithfulness” (verse 5), as well as “righteousness” and “judgments” (verse 6). These are the key attributes that direct God’s interactions with creation.
Furthermore, these are attributes of limitless abundance: extending “to the heavens” and “to the clouds” (verse 5) and comparable to “mighty mountains” and “the great deep” (verse 6). This abundance shows through in that the scope of salvation offered by God extends not only to humans, but even to animals (verse 6). God’s steadfast love is plentiful enough for “all people” to be able to find refuge (verse 7). The gifts of God are no mere appetizers or cocktails; instead, God offers a “feast” and drink as though from a “river” (verse 8). The abundance of God contrasts distinctly with the mere ne’um of transgression that began the psalm.
In contrast to those evildoers who “are thrust down, unable to rise” (verse 12), those who know the Lord know also that therein lies “the fountain of life” (verse 10). God’s steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness, and justice do no less than give life to creation. We mean here not simply life in the biological, scientifically measurable sense, but life filled with meaning and light. It is no coincidence that verse 9 connects the ideas of life and light.
Having established the abundance out of which God acts, verse 10 comes across as a firm confession of trust. It is in God’s very nature to continue offering steadfast love and salvation to those who know of the one who gives these things. God’s faithfulness enables those who know him to have faith, even when confronted with the transgression which began the psalm.
And so at a time when our church calendar highlights Jesus being made known to the world, what does Psalm 36 have to offer? The world has plenty of empirical knowledge, more in fact than it can deal with and too much for its own good in some respects. Psalm 36 stands as a witness that knowledge is more than facts and figures. Those things that can best, or perhaps only, be known by the heart are those that give life, and such things come only from God.
The prophet Jeremiah spoke of a day when there would no longer be a need to say, “Know the Lord.”3 Until that day comes, Psalm 36 beckons we who know the Lord to show forth the steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness, and justice that God has first made known to us.
1Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 1-59: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988), 397.
2We should recall Proverbs 1:7a here: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.”