By Aaron Elder
Verse 4a of this psalm reads “For you are not a God who is pleased with wickedness… .” The word “wicked” or “wickedness” is a weighty word. When I read it in the Bible, I tend to swap it out in my mind for the word “evil” or “bad.” But as with any word, it can start to take on meanings that were handed to me from other sources. I think this word is incredibly important and deserves some unpacking.
Most English definitions will revolve around verbiage like “morally bad or evil.” To me that isn’t entirely helpful. How do you define what is evil? Because I’m a Westerner, my default is to find the list of items that make someone wicked. How about the Law of God in the Old Testament? God gave it so that settles it right? Well…
Jesus harshly rebuked the Pharisees for tithing all the way down to their spices and yet neglecting care for their parents. Clearly it can’t be simply failure of a moral code. In Hebrew writing, often the first usage of a word will under-gird its use in future passages. The first use of the word “wicked” occurs in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. We’ve come to think that the great wickedness of these cities was their sexuality. Not so. The wickedness of the people of Sodom was that they used other people for their own pleasure or gain. They pushed down the weak to elevate the strong.
This is the great wickedness of Egypt. Egyptian thirst for empire crushed the dignity of those individuals who made the engine run. This is exemplified when Pharoah orders the Hebrews to increase their brick quota without providing straw. Sadly, this too becomes the great wickedness of Israel as written about throughout the prophets.
Wickedness is, at its root, a disposition to get what I want at the expense of another person. Further, it is action with the intent to dehumanize or rob the dignity of another person or group of people. What we read, then, in this psalm is not a broken moral code, but the variety of expressions of the dehumanization of other people. When David says, “Not a word from their mouth can be trusted,” he means, “How can I trust someone whose intent is to dehumanize another person?”
“Lead me, Lord, in your righteousness,” David says in verse 8. “Lord, make me the kind of person who lifts up the vulnerable, the weak and the oppressed.” What we find in Jesus is a man whose ministry was defined by this kind of righteousness. This is the kind of righteousness that has now been handed to us. We do battle against wickedness, not by sword and shield, but by restoring dignity where it has been stripped.