Posted in

Overcoming False Dichotomies: Psalms 1 and 2 Together

            One of the unfortunate characteristics of contemporary Christianity is the division between conservative and liberal Christians concerning the role of the church in society.  In general, conservatives emphasize changing the individual and liberals the structures of society.  Both tend to see their position as excluding the other.  The Bible will have none of this false dichotomy, and Psalms 1 and 2 hold the two perspectives together.

            In previous posts I argued that Psalm 1 emphasizes a more individual spirituality and Psalm 2 a global, more politically involved, spirituality.  Also, just as the entire Book of Psalms has a structure with a theological meaning; so Psalms 1 and 2 have certain words that link together what some might see as contradictory spiritualities.  Let’s look at these links.

  • Both the first sentence of Psalm 1 and the last sentence of Psalm 2 begin with the word “blessed.”  “Blessed” is a key word in the Psalms.  26 of its 44 usages in the Old Testament are in the Psalms.  By positioning “blessed” in this way like book ends, the two Psalms and their respective spiritualities are united as one way to blessing.
  • The same Hebrew verb is used for the blessed person’s meditating on God’s law (1:2) and the peoples of the world plotting against God (2:1).  This contrast shows how God’s precious gift to us of the capacity to think can be used to ponder God’s word and be blessed or to ponder ways to oppose him.
  • The word “way” is used to describe a lifestyle.  1:6 contrasts the way of the righteous, which is known or approved by God, with the way of the wicked that will perish.  Psalm 2:11 warns rulers to serve the Lord or else they will bring his judgment on them and they will perish in their way.  The psalmist is telling us that our way or lifestyle involves both individual choices and a participation in the characteristics and commitments of a society.  The congregation of the righteous is to be different than the peoples of the earth. 

            The liberal-conservative division has its roots in the last half of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century.  Those whom we now call “liberals” began to be concerned with the structural side of social evil.  Often they were the same ones who adopted to various degrees a rationalistic view of the world that led to denials or serious qualifications of the orthodox Christian doctrines concerning the deity of Christ, biblical authority, God’s judgment on sin and the need for salvation through the cross of Christ.  Those whom we designate “conservatives” faithfully held on to these central Christian teachings, but also began to associate concern for structural sin with denial of the faith.  The conservatives retreated into an individualistic reform and piety, leading liberals to associate orthodoxy with a denial of concern for structural evil.

            Clearly the psalmist didn’t see things this way.  Liberal Christians need to embrace the conservative concern for individual change and, on a more fundamental level, abandon rationalism and return to Christian affirmations of the deity of Christ, the authority of the Bible and the cross as God’s way of deliverance from judgment.

            Speaking to fellow conservative Christians, we need to follow the biblical teaching concerning the evils of social structures.  A while back I heard a sermon from the Gospel of John on “the world” that rightly condemned sexual immorality and drunkenness.  It was characteristically silent on economic injustices that enslave the poor and imperialist aggression against weaker nations, both of which are prophetically condemned by John in Revelation 18 as idolatrous offenses to God. 

            Two warnings to conservative Christians:  

  • By ignoring the biblical teaching on the world system opposed to God, we truncate the gospel and run the risk of unthinkingly participating in that system of evil.  
  • Younger Christians are more open to confronting systemic evil.  Since older Christians tend to view their concern as drifting away from orthodox Christian doctrines, younger Christians sometimes see those very orthodox doctrines as in someway detracting from a commitment to fight social evil.  Thus they consider abandoning or deemphasizing those central doctrines in the name of justice.

            We are in danger of repeating the error of the last 150 years.  To avoid this catastrophe we need to return to the biblical spirituality of Psalms 1 and 2 and the understanding that the affirmations of biblical authority, the deity of Christ and salvation from God’s judgment by the cross present us with a view of the world that shows a way out of both individual and societal evil.

33 thoughts on “Overcoming False Dichotomies: Psalms 1 and 2 Together

  1. Hi Billy,

    Good job…your analysis is at the core of my DEEP frustration/dissatisfaction–verging on alienation–from the (so-called) evangelical church. The two poles ARE a false dichotomy! But keeping them in balance absent a community committed to doing so is extraordinarily difficult… nearly impossible. Something I have learned as I have stumbled through this schizoid landscape is that evangelicals don’t have a corner on the truth. I am grateful for that insight.

    A final comment: in your first warning to conservative Christians, I would have used the word ’emasculate’ rather than ‘truncate’.



    1. Thanks, Tim. It is frustrating, and your point about the lack of a community committed to that balance is an important point. I do think that evangelicals have held on to the crucial central points that are often flatly denied in other circles. Of course, we don’t see or live out fully their implications, which does truncate or emasculate the gospel. Still, I stay because I can hear the gospel while filtering out the noise and adding in the left out parts. But it’s a shame that we have to “choose.” For me, it’s not only this issue, but the dichotomy is also present in worship and appreciation of some of the more historical forms of spirituality. Bless you, brother. Let’s keep praying and ask for God’s grace to remain faithful.

  2. Nice work Bill, thanks. I keep hearing that the only way to change society is to change people one by one, but that is not the lesson of history. Societal evil can truly be mollified on a systemic level: the Civil Rights act, the negotiated settlement of the war in N. Ireland, the abolition of the slave trade in Britain are but a few examples. The real point is to recognize that structural change, while a Good, is not the best we can ultimately give our neighbor.

    1. Thanks, Gary. Yes, I don’t think that it is an either/or choice between changing society by individuals and by structural ways. Obviously, groups of individuals strongly committed to a cause can change a society, but also individuals are changed because of structural or society-wide changes, for good or ill. How many would have been accepting of my interracial marriage before 1965?

  3. Thank you for your wise analysis of our modern political system. It reminded me of the traditions of spirituality we discussed in class today, particularly the social justice versus contemplative streams. My question is how we can balance these mindsets of problems with the individual or societal structure. Does this mean that one should not be bound to one political party? Do you have any practical advice on which reform should be our focus and when?

    1. Good questions, Brook. I don’t think that we should be married to a certain political party. In the USA the major parties all support policies that I think are not actually Christian. With regard to advice on which reform should be our focus and when, there is no simple answer. On the one hand, it has to do with one’s calling. Obviously, someone called to be a politician needs to be involved in attempting to further many reforms. Others, like us, can not devote ourselves to the political realm because God has called us to do something else. On the other hand, a non-politician might be devoted to a certain reform. I think that comes about when a need touches an open heart.

  4. I very much like that you pointed out how Psalm 1 and Psalm 2 are connected in this way. Before I did not realize that these were really two parts of the same lesson. I especially found it interesting, the word “blessed” appearing at the beginning and end of these two Psalms like bookmarks. I was confused about the ending of Psalm 2 because it didn’t seem to fit with the rest of Psalm 2, but looking at it as kind of a conclusion, or a way to tie Psalm 1 and 2 together, makes sense.

    1. I’m glad it helped Elisabeth. It’s actually only in the past couple of years that I have started seeing some of these connections. Studying the Bible is a lifelong task and joy.

  5. In the class the sophomore class takes on Acts and the epistles, we have been talking about the way that we live our lives and the main question we face is how are we completely responsible for our choices when God is completely sovereign and has predestined what will cone to pass. We determined that there is an area where these concepts overlap which is how things are, and I was wondering if you had a more specific answer.

    1. This is an old question and may be one whose solution is beyond the ability of our human minds to grasp. Let me throw out a couple of comments to provoke some thought on both sides. We should not only follow what doctrines are taught in the Bible but how they function in the Bible. Nowhere does the Bible draw the conclusion that predestination absolves us from the responsibility to act. Rather predestination functions as an encouragement to act because we are confident that God is in charge and that in the end we shall be conformed to Christ (Romans 8:28-29). On the other hand, what if we thought about the possibility that God’s sovereignty is what makes it possible for us to be responsible?

  6. Could you explain what you mean when you say that conservatives “began to associate concern for structural sin with denial of the faith?”

    1. Let me give it a try. Because those who were concerned with social evils and that the evils may actually have to do with the way society operated and not just individual evil often were drifting from central tenets of the Christian faith (deity of Christ, biblical authority, the centrality of the cross), theological conservatives began to think that a concern for structural evil was inextricably tied to theological liberalism’s failure to maintain the doctrinal heart of Christianity.

  7. Can you explain the roots of the liberal-conservative Christian? I don’t fully understand what you mean by it in the late 19th and the early 2Oth century, is it like thats when they were labeled liberal and conservative?

    1. This is a good question, which I can hardly do justice to in a short reply. The terms “liberal” and “conservative” predate the end of the 19th century. The split between liberal theological Christians and conservative theological Christians occurred at this time and led to different approaches to society and thus to a mistaken notion of what the gospel was and to mutual misunderstanding.

  8. I thought this entry was very inciteful between the conservative-liberal struggle for justice, but as a liberal christian, how should we correct ourselves as to not become too unbalanced?

    1. Thanks, Nick. This is a very good and important question. We do need to remember that liberal and conservative can be used to describe both a political position and a theological position. Nor does being a liberal politically mean that one is liberal theologically. The same goes with “conservative.” With regard to theological liberalism, there must be an abandonment of rationalism, which leads to a denial of the deity of Christ, biblical authority and the unique saving power of the cross. Properly understood, these give the strongest support possible for liberal concerns to combat structural evil. If one is politically liberal, he needs to make sure that his positions are based on the Bible and that he doesn’t merely try to use the Bible to justify his political positions. In reality, the same should be said to those who are politically conservative.

  9. I really liked this one. I often feel like liberals and conservatives (especially around elections both local and national) start to view the other as the “enemy” and that is obviously wrong and won’t get us anywhere. I think both sides so to say need to realize they are both flawed. We all need to learn and apply both Psalms 1 and 2 as well as the rest of the Bible to truly find the “way” out of evil.

  10. Dr. Isley,
    I loved your conclusion that the liberal, younger and conservative, older sides of the church need to find an equilibrium in the middle. I see this gap frequently with half of the church being concerned about the traditions and conservative principles of Christianity and the other half concerned about our response and outreach to the world. I think it would be best if everyone could remember that being a Christian is being a follower of Christ and that we are to love each other and love God and stay accountable to his standards.

    1. Thank you, Zoey, and, yes, we do need to show love toward one another, and in this case the patience to talk openly with one another and to listen. Also, if we are more careful students of the Bible, we’ll see that the two spiritualities are complementary and not contradictory. Some of the literary techniques that are used in Psalms 1 & 2 can help us to see that we need to embrace both concerns.

  11. I had to look up liberal and conservative views to understand what what you meant. With the new knowledge of both terms i was able to understand that i am in most ways a conservative christian, and your warnings for me were a new ray of light on a path that had previously been dark.

  12. I agree with Elisabeth. I was very confused when it came to the structure of Psalm two, I thought it was random but still had flow to it. I am glad to understand now that if you included it with Psalm one it makes more sense because they go hand in hand and complete each other.

    1. Good. I’m glad that it was helpful. Don’t forget too that there is a movement in Psalm 2 from earth to heaven and back to earth, which shows that we need to understand well the earthly situation, look at it from God’s perspective and then return to apply it to the here and now.

  13. I’ve never thought of a change of the meanings of the words liberal,and conservative. I’ve defiantly never thought to apply it to a bible/Christians, and there beliefs

    1. This is an interesting comment, Zachary. Words and political and theological labels do change over time. This is one reason that we need to make sure we understand what a person is saying before we categorize their thought or, when we hear a label applied to a certain movement, to make sure that it fits or means what we think that it does.

  14. An interesting post. My question is, how exactly would these two types of Christians coexist, and is there any real middle ground between the two viewpoints?

    1. Good questions, Brian. I don’t claim that it would be easy, but we both have God’s Spirit and if we talk openly face-to-face and pray together and ponder God’s word, I think that it could be done.

  15. Thank you for this connection. After reading both of these Psalms I was very confused how these two Palms were supposed to go together and I definitely would’ve never even thought of the connections you made. I am still a little confused about the political aspect of it and was wondering if you could explain to me the second warning about the younger and older Christians a little more.

    1. I’m glad it was helpful, and thank you for asking the question. Essentially, younger Christians are emphasizing more social action and at times see the hesitancy of older Christians, as stemming from their concern for doctrinal issues and therefore the younger Christians tend to associate doctrinal orthodoxy with a lack of social compassion. On the other hand, older Christians see the relative downplaying of doctrine by younger Christians combined with their concern for social justice. Seeing that combination, they tend to think that a concern for social action results in doctrinal laxity and even error. It looks as if we are repeating the same mistake that took place in the heyday of the Liberal-Conservative debate among Christians in the late 19th century and the first half of the twentieth.

  16. Like Elizabeth, I also never considered these two Psalms as one lesson. It was interesting to see your connection of the two and how they come together. I also agree with Zoey on that as Christians we need to find the balance between keeping our traditions and reaching out to the world. I have been dealing with this myself recently and I found your thoughts helpful. Thank you.

    1. I’m not saying that they were written as one piece. They are two distinct psalms, each of which introduces a major current of concerns and spirituality in the Book of Psalms. The clues linking the two are to help us see that these different currents that result in different kinds of prayers are not contradictory but are meant to be part of the prayer life of God’s people.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *