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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A Reflection on a Small Part of Psalm 19

This is from a friend, Brian Ellis, who resides in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. He is a layman who is affiliated with St Peter and St Paul's Anglican Church. He earned his M.A. from St. John’s College, Nottingham, England (which will explain the British spellings herein).
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Several times over the past months Psalm 19 has come to my attention. Each time I have read it the one verse that has caught my attention was verse 13.

Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins;
let them not have dominion over me!
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.
(Psalm 19:13 ESV)

In reading this passage what I realised is that I did not know what “presumptuous sins” were or what was being referred to. I did know that I should want to be delivered from them. I really felt this Lent that I wanted to find out what was being spoken about.

In looking at various places, especially in the Old Testament, it became clear what the term “presumptuous sins” refers to. I also realised how relevant this particular verse is for us North American Christians.

In all of the situations where Israel is said to have sinned presumptuously there is a common feature. The people of Israel substituted their own judgment, directions or opinions for those that have given by God, either directly through the Law or through the prophets or through the accrued wisdom of the people of God as seen in writings like Proverbs. This is seen to be the same as is shown in Numbers 15:30. It is sinning with a high hand. It is a deliberate act, not an action that arises from infirmity.

I think that this occurs most often in North American Christianity when we make our personal judgment on things like appropriate moral behaviour the main criterion of judgment and decision making. If we have not discerned the answer, then the answer doesn’t exist. The individual and his or her moral judgment is seen as the supreme arbiter of questions. It is my interpretation of Scripture that is supreme in all questions of what is right and wrong, adviseable or inadviseable, not the received wisdom of the Christian community.

Certainly the Scriptures present a completely different picture of affairs. In fact there is really a hierarchy of authority presented to us in making decisions as church communities, families or individuals. Of course at the top is Jesus himself as the one to whom all authority has been given over everything. The first level of derivative authority belongs to the Scriptures. The last and least important in the hierarchy is the individual.

In between the Scriptures and the individual there are all sorts of intermediate authorities that come into play depending on the situation. It may be the received wisdom of God’s people that has been preserved. In essence this is what a book like Proverbs is. This book is understood to have been written, in part at least, as an instruction book for young men being trained at court to take up positions in the law courts, in the administration of the government or other similar positions. Since the last Scriptures were written, we have the record of how our ancestors in the faith have come to see how the Lord was working in their time. This is the record of the Spirit leading the Church into all truth. We see it at work in more immediate circumstances with the wisdom that persons older than us in the faith have come to know through their own walk with the Lord.

Now this does not mean that there is no place for individual judgment and discernment. We all know from history that the church, older people in the faith, local church communities, parents, etc. have got it wrong at various times. Rather it means that whenever one person or group that is lower down the authority hierarchy decides to go against what is the ancient and received wisdom of God’s people, that person or group bears the burden of proof to justify the departure. It is also a burden of proof at the level of “beyond reasonable doubt” not just the “preponderance of the evidence”.

We also need to understand the seriousness of “presumptuous sin” regardless of the form is takes. First of all from Psalm 19 we know that this type of sin is known for its capability of getting a hold of us. They easily get “dominion” over us frail human beings. We submit ourselves to them at our spiritual peril.

One of the most horrific stories in the Old Testament is found in I Samuel 15. This is the story of King Saul being required to slaughter the Amalekites. Saul does not follow the Lord’s instructions. As a result Saul loses the Lord’s favour. Then Samuel gives the following prophecy in verses 22 and 23
Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has rejected you form being king.
In this we see that presumptuous sin is equivalent to rebellion, divination, iniquity and idolatry. It is idolatry because it replaces God’s word and wisdom with human understanding and preferences.

In this Lenten season let us all examine all aspects of our lives, relationships and behaviour to see those places where we have placed our individual decisions, morals, behaviour before the received wisdom of the Scriptures, the church universal, our local Christian community and our brothers and sisters in Christ. Then let us sincerely repent of those thoughts, actions and behaviours where we have usurped the judgment of Christ and his church with our own.

Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.
Soli Deo Gloria.
6 March 2012 after the Second Sunday of Lent

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This was used by permission. Thanks Brian.

Mike

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