I’ve been a fan of Psalm 73 ever since I read Martin Buber’s interpretation of it almost twenty-five years ago. So it was a pleasant surprise to find it cited in David Brooks’ latest, and to date most strident column, opposing America’s Problem Child:
And so it is with Trump.
History is a long record of men like him temporarily rising, stretching back to biblical times. Psalm 73 describes them: “Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence. … They scoff, and speak with malice; with arrogance they threaten oppression. Their mouths lay claim to heaven, and their tongues take possession of the earth. Therefore their people turn to them and drink up waters in abundance.”
And yet their success is fragile: “Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly they are destroyed.”
The psalmist reminds us that the proper thing to do in the face of demagogy is to go the other way — to make an extra effort to put on decency, graciousness, patience and humility, to seek a purity of heart that is stable and everlasting.
Not bad, though I do prefer the NRSV’s treatment of the last lines:
They set their mouths against heaven,
and their tongues range over the earth.
Therefore the people turn and praise them,
and find no fault in them.
That seems to get at the actions of the wicked better. Not only are they misbehaving in human terms, but they brag that heaven can’t do anything to stop them, which in turn makes them extremely popular with the rabble.
Sound like anyone you know?
Brooks understandably neglects another side of the psalm: this isn’t just the story of the wicked going unchallenged, but about a good man trying not to allow his anger, resentment and jealousy of the wicked get the better of him. That’s more than the civility and civic virtue Brooks encourages; it’s fighting for one’s soul in the face of what appears to be evil being rewarded.
That’s a pretty good message for those terrified of the rise of America’s Problem Child. But there’s more to it even than that! The psalmist discovers when his heart has been purified that life isn’t really about good being rewarded or evil being punished. It’s about being with God. Buber connects the dots:
The good, says the Psalmist, is ‘to draw near to God’. He does not say that those near to God are good. But he does call the bad ‘those who are far from God’. In the language of modern thought that means that there are men who have no share in existence, but there are no men who possess existence. Existence cannot be possessed, but only shared in. One does not rest in the lap of existence, but one draws near to it. ‘Nearness’ is nothing but such a drawing and coming near continually and as long as the human person lives.
To exist for Buber was to exist in dialogue, and because liars and other scoundrels can’t take part in true dialogue, they can’t truly exist. Sure, they can walk around and talk and maybe even expel 12 million Muslims from a nation or build an enormous wall on its southern border. But when they die, they’re dead, and that’s it.
Given Brooks’ huge commitment to dialogue as a necessary condition of political life, that’s a huge miss for him. Still, we’ll rate this “Mostly True,” and focus on making sure our own feet don’t stumble for envy of the arrogant.
It’s a full-time job these days.