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Why Do Some of the Psalms Seem Boastful?

August 22, 2017

To anyone who regularly reads the Liturgy of the Hours, some of the psalms seem downright boastful. They sound too much like the Pharisee who went to pray and said, God, I thank you that I am not like other people — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get (Luke 18:11-12). In the very next verse, Jesus recommends a briefer prayer for us: God, have mercy on me, a sinner (Luke 18:13).

How, then, are we to understand some of the psalms that seem to take up a rather boastful and presumptuous tone? Consider these three passages:

  • The Lord has dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he has rewarded me. For I have kept the ways of the Lord; I am not guilty of turning from my God. All his laws are before me; I have not turned away from his decrees. I have been blameless before him and have kept myself from sin. The Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight (Psalm 18:21-24).
  • My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content. (Psalm 131:1-4).
  • I have kept my feet from every evil path so that I might obey your word. I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me … therefore I hate every wrong path (Psalm 119:100-102).

For us who would pray these, the spiritual approach is twofold.

These psalms are prayed in hope. While we are not worthy to say such words without a lot of qualifications, by God’s grace they will one day be true for us. God is drawing us to perfection. While total perfection will not come until we attain Heaven, if we are faithful we should be progressing toward this lofty reality even now.

Hope is the confident expectation of God’s help in attaining holiness and salvation. One day in Heaven we will be able to say, “I do not sin; I am blameless before God. I am not proud and never depart from your decrees, O Lord.” Hope is the vigorous expectation that these words will one day apply to us fully; for now, we recite them in that fervent hope.

In effect, we are memorizing our lines for a future moment, when by God’s grace we will actually be able to recite them truthfully. Praying psalms like these is like a dress rehearsal for Heaven. These psalms amount to prolepses of a sort, whereby we proclaim a future reality as if it were already present. Our confidence to speak proleptically is in Christ alone.

These psalms are on the lips of Christ. When the Church prays, Head and members pray together; it is the whole Body of Christ that proclaims these psalms.

Christ never wavered, never drew back from God’s Law. He never sinned; His hands were clean from defilement and He was rewarded for His righteousness. Christ alone prays these psalms without any qualification.

In the Old Testament, these psalms pointed forward to the Christ, to the anointed Messiah. Today, they still point to Christ and He alone utters them authentically. None of us can really pray them apart from Christ, as members of His Body.

Even the perfected in Heaven cannot pray them without reference to Christ, for it is He who accomplished in them the perfection that makes such psalms a reality for them.

It is Christ who prays these psalms, and we—through Him, with Him and in Him—head and members—are praying them to the Father.

Without Christ, such psalms amount to haughty boasts and presumptuous declarations, but with Christ our Head, they are true; we can rightly pray them in the hope of our own perfection, one day, by His grace. We can also pray them in the joy that some of our brothers and sisters in Heaven have already attained to the perfection described therein. This is because the grace of Christ has had in them its full effect.

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Comments (7)

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  1. Nick says:

    They are prayers of contrition. The psalmist David has repented, so he can say with honesty that he does not sin anymore.

    • RAY - PORTSMOUTH - UK says:

      Umm! Don’t know about that, Nick! WHO can say he no longer sins?
      St John’s first epistle was written to the Christians of his time. He tells them (us), “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:8–9.
      It seems clear to me from this passage that even those who have been born again and redeemed by the blood of Jesus will still sin. Sadly though, through thought, attitude, or action, we will – and do – “grieve” (Ephesians 4:30) and “quench” (1 Thessalonians 5:19) the Holy Spirit at times.
      Of course, elsewhere scripture also tells us that if “we are are born of God”, then we will not want to go on living a gratuitously sinful life. Of course not! But – that we will continue sinning is made very clear by St Paul in Romans 3:10, He even says of himself in Romans 7:20-21, “And if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So this is the principle I have discovered: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me.”
      Yes we all sin – and WILL go on sinning, but thank God, He also reassures us that He offers continual, ongoing grace whenever we agree with Him about our sin and ask for His cleansing.
      Thus David, like us, could only claim to no longer ‘be a sinner’ – until NEXT time!!
      I think Msgr Charles has made this all perfectly clear in his very full article – for which thanks to him.
      God bless Nick – and all.

    • Jimi says:

      Well, as the article shows, there’s more to it. For example, in Psalm 18 cited above, it goes on… “from a man of lawlessness you have rescued me.”(v49) It applies to David when God kept Saul from harming him when he went to Samuel for protection, but it also applies to Jesus. Thus St. Peter could say.. “This man, delivered up by the set plan and foreknowledge of God, you killed, using lawless men to crucify him. But God raised him up, releasing him from the throes of death, because it was impossible for him to be held by it.” (Acts 2:23-24) St. Peter goes give further example and makes it clear that ‘since David was a prophet…he foresaw and spoke of’ Jesus. David was “moved by the holy Spirit” and “spoke under the influence of God”(2 Pt.1:21)

    • Msgr. Charles Pope says:

      ???

  2. Robert t leblanc says:

    We certainly pray them in hope for what remains to be done in us. But we can also pray them in gratitude for what has already been done in us. Can I pray them now without many qualifications? Certainly not. Can I pray them now with perfect honesty and sincerity? Again, certainly not. But I can pray them now with greater honesty and sincerity than I could have 5, 10, 15 or 20 years ago because God has already done great things for me and in me, and continues to do so.

  3. Richard Connell says:

    Often on Sunday I have the experience or a similar experience to what is described in this post because the Missal of 1962 has a very similar Psalm to the ones quoted. Maybe a different translation of the one of the ones quoted. I can’t recall it word for word.

    It certainly makes sense to connect these psalms with hope.

  4. J. Mulrooney says:

    CS Lewis suggests that the psalmist’s attitude is that of a man before the law. If the jury is weighing whether or not I stole the chocolate bar, I didn’t! So I am pure of heart, completely innocent, unfairly set upon.

    I like your two points better.