I have developed the habit of reading the Psalms as a defense against bad sermons.
Recently, I realized that I have not read the Psalms through in their entirety since I was a teen reading the King James Version of the Bible for fun. Nearly 30 years have passed since then and I have a great deal more life and academic experience.
The psalms require my full attention, more than any other portion of the Bible. This is largely because poetry and I don’t get along. Knowing that, I approached reading the psalms with the goal of slowing down and giving each one my full attention. I still have difficulty reading the psalm in one go, but I found that noting any words or phrases that leap out at me helped me go back an read with an eye toward seeing how that phrase plays out in the rest of the psalm. Much like the bible study I participated in in EFM years ago, where we were encouraged to read the assigned passage and then share what spoke to us on that particular day.
What leapt out at me from Psalm 1 was in the very first verse:
“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;” (RSV)
It was the single word: scoffers.
In the progression of the phrase as it appears in the RSV translation of the bible, the final weight lands on that one word and, by my reading, gives it more power than “wicked” or “sinners.” I wondered what a biblical “scoffer” would be. It seems like a fairly straightforward word, but it is translated as “scornful” in the Book of Common Prayer (1979).
“Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked,
nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the seats of the scornful!” (BCP, 1979)
After some poking around using the power of Google, I circled back around to Bible Gateway* and did a search for the word “scoff”; and there, in Proverbs was a definition of a scoffer: “[it] is the name of the proud, haughty man who acts with arrogant pride.” (Proverbs 21:24)
The modern definition is: “to speak to someone or about something in a scornfully derisive or mocking way.”
As a side note, I found it interesting that the English verb started out life as (likely) a Scandinavian noun (an object of ridicule) before transforming into a verb, something could be ‘a scoff.’
Nowadays we encounter the action of ‘scoffing’ on a daily basis. Particularly if one is active on the internet, some people make a hobby of being a scoffer. I spent some time thinking about modern manifestations of scoffing and decided that, for my own part, scoffing is mostly closely related to being snarky and is a more passive action than trolling.
From there I went and read the annotated version of the psalm from Robert Alter’s book “The Book of Psalms: a translation with commentary.” His translation puts the emphasis on the movement: “has not walked, nor…stood, nor…sat”. With each iteration of interaction with evil habits the movement slows, until the the scoffer is sitting, still and immoveable, perhaps trapped in a habit of mocking others. But scoffing is portrayed as a passive action. One sits with scoffers and only comments on something if it passes nearby.
What happens if we reverse it: sit with the scoffers, stand with the sinners, walk with the wicked. Could one outrun the evil of these habits? Run with the righteous?
The Book of Proverbs mentions of ‘scoff’ 14 times and with each mention of the word it becomes clear that a scoffer is toxic. One verse even recommends shunning the scoffer: “Drive out a scoffer, and strife will go out, and quarreling and abuse will cease.” (Proverbs 22:10) However most verses restrict themselves to pointing out that correcting a scoffer will not teach them anything. It is one of the ways to tell a wise person from fool— a wise person accepts correction or seeks advice; one who scoffs is impervious to help or correction.
Is scoffing a form of armor? Or the sign of being an unhelpful know-it-all? When I put that question to myself, it is painful. I’m a recovering know-it-all. I’ve gotten as far as realizing that there is not only a lot that I do not know, but that most folks don’t need my advice as much as they need my mind to be open and my heart to be listening.
Being a know-it-all is a way to try to take control of the uncontrollable, to bring false order when chaos is all around.
This is very strongly illustrated in Job— as most of that book is the humans going on and on about who and what they think God is and how Job’s suffering is a manifestation of God’s Judgement. When God finally does reveal God’s-self to Job and his friends in the form of a whirlwind and after God speaks (for quite a long time) about the many things that Job does not know and would find unknowable; Job answers, humbled by God’s presence: “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
Job had debated with his friends about nature of God, about whether the prosperity or poverty of a person on earth was actually any guide to the righteousness or sinfulness of that person. His friends were trying to give him advice; he was trying to explain. But God comes in and says that God is bigger than all of that. All the arguing, know-it-all pronouncements, and claims of understanding about the mind of God are swept away in God’s presence. The friends who had been vehemently arguing that because Job had lost his children, his possessions, and health he must be abandoned by God are given the task of bringing offerings to Job, for Job to give to God. Job is given the power to pray for them and to intercede with God for them. God makes it clear that God is not happy with their pronouncements about God’s being and nature.
Job’s humility in the face of the awesome, wild, and terrible Presence allows him to be open and experience God.
His friends don’t argue with God that it wasn’t fair, that they were standing up for God.
Even Job, who has been waiting for the opportunity to make his case to God is silenced by how much more God is than any of their arguments or disputations had covered. They all talked about God in relation to their own selves, not about God’s whole creation.
They all do what God tells them and God accepts Job’s prayer.
In what I read of Job, God doesn’t take sides in the argument the humans are having. God spends God’s time with them by sharing how unknowable the mind of God is. God arrives in a whirlwind, upsets everyone’s understanding of God, and departs without fanfare.
If I think of scoffing as a form of armor that I use to protect myself from the chaos and abuse that life throws at me, as a way preemptively protecting myself or by lording my (probably not very) superior knowledge of a subject over others, I see that, not only does that behavior drive others away, it keeps me from experiencing God in God’s fullness and wildness.
Armor not only protects, it cuts one off from contact with other people. Touch can’t be felt, the senses are confused by helmets that cut off vision, surround one with one’s own scent and muffle one’s voice.
If I set aside my need to be in control, if I acknowledge that the universe is big and wild, if I look for ways to be present with others where they are, and not where I need them to be; then I don’t need to scoff.
I can embrace.
Kristin Fontaine is an itinerant Episcopalian, crafter hobbyist, and unstoppable organizer of everything. She spends a lot of time thinking about the meaning of life and her relationship to God and it all spills out in the essays she writes.
Image By William Blake (England, London, 1757-1827) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
*If you have not used Bible Gateway it is an excellent resource for wandering through the bible and exploring many translations.
Bible Gateway (all quotes in this essay are from the RSV translation)
Alter, R. (2007). The Book of Psalms: A translation with commentary (pp. 3-4). New York: W.W. Norton.
Book of Common Prayer (1979);