PSALM 118:1-2, 14-24

1 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    his steadfast love endures forever!

2 Let Israel say,
    “His steadfast love endures forever.”

14 The Lord is my strength and my might;
    he has become my salvation.

15 There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous:
“The right hand of the Lord does valiantly;
16     the right hand of the Lord is exalted;
    the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.”
17 I shall not die, but I shall live,
    and recount the deeds of the Lord.
18 The Lord has punished me severely,
    but he did not give me over to death.

19 Open to me the gates of righteousness,
    that I may enter through them
    and give thanks to the Lord.

20 This is the gate of the Lord;
    the righteous shall enter through it.

21 I thank you that you have answered me
    and have become my salvation.
22 The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the chief cornerstone.
23 This is the Lord’s doing;
    it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day that the Lord has made;
    let us rejoice and be glad in it.

This passage from the Psalms would become one of those privileged texts that early Christians used as  “prophecies” of Jesus. “I shall not die, but I shall live” and mention of a rejected building stone becoming the chief cornerstone are references vague enough to be applied in any number of ways, which is a virtue that makes them readily adaptable to a variety of situations.

The theme of being punished by God was another feature with direct transfer value to early Christian theories of atonement – of how Jesus’ suffering and death was somehow instrumental in world salvation. An assumption that reality is moral in nature is deep in the cultural DNA of ethical monotheism, which is behind the Bible’s heavy accent on obedience, responsibility, justice and equality – but also our perennial struggle with guilt, forgiveness, retribution and punishment in Western society.

For the longest time, and still for a large majority of  believers, “steadfast love” and “punishing severity” were held in tension in the orthodox concept of God. It was not an overt contradiction to regard the same personality (divine or human) as compassionate and merciful one moment, vengeful and punitive the next. This bi-polar tension in theology worked its way out as alternating anxiety and despondency in the human psyche – or perhaps the conflicted human psyche projected this bipolarity into the nature of God.

Still, by the time of the Protestant Reformation (16th century CE) this internal conflict was driving denominational development. Martin Luther’s evident concern over the security of salvation was answered by John Calvin’s doctrines of predestination and the perseverance of the saved. And across all denominations the belief in God’s universal and irresistible grace has run up against the conviction that unrepentant sinners (that is, those able somehow to resist God’s grace) will suffer everlasting punishment.

Jesus would later proclaim a radical revision to this ethical concept of God, with his gospel of unconditional forgiveness. Sadly, Christian orthodoxy buried his teaching under layers of interpretation that effectively canceled out his message and reaffirmed God as a retributive deity who used redemptive violence (in Jesus’ death on the cross) to “save” the world.

 

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