April 23, 2020

Integrity in Public Life

Do not sweep me away with sinners, nor my life with the bloodthirsty,
those in whose hands are evil devices, and whose right hands are full of bribes.

—Psalm 26:9-10

In a time of judgment, the psalmist in Psalm 26:9 wants to be distinguished from the evil who will be condemned. That sinners are mentioned is no surprise and needs little debate—but the word could be defined a bit more specifically. This the psalmist does in a very explicit way in the next clause, referring to the bloodthirsty.

I might immediately assume that the bloodthirsty are murderers or, more broadly, warmongers. But in verse 10, the way they are defined is quite surprising. The psalmist defines the bloodthirsty who have זִמָּ֑ה on their hands (plural). The NRSV translates this word as evil devices while older translations tended to render it as mischief. Crime would also be a reasonable translation.

But in the second half of v. 10—and Hebrew poetry is often based on repetition of parallel phrases that complement or help define each other—I see that the right hand is specifically full of bribes. Therefore, I think I'd allow that phrase to influence my own translation of v. 10: who have corruption on their hands, and whose right hands are full of bribes.

However I might render v. 10, it makes it clear that the bloodthirsty in v. 9 aren't those who are running around shooting or stabbing people, but are corrupt people in positions of authority—those who use their power not for the benefit of society, but to bleed dry those they should be caring for. The perfect translation for וְעִם־אַנְשֵׁ֖י (men of blood, or the bloodthirsty) would be leeches.

I might interpret these two verses either negatively—as a condemnation of corruption—or positively—as a call for integrity in public life. The psalmist seems to choose the second interpretation, not ranting about evil officials, but ending with these words:

But as for me, I walk in my integrity; redeem me, and be gracious to me. 
My foot stands on level ground; in the great congregation I will bless the Lord. 
—Psalm 26:11-12

And so a psalm that opened with integrity also closes with it. May my first response to the evils I see around me be similar: Not just to rail and rant, but to first and foremost see to my own integrity. My complaints to God against corruption deserve no response if my own actions are selfish and corrupt.

When you look upon a corrupt world, O God, may my life stand out as one that is lived for others, may my hands be distinguished as being empty of ill-gotten gain, and may my heart be undivided in its commitment to your goodness. I pray in the Name of him who taught me to pray: Our Father.

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