Psalm 36 is a confession of sin and faith with a prayer for God to continue pouring out his love on his people.2 In our culture, it is common to downplay the reality of our sin as we reconstruct God into a being who isn’t bothered by our rebellion. But David knows better. God is bothered by our sin and he calls us to trust in his steadfast love as we confess our sin to him.
1Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart; there is no fear of God before his eyes. 2For he flatters himself in his own eyes that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated. 3The words of his mouth are trouble and deceit; he has ceased to act wisely and do good. 4He plots trouble while on his bed; he sets himself in a way that is not good; he does not reject evil. 5Your steadfast love, O LORD, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds. 6Your righteousness is like the mountains of God; your judgments are like the great deep; man and beast you save, O LORD. 7How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings. 8They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights. 9For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light. 10Oh, continue your steadfast love to those who know you, and your righteousness to the upright of heart! 11Let not the foot of arrogance come upon me, nor the hand of the wicked drive me away. 12There the evildoers lie fallen; they are thrust down, unable to rise.
The beauty of the Bible is that it acts like a mirror, showing us the horror and destructiveness of our sin as well as the righteous justice and trustworthy love of God in Christ Jesus. As we study the Bible, we are confronted with our own wickedness, and we are introduced to the perfect wrath of God against us for our sin as we are also invited to find shelter in the perfect love of Christ at the cross of Calvary.
Looking into a mirror can have multiple effects on a person. Sometimes we look into a mirror, and we don’t like what we see so we try to cover up what we don’t like. Sometimes we look into a mirror, and we don’t like what we see so we obsess over the image, and we fall into self-loathing or despair because we feel unworthy or unwanted. Sometimes we look into a mirror, and we compare ourselves with other people; I am not as attractive as that person or at least I am not as fat, as I used to be.
All those responses to the image we see in the mirror are self-centered and often lead to multiple kinds of self-help or self-improvement strategies. But when we look into the mirror of God’s Word, when we see our sin for what it is, when we see God for who he really is, the outcome should be a greater dependence on God and a deeper hunger for God.
#1: THE IMAGE OF A SINFUL HUMAN (VV. 1 – 4)
We often think about sin in abstract or non-personal ways. We think about sin in various ways at various times. Sometimes we think about sin like it’s something we only struggle with occasionally. Sometimes we treat sin like it’s an infection we don’t want to catch. Sometimes we think sin is a problem in some else’s life. The reality is that all of us are sinful humans. We don’t just commit sin, sin is part of us; from deep within the darkest recesses of our beings to the outward thoughts and activity of our lives, sin is part of being human.
David says that sin calls out to him from deep within his heart and then when he listens to the voice of sin from deep within, it proves that he doesn’t fear God like he really should (v. 1). Sin is so deceptive that we actually believe we are better than we really are, and we flatter ourselves into believing that no one will see the brokenness in our lives (v. 2).
We speak and behave in ways that are destructive, foolish, and wicked (v. 3), like blind men who can’t see the damage and destruction of their trip down the railroad track into an oncoming train. In the secret recesses of our thoughts and desires, we obsess and make plans to do things that are wrong or evil, typically driven by desires for self-advancement, self-improvement, self-gratification, or self-protection (v. 4).
The image of a sinful human is a picture of something that is rotten to the core. It’s the image of something that, even if it looks good on the outside, has little shreds of impurity hidden deep within. It’s the image of someone blindly running down the tracks with no fear of an oncoming train.3 This is the image of you and me, no matter how much we try to cover up, try to prove that we are better than we really are, or try to compare ourselves with others, we are horrifyingly wicked to the core!
#2: THE IMAGE OF A PERFECT GOD (VV. 5 – 9)
The image of a perfect God is something that our desperately wicked hearts need to see. Without a perfect God, there is absolutely no hope for us in this world. No amount of trying to make the world a better place will ever succeed without a perfect God to redeem and repair the brokenness that comes from the sin of humanity.
This is why David shifts gears from confessing his sin to confessing his faith in a perfect God who is loving, faithful, righteous, just, and redeeming. Those five, character attributes are meant to drive us to the cross with a deep sense of dependence and hunger for God’s protection, provision, joy, life, and light.4
David says that God’s steadfast love extends to the moon and beyond and that his faithfulness exceeds our wildest dreams (v. 5).5 God will never fail to follow through on his promises and he will always do what is right and good because he is absolutely righteous and just (v. 6). Since he has promised to provide a way to be saved from the consequences of our sin, we can rest assured that the work of Christ at the cross is more than sufficient to finish the work of redemption (v. 6).
Since God is loving, faithful, righteous, just, and redeeming, we can take refuge in the shelter of his presence; he will protect us when we run to him from Satan, Sin, and Death (v. 7). He will provide for our every need – not necessarily our every want – and he will fill our hearts with joy amidst the most difficult of seasons (v. 8). The only life worth living is one that is spent in the presence of God because in his presence we are removed from the darkness as the light of Christ shines into our souls (v. 9).
Without this image of a perfect God, the image of our sin would leave us in despair, with no hope whatsoever, because we would soon realize that broken humans are helpless to fix anything perfectly. We are in desperate need of a perfect God who will lovingly, faithfully, rightly, justly, and redemptively put the broken pieces back together as we seek shelter, provision, joy, life, and light in his perfect presence. This drives David to his knees in prayer at the end of this Psalm; he sees the image of his own sin and he sees the image of a perfect God. What else could he do but bow his knees in prayer?
#3: THE PRAYER OF HUNGER AND DEPENDENCE (VV. 10 – 12)
When you and I realize that our stomachs are empty, we get hungry and when we get hungry, we depend on something to satisfy that hunger. In this Psalm, we have already seen David confess the depths of his sin and we’ve also seen David confess the perfect of God. Both of these images are meant to create a hunger that will invite us to depend upon God as we bow before him in prayer.
Sometimes prayer can be an intimidating thing. We start wondering if we are using the right words or if God will even listen to us, considering the fact that we are so sinful and rebellious. But it’s almost as though, David doesn’t care about any of that. He’s witnessed the depth of his sin and he’s looking at the perfection of God and he can’t help but to cry out to God to continue pouring out his love, his righteousness, and his protection upon his people so that we don’t become like the wicked who are driven away into utter darkness and are unable to be saved (vv. 10 – 12).
David is literally crying out to God like a starving man who is depending on someone else to satisfy his hunger so that he doesn’t wither up and die. This kind of dependence, upon God, can only be practiced when we start running away from all the junk food this world has to offer, self-promotion, self-advancement, self-gratification, and self-protection.
In conclusion, the only way to bow the knee before our perfect God in complete hunger and dependence is to see our sinfulness for what it is and to stop feeding it with the junk food of this world as we turn to Christ and his work at the cross and the empty tomb. We need to run from sin, trust in faith, and depend on God in prayer.
When Jesus said that he is the manna that came down from Heaven, he is literally inviting us to feast on his presence in total dependence upon him as we recognize our helplessness apart from him. When you and I arrive at this place, words won’t matter and sin won’t control, we will come to God in total dependence upon his steadfast love shown through a bloody cross, an empty tomb, and the promise of heaven. – Amen!
1 Unless otherwise specified, all Bible references in this paper are to the English Standard Version Bible, The New Classic Reference Edition (ESV) (Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, 2001).
2 James A. Johnston, The Psalms: Rejoice, the Lord is King, Vol. 1, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2015), 368.
3 Ibid., 369.
4 Ibid., 372 – 375.
5 Ibid., 372.