One Psalms Scholar’s Take on the United States Presidential Election

Among the resources on which I heavily leaned when I was writing my doctoral dissertation on a Christological reading of the book of Psalms were the works of John H. Eaton (1927-2007), who was for many years lecturer in Old Testament at the University of Birmingham.  He wrote a number of important commentaries, monographs, and devotional works on the Psalms.  In the last book he ever wrote, A Lantern to My Feet, and one that was published posthumously, two of his colleagues, Paul Joyce and Frances Young, write this about him:

John Eaton was a distinctive as well as a distinguished figure in Old Testament Studies. He was a humble and reclusive researcher, never one to flaunt his scholarship at big international conferences, though he appreciated quiet friendships with colleagues in the Society for Old Testament Study.  Yet he was widely recognised as immensely learned in the biblical and related languages. . . .  To this he added a profound spirituality and a gentle holiness that resonate in a special way with the content of the biblical literature whose study he made his life.  In a world of academic fad and fashion and of professional ambition, John stood out as a beacon of sanity and wisdom.

For the past couple of years, I have been slowly making my way devotionally through the book of Psalms, utilizing two of Eaton’s Psalms commentaries. Just a few days ago, in one of these commentaries, The Psalms: A Historical and Spiritual Commentary, I was especially struck with some remarks that Eaton made in the process of commenting on Psalm 101.  This psalm is recognized by most commentators as one in which the king of Israel makes declarations as to how he either has governed, or how he intends to govern.  In verses 4-7, the psalmist says the following (Eaton’s translation):

(4) A crooked heart shall depart from me;
I will not know a wicked person.

(5) One who slanders another in secret
I will quickly put to silence.
Arrogant eyes and a greedy heart—
I will not suffer them.

(6) My eyes shall be on the faithful in the earth,
that they should dwell with me.
One that walks in the way that is pure
shall come and be my servant.

(7) There shall not dwell within my house
one that practises deceit.
One who utters falsehood
shall not stand before my eyes.

Now, here are the comments by Eaton on these verses which struck me so much when I read them:

However much the ideal of sovereignty was focused on a single figure, the Lord’s Anointed, an immense amount of administration and rule was in the hands of ministers and officials. These verses therefore concentrate on the need for a just king to govern through honest servants.  Those of crooked heart, those who use slander to advance themselves, the arrogant and those intent on gathering wealth and power for themselves, all such corrupt characters who in fact gravitate towards the opportunities of government, and might have the means to ingratiate themselves and even to make themselves seem indispensable—all such the just king must exclude from his service.  He must be ever alert to find the reliable and faithful (true in the way of ‘wholeness’ towards God) to serve in the palace and other centres of power.

What I find so striking here is Eaton’s reference to those who have crooked hearts, who slander, who are arrogant, and who are corrupt. He says that it is these very kinds of people “who in fact gravitate towards the opportunities of government,” and who try to make themselves look as if they were “indispensable.”  Eaton’s comment here is tremendously insightful.  Corruption is drawn to power like moths are drawn to the flame.  And it is all the more insightful in that it comes from someone who was known for his humility.

Several times over the last few weeks I have heard various people say something like this regarding the current US election: “Three hundred million people in the United States, and these two candidates are the best we could come up with?” While this observation is a correct one, and certainly an understandable one, Eaton’s remarks here should alert us to the fact that this should not come as some great surprise.  The old line, “Power corrupts,” only tells half the story.  The reason that power corrupts is that it is precisely corrupt people who are drawn to power.

If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still. (Eccl 5:8)

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. (Matt 20:25)

There are certainly exceptions to this observation, and notable ones at that; on the other hand, that is exactly what they are—exceptions. And in my opinion, neither one of the two leading candidates for President of the United States count as exceptions.

But beyond this, as Eaton notes, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that corruption tends to surround itself with corruption. The ideal king in Psalm 101 swears that those who are crooked, and who are wicked, and who slander, and who are arrogant, and who are greedy, and who practice deceit, and who utter falsehood—these kinds of people will not be among the king’s advisors, they will not be among his servants, they will not be members of his staff.  And, frankly, in my opinion, both of the leading presidential candidates have already demonstrated their failure on this count.

So, I have no great hopes for good things to come out of this election. If indeed I am reading the Scriptures correctly, I should not have had any great hopes anyway.  And, by the way, if the superscription of Psalm 101 is correct, and King David was in fact the author of this psalm, well, he was no great shakes either; he himself was at times egregiously corrupt, and among his advisors were those who were corrupt as well.

The only one whom we can truly trust to rule is the one who has already begun to rule by sitting down at the right of the Majesty on high. This is the one who was not so power-hungry that he felt that he had to hold on to power with a tight fist (Phil 2:6-8).  This is the one who refused to engage in corrupt acts in order to receive all the kingdoms of the world (Matt 4:8-10).  And now we anxiously await the day when he will return to this earth to complete the bringing in of the kingdom, and when we will hear that great and glorious declaration, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.”  (Rev 11:15)

Until then, all you who despair, all you who are downtrodden, all you who are oppressed, all you who are poor and humble, let me assure you:

The meek shall inherit the earth.

Jerry Shepherd
October 28, 2016