Famous books often have famous opening sentences. Pride and Prejudice‘s iconic, ironic first line comes to mind. Even those who haven’t cracked the cover of Melville’s Moby-Dick know its three word intro: “Call me Ishmael.” Well-crafted first sentences manage to set the tone, pique the reader’s interest, and introduce major themes. They serve as a sort of doorway.
The first verse of the Psalter is one of those iconic thresholds:
“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked…”Psalm 1:1
The emphasis in Psalm 1 is on the blessed man. But we cannot miss the introduction of a contrasting character whose menacing shadow looms as an ever-present animus: the wicked. In fact, “the wicked” appear 82 times by name in the 150 psalms–and countless other times by implication.
Psalm 1 casts the wicked as the anti-blessed. After describing the fruitful prosperity of the blessed, the Psalmist makes a blunt turn: “The wicked are not so” (1:3). They are everything the blessed are not; they lack everything the blessed have.
Some characterizations of the wicked are predictable. They are violent, destructive, and foolish. They lack the truth, love, and compassion. However, as the Psalms develop the main protagonist one curious thing becomes plain: The wicked lack courage.
Lack of courage?
Of all things, why would the Psalmist highlight cowardice as a primary quality of the wicked?
Consider first their tactics. Psalm 12:8 tells us, “On every side the wicked prowl.” Like a ferocious lion “the wicked plots against the righteous and gnashes his teeth at him” (Psalm 37:12). The wicked seek to intimidate. And what is the purpose of intimidation? The baring of teeth and the brandishing of weapons is all meant to win the battle without a fight.
They ambush the blameless, “shooting at him suddenly and without fear” (Psalm 34:4). They hide. They lay in wait. They plot in secret. They seek to ensnare (Psalm 119:95, 110; Psalm 64:2). They make plans to trip up the feet of others (Psalm 140:4). “The wicked bend the bow; they have fitted their arrow to the string to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart” (Psalm 11:2).
The courageous enter the battlefield and face their enemies in the light of day. But cowards hide. Cowards act in the dark. Cowards ambush. Cowards set traps. Cowards shoot from a distance.
The wicked seek places of safety and power because they lack the courage to commit their evil deeds without protection. They hide in the shadowed halls of litigation, they take aim from behind financial shields, they shoot from unassailable seats of power. They act in the dark, in secret, through back-channels because they lack the fortitude to act in the light, in plain sight, in the public square. In one particularly incisive moment, the Psalmist opines, “The wicked borrows but does not pay back” (Psalm 37:21). Lacking the courage to commit outright theft, the wicked devises round-about ways of stealing.
As our eyes adjust to the lurking figure, his tactics reveal the truth even before he comes into focus: he lacks courage.
When the wicked open their mouths in the Psalms, we find a forked tongue. Their duplicitous words betray a particular lack of courage.
The wicked employ flattery: “Everyone utters lies to his neighbor; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak” (Psalm 12:2). They hide behind a shiny veneer of words. They “whet their tongues like swords” (Psalm 64:3). The wicked lack the courage to say what they mean and mean what they say.
They are not men of their word. To the contrary: Words are only useful to the wicked as tools for manipulating others. Words are traps and landmines laid for enemies. They are means for garnering misplaced favor. They are attempts to bring about the downfall or disgrace of others without having to lift a finger.
They “speak peace with their neighbor while evil is in their hearts” (Psalm 28:3). And why? Because the wicked man fears facing his neighbor in a fair fight. So he uses his words to put his friend on the back foot, to hoodwink and rob him when he feels most secure.
The utterances of the wicked only further reveal his spinelessness. He is fickle and false. He makes promises to gain trust–with full intention of breaking them at the opportune moment. He flatters in public; he spreads malicious gossip in private. Woe to the man who trusts the wicked! His words are as flimsy as his courage.
Cowardly tactics and cowardly words, yes, but here’s the clincher: their target.
When the wicked appear in the songs and prayers of the Psalmist, who are they seeking to rob? Who are they laying in wait for? Whose blood are they plotting to spill?
As the wicked come into clear focus, we find their white knuckles clutching the defenseless (Psalm 82:2-4). We behold them flexing with one boot on the necks of the poor (Psalm 10:2). We watch horrified as the wicked enter the ring and deliver knock-out blows to the elderly, the fatherless, and the destitute.
Are these men courageous? Are they men at all?
Foundationally, courage is well-ordered fear. It is not ferocity. It is not the ability to achieve victory through duplicity and lies. And it is certainly not the power to strong-arm the powerless. Courage is proper fear. The Psalmist tells us this is precisely what the wicked lack: “There is no fear of God before his eyes” (Psalm 36:1).
The wicked do not realize that an Almighty God sees them in the dark. They do not believe that a Deliverer hears their false words. They do not know that a Savior with his own double-edged sword comes to afflict those who have afflicted the poor.
Inasmuch as this deep, abiding fear of God is lacking, this is also true: The wicked lack courage.