<To the leader. A Psalm of David.>
1 Happy are those who consider the poor; the LORD delivers them in the day of trouble.
2 The LORD protects them and keeps them alive; they are called happy in the land. You do not give them up to the will of their enemies.
3 The LORD sustains them on their sickbed; in their illness you heal all their infirmities.
4 As for me, I said, “O LORD, be gracious to me; heal me, for I have sinned against you.”
5 My enemies wonder in malice when I will die, and my name perish.
6 And when they come to see me, they utter empty words, while their hearts gather mischief; when they go out, they tell it abroad.
7 All who hate me whisper together about me; they imagine the worst for me.
8 They think that a deadly thing has fastened on me, that I will not rise again from where I lie.
9 Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me.
10 But you, O LORD, be gracious to me, and raise me up, that I may repay them.
11 By this I know that you are pleased with me; because my enemy has not triumphed over me.
12 But you have upheld me because of my integrity, and set me in your presence forever.
13 Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Amen and Amen.
The final psalm in the first book of the psalter (Psalms 1-41) begins with a beatitude (Happy/blessed are…) just like the first psalm in this collection. Psalm 1 begins by stating “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked…but their delight is in the law of the LORD” and now closing this section of the book of psalms we hear, “Happy are those who consider the poor.” The structure of the book of psalms wants to encourage us to hear the connection hear between a life that avoids the way of the wicked and delights in the law of the LORD with a life that considers the poor. Looking back at the previous forty psalms that comprise this first section of the psalter it becomes clear that one of the central messages is that God hears those who have been oppressed or isolated from their community and so the one who considers the poor models their path after the God who hears the cries of the poor and neglected of the world. This psalm begins with the one who considers the poor being able to count upon the LORD’s deliverance in their own time of trouble. A life that is blessed is one that in following the law of the LORD hears the way in which they are to be a community which cares for the weak, the widow, the orphan, the alien and all the others who are vulnerable in society.
The similarity between the beginning of this psalm and the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5: 3 (or Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6:20) is just one of many places of resonance between the psalms and the message of Jesus. Jesus vision of the kingdom of God reflects the law of the LORD which imagines a society where the wicked no longer take advantage of the weak. The psalms, along with the law and prophets, the gospels and the letters of Paul as well as the rest of the bible attempt to imagine for the world a different kind of community. I’m reminded of a story that the New Testament scholar Mark Allan Powell shares about the parable of the prodigal son in Luke’s gospel. He asked his American student why the son who goes to a foreign country ends up starving and they almost all point to him squandering what he had, the son’s life was his own responsibility. When he had the opportunity to ask students in Russia the majority pointed to the reality that in the story there is a famine in the land, that the person’s peril was due to external conditions in the environment. Perhaps most interestingly for the reflection on this psalm was the answer he received when he was in Tanzania about why the son was in danger of starvation: “Because no one gave him anything to eat!” and they went on to explain that:
The boy was in a far country. Immigrants often lose their money. They don’t know how things work—they might spend all their money when they shouldn’t because they don’t know about the famines that come. People think they are fools just because they don’t know how to live in that country. But the Bible commands us to care for the stranger and alien in our midst. It is a lack of hospitality not to do so. This story, the Tanzanians told me, is less about personal repentance than it is about society. Specifically, it is about the kingdom of God. (Powell, 2007, p. 27)
This is the type of society that this psalm attempts to help us imagine, a world where the poor are considered and cared for, but the psalmist doesn’t live in that world. Just because the poet believes that God delivers those who care for the vulnerable they also are honest that attempting to live righteously does not exclude them from the challenges of life or from feeling the exclusion that the poor often feel.
The poet spends most of this psalm reflection on how their own community was not a blessing to them in their time of trouble. The LORD sustains those who care for the poor on their sickbed, but now the psalmist community has only the LORD to call to for healing on their own sickbed. Perhaps their community believes that the illness is a judgment from God and therefore they are justified in their exclusion of this one. It may also be that the illness demonstrates the true nature of the community. The community seems to be a place where only those who can actively contribute are valued and where people are actively waiting on the death of the psalmist to inherit his property. At a time where the community was needed the most for the poet, they found themselves a member of an unjust society that does not consider the vulnerable and weak. The community of the speaker has become warped and close friendships revealed as fading and shallow. Yet, the LORD can bring the one who has a deadly thing fastened to him back to life.
Like in Psalm 38 the psalmist wrestles again with a connection between sin and sickness. On the one hand many modern Christians too quickly dismiss any connection when there are times when one suffers because of one’s own actions or choices. Yet, there are other times where both people too quickly and tightly assume a connection. As Rolf Jacobson shares from his own life:
Even modern agnostics or atheists prove themselves capable of making this assumption when they assume that a person’s poor health is automatically the result of poor lifestyle choices. In my own life, when I was diagnosed with cancer as a teenager, a well-meaning but misguided neighbor remarked to my mother that it was a shame she had not been feeding her family the proper, high anti-oxidant diet, or her son would not have developed cancer. Besides being incredibly unhelpful, this comment was simply wrong—the type of cancer I had is not lifestyle dependent. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 390)
Regardless of whether a person’s plight is caused by personal actions and choices or whether they simply find themselves among the weak, sick, injured, poor, or otherwise vulnerable the psalms imagine a community that can respond differently than what the writer of Psalm 41 discovers in their community.
The psalmist asks to be able to ‘repay’ those who have not acted as a supportive community in their plight and unfortunately in English we lose the double meaning of this phrase. On the one had the psalmist does desire that their health would be restored so that those waiting on their death to claim their payment from their property would have no inheritance because the psalmist continues to live. But the word translated to repay comes from the noun shalom and has the connotation of making complete, restoring, to recompense or reward. (Brueggeman, 2014, p. 200) The poet may also be pointing to being a person who can demonstrate what a righteous life looks like by in the future caring for those who failed to care for them in the present.
The LORD has cared for the one who has cared for the poor. The righteous one can point to their own life as a witness to the LORD’s action on their behalf. Even when their community failed them God proved to be faithful. And they end this psalm and this portion of the psalter with a blessing to the God who has avoided the way of the wicked, who has delighted in the law of the LORD, and who has cared for the poor.