Psalm 60 A Plea for God’s Return to the People

The Ruins of Holyrood Chapel by Louis Daguerre (1824)

Psalm 60

<To the leader: according to the Lily of the Covenant. A Miktam of David; for instruction; when he struggled with Aram-naharaim and with Aram-zobah, and when Joab on his return killed twelve thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt.>
1 O God, you have rejected us, broken our defenses; you have been angry; now restore us!
2 You have caused the land to quake; you have torn it open; repair the cracks in it, for it is tottering.
3 You have made your people suffer hard things; you have given us wine to drink that made us reel.
4 You have set up a banner for those who fear you, to rally to it out of bowshot. Selah
5 Give victory with your right hand, and answer us, so that those whom you love may be rescued.
6 God has promised[1] in his sanctuary: “With exultation I will divide up Shechem, and portion out the Vale of Succoth.
7 Gilead is mine, and Manasseh is mine; Ephraim is my helmet; Judah is my scepter.
8 Moab is my washbasin; on Edom I hurl my shoe; over Philistia I shout in triumph.”
9 Who will bring me to the fortified city? Who will lead me to Edom?
10 Have you not rejected us, O God? You do not go out, O God, with our armies.
11 O grant us help against the foe, for human help is worthless.
12 With God we shall do valiantly; it is he who will tread down our foes.

While writing to his friend Eberhard Bethge from Tegel military prison in 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The same God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34!)” (DBWE 8: 479) Though Bonhoeffer was discussing how he, and other faithful Christians, were to live before God in a world that seems to manage without God, his phrasing could also apply to this psalm where the critical issue is the perceived abandonment of the covenant people at a critical moment by their God. The psalms are theological enough to rest on the conviction of God’s active presence and participation, but they are poetic enough to speak eloquently about the experience of God’s absence, abandonment, and rejection.

The superscription of this psalm seems to be disconnected from the content of the psalm itself. The superscription refers to a string of events in 2 Samuel 8 (and 1 Chronicles 18) when David and his armies are experiencing a time of the LORD’s favor and, “the LORD gave victory to David wherever he went.” (2 Samuel 8:14) Yet the psalm is clearly about a time where the people are not experiencing the LORD’s favor and are speaking in the aftermath of defeat searching for answers. This communal prayer contrasts the experience of God’s previous provision with the brokenness of their current plight.

In the theological world of the Bible the existence of the covenant people is contingent upon the continued provision and care of the God of Israel. They may have suffered a defeat from one or multiple of the surrounding kingdoms of Moab, Edom, or Philistia, but the theological claim that the psalmist makes is that this defeat is symptomatic of their rejection by their God. It is not better military technology or strategy that will change the plight of the defeated covenant people. Their need as expressed in this prayer is that God to return to their side and protect them. There are numerous incidents in the story of Israel where the scriptures narrate a military defeat theologically as a judgment by God or a time where God’s presence has not gone with the people.[2] The bible consistently provides a theological interpretation of history, judging kings and times for their faithfulness to the covenant instead of their wealth, power, or military prowess. In this psalm, it is God who has rejected the people, breached their defenses and broken the land itself. Although the people may have external opponents it is God who has caused them to suffer and given them the ‘wine of reeling.’[3]

There is an abrupt transition in verse four where God’s role changes to being once again the one who provides a safe place for the people to rally under. Perhaps this is the psalmist speaking in hope or perhaps it is a desperate plea, but it remains consistent with the psalmist’s worldview that the problem is God’s rejection which can only be resolved by God’s initiative. In Hebrew verse five ends with the imperative “answer” setting up what “God has spoken.” God’s answer reinforces the psalmist’s worldview that God is not merely the God of Israel, but the God of all the nations. Not only are the places of Israel (verses 6-7) but also Israel’s opponents (verse 8) under God’s authority. The language about Moab, Edom, and Philistia may be intended as an insult of these nations or they may simply be extending the image of God’s possession and claiming of each of these nations that surround Israel as well.

The nation still finds themselves in conflict and unable to oppose their foes. They are not going to enjoy success against the defenses of their opponents until God’s rejection ends and God once again goes out with the armies of the covenant people. It would be easy to dismiss this prayer as an appeal to divine authorization of the wars of the people, and in a conflicted history of Israel there are times where it would be appealing to combine military might and strategy with a divine mandate. Yet, Israel has never been a superpower and they were to rely upon God for their survival in the ancient world. As J. Clinton McCann Jr. can articulate.

Their prayer is not that of the powerful, who seek to claim God’s sanction of the status quo. Rather, their prayer is the desperate prayer of those who turn to God as the only possible hope in an apparently hopeless situation (v. 11) (NIB IV:918)

In a violent world the covenant people were to learn to rely upon their God’s continual strength, protection, and provision. In this moment of crisis, in the psalmist’s view, God has not upheld God’s responsibility to the covenant and no justification for this absence is given. This psalm boldly calls upon God to act on behalf of the covenant people and to restore them once again and grant them victory over the foes that oppose them.

[1] The NRSV takes a less literal approach here in its rendition of these words as God has promised from his sanctuary. There is the possibility of understanding this as a ‘brief sermon’, but the more literal reading of the Hebrew rendered by the NIV as “God has spoken from the sanctuary” places this as a plea for an answer responded to by God’s voice from the sanctuary. (NIB IV:916)

[2] Examples of this include Numbers 14:41-45, and Judges 2: 11-15. This theological interpretation of history permeates the narration of Israel’s story throughout historical books (Joshua-Esther) and also often appears in the prophets.

[3] This theme of the wine of reeling or cup of judgment also appears in Isaiah 51:22 (where this wine is to be passed now to the enemies of the people) and Jeremiah 25:15-17(although the language in Jeremiah is slightly different the image is employed in the same manner).

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