Psalm 69 A Cry for Deliverance from Unjust Suffering

Psalm 69

<To the leader: according to Lilies. Of David.>

1 Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.[1]
2 I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.
3 I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.
4 More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause; many are those who would destroy me, my enemies who accuse me falsely. What I did not steal must I now restore?
5 O God, you know my folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you.
6 Do not let those who hope in you be put to shame because of me, O Lord GOD of hosts; do not let those who seek you be dishonored because of me, O God of Israel.
7 It is for your sake that I have borne reproach, that shame has covered my face.
8 I have become a stranger to my kindred, an alien to my mother’s children.
9 It is zeal for your house that has consumed me; the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.
10 When I humbled my soul with fasting, they insulted me for doing so.
11 When I made sackcloth my clothing, I became a byword to them.
12 I am the subject of gossip for those who sit in the gate, and the drunkards make songs about me.
13 But as for me, my prayer is to you, O LORD. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me. With your faithful help
14 rescue me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters.
15 Do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the Pit close its mouth over me.
16 Answer me, O LORD, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.
17 Do not hide your face from your servant, for I am in distress — make haste to answer me.
18 Draw near to me, redeem me, set me free because of my enemies.
19 You know the insults I receive, and my shame and dishonor; my foes are all known to you.
20 Insults have broken my heart, so that I am in despair. I looked for pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none.
21 They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.
22 Let their table be a trap for them, a snare for their allies.
23 Let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and make their loins tremble continually.
24 Pour out your indignation upon them, and let your burning anger overtake them.
25 May their camp be a desolation; let no one live in their tents.
26 For they persecute those whom you have struck down, and those whom you have wounded, they attack still more.
27 Add guilt to their guilt; may they have no acquittal from you.
28 Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous.
29 But I am lowly and in pain; let your salvation, O God, protect me.
30 I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving.
31 This will please the LORD more than an ox or a bull with horns and hoofs.
32 Let the oppressed see it and be glad; you who seek God, let your hearts revive.
33 For the LORD hears the needy, and does not despise his own that are in bonds.
34 Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and everything that moves in them.
35 For God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah; and his servants shall live there and possess it;
36 the children of his servants shall inherit it, and those who love his name shall live in it.

As attractive as the simple linkage of suffering as a punishment for sin is for some people, there are moments where the magnitude of the suffering becomes impossible to correlate with the suffering that a faithful one is undergoing. Psalm 69 has often been heard in reference to Job, the suffering servant of Isaiah 52: 13-53:12, Jeremiah, the author of Lamentations, and Jesus. It is a complaint from one whose suffering, particularly at the hands of others in the community, is disproportionate to any offenses they may have committed. As we have seen throughout the Psalms, the petitioner trusts that God is the one who can save their life from the threat they face and restore justice in the face of injustice.

Structurally, Psalm 69 begins with two sets of appeals to God which parallel each other in significant ways using similar content and vocabulary. This mirroring intensifies the urgency in the appeal of the psalmist and reinforces the impression that their life is in imminent danger of being overwhelmed by the forces and the individuals who oppose them. The person cries out using the imagery of rising floodwaters that they cannot flee from because they are stuck in the deep mire and cannot gain a foothold. Their time is running out before the waters rise above their neck and their life is swept away because the air they need is denied to their lungs by the overwhelming waters. The metaphor indicates a situation of dire need, and the petitioner has continued to call out to God for deliverance until their throat is dry from crying out and their eyes are weary from crying.

The image abruptly shifts from a rising flood of water to a flood of opponents who hate without cause. The psalmist does not claim to being sinless, they know their actions and attitudes have been seen and known by God, but what others are accusing them of they proclaim their innocence of. They are being asked to answer for crimes they did not commit and to pay for things they did not take. The wording of the psalm makes it likely that the psalmist is being persecuted for their faithfulness to their understanding of what God has asked of them. Perhaps they are a prophet whose actions on behalf of God have made them unpopular, or perhaps they maintain faithfulness to the worship of the LORD and practice of the law in a time when many others are serving other gods or embracing other values. Their suffering which has alienated them from even their family is correlated, in the psalmist’s view, with their faithfulness to God. This faithful one has defended God and now they ask for God’s defense and rescue of them. Only God can restore justice in this time of injustice.

The image of flooding returns in verse fourteen and once again we see and echo of the cry for God’s deliverance from the rapidly rising waters which represent the enemies seeking to overwhelm the psalmist. These enemies whose insults have broken their heart of and brought shame and dishonor upon the psalmist. These people who were viewed as their family and community have rejected them and caused them to be viewed as one whose life is forfeit. For the psalmist, the only way they can imagine their restoration and salvation is for the tables to turn. They have been met without pity or comfort, and they ask for God to show their tormentors no comfort. They in their need received only poison and vinegar and so they call upon God to respond to their lack of hospitality. They have attempted to overwhelm their life like a rising flood, and now the psalmist asks that their lives may be blotted out of the book of life. They appeal to God for rescue and deliverance and through their dry throat and dimming eyes they hold on to the hope that God will deliver them and vindicate them over their oppressors.

Within this psalm it appears that the oppressors are adding to the perceived just punishment of God. Verse twenty-six point to the psalmist’s original pain and need, perhaps in the form of an illness. This sense in heightened by the word used for food in verse twenty-one which is an unusual word for food that is often associated with food brought to the sick bed. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford 2014, 560) These enemies may be seeking to exploit the weakness of the psalmist when they are sick and may be (figuratively or literally) poisoning the waters (and the food). One could imagine a scenario where if the psalmist is a king (like David who the psalm is attributed to) someone could seek to exploit their weakness to attempt to seize power. Regardless the psalm indicates that the one who implores God for help can no longer trust even their nearest kin.

The psalm abruptly shifts to praise in verse thirty-one. Perhaps we see the deliverance of the one crying out or perhaps the psalmist merely anticipates that God will deliver. As J. Clinton McCann rightly states, “In the book of Psalms, to live is to praise God, and to praise God is to live.” (NIB IV: 953) The psalms, even in their appeals for help, live in expectation and gratitude of God’s deliverance from the floods that overwhelm and enemies who oppress. The psalmist lifts their voice into the great chorus of all creation praising God for God’s continual provision and redemption. Gratitude lifted up in witness and acclamation is more important in the psalms than providing the proper sacrifices at the temple. The psalmist lives in the love of God’s name, in the shelter of God’s protection, and in the expectation of God’s help.

[1] Hebrew nephesh has occurred frequently throughout the psalms and normally means ‘life’ or ‘soul’ but here is a location where it refers to ‘neck.’ Yet, in the metaphorical waters rising to the neck the life/soul of the petitioner is endangered.

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