Tag Archives: Psalms of trust

Psalm 64 Protect the Innocent One for the Words of the Wicked

By Rashid al-Din – “History of the World” by Rashid al-Din. Photograph by German image bank AKG-Images, published in “The Mongols and the West”, Peter Jackson, 2005., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3237525

Psalm 64

<To the leader. A Psalm of David.>
1 Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint; preserve my life from the dread enemy.
2 Hide me from the secret plots of the wicked, from the scheming of evildoers,
3 who whet their tongues like swords, who aim bitter words like arrows,
4 shooting from ambush at the blameless; they shoot suddenly and without fear.
5 They hold fast to their evil purpose; they talk of laying snares secretly, thinking, “Who can see us?
6 Who can search out our crimes? We have thought out a cunningly conceived plot.” For the human heart and mind are deep.
7 But God will shoot his arrow at them; they will be wounded suddenly.
8 Because of their tongue he will bring them to ruin; all who see them will shake with horror.
9 Then everyone will fear; they will tell what God has brought about, and ponder what he has done.
10 Let the righteous rejoice in the LORD and take refuge in him. Let all the upright in heart glory.

This portion of the psalter is full of petitions to God to deliver the one crying out from the malicious action of those who oppose them. Most people have encountered a time when they felt unfairly targeted by a group that threatened to ruin their reputation and may have even threatened physical violence. We don’t have to look far in our modern world to see people who wield words as weapons and who gather together to seek the advancement of their own power, fame, or fortune while thinking themselves immune to any consequences from their words or actions. The faith of the psalmist, which has been handed down to us, is that God hears and sees the injustice of the world and that God will eventually set the world back in balance. The dangerous words and scheming plots of the wicked may wound but God will rise to defend those who call for deliverance.

The psalm begins with an urgent call for God to hear and act to guard the life of the one praying for God’s preservation. This righteous one is dealing with many enemies who are gathering together and plotting against them. The NRSV translates the gathering together or the enemies as a ‘secret plot’ but the Hebrew sod is a gathering of a company of persons (Nancy deClaisse-Walford 2014, 522) and so the actions of the enemies is more like a gathering mob rather than a quiet conspiracy. The actions of these ‘scheming evildoers’ is intentionally unfair, and the psalmist feels ambushed by their words which have been weaponized like swords and arrows. The cry for help goes up when the psalmist feels exposed and unable to defend themselves against the onslaught of words and clever snares laid for them. These wicked ones are convinced that they have laid out a clever plot which the petitioner cannot escape from and have probably manipulated things to make themselves appear righteous in their assassination of the character and reputation of the righteous one.

The psalmist trusts that God will respond to the words and actions of the wicked ones and will guard their life. Just as the wicked ones aimed their bitter words like arrows, now they are wounded by God’s arrows, and they find that their tongues which they sharpened like swords cut both ways. They intended to bring about the destruction of the reputation and life of the righteous one, but now they find themselves as objects of horror. Their cunning plots unravel and and now they stand exposed before the community. They become the example of the ‘wicked’ whose punishment becomes an example to others who would follow their foolish ways. The psalmist trusts that God will put the world back in balance and the righteous will rejoice in God’s protection while the wicked are revealed before the community.

The persistent reality of those who are willing to use words as weapons and whose schemes often cause damage both lives and reputations causes many to continue to lift up their complaints to God. It is difficult to deny that many of these schemers seem to act without consequences in the present, but faith calls the one praying to trust in the power of God to ultimately overcome the scheming of humans. Sometimes the action of God may be violent, like the archer shooting arrows to defend one ambushed, but often it may be to allow the actions of the ‘evil ones’ to be revealed and their cunning plots to become known. Yet, the petition is for God to act and the psalmist entrusts that God can use the tools at God’s disposal to put the world back in balance and to guard the righteous ones.

 

 

Psalm 63 Hungering and Thirsting for God’s Presence

Trinity River in Texas

Psalm 63

<A Psalm of David, when he was in the Wilderness of Judah.>
1 O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
2 So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.
3 Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
4 So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
5 My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
6 when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
7 for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
8 My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.
9 But those who seek to destroy my life shall go down into the depths of the earth;
10 they shall be given over to the power of the sword, they shall be prey for jackals.
11 But the king shall rejoice in God; all who swear by him shall exult, for the mouths of liars will be stopped.

Trust in the midst of trouble has been a common theme in this portion of the book of Psalms. Sometimes the trouble precedes a turning to trust in the life of the psalmist, but sometimes the psalmist begins in trust and then addresses their troubles to God. This Psalm, which is attributed to David’s time in the wilderness when he was hunted by Saul, begins with a thirst and hunger to experience God’s presence like the psalmist experienced in the past. Yet, even though the psalmist longs for God’s presence and desires to share a rich feast in the security of God’s love and protection, they trust that their life is upheld by the power and protection of God.

We have previously seen the metaphor of thirsting for God’s presence at the beginning of Psalm 42, where the nephesh[1]pants for God like a deer pants for water. Once again the nephesh thirsts for God and the flesh faints for God. The psalmists entire being is weakened by the perceived absence of God’s presence like a person wandering in a hostile wilderness may be threatened by the harsh sun, unforgiving winds, and the lack of water. The psalmist is able to look back on times where they encountered the presence of God in the tabernacle or temple and came to know the hesed (steadfast love) of God. This encounter with the presence and love of God made a powerful impression on the psalmist, causing them to understand that the proper response was to dedicate their life to blessing and living in prayerful thanksgiving to their God.

The metaphor now shifts from thirst to hunger as the nephesh is satisfied with a rich feast.[2] Much as the feast of Thanksgiving in the United States was intended to give thanks to God for the abundance of harvest, now the psalmist participating in this festive meal, probably understood as taking place within the context of sacrifice, responds with lifting up praises with joyful lips. Hunger and thirst sated, now the psalm moves to the bed where the psalmist can rest in the peace provided by God’s protection and can lay down with a joyful song on their lips. They may experience hunger and thirst, but they trust that God will provide for the needs of their body and life. They can go to sleep even in the midst of their enemies continuing to make trouble because their God is a God of steadfast love and protection.

Only in the final three verses does the external threat of the enemy make its appearance, but in contrast to the experience of the faithful one their future is, through the eyes of the psalmist, one of shame and silence. The psalmist trusts that they will be surrounded by the presence of God, but their enemies will ‘go down’ to the depths of the earth-a place perceived to be distant from God. Their lives may have been lived violently, and the psalmist trusts that they will end violently, and they will end up the prey of scavengers who wander the wastelands. The voice of the psalmist will be lifted up in praise but the mouths of the liars who oppose him shall be silenced. Perhaps the ending of the psalm seems vengeful, but vengeance is left in God’s hands. Ultimately the threat of the psalmist’s enemies are real but they trust in the protection of their God to deal with these threats and they look forward to being in the holy spaces and lifting up their voice as they wonder and marvel at the presence and steadfast love of God which satisfies their thirst and sates their hunger.

[1] The Hebrew nephesh is often translated soul, but a Hebrew understanding of this word is closer to ‘my life’ or ‘my whole being.’

[2] Literally fat and fatness.

Psalm 62 Truly Faith Surrounds My Troubles

Wartburg Castle, Eisenach, Germany. Photo by Robert Scarth shared under creative commons 2.0

Psalm 62 Truly Faith Surrounds My Troubles

<To the leader: according to Jeduthun. A Psalm of David.>

1 For God alone my soul[1] waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.
2 He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken.
3 How long will you assail a person, will you batter[2] your victim, all of you, as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence?
4 Their only plan is to bring down a person of prominence. They take pleasure in falsehood; they bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse. Selah
5 For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.
6 He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
7 On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.
8 Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us. Selah
9 Those of low estate are but a breath, those of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath.
10 Put no confidence in extortion, and set no vain hopes on robbery; if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.
11 Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God,
12 and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord. For you repay to all according to their work.

In poetry structure can frequently be used to help those familiar with the medium understand the words at a deeper level. In this psalm there are a number of structural elements that are often missed in the English translations that help provide emphasis in the psalm of trust amidst trouble. The placement of this psalm between Psalm 61 and Psalm 63 (also psalms which declare the psalmist’s trust in God above all other things) also emphasizes this common theme. The “trilogy of trust” within the psalms, as J. Clinton McCann labels Psalm 61-63, (NIB IV:922) stand near the end of the petitions for help in this portion of the book of psalms. Even though the psalmist’s world is full of people who murder reputations with their duplicitous ways, the way of faith knows that God’s steadfast love will outlast the scheming of mortals.

Invisible to most English translations of this psalm is the repetition of the Hebrew ‘ak which begins verses 1,2,4,5,6 and 9. This word, translated ‘alone’ and ‘only’ in the NRSV, is used four times in relation to God and twice in relation to the working of humans. There is a strong emphasis on God ‘alone’ providing strength which thwarts the ‘only’ plans of those who are but a breath. In addition to this structural repetition is the nearly identical wording of verses 1-2 and 5-6. The complaints about the enemies who are assailing the psalmist and attempting to bring them down from prominence are structurally surrounded by God alone, who they wait for in silence. The psalmist may appear like a leaning wall or a tottering fence, but they are surrounded by their rock, salvation, and fortress. The faithful one can remain in silence while the wicked ones utter falsehoods for they know that this struggle takes place within the sheltering space of their God who will not allow them to be shaken. Even trouble is surrounded by faith and the deliverance from the ephemeral evils produced by the wicked rests in the hands of God who rescues not only life but also honor and reputation.

In verse eight the psalm transforms from personal trust to testimony. Now the psalmist takes on the role of the instructor to the people handing on the trust they have learned. What humans can do alone without God (in verse 9 this is the final time the Hebrew ‘ak occurs) is to be a breath or a puff of air. God alone can be salvation, rock, fortress, deliverance, and honor. Placing trust in human scheming, extortion, robbery, and even riches is foolishness. It is in God, not humans and their schemes, where power rests. It is God’s hesed (steadfast love) that is the guarantee of the future for the faithful. The actions of the faithful and the foolish are seen by God and the psalmist trusts that ultimately God’s steadfast love and power will lift up the righteous and bring down those who are working in falsehood to destroy the honor and perhaps even the life of the faithful ones.

 

[1] Although the Hebrew nephesh is often translated ‘soul,’ the Hebrew understanding of ‘soul’ is closer to ‘life’ than the Greek conception of soul most English speakers assume. The Hebrew idea is inseparable from the life of the individual.

[2] A more literal translation of the Hebrew rasah here would be ‘kill’ or ‘murder’ (NIB IV:923)

Psalm 59 God’s Steadfast Love as an Alternative to the Dog-Eat-Dog Worldview

Battle between Cimmerian cavalry, their war dogs, and Greek hoplites, depicted on a Pontic plate

Psalm 59 God’s Steadfast Love as an Alternative to the Dog-Eat-Dog World

<To the leader: Do Not Destroy. Of David. A Miktam, when Saul ordered his house to be watched in order to kill him.>

1 Deliver me from my enemies, O my God; protect me from those who rise up against me.
2 Deliver me from those who work evil; from the bloodthirsty save me.
3 Even now they lie in wait for my life; the mighty stir up strife against me. For no transgression or sin of mine, O LORD,
4 for no fault of mine, they run and make ready. Rouse yourself, come to my help and see!
5 You, LORD God of hosts, are God of Israel. Awake to punish all the nations; spare none of those who treacherously plot evil. Selah
6 Each evening they come back, howling like dogs and prowling about the city.
7 There they are, bellowing with their mouths, with sharp words on their lips — for “Who,” they think, “will hear us?”
8 But you laugh at them, O LORD; you hold all the nations in derision.
9 O my strength, I will watch for you; for you, O God, are my fortress.
10 My God in his steadfast love will meet me; my God will let me look in triumph on my enemies.
11 Do not kill them, or my people may forget; make them totter by your power, and bring them down, O Lord, our shield.
12 For the sin of their mouths, the words of their lips, let them be trapped in their pride. For the cursing and lies that they utter,
13 consume them in wrath; consume them until they are no more. Then it will be known to the ends of the earth that God rules over Jacob. Selah
14 Each evening they come back, howling like dogs and prowling about the city.
15 They roam about for food, and growl if they do not get their fill.
16 But I will sing of your might; I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning. For you have been a fortress for me and a refuge in the day of my distress.
17 O my strength, I will sing praises to you, for you, O God, are my fortress, the God who shows me steadfast love.

Many of the Psalms in this section of the psalter are attributed to the time when David’s life is continuously under threat from his king and father-in-law Saul.[1] These desperate pleas to God, which can fit a number of circumstances that people encounter in a world, are an underutilized portion of Psalms. They are perhaps overlooked because they may appear too vengeful for some Christians, but they point to a resilient faith in the reality of God’s steadfast love in the midst of a world of dogged opposition. The psalmist trusts that God’s protection will allow them to see their opponents punished for their unjust violence they have done and will vindicate their continued trust in their God which allows them to opt out of the dog-eat-dog mindset of competitive violence.

God is the one who must deliver the psalmist from their situation. The psalm is a series of imperatives directed at God: deliver, protect, deliver, save, (1-2) rouse, come, see, awake, spare none, (4-5) make them totter, (11) and consume (twice in verse 13). Immediately the psalmist begins with an impassioned appeal for God to save them from dire circumstances that are created by enemies who are conspiring against them. These evil working and bloodthirsty ones continually create a world of conflict and violence for the poet despite their innocence. The psalmist emphasizes their innocence by utilizing the three major Hebrew words for ‘sin’[2] and declaring they are without fault, transgression, or sin. This three-fold appeal to the psalmist innocence is followed by a three-fold titling of God: LORD (the divine name of God) God of hosts (a militaristic image of God as the leader of armies) and God of Israel (the God of the chosen people). God is one who can be called upon by name, and yet has the power to aid in conflicted situation, and is also the God who stands with the chosen people in the midst of the nations. The psalmist trusts that the God that they call upon is able to save and deliver them from this world of trouble created by their persistent and unjust enemies.

The metaphor used in this psalm for the enemies is dogs. They prowl like a pack, and they wound with their words. They continue to prowl the city and utter their threatening howls which inform the poet that there is no time when they are free of their presence. These enemies consider themselves strong but all their growling, prowling, and howling ultimately evoke laughter from God. In Psalm 52:6 the righteous laughed at the foolish and violent enemies, but here it is God who laughs at these violent ones who take themselves and their power so seriously. Their strength when compared to the protective and sheltering strength of the God of Israel or the liberating strength of the God of Hosts is laughable, and their boasts are hollow. The faithful and innocent one trusts that God’s steadfast love (hesed) will ultimately be the final word and will put these dogged opponents in their place.

This prayer comes from the perspective of one who is struggling in an unjust world and is calling upon God to act decisively against their oppressors. Perhaps one of the reasons this Psalm is seldom used is the desire for vengeance against one’s enemies and there is some danger when those in a privileged position view themselves as oppressed and use that narrative to justify their own actions of oppression. Yet, in the Psalms the actor who restores the oppressed one to justice is always God. Here the psalmist wishes not for a quick removal of the enemy, but a staggering but not fatal blow where the enemy becomes the unwitting example of God’s justice that is not quickly forgotten. As Bellinger and Brueggemann can say appropriately, “even in its most confident faith Israel can be honest about its resentments and its hope for vengeance and retaliation.” (Brueggemann 2014, 266) The psalmist is maintaining their innocence and committing themselves to God’s steadfast love and justice.

This psalm again confronts us with the distance between the world as it is experienced by the psalmist in this moment of their life and the world as it should be under the steadfast love of God. As J. Clinton McCann can aptly summarize the world the psalmist experiences, “What we end up with is a dog-eat-dog world, a culture of cut-throat competition in which we’re convinced that no one will look out for us if we don’t look out for ourselves.” But the psalm points to “a deeper reality, an alternative world, which is drive not by the lust for power but by the power of love.” (NIB IV:914) In the belief of the psalmist, we may begin with the need for deliverance from the dog-eat-dog mindset of competitive violence. The final words in this psalm and in worldview of the psalmist is God’s steadfast love (hesed). The wise live their lives oriented towards this deeper reality where the lust for power will be proven foolish and the power of God’s steadfastlove will endure.

[1] The superscription refers 1 Samuel 19: 8-17 when Saul has David’s home watched and Michal (David’s wife and Saul’s daughter) helps David escape and deceives her father.

[2] NRSV translates these words as ‘transgressions,’ ‘sin,’ and ‘fault’ in verses three and four.