I have just completed a reading of The Revelation and have begun a new series which will look at the Psalms, or at least the first book of them, that is Psalms 1-41. I am even less of an expert in Hebrew than I am in Greek, but I will study the Hebrew and usually give the reader my own translation of the Psalm for the day. The Psalms collected in the Hebrew Bible were written over a period of perhaps 800 years, and are difficult to date. Probably none of them were written by King David and their true authors are unknown. They were used in the worship of the second temple in Jerusalem and have been used in most traditions of Christian worship, including that of the Church of Scotland, in which they were versified into such international favourites as “The Lord’s my shepherd” and “All people that on earth do dwell”. They are poetic songs and should be appreciated as such. They are also not free of prejudice, (they hardly mention women) and inappropriate emotions (they ask God to smash the faces of enemies). In other words, they speak my sinful language.
For the chief musician; on stringed instruments; a psalm of David
Answer me when I call, God my vindicator!
You freed me when I was hemmed in;
Be kind to me and hear my prayer.
How long, you people, will you turn my honour into shame?
How long will you love empty words and pursue lies?
Know that the Lord has set apart the faithful person as his own.
The Lord listens when I call to him.
“Be angry, but do not sin;
Think it through on your bed and be still;
Offer the right sacrifices;
And trust in the Lord”
Many say, “Who will do us some good?
Make your favour visible to us O Lord!”
But You have given my heart pleasure
More than when their grain and wine are lavish.
At peace with You, I will lie down and sleep
For you, Lord, make me dwell in safety.
I have spent a huge amount of time studying and translating this psalm. In the original Hebrew there are no punctuation signs, although these have been provided by traditional editors. This means that the precise relationship of one sentence or phrase to the next one is often in doubt. So for example, are the words from “How long” to “lies” the direct speech of God or the psalmist? In my view they could be either, resulting in quite different meanings. I chose the second option because I prefer that meaning rather than because I have objective grounds for choosing it. Or, does the Hebrew mean “Be angry” or “Tremble”? The text is corrupt and nobody to my knowledge has sorted it. Or again, where I have translated “more than when their grain etc” I have added the words “more than” to make crear what I judge to be the sense.
I make these points because since the KJV, translators have not printed their interpretative words in italics as they did then, giving the impression of greater certainty than they can rightly have. How people who believe in the inerrancy of English translations deal with this problem is beyond me.
This is a psalm of complaint which has a set pattern:
- The speaker appeals to God for help
- The threat of the speaker’s enemies is described
- The speaker receives an answer that renews his trust in God.
Here the psalmist’s appeal affirms God’s help in past difficulties: he has been literally in a “tight spot” and God has given him space. That is why he can call God his vindicator (literally “my justice”). God has done justice in the past by rescuing his faithful person.
The next section sets out his complaint. His honour (literally “his glory) that is, his reputation, is being destroyed by people who have no respect, because they “love empty words and pursue lies”, phrases which are used to define riffraff. Perhaps we should think of those whose reputations are threatened by our news or social media through which various kinds of riffraff can express their love of empty words and pursue their lies. A free press and internet can be of such benefit to humanity when they are not misused, but the victims of media lies are often so severely damaged, socially, psychologically and materially that recovery is very difficult or impossible. We can join in the psalmist’s complaint to God on behalf of all such victims.
The heart of the psalmist’s defiance is found in his conviction that God “sets apart”, or singles out from the crowd, the genuine person who is faithful to God and his neighbour. He believes God listens when he prays.(Someone asked the Baal Shem Tov, Why is God silent when I pray?” “How can He listen if He is not silent?,” the Baal Shem answered.)
The next section I’ve imagined either as God’s reply, or as the Psalmist’s reply to himself. The ancient Greek translation of this psalm has “orgisthe”, be angry, which seems good to me. God doesn’t tell people with just complains not to be angry. Right anger is not a sin. But allowing it to consume your soul may lead to sin. Hence the command to do your public duty to God, “offer the right sacrifices”. We should not neglect to give public honour to God out of anger. Privately, we should think it through in quietness. Yes, how many daft decisions I could have avoided, if I’d done that, rather than rushing ahead in righteous and sometimes unrighteous rage!
The many who demand material benefit from God are not necessarily the same people as the psalmist’s enemies, but their “scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” sort of faith is not his. God’s goodness gives him pleasure in his heart, that is, in the living centre of his being, and more than matches the pleasure of others in a good harvest. Knowing this, the psalmist can sleep in peace, finding his true dwelling place in God’s care.
The psalm moves from urgent appeal, through honest complaint and wise guidance, to final trust in God. It provides a path for others to follow.