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, with flutes, a psalm of David
Hear my words, Lord!
Heed my grumbling!
Pay attention to my shout for help!
In the morning, Lord,
You will hear my voice;
In the morning
I will turn to you
And keep watch.
For you are not a God who delights in wickedness,
No evil dwells with you.
Boastful people will not stand in your gaze,
You hate all troublemakers,
You destroy those who tell lies,
The Lord detests the man of blood and guile.
But by your huge loving-kindness
I will enter your house;
In your holy temple
I will bow down to you.
Lord, lead me in your justice
On account of my enemies;
Make straight your way before me.
Nothing reliable comes from their mouth
Their heart’s desire is destruction
Their throat is an open grave
Their tongue is slippery.
Hold them guilty, God;
Let them fall into their own traps;
Throw them out in their myriad sins
For they are bitterly against you.
But let all who seek refuge in you be glad!
Let them sing for joy forever!
For you shelter them
So that those who love your name
May rejoice in you.
For you bless the just person, Lord
You encompass them with goodwill
as with a shield.
There is something a little off-putting in the relentless self- approval of the psalms of complaint. There is never even the whisker of a doubt that the speaker is in the right. Only if we imagine the speaker as a decent, poor, despised person, can we approve this stance, which otherwise would be offensive. And of course, if the speaker is sometimes Israel itself, despised and pushed around by larger nations, we can also approve.
For a person poor and oppressed, the speaker of this psalm is surprisingly confident. God is left in no doubt that He will be pestered for justice first thing in the morning, and that His response will be carefully monitored in the light of His character as understood by the petitioner, who trusts in the Lord’s opposition to all evildoers.
Entry to the temple is important to the speaker. He trusts that his enemies will be excluded from the holy place while he will be admitted. The holy God rejects all arrogant wrongdoers while offering a kind embrace to the ordinary person who tries to be faithful.
The nature of evildoers is sharply characterised as destructive and deceitful with a whiff of death. Such people exist at all levels of society. How many will have been involved at one level or another in the deceit whereby Volkswagen concealed the real pollutant capacity of its diesel cars? A range of lies will have been told by people who were more concerned about their careers than the danger to people’s lives or the future of the planet. In all probability none of them will ever be taken to a criminal court, yet their crime will certainly have killed some people already and will almost certainly kill more. “Their throat is an open grave,” indeed.
The verses that set out the comfort of God for the just person are joyful, celebrating the relationship between God and those who are faithful to his justice. It is this relationship that brings joy rather than any miraculous intervention by God on behalf of the faithful. In this psalm, evil brings its own punishment, but goodness is rewarded with God’s companionship.