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 stringed instruments, upon an eight stringed lyre; a psalm of David
Lord, do not correct me in anger,
Nor discipline me in indignation.
Take pity on me for I am wasting away;
Heal me for my bones are fearful;
And my soul is filled with anxiety.
But You, Lord, how long will you take?
Turn back to me and rescue my soul;
Save me because of your loving-kindness!
For the dead have no memory of you:
Who gives you thanks in the land of shadows?
I wear myself out with groaning;
Every night my tears water my bed;
I soften my couch with them.
My eyes are wasted with grief;
They have grown old because of all my enemies.
Away from me you wrongdoers!
For the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping;
The Lord has heard my cry for favour;
The Lord has taken hold of my prayer.
All my enemies will be shamed and made fearful,
They will turn back in sudden disgrace.
Some commentators find this sort of psalm difficult because they have never suffered much and are able to dismiss the language as conventional. I find it helpful. The psalmist does not feel she has to be macho and able to endure all that life throws at her without whimpering. She is frail and vulnerable hoping that the Lord will not add his harshness to the blows she has already received. A wonderful phrase characterises her suffering: “my bones are fearful / dismayed/ sad”. We are used to our soft tissues mirroring our emotions, but when our skeleton is affected we’re really in trouble. In Hebrew the soul is the person’s vitality which is this case is being crushed.
The crucial question for this sufferer, as sometimes for the whole people of Israel, is “How long?” How long will God take to act on behalf of the innocent and persecuted? There is a complex and ironical attitude to God’s rescue behind this question. God doesn’t have a reputation for speed in this matter; occasionally his rescue of his people has come once most of those initially affected were dead. He is reminded that if He is looking for gratitude He’d be better to act before the victim snuffs it, because dead men give no thanks. In classical Jewish faith there is no belief in resurrection, the dead inhabit She’ol where only their exhausted shadows survive.
As if to emphasise the urgency of the matter the psalmist describes her washed- out state; buckets of tears and hollowed eyes show that she has no resilience in herself. But a change comes, not because the psalmist’s enemies are punished, but because she believes that God has “taken hold” of her prayer. The Hebrew is usually translated “accepted” but I’ve used the root meaning to bring out that God does so almost as a monarch might accept the scroll of a petition. At last, He’s going to read it and deal with it! There is no explanation as to how the psalmist comes to this faith. She trusts in God’s justice and is sure that her enemies will be reduced to the same fearful condition that they have imposed upon her.
Would any believer today be bold enough to urge this faith on an asylum seeker, or a citizen of Syria, or a Christian in Pakistan – a faith that trusts God but has to remind him that time is running out?
The Psalm honestly faces the dilemma of trusting in God’s justice and provides an honest answer: trust itself gives the faithful person courage to withstand her enemies and – if we can interpret the last line in this way- to put them to shame. Even if the last line refers to the future action of God, the psalmist has been enabled in St Paul’s words “to withstand in the evil day and having done all, to stand firm.” (Ephesians 6) For sufferers who know well their own frailty, this is indeed a fighting faith.