I have recently 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.
Lord my God, I take refuge in you;
Save me from my pursuers and free me from them,
In case they tear me to bits like a lion,
And drag me off with no-one to rescue.
Lord my God, if I have done this:
If my hands have done wrong;
If I have rewarded my friend with evil;
Or let an oppressor go free;
Let the enemy pursue me and catch me,
Let him trample my soul in the soil,
Let him tread my guts in the ground.
Up Lord, lift yourself up against the fury of my enemies.
Wake up for my sake; you have set up a judgement.
The assembly of the peoples is gathered around you;
Take your place on high over them.
The Lord stands in judgement on the peoples;
Judge me, Lord, by my justice and my integrity.
End the evil of the wrongdoers
But confirm the decent people,
You God of justice
who tests the hearts and the innards.
I rely on God to shield me;
He saves good-hearted people.
God is a just judge
Who shows his indignation daily:
If there is no repentance
He sharpens his sword,
He bends his bow and holds it steady;
He has prepared deadly weapons,
He shoots his arrows of fire.
Look at the evildoer:
He conceives a crime,
Becomes pregnant with evil
and gives birth to lies.
He digs a pit and hollows it,
Then falls into the hole he has made.
His mischief comes back on his own head,
His cruelty falls on his own skull.
I will praise the Lord for his justice;
I will dance to the name of the Lord most high.
A glance at other translations of this psalm will show the reader that there is quite a measure of disagreement amongst translators both as regards the meaning of words and the reference of certain lines. For example, are the lines about sharpening the sword and shooting fiery arrows to be applied to God or the enemy? My own translation makes its own judgements but I owe a little to a splendid Spanish translation, La Biblia De Nuestro Pueblo (Orbis books).
This psalm is another complaint to God by a man who considers himself innocent and unjustly treated. There is an association with King David, but we should not imagine it belongs to his era. It s possible that the vivid language of pursuit and violence in the opening lines should be taken literally, but much more likely that it refers to matters of business and law. The plots are more probably to do with false accusations designed to gain the enemy a commercial or social advantage, that is, they are issues of “Mishpat”, the public determination of justice.
The complainant makes a vehement declaration of his innocence, listing possible crimes against justice (we should note that he thinks it’s just as bad to excuse an oppressive man as to fail a friend), and denying that he has done them. The Lord is challenged to set up his own tribunal at which he alone presides and sees through all false witness and malice. The complainant calls on the Lord to confirm his innocence and that of decent people, against the plots of evildoers. He declares his faith that the Lord is capable of bringing swift retribution on the guilty, that his court will not be tarnished by the “insolence of office and the law’s delay” (Hamlet).
The psalmist turns to the “evildoers” summing up their character in a vivid sexual metaphor of conception pregnancy and birth, suggesting that the creation of evil is as hidden and powerful as the creation of new life. But then however, the psalmist insists that evil action may provide traps for the evildoer as well as the victim. This outcome is of course far from certain, but it comforts the complainant with a sense that God’s justice can be seen in the world. The psalm ends therefore with an expression of trust and joy in God.
Of course the psalmist believes that God’s tribunal is real in heaven, but he imagines that it is also effective on earth. But if it was effective, there would be no reason for complaint and this psalm would not exist. So the very existence of the psalm puts in question the faith in God’s justice which the psalm declares! This is the problem with any notion of God’s justice: God’s holiness or goodness or wisdom might possibly exist separately from creation, but his justice, that is his judgement on the actions of human beings, rewarding good and punishing evil, cannot be separate from the world as it is; if it cannot be seen, it doesn’t exist.
The psalmist’s answer is that God does judge, and makes his judgement known through the troubles that evil people bring on themselves, and by the encouragement God gives to decent people, through the Torah Law and the stories of the ancestors. The Jewish tradition of wisdom, especially in the book of Job, eventually found this answer insufficient, and perhaps we may say here that the psalmist maintains his relationship with God at the cost of relying on a weak argument. But of course, for him, the relationship is stronger than the arguments used to support it. That’s true of my faith also.