Bible blog 1819

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


Many children were in the camp, Spanish refugees and Jews

Many children were in the camp, Spanish refugees and Jews

Psalm 17 a prayer of David

Hear my just desire, Lord;

Pay attention to my cry;

Listen to a prayer

From innocent lips.

Let the verdict in my favour

Issue from your presence;

Let your eyes

See justice done.

You have probed my heart

You have visited me

In the night

You have tested me

And found no wrong.

I keep my mouth

from speaking evil

like most of humanity.

By the words of your lips

I have been held back

from violent ways.

I have held fast

To your ways;

My footsteps

Have not faltered.

I cry out to you, God

For you will answer me;

Lean towards me

And listen to my words.

Show your marvellous loving-kindness

Rescuer with your right hand

Of those who seek protection

From their attackers!

Guard me

like the pupil of your eye

Hide me

in the shadow of your wings

from the evildoers

who oppress me

from my mortal enemies

who surround me.

They are closed up

Idi Amin

Idi Amin

In their own fat

With big mouths

They make threats.

They encircle us

In our movements

Their eyes push us

On to the ground

Like a lion

Greedy for prey

Like a young lion

waiting in secret.

Up Lord!

Face them, subdue them,

Free my life

From the evildoers

With your sword:

With your hand, Lord

From men

From worldly men

Who hold possessions in life.

Fill their bellies

with what you have

treasured up for them

that they may satisfy

their children

and leave plenty

for their babies!

But for my part

Having gained my just desire

I will see your face;

At waking time

I will be satisfied

With your presence.

This psalm is very hard to translate as a glance at a few versions will confirm. The most difficulty occurs in the last section from “Up, Lord!” to the end. Many translators cannot see why the Lord should be feeding evildoers and their offspring and so force the Hebrew to say that he is feeding his “cherished ones”. This seems to me a defect of imagination which may be to their credit. They can’t see that “what the Lord has treasured up” may be bitter food indeed, namely, the vengeance for which the psalmist has prayed. That makes the psalm a little unpleasant, not as savage as Psalm 137, but still hundreds of miles away from loving one’s enemy. Still, I think that’s what it says. It expresses what we feel when we are threatened by people more powerful that we are.  Or maybe that’s too general. It expresses what I have felt.

I will not comment on the whole psalm but simply ask the reader to notice its structure. It begins and end with the main issue: the psalmist’s “just desire” which is represented in the text simply by the one word “tsedek” literally “a just thing.” The speaker has been slandered by enemies who may have gained a verdict at law over him. His whole being cried out to God for justice, for vindication. The fact that the psalm ends with justice obtained is significant for the speaker has only been heard in the court of prayer and his just desire is only a promise. Still it is enough.

God is intimately involved with the speaker. He visits in the night to probe his integrity, he guides him with the “words of his lips”. He is asked to “lean towards(lit. “bend his ear”) the speaker and to listen to his plea. This intimacy allows the speaker to demand that God guards him “like the pupil of his eye and takes him under his wings.”

As opposed to the frailty of the speaker, his enemies are well-fattened specimens who are content with life. Their just punishment will be having to eat what the Lord has in store for them. These consumers will have something tough to consume. There is play in the last section of the psalm with the words cheleb,(fat) chereb (sword) cheled (world) and cheleq (lot, possession). This section also uses word repetition in the style of ancient poetry like the Song of Deborah. These features body out the passion of the speaker’s encounter with the God of justice.

We may regret the speaker’s confidence that God will carry out the multi-generational revenge he desires, but we should not regret the fact that he has dared to announce his real desire to God. God may not do what He has been told, but he will have listened; and that maybe, is all that is required. When we suffer injustice it is right for us to seek justice from human beings and from God. It is even right (and good!) for us to bring our vengefulness to God. It is not right for us to use violence to obtain our just desire.

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