PSALM 35 For David
Take my side Lord, against my opponents;
Fight those who fight me.
Grasp shield and breastplate
And stand firm as my helper.
Uncover the spear point and block my pursuers;
Say to my life, “I am your victory!”
Let those who seek my life
Be astounded and humbled;
Those who plan evil for me
Be thrown back in confusion!
Let them be like chaff before the wind
When the Lord’s angel drives them off!
Since for no fault of mine
They have hidden a net for me in a pit
That they dug out to trap me,
Let destruction come upon them unforeseen
And let their hidden net trap themselves;
Into that destruction let them fall.
And my life shall leap for joy in the Lord;
I shall be delighted by his victory.
All my bones say, “Lord, who is like you,
Liberating the poor from those who are more powerful,
Yes, the poor and oppressed from those who plunder them?
Lying witnesses appeared,
Alleging things of which I knew nothing,
Returning me evil for good
To deprive my life of its fruit.
For on my part, when they were sick, I wore sackcloth,
and humbled myself with fasting,
But my prayer returned to my own heart.
On their part, they were happy in my hurt:
They ganged up, these slanderers,
Ganged up on me behind my back,
Tore at me without pause.
With cheap table – buffoons
They ground me down with their teeth.
Lord, how long will you look at this?
Rescue my life from their ravages,
My sweet life, from these lions.
I will give you thanks in the great gathering
I will boast about you amongst the throng of people.
Do not let my enemies enjoy an unjust victory over me!
Do not let them wink at my misfortune,
These people who hate me without a cause!
For they do not speak peace but weave false words
Against those who live quietly in the land.
They mouthed big words against me and said,
“Oh yes, oh yes, we have seen this with our own eyes!”
You have seen this Lord; do not remain silent,
Do not stand apart from me, Lord!
Arouse yourself and awaken your judgement upon me,
Upon my case, my God and my Lord!
Vindicate me, Lord my God, through your justice
And do not let them triumph over me!
Let them not say in their hearts,
“Oh yes, food for the soul, we gobbled him up!”
Let them be ashamed and routed
Those who are happy at my hurt;
Let them be clothed with shame and dishonour
Those who grew big at my expense!
But let them shout for victory and be glad
Those who side with my just cause;
Let them keep saying, “Make big the Lord,
Who delights in the welfare of his servant!”
Then my tongue will speak of your justice
And sing you psalms, all the day long.
If you are lucky enough never to have been slandered you may find this psalm banal and shouty; but if, like me, you have some experience of abuse, you will admire its precision and modesty.
One upon a time, maybe 20 years ago, when my church, the Church of Scotland was still full of homophobes, I became so angry at the abuse of homosexual people at our General Assembly that I spoke of my own homosexual experiments in my youth, before I discovered my adult heterosexuality. I did so because I surely wanted to be numbered with the blameless victims rather than with their abusers, and to stand with them in battle against the theological thugs who were then, and still are, the real abomination in the eyes of the Lord.
The result was a week or two of scandal in the public press, especially my regional newspaper whose proprietors took the chance to avenge themselves for my outspoken support for their staff during an industrial dispute. I received thousands of abusive letters many of them anonymous, many threatening various unpleasant forms of sexual violence, some of the worst signed only “A Christian.”
Worse than all that, was the silence of some whom I had thought friends. Better than all that, was the support of people who believed in God’s justice.
In comparison with what many have had to endure for much longer periods of time, this brief experience of persecution was trivial, but even now I cannot write about it without a rage that shakes my typing fingers.
So I can identify with the psalmist, especially with his insistence that the enmity from which he has suffered s “without a cause.” When you are reasonably sure that you have done nothing to hurt others, you can see very clearly that bullies never need a just cause, but have been waiting for any excuse to cause pain to “those who live quietly.”
For anyone slandered, the affirmation that God sides with the poor and oppressed becomes good news. This should not be described as the “bias” of God; it is God’s utter refusal of bias against the poor and oppressed, that is, God’s unwavering justice, which should be celebrated, as in this psalm. The psalmist protests his innocence, testifying that when his enemies were in trouble, he prayed and fasted for their health. On the contrary, his enemies have enjoyed his troubles. His description of them tearing his reputation to bits along with “cheap table -buffoons” is a very accurate image of casual bully-boy malice. As is the phrase attributed to them, “Food for the soul, we gobbled him up.” This includes a slightly risky translation of a single Hebrew word, “Naphshenu!” which means “our souls!” or our “Life-Breath!” which I think is an exclamation of pleasure at the fate of their victim, meaning that it strengthens their power of living; hence my translation.
The psalmist’s language keeps the metaphor of a legal case or cause before the reader at all times. A contest is taking place whose outcome is unknown, a battle has been joined in which God is invited to take sides. God, whose justice is inflexible, is asked to judge the psalmist, to find him innocent and to take his side. The help that God provides is found in and through the appeal that the psalmists dares to make. As he commits his cause to God, he gains in resilience, and in the hope that he and his true friends will win the day. God does nothing supernatural; rather enables the faithful person to fight his corner. His enemies slander him by saying that they have seen his misdeeds, but he trusts that God has seen their lying malice, which will in the end, he believes, trap its authors.
The slanderers grow big in their own eyes and perhaps in public support, but those who expose their lies do not make themselves big; they make God big by their praise and thanksgiving.
It is a powerful and sharply-worded psalm, that through pain and abuse affirms the goodness of God.