Another psalm with translation and brief comment
We have heard it with our own ears;
our fathers bave told us
of the deed you did in their days,
in ancient times:
with your own hand
Weeded out the nations and planted Israel;
broke the peoples and let your people go;
For they did not sieze the land by the sword they wielded,
Their own arm did not win them the victory,
but your right hand and your arm
and the light of your smile
for you took delight in them.
are my king,
God who commands victories for Jacob’s clan!
Through you, we maul the enemy;
In your name, we trample the attacker.
No bow gives me confidence;
No sword is my instrument of rescue;
but you have rescued us from our enemies
and humiliated those who hate us.
we have made our boast each day;
We will acknowledge your name forever!
Yet you have spurned us and shamed us
by not marching out with our forces.
You have made us run away from the enemy
So that our our adversaries have got spoil.
You gave us up like sheep for the table,
and dispersed us among foreign nations.
You have sold your people for next to nothing
and made no profit from the sale.
You have turned us into a byword among the nations,
an object of derision to foreigners.
All day long my disgrace confronts me
and shame covers my face
at the voice of mockers and scorners
at the presence of the vengeful enemy.
All this has come upon us
though we have not forgotten you
or cheated in our pact with you.
Our heart is no backslider;
our footsteps have not wandered from your way;
Yet you have crushed us in a den of wild dogs
and shadowed us in thick darkness.
If we had forgotten our God’s name
or stretched our hands in prayer to an idol
would God have failed to find this out?
For he knows what is hidden in the heart.
It is for you we are murdered every day
and are reckoned as sheep to be slaughtered.
Time to get up! Why are you sleeping, Lord?
Wake up! Do not put us off forever!
Why are you hiding your face
forgetting our misery and oppression?
Our soul has sunk down to the dust;
our body sticks to the ground.
Rouse yourself to be our help!
Ransom us, for the sake of your faithful love!
Ah yes, this is one of the greatest of the Psalms, but rarely mentioned as such for it is also one of the most daring: it speaks of a people who are more faithful than their God! And it gives no happy ending, no excuses for God, but simply records with passion the people’s loyalty and God’s neglect.
The pact between God and the people means that God will bless them and their children in the land they have settled, as long as the people worship him alone and obey his commandments. The psalmist says they have kept their side of the pact. We might be a little sceptical about this claim, for after all the Bible has many stories about their idolatry and sin. We do not know the date of this psalm, but clearly the author thinks that all in all the people have done their bit, whereas God, after his great deed in freeing them from Egypt and giving them the land, has been mainly absent, allowing his people to be defeated, dispersed, enslaved and mocked.
The case against God is not made hysterically but soberly, focusing on military defeats, foreign domination, dispersal from the homeland and consequent humiliation. God is accused of active involvement in the pain of his people: he has sold, crushed and shadowed them. The active verbs leave no wriggle room for excuses; the case is well made.
This psalmist regards the case as proven. For whatever reason, God has neglected his chosen people. All that can be hoped is that when God also sees the reasonableness of the case, he will wake up and resume his covenanted duties of defending and blessing his people. The psalmist calls on him to do so with peremptory words, ending with what is either a despairing or ironic plea for him to act “for the sake of his faithful love,” presumably because if he doesn’t, not even the psalmist will be able to believe in it anymore.
It is an astonishing piece of theology. God is characterised as neglectful in human eyes, but this not taken as reason for abandoning him. The gift of the land and the law are reason enough to remain faithful – faithful enough to appeal to God against God’s own failure. Against all the evidence, the psalmist urges God to be God.
Classic Christian faith also reckons with the fact that God’s justice is not seen in the land of the living which is controlled by worldly powers. Believers must not expect that their lives in the world will be easier than that of the crucified Lord. From beyond history, one day soon God’s justice will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
This faith ignores the first three gospels which portray the signs of God’s justice as appearing on earth in the ministry of Jesus. The book of the Acts shows these signs continuing in the ministry of the believing community. St Paul says that even secular rulers are appointed by God to maintain some justice. Yes, the fulness of God’s rule will only come “at the end”, but meantime, even in the midst of suffering, people can see signs that God is not sleeping.
Yet if we are honest, there have been and are communities of believers for whom these signs are completely absent: Jews in Nazi Germany, Christians in Pakistan or Syria; Muslims in Myanmar, for example. This psalm speaks their faith.