This blog continues my translation with commentary of Psalms 42-72
To the Choir Leader. To the tune “Lilies” For David.
Rescue me, God
because the water is up to my neck.
I’m sinking in deep mud without foothold;
I’m in deep water and the current takes me.
Exhausted with crying out, my throat is dry;
Looking for my God, my eyes fail.
More numerous than the hairs of my head
are those who hate me for nothing.
Many would annihilate me,
enemies who tell lies:
Am I to give back what I did not plunder?
God you know my stupidity
and my offences are not hidden from you.
May they not be put to shame because of me
those who look to you, Yahweh of armies!
May they not be humiliated because of me
those who seek you, God of Israel!
But it is for you I have been criticised,
For you my face is covered in shame.
I have become a stranger to my brothers,
a foreigner to my mother’s sons.
Passion for your temple has devoured me;
the taunts of your despisers have fallen upon me.
When I disciplined my soul by fasting,
they taunted me for it;
When I clothed myself with sackcloth
they treated me as a joke,
gossip for those who sit in the gate,
the butt of the drinkers’ songs.
But I am praying to you, God-
in a moment of grace answer me
with your great love and faithful help!
Raise me up from the mud, don’t let me sink;
rescue me from my enemies and deep waters.
Don’t let the surging waves drown me
or the abyss swallow me
or the pit close its mouth over me.
Answer me, Yahweh, for your faithful love is good;
in your great compassion, turn to me.
Don’t hide your face from your servant
for I’m in trouble. Answer me now!
Draw near to my soul and buy it back;
ransom me, because of my enemies.
Yes, you know the abuse I get,
you know my shame and disgrace,
all my opponents are in your sight.
Mockery has broken my heart and I’m sick.
I looked for pity and there was none;
for comforters and I found none.
They gave me bitter herbs to eat
and vinegar to drink for my thirst.
Let their supper table become a snare in front of them,
their plenty a trap!
Let their eyes be darkened to prevent sight!
Let their thighs wobble continually!
Pour out your wrath upon them;
Overtake them with your fierce anger!
May their caravanserai be ruined
and their tents be uninhabited.
For they harass those you have knocked down,
redoubling the pain of those you have wounded.
Reckon one crime after another
so that they may not enter your saving justice.
Let them be wiped out of the book of the living;
let them not be written down amongst decent people.
But I am poor and in pain;
Let your rescue, O God, raise me up.
I will praise God’s name with a song;
I will make him great with my gratitude.
This will cheer Yahweh more than an ox
or bullock with horns and hooves.
Let the needy see it and be glad!
Seekers of God, let your hearts revive!
For Yahweh hears the oppressed
and does not despise his captive people.
Let heaven and earth sound out his praise,
the seas and all that moves in them!
For God will rescue Zion
and rebuild the cities of Judah
and they will dwell there and possess it.
His servants’ children shall inherit it,
and lovers of his name will live there.
There are features which mark this psalm out as a personal complaint to God: the mystery of what the author is accused of plundering, for example, and the mention of his passion for the Temple as the cause of his unpopularity, seem rooted in some historical situation. Perhaps he was an enthusiast for rebuilding the temple at a time when this was a minority interest amongst the Israeli community after the return from exile. Maybe he also held the unpopular view that no Jewish man should keep a “foreign” wife. There were issues in that community of which we are given a onesided view in Ezra and Nehemiah.
Although the complain contains one or two of the cliches of this kind of psalm, generally the language is sober and factual, if also passionate.
The opening section is conventional enough with its use of flood imagery to convey the urgency of the psalmist’s need. He insists that God is distant and not at hand to listen and offer help, which is an experience shared by most people in need. Unpopularity is a heavy burden because it can seem that enmity is everywhere and support nowhere. Children abused on social media also testify to this feeling.
We are given no information about the psalmist’s alleged crime. Was he collecting money for the rebuilding of the temple?
The psalmist does not claim total sinlessness, but argues that his unpopularity is not his fault but has come from his commitment to the Temple. His pious disciplines of fasting and repentance have done him no good in the public eye, but simply added mockery to his other woes. It has always been the case that good but unpopular people are mocked and harassed by the brutal populists in a society. The depiction of respectable elders (those who “sit at the gate”) and drinkers alike abusing an unpopular person is all too familiar.
But the psalm also complains that God is slow offer support to the persecuted person. Although God’s faithful love is mentioned there seems to be real doubt that it will prevent the pit (death) closing its mouth over thiis public victim. The fact that God offers no comfort, although he/she must know his afflictions, leads the psalmist to reflect with bitterness on his social isolation: no one has come to his side in sympathy. The sharp detail of bitter herbs and vinegar may be picturesque symbolism or the painful reality of bullying. This whole section spoke directly to the first Christians who saw in it an image of Jesus’ sufferings.
The response of the pslamist to his enemies is however nothing like that of Jesus: he curses them with blindness and bodily infirmity, hoping that their comfortable wealth will prove a trap in which they perish. God is left in no doubt that his active participation in this punishment is required. The psalm articulates what most abused people feel, a rage that demands their enemies’ utter destruction. It may not be very Christian but even putting it in words brings some relief. The acceptance that God never intervenes to punish injustice is so painful that most religious people avoid it, although it seems unavoidable to me.
The psalm comes back however to the real situation of the psalmist, who is needy and in pain. If God helps he/she will get thanks and praise. The God who has (ultimately) saved his people from Babylon will also save the psalmist. The psalm ends with words of reassurance which may not convince its readers.