Sermon for July 28th, 2019
To the leader. Of David, for the memorial offering. 1 Be pleased, O God, to deliver me. O Lord, make haste to help me! 2 Let those be put to shame and confusion who seek my life. Let those be turned back and brought to dishonor who desire to hurt me. 3 Let those who say, “Aha, Aha!” turn back because of their shame. 4 Let all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you. Let those who love your salvation say evermore, “God is great!” 5 But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God! You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay!
Psummer of Psalms II: Psalm 70
Psalm 70 has been described as a desperate prayer for help in an urgent situation.
I'm reminded of the story of two friends who went hunting together. They were out in the woods, miles away from civilization, when one of them suddenly falls to the ground, for no apparent reason. He doesn't seem to be breathing, and his eyes are rolled to the back of his head. In a panic, his friend quickly gets out his cell phone and dials 911. When the emergency dispatcher answers, the man frantically yells into the phone, "Help! I think my friend is dead! What can I do?" The dispatcher, in a calm and soothing voice, says, "Sir, please calm down. I can help. First, we need to verify that your friend is actually dead." There is silence at the other end of the line, and then the dispatcher hears a loud gunshot. The hunter comes back on the line and says, "Ok, he's dead. Now what?"
Psalm 70, at just five verses, is one of the shortest Psalms in the Bible, but it is packed full with a lot of emotion. In many ways, it is a model prayer for desperate circumstances.
It begins with three inscriptions--first, the usual "to the leader" or to the choir director, followed by "Of David" indicating that it is either a Psalm written by David, or in the style of David's psalms.
The third inscription is the most interesting one: The NRSV translates it as "for the memorial offering." The NIV translates it as simply "a petition" and the Wycliffe Bible translates the Hebrew very literally as "To have mind." I think the idea is that this is a Psalm of memory, remembrance, a reminder psalm.
Like ancient worshipers before us, when we sit calmly here in our pews on a Sunday morning, we are not, typically, in the midst of urgent, desperate circumstances. But we can all probably remember times when he have been. Psalms like this one help us to reflect back on those events, those desperate prayers, and how things ultimately unfolded in our time of need.
Sometimes when we do that, in retrospect, from a distance, we can see how God's presence and care for us was working through the situation, through people and events, all in ways we couldn't have possibly recognized or understood at the time. This is, I believe, a valuable spiritual practice...hence, Psalm 70, a Psalm of remembrance, a memorial offering.
Verse 1, in our NRSV translation, says "Be pleased, O God, to deliver me. O Lord, make haste to help me!" But that "Be pleased" is not in the original Hebrew text; it has just been added by the translator for poetic balance. The only Hebrew verb in that first verse is חֽוּשָֽׁה (choosah), literally "hurry up!" and it applies to both lines: Hurry up God, to deliver me, and Hurry up, Lord, to help me!
If you remember last week's sermon, you'll notice that we have "God" (elohim) in the first half of the verse, and LORD (Yahweh) in the second half--the psalmist is not taking any chances, he's using both names for God (North and South) to cover all of his bases and to make sure he's heard.
The psalm begins with this sense of urgency, and ends with it too--look at the second half of verse 5, the last line of the psalm, which reads, "hasten to me, O God! You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay!" It parallels the opening: Hurry up God and help me, hurry up Lord and deliver me!"
In between that frame of urgency are five rapid-fire petitions, or requests (verses 2-4), essentially beginning with "please let them..." and then fill in the blank. The first three requests seem, on the surface, pretty negative; while the last two seem more positive. Let's examine those first three requests, since they also give us clues about the Psalmist's desperate situation. Verses 2-3:
- Let those be put to shame and confusion who seek my life.
- Let those be turned back and brought to dishonor who desire to hurt me.
- Let those who say, “Aha, Aha!” turn back because of their shame.
So, what's going on here? First, people are trying to take away the Psalmist's life. That could be literal--as in, they are trying to kill me--but given the next two lines, I think it's probably talking more about livelihood or reputation. They're trying to "ruin my life." Next they desire to hurt me; and the word for hurt is not the word typically used for bodily harm (although that's entirely possible). It's the word רַע (ra) which literally means evil. They are actively wishing evil upon me.
And finally, they are saying "Aha, aha!" This sounds a little weird in English translation, because we don't have a good equivalent. In Hebrew, it's actually הֶאָֽח (he'ach) which is made up of two separate interjections. "He" is what you do when you point your finger at something--Wow! Hey, everybody, look at that! and "Ach" is kind of what it sounds like: "Oooh, that's really bad!"
If you've ever watched the animated TV show, The Simpsons, you may remember a character called Nelson Muntz. He was the show's stereotypical bully, and he had a knack for always showing up from out of nowhere in another character's worst possible moment of humiliation and shame, pointing his finger, and laughing at them. That's what this is.
So while we don't know exactly what's going on in the life of the Psalmist, we know that people are trying to ruin his life and reputation, to publicly shame and humiliate him, and to take great delight in his suffering.
Taken in this light, the Psalmist's first three request are not really about vengeance, or vindictiveness. They are about balance, and justice.
- Let THEM be put to shame and confusion.
- Let THEM be turned back and brought to dishonor.
- Let THEM turn back because of their shame.
What the Psalmist's tormentors lack is a sense of empathy, as evidenced by their joy in his suffering. So his prayer is, essentially, "God let them feel what they are not feeling; give them a sense of what they're putting me through."
But the Psalmist doesn't stop there. His last two requests are broadly inclusive. Verse 4:
- Let all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you.
- Let those who love your salvation say evermore, “God is great!”
He could have kept it personal and said, "Let ME rejoice and be glad in you." But by going wide--the Hebrew word here is כָּֽל, (kal), meaning everyone, or all people--he actually opens up the possibility of redemption for the very people who are persecuting and mocking him, for his enemies.
Over a thousand years later, another Jewish man well acquainted with suffering (and the Psalms) would say these words:
"Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute you."
Where the enemies of the Psalmist take their joy and happiness in the suffering of others, he calls them (and everyone) to take joy and gladness instead in God. Where they use their words (Aha, Aha!) to magnify themselves through tearing others down, he calls them (and everyone) to use their words instead to magnify God "God is great!" and immediately follows this by humbling himself "But I am poor and needy."
Here again, we recall the words of Jesus, who said that the first shall be last, and the last shall be first; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
And then, for good measure, the very human Psalmist has the boldness to end where he began: And while you're doing all these things, God, could you pick up the pace a bit?
So. What can we learn from Psalm 70 in our own times of distress, in our own urgent prayers?
- First, it's okay to be real, to be bold, maybe even a little irreverent in our prayers to God. We're human, and God knows it, because we are created in God's image. I have no idea whether the Psalmist's impatience actually convinced God to hurry up or not, but the Bible is full of examples where authentic, heartfelt prayers are heard and acknowledged by God.
- Second, it's okay to ask God to make things right. It's okay to ask for justice, for balance, for vindication and restoration. I believe that God is working for all these things in the world, and desires them for all of us. Our prayers are not always answered as quickly as we may like, but they are always heard immediately.
- Third, if you're asking for balance, it's good to make sure you are also working to be part of that balance in your own life, in your prayers and in your actions. The best way to achieve that balance is to be humble. Be kind to others, even when they may not deserve it. It's okay if you're not there yet, but at least let your prayers include that request. If you're asking God to bring your enemies down a notch or two, you might as well include yourself in that request. If you're asking God to lift you up, throw in a good word for the people who are holding you down, that God might lift them up as well, but in the right spirit, lifting you and them closer to God.
If you want that in a nutshell, here it is. In your most desperate prayers to God,
- Be bold.
- Be balanced.
- Be a blessing.
People of First Presbyterian Church, as you bless others--with your prayers, with your words, with your thoughts, and with your actions--may the God of love and mercy hear your prayers, and in them may you be blessed.