Psalm 7 isn’t a psalm you pray on the good days.
Those were last week. Psalms 1 and 2 lay the foundation for the entire collection: "Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread…but their delight is in the law of the Lord, [on it] they meditate day and night." Follow God, good things will happen. Do evil, the psalmist writes, and "the way of the wicked shall perish." While there are times we need to distinguish between a choice that is of God and a choice that is about us, those words sound a little high and mighty for my taste. They sound like words written by someone who has had a pretty easy life, who hasn’t lost a job, hasn’t cared for a parent as their memory fades. The world most of know is a mess sometimes. Before dinner on Sunday night I watched the CBS evening news, and here was the lineup: Forest fires in Colorado. Flooding in Florida. Economic fury in Europe leading to protesters in the streets. Crushing violence in Syria. A nasty political race in Arizona, then Wisconsin, and the tragic tone of our public discourse. The 40th anniversary of Watergate, and the continued corruption of government. Small businesses who can’t pay for health care. The death of manufacturing, and the accompanying jobs, all in 21 minutes.1 All this can challenge our faith in the God who is supposed to be helping us out down here.
Today’s psalm is for the days when we need a little help. Your pew bibles give psalm 7 a title – ‘A Plea for Help against Persecutors.’ While this is a somewhat helpful summary of its content, it is important to know these were added by the editors of study bibles. The subtitles, right below, do appear in the Hebrew. Today’s says, ‘A Shiggaion of David, which he sang to the Lord concerning Cush, a Benjaminite.’ The meaning of the Hebrew word Shiggaion is uncertain, but similar words throughout the psalms often come as genre designations, and end up meaning something like poem, song, contemplative poem.2 The subtitle names David as the author, as well as gives us the person that tradition holds prompted the writing, Cush of the tribe of Benjamin. No person named Cush appears in the bible in the stories about David. We don’t have any idea if this information is historically accurate. It may be, or it may serve to create a situation in which this psalm might have been spoken – to help make it more concrete and real.
Regardless, our author is in a situation he can’t get out of on his own, and cries out for help. Maybe you have done that, when you felt like you were misunderstood at work, when you are stuck in a tough situation with family. "O Lord my God, in you I take refuge; save me from all my pursuers and deliver me!" The psalmist uses vivid language, sprinting from lions, fearful they will catch him, drag her away, tear him apart. Then, in verse 3, there is a shift. The desperate plea gives way to questions of guilt. If I have done something wrong, O God, offer your righteous punishment. This is a worldview that is present in many psalms, and much of the Hebrew Scriptures: doing well, physically or materially, is a sign of God’s blessing; the opposite means God’s disapproval. While it seems like something folks don’t believe anymore, it creeps in all over the place. You see preachers on TV, usually in really nice suits, say that God wants you to be rich, that you will know you are being faithful when God multiplies your blessings. And even if you don’t think this is how God works (and I don’t), when something happens, every once in awhile you can’t help but wonder.3 What is going on here, God? Was it, just maybe, something I did?
A couple of things must be said. First, the Hebrew Scriptures themselves argue about this. While much of psalms and proverbs take this tack, the book of Job comes crashing in as counter-testimony, with a righteous man in horrendous suffering. Job’s friends come in and argue these same points – that he must have done something wrong. Confess, God will forgive, yet Job is finally vindicated. The preacher of Ecclesiates argues back as well, throwing his hands up. What is this worth?, he asks. All is vanity. Second, our Reformed Tradition, if we hold fast to anything beyond the sovereignty of God, takes sin seriously. We say it each week: Why do we confess our sin? Because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, straight from Romans 3. If we are all prey to impulses that cause us to let ourselves, the people we love, and God down, then we are all on the same plain. There aren’t ‘the good people’ over here (because we tend to make them like us) who have a good life, and ‘the bad ones’ over there (who don’t tend to be like us, for some reason), who suffering God’s just punishment. That worldview, while surely present in scripture, doesn’t connect with the God who appears in plenty of other places, who we see most fully in Jesus the Christ. Sure, there are direct times when one bad decision has a clear consequence. But I don’t believe in a God who rewards you for serving the shelter meal and smites you for cutting someone off in traffic. Suffering remains the greatest of mysteries, and we don’t honor it or those who suffer by trying to offer pat explanations.
From questions of gilt, the psalmist moves and demands vindication: "Rise up, O Lord, in your anger; lift yourself up against the fury of my enemies." He calls on God to be God, the God of majesty and might, judging all the peoples of the world. The next move, verses 9-11, is a broader call to justice on earth, that wickedness may come to an end, that God may be a righteous judge. This proclamation gets stronger in verses 11-16, and comes with threats of judgment. "If one does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and strung his bow." The camera zooms in on those who plan evil, who hatch evil; how they are pregnant with mischief, conceive it within themselves. They fall into the pit of their own evil plans, get stuck in the traps they have made. And then the psalmist pauses, gathering him- or herself. Something happens between verses 16 and 17. God appears. Our author resolves, regardless of the facts on the ground, to be faithful. That, no matter what happens on the news or in our lives. God is God, and is worthy of our thanks and praise.
Something really remarkable happens in the movement of this psalm. I don’t have any idea whether the questions the author has are resolved, or if she has done something to deserve punishment, or if his situation is any different. But what has happened, from the initial cry for help to the final stanza of praise, is that a relationship is built. This is what I think liturgy is for – to move us from one place in our relationship with God to another. Not to solve our problems, not for us to pray a list of things we want God to do and for God to reply like some cosmic Santa Claus, but so that a space might be created for God and us to meet. That is a particularly important purpose of lament psalms like these. The people, the nation of Israel, Walter Brueggemann writes, worked out the power and limits of their faith through this kind of expression. These laments, these seasons in which we cry out to God, give us language and space to voice something that is authentic, and deep, and true.4 When we move from sadness to anger that families don’t have homes and are left to sleep in our Sunday School rooms like they did last week; that gay teens are bullied and told, in the name of God, that they aren’t of value; that soldiers coming back from our wars are so desperate that more (154) have committed suicide this year than were killed in combat.5 Again, Brueggemann writes, the assumption of the people was that these psalms weren’t just old words to be read in worship, but poems that dealt with real life- situations. And, furthermore, the people believed that the temple was the place where real stuff was talked about. Anything else, he says, doesn’t take any of these words seriously. Anything else, he says, is little more than ‘playing church.’6
That is my prayer for you, for us this week. That we may not see these words as old words in archaic language that is a hard to access sometimes, but real words, written by real people as they struggled through the same things we struggled with, that dared an authentic relationship with God. That dared to believe that God was not only with us each moment, but that God was active, involved, powerful, gracious. That we might not play church, but that we might glimpse what it means to be a community, God-formed, that risks loving each other. That we might look at Syria, or Penn State, or the suffering of someone we love, and scream with the psalmist: "O let the evil of the wicked come to an end, but establish the righteous, you who test the minds and hearts, O righteous God." That we might dare to believe God will do something, and just might prompt us to do something about it, too…
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. The CBS Evening News on Sunday, June 10
2. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IV, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), p 657.
3. I am grateful for this insightful point from my insightful wife, the Rev. Carrie Rhoads Tuttle.
4. Walter Brueggemann, The Psalms and the Life of Faith, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), pp 67-70.
5. Panetta: ‘Huge gaps’ in military’s review of mental health cases
6. Brueggemann, 75.