Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 20, 2015
Psalm 54 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 54 is a prayer for God’s deliverance from enemies who wish to harm or maybe even kill the poet. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, it also contains a strong tone of lament over enemies’ mistreatment of the poet. This lends Psalm 54 an air of honesty that sometimes seems missing from 21st century prayers, at least in North America.
Several things bracket this psalm. It’s bracketed by a cry for help in verse 1 and verse 7’s memories of God’s past salvation that fuel the trust necessary for such a cry. However, references to God’s name also bracket this anguished prayer. God’s “name” refers to the totality of who God is. So the poet implies that his attackers’ victory over him would call into question God’s “name,” in other words, God’s very character. It’s appropriate, then, that in verse 1 the psalmist begs God to save him by his “name” and that in verse 6 the psalmist vows to praise God’s “name.”
The historical setting of Psalm 54 is unclear. The psalter’s editors thought it was David’s hiding from a rampaging Saul at Horesh in the Desert of Ziph. The Ziphites approached the king and basically informed him that David was hiding in Ziph. They begged Saul to come so that they could hand David over to him. Yet, ironically, when the king came looking for him, David had but passed up on a chance to kill him as he relieved himself. If, in fact, that is Psalm 54’s context, the psalm describes God’s “yes” to David’s prayer. God, after all, doesn’t just save David by God’s name. Eventually evil also recoils on Saul and he’s “destroyed” in battle.
Yet Psalm 54’s murky historical context makes it in some ways applicable to God’s sons and daughters who are under a wide variety of attacks. It’s certainly a prayer God’s children who are being persecuted for their faith can offer. However, any of God’s people whom others are somehow assaulting might claim this as their own. This offers those who preach and teach this psalm an opportunity to reflect with worshipers on what sorts of contexts might call out for the offering of this prayer.
In the Hebrew, this psalm begins without fanfare or preliminaries. It simply begins aleim (God). The poet then goes on to beg God to save her by God’s name, hear her prayer and listen to the words of her mouth. So the psalmist’s pleas arise, as in most lament psalms, out of her distress.
Attackers whom the poet describes in a variety of ways cause that distress. He refers to them as “strangers,” perhaps not only to the psalmist but also to God. The besieged poet also describes his assailants as “ruthless” and “without regard to God.” So those attackers have no respect for either God or the poet. In fact, it seems that their disrespect for the Lord leaves them free to show contempt to God’s sons and daughters. The psalmist’s enemies believe they can be ruthless in their treatment of the Lord’s people such as the psalmist.
Ruthless people’s disregard for the psalmist takes the shape of both attacks on her and what verse 3 calls seeking her life. It’s not clear whether the psalmist’s life is literally in danger or if she’s simply in deep trouble. The word translated as “life” in verse 3 is nephesh and is actually often translated as “soul.” This leaves readers with the sense that the poet feels as if everything that she is under attack.
Yet the poet can beg God to rescue him because he knows God is his “help.” When God created our first father, God recognized that it was not good for him to be alone. So God created a helper for him who would partner with, support and protect him. Sometimes, however, as Fred Gaiser notes, that “other” rejects the God-given task of helping and becomes, instead, an attacker. Then God’s people like the psalmist must cry out to the Lord to help.
The salvation for which the psalmist pleads takes a shape that sometimes makes God’s 21st century sons and daughters blanch. She prays, after all, that “evil recoil on those who slander” her and that God “destroy” her assailants. This is perhaps the most difficult part of Psalm 54. It’s sometimes called an imprecation, basically a plea for one’s enemies’ downfall and destruction. In this psalm the poet basically prays that God will send her enemies the same kind of difficulty they’ve been inflicting on her.
Yet it seems hard to reconcile such pleas with Jesus’ call to love and pray for our enemies. It even seems to contradict Proverbs 25:21’s injunctions about the proper treatment of enemies. How, then, might those who preach and teach Psalm 54 help worshipers think about the psalmist’s pleas for his enemies’ destruction? Gerald Pauls points out that historically scholars thought of such psalms as reflecting either the attitudes of merely the Old Testament or pleas for God to act in ways that are in not in God’s but the psalmist’s best interest.
Modern scholarship, however, invites us to think of imprecatory prayers as very honest reactions to the duress people and circumstances sometimes cause God’s children. They’re not the result of stable, serene reflection but are spoken in the heat of the moment, in the midst of great suffering. Such prayers display a refusal to accept suffering as part of God’s will. They remind the Lord that something is terribly wrong.
What’s more, imprecatory prayers such as Psalm 54 point to the seriousness with which the poet views and he assumes God views evil. Those who assail God’s sons and daughters are not behaving in ways for which God created them. They’re violating the shalom for which God created all things. It sometimes seems as if God’s people who are most uncomfortable with such imprecations are those who feel the safest from the kinds of attacks it describes.
Psalm 54 reminds worshipers that assaults on the faithful can and must be brought to the Lord’s attention. They invite renewed prayers for people of all faiths who are under duress for their faith in places such as Nigeria, Syria, India and even North America. Psalm 54 offers a vehicle for worshipers to plead with the Lord to restore things to the way God created them to be.
Yet Psalm 54 ends with the poet’s promise to praise God for her deliverance. The poet can only offer this praise to God if she survives because God delivered her. In fact, she sees praise to God as the reason for and promise of her rescue. In other words, she begs God to save her precisely not so that she may enjoy herself but so that she may sacrifice a freewill offering to the Lord and praise God’s name.
Elie Wiesel, in his book Night, describes how attackers can reduce their victims to something less than people, something less than who God makes them to be. In it he describes a forced journey to the Buchenwald concentration camp. The Germans, the victimizers, crammed the Jews, the victims, into a cattle car with no provisions.
Wiesel describes how when a German workman threw in just a piece of bread, the men inside, in a desperate attempt to get at the crumbs, “threw themselves on top of each other, stamping on each other, tearing at each other, biting each other. Wild beasts of prey, with animal hatred in their eyes.” Their enemies transformed the victims into victimizers. They also did the unthinkable: in the process of seeking their lives, they harmed their very souls as well.
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