Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 4, 2015
Psalm 26 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 26 is the poet’s plea for God’s “vindication.” It pictures a courtroom in which the poet-defendant begs the judge to declare her innocent. In it she insists she’s innocent because she has led what she calls a “blameless life” (1).
Yet such a plea seems to clash with the profession that God’s grace alone saves worshipers who can only receive it not with their blamelessness, but with their faith. To pray for God’s vindication on the basis of worshipers’ righteousness seems to contradict the doctrine of grace.
In fact, we might argue that Psalm 26 sounds a lot like the Pharisee’s self-righteous prayer of Luke 18:11-12: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men … I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” What’s more, this psalm’s theme sounds inconsistent with Paul’s assertion in Romans 3:23 that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
Questions about God’s grace and Psalm 26 aren’t exercises in esoteric theology. Since the Psalter remains the songbook of the church, worshipers want to know how to let the Spirit make this psalm and others like it their own. So those who preach and teach Psalm 26 will want to carefully explore it with worshipers. Is Psalm 26 a negative example of an Old Testament prayer that stands in contrast to proper, New Testament prayer and faith? Is it, as some worshipers have asked, just the prayer of a young, slightly arrogant poet? Or might we think of it as the prayer of an older saint for a younger, less godly worshiper?
Those who preach and teach Psalm 26 will want to admit there are no readily obvious answers to such questions. It is hard to know how to juxtapose Psalm 26 with the doctrine of grace that the Church so deeply treasures. That apparent incongruity may even make this psalm an opportunity for worshiper feedback and discussion with preachers and teachers.
Certainly those who lead others through Psalm 26 will want to note the nature of the “vindication” (1) and “redemption” for which the poet pleas. Christians tend to think of redemption as God’s rescue from sin that grants worshipers eternal life. However, Old Testament worshipers had a slightly different concept of salvation. When they begged God for vindication and redemption, they were often thinking of rescue from immediate circumstances and threats. When, then, the poet begs for redemption, he’s likely pleading for God not to grant him eternal life because he’s been so blameless, but to rescue him from some imminent danger.
On top of that, some scholars suggest the psalmist is saying her “blameless” life consists not so much in perfectly obeying God’s law as in persistently trusting in the Lord (1c). She seems to be reminding God that she has refused and continues to refuse to take matters into her own hands. So it’s almost as if she’s claiming that she has received God’s grace with her consistent trust in God’s good plans and purposes. In that light, the moral integrity the poet describes in verses 2-8 are simply expressions of that unwavering trust.
The poet invites God’s scrutiny and examination of his life. This takes much courage. After all, God already knows everything about it. Yet the psalmist is confident that God will find that his inner attitudes match his outer actions.
In verses 3-6 it’s as if the judge is seated and the defendant presents her case for her unwavering trust. In that way it’s reminiscent of Luke 18:3’s widow who keeps begging a judge to right a wrong an attacker has done to her. Here, as James L. Mays notes in his excellent commentary on the Psalms, the poet prays to the God who is the nations’ and individuals’ judge because God alone knows hearts, minds, feelings and intentions. She asks God to order things so that she lives, not dies. In that way Psalm 26’s prayer echoes that of Jeremiah who begged God to vindicate both his mission and message.
In Psalm 26 the poet presents three couplets that demonstrate his faithful trust. In verse 3 he claims that he constantly focuses on God’s sovereign grace. He insists that God’s love is always “before” him. The poet adds that he walks constantly in God’s truth, that, in other words, he serves the Lord “come what may.”
Verses 4 and 5’s couplets reflect the poet’s careful choice of people with whom she has relationships. She refers to “sitting” at both the verses’ beginning and end. Scholars note that such “sitting” refers to long-term residence, to becoming a citizen and adopting the customs of surrounding people. So the psalmist isn’t claiming that she doesn’t interact with the “sinners” the way Jesus himself did. She’s talking, instead, about refusing to adopt the disobedient ways of those who rebel against the Lord.
Hypocrites are those who build their lives as webs of lies. Their actions hide their true selves from other people so that people never really know them. Yet “evildoers” (5) don’t even try to hide their rebellion against God in that way. The psalmist insists that he doesn’t adopt either those openly rebellious or more hidden sinful ways.
These couplets invite those who preach and teach Psalm 26 to reflect with worshipers on the nature of their relationships. What are the potential dangers of associating with deceitful people? What are the possible benefits of interacting with the “wicked”? How can worshipers try to influence such people in godly ways instead of being influenced by rebels’ disobedience?
In verses 6-8 the psalmist describes the opposite of consorting with sinners. He describes the beauty of joining God’s children in heartfelt worship and thanksgiving to God. He insists he prepares his heart and hands so that he can enter God’s presence. Such “cleanliness” reflects the kind of life that’s wholeheartedly devoted to the Lord. Here the poet recognizes the importance of being in God’s presence, not just in Jerusalem’s temple, but also in a whole life lived in God’s presence. The Spirit uses that ongoing presence, after all, to equip worshipers to live with an unwavering trust in the Lord.
Yet the psalmist recognizes that the world and culture in which she lives is very different from life in the “house” and presence of the Lord. So she begs the Lord not to carry her away with, that is, judge her with that sinful and sometimes bloodthirsty culture. Rebels come, after all, not with clean hands but with hands that are full of things by which they try to control both their circumstances and God.
Verse 11 provides an appropriate bracket to Psalm 26. It echoes, after all, verse 1’s reference to the “blameless life” in which the poet has and continues to walk. Mays notes that it reasserts the poet’s claim to walk with integrity. It reminds God that the poet’s devotion to and trust in God shapes his whole life. His life is consistent with his praise and proclamation. The poet’s life is, in other words, “of one piece.” It’s a life for which prophets like Amos and God’s Son Jesus call. It’s a life for which the Holy Spirit fully equips each of God’s adopted sons and daughters to live.
“Vindicating Michael” (https://vindicatemj.wordpress.com) is a blog that claims to be dedicated to “vindicating Michael [Jackson] for the people who truly knew and trusted him.” However, it takes rather curious approach to doing so. Posts include a transcript of a 13 year-old plaintiff against Jackson as well as the summary of the complaint a mother made against Jackson about molesting her son. The blog’s graphic and disturbing descriptions seem to try to vindicate Jackson by blaming his actions on his unhealthy attraction towards boys. It also tries to shift at least some of the blame for Jackson’s behavior onto the parents who let their children interact with him.
That makes this blog’s plea a striking contrast to the psalmist’s plea for vindication. While the blogger seems intent on defending Jackson’s behavior, the psalmist claims to be innocent in his behavior.
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