Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 12, 2016
Psalm 5:1-8 Commentary
For the second week in a row, I’m going to write on the alternate reading from the Psalter, since I covered Psalm 32 just a few months ago as part of Lent. In a sense, Psalm 5 and Psalm 32 are about the same thing—egregious evil—though Psalm 32 focuses on the evil we commit ourselves, while Psalm 5 deals with the evil perpetrated against us.
The other Old Testament readings for this fourth Sunday after Pentecost are vivid examples of such evil. In I Kings 21 we have the bloody story of Ahab and Jezebel committing murder in order to steal the land of Naboth, while in II Samuel 11 we hear about David’s murder of Uriah in order to steal Bathsheba. It’s not just the wicked King and the witchy Queen who do genuinely evil things. It’s also the ostensibly good one, the one who usually walked very close to God, even through the darkest valley. In both cases, we hear a courageous prophet confronting a king of Israel who is guilty of egregious evil.
The superscription of Psalm 5 identifies it as a Psalm of David, the first of 30 some Psalms associated with that king. So, here in Psalm 5 we discover that the good king is himself the victim of such evil in the form of enemies whose lying tongues are cutting him to shreds. Here is David himself speaking words that might have been spoken by Uriah and Naboth.
This might not seem like a fruitful preaching text. I mean, who has enemies these days? Oh, wait. How about the immigrants from the Middle East who have escaped the terror of their home country only to find themselves spoken of in derogatory terms in the West? They are surrounded by enemies. Closer to home, does anybody know a fifth grader whose existence has been made miserable by a cabal of the cool kids who whisper about him during every recess? And what about the college coed who finds herself excluded from every social circle by a campaign of lies about her promiscuity (or today, her chastity)? Have we heard any vicious lies openly shouted during the Presidential contest?
Let’s get more personal. How many pastors have lost the trust of their church because a small squad of self-appointed “saints” launched a guerilla war on their reputation? If we think back over our lives and imagine our way into the lives of our congregants, we’ll discover that we’ve all been the victims of egregious evil in the form of lying enemies. That’s part of the journey of discipleship for everyone as we move through Ordinary Time.
So we know the anguish that leads to the lamentation and imprecation David utters in Psalm 5. Who hasn’t pleaded with God over and over? “Give ear to my words, consider my sighing, listen to my cry.” This is not polite prayer; this is anguished pleading. This is the first thing David does every morning. Some scholars think that David’s double mention of “morning” in verse 3 is a reference to the morning sacrifice. That may be, but it might also reflect how important prayer is for this victim of evil. Before he does anything else when he wakes up, he is on his knees praying his pain. That’s because, as Reardon puts it, “When the Christian rises, it is always to a battlefield.” We may not be aware of that, but David certainly was.
But it isn’t just anguish that fills David’s heart. There is also anticipation, because of who God is. As he begins his prayer of lamentation and imprecation, he reminds himself that he is praying to his covenant Lord (“O Yahweh”), who is the final arbiter of justice (“my King”), who hears David’s voice because there is a personal relationship between the two (“my God”). So even as he moans in anguish, he lays his requests before God and waits in expectation. Whatever the day may hold for him, David is certain of one thing as his day begins. There is a God who hears prayer, and that God is his God.
In verses 4-6 the Psalmist gives the reason for his confident anticipation. It’s not that he can see his enemies being defeated; indeed, in verses 9-10 they are very much in the picture yet. But God is even more in the picture. And David is confident that God will deal with them because of who God is. “You are not a God who takes pleasure in evil.”
If we have any question where David is going with this line of thought, he removes any doubt as he ramps up the rhetoric about God’s opposition to egregious evil: “with you the wicked cannot dwell. The arrogant cannot stand in your presence.” That doesn’t mean that the wicked freely choose to stay away from God, though they do. It means, rather, that God is hostile to those who do the kind of things Ahab and Jezebel (and, yes, David) do. In fact, “you hate those who do wrong…. Bloodthirsty and deceitful men you abhor.” And you do something about them. “You destroy those who tell lies….”
Whew! Those are hard words, words that will not be heard with favor by anyone who has been captured by “moralistic therapeutic deism” (to use Christian Smith’s description of many young adults. Even many Christians will be put off by that kind of language. What about the God of love who “forgives all our iniquity?” Reardon captures our contemporary ambivalence about David’s words. “Some modern Christians are tempted to see in such sentiments only a lamentable vestige of Old Testament negativity and judgmentalism, now appropriately surpassed by a New Testament emphasis on God’s mercy and compassion… the Old Testament God was a no-nonsense Divinity, the God of the New Testament is quite a bit more tolerant.”
So what are we to do with David’s sharp-edged prayer? We could use it to vindicate our own vengeance. David seems to go that direction with his prayer in verse 10, where he asks to God to deal with the wicked according to their own sins. (That’s an important note, by the way. David asks for proportionate punishment for the wicked. “Let their intrigues be their downfall.” Let them reap what they sow.)
But let’s not miss the fact that David is trusting God to do this work of vengeance. Rather than trying to even the score himself, David in effect prays, “Vengeance is yours, O Lord.” He is entrusting the cause of justice to God, who is perfectly just. That is a far better way to handle towering evil than most of us could invent. It’s not yet the path of unilateral forgiveness voiced by the Son of God on the cross; “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” But remember that this Psalm is the cry of a mere mortal rising from the depths of anguish. Such lament and imprecation have a place, even if only a momentary one, in the life of faith. It is not wrong to cry for justice when one is the victim of gross injustice.
And consider that Reardon says. “When the Psalmist prays for the destruction of the wicked, this is not his personal sentiment, so to speak. It is not the prayer of private vindictiveness but of foundational justice. It is the plea that God vindicate his own moral order. Inveterate sinning against the light—unrepented evil—does exist in human hearts, and God hates it. Jesus on the cross had not one word to say to the blasphemous, unrepentant thief.” We may want to go beyond that in our sermons, as I will suggest in my concluding words. But Psalm 5 is one of many texts (including New Testament passages) that remind us of the justice of God. As Reardon says (one more time), “The loving mercy of God must never be thought of or described in ways suggesting that Christianity is less morally serious than Judaism.”
David does not end his prayer with a plea for just treatment of the wicked. Both in the section chosen by the Lectionary (verses 7-8) and at the end of the Psalm (verses 11-12), he ends with a plea that God will deal mercifully with himself. Knowing that he is capable of great evil himself, David prays that God will deal with him according to his “great mercy.” (verse 7) The Hebrew there is chesed, that famous covenant word referring to God’s faithfulness and lovingkindness and tender mercy toward his beloved but sinful children.
The heart of David’s prayer is that he will be able to get to the safety of God’s earthly house. There he will bow in reverence toward God’s holy, heavenly temple. Grant me sanctuary, O Lord, in your presence, especially in this time when I find myself in the presence of these lying enemies. And as I journey toward you through their lying ways, help me to walk a straight path.
Is David acknowledging that his enemies tempt him to stray? Is he admitting, in those immortal words of Pogo from the old comic strip, “We have met the enemy and he is us?” Or is he simply saying, “Help me to walk in your righteous ways, so that my enemies will have no actual ground for the lies they are spreading about me?” Perhaps he meant all of the above. Heaven knows that all of us have a hard time walking the “straight and narrow” as we try to follow Jesus, especially when we are the victims of snarling evil. When we are being attacked by evil, it is very difficult not to stagger and stray off the paths of righteousness. So we need to pray for ourselves, as well as about the enemy.
David concludes his prayer with one more shot at the wicked and a wider plea for all of God’s people. His intercession for “all who take refuge in you” is as tender as his imprecation against those who “have rebelled against you” is tough. But is that the best we can do with Psalm 5? I think not. Though we must be careful not to pit David against Paul or, worse, Jesus, we can point to the New Testament readings for this fourth Sunday after Pentecost. While there is a time and place for lament and imprecation in the Christian journey, we should end with the kind of grace shown by Jesus and preached by Paul.
In Luke 7:36-8:3, we see Jesus accepting the loving attention of a notorious sinner. Her humble approach to Jesus was a sign of her devotion to the Savior. Jesus declares that she has been forgiven much and, thus, she loves much. In Galatians 2:15-21 Paul exposes the heart of the Gospel. It is not doing good that will gain us God’s favor; it is trusting Christ. Of course, coming to Christ involves dying to oneself and living by faith in Christ. But becoming good and keeping the law is not a pre-condition to coming to Christ. Even God’s enemies can be reconciled to God through Jesus (Romans 5:6-11).
As Jesus’disciples followed him on that winding road to the cross, they knew they needed to pray. So, they asked, “Lord, teach us to pray.” The prayer he taught them ends with a petition that covers evil and enemies of all sorts. “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” In my Reformed confessional tradition, the Heidelberg Catechism gives this broad interpretation of that sixth petition. “By ourselves we are too weak to hold our own even for a moment. And our sworn enemies—the devil, the world, and our own flesh— never stop attacking us. And so, Lord, uphold us and make us strong with the strength of your Holy Spirit, so that we may not go down to defeat in this spiritual struggle, but may firmly resist until we finally win the complete victory.” Any sermon on Psalm 5 should end with something like that.
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