There are a number of ways to read this Psalm. Clearly, it is a prayer, but what kind of prayer? A cursory reading might dismiss Psalm 17 as the proud prayer of a self-righteous person, an Old Testament version of the Pharisee’s prayer in Jesus’ parable (Luke 18:11,12). One wag said that the Pharisee had “I” disease. “God, I thank you that I am not like other men…. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of what I get.” Note the number of first person references in the first 5 verses of Psalm 17. David is absolutely sure that he is righteous. He even seems to challenge God to examine him closely to see if there is any sin in his life (verse 3). He is convinced that “I have kept myself” from the ways of the wicked (verse 4) and that his “steps have held to your paths (verse 5).” His prayer, then, is an entirely “righteous plea (verse 1).” Or is it self-righteous?
Followers of the Lectionary will recall that only last week we heard David confess his sins in the eloquent words of Psalm 32. So we know that he was hardly a guiltless person. His personal history with Bathsheba and her husband, Uriah, show that David was capable of a whole catalogue of sins. How in the world can he claim to be so righteous in Psalm 17? Who is he trying to kid? The words of I John 1:8 and 10 sprang immediately to my mind upon a quick first reading of Psalm 17. “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him (God) out to be a liar and his word has no place in us.” If we take Psalm 17 to be the self-righteous prayer of a self-deceived Pharisee, then the only way we could preach it would be as a cautionary tale. Don’t pray this way. Pray the way David did in Psalms 32 and 51.
But we could also read this Psalm as the prayer of a man filled with real integrity, the prayer of a genuinely good man. Then it could be preached as a prayer to which we should aspire. Though he was not completely guiltless, as demonstrated in the Psalms mentioned above, David was confident of his standing with God because of his close relationship with God. Though he has sinned, he is sure of God’s covenantal love. Because of that covenant, David sees himself as “the apple of God’s eye (verse 8).”
Thus, we could read Psalm 17 as an Old Testament equivalent of Paul’s continual call to imitate himself. Yes, he called himself “the chief of sinners,” because he had committed terrible sins and still had a tendency to lean in the direction of sin. But his complete justification through Christ’s sacrifice and his ongoing sanctification by God’s Spirit enabled him to say things like this: “Therefore, I urge you to imitate me (I Cor. 4:16).” “Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern I gave you (Phil. 3:17).” “Whatever you learned or received or hears from me, or seen in me—put in into practice (Phil. 4:9).”
If we read Psalm 17 this way, it is the prayer of a sinner declared righteous by God and becoming righteous in his life. As a result, he can characterize himself not first of all or essentially as a sinner, but as a righteous man. In other words, by God’s grace, he has a new identity, and he prays here as that new creation in Christ. (I know, that injects a bit too much New Testament into this Old Testament prayer, but it helps to make the point.) Preaching on this prayer, then, will be a call to become what we are in Christ and to pray accordingly.
Such a sermon would be a helpful corrective to the kind of “worm theology” prayers so common in my staunch Reformed upbringing (and perhaps in other conservative “Bible believing” traditions). Question 8 of the old Heidelberg Catechism asked, “But are we so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil?” And it answered resoundingly, “Yes, indeed….” Many of us got stuck right there, convinced that we could never become as righteous as David says he is in Psalm 17. We forgot that the rest of the answer to Question 8 was, “unless we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.” A sermon on Psalm 17 could hold up David as a model of what the grace of God intends for all of us. We are called to be righteous people, and to pray accordingly.
Or we could read Psalm 17 as a countercultural prayer. We live in a society that is unbelievably tolerant of all manner sin but remarkably unforgiving of the sins of some people. On the one hand, we never talk about righteousness as a culture, but on the other hand we never get over examples of unrighteousness in public figures. We wink at and accept every sin as long it is done boldly and without apology. So, for example, entertainers can commit serial adultery, and those sins just become part of their fascinating story. But if the sin is committed by a public figure, say a political figure like a Clinton or a Trump, their sin is repeated endlessly on the news cycle. Now, one could argue that the exposure continues because there has been no genuine repentance, and that is probably true. But we have a tendency to be skeptical about public sinners who ask for our trust. One way or another, our society has little interest in genuine righteousness.
Psalm 17, and the Bible as a whole, introduces us to a wholly (holy!) different culture, a brave new world. Here it is possible for sinners to genuinely repent, receive complete forgiveness, and begin new lives in which change is not merely cosmetic, but proceeds from the inside out. David is a case in point. It is surely no accident that Psalm 17 follows Psalm 32 in the Lectionary. It is the message of the Gospel in two successive Psalms. Even someone guilty of the dastardly sins David committed in the Bathsheba and Uriah debacle can start over, if he confesses, is forgiven, and receives a new heart and right spirit from God. Psalm 17 is the prayer of just such a man.
As is so often the case in the Christian life, David now has a new problem—not his own sin, but the sins of those who would ruin his life as a righteous man. This is the prayer of a persecuted man, a prayer that could be prayed by Christians being persecuted to the point of death in Iraq and by Christians be oppressed by the forces of unrighteousness in North American culture. Conversely, as one prophetic scholar put it, it could be the prayer of the poor who are being oppressed by rich Christians, ala James 5.
However we apply Psalm 17, it is, above all, the plea of righteous man to a righteous King begging for justice in a particular case of unrighteous persecution. So, verses 1-2 are David’s initial plea for justice. Verses 3-5 are a claim of innocence in support of the righteousness of his case. Verses 6-9 are David’s petition, what he would like the Lord to do about his case. Verses 10-12 present the accusation lodged against his adversaries. Verses 13-14a are a repetition of his petition, what he would like the King to do with both parties in the case. And verses 14b and 15 are the concluding confession of confidence in the ultimate outcome of the case.
Once we understand what we are looking at in general, we can make more sense of the particulars. For example, when David characterizes his prayer as a “righteous plea,” he is not claiming to be sinless. He is saying that in this case, the case he is presenting to this Judge, he is innocent, vis a vis the accusations of his opponents. In the Old Testament generally, righteousness has to do with being committed to Yahweh in a covenant relationship. That is David’s emphasis in this Psalm, as summarized in verse 15. “And I—in righteousness I will see your face; when I awake I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness.”
Similarly, when David invites God to examine his life (verse 3), his claim that God will “find nothing” is not a claim to moral perfection, but a confession of covenant faithfulness. He has continued to walk with God through it all. “My steps have held to your paths; my feet have not slipped.” This emphasis on relationship, rather than performance, is expressed beautifully in the two images of verse 8. David is both “the apple of your eyes” and a little bird hidden “in the shadow of your wings.” David’s confidence lies not in his own perfection (in spite of the way he seems to speak in the opening verses), but in the covenantal righteousness, love and faithfulness of his God.
David, then, is not self-righteous; he is righteous in Christ, declared righteous once and for all and being made righteous day by day. But as he walks with his Lord, he encounters oppression from the surrounding culture. So he appeals to his righteous King and Judge to rule in his favor. He ends with an expression of confidence that he will be not only vindicated by the Judge, but also satisfied with a perfect relationship with that King.
I have mentioned Christ in several places above, thus importing the New Testament into the Old in what may seem an anachronistic way. Patrick Henry Reardon goes far beyond that when he says that Psalm 17 is actually the prayer of Christ facing his death. He protests his innocence, he refers to his unrighteous enemies, and he utters his hope of victory, even resurrection. (Regarding that latter point, Reardon makes a direct connection between the last words of Psalm 16 and the concluding words of Psalm 17.) Indeed, the wider church has often read those last words of Psalm 17 as a reference to the Resurrection, both of Christ and of his followers; “when I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness.”
Further, Reardon is even more Gospel oriented that I was above, when he claims that the righteousness of which David speaks is the righteousness of Christ of which Paul speaks in Romans 3. If we make that interpretive leap, we can say that such righteousness is the precise remedy for the self-righteousness of the Pharisee. Indeed, the righteousness of Psalm 17/Romans 3 is the divine answer to the plea of the quintessentially unrighteous Publican in Jesus’ parable. “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God (Luke 18:14).”
Given the skepticism of our culture about both righteousness and redemption, it will be helpful to have real life examples of modern-day David’s—real, bigger than life, public sinners who have been not only dusted off and given a new shine, but even more genuinely changed into righteous people. Charles Colson comes most prominently to mind. Even the skeptics were convinced by his many years of kingdom service. Franklin Graham is another example. And I can think of a minister or two in my own church that fell in a heap of disgrace, but by God’s grace again mounted the pulpit and provided a shining example of righteousness. I won’t mention names, but you know some yourself. Maybe you are one.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 6, 2016
Psalm 17:1-9 Commentary