Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 25, 2017
Psalm 69:7-18 Commentary
Psalm 69 is the cry of a person in extremis. He uses the conventional language of drowning to describe his distress. The Jews were a non-nautical people, so the thought of falling into deep water where there is no firm bottom provoked the deepest terror. We can almost see the Psalmist flailing about as he sinks into the waves, screaming for help as water chokes him. As he goes down for the proverbial third time, he utters this cry of desperation in which the word “rescue” is heard again and again.
I said this is conventional, rather than literal, language because the Psalm is really focused not on drowning, but on enemies. The trouble was not that the Psalmist was floundering in the Jordan River or the Mediterranean Sea, but that he was surrounded by enemies who attack him so fiercely that he feels as though he is drowning. What’s more, he feels as though God has wounded him (verse 26) for some unnamed sin (verse 5). These enemies pile on, accusing him of sins he has not committed (verse 4).
But in spite of the real sin for which God has wounded him and contrary to the accusations of his attackers, he is, overall, a righteous person. Indeed, his persecutors are focused so fiercely on him precisely because he is zealous for God. Even his closest friends and family have turned against him because of his passion for God (verses 7-9).
In the context of terrifying descriptions of his situation, this desperate writer has two basic pleas regarding those enemies—rescue and retribution. “Get me out of here!” And “get them back for me!” Our reading from the RCL is the heart of the rescue section. As is so often the case, the RCL does not deal with the retribution section in verses 22-28. It is not “nice” language; indeed, one could legitimately argue that it is not at all in keeping with Jesus’ teaching about turning the other cheek and loving our enemies.
While that is definitely true, omitting the “non-Christian” prayer for retribution does rob us of the opportunity to explore those very real feelings. Even the most zealous believers utter these kinds of words when they are in extremis. If we only focus on nice texts, do we suggest to our fellow believers that real Christians don’t feel this way? If you do wish harm on your persecutors, does that mean you aren’t really a follower of Jesus? If we listen to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, we certainly shouldn’t ask God to blast our enemies.
But the Psalmist does. What are we to make of that? We can dismiss it as pre-Christian, angry-God, Old Testament religion, as folks have always done since the days of Marcion. Or we can wrestle with sin and grace in the lives of God’s people when they are drowning in trouble caused by determined enemies. I think that folks like those persecuted Christians in the Middle East might benefit from an honest exploration of how to live and pray in extremis.
But I digress. As I said above, our reading for today focuses on the rescue theme. The closer we look at this reading, the closer we get to Christ. There is much scholarly debate about the identity of the “I” who is speaking in the Psalm. Some scholars focus on the details of the speaker’s suffering and are struck by the parallels to the sufferings of Christ. Indeed, besides Psalm 22, there is no other Psalm referenced in the New Testament as often as Psalm 69. John’s Gospel quotes verse 9 in connection with Jesus’ cleansing of the temple (John 2:17). The same Gospel alludes to this Psalm as partial explanation of Jesus’ rejection by his own people (John 15:25). Similarly, the Apostle Paul uses verses 22 and 23 to account for the fact that only a remnant of Israel has believed in Jesus (Romans 11:9-10). All the Gospels record the mockery of Jesus by the crowds and the distancing of his closest disciples at the moment of arrest and trial. Verse 21 seems like a direct prophecy of the vinegar filled sponge given to a dehydrated Christ on the cross. And there are other connections between Psalm 69 and the suffering of Christ.
Thus, there is a whole group of scholars who agree with this statement of Father Patrick Reardon. “From the very beginning the Christian reading of Psalm 69 has uniformly interpreted this prayer in the context of the Lord’s suffering and death.” Reardon carries this general Christological interpretation so far as to say, “In Psalm 69 we are given a vision into the very heart of Christ in the circumstances of his Passion.” If Reardon is right, we could use this Psalm to give people an insight into what Christ suffered for us. That would be a helpful thing, because we don’t think about that often enough or deeply enough.
Others are a bit more cautious about the connection between the Psalm and the Suffering Servant. James Luther Mays, for example, suggests that it is not directly the prayer of Jesus or an intentional prophecy of his suffering. But it does reflect the passion of One who bore reproach for the sake of his God. The way he bore that suffering and the way his Resurrection vindicated his life and death give hope to those who suffer as he did. “Jesus is the consummate and correcting example of the kind of person for whom the Psalm was composed.”
That, I think, is a fruitful way to preach this Psalm—not first of all as a prediction of Christ’s suffering, but as a pastoral word for those who suffer as he did—for righteousness sake. This is a Psalm for people who try to do the right thing by God, but don’t quite get it right; who have the sense that they’ve done something wrong and God isn’t entirely pleased with them; who redouble their efforts to please God by prayer and fasting; who are filled with zeal for God and his house; and who are the subject of ridicule and gossip just because they try so hard to be righteous. This is a Psalm for the “Holy Joe’s,” the fanatics, the radical but flawed Christians who stand out in a crowd and get persecuted by the crowd for it.
I suspect that most of our listeners won’t be able to relate to that kind of person; indeed, we may be part of the mocking crowd. Most of us don’t want to stand out in a crowd. We practice our faith privately, to avoid trouble. We don’t want to be in extremis. We want to be Christian and comfortable. At least I do.
But Psalm 69 gives a voice to those who take Jesus seriously when he says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness…. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me (Matthew 5:10-11).” Psalm 69 puts words in the mouth of those who have experienced the truth of I Peter 4:12-16. “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the suffering of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you…. If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed but praise God that you bear that name.”
Psalm 69 speaks for such people. We don’t have to simply endure such suffering. It is perfectly legitimate to cry for help. “Rescue me, rescue me, come near and rescue me; redeem me because of my foes.” And we don’t have to give in to our deep desire for retribution. That may be our reptilian response—“fight or flight.“ But the ultimate Christ-like response is, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” To repeat Mays comment above: “Jesus is the consummate and correcting example of the kind of person for whom the Psalm was composed.”
Jesus is not only our example, of course; he is also our rescuer. The Psalmist prays, “Answer me, O Lord, out of the goodness of your love; in your great mercy turn to me. Do not hide your face from your servant….” On the cross, the Lord hid his face from the Righteous One who had come to rescue us. Through Jesus Christ, the goodness of God’s love has come into our trouble. He has turned to us, rescuing us from the raging sea of sin and the ridicule of the Adversary who mocks our feeble efforts to serve God well. Because of Jesus, we don’t have to curse our enemy; we can bless our God “who hears the needy (verse 33).”
Those drenching winter storms that broke the years’ long drought in California created some very dangerous conditions. I can still see those pictures of once dry lakes now filled to overflowing and those formerly trickling streams now become raging torrents. And I can still see those brave first responders wading into the floodwaters, maneuvering boats, dangling from ropes lowered from helicopters to save stranded motorists from their swamped cars. Do you remember what they called the actions of those first responders? “Rapid water rescue.” That’s what the Psalmist is praying for—rapid water rescue. “Do not let the floodwaters engulf me… answer me quickly….”
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