Psalm 17 deals with the age old problem of oppression and wickedness. It’s a popular topic in many of the ancient Psalms, and it is a constant feature of news reports today. All through history and all over the world, the wicked oppress the innocent. How should the innocent respond? Well, there are two basic, instinctual responses: fight or flight.
We can battle back, as some victims of the Assad regime are doing in Syria. Some argue that America should join the battle over there as part of compassionate statesmanship. Verses 10-14 (depending on how we translate them) come close to such an attack response. The RCL leaves those verses out of our reading for today, perhaps because attacking wickedness seems contrary to Jesus’ call to love our enemies. (But think of the prophets’ strong words about defending the oppressed.)
The other instinctual response to oppression by the wicked is to run away, as many Syrians are doing. The parallel response on the part of those who witness oppression from the outside is to look away, pass by on the other side, and, thus, effectively cave in to wickedness by refusing to get involved. Those who want to join the Syrian civil war on the side of the oppressed see opponents of involvement as running away from our responsibility as a just nation.
Both of those reptilian responses to oppression by the wicked are problematic. Fighting could involve real danger to us, while fleeing could leave millions of innocent people in danger. Is there another way to respond? Psalm 17 and other Psalms, like Psalm 139, suggest a third way. Take the whole problem to God in prayer. While that might be seen as a copout by some, the Psalmist sees it as his only real option.
The Psalmist does not call on God first of all to “get” his oppressors, though there is some of that toward the end of the Psalm. His first instinct is to protest his innocence as he asks God to vindicate his good name. Apparently the “mortal enemies” who surround him have accused him of dire crimes and misdemeanors. So the Psalmist boldly protests that he is innocent of all wrongdoing.
Contrary to Psalm 139 (which we considered just two weeks ago on this same “Center for Excellence in Preaching” website), the Psalmist doesn’t ask God to search him to see if there is any wicked way in him. Rather, he simply claims that he is guiltless: his prayer is “righteous;” it “does not rise from deceitful lips;” “you will find nothing” wrong if you test me; “I have resolved that my mouth will not sin;” “I have kept myself from the ways of violent men;” “my feet have not slipped.” With an absolutely clear conscience, he asks God to vindicate his good name. Using none of the deviously clever legal maneuvers we hear on popular TV shows about lawyers, this plaintiff simply says, “I’m innocent, Your Honor. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Such claims of complete innocence will be hard to swallow for anyone raised on the Reformed doctrine of Total Depravity and the biblical texts on which such doctrines are based. “There is no one righteous, not even one (Romans 3:10).” “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).” “As for you, you were dead in your transgression and sins… (Ephesians 2:1).” Even David, who protests his innocence here, is very forthcoming about his utter guilt in Psalms 32 and 51. Of course, one could argue that David wrote Psalm 17 long before his precipitous fall into sin and disgrace in the sordid episode involving Bathsheba and Uriah. He was a younger and more naïve man when he wrote Psalm 17.
On the other hand, even staunch Reformed preachers (not to mention preachers of less stern theological stripes) know that by the power of the Holy Spirit believers can live relatively righteous lives. That is surely the point of Paul’s famous words in Romans 8:1-4, and particularly the last words (“so that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature, but according to the Spirit”). And even the darkest Calvinist confesses with Question and Answer 8 of the Heidelberg Catechism (a key Reformed confession from the 16th century) that “we are wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all evil… unless we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.”
So, a sermon on this Psalm could issue a call to such righteous living, encouraging sinners with David’s claim that it is possible to do so. Indeed, it is expected, given the presence and power of the Spirit in our lives. Too many Christians simply give in to their sinful impulses and habitual behaviors. Psalm 17 is a challenge to higher living. Live in such a way that you can legitimately plead your innocence to God when wicked people accuse you of crimes you did not commit.
Indeed, that is the context here. David is accused of specific sins, and he knows he didn’t do them. Some scholars think that the historical background of this Psalm is found in I Samuel 24, where Saul is pursuing David. Saul suspects that David has traitorous plans to seize the Kingdom by taking Saul’s life. When Saul entered the cave in which David was hiding, David spared Saul’s life, choosing to cut off a piece of Saul’s robe, rather than Saul’s head. Then popping out of the cave when Saul rejoined his men, David shouted out to Saul in words that sound very much like the kernel of Psalm 17. “May the Lord be our judge and decide between us. May he consider my cause and uphold it; may he vindicate me by delivering me from your hand (I Samuel 24:15).”
David is not pleading complete sinlessness here. He is rather arguing that he did not commit these particular sins of which Saul and his friends have accused him. In this sense, Psalm 17 is a bit like Job’s protestations vis a vis the accusations of his “friends.” Further, David’s claim of righteousness before God is not a denial of the New Testament judgments that “no one is righteous.” It is, rather, an Old Testament way of saying that David has remained true to his God. While not completely sinless, he has kept his commitment to Yahweh.
True to God’s command when he renewed covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17:1, David had “walked before Yahweh and was blameless” in that regard. As David said in his further words to Saul in I Samuel 24, he would not violate God’s plan. He would not reach out his hand against God’s anointed one, even though that mad king was intent on taking David’s life. David would live his life before God in radical trust. That’s the righteousness of which David speaks in Psalm 17. I have never forsaken my allegiance to and trust in Yahweh.
Thus, David appeals to the God whom he has never forsaken (even in those sinful moments of his life), asking God to save him from his enemies who wrongfully accuse him. “I call on you, O God, for you will answer me; give ear to me and hear my prayer.” That’s the heart of his prayer, though he fleshes it out with some beautiful poetry. Unfortunately, the RCL has chopped off the most beautiful (and most ugly) parts of the Psalm. “Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings.”
Such images would preach powerfully. On the one hand, we have these enemies who hunt us down with eagle eyes and lie in wait to pounce on us like mighty lions. On the other hand, we have Yahweh sheltering us under his mighty wings and keeping his eye on us as his precious ones. So, perhaps you need to stray outside the reading assigned to this day, in order to show the full color and power of the Psalm. In a world full of oppression by the wicked, we can take our anger and our fears (fight and flight) to our Judge who will act for us and vindicate our name and our cause.
The Psalm ends with a calm confession of confidence. “And I—in righteousness I will see your face; when I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness.” These words are pregnant with possibilities for preaching. After being pursued by my enemies and their ceaseless accusations, I will lie down in peace at the end of the day, confident of my innocence and of God’s protection. And I know that I will wake up the next day, when God’s face will be shining on me again. What a wonderful antidote to insomnia brought on by the oppression of the wicked!
Or you could explore in more depth that phrase, “I will see your face.” Seeing the face of God is a big theme in the Old Testament and in Christian theology. Think of the way early Christians saw the Beatific Vision as the whole goal of the Christian life. One of my favorite old hymns captures that longing. “Father of Jesus, love divine, what rapture will it be, prostrate before thy throne to lie, and gaze and gaze on thee.”
There is much to play with in this Psalm along that line. Earlier the Psalmist had asked God, “may your eyes see what is right,” over against the unjust accusations of his enemies. Now, at the end, the Psalmist trusts that his own eyes will see God. Thus, his ultimate response to the oppression of the wicked is to turn his eyes away from them and fix them on God. His vision is dominated not by his enemies, but by his God.
Finally, it might pay homiletical dividends to focus on that last occurrence of “righteousness.” Earlier in the Psalm, that word clearly referred to David’s relative innocence; he did not commit the crimes of which he was accused by his enemies and he had not strayed from trusting his God. But that didn’t mean he was completely righteous in the sight of God. Nor are we, no matter how much we may protest our innocence when we are persecuted by wicked folks.
All of us need to confess the words of Paul in Romans 3 (quoted above), using the kind of passionate penitence voiced by David in Psalms 32 and 51. That kind of confession of unrighteousness leads us directly to the righteousness of Christ, ala Romans 3:21-26. Only in his righteousness, given by grace and received through faith in Christ, can we be sure that we shall awaken to see God’s face. That may not have been David’s meaning in Psalm 17:15, but it is surely the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He is our righteousness. He is our only hope before the Judge of heaven and earth.
So even as we use Psalm 17 to teach folks how to respond to unjust oppression, and to challenge them to righteous living in the power of the Spirit, we must also preach it to encourage our people to finally rest their whole earthly case before God, relying on the finished work of Jesus Christ. Not only will that enable us to fall asleep in peace and wake up in joy, but it will also give us the hope of the final awakening, when the dead in Christ will rise first on the great “gettin’ up morning.” From the earliest days, the church has seen verse 17 as a reference to the Resurrection of believers who have died in the Lord.
The mood of Psalm 17 is not particularly upbeat. How can it be when we’re dealing with the old problem of oppression and wickedness? The last verse of this serious Psalm reminded me of another of my favorite hymns, “Rejoice the Lord is King.” “Rejoice in glorious hope! Jesus, the Judge, shall come and take his servants up to their eternal home. We soon shall hear the archangel’s voice, the trump of God shall sound, Rejoice!” When our ears are filled with the accusations of our foes, let us rejoice in the Gospel’s joyful sound. “Jesus, the Judge, shall come.” Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 6, 2017
Psalm 17:1-7, 15 Commentary