Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 12, 2017
Psalm 70 Commentary
Psalm 70 is the alternate Lectionary reading from the Psalter for today. I’ve chosen it because I wrote on the regular reading, Psalm 78, barely a month ago. And it turns out that there’s a lot to ponder and perhaps preach in this apparently simple little Psalm. It is given scant attention in many commentaries on the Psalms, in part because it is a nearly exact parallel to Psalm 40:13-17, with only a few verbal variations. Therefore, say the commentaries, see Psalm 40. Other commentators see Psalm 70 as merely an introduction to Psalm 71. So, this second shortest Psalm in the Psalter doesn’t seem worthy of careful study.
What is there to say about this simple little Psalm? It is the second of a little trilogy asking God’s help when threatened by enemies. Psalm 70 is distinguished from the other two by an almost frantic emphasis on speed. That’s how the Psalm opens and closes. “Hasten, O God, to save me,” followed by “come quickly to help me (verses 1).” And it ends the same way; “come quickly to me, O God….O Lord, do not delay (verse 5).” In between these desperate calls to “make it snappy, Lord,” we hear about the effects of God’s help whenever it comes, first upon those “who seek my life (verses 2-3),” and second for those “who seek you… (verse 4).”
Those parallel constructions at the beginning and end and in the middle suggest that this little Psalm may not be as simple as it first appears. There are other parallels. For example, in verse 3 those who seek the Psalmist’s life say, “Aha! Aha!” In verse 4 those who seek the Lord always say, “Let God be exalted.” Add to that the clever choice of words to describe what happens to the enemies, and we have a simple little Psalm that is much more profound than we might have thought at first reading.
In fact, I see it now as a profoundly important prayer for us pilgrims as we near the end of ordinary time. Perhaps we are weary as we lean into the celebration of Christ the King in a couple of weeks and then begin our observance of Advent when we have to wait for his Coming. As we plod along, something deep within wants God to speed it up. “O Lord, come quickly to help me.” I want to explore the profundity in that simplicity in 4 ways.
First, this is a profoundly personal prayer. Often as we study the Psalms we are stuck by the communal nature of Israel’s worship. Even the most personal experiences become occasions to call the whole people of God to praise and thanksgiving. Encounters with God are never kept secret. They become public testimonies. The modern church needs to hear that emphasis loud and clear as a counter weight to our rampant individualism and mania for privacy.
But there are places and times in the lives of God’s people when it really is “just Jesus and me.” In Psalm 70, the writer recalls a time when he felt so alone and threatened that it was “just Yahweh and me.” The Psalm is long unbroken string of “me’s” and my’s.” The only exception is verse 4, where this harassed saint recalls the company of saints and prays for them. “May all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you….” But then he immediately returns to his own plight. “Yet I am poor and needy,” followed by more “me’s” and “my’s.” Here is a prayer for those times when the fellowship of believers seems far, far away, and it’s just “me and Jesus.”
Second, this is also a profoundly painful prayer. I mean that in two ways. First, the Psalmist’s life is full of pain, the pain of murderous and mocking opposition. I wonder how many of us and our listeners have ever had enemies like this, who “seek my life, who desire my ruin, who say ‘Aha! Aha!’” That last set of words refer to enemies who take great delight and joy in the suffering of the innocent, what the Germans called Shadenfreude. As the Psalmist’s life is at risk, his enemies cackle with demonic glee.
Out of that pain, our writer prays a prayer that many Christians might find painful. Given Jesus’ command in the Sermon on the Mount that his followers love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them, can we legitimately take the prayer of Psalm 70:2-3 on our lips. Granted, we do pray things like this, but should we? Is Psalm 70 a counter-example showing how people prayed before Jesus came along and prayed, “Father, forgive them,” even as his enemies crucified him?
Well, maybe, but let’s look at this painful prayer more carefully. It isn’t really a prayer for revenge, all dark with hatred and blood. It is more a prayer for reversal, a prayer that the enemies sins will rebound, recoil upon them. Note the dual use of the words “turn back” in verses 2 and 3. Is this a hint of the biblical teaching that God often punishes sin by giving us up to our sin (as in Romans 1)? God allows our sin to return to us, to rebound into our own lives, so that we reap what we sow. The Psalmist isn’t asking God to do something new and horrible to his enemies, just to let them experience the consequences of their own sin. This is not the prayer of today’s Israeli army that hits back at enemies with ten times the force. This is simply a prayer that the universe will be just and balanced by the boomerang effect of sin. No, it’s not the gracious prayer of Jesus on the cross, but it is a prayer for the justice of the Kingdom.
Third, this is a profoundly relevant prayer. It is exactly the prayer of our hearts. In our pain, we quickly grow impatient. If God loves us, why doesn’t he do something now? Why does he delay? One of the most fervent and frequent prayers in the Bible is, “How long, O Lord, how long?!” We are puzzled by God’s seeming slowness, driven to doubt by his inexplicable delays, and flummoxed in our faith by his apparent unconcern. This is the prayer of our hearts. “O Lord, come quickly to help me.” I can’t think of a more relevant prayer.
Indeed, this simple little prayer has been prayed more times than any other prayer in the Psalter by the Western church. In the liturgical tradition the words of Psalm 70:1 are prayed 7 times every day, as the church observes “the hours.” Patrick Henry Reardon says that this Psalm was “one of the most important early formulas in the quest for constant prayer… it served as a kind of historical forerunner of the ‘Jesus prayer.’”
The Western use of this profound little prayer was rooted in the Eastern tradition, particularly the Egyptian desert Fathers. St. John Cassian quotes one of those Fathers, Abba Isaac, on the relevance of Psalm 70:1 and following. “Not without reason has this verse been selected from out of the whole body of Scripture. For it takes up all the emotions that can be applied to human nature and with great correctness and accuracy it adjusts itself to every condition and every attack. It contains an invocation of God in the face of any crisis, the humility of a devout confession, the watchfulness of concern and of constant fear, a consciousness of one’s own frailty, the assurance of being heard, and confidence in a protection that is always present and at hand, for whoever calls unceasingly on his protector is sure that he is always present. It contains a burning love and charity, an awareness of traps, and a fear of enemies.”
Abba Isaac calls upon all Christians to pray this prayer at all times, because it fits all times. “This verse should be poured out in unceasing prayer so that we may be delivered in adversity and preserved and not puffed up in prosperity. You should, I say, meditate constantly on this verse in your heart.”
Psalm 70 is profoundly personal, painful, and relevant. And finally, it is profoundly biblical, even Christ centered. It is the Bible’s response to the delay of the Parousia. In the last chapter of the last book of the Bible, we hear Jesus say three times, “I am coming soon.” But it doesn’t seem that he has, so that same book ends with our prayer. “Come, Lord Jesus.” Psalm 70 gives us the temerity to add, “and make it quick, Lord.”
II Peter 3 anticipates the day when the enemies of our faith will mock our patience with God’s pace. It explains that God’s sense of time is very different than ours, adding that what seems like slowness is really his patience. That is the New Testament response to our frantic plea. “O Lord, come quickly to help me.” “I’ll come when the time is right.” In other words, this simple little prayer in Psalm 70 is part and parcel of the great biblical drama of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.
Further, there are intimations of Christ in the wording of this Psalm. That’s why the world wide church uses Psalm 70 on Wednesday of Holy Week, where it echoes the “Aha” of the enemies of Christ as he hangs on the cross. Then the church rereads this Psalm as the prayer of the crucified Jesus in his passion, and of the church in its neediness. In the end, the “Aha!” of unbelief is replaced by the joy and gladness of those who love Jesus, because the resurrection of the One who seemed so poor and needy on the cross revealed that he was, in fact, “My Lord and my God.”
Because we know Jesus, we can end our frantic, fearful prayers as the Psalmist does. “You are my help and my deliverer. O Lord, do not delay.” That is the way the faithful pray, with simple profundity.
Albert Einstein gave us a profound explanation of the relativity of time and space. But any parent travelling with children knows that time and space are relative, because five minutes into a 24 hour trip, the three year old in the backseat asks that eternal question. “Are we there yet?” No matter how fast you go, it’s always too far to that space way down the road.
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