Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 24, 2018
Psalm 9:9-20 Commentary
In the Greek version of the Old Testament, Psalm 9 is treated as one Psalm with Psalm 10. There are multiple textual evidences for the validity of that connection, not the least of which is the fact that together they form an acrostic, an alphabet Psalm, in which each successive verse begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It was a fairly common literary form in Hebrew poetry, sort of the Hebrew equivalent of the 14 line English sonnet. Psalm 9/10 is not a perfect acrostic, leaving out a few letters, but the literary format suggests very strongly that this was originally one Psalm.
A second, and homiletically more significant, indication that these two Psalms are really one is the theme of terror. Both end on a terrifying note. “Strike them with terror, O Lord; let the nations know that they are but men (9:20).” And, “in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more (10:18).” All preachers know about the so-called “texts of terror” scattered through the Bible, those stories and pericopes that speak of terrifying realities, whether the rape of the concubine in Judges 19 or the defeat of the Great Whore in Revelation 18. Preachers tend to avoid those texts of terror like the plague. But Psalm 9/10 provides us a tailor made opportunity to speak a Good Word to the terror in the world. This is a Psalm of terror, proclaiming judgment on those who terrorize and grace to those who are terrorized. The Bible doesn’t get much more relevant than that.
Scholars characterize Psalm 9 as a Psalm of praise, full of confidence, and Psalm 10 as a Psalm of lament, full of perplexity. There is much truth in that summary of this Psalm, but it’s more complicated than that. It’s true that Psalm 9 opens with 8 verses of praise to God for his wonderful deeds in defense of God’s people and particularly the writer, perhaps David (see the superscription). But the tone changes at verse 9 and things get more complex.
Our lectionary reading begins at verse 9 not only because of the mood shift there, but also because verse 9 gives us the theme of the whole Psalm. “The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.” That objective truth is followed by a subjective application of that faith to those who seek God (verse 10). “Those who know your name will trust in you, for you, O Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you.”
We have a readymade sermon title in that second line of verse 9, “A Stronghold in Times of Trouble.” We find the expression “times of trouble” only two times in the whole Old Testament, here in verse 9 and in 10:1. Make it a preaching point in these times of terror. The expression, “a stronghold,” so popular throughout the Psalter, conjures up an image of a fortress built on a commanding, easily defensible height. Think of the fortress so lavishly pictured in the movies based on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. trilogy. That’s what God is for those who are terrorized by “the nations.”
After those theme setting verses, it is difficult to discern any logical progression of thought. That is probably because the needs of the alphabetic structure dictated the flow of thought. But there are 3 very clearly identifiable thoughts intermingling in the rest of Psalm 9 and 10—the suffering of the oppressed, the violence of nations, and the justice of Yahweh the enthroned Judge. The message of the combined Psalm is that the terror visited on the weak by the strong will be avenged by the justice of the King when he lets the violence of the wicked rebound on their lives. That’s a message that takes some unpacking.
The biggest issue surrounding the “weak” is, who are they? The NIV translation of Psalm 9 uses three words, “oppressed,” “afflicted,” and “needy,” but the Hebrew has four different words which are translated differently in different places. So, is the Psalmist talking about Israel, which is often referred to in these kinds of terms in the Old Testament? Or is he describing those who are economically, socially, and politically downtrodden, the kind of people whose cause is championed today by the BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements? Or is all of this to be spiritualized, that is, is Psalm 9 about those who are “poor in spirit,” and oppressed by the Devil, and in need of saving grace?
We need to guard against both an easy identification of the “weak” with today’s social justice movements and an easy dismissal of that identification by those who are only interested in “spiritual” matters. It will help to remember that Psalm 9/10 was originally addressed to ancient Israel, in which the spiritual and the social were intricately connected. After all, the First Commandment was “Love God above all,” and the second was “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And remember how the Beatitudes are stated differently in Matthew 5 (“blessed are the poor in spirit”) and Luke 6 (“blessed are the poor”).
The key to the identity of the weak is found right in the text, beginning with verse 10; “for you, O Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you.” That expression, “those who seek you” is found 5 times in this Psalm, though it isn’t always translated that way in the English. The oppressed, afflicted and needy to whom God gives aid are those who seek God in their distress. Robert Davidson puts it succinctly; these are people who “feel crushed by life, who recognize their own need, and who seek refuge in God.” This doesn’t rule out any of the categories mentioned above, but it does emphasize what the Psalm and the Gospel emphasize, namely, the importance of seeking God when we are terrorized by the nations.
That brings us to the second major issue, who are the nations? It is natural to think of the nations who surrounded and often bedeviled ancient Israel. But is the writer referring only or mainly to such geopolitical entities? Is this a word for, say, Babylon or Assyria, or Iraq or China? Or are the “nations” a symbol or examples of humanity organized in opposition to God and God’s cause and God’s people? Are the “nations” shorthand for humanity in rebellion, whether constitutionally organized nation states or a ragged band of terrorists or a carefully structured multi-national company or an amorphous amalgamation of cultural biases?
Again, we must be careful not to automatically identify the nations with America or Russia, just because we see parallels between Psalm 9/10 and what is happening in those nations. On the other hand, we must not, out of strong patriotism and blind loyalty to certain leaders and causes, excuse our beloved country and our favorite causes from the strong words of Psalm 9/10. The key to identifying “the nations” who terrorize today is, again, found right in the text. If the weak are those “who seek the Lord,” the nations are those who “forget God (verse 17).”
While the “nations” might say they believe in God (might even say, “In God We Trust”), they are, in fact, practical atheists. In their daily conduct of life, they forget God. Here Psalm 10 is very helpful, as it details what the life of a practical atheist looks like. “In his pride the wicked does not seek [God]; in all his thoughts there is no room for God. He says to himself, ‘Nothing will shake me; I’ll always be happy and never have trouble.’ He says to himself, ‘God has forgotten; he covers his face and never sees.’” (verses 4, 6, 11) Because the “nations” have forgotten God, they naturally prey on the weak. As Davidson puts it, “The wrong in human relationships is rooted in alienation from God.” Or as Dostoyevsky famously said, “If there is no God, everything is permissible.”
But while the nations think they have gotten away with it, Psalm 9 preaches a forceful message that is very relevant to our day. “Sing praise to Yahweh, enthroned in Zion; proclaim among the nations what he has done.” There is a greater authority, a higher throne, and the one seated there is not inactive. He has acted and he will act again. He will bring justice for those who seek him and against those who forget him. Indeed, the Psalmist uses very strong words to describe the justice of this King in verse 12. “He who avenges blood remembers; he does not ignore the cry of the afflicted.” Wonderful news for the afflicted, terrible news for the persecutors.
Is there no justice in the universe? Why do you ignore our suffering? How long will this go on and on? Those are the cries of the oppressed. Or as Psalm 10:1 cries, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” That may seem a strange question in view of the certainty of Psalm 9, but that’s how life goes, doesn’t it? Sometimes we are filled with confidence and other times we are overwhelmed by circumstances.
But regardless of our subjective faith, the overwhelming message of this long Psalm is the objective message that there is justice. Indeed, “Yahweh is known by his justice….” We all have our favorite divine attribute—mercy, grace, love, wisdom, beauty—but Psalm 9/10 highlights justice. It reminds us that the universe and each individual life doesn’t make sense without justice. Things must be balanced, wrongs must be righted, the weak must be protected, and evil must be punished. Without justice, things are just plain wrong. Psalm 9/10 assures us that there is ultimate justice because there is a higher Judge enthroned in Zion. So, “the wicked return to the grave, all the nations that forget God. But the needy will not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the afflicted ever perish (verses 17-18).”
Psalm 9/10 gives us a very helpful insight into the workings of God’s justice. Given the frequent miscarriage of justice in the world today, it is natural to dread the whole idea of judgment as something arbitrary or unfair or even vindictive. But the Psalmist assures us that God’s justice is absolutely right, because in the execution of his judgment he simply gives people what they gave the world. “The nations have fallen into the pit they have dug; their feet are caught in the net they have hidden; the wicked are ensnared by the works of their hands (verses 15-16).” As Romans 1:24 puts it, “Therefore, God gave them over” to their own sinful desires and schemes. Sin rebounds on the wicked. They sow what they reap; “evil carries within itself the germ of self-destruction.”
But this idea of judgment as rebound should not be taken to mean that God is passive in the affairs the “nations.” Psalm 9 ends with a resounding prayer that is meant to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. “Arise, O Lord, let not man triumph; let the nations be judged in your presence. Strike them with terror, O Lord; let the nations know they are but men.” The use of “men” there is a reference to the rebellion of humanity that began in the Garden, when the first humans took the fruit in the vain hope that they could be like God. Humanity in rebellion fancies itself in charge, able to manage its own affairs, capable of making its own paradise. “God is you and you are God.” It is a deadly folly and the Psalmist begs God to finally rise up against the rebellion and show people that they are simply mortal.
There is a place for terror, says the Psalmist, but it’s not in the hands of mere mortals. It is in the hands of the God who wants us to trust him. Indeed, he demonstrated his trustworthiness when he sent his Son into the ultimate terror. “My God, my God, why….” Yes, some modern Christians want to take the terror out of the cross, especially in this terrorized age. The story of the crucifixion is, indeed, a text of terror. But isn’t that exactly what our righteous Judge intended, so that in a time of terror, we could be sure that “the hope of the afflicted [will never] perish.” After all, Christians of all traditions have always proclaimed that a key part of the Good News is the message that Jesus “will come again to judge the living and the dead.”
An old hymn by John Newton (of “Amazing Grace” fame) helps me see the Good News in the Final Judgment. I’ve quoted it on these pages before, but I find it so stunning that I’m going to do it again. The hymn is entitled, “Day of Judgment, Day of Wonders.” The second stanza goes like this:
See the Judge, our nature wearing,
Clothed in majesty divine;’
You who long for his appearing
Then will say, “This God is mine!”
Gracious Savior, Own me in that day as thine.
In April (4/19/18), GQ magazine stirred up quite a storm by putting the Bible on a list of classic books that aren’t worth reading. The Bible is “foolish, repetitive, contradictory, and boring.” Novelist Jesse Ball writes, “The Holy Bible is rated very highly by all the people who supposedly live by it, but who in actuality have not read it.” When I read Ball’s comments in the light of our little study of Psalm 9, it’s clear to me that he is the one who hasn’t actually read it. How can a Psalm about terror be boring in this age of terror? And this is a Psalm that surely belongs on a list of seldom-read-parts of The Bible.
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