Digging into the Text:
I am writing this piece a day after the gut-wrenching spectacle of the Kavanaugh hearing. If you ever wondered about the context and meaning of Psalm 26, just think of it on the lips of either one of the witnesses who testified before the Judiciary Committee. Think of Blasey Ford’s hesitant, earnest, and searing testimony of sexual assault, and Kavanaugh’s fierce, angry, and personally aggrieved testimony of innocence. Who are we going to believe? Who can declare where the truth lies? Only God knows. “Vindicate me, O Lord….” This is the prayer of the betrayed, the falsely accused, the victim of evildoers.
To many in your congregation, this may Psalm seem odd, if not downright offensive. The Psalmist addresses God by declaring his blamelessness and innocence. In addressing God, we are far more likely to confess our sinfulness and blameworthiness. We are taught that we are all sinners, through and through. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)
We need to imagine a situation many of us have faced in one way or another. Like Judge Kavanaugh, someone has accused you of wrongdoing of which you are believe yourself innocent. Or, like Dr. Ford, you have been sexually violated and your story has been denied or ignored. Or, you have been treated unjustly or spitefully by your co-workers, boss, or friend, or even a member of your congregation. That’s the kind of situation the Psalmist was experiencing.
The Psalmist’s claim of blamelessness is not that he is sinless, or totally innocent of any wrong-doing, but that he is innocent of the particular charge that has been alleged against him. He is claiming his integrity, not his complete and consistent perfection of behavior.
Just as many of us felt watching the hearing, no one can look into the heart of these two people. There is no conclusive evidence that justifies either one. We may each have leanings one way or the other, but no proof. That’s often the way it is in life.
But the Psalmist knows that there is one who searches the heart. There is one who can properly judge our guilt of innocence. God is the judge of all the earth, and God knows what we have done or not done, down the the the most hidden thoughts and motives.
The Psalmist knows that he is not truly capable of rendering a final judgement on his own innocence or guilt.
Test me, Lord, and try me,
examine my heart and my mind;
for I have always been mindful of your unfailing love
and have lived in reliance on your faithfulness. (vss. 2-3)
The Psalmist is placing himself in the hands of God. Let God be my judge, not me or my accusers. He can do this because he loves God and knows God’s love, and trusts in God’s faithfulness. He can place himself in God’s hands not only because God may declare his innocence, but also because God is the one who can and will forgive his guilt should God make clear his wrongdoing.
The Psalmist goes on to declare his commitment to God’s righteousness.
I do not sit with the deceitful,
nor do I associate with hypocrites.
I abhor the assembly of evildoers
and refuse to sit with the wicked.
Here again, we raise questions about these claims of righteousness. Is this the way we should talk to God, proclaiming our goodness?
We should not read this as a claim of total innocence. The Psalmist is describing his commitment to a righteous life. I do not countenance lies, or engage in hypocritical behavior, or hang around people bent on evil. All of us should be able to declare this commitment to God.
I have lately been bothered by the ways in which Christian faith has been reduced to a gospel of mere forgiveness without a corresponding commitment to righteous living. It’s what Bonhoeffer calls cheap grace.” The gospel is transformative, it changes our behavior patterns, it gives us a love for the good. The fruit of the work of the Spirit in our lives ought to be evident, even to ourselves.
It’s clear what gives the Psalmist this sense of integrity, his love a devotion to God and to the assembly of God’s people. He “washes his hands in innocence.” This phrase reminds me of something that happens each Sunday in my church. After the confession of sin, water is poured into the baptismal font as a remembrance of our baptism. In that act, we both “wash our hands in innocence” through the grace of baptism, but we commit ourselves to “live wet” in the identity of one who has been baptized into Christ, the one perfect human being.
Notice too, how the Psalmist acknowledges his own weakness. He not only declares his righteousness against whatever false accusation has been made against him, he knows that he is also liable to fall into sin. So, he asks God for protection and guidance.
Do not take away my soul along with sinners,
my life with those who are bloodthirsty,
in whose hands are wicked schemes,
whose right hands are full of bribes. (vss. 9-10)
But notice that this is said in context of the worship of God’s people. The Psalmist declares, “I love the house where you live, the place where your glory dwells…. My feet stand on level ground; in the great congregation I will praise the Lord. (vss 8 and 12) It’s not only his faith in God that guides his life of integrity, but the community of God’s people. This serves as a reminder of how important regular worship is for living the Christian life. We are built for community. Standing alone in our integrity does not suffice. We need to stand with others. We need the encouragement, the example, the instruction of the Christian community and its worship.
We all live out of a story. It could be the story of the marketplace, the mall, the nation, or the stories that form us from binge-watching on Netflix. These stories, James K. A. Smith calls them secular liturgies, shape the ways we think and act more than we know.
That’s why it’s so important to love God’s house, and to immerse ourselves in its worship. The worship of the church, its liturgy and sacraments, is meant to drench us in the story of God, the biblical story of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation. Coming back to this grounding story our lives and the life of this world week after week strengthens us to live with integrity as the baptized children of God, the people who are citizens of a kingdom that is not from this world.
Preaching the Text:
Perhaps the commentary above also might suggest how to move through the text in a sermon:
1.)You may begin with a situation of betrayal, false accusation, or hurt. Whether or not you use the Kavanaugh hearing as I did above, probably depends on your congregation, but it is on people’s minds, It certainly must be used carefully, and not to render judgement one way or another.
Explain that the Psalmist is not declaring himself totally innocent of any wrongdoing or sin, but stating the bent, the direction, the commitment of his life. Should not any Christian be able to say that they are committed to life of righteousness, truth and justice, even though they may not always live up to it in every circumstance.
The Psalmist does not seek to justify himself only before people, but turns to God. The only true vindication we can have is in God’s hands. It is the vindication of his knowing our hearts, and the vindication of his forgiveness through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We do not achieve this righteous life on our own, but through the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit. And one of the most important ways we stay in the domain of the Spirit’s work is through the worship of the church, where we are immersed in God’s story, the story out of which we live our lives.
2). I have always found that the most powerful way to read and pray the Psalms to think of them coming from Jesus lips. We know that Jesus did pray the Psalms, especially on the cross (Psalm 22 and 31), so we can certainly imagine him praying Psalm 26 as well– “Vindicate me, O God….” He is the only person who could pray this prayer with complete blamelessness and integrity, and only through his death on the cross do we find our own vindication.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 7, 2018
Psalm 26 Commentary