Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 10, 2019
Psalm 17:1-9 Commentary
Those of you who read the Psalm sermon commentaries here on CEP know that I frequently observe that different psalms fit different seasons of life. And so we always have to nuance upbeat songs of praise with the downbeat psalms of lament such that no one in the church gets the impression that true believers never have a bad day. If, as C.S. Lewis has noted, our prayer life is our autobiography, then we would expect an all-inclusive, capacious prayer book like the Hebrew Psalter to contain a variety of prayers/songs so as to fit life’s many and varied situations.
This will be important to bear in mind in encountering Psalm 17 because on the surface of it, the words here look to be very nearly the height of hubris (or chutzpah!). It is as though the poet is claiming to be virtually sinless. His lips are pure as the driven snow—no false or unclean words have passed through his mouth. His heart is likewise free of devious schemes or even the odd urge to take revenge on someone now and again. He’s had plenty of opportunities to sin, mind you: bribes have been proffered, moral shortcuts have been suggested by the GPS of his heart. But no, this psalmist has refused all evil, has kept his feet squarely in the center of God’s holy paths, and has just flat out done it all right.
Near the end of his lection, the psalmist goes for broke: “I am the apple of God’s eye!”
Now, I don’t know about you, but if a member of my church came up to me and claimed he always got bored during our weekly “Confession & Assurance” part of the liturgy seeing as he was already the apple of God’s eye, I would want to sit this person down for a LONG chat. Certainly in my Calvinist-tinged Reformed neck of the woods, talk of being sinless or free of the stain of Total Depravity would widen the eyes of not a few people. Of course, in the context of Psalm 17 it is not only these claims of moral purity and innocence. The psalmist is using those claims as leverage with God. “You just have to come through for me, O God, because let’s face it: you’re never going to have someone more worthy of your robust divine defense than little old me!”
Few people think that King David actually wrote the scores of Psalms attributed to David. Even the superscriptions—added later—can mean “By David, For David, In Honor of David,” and so on. It could even mean “in the style of David.” In any event, Psalm 17 is attributed to David but then again, so is an abject Psalm of Confession like Psalm 51 and several other penitential psalms chalked up to him. So if Psalms of Lament help to qualify and contextualize Psalms of Praise by reminding is that even true believers can go through bad times as well as joyful ones, then how might Psalms of Confession qualify or nuance something like Psalm 17’s apparent claim to moral superiority?
If we are thinking of preaching on this psalm, perhaps we can make two observations, one somewhat common sense and the other a bit more in the vein of offering up a proper challenge to our perspective now and then.
First, on the common sense side: no true Israelite would ever claim life-long sinlessness. The Psalms of Confession in the Psalter do not come with a little asterisk attached to say “For Those Who Need Such a Prayer (The Sinless May Skip It)”. So whatever else is going on in terms of the background dynamic of Psalm 17, we have to conclude that this poem was written with a more narrow time frame in mind. Perhaps what these words convey is that in the present set of circumstances (and with a particular foe or enemy closing in on this poet), the psalmist has been doing things morally right. Maybe the attacks on him truly are ginned up and simply false. Maybe he has been offered some apparently easy ways out but has steadfastly refused the bribes or the moral shortcuts that could get him off one hook but land him on another. Read this way, we could almost imagine an honest person as much as saying to God, “Look, I know I’m not perfect and I’ve made my share of mistakes in the past but in THIS situation, O Lord, you know I have been doing your will and so please deliver me!”
Second and a bit more challenging for some of us: maybe there is a lesson here in terms of our own disposition and attitude vis-à-vis God. This will be especially true if you were raised in a morally stern context that was heavy on guilt talk and an iron-clad doctrine of human depravity. If you have been taught a doctrine of Original Sin that rendered you not just corrupt before you were born but already guilty even before you did anything, then Psalm 17’s litany of self-adulation is very much terra incognita. It might even strike some as offensive in its incessant claims to having never committed any offenses!
And, of course, as we noted: if there were a person’s lifelong posture and belief, that would be highly problematic. As a general disposition toward every moment of your entire life, Psalm 17 would do an end-run on this person’s need for a Savior. Eternal Life would be a just reward for such peerless living year after year. But there are few theological traditions in Judaism or Christianity that would support the idea that some are self-saved.
Still, is there a bracing reminder in something like Psalm 17 (and there are other examples of this among the 150 biblical psalms) that sometimes we may properly point out to God that we do try hard and that, as a matter of fact, we often do have seasons of moral success? Would it be bad—as we see the character of Job doing again and again in the face of his “friends” and their accusations—for us to point out to God that compared to lots of people, we actually ARE pretty decent folks morally speaking? We really do resist some temptations, we really do refuse to go down quick and easy paths that promise us cheap thrills and quick but ill-gotten gain. We turn away from what altogether too many people gladly run toward: the tawdry, the shady, the disreputable.
Of course, most Christians would credit this to the concrete work of sanctification being worked in them by the Holy Spirit. This is all an overflow of redeeming grace and so the credit and the glory for also our moral deeds finally get traced back to Jesus and to his grace and to his working in our lives. We are hesitant to brag on ourselves at least in part on account of also all this. And indeed, let’s be clear that the good that we do is not per se saving good—only Christ can perform saving good (and he has). But what we do with our lives is still good. And when we cooperate with God’s Spirit (and let’s face it, sometimes we don’t and so need Psalm 51 after all), it ought not be seen as merely spiritual hubris or sinful pride to be grateful for that and expect even God to respond to it with joy. Might we even dare bring a little Psalm 17 to our lips in prayer, pointing out to God that we do try—and often succeed—in glorifying Christ in our lives and that maybe—just maybe—that ought to in turn motivate God to come through for us too as part of our wonderful covenantal arrangement of grace.
Most of us may properly stay a long ways away from ever wanting to claim we are the apple of God’s eye. Still, we ought not go so far the other way as to think God can ever and only but look upon us with disgust. I remember years ago preaching from Zephaniah 3 and I highlighted a line that when God restores his people, he will “take great delight” in them.
In my sermon I likened this to a grandparent whipping out his wallet to show off pictures of the grandkids. Grandmas sometimes carry around what they call their “Brag Book” to show off pictures of all those lovely grandchildren. And that, I said, is how God regards us now in Christ.
To my staunchly Calvinist congregation, this was a message that moved people to tears. They never thought they had a leg to stand on in front of Almighty God (what with all that Total Depravity talk and such) much less consider that God might just find us to be a source of delight. But we are that to God because of Christ’s work in us.
Maybe Psalm 17 reminds us that it’s OK to revel in that once in a while.
The writer and Reformed theologian Lewis B. Smedes once said—with a wry grin on his lips—“Anyone who know he’s totally depraved can’t be all bad.” Unfortunately too much sin talk can incline us to thinking we are in fact all bad, and maybe we even like groveling in our badness as an odd badge of honor.
I have used this illustration before but it bears repeating in the light of the foil that Psalm 17 provides. In his novel The Blood of the Lamb, the sardonic Reformed novelist Peter DeVries and his main character of Don Wanderhope recalled Sunday afternoons in his Dutch Reformed farmhouse when his father and a few Elders of the church would sit around to see who could out-deprave whom. They would make a brief litany of all their good works but then immediately tear them to shreds, calling them as being of no account, as being so many filthy rags whose stench rose to the heavens and caused God to recoil again and again.
And as DeVries observed, “This being what we thought of virtue, you can only imagine what we made of vice.”
Maybe Psalm 17 reminds us that such incessant deriding of our good deeds done in Christ and through the Spirit and to the honor and glory of God’s Name ought not be the mark of deep piety we sometimes think it is.
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