For the 1999 edition of the Pennyroyal Caxton Bible, illustrator Barry Moser sketched two portraits of David. The first is of the young David, the “getting ready to slay Goliath” David.
He’s young, brash. The eyes say it all. He has his whole life ahead of him and he’s confident it’s going to be a good life. There is a little of the Dirty Harry “Go ahead, make my day” look to him. He’s ready to take on Goliath and all takers while he’s at it.
The second Moser portrait flashes forward quite a few years. This is King David, the David who is old and restless enough that he’s about to make the mistake of his life with a neighbor woman named Bathsheba.
Again, the eyes say it all. They are downcast, not defiant. They are weary (insofar as we can see them at all) not energetic. The spring has gone out of his step and in the springtime when the kings go out to make war, he stays back in Jerusalem now. Battles are for younger folks, not him anymore. That confident and perhaps cocky young boy who used to slay bears and lions and giants and who used to be really good at outfoxing old King Saul . . . he’s just a memory.
Psalm 26 is ostensibly “Of David” but if so, this poem was written by that younger David, not this older King David. By the time he arrived at the twilight of his life—post-Bathsheba, post-Absalom, post-major familial dysfunction—he would no longer be able to say “I have led a blameless life . . . I have not faltered.” (And if he did try to say something like that in the presence of, say, the Prophet Nathan, he would run the risk of giving Nathan a goodly case of the giggles.)
But all that aside, what do we make of a poem like Psalm 26 and these wild claims to a thoroughgoing innocence and blamelessness? Who talks this way? I come from a Reformed tradition in the Calvinist line and so have spent most of my life watching people hold grim contests to see who can out-confess whom. Far from bragging on our blameless selves, a lot of people I know who have done more noble kingdom work than I can fathom are nevertheless pretty quick to say that even the best deeds we have to offer up to God are but “filthy rags” in God’s sight. From where I come from, the late Lewis B. Smedes summed it up well with his cheeky line “Anyone who knows he’s Totally Depraved can’t be all bad!”
Psalm 26 is not the only such poem in the Hebrew Psalter. There are other places where you can find a version of the prayer found also here, “Test me and see if there be any wicked ways in me.” Personally, I have never prayed that to God. I know full well what he’d find if I got tested. And anyway, when Confession of Sin is a standard part of Sunday worship as well as of personal piety, it goes without saying we are already admitting up front there are wicked ways within us.
So how do we take a psalm like this one? How do we preach on it? Do we need to issue calls to try to crank up both this kind of rhetoric AND the peerless, sinless living that would need to stand behind it? That would seem false. Do we need to say that this should be the goal of every believer—including every follower of Christ to this day—and so see Psalm 26 as a kind of aspirational Finish Line? There may be something to that as a goal and so one could go that direction.
Or do we see this as the prayer of someone who is cognizant of his faults but yet still confident in the cleansing forgiveness of God that will let God see us as redeemed people? Could Psalm 26 be preached and understood in such a way that this is how God sees us when our lives are hidden in Christ through baptism? Maybe. Of course, even as baptized believers we struggle and—here it comes again—there is therefore that need to engage in confession of sin as part of our life-long cycle of dying and rising with Christ.
Does it cash out the meaning of this psalm if we were to see it as a kind of “all things being equal” kind of prayer? That is, the psalmist is saying, “OK, I know there ARE false ways in me. I have, after all, written my fair share of Psalms of Confession too! BUT . . . that is not who I want to be. I want to follow your righteousness. And as part of that, I really do shun the company of evil people. I really do refuse to go along with their wicked schemes and I really do sacrifice for what sins I have and then loudly tell anyone who will listen how good and gracious and faithful you are, O God! So I may not be perfect but when I stand inside your forgiving grace, I am clean. When I oppose liars and those who scheme to vandalize your shalom and take advantage of the vulnerable, I am on your side, O God. Don’t let me be put to shame! Don’t let those same people get the better of me. Search me to see how much I love you and then deal with me accordingly by your grace!”
Reading Psalm 26 this way need not mean reducing it to the old “Hey, God, I ain’t no saint but I’m a lot better than mafia hit men and drug dealers so . . .” That would be a “lowest common denominator” way to make this psalm excuse morally sloppy living on the idea that so long as you aren’t among the worst of the worst, you win by comparison. That take on this psalm would cheapen it.
But if we read it as a lyric statement of trust in God’s grace unto forgiveness and as an ardent desire to live into—and to live up to—that grace by faithful living and a shunning of the quick and easy shortcuts too many people take in this fallen world, then we might dare take these words on our lips after all. Yes, if Psalm 26 was written by David, then it nestles in next to also Psalm 51 and its well-known (better known) words of confession and remorse. That’s the way of it in the Psalter and in the real life the Hebrew Psalter well mirrors. But in Christ we should be able to say we desire no wicked ways within us, we should be able to say we desire to be blameless. And we surely should be able to say that when we see the mad and wicked paths down which so much of our world beats a path again and again, we will not go that way but will stand with our feet firmly planted in the things of God.
In this sermon commentary I hinted that in some traditions, there is a de facto kind of competition to see who is better at chalking up even their best deeds as only “filthy rags” in God’s sight. What this points to is a tricky balancing act that may well be a core part of the Christian life: how to assess our spiritual standing and how to think about the Christian acts of love and mercy we do.
On the one hand, to do nothing but pile-drive ourselves into the ground as greasy, worthless sinners does violence to the waters of baptism that have made us—the New Testament tells us—already now a “new creation.” In 2 Corinthians 5 Paul told us to regard no one—ourselves included therefore—from a merely human point of view. In Christ, we are a new people. On the other hand, that does not give us license to sin, of course, nor does it mean that for now we can consider ourselves finished with the need to confess those sins that still cling to us and trip us up. But we are blameless now in God’s sight through Christ.
So also with our good deeds: on the one hand if the Holy Spirit is at work in us as promised to nurture and grow the Fruit of the Spirit on the branches of our lives as well as to bring forth the specific Gifts of the Spirit with which have been bestowed on us, then dismissing them as filthy rags is at once ungrateful and unmindful of where these good things come from: they come from God via the Spirit. On the other hand, if we pay too much attention to such deeds and use them as the measuring rod of ourselves against others—or as that which we think is actually our Entrance Ticket to heaven someday instead of God’s grace through the blood of Christ alone—then we have tipped too far the other direction in ways that also obscure the heart of the Gospel.
These balancing acts are not easy. It counts very nearly as a spiritual discipline to pull them off consistently. But this is a vital part of Christian living.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 30, 2020
Psalm 26:1-18 Commentary