Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 3, 2023

Psalm 26:1-8 Commentary

Most Bible scholars have serious doubts about the authorship attributions in the psalms.  Certainly we know the superscriptions were added much later and are not considered canonical (like ones that claims a certain psalm stemmed from a time when David was fleeing Saul and such).  And even all the psalms that are said to be “Of David” are not clearly written by David.  The “Of” can mean “By” but could also mean “For” or even “In the Style Of.”  It seems pretty certain David did write psalms but whether he wrote all the ones that in some way bear his name is less certain.

Psalm 26 is said to be “Of David” and if so, then this psalm makes claims to widen the eyes.  David led a “blameless life” (verse 1)?  Really?  The witness of Scripture says otherwise.  Although the RCL for some reason leaves out the last 4 verses for no discernible reason, the claim to being blameless gets repeated in verse 11.  One could also wonder historically about verse 8 where the psalmist says he loves the house in which God dwells.  That has to be a reference to the Temple but since the Temple was not built until after David died, the reference seems problematic if we want to think David wrote this.

But leave David to one side for a moment and you can still ask the question, “Who in the whole wide world could write a prayer like this?”  The only people I know who claim to have led a blameless, sin-free life are people who generally speaking are not well mentally or spiritually.  Nor are they being honest.  You don’t have to be from the Reformed or Calvinist end of the theological pool (as I am) to have a firm sense that there is such a thing as Total Depravity.  As other portions of Scripture testify, we have all erred and fallen short of the glory of God and there is not one who is blameless (no, not one except for the one known as Jesus).

So what do we do with a psalm like this that seems like it cannot possibly serve as a description of anyone’s true self assessment?  We surely need not go the other direction and berate ourselves (as some in my tradition have been known to do) or claim that we never ever produce anything of spiritual good but that even the best we have to offer is but as “filthy rags” that stink of sin and wretchedness to highest heaven.  But the opposite extreme of claiming to be guilt-free and blame-free is not helpful either.  Nor is saying as the psalmist says in verse 2, “Go ahead, God, and check me out. Examine me stem to stern, top to bottom, from the hairs on my head to the cuticles on my toes and what do you find?  Nothing but good things!  Am I right or am I right, O Holy God?”

Again the question: what do we do with a prayer like this and can we ever honestly pray this about ourselves?  Well, not literally it seems.  Then again, reducing this to mere hyperbole or metaphor does not seem like a great solution either.  Perhaps, then, this is along the “All things being equal” trajectory.  After all, a good bit of Psalm 26 compares the psalmist with some truly bad actors in the world, with people who seem willfully deceitful and hypocritical and who apparently make no effort whatsoever to live in accord with the standards of Israel’s God or perhaps any god.  The part of this poem the Lectionary has us delete goes into even greater detail, talking about people who spend their lives concocting crooked schemes, who are bloodthirsty literally and not just metaphorically, whose hands are full of bribes.  In short, not nice people.  Sounds like the Gambino Family in the mafia.

Perhaps then the psalmist is saying that compared to all that he actually comes off as fairly blameless and upright after all.  He tries to keep in mind God’s unfailing love, he tries to rely on God’s faithfulness, and he strives at all times to sing God’s praises.  He wants the world to know of the goodness of the Lord.  Does he really never mess up or sin?  Of course not.  But he confesses it, he relies on the grace and the chesed of God to forgive him as often as necessary because that is what God has promised to do for God’s people.  And when this world’s truly wicked people come after someone like the psalmist, well his overall relationship with God ought to be more than enough reason to cry out to God for deliverance with the expectation that God will come through.

Most of us would be pretty uncomfortable taking the opening words of Psalm 26 on our lips even in a private prayer to God in Christ.  The fact that we pray through the mediation of a Savior who had to die on a horrible cross to pay for our sins properly makes us a bit sheepish to say, “Hello, Jesus, it’s me, Scott, your totally blameless buddy!”  And that would be in just a private prayer.  Few of us would want to risk the snickers of family and friends who know us to stand up in a public worship service and say this about ourselves in front of others!  I certainly don’t want my wife and kids hearing me talk this way because they’d ask for a couple minutes of rebuttal!

Still, our devotion to God in Christ, our desire to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in making us more and more into the image of Christ ought to count as something vis-à-vis a godless society and world.  Our reliance on God’s grace and knowing that we have been forgiven by grace gives us more than a little confidence that we deserve to be heard by God and that if we are suffering the slings and arrows of people who live heedless of any divine authority, then it seems only right to say to God, “I need help and I am leaning into your promises that you will give me deliverance!”  That’s not spiritual hubris.  It is something the Bible invites us to do in prayer.

We need not pray Psalm 26 with our fingers crossed behind our backs hoping God won’t notice the disconnect between claims of blamelessness and, you know, our actual lives.  But with due nuance and in a wider context we can even so claim the promises and adopt the language of this particular prayer of David or of whoever wrote it because at the end of the day, the poet’s life and our lives are not so very different.

Illustration Idea

In this sermon commentary I mentioned that if claiming total sinlessness for ourselves represents an extreme position, the opposite extreme is also not helpful when we try to consign even the best of ourselves to the scrap heap of spiritual worthlessness.  In his satirical and sometimes cynical novel The Blood of the Lamb, Peter DeVries lampoons this darker end of the Calvinist theological spectrum by talking about how on Sunday afternoons in his boyhood home, his father and some of the spiritual leaders of his Reformed church would have a kind of competition to see who could outdo whom in the chalking up of even their best works as rotten, stinking “filthy rags” that not only do not please Almighty God, maybe they even make God nauseous.  In a bitingly wry aside, DeVries’s narrator in the novel then observes, “This being what we thought of virtue, you can but imagine what we thought of vice.”

There is a commentary for the alternate Psalm for Sunday September 3: Psalm 105:1-6, 23-36, 45b on the CEP website.


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