Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 12, 2023
Psalm 70 Commentary
At Calvin Seminary for the past two academic years we have been holding a once-weekly Public Reading of Scripture where we gather for 30 minutes to read aloud a couple chapters each of an Old Testament passage, a Gospel passage, and a Psalm. Not long ago Psalm 70 was read by a student and you could tell that the student, though having given this thought ahead of time of course, was not at all certain what to do vocally for the quirky line in Psalm 70:3 when the psalmist’s enemies are said to jeer at him with the words “Aha! Aha!” On the one hand you don’t want to make this sound humorous since in the poem it is clearly a source of acute pain. But it is so different from anything we ever say that it’s hard to know if it would be right to vocalize that as a sneer, as an ominous threat in a Darth Vader-like booming voice, or as something meant to be in more of an ironic tone.
I checked multiple translations of that verse. A few versions opt to not put any words on the lips of the psalmist’s detractors at all but instead say something like “don’t let them make fun of me.” But most versions do have the “Aha! Aha!” translation of a relatively rare Hebrew word that almost sounds like “Aha;” namely, the word he-ach. Probably “Aha” is a good way to put it. One version went a little farther and put in only one “Aha” and then rendered it this way, “Stop those who say, ‘Aha! We’ve got him now!’”
Probably that is a decent way to capture the sentiment of this Psalm of Lament. The picture here is grim. Dire. The poet is being pursued and assailed by people who want to poke fun of his faith, who want to catch him out in some situation that will make his prior claims about God’s love and protection look like so much wishful thinking. At some point these cynics and critics and God-deniers think they finally have the psalmist cornered and then we do get the sense that their posture and attitude is, “There now! Aha! We finally asked you a question to which you don’t know the answer! We’ve got you know, pal! Aha! You’re stumped!”
Of course, like most Psalms of Lament and sore distress, the danger here does not appear to be only psychological. In verse 2 the psalmist claims these enemies want to take his life. Literally? Do they want to kill him? The next line speaks of their seeking his ruin, which seems less severe than a literal loss of life. Or maybe everything is in the mix here: they want to kill him, or at least take his life in the sense of seeing him go into utter ruin, or maybe at least they want to see him humiliated by being in a situation that could prove that the God he serves is no God at all since he will not come through and rescue him.
Or maybe most any diminishment will do.
Whatever the precise scenario, Psalm 70 is a very brief but utterly intense shout for help. For his part the psalmist does not on this occasion ask God to do to his enemies what they want to do to him, at least in the sense of their worst threat of actual loss of life. “Shame and confusion” is about the worst he wishes on these folks in Psalm 70. Other psalms definitely go further than this in wishing what appears to be bodily harm if not destruction on the foes. But here it might be enough if they have cause to wander off feeling proven wrong or just becoming rather befuddled. In any event, it must be God who does this. The psalmist is in the end “poor and needy” and cannot do a thing. If action is going to be taken, God will have to do it.
I wonder if when encountering psalms like this we ever wonder what the psalmist imagines this would look like in case God really does come through for him. What would shame the enemies? What would confuse and confound them? What exactly would vindication look like if it showed up the next Wednesday afternoon following this person’s having uttered the prayer of Psalm 70 on the Sabbath? Honestly, we probably don’t know and might have a hard time guessing.
Would divine vindication require a grand miracle whose presence would undeniably show everyone—starting with the “Aha! Aha!” crowd—that not only is there a living God but that he has this psalmist’s back? Or would something vastly quieter fill the bill, like God’s whispering an exceedingly clever rejoinder into the psalmist’s ear such that once he speaks it to his sneering interlocutors, they would be left with a mouthful of teeth and would just have to slink away as the clear losers of this particular theological debate? Or would it be enough to indicate some level of vindication if God quietly surrounded the psalmist like a warm blanket in ways that would tell him that despite the slings and arrows of the present moment, in the long run nothing could separate the poet from the love of Israel’s God?
It’s hard to say. Maybe any one of those would be enough to count as vindication. And maybe in that sense it’s not so different from what God may do in response to our own cries for help. Sometimes when we cry out for healing of ourselves or a loved one, a miraculous cure would be what God does. Or maybe it’s not some lightning bolt healing intervention that confounds medical science but God’s work comes through a discerning doctor who figures out just the right course of treatment and intervention and medication and through that God provides the healing. Maybe sometimes vindication comes when indeed the Spirit makes us wise and provides us with an answer to our detractor’s words of cynical critique—God gives us an answer that silences them or that at least provides a solid enough defense of our faith as to demonstrate we stand on solid rational ground after all.
Or maybe it is when the bottom does drop out, the loved one is not healed, the cancer is not cured, the good answer is not found and yet God manages to send us his love in ways that comfort us and help us move forward after all. We could be thankful for any of them obviously. And it may be that it would take longer to feel gratitude for the longer term comfort after the disaster we asked God to avert happens anyway. But it may yet come.
In truth a poem like Psalm 70 reflects both the acuteness with which God’s people sometimes suffer and the complicated ways by which God responds to such pleas. Life is not easy. Answers to its tougher questions are not simple. God’s vindication sometimes seems late and at other times seems to never come at all. Preaching on a psalm like this lets us be honest in the pulpit about all of this in ways that may provide some much needed pastoral care for any number of people listening to the sermon. And when in our preaching the Spirit helps that to happen, it is properly a cause of humble gratitude for the preacher.
Across the years of Soviet domination in Eastern Europe after World War II, communist and socialist leaders often derided what they regarded as the sad spectacle of all those little old ladies who still went to church to pray for freedom. In socialist East Germany (the DDR), the longtime leader Erich Honecker often made it clear he and his cronies had all the power and there was nothing the church could do about it. They were sure there was absolutely no truth behind the Christian faith and so no power worth talking about behind Christian prayer.
Except then in the late 1980s it all rattled apart for the USSR and the DDR and on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall—that Honecker once claimed would still be standing well into the twenty-first century and beyond—quite literally came down one piece at a time. After Honecker resigned in utter defeat and humiliation and went into exile, where were all those praying little old ladies? They were still in church. They were giving thanks.
And in the East German city of Leipzig not long after, a huge banner was hung on the main thoroughfare that said simply: “Wir danken dir, Kirche.” “We thank you, Church.”
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