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Penitential Psalms: After Psalm 6–Psalms 7 and 8

Iwo Jima

 

Recap:

1. Psalm 1. Introduction to the Psalter. God favors the righteous; the unrighteous will perish. God defines righteousness.

2. Psalm 2. Introduction to the Royal Family; the King is appointed

3. Psalm 3. The King appears as a man on earth

4. Psalm 4. The King on earth walks in righteousness but has many enemies who do not receive him

5. Psalm 5. The King prays Psalm 1

6. Psalm 6. The King is assaulted by enemies and feels assaulted by God; he cries out to the Lord for deliverance

And, moving forward:

7. Psalm 7. The King addresses accusations against himself; war is fully declared and victory won

8. Psalm 8. First denouement, a day of rest, the end of the story foretold, a post-resurrection view, creation celebrated

Explanation

“Early Christian writers adapted prosopological analysis for interpreting poetic biblical texts like the Psalms and the Song of Songs, and routinely identified the speaking “I” (ego) of the Psalms as Christ.” —Michael Cameron, 171

The key to understanding the Psalter is Jesus Christ. When the reader perceives Christ in the first person speaking role of the Psalms of David, much of what otherwise may appear to be a scattered jumble of statements falls into place. My premise is that “the man,” of Psalm 1 describes Christ in particular. The immediately following psalms unfold as in the Recap and Moving Forward above. When the superscriptions assign a psalm to David, David is “taking on” the persona of someone else–the Christ. (See Peter’s statements in Acts 2:29-31.) A good Greek term to describe this rhetorical tool is prosopopoeia. (1)

In these psalms we find a progression from God’s decree in heaven (Psalm 2:6-9 and especially verse 7, “the ordinance of the Lord” LXE) to its enactment on earth. The entire sequence is the Gospel of Christ our King. He was appointed by God in eons past to be Savior and Sovereign Lord of humanity. He performed the salvation by means of his incarnation, substitutionary death on the cross, his resurrection, and ascension. The Psalter records in advance Christ’s holy ministry. Much of this is presented through first person prayers and other speech. In the recorded prayers, as the Apostle Paul writes, “…we have the mind of Christ” (1Co 2:16b ESV).

When the reader adheres to the simplicity of this key concept of interpretation, the love of God for his Son all but shouts from the pages of the Psalter. When we see that love of the Father/Son Godhead and ourselves as readers interacting spiritually with the text by means of the indwelling Holy Spirit, we are included in the fellowship of love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in an interactive way. When we hear Christ speaking the psalms, the love of God for us pours into our hearts. It is a transforming love, “… God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5:5b ESV).

Psalm 7

Following the progressive sequence from Psalm 1 through Psalm 8, Psalm 7 moves beyond Psalm 6. In Psalm 6, the human Son-of-God-King presents himself in weakness and, possibly, what we might experience as confusion, if this were happening to us. God seems to be angry with him and is far away. He cries to the Lord as death draws nearer. Eventually, God does answer. Although Psalm 6 is called the first of the Penitential Psalms, in it the psalmist does not confess any sins. Neither does God offer forgiveness when he answers the psalmist’s prayer. The reader can conclude (knowing who the speaker is) that any sin and God’s resultant wrath are not on account of the psalmist himself.

Psalm 7 is blatantly defensive. The accusations from the speaker’s enemies have been pinpointed (vv 3-4), and the psalmist vehemently denies any wrongdoing on his part by asking God to punish him if indeed he committed the crimes stated by his accusers (vv 4b-5). He then appeals to God on the basis of God’s decree, which is recorded in Psalm 2. In other words, he prays Psalm 2 as concerns himself. Psalm 2:6-9 shows God decreeing Christ as King (quoted in Hebrews 1:5). Verses 6-16 speak of the decreed judgment upon those who reject God and his appointed Ruler. (See also Psalm 1:4-6.)

Verses 7-8a of Psalm 7 in the Septuagint makes better sense when heard as spoken by the Chorus, which is slightly off-stage but ever present. (See the dramatic setting including the Chorus in “Penitential Psalms: The Amazing Psalm 6–Windup to the Pitch.)

And the congregation of the nations shall compass thee: and for this cause do thou return on high. The Lord shall judge the nations. (Psalm 7:7-8a LXE)

This is because of these verses being embedded solidly within a paragraph of verses clearly spoken by the main speaker of Psalm 7, yet verse 7 appears to be addressing Christ the Lord, rather than God most High, and verse 8a is about the Lord. We learn from New Testament Scripture, Isaiah, and other Psalms that “the nations” shall gather around Christ the King, and it is Christ who shall “return on high,” in other words–ascend–after his resurrection, in order for his Lordship over the nations to begin. It also befits a dramatic production to assign the speech in verse 7 about “the congregation” to the Chorus. Verses 14-16 are also suited as lines for the Chorus. If 14-16 are spoken by the Chorus, then verse 17 is the closing “Amen” of thanksgiving spoken once more by the main speaker of Psalm 7.

Who is this God on High who wreaks vengeance upon those who oppose his favored Son/King? Is he being unfair, autocratic, authoritarian, narrow, and fascist in his outlook?

First, God is Creator. At this point in human history, that fact cannot be changed. It follows from this fact that God is Sovereign. Whether we as people like it or not, the Creator is the Ruler.

But secondly, he is a God who gives many chances.

Now therefore understand, ye kings: be instructed, all ye that judge the earth. 11 Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice in him with trembling. 12 Accept correction, lest at any time the Lord be angry, and ye should perish from the righteous way: whensoever his wrath shall be suddenly kindled, blessed are all they that trust in him. (Psalm 2:10 LXE)

Psalm 7 reinforces the call of God to repentance found above in Psalm 2.

God is a righteous judge, and strong, and patient, not inflicting vengeance every day. 12 If ye will not repent, he will furbish his sword; he has bent his bow, and made it ready. (Psalm 7:11 LXE)

Verses 14-16 work well as a choral commentary upon the preceding four verses. These lines speak of an unnamed “he,” which from the context can only be the unrighteous false accuser of the righteous King. They spell out the bad choice the unrighteous one made and how he is bringing down upon his own head his just retribution. These verses demonstrate the false reasoning of those who blame God for condemning evil. Here the just punishment that pursues the unrighteous is nothing more than what that person planned for an innocent person who had done him no wrong. God is patient and just, inviting sinners to repent.

Verse 8a says, “The Lord shall judge the nations…” Immediately the Judge, when not yet the Judge but still the suffering Savior, in response to God on account of the words just spoken by the chorus, pleads with God, “Judge me, O Lord,…” The righteous Judge wants to be judged by God first.

And God does acquit him. Psalm 7 ends very strongly, much as Psalm 2. The righteous King is vindicated, and his false accuser falls into the pit his own hands have dug (vv 15-16). These words of Scripture have been written in future tense, as prophetic, yet their outcome is secure.

From Psalms 3 through 6, the audience perceives the King descending, as he falls deeper and deeper into persecution and human vulnerability. Psalm 7 presents him rising up in strength to face his accuser, along with the announcement of his final victory. Then Psalm 8 comes crashing onto the scene in a wild exuberance of joyful praise. I’ll give Psalm 8 a posting of its own.

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1 We encounter this ancient tool of figurative language called prosopopoeia nearly every day. Whenever we hear a child or someone else speak “Valley talk” as they describe an encounter with another person, we might hear a statement such as, “And then she’s like, ‘………’.” What transpires in the elipsis, the dots in the quotation, is a perfect reenactment of the described person’s words, intonation, mannerisms, and attitude, albeit exaggerated for effect. This is prosopopoeia, when a speaker or writer takes up the persona of someone else and becomes them imitatively. This is what acting on stage is all about. Real life actors take up the lives and characters of others in order to portray them with convincing reality. Within PsalmsDavid, the prophet/actor being used by God, takes up the persona of the Christ. Who has a greater role in God’s plan of salvation: David the man or Christ the Atoning King? Did David know that he was being used by God this way? According to Peter in Acts 2:30-31, David did know that he was prophesying about Another.

Psalms 7 and 37: Dynamic Duo

Psalms 7 and 37 are a dynamic duo: earth’s prayer and heaven’s reply.

 

Psalm 7

Psalm 7 is the first time in the Psalter that the psalmist proclaims his innocence while at the same time beseeching God for mercy to deliver him from enemies who pursue him with false accusations. Psalm 7 is classified as an individual lament in the psalm of innocence category (Tigay, 178).

The theme of false accusations adheres closely to the life experiences of Jesus Christ.

Matthew 26:59 Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death, 60 but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward…

Luke 23:4 Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no guilt in this man.”

Luke 23: 39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”

Verses 1-6 reveal the highly agitated emotional state of the psalmist, as he cries out for help:

Psalm 7:1 … O LORD my God, in you do I take refuge; save me from all my pursuers and deliver me,

2 lest like a lion they tear my soul apart, rending it in pieces, with none to deliver.

3 O LORD my God, if I have done this, if there is wrong in my hands,

4 if I have repaid my friend with evil or plundered my enemy without cause,

5 let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it, and let him trample my life to the ground and lay my glory in the dust. Selah

6 Arise, O LORD, in your anger; lift yourself up against the fury of my enemies; awake for me; you have appointed a judgment.

The psalmist appeals to the judgment of the righteous God to make a decision between the two parties (vv 7-9). The psalm ends with the psalmist  encouraging himself that indeed God will do so (vv 10-17).

Psalm 37

Today’s despairing reader who finds herself still in turmoil after praying Psalm 7 with Christ should turn immediately to Psalm 37 to hear the strongly calm and encouraging voice of the Lord’s comforting reply: Yes, I hear your prayer, I am here, and I am with you. Psalm 37 does not have a named speaker, as many of the wisdom readings of Scripture do not. The viewpoint, however, is so broad and confident, so all-seeing, that the reader would not offend the Lord by attributing the words to the Holy Spirit, God himself.

In Psalm 37 the psalmist speaks in the character of God, who reassures the hurting petitioner with direct commands to actions that will remedy her angst, interspersed with precious promises to the believer and descriptions of the final, dismal outcome in store for the wicked who pursue her.

 God’s Directives to the Righteous

Do not fret…or be envious…trust in the Lord…do good…dwell in the land…enjoy safe pasture…delight yourself in the Lord…commit your way to the Lord…trust in him…be still…wait patiently for him…do not fret…refrain from anger…turn from wrath…do not fret…wait for the Lord. (NIV)

God’s Promises to the Believer:

he will give you the desires of your heart…he will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun…those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land…the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace…the Lord upholds the righteous…in times of disaster they will not wither…in days of famine they will enjoy plenty…those the Lord blesses will inherit the land…if the Lord delights in a man’s way, he makes his steps firm; though he stumble, he will not fall, for the Lord upholds him with his hand…I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread…their children will be blessed…the Lord loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones…the Lord will not leave them in their power or let them be condemned when brought to trial… he will exalt you to inherit the land…there is a future for the man of peace…the salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord; he is their stronghold in time of trouble. The Lord helps them and delivers them; he delivers them from the wicked and saves them, because they take refuge in him. (NIV)

God’s Decreed Outcome for the Wicked

like the grass they will soon wither…evil men will be cut off…a little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found…the wicked plot against the righteous and gnash their teeth at them; but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he knows their day is coming. The wicked draw the sword and bend the bow to bring down the poor and needy, to slay those whose ways are upright. But their swords will pierce their own hearts, and their bows will be broken…the wicked will perish…they will vanish–vanish like smoke…the offspring of the wicked will be cut off…I have seen a wicked and ruthless man flourishing like a green tree in its native soil, but he soon passed away and was no more; though I looked for him, he could not be found…all sinners will be destroyed; the future of the wicked will be cut off. (NIV)

Note: Psalm 37 reads much more effectively as it is written, with the three themes interacting one with another, as in a symphony.

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Excursus (a walk along a side path)

One often hears the criticism that God is narrow-minded, intolerant, and judgmental, that he invalidly paints people and behaviors in black and white categories of right and wrong, when in fact people are multi-colored and “okay.” The God of the Psalter is not like this.

First, while it is true that there are categories of right and wrong, of righteousness and sin expressed in the psalms, these are not the categories that popular opinion often claims. The strongest characteristic of a righteous person in the Psalter is a wholehearted reliance and dependence upon God. A righteous person is someone who believes in God and aligns herself with him–she joins his team. An unrighteous person in the Psalter is someone who purposefully, openly, systematically, loudly, and strongly resists God and seeks to exploit and plunder both the poor and needy in general and in particular the righteous person, as just defined. The wicked person in the psalms is your basic bully who willfully hurts others and who willfully attempts to hurt the God of Scripture.

Second, even the most tolerant person must admit that people wrong and hurt other people. No one expects a victim to always forgive and show tolerance toward the actions of someone who purposefully harms them in any number of ways. Because it is true that Christianity teaches a victim to forgive the one who wronged her–Christ’s statement while hanging painfully on the cross being crucified is the best example of this, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34)–it is necessary to reconcile justice and punishment with that forgiveness.

Expansion of the above paragraph: Consider the multitudes of millions of people who are poor and needy and the millions who are abused and assaulted by others–financially, physically, sexually, emotionally, and in many other ways. A God who is real must consider and provide a remedy for the victims of abuse and hold the willful abusers accountable to some form of punishment. To say otherwise is to lie about the nature of human beings and their existence.

So justice demands the accountability of punishment, while love demands forgiveness (1). How does one both punish those who willfully harm others and simultaneously forgive everyone? Evolution does not provide an answer. Secular wisdom has no answer. The God of Scripture provides an answer. The key words are repentance and substitution.

God provides forgiveness of everything to everyone through repentance. Without repentance, there is no forgiveness. A truly repentant person admits guilt to God and acknowledges the rightfulness of penalty. In order to receive the mercy and forgiveness God makes available to all, the rebellious heart must approach God and ask for his pardon. Scripture does not promise mercy to the unrepentant and rebellious heart.

Secondly, God in his righteous judgment never waives anyone’s punishment for sin. All sin will be paid for. How does payment for sin work with the concept of forgiveness, or pardon? The answer is in the second key word, substitution. God himself receives the punishment due the pardoned perpetrator. He punishes himself instead of the guilty person. His punishment falls upon himself in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, the righteous man of Psalm 1, and of all the psalms, and the King of Psalm 2. Christ is the righteous suppliant whose voice we hear in the psalms. To receive God’s forgiveness through substitution, everyone needs to repent, or bow the knee to God.

Through the judgment of substitution, God is able to satisfy both the rightful need of victims for retribution and his own nature of love. It is God who loves first, not the victims. God does require of the victims of wrong that they commit all desires for vengeance to him. And this is why the righteous victims whom we hear pleading to God in the Psalter do not ask God to help them bring their own justice to a situation, but they cry out for God’s justice, God’s mercy, God’s actions. They have committed their rightful need of retribution to God, for, “‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Deuteronomy 32:35, Romans 12:19, and Hebrews 10:30). God does require vengeance for wrongs committed. In Christ, he took his righteous vengeance upon himself.

Psalm 7:12 allows for the possibility of repentance by the guilty party.

Psalm 7:12 If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and readied his bow; (ESV)

Psalms 7 and 37 together tell the innocent and hurting victim that in the end, God makes everything all right.

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1 Forgiveness is very different from tolerance. While tolerance says that there is no such thing as sin, forgiveness names sin and finds a way to forego the penalty.

 

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