Psalm 35

'Arm of the Lord, awake'

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has come to the conclusion, he says a bit tongue in cheek, that Methodists have one major conviction: God is nice.   “I mean, God is dying of niceness. It is just awful.”

Perhaps that is why we rather comfortable, North American Christians, have trouble with texts like Psalm 35.  It helps us to see that our niceness has nothing to do with our being Christian.  Jews, Muslims, atheists, and others, are often nice people too.

Jesus didn’t seem to have a problem with the ‘hard’ parts of the OT and he told his followers (John 15) to expect people to persecute them because they persecuted him, and because their way of life will go against the grain of society.  Perhaps that is also why Jesus taught his disciples (and us) to pray:  ‘Deliver us from evil.’  (Matthew 6).

We should also remember that for many people in many parts of the world, believers attract hostility for bold witness (think of Christians in Ethiopia) and suffer as part of larger injustices (think Ukraine).  Many simple folk are squeezed between powerful forces (the psalmist calls them ‘lions’ – v.17) while we sit at home in relative peace.   One of the great things about the Psalter is that it provides examples of prayer that people in all sorts of situations and moods can pray.  It is precisely because one is deeply troubled that they pray this psalm.  If you were less troubled you would pray Psalm 23!   

The psalm does not lend itself to an easy outline.  Perhaps it is best to interpret the apparent literary dismay as an appropriate indication of the chaotic conditions that prevailed in the life of the psalmist 

But the psalmist raises two important theological points:

One – she praises the Lord’s incomparability as the God who rescues the lowly and needy from the stronger one who robs them of their right.

Two – she praises the greatness of the Lord whose sovereign good pleasure is the shalom of his servant (vs. 20).  By not speaking shalom the enemies reveal themselves to be opponents of God who does will shalom for all God’s servants.   

1 Samuel 24 provides a fascinating example of how this prayer might be prayed.  The story is full of drama, some suspense, confession by the oppressor, and humility on the part of the one oppressed.

David is on the run from King Saul.  His flight takes him to the caves of En-gedi on the western side of the Dead Sea, a place of steep ravines and deep caves.  (The Dead Sea Scrolls would be discovered 3000 years later in one of those caves).  

David’s life is in peril; Saul is pursuing him with 3000 hand-picked warriors (v.2).  He takes refuge in a cave and wouldn’t you know it, Saul, answering the call of nature, enters the same cave.  Hidden way at the back in the inky blackness, David and his men see a vulnerable man.  It would be so easy to end Saul’s life here and take his crown.  His counsellors advocate he do exactly that. But David will not.  ‘I will not raise my hand against my lord; for he is God’s anointed’ (24.10).    

After Saul has left the cave and is at a healthy distance, the two men exchange speeches.  David protests his loyalty and Saul concedes David’s moral superiority.  The story artfully shows how each man sees God in his life.  David’s actions and words are shaped by his conviction that God is present and active in everything.  Saul, by contrast, has little God awareness in who he is and what he does.  His actions, springing from power and jealousy eliminate God from influencing his life in any significant way.

The psalm of David expresses full confidence that God is just and is involved in the world.  This makes it easier to accept that we do not need to take justice into our own hands, as if our justice could ever be as just as Gods!  (see Romans 12). 

19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ 20No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. 

Of course it will be possible to pray this way only if one can truly claim, as the psalm does, to have lived with integrity in one’s relationships with other people and specifically with one’s attackers.  This vigorous prayer thus insists that we examine ourselves carefully and reflectively before we dare to pray this way.