[Thank you to the members of the South Carolina Synod (ELCA) Commission on Inclusiveness for your reflections on this Psalm. Your shared wisdom is embedded in these comments.]
You know what it is like to have one of those nights when you are pacing the room, carefully crafting your retort, trying with all of your adult reasoning to convince your emotions (which you have subconsciously personified) to calm down. This level of distress is not foreign to the Psalmist who struggles to reign in his unfocused adrenaline. One moment he talks to God, another to himself, and yet another to his perpetrators (who, by the way, are not in the room).
The Psalmist is truly distressed. By what? We know there are those who have blemished the Psalmist's honor to the point of shame. There are also those who "love vain words and seek after lies" (could they be the same people?).
Some have suggested that the Psalmist's adversaries have eschewed God for not producing abundance as promised and taunted the Psalmist for still believing in his God. Given this scenario, there are three (at least) possible ways to interpret the main trajectory of this Psalm. First, the Psalmist is lamenting the shame he feels. Second, the Psalmist desires to counsel his adversaries against placing their trust in false gods.
While I do not wish to disregard these two interpretations, I think the primary trajectory of the lament is the third possibility; that is, the Psalmist's self-doubt that emerges in the face of conflicting beliefs. The hysteria of the moment yields an inconsistency of addressee: the Psalmist petitions God (verses 1, perhaps 6, 7, 8), rehearses the speech he might give to his adversaries (verses 2, 3), and convinces himself to resist the temptations of a superficial religiosity and to lash out at others (verses 4, 5 and, perhaps, 6). This Psalm is a "pep talk" in which the Psalmist hears out loud his own convictions.
This Psalm is a companion for our times of doubt. Even more, the Psalmist is a teacher who models for us 1) a way out of distress by articulating who God is and how God is for us, and 2) a way of responding to God. Regarding the first, the Psalmist rehearses all that he trusts to be true about God. Clearly the Lord is one who is in conversation with those who believe in him (verses 1, 3). Moreover, claiming that the Lord sets apart the faithful for himself justifies the distance the Psalmist feels between himself and others (verse 3). The Lord is trustworthy (verse 4) and provides peacefulness and security (verse 8).
Two other descriptions are noteworthy. First, God gives room when we are in distress (verse 1). This is a curious phrase which may become a central theme in your preaching this week. To "give room" originally alluded to "release from a tight noose at the neck (cf. Psalms 18:19, 118:5)." It was "a symbol of freedom before wide horizons (Genesis 26, Psalm 31:9, and Isaiah 60.5)." This is opposite of the distress mentioned in verse 1, a word which is used for "a constricted larynx."1 The Psalmist is acknowledging the Lord's willingness not to micromanage, to give him room to question, to let him work out the insecurities surrounding his belief.
A second noteworthy description of God is articulated in verse 7. The Lord puts gladness in the Psalmist's heart "more than when their grain and wine abound." In other words, the Lord is better than the best harvest. It is one thing to say the Lord is better than our bad days, but it is a whole other thing to say that the gladness of heart that comes from the Lord is better even than the most abundant crop. [It is unavoidable to think of eucharist (giving thanks) in reference to wheat and wine.]
Preachers, it might be worth encouraging your hearers to consider whether or not the Psalmist's list coincides with their own. Does it coincide with yours? How do you speak about who God is when you are up against people who do not share your convictions? How do you convince yourself that your beliefs are true? How has God given you room? Do you understand God to be better even than your best days?
As mentioned above, the Psalmist also offers a way to respond. He prays to the one he knows will hear him. He speaks (or at least prepares to) the Lord's faithfulness to those who do not believe. He refrains from lashing out (verse 4). The Psalmist also reminds himself of the Lord's trustworthiness (verse 5), remembers what the Lord has done (verse 7), and rests secure in the Lord's faithfulness (verse 8).
Are these your responses when others question your beliefs? When you question them? While I can see how some might think the psalmist desires to rebuke those who cause him trouble or convince them to believe in his God, this Psalm is about convincing ourselves. It does not allow us to see others as the doubters, but puts us squarely in the place of those who doubt they are in the presence of the resurrected Lord.
Finally, the battle in this Psalm between silence and speaking is palpable. Isn't that the way it is when we doubt? In one moment we yell out and in another we convince ourselves to be silent. The battle leads to an "opening up of the larynx" which is God "giving room." Ultimately, trusting in the Lord is the Psalmist's sleep aid.
The tantrum subsides and the Psalmist "exults softly"2, "I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you, O Lord, make me lie down in safety" (verse 8). Oh that we all would find such security and rest in God at the end of each day.
1Terrien, Samuel. The Psalms: Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary. Eerdmans Critical Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.