Commentary on Psalm 26:1-8
Psalm 26 is a sturdy prayer that can be prayed by any individual at any time.
The morally upright citizen can echo the psalm’s claims of integrity with confidence. The hopelessly accused sinner can voice the psalm’s willingness to be probed by Yahweh and found innocent. The words of this psalm can be spoken aloud before worship, yet they are equally valid when whispered in the marketplace. No matter who prays this psalm, how they pray it, or where they pray it, its words convey an immensely active desire to act with integrity and enjoy a covenantal relationship with Yahweh.
Psalm 26 begins with themes of integrity, trust, and a request for vindication. These themes are not unlike the opening and closing of Psalm 25 (verses 1, 21). After the initial request for Yahweh to act on the individual’s behalf (verses 1-2), Psalm 26 makes bold assertions about the moral integrity (verses 3-5) and religious integrity (verses 6-8) of the individual. A confident statement of faith and a commitment to worship Yahweh (verse 12) follows a second request for Yahweh to act on the individual’s behalf (verses 9-11).1
The whole psalm can be divided into the five movements outlined above. However, this week’s lection (26:1-8) focuses on the first three: the opening plea, evidence of moral integrity, and assurance of religious integrity.
An Opening Plea (verses 1-2)
The opening words of Psalm 26, “Vindicate me, O Lord,” petition Yahweh to act on behalf of the suppliant. Confident in personal integrity and unwavering trust in God, the suppliant anticipates Yahweh will render a verdict of innocence rather than guilt (verse 1). The suppliant’s appeal to integrity does not presume a perfect life. Rather, “it means a life of committed relationship of dependence on God alone and full participation in all the accepted means of restoration God offers.”2
The opening plea is substantiated by the suppliant’s willingness for Yahweh to search everywhere for integrity — inside and out (verse 2). Even the suppliant recognizes that some people can appear righteous yet be involved in evil activity. Instead of fearing contamination, the suppliant expresses confidence that Yahweh will find integrity in both outward actions and inward disposition. The suppliant hopes Yahweh will grant the plea for vindication once Yahweh accepts the invitation for examination and finds the individual above reproach.
Evidence of Moral Integrity (verses 3-5)
Using human actions of looking, walking, sitting, and consorting the suppliant presents evidence of moral integrity. First, the suppliant sees the love of Yahweh continually, not occasionally (verse 3a). Yahweh’s love is present no matter what happens, and Yahweh’s commitment becomes the impetus for the suppliant to craft a journey around faithfulness to Yahweh (verse 3b).
Because the suppliant is walking in faithfulness to Yahweh, the suppliant is not sitting with the worthless (verse 4a) or the wicked (verse 5b). The verb for sitting found in the outer phrases of verses 4-5’s chiastic form means “long-term, settled residence — the kind of dwelling in which one becomes a citizen and adopts the customs and language of the land.”3 This infers that while the suppliant does not have lasting and potentially harmful relationships with the wicked, cursory or redemptive relationships are not negated. Relationships the suppliant kept with liars and deceivers may have imitated those Christ maintained with sinners in his epoch.
Just as the suppliant rejects sitting with the worthless and wicked, so does the suppliant reject consorting with hypocrites (verse 4b) and the company of evildoers (verse 5a). The double rejection of the wicked in verses 4-5 creates a strong statement that the suppliant not only walks with Yahweh, but “runs in the opposite direction rather than sitting down with them.”4
Assurance of Religious Integrity (verses 6-8)
Verses 6-8 shift this psalm’s focus from moral integrity to religious integrity. In verses 3-5, the suppliant created distance from the evildoers. In verses 6-8, the suppliant creates further distance from the outside world — this time through worship. “We have moved from the everyday world with its moral challenges to the religious world, the world of altar, proclamation, and Yahweh’s dwelling.”5 The former was construed negatively, but the latter is now construed positively.
Washing hands with water was a rite of purification that symbolized innocence (verse 6). It prepared the worshiper to enter the presence of Yahweh and join the assembly in worship. In worship the suppliant did what was right before Yahweh: sing a song of thanksgiving and tell of Yahweh’s wondrous deeds (verse 7). Presumably, this included thanksgiving for Yahweh’s involvement in the suppliant’s personal life as well as recounting Yahweh’s deliverance of Israel.
Before returning to pleas that close Psalm 26, the suppliant makes one final statement of love and dedication to the place where Yahweh and Yahweh’s glory reside. Surely Yahweh’s abode is more pleasant than the abode of the wicked.
Preaching the Psalm
This week’s Old Testament, Gospel, and Epistle readings hold the everyday world in tension with God’s world. Exodus 3 is the narrative of the Israelites under oppression in Egypt, and Jeremiah 15 requests Yahweh’s retribution on persecutors (verse 15). Romans 12 contrasts the lifestyle of the world with Christian principles, and Matthew 16 foreshadows the suffering of Christ wrought by a corrupt government. In each of these passages, however, we are reminded that vengeance belongs to God (Romans 12:19) and the Son of Man will repay everyone (Matthew 16:27).
Psalm 26 focuses attention away from the everyday world and on our covenant relationship with God. Through this prayer, we are confronted with the reality that we bear responsibility for our moral and religious integrity, and we are challenged to extend God an invitation to test that integrity. Although anyone can pray to God, this Psalm gently cautions that trusting God is an easier exercise when one can claim integrity.
This week’s lectionary texts call us extend God’s love to the faithless while simultaneously walking, sitting, and acting differently. The tension already stated is that we cannot follow the ways of humanity and claim to serve God fully. However, Psalm 26 reminds us that we can follow the ways of God and serve humanity confidently, with moral and religious integrity. May this be our prayer, and may we learn to pray it with the humility and conviction it requires.
1See John Goldingay, “Psalm 26,” in Psalms, Volume 1: 1-41, ed. Tremper Longman, III, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 379-388.
2Gerald H. Wilson, “Psalm 26,” in Psalms for Preaching and Worship: A Lectionary Commentary, ed. Roger E. Van Harn and Brent A. Strawn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009), 113.