Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Why the passion of this psalm?

September 20, 2009

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Commentary on Psalm 54

Why the passion of this psalm?

Why its sharp, even repellant characterization of the enemies? Why the joy and generosity of its resolution? Because of what the psalmist sees to be at stake here: nothing less than God’s name and the pray-er’s soul! Both of these fundamental realities are of utmost concern to each of the primary protagonists in the prayer: God and “me.”

To be sure, “soul” does not occur in the standard English translations of the psalm, no doubt because of the danger of misunderstanding the Hebrew nephesh as something like a disembodied essence unrelated to the harsh realities of this world, but in the Hebrew text the term occurs twice: nephesh, soul, self, breath, life–everything that makes “me” me. In the psalm, the enemies seek my “life”/”soul” (verse 3); but God upholds my “life”/”soul” (verse 4). This is the message of the psalm in a nutshell: something/someone wants to destroy me–all that is me; God wants to uphold me–all that is me.

We can understand how another, an enemy can destroy our lives or our health or our reputations, but how can the enemy destroy my soul, my “me”? Holocaust author Elie Wiesel helps us understand that in his description of a forced journey to the Buchenwald concentration camp. The Jews, the victims, are crammed into a cattle car with no provisions whatsoever. As a result, when a German workman throws in a piece of bread, the men inside, in a desperate attempt to get at the crumbs, “threw themselves on top of each other, stamping on each other, tearing at each other, biting each other. Wild beasts of prey, with animal hatred in their eyes.”1 Now, the victims become victimizers, and the enemy has done the unthinkable: in the process of killing people’s bodies, it has killed their souls as well.

To understand the possibility of such horror is to understand the passion against the enemies in this and other psalms: these are agents of chaos, uncreating the world God has made and is in the process of redeeming. When God saw that it was not good for the new human to be alone, God made a partner, a helper (Genesis 2:18), so that each could serve, enrich, enhance, support, and protect the other. Biblically speaking, that’s what humans are for.

But when the other rejects the God-given vocation of helper, that other becomes, in the language of the psalms, enemy–one opposed to God’s intended relationships among God’s beloved human creatures. When that happens, the psalmists cry out, as here (verse 4), for God to take the role of “helper” (‘ozer–same term as in Genesis 2:18), to put right what the other-become-enemy has torn asunder.

Thus, the psalm’s cry against the insolent and ruthless enemies (verse 3) and apparent gloating over their defeat (verse 7) is not so much personal vindictiveness as the psalmist’s fervent prayer that God restore the way things ought to be. Good really should triumph, and evil really should be defeated. People really should help one another. The Bible cries out for that from beginning to end, and God’s people continue to pray that it be so. Such prayer does not permit a self-righteous identification of myself as invariably good and others as unmistakably evil; it calls upon God to uphold my life, to be my helper, my companion, even my significant other, in order that I might find myself on God’s side against whatever turns out to be opposed to that, to be the helper God intends me to be. Finally, in Christ, such prayer will call upon God to defeat also anything within me that stands in the way of God’s good plans for God’s world.

This is why God’s name is at stake in the prayer. In a poetic inclusio, the psalmist prays at the outset to be saved by God’s name (verse 1) and then gives thanks to God’s name at the close when God has acted (verse 6). A victory of the “enemy”–anyone or anything opposed to God–would call God’s name into question. Just as my “soul” is all that is me in the Bible, we might similarly so that God’s “name” is all that is God. Though God’s name is not itself God, the name stands for God and signifies God’s presence. God gives Israel God’s personal name (Exodus 3:13-15) to announce who God is, to proclaim God’s promise, and to permit the kind of relationship that enables calling the other by name.

That relationship has been disturbed in the psalm. The pray-er is in danger, under personal attack. God’s promise of deliverance and redemption of God’s people is in jeopardy–if only because “I” am God’s person and “I” am in mortal peril. The passion is evident in the psalm’s opening words, where the Hebrew word order is: “God, by your name save me…God, hear my prayer….” The outburst, twice, is “God…”–no preliminaries, nothing intervening, straight to the source. The psalm is about God even before it is about “me,” for God in God’s faithfulness (verse 5) is at least as invested in my well being as I am–indeed, as my maker and deliverer, even more so.

Such imploring of God to be God–to be God for me–is what the psalm is about, and it is the mark of faithful prayer throughout the history of God’s people. The petition is not: “God, I have determined what is right and wrong, and I ask you to get on board”; it is rather, “God, my world, your world, is in disarray, and I ask you to make it right, to make me right.”

Then, of course, I will bring my “freewill offering” (verse 6; see Leviticus 7:16; Deuteronomy 12:6)–not as the fulfillment of a bargain, but in the freedom and joy produced by God’s restoration of me and the world, returning it to the order God wills. Hosea understands the relationship precisely, using the same term as Israel’s “freewill offering” to God (nedabah) to describe God’s decision to “love them freely” (Hosea 14:4). God’s free grace and our free response marks the world God chooses. All of that is in jeopardy in the psalm. No wonder the psalmist cries out; no wonder, God, in faithfulness, responds.

This plea to God from distress and proclamation of God, “the upholder of my life,” might be taken farther: working from the superscript’s ascription of the psalm to David, the tradition can read the psalm as the prayer of God’s anointed. With that background, the preacher can move to hear this as a prayer of Christ, praying in, with, and for us in our distress.

Such a Christological reading of the psalm would be in the tradition of Luther and Bonhoeffer and add another dimension to the sermon. Still, that moves beyond the clear first meaning of the psalm. It is a possible, but not necessary reading.

1Elie Wiesel, Night (New York: Avon, 1969) 112.