Commentary on Psalm 54
Perhaps you’ve heard the old saw, “Announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh” (or something like that).1
If making plans of our own (presumably in the face of God’s plans for us) is laughable, how about issuing commands to God, telling God the Divine’s own business in no uncertain terms? Who would dare to give God orders? Yet this is, in a sense, exactly what Psalm 54 does.
Our psalm begins with a four-fold plea: “save me…hear [me]…give ear [to me].” Each of these pleas—actually imperative verbs—and a fourth “vindicate me” (which in terms of tense is imperfect but in context clearly works like an imperative) quite literally command God’s attention, response, and action. These imperative clauses that form the introduction to the psalm demand God’s attention. And while some Hebrew language grammarians might call this particular use of the imperative a “jussive,” that is really just a delicate way of labeling the act of giving orders to someone who out-ranks you.
But enough grammar. Why is God’s attention and action commanded? Because the enemies of the psalmist, the insolent and the ruthless, have risen against him to tear him apart with their words.
At issue here in Psalm 54 is speech: speech directed to God in response to the vile slander of human beings. Notice the tension that is present in regards to the hearing of speech in the psalm. God is commanded to “give ear,” to listen, to pay attention to the psalmist’s words, and perhaps at the same time to the false witness of the psalmists enemies. It is almost as if the psalmist begs God, “Can you not hear the insolent and the ruthless as they lie about me?”
That the enemies actions are speech-based seems clear in that the enemies are said to be “rising against” him, a reference (most likely) to the actions of witnesses in the gate of the community (Isaiah 29:20-21: “For the tyrant shall be no more, and the scoffer shall cease to be; all those alert to do evil shall be cut off—those who cause a person to lose a lawsuit, who set a trap for the arbiter in the gate, and without grounds deny justice to the one in the right”; cf. Psalm 27:12, “Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence”).
Notice also that the psalmist does not answer word-for-word those who falsely accuse him. Such a response is the fool’s move; implicit in the psalm is the sense that he-said-they-said doesn’t get a person anywhere. Instead, the psalmist “sets God” before him, appealing to God to judge on his behalf, to find for the defense if you will, and to reverse the judgment, pronouncing it against the psalmist’s enemies. Indeed, before offering a pledge of thanksgiving, the psalmist exults in this reverse judgment saying that God “will repay my enemies for their evil,” and that “my eye has looked in triumph on my enemies.”
The psalm, which may strike us as an odd selection for reading/recitation during worship, actually couches the whole conflict very much in terms of the worship life of the community. This may be, at least in part, what is meant by the idea of “putting God” before oneself—which the psalmist does and his enemies do not (compare verses 2 and 3). It is only in the presence of God that the conflict will be appropriately resolved. In service of putting God before himself, and at the same time putting his pleas before God, the psalmist employs several terms which are worship-related and technical.
At the end of the psalm, coming in response to his (presumed? assumed? anticipated?) vindication the psalmist vows an act of thanksgiving for God’s judgment against his enemies. The author of the psalm says, “I will sacrifice,” presenting a “freewill offering,” in order to “give thanks” (verse 6). In worship, the psalmist will celebrate his deliverance.
The most important technical term used in the psalm comes towards the beginning of the psalm however, in verse 2. And this is also probably the most innocuous of the worship related terms in the psalm, at least at first blush: the psalmist offers a “prayer.” The psalmist calls his appeal a “prayer.” There are several different terms in the Old Testament for “prayer,” but the Hebrew word used here is by far the most common. What may be telling is that this word is probably related to the word which means “judge” (cf. Exodus 21:22). In a sense, then, prayer is in-and-of-itself an appeal to God as judge. The psalmist directs his speech (an appealing or intercessory prayer) to God the Judge, who will speak in response to the false accusations of the psalmist’s enemies, these “insolent” and “ruthless” ones who have risen against him.
Psalm 54 offers an intriguing and, for me at least, compelling image of the nature of prayer; one that will almost surely surprise many Christians pray-ers. Preaching the insights of the psalm can serve to inform both the nature and the appropriate direction of Christian speech. When confronted with false witness, with accusations meant to tear down and destroy—reputations, self-image, and, in due course, lives—the psalm turns us not to rebuttal or reprisal, but to prayer in worship. For Psalm 54 speech in the midst of conflict is to be directed to God, not simply thrown back at those who falsely accuse. Furthermore, this speech is imperative in nature; it commands God to serve as judge on our behalf. This is what prayer is.
One might ask well ask at this point, if any sinner (which all of us most surely are) could ever do such a thing as demand that God act as judge on our behalf. But because God has delivered us from every trouble (verse 7), and because God is our helper (verse 4), even the sinful man or woman can, in the face of evil, rely on God to be not just a judge, not just any judge, but their judge.
- Commentary first published on this site on Sept. 23, 2012.
September 19, 2021