Commentary on Psalm 17:1-9
This is the tenth psalm lection on which I’ve commented for this website that contains only part of the canonical psalm in question. There will always be people in the pews wondering why we’re leaving out 40% of a scriptural prayer, in this case, verse 10-15. Perhaps it is the abundance of brutal, animalistic imagery for one’s enemies (verses 10-12) or the horrific curse invoked on them and their children (verses 13-14). I get it. We’re a month from advent and such sentiments fall short of the so-called “Christmas spirit.”
However, treating only the more positive parts of a psalm is like telling the parable of the “Wheat and the Weeds,” without the weeds. After all, there is a fair amount of “enemy language” in verses 1-9 already, and a strong case can be made for the unity of the psalm based on its structure and the numerous repetitions across all fifteen verses. If you want to address the canonical psalm, Rolf Jacobson provides a helpful outline: three sections of plea (verses 1-2, 6-9, 13-14) with supporting rationale for each (verses 3-5, 10-12, 15).1 Even if we don’t read or refer to verses 10-15, however, let us engage the topic of enemies as a means of confronting our culture’s “all or nothing” attitude toward most societal issues. This psalm and the larger biblical witness persistently remind us to leave judgment in the hands of the Lord and pray earnestly for an end to injustice. I’ll briefly return to this theme, but let me first identify two others that stand out to me based on the language and imagery of Psalm 17.
The boldness of prayer
Psalm 17 is an individual prayer of lament/prayer for help, with an abundance of requests stated in the imperative or jussive forms. Consider just the first two verses: “hear,” “attend,” “give ear,” “let my vindication come,” and “let your eyes see.” The boldness comes through not merely in the direct address, but also in the motivation offered to YHWH for answering the prayer, namely, the psalmist’s blameless character and upright behavior (verse 3-5). Christians who are well-versed in the psalms have probably made peace with the strong petitionary language of prayers for help, but we struggle with the pleas of innocence. I appreciate the wisdom in Artur Weiser’s comment: This is not “naïve self-righteousness” and certainly not “sinlessness”; it is about the psalmist “justifying himself in the face of unwarranted accusations … He knows that he himself is helpless … but he also knows that God will help him.”2 David Charney has compared the rhetoric of Psalm 17 to similar language in Psalms 7 and 22, to show that such first-person prayers are “deliberative arguments between Israelites and God.”3 The basis for much of the boldness, of course, derives from the appeal to God’s “steadfast love” (hesed, verse 7). Hesed is so much more than the “lovingkindness” of many King James psalm translations. It is grounded in God’s covenant loyalty to Israel, a reality that “is the fundamental theological assumption that hovers behind all of the psalms.”4
The relationship of prayer
This psalm brings a person’s complete embodied existence into view, with several nouns and verbs about the human body. There are “lips” that pray (verse 1), a “heart” that God can “test” (verse 3), a “mouth” that “does not transgress” (verse 3), and “feet” that take “steps” (verse 5). However, this imagery intensifies with similar sensory terms for God. YHWH can “hear” and “give ear” (verses 1, 6), has “eyes” to see (verse 2), a “right hand” to offer “refuge” (verse 7), an “eye” to behold petitioners (verse 8), and “wings” to hide them (verse 8). The physicality of the rhetoric conveys the intimate relationship the poet feels with God, and as Charney suggests, the “goal is to achieve his own intimate rapport with God.”5
A Christian reading of the psalm cannot help but find resonance with the doctrines of creation, incarnation, and resurrection. The Triune God is committed to this material universe awaiting its ultimate freedom from bondage (Romans 8:21), and our hope for a resurrected body is grounded in the life of our incarnate and risen Lord. For those glancing at the other lectionary readings for this Sunday, Job 19:23-27a and Luke 20:27-38 build on this theme in their distinct ways (although the Job 19 passage is notoriously burdened with textual difficulties). My point is that the relationship of biblical prayer is not dependent upon the petitioner’s eloquence, feelings, or claims of innocence; it flows out of the church’s union with Jesus Christ, who also prayed “with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death” (Hebrews 5:7).
In conclusion, I return to the social context of the prayer we know as Psalm 17, for it has no energy apart from the psalmist’s intense physical, psychological, and spiritual experience of persecution. Although our communities may not be in such dire straits, there are denominational and global partners who face precisely those conditions. If only for the sake of solidarity with them, let us recognize and feel their desperation. Let us struggle with the temptation to curse the perpetrators of injustice and wrestle with the implications of retributive justice. But as we do, let us also recall that God has created the enemies and us alike. Is it possible to imagine a future of reconciliation with those we call wicked? Shall we ask that God, who renewed us while we were yet sinners, also transform them by the same amazing grace?
- Rolf Jacobson, “Psalm 17: The Embodiment of a Legitimate Prayer,” in The Book of Psalms, NICOT (Eerdmans, 2014), 183.
- Artur Weiser, Psalms: A Commentary, 5th ed., OTL (Westminster John Knox, 1962), 180-181.
- David Charney, “Maintaining Innocence Before a Divine Hearer: Deliberative Rhetoric in Psalm 22, Psalm 17and Psalm 7,” Biblical Interpretation 21 (2013): 62.
- Rolf A. Jacobson and Karl N. Jacobson, Invitation to the Psalms (Baker Academic, 2013), 152.
- Charney, 51.
November 6, 2022