Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 70’s superscription, in the New Revised Standard Version, is “To the leader. Of David, for the memorial offering.” Scholars offer two ideas about the phrase “for the memorial (from the Hebrew root zakar) offering.”

November 6, 2011

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Commentary on Psalm 70

Psalm 70’s superscription, in the New Revised Standard Version, is “To the leader. Of David, for the memorial offering.” Scholars offer two ideas about the phrase “for the memorial (from the Hebrew root zakar) offering.”

First, it may suggest that the psalms were recited at the occasion of various offerings at the temple or sanctuaries (see Leviticus 1-6). Second, it may indicate that these psalms were “kept on file” at the temple or sanctuaries, available for folk to recite who lacked the words to express their heartfelt woes and desires. In our modern context, let us explore the second possible setting for Psalm 70 — a text appropriate for many occasions and settings, one available to those who came to the temple or sanctuary in distress.

In our book of Psalms, only Psalms 38 and 70 have the superscription “for the memorial offering”; both are individual laments; and together they offer a powerful cry to God. The singer of Psalm 38 implores God not to rebuke or discipline, since the psalmist is full of iniquity (verse 4), has wounds that grow foul and fester (verse 5), is friendless (verse 11), and finds no way to offer defense against accusations (verse 13). Thus we read in verse 18, “I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin.” 

In contrast, the singer of Psalm 70 names no personal wrongdoing, but begins with a plea to God to, “Be pleased to deliver me . . .  Let those be put to shame and confusion who seek my life” (verses 1-2), and ends with “You are my help and my deliverer; O LORD, do not delay” (verse 5). 

Might we be permitted to read Psalms 38 and 70 as companion supplications by worshipers who come to the temple or a sanctuary to plead with God on their behalf? In singing Psalm 38, worshipers express the abject conditions in which they find themselves and lay the groundwork for the cries for justice they express in Psalm 70. 

Psalm 38 closes with the words, “Do not forsake me, O LORD; O my God, do not be far from me; make haste to help me, O LORD, my salvation” (verses 21-22). The psalmist confesses transgression and waits for God to forgive and provide protection and comfort. Verse 22 of Psalm 38 incorporates three words that sum up the theme of Psalm 70: make haste (70:2, 6), help (70:2, 6), and salvation (70:5). The psalmist has confessed, has been forgiven, and now implores God’s help against those who oppress. 

Psalms 38 and 70, read together, offer a valuable lesson for worshipers today. We are often quick to pray that God give to those who harm us their “just desserts” without first examining our own lives and acknowledging our responsibilities for the injustices that occur. The words of Psalm 70 ring hollow without the words of Psalm 38 as preface.

The singer of Psalm 70 implores God in verse 1 to make haste to deliver and help. Typical of the lament psalms, the nature of the oppression against the singer (the who, what, when, where) is not described in detail. Rather, the psalmist describes the oppressors as “those who seek my life” and “delight in the bad things that happen to me” (verse 3).

While the lament psalms are heartfelt cries to God for help, they are, in almost every instance, non-specific regarding the source of oppression. Thus, the psalms become words for and about all people in all times and places, not for or about a specific person in a specific time and place. 

The help for which the psalmist asks is somewhat surprising when compared to cries for help in other lament psalms. In Psalm 35, for instance, the singer asks God to make the enemy “like chaff before the wind”; in Psalm 68, we read, “as wax melts before the fire, let the wicked perish before God” (verse 2); and the singer of Psalm 83 calls down the wrath of God upon the enemies: “As fire consumes the forest, as the flame sets the mountains ablaze, so pursue them with your tempest and terrify them with your hurricane” (verses 14-15).

In a contrast that seems rather subdued, Psalm 70 asks that the oppressors be “put to shame and confusion” and “turned back and brought to dishonor” (verse 2). The basic meaning of the four Hebrew verbs in verse 2 — shame, confusion, turned back, and dishonor — provide valuable insight into the psalmist’s sentiment. We will explore the meanings of the four words and then draw some conclusions about what the psalm singer was requesting of God.  

In the form in which “put to shame” occurs in Psalm 70, the word denotes shame not from an external source, as the NRSV translation suggests, but shame from within. A better translation might be “to feel shame.” Such a translation, coupled with the next word, translated in the New Revised Standard Version as “confusion,” provides a vivid picture of what the psalm singer asks regarding those who “seek my life.”

Some suggest the word “confusion” means literally “to turn red, to blush.” The word translated “turn back” suggests the act of physically turning the face away. And, finally, the word translated in the New Revised Standard Version as “brought to dishonor” literally means “to be humiliated, both within the self and in the community.”

Thus, we can posit that the singer of Psalm 70 cries out in verse 2, not that the enemy or oppressor suffer some external punishment, as we see, for example, in Psalms 35, 68, and 83. Rather, the heartfelt cry is that the oppressor feels shame, is embarrassed (red-faced), turns away, and feels deep humiliation. And, as we read in verses 4 and following, with the oppressor fittingly suppressed, those who truly seek the Lord can rejoice and be glad, and those who love God’s salvation can declare that God is great! 

In the closing words of Psalm 70 (verse 5), the psalmist claims to be “poor and needy” and asks God, “my help and my deliverer,” to hasten, echoing the closing words of Psalm 38, which state, “Do not forsake me, O LORD, O my God, do not be far from me; make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation” (verses 21-22). The psalmist has acknowledged, confessed, and admitted sin; and now the psalmist asks God to hasten to help and “turn back” a shamed and embarrassed oppressor.