Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 70 is a prayer from an individual, almost a kind of sigh from this person of faith who seeks divine protection, perhaps manifested in the sanctuary.

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November 9, 2014

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Commentary on Psalm 70

Psalm 70 is a prayer from an individual, almost a kind of sigh from this person of faith who seeks divine protection, perhaps manifested in the sanctuary.

The speaker is among those who consider themselves to be deeply devoted servants of God. Some would place the psalm among prayers from the post-exilic Israelite communities, but the prayer is difficult to date. The psalm is framed with repetitions in its first and last verses, phrases that speak of the urgent need for God’s help.

Psalm 70 also occurs with minor variations in Psalm 40:13-17. The verses come at the end of a psalm of thanksgiving in the first occurrence and stand alone as a prayer for help in Psalm 70. The repetition of the texts at different points in the Psalter shows that the prayers are adaptable for life. One of the variations between the texts is that the use of the divine name in Psalm 70:1, 4 is Elohim (“God”) while Psalm 40 uses YHWH (“Lord”) in the corresponding verses.

Psalm 70 is part of the Elohistic Psalter (Psalms 42-83) that prefers the use of the more generic term for the divine name. This collection begins with Book II of the Hebrew Psalter (Psalms 42-72) and continues into the third book with the Korahite and Asaphite collections. Overlapping collections as well as the repetition of psalms in different contexts reflects the editorial process by which the Psalter came into being. Psalm 70 is also closely related to Psalm 71, a psalm without a superscription. The connections are both verbal and thematic.

Perhaps the scribes who edited the Hebrew Psalter intended Psalms 70 and 71 to be read together, with Psalm 70 introducing the more extensive prayer that follows. The superscription to Psalm 70 ties the text to the Davidic hymnbook and gives instructions for use in worship. It includes a term the NRSV translates “for the memorial offering.” The psalm could be used along with the memorial portion of the sacrifice referred to in Leviticus 2; 5:11-13. Another possibility is that the term means “to cause to remember” as a way of characterizing the prayer as one that will bring God to remember to act as the covenant God who comes to deliver.

The prayer opens with a brief and urgent plea for God to deliver the petitioner and moves quickly to the enemies. The plea is that the opponents (those “who seek my life” and “desire to hurt me”) will experience the shame they desire for the petitioner. The prayer is for a divine act of justice, a reversal of fortunes in which the enemies’ evil intent will rebound upon their own heads: “Let those be turned back and brought to dishonor” (verse 2).

The prayer focuses on language of shame and dishonor as the humiliation the opponents seek for the petitioner. The speaker, in contrast, seeks to be counted among the faithful who are delivered and blessed by God and who enjoy fellowship with the community of faith. The basis of the prayer is the presence of two identifiable groups, the righteous and the wicked. The petitioner fervently asks to be included among the righteous whom God delivers.

The psalm’s last two verses focus upon the righteous, those who seek God. Those faithful to God will rejoice and praise God who is the great covenant God who comes to deliver. Such an encounter with God’s powerful salvation comes in the midst of life and need and determines a future of life or death. The psalm’s conclusion makes it clear that the outcome is completely dependent upon God. The plea is that God will deliver and that right early because the petitioner is poor and needy. The speaker is really reduced to this urgent plea as one in poverty and need pleading with the one who can make the difference and bring salvation and deliverance from the enemies. The brief prayer is an urgent plea for God’s help.

But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God!

You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay! (verse 5)

Psalm 70 is a brief paradigm of an individual lament. God initiated a covenant relationship with ancient Israel, and the community nourishes the historical memory of God as the covenant God who comes to deliver. The petitioner in Psalm 70 is not enjoying the covenant blessings because of oppressive opponents. So the psalm’s language constitutes a covenant interchange; the petitioner prays that God will come to deliver and do so before it is too late and the enemies destroy the righteous.

The petition is that God will bring the covenant to reality for this petitioner who is both faithful and needy. The plea is for God to act as the covenant God of the faith tradition. The prayer is a covenant interaction with pastoral implications, and the context is trust that God will come and hear and respond, will embrace the petitioner’s pain and deliver.

The psalm is a brief but powerful plea as the offering of all the speaker has — a prayer. The speaker is in need and cannot bring salvation by way of self-help, but the covenant God can bring newness of life. The offering of an honest prayer in great need is a powerful thing. The psalm reminds hearers and readers that the living God who hear prayers for help still listens today.