< November 12, 2017 >

Commentary on Psalm 70

 

In a letter dated May 15, 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to his parents from prison: “I read the Psalms every day, as I have done for years; I know them and love them more than any other book.”1

Earlier in the same letter, Bonhoeffer wrote, “One of my predecessors here has scribbled over the cell door, ‘In 100 years it will all be over.’ That was his way of trying to counter the feeling that life spent here is a blank ... ‘My time is in your hands’ (Psalm 31) is the Bible’s answer. But in the Bible there is also the question that threatens to dominate everything here: ‘How long, O Lord?’ (Psalm 13).”2

Like Psalm 13 with its opening imploration (“How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” [Psalm 13:1]), Psalm 70 is an individual lament that begins with an urgent entreaty for divine intervention: “Be pleased, O God, to deliver me. O LORD, make haste to help me!” (verse 1). In Psalm 70, the psalmist cries out to God for deliverance from enemies, who “seek my life” and “desire to hurt me” (verse 2). The psalmist asks that those people “be put to shame and confusion” and “be turned back and brought to dishonor” (verse 2). Although Psalm 70 includes a moment of hope (“Let all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you. Let those who love your salvation say evermore, ‘God is great!’” [verse 4]), the psalm immediately returns -- and ends -- with a call for God to act: “But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God! You are my help and my deliverer; O LORD, do not delay!” (verse5).

“Do not delay!” The psalm ends with a final, urgent appeal. There is no recorded divine response, no move to praise.

Of course, there are moments in each of our lives where the words of Psalm 70 could easily be our own words. Moments marked by a desire for divine intervention (and for that divine intervention to happen now, soon, without delay) and a yearning to see those who have done us wrongs shamed and dishonored. And, doubtless, there are moments in our lives when we wish for immediate help and deliverance, but hear no instant answer. In those moments, Psalm 70 provides us with a scriptural basis for lament, for airing our grievances, and for asking for help. Psalm 70 is also a reminder that we might not receive an immediate answer.

But doubtless there are also moments in each of our lives where the urgency of Psalm 70 is not our own, moments when our lives continue in a steady stream of regular days filled with regular concerns. And so, if we hear Psalm 70 read on a Sunday when our lives our rolling along as they normally do, we might not feel particularly connected to this psalm of lament. We might find, instead, that we sit and think of other things, mostly mundane (“Do we need anything from the grocery store?”, “What’s for lunch?”, “What do I need to get done this week?”).

Yet it is perhaps on those days that we might benefit most from hearing a psalm like Psalm 70. After all, the urgent cry of the psalmist (“O LORD, make haste to help me!”) is someone else’s cry. The psalm can serve as a prompt, a powerful reminder that even while our own lives might be rolling regularly along, that is not necessarily the case for everyone. Others might be hurting, calling out for help, awaiting deliverance. Others might be crying out, but hearing no response.

In his letter to his parents, Bonhoeffer briefly invokes Psalm 70, noting that “I cannot now read Psalms 3, 47, 70 and others without hearing them in the settings by Heinrich Schütz.”3 (Schütz’s “Eile mich, Gott, zu erretten” [“Make haste, O God, to save me”] draws from Psalm 40:13-17, which is repeated almost verbatim in Psalm 70). Edwin Robertson reminds us that “If our image of Bonhoeffer does not fit an anxious prayer” like that found in Psalm 70, “it is because we are among those who observe him from the outside.”4 Yet the reality was that Bonhoeffer was also asking “How long, O Lord?”, struggling with both the necessities of daily life (in the same letter, he asks for ink and stain remover, and also sends birthday wishes to someone he knows) and with his imprisonment. In one of his poems, as Robertson notes, Bonhoeffer compares how others see him (“composed, contented, and sure”) with how Bonhoeffer himself feels (“troubled, homesick, ill like a bird in a cage”).5

Psalm 70, like many lament psalms, can provide us with a voice to express our own grief, our own anger, and our own hope for divine help. It can be a way to beseech God to “make haste to help” us.

But when we hear this psalm in the moments when our own lives are going along pleasantly enough, such a lament can serve another purpose. Psalm 70 also calls listeners to stop and listen: Who around us is living in a moment where the words of this psalm are their own? Who might be experiencing anxiety and turmoil even if we cannot see it in their day to day actions? And how might we help and deliver those who are so urgently crying out?


Notes

1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison: The Enlarged Edition, ed. Eberhard Bethge (Touchstone: New York, 1997), 40.
2. Bonhoeffer, 39.
3. Bonhoeffer, 40.
4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Meditations on Psalms, ed. and trans. Edwin Robertson (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 145.
5. Bonhoeffer, 145. For the full text of Bonhoeffer’s poem, entitled, “Who Am I?”, see pp. 145-146.