Saturday, February 18, 2012

Psalm 64

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 64.

This Psalm is about enemies of the Psalmist who are secretly laying traps for him and are attempting to harm him with their words. This could refer to slander, or (according to Sigmund Mowinckel) to sorcery. The Psalmist's enemies are fearless in that they think that no one is watching them, and they actively search for sinister plots to do. A theme in this Psalm is conspiracy, as the Psalmist's enemies talk with each other about their plots and (according to one interpretation of v 5) encourage one another in evil. Another interpretation of v 5, which the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary mentions, is that the Psalmist's enemies in their slander magnify and exaggerate the Psalmist's minor and unintentional faults. This would be interesting because v 4 states that the Psalmist's enemies are planning to shoot secretly at the perfect, showing (perhaps) that perfection does not mean absolute flawlessness but rather trying to do the right thing, as opposed to the Psalmist's enemies, who actively plot to do evil.

The Psalmist affirms that God will punish the evildoers in a lex talionis manner, as God kills them with arrows and brings their tongues on their heads. As a result, all people fear God. According to Marc Brettler and Adele Berlin in the Jewish Study Bible, the Psalmist's desire is not for vengeance but rather something larger: that people might be mindful of God.

I have three thoughts about this Psalm. First of all, the Psalmist appears to be vulnerable. He knows that people are plotting his downfall, but they appear to be so innocent on the surface. This sort of thing occurs often in the real world: people slandering and undermining others, while outwardly appearing to be respectable. How can one cope in such a world? The Psalmist appeals to God. But he doesn't just want for God to intervene for his own benefit, but rather to execute justice so that people might be mindful of God and thus not seek to harm others, resulting in a just and a safe society.

Second, I have a more negative reading of this Psalm. Commentators have held that the Psalmist is a leader who is the object of a conspiracy to undermine or even to overthrow him. But I can envision a leader invoking this sort of Psalm to call down God's wrath on people with legitimate complaints. I have listened to preachers boldly assert that any criticism of them will come to naught because God is on their side. So perhaps the sentiments in Psalm 64 can be abused.

Moreover, while the Psalmist portrays his enemies as utterly evil, was that necessarily the case? It's possible, for there are people who are greedy and hungry for power, and that would motivate them to try to dethrone the Psalmist. But perhaps the Psalmist's enemies have legitimate grievances, as Ahithophel did when he was upset that David slept with his grand-daughter Bath-sheba, or as Absalom did when he was angry that David did nothing in response to Amnon's rape of Absalom's sister, Tamar. Were they right to conspire to overthrow David? No, but (playing with the idea that Psalm 64 is by David) it would be nice if David at least had a degree of contrition over his part in why his enemies were mad at him, rather than portraying his enemies as thoroughly evil and affirming that God is on his side. And, if the Psalm is not by David but by another ruler, perhaps the ruler is at least partially at fault for why certain people are against him.

Third, Psalm 64 is about the Psalmist's enemies working together, encouraging one another in evil (according to that one interpretation of v 5), and searching out plots. Wouldn't it be nice if people had this sort of approach to goodness: working together to do good things, encouraging one another in good deeds, and thinking up ways to honor God and to help others? Hebrews 10:24-25 states (in the KJV): "And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching." In my opinion, simply joining a church and getting Christian friends is not necessarily conducive to this, for Christians can end up encouraging one another in gossip, looking down on others, and having a smug attitude. But being around people who try to do good can encourage one in his or her own pursuit of goodness.

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