Saturday, March 24, 2012

Psalm 69

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 69. Five verses in Psalm 69 are quoted in the New Testament. In this post, I will compare how the New Testament uses these passages with what interpreters have said these verses mean in their original and historical context. I will also address Psalm 69:5, in which the Psalmist affirms that his transgressions are not hidden from God. This verse is probably troubling for Christians who believe that Psalm 69 is about Christ, for (according to their religion) Christ did not sin.

1. Psalm 69:4 says (in the KJV, which I will use in this post): "They that hate me without a cause are more than the hairs of mine head: they that would destroy me, being mine enemies wrongfully, are mighty: then I restored that which I took not away." This verse is quoted in John 15:25. John 15:24-25 states: "If I had not done among them the works which none other man did, they had not had sin: but now have they both seen and hated both me and my Father. But this cometh to pass, that the word might be fulfilled that is written in their law, They hated me without a cause." Jesus here interprets Psalm 69:4 in light of the undeserved rejection he has received from the people of Israel.

Scholars have maintained that Psalm 69:4 is for people who have experienced rejection. A common view is that Psalm 69 employed Jeremiah or the Suffering Servant of Second Isaiah as models, and that later communities were using this Psalm for their own needs----to lament the exilic or post-exilic suffering of the nation of Israel or the pious Jews, or to ask God for physical healing for their members.

Marvin Tate speculates that the Psalm was originally used by a pre-exilic king, but it underwent post-exilic stages, since Psalm 69:35-36 expresses hope that God might save Zion and build the cities of Judah. Tate may have in mind what I read in Peter Craigie's commentary on Psalms 1-50: that the pre-exilic king recognized his vulnerability to conspiracy from insiders and outsiders to his realm, and so he asked God to thwart his enemies. David himself in II Samuel endured a nationwide revolt against his authority, and this revolt was launched by his own son (Absalom) and was joined by many in Israel. Was Psalm 69 originally about this sort of situation, but exilic and post-exilic themes about restoration were later added?

Of particular interest is the Psalmist's statement that "I restored that which I took not away". According to many interpreters, the idea here is that the Psalmist is being wrongfully accused of stealing. Stephen Geller said in a class that I took on Psalms that the writer of this Psalm was probably a priest, who was being accused of robbing the Temple. Against this accusation, Geller maintains, the Psalmist affirms in v 9 that he is actually zealous for the Temple.

Some Christian interpreters have sought to relate that part of Psalm 69:4 to Christ, as they claim that Christ actually did restore what he did not take away. John Gill says that Christ restored the glory of God, which human beings debased through their sin, and also that Christ paid the penalty for sins that he did not commit. For Gill, Christ restored what he was not responsible for taking away, but that others had taken away through their sin.

2. Psalm 69:9 says: "For the zeal of thine house hath eaten me up; and the reproaches of them that reproached thee are fallen upon me. " The first part of this verse is quoted in John 2:17 in reference to Jesus cleansing the Temple of merchants and money-changers, and the second part is quoted by Paul in Romans 15:3 when Paul is arguing that Christians should aim to please their neighbors rather than themselves, since Christ did not please himself but endured reproach.

In terms of the original context of Psalm 69:9, I like what Christian pastor John MacArthur says about it: "The psalmist has brought hatred and hostility on himself by his unyielding insistence that the behavior of the people measure up to their outward claim of devotion to God. Whenever God was dishonored he felt the pain, because he loved God so greatly." Different ideas have been proposed for the setting of this verse: that it is based on Jeremiah controversially exhorting the people to be righteous rather than worshiping in the Temple hypocritically; that it relates to the attempts of post-exilic Jews to rebuild the Temple, which was opposed by their enemies inside and outside of Yehud; or that it concerns the efforts of the Maccabees to recapture and to purify the Temple after Hellenistic defilement. Some have even contended that the "house" in Psalm 69:9 is not the Temple but rather the nation of Israel or the household of faith.

In any case, the verse appears to be about the Psalmist suffering as a result of his zeal for God. That has happened to many throughout history, including Jesus.

3. Psalm 69:21 says: "They gave me also gall for my meat; and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink." Matthew 27:34 quotes this verse in reference to people offering Jesus vinegar while he was suffering on the cross and was thirsty. In its original context, according to a number of interpreters, Psalm 69:21 is about the Psalmist being offered gall and vinegar by people pretending to be his comforters. The Psalmist is fasting on account of his suffering (Psalm 69:10), and he desires comforters (Psalm 69:20). Real comforters brought sufferers food, but the people in Psalm 69:21 bring the Psalmist stuff that is either poisonous or bitter in taste. That reinforces the Psalmist's suffering and sense of alienation from others.

4. Psalm 69:22 says: "Let their table become a snare before them: and that which should have been for their welfare, let it become a trap." Paul in Romans 11:9 relates that verse to the spiritual inability of many Jews of his day to accept Jesus as the Messiah. Originally, Psalm 69:22 was about the Psalmist's hope that God might punish his enemies, whether those enemies were Gentile powers, or conspirators within the people of Israel, or others.

5. Psalm 69:25 says: "Let their habitation be desolate; and let none dwell in their tents." This verse is quoted in Acts 1:20 in reference to the death of Judas, only Acts 1:20 quotes it as referring to "his habitation" rather than "their habitation". The Septuagint has "their", so Acts 1:20 is either quoting the passage loosely, has a variant, or assumes that what happened to Judas is typical of what occurs to all enemies of Jesus, and so it relates to Judas the fate of all of Jesus' enemies. There may be other options, as well.

I'll turn now to Psalm 69:5, which says: "O God, thou knowest my foolishness; and my sins are not hid from thee." How would Christians who interpret Psalm 69 as the words of Christ interact with this verse, when they believe that Christ was sinless? Augustine and other Christians have maintained that Christ is not talking about his own sins here, but rather the sins of his body (the church), as it confesses sin while being attached to Christ. Christian interpreters have also noted that Christ bore the sins of others on the cross.

Within its original context, however, Psalm 69:5 may be the Psalmist protesting his innocence of what others have accused him (stealing), even as he acknowledges that he is a sinner. It's like the Psalmist is saying, "You know what I am, Lord, both good and bad." Or the Psalmist is seeking God's mercy.

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