Saturday, December 29, 2012

Psalm 109

Psalm 109 is often classified as an imprecatory Psalm, one of those Psalms in which the Psalmist calls down curses on his enemies.  But some scholars believe that the dramatic imprecations in Psalm 109:6-19 are a quotation of the Psalmist's enemies, not the words of the Psalmist himself.  In this view, the Psalmist's enemies are claiming that the Psalmist persecuted the poor and the needy, killed the broken-hearted, and delighted in cursing, and these enemies are hoping that the Psalmist might be judged for his parents' and his own sins, that he might die soon, that another might take his office, and that his children might suffer.  Even the nineteenth century preacher Charles Spurgeon, in his Treasury of David, refers to the view that Psalm 109 contains the curses of David's enemies upon David, rather than David's curses of his enemies, but Spurgeon disagrees with that particular notion.

Many scholars treat Psalm 109:6-19 as the words of the Psalmist, not the Psalmist's enemies.  One reason is that there is no explicit indication in the text that Psalm 109:6-19 is a quotation, plus quotations of the Psalmist's enemies elsewhere in the Book of Psalms are short, whereas Psalm 106:6-19 is a pretty significant chunk!  While it has been observed that vv 6-19 use the third-person singular (i.e., he) whereas the rest of the Psalm employs the third-person plural for the Psalmist's adversaries, many don't think that's enough to classify vv 6-19 as a quotation.  Erhard Gerstenberger says that "Liturgical texts may easily switch from singular to plural passages, and vice versa, in keeping with the liturgical agenda" (Psalms, Part 2, and Lamentations).  The Jewish commentator Radak says that vv 6-19 use the third-person singular because they're talking about the leader of David's enemies.

Just speaking from my present knowledge, I don't think that there's evidence that vv 6-19 are a quotation of the Psalmist's enemies.  Moreover, Leslie Allen refers to a view that, even if they are a quotation, that wouldn't redress the theologically troubling nature of the Psalm to those who believe that we should love our enemies, for the Psalmist in v 20 expresses his hope that God will do to his enemies the horrible things in vv 6-19!  And, for Christians, especially conservative Christians, there is the issue of the use of Psalm 109:8 in Acts 1:20, where "let another take his office" (KJV) is related to the need to replace Judas as apostle after Judas' death.  Was Acts 1:20 treating as authoritative the curses that the Psalmist's enemies made against the Psalmist?

But I think that regarding Psalm 109:6-19 as a quotation of the Psalmist's enemies can yield some intriguing results.  Here, I'll be drawing from Leslie Allen's discussion in the Word Biblical Commentary as well as Patrick Miller's thoughts in the HarperCollins Study Bible, while also adding some of my own thoughtsLet's pretend that vv 6-19 are a quotation of the Psalmist's enemies. 

What does Psalm 109 now look like?  According to the view that vv 6-19 are a quotation of the Psalmist's enemies, the Psalmist in Psalm 109 is responding to his enemies' curses of him.  The enemies are saying that the Psalmist oppressed the poor and killed the broken-hearted; the Psalmist responds that he himself is poor, needy, and wounded in heart (v 22).  The enemies hope that the Psalmist and his offspring will not receive mercy, but that God will remember the sins of the Psalmist and his parents; the Psalmist in v 26 hopes for God's mercy.  The enemies desire that a Satan (an accuser) will stand at the right hand of the Psalmist, presumably while the Psalmist is being judged (see v 7, cp. Zechariah 3:1), but the Psalmist in v 31 affirms that God will be the one who will stand at the right hand of the poor (presumably himself) and save him from those who condemn him.

Many scholars don't apply the Psalms to David's life, but are there events from David's life that could fit Psalm 109?  I think of David when he was on the run from Absalom.  David was still king, but Absalom wanted his office (think v 8).  And the wise counselor Ahithophel was on the side of Absalom, perhaps because Ahithophel was upset by how David had treated his (Ahithophel's) granddaughter Bathsheba and his son-in-law Uriah.  Maybe Ahithophel regarded David as a brute who abused his royal power to oppress and to kill others.  But David himself was poor and vulnerable when he was on the run from Absalom.  I guess that the problem with applying Psalm 109 to David's flight from Absalom (and we're still assuming that vv 6-19 are the words of the Psalmist's enemies) is that the enemies ask that the Psalmist's offspring might suffer.  Would Absalom want for David's offspring to suffer, when he himself was among David's offspring?  Why would Absalom desire for the curse to be transgenerational?

Overall, I like the ramifications of treating Psalm 109:6-11 as a quotation of the Psalmist's enemies, for doing so affirms the hope that God will stand by you, even if people in the name of God slander you and regard you as unrighteous.   

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