Summary: Year C. Psalm 17 Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, November 11, 2001 Title: “The process of becoming pure.”
Year C. Psalm 17, Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, November 11, 2001
Title: “The process of becoming pure.”
It is not possible to even guess the date of this psalm, not the author or his state of life. It is a general plea for help, deliverance, justice from enemies who have falsely accused him or are unjustifiably attacking him or both. It is easy to picture this psalm being sung at a liturgy, asking for God’s protection, reminding each other of God’s characteristic, past and present loving behavior on behalf of the community and each individual in it. It is also easy to picture this psalm being prayed individually, in private, by a person under pressure, a person who has temporarily lost his sense of God’s presence because of the stresses of injustice and asking for it back. It is certainly easy to picture this psalm as the equivalent of our own present-day children’s night pray, “Now I lay me down to sleep.” Like most of the other psalms, this one lends itself to broader use than its original setting, be it liturgical or historical.
The structure is clear. Verses one and two, open the prayer and verses three to five, give the reason for it- an innocent person is being falsely accused. Verses six to eight, repeat the petition and verses nine to twelve, describe the pain the petitioner is in. Verses thirteen to fifteen, pray for the defeat of the false accusers and deliverance for the petitioner.
In verse one, Hear, Lord, my plea for justice: The psalmist imagines himself in a court of law with God as the judge and himself as the plaintiff.
My prayer spoken without guile: He is swearing as if under oath that he is telling the truth.
In verse three, you have tested my heart: or “if you tested… you would find me innocent.” The “heart” means the will and reason, the innermost being of a person, the center, the core. As is a person’s heart, so is the person.
Searched it in the night: Nothing can be hidden from God. There is no “night time” for him when he cannot see. Even with God’s “x-ray” vision the psalmist is confident he would be found innocent of whatever charge he is being accused of.
Tried me by fire: This could be a metaphor for the way impurities in metal are discovered and separated out or a reference to the method of determining guilt or innocence through the ordeal- if a person walked on or through fire and came out unscathed he or she was innocent; if not, guilty. The psalmist is saying that by whatever criteria God or man would use he is innocent of this charge, whatever it be.
Find no malice in me: The psalmist is not claiming blanket innocence. He is not saying there is no sin or malice at all within him, only that he is innocent of the specific charge now against him.
In verses four and five, the text has been damaged and can only be conjectured. These verses seem to repeat and expand in typical Hebraic poetic fashion the same point made in verse three. The psalmist would not claim to be perfect in his relationship with the Lord, but would claim to be “right,” in a right relationship with him, namely, “for the most part,” “in the main.” But certainly, he is innocent of whatever the charge is before, the court of, God.
Verse seven, show your wonderful love: The psalmist both reminds God, not that God needs to be reminded but the psalmist does, of his character, his nature, his fidelity, the word in Hebrew is hesed, and asks God to be faithful to himself, act in the present as he has consistently acted in the past with hesed.
Verse eight, keep me as the apple of your eye: Literally, “as the pupil, the daughter of your eye.” Metaphorically, this asks that God guard with the greatest care his servant, innocent of this specific charge.
In the shadow of your wings: Using another metaphor for protection and in poetic parallelism with the “pupil” of the eye, the psalmists compares God’s hesed, his loving kindness, to that of a mother bird. More religiously, the winged cherubim above the Ark of the Covenant, guarding the contents, may also be in mind.
Verse nine, the violence of the wicked: The wicked here are his false accusers. “Violence” may merely describe the injustice of the whole matter or it may describe the legal punishment for the crime the psalmist is accused of.
In verses ten to twelve, like lions: In an extended metaphor the psalmist compares his enemies intentions and behavior to that of lions stalking, pouncing upon and devouring their, innocent, prey. He, the victim, will need extraordinary help to survive.