So far, whenever there’s trouble in a Psalm of David, it’s usually come from his enemies. There’s some external threat, mocking David or doing violence to him or threatening his life, and he’s praying for God to rescue him. And the enemies are still hanging around in Psalm 38, but the primary source of disorientation here isn’t the liar or violent man who opposes David. This disorientation comes from God–and ultimately from David himself.
I see a number of familiar themes here. The profits of evil are fleeting, but righteousness plays the long game (vv. 2, 7, 10, 18-20, 25, 35-36, 38). The righteous man defined first by his attitude of trust toward God (vv.3, 5, 7, 23, 39-40). There’s an instance of coyote justice, where the wicked fall on their own swords (vv.14-15). And there’s another “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans” (vv.12-13). But after forty verses of the same old song, what stuck out to me were two little verses near the end, a simple simile.
What’s the opposite of an evil person? It’s a good person, right? When he’s faced with threats of violence from evil men, we’ve even seen David contrast himself as a righteous man with his wicked, brutal pursuers. His prayers reiterate the theme: “It would be unjust for God to let liars and murderers triumph over a man who has abstained from these things.” But today, David sets up a different contrast. The opposite of an evil person isn’t a good person. The opposite of an evil person is God.
I always feel intimidated when writing about passages of this size. Psalm 35 is a page and a half in my Bible, twenty-eight verses long. I can’t quote all of them. And what would be the point in my summarizing the passage, when you’d get more out of reading it and summarizing it for yourself? You don’t get more fit by watching someone else run a mile. Maybe you learn something about form, but at some point you gotta do the exercise yourself. And if I’m not here to summarize the passage, then what am I here to do? Try to find a verse that’s got something in it I can share with you, and try not to yank it out of context in the sharing? It’s tough.
Welcome back. Yesterday, we looked at David and his utterly bananapants claim in the very first line of this psalm: “I will bless the Lord at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth.” As I noted, this is a hugely alien perspective to me: an undivided eagerness to worship God in all respects. I don’t have that drive to applaud God without reservation, and if that’s a fault of mine, then I’m willing to admit it. I’m not there yet. And if I’m going to become a person with that kind of praise for God, something’s going to have to change me: what does David have that I don’t?
When I write these posts, I try to get at the meaning of the full passage, not just taking a few verses here and there to support my own preconceived ideas–which is at best making a tangential point while missing the bigger picture, and at worst prooftexting. But the first verse of this psalm today grabbed my mind and wouldn’t let go. “I will bless the Lord at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth” (1). David, are you insane?
According to Brueggemann’s classification scheme, we’ve definitely got a psalm of orientation here. The congregation is called to praise, God is recognized for his majesty and power as Creator, and the nation places its hope and happiness in him. I’ve said before that I find psalms of disorientation and new orientation more interesting than psalms of simple orientation, but as I was reading this today, I found myself thinking: I miss this.
I’ve been thinking a lot about confession lately, but largely in the sense of James 5:16, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed.” I’ve had confession between humans on my mind, from accountability partners, to the 5th step of the 12-step program, “admitting to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs,” to the Catholic practice of confession as part of the Sacrament of Penance. While keeping our sin to ourselves divides us from our fellow man, confession connects us to the community around us and helps us to repent, turning away from our sin. But that’s not the sort of confession David’s talking about here. He’s talking about confession to God.
Psalm 31 is basically a praise sandwich. Are you familiar with compliment sandwiches? When you have to give a critique, you can deliver a compliment before and after your criticism. The compliments make it more likely that your criticism will be well-received and actually help the person improve. Similarly, David comes to God with a request, but not before he praises God first, and he follows up the request with more praise. It’s a praise sandwich.
It seems like for every psalm in which David, faced with death, prays to God for deliverance, there’s a psalm in which David has been rescued and is praising God from the other side of the pit. To put it into Brueggemann’s terms, for every psalm of disorientation, there’s a psalm of new orientation. And to be honest, I prefer psalms of new orientation to psalms of mere orientation. Generally, worship isn’t compelling to me unless it comes from a place of having been through the valley of the shadow of death.