Psalm 43 – Vindicate Me!

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Psalm 43 begins with the writer asking God to “vindicate” him. Verse one uses a legal metaphor common in the prophets to picture the writer and his enemy before God as his judge. About 40% of the occurrences of the word שפט have God as the judge, nine times the verb is used as a noun to describe God as the “judge.” Sometimes God is called on to judge between two people who are at odds. The phrase “defend my case” is also the language of a lawsuit. The verb ריב and the related noun are both used in the context of someone taking someone to court to sue them. The psalmist is picturing himself going to the city gates of his town and standing before the elder of the town, a king’s magistrate. In order to get real justice, perhaps he has to go to the king himself and plead his case.

The psalmist is calling on God to “do justice” in this case. In a human court, the goal is to hear the evidence on both sides of that case and let the judge decide who is “right” and who is “wrong.” If God is the judge, the Psalmist can be assured of justice because God is ultimately just in his nature.

GavelLike most modern translations, the ESV has “vindicate” here. In English, “vindicate” has the connotation of clearing someone from suspicion, or to prove that they are in the right. In this court context, the writer is asking God to judge the case and declare that he is in the right, and the enemy is “in the wrong.”

Just as in a human court, the psalmist offers evidence against his enemy. First, his enemy is “an ungodly nation.” The noun is simply nation (גּוֹי), although in the context most translations render the word as referring to non-Jewish, pagans or heathens. In the next Psalm, for example, the word is used for the nations the Lord drove out of the land (44:2).

Second, they are not faithful . One of the cornerstone virtues in the Hebrew Bible is faithfulness(חָסִיד). The word does not mean “full of faith,” as if it is a synonym for “a believer.” The idea of faithfulness in the Hebrew Bible is an action, one “does faithfulness.” The word is frequently used to describe those who abuse the poor and needy, to be “unfaithful” to the covenant (Mic 7:2).

Third, they are unjust. The noun מִרְמָה has the connotation of being a fraud, a trickster. The writer’s adversary tries use some sort of subterfuge to get his way. The word describes Jacob stealing his brother’s blessing (Gen 27:35) and the actions of Simeon and Levi when they made a false covenant with the king of Schechem (Gen 34:13). Micah 6:11 uses the word to describe dishonest weights, which look like the real thing but intend to steal from the unaware. The word is among the many things listed in Psalm 24 which qualifies someone for going up to the Holy Hill of God to worship (someone who does not swear deceitfully).

Last, they are oppressing the writer (v. 2). The noun לַחַץ does not appear frequently in the Hebrew Bible, but it does appear in each of Psalms 42-44 (and only in this series of Psalms in the Psalter). Exod 3:9 and Deut 26:7 use the noun to describe the oppression Israel faced when they were in Egypt. The verbal form of the root is used in a number of other passages which describe foreign oppression Judg 2:18, 4:3, 6:9, 10:12; Isa 19:20(, oppression which is sometimes a punishment for covenant unfaithfulness )Amos 6:14,

This description of an enemy is applicable during the life of David, either when he was running from Saul or later from Absalom. But it is also generic enough that this Psalm would be a great comfort for someone living outside the land during the Exile – when has Israel not been oppressed by a faithless enemy?

This psalm is a promise that God does in fact judge fairly, he will vindicate his people and render justice.

Psalm 42 – As the Deer

The writer describes his oppression as being desperate with thirst, longing for water. The opening line is a vivid metaphor for thirst, the writer’s soul thirsts after God “as a deer pants for water.” The verb is rare, only used here and in Joel 1:20, where it refers to animals panting for water after a fire has destroyed all water. But do not think of a dog panting, that is how the animal cools itself.

Deer Drinking

The verb has the sense of craving. When someone “craves” a food, they psychologically have to have whatever it is. The animal is dying for water in the midst of a drought. In this case, the animal is nearly dead and it is desperate for water. The verb in the second verse is usually associated with literal thirst, such as Israel in the wilderness (Exod 17:3). The craving for water here is to meet a basic need or the animal / psalmist will die.

But rather than being refreshed by God, the writer drinks his tears day and night (v. 3) The song does not describe why the writer is crying out, only that his tears on constant. The irony is that he has water to drink, but it is undrinkable tears.

Because of his desperation, his adversaries taught him, asking where his God is now? This is a common theme in the Psalms, the enemy of the songwriter mocks the writer because he has faith in God in spite of his suffering. There is a hint of the common view that God will reward the righteous and punish the sinner. This is not always the case, frequently in the Psalms the reverse is true, the wicked prosper  If the song writer is suffering, it is possible that his enemies are using that as proof that God is punishing him.

En GediAs with other Psalms of Korah, the writer remembers leading worship in the house of God. The writer is the leader of a procession, going into the Temple. At the very least he is a worship leader (as the sons of Korah were), although there could be a hint of David’s life since he did lead a festive crowd into Jerusalem when the ark was first brought to Jerusalem. If the song writer intends himself to stand for all of Israel, perhaps he is looking back to that kind of joy under David, in contrast to the “present” time of the exile. The “festival” could refer to Tabernacles, which is a feast associated with great joy, recalling Israel’s time in the wilderness, or even Passover, recalling the time of God’s salvation of Israel from their slavery in Egypt.

When the Psalmist Remembers the Lord, He Is Overwhelmed by Water (42:6-7). Is this water a positive or negative metaphor? It is possible that verses 6-7 refer to additional suffering. Being caught in raging water is often used as a metaphor for extreme suffering, and these lines are often taken as a reference to the underworld, as if the writer finds himself swept away by primordial chaos into the caverns of Sheol.

On the other hand, the writer began by describing his great need for water, and in these verses he recalls the supplies of water in the Land of Israel. At the moment of his greatest need, God overwhelms him with water!

The writer remembers his God by mentioning three specific locations:

The Land of Jordan. This is a reference to the Jordan River, the main river for most of the land, especially from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea. While the river is quite dry today because most of the tributaries are dammed, in the ancient world the river flowed freely. Recall that Joshua was not able to cross the river at flood stage.

Mount Hermon. This mountain in the far north of the Land of Israel is nearly 10000 feet (in Lebanon and Syria today). But the reference here is likely not to the mountain itself, but to the foothills. The Hebrew word used here חֶרְמוֹנִים, the plural of Hermon, referring to the whole range of mountains )like “The Rockies”(. There are three sources for the Jordan which flow south into Galilee, eventually feeding the Jordan River. At Dan and Banias in Israel today there is a constant flow of water fed by snows on Mount Hermon. The area is extremely fertile and jungle-like.

Mount Mizar is an unknown location, although it is often identified with. The Hebrew word מִצְעָר means small, or “a few,” so it might refer to foothill near Hermon and the sources of the Jordan.

Ten DanBut the writer does not simply take a drink to satisfy his thirst, he is overwhelmed by water! When the Lord responds, it is as if he is standing in a roaring waterfall. The word is rare, only used here an in 2 Sam 5:8 (where the meaning is disputed). The Hebrew צִנּוֹר refers to gushing, flooding water, a fast flowing stream, etc. The “deep” is a word which usually refers to the deep sea, the abyss (תְּהוֹם). “Deep calling to Deep” gives the impression of a constant thunderous flow of water. The parallel line is a similar image, waves and breakers sweep over the writer. The first word is used literally for waves in Jon 2:4, and as a metaphor for disaster in Ps 88:8, 2 Sam 22:5, and for God’s strength in Ps 93:4, the second word is far more common and is frequently used to describe restless power.

God’s grace is often overwhelming; at the moment the writer felt he was about to die of thirst, he is overwhelmed with more water than he can imagine!

Luke 18:9-14 – The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Since I am preaching on this parable this weekend at Rush Creek, I have been reading quite a bit on Luke 18 lately.  Jesus makes a clear contrast between two men, a Pharisee and a tax collector.  Everyone knows Pharisees are  good, religious people and the tax collectors are desperately sinful and greedy traitors.  The twist in the parable is that the Pharisee does everything right from a religious perspective, yet does not “receive grace.”  The tax collector is inept at religious duty and rather embarrassing in his inability to pray the right prayers.  Both men in this story have a chance to receive grace from God, they have a chance to receive forgiveness and “go away justified.” Why does the Pharisee not forgiven? Jesus is not condemning the spiritual discipline and devotion of the Pharisee in this parable (or anywhere else, for that matter).

In Verse 9, we are told that the parable is a response to “those that were confident in their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.” The prefect participle πεποιθότας (pepoithotas) indicates they have been (already) convinced they are right with God.  But they are not simply self-confident:  they “despise” others. The verb ἐξουθενέω (exoutheneo) has the connotation of disdain, “to show by one’s attitude or manner of treatment that an entity has no merit or worth” (BAGD). Imagine a very wealthy person who treats the “help” poorly. The poor servants are not worthy of consideration at all, they care mistreated or simply ignored as people.  This is the attitude of those Jesus targets with this parable.

Jesus’ ministry is focused on these despised people, the outsiders and outcasts who are beneath consideration in polite society of religion of the first century. It is obvious that other Jewish teachers would love to see these outsiders return to covenant faithfulness and “get right with God.” The difference between Jesus and most religious groups in first-century Judea was that Jesus sat down and ate with sinners, showed them some respect, and forgave their sins. If the stories of rabbi Shammai reflect his character, he might have taken a stick to a person who came to him and asked “what must I do to be saved?”  If someone did want to repent and they asked an Essene what was required, they would be given a fairly hefty Manual of Discipline and put on probation for three years!

We are not told who the self-righteous in Luke 18 are, but the first group that comes to mind are the Pharisees. Jesus is questioned by a Pharisee in Luke 17:20, but the persons being taught in chapter 18 are the disciples. Jesus does not answer the Pharisee, but teaches his disciples in 17:22. In 18:1 the disciples are still the focus of the teaching.  There may be no connection at all between the Pharisee of 17:20 and this parable.

If this is true, then it is likely that there were a few disciples who were self-righteous, perhaps a bit arrogant because they knew since they were following Jesus, they were “right” and the Pharisees were wrong. The parable is not aimed at “those arrogant Pharisees over there,” but at Jesus’ closest followers, the inner circle of disciples who were appointed by Jesus himself.  Instead of the imaginary legalistic Pharisee, Jesus is pointing his finger and Peter, James and John.  He is telling them that they are not right with God just because they joined the right teacher or (finally) understood that Jesus is the  Messiah.  They too have to ask for mercy and experience the grace of God.

Jesus’ parable also points a finger at us.  Modern (American) Christians can be an arrogant lot. We think that we have been so close to God for so long that we (obviously) are the closest to God. Sinners need to shape up and be more like us if they want to be right with God.   Instead of a Pharisee, or “those disciples back then,” put yourself in this parable – are you the Pharisee?

You are not right with God because you gave up your sins, as if that is even possible.  You are not right with God because you endured a particular religious ritual.  You are not right with God because you kept the ten commandments for most of your life.  You are not right with God because you are a good person.

You are not “right with God” because you signed the right doctrinal statement or can quote the proper creed, or because you attend the right church, or because you have the best worship music, or because your book sold 20 million copies.

You are not right with God because you don’t drink coffee at Starbucks, or because you do eat a particular chicken sandwich, or because you shoot guns, or you do not own guns, or you voted for the right candidate.

You are right with God because you asked for mercy and experienced his grace.