Thank you for your prayers as I have been recovering from my latest mishap. The foot is doing well, improving a little bit every day… I’m still not able to drive yet but hopefully soon.
One of the things I’ve noticed about myself when I’m stuck at home recovering is, I end up watching LOTS reruns of Law & Order. Sometimes three or four episodes a day. I’m not usually a big TV watcher, but I think the appeal of the show has something to do with bringing hope into dark situations. When I see the characters working with victims of violence and oppression to bring criminals to justice, something about their struggle makes me feel stronger, makes me feel like fighting my way back to health.
I think that’s part of what attracts me to Psalm 17. Psalm 17 is a prayer written by David when he felt powerless and surrounded. He turns to God, and his faith finds renewed power, not in himself, but in God.
We don’t know for certain the context in which this prayer was written. Most likely it was when David was being pursued by King Saul. But the psalm is appropriate in many different situations. For example I can imagine Jesus praying this psalm when he learned about the plots against his life.
And it’s a prayer we can pray on behalf of others. Over the past few weeks many of us have been reflecting on, and praying over, events in the news. I don’t know about you but I find sometimes I run out of words to pray. When we look at the children at our border, or the Christians now homeless in Iraq, or the refugees in Gambella – what can we say to God about these things? We ask God for peace, for protection, for justice… and then what?
This psalm gives us a model of how we might pray.
We might pray for example for the people fleeing Mosul: “Hear [their] just cause, O LORD; attend to [their cries]; give ear to [their] prayers…” (17:1)
Or for the children at our border (no matter where we stand politically) we might pray: “show [them] your steadfast love, O savior of those who seek refuge” (17:7).
Or for our brothers and sisters in South Sudan we might pray: “hide [them] in the shadow of your wings, from the… enemies who surround them.” (17:8)
This psalm is also a prayer we can pray for ourselves when we find ourselves in trouble. If we should find ourselves bullied or lied about or falsely accused we can make David’s words our own. So there are lots of possible applications.
This morning though, under the influence of many episodes of Law & Order, I’d like to focus on four things in David’s prayer:
- The victim
- The judge
- The perpetrators
- The plea /argument
…because David’s language, the way he turns his phrases, is highly suggestive of a courtroom drama. David has been found guilty by his enemies, who are attempting to carry out a sentence they have pronounced. And David is appealing to a higher court: God’s court.
So our victim is the one who is praying. He says he has been judged unfairly, he is being oppressed, and his life is in danger. David cries out to God, “my cause is just; my lips are free of deceit. (17:1)” David is not saying that he is sinless. He’s not saying he has never told a lie. What he is saying is he’s innocent of whatever it is his enemies are accusing him of. David says he has done nothing to deserve their anger.
In fact, going beyond that, he says to God, “By the word of your lips I have avoided the ways of the violent,” (17:4). David says he has been following the court’s instructions. His innocence is rooted in God’s word and God’s righteousness.
And going even further, in verse five David describes an intimate relationship with God. He says, “My steps have held fast to your paths…”(17:5) The picture that comes to mind is one of watching a parent teaching a child how to cross a stream without getting their feet wet… stepping from rock to rock as the water rushes by. The parent says to the child: “watch where I put my feet, and when I move a foot, put your foot where mine was.” And the child follows the parent across the stream. David is saying, in essence, “I have put my feet in your footprints, and my footsteps are firm.”
David’s comment about footsteps makes me stop for a moment and ask myself: are there people I can pray for whose footsteps are shaky, who need to find God’s footprints for themselves? Are there areas of my life where I can ask this for myself? Who can I pray for along these lines?
Next in David’s prayer we meet the judge. David says he is glad to be pleading his case before this judge because he knows he will get a fair hearing. “Your eyes see the right,” he says (17:2). “Your words have kept me from the ways of the violent” (17:4); “Your paths are firm,” (17:5) “I know you will answer me,” (17:6) “You are the savior of those who seek refuge.”(17:7) David is confident in the fairness of this judge, both because the judge is fair and because the judge is knowledgable. David’s words remind me of Paul’s comments in his defense before King Agrippa in the book of Acts, where he says to the king, “I consider myself fortunate that it is before you I am to make my defense today… because you are especially familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews.” Agrippa was intimately familiar with the issues; and so is David’s judge.
And when we pray, we can share David’s confidence, remembering God’s faithfulness and goodness. We are glad to make our case before a judge who understands.
David then turns his attention to the perpetrators. He describes them as ‘violent,’(17:4) ‘wicked,’ (17:9) ‘deadly enemies.’ (17:9) Twice he says he is surrounded. His enemies seek his life. Even though David does not come straight out and say ‘they’re trying to kill me,’ he says in verse eleven, “they set their eyes to cast me to the ground” – which could also be translated ‘they seek to make me horizontal in the dirt.’ In other words they want to bury him.
In verse ten David says of his enemies, “they close their hearts to pity.” This phrase at first makes the enemies sound cold-hearted and unfeeling, but that’s not exactly the meaning. His enemies do have feelings – just not for David. The literal translation of the Hebrew expression can be found in the King James version: “they are enclosed in their own fat”. They are passionate about themselves; they aggrandize themselves; and as David says, their mouths speak arrogantly.
Having said all this David then makes his plea to the righteous judge. He pleads “not guilty” because he is the victim. He says: Hear me. Vindicate me. Show me your steadfast love. Guard me. Hide me in the shadow of your wings.
It’s interesting that David does not ask God to kill his enemies. In verse 13 the ‘sword’ of God might be interpreted as God’s word – an interpretation we find in the book of Revelation as well. David asks instead that God confront his enemies and bring them down. The Hebrew here might be translated, ‘bring them to their knees’ – or to put it another way, ‘teach the arrogant to kneel before you’.
A few days ago during Ramadan a prayer request went around Facebook asking people to pray that members of ISIS and other radical groups would, in their holiday prayers, truly encounter the living God. That’s the sense I get from David’s plea – asking God to make Himself known to his accusers and so put an end to their violence.
When David is finished he makes one more request: “deliver me from mortals whose only portion in life is this world”. (17:14) David knows what God has stored up for them. He knows, as we know, that death will come someday and after that the judgement, and he prays that he will not share their fate. Instead, David prays in confidence: “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness.” (17:15)
The apostle John echoes David’s words 1000 years later in his first letter when he says, : “we are God’s children; […] [and] when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (I John 3:2) and Paul also in I Cor 13:12 “then we will see him face to face.”
Even though David’s prayer is not answered right away, from the distance of history we know his words were heard and the righteous judge ruled in his favor. In the same way even though we may not see immediate answers to our prayers, we can have confidence that the same righteous judge hears our case; and as we follow in his footsteps, he will rule in our favor. AMEN.
Incarnation Church, Pittsburgh, Sunday August 3 2014
A Prayer of David
Hear a just cause, O LORD; attend to my cry;
give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit.
2 From you let my vindication come;
let your eyes see the right.
3 If you try my heart, if you visit me by night,
if you test me, you will find no wickedness in me;
my mouth does not transgress.
4 As for what others do,
by the word of your lips I have avoided the ways of the violent.
5 My steps have held fast to your paths;
my feet have not slipped.
6 I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God;
incline your ear to me, hear my words.
7 Wondrously show your steadfast love,
O savior of those who seek refuge from their adversaries at your right hand.
8 Guard me as the apple of the eye;
hide me in the shadow of your wings,
9 from the wicked who despoil me,
my deadly enemies who surround me.
10 They close their hearts to pity;
with their mouths they speak arrogantly.
11 They track me down;
now they surround me;
they set their eyes to cast me to the ground.
12 They are like a lion eager to tear,
like a young lion lurking in ambush.
13 Rise up, O LORD,
confront them, overthrow them!
By your sword deliver my life from the wicked,
14 from mortals—
by your hand, O LORD—
from mortals whose portion in life is in this world.
May their bellies be filled with what you have stored up for them;
may their children have more than enough;
may they leave something over to their little ones.
15 As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness;
when I awake I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness.