Psalm 35 is one of those powerful psalms that epitomises for us one of the great challenges of the whole psalter. How are we to read those psalms in which the psalmist, suffering deep injustice, calls on God to act on his behalf and to bring swift justice against his oppressors? So this psalm opens:
- PLEAD thou my cause, O Lord, with them that strive with me: and fight thou against them that fight against me.
- Lay hand upon the shield and buckler: and stand up to help me.
- Bring forth the spear, and stop the way against them that persecute me: say unto my soul, I am thy salvation.
- Let them be confounded and put to shame, that seek after my soul: let them be turned back and brought to confusion, that imagine mischief for me.
- Let them be as the dust before the wind: and the angel of the Lord scattering them.
- Let their way be dark and slippery: and let the angel of the Lord persecute them.
This is tough stuff. Are we to throw up our hands and say, ‘we are Christians now, we can’t possibly pray this sort of thing, for we have been commanded to love our enemies’? That is true of course, but hidden in such a response is the comfortable assumption that we are with the psalmist, that we are the good guys, and that these enemies and oppressors are always someone else. But supposing it is the other way round? Supposing right now there are people praying this psalm to God who, with some justice, regard us as the oppressor and are calling for God to deal with us. After all this psalm was prayed, and still is prayed, by devout Jews whom Christians were persecuting, and in some places still are persecuting. This psalm was prayed by African Americans from slavery days through the civil rights movement and even today, when their oppressors were, and sometimes are, fellow Christians. Is it prayed today by Christians in minority groups here in England and all over the world who are being in one way or another being exploited or marginalised? What if it turns out that we are on the wrong side of this psalm, that it is on us, and not on others that some desperate person is calling down God’s justice?
I think we must respond in two ways. As far as we have enemies or are mistreated ourselves then we must complain to God but also ask for mercy on our oppressors, knowing that in Christ God has already dealt with the sin and suffered the punishment that our oppressors deserve. But we must also seriously and soberly ask God to show us if we are the oppressors here, and seek his forgiveness, and beg him to convert us, to change our hearts, to teach us to join with him in his solidarity with the poor.
When I came to write my poem in response to this psalm I found myself praying exactly that prayer and I am glad that this sharp piece of scripture taught me to do so.
As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.
The poor cry out, Oh help them speedily
And plead their cause, though it may not be mine
The psalmist here is sure in crying ‘help me’!
But he was poor himself. Help me divine
How these sharp psalms call out for change in me
Lest I should be an ‘enemy of thine’,
And find the poor, who cry to you for mercy,
Have cried against me too! Oh let me not
Be numbered with these scoffers, Lord convert me,
Show me with whom I ought to share my lot,
For whom I ought to put the sackloth on,
Whom you remember, whom I have forgot,
That having wept with them and helped them on
To better things, we may rejoice together
As pilgrim souls on whom your light has shone.
If you are enjoying these posts, you might like, on occasion, (not every time of course!) to pop in and buy me a cup of coffee. Clicking on this banner will take you to a page where you can do so, if you wish. But please do not feel any obligation!