Monday, August 24, 2009

Psalm 141 – A Good Rebuke, Okay, Yet Protect Me, O LORD

How do we deal with the cheap shots of those in the workplace or even those in our own families without issuing some hot and heavy retort? In You’ve Got Mail (1998), Tom Hanks’ character Joe Fox suggests to his internet fling Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) that being brutally honest has its pitfalls; the remorse of something said often prevails over the spirit mercenarily.

A petition and prayer to be set aside to the holiness of God, despite foes and any temptation to react to them, is the 141st Psalm. It is hedged in the wisdom of the biblical tradition, hidden from worldly trappings. It features at least four prayers (vs. 1-2, 3-4, 5, 8-9). And not unlike a lot of other Scripture, there is much conjecture and confusion over what some of the words and verses actually mean e.g. verses 6-7.

Verse 1 features the unadulterated cry we all ought to make every time we’re stricken by overwhelming problems. It beckons God to our side. “Our prayer and God’s mercy are like two buckets in a well; while the one ascends the other descends.”[1] Prayer is vital in the initial moments of our distresses and throughout.

In verse 2, the words (line a: ‘may my prayer’) and actions (line b: ‘may the lifting of my hands’) signify the dedication of the works of the psalmist beyond ritual. This shows us that true belief for the Israelite community involved a deeply moral lifestyle; that moral and ritualistic living were intertwined.[2] The ‘may’ commencing each line involves a plea for the acceptability of each request.

There’s a wisdom-based prayer in verses 3-5c. The mouth, heart and head are all given over to God. Moreover, the mouth and lips (outer parts) are linked also with the heart (inner parts), as the psalmist desperately seeks the congruence of faithfulness over thought, word and deed (line 4d).

Wisdom tradition is rich particularly as verse 5’s four lines collude. Wisdom’s investment is humility’s cause—the courage to accept a good human rebuke in preference to the easier, more tempting choice morsels of the immoral. It’s an invocation to purity to choose the ‘wounds of a friend’ (cf. Proverbs 27:6; 17:10). This is “a sign of the strength of the bond [of kindness] between two [good] people” and the friend can be trusted.[3] The morally-correct person knows there’s more safety in painful truth than ‘kisses from an enemy.’

This next section (vs. 5d-7) leads us into a bit of a no-man’s-land of tortuous imprecation as the frustration on the part of the psalmist starts to take its toll. He begins to call down curses on his foes, and their governors.

The final three verses (vs. 8-10) swing, as most laments do, back to the praise of faithfulness in return for the provision of life both physically and spiritually. A parting smite is delivered upon the enemy as the ailing psalmist walks by in safety (Proverbs 1:33).

And so, what can we learn from this ancient offering?

Better are the acute pains of truth in life than walking the easy way; in keeping with Psalm 37:16 and Proverbs 15:16 and 16:8, best is little with God than lots without him!

Knowing this and being easily and openly satisfied with little can make life easier and clearer to live as we—with God’s help—more safely plough the relational pastures we’re destined to need to negotiate in life without giving into temptation.
[1] W. Graham Scroggie, A Guide to the Psalms: A Comprehensive Analysis of the Psalms – Vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1978, 1995), p. 68.
[2] Craig C. Broyles, Psalms – New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers/Paternoster Press, 1999), p. 492.
[3] Allan Harman, Psalms – A Mentor Commentary (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 1998), p. 437.

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