I find it fascinating that the Lectionary gives two days for me to contemplate this psalm in Holy Week. What can possibly be so important in it that I need to hear it twice?
The subtitle of this psalm reads, ‘To the leader. Of David, for the memorial offering’ and there is an academic theory that suggests it might mean that this psalm was not assigned to a specific Temple rite or feast, but was kept ‘on file’ as it were, so that worshippers who turned up knowing they needed to go to Temple, but not having the words to articulate the depths of their grief and anxiety, might be given this psalm to say for themselves. There’s something very powerful in the thought that for thousands of years these public words have been transformed into deeply personal and private prayers by seekers of God in their times of trouble.
The psalmist begins the poem by listing all the ways in which people are doing him down. He is being victimised, mocked and criticised – and he’s asking God not just for deliverance from his problems, but vengeance on his persecutors. She is angry, calling down shame and dishonour on their heads, begging that what they’ve dished out to her will be turned back on them.
Here is an individual, persecuted and desperate, feeling isolated from their community and their God. I am poor at expressing my anger in healthy ways, and I have fortunately had few occasions in my life where I have thought of anyone as my enemy. Perhaps shouting out Psalm 70.2-3 would be a good way of channelling those emotions?
Yet in the current pandemic situation I am also aware that perhaps we need to say this psalm together as a community, making the ‘I’ into ‘we’, as we ask for deliverance from an unseen enemy that we know so little about. which is affecting our lives in such extra-ordinary ways.
Perhaps this psalm isn’t just about how I might get angry, it’s about how I ask for help – how we ask for help.
At the heart of this psalm lies a series of juxtapositions:
Let all who seek you
rejoice and be glad in you.
Let those who love your salvation
say evermore, ‘God is great!’
But I am poor and needy,
hasten to me, O God!
(Psalm 70.4-5 NRSV)
Yesterday I thought about how flabby my rejoicing muscles are, and how rarely gladness is my first response to anything. Today, I am reminded again, as I was on Monday, that the psalms keep bringing me back to a central inarguable tenet of faith: God is Great. But I am not. I am so very far from being anything like. But I know that I like the idea of loving Your salvation, even if I’m not sure what that really means for me in my here and now.
In acknowledging my poverty of spirit and my yearning for the comfort, security and reassurance of Your shelter, this psalm helps me see that what I am crying out for is an encounter with God’s Presence. I want to behold God: to see and feel and touch and know intimately what is Great about God. I long for my body to be cleansed, helped, healed and generally made fit for God’s purpose, with all the tactile, sensory entanglements and messiness that might require. And as I write that sentence I feel a ‘yes’ rise up in me, though I have no real clue to what or to whom it is I am saying ‘yes’.
I return to what has become my passiontide prayer, and glimpse that I am already trying to surrender my poor spirit to the cosmically vast envisioning of the Great Artist:
shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life
(Psalm 51.10 The Message)
what Genesis might feel like perhaps. Canon 7D. f4. 1/800. ISO 100.