Uniform Lesson for October 10, 2021
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Psalm 9:1-12
In this series, we have already worried about worship offered up by those who have no needs. Praise, true praise, in the Psalms is often preceded by cries for help and the plea for deliverance. While Psalm 9 does not fit the form of a lament (indeed it has no discernible form other than being an acrostic poem based on the Hebrew alphabet), it is rooted in a cry for justice. The petitioners are identified as the poor (verse 18). Their enemies are classified as the nations. This people’s only apparent hope lies in being heard and rescued by the God who sits “enthroned forever” and who judges “the world with righteousness.” Where might we find ourselves, and our worship and service, in the pleas of this psalm?
The poor (ani in Hebrew) is a broad classification in the Psalms. Even here in Psalm 9 it includes other terms like “the oppressed,” “the needy” and “the afflicted.” Though it clearly includes those who lack material resources, it expands to include all who find themselves on the wrong side of justice and power in this broken world. The key shift in this psalm is the way that the solitary person of praise who sings at the beginning of this psalm (“I will give thanks to the Lord with all my heart”) merges with the community of criers singing as the psalm progresses (the Lord “does not forget the cry of the afflicted”). As James Luther Mays puts it in his commentary “Psalms,” this psalm becomes a “class action appeal” on behalf of all those who are being ground down and used up by the powers of this world. They are the weak who appeal to a God who is strong.
As we interpret this psalm, we must first examine our social location vis-à-vis the psalmist. We are used to placing ourselves in the first-person role in the Psalms — in the role of those who identify as God’s people both in praise and in petition. But while this psalm includes some of the language of God’s chosen ones (“those who know your name” and “in the gates of daughter Zion,” verse 14), most categories in this psalm align with those whose blood has been wrongly spilled and who therefore desperately seek justice. Dare we say it: this is a congregation akin more to those in a debtors’ prison or a detainment facility than to typical Presbyterians in the pews. The Psalms invite all humanity to join in God’s praises, but some portions of humanity may have a more direct purchase on this psalm’s petitions than others.
Even more pointedly, the enemies in this psalm should give pause to any nation that calls itself a superpower, or more pressingly the “greatest nation on earth.” If we Presbyterians have to stretch to understand and join the cries of the abused and the powerless, we might be less inclined to try to fit in with those who think they are immortal and have little need of God. When the psalmist urges God to “rise up” and judge the nations, the sentence centers on forcing a rediscovery of proper awe (“Put them in fear, O Lord”) and a recognition that all nations are dust (“Let the nations know that they are only human”). Get out of the way of this psalm! It may require a reformation and a repentance or conversion more costly than the walking of an aisle.
The Lord reigns
The hope and the fuel that inspire this psalm do not stem from an easy optimism that the strong will be humbled and the weak lifted up. There is a waiting in the psalm that is all too familiar to the poor of this world (“the needy shall not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the poor perish forever,” verse 18). This psalm must be linked with some of the royal psalms of the psalter to ground its hopes in something beyond worldly reformation (compare verse 8 with Psalm 98:9). If we listen to this psalm as a song of God’s people from both before and after the exile, we may learn to sing it in new and transformative ways. In some ways, we are the weak and the poor. In others, we are those who have been and will be judged. Maybe, if we’re willing, we can also become part of the inbreaking of God’s reign in a yet weary world.
For discussion: Where do you place yourself in this psalm? With the poor, the nations or the “wonderful deeds” of the Lord?
RICHARD BOYCE is the dean of the Charlotte campus of Union Presbyterian Seminary, and associate professor of preaching and pastoral leadership. He is a minister member of the Presbytery of Western North Carolina.
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