He prays earnestly. He cries for justice. He insists that he is innocent:
“Though you probe my heart, though you examine me at night and test me, you will find that I have planned no evil; my mouth has not transgressed. Though people tried to bribe me, I have kept myself from the ways of the violent through what your lips have commanded” (Psalm 17:3-4).
We may approach this with skepticism. Innocent? Don’t “all sin, and fall short of the glory of God?” In fact, as I pointed out in another post, these words sound eerily like the prayer of the hypocritical Pharisee in Jesus’ parable in Luke 18. Here, however, in Psalm 17, the words rise from the lips, or from the pen, of a faithful worshiper of God who nonetheless realizes that his life is in danger. He craves God’s protection:
“I call on you, my God, for you will answer me; turn your ear to me and hear my prayer. Show me the wonders of your great love, you who save by your right hand those who take refuge in you from their foes” (Psalm 17:6-7).
He is a worshiper of God, and he derives his confidence in God’s protection from his knowledge of God’s history with his people. His words in this prayer echo the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 32. As Moses had implored Israel to remain faithful, he reminded the nation that God had found their ancestors deserted, but had “shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye, like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them aloft.” Deuteronomy 32 describes God’s protection for and vindication of his people when they had been most vulnerable, but had realized that they had no other hope than in trusting the only real God. The faithful Psalmist confesses his confidence that God can deliver him by using this same language even as he admits also his terror and fear. He prays,
“Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings from the wicked who are out to destroy me, from my mortal enemies who surround me” (Psalm 17:9).
Did you notice the echoes from Deuteronomy 32? When he mentions the “apple of your eye,” he is not claiming to be God’s favorite. The psalmist is praying passionately that God will guard and protect as if the psalmist were the pupil of God’s own eye. We protect our eyes, don’t we? We guard them carefully, because we do not want to be blinded. He wants God to protect him like the eagle protects her brood so very carefully and even savagely. His fear is concrete. He describes the intent purpose of his enemies as they seek to kill him:
“They close up their callous hearts, and their mouths speak with arrogance, they have tracked me down, they now surround me, with eyes alert, to throw me to the ground. They are like a lion hungry for prey, like a fierce lion crouching in cover” (Psalm 17: 10-12).
As I have read Psalm 17 during the past few weeks, my mind has imagined how a young jogger in Brunswick, Georgia, might have prayed as two vehicles pursued him, and then a man with a shotgun jumped from one of them to confront him. That young man might have prayed the words of verses ten through twelve, if he knew them, even perhaps if he did not, in the last moments of his life. The Psalmist writes as one who is threated in a similar manner. He is confident that God can protect and that God can punish those torture and pursue him. He prays that God will confront the evil enemies and rescue him.
The prayer of Psalm 17 is vivid. I could feel the psalmist’s fear of his enemies, and the urgency of his pleas for rescue. Have we known such fear? Do we know people who have? Do we hear their cries? Do we believe their fears to be real? If God will answer their prayers, are we willing to be his agents in rescuing the endangered?
The prayer begins with a plea for vindication and an assurance that its composer speaks the truth. It ends with faith that God will hear, that he will vindicate, and that the endangered will know the safety of seeing God’s likeness when he awakens:
“As for me, I will be vindicated and will see your face; when I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness” (Psalm 17:15).
The Bible says that humans were created in the image of God. Christians believe that God’s spirit dwells within them. I have been reading and praying the words of this psalm for more than a month. I have reflected on its relevance to current events, but even more on its challenge to me to be able to pray with confident faith and to live with determination to do God’s will. Let us so live and act so that God may use us to save souls and to save lives. May the vulnerable and endangered pray a prayer of thanks when they see us.
- Quotations from the Bible are from the New International Version 2011.
O God, we pray with awareness of having failed. We have not spoken up when others were jeered or mocked. We have not stepped in when they were threatened. We pray because we too have been harmed. People have struck us even while we cried out to passive onlookers to intervene. We pray because we seek to grow in confidence that we have in you and your people. There are people in our world who either because they are evil, or because they are afraid, or because they misunderstand us, seek to hurt us or others. As people of faith, we want you to guard us and to hold us as we hold our children when they are afraid. But we also ask that we may have the courage to be the people whom you use to demonstrate your love and to achieve justice. If we do your will, and it results in others being rescued, we pray that they and we will awaken to the satisfaction of seeing your likeness. In Jesus’ name, Amen.