I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the Psalms, as have many of you. One thing I find so incredibly penetrating for me is the utter honesty and raw emotions in those prayers. My favorite OT theologian these days is John Goldingay and my heart jumped when I saw he is doing a commentary on Psalms. John might be a living OT figure! Well, my point today is to quote extensively from the end of his commentary on Psalm 35, where he gives theological reflections. Enjoy.
The psalm focuses particularly resolutely on its prayer against the suppliant’s attackers. It thus starts as it means to continue, asking for Yhwh to fight on behalf of one who cannot fight (vv. 1-3), then asking for devastating reversal for the attackers (vv. 4-8), and looking forward to praising Yhwh for deliverance from them (vv. 9-10). It draws a contrast between the suppliant’s past behavior and that of the attackers (vv. 11-16) and again appeals for deliverance and looks forward to testifying to receiving it (vv. 11-18). It asks Yhwh to wake up and take action so that the attackers are covered in shame (vv. 19-26), and looks forward to the faithful joining in praise when Yhwh brings this about.
Many of the psalm’s motifs reappear in Jeremiah (e.g., 18:20,22; 20:7,11; 23:12), reflecting the way such psalmody shaped Jeremiah’s spirituality and theology and suggesting the way Yhwh’s speaking to Jeremiah affirmed that spirituality and theology. Jesus then explicitly utilizes this psalm, identifying with the position of the suppliant (John 15:25).
In contrast, modern commentators are routinely uncomfortable with the psalm. One comments, “It is clear that such an attitude is not identical with Christian ideals but, on the other hand, the psalmist lived in the pre-Christian era.” Strangely, Jesus was apparently not embarrassed by the psalm and gives no hint of seeing himself as having superseded it, suggesting that once again this is a problem about us as interpreters of the psalm. Neither do christological interpreters of the psalm such as Augustine or Luther hesitate, though of course they do go in for some allegorizing of it. Likewise, the psalm is regularly used in healing rites in Kenya. Nor is praying for one’s enemies Christian as opposed to Jewish.
Admittedly, if the battling the psalm asks Yhwh to undertake is legal battling and legal defeat, that may take some of the edge off the stance that bourgeois modernity dislikes. Then “God’s judicial activity appears . . . as an alternate form of his aggressive engagement on behalf of right and righteousness.” Yet we should not let this reduce the encouragement the psalm gives people to bring to God their urgent desire to see attackers shamed. The psalm is an expression of fear and rage that urges God to take action to remove the causes of fear and rage. Christians are inclined to ask God to remove the fear and rage from their hearts. But the psalm invites the inference that this would be inappropriate (or at least a second best). The fear and rage can be deep and proper response to ways other people are behaving. The fear and rage are designed to do something with, not to be evaded. They are not designed to drive the people under attack to action, but they are designed to drive them in prayer.
Perhaps if that happens, the anxiety and rage will calm; but this is the route to such calming, not some supernatural act that takes away these proper feelings before they have done their work. In a sense the psalm thus expresses less-cool faith than many others. Yet it also articulates a particularly consistent expectation that one be given reason for thanksgiving and testimony, and makes a commitment to offering it. In its own way, Ps 35 insists on looking in the face of two sets of facts, like Ps 22. It looks in the face the fact of vicious attack and serious danger, and it looks in the face of the fact that Yhwh is a powerful and delivering God and surely will act to put down attackers.
Thus there is no hint of despair in this psalm, yet it makes clear that the moment for that praise lies in the future, not in the present (even if we grant that looking forward to offering such praise in the future is a paradoxical form of actual praise, an anticipatory celebration of what Yhwh is going to do). The suppliant withholds praise now. Praise is an indication of recognition that Yhwh has acted. At the moment Yhwh has not acted. It would be meaningless to praise now. It would not be true to the actual situation. The present is a moment for protest, but the moment for praise will come.
Commentators and Western Christians rarely need the deliverance and reversal the psalm pleads for, except after a particularly partisan book review; but we should not therefore refuse this form of prayer for the many people in the world who are in a less fortunate position because of their treatment by Western Christian nations. Further, being ourselves not under attack, we are urged by the psalm to put ourselves into the position of people who are thus under attack. The psalm implies that if we are not incensed by persecution and oppression and do not want to urge God to put down the attackers, there is something wrong
Here is the psalm itself.
1 Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me;
fight against those who fight against me.
2 Take up shield and buckler;
arise and come to my aid.
3 Brandish spear and javelin*
against those who pursue me.
Say to my soul,
“I am your salvation.”
4 May those who seek my life
be disgraced and put to shame;
may those who plot my ruin
be turned back in dismay.
5 May they be like chaff before the wind,
with the angel of the Lord driving them away;
6 may their path be dark and slippery,
with the angel of the Lord pursuing them.
7 Since they hid their net for me without cause
and without cause dug a pit for me,
8 may ruin overtake them by surprise—
may the net they hid entangle them,
may they fall into the pit, to their ruin.
9 Then my soul will rejoice in the Lord
and delight in his salvation.
10 My whole being will exclaim,
“Who is like you, O Lord?
You rescue the poor from those too strong for them,
the poor and needy from those who rob them.”
11 Ruthless witnesses come forward;
they question me on things I know nothing about.
12 They repay me evil for good
and leave my soul forlorn.
13 Yet when they were ill, I put on sackcloth
and humbled myself with fasting.
When my prayers returned to me unanswered,
14 I went about mourning
as though for my friend or brother.
I bowed my head in grief
as though weeping for my mother.
15 But when I stumbled, they gathered in glee;
attackers gathered against me when I was unaware.
They slandered me without ceasing.
16 Like the ungodly they maliciously mocked*;
they gnashed their teeth at me.
17 O Lord, how long will you look on?
Rescue my life from their ravages,
my precious life from these lions.
18 I will give you thanks in the great assembly;
among throngs of people I will praise you.
19 Let not those gloat over me
who are my enemies without cause;
let not those who hate me without reason
maliciously wink the eye.
20 They do not speak peaceably,
but devise false accusations
against those who live quietly in the land.
21 They gape at me and say, “Aha! Aha!
With our own eyes we have seen it.”
22 O Lord, you have seen this; be not silent.
Do not be far from me, O Lord.
23 Awake, and rise to my defense!
Contend for me, my God and Lord.
24 Vindicate me in your righteousness, O Lord my God;
do not let them gloat over me.
25 Do not let them think, “Aha, just what we wanted!”
or say, “We have swallowed him up.”
26 May all who gloat over my distress
be put to shame and confusion;
may all who exalt themselves over me
be clothed with shame and disgrace.
27 May those who delight in my vindication
shout for joy and gladness;
may they always say, “The Lord be exalted,
who delights in the well-being of his servant.”
28 My tongue will speak of your righteousness
and of your praises all day long.