Psalm 17: At the true end of prayer, we no longer abide in bitterness

Psalm 17, the closing verses.

You still the hunger of those you cherish;
     their sons have plenty,
     and they store up wealth for their children.
15 And I– in righteousness I will see your face;
     when I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness.

It is hard, sometimes, to know what people are saying.  Even when we understand the words, something in their tone of voice will confuse us.  Is it an innocent observation or a criticism?  Do they agree with me or not?  When they use a metaphor, we may miss the point they are making.  Sometimes they misspeak and use the wrong word – or we don’t hear (or read) the word correctly.  And then there are those moments when someone uses slang or a foreign word we do not know.

There’s a lot that can go wrong in listening to the scriptures.  That’s why we listen with a certain humility.  And it’s why we read each verse in the light of Jesus.

The translators are confused by the ending of this psalm.  The first edition of the New International Version (NIV) quoted above says:

You still the hunger of those you cherish;
      their sons have plenty,
     and they store up wealth for their children.

It’s a sweet portrait of God’s providential care, a statement of confidence that God in his goodness will answer the psalm writer’s prayer for deliverance from his enemies.  But the 2011 revision of the NIV says instead:

May what you have stored up for the wicked fill their bellies;
      may their children gorge themselves on it,
      and may there be leftovers for their little ones.

Not so sweet.

If this revision is the correct translation we are still in the bitterness of revenge.

How do we translate this?  How shall we hear the voice of God in the words of the poet?  Do we choose the harsh words and hear a word of assurance that God can bear the bitterness we feel?  It happens all the time in the text – the cry of bitterness is freely brought before God, and God hears.  Such words have an important role in the spiritual care of the human heart.  Or do we see instead in these harsh words that God has some other use for the text? God leaves such lust for revenge on the page of holy writ so we can come back later and hear ourselves, hear the darkness within – like seeing the mark of the nails and recognizing we live with hammers in our hands?  This, too, is important work of spiritual care.

We have an impulse to strip the offensiveness out of the scripture.  We want it to be all pretty and nice: words of comfort without words of judgment.  If our temptation is to choose the sweet ending rather than the ugly one, we should let the harsh words stand.  But maybe the spiritual care has already been accomplished.  Maybe the act of prayer – even prayer for revenge – has carried the psalmist beyond vengeance.  Maybe when all the harsh words have been spoken, when we have been carried back to the goodness of God,  there at the true end of prayer, we no longer abide in bitterness but see God’s face and are filled with the vision of the one who saves us even from our prayers:

And I– in righteousness I will see your face;
     when I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness.

Maybe.

Or maybe the psalm writer believes that once he has been vindicated, once his desire for God to crush his enemies has been satisfied with vengeance enough for even the grandchildren to inherit a portion, then he will stand justified before God in the temple.

I hope not.

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About dkbonde

Pastor, Los Altos Lutheran Church
This entry was posted in Psalms, Reflections on the Scriptures and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Psalm 17: At the true end of prayer, we no longer abide in bitterness

  1. Ann Crane says:

    I hope not, too!

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