Monday, February 14, 2011

Psalm 12: A Congregational Lament Against Man’s Deceit and Unfaithfulness



Before examining this psalm a few things must be stated about its context.  Although this psalm may be applied to every individual in an edifying way, it seems its corporate character ought to be emphasized to a greater extent.  It may be seen as applying to a number of specific periods in David’s life.  Others have placed it as related to Absalom’s revolt or of the persecutions and anxiety under Saul.  With Hengstenberg, I am of the mind that this psalm is not simply orientated toward David the individual, but rather “composed from the first by David for the necessities of the church.”[1]  There are suggestions from other commentators, including Delitzsch, that the lying deceitful ones are references to the heathen, that is to say those outside of Israel’s boundaries.  I am not convinced this is the case, and see the conflict as an internal one, existing within a community of the righteous which must simultaneously deal with the wicked and chaff.  Therefore, though I have later classified this psalm categorically as a lament, it may as well fit the category of “church” or “community.”  Hengstenberg has thus summarized the psalm as follows:
The common complaint of the church at all times… to show, how the righteous must maintain themselves in the suffering which come upon them through the corruption of the world, reaching, as it does, even to the covenant-people, especially through prevailing injustice and deception, the artifices of a hypocritical and deceitful tongue, which appear to prepare for them certain destruction.  The church must carry this affliction up to God, and with unshaken confidence trust in his help.[2] 

The psalmist laments the absence of the ungodly and the faithful and opens with a direct plea to be saved (eushio·e).  He sees that everyone around him speaks false things, even within the congregation, speaking smooth and deceptive things from a double heart infected with hypocrisy.  The call to the Lord is to deal with these big talkers who claim that they have no lord or master.  A turning point in the psalm begins when the violence done to the poor is recounted and that the needy are groaning.  Now the Lord Himself speaks and determines to set those who pant for him in a safe place.  The Lord has heard enough.  And these words that the Lord speaks are not just any words but pure words that bring about a new state of affairs for those who call upon him.  The Psalmist may confidently make the bold boast of faith “You, Lord, will defend them forever!”  The psalm closes with a sort of lament that deals honestly with what the psalmist still sees during an earthly pilgrimage, that the vile and worthless ones are counted most worthy and most exalted!

This psalm might be divided into two strophes each containing four verses.  The first four verses deal with the complaint and prayer, and the second four verses the answer and hope.  It must be noted however, that the psalm opens up with a plea directly to God, sure that he will answer.  This plea-praise basic form is normative for Israel’s prayer language.  The psalm opens with the simplest and loveliest of prayers (eushio-e), “help!” or “save!”  This call is addressed to the Lord, who is needed for restoration in the psalmic community.  That the godly ones have gone or ceased to be, suggests that there is a deep longing for spiritual direction and counsel.  Those who have stepped into the void of the faithful seem to be those who are uttering lies with a double heart.  Hypocrisy has made its way into the congregation itself and is corrosive upon the spiritual being of the people.  Unlike other psalms dealing with external enemies, this one deals with strife from within, probably the very worst kind of trouble.  Hypocrisy and deceit within the psalmist’s community is devastating because it is at odds experientially with God’s promises of deliverance and safety.  The worshiping faithful community is not supposed to be filled with hypocrisy and liars, but nevertheless it is.  Any Christian who lives in congregational life can identify with this problem.  The psalmists problem lies precisely in the fact that where should be peace and harmony there is hypocrisy and deceit.  There is no betrayal like that which comes from within your own community or group, because you trust in them to act and behave according to the Lord’s kindness. 

The third verse shifts from a recounting of the community crimes to the petition itself, “May the Lord cut off all flattering lips.”  Now that the complaint has been set before the Lord, the psalmist asks for decisive action.  Praying for violence to be done to the wicked is something that the post-modern Christian mind struggles with.  This is why congregational singing of the imprecatory psalms is quite unpopular.  The piety of these sorts of requests of the psalmist are located in the source to which they are addressed, God himself.  It is more likely the habit of men to execute justice for themselves, to settle their debts, and repay those according to their wrongs.  Yet, here the action is handed wholly over to God who deals with the hypocrites according to his own justice, which is always good. 

The most significant turning point in the psalm is located in the fifth verse where the psalmist recounts that the poor are plundered (m·shd) or devastated – that complete violence is done unto them.  Furthermore the needy are groaning.  Here the speaker shifts from the psalmist to God Himself.  Now the complaints have reached their climax and the initial call for help and deliverance becomes crystallized as God provides His reasons for moving into action, “Because the poor are devastated, because the needy groan, I will not arise.”[3]  The psalm now involves a linguistic exchange between the psalmist (congregation) and the living Lord.  There is actually something occurring here, both in the text and in the midst of the congregation itself.  The psalmists petitions seek to move God’s heart, and are therefore spoken in faith that God may be stirred and affected.  Concerning this communicative relationship Oswald Bayer writes, “If God in his mercy humbles himself – not only as Savior, but already as Creator – then it is part of God’s own nature to let himself be petitioned.  In his commitment to address the creature through the creature, God reveals himself not as inexorable fate, but as biddable.”[4]  This understanding of prayer is crucial to appreciate the psalmists confidence in a Lord who is, by his very nature, biddable in every way – to be petitioned and called upon for all needs.    

The following verses of the psalm deal with the means by which the Lord will help and save his people, namely His Word and promises which will fight against the evildoers.  It is significant that the saving agent or means that God employs is his Word.  They are pure and sliver, refined in a furnace and purified.  There is a parallelism here with the reference to words used by those who spoke with “smooth lips” and tongues that talks “big things.”  God’s pure words therefore provides a counter distinction from those empty, puffed up words of the hypocrites.  The Lord’s Words are edifying and work good things opposed to the vain words of the deceptive men.  The psalmist responds to God with complete trust and confidence, “You, O Lord, will keep them; you will guard us from this generation forever.”  This is a sort of final doxological praise knowing full well that the Lord always delivers on His promises.  The psalm closes with another lament verse, “On every side the wicked prowl, as vileness is exalted among the children of man.”  A reader may as well say, “Hasn’t God saved them and done away with those wicked hypocrites?”  Yet, even with the delivery of God’s promises and loving kindness the congregation must still deal with the vile ones in their midst.  God’s answer to the psalmists plight does not immediately mitigate the sufferings but contextualizes them in His promises.  Therefore, though God has arisen and has come among His people, the wicked still everywhere abound, just as Satan remains until the final consummation and Christ’s final return.  Through this earthly life the psalmist must still deal with vain and deceptive men as carries the promises of God and awaits His final justice. 

This psalm seems to be more of a community lament than anything.  Although, it may as well be classified as a psalm of deliverance or praise, the basic structure seems to fit in categorically with psalms of lament.  Walter Bruggeman has the following observation regarding why psalms of lament somewhat fallen out of favor with the contemporary church:
“The lament psalms are obviously a scandal in the church, because they cannot be prayed to a god who does nothing, and because they must not be prayed within a social system that cannot be changed or criticized.  The lament psalms are unworkable and inappropriate in a situation dominated by idolatry and ideology.  For that reason they have largely dropped out of the repertoire of the church.  If we are to permit the church back into its pain, in order that the church may seriously praise, then we must recover the use of these lament psalms, or we must find some speech forms like them.”[5]

Israel’s praise typically proceeds from a context of complaint that is seeking a resolution.  To speak to God with such hurt is indeed a bold and faithful act.  It dares to seek a resolution from God rather than simply despairing with no hope.  The particular cause of lament is somewhat unique in this psalm, for one gets a sense that the liars and hypocrites are in no way an external enemy but much closer.  The lying hypocrites with double hearts are within Israel’s borders or within the congregation itself.  Those who profess to own their own tongues and have no master or lord are possibly those within the covenantal community itself.  Therefore, this may be a lament of internal churchly struggle.  Anyone in a worshipping community understands the particularly cancerous nature of bitter strife within their own ranks.  It is certainly one thing to identify an enemy from outside, but quite another to deal with hypocrisy and turmoil from within.  The psalmist implores God with an imperative, an insistent hope that this trouble can and must be changed.  These imperatives addressed to God involves a form of interaction in which the lesser party leans on the greater party to come and save.  The psalmist community no doubt bases their confidence on God’s sure desire to act, rooted in promises going back to their deliverance from Egypt, “The children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage.  And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob” (Ex. 2:23-24).  Precisely at their most desperate need is when God moves into action to defend and save His covenantal people.                

This psalm over and above all else must be seen Christologically.  After all, who had to deal with more lies and deceptive men than Jesus Himself?  He came into this world precisely for the poor who were plundered and the groaning of the needy.  Most importantly He came for all sinners who panted for deliverance and respite in a sin-infected world.  This psalm is descriptive of the corruption of this world, and more specifically descriptive of hypocrisy within the church itself.  I find the unique value of this psalm in that it very accurately addresses the community of disorientation, where real sinners with real sin move about among the faithful.  Every Christian congregation has hypocrites, and every human heart deals in deception.  All Christian should make use of the mirror of the law here and see that they are guilty of deception and claiming ownership over their member, which in fact truly belong to the Lord.  This psalm provides a voice to deal with this grim reality and to ask God for help and guidance, primarily His holy and pure Word – His Gospel, which mediates through all trials.  In regards to the law, every Christian may take this psalm to heart and see that he is not without guilt with self-flattery and boasting.  Law preaching may diagnostically apply this psalm to assert that God does not tolerate hypocrisy and deception.  Our tongues and lips do have a Lord, and it is certainly not us.  The heart and lips were made for worship and confession of God’s wisdom and His promises.  Using the lips and tongue for self-promotion and manipulation is an affront to God and He seeks repentance and proper use of the body for praise and service to the neighbor, especially helping the neighbor and speaking well of him.       

Jesus comes into the midst of hypocrites and liars however, to call to repentance and to bring about forgiveness through the merits of His blood and own righteousness.  The psalmist’s plea for help is met by the suffering Christ sent by the Father.  He comes for the oppression of the poor and the groaning sinners who are terrified of their sins and seek remission.  He forgives and purifies by means of His Words, which are spoken in the midst of the congregation to heal, forgive sin, and raise the dead to new life.


(I have written in greater detail on a theology of lament HERE.)


[1] Hengstenberg, E.W. Commentary on The Psalms. Vol. 2. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1939. 186. Print.
[2] Ibid., 188.
[3] This particular verse is sung in the fourth stanza of Martin Luther’s hymn “O Lord, Look Down from Heaven, Behold” (TLH 260), “Therefore saith God, ‘I must arise, The poor My help are needing; To Me ascend My people’s cries, And I have heard their pleading.  For them My saving Word shall fight And fearlessly and sharply smite, The poor with might defending.”  The entire hymn in fact is a exposition of psalm 12. 
[4] Lindberg, Carter, and David M. Whitford. Caritas Et Refomatio: Essays on Church and Society in Honor of Carl Lindberg. St. Louis, Mo.: Concordia Academic Press, 2002, 214.
[5] Brueggemann, Walter. Israel's praise: doxology against idolatry and ideology. Fortress Pr, 1988. 140. Print.

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