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(Sunday between July 31 and August 6)
Psalm 17:1-7, 15

Psalm 17 presents us with a loud cry for deliverance by the psalmist. That cry is described most clearly in the section of the psalm omitted from today’s reading, vv. 8-14. The psalmist speaks of ‘the wicked’ despoiling them, surrounding them, being pitiless, and speaking arrogantly against the psalmist, tracking them down like a hunted animal. They use images of lions and young lions to describe their ‘deadly enemies’ (vv. 9, 12) and their attacks.

In the first part of the psalm, which is set for today’s reading, the psalmist calls for God’s help and deliverance, proclaiming their innocence of wrongdoing, presumably along the lines of Psalm 15. The merciless oppression and apparent success of the wicked weigh heavily on the psalmist (cf. Psalm 10). In turn the psalmist speaks with a touch of sarcasm in v. 14, using the language of blessing but implying punishment.

We may not find the language of pay back against the enemies very helpful in this psalm as in others. It does not go well with Jesus’ command to love the enemy (Matt 5:44; Luke 6:27, 35). Clearly then this language cannot be appropriated as it stands and some will argue that even the use of such language, even if not meant literally, promotes violence. This is probably why the lectionary makers have omitted the latter half of the psalm.

Nevertheless, there are some things we can still hear from the psalm. First, we note that the psalmist proclaims that their cause is just (v. 1a) and that they are innocent of any accusation (vv. 1b, 3-6). What is happening to the psalmist is a matter of justice and so they call out to be heard. It is not uncommon in situations where defenceless people are oppressed by those with power and intent of abusing that power for anger to rise up in those who cry out for justice. We note, however, that all of this, including the anger that is felt, is openly proclaimed before God. It is God who is expected to deal with it.

Secondly, the psalmist seeks refuge in God (v. 7). That means to be near God (v. 15; cf. Ps 73:28). By way of contrast, the ‘wicked’ are those ‘whose portion in life is in this world’ (v. 14a). It is clear from the actions of ‘the wicked’ in vv. 9-13 that such things as a lack of pity or mercy, harassment and oppression, maybe even physical assault, are the elements of their ‘portion’. The psalmist speaks as much about the conflict between two ways of life in this world, one a way of trust and faithfulness to God, the other concerned with acts of injustice (cf. Psalm 1), as they do about the perpetrators of the latter. The psalmist’s prayer is that this conflict be ultimately won by the way that is consistent with God’s just, faithful, merciful, and ever present way. The reference to sleep in v. 15, which recalls Psalms 3 and 4, shows that the psalmist can feel secure in God’s presence even at a time of extreme vulnerability.

The selection of this psalm in relation to the reading from Genesis 32 is intriguing. It might have more to do with the image of visiting by night and testing (Ps 17:3) than anything else. On the other hand, we know that Jacob has been anything but someone whose lips are free of deceit (v. 1b) and whose mouth has not transgressed (v. 3). While the psalmist speaks in terms of absolute innocence, maybe the story of Jacob allows for the one who does not feel so free of wrongdoing to also utter such a cry for God’s justice. In that case the psalmist’s own words then become a call for the one praying to search their own life for the ‘wickedness’ that might lie there.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship

Some of the words of the psalm can be adapted to an introduction to confession and the beginning of the declaration of forgiveness, maybe as follows:

My steps have held fast to your paths, O Lord;
my feet have not slipped.
I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God;
incline your ear to me, hear my words.
Wondrously show your steadfast love,
O savior of those who seek refuge from their adversaries
at your right hand. (Ps 17:5-7)
(Prayer of confession continues)
Declaration of forgiveness:

You shall behold God’s face in righteousness;
when you awake you shall be satisfied,
beholding God’s likeness. (Ps. 17:15)
Hear then the word of God in Christ:
‘Your sins are forgiven.’
Thanks be to God.

Old Testament reading: Genesis 32:22-31

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