But I’m innocent! (part 1)

Almost more than anything, I hate being accused of doing something wrong when I didn’t actually do it. After all, I’m quite capable of arrogance and stupidity all on my own; there’s plenty of guilt to go around. Who needs to have others add to the burden unnecessarily, unfairly?

But of course, that’s also how our minds work. It’s a well-established psychological fact: our automatic way of interpreting our interactions with others is to see ourselves in a good light. We interpret our own behavior as positive, or at least excusable. If we can’t deny that we’ve behaved badly, we typically default to a kind of cognitive damage control: I know that wasn’t the most virtuous thing I could have done. But hey, wouldn’t most people in that situation have done the same thing?

Knowing this, I’m sometimes left wondering how to read some psalms of lament, especially when they turn to cursing the psalmist’s enemies. It’s one thing to read Psalm 51, with its words of remorse and repentance. But it’s another to read psalms that proclaim the poet’s innocence while calling upon God to wipe out his adversaries. We’ll look at some of these so-called imprecatory psalms later, some of which are embarrassing in the depth and honesty of their hatred. For now, how might we begin building a foundation for embracing such psalms?

. . .

Psalm 7 is one of several lament psalms that confront us right from the beginning of the psalter, as if the worshiping community was not in the least embarrassed to lift their complaints to God. Psalm 6, as we’ve seen, is a lament in the face of what appears to be a life-threatening illness. Psalm 5 is a prayer for God to rescue the psalmist from his enemies, a common theme in the psalms. Not only does the psalmist describe the wickedness of his enemies, but he lays a curse on them as well:

Make them bear their guilt, O God;
    let them fall by their own counsels;
because of their many transgressions cast them out,
    for they have rebelled against you
. (Ps 5:10, NRSV)

Compared to the imprecatory psalms, this is tame stuff. The psalmist is asking no more than for God to mete out justice. The psalmist’s enemies are God’s enemies, guilty of transgression and rebellion, and should get what they deserve. By contrast, the psalmist in his innocence takes refuge in God’s protection (vs. 11) and begs God to hear his cry for help (vss. 1-3).

Similarly, in Psalm 7, the psalmist also cries out to God to be rescued from his enemies. We don’t know what the situation is. (The superscription tells us that the psalm is a “shiggaion of David, which he sang to the LORD concerning Cush, a Benjaminite.” Unfortunately, nobody knows what a shiggaion is, and there’s no story of a Benjaminite named Cush in Scripture.) Whatever the circumstances, the psalmist is compelled once again to take refuge in God, crying out to be saved from those who are pursuing him (vs. 1). He believes his life to be in danger; if God does not rescue him, then “like a lion they will tear me apart” (vs. 2).

Reading between the lines of the verses that follow, it appears that the psalmist is being accused of having done something wrong, for which his enemies are seeking vengeance:

O Lord my God, if I have done this,
    if there is wrong in my hands,
if I have repaid my ally with harm
    or plundered my foe without cause,
then let the enemy pursue and overtake me,
    trample my life to the ground,
    and lay my soul in the dust
. (vss. 3-5)

“If…if…if.” We don’t know what the “this” of the first line refers to, but whatever it is, the psalmist believes himself to be innocent of the crime. He recognizes that his troubles, in theory, may stem from his own sin, and if so, he’s willing to accept the consequences: If I’m guilty, LORD, then let them catch me and stomp me into the ground. This may be something of a rhetorical flourish, akin to saying, “If I’m lying, may God strike me with lightning.” He doesn’t really believe he’s guilty.

And because of this, as we’ll see in the next post, he calls upon God to act on his behalf — in a way that we might think twice about before trying ourselves, knowing our predisposition toward seeing ourselves as innocent.

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