But I’m innocent! (part 2)

Roughly every other year, I get a summons from the county to appear for jury service. Most of the time, I don’t actually end up serving. Either the summons is cancelled the night before, or I show up and the parties decide to settle out of court, or I’m simply not selected. Even with all that, however, I’ve actually been empaneled three times.

There’s always that dramatic moment when the judge enters the courtroom and the bailiff calls everyone to order. Robed in black, cloaked with dignity and authority, the judge takes a seat at the bench, a seat that is intentionally and symbolically higher than any other in the room. From the bench, the judge surveys the proceedings, keeps everyone in line, and eventually hands down a sentence.

This is something of the image I have in mind when I read Psalm 7:

Rise up, O Lord, in your anger;
    lift yourself up against the fury of my enemies;
    awake, O my God; you have appointed a judgment.
Let the assembly of the peoples be gathered around you,
    and over it take your seat on high.
The LORD judges the peoples;
    judge me, O LORD, according to my righteousness
    and according to the integrity that is in me
. (vss. 6-8, NRSV)

. . .

Psalm 7 is a lament, a complaint, in which the psalmist seeks God’s protection from his enemies, who appear to be wanting vengeance for something the psalmist didn’t do. In the face of that false accusation, as we’ve seen, the psalmist seems open to God’s correction: If I’ve done anything wrong, LORD, let them catch me and do their worst (vss. 3-5). This is followed by the only selah (a Hebrew word of uncertain meaning) in the psalm, as if the poet wanted the worshiping community to pause and do a little self-examination before calling upon God to execute righteous judgment against their enemies.

Note that the psalmist presumes to know what the judgment will be. God is portrayed as a righteous judge, taking a seat above the gathered people to pronounce sentence. He will meet the unjust fury of the psalmist’s enemies with his own righteous anger.

And it’s here that things may get a little awkward for some of us, as we wonder how to embrace such a psalm in our own life of prayer. Who among us would dare to pray, “Judge me, O LORD, according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me”?

I sure wouldn’t.

. . .

Christians who take a Reformed perspective (whether they realize it or not!) believe in a doctrine of imputed righteousness: God counts us as righteous, not because our faith demonstrates how wonderfully spiritual we are, but because by that faith we enter into the righteousness of Christ. This is the mind-bending miracle of grace: when God looks at the faithful, with all their warts and blemishes, he sees the righteousness of his Son.

A Christian could thus rightly pray, “Judge me, Lord, according to the righteousness and integrity of Christ,” knowing that it is only by such imputation that we could survive judgment at all. But that, of course, is not how the psalmist would think.

From the psalmist’s point of view, righteousness — following God’s way — involved the moment to moment choice to do what was right in God’s sight. To do so required steeping oneself in God’s Instruction, in Torah. That’s not to say that the so-called righteous person never made mistakes or strayed from God’s path. But their heart’s desire, to know and to follow God, would bring them back. This was the path of blessing.

“Judge me according to my righteousness.” We probably should not read this as the psalmist’s claim to sinless perfection. What the psalmist knows (or thinks he knows?) is that he is innocent of the charge of which he has been falsely accused. His prayer, I believe, is that God would judge him according to his righteousness in the matter at hand, not his sterling spiritual record in general.

Still… would we dare pray what the psalmist prayed? Should we?

Most of us probably know what it’s like to be accused of something we think we didn’t do. We were offended. We protested our innocence. We defended ourselves. We tried to turn the tables on our accuser and show them their faults.

But if we’re honest with ourselves, there may also have been a whisper of conscience in the background that said, “You’re not really as innocent as all that.” There was a part of us that wondered whether the accusation had merit, and another part that insisted that even so, the other person bore most of the blame.

Sound familiar?

How we read verse 8 — “judge me according to my righteousness” — depends on how we read the verses before it. Eugene Peterson, in The Message, translates the passage this way:

GOD, if I’ve done what they say—
    betrayed my friends,
    ripped off my enemies—
If my hands are really that dirty,
    let them get me, walk all over me,
    leave me flat on my face in the dirt.
(vss. 3-5)

Is this just bluster on the psalmist’s part? Is the “if” merely hypothetical, said as a way to emphasize the point that it couldn’t possibly be true?

Or is the psalmist actually open to having God appear and correct him? Would he accept such correction humbly and with repentance?

I like to think that he would.

Would we?