Commonplace Holiness Holiness woven into the fabric of life...

Lord, Have Mercy! – Psalm 57:0-1

This is one of many of the Psalms that begins with a scribal note.

לַמְנַצֵּחַ אַל־תַּשְׁחֵת לְדָוִד מִכְתָּם בְּבָרְחוֹ מִפְּנֵי־שָׁאוּל בַּמְּעָרָה
To the leader: Do Not Destroy. Of David. A Miktam, when he fled from Saul, in the cave.

Hebrew_bible_4It’s hard to know what to think about the scribal notes at the beginning of the Psalms. I often ignore them. Our modern translations, which set them apart from the rest of the Psalm — printing them in italics or in smaller type — encourage this attitude. And, then, it’s also true that in the English (as distinguished from the Hebrew) text they are not actually numbered with the rest of the Psalm. In English, the scribal note at the beginning is labeled (if anything) verse 0. Easily ignored.

Because I read along in Hebrew (well, let’s not overstate this — I’m using an interlinear text), I often start reading the scribal note before I realize it. In Hebrew, it is verse 1.

And, while I usually skip these — and I don’t really know what to make of them for sure — I can still see three distinct stages in my attitude toward them. (1) I first took them seriously as part of the inspired text. If it said it was “by David” or “by Moses” or “by Asaph” that’s what it meant. Sometimes they gave me background information about the circumstances in which the Psalm was written. (2) As time went on however, (and being a somewhat skeptical person) these scribal notes became more and more mystifying to me. Sometimes the circumstances mentioned in the note didn’t seem to fit very well with the content of the Psalm. And, I began to wonder what something as vague as לְדָוִד really meant. Was that “written by David” or “after the manner of David” or “Davidic” in some other sense? The commentaries I read often seemed mystified by some of these scribal notes as well. This was the period of time when I was most likely to ignore these scribal notes. I tended to think they weren’t part of the inspired text. (3) Then, at some point I started to see them as commentary. The scribes who kept this collection also wanted to position them (so to speak) within the Biblical history. Some of them may be historical. I can’t think of any real reason (except the habit of excessive skepticism) to doubt that David did write many of the Psalms. But, even with those which might seem doubtful, the לְדָוִד still can have meaning. It invites us into another level of reflection: having thought about the meaning of the words, reflect on it again in terms of the history of David. The scribal notes allow us to see the Psalm from the perspective of those who cherished and collected and re-copied these songs from ancient times. The scribes gave the Psalms a place within the Bible’s overarching story.

And, so it is here. The scribal note is mostly mysterious. What’s “Do Not Destroy”? It’s the tune, I guess. (Can you hum a few bars? I don’t think I know that tune.) What’s a “Miktam“? Don’t know.

But, the scribal note is still an invitation. It invites us to see this prayer against the history of David. Specifically, David hiding for his life in a cave, while Saul the King is searching for him.

חָנֵּנִי אֱלֹהִים חָנֵּנִי כִּי בְךָ חָסָיָה נַפְשִׁי וּבְצֵל־כְּנָפֶיךָ אֶחְסֶה עַד יַעֲבֹר הַוּוֹת
Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
until the destroying storms pass by.

prayer4In a single word, the Psalm captures what is probably the most basic prayer in all human experience: חָנֵּנִי “have mercy!”

I don’t suppose there is a person living who hasn’t at some time in their life cried out “God help me” — even if they weren’t certain whether there was anyone or anything to whom to cry.

Sure, we aim at something higher in our prayers. We seek to be God-focused. We seek to be less selfish. But, the truth is that some of us never pray until they are desperate. Until we are in need. Until we have no where else to turn.

This is when our prayers have gained depth: in times of trial and uncertainty and confusion and grief and need. To go on living we need to know that somewhere there is mercy. Like an infant crying out, all we know is that we need something — and we need for there to be someone who hears.

In this case, it is purely a cry for mercy, too. At this point there is no claim to faithfulness, no argument that says: “Hey, Lord, I’ve kept your Law, after all.” There is no claim to worthiness. It’s a bit like the classic Jesus Prayer:

“Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Not that the Psalms don’t connect the ideas of “faithfulness” and “blessing.” Because they do. This theme is clearly in place from the very beginning of the book: “for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” (Psalm 1:6 NIV).

But, there are times when our righteousness seems, even to us, pretty feeble. We feel we have no worthiness to plead. and, in that moment we cast ourselves upon the mercy of God. “Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me….”

Actually, these first few words seem to me like an Alcoholics Anonymous-appropriate prayer: a pure appeal for mercy. There is no attempt to plead the covenant with Israel.

It is a call to God in a generic sense: אֱלֹהִים. Literally: “gods” (Elohim) — the Divine Realm; whoever is “up there” — the Higher Power.

חָנֵּנִי אֱלֹהִים חָנֵּנִי
Mercy, Higher Power(s), Mercy….”

But, then it becomes far more personal:

כִּי בְךָ חָסָיָה נַפְשִׁי וּבְצֵל־כְּנָפֶיךָ אֶחְסֶה
“…for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge….”

motherhen-chicks-ptgGod is like the protecting mother hen, to whom David flees for refuge. In Ruth 2:12 Boaz says to Ruth: “May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!” (NRSV). The Bible does not hesitate to use this female imagery to symbolize our relationship with God. It is common. In the Gospels, Jesus himself does not hesitate to use it either. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37 NRSV). From this point of view, God is an enclosing presence. And, as we are surrounded in God’s presence, we find safety.

עַד יַעֲבֹר הַוּוֹת
“…until destruction passes by.”

And here is an allusion to the urgent need that called forth the prayer. It is a prayer for desperate times. Destruction has come. The prayer is an urgent cry: ‘May my life be preserved through this time of destruction.’ According to John 16:33, Jesus told his disciples: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (NIV). Times of trouble come. There is no exemption. In fact, people sometimes suffer for doing right. “It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” (1 Peter 3:17 NIV). And, the Biblical history stresses that that was the case for David.

The image of the cave in which David hid from Saul resonates well with the Psalm. David is hiding in God until the storm of Saul’s fury exhausts itself.

The storm of destruction will not be forever.

God does not turn away from us simply because it is our own desperate situations that call forth our most fervent prayer. For most of us — all of us? — it is the times of desperate need that have served to draw us closest to God.


Lord God,
known to us through the sacred remembrances of Israel
and the story of Jesus Christ,

have mercy.

that today when I call out
into what appears to be darkness
I might find the sheltering presence of God.

Preserve my life and my hope through the hard times
encourage me when faithfulness itself has brought me hard times
remind me that the times of destruction will pass;

and keep me faithful to You:
the One who knows me
and has redeemed me.

In the name of the One
who “died for sins once for all,
the righteous for the unrighteous.”



Comments (2) | Trackback

2 Responses

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *