The Wesley Study Bible contains this little overview of the themes of Psalm 17:
Has anyone ever said to you, “Life is not fair,” and you thought, “Well, it should be!”? Life is filled with ups and downs, times when what seems fair to you is not fair to another. Psalm 17 begins with “Listen to what’s right, LORD; pay attention to my cry!” (17:1a). This is a prayer for deliverance from the wicked and for the freedom to live in God’s righteousness. While life is not fair all the time, it is right at all times to pray to God for deliverance from wrongdoing and for justice for all the children of God.
The Psalmist (David, we are told) begins by declaring his own faithfulness. Why would God want to listen to those who are not faithful to God’s purposes? Why would God listen to the deceitful? Surely God hears the prayers of the repentant and remorseful, but sincerity of heart is always a precondition of effective prayer.
Verses 1 & 2:
תְּפִלָּה לְדָוִד שִׁמְעָה יְהוָה צֶדֶק הַקְשִׁיבָה רִנָּתִי הַאֲזִינָה תְפִלָּתִי בְּלֹא שִׂפְתֵי מִרְמָה
“Hear a just cause, O LORD; attend to my cry; give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit.”
מִלְּפָנֶיךָ מִשְׁפָּטִי יֵצֵא עֵינֶיךָ תֶּחֱזֶינָה מֵישָׁרִים
“From you let my vindication come; let your eyes see the right.”
This Psalm claims to be “a prayer of David” (תְּפִלָּה לְדָוִד). And, it fits well with David’s life. He was unjustly accused and then relentlessly pursued by King Saul. There were conflicts during his reign as king in Israel. Anyone in public life gains enemies. There were many times when he might have called out to God in this way.
It is hard to see (at least for me) how the idea of justice can be maintained without a belief in a God who upholds justice. Justice is something we impose on an often unjust world — out of a vision of a better world. So, it was with the Old Testament prophets. They spoke of the justice of God. They judged human behavior by a higher standard — a transcendent standard.
And, when there is no other court to turn to, we turn to the justice of God: “hear a just cause, O LORD.”
I probably should say a little more about this concept of justice. This is the same Hebrew word (צֶדֶק) which is also often translated “righteousness” or even “vindication.” It contains the root idea of “right relationship” — things being set right. This is quite different from our common concepts of “impartial justice” — in Hebrew thinking justice and righteousness are bound up with the idea of right relationship, salvation, and even vindication.This is well stated by Brueggemann & Bellinger:
That term [צֶדֶק] is a loaded one in the Psalter. It is shorthand for a right relationship with YHWH, a relationship initiated by God and in that sense a gift from God. So the speaker of the petition claims that this prayer grows out of a relationship with YHWH, and that the speaker is faithful to that relationship.
— Brueggemann, Walter; Bellinger, Jr, W. H., Psalms (New Cambridge Bible Commentary) (Kindle Locations 2704-2706). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
David is willing to trust God’s righteousness — he did not fear it. To the best of his knowledge (and in full awareness that all our efforts at righteous living are never without flaw) David has lived with a clear conscience before God: “lips free of deceit.”
It is interesting how often the Bible speaks of the difficulty of living our lives with “lips free of deceit.” In Isaiah 6, when the prophet sees the throne-room of God and the seraphim attending God, he cries out: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips….” (Isaiah 6:5 NRSV). “Unclean lips” symbolizes all the sin of himself and his people. “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” (James 1:26 NRSV). “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” (James 3:5-9 NRSV).
For David to say that he prays “from lips free of deceit” is saying a lot.
And, he leaves his case with God, knowing that God is just.
When I plead with God for help and vindication, I do so in the knowledge that God knows the situation — and the true nature of my actions — better than I do. I don’t want a “vindication” that is unjust. I don’t want to be declared innocent if I am not. If I have failed, I want to learn from my failure. I leave my case in God’s hands.
David goes on to say that he is willing to be tested and tried by God. In fact, he invites such testing and trial.
בָּחַנְתָּ לִבִּי פָּקַדְתָּ לַּיְלָה צְרַפְתַּנִי בַל־תִּמְצָא זַמֹּתִי בַּל־יַעֲבָר־פִּי
If you try my heart, if you visit me by night, if you test me, you will find no wickedness in me; my mouth does not transgress.
לִפְעֻלּוֹת אָדָם בִּדְבַר שְׂפָתֶיךָ אֲנִי שָׁמַרְתִּי אָרְחוֹת פָּרִיץ
As for what others do, by the word of your lips I have avoided the ways of the violent.
תָּמֹךְ אֲשֻׁרַי° בְּמַעְגְּלוֹתֶיךָ בַּל־נָמוֹטּוּ פְעָמָי
My steps have held fast to your paths; my feet have not slipped.
Intention is not everything — but it is something. People with sincere hearts and good intentions can do evil — but there is value before God in a sincere heart. The intention to do good will lead to the intention to do better. Good intention is a start — we grow in knowledge and performance as time goes by.
But, David is confident. It is not simply that he invites God to try him — he speaks as one who has already been tried and tested by God before.
The speaker’s self-affirmation of innocence or integrity continues in verses 3– 5. The verbs in the Hebrew perfect tense suggest that the speaker has been tried, visited, and tested, and the result of the trial is that the petitioner follows a lifestyle of righteousness rather than wickedness. The petitioner has not engaged in acts of violence but has followed the path of faithfulness in word and deed. The claim is one of loyalty to a right relationship with YHWH that is demonstrated in right relationships with other people. These opening verses plead for a judgment from God, and the speaker claims to be transparent in this plea. So the speaker operates from a vantage point of confidence in requesting a divine verdict.
— Brueggemann, Walter; Bellinger, Jr, W. H. (2013-11-30). Psalms (New Cambridge Bible Commentary) (Kindle Locations 2706-2711). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
The apostle Paul says in Romans 13:10 that “love is the fulfilling of the law.” Intention matters. Seeking to do good and failing is better than never seeking to do good in the first place. A loyal heart — that is, a heart devoted to God and to the genuine best interests of others — is the essence of Christian faithfulness.
“[Jesus] said… “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.””
Are you prepared to be tested and tried? Are you ready for God to give you a searching examination? “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.” (Psalms 139:23 NRSV). “Prove me, O LORD, and try me; test my heart and mind.” (Psalms 26:2 NRSV). “The LORD tests the righteous and the wicked, and his soul hates the lover of violence.” (Psalms 11:5 NRSV).
There is value in a clear conscience. It is important to maintain a transparency before God. Some people have accountability partners — with whom they seek to be transparent about their spiritual lives. Not everyone has the privilege of such a relationship. But, it is important that we open our hearts to God. Before we pray, we must forsake evil intentions.
Whom I know through Jesus Christ,
You have called me to a life of love,
You have tested me and tried me,
Look on my heart, and, by Your grace, make me pure.
Hear my prayer.
I look at my life and injustice seems to reign.
I look at my world and injustice seems to reign.
Hear my complaint
Set things right for me.
And, be near to all who call out to You as their only hope.