Psalms of Justification

Psalms of Justification July 5, 2017

Attacked by his enemies, David cries out, asking God to judge. He prays for favorable judgment for himself, or, in Pauline terminology, for justification. In the Psalms, justification is a drama that has a consistent shape—threat, anguished protest and prayer, God’s intervention, rescue and punishment, rejoicing. I have examined Psalms 7 and 35 at length in an essay in The Federal Vision, but I don’t emphasize the narrative dimension of justification in that essay. Here are a few Psalms that display the drama of justification:

Psalm 10: Yahweh seems distant from David (v. 1), which allows the prideful, complacent wicked to attack him (vv. 2-6). David’s enemies spy on him and set traps, like predators and hunters (vv. 7-11). David calls on Yahweh to “arise” (v. 12) and take action to “break the arm of the wicked and the evildoer” (v. 15). David takes confidence in the fact that Yahweh helps orphans (v. 14), and he ends with a confession that Yahweh the king drives out nations, hears the prayer of the humble, “judges” the orphan and oppressed so that earthy men can’t terrorize anymore. Again, in Pauline terms, David is confident that the Lord who justifies the orphan and oppressed by throwing down their enemies will also justify him.

Psalm 26: David begins with a prayer for Yahweh to “judge” (Heb. shaphat) him. It’s a prayer for favorable judgment, for “vindication” (as the NASB translation indicates). David has a claim on God’s favor, since he has walked with integrity, shunned the assembly of the wicked, worshiped God in purity, and loved Yahweh’s house (vv. 1-8). David’s prayer for judgment is a prayer for “redemption,” and, once redeemed, he will be able to stand on a level place in the congregation to bless Yahweh (vv. 11-12). When Yahweh judges him graciously, David’s cries with turn to thanksgiving.

Psalm 43: David again begins with a prayer for vindication (Heb. shaphat), a prayer that the Lord would take up his cause (rib) against the ungodly. He’s calling on Yahweh to act as his defense attorney, pro bono. To judge is to “deliver me from the deceitful and unjust man” (v. 1). When Yahweh comes to judge and deliver, it will be like light shooting out from Yahweh, like the first dawn of new creation, and Yahweh’s light and truth will lead David to the altar, where he will sing with joy (vv. 3-4). David hopes to be justified into the liturgical assembly of Israel, and so encourages his soul to “hope in God” (v. 5).

Psalm 54: David begins, “Save me (yasha) . . . and vindicate (dyn) by your power (giborah).” He wants Yahweh to come near as a gibbor, a mighty man. According to the title, David composed Psalm 54 when the Ziphites plotted to trap David. Strangers rise and seek his life, foreigners who don’t keep God before them. In verses 4-5, David expresses confidence in God’s help, which will take the form of judging the enemies in His faithfulness. Once he is rescued and vindicated, he will sacrifice and give thanks (vv. 6-7). In New Testament categories, Eucharist is the last act in the drama of God’s justifying action. We are justified into Eucharistic fellowship. 

Psalm 72: Psalm 72 isn’t about Yahweh’s judgment directly, but about the king who carries out Yahweh’s judgments. The premise is that, as son of Yahweh, the king is supposed to resemble his Father. The king judges (dyn) people (v. 2) in righteousness (mishpat). He judges (shaphat) the afflicted of the people, and this means that he will rescue or save (yasha) the children of the needy and crush oppressors (v. 4). The result is prosperity, fruitfulness, abundance, peace, and righteousness. When the king justifies the weak and crushes the oppressor, the land turns Edenic. As Paul would say, the king justifies unto life.


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