January 23, 2021

Psunday Psalms: Do We Pray Like This? Can We Pray Like This?

King David, Chagall

Psunday Psalms
Devotional Thoughts on the Psalms

* * *

The Lord judges the peoples;
vindicate me, O Lord,
for the righteousness and blamelessness that are mine.
Let the evil of the wicked come to an end,
but establish the righteous;
he who probes the mind and conscience is God the righteous.
I look to God to shield me;
the deliverer of the upright.
God vindicates the righteous…

– Psalm 7:9-12a, Tanakh (JPS)

* * *

We need to talk.

Here is one of those passages that should make us stop reading immediately and scratch our heads. If we were honest, we would say that a lot, for the Bible can be a baffling book, and it does us no good to pretend otherwise. Anyone who claims to resolve its conundrums in a cavalier manner should not be easily trusted.

Psalm 7 slaps us in the face with a concept of righteousness that is foreign to Christian (certainly Protestant Christian) sensibilities.

How often have we heard that God does not accept us or deal with us according to our own righteousness?

  • “But when God our savior’s kindness and love appeared, he saved us because of his mercy, not because of righteous things we had done.” (Titus 3:4-5, CEB)
  • “In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ.” (Phil. 3:9, CEB)
  • “We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags.” (Isa. 64:6, NLT)

David and Goliath, Chagall

And yet, hear Psalm 7:9-12 again. In this prayer, we do not read about a righteous God who imputes his righteousness to the unrighteous, but rather we are introduced to a God who vindicates people on the basis of their righteousness.

On the one hand, the psalmist covers familiar and traditional territory — God is righteous, God is the Judge, God examines hearts and minds, God will execute righteous judgment on the wicked who reject him and rebel against him.

On the other hand, I squirm when I try to pray words like these: “Establish justice for me, Lord, according to my righteousness and according to my integrity.”

Where does anyone get off praying like that?

* * *

What do you think?

Do we pray like this? Can we pray like this? Should we pray like this?


  1. It does seem a bit counter to the humility with which we should view ourselves, and even if I prayed this with legitimate righteousness there would be a huge danger of quickly drifting into self-righteousness.

  2. petrushka1611 says

    Sometimes I wonder if passages like this are there to remind us that God loves us even when we’re convinced of our own righteousness, and still uses us.

    Not a remotely satisfactory answer, I know.

  3. Reading the psalm before your commentary, all I could think was “ummm….someone has a pretty high opinion of his own behavior and status…” Not a prayer I would make, but I am not God’s chosen prophet, either.

    Count me in with the lyrics of an older CCM song (name and performer escape me) which I am probably paraphrasing, but for what its worth…

    “When I don’t get what I deserve….its a real good thing, a real good thing.”

  4. I guess I’d tend to read this passage within the context of v9 about the Lord judging the peoples/nations. So the ‘me’ is kind of a collective me.

    I think of people whose lives are turned upside down by wars going on around them, maybe who have to up and leave their land and become refugees, or have to deal with shifting fronts and/or shifting political situations; people who are bowed under the weight of drought or famine; people who have to live under oppressive or corrupt governments. I try to imagine what that must be like, and I realise that whoever these people are, they haven’t done anything to deserve these adverse circumstances. And if those adverse circumstances are caused by other human beings, then those folks deserve to be judged for inflicting such suffering on their fellows, while their victims deserve some ultimate vindication and relief.

    So as I pray this Psalm, its in their voice that I pray. ‘Lord, we are oppressed unjustly, and haven’t done anything to deserve it. You are righteous, but as long as the wicked win, it appears otherwise. Comforter of the orphan and defender of the widow, put things to rights. Let the wicked not get away with their wrongdoing, and let us know peace once more.’ Or something along those lines.

    I think if you read this Psalm as a victim of legitimate injustice crying out to God for help (and not in the sense of ‘Make me more patient, grant me endurance, etc.’ but more ‘This isn’t right. Lord, DO something!’), then the apparent aura of self-righteousness dissipates.

    • Nice insights. Your interpretation reflects what I take Jesus to be saying in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (justice) for they will be satisfied.”

  5. I believe the same God that tells us to seek forgiveness in the same manner as we are willing to forgive others is also saying to us here that we should seek to hold ourselves to the same standards we hold to others. Christians have a HUGE problem with double standards. We “love” sinners until they get saved. Then we gossip and backbite about the same sinners for not living up to our expectations. Meanwhile, we excuse our own foibles and peccadilloes as minor offenses.

    I don’t think it is a righteousness that leads to self-righteousness. If it did, it wouldn’t be righteousness. Rather it is an honest assessment that we are living up to our own expectations, that we are doing the right thing on most every occasion, that we are guided by a principled, dedicated, pursuit of justice and holiness rather than baser motivations like greed, pride, or acclamation of others.

    To be honest, I think we have a poor theology of righteousness. We are so busy beating ourselves up about sin and falling into a mode of “sin management” as Dallas Willard puts it that we have no real aspiration to true righteousness. This is because we don’t even know what true righteousness looks like. We mistakenly think it is judgmentalism. Let’s begin with the premise that David really was righteous in the eyes of God, that he really was a man after God’s own heart, and then ask what does that mean and how am I supposed to live it? Instead of all this futile breast-beating and false humility, why do we not rather cling to the Cross and take upon ourselves the righteousness that Jesus Christ so freely offers us?

  6. Wasn’t the Psalmist writing several hundred years before Paul developed his imputed righteousness idea? Weren’t their audiences different? Of course, there’s that pesky passage from Isaiah we have to take into account. Are you telling us the Psalmist was actually writing to us?

  7. You know, I guess I just don’t believe that humans are so sinful that God cannot look upon us. Look at Jesus: he took meals with sinners. He did not wait for them to become “holy.” Jesus took a small child into his arms and told his disciples to be like that baby. What did he mean? I believe he meant that we are to trust in God’s love and care the way that child trusted in his parents. Will a child’s parents stop loving the child because he spilled the milk? No. So, you may ask, what was the purpose of Jesus’ dying on the cross? Jesus did “absorb” all the evil in the world and took it into his great heart of love so that it can no longer do permanent damage to humans.

    People CAN and WILL do evil things and they can choose to not trust in the love of God. They can close themselves off from that love. (The Father rejoices when we return to his love as shown in Jesus’ parable about the Prodigal Son.) But people do not start their lives closed off from the love of God. No, they are firmly in God’s love. And that’s my two cents, but perhaps I am a bit heretical. That’s OK, though. I am in with some wonderful guys who were and are considered heretical. I am glad that heretical does not equate to non-Christian. It just means that we are not totally within the party line, BUT we are still in the party. Party on! 🙂

    • >You know, I guess I just don’t believe that humans are so sinful that God cannot look upon us

      I’m a hard-core original sin humans are filthy meat kind of guy; but for a passage like this I end up in your camp.

      Theologians and many other categories of thinkers fall prey to the fallacy-of-the-disambiguated-middle. Thus we have long discussions of grace vs. law [which as the years pass I just find a less and less *useful* distinction].

      I can believe in all-our-good-works-are-filthy-rags and in a righteous man at the exact same time. And it only hurts a little.

      A righteous man does not possess the righteousness of God. He possesses a righteousness attainable by man. To say there is no such thing is absurd. We look up to and venerate people all the time; I’ve met people I’d name “righteous”. They seriously pursue, at personal expense, righteousness. They clearly hunger-and-thirst for righteousness. Are they perfect? No. Do they have blindnesses and prejudices and failings? Yes. Does that make them unrighteous? No. Does it means they fall short of the righteousness of God? Yes. The presupposition that this muddy space does not exist is an unworkable notion [and I will choose practicable messyness over unworkable intellectually tiddyness].

      Are achievements of the student rendered void because they are dwarfed by the achievements of the Master? No, they are understood as the achievements of a student, and lauded. This does not diminish the preeminence of the master.

      Can a man pray “I’ve seriously endeavored to be righteous, now you God – show up!”? Yes. The man knows in his heart if that claim is true, and God certainly knows. God has no contractual obligation to show up, it is the humility in the man which knows that. But he should not feel he must refrain from demanding.

      Does a man bow before God [in humility and adoration], or does he cower before God [in wretching terror]? I don’t see how, ultimately, the grace-vs-law crowd has any category but the later. I’m quite certain both categories exist, and it depends on the man.

  8. Someone crying out for vindication based upon his righteousness (I think that term needs to be defined a bit) isn’t really saying, “look how good I am, how can this be happening?”. He’s saying, “God, do what you promised you would do!” Righteousness isn’t really a quality of inherent moral goodness. It has more to do with covenant keeping and faithfulness. So the Psalmist seems to be reminding God of what the terms of the deal were.

    • I hear what you are saying, but we must read the actual words of the text. He asks God to intervene, “on the basis of the integrity that is in me.” He appeals to the One who “examines hearts and minds.” He calls to the One who “saves the upright in heart.”

      He’s not merely reminding God of the deal. He’s saying, “God, I’ve kept my end of the deal, why aren’t you keeping yours?”

      • Well, that’s what I getting at when I said righteousness is about covenant keeping faithfulness. It’s something the writer feels he has exhibited, and he’s looking for God to bless him because of it.

        I also think it’s worth mentioning that “blamelessness” doesn’t equal moral perfection. It means keeping all the requirements set forth in the Torah. So conceivably, as long as someone repented of their sins and made the appropriate sacrifices, they could still be considered blameless.

        • Phil, don’t want to push back too much, but the psalmist’s emphasis seems to be on “heart” righteousness and inner “blamelessness,” not just keeping the Law externally.

          I think you have something with your point. But I think it’s a little trickier than that.

  9. Ps. 7:8 Vindicate me, O Lord, according to MY righteousness and my integrity that is in me…
    7:17 I will give thanks to The Lord according to HIS righteousness…

    Rom 12:2 but be transformed by the renewing of your mind that you may PROVE what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

  10. “Heaven goes by favor; if it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.” Mark Twain

  11. “he who probes the mind and conscience is God the righteous”
    The blamelessness and righteousness that is mine is God’s. God’s gift of righteousness is established in me by faith. As gift God’s very own righteousness is now truly my own. Therefore the Psalmist can say vindicate me for the righteousness and blamelessness that are mine.

  12. I read recently a commentary on this that poses the voice of this Psalm isn’t man’s but rather a somewhat prophetic voice of the Man.

    That this is a prayer of someone whose hands are clean and mind undefined, a man whose conscience finds nothing for which to reproach him. The voice of this Psalm is His whom St. Peter wrote that He “committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth”. A Psalm that reflects the redemptive suffering at the hands of injustice.

    To read or pray this is to enter into the mind of the Lord in the context of his redemptive passion. It is not to give expression to our own feelings, but to discover something of His. It is to taste, in some measure, the bitterness and the gall.

    • Luther saw the Psalms as especially Christocentric…The Second Person speaks them. Where now the one who is in Christ can also speak them since by faith Christ and the believer are one.

      • But what about praying FOR those who persecute us, who are our enemies? The prayers that the Scriptures give us from Christ on the cross are about forgiving those who are crucifying him, not having vengeance visited upon them. Aren’t those the prayers that we should pray with the Second Person?
        Even with a high view of Scriptural infallibility and inerrancy, I don’t think that it is necessary to believe that every prayer expressed in the Psalms comes with God’s express approval that we pray them for ourselves. The Psalmist is a man tainted with sin, just like the rest of us. We can recognize ourselves in him because we share a common sinful humanity. We are not to imitate everything he does in prayer, anymore than we are to imitate Moses and the Patriarchs and Prophets in every particular that Scripture conveys to us about them, because sometimes what they did was not what God wanted them to do. But we can recognize ourselves in them, and see how God is faithful to even those, like us, whose hearts are full of fury and the desire for revenge. When we pray the imprecatory parts of the Psalms, we are not making every petition of the Psalmist our own; rather, we are learning how to relate to God and pray before him with honesty and candor about what is REALLY in our evil hearts. And it is not the Psalmist who is teaching us this, but God himself. In these passages of the Psalms, a mirror is held up to us, and we are given the chance to see ourselves and to see human nature stripped naked. This is where we start from, and where we regress to again and again. But our goal is to pray as Jesus prayed on the cross.

  13. Dang iPad. Should be mind undefiled…..

  14. If the writer is among the righteous, we need to ask who he is setting up as the “wicked?” What were the circumstances? Was the nation at war? Had the nation already split? Were many of Israel’s enemies closing in?

    The writer knows his God to be the God of the righteous, so those who do not know this God must not be righteous. On one hand this makes sense when Israel was always fighting for survival, religiously and physically. But then Jesus comes in and starts talking about God making rain for the just and unjust, and that those who think their “in” are most in danger of being “out.”

    So let me use the go-to cop-out answer that we all use in seminary: progressive revelation. 🙂

    • But that revelation progresses to the point where Jesus says “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”. No easy out in the New Testament.

  15. According to my righteousness? Treat me as I deserve? A scary thing to ask for to be sure, but it’s there for the asking, and we can’t complain if we receive it, asked for or not. Are we to sit on our hands, I think not. “Be sure you are right; then, go ahead.” (Davy Crockett, or at least Fess Parker). My teacher always said, “Just try your best.” If I am found among the wicked, so be it.

  16. Having gained a greater appreciation of the Hebrew perspective by reading Chief Rabbi Jonathon Sacks, this Psalm sounds very much in keeping with the Jewish way of “wrestling” with God. I hear Job. I hear one who thinks of God so personally that he would have the “audacity” to demand something of Him. It is the spark of the Creator within us crying out to the one who created, “Hey, you created me, so don’t forget that when you pass judgment.” I tend to think we Christians are too enamored with being “good followers”, while our Jewish friends are willing to question thoroughly first, so that their “yes” to God is fully informed & fully committed.

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