Part of Israel’s hymnbook, Psalms 9 and 10 are bound together as an acrostic poem – lines begin with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This aids memorising the text, still an important part of Jewish tradition – though largely lost in modern Christian teaching (who still recalls prizes for learning and repeating Bible passages?)
The two psalms differ in tone: Psalm 9 is largely praise and thanksgiving; Psalm 10 one of lament and supplication. If praise coming before lament seems the wrong way round to us, it may be closer to actual life experience than we’re prepared to admit. We connect to the Psalms through the filter of memory, and their poetry can evoke deep contrary emotions in us. In life we can, and do hold apparently contradictory feelings close together eg grief and gratitude, reconciliation and resentment, greed and generosity. The juxtaposition of contrasting elements in psalms 9 and 10 is not so strange.
Psalm 9 is set in Yahweh’s court. Israel’s God is present, listening and willing to judge and act. God’s verdict is crucial for the other two parties present: the speaker – the ‘I’ who speaks for the ‘oppressed’, ‘poor’, ‘afflicted’, ‘distressed’, ‘needy’; and the ‘enemy’ – described as ‘the wicked’, ‘the nations’.
God’s actions, which are just and utterly reliable are celebrated in two ways: God’s destructive power towards enemies (‘destroyed’, ‘blotted out’, uprooted’); and God’s constructive power exercised towards faithful people (‘upheld my right and cause’, judged me righteously’, rebuked the nations’). Walter Brueggemann writes ‘In this poem the decisive party is Yahweh who governs powerfully and equitably. Yahweh is the one who takes all the decisive actions’.
The events precipitating this hearing are not hypothetical or imagined, but real. They draw on the experience of the marginalised, the powerless, the exploited, the abused: those who cannot or do not get a fair hearing in society. This Psalm assures them that their concerns do not go unheard, and divine justice shall prevail, despite recurring appearances of evil.
Believing the truth of this today, what role shall the Church – you and I – play in God’s determination that justice and truth shall prevail? How shall Scripture’s word live in us, and make a difference?
Gracious God, your Son Jesus Christ teaches us that you are just and merciful, you bring freedom to the oppressed and hope to the despairing. Give us eyes to see and hearts to care for those who suffer injustice and neglect. May your Spirit teach us that you can use even our small contributions to make a difference for good in others’ lives. So may the psalmist’s song ‘I’ll praise you Lord with all my heart, your wonders I’ll proclaim’ be heard in many likely and unlikely places. Amen
The Rev’d John Young is a retired minister of the Synod of Scotland and member of Giffnock URC.