1 You, O God, have overthrown us and have cast us clean away. You have dealt with us in anger; now restore us, Lord, we pray.
2 You have torn the land asunder; you have made the land to shake. O come down and mend its fractures, for you caused the earth to quake.
3 You have made your people suffer times of need and helplessness, And the wine that you have given makes us stagger in distress.
4 But for those who truly fear you, look! your banner is unfurled, Which in face of the aggressor has been shown to all the world.
5 With your right hand save and help us; rescue all those whom you love. 6 God has spoken from his temple, from his holy place above:
“I will distribute in triumph every part of Shechem’s land, And the whole of Succoth valley I will measure with my hand.
7 “Mine is Gilead, mine Manasseh, Ephraim is my helmet true; Judah I will make my sceptre 8 and on Edom toss my shoe.
“Moab will become my servant, and upon Philistia’s shore I will shout aloud in triumph; I am Lord and conqueror.”
9 Who will bring me to the city that is strongly fortified, And to reach the land of Edom who will be my help and guide?
10 Have you not, O God, rejected, turned us over to our foe? When our armies go to battle, with them you no longer go.
11 Since all human help is worthless, 12 God will give us victory; He it is who will defend us and tread down our enemy.
Psalm 60 is about a mismatch between hope and experience. The background is the theology of holy war. In Old Testament times much of the Middle East was contested territory. The people of Israel believed that God would fight for them. They had an edge over their enemies when they joined battle. That was the hope.
The experience was not always so tidy. On this occasion there had been panic, misery and defeat. What had gone wrong? Might God have checked out? Or were the promises still live? ‘We trusted God and it went wrong. Can we still trust?’
So this Psalm is a tussle, a counterpoint, between faith and failure. The verses move from despair (1-3) to confidence (4-8). Then just as it seems that hope has won the day, alarm and concern step back in. The fearful word ‘rejected’ (10) directly echoes ‘cast away’ (1). So when the Psalm eventually ends on a firm upbeat (12), we have already felt the rise and fall of the tune. Now we know that faith cannot be monotone. Trust means dependence rather than complacency, assurance not insurance, a deep sureness but no easy certainty.
Two reflections. First, there is no simple translation of the Old Testament theology of battle into modern wars. Both sides in the First World War said, ‘God is for us,’ and four years of blood and a hundred of grief suggest that both were wrong. Even when war seems necessary, it is hardly God’s ideal.
Second, this Psalm speaks into the times when each of us has to face our failures. The message is that God is there, working the situation through with us. Faith will not always deliver success. But God sticks around, through the bad times too, and God will always help us to go forward.
God of sunshine and shadow, companion of our successes, comforter of our sorrows, we pray for ourselves in days of failure and fear, and we pray more urgently for the places in the world where defences are broken, communities are torn apart and war has done its worst yet life must go on. In the name of Jesus, who suffered and served among us. Amen.
The Rev’d John Proctor is General Secretary of the URC and a member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge.