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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Line Between Suffering Servant and Jerk with Delusions of Martyrdom

It is zeal for your house that has consumed me;
the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me. (Psalm 69: 9)

Though I may wrestle against the Psalms, and push back against them, Psalm 69 is one of my favorite.  I like it because it is realistic in its description of human emotions, and because the psalmist is brutally honest about himself.

It’s described as a “Psalm of David” but that preposition “of” may mean – “about” or “for” rather than “by” David.  In fact, based on the last couple of verses (which talk about the rebuilding of the cities of Judah), there is good reason to believe that Psalm 69 was written much later than King David.  Some have suggested that this particular psalm was composed by the prophet Jeremiah.  Indeed, there is much about the psalm that would lend itself to this interpretation.  I like this idea, but am not bound to it. [i]   Whether it was David (I think unlikely) or Jeremiah (I like to think it might have been) or some other unknown psalmist (very possible) – it’s still a powerful work of writing.

The psalmist (whoever he might have been) feels overwhelmed by a “sea of troubles.”[ii]  The psalmist is abused by many enemies, scorn and shame and insults are heaped upon him, and false accusations leveled against him.  The psalmist is desperate for God to hear, and to rescue him, else he will die.  He will be swallowed up by the swirling vortex of floodwaters, and dragged down to the bottomless abyss of death.

And all of this, the Psalmist says, is because I have tried to do God’s work.  His enemies hate him without reason – without good reason, anyway.  He is alienated from his own family.  He has no friends to call upon.  He is all alone because he has tried to do the good work he was called to. “It is zeal for your house that has consumed me…”  (Psalm 69: 9a NRSV) 

I wonder where the line between being zealous for God’s good work and being an obnoxious religious fanatic is to be drawn.  There are a lot of people claiming to be persecuted and martyred and abused because of their zeal, when maybe they should just admit that they’re being snubbed and despised because they’re jerks.  It’s easy to play the martyr card, to cry “woe is me,” and think people hate me just because I’m doing God’s work.  A good cause is not enough.  A righteous cause is not enough. Objection to your holy work does not make you a noble martyr. 

The line between the suffering servant and the jerk with delusions of martyrdom might be found in verses 5 and 6:

O God, you know my folly;
the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you.
Do not let those who hope in you be put to shame because of me,
O Lord God of hosts;
do not let those who seek you be dishonored because of me,
O God of Israel. (Psalm 69: 5 – 6 NRSV)

The Psalmist (King David, the prophet Jeremiah, or other) admits that while the charges that his enemies have leveled against him are baseless, he is not without his own mistakes, and errors, and even sins.  He knows that he has screwed up. He concedes that he’s had lapses in judgment.  And he fears that others will lose faith in God because of him.   He is concerned that those who would hope in God will lose hope because of his failures.  Forget the surrounding enemies with their malicious gossip and slander and accusations; the psalmist worries that his own conduct will cause others to be disgraced.

This is, in my mind, the dividing line between the person burning with a zealous desire to do God’s work and the obnoxious jerk playing the martyr’s card – the willingness to say, ‘here are my faults.  I have screwed up, and others might suffer because of it.’ 

[i] Of course, it is possible to suggest that David wrote the psalm, and that a later author / editor added the last couple of verses.
[ii] Cribbing from Hamlet’s “To be or not to be…” soliloquy.  

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